Ranked: The Greatest TV Shows of All Time

Over time, there has been a gold rush of iconic TV shows that have a timeless appeal. And this phenomenon is showing no sign of slowing down. So, being TV buffs, we’ve traveled through each era and genre, to uncover the greatest shows in TV history.

From I Love Lucy and Orange is the New Black all the way to Game of Thrones, we’ve searched far and wide to compile a list of vintage TV classics, new groundbreaking TV dramas, ambitious TV thrillers, and game-changing TV comedies.

This list was pretty hard to rank, as there are so many factors and elements that separate an average TV show from pure TV gold. That’s we’ve ranked these shows by the quality of the cast, script, plot, influence and more. So check out our definitive list of the greatest TV sensations ever created.

40. The Shield

The detective TV series The Shield first aired in 2002 and lasted until 2008. The series featured one of TV’s most fearsome cops, Vic Mackay. Portrayed by the actor Michael Chiklis, he played a dirty detective, known as “Al Capone with a Badge.”

The cast of “The Shield” attends the third season premiere screening of “The Shield” at the Zanuck Theater on March 8, 2004 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)

The show followed Vic Mackay through seven seasons of dramatic detective action, dealing with plenty of shady cop corruption as well as street crimes. The series concluded with a hell of an end game, and definitely deserves worthy a place on our list.

39. Lost

The TV series Lost transported us all to a mysterious island with a band of castaways who survived an airplane crash. The cosmic show first premiered in 2004 and gripped audiences with plenty of mysterious storylines, awesome characters, and multiple plots until 2010.

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Part of the appeal of the series was that the island was also inhabited by an enigmatic group called the “Others” and each episode was crammed with mysterious clues that left the audience hanging at the edge of their seats. People are still dazed and confused about what the show was really about, which is enough to make us want to watch it all over again.

38. Buffy the Vampire Slayer

From 1997 to 2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer dominated our TV screens. Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, she played Californian girl who turns into a supernatural feminist avenger, Buffy.

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We all watched Buffy as she survived adolescence as a Californian girl, and managed to fight off forces of evil and vampires in her spare time. The series had a fiercely loyal fan base and has now become a cult classic.

37. Orange Is the New Black

When Orange Is the New Black exploded onto Netflix in 2013, no one could predict how popular it would become. The prison drama transports us into a women’s correctional facility and goes deeper into the heart-shredding stories that brought all characters there.

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The series features an unrivaled cast, from Uzo Aduba and Jessica Pimentel to Danielle Brooks, and explores the relationships and hierarchies that develop on the inside. The series also seems to get more intense and better with time, so fans are now anxiously awaiting the fifth season.

36. Law & Order

Created by Dick Wolf, Law & Order became one of the longest-running TV dramas of all time. The series spanned two decades from 1990 to 2010 and was filled with plenty of criminal action, clock-punching cops, aspiring lawyers and some pretty harsh judges.

The Cast Of “Law & Order.” From L-R: Jerry Orbach (As Det. Lennie Briscoe), Angie Harmon (As Asst. D.A. Abbie Carmichael), Sam Waterston (As Exec. Asst. D.A. Jack Mccoy) And Jesse L. Martin (As Det. Edward Green), November 1999. (Photo by Univeral International Television courtesy of Getty Images)

The long-running series created its own rich formula, and each episode featured countless up-and-coming actors, from Logan and Briscoe to Stabler. Each of the characters made the show really special and all formed a cog in the crime-solving machine.

35. My So-Called Life

The US teen drama series, My So-Called Life became a massive cult hit in the 90s. The show introduced us to the world of Angela Chase, the heroine, played by Clare Danes. Angela was filled with plenty of teen-angst and it fast became a high-school classic.

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One of the most memorable lines in the show was “Ignore Angela. She can’t help herself – she’s the product of a two-parent household”. While the show became a huge cult hit with fans, it only lasted one season. Perhaps it was just too ahead of its time.

34. 30 Rock

30 Rock was the brainchild of Tina Fey and offered a satirical TV sitcom like no other. The series also starred Tina as Liz Lemon and was based on her experiences working backstage on SNL. In the show, Tina also works backstage as a writer, alongside a crazy mix of colorful characters like Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski, and Jack McBrayer.

Actress Tina Fey and the cast and crew of “30 Rock” accept their award onstage at the 61st Primetime Emmy Awards held at the Nokia Theatre on September 20, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Michael Caulfield/FilmMagic)

Alec Baldwin played the sitcom boss, and delivered some classic lines, famously telling Liz Lemon that “You are truly the Picasso of loneliness”. He did have a point, as Liz Lemon spent her nights playing Monopoly alone. The series ran from 2006 to 2013 and genuinely made us laugh till our bellies hurt.

33. South Park

The animated adult sitcom South Park takes a satirical and comedic look at America, and it feels like it’s been on our TV screens since forever. Well, it first aired in 1997 and the main characters, Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny have become part of the furniture on our TV screens today.

Characters from the cartoon TV show “South Park”, including Elton John (rear) with (from L to R) Kenny, Stan, Kyle and Cartman are featured in a 1998 episode. (Photo by Getty Images)

One of the show’s creators, Matt Stone famously told Rolling Stone, “We would view success as finally getting to the point where we get canceled because no one gets it.” So here’s to nearly 20 years of failure – and hopefully 20 more.

32. I Love Lucy

I Love Lucy was a classic American sitcom that ran from 1951 to 1957 and entertained fans with the adventures of a real-life Hollywood couple. Lucille Ball played Lucy Ricardo, a daffy housewife and slapstick queen and her husband was a Cuban bandleader, Ricky Ricardo, played by Desi Arnaz.

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The show holds a special place for most fans and became the most watched show in America in its heyday. Each week viewers would tune in to see Lucy’s adventures with her friends and husband and the classic show is still re-run on TV channels to this day.

31. Sesame Street

Sesame Street holds the crown as one of the most beloved kiddie programs of all time. The urban utopian show is set in the brownstone neighborhood and treats us to a multiracial cast of happy, smiling adults. They are joined by an iconic giant yellow bird, math-loving vampires and a loveable grouch in a garbage can.

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The classic feel-good show has now been running for over 40 years and in each episode, the endearing characters join together to sing, entertain and teach about numbers, letters, and general life-lessons.

30. The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson

For three long decades, between 1962 and 1992 Johnny Carson became the king of late-night antics on The Tonight Show. Johnny personified Rat Pack cool and his catchy one-liners, monologues, and interviews were the soundtrack to late night fans across America.

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The classic introduction to every show ‘Heeeeeeeeeeeere’s Johnny’ still brings back a sense of nostalgia. Johnny became a template for future late-night hosts and when he abdicated from his crown, Jay Leno and Letterman battled to replace him.

29. Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Monty Python was a classic BBC show that ran between 1969 and 1974 and offered a pretty genius comedy cocktail. It starred five British and one token US intellectuals, including John Cleese, Eric Idle and Terry Gilliam.

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The on-screen chemistry between the five iconic comedians was truly magical and they were like the Beatles of comedy. The genius jokers all reunited for a series of epic Monty Python movies, like The Holy Grail and The Life of Bryan and really set the bar high for the next generation of ambitious comedians.

28. The X Files

In the 1990s, our biggest worry was a government conspiracy to cover up alien abductions. And Chris Carter based the X-Files on this sci-fi mythology. The show created a new kind of sci-fi TV fandom and was one of the soundtracks to the 90s.

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The X Files starred two iconic FBI agents, Mulder, and Scully, played by David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson. Each week they joined forces to investigate a new unsolved case involving paranormal activities. The series spanned from 1993 to 2002 and then was brought back by popular demand for a new series in 2016.

27. Arrested Development

Arrested Development was a classic US TV sitcom which ran for three seasons from 2003 to 2006. The show welcomed us to the world of the formerly wealthy and highly dysfunctional Bluth family.

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The sitcom became well-known for incorporating various new features, like hand-held cameras and featured Ron Howard as the narrator. The showed reach odd emotional heights with some crazy storylines and a loveable and starry cast including Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, and Henry Winkler.

26. Friends

Friends has a timeless appeal and is widely considered as one of the most popular TV sitcoms of all time. We all watched in awe for ten seasons between 1994 and 2004, as the group of awesome twenty-something friends navigate their love lives, careers, and relationships in New York City.

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Part of the appeal of the show was the chemistry between the six main characters, including Jennifer Aniston, Courtney Cox, and David Schwimmer. They all had unique, distinct and quirky personalities, but they all just glued together like magic.

25. Veep

Veep offers fans a comedic political satire TV show that somehow gets better with each season. The series follows Selina Meyer, played by Julias Louis-Dreyfus who attempts to make her mark as the President. She also works with her team to navigate through various day-to-day political games.

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The President makes a convincing TV monster and has delivered cutting lines and blasts of insults like “You’re gonna cancel this recount like Anne Frank’s bat mitzvah.” The show has amassed plenty of awards, and we can’t wait for the next season.

24. Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights is an American TV drama about a fictional high school football team set in a close-knit rural community in Texas. The show has won scores of passionate fans and uses the backdrop of the small town to delve deeper into many relatable issues.

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The series stars the team coach Erik Taylor, played by Kyle Chandler and his family and one of the reasons it’s so successful and critically acclaimed is because of the memorable characters that pass through the locker room. The moving show explores issues facing Middle America like family values, lack of economic opportunities, school funding and substance abuse.

23. Deadwood

Deadwood is an epic Western sitcom set in the 1870s in a gold-mining camp in South Dakota. The show has offered three seasons of pure TV gold and offers an insight into how Deadwood grew from a camp into a town and the dirty work behind-the-scenes.

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David Milch’s series is filled with gripping episodes and plenty of gritty action. There are also a myriad of colorful and lost characters, including Ian McShane who regularly counts money, and drinks and the villain of the series, Al Swearengen, who lacks any kind of moral philosophy.

22. Louie

From 2010 until 2015, Louis C.K. has been directing, writing and starring as himself in the hit FX sitcom Louie. In the show, he features as a single-dad stand-up comic living in New York with his two daughters.

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The show didn’t follow the typical format for a TV sitcom, and largely treats the audience to a series of unconnected storylines and segments. Still, maybe that’s part of the appeal, as it had amassed a dedicated fan following and has scored plenty of awards, and nominations.

21. The Office (UK)

In 2001, Ricky Gervais created a new genre of awkward comedy when he starred in the Office. He played an awkwardly pompous and cringe-worthy boss at a London paper company. He was joined by a memorable cast of employees and continuously overwhelmed them with his awful humor, and embarrassing and uncomfortable situations.

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The show was filmed in the style of a mockumentary and offered a comedic take on the characters, hierarchies, and relationships that form in real offices. It was so successful that it was adapted into the US version and fueled a whole generation of sitcoms like Peep Show.

20. Cheers

From 1982 to 1993, Cheers became the place where “everybody knows your name”. The classic show was set in a dive bar in Boston and featured a bunch of mismatched regulars who had no-where else to go.

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Fans loved the on-screen romantic banter between Sam, a washed-up former Red Sox athlete played by Ted Danson, and Diane, an uptight librarian played by Shelley Long. The show became an iconic classic and the Cheer’s regulars like Kirstie Alley and Kelsey Grammer became part of our TV family.

19. Curb Your Enthusiasm

In 2000, the mastermind behind Seinfeld, Larry David landed his own sitcom, called Curb Your Enthusiasm. Each week we would watch Larry try to navigate life in LA, and each week he would get caught up in another awkwardly hilarious situation and try to worm his way out of it.

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As a testament to its success, the show is still running today and is not afraid to touch on any issue. From a burning dilemma over whether men should wear shorts while flying, to a hilarious take on a political conflict. One thing’s for sure, Larry can make every situation a little more embarrassing.

18. Star Trek

From 1966 to 1969, the Starship Enterprise took off on a mission to “to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations.” It fast became one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time and inspired generations of Trekky fans. It also set the precedent for plenty of spin-off shows and movies.

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The sci-fi series starred legendary like William Shatner and Captain Kirk and Leonard Nimoy as Mr. Spock. It also featured plenty of new up-and-coming actors. Each episode, fans tuned in to see them make contact with inexplicable life-forms, like the Romulans and the Gorns, and it’s safe to say that these fans are still hooked on the franchise for life.

17. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks first premiered in 1990 as an American mystery horror drama. The show transported us to a small town, filled with women and deadly secrets. As the surreal plot unfolded, there were plenty of mysterious occurrences.

Source: nytimes.com

The show starred an FBI Special Agent Dale Cooper who is sent to the town to investigate these mysteries. While it only lasted for two seasons, the show has attracted a cult following and is often rated as one of the greatest shows of all time.

16. M.A.S.H

The classic show M.A.S.H aired between 1972 and 1983 and was set in the Korean War. It provided viewers with a gritty comedy and a great cast of characters who kept the humor alive.

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The show stars Hawkeye Pierce and followed the doctors and nurses in the Mobile Army Hospital. M.A.S.H spawned a new genre of black comedy and shows the drama, antics and comedic moments in the army hospital. The finale was watched by over $120 million viewers and it is widely seen as one the greatest sitcoms ever created.

15. The West Wing

From 1999 to 2006, Aaron Sorkin created one of the greatest and most influential serial political dramas to ever hit our TV screens. The show was set in the West Wing of the White House and fronted by the benevolent President Jed Bartlet, played by Martin Sheen.

Photo by David McNew/Newsmakers

The President is joined by plenty of talented actors, from John Spencer to Rob Lowe and each season was filled with rapid-fire dialogue and plenty of enthralling storylines.

14. The Larry Sanders Show

From 1992 to 1998, Garry Shandling starred in the fictional late night host show, The Larry Sanders Show. The show was a hilarious take on The Tonight Show, but in the series, he played a showbiz monster, with a huge ego to match.

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Larry had a comical and competitive relationship with the show’s producer Artie and entertained us all by interviewing a stream of comedy legends, like Sarah Silverman and Dave Chapelle.

13. Late Night with David Letterman

In 1982, David Letterman took over the graveyard shift after Johnny Carson gracefully exited his throne as the King of Late Night TV hosts. Letterman was a master interviewer and brought a magnificent bunch of Hollywood stars and eccentric unknown acts to the table.

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Letterman proved he was up to the job and anyone who was anyone graced his show, from Cher and R.E.M to Peewee Herman. His iconic show spanned from 1982 to 2015 and when it was coming to a close, he famously broke it down as “33 years, 6,028 shows, eight minutes of laughter.”

12. Game of Thrones

In 2011, the HBO historic fantasy series, Game of Thrones was unleashed into our screens. The compelling and realistic show was groundbreaking and broke through genres. While the show features attention-grabbing dragons, dramatic characters, and a gripping plot, it’s also a political thriller.

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The iconic show was based on a book by George R.R Martin has inspired a fiercely loyal fanbase. G.O.T mesmerized the audience for ten action-packed seasons, and Martin said in an interview how “History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals…all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It’s better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do makeup.”

11. Freaks and Geeks

In 1999, Freaks and Geeks managed to capture the struggles of American adolescence with an intense and heartwarming comedy. The series was set in a small town in Michigan in 1980 and featured an unrivaled cast of gifted kids who don’t quite fit in but find a place where they belong.

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The show followed the life of the gifted high schooler Lindsay Weir and her gang of geeky pals, including legendary actors like Seth Rogen and Jason Segel. Sadly, the series only lasted one season but all the episodes really hit home, won legions of fans, and is regularly ranked as one of the greatest TV shows ever created.

10. The Daily Show

Since 1996, The Daily Show has been dominating our TV screens with a comedic, satiric and politically abrasive take on a daily news show. The show aired every night on Comedy central and still just as relevant and popular today.

Source: time.com

The show prides itself of drawing comedy from recent news, political and pop culture stories and has been fronted by some legendary hosts, like Craig Kilborn, and Jon Stewart. Most recently, Trevor Noah has taken over the crown and it has become the longest running show on the network.

9. All in the Family

Between 1971 and 1979, the CBS American sitcom All in the Family was a rating shocker and one of the most popular shows on TV. The hard-hitting drama ran for nine seasons and revolved around a working-class father and his family.

Rob Reiner, Sally Struthers, Carroll O’Connor and Jean Stapleton acting on the set of “All in the Family” TV show in 1978 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Eisenberg/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Part of the magic of the groundbreaking show was that it featured a talented cast, from Carroll O’Connor to Jean Stapleton, and it wasn’t afraid to touch on controversial issues facing America, like racism, antisemitism, feminism, and homosexuality. The show inspired a spin-off series Archie Bunker’s Place, and still holds a special place in TV history for nostalgic fans.

8. Saturday Night Live

Saturday Night Live has become an American late-night comedy institution and a permanent fixture on our TV screens for over four decades. Since 1975, the comedy skit show has offered an electric on-stage energy like no other and each episode is hosted by a different celebrity guest.

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The show features comedy sketches and has showcased unforgettable performances from some of the greatest comedians and stars from each era, from James Belushi to Bill Murray, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Will Ferrell, and Tina Fey. The series has a winning formula and just keeps getting better with time.

7. The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone is an anthology TV series that ran on CBS from 1959 to 1964. The show became a sensation and managed to cross-over various genres, from fantasy and science fiction to horror and each episode had a thrilling twist.

English actor Roddy McDowall (1928 – 1998), as Sam Conrad, and American actress Susan Oliver (1932 – 1990) as Teenya, in ‘People Are Alike All Over’, an episode in the TV series ‘The Twilight Zone’, 1960. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)

The show was a popular cult hit and later became a franchise. The influential series inspired spin-off feature films, TV shows, a radio series, a comic book, a magazine, and even a theme park attraction. In 2017, the third Twilight Zone revival show premiered, and the series is often ranked as greatest TV drama ever produced.

6. The Simpsons

America’s favorite animated adult cartoon sitcom has managed to surpass all expectations and has become a TV rating topper since 1989. For over three decades, the Simpsons have entertained us all as America’s realest family, and are joined by a quirky cast.

Creator Matt Groening poses with Simpson characters at “The Simpsons” Panel during the 2008 Comic Con at the San Diego Convention Center on July 26, 2008 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images for Fox)

The show is set in the fictional town of Springfield and offers a satirical and comedic take on American society, culture and family life. Throughout the years, the parody prime-time sitcom has featured some of the greatest stars in Hollywood. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa never seem to grow old, but the show just gets better with time.

5. Seinfeld

From 1989 to 1998, Seinfeld became a TV phenomenon and is widely viewed as one of the funniest comedies ever created. Created by a pair of genius comedy legends, Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, the quirky show featured four main cast members, Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer who live in New York.

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Each episode took a hilarious take on the daily life of the four friends, as they encountered a mix of quirky characters, like the Soup Nazi and close talkers. The iconic show is often described as ‘a show about nothing’, but the hilarious cast, unforgettable storylines and comedic moments make it one of the most influential TV sitcoms around.

4. Mad Men

From 2007 to 2015, the American period drama series Mad Men blew up onto our TV screens. The show is set in the 1960s in a fictional advertising agency in New York City and focuses on the characters, relationships, work culture, slang and day-to-day antics that occurred inside the agency at that time.

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The show was so enthralling as it stayed authentic to the period and was praised for its brilliant acting, character development, a thrilling plot, and witty script. The show has scored a slew of awards and is generally ranked as one of the most outstanding TV sitcoms ever produced.

3. Breaking Bad

Between 2008 and 2013, the world was hooked on the US TV drama Breaking Bad. The criminal fantasy show was fronted by Bryan Cranston, as s bitter high school chemistry teacher. When he discovers he has terminal lung cancer, he tries to provide for his family and winds up turning into New Mexico’s most fearless drug kingpin.

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Throughout each season, we were all gripped as Walt transforms from an ordinary teacher into the criminal kingpin Heisenberg. As he becomes more addicted to his new criminal life, he delves deeper into the gritty underworld of America.

2. The Wire

Created by David Simon, The Wire was a prolific American crime drama series set in Baltimore that mesmerized viewers for five thrilling seasons between 2002 and 2008. The show became an epic TV sensation and each season touched on a different issue, facing the city such as Baltimore’s illegal drug trade, government and bureaucracy, and education.

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The Wire won scores of fans with legendary characters that we’d never seen before, including Dominic West and John Dorman. The crime show featured a gripping plot, an awesome script and was praised for its realistic portrayal of society, politics and urban life. Unsurprisingly The Wire was critically acclaimed and is often considered as one of the most legendary TV shows ever.

1. The Sopranos

The Sopranos offered a groundbreaking and iconic crime saga that smashed all the rules of TV shows. James Gandolfini stars as the anti-hero, a notorious New Jersey Mob boss, dubbed Tony Sopranos. He rules over a gangster crew who try to reconcile their secret lives of mob crime while living ordinary lives with their families.

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The game-changing show had such a wide appeal, especially as Tony Soprano plays an endearing and guilt-ridden gangster who regularly goes to therapy. The influential show helped raise the bar for TV and inspired the next generation of thrilling series, like The Wire, Breaking Bad and Mad Men. So that’s why this winning sitcom deserves the crown as the greatest TV sitcom ever produced.

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