100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time
There’s never been a creative boom for TV like the one we are living through right now. Ever since The Sopranos changed the game at the turn of the century, we’ve been in a gold rush that gives no signs of slowing down. What better moment to look back and celebrate the greatest shows in the history of the art form?
So we undertook a major poll – actors, writers, producers, critics, showrunners. Legends like Carl Reiner and Garry Marshall, who sent us his ballot shortly before his death this summer. All shows from all eras were eligible; anybody could vote for whatever they felt passionate about, from the black-and-white rabbit-ears years to the binge-watching peak-TV era. The ratings didn’t matter – only quality. The voters have spoken – and, damn, did they have some fierce opinions. On this list you’ll find vintage classics and new favorites, ambitious psychodramas and stoner comedies, underrated cult gems ripe for rediscovery, cops and cartoons and vampire slayers. You’ll find the groundbreaking creations of yesteryear as well as today’s innovators. (There was nothing like Transparent or Orange Is the New Black or Game of Thrones a few years ago, but who could imagine this list without them?) Our list is guaranteed to start plenty of loud arguments – but the beauty of TV is how it keeps giving us so much to argue about.
The hospital drama to put all others on the DNR list, ER blew up in the early Nineties, making stars out of Julianna Margulies and the previously obscure George Clooney, until then best known as the big-hair hunk teacher from The Facts of Life. But the real surprise was how ER kept thriving, replacing all its original stars yet remaining itself for 15 years, with hour after hour of life, death and romance amid the scrubs.
It seemed like an unlikely idea for a hit – a bunch of depressive taxi drivers working the night shift, trying not to think about the rotten disappointments that got them stuck at the Sunshine Cab Company. But Taxi hit pay dirt because it had warmth, as these losers bonded together – Andy Kaufman's babbling naif, Christopher Lloyd's wacked-out hippie, Tony Danza's meatball, Judd Hirsch's cynic. And Danny DeVito suddenly became a star playing a larger-than-life monster as the drunken dispatcher Louie De Palma.
‘The Office (U.S.)’
Nobody expected this to be more than yet another example of a U.S. network trying to rip off an edgy Brit-com and getting it all wrong. Except, with Steve Carell as the world's worst boss, it turned out to be a groundbreaking and original comedy in its own right, with a dream team of eccentric employees lost in the cubicles of Dunder-Mifflin. It was looser, riskier and more ambitious than the U.K. version, not to mention warmer – Carell's Michael Scott wasn't hateful, just a moron – with a cast including Rainn Wilson's Dwight ("Through concentration, I can raise and lower my cholesterol at will"), Mindy Kaling's Kelly and the ever-bilious Creed Bratton. (Let's just pretend those last two post-Carell seasons never happened, OK?)
‘The Rockford Files’
James Garner was a new breed of TV detective – a small-time P.I. who got stuck with the loser cases nobody else wanted, living in a Malibu trailer with his elderly dad. Rockford didn't exactly live the glamorous life: He was an ex-con wisecrack machine who had done hard time in San Quentin, now scraping by as a freelancer while routinely getting his ass kicked or getting stiffed on his fee. But thanks to Garner, he always got by on a superhuman supply of cocky charm.
‘The Mary Tyler Moore Show’
Hail Mary: the ultimate template for how to make comedy gold out of being a grown-up neurotic making it on your own in the big city. She worked in a Minneapolis TV newsroom full of cranks like Ted Knight's windbag anchorman and Ed Asner's hard-drinking boss, Lou Grant. ("I haven't been this mad at anybody since 1944." "Did anything much happen?" "I captured a town in Germany.") Revolutionary at the time, blasé about sex and birth control, it also pioneered the all-too-rare concept of going out on top – it signed off in 1977, a massive hit to the end. Every sitcom still steals from MTM, but Moore's heart and soul remain one of a kind.
The 1970s original was a promising but failed sci-fi franchise, one of many the networks rushed out in the wake of Star Wars. But Ronald D. Moore's version was the rare reboot that topped the original, with a space colony of humans escaping the Cylons and searching for a home somewhere in the universe – maybe this planet they've heard about called Earth. Edward James Olmos is the commander who leads the way; Mary McDonnell is the president with a very different vision of this society. And Katee Sackhoff's Starbuck remains one of the most badass frakking action heroes ever. So say we all.
Peter Falk's cheap detective was the coolest TV cop of the Seventies. With all due respect to Kojak, Baretta, Starsky, Hutch and all six of Charlie's Angels, it was Lt. Columbo who snagged the cover of Rolling Stone. John Cassavetes sidekick Falk hit the streets as a rumpled dirtbag in a trench coat, always mumbling and asking for a pencil, walking away from the bad guy at the end but then turning around with one of his crazy grins to say, "Oh, wait – just one more thing." He's always the underdog, but that's how he plays his mind games on all the smug L.A. high-society types who make the fatal mistake of thinking he's an idiot.
There's never been a TV marriage like this one: Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys play a pair of deep-cover Russian spies living in the D.C. suburbs in the early 1980s. They pretend to be a nice, normal, happy American couple – except these two do things like kill a hit man to the strains of "Tainted Love." The FX masterwork is both a taut espionage thriller and a bleakly intimate marital drama – as if leading double lives full of deceit and betrayal makes this couple real Americans after all.
Nearly a decade after Hill Street Blues, Steven Bochco raised the ante for down-and-dirty police realism. The 15th Precinct was home to hard-boiled detectives brought to life by the likes of Jimmy Smits, Amy Brenneman and David Caruso. Dennis Franz's Detective Sipowicz was a foulmouthed alcoholic racist bully – and he was the most sympathetic cop here.
One of the founding Fifties comedies, spun off as a sketch from Jackie Gleason's hit variety show, about Brooklyn bus driver Ralph Kramden and his put-upon wife, Alice, played by Audrey Meadows. No Father Knows Best here – this was brutalist blue-collar city life. It was the template for every sitcom marriage between a boorish slob and a tsk-tsking shrew, with Ralph shouting threats ("To the moon, Alice!") and Art Carney as his dimwitted pal Ed Norton.
The first time we meet Vic Mackey, he's shooting a fellow cop in the face – to stop him from ratting on what a sleazebag Vic is. Like his captain says in the premiere, "He's Al Capone with a badge." Michael Chiklis created one of TV's most fearsome cops in Mackey, a dirty detective with plenty of street smarts but barely any scruples. Shawn Ryan's FX drama followed Vic through seven seasons of murder, drug dealing and torture, with a hell of an endgame.
A cosmic mystery trip so complex nobody has ever quite figured it all out – a band of castaways trapped on an island after the crash of Oceanic Flight 815, with a smoke monster and the enigmatic group called the Others, multiple timelines, the Seventies backstory of the Dharma Initiative, each episode crammed with clues to be argued over for years to come. Lost proved there was a broad audience out there who wanted their TV to be more unpredictable and challenging, not less – and TV would never be the same.
‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’
Sarah Michelle Gellar created a supernatural feminist avenger in Joss Whedon's saga of Buffy, the California girl who finds herself by kicking vampire ass. On Buffy, surviving adolescence and fighting off the undead forces of evil turn out to be the same thing. And the musical episode – "Once More, With Feeling" – is a classic in itself.
‘Orange Is the New Black’
When Jenji Kohan's women's-prison drama started, there was no real way of knowing it would remain great after four years – in fact, the brilliance of the first season looked like a fluke. But it keeps getting better – the recent fourth season is the most intense yet. No other drama can match this ensemble, as actresses like Uzo Aduba, Jessica Pimentel, Danielle Brooks and Samira Wiley go deep on these characters and the heart-shredding stories that brought them here.
‘Law & Order’
Dick Wolf's long-, long-, long-running procedural created its own formula – gruesomely violent crimes ripped from the headlines, clock-punching cops, idealistic lawyers, stern judges who bang the gavel and say "I'll allow it," each character a different cog in the crime-solving machine until the trial scene at the end. All of its different incarnations, from Logan and Briscoe to Benson and Stabler, just proved what a rich formula it was, not to mention a chance for countless aspiring NYC actors to get their first real taste of catering.
‘My So-Called Life’
"Ignore Angela. She can't help herself – she's the product of a two-parent household." Claire Danes became a teen-angst heroine with this high school classic, so ahead of its time it got axed after one season. The World Happiness Dance episode – where two lost and lonely kids find a moment of disco redemption together – might be the Nineties' most emo hour of TV, which may explain why some of us out here still get a little dusty whenever we hear Haddaway's "What Is Love."
Alec Baldwin said it best: "You are truly the Picasso of loneliness." He has a point. Tina Fey's Liz Lemon is a single gal who spends her evenings playing Monopoly alone, working on her night cheese or watching the Lifetime movie My Stepson Is My Cyber-Husband. But Fey made her a timeless heroine, turning her SNL writers-room experience into the backstage antics at The Girlie Show, with a crazy-deep bench that included Tracy Morgan, Jane Krakowski and Jack McBrayer. And Baldwin chewed up the role of his life, turning what could have been a generic sitcom boss into the only man worthy to stand by Lemon.
Trey Parker and Matt Stone touched America somewhere deep and special, and you must respect their authori-teh. Year after year, this cartoon began, Matt Stone 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.
‘I Love Lucy’
The adventures of real-life Hollywood couple Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz – he was Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo, and she was the daffy redhead housewife as slapstick queen. They were TV's premier married couple, in an era when the network would only let them sleep in separate beds – and awaited the real-life arrival of Little Ricky without allowing anyone to utter the word "pregnant" on the air.
No kiddie show has ever been as fiercely beloved as this urban utopian fantasy, set in a brownstone neighborhood populated by a multiracial cast of smiling adults, a gigantic yellow bird, a grouch in a garbage can, and math-loving vampires, plus countless talking letters and numbers. It has great songs, but most important, Sesame has soul, which is why the air has stayed sweet for 40 years – or as the Count would say, 45! 46! 47 years!
‘The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson’
Heeeeeeere’s Johnny! There’s a reason Carson remains the template for every late-night host, after ruling The Tonight Show for three decades. Like a TV answer to Frank Sinatra, he epitomized Rat Pack cool, and his monologues were a soundtrack to generations of Americans boozing themselves to slumber every night. Nearly 25 years after he signed off (and more than 10 years after he died), Carson’s the ghost king who still haunts late night. When he abdicated in 1992, Letterman and Jay Leno began battling for his throne and somehow never quit. (In his final show, Letterman cracked, “It looks like I’m not going to get The Tonight Show.”)
‘Monty Python’s Flying Circus’
And now for something completely different. The perfect comedy cocktail – five British intellectuals and a token American clod, Terry Gilliam, running amok on the BBC. Monty Python were the Beatles of comedy, each one an indispensable element in the chemistry, from John Cleese's spluttering rage to Eric Idle's pointed-stick wordplay. The Pythons were godfathers to all ambitious jokers who followed – Lorne Michaels and Chevy Chase met in line for a Holy Grail screening. But these 45 episodes remain the comedic equivalent of Mount Everest: forbidding, aloof, terrifying, the mountain with the biggest tits in the world.
Oh, the Nineties – when our scariest worry about the government was its plot to cover up alien abductions. Chris Carter created a whole sci-fi mythology with The X-Files. All of the sinister conspiracies in the universe aren't as tough as the loyal bond between two FBI agents: David Duchovny's Mulder (he wanted to believe) and Gillian Anderson's Scully (she didn't). X-Files invented a new kind of TV fan for the online-message-board era, alternating between "monster of the week" and the overall arc, but always throwing in geek details for the hardcore devotees. And their archenemy: the Smoking Man, William B. Davis, the marvelously evil bureaucrat lurking in the shadows of every conspiracy from the JFK assassination to rigging the Super Bowl.
Mitch Hurwitz's absurdist tale of the Bluth family seemed too far out to survive in the network wasteland. Yet it managed to last three seasons on Fox (and then a 2013 Netflix reboot) without losing its kinks, thanks to Will Arnett, Jason Bateman, David Cross and Henry Winkler as the family lawyer. It reaches odd emotional heights, as when Jeffrey Tambor hides in the attic to spy on his own funeral while Portia de Rossi honors his memory: "You know what? I'm gonna throw on a skirt, take off my underwear and make your Pop-Pop proud!"
A group of twenty-somethings in New York sit around complaining about their day jobs, their sex lives, their screwed-up families. It's a formula countless sitcoms tried to get right over the years (nice try, Herman's Head), but it took the Central Perk crew to get the right mix of personalities, from Lisa Kudrow's flaky folk singer to the schlub-fox romance of David Schwimmer's Ross and Jennifer Aniston's Rachel. Even at the time, it was ridiculous how huge and luxurious Monica's West Village apartment was, and the story line where she's banging Tom Selleck just gets more stomach-turning the longer Blue Bloods stays on the air.
Julia Louis-Dreyfus presides over the Oval Office in HBO's political satire, still getting more horrifyingly brilliant with each season. Her President Selina Meyer is one of the truly great monsters in TV history, a politician you can count on to say things like "You're gonna cancel this recount like Anne Frank's bat mitzvah." Each episode is a warp-speed blast of insults, many aimed at Timothy Simons' delectably loathsome aide, Jonah. ("How am I doing? Eating so much pussy I'm shitting clits, son.") Veep's peak for sheer gall might be the "Testimony" episode, a frantic half-hour when almost every line of dialogue is perjury. Four more years, please.
‘Friday Night Lights’
"Clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" is the golden rule in a dusty Texas town where everyone lives and dies for the high school football team. But Friday Night Lights isn't really about football so much as family, work, class, the bitter taste of dashed dreams, with Kyle Chandler as Coach Taylor, Connie Britton as wife Tami and Taylor Kitsch as Tim Riggins – the most memorable of the many vulnerable kids who pass through the Panthers' locker room. Riggins' story becomes especially moving after his gridiron glory fades and real life beats him down.
Al Swearengen's moral philosophy: "You can't cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve." Spoken like a true Founding Father. He's the villain of David Milch's epic Western set in the mud and slime of an 1870s South Dakota gold-mining camp. At the center of it all (i.e., the saloon), Ian McShane's Al glowers, pours drinks, counts money and slices jugulars, in a frontier hellhole full of prospectors, whores, drunks and lost freaks looking for one last fatal fight to get into (and often finding it at Al's place). It was like McCabe & Mrs. Miller with more depressing sex scenes. The first two seasons are solid gold, the third, flimsier, but Deadwood is about how communities get built – and all the dirty work that involves.
Louis C.K.'s stubbornly auteurist FX sitcom doesn't look or feel like anything else on TV – he writes, directs and stars as himself, a single-dad stand-up comic in New York. If Louie wants to show himself in the car air-drumming to "Who Are You?" and mortifying his daughters, he goes for it. If he wants to abandon the half-hour comedy format entirely for an extended indie-film vibe with Charles Grodin and Ellen Burstyn, he does that too. Louis C.K. may disappear into his own head for entire seasons, but he also hits totally original emotional peaks like the one when he travels to Miami and accidentally makes a male friend. (No, it doesn't last.)
‘The Office (U.K.)’
Ricky Gervais created one of TV's most agonizing comic tyrants in David Brent – a bitter, awkward, pompous ball of vanities terrorizing his employees at a London paper company. He fidgets, fondles his tie, cracks awful jokes, plays guitar ("Free Love Freeway"!), invisible to anyone except the long-suffering office drones who have to put up with him. This mockumentary raised the cringe level of sitcoms everywhere, spawning the surprisingly great U.S. version (also on this list) while paving the way for the glories of Parks & Recreation and Peep Show.
You need a place where everybody knows your name – even if it's just a dive bar in Boston full of regulars with no place else to go. Cheers started with a focus on the mismatched romantic banter between Ted Danson's washed-up Red Sox pitcher Sam and Shelley Long's uptight bookworm Diane. ("Over my dead body!" "Hey, don't bring last night into this.") But it regularly renewed itself by bringing in new blood like Woody Harrelson, Kirstie Alley and Kelsey Grammer. Cheers was like that bar, to the point where you could tune in just to see which regulars would hang with you tonight.
‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’
The master misanthrope behind Seinfeld goes to L.A., where all the sunshine on his bald pate just makes him more miserable. We thought we already knew Larry David via his Seinfeld be the most painful-to-witness tryst of Larry's abysmal career as a single guy. Who can forget Larry cringing under his Palestinian sex goddess as she snarls, "I'm going to fuck the Jew out of you"? From religion to race, from the mock Seinfeld reunion to the burning ethical dilemma of whether men should wear shorts on airplanes, Larry is always there to make every awkward situation worse.
The Starship Enterprise took off with a five-year mission: "To explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations," and it succeeded in creating the most beloved of sci-fi franchises, not just inspiring countless spinoffs but also codifying fan fiction as an art form. Gene Roddenberry's original series remains the foundation, with William Shatner's awesomely pulpy Capt. Kirk, Leonard Nimoy's logical Mr. Spock, Bones, Sulu, Uhura and Scotty. They make contact with bizarre and inexplicable life-forms – Romulans, Gorns, Joan Collins. During its three years, Star Trek suffered from low ratings until NBC pulled the plug, but thanks to the most doggedly loyal of TV cults (remember when "Trekkie" was an insult?), Roddenberry's vision lives long and prospers to this day.
"These girls are authentically dreamy," Twin Peaks auteur David Lynch told Rolling Stone in 1990. "They're all just boss chicks. And they're just jampacked with secrets." The small town of Twin Peaks is full of these women and their deadly secrets, from murdered high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer to alive-and-how seductress Audrey Horne. A few years after Blue Velvet, Lynch's surreal Pacific Northwest mystery followed Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper, on a quest for damn-good coffee as well as the solution to the murder of Palmer.
The Korean War show that lasted three times as long as the Korean War, taking off from the revolutionary 1970 Robert Altman comedy, as the doctors and nurses of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital wait for the next chopper with the next crop of wounded grunts requiring "meatball surgery." M*A*S*H began as a gritty comedy, with Alan Alda's Hawkeye and the rest of the staff trying to keep their sense of humor alive amid the daily carnage with booze, sex and hijinks. It evolved into a solemn (if sometimes preachy) meditation on the futility of war. The finale was seen by more than 120 million and remains one of the most-watched TV events of all time.
‘The West Wing’
Aaron Sorkin gave America the leader we didn't quite deserve in Martin Sheen's benevolent President Jed Bartlet, a high-toned Catholic professor from New Hampshire. Premiering in the fall of 1999, The West Wing played like a Bubba-era fantasy of how the political future would look (like if the Democrats had a little more courage, or if the Republicans had a principle or two) that soon turned out to be utterly out of step with the Bush-Cheney years. But Sorkin's trademark rapid-fire dialogue and the Bartlet administration's idealism made this a welcome parallel universe.
‘The Larry Sanders Show’
The late, great Garry Shandling could have taken over as host of The Tonight Show – but instead he starred in his own nightmare fictional version. As Larry Sanders, he played a showbiz monster whose loathing for all forms of humanity (especially himself) left him no choice but to make small talk with strangers behind the desk of his late-night chatfest. Larry Sanders debuted on HBO in 1992 with a whole new look – single camera, no laugh track, a constant stream of bile and abuse – and became a word-of-mouth hit. Larry always had the biggest ego in the room, but he had competition from Rip Torn's producer Artie and Jeffrey Tambor's pitiful sidekick, Hank. Countless comedy legends cut their teeth here – Judd Apatow, Sarah Silverman, Bob Odenkirk, Janeane Garofalo and Dave Chappelle for starters.
‘Late Night With David Letterman’
A failed Indiana weatherman takes over the graveyard shift after Johnny Carson and completely changes the way America sees itself. Letterman brought weirdos to the tube like we'd never seen before – from Larry "Bud" Melman to Harvey Pekar, from Peewee Herman to Sandra Bernhard, from R.E.M. to Andy Kaufman. Not to mention Paul Shaffer, the indispensable piano man. Letterman was a connoisseur of American eccentrics without ever pretending to be one himself, and a master interviewer, especially when he was up against a fellow curmudgeon, like when Cher called him an "asshole." (She was right, and thank God for that.) When Letterman made the move to CBS' Late Show in 1993, he changed titles and time slots, but kept that same acerbic spirit alive – especially in his magnificent final weeks, as he broke down the statistics: "33 years, 6,028 shows, eight minutes of laughter." We'll never see his like again.
‘Game of Thrones’
The night is dark and full of terrors, especially on Sundays when Game of Thrones is on. With its premise of "The Sopranos in Middle-earth," it's the HBO fantasy series that broke through genre boundaries to stake its claim as one of the most compellingly realistic dramas on the air, going beyond George R.R. Martin's books. It might grab attention with the nudity, the dragons and severed heads, but at heart it's a political thriller. As Martin told Rolling Stone, "History is written in blood, a gold mine – the kings, the princes, the generals and the whores, and all the betrayals and wars and confidences. It's better than 90 percent of what the fantasists do make up."
‘Freaks and Geeks’
A typically brilliant Freaks and Geeks moment: High school mathlete Lindsay takes her first puff of weed but gets busted by one of her fellow nerds, who tells her, "I know what high people look like. I went to a Seals and Crofts concert last summer!" Paul Feig and Judd Apatow truly captured the agonies of American adolescence in this intensely compassionate comedy, set in a Michigan town in 1980. It tragically lasted only one season, but all 18 episodes hit home, with a rock soundtrack and a cast of future legends. Martin Starr's Bill, Jason Segel's Nick, most of all Linda Cardellini's Lindsay – these are kids who don't fit in, craving a place they might belong, whether that's a Dungeons & Dragons game or a van following the Grateful Dead tour.
‘The Daily Show’
The fake news show that became more credible than the real news. Comedy Central began The Daily Show in 1996, but it hit its stride when Jon Stewart took over in 1999. The Daily Show got more politically abrasive as the news got progressively worse. Stewart had the rage of a man who'd signed on at the end of the Bill Clinton years, only to end up with an America much scarier and uglier than the one he bargained for, and the anger showed. "It's a comic box lined with sadness," he told Rolling Stone in 2006. While the franchise struggles on without him, Daily alumni John Oliver and Samantha Bee keep that hard-hitting spirit alive on their own shows.
‘All in the Family’
What a shocker to see this hit TV in 1971, in the middle of the Nixon years – loudmouth bigot Archie Bunker, wife Edith, feminist daughter Gloria and her hippie husband, Mike, all under one roof in Queens, having the arguments real families had at the time. And it was Number One in the ratings every year because it didn't belittle its characters – as creator Norman Lear told Rolling Stone, "People were interested in seeing themselves very correctly." Carroll O'Connor gave Archie dignity and decency, even as he expressed opinions like "England is a fag country." All in the Family went where TV never dared before (racism, homophobia, abortions, gun control, premarital sex, religion) – everything was fair game. Those were the days.
‘Saturday Night Live’
Live from New York, it's Saturday night – more than 40 years after the Not Ready for Prime Time Players first reinvented comedy as rock & roll. As Lorne Michaels likes to say, "We don't go on because we're ready. We go on because it's 11:30." SNL keeps that electric-edge energy running, even if that means flopping for episodes or even entire seasons at a time. Everybody thought the classic 1970s cast – John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd – was too wild and crazy to replace. But noooo: SNL gave the world Eddie Murphy in the 1980s, Mike Myers and Chris Rock in the 1990s, Will Ferrell and Tina Fey in the 2000s, Kate McKinnon and Aidy Bryant today. People keep deciding this time it's really Saturday Night Dead, yet time after time it surges back. No other show has unleashed so many beautifully demented performers on the world.
‘The Twilight Zone’
"This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone." Rod Serling's sci-fi anthology series is the opposite of a period piece – it can still blow your mind today, with Serling's gritty staccato introductions and a host of supernatural scenarios. The best Twilight Zone episodes looked for freakdom in the everyday: space invaders posing as hotrod greasers, suburban neighborhoods turning into hysterical mobs, grotesque death masks, talking dolls. Countless vignettes remain classics, from William Shatner staring out the airplane window and seeing a gremlin on the wing to Richard Kiel as the gigantic, smiling alien who arrives with the solutions to all Earth's problems – simply because he wants to serve man.
How has America's favorite cartoon family lasted this long? Because they're also America's realest family. Especially Homer, the doofus dad everybody fears turning into, nature's cruelest mistake: "And to think I turned to a cult for mindless happiness, when I had beer all along!" Or maybe especially Lisa, the sax-tooting voice of wisdom. Not to mention Apu, Krusty, Flanders, Monty Burns, Amanda Hugginkiss or any of the other unforgettable kooks who make Springfield just like your town, except funnier. As creator Matt Groening boasted to Rolling Stone in 2002, "Characters on our show drink, smoke, don't wear their seat belts, litter and fire guns. In this season's Halloween episode, there's probably more gunfire than in the entire history of The Sopranos."
The show about nothing that blew up into the great American comedy. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer: four friends who happen to be horrible people, in a New York full of soup Nazis, close talkers, anti-dentites, sponge baths, astronaut pens and lobster bisque. Even at the time, everybody could tell Seinfeld was the funniest sitcom we'd ever witness, a week-to-week miracle. But no matter how many times you've double-dipped into all 180 episodes, they keep luring you back like pretzels making you thirsty. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David set the rules from the start – "No hugging, no learning." As Julia Louis-Dreyfus told Rolling Stone in 1998, "The reality is that these four characters are a pathetic group, and they should disassemble promptly. I mean, if you stand back from it and look at what happens every week, they do terrible things to one another. And yet they continue to hang out. It's sociopathic." Not that there's anything wrong with that.
The American dream and how to sell it – except for Don Draper and the hustlers of Sterling Cooper, selling is the American dream. Mad Men became a sensation as soon as it appeared, partly because of its glam surface – a New York ad agency in the JFK era, all sex and money and liquor and cigarettes – but mostly because it was an audaciously adult drama that wasn't about cops or robbers (or doctors or lawyers), staking out new storytelling territory. Jon Hamm's womanizing adman, Don, is a genius at shaping other people's dreams and fantasies, but he can't escape his own loneliness – he's a con man who stole the identity of a dead Korean War officer and built a new life out of lies. "A good advertising person is like an artist, channeling the culture," creator Matthew Weiner told Rolling Stone. "They're holding up a mirror saying, 'This is the way you wish you were. This is the thing you're afraid of.'" Don can reduce a room to tears pitching the Kodak Carousel, even though the happy family memories he's selling are a fraud. There was nothing on TV as seductive as Mad Men before – and years later, there still isn't.
Bryan Cranston, previously the dentist on Seinfeld and the lovable dad from Malcolm in the Middle, became a villain for the ages in Vince Gilligan's AMC noir. Walter White, a bitter high school chemistry teacher, gets terminal lung cancer and decides to provide for his kids by turning into New Mexico's premier crystal-meth chef. Unfortunately for his family, his victims and practically everyone he meets, he loves his new secret life as the killer drug lord Heisenberg. "I am not in danger, Skyler," he tells his wife. "I am the danger. A guy opens his door and gets shot and you think that of me? No. I am the one who knocks!" Yet he's so frightening because he's so ordinary – any American loser who gets a chance to act on his most criminal fantasies, which in Walter's case is just the chance to finally be good at something. That's what makes Breaking Bad as addictive as the Blue Sky that Walter cooks. The more Walt transforms into Heisenberg, the deeper he digs into the grim side of the American dream. After one spectacular killing involving a kamikaze wheelchair bomb, he calls his wife to report, "It's over. We're safe. I won." The tragic part is he believes it – but he's lost her as well as himself.
You come at the king, you best not miss. Former reporter David Simon aimed high with his epic HBO tale of the drug game in Baltimore – building an entire city full of corrupt politicians, corner boys and cops who keep learning the biggest crime is "giving a fuck when it ain't your turn to give a fuck." Each season told a different story – the Barksdale gang in Season Three, the doomed school kids in Season Four. "After the first season, I thought, 'There's no way I'm being renewed,'" Simon told Rolling Stone. "But no one has told us to stop. I mean, any schmuck making over 50 hours of TV on what ails the American city and expecting people to watch it deserves what he gets."
The Wire gave us characters no one had seen before, from Idris Elba's menacing Stringer Bell to Robert F. Chew's endlessly quotable Proposition Joe. But Michael K. Williams created the ultimate badass with Omar, the shotgun-toting trench-coat avenger. As Joe told Omar, "A businessman such as myself does not believe in bad blood with a man such as yourself. Disturbs the sleep." So many unforgettable moments all over The Wire – Bunk and McNulty canvassing a murder scene with one word of dialogue; Omar explaining his grief to bow-tied hit man Brother Mouzone ("See, that boy was beautiful"); Avon and Stringer on a balcony toasting a future they know will never come; Slim Charles holding the church hat of "a bona fide colored lady." Yet there's a sense of heartbreak all through The Wire. The game wins – they all lose.
The crime saga that cut the history of TV in two, kicking off a golden age when suddenly anything seemed possible. With The Sopranos, David Chase smashed all the rules about how much you could get away with on the small screen. And he created an immortal American antihero in James Gandolfini's New Jersey Mob boss, Tony Soprano, presiding over a crew of gangsters who also double as damaged husbands and dads, men trying to live with their murderous secrets and dark memories. As the late, great Gandolfini told Rolling Stone in 2001, "I heard David Chase say one time that it's about people who lie to themselves, as we all do. Lying to ourselves on a daily basis and the mess it creates."
What an inspiring, terrifying mess it is. The Sopranos ran away with this poll because it changed the world. Chase showed how much storytelling ambition you could bring to television, and it didn't take long for everybody else to rise to his challenge. The breakthroughs of the next few years – The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad – couldn't have happened without The Sopranos kicking the door down. But Chase had a tough time convincing any network to take on a story about a guilt-crazed gangster who goes to therapy, while his mom plots to kill him. "We had no idea this show would appeal to people," he told Rolling Stone. "The show quite unexpectedly made such a splash that it screwed us all up." Somehow The Sopranos kept going for the long bomb over six masterful seasons on HBO with a wild mix of bloodshed and humor. When FBI agents tell Uncle Junior which mobsters they want him to finger, he says with a shrug, "I want to fuck Angie Dickinson – let's see who gets lucky first."
The Sopranos is full of broken characters who linger on in the long-term parking of our national imagination – Edie Falco's Carmela, Dominic Chianese's Junior, Michael Imperioli's Christopher, Tony Sirico's Paulie Walnuts. E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt became Tony's lieutenant Silvio – Chase spotted him on early Bruce Springsteen album covers. (As Chase told Rolling Stone, "There was something about the E Street Band that looked like a crew.") It wouldn't have been possible without Gandolfini's slow-burning intensity – he was the only actor who could bring Tony's angst to life. But all the writing, acting and directing went places TV had never reached before.
The Sopranos arguably hit its creative peak with the famous Pine Barrens episode, where Paulie Walnuts and Christopher get lost in the woods, knowing the Russian gangster they tried to whack is still out there in the darkness. They shiver in the cold. ("It's the fuckin' Yukon out there!") They wait. And worry. The Sopranos never solved this mystery – for all we know, the Russian is still at large, yet another secret these guys can't shake off. On The Sopranos, family loyalties flip, both in the streets and at home. Beloved characters can get whacked at any moment. It kept that sense of danger alive right up to the final seconds. And nearly a decade after it faded to black in a Jersey diner with the jukebox playing "Don't Stop Believin'," The Sopranos remains the standard all ambitious TV aspires to meet.