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100 Greatest TV Shows of All Time

From time-capsule sitcoms to cutting-edge Peak-TV dramas — the definitive ranking of the game-changing small-screen classics

100 Best TV shows of all time Rolling Stone Sopranos Game of Thrones

Illustration by Ryan Casey

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. 


‘Battlestar Galactica’

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. 


‘The Americans’

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. 


‘NYPD Blue’

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. 


‘The Honeymooners’

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 Shield’

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." 


’30 Rock’

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. 


‘South Park’

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.