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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. 

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‘Breaking Bad’

2008-13
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.

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‘The Wire’

2002-08
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.

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‘The Sopranos’

1999-2007
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. 

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