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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. 

38

‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’

1997-2003
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. 

37

‘Orange Is the New Black’

2013-Present
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. 

36

‘Law & Order’

1990-2010
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. 

35

‘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." 

34

’30 Rock’

2006-13
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. 

33

‘South Park’

1997-Present
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. 

32

‘I Love Lucy’

1951-57
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. 

31

‘Sesame Street’

1969-Present
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! 

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30

‘The Tonight Show With Johnny Carson’

1962-92
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.”)