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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. 

68

‘The State’

1993-95
The MTV comedy show was a whiff of youthful arrogance in the early Nineties, with 11 college wise-asses running wild in manic sketches about monkey torture, Muppet-eating and the mailman who only delivers tacos. After three years on MTV, they jumped to a network – and got destroyed amid the corporate machinery. But their cult kept growing, especially after they masterminded Wet Hot American Summer

67

‘The Odd Couple’

1970-75
Tony Randall was neurotic neat-freak Felix; Jack Klugman was cigar-chomping sportswriter slob Oscar. Thrown out by their wives, they shared a Park Avenue bachelor pad, taking out all their midlife male angst on each other. Though based on Neil Simon's play, it worked even better in sitcom form, thanks to Randall and Klugman's negative chemistry and that perky theme song – their dance on a Central Park lawn is one of the truly romantic visions of New York. 

66

‘Downton Abbey’

2011-16
Welcome to the aristocratic English countryside circa 1912, where Julian Fellowes' Crawley family acts out the decline and fall of the British Empire, from the bed-hopping elites to the downstairs schemes of the servants. Dame Maggie Smith steals the show as the delightfully nasty shade queen Dowager Countess, who does a better job than anyone else here at pretending the world isn't changing. Her best line: "What is a 'weekend'?" 

65

‘Happy Days’

1974-84
R.I.P. to the late, great Garry Marshall. The sitcom maestro's opus was this 1970s hit set in the 1950s, with Henry Winkler as the Fonz, the leather-boy greaser who ruled Arnold's Drive-In with his nerd pals Richie, Potsie and Ralph Malph. It's easy to forget the Fonz had a dark introspective side – best seen in the surprisingly harsh episode where he stars in Richie's production of Hamlet ("I thought a couple of times about whether I wanted 'to be or not'"). Happy Days gave us Scott Baio as the Fonz's douche cousin Chachi, but that can be forgiven, as can the time Fonzie got on water skis for an aquatic stunt that invented the concept of "jumping the shark.

64

‘Chappelle’s Show’

2003-06
Comedy – it's a hell of a drug. Dave Chappelle was an electric madman genius who defied any attempt to predict his next move – sometimes his Comedy Central show was brilliant, sometimes it was crap, and he eventually decided it wasn't worth the money or the trouble. But it sent shock waves through pop culture, whether Chappelle was immortalizing Charlie Murphy's memories of Rick James ("He is a habitual line-stepper") and Prince ("This bores me") or playing the world's only blind black white supremacist. It's a celebration, bitches! 

63

‘The Wonder Years’

1988-93
Timed perfectly for the late Eighties, The Wonder Years depicted the childhood of baby boomers in the most nostalgic terms, as Fred Savage's Kevin Arnold grew up in 1960s suburbia and learned about life from the girl next door, Winnie Cooper – played by future mathematician Danica McKellar. 

62

‘Sex and the City’

1998-2004
Or The Golden Girls: The Early Years. This shoe-porn Manhattan fantasy was ubiquitous, to the point where Jay Z could rap that Beyoncé wouldn't talk to him when Sex and the City was on. Nothing could stop fans from feeling the Carrie fever, as Sarah Jessica Parker and her clique – Cynthia Nixon, Kristin Davis, Kim Cattrall – date, shop and quip their way through a borough full of rich straight guys, eventually realizing their only true soulmates are one another. And maybe also Manolo Blahnik. 

61

‘Your Show of Shows’

1950-57
Sid Caesar perfected the sketch-comedy format in the Fifties, with legends like Carl Reiner and Imogene Coca. When Nanette Fabray replaced Coca in 1954, the title changed to Caesar's Hour, but the spirit remained the same. His writers' room broke in hungry young rookies like Mel Brooks, Neil Simon and Woody Allen. Flights like the 1955 opera Gallipacci still look fresh – especially when the manic Caesar whimpers "Just One of Those Things," in clown drag, blubbering in pure faux-Italian gibberish. Indescribably moving, not to mention seriously fucked up. 

60

‘Beavis and Butt-Head’

1993-97, 2011
Mike Judge captured the spirit of American adolescence, epitomized by two cartoon butt-munches who live for metal, nachos and breakin' the law (or at least putting poodles in the washing machine). It was liberating how cheap and crummy the animation looked, compared with the sophisticated rococo of The Simpsons or Ren & Stimpy, but Beavis and Butt-Head spoke their own kind of trash poetry, whether they were heckling MTV ("Stop in the name of all which does not suck!") or looking for wholesome fun: "This sucks. Let's go over to Stewart's house and burn something." And they hung with Daria, who got her own classic show. Kids, do try this at home.

59

‘Hill Street Blues’

1981-87
A police show too adult to ever get much traction in the ratings but cherished at a time when network dramas were the pits. These cops were troubled people dealing with moral conflicts, urban corruption and their messy personal lives. Precinct captain Frank Furillo (Daniel J. Travanti) and public defender Joyce Davenport (Veronica Hamel) were secretly an item after hours – it was racy stuff in the Eighties to show an unmarried couple who liked to share a bathtub. So many landmark dramas came out of this precinct – the writers included everyone from Law & Order's Dick Wolf to Deadwood's David Milch, not to mention producer Steve Bochco. 

58

‘Roots’

1977
Roots ran for only eight episodes, but it changed the way America saw its own history – the topic of slavery was an unspeakable taboo in U.S. culture until this miniseries brought the horrifying details to life. Roots set ratings records in January 1977 – a 100 million Americans tuned in live as it followed Alex Haley's family history from Africa to the slave ship to the plantation, without any attempt to water down the violence for mainstream appeal. 

57

‘Fawlty Towers’

1975-79
John Cleese based this most horrible of hotel owners on a resort where the Monty Python gang once stayed. Basil Fawlty is the nastiest piece of work Cleese has ever played – one of his most famous scenes features him snarling at a nun. But nobody infuriates him like his customers, especially the one inconsiderate enough to die in his room. "It does actually say 'hotel' outside, you know. Perhaps I should be more specific: 'Hotel for people who have a better than 50 percent chance of making it through the night.'" 

56

’24’

2001-10
Can Agent Jack Bauer save our nation? This adrenaline thriller starred Kiefer Sutherland as the Counter Terrorism Unit's most lethal weapon, leaving no principle of civil liberties unviolated in a cloud of ass-kicking and CGI effects. It also had that innovative real-time structure, each season another 24-hour crisis point and each episode another hour of Jack racing the clock. 

55

‘Six Feet Under’

2001-05
A California family with a funeral home to run – which means that mortality and grief are never far from anyone's mind. Every episode of Six Feet Under opened with a disturbing (or comic, or both) death scene. Alan Ball's dark yet tender HBO drama explored new terrain, and the closing episodes helped innovate the idea that a series finale should be an artistic epitaph, rather than just a death rattle. 

54

‘The Muppet Show’

1976-81
Jim Henson's Muppets became a global phenomenon in the 1970s – a hit only Statler and Waldorf could hate, starring Kermit, the Great Gonzo, the Tom Waits-esque piano dog Rowlf, the Swedish Chef, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and everybody's favorite, Beaker. (Meeeep!) The jokes were nonstop corn – "Fozzie, what are you carrying that fish for?" "Oh, just for the halibut" – with one-shot guests like Marvin Suggs and His All-Food Glee Club. Full of unforgettable music moments too, like Elton John doing "Crocodile Rock" with a choir of gators or Animal mangling the drums to "Wild Thing." Thanks to these characters, the gentle hippie spirit of Henson lives on forever. Play us out, Animal.