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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. 

15

‘The West Wing’

1999-2006
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. 

14

‘The Larry Sanders Show’

1992-98
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. 

13

‘Late Night With David Letterman’

1982-2015
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. 

12

‘Game of Thrones’

2011-Present
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."

11

‘Freaks and Geeks’

1999-2000
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. 

10

‘The Daily Show’

1996-Present
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. 

9

‘All in the Family’

1971-79
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.

8

‘Saturday Night Live’

1975-Present
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. 

7

‘The Twilight Zone’

1959-64
"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. 

6

‘The Simpsons’

1989-Present
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."