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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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17

‘Twin Peaks’

1990-91
"These girls are authentically dreamy," Twin Peaks auteur David Lynch told Rolling Stone in 1990. "They're all just boss chicks. And they're just jampacked with secrets." The small town of Twin Peaks is full of these women and their deadly secrets, from murdered high school homecoming queen Laura Palmer to alive-and-how seductress Audrey Horne. A few years after Blue Velvet, Lynch's surreal Pacific Northwest mystery followed Kyle MacLachlan as FBI agent Dale Cooper, on a quest for damn-good coffee as well as the solution to the murder of Palmer. 

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16

‘M*A*S*H’

1972-83
The Korean War show that lasted three times as long as the Korean War, taking off from the revolutionary 1970 Robert Altman comedy, as the doctors and nurses of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital wait for the next chopper with the next crop of wounded grunts requiring "meatball surgery." M*A*S*H began as a gritty comedy, with Alan Alda's Hawkeye and the rest of the staff trying to keep their sense of humor alive amid the daily carnage with booze, sex and hijinks. It evolved into a solemn (if sometimes preachy) meditation on the futility of war. The finale was seen by more than 120 million and remains one of the most-watched TV events of all time. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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. 

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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."

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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. 

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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. 

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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.

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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. 

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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. 

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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." 

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5

‘Seinfeld’

1989-98
The show about nothing that blew up into the great American comedy. Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer: four friends who happen to be horrible people, in a New York full of soup Nazis, close talkers, anti-dentites, sponge baths, astronaut pens and lobster bisque. Even at the time, everybody could tell Seinfeld was the funniest sitcom we'd ever witness, a week-to-week miracle. But no matter how many times you've double-dipped into all 180 episodes, they keep luring you back like pretzels making you thirsty. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David set the rules from the start – "No hugging, no learning." As Julia Louis-Dreyfus told Rolling Stone in 1998, "The reality is that these four characters are a pathetic group, and they should disassemble promptly. I mean, if you stand back from it and look at what happens every week, they do terrible things to one another. And yet they continue to hang out. It's sociopathic." Not that there's anything wrong with that. 

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4

‘Mad Men’

2007-15
The American dream and how to sell it – except for Don Draper and the hustlers of Sterling Cooper, selling is the American dream. Mad Men became a sensation as soon as it appeared, partly because of its glam surface – a New York ad agency in the JFK era, all sex and money and liquor and cigarettes – but mostly because it was an audaciously adult drama that wasn't about cops or robbers (or doctors or lawyers), staking out new storytelling territory. Jon Hamm's womanizing adman, Don, is a genius at shaping other people's dreams and fantasies, but he can't escape his own loneliness – he's a con man who stole the identity of a dead Korean War officer and built a new life out of lies. "A good advertising person is like an artist, channeling the culture," creator Matthew Weiner told Rolling Stone. "They're holding up a mirror saying, 'This is the way you wish you were. This is the thing you're afraid of.'" Don can reduce a room to tears pitching the Kodak Carousel, even though the happy family memories he's selling are a fraud. There was nothing on TV as seductive as Mad Men before – and years later, there still isn't.

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3

‘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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2

‘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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1

‘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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