Pop Thruster was founded on the idea of doing wildly subjective ranked lists related to pop culture (see most prominently: the best 1,000 albums ever and why I embarked on such a ludicrous project if you’re interested).
This is the second iteration of the best 100 TV shows ever, updated for 2023. There are four new TV shows that made the cut this year. Since I’m a one person judge, jury, and awards committee, by design there are tons of things I’ve not seen (nor seen enough of), so please go nuts in the comments with the television shows that should be on this list, ranked differently, or whatever else is on your mind!
The Best 100 TV Shows Ever – 2023 Edition
#1 – The Sopranos
As a Long Island native, I have a bias toward tri-state area-based stories (and Northern New Jersey and Long Island have a specific, cultural kinship). I also have a bias towards outstanding crime dramas (see: Goodfellas is far and away my favorite movie of all time). That being said, The Sopranos is the best television show of all time. And all due respect to the other shows on this list, but it ain’t even close. Also: James Gandolfini’s performance as Tony Soprano is the single best in TV history.
#2 – Mad Men
The greatest character-driven TV show of all time. On one level, Mad Men is about Don Draper (Jon Hamm): who is this guy is a question the audience first asks and, over time, one that the character (sometimes known as Dick Whitman) must also wrangle with. On another level it’s the story of Peggy and Joan and Betty, three women who evolve much over the course of the series. And on still another level, it’s about the advertising industry, New York City, and a rapidly changing nation and culture over the course of the 1960s.
#3 – Succession
Succession is chock full of “unlikable” characters and yet we’re deeply compelled to care about them and can’t wait to see what they’ll do next. Perhaps only rivaled by The Sopranos, it’s the funniest drama of all time. And Succession is a ruthless satire of hyper-capitalism and Trump era plutocracy. Also: in a talented cast (and I mean talented), Brian Cox’ portrayal of patriarch Logan Roy is an all timer. Sails out, nails out.
Update: The final season landed the plane, you might say: brilliant, dark, hilarious, crushing, and entirely satisfying.
#4 – Better Call Saul
So it’s like this: Better Call Saul is very close to the best crime drama of all time as well as the single best legal drama of all time. At the same time. It does this while fleshing out and expanding the universe first introduced to us in Breaking Bad. Bob Odenkirk is fantastic as Jimmy/Saul and it’s always a pleasure to spend time with Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks), but it’s Rhea Seehorn’s portrayal as Kim Wexler that helps to push this show into the TV pantheon.
#5 – The Wire
The Wire is a searing indictment of systemic failures by our government, police departments, educational systems, and media to help people in poverty stricken, drug-infested neighborhoods. It is that. But the trick – the extraordinary trick – is that it’s wrapped in a hypnotically watchable and blazingly entertaining story of Baltimore cops, drug dealers, and government officials. It’s all in the game. Bonus: Michael K. Williams as Omar Little alone is worth the price of admission.
#6 – Breaking Bad
A high school chemistry teacher gets lung cancer and decides to cook and sell methamphetamines to make some cash for his family? Little did we know that series creator Vince Gilligan had crafted a masterpiece in crime fiction storytelling, featuring a fascinating and complex performance by Bryan Cranston as Walter White, heretofore known mostly as the goofy dad from Malcolm in the Middle.
#7 – Atlanta
A show so good that it gets to be whatever it wants to be from episode-to-episode – comedy, drama, horror, numerous episodes don’t involve the main cast at all, let alone take place in the city of Atlanta! – and comes away all the more engrossing and mind blowing for it. Series creator and star Donald Glover set out to pull off an important show (Atlanta has a lot to say about race, for example) and do it his own way, and completely pulled it off. Bonus: Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred/Paper Boi and LaKeith Stanfield as Darius are superstars.
Update: the large dose of anthology-esque episodes over the second half of the series could be jarring at times, Atlanta’s final season is an absolute triumph, cementing the show’s legacy as all time Top 10 circa 2023.
#8 – Band of Brothers
To this day, I re-watch Band of Brothers every 18-24 months and am completely engaged, riveted, and moved by it every single time. It is history come to life, it’s powerful, and it’s endlessly entertaining.
#9 – Party Down
Two perfect seasons of comedy…. were not at all ruined by a triumphant return in 2023! This troupe of wannabe entertainers and couldn’t care less catering staffers remains the flat out funniest TV show I’ve ever seen. Part of the genius is in how Party Down moves the action to a different party (young Republicans, Armenian mob, NFL draft party, attempted sex orgy, and so on) with each episode.
#10 – Barry
So a contract killer decides his true calling is… to be an actor. Barry is a hilarious show that can also be bleak and even raw, with impeccable direction and action sequences that rival the best ever done on television. A still-in-progress masterpiece from star and show creator Bill Hader. Bonus: NoHo Hank (Anthony Carrigan) is one of the great – strange, funny, wonderful – characters on all of television.
Update: Barry’s final season completed Bill Hader’s ultimately bleak and dark vision masterfully, but I must admit that I missed the larger doses of levity and satire that we saw in the earlier seasons.
#11 – Station Eleven
A simply astonishing limited series. There’s never been anything remotely like it. Deeply moving, mesmerizing, entrancing. If there had been another season or two, Station Eleven could easily move into the Top 10.
#12 – Deadwood
The best western in TV history, we get to see the town of Deadwood, South Dakota grow while responding to violent forces (both within and without) and, more than anything, modernity itself. Series creator David Milch leveraged unique dialog that was both bracingly low brow (read = lots of the old “f word” cast about in all kinds of colorful ways) and almost Shakespearean at the same time. Ian McShane as Al Swearengen is one of the more captivating characters of all time. Bonus: while there only three seasons, a rather good follow up movie was finally released 13 years later.
#13 – Buffy the Vampire Slayer
The first of a number of shows on this list where we’re forced to separate what we now know about the series creator (Joss Whedon in this case… who also created Firefly, #25 below), Buffy is a wild genre mashup of horror, action, comedy, and teen drama that’s at its best when the supernatural Big Bads that heroine Buffy (Sarah Michelle Geller) and the “Scooby Gang” face mirror the everyday trials and tribulations of high school life. That’s what living on top of a hellmouth will do for you.
#14 – Game of Thrones
The final season had its issues, no doubt. But it doesn’t take away from the astounding achievement of creating a fantasy world that feels grounded, gritty, and real, packed with dozens of compelling characters. Bonus: prequel House of the Dragon is really good in the early going.
#15 – Saturday Night Live
It can’t be stated too much how important Saturday Night Live has been for American pop culture, and it’s still kicking while on its way toward a half-century run. The classic bits are countless, the stars that emerged from SNL far too many to number. For me, the best sketches are often the strangest and most experimental, the ones that barely made the cut and air around 12:53 a.m. Also: and that doesn’t even get into the musical performances!
#16 – Black Mirror
Black Mirror proudly stands on the shoulders of The Twilight Zone, and then pushes things (fast) forward with sinister, fully realized anthology installments playing out what the worst implications of our obsession with technology might look like. That said, some of its very best episodes (“San Junipero” and “Hang the DJ”) are much lighter in approach. Bonus: Jon Hamm’s performance in the spectacular and dark “White Christmas” episode is his very best save for Don Draper.
Update: While there were a few standout episodes in Season 6 such as “Joan Is Awful” and “Demon 79,” the last few seasons have been lackluster (see: “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too”).
#17 – Monty Python’s Flying Circus
Helped fundamentally shape my sense of humor. For both Monty Python and The Twilight Zone, I’d look forward to the occasional overnight marathons they’d run on Channel 11 (WPIX) in New York and try to stay up as late as I could possibly get away with. Bonus: to this day I have beautiful plumage.
#18 – The Kids in the Hall
These five “kids” from Canada produced more memorable sketches with more quotable punch lines and weirdo non sequiturs (I’m crushing your head! Lopez! You want a mortician! The goddess of compensation! I’m the king of the…) than any other show in TV history… if you ask a focus group that consists of my close friends from high school.
Update: The Kids returned after decades of being away, this time on Amazon Prime, and they’re in fine a form as ever. Dave Foley’s stint as a radio DJ broadcasting from a bunker to an audience of zero during the apocalypse is as hilarious and perfectly executed a comedy sketch as you’ll ever see. “You got a brand new key,” indeed.
#19 – The White Lotus (NEW!)
It took me a little while to click into the frequency of this exquisitely written (by Mike White of Enlightened fame) anthology show during its first season. But once I did, I understood how remarkable this satire is. The first season, shot in and around a resort in Maui and focused on class and race, is very good. The second season moves to a hotel (The White Lotus, of course) in Sicily, and is brilliant in spotlighting sex and romance (and a murder most foul!).
#20- South Park
Like The Simpsons, South Park is a consistently hilarious animated show that has had unreal longevity (25 seasons and counting as of this writing). Whereas The Simpsons hues mostly toward being a family-oriented comedy, South Park has no such concerns. Instead, its satire is a howitzer poised to blast any and all subjects and taboos that fall under its Sauron-like eye. Just ask Kenny if you have any questions.
#21 – The Twilight Zone
Deeply influential and many years ahead of its time, this science fiction anthology show would at times tuck morality lessons into its storytelling, and at others would simply seek to shock or entertain with ingenious twists and plot turns. Bonus: I always loved the cryptic little introductions that show creator Rod Serling (who, as aside, hails from my college town of Binghamton, New York) would do, modeled on Alfred Hitchcock Presents.
#22 – We Own This City
As with The Wire before it, this limited series is a crime drama set in Baltimore, Maryland (David Simon co-created both series). The focus this time, based on a true story, is corrupt cops, and namely Sergeant Wayne Jenkins (an electric performance by Jon Bernthal). In some ways, We Own This City forms a scathing coda to The Wire, signaling that the systemic problems highlighted by that groundbreaking series have only gotten worse over the years.
#23 – The Shield
What people tend to forget about The Shield is that while a good chunk of the show is about deeply corrupt cops (lead by Michael Chiklis, in a truly outstanding performance as Detective Vic Mackey), there’s also a lot of time spent with ethical, hard-working cops – primarily Jay Karnes as “Dutch” Wagenbach and CCH Pounder as Claudette Wyms – trying to do the right thing. Overall, though, The Shield never loses sight of the original sin committed by the Strike Team in the pilot episode.
#24 – Community
It’s streets ahead. If you have to ask, you’re streets behind. Also: it’s poised to finally get the movie to fulfil the prophecy of “six seasons and a…”
#25 – Togetherness
An absolute gem of a dramedy. The core cast – Mark Duplass, Melanie Lynskey, Steve Zissis, Amanda Peet – is perfect. Do I secretly want to be pals with Steve Zissis? Yes I do. Okay, it’s no longer a secret.
#26 – Parks and Recreation
Deploying the mockumentary style used by The Office franchise, Parks and Rec quickly stood out on its own thanks to a stellar cast, strong comedy writing, and exceptional world building in fictional Pawnee, Indiana that’s only rivaled by The Simpsons. Also: few shows can boast both iconic characters (see: Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson) and all timer catch phrases (“Treat yo self!”) and bits (snake juice!).
#27 – Firefly
One brilliant, solitary, poorly marketed season (and a pretty good follow up movie) was what we got, but we’re grateful for it nonetheless. Throw away what we now know about Joss Whedon: Firefly represents his genre bending vision at its television peak, a fabulous sci fi western replete with quirky characters and snappy dialog. Fellow browncoats, I hope you feel represented here.
#28 – 30 Rock
Creator, star, and SNL alum Tina Fey brings us the perfect distillation of her absurdly funny worldview while skewering the madness of writing and producing a live comedy show on a corporate broadcast network. Also: Alec Baldwin as Jack Donaghy gives one of the very best comedic TV performances of all time.
#29 – Halt and Catch Fire
Captures the excitement, obsession, drama, joy, and turmoil of working in technology (in the 1980s and early 1990s, in this case) like no show has ever done before.
#30 – Friday Night Lights
A solidly good movie about high school football and life in small town Texas spawns a great TV show with the same premise. The kids are fantastic (including future A List stars that include Jesse Plemons and Michael B. Jordan) but the core of the show is the relationship between Coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and wife Tami (Connie Britton), both of whom are spectacular. Clear eyes, full heart, can’t lose.
#31 – Workaholics
Don’t let the bongs, keg stands, and Tour de Franzia fool you: Workaholics is one of the smartest comedies to play dumb while taking on the malaise and drudgery of post-collegiate office drone life. Those who know are true brajs 4 real.
#32 – The Daily Show with Jon Stewart
Jon Stewart took the SNL Weekend Update-meets-celebrity talk show format and transformed it into a potent, precision laser gun of satiric firepower aimed at the absurdity of modern political culture and the hypocrisy of a conservative media ecosystem – lead by FOX News – that openly dispenses propaganda and disinformation. And importantly, the hilarity always came first, the message second. Bonus: the huge number of future stars who worked on the show include Steve Carell, Stephen Colbert, John Oliver, Samantha Bee, and hosting successor Trevor Noah.
#33 – Freaks and Geeks
It never fails to astound me that this magnificent dramedy, about growing up from the perspective of the “freaks” and “geeks” we can all relate to, was canceled after a single season. It’s also possible that you might have heard of some of the people associated with the show: Judd Apatow, Seth Rogen, Linda Cardellini, Jason Segel, James Franco, Martin Starr, and Busy Philipps just for starters.
#34 – The Office (UK)
It’s easy to forget how groundbreaking and influential this show is (see: The Office, US edition and Parks & Recreation for starters) in terms of its mocumentary-style approach to the sitcom. But add in one of the most cringe-larious performances of all time in Ricky Gervais’ David Brent, leavened perfectly and wonderfully by the budding will they/won’t they romance between Martin Freeman’s Tim and Lucy Davis’ Dawn.
#35 – The Larry Sanders Show
Before there was 30 Rock, there was this caustically hilarious show about the behind-the-scenes of a late-night talk show. Garry Shandling as the put upon, egotistical Sanders is brilliant, but I always felt the true magic was in the supporting cast, including suck up sidekick Hank “Hey now!” Kingsley (Jeffrey Tambor who… yes, another #metoo situation here) and scheming producer Artie (Rip Torn).
#36 – Seinfeld
The sitcom famously about “nothing” is in reality a hypersmart show that fixates on everyday gripes, resentments, fixations, and obsessions in an outrageously funny way. The perfect collective brainchild of Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, it was also the showcase for the huge comedic talents of Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Jason Alexander, and Michael Richards along with a menagerie of side characters (such as the extraordinary Jerry Stiller as Frank Costanza).
#37 – Dave
A comedy show about the antics of a wannabe rapper (who happens to be white) and his crew in LA sounds a bit like an Entourage derivative on its surface. Don’t be fooled: show co-creator, real life rapper (spoiler: he’s exceptionally talented, which really helps), and star Dave Burd aka Lil Dickey has crafted a truly funny and sublimely satirical take on the entertainment industry. More than anything, the core cast is incredible and it’s super fun to hang with the crew and even follow them – and particularly the artist and actor known as GaTa – on side adventures.
Update: we’re now three seasons into Dave, and each one has leveled up from the previous one. I could not love this show more.
#38 – Lovesick
The exceedingly rare romcom where the romance works equally as well as the comedy. That’s to say Lovesick is consistently hilarious and completely charming and compelling all at once. And so much of that has to do with its winning cast, headed by Johnny Flynn as Dylan and Antonia Thomas as Evie. Also: Daniel Ings as Luke pulls off one of the funniest performances in television history.
#39 – Rome
One of HBO’s biggest errors was canceling Rome after its second season. Both seasons are tremendous, bursting not only with history but tremendous characters as well. James Purefoy was particularly great as Mark Antony, as was Polly Walker as Atia of the Julii.
#40 – Key & Peele
Inventive, ecstatically absurd, and even bizarre in the best kind of way, Key & Peele thrived due to how versatile – and how willing to play characters who are silly and/or stupid and/or creepy – Keegan-Michael Key and now A List director Jordan Peele are as performers. And that versatility extended to the material as well, which covered everyday topics such as late-night binge eating as well as larger questions of race, politics, and culture. Most importantly: it was all hilarious.
#41 – The Good Place
A cheerful, delightfully funny, slightly demented seminar on philosophy and the meaning of life. Well… that’s not quite true but close enough to give a sense of this refreshingly unique comedy from Michael Schur that takes place… not quite on this plane of existence. The entire cast, lead by Kristen Bell and Ted Danson, crushes but my personal faves include Manny Jacinto and D’Arcy Carden.
#42 – Downton Abbey
Part historical drama, part upstairs/downstairs look at a fictional English estate during a time of convulsive change in the early 20th Century (pre-World War I through the Roaring Twenties), Downton Abbey works because it focuses on fleshing out every one of its characters, from the genteel Earl of Grantham (Hugh Bonneville) to the relatively low of station Daisy (Sophie McShera). Bonus: every scene featuring the Dowager Countess (Maggie Smith) never fails to delight.
#43 – Arrested Development
Boasting an unfairly talented comedy cast that includes Jason Bateman, Jessica Walter, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, David Cross, and a young Michael Cera (and don’t forget Ron Howard’s narration!), Arrested Development is the perfect satire and skewering (excluding its latter Netflix run) of those with inherited wealth during the George W. Bush years. And let’s all remember: there’s always money in the banana stand.
#44 – The Simpsons
Thirty-four seasons and counting. “Don’t have a cow, man!” t-shirts were a trend that predates the birth of some of you reading these words. A vast world of memorable, distinctive characters (rando examples: Disco Stu! Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel! Groundskeeper Willie!) making up the city of Springfield. Decades of tremendous comedy writing, general mayhem, vocal performances, and hilarity.
#45 – All in the Family
A legitimately “important” sitcom that was also legitimately hilarious, this Norman Lear series pulled off the amazing feat of featuring a bigoted, grouchy, argumentative central figure named Archie Bunker (pulled off wonderfully by Carroll O’Connor) who hilariously gets his comeuppance at the hands of his family (played by Jean Stapleton, Sally Struthers, and Rob Reiner famously as liberal son-in-law “Meathead”) and others (such as Sherman Helmsley’s George Jefferson, who would go on to become the center of a pretty great sitcom of his own). They broke the mold with this one.
#46 – BoJack Horseman
Nothing about BoJack Horseman should work – for starters, it’s an animated show about a depressed, alcoholic horse who’s a former sitcom star – but it miraculously does as both drama and comedy.
#47 – The West Wing
Series creator Alan Sorkin is at his television peak (with honorable mention to Sports Night for being quite good) with this fictional inside look at hard working, fundamentally decent White House staffers and the president they serve (Martin Sheen is phenomenal playing President Jed Bartlet). The West Wing might seem largely like fantasy by today’s cynical, beaten down standards, but that might make iteven more important than ever. Bonus: the fabulous end game involving a presidential election involving characters from opposing parties played by TV legends Alan Alda and Jimmy Smits.
#48 – Curb Your Enthusiasm
Post-Seinfeld, Larry David gets in front of the camera to execute his vision of a largely improvised show about a wealthy and curmudgeonly guy (Larry really playing himself in many respects) who created a hit sitcom once upon a time. The genius is in Larry David and company’s ability to mine hilarity out of the struggle to overcome modernity’s little indignities, slights, and challenges (both real and perceived). Pretty, pretty, pretty good.
#49 – Late Night with David Letterman
It’s funny: when Letterman “graduated” to the coveted 11:30 p.m. slot in 1993 with the premiere of Late Show with David Letterman on CBS, I distinctly had the feeling that I was watching the part of the Wayne’s World movie where their formally low budget yet hip and hilarious basement-set show has turned into a watered down, less funny, and corporate something else. That’s somewhat overblown of course, but relays how inventive, hilarious, and flat out wacky Late Night with David Letterman could be throughout its hugely influential run from 1982 to 1993.
#50 – The Americans
This chilly-as-ice Cold War drama about Soviet sleeper agents living among us in the good old United States circa the early 1980s becomes riveting based on the performances of Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as the (arranged) married couple/spies at the center of the story. Bonus: the costumes, makeup, and wigs departments work overtime making the spies look like different people over many escapades and tight scrapes.
#51 – The Crown
The Crown shows us the incredible sweep of 20th Century history from the perspective of the British royal family and, specifically, Queen Elizabeth II, who recently passed away in “real life” at the age of 96. The most recent season as of this writing, featuring the relationship and early married years of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer (later the Princess of Wales), was its best yet: sad, moving, and utterly captivating.
#52 – Love
One of Judd Apatow’s all time great romcom achievements. Both Paul Rust (who also co-created and wrote for the show) and Gillian Jacobs are tremendous in it and I can watch it endlessly.
#53 – The Office (US)
What could have easily been a watered-down clone of the brilliant UK original (see: #33 above) instead flourished into its own hilarious and charming entity, and amazingly cranked out 201 episodes (versus a mere 14 for David Brent and crew!). While the latter seasons weren’t great (ending the show with Steve Carell’s departure would have been best, in retrospect), there’s a special chemistry that The Office, US edition, boasted during its lengthy peak. Long live Dunder-Mifflin.
#54- Tenacious D
Whereupon the music and comedic tales of Jables and Rage Kage (that’d be Jack Black and Kyle Gass, respectively) were unleashed upon the world. And it was good.
#55 – House of Lies
House of Lies is a dramedy that always worked slightly better as comedy than drama. But the comedy is cutting, deeply hilarious, and priceless. And what a cast, lead by Don Cheadle, Kristen Bell, and Ben Schwartz.
#56 – Fargo
Another of those, “There’s no way this should have worked…” but Fargo the TV show totally does. A series based on the world created (sort of?) by the classic Coen brothers film, this is a dark, quirky, violent, and even occasionally experimental television show with different tales told each season. When it’s firing on all cylinders, such as during its extraordinary second season, there’s nothing on television like it.
#57 – Moonlighting
Arguably one of the very best TV shows that many people – particularly those younger than 35 or so – aren’t familiar with. The reason is entirely because Moonlighting is simply not available to stream or view anywhere. Let’s hope that changes (and there are very recent rumblings that it might!), because it’s a dynamite and highly unusual show (especially by 1980s standards!) featuring great performances and off-the-charts chemistry between Cybill Shepard’s Maddie Hayes and Bruce Willis’ David Addison.
#58 – American Crime Story
As of this writing, this anthology series has had three editions, each telling its own captivating story while expertly showcasing a slice of recent American history. While The People vs. O.J. Simpson is clearly the best installment – and a brilliant one at that – The Assassination of Gianni Versace and Impeachment (that would be Bill Clinton’s impeachment, though it’s largely the story of Monica Lewinsky from her own perspective) are also must watch seasons in my book.
#59 – Catastrophe
A consistently filthy and hilarious romcom focused mainly on the oddball couple played by Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney (both of whom created and wrote the series). And they’re both fantastic, though Mark Bonnar’s Chris steals every scene he’s in.
#60 – What We Do in the Shadows
This tale of vampires ensconced in the wilds of Staten Island, New York is consistently and unfailingly funny. If you haven’t seen it yet, get familiar.
#61 – Friends
With brilliant casting and great comedy writing and performances over a lengthy haul (10 seasons!), Friends has endured for all of those reasons and, perhaps most of all, because it’s become a comforting binge watch show. Could I be any more clear?
Update: while travelling in Australia with my wife, Friends was on TV every night and became our winddown show.
#62 – Banshee
Wall-to-wall pulp action that’s both exceptionally well executed and comes with real stakes for characters you come to care about. Super violent and super fun if this speed suits your calibrations. Welcome to Banshee, Pennsylvania.
#63 – SCTV
Likely the best sketch comedy show that most Americans aren’t aware of, this Canadian series boasted a huge array of funny and memorable sketches – all under the brilliant conceit that it’s programming from a local TV station – before sending off most of its cast to have huge careers on TV and film, including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Rick Moranis, and John Candy. Bonus: Candy’s “Dr. Tongue’s 3D House of Cats” (as part of Monster Chiller Horror Theater, of course) is one of my favorite things ever.
#64 – Dead Like Me
A hilarious, strange, and even poignant show about grim reapers? Yes please. (Not to be confused with Reaper, a show I also like tremendously.) And then add Mandy Patinkin playing Rube, the grumpy head reaper of sorts, and… just watch it if you missed it during its early 2000s Showtime run.
#65 – The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson
When I was a kid in the 1980s, The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson was an unshakable foundation of American pop culture. It’s amazing that Carson started hosting the show during the Kennedy Administration, and by the time he retired in 1992, Bill Clinton was wrapping up the Democratic nomination for president. To this day, all late-night show hosts base what they do on Carson in some fundamental way.
#66 – Wonderfalls
Truly one of the best television shows of all time that hardly anyone has seen. Co-created by Bryan Fuller (also see: Hannibal, Pushing Daisies, Heroes, and Dead Like Me) and starring Caroline Dhavernas, Wonderfalls is an ultra-charming, quirky, and funny show in which supernatural stuff starts happening (maybe?)… and that’s it. Canceled after one season, can you believe it! Still, what we got is full on, dare I say it, wonderful.
#67 – Star Trek: The Next Generation
The initial spin-off of the now expansive Star Trek universe, this one surpasses the original in certain respects. Some of that is due to its high quality over the long haul (178 episodes over seven seasons), and some has to do with its cast, and especially Patrick Stewart’s performance as Captain Jean-Luc Picard, who rivals the iconic Captain Kirk (William Shatner) himself. Make it so.
#68 – Jersey Shore
I mention in The Sopranos entry that I’m a Long Island native and that Jersey and Long Island (homeland of JWoww!) have a cultural kinship. Therefore, I believe I’m qualified to say that Jersey Shore is a show that can be laughed at and laughed with in equal measure. Seriously, it’s a laugh riot of a reality show.
Update: I was astounded to realize recently that the “Family Vacation” iteration of Jersey Shore has produced roughly twice as many episodes as the original version at this point. It doesn’t have quite the edge and spice of the early years, but it’s still quite enjoyable.
#69 – Lost
I’ll set aside my enormous issues with the series finale here. The rest of it is just so good, so intriguing and weird and compelling.
#70 – Sex and the City
Carrie. Samantha. Charlotte. Miranda. Romantic entanglements and other shenanigans. Fabulous New York City locations. Peak Cocktail Hour and/or Peak Brunch. Bonuses: super well written and genuinely funny.
#71 – Six Feet Under
A drama about a family that loses their father (played by Richard Jenkins, who continues to hang around as a… presence throughout) and then needs to work together to run a funeral home doesn’t sound that appealing on paper, but it all works due to the deep humanity (life?) breathed into each character by creator Alan Ball and a great cast that includes Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Peter Kruse, and Lauren Ambrose. Also helps that it boasts one of the best series finales of all time.
#72 – Star Trek
The one that started it all. Star Trek can be overly earnest and the late ‘60s low budget science fiction special effects laughable at times, but it all works because of the cast, the writing, and perhaps most of all an underlying philosophy – deeply held by show creator Gene Roddenberry – that humanity is ultimately a force for good.
#73 – Hannibal
This is by far the freakiest show on this list, and yet Hannibal is also a drama of compelling artistry and sophistication, both in terms of its high quality storytelling and its unusual and stunning visual aesthetic. And even more miraculous is the fact that Hannibal aired on a broadcast network (NBC). Worth watching for Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as the titular character alone.
#74 – Below Deck
I enjoy this reality show in different ways: the upstairs/downstairs dynamic of going behind-the-scenes on super yacht excursions that cost something like $100,000 for a three-day outing, the inevitable squabbles and romances that take place among the crew, or simply kicking back and enjoying the dazzling scenery in the Caribbean. And don’t forget the spin-offs that include Below Deck Mediterranean and Below Deck Sailing Yacht.
#75 – Survivor
The reality series that started it all – and it’s still going strong, 42 seasons in as of this writing if you can believe it. A relatively simple premise – don’t get kicked off the island – has endlessly fascinating permutations involving different personalities, physical attributes, schemes, backstabs, and no joke determination when things really get real out in the jungle. Outwit, outlast, and outplay, indeed.
#76 – The Dropout (NEW!)
A spate of based on a true story “rise and fall” limited series – including Invented Anna, WeCrashed, and Super Pumped – came out around the same time. The Dropout, the story of disgraced Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes, is far and away the best of the bunch. Amanda Seyfried’s portrayal of the… quirky Holmes is spot on, and importantly the show never forgets to be entertaining.
#77 – The X-Files
The X-Files excelled because of its mixture of procedural horror/sci-fi “monsters of the week” with episodes that probed a deeper, underlying mythology. Most of all, though, it’s the on-screen chemistry between Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) that kept us coming back for more.
#78 – The Leftovers
The Leftovers is a strange, moving, and sometimes uncomfortable meditation on grief that is also a three-season long thought experiment on the topic of, “How blanking off the rails would the world go if suddenly exactly two percent of the population simply vanished? Poof.” It’s a lot. I have deep respect and admiration for what The Leftovers accomplished, but don’t necessarily feel the need to revisit it anytime soon.
#79 – Girls
There have been endless think pieces written about Girls, many of which neglect to point out that at its best, it’s really funny and compelling. I still don’t believe that Lena Dunham gets enough credit for both the edgy (and at times uncomfortable) material Girls gets into and for her own remarkable performance. Bonus: Girls helped launch Adam Driver to megastar-dom.
#80 – Californication
Fun, raunchy, smart, and deceptively dramatic when it wants to be, Californication is a tour de force for David Duchovny. That said, the entire cast is simply outstanding, including Pamela Adlon (who would go onto helm the pretty great Better Things).
#81 – The Night Of
Part cautionary tale, part character study, and part psychological thriller, this harrowing, deeply compelling limited series keeps you guessing while showcasing the many failings of the criminal justice system. Riz Ahmed is lights out good as main character Naz Khan.
#82 – Chappelle’s Show
There was a time when Dave Chappelle was a revered stand-up comic but not a household name (and a controversial, at that). The ludicrous and often razor-sharp satire of Chappelle’s Show launched Chappelle to superstardom over a few short years and just 28 total episodes. Then, at its zenith of popularity in 2005, Chappelle famously quit during the filming of the third season and walked away from tens of millions of dollars. The show we got to see stands with the great sketch comedy shows of all time.
#83 – Boardwalk Empire
Part period piece prestige drama, part gangster show, there was sometimes a sense that the many great parts didn’t quite build into a greater whole. But there were many high highs, particularly relating to character arcs focused on supporting characters among Boardwalk Empire’s large, talented cast. Examples include Michael K. Williams as Chalky White, Gillian Darmody as Gretchen Mol, and especially Jack Huston’s astonishing performance as disfigured World War I veteran Richard Harrow.
#84 – The Deuce
The Deuce excels because on top of being a compelling and entertaining portrait of the birth of the porn industry, it’s a snapshot of a rapidly evolving New York City from the early 1970s through the mid-1980s.
#85 – Mr. Show with Bob and David
Bizarre, hilarious, and at times experimental sketch comedy featuring Bob Odenkirk and David Cross –both of whom also show up on other series on this list (Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul for Odenkirk, Arrested Development for Cross).
#86 – I Love Lucy
Along with The Honeymooners, this show ran in syndication for many years late at night when I was a kid. It’s consistently funny, and Lucille Ball is tremendous.
#87 – It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
A silly, savage, edgy comedy set in Paddy’s Pub in South Philadelphia, this little sitcom that could is unbelievably heading into its 16th season as of this writing.
#88 – NewsRadio
The insanely great cast (Dave Foley, Stephen Root, Phil Hartman, Andy Dick, Maura Tierney!… okay, and Joe Rogan) was given the freedom from creator Paul Simms to be truly wacky and hilarious within the confines of a multi-camera sitcom.
#89 – Justified
The perfect starring vehicle for Timothy Olyphant, who plays U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (a character originally created by legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard), Justified created a believable world – grounded but also with an abiding sense of fun – of family ties and criminal factions in rural Kentucky. Walton Goggins as Boyd Crowder emerges over time to become the ideal foil for Raylan’s stoic, not always simpatico with the rules cop. Bonus: Jere Burns stands out as the creepy, quirky Wynn Duffy.
#90 – The Last of Us (NEW!)
Based on an iconic video game that I had zero familiarity with, I was nonetheless stunned by how strong the storytelling, characters, and world building is in this show’s first season. Equally impressive is that in an era jam packed with zombie apocalypse TV shows and movies (also note: you’ll see no walking of the dead on this list, if you can dig), The Last of Us stands out as one of the very best. A critical key? Impressive restraint on how often we see the zombies. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to get back on my snack of cordyceps.
#91 – It’s Gary Shandling’s Show
Before Gary Shandling co-created and starred in the hilarious and influential The Larry Sanders Show… he co-created and starred in the hilarious and influential It’s Gary Shandling’s Show. Many years ahead of its time, it willingly broke the fourth wall (and no one can react to camera like Shandling), and then do hilariously goofy things to lean into the show’s obvious low budget.
#92 – Cheers
As rock solid and as durable as sitcoms come – with a cast of current and future megastars that’s too long to fit into the blurb-style entries you’re reading here – Cheers aired its series finale nearly 30 years ago as of this writing, and everyone still knows its name. L’chaim.
#93 – Oz
Shocking by any era’s standards, Oz blew my mind when it premiered on HBO in 1997. Oz is a dark – and sometimes unrelenting – prison drama that’s exceptionally well written and performed. Bonus: the cast is jam packed with great actors, including a pre-Sopranos Edie Falco.
#94 – Homeland
While many people seemingly tuned out after the storyline involving Nicholas Brody (the great Damian Lewis) resolved, Homeland found its sea legs for a great second act and was surprisingly consistent as a taut, well executed thriller over its eight seasons.
#95 – Patriot
Patriot’s first season is hilarious and strangely brilliant, operating on its own ultra-specific frequency. The second season… didn’t quite hold up, but as a whole it deserves a spot on the best 100 TV shows ever list. For it’s all about the structural dynamics of flow, you see.
#96 – Trust
A one-season (to date) anthology series that most people missed in the midst of the streaming edge, I was riveted by the unusual take on the true story of the kidnapping of John Paul Getty III, heir to the Getty Oil fortune, in early 1970s Italy (not to be confused with the movie that came out around the same time as the show in 2017, All the Money in the World). The atmosphere, striking direction, and breathtaking shots of the Italian countryside are worth the time alone.
#97 – The Rehearsal (NEW!)
Friends of mine revere what Nathan Fielder did with Nathan For You. I find that show to be impressive, but The Rehearsal is a massive leap forward in experimental non-scripted television: it’s a riveting, often hilarious, strange, and sometimes morally ambiguous show that has the potential to leap higher up this list in the years to come.
#98 – Taxi
Before Cheers, this was the show that showed what an ensemble multi-camera sitcom set in a workplace (a New York City cab company headquarters) could do. Great shows – and especially comedies – are based on great characters, and wow did this show have them, including Christopher Lloyd’s in the bleachers beyond left field Jim, Danny DeVito as gruff boss Louie, and avant-garde stand-up comedy legend Andy Kaufman as first-generation American Latka.
#99 – The Honeymooners
Along with I Love Lucy, this classic sitcom aired for many years on the late night on WPIX in New York. And because I watched everything I could get my eyes in front of while growing up, I was able to take in all of the antics of the grouchy but ultimately good natured New York City bus driver Ralph Kramden (played by the great Jackie Gleason), wife Alice (Alice Gibson), and best friends Ed and Trixie (Art Carney and Joyce Randolph).
#100 – The Prisoner
A surreal, weirdo, mystery trip of a series out of England from 1967. If any of that interests you, go find it and check it out. Just watch out for anyone trying to invite you to visit The Village.
There are hundreds of shows that I could note here, but for now I’ll honor those TV shows that were on the 2022 edition of the best 100 TV shows ever but got nudged out this time around.
I’m not typically a “hospital show” guy, but ER set the gold standard for medical dramas.
If you know anything about Louis C.K.’s admitted sexual misconduct, you’ll understand why I struggled with including Louie on this list. The fact remains though that in its day, Louie was both brilliant and groundbreaking, showing what an “auteur” (C.K. somehow managed to write, direct, edit, and star) can do on television with a modest budget. Later shows, ranging from Atlanta to Fleabag to Master of None to Barry, are influenced by Louie’s tonal range and confidence to be funny only precisely when it wanted to be.
The Odd Couple
Another sitcom that I grew up watching in syndication, and in my memory, it was on constantly. The Odd Couple is the prototypical old school sitcom and the prototypical old school New York City sitcom. But of course it only works because of how good Tony Randall is as the fastidious Felix Unger and Jack Klugman as the more slovenly Oscar Madison.
There’s a reason why this Korean-language series became an international phenomenon in 2021 via Netflix: Squid Game goes hard, pulling zero punches in depicting a brutal, literal life-and-death game played by 456 people who are financially desperate enough to play. And all the while the searing satire of capitalism gone beyond tilt is on point.