A great TV show can become a dear part of your life like few movies or books are able to. You spend years — and countless hours — getting to know the characters better than you know most of your own friends. And when the series finally comes to an end, it feels like saying goodbye to someone you love.
While TV long had a reputation as the trashier younger sibling of cinema, in recent decades it has finally become seen as a truly legitimate artform, capable of telling the kinds of deeply involved stories that movies can’t. We looked back through TV history and found the absolute best shows to ever hit the airwaves, according to the reviews of critics and viewers, as well as Emmy wins and cultural impact.
To make it onto our list, a show had to have aired for at least five seasons and been a traditional, scripted series that follows a regular cast of characters.
30. ‘Shameless’ (2011-Present)
The longest-running series in Showtime’s history, “Shameless” has often been overlooked come awards season but it is beloved by critics and viewers. The show has won a total of three Emmys in 14 nominations for its nine seasons so far, but its average scores from viewers at IMDb (8.7 out of 10) and professional critics at Rotten Tomatoes (90% Fresh) over its long run prove how solid the series has been from the start.
“Shameless” is very funny but gives a stark look at what it’s like to live in poverty, as it follows an alcoholic single father who raises his six kids. William H. Macy has earned four Emmy nominations for his work as the show’s lead character, Frank Gallagher.
29. ‘Lost’ (2004-2010)
Among all the great TV shows that have debuted since 2000, ABC’s “Lost” qualifies among the most legendary. The show’s plot twists were so mind-blowing and unpredictable (a polar bear?) that it was a must-watch series during its run. In the early days of DVR, people didn’t dare watch “Lost” on a delay because they’d risk hearing some insane detail (spoiler!) on Monday morning.
It started out simply as a show about a bunch of people stranded on an island after a plane crash but then turned into something much more ambitious, mixing sci-fi and adventure. In addition to being a cultural phenomenon, “Lost” ended up winning 10 Emmys, including one for outstanding drama series.
28. ‘The Shield’ (2002-2008)
From its shocking first episode, FX’s “The Shield” broke the rules of the tired police genre by presenting its main character as a guy who had no problem murdering a fellow officer if it meant saving his own hide. For seven seasons, the series presented weekly cases that were hard-hitting with results that were often tough to stomach while constantly keeping the audience guessing as to whether LAPD detective Vic Mackey would ever pay for his own crimes.
Somehow, “The Shield” only won a single Emmy in its run — for lead actor Michael Chiklis’ strong portrayal of Mackey — but it earned near-unanimous praise from critics and audiences.
27. ‘Frasier’ (1993-2004)
The definition of an awards magnet, “Frasier” won 37 Emmys during its run (a record among all comedy series) out of a mind-blowing 107 nominations. Among those wins were a record-tying five in the category for outstanding comedy series. The show was a spin-off of “Cheers” and starred Kelsey Grammer as a psychiatrist who hosts a radio show and gives advice to callers.
The sitcom was consistently praised for its sharp writing and flawless acting, with Grammer and co-star David Hyde Pierce each earning four Emmys during the show’s run. It was just another of NBC’s top sitcoms during the network’s peak in the 1990s.
26. ‘Oz’ (1997-2003)
Debuting two years before “The Sopranos,” it’s safe to say that “Oz” was ahead of its time in announcing HBO as TV’s leading network for a new era of groundbreaking TV. This gritty series followed the inmates and employees inside a maximum-security prison called Oswald State Correctional Facility. The show’s cast of characters was massive over its six seasons and included fantastic actors like Edie Falco, Rita Moreno and J.K. Simmons, among many others.
Members of the Television Academy should probably do some time in Oz’s Emerald City for never nominating the show for outstanding drama series or giving it a single trophy in any category.
25. ‘The Office’ (2005-2013)
Britain’s version of “The Office” came first and broke immeasurable ground with its faux-documentary style but America’s version of the series was an even bigger hit. The show followed the daily lives of employees at a paper company in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The cast was full of oddballs and all the actors seemed destined for their roles, especially Steve Carell, who starred as the bumbling boss, Michael Scott.
The series was a huge hit for NBC in the post-“Friends” boom days and it racked up 42 Emmy nominations, winning five of them — though not a single one for acting.
24. ‘Homicide: Life On The Street’ (1993-1999)
The book on which NBC’s Homicide: Life on the Street” was based recently landed near the top of our list of best true-crime books ever written, and the series was just as gripping. The show followed homicide detectives in Baltimore, and its characters were more realistic and its plots more detailed than many previous cop shows, which makes sense when you consider two of the key people behind it would go on to create “Oz” and “The Wire,” both of which are also on this list.
“Homicide” only took home two Emmys in 11 nominations but it won an unprecedented three Peabody Awards and was nominated five times for program of the year by the Television Critics Association, which ties “The Sopranos” and “Lost” for the second-most nominations.
23. ‘BoJack Horseman’ (2014-Present)
The dark comedy “BoJack Horseman” has been praised as everything from Netflix’s best original series ever to “the defining TV series of our time.” That’s high praise for a show that, on its surface, appears to be a cartoon about a talking horse. Once you get into this layered show, however, it tells the story of a self-destructive, washed-up actor — who just happens to be a horse.
The show’s voice cast is one of the best in the business, with Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris and Alison Brie as some of its stars. A series that has only gotten better with time, every season after its first has earned at least a 97% Fresh rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Here’s hoping one day it will finally win an Emmy!
22. ‘House’ (2004-2012)
Based on the combined average reviews of IMDb users and Rotten Tomatoes critics, “House” is the best medical series in TV history. The show was consistently acclaimed and highly rated for eight seasons on Fox, as it followed probably the most unlikable doctor ever shown on TV, Gregory House.
Hugh Laurie played the part perfectly, racking up six Emmy nominations during the show’s run and somehow never winning. The series saw Dr. House and his young team of diagnosticians solving medical mysteries inside a hospital in New Jersey, all while House himself was battling an addiction to pain pills.
21.’The Good Wife’ (2009-2016)
When “The Good Wife” was wrapping up its seven-season run in 2016, some writers declared it was the last great drama of network TV. While “This Is Us” would have something to say about that, this CBS series was more acclaimed than virtually any other network drama of its day.
The show was set inside the world of law and politics in Chicago following a scandal involving the main character’s powerful husband. The series follows Alicia Florrick, played brilliantly by Julianna Margulies, as she resumes her own legal career following the incident.
Four of the show’s seven seasons, including the last three, earned perfect scores at Rotten Tomatoes and no season scored lower than 87% Fresh.
20. ‘Boardwalk Empire’ (2010-2014)
Few period shows have ever looked as good — or as gritty — as HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.” The series was set in Atlantic City during the 1920s era of prohibition. The show’s cast was as good as it gets, including heavyweights like Steve Buscemi, Kelly Macdonald, Michael Shannon and Bobby Cannavale.
The show won 20 Emmys on 57 nominations during its five-season run, with most of them going to the people responsible for its art direction. Martin Scorsese, who was an executive producer of the series, won his first Emmy ever for directing its pilot episode.
19. ‘Justified’ (2010-2015)
Criminally under-appreciated during its run, FX’s “Justified” gave another new spin to the police genre and racked up an incredible 97% Fresh average score at Rotten Tomatoes, which is even higher than shows like “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad.”
This series was set in rural Kentucky and followed a trigger-happy U.S. Marshal as he dispatched various criminals. The entire cast of characters was colorful and the show was a blast to watch because it never took itself too seriously but packed plenty of dramatic punch when it needed to. Lead actor Timothy Olyphant and co-star Walton Goggins, who played the show’s complicated lead villain, were among the show’s Emmy nominees over the years.
18. ‘Parks And Recreation’ (2009-2015)
What NBC’s “The Office” helped pioneer, the network’s “Parks and Recreation” arguably perfected. Like that other series, this comedy was a faux-documentary but this one followed government workers inside the Parks Department of the small town of Pawnee, Indiana. The cast of characters here was even funnier and more fully realized than those on “The Office” and the show’s setting allowed for more wide-ranging storylines that roped in plenty of wacky citizens from around Pawnee.
Amy Poehler was nominated for six Emmys for her lead performance as Leslie Knope, the department’s upbeat leader, part of the show’s 14 total nominations.
17. ‘Louie’ (2010-2015)
So, it turned out that Louis C.K. was a scumbag all along but the fact remains that his FX series, “Louie,” was a fantastic show. This sitcom constantly experimented with the format of its storytelling and took major risks throughout its five-season run, often blurring the lines between comedy and drama.
It followed a fictional version of C.K., as a comedian and father of two young girls who recently underwent a divorce. C.K. won two Emmys for his writing on the series, part of the show’s 22 total nominations. None of the show’s five seasons scored lower than an 88% Fresh average at Rotten Tomatoes.
Ironically, the series ended up being a breakout vehicle for some women who gave incredible performances in it, including Pamela Adlon and Sarah Baker.
16. ‘Friday Night Lights’ (2006-2011)
Based on an acclaimed movie, which itself was based on an acclaimed book, NBC and DirecTV’s “Friday Night Lights” earned heavy praise for its five-season run, even if it never had a huge audience. The series was set in rural Texas and followed the lives of a high school football coach, his players and his family. Kyle Chandler and Connie Britton co-starred and they were just a few of the large cast’s impressive talent, which also included Michael B. Jordan, Jesse Plemons and Taylor Kitsch.
The show collected three Emmys and a Peabody Award, among a slew of other honors, and each of its final three seasons earned 100% Fresh grades at Rotten Tomatoes.
15. ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm’ (2000-Present)
The brainchild of “Seinfeld” co-creator Larry David, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” has been making viewers cringe and crack up for nearly 20 years so far. In that span, nine seasons of the show have aired and acclaim from audiences and critics has been pretty unanimous, with the series holding average ratings of 8.7 out of 10 at IMDb and 92% Fresh at Rotten Tomatoes. That actually gives it an even higher average score than “Seinfeld.”
This show follows David, who plays a fictional version of himself, as he muddles through life as a semi-retired writer. It has racked up 43 Emmy nominations so far, winning just two of them — and the fact that neither trophy actually went to David could be a storyline for the show in itself.
14. ‘Adventure Time’ (2010-2018)
The only show made for kids to land on our list, “Adventure Time” was a massive hit with critics and audiences of all ages for 10 seasons on Cartoon Network. Among the show’s many honors it won were eight Emmys and a Peabody Award — the latter of which is an uncommon bragging right for an animated show.
The show was a wild fantasy that followed the adventures of Finn the Human and his best friend, Jake the Dog, in the colorful Land of Ooo. Every single season of its run was acclaimed with the full series holding an unblemished 100% average score at Rotten Tomatoes.
Not bad for a show with nearly 300 episodes.
13. ‘It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia’ (2005-Present)
Among the longest-running scripted shows in TV history, FX and FXX’s “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” isn’t your typical sitcom.
The show is infamous for its pitch-black humor and shocking storylines, which have kept it an unlikely favorite among fans and critics. It’s all about the exploits of a gang of friends who run a bar together, and the cast includes hilarious actors like Danny DeVito, Kaitlin Olson and Charlie Day.
The show has an average IMDb grade of 8.7 out of 10 and a Rotten Tomatoes score of 96%, giving it one of the highest combined scores of any show on this list.
12. ‘The Larry Sanders Show’ (1992-1998)
It’s tough to remember a time when HBO wasn’t known as the best network for acclaimed TV shows, but before “The Larry Sanders Show” debuted, it was mostly known for airing movies and stand-up comedy specials. This one-of-a-kind comedy aimed its spotlight at the ridiculous world of show business as it followed the folks behind the scenes at a fictional late-night TV talk show. Garry Shandling co-created and starred in the series as the neurotic and insecure host of the show.
The ensemble cast included Jeffrey Tambor and Rip Torn, the latter of whom won one of the show’s three Emmys in 56 total nominations. For its entire six-season run, “The Larry Sanders Show” holds down a perfect grade at Rotten Tomatoes from critics and audiences. (That’s your cue for “applesauce.”)
11. ‘Game Of Thrones’ (2011-2019)
If you measure greatness by award wins, there’s simply no better show in TV history than “Game of Thrones.” The HBO landmark earned an unmatched 160 Emmy nominations during its eight seasons on the air, including a record-breaking 32 nominations in a single year for 2019. The show’s 47 Emmy wins is also a record for a scripted, non-variety series and its seven nominations for the TCA Award for program of the year is also a record.
However, the show wasn’t always praised during its run, often being called out for gratuitous nudity and violence, as well as what many viewed as an anticlimactic final season. Still, when “Game of Thrones” was on top of its game, it was as ambitious and grand as TV has ever been and it set viewership records all through its run.
10. ‘Cheers’ (1982-1993)
NBC’s “Cheers” represents what is arguably the peak of the classic sitcom format. The show’s iconic setting, a Boston bar owned by an ex-MLB pitcher, is among the best in TV history and its ensemble cast is equally beloved. Led by Ted Danson, other actors included Rhea Perlman, Kelsey Grammer, Woody Harrelson and Shelley Long. Throughout several major cast changes over its 11-season run, “Cheers” never dipped in quality and remained a huge hit with audiences.
It holds the most Emmy nominations for any comedy series with 117, winning 28 of them, and was nominated in the category of outstanding comedy series every season it aired.
9. ‘The Americans’ (2013-2018)
As tight, tense and thrilling as any show in TV history, FX’s “The Americans” never let up during its six seasons on the air. The show was set in 1980s Washington, following two Soviet spies who are in deep cover as a married American couple. Stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys were consistently brilliant, wearing many disguises and walking the line between a real relationship and a partnership that was strictly for show.
The series somehow only won four Emmys during its run — with Russell never getting one — but it also won two Peabody Awards, which puts it in rarefied air for scripted drama. None of the show’s final five seasons scored lower than 94% Fresh from Rotten Tomatoes, with the whole series earning a 96% grade.
8. ‘Seinfeld’ (1989-1998)
Few shows have had the culture impact that “Seinfeld” can boast. It added numerous popular phrases to the English language (“shrinkage” and “double-dipping,” just to name two) and ushered in an entire era of sitcoms starring characters that weren’t likable in the least.
Co-creator Jerry Seinfeld starred as a fictional version of himself, co-existing in New York City with his three closest friends. The core cast was a dream team of comedic actors, including Julia Louis Dreyfus, who won an Emmy for her work on the show.
During its nine seasons on NBC, “Seinfeld” was TV’s highest-rated show for a couple years and was always one of its most acclaimed. The writing on the series is still as sharp as anything you’ll ever hear in a TV comedy.
7. ‘Mad Men’ (2007-2015)
A magnet for praise during its run, “Mad Men” announced AMC as a major player in the prestige television game. This detailed period drama, set in the world of advertising in 1960s New York, dealt with lofty social issues and went deep under the skin of its large cast of characters. The series was led by Jon Hamm, who was nominated for eight Emmys for his work on the series and finally won the trophy for the show’s final season, but also featured brilliant performances by Elisabeth Moss, John Slattery and Christina Hendricks just to name a few.
“Mad Men” was nominated for 116 Emmys in its seven seasons, winning 16 including a record-tying four for outstanding drama series and three for its excellent writing. You may never see better costumes, makeup and hairstyling on any series than you did on this one.
6. ‘Hill Street Blues’ (1981-1987)
NBC’s landmark “Hill Street Blues” was about as innovative as any show on this list, with dozens of acclaimed police series owing plenty to its style. Totally unvarnished, the show followed cops in an unnamed city as they went through the highs and especially the lows of the job and their personal lives.
The show was unlike any police drama to come before it and would win 26 Emmys on 98 nominations over the course of seven seasons. “Hill Street Blues” was the first show to ever win the Emmy for outstanding drama series four times, which is still the all-time record.
5. ‘M*A*S*H’ (1972-1983)
Sometimes, a situation is so tragic and dire that all you can do to stay sane is find something to laugh about. That’s what CBS’s “M*A*S*H,” which came out during the Vietnam War, did for its characters in the Korean War. It was a period show but any viewer could see the parallels, as they watched the lives of a group of doctors in a surgical unit of the U.S. Army unfold each week.
It was often hilarious but this show was one of the first to blur the lines between genres, with many episodes having a serious tone that brought poignancy to the comedy.
“M*A*S*H” was nominated for 109 Emmys, including a record-tying 11 nominations for outstanding comedy series, which is one for every season of the show. The series was also a ratings juggernaut, with its series finale famously setting the all-time record as the most-watched episode of any TV show in American history. It’s hard to argue with ratings and acclaim like that.
4. ‘The Simpsons’ (1989-Present)
The reputation of “The Simpsons” as TV’s all-time giant has been dinged a bit in the past decade, but that’s what happens when a show has been on the air for 30 seasons. Its run on Fox has been mind-blowing, paving the way for an entire cottage industry of primetime animated series aimed at adults. For its first 10 years on the air — that alone is longer than most shows on this list — it was untouchable, with all but one of those first 10 seasons earning a 100% Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes.
“The Simpsons” has earned 33 Emmys, which is by far the most of any animated show, including 10 in the category of outstanding animated program, as just part of its 92 total nominations as of 2019. Few pieces of entertainment have had anywhere near the cultural impact that “The Simpsons” has had since 1989, especially in television.
3. ‘The Sopranos’ (1999-2007)
It’s been hailed as the show that ushered in the so-called golden age of television and an entire era of shows that followed bad guys as the lead. HBO’s “The Sopranos” helped make TV into a highly respected medium capable of great entertainment, deep storytelling, Hollywood-level production values and world-class acting.
This landmark series told the story of a New Jersey mobster who tries to maintain the delicate balance between his family and his criminal enterprise, all while battling with his own poor mental health and bleak worldview.
James Gandolfini led the cast, winning three Emmys for his rich portrayal of Tony Soprano, and was backed up by Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli and Lorraine Braco, just to name a few members of one of TV’s great ensembles. The show’s cast won nine Emmys for its acting, the most such wins of any drama series in history. The show’s average IMDb rating of 9.2 out of 10 is the highest of any series that started before 2000.
2. ‘The Wire’ (2002-2008)
Unquestionably the peak of the police genre and arguably the best series of all time, HBO’s “The Wire” is as real and distressing as TV gets. Set on the streets of Baltimore, the show goes deep into various aspects of urban life, beginning with an equal portrayal of cops and criminals and expanding to include things like city hall, local schools, the media and even the job force. Every season uses a different vital aspect of the city for its backdrop and covers an ever-expanding cast of characters, nearly all of whom are fully realized and likable in one way or another.
The show has an average rating of 9.3 out of 10 from nearly 250,000 viewers at IMDb and a 96% Fresh grade at Rotten Tomatoes, giving it a nearly unmatched combined score in TV history. The fact that “The Wire” never won a single Emmy and was only nominated for two in its five-season run, is probably the ultimate tarnish on the Television Academy’s credibility.
1. ‘Breaking Bad’ (2008-2013)
You’ll probably never find a narrative as tight and satisfying as AMC’s “Breaking Bad.” In five seasons, the show tells the story of a mild-mannered science teacher who becomes a drug kingpin after he’s diagnosed with cancer. The arc of Walter White, who was played with awe-inspiring depth by Bryan Cranston, is as dramatic as any character’s in TV history, with him going from hero to villain in the course of just 62 episodes.
The show’s nine Emmy wins for acting alone ties “The Sopranos” as the most by any series and it also matched that landmark show as the only ones to ever win the TCA Award for program of the year twice.
Where “Breaking Bad” is truly untouchable is in its combined scores from viewers and critics. It not only has the highest average IMDb score of any scripted series with more than one season (9.5 out of 10), it also has a 96% Fresh score at Rotten Tomatoes. It’s tough to find a perfect show from start to finish, but “Breaking Bad” is about as close as it gets.