RANKED! Our 20 Favorite TV Shows of the Last 20 Years
Actors, actresses, writers, and directors used to start out on TV and then graduate to the silver screen. What once seemed to lack the quality, talent, and tenacity of cinema, now not only rivals it but might surpass it. In order to tip our hat to television’s historic journey, we’ve compiled a list of our 20 favorite TV shows to have aired over the past two decades.
Cover Photo: Netflix
20. 'The Walking Dead' (2010-?)
One of the benefits of telling a story on television is time. There's a lot more time for character development and plot. For better or worse, The Walking Dead is a testament to this. Inconsistent, yet sporadically brilliant, Rick Grimes and his group of Walker-killing survivors continue to entertain.
19. '24' (2001-2010)
Who would win in a three-way fight between Jason Bourne, James Bond, and Jack Bauer? Probably Jack Bauer. 24 and its indestructible protagonist shocked, awed, and kept us on the edge of our seat for the better part of a decade (not including the fantastic mini series 24: Live Another Day). Nothing will ever compare to the ominous sound of the show's ticking clock or its riveting premise, forever reminding us what can be accomplished in a day.
18. 'The Office' (2005-2013)
This show made the mockumentary a mainstream commodity in America. The Steve Carell-led comedy series (inspired by its UK counterpart) has changed American sitcoms. No one is looking for restrictive sets and one-dimensional camera angles anymore; they want ridiculousness with a hint of realism. The Office has remained one of the most binged shows on any and all streaming services (Netflix for now) and will continue to be mentioned in that girl you like's Hinge profile for years to come.
17. 'Deadwood' (2004-2006)
If you haven't seen Deadwood, you probably expect some sort of gun-slinging Old West melodrama. What Deadwood actually is would better be described as Shakespeare in the Old West: soliloquies upon soliloquies.The show will forever be remembered for its beautifully written dialogue, which is unmatched to this day. Sometimes it feels like the characters just keep talking until they say something cool, and they always do.
16. 'Justified' (2010-2015)
If you don't know who Elmore Leonard is, well, you should. He's one of the greatest cinematic writers of all time. His stories have been adapted by everyone from Quentin Tarantino to Steven Soderbergh. Leonard's novels and short stories cemented him as the king of swagger. His dialogue and characters always exhibit an unshakable debonair grit. Graham Yost's Justified (inspired by Leonard's short story Fire in the Hole), about a contemporary, yet old-fashioned U.S. Marshal, is the most faithful take on his tone to date.
15. 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' (2000-?)
Modern television is all about tapping into an element of reality because viewers want to relate. In the '90s, Seinfeld, the show about nothing, was comedic reality at its finest. The show's co-creator entered the new millennium with another show about nothing: Curb your Enthusiasm. The outlined, yet largely unscripted show, follows a fictional Larry David as he navigates life's minute frustrations.
14. 'Mad Men' (2007-2015)
A sobering look at the advertising world in 1960s New York, Mad Men follows the alcoholic, womanizing Don Draper. What makes this dramatization so interesting is watching Draper, and all the characters in his orbit, proceed with '60s-style manners while simultaneously exhibiting savagery. The show dissects a “man's world,” showing us how far we've come and how far we have yet to go.
13. 'Boardwalk Empire' (2010-2014)
Like Mad Men, Boardwalk Empire examined darkness beneath a historical aesthetic, but it had the misfortune of following HBO's superior gangster series, The Sopranos. Still, it succeeded in creating a period piece with profound depth and iconic characters. No immoral citizen is better romanticized than that of the 1920s gangster.
12. 'Battlestar Galactica' (2004-2009)
We know, the show's name sounds like a forgettable B movie. Surprisingly, Battlestar Galactica is a immersive political drama that takes place in space. A darker update of its 1970s counterpart, it follows the crew of the Galactica as they search for Earth in the wake of an android war of their own making. It's a thoughtful look at what it means to be human and an inhabitant of this planet.
11. 'Dexter' (2006-2013)
Following forensic expert, Dexter Morgan (who is also a self-righteous serial killer), this horror-drama is masterfully crafted and repulsive. It's twisted, suspenseful, and hilariously entertaining. Just don't take its premise too seriously. If it weren't for its lackluster sixth and eighth seasons, the Bay Harbor Butcher would probably be higher on our list.
10. 'Stranger Things' (2016-?)
No one saw Stranger Things coming. Citing classic '80s popular culture (John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, the work of Steven King, etc.) as their inspiration, the Duffer brothers created the nostalgia trip that is Stranger Things. While being modern and retro at the same time, the story of Hawkins, Indiana, and its inhabitants has brought this generation back to the future (and no, that's not meant to make sense).
9. 'Peaky Blinders' (2013-?)
The Peaky Blinders were a real-life Birmingham street gang that used to stitch razor blades into the peaks of their flat caps. While the gang was overtaken by a larger gang in the early 20th century, in this series of historical fiction, they were not. The show's protagonist, Thomas Shelby, leads the gang to an unprecedented amount of power (at one point he even becomes a member of Parliament). Often overlooked, Peaky Blinders is one of the most stylish, well-written, and powerfully-acted dramas on television.
8. 'Fargo' (2014-?)
The Noah Hawley-written anthology series Fargo has somehow managed to capture the look and feel of Joel and Ethan Coen's 1996 black comedy, Fargo. Despite having no connection to the plot of the original film, the series manages to be just as dark and quirky. This might be due to the fact that the Coen brothers serve as executive producers or just a testament to television's creative prowess.
7. 'Sherlock' (2010-?)
In this modern adaptation of the stories written by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Benedict Cumberbatch plays the titular Holmes and Martin Freeman plays John Watson. Unpredictable and intelligent in its own right, Sherlock is made even better by its perfectly cast leads.
6. 'Game of Thrones' (2011-2019)
Quite possibly the most popular television series ever made, Game of Thrones has spawned an unparalleled amount of fandom. This R-rated version of Lord of the Rings is based on George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire. The story follows the powerful families of Westeros as they compete for control of the seven kingdoms all while a more dangerous enemy than man approaches from the north. In its prime, this show was the best on television. Its production value remains unrivaled, but the writing suffered in its later seasons (without the help of any source material).
5. 'True Detective' (Season 1)
The only season of True Detective that is worth watching is its premiere season (2014). The show makes this list because the first season is just that good. It serves as a riveting buddy-cop crime drama told through interviews and flashbacks. The story unravels along two separate timelines and provokes some truly disturbing and harrowing ideas, which is made even better by a surprisingly hopeful ending and, last but not least, the chemistry between Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson.
4. 'The Sopranos' (1999-2007)
Tony Soprano and his family of mobsters are renowned as some of HBO's finest. Dark, funny, moving, and above all human, The Sopranos is a masterwork of compelling proportions. Although it may have begun 21 years ago, it demands to be on this list. God forbid we give Tony a panic attack.
3. 'The Wire' (2002-2008)
Written by former police reporter David Simon, The Wire attempts to take an accurate look at the Baltimore drug scene while paying homage to the city itself. It builds a complex web of characters and offers a ruthless commentary on the relationship between crime and community.
2. 'Band of Brothers' (2001)
The only miniseries to make our list, Band of Brothers is based on the Stephen Ambrose bestseller that follows an Army unit during World War II. The series begins with their training in Georgia and ends with the Allied victory in 1945. WWII and its horrors had been dramatized before this mini-series, but never as effectively or as in-depth.
1. 'Breaking Bad' (2008-2013)
This show came out of the gate doing backflips, somersaults, and stuck the landing. The story centers on Walter White, a chemistry teacher, who, after being diagnosed with cancer, decides to become a meth kingpin has resonated with billions. It's a show that forever proved that television is capable of telling more resonant and powerful stories than the big screen.