73 TV shows worthy of your time

TV shows worthy of your time

Whatever genre you’re into, there’s no denying that we’re currently living through the golden age of television. There’s never been more choice on the small screen, and, with a multitude of streaming platforms at our fingertips, it’s even easier to revisit old favourites, too. From Netflix to HBO, there are multiple big players in the TV game, churning out high-quality content from The Sopranos to House of Cards. Whether you’re into comedy, drama, animation, or sci-fi, there will be something on our list of the best TV shows for you.

Read on to find out which TV shows we think deserve a place on our list of shows worthy of your precious time...

Dawson’s Creek

Years: 1998 – 2003

A defining show for many teens at the turn of the century, it follows a group of teenagers in a small town as they tried to get through high school. What sets it apart from other shows is that the characters talk like young adults rather than big kids, and they discuss mature subjects that others wouldn’t touch at the time.

(The WB)
Babylon 5

Years: 1994 – 2007

A bravura attempt to tell a complex science-fiction epic over five years, Babylon 5 remains essential sci-fi viewing even today. The titular space station begins as a hub of diplomacy, but soon becomes the centre of a rebellion against Earth’s oppressive government and the deadly Shadows. Twisty and turny like you wouldn’t believe, Babylon 5’s groundbreaking arc plot and memorable characters more than make up for its sometimes tripe dialogue.

(Warner Bros.)
The Avengers

Years: 1961 – 1969

A series so incredibly '60s that it was only right that it bowed out in the months before 1970. The Avengers started its television life as a garden-variety crime drama, before evolving into a super-stylised adventure show, all sinister English villages and eccentric authority figures. Its fruity mix of spy drama, science fiction, and Powell and Pressburger means there has never been anything like it, before or since.


Years: 2015 – 2019

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's sitcom follows two strangers  – named, er, Sharon and Rob – who have a one-night stand that results in an unexpected pregnancy. The duo manage to capture the minutiae of everyday life while providing escapism in the purest form, their chemistry shining through in this often-hilarious series that’s unafraid to deal with the tough aspects of life (alcoholism, infidelity, death) in a light-hearted manner. The supporting characters – including Rob’s eccentric mother (Carrie Fisher) and Sharon’s mischievous brother (Jonathan Forbes) – are a delight.

(Channel 4)

Years: 2006 – 2013

Forget the weak later seasons and that laughable ending, the first four seasons of Dexter are thrillingly dangerous TV. Michael C Hall plays the killer with a code – he only takes out other murderers – as an ambiguous figure. You genuinely never know which way he will turn or if his “friends” and family are truly safe. The first season is intense, but Dexter’s chase to bring down the “Trinity Killer” in season four is the show’s high-point.


Years: 1999 – 2013

The Simpsons may be Matt Groening’s magnum opus but Futurama is his oft-overlooked masterpiece. The animated sci-fi comedy about a pizza delivery boy who’s cryogenically frozen and wakes up in the year 3000 deals with some scarily complex ideas, but always in smart, relatable and hilarious ways. Better yet it can be heart-wrenchingly emotional. If you don’t shed tears at the end of “Jurassic Bark” you have no soul.

True Blood

Years: 2008 – 2014

HBO’s vampire saga is addictive. With as much sex as you’d expect from the network, plus lashings of gore, it's certainly full-blooded. But True Blood’s secret weapon is a thick vein of underlying satire that kicked against right-wing America’s outdated attitudes towards homosexuality. Sure, when the werewolves show up, the quality dips a bit – but before then, it's TV to die for.


Years: 1983 – 1989

There’s no denying that Blackadder is one of the greatest sitcoms of all time – and one that only builds as it endures. This isn’t to say the first series – written by both Rowan Atkinson and Richard Curtis – is weak, but the final three outings, which enlist the services of Ben Elton, rank among some of the most hilarious episodes of television. Period. It helps that the cast, including Rik Mayall and Stephen Fry, throw themselves into the zany material headfirst. Without that commitment, Blackadder wouldn’t factor so highly on this list.

Peep Show

Years: 2003 – 2015

Over the course of nine series, Peep Show – which follows the dysfunctional friendship of Mark (David Mitchell) and Jez (Robert Webb) – quietly revolutionised sitcoms in the Noughties, giving comedy fans something they had not seen before. The use of voiceover narration to convey the inner thoughts of its main characters, as well as the point-of-view camera style, all adds to the off-kilter awkwardness that makes Peep Show so quintessentially British.

(Channel 4)
The Office (UK)

Years: 2001 – 2003

The comedy shockwaves of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s exceptionally well-observed workplace mockumentary still reverberate strongly today. From The Thick Of It to Modern Family to Parks & Recreation, the blend of extreme social discomfort and excruciating calamity through an unfiltered lens has proven a formula worth repeating. Thoughtless but certainly not careless, pathetic yet sympathetic, delusional fool David Brent’s hilariously awkward exchanges made him a true comic icon. Plus, Tim and Dawn – aw!

Boardwalk Empire

Years: 2010 – 2014

A period Sopranos? Not quite – though the tale of “Nucky” Thompson is similarly blood-filled and morally oblique as its HBO stablemate. Mixing fact with fiction (Thompson is himself based on the real-life Enoch L Johnson), Boardwalk Empire looks amazing and tells a fascinating, often-troubling tale of corruption in the Prohibition era. Steve Buscemi is, unsurprisingly, excellent in the lead role.

The Singing Detective

Year: 1986

Quite simply Pennies from Heaven writer Dennis Potter’s finest TV achievement. All of his familiar tropes are here – the lip-synching to ’30s tunes, fantasy sequences and flashbacks to childhood – all bundled up in a satisfyingly complete package. It’s devastatingly personal, in a way that most TV drama isn’t nowadays, with Michael Gambon as the psoriasis-afflicted novelist drifting in and out of his imagination while undergoing treatment.

Downton Abbey

Years: 2010 – 2015

Few would have expected Julian Fellowes’ heritage drama to whack such a powerful cultural punch when it debuted, but this story of the aristocratic Crawley family and their servants in the post-Edwardian era struck a chord both in the UK and US. A bona fide worldwide phenomenon, the news that its sixth season was its last hurrah had fans crying into their port and lemon.

The Americans

Years: 2013 – 2018

It skirted close to cancellation a couple of times, but The Americans is one of US TV’s best-kept secrets. An ’80s-set espionage tale of KGB spies in the States, it’s as exciting as Breaking Bad and (almost) as complex as The Wire. “Elizabeth” and “Philip” (actually Nadezhda and Mischa) do despicable things, but their FBI counterparts are just as dubious. And caught up in it all is Alison Wright’s tragic, heartbreaking Martha.

Arrested Development

Years: 2003 – 2019

One of the most loved and least-watched comedy of the past 20 years, Arrested Development focuses on the epically dysfunctional Bluths, specifically Michael (Jason Bateman), the one sane figure in a family of deepy terrible oddballs. It lasted three series on Fox, but while being lauded by the press, it never found that big audience. A belated Netflix-funded series blotted the copy book and a fifth run is nothing to write home about, yet that doesn't take away from the excellence that came before.


Years: 1968 – 2003

Columbo remains popular because of its disarmingly down-to-earth lead character, played by Peter Falk. The “inverted whodunit” format came to be a hallmark of the series, where the viewer knows from the start who committed the crime. Contemporary celebrities, including William Shatner and Johnny Cash, took turns as villains and Steven Spielberg directed the 1971 season premiere, making this series a crime drama masterclass.

Schitt's Creek

Years: 2015 – 2020

Few shows are as wonderfully wholesome as this. The series tells a riches-to-rags story about a wealthy family who lose everything except ownership of a small town named Schitt's Creek, bought by Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) as a joke present for his son, David (Daniel Levy). Every episode is hilarious, yet there's a soft centre as romances are sparked between the Rose family and their new neighbours. Come for Catherine O'Hara as the over-the-top former debutante Moira Rose; stay for a show that's as comforting as they come.

Orange is the New Black

Years: 2013 – 2019

Sentenced to 15 months in prison for a crime she committed a decade ago, Piper Chapman struggles to survive, along with the rest of the women serving time with her. A unique piece of TV (and based, albeit loosely, on a true story), Orange is the New Black is a brutal, compassionate and hilarious. One of the most intense shows here, but also one of the sweetest, it keeps you on your toes as much as it does Piper.

Life on Mars

Years: 2006 – 2007

Modern-day DCI Sam Tyler is hit by a car and wakes up in 1973, just in time for spaghetti hoops, armed blaggers, and a bullish “guv” in the form of the irrepressible Gene Hunt. This reality-bending series has viewers questioning the ethics of policing and the sanity of its lead for two seasons. Jon Simm makes for a suitably tortured lead. His departure after two of the planned three seasons paved the way for sequel Ashes To Ashes.

House of Cards (US)

Years: 2013 – 2018

Netflix further cemented its hit-making credentials with this reinvention of the ’80s British drama. Boasting no less than Kevin Spacey in the lead as ruthless congressman Francis Underwood, it broke records becoming the first online-only drama to receive major Emmy nominations. It’s no surprise: this is political drama at its most sumptuous.


Years: 2016 – 2019

Phoebe Waller-Bridge's star-making show, Fleabag is a dark comedy about modern life in London that deals with all the tricky and sticky subjects Girls did, but contained within a tight two seasons. There are moments that destroy the fourth wall, which come from the show’s time as a one-woman play, and they make it feel all the more intimate.


Years: 2010 – 2015

Justified tells the insanely enjoyable tale of US Deputy Marshall Raylan Givens, who dispenses justice with all-too-cool one-liners. Timothy Olyphant's at the reigns as Givens, a man who would be better off in the Old West than modern times. Yet, that's what makes him such a compelling protagonist. As Patton Oswalt's Constable Bob tells Raylan, "You stay frosty."

The Office (US)

Years: 2005 – 2013

Fans of The Office will inevitably fight over whether the original U.K. version is superior or lesser than the U.S. one. However, with many more episodes, the Steve Carell-starring American Office gave us some of the most culturally endearing characters in recent memory: Michael Scott, Jim, Pam, Dwight, Oscar, Angela, Stanley, and the rest. From season two to seven, the jokes are plenty, with barely a dull moment. Bingable television – no wonder there was a bidding war over streaming rights.

The Thick of It

Years: 2005 – 2012

Armando Iannucci retools Yes, Minister for the ’00s with this acerbic skewering of British politics (which later inspired a film, In The Loop, and the US show Veep). Shifting the balance of power from civil servants to anonymous government advisors, it’s a farce born of Whitehall ineptitude. Its breakout star was future Time Lord Peter Capaldi as Malcolm Tucker, the government spin doctor who turned swearing into an art form.

Queer as Folk (UK)

Years: 1999 – 2000

Russell T. Davies’ uncompromisingly hot-blooded gay drama series proved so controversial at the time, sponsor Beck’s pulled out. Wusses. The tangled and sexually-charged love lives of Manchester’s Canal Street remains a powerful work: it surges with a vibrant urgency, electrifying performances, and is awash with the writer’s trademark zest and bawdy humour. Most endearing is Davies’ semi-autobiographical Doctor Who fan Vince, pointing somewhat prophetically to Russell T. Davies’s imminent future as showrunner of the Doctor Who reboot.

(Channel 4)

Years: 2001 – 2006

Although later famous for Lost, rebooting Star Trek and then Star Wars, Alias was the first outing for J.J. Abrams’ production company Bad Robot. All the hallmarks of his later works are there, including great action scenes, a bold science-fiction premise, famous guest stars, high concepts, and low conspiracies. Jennifer Garner plays CIA agent Sydney Bristow who goes undercover to infiltrate worldwide criminal organisation SD-6, a move which impacts on her friends and family life.


Years: 2008 – 2013

At first it looked like a simple update of The X-Files, but J.J. Abrams’ FBI-versus-weird phenomena show briskly evolves a unique premise. Field agent Olivia Dunham, disturbed scientist Walter Bishop and his roguish son Peter join a task force investigating events that hinge on “fringe science”. An arc involving parallel universes and time travel gives us multiple versions of the characters and alternative timelines to follow. There’s a beautiful relationship between the quirky characters; throw in Leonard Nimoy as a recurring villain, and you have 100 episodes of super-smart sci-fi.


Years: 1994 – 2009

It’s the show that made George Clooney and Noah Wyle’s careers and it ran for a staggering 15 years. ER started life as a film script by Jurassic Park author, Michael Crichton (who had experience working as a physician) in 1974. It finally found a home on TV in the mid-’90s and quickly became appointment viewing. Excellent characterisation and not-a-few shocks kept fans hooked for years.


Year: 2002

Snatched from us too soon by a combination of network stupidity, scheduling, and a lack of foresight, Joss Whedon’s space Western is sparky and witty but carries a heavy heart. The crew of the Serenity are a disparate mixture of fugitives, crooks, and war vets in an alien-free universe. They were just gelling into one of the most intriguing ensembles on TV when the show was cruelly axed.

Monty Python's Flying Circus

Years: 1969 – 1974

Generations of drunks quoting the Dead Parrot Sketch may have withered Python’s appeal, but go back to the original and watch it again. It’s still a fascinatingly bizarre and funny thing, with Cleese’s establishment sneer, Palin’s gentle performance, and Gilliam’s twisted animation a perfect storm of comedy. There’s a reason why Monty Python are considered The Beatles of comedy: they really are that important.

The Prisoner

Years: 1967 – 1968

This seminal ’60s thriller about an ex-spy imprisoned in a strange village where people who know too much are taken after they retire is a masterclass in the peculiar. More than 20 years before Twin Peaks, The Prisoner made being weird mainstream, with deadly sentient balloons about as normal as things got for Patrick McGoohan’s implacable straight man, Number Six. Anyone expecting definitive answers may have been disappointed, but it remains a classic.


Years: 2012 – 2017

Two years out from university, Hannah is cut off by her parents and must make her own way through both her twenties and New York. Girls is part Friends for the 21st century and part semi-autobiographical account of star and creator Lena Dunham’s early twenties. Sharply written and gleefully filthy, it’s packed with characters you may not always like but will very likely recognise – and you won’t be able to stop watching.

Six Feet Under

Years: 2001 – 2005

Debuting when it did, Six Feet Under was part of that first wave of heavily authored, critically love-bombed cable shows. Like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under is about family, in this case the Fishers – Nate, David, Claire and mother Ruth, and their day-to-day running of a funeral home in Los Angeles. It is very much a series about death, and its last episode – which jumped forward in time to show the final moments of all its leads – stands as one of the great TV finales.

I'm Alan Partridge

Years: 1997 – 2002

Steve Coogan’s disaster of a TV presenter loses his chat show, and ends up living in a sordid little grief hole (sorry, it’s a Travel Tavern) while hosting a graveyard slot on Radio Norwich. The first series is Partridge’s finest hour, an endlessly quotable sitcom classic that mines the comedy of embarrassment as Alan’s career spirals towards oblivion. The “bouncing back” second outing is inferior, but still packed with memorable moments.

Fawlty Towers

Years: 1975 – 1979

While most of Fawlty Towers’ '70s sitcom peers now seem achingly slow, there’s an urgency to ex-Python John Cleese and Connie Booth’s series that seems to keep it from appearing dated. Only 12 episodes (each one written over a six-week period) were made, all beautifully constructed mini-farces, as meticulously detailed as any Ocean’s 11 movie or a Steven Moffat script.


Years: 1994 – 2004

Ross, Rachel, Monica, Phoebe, Joey, Chandler – names that, during the ’90s, everybody knew. Friends influenced haircuts, coffee shop culture and the English language, bringing “How you doing?” into the lexicon. Not bad for a show that often looks like standard sitcom fodder. But don’t underestimate this show – it’s fearsomely well written, a non-stop barrage of joke-after-joke-after-joke. It’s dated a little since, but the fact remains it's a damn funny show.


Years: 1999 – 2001

The fact that, no matter how many successful films he goes on to star in, Simon Pegg will forever be asked, “Will you do a third series of Spaced?” is testament to the enduring appeal of his and co-star Jessica Hynes’s pop culture-drenched sitcom. Directed with whizz-bang vivacity by then-bright young thing Edgar Wright and with a gallery of relishable eccentrics, from Tyres, the e-head bike messenger to nervy avant-garde artist Brian, it’s still the jewel in Pegg’s geek crown.

(Channel 4)

Years: 2009 – 2015

Dan Harmon’s gloriously geeky sitcom about community college students enrolled in the world’s most dysfunctional educational establishment survived half its cast leaving, its creator being (temporarily) fired, and a full-blown cancellation. And yet its brilliance still shines through. It’s a show bursting with incredible ideas, loveable characters, and some of the smartest gags you’ll ever see. And no show does high-concept episodes better (one word: paintball).


Years: 2012 – 2019

The Vice President of the United States has *got* to wield a decent amount of power, right? Well, actually, no. That’s the genius of Veep. Its continued success lies in its simple premise: highlighting the inane day-to-day responsibilities of Veep, Selina Meyers. From its opening scene, the series never fails to make the best of its ensemble cast. Yet the spotlight and kudos goes to Julia Louis-Dreyfus. She’s spectacular.


Years: 1997 – 2003

The lives of the men locked up in an experimental High-Security penitentiary wrap around each other as they try and do their time. The darkest, most horrifying TV show of the last three decades is also one of the most emotionally honest. An astounding cast – including JK Simmons, Chris Meloni and Harrold Perrineau – turn in career-defining work in a story that reaches Shakespearean levels of horror and humanity.

(Warner Bros.)
Sex and the City

Years: 1998 – 2008 

Often unfairly dismissed, thanks largely to its soulless cinematic offspring. Let’s ignore those – Sex And The City is a smart, effervescent comedy-drama bursting with swaggering confidence rarely seen on television. Gaudy as a glitterball in lipstick admittedly, but the show’s frank and funny foray into its unashamedly glamorous foursome’s sex lives more or less created a subgenre itself: hits such as Desperate Housewives and Cougar Town employ similar glitzy chutzpah, but Sex And The City got there first.

Friday Night Lights

Years: 2006 – 2011

Small-town America under the floodlights on a Friday night. That’s the heart of the aptly named Friday Night Lights, which follows a group of troubled teens, their desperate parents, and the struggling teachers trying to teach them a few things in a Texan town, where the end of the workweek finds everyone flung together for the big game. You might remember the 2004 movie of the same name, but the show deepens the story.

Star Trek: The Next Generation

Years: 1987 – 1994

The world was expectant, if somewhat sceptical, when Gene Roddenberry and co. jumped Star Trek 100 years forward in time and cast a bald Yorkshireman as the replacement for Captain Kirk. But while the first two seasons have their issues, Next Gen rapidly became a worthy successor to the ’60s original. It's smart, exciting, and – in the Borg and Q – it adds two new threats to the Trek universe. No wonder Picard got his own show a few decades later.

30 Rock

Years: 2006 – 2013

Saturday Night Live veteran Tina Fey writes what she knows in this surreal sitcom set behind the scenes of a dysfunctional TV show. Gifting herself the plum role of showrunner Liz Lemon, Fey surrounds herself with great characters, from mad-as-a-box-of-hammers leading man Tracy Jordan (Tracy Morgan), to Alec Baldwin’s Republican poster boy Jack Donaghy. In a world of monstrous egos, 30 Rock never loses sight of its human side.

South Park

Years: 1997 – present

It’s gross, it’s offensive, and it’s crudely made. These are all reasons why we continue to love South Park. In a world of conservative television, the potty-mouthed adventures of these eternal schoolkids are deliciously subversive. Some may say it’s puerile and dumb – and it often is – but there’s a sneaky sense of decency that ensures the show is more than just a lot of swearing. Though they are good fun too.

(Comedy Central)
Bojack Horseman

Years: 2014 – 2020

What started as relatively typical TV fare – a protagonist plying himself with drugs, booze, and women to mildly humorous effect – quickly transformed into a show daring enough to comment on depression, dementia, asexuality, and so much more. And all under the guise of an animated show about a horse named Bojack Horseman. Raphael Bob-Waksberg's series has become one of Netflix's crowning jewels – and thank the streaming Gods it was allowed to run for quite as long as it did.

Chappelle's Show

Years: 2003 – 2006

Few shows have made such an impact over just two seasons than Chappelle's Show. Every sketch is as funny and memorable as the last, with Dave Chappelle's satirical, antagonistic bite and willingness to tackle taboo subjects making a lasting impact on the culture. His humorous takes on celebrities such as Rick James, Prince, and Sam Jackson were instantly iconic and surprisingly ripe for the internet age, receiving a new lease of life thanks to YouTube. There aren't many shows are as relevant, scandalous, or funny as Chappelle's Show.

(Comedy Central)

Years: 2014 – 2020

A small-town businessman does something unspeakable and the consequences affect a local cop, her father and a charming hired killer. Initially slow but immensely rewarding, Fargo – the first season based on the Coen brothers' movie – is equal parts folksy charm and blood-soaked violence. Intelligent scripting and fantastic performances from Allison Tolman as the heroic Maggy and Billy Bob Thornton as the terrifying Lorne Malvo make this as essential as the original movie. Season two’s retro story is just as thrilling, as is the third season. A wonderful anthology series.

The Shield

Years: 2002 – 2008

The first episode of The Shield ends with anti-gang cop Vic Mackey shooting a colleague in the face, and his crimes just get worse from there. A twisted tale of police corruption in LA, it bagged awards by the score and was a clear influence on Breaking Bad. It’s also that rarest of things – a TV show that actually gets better with each season.


Years: 2004 – 2006

HBO gave the Western a shot in the arm with Deadwood and revived a tired TV genre. Ian McShane and Timothy Olyphant lead an excellent cast of morally grey characters searching for fortune and glory in the titular town. Bar owner Al Swearengen is a gift of a character that put McShane on the map for U.S. audiences and continued HBO’s impressive run of creating groundbreaking television.

Parks & Recreation

Years: 2009 – 2015

In a world of easy cynicism, Parks & Recreation is good-natured, sweet and optimistic. What started as a promising, if unspectacular, twist on The Office (U.S.) rapidly found its own voice thanks largely to Amy Poehler’s performance as Leslie Knope, a minor civil servant with big plans. This is a show about people trying to do their best, failing regularly, but occasionally getting results. It gave us Chris Pratt before Guardians Of The Galaxy and it introduced the immortal Ron Swanson.


Years: 1982 – 1993

Although sometimes overshadowed by its own (second) spin-off, Frasier, Cheers’ influence looms large over today’s sitcom landscape. Why it’s endured since its final season aired has a lot to do with the sheer wealth of laugh-out-loud lines, but it’s also because all the characters are so richly drawn. Friends may be slicker and packed with more jokes per minute, but Cheers has characters that you genuinely care about. No wonder that it lasted a massive 11 seasons and remains a regular fixture on TV channels around the globe.

Band of Brothers

Years: 2001

Following Saving Private Ryan, Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg collaborate for this extraordinary miniseries about the men who went to fight in the Second World War. Band of Brothers features imagery that can rival even the most expensive blockbusters, while its heartfelt story concerns flawed men fighting for the common good. Plus, there are some very early performances from Michael Fassbender, Tom Hardy, and Simon Pegg to spot throughout the 10 episodes.


Years: 2001 – 2014

24 is one of the most ridiculous television shows ever made. It’s also one of the most exciting. The adventures of Jack Bauer – surely the world’s unluckiest man – unfold in real time, each episode filling in the hour of his day. Tough, unflinching, and sometimes heartbreaking (George!) it’s relentless viewing. Kiefer Sutherland’s career was revitalised and who doesn't love Mary Lynn Rajskub’s adorkable tech- whizz Chloe?


Years: 1993 – 2004

Frasier never shies away from referencing high art, but then it is a show that's a virtual banquet for smart, culturally savvy audiences. The brilliance of its set-up is pitching the intellectually precious Crane brothers up against their blue-collar father, recently retired police officer Martin, now living with Cheers’ Frasier after being shot in the hip while on duty. What follows is sitcom gold that, at its height, manages to even surpass the charms of Cheers.


Years: 1989 – 1998

Created by Larry David and the eponymous stand-up comedian himself, Seinfeld’s the sitcom that proves you don’t need a “situation” to make a great comedy – just memorable characters combating life’s petty irritants. One man and his neurotic trio of friends, Seinfeld is low on concept, high on farce, and big on horrendously catchy slap bass. Garnering the respect of every '90s critic, Jerry took his final curtain call after nine series, bowing out still very much on top.

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Years: 2000 – present

Spinning off from a one-hour special back in 1999, Larry David: Curb Your Enthusiasm, this is the Seinfeld co-creator’s other great creation. With mostly improvised dialogue, Curb follows David in his (highly fictionalised) life in LA. It’s as snarky and acerbic as you’d expect, but also shot through with pathos. You’ll laugh, wince, and thank the heavens it’s still going.


Years: 2013 – 2015

Trying to outdo Anthony Hopkins’ famous turn as the manipulative cannibal may have seemed like a fools’ errand, but Mads Mikkelsen was more than up for the challenge. This eerily beautiful show is frightening, but it’s the elaborate and artfully fetishised gore, plus a subtle sense of humour, that makes it stand out from every other thriller.

The Twilight Zone

Years: 1959 – 1964

Rod Serling’s anthology series made weird mainstream and influenced generations of science fiction and horror fans and writers. From everyday Joes trying to outsmart Death, to a gremlin on the wing of an airliner, The Twilight Zone was always crammed with ideas and boasted a fearsome writing staff including SF giants like Richard Matheson. But chief amongst them was Serling himself – by the end of the show’s original run he’d penned nearly 100 episodes.

Battlestar Galactica

Years: 2004 – 2009

Ex-Star Trek scribe Ronald D Moore’s dirtied-down reimagining of the glittery 1970s series proved one of high watermarks of TV. It’s said Battlestar is the sci-fi programme for people who don’t like sci-fi. It’s not hard to see why. It grandly jettisons the prosthetics porn of Star Trek and Stargate and cribs its narrative style more from the Class of HBO than its geek-chasing stablemates. Even Stephen King wrote of it, “This is a beautifully written show, driven by character rather than effects.”


Years: 2004 – 2012

House starts off as both a Sherlock Holmes riff and the ultimate “Irascible Genius” show. That’s all fun, especially the Holmes stuff, but as the series goes on it shifts gear into a discussion on mortality, the joys and horrors of the medical life and the burden of intelligence. Hugh Laurie turns in staggering work, but is matched beat for beat by one of the best casts in history.

Doctor Who

Years: 1963 – present

Doctor Who’s appeal is obvious. It’s the show that can go anywhere and do anything. And while other shows wear out their popularity, Who’s unique central character, an alien time traveller who changes his entire identity every time he “dies” by regenerating, ensures that it’s built for longevity. Where most sci-fi shows aim for cult status, Who is inclusive, appealing to adults, kids and grandparents alike. It’s a global phenomenon now, but at home in the UK it’s something greater: a national treasure.

The Leftovers

Years: 2014 – 2017

For The Leftovers, Damon Lindelof took all the best elements of Lost – the mysteries, the diverse group of misshapen characters – and condenses them into a packed HBO series. The first season adapts Tom Perrotta's book, which looks at the world after 2% of the population mysteriously disappear, while the second and third go far beyond the source material while still never offering us an answer to the question, "Where did the missing go?" By avoiding the answer, we get a TV series that focusses on PTSD, depression, and how humanity deals with loss. Yes, that sounds like a difficult watch – it is, but an immeasurably valuable and rivetting one as well.

The X-Files

Years: 1993 – 2002, 2016 – 2018

Mulder and Scully aren’t just TV characters – they were icons. The X-Files took pulp sci-fi and horror ideas and gave them a newfound respectability by setting them in a believable world. It was an instant success, spawning books, comics, two films, and a spin-off over its nine years on air – and then a rebirth to boot! Sure, somewhere along the way the show disappeared up its own arcs, adding a tangle of daft ideas to an already overstuffed alien colonisation plot, but the show's always watchable.

The West Wing

Years: 1999 – 2006

An intensely idealistic President struggles with the day-to-day problems of being the leader of the free world. His hyper-articulate staff talk a lot and walk even more. Eccentric, compassionate, hilarious and sweet, The West Wing is Capra-like in its idealism but remains the gold standard for political TV drama and boasts an incredible cast – not least Martin Sheen’s Commander-In-Chief, Jed Bartlet.

Twin Peaks

Years: 1990 – 1991, 2017

The hottest show of 1990 is still the hippest show on this list. David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mystery series is the story of a murder in a none-more-quirky North American town. But while Peaks is often daft, it has a true heart of darkness, with sexual abuse, drugs, and apparent demonic possession all lurking beneath the show’s ’50s-styled facade. Its comeback in 2017 took things to another level.

Buffy the Vampire Slayer

Years: 1997 – 2003

Joss Whedon’s tale of teen trauma anthropomorphised into demons has a special place in our hearts. It changed TV for the better, leading the way in the feminising of the sci-fi genre, while being action-packed, laugh-out-loud funny, and shot through with tragedy. The effects and slang have dated, but the show’s writing remains as sharp as Mr Pointy.

(Twentieth Century Fox)
Star Trek: The Original Series

Years: 1966 – 1969

The original and best incarnation of the Trek mega-franchise inspired generations of writers, scientists and astronauts. It broke new ground by featuring TV’s first interracial kiss and, while other science fiction shows lean towards darkness, Trek is all the more radical for its inspiring vision of an optimistic future that we might actually want to live in. The fact that multiple spin-offs and sequel series are still on air is a testament to the greatness of Trek – and it all started here.

Game of Thrones

Years: 2011 – 2019

Game Of Thrones is the grandest epic TV has ever seen. Hell, it gives Peter Jackson’s Middle-earth movies a run for their money. But it’s the politicking and human drama that really impresses. As the great families of Westeros squabble over the Iron Throne, the cast of believable characters are caught in the crossfire. Bloody, brutal and jaw-droppingly well-realised, it’s a fantasy masterpiece. The final season may have received some blowback for certain character arcs, but everything before then was pure magic.

The Wire

Years: 2002 – 2008

A drugs surveillance op becomes the focus of five turbulent years in the life of Baltimore. The Wire is the greatest police show of the last 40 years, thanks to a parade of incredible performances and a refusal to sacrifice reality for sensationalism. This is the sort of relentless drama you get once a generation and it launched countless careers, including those of Idris Elba and Dominic West.

Mad Men

Years: 2007 – 2015

The ’60s-set saga of advertising men who are sometimes bad men and indeed sad men, is low on action, but unparalleled in the depth of its characterisation. Don Draper (an exceptional Jon Hamm) is brilliant at his job, but useless in his personal life. Initially characterised by boozy office meetings, decadent fashions, and depictions of casual sexism, the show charts the decline of the old ways and the dawn of a new, more-egalitarian culture. Haunting and often very funny.

Breaking Bad

Years: 2008 – 2013

It’s funny thinking of Breaking Bad as an all-conquering franchise. For most of its run, it was barely watched at all. And then, somewhere around season four, the mainstream started to take notice. The story of Walter White – a genial high school chemistry teacher who starts cooking crystal meth following a terminal cancer diagnosis – is a bleak but hilarious crime epic. Walt epitomises Bad’s genius. As each season progresses you find yourself thinking, “Right, I’m done with this guy...” but Bryan Cranston’s remarkable performance means that even at his most despicable – and he gets pretty low – you can always see his lethally pragmatic point of view.

The Sopranos

Years: 1999 – 2007

The Sopranos revolutionised television, bringing movie-style production values to the small screen and helping put HBO back on the map. Following James Gandolfini on formidable form as Tony Soprano, the series details the life of a Brooklyn boss as he attempts to navigate a changing world. While showrunner David Chase shows an obvious love for The Godfather and Goodfellas, The Sopranos goes deeper by allowing us into Tony's mind – thanks to the ingenious move of having this great anti-villain visit a psychiatrist every episode.

That's not to say there aren't the usual gangster hijinks (there are murders aplenty) but the action always gives us insight into the troubled and troubling characters rather than revelling in cheap thrills or egregious violence. The Sopranos, after all, is perhaps best surmised by its anti-climaxes: just when you think Tony's world is about to erupt, something will happen and, somehow, the problem almost always sorts itself out in an unexpected way. There have been dozens of imitators, but none have been able to take The Sopranos' crown.


From fantasy epics to gangster masterpieces