What are the best TV series of all time? Sometimes, all you want to do is get stuck into a great show, escaping the world for however many seasons. But, what to choose? You’ve got sci-fi series, anime series, Netflix series, and more. There’s so much amazing television, the choice paralysis is real.
We’ve considered all the best TV series through the ages, and totted up their relative pros and cons, and put together a list that eliminates any more mindless browsing. Comedies like Friends, dramas, anthologies such as Black Mirror, timeless classics, animation, we’ve combed the lot to provide you with a comprehensive list of wonderful television to suit any mood.
It’s likely one of your favourites isn’t listed. Not everything can be considered the best, otherwise it defeats the purpose. It’s also likely some of these are shows you’ve already been recommended a thousand times – if that’s the case, please allow us to be the voice that finally persuades you. Pop the kettle on, check the pantry’s full, and relax, for some of the small screen’s best entertainment.
Twin Peaks (1990 – 2017)
When the body of a young woman, Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), is found wrapped in plastic, special agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) is brought in to investigate her murder. What follows is a surreal downward spiral into the titular wee town, involving interdimensional travel, multiple planes of reality, entities categorically not of this Earth, and a mystery that unravels across decades.
Co-created by Mark Frost and David Lynch, Twin Peaks has gone from being a misunderstood experiment to one of TV’s great enigmas. Each of the three seasons has a particular allure, and the latest, in 2017, is perhaps the most intriguing yet. Be wary, though, because the owls are not what they seem…
The Simpsons (1989 – present)
You may not know anybody who still watches The Simpsons, but if you’re reading this list, we’re confident you know a great many people who watched it devoutly during its heyday. For the first third of its life, The Simpsons, created by Matt Groening, was unrivalled, inspiring religious dedication to staying up-to-date.
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It isn’t just that The Simpsons’ classic seasons hold up that gets it on this list; it’s the cultural ubiquity. Reference steamed hams, or trambopoline, anything from when the family visits Australia, or hundreds of other hilarious moments, and more often than not, whoever you’re speaking to will join in. That’s a sign of quality few ever get close to.
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987 – 1994)
The Star Trek timeline can make it tough for newcomers to join the various captains on their voyage to seek out new life, and new civilisations. The Next Generation is the easiest entry point to Gene Roddenberry’s legendary franchise, and that’s part of what makes it one of the greatest TV shows ever.
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The other part is a stellar cast, led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), who commands his crew of the USS Enterprise through increasingly difficult, dramatic situations. Sometimes, they’re battling the Borg, a cybernetic hive mind who want to assimilate humanity, other times, they’re stuck in drawn out legal proceedings to define when a synthetic organism becomes human. No matter the backdrop, it’s always compelling, and deeply watchable.
Mad Men (2007 – 2015)
Don Draper (Jon Hamm) is a savvy advertising executive based in Manhattan, New York during the 1950s. Brilliant, but occasionally aloof, and often difficult, he’s the lynchpin of Matthew Weiner’s period drama that went from being almost dead-on-arrival, to one of the greatest shows of the prestige TV era.
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Aside from Don, there’s the older, charismatic Roger Sterling (John Slattery), slimy suck-up Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser), brilliant but undervalued Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss), and more in an ensemble cast full of charming performances. Effortlessly sifting from odd situational humour to diatribes on manliness, and unafraid to portray chauvinism and social politics of the time for what they were (and still often are), Mad Men has a tendency to reel you in right from the first second.
The X-Files (1993 – 2018)
Is there a creepier theme song in television? Doubtful. In 1993, FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) began looking into paranormal phenomena, introducing us to many a chilling one-off case, and more than a few government cover ups.
The X-Files evolved quite a bit during the course of its first run, from 1993 to 2002, morphing from Mulder and Scully chasing weird goings-on to becoming obsessed with its own UFO conspiracy, Duchovny leaving to be replaced by Robert Patrick’s agent Doggett, and beyond.
Sometimes, it came on a little too strongly with the layers of redacted files, but when it’s great – which is most of the time – it leaves a unique chill in the air.
Neon Genesis Evangelion (1995 – 1996)
Adequately describing Hideaki Anno’s existential mecha anime without spoiling it or sounding pretentious is difficult. In the city of Tokyo-3, 15 years after the Second Impact, Shinji Ikari is brought in by his father to pilot an Evangelion – a giant mech that can only be piloted by someone with a particular neurological link – and use it against Angels, powerful extra-terrestrial invaders.
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That sounds gloomy – and it is – but Evangelion is like a case study in compartmentalisation. Shinji, and his fellow pilots Asuka Langley Soryu and Rei Ayanami, have to balance school with trying to stop the end of all life on Earth, and the series shifts from heady body horror to adolescent drama on a whim.
Shinji and Rei live with Misato Katsuragi, their guardian and the chief operations officer at NERV, the company behind the mechs, and they’ve a live-in penguin – what more could you want?
Supernatural (2005 – 2020)
The ’90s was an incredible period for genre TV, with multiple Star Treks, Buffy, The Vampire Slayer, Angel, Charmed, Babylon 5, and many more. Supernatural may have been a latecomer, but it was a definitive take on the formula, and its conclusion marked the end of an era.
From the mind of Eric Kripke, now of The Boys fame, we follow the brothers Winchester, Sam and Dean (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles, respectively), as they hunt monsters and save people, because it’s the family business.
They travel from town to town in a 1968 Chevrolet Impala, listening to dad rock, and researching cases. Making friends with the angel Castiel (Misha Collins), and Crowley (Mark Sheppard), the king of hell, their lives as hunters is long, perilous, and incredibly endearing.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air (1990 – 1996)
The series that transitioned Will Smith from Grammy-winning rap artist to Hollywood actor. Drawing from the inherent comedy of street savvy Will interrupting his upper-class relatives’ routine, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s strength lies in its canny ability to handle deep personal drama.
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Uncle Phil (James Avery) embracing Will after his father walks out on him again is one of more well-known examples, but there’s plenty more. Like Viola Smith (Vernee Watson), Will’s mother, disagreeing with Phil and Vivian’s (Janet Hubert) methods of addressing racial inequality, or Will standing up for Carlton’s (Alfonso Ribeiro) exclusion from a fraternity. You’ll laugh, then you’ll cry, then you’ll laugh again, and that’s why it’s one of the absolute best.
The Twilight Zone (1959 – 1964)
A genre-defining anthology series if ever there was one, The Twilight Zone is full of great one-off sci-fi stories that still hold up today, both in concept and execution. Some of the best writers of the time contributed scripts, including Ray Bradbury, George Clayton Johnson, and Richard Matheson, making it a crossroads of politically aware fiction.
During its original run, 92 of The Twilight Zone’s 156 episodes were written by Serling himself, who provided that iconic narration for all of them. A true feat of creative heavy-lifting that shines through in consistency.
The Sopranos (1999 – 2007)
Like Citizen Kane in our best movies of all time list, including The Sopranos here may seem cliched, but, to be frank, it’s a typical choice for a reason. Centred on Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), the patriarch of the Soprano crime family, David Chase’s darkly comedic mobster drama is a tour de force in production quality, writing, performances, and just about everything else you can think of.
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Suffering anxiety, Tony struggles to find peace between his homelife and role as a mob boss. Amid the familial conflict, involving wife Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco), and the haphazard running of the Soprano operation, with Tony’s cousin Christopher (Michael Imperioli) and henchman Paulie (Tony Sirico), Tony receives therapy from Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco), for whom he develops feelings.
Batman: The Animated Series (1992 – 1995)
A staple of many ’90s kids’ watching schedule, Bruce Timm’s noir-inspired take on the Dark Knight is more than just another superhero cartoon. Kevin Conroy’s Batman and Mark Hamill’s Joker lead a cast that’s helped define Gotham City ever since, and the murky artwork – drawn on black paper for maximum darkness – only accentuates the endless chaos of Bruce Wayne’s world.
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Batman’s had his fair share of movies, and some have been great, but none have quite captured the same understanding of Gotham. Using animation, Timm brought Batman’s extensive range of heroes and villains to life while keeping their eccentric personas, and grounding them in what felt like a living world where anything could happen.
Dark (2017 – 2020)
The popularity of streaming services continues to reshape the landscape of TV and filmmaking. Dark is the kind of experimental show that could only exist because of platforms like Netflix. Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s German sci-fi trilogy tells of a town warped by a time-portal hidden in a local forest.
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When teenager Jonas Kahnwald (Louis Hoffman) goes through, he starts to unwind multi-generational trauma spanning decades, with his sleepy little village at its centre. Novelistic in scope, but televisual in structure, Dark may have you opening Wikipedia to keep all its strands. Stick with it, because over the course of three seasons it is an ambitious time-travel show that uses both the past and the future to show us what’s possible right now.
Deadwood (2004 – 2019)
“Every day takes figuring out all over again how to fucking live.” Despite the foul language and nihilism, there’s something distinctly warm and vulnerable about creator David Milch’s gold-mining town. Growing at a rapid pace, Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen frequently squares up to Timothy Olyphant’s Seth Bullock over what’s best for their little patch, with often worrying results.
Behind all the sex and duplicity is a character drama about people trying to get by when there isn’t much trust to go around. Three seasons in the mid-2000s made it a pillar of prestige TV, a recent film set a decade later gave some closure.
Doctor Who (1963 – present)
The most timey-wimey of timey-wimey television shows, the Doctor’s many adventures over 40-plus years have enchanted generations. A traveler across time and space, the eponymous Timelord recruits various human companions for their ongoing journeys, often placing them in perilous danger only to save the day (or sometimes not).
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They make their way around in the TARDIS, a time machine shaped like a classic British police box. Over a dozen actors have portrayed the Doctor thus far, each with their own charms. Though excitable, it has a way of piercing your heart when you least expect it.
Those are the best TV series of all time. Plenty to check out and escape into. While you’re considering what to watch, be sure to read up on the best streaming services, so you can find the platform that perfectly suits your viewing needs.