It takes a staggering amount of time, resources, talent, and luck to make a good movie, but that could be even more true of a great TV show. After all, they need to begin with a bang to get the audience hooked and maintain their quality long enough to keep their viewers' interest.
And that's a monumental task even for fan-favorite shows like The West Wing and Breaking Bad. Even so, some shows stay fresh right to the end, such as award-winning TV shows.
Mad Men (2007-2015)
This ambitious decade-spanning period drama offered a bracing look into the seductive world of a prestigious advertising firm. In the process, it showed us the lie behind the characters' business, personal lives, and supposed values.
As Will Dean from The Independent said about creator Matthew Weiner, "One of Weiner's greatest achievements is to make something as banal as a firm pitching to advertise fast food (or a camera, or a cigarette, or whatever) seem worthy of the viewers' tears and devotion."
Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
A fascinating, emotionally powerful, and even darkly funny examination of loss and how a family full of flawed personalities copes after a sudden tragedy, Six Feet Under is pretty much a masterpiece. It was brilliantly acted and written with wit and imagination right up to its touching conclusion.
As Heather Havrilesky of Salon wrote, "It's the only show I can think of that makes tragedy positively delicious and delectable."
Some may argue that the structure of the finale made for a less-than-ideal send-off for the sitcom juggernaut. However, it also puts our protagonists exactly where we should have expected after almost a decade of hilariously selfish antics.
In the words of John Carman from the San Francisco Chronicle, "Seinfeld parted in the same spirit it maintained for nine seasons on NBC. It was dry-eyed and jaded to the end, even as it bowed ever so slightly to a smidgen of sentiment."
TV fans are well aware that some of the best shows are taken from us too soon, and this creative and cleverly written space opera is a prime example. And with such a charismatic cast to fill these lovable characters' shoes, it's little wonder fans still mourn this show's sudden cancellation.
As Hal Boedeker of The Orlando Sentinel put it, "[Joss] Whedon's approach is intriguing, and the storytelling refuses to settle for simple heroics."
Logan Roy and his children gripped the attention of viewers in the show Succession, and there really doesn't seem to be a way to stop the momentum of this compelling family dramedy. Each season just keeps topping the last, and its blend of wit, uncertain loyalties, and stellar performance make for a compelling watch.
In the words of Scott Bryan from the BBC, "It manages to build and build and build. Rarely do you get a show that, in season three, really feels to be hitting its stride, but that's exactly what this show is doing."
Based on star Phoebe Waller-Bridge's one-woman show of the same name, this sadly short-lived series about grief and alienation is subversive, touching, and raucously hilarious all at once.
As Allison Keene of Collider put it, "Fleabag distills the rawest human emotions down into the most economically precise dialogue, cutting directly to the quick, and all of it wrapped up in brightly glib packages. It's universal and also incredibly female."
Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995)
While the '90s were something of a golden age for animated series based on superhero comics, this show's appropriately dark aesthetic, compelling storytelling, and a genuine sense of humor set it a cut above the rest. It also gave us Harley Quinn, which should be reason enough to celebrate.
As Joanna Robinson wrote for Vanity Fair, "This particular show is where the gothic grit of Bruce Wayne and the eccentric extremes of a memorable rogue's gallery created the perfect tonal balance that DC's films are still struggling to recapture to this day."
The West Wing (1999-2006)
Cataloging the adventures of fictional president Jed Bartlet, this show offered a keen look into where the sausages are made in American politics and showed us the impressive capabilities of Aaron Sorkin's unique writing style.
As William Thomas of Empire Magazine put it, "During the course of its seven seasons and 26 Emmys, The West Wing has remained one of the most intelligent serialized dramas ever to appear on American television."
The Good Place (2016-2020)
Throughout its four seasons, The Good Place walked a delicate tightrope of exploring the philosophical implications of its imaginative premise while still remaining funny and charming enough to keep viewers entertained.
In a review for The Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper implored, "If you never tried the show, I urge you to go back to the beginning and soak it all in."
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
From its legendary cast to its tight, riveting writing and ambitious exploration of its central ideas, it's hard to run out of things to praise about this show. Also, has a TV show's ending felt as satisfying and cathartic as the one showcased in Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad?
Eric Deggans of NPR obviously agreed as he wrote, "The most finely crafted drama on television nailed the most spine-tingling series finale in modern TV."
One could reasonably argue that M*A*S*H practically defined the '70s. Yet considering how deftly it blended snappy dialogue, wacky hijinks, and sobering explorations of the toll war takes on the human spirit, it's also timeless in a way that's as sad as funny as the show itself.
As Noel Murray wrote for the A.V. Club, "Few TV series have done a better job of closing up shop. The final half-hour is beautifully bittersweet, as the characters get their chances to say goodbye, knowing they'll likely never see each other again."
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)
One might marvel at the fact that Curb Your Enthusiasm has been on the air for over 20 years. Yet there's about its fascinatingly subversive and unlikable main character and the often-improvised dialogue at the heart of the show that just keeps on giving.
In the words of TIME's Judy Berman, "It's that self-awareness that has kept Curb fresh and acerbic throughout 11 seasons..."
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008)
When adults share a warm appreciation for a cartoon intended for children, it's usually out of nostalgia. But Avatar: The Last Airbender was so compelling, charming, and full of a boundless sense of adventure that its appeal was universal regardless of its intended audience.
As Melanie McFarland from Salon described the show, "A stalwart example of allegory's power to inform and inspire instead of merely offering escape."
The Wire (2002-2008)
This crime drama almost singlehandedly elevated the genre with its gallery of impressive characters that feel as real as they are complex and the wise way it blends their perspectives. Furthermore, the series also managed to tackle widely different aspects of modern life in Baltimore while remaining committed to telling its central story.
As DeAnn Welker wrote for The Oregonian, "Led by a solid core of returning characters -- none true villains, none true heroes -- with important additions (and sad subtractions) each season, it's one of the best series of all time."
With its warm atmosphere, lovable characters, and reliably funny one-liners, Cheers was comfort television at its best right up to its final episodes. It also practically wrote the book on deftly handling major and unavoidable casting changes.
In the words of Susan Stewart from The Detroit Free Press, "After all the hype... it would be a miracle if the last episode of Cheers could still move you. But then Cheers has always been at least a minor miracle."
It was something of a sleeper hit while it lasted, but Ozark proved to be a compelling and high-stakes crime drama moored by some fantastic performances by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney.
As Lou Thomas wrote for Empire Magazine, "A chilly, thrilling narco saga told from the perspective of the Mob's money launderer, Ozark deserves its place among the very finest TV takes on American dope, crime and corruption."
House M.D. (2004-2012)
It was hard not to be hooked by Hugh Laurie's fascinating and funny portrayal of a brilliant yet misanthropic doctor when the show first came on. But we also saw reason to stick around as both Dr. House and the world around him developed and refined.
As John Stanley wrote for The San Francisco Chronicle, "Credit Laurie for making such an unlikable character likable, if not completely adorable."
Better Call Saul (2015-2022)
Considering how Saul Goodman was used in Breaking Bad, one might have expected Better Call Saul to be a more light-hearted romp than the show it spun off from. Yet through the magic of stellar acting and the same thoughtful writing that carried its predecessor, this legal and crime drama was as intensely gripping as it was funny.
In the words of John Gray of New Statesman, "Long-form television drama enables this kind of deep realism, and never has it been achieved more successfully than in Better Call Saul."
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Whether it was too ahead of its time or simply too weird for this world, Twin Peaks did not have long to make its mark on TV history. But what an impact it was as the surreal nature of the series unlocked the darkest parts of the human imagination while also comforting us with a frankly adorable cast of characters.
As James Endrst put it in a review for The Hartford Courant, "Often bizarre, always quirky, sometimes dark and cryptic yet surprisingly humorous, it is a show the likes of which viewers have never seen."
It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-)
Even for a show as frenetic and fearless in its edgy comedy as It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, one might expect its chaotic characters' act to get stale after a while. Yet the laughs just keep coming and the show still finds ways to be as surprising as it was in its first episode.
As Liz Shannon Miller wrote for Consequence, "The characters stay dumb, but the show just gets smarter and smarter, and television as a medium is better for it."
Mr. Robot (2015-1019)
This moody, atmospheric drama was incisive in the way it vented our frustrations with this digitized life we now lead. And it worked its magic through Rami Malek's compelling and mysterious Elliot in a turn that makes it easy to see how he became such a celebrated star.
But as Emily St. James of Vox's review makes clear, it's also a show that requires patience. In her words, "Season four, thankfully, seems like it's finally rewarding my faith in the show's long game."
The Sopranos (1999-2007)
There's so much to celebrate about this intelligent and provocative crime/mob drama. It featured masterful explorations of the criminal mind, an unflinching look at the mafia lifestyle, and even dared to confront viewers at various points for thinking that the lifestyle shown in the series was ever cool.
And its unexpected ending still inspires the curiosity and frustration that only true art can. As Steven Hyden wrote for Grantland, "Any explanation... no matter how smart or well-reasoned, misses the point. To explain it would diminish it."
A masterclass in political satire, Veep is every bit as vulgar, insightful, and hilarious as we've come to expect from HBO's more prestigious fare. And while Vice President Selina Meyer's blind ambition and callous nature often make it hard to sympathize once her plans fall apart, Julia Louis-Dreyfus' charismatic performance still makes her fun to watch.
As Lauren Carroll Harris put it in her review for The Guardian, "The ride is so fun and the writing so sarcastically clever."
Pushing Daisies (2007-2009)
A tragic victim of the 2007 writer's strike, this adventurous comedy blended its incredibly dark premise with its breezy and romantic tone with enough intelligence and charm that it never felt jarring. Whether its humor was light or dark in a given moment, the show was so easy to love.
As Ken Tucker of Entertainment Weekly said, "I am freshly impressed with Pushing Daisies' persistent, admirable inventiveness."
Boardwalk Empire (2010-2014)
Boardwalk Empire was an oppressively gritty Prohibition-era crime drama, but its engaging storylines, standout characters, and enviable cast made it an endlessly engaging watch every season. This is especially true in the case of its star, the always-reliable Steve Buscemi.
In the words of The Wrap's Tim Malloy, "Boardwalk Empire is ruthlessly, irredeemably brilliant."
Unflinching and uncompromising in its brutality, it's possible that Deadwood was simply too intense for its time. But its violence and vulgarity underscored a fascinating period piece and character study of real historical figures that made us take a hard look at our idealized vision of the Old West.
Melinda Houston of The Sydney Morning Herald said, "Oh, my goodness. Deadwood might be dirty, depraved, and dangerous, but it's never dull."
All In The Family (1971-1979)
This Norman Lear-produced sitcom reinvented what was possible in the genre with its daring explorations of the societal ills of the '70s through characters who talked as real people do, whether audiences liked it or not. But as uncompromising as it was, it's easy to underestimate both how hilarious and how touching All In The Family could be.
As Ronald Brownstein wrote for The Atlantic, "The night that CBS initially aired All in the Family was the first step on the road toward the Peak TV that we are living through today."
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964)
Over half a century after it first aired, The Twilight Zone remains the beloved ur-example of how to make a suspenseful anthology series more concerned with existential dread and exploring difficult and fascinating questions than jump scares.
In the word of the A.V. Club's Emily St. James, "It sneaks in subversion by pretending to be exactly what it's subverting... Perhaps my favorite T.V. drama ever made."