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The 20 Best TV Shows of All Time

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Here is our list of the top 20 Best Television Shows of all time.  If you haven’t seen all of these, please watch them, you won’t be disappointed. Ranking the top 20 best TV shows of all time takes time and it takes a certain…arrogance.  Fortunately, we at TVguide.ca have both of those.

The arrogance to declare something the “Best” when you clearly haven’t seen every television show ever made, is pretty incredible.  I’m sure my list is heavily biased towards modern English language programming, so please take it with a grain of salt.  However, if you disagree with this list, I’m very sorry, but you’re wrong.  No, Breaking Bad and Game of Thrones don’t even make the top 50.

20. Atlanta

The first entry on our list of top shows is also the most recent program on the list.  It debuted just last year and it’s a funny, touching, serious and sad look at the lives of a young black man and his aspiring rap star friends in Atlanta, Georgia.  Each episode has an interesting and unique theme.  It never takes a heavy hand, but it is always funny and though provoking.

19. Seinfeld

It’s funny, it’s influential.  There are so many great characters and situations, but honestly, we feel that it’s dated and overrated.   Some of the topics that were edgy in 1995 fall a little flat today.  And many of these old shows, with the laugh track, have become a parody of themselves.  That being said, it still makes our list.

18. Cheers

Not many traditional sitcoms made this list. Most are quite unfunny and quite outdated.  We placed Cheers on the list because much of the humor has stood the test of time and because the show had heart.  A heart and a chemistry between the characters that is lacking in many shows.  The interplay between Sam & Diane, especially in season one, is some of the finest comedic television to ever come out of the American big networks.

17. South Park

South Park is very hit or miss satire.  Some episodes are brilliant while others are lackluster and, as South Park itself has stated “beat a dead horse”.  I’m certain the reason for this is that the show is made on a very tight schedule to ensure it’s fresh and current.  Nonetheless, the classic episodes are some of the finest satire of aspects of American culture.

16. Bleak House

A British series based on the Novel “Bleak House” by Charles Dickens.  The cast of characters is incredible.  Gillian Anderson from the X-Files showed us she could do an fantastic British accent.  Other stars include: Carey Mulligan, before she was famous.  Charles Dance, better know for playing Tywin Lannister in Game of Thrones plays a better and more interesting villain.  Watching the series for his performance alone is worthwhile.

15. The Singing Detective

No, not the remake with Mel Gibson and Robert Downey (though, admittedly, it was ok).  This is a British series from the 1980s and it’s simply fantastic.  The main character is a middle-aged man with a horrible festering skin condition, so it’s not as glamorous as Madmen.  He is confined to a hospital bed for the entire series, but it’s through his memories, his feverish hallucinations of childhood, a Detective novel and song-and-dance numbers, that we see serious action.  It may sound silly, but it’s twice as good as just about any program from this current “Golden Age” of television.

14. The Kids in the Hall

By far the best truly Canadian show of all time.  At truly bizarre sketch comedy show that has been hailed as far ahead of its time and its influence can be seen on much of the comedy you see today.  It was progressive, surreal, silly, and bizarre and it makes most other original Canadian Television look like garbage (most of it is).

13. The Shield

This fictional look at a corrupt police task force in Los Angeles is, apparently, somewhat based on reality, but is mainly fiction.  Either way, it’s a gripping drama.  The main character, Vic Mackey, is alone worth watching the show for.  He’s a highly conflicted man.  On one hand, a family man who cares for his own, but on the other a devious psychopath criminal who will stop at nothing to stay out of prison.

12. Enlightened

In the history of TV shows, more often than not a good show starts out good and then declines in quality until it’s cancelled.  This show was the opposite.  It started out OK and then became one of the greatest TV shows of all time… then it was cancelled.  This criminally under-watched program is one of the greatest ever produced by HBO.  Laura Dern’s cringey new age character is at times repugnant and at others so endearing.  The supporting cast is also excellent.  Very disappointing that it was cancelled too soon.  If you start watching the 1st season, don’t give up, it gets better towards the end and season 2 is fantastic.

11. Arrested Development

This animated, dysfunctional family is one of the most funny things on television.  You will watch it and laugh and then watch the entire series again and laugh harder since you will better understand the references, the foreshadowing that make this comedy delightful.  These archetypes have never been done better before.  They’re a surreal bunch of people and they are one of the best dysfunctional families you will ever watch on television.

Like many of the shows on this list, it needs an asterix.  The first two seasons are hillarious.  The third season is mixed.  And the fourth season revival was terrible.  I couldn’t even sit through it.

10. Klovn aka “Clown”

This is, sadly, the only foreign language show that made the list.  This demonstrates the limitations of lists such as this one.  I really haven’t seen that many foreign shows.  However, I have seen a number of Danish TV shows, as they’ve seen something of a Renaissance in the West – through streaming services like Netflix.  Shows such as The Killing, Borgen, Broen and Dicte are all quite good and deserve a fair amount of praise, but none of even near good enough to make this list.  There is, however, one Danish program that is virtually unknown in the the English speaking world.  In fact, it’s quite hard to find with subtitles.  It’s called Klovn or “Clown” and it is one of the funniest shows ever made.  At first glance, it’s clearly an imitation of the HBO show “Curb your Enthusiasm”, but it’s funnier, darker and gets away with stuff you would never see on television in Canada.  If you can’t find the show, we would recommend the 1st movie, “Klown”, which you can rent with subtitles (don’t rent the film Klown Forever as it’s not very good).

9. Larry sanders show

There are so many shows and movies made in Hollywood, satirizing Hollywood.  It’s exhausting, really.  But this show is the gold-standard in satirizing the shallow, self-obsessed world of Hollywood celebrity.  You can thank this show for virtually any good comedy program that has aired in the years since (e.g. the Office).  It’s really great and it really holds up.

8. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks was a very strange, compelling, different show.  Especially when it premiered in the early 90’s.  The recent “revival” season of the series made it much stranger and more compelling than ever before.   Watching this show and unlocking its dark secrets is as compelling as ever.  Twin Peaks rocks on the near edge of exquisite absurdity. Its genius is that it doesnt confine itself to any one genre, rather it’s a mystery mixed a silly melodrama.  Almost a parody of a soap opera.  And the revival is another thing entirely.  It takes the original series and twists it as if to mock us for our desire to “go back” and revisit things we enjoyed from the past – as is a recent trend in television and movies.  A truly great show.

7. Yes, Minister/ Yes, Prime Minister

If you don’t like in the UK, you likely haven’t heard of this political satire from the 1980s in England.  It is more like a three man play.  It is very funny, very real and, surprisingly, feels very relevant even 35 years later.  It is one of the most intelligent sitcoms ever made.  Every episode has a theme and it is delightful.

6. Mad Men

Mad Men, at least in the early seasons, is one of the best shows we’ve ever seen.  The writing on this show is a real thing of beauty.  Far from devolving into soapy Madison Avenue pablum, Mad Men is a masterpiece.

5. The thick of it

The British spiritual successor to Yes, Minister, The Thick of It is an updated swear-ier version with even more absurdity.  It centers around a hapless Minister in the British government as they struggle to blunder through their short careers in government.  Malcolm Tucker, the Prime Minister’s “attack dog”, and one of the most powerful men in government is possibly the funniest and most bitingly entertaining character in a comedy to date.

4. The office UK

Far, far, far better than its American counterpart (and a tiny fraction of the length), the British version of the Office is close to the finest comedy series of all time.  It is so utterly dark.

3. The Simpsons

There should be a big, fat asterix next to this one.  Seasons 2 to 5 of the Simpsons were absolutely amazon.  There were good episodes before and there have been good episodes since, but on the whole, the show has been mediocre to terrible for the last 20+ years.   It’s the longest running scripted program in history and it has been coasting on the extraordinarily high quality of the early seasons.  If you were to take the quality of every episode and average it, the Simpsons would plummet.  If you want a good example of how to quit while you’re ahead, take a look at our last entry on this list, the Office.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, this show is a strong contender for the best show ever.  The quality of the writing and acting in the early seasons is staggering.  There are few episodes that are below stellar quality in the early seasons.  The Simpsons are the second best dysfunctional family in the history of television (top spot goes to our show in 1st place)..  It’s non-stop comedy gold.  If you haven’t seen the early seasons, check them out.

2. Wire

If you’re looking for a staggeringly good ensemble cast and an amazing portrait of  inner city Baltimore – and through that lens, America, then look no further.  This show is nearly perfect in every way.  It has this raw grittiness, realism and most of all heart that most other shows fail to capture.  If you’ve never seen this show, you are missing out.  By the time you’ve viewed all five seasons, you will add at least 3 or 4 new characters to your list of “best characters of all time”

1. Sopranos

It has been called the greatest piece of American art of the 21st century and we’re not inclined to disagree or consider this hyperbole.  This Anti-American Dream is a portrait of the New Jersey criminal underworld and of America as a whole. We follow the boss of the New Jersey Italian mob, Tony Soprano, and his family, associates, friends and the FBI and it is solid gold.  There are only a few episodes that are comparatively weak (and this is in comparison to the unbelievably good).  If you haven’t seen this show, watching it should be your top priority.

It was the show that triggered the current golden age of television because it was so very popular and because

It’s both the best comedy and drama ever made.

 

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