I love good television, whether it be a comedy, a drama, science fiction, or even a cartoon, and any movie lover is bound to have numerous favorite shows. That being said, I will mention up front that I have not seen nearly as many as the pop culture experts, mainly because of how time-consuming catching up on a show can be. I’ve never seen Buffy or Breaking Bad or Bonanza, and my aversion to violence has prevented me from checking out acclaimed but notorious shows like Game of Thrones or The Walking Dead. Still, when I find a show I like, I enjoy watching and rewatching it and tend to know it inside and out. I can thank my parents for introducing me to many of the older shows on this list, while others I stumbled upon as a pleasant surprise. I may not be the most well-versed TV viewer, but I can say for a fact that all of these are great television.
- TIE: Little House on the Prairie (1974-1983)/ The Waltons (1972-1981)
I’m probably one of the only guys my age who can see the merit in these two old-fashioned shows. I grew up with reruns of both of them on Hallmark Channel, and even as more modern and edgy shows have replaced them, I still carry a special fondness for rural family dramas.
Little House on the Prairie is based off of the book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder and similarly paints a lovable picture of frontier life from the viewpoint of young Laura (Melissa Gilbert). Michael Landon as her wise Pa is one of the quintessential TV fathers, and while the show grew stale in its later seasons, most of its run was deeply endearing, whether it be Laura’s quarrels with mean Nellie Oleson or the sad season where sister Mary went blind.
The Waltons is also based on the youth and work of an author, producer Earl Hamner, Jr., replaced by John-Boy Walton (Richard Thomas). Growing up in Depression-era Virginia with his parents, grandparents, and six siblings, John-Boy faces moral questions and personal challenges as he becomes a writer, goes to college, and also depends on the wisdom of his father (Ralph Waite). Again, later seasons degraded in quality, but The Waltons built an enduring family and community that faced financial difficulty and still came out happy. Both of these shows may seem boring and saccharine by today’s standards, but they serve as reminders to me of the simple comfort of the simple past. The first notes of both opening themes make me feel like I’m going home to visit old family and friends.
- TIE: Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015) / Gravity Falls (2012-present)
Recent shows like these have confirmed that cartoons can be enjoyed by adults just as much as by kids. Both of these are Disney Channel shows (probably the best in its history), which take place over one very eventful summer. Both have attracted adult fan bases and many talented voice actors.
Phineas and Ferb is very formulaic. Stepbrothers Phineas (Vincent Martella) and Ferb (Thomas Sangster) and their friends go to crazily fun lengths to make the most of the summer, while their sister Candace (Ashley Tisdale) tries to “bust” them to their mother, while their pet platypus escapes to fight an evil scientist. First, it’s odd; then it’s utterly familiar. Yet the showrunners find every opportunity to alter expectations and make it fresh with consistent humor and surprisingly impressive songs in every single episode. You know what to expect, but you never know what will change. The show sadly ended just this year, but even in the final episode, they were toying with the space-time continuum and making one of the funniest spoon jokes ever. Am I a fan of this show? Yes, yes, I am. Here’s one of the best musical numbers:
Gravity Falls was another surprise, as it’s quickly surpassed my expectations with its addictive mystery. Twins Dipper (Jason Ritter) and Mabel (Kristen Schaal) are sent to Gravity Falls, Oregon, to stay for the summer with their con artist Great Uncle Stan (show creator Alex Hirsch). Small, silly mysteries give way to huge ones, with cleverly hidden clues and hints sprinkled throughout each episode via background details and encoded backwards messages. (That whispering at the end of the theme song below is a backwards message for how to decode another message during the end credits.) Gravity Falls has some of that modern cartoon weirdness (anyone who’s seen Cartoon Network’s current lineup knows what I mean), but it works, with spoofs of movies like The Thing, The Exorcist, or those horror anthologies. Think, childish antics one minute and possessed mounted heads bleeding from the mouth the next. Yeah, on a supposed kid’s show (not so much). The early episodes don’t fully prepare you for how epic Gravity Falls becomes. It’s also hilariously written, and recent cliffhanger episodes have left me craving more.
- St. Elsewhere (1982-1988)
Predating the more recent hospital dramas like ER or Grey’s Anatomy, St. Elsewhere was one of the best dramas of the 1980s. Doctors and nurses at Boston’s unprestigious teaching hospital St. Eligius dealt with all kinds of current issues, from bombers and rapists and missing children to cancer and organ transplants. It also featured an amazingly talented ensemble cast, including many actors in before-they-were-famous roles, such as Denzel Washington, Howie Mandel, Ed Begley, Jr., David Morse, Alfre Woodard, Bruce Greenwood, and Helen Hunt, not to mention two-time Emmy winner and five-time nominee William Daniels as irascible Dr. Mark Craig. Full of memorable, often heartbreaking episodes, this show is one not to be forgotten.
- Gilligan’s Island (1964-1967)
From an acclaimed drama to a silly favorite, I could not not put Gilligan’s Island on this list. Again, I grew up watching reruns, and the slapstick interactions of those seven people trapped on an island (without polar bears, hatches, or smoke monsters) never cease to be entertaining. Anyone who’s anyone has to know the easily singable theme song. From the odd couple antics of Gilligan and the Skipper to the pompous vanity of the Howells to the ridiculously inventive contraptions made by the Professor, Gilligan’s Island has a timeless quality, and I expect to be laughing at it with my grandchildren many years hence.
- Sherlock (2010-present)
I hesitated to include Sherlock since it is essentially a series of TV movies, but it qualifies well enough. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman are terrifically watchable actors on their own, but putting them together in a modern-day take on the famous detective was downright genius. The writing, humor, and editing are phenomenal, but it all comes down to their chemistry and delivery. Cumberbatch nails the self-assured, single-minded intensity of everyone’s favorite high-functioning sociopath, while Freeman’s down-to-earth Watson offers the perfect contrast with his quick wit and muted reactions. The show continues to deliver constant inventiveness and intrigue. Like Sherlock himself, it’s clever, and it knows it’s clever, and it relishes being clever in all the best ways. Can’t wait for the Christmas special!
- TIE: Firefly (2002) / Cowboy Bebop (1998)
I’m not the first to compare these two shows, and I just couldn’t resist combining them here due to their many similarities. Both are about thirteen hours long and feature believable, occasionally violent, space-faring settings with a mixed Western vibe; the crew of a rundown spaceship seeking their next job; an awesome lead character who can shoot hostage takers in the head; a young girl genius who acts weird and adds little to individual episodes; and a spinoff movie to satisfy fans’ demands for more.
In truth, Firefly is the better of the two shows. Joss Whedon’s retroactively popular science fiction deserved a much longer lifespan than just half a season. With impressive special effects for the time and Whedon’s shrewd dialogue, which can only be described as “shiny,” Captain Mal Reynolds and the crew of the Serenity turned Firefly into more than just another canceled show. They became a ragtag family aboard that ship, while the combination of futuristic technology and old-fashioned shootouts clinched Firefly as something truly unique.
As unique as it is, though, there were forerunners. I’ve heard that another anime show called Outlaw Star had a frozen girl in a box a few years before Whedon did. Cowboy Bebop may not have directly influenced it, but it’s still an excellent show with fantastic music. Hailed as one of the best anime shows ever, Cowboy Bebop follows the small crew of the Bebop, bounty hunters (not the Jubal Early kind) who catch bad guys while coming to terms with their pasts. Spike Spiegel is as cool as they come, and his kick-butt adventures with ship owner Jet Black, amnesiac femme fatale Faye Valentine, and a girl named Edward typically start slow and build to an action-packed finale. Whereas Firefly has a more explicitly Western tone, Cowboy Bebop incorporates more crime drama, jazz, and film noir, with subtle characterization and artsy editing. Each episode is distinct (one episode is like space-age Midnight Run, while another is a serio-comic version of Alien), but major plot threads tie together (for the most part) for an exceptionally sad conclusion. The worst thing I can say about the show is that each 30-minute episode is so full of plot that it easily could have warranted an hour runtime to avoid feeling rushed. Still, Cowboy Bebop is concise storytelling at its best.
- Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
Time travel is a concept full of possibility, and Quantum Leap was the first show to do it justice. Amnesiac Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) “leaps” into other people’s bodies throughout modern history, solving problems and righting wrongs with the indirect aid of his friend Al (Dean Stockwell), who appears to him as a hologram. Sam gets to know the family or acquaintances of his host body and resolve the minor setbacks of history, and though he typically only bumps into famous people, sometimes he leaps right into them, whether for awkward humor (Dr. Ruth) or drama (Lee Harvey Oswald). Right when you think the writers have run out of ideas, they come up with some brilliant or silly variation of the main concept, and the result was always entertaining. Oh, boy.
- M*A*S*H (1972-1983)
TV dramedy doesn’t get any better than M*A*S*H, a show that garnered eleven seasons, eight Golden Globes, fourteen Emmys, and more than one hundred Emmy nominations. Through the motley bunch of surgeons and soldiers at the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital, viewers got an eleven-year look at the three-year Korean War, which perhaps seemed just as long to those who fought in it. M*A*S*H was at the forefront of innovative television, whether it be an episode filmed in real time or one from the first-person view of a patient. For such a long-running show, it surprisingly got better with time. The first couple of seasons were more generally comedic, while later seasons cranked up the drama, even killing a main character offscreen. From Alan Alda’s likable joker Hawkeye to Harry Morgan’s stoic but soft-hearted Colonel Potter, viewers truly got to know and love these characters, making the historic finale a genuine tearjerker.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) / The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)
Predating James Cameron’s similarly named blockbuster, Avatar: The Last Airbender was quite a surprise. Nickelodeon up to that point was known for pure silliness like SpongeBob or The Fairly OddParents, yet Avatar mingled its comedy with a startlingly awesome world with elemental superpowers called bending and an ongoing storyline that became more serious with each season. The last surviving airbender is discovered as the lost peace-bringing Avatar, and with Katara and Sokka of the Water Tribe, he sets out to master Water, Earth, and Fire and defeat the evil, warmongering Fire Lord. I’ve heard Avatar compared with Star Wars, another franchise with a young protagonist learning to master mystical powers to topple a dark tyrant. The characters are lovable and surprisingly deep, while the action and elemental showdowns are all levels of cool. Despite some mysticism, I consider Avatar the best animated show ever. (I’m also including The Legend of Korra here since it continues the story and world of Avatar seventy years later. It’s not quite as good, but it has a similar blend of fantasy and excitement while tackling more mature themes.)
- Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994)
Star Trek is a staple in my house. From television to movies, it has been a consistent source of thought-provoking science fiction for nearly fifty years now. While I still very much enjoy the original Star Trek with Kirk and Spock and McCoy, it’s a bit dated, and The Next Generation helped to reinvigorate the Trek universe for yes, the next generation of fans. Next Gen started slow and had its cheesy moments too, but it’s a prime example of a show’s actors and writers finding their groove over time. As much as I like Kirk and Spock, I learned to love Captain Picard (Patrick Stewart), Data (Brent Spiner), Dr. Crusher (Gates McFadden), Geordi Laforge (LeVar Burton), and the rest of the new Enterprise crew even more. Now that another Star Trek show is in the works, I can only hope it will have a similar effect on another “next generation” of fans.
- Star Trek: Voyager (1995-2001)
I may be in the minority (and I haven’t fully explored Deep Space Nine and Enterprise), but I am convinced that Voyager is the best Star Trek series of them all, breaking ground with its strong female captain and exploring questions of identity, truth, and principles. It follows something of the same exploration theme as the three Enterprise shows but hurls the titular ship to the Delta Quadrant, allowing the entire show to be a sci-fi Odyssey, a mission to get home. Again, the actors take time adjusting to their roles, but once they do, they become almost like family. From the contrast between logical Tuvok (Tim Russ) and gregarious Neelix (Ethan Phillips) to the warm rapport between Captain Janeway (Kate Mulgrew) and Chakotay (Robert Beltran) to the endearing ego of the holographic Doctor (Robert Picardo), the characters grow on their journey, amid all manner of alien attacks and ethical quandaries. Science fiction provides an opportunity to ask moral questions that aren’t as feasible in real-life scenarios, and Voyager (and Star Trek in general) excels at just that. This is probably the show I’ve seen the most frequently since I never get tired of it.
- Lost (2004-2010)
J.J. Abrams, you’re my hero. This ranking should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read more than a few of my posts. I’m grateful for the words “in my opinion,” because with them I can gush to my heart’s content. In my opinion, Lost is the greatest show ever made. IMO, no other show can compare with the level of character development reached through all the flashbacks and flash-forwards. IMO, Lost is an addictive drug of a show right from the explosive opening, with ongoing mysteries and intense emergencies and character deaths both unexpected and heart-rending. I know J.J. Abrams and the writers did not preplan Lost in its entirety, but that only makes the end product an even more incredible feat of storytelling. Characters pop up in others’ flashbacks, details nearly forgotten reassert their importance, and no other show has made me and my family cry because we became so attached to this diverse ensemble of beloved characters. Even if many did not like or understand the final season, it wrapped everything up well enough to leave the perfect bittersweet glow that the end of a great show should. Now I have to go rewatch it. J
Arrow (2012-present) – Further proof that Marvel rules the box office, but DC excels with TV.
The Bugs Bunny Show (1960-2000) – My VC insisted I included her favorite cartoon, even if it was a collection of shorts rather than a typical TV show.
The Cosby Show (1984-1992) – Despite all the Bill Cosby scandals, I still enjoy the original show that made him a household name.
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996-2005) – Ray Romano’s dysfunctional family still puts a smile on my face.
Full House (1987-1995) – It seems overly sweet now, but it was one of my favorite sitcoms growing up.
Good Eats (1999-2012) – Alton Brown’s quirky cooking show with many movie references. I’ll never make coq au vin, but it’s fun watching him do it.
Hey, Arnold! (1996-2004) – A likable and down-to-earth cartoon with admirable morals.
Jeopardy! (1964-present) – Everyone’s favorite game show is mine too. I’m still insisting I’ll be a contestant one of these days.
Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (2013-present) – Proof that Marvel can excel at TV too, especially with Joss Whedon’s involvement.
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1970-1977) – There’s something about Mary and her TV station coworkers that still wins hearts all these years later.
Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969) – Dated yet classic, this is the Trek show that started it all.
Star Wars: Clone Wars (2003) – Not to be confused with the less appealing CGI show, this short-form series added just the right action and background information in between Episodes II and III.
Taxi (1978-1983) – A classic comedy with Judd Hirsch and Danny DeVito.
Teen Titans (2003-2006) – A fun anime-influenced superhero show that could get surprisingly dark.
The Twilight Zone (1959-1964) – Rod Serling’s classic anthology series ranged from chilling horror to memorable what-if science fiction.
Shows I’ve been meaning to check out:
Once upon a Time