Top 20 Best TV Shows of the Century (So Far)

VOICE OVER: Rebecca Brayton WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
The best TV shows of the century so far have redefined the medium. For this list, we'll be looking at the greatest TV shows that have so far aired in the 21st century. Our countdown includes “Stranger Things,” “The Office,” “Breaking Bad,” and more!

Top 20 Best TV Shows of the Century (So Far)

We have our modern day classics. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 best TV shows of the century (so far).

For this list, we’ll be looking at the greatest TV shows that have so far aired in the 21st century. The shows in question could have begun before the year 2000, as long as they aired a majority of their run in the 21st century. We will only be including scripted shows, so reality TV, talk shows, and animation will not be included.

#20: “Stranger Things” (2016-)

Netflix’s flagship series “Stranger Things” transported audiences to Hawkins, Indiana for classic sci fi horror and more 80s references than you can shake a stick at. Steeped in the works of Steven Spielberg, Stephen King, John Carpenter, and other genre masters, the Duffer Brothers’ series gained an instant following and quickly became a cultural phenomenon. It also managed to kickstart and reinvigorate several acting careers, and pick up plenty of accolades along the way - including 5 Primetime Emmy wins and 4 Golden Globe nominations. With its wonderful cast and a story that feels both new and familiar at the same time, it’s a show that consistently provides just about the most fun you can have in front of a TV.

#19: “Six Feet Under” (2001-05)

This show has to be one of the most relentlessly morose yet weirdly uplifting things ever put on television. It primarily deals with human mortality and the pain, ambiguity, and philosophical quandaries that it represents. The plot follows the proprietors of a funeral home and their interactions with each other and the grieving people who walk through their doors. It explores many heavy and dense themes concerning mortality, and it certainly isn’t afraid to mine the absolute depths of human pain and suffering. That said, it also finds time for contentment and tranquility, and its brilliant finale remains one of the most beautiful and soul-soothing episodes ever aired on TV.

#18: “The Good Place” (2016-20)

“The Good Place” shares a lot in common with “Six Feet Under,” only it’s lighthearted and hilarious instead of relentlessly soul-crushing. This is creator Michael Schur’s third show, following the acclaimed “Parks and Recreation” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” And it is arguably the best of the bunch. It contains their signature rapid fire wit and cuddly warmth, but it also explores deeper themes about the human condition. It has taken philosophical inspiration from numerous sources, including Aristotle, Jonathan Dancy, and Immanuel Kant, as well as Sartre’s existential play “No Exit.” It was one of the smartest, funniest, and surprisingly humane sitcoms of the decade.

#17: “Barry” (2018-)

Well, this isn’t QUITE what we expected from Bill Hader, but alright! “Barry” is Hader’s comedy-drama, and it follows the titular Barry, a hitman who wants nothing more than to leave his criminal past behind and become a full-time actor. The show shares a lot in common with “Breaking Bad,” as it contains similar themes and tones, not to mention the whole idea of a man hiding his true identity from those who are closest to him. Of course, this is also much, much funnier than “Breaking Bad” ever was, given it's more a dark comedy than a drama. It’s also packed with incredible actors, including Emmy-winning performances from Hader and Henry Winkler. It comes highly recommended.

#16: “30 Rock” (2006-13)

Despite receiving consistent praise, and even being named one of the best-written shows of all time by the Writers Guild of America, “30 Rock” significantly struggled in the ratings. It’s a shame, because it deserves to be seen by as many people as possible. The show is lightly adapted from Tina Fey’s experiences working on “Saturday Night Live,” and it follows the cast, crew, and corporate overlords of a similar sketch comedy program. “30 Rock” drew consistent praise for its production values, razor-sharp and rapid-fire writing, and the performances of its cast. It made careers, it revitalized careers, and the writing amazed viewers with just how smart, fast, and hilarious it could be. It’s a comedy masterclass.

#15: “Battlestar Galactica” (2004-09)

“Battlestar Galactica” (or Battleship Galaxy as Michael Scott calls it) is arguably the greatest science fiction show of all time. While some recent programs like “Altered Carbon” and “The Expanse” have garnered their share of popularity, neither have yet reached the heights of “Battlestar Galactica.” Like all great science fiction stories, this one uses its futuristic setting as allegory to explore topical themes like the war on terror, Al Qaeda, and the Catholic Church. Of course, you can just ignore all that and enjoy the incredible story and scenery at face value. It’s a treat for the mind, the eyes, and the heart.

#14: “Chappelle’s Show” (2003-06)

This is arguably the most important sketch comedy show of all time, not only due to the quality of the show itself, but also for what it represents. “Chappelle’s Show” contained many hilarious, topical, and thematic sketches, and it introduced a host of timeless characters into the pop culture consciousness, primarily the crack-addicted Tyrone Biggums. The skits were smarter, funnier, and certainly more cutting edge than your typical comedy sketches. But it also showcases the merits in artistic integrity and spiritual contentment. Chappelle famously walked away from $50 million, as the stresses of fame, production, and artistic quality had started taking an effect on his mental health. We greatly respect that decision, and besides, you know what they say - “always leave them wanting more.”

#13: “Deadwood” (2004-06)

“Deadwood” tells the sort of true, sort of made up story of...well, Deadwood, a small town in South Dakota. The series charts a path through the town’s rough and tumble, not-quite-legal origins to its official status as a recognized town, complete with historical figures like Seth Bullock, Wild Bill Hickock, Calamity Jane, and Al Swearengen. David Milch uses the story of Deadwood as a microcosm to explore the greater merits of civilization - the very act of disparate individuals putting aside their differences and working together to form a greater and more prosperous whole. It also contains some stellar production values, magnificent poetic writing, and an all-time performance from Ian McShane as Al Swearengen, one of the most captivating, interesting, and complex characters in television history.

#12: “The Office” (2005-13)

“The Office” is one of those exceptionally rare American adaptations that actually worked. Despite a generally rocky first season, “The Office” soldiered through and presented us with some incredible television. The characters were instantly relatable and charming, the humor was hilariously dry, and it contained a surprisingly gooey and warm center, led primarily by the relationship between Jim and Pam. Steve Carell also gave the performance of his career with Michael Scott, who (in our opinion) is one of the most endearing characters in sitcom history. It’s one of those shows you never want to end, and when it does, you find yourself missing the characters and the cozy world they inhabited. So you start it again. And again. And again. Send help.

#11: “The Americans” (2013-18)

It’s clear that “Breaking Bad” has been an enormous influence the decade's television, and as with “Barry”, there are comparisons to be made with “The Americans”. It follows two Soviet spies pretending to be a married American couple in suburban Washington. And wouldn’t you know it, their neighbor works counterintelligence for the FBI! The show contains all the excitement and glorious cat-and-mouse tension you'd expect, but it also serves as a contemplative look at marriage and self-identification. The fact that it can so effortlessly balance the two tones and genres is amazing, and both Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys turn in wonderful performances. This flew under the mainstream radar for most of its run, but it’s already a cult classic.

#10: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (2000-)

Expectations were unbelievably high for Larry David’s follow-up to “Seinfeld.” Hence the possibly meta title. This show does share a few similarities with its spiritual predecessor, including a selfish protagonist and humor generated around misunderstandings and social faux pas. David plays a fictionalized version of himself, a selfish and very set-in-his-ways man who refuses to conform to societal expectations. He doesn’t make for the most agreeable protagonist, but his tactless personality certainly makes for many hilarious and horribly awkward situations! The talents of the cast must also be commended, as much of the show is improvised around a general story outline. It can certainly be a tough watch, but we’ve never seen awkward and cringe-inducing humor done so well. It’s truly painful stuff.

#9: “Fleabag” (2016-19)

Between “Fleabag” and “Killing Eve,” Phoebe Waller-Bridge had herself a fantastic and very prosperous decade. And while both shows are great, it’s “Fleabag” that is often showered with the praise and accolades. Waller-Bridge plays Fleabag, a neurotic woman trying to live her life, and having lots of sex, in modern London. And while the show sounds like a traditional sitcom, Waller-Bridge’s instantly memorable performance and intelligent writing helped turn it into must-watch TV. It never generated endless theories on Reddit, and it didn’t wow us with an expensive production. It’s just a funny, heartwarming, and well-told story, and we can all use a little bit more of that.

#8: “Atlanta” (2016-)

The premise behind “Atlanta” is welcoming – the consistently enjoyable Donald Glover plays a struggling young man who decides to manage his cousin’s budding rap career. Only, the show is so much more than that, and frankly, it’s quite hard to accurately describe. Glover himself has called it “Twin Peaks’ with rappers,” and that’s certainly an accurate description. The show veers wildly between surrealist comedy, hard-hitting personal drama, introspective character study, nightmarish horror, and a thematic look into the social media obsessed hip-hop culture. It’s original, it’s fresh, and above all, it somehow remains consistently enjoyable despite its peculiar trappings. It’s one of the most bizarre yet rewarding TV shows we’ve ever seen.

#7: “Lost” (2004-10)

“Lost” is enormously influential, and various shows are still trying to recapture its lightning-in-a-bottle magic. This is the event show to end all event shows, garnering endless speculation and theories, six years of pent-up public excitement, and upwards of twenty million viewers a week at its peak. And while “Lost” is mostly remembered for its fascinating mysteries, reveals, and plot twists, it also contained an incredible cast of characters who made us cry on a near-weekly basis. One only needs to think of Desmond and Penny’s phone call, or Locke standing up on the beach for the first time, to start feeling the fuzzies. It may not have stuck the landing, but we shouldn’t let a disappointing conclusion overshadow its inarguable qualities and influence.

#6: “Game of Thrones” (2011-19)

When it comes to event television, few shows compare to “Game of Thrones.” This show helped bridge the gap between TV and film, as it contained a stellar cast and the greatest production values ever seen on TV. “Game of Thrones” told a highly complex and intriguing story full of twists and shocking developments, and it was fascinating to watch its popularity rise throughout the years. While it started slow, interest in the show slowly began to rise until it became the decade’s biggest TV event, breaking all sorts of viewership records, launching careers, and promoting endless discussion on forums and social media sites. It didn’t quite stick the landing, but it provided us with eight years of peak TV.

#5: “Mad Men” (2007-15)

On the surface, “Mad Men” follows the employees of an advertising agency. It sounds boring, and it certainly could have been in the wrong hands. Luckily, creator and head writer Matthew Weiner is a virtuoso, and he concocted the definitive statement on changing social mores and the counterculture movement of the 1960s. Like “Deadwood,” “Mad Men” uses the ad agency as a microcosm to explore greater and farther reaching themes, and it's an absolute masterclass in character development. It’s also telling that “Mad Men” aired throughout the late 2000s and early 2010s - another period rife with changing social mores. It uses the 60s to tell a story of modern times, and it does it in a highly entertaining and stylish fashion.

#4: “The Leftovers” (2014-17)

Hypes were high for “The Leftovers” – Damon Lindelof’s first television project since “Lost” – and while “Lost” fizzled out, many people were willing to forgive and see what he had in store. Luckily, they were not disappointed. The series is adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel of the same name and concerns the “leftovers” on Earth who are, well, leftover after 2% of the population mysteriously disappears. The subject matter makes for difficult viewing, as it painfully delves into the complexities of the human psyche, but those who stick around will be infinitely rewarded with some of the best acting and writing in television history. It’s a masterpiece in every sense of the word, but it’s certainly not for everyone.

#3:”The Wire” (2002-08)

Typically regarded as one of the best shows ever made (if not THE best), “The Wire” is arguably the most ambitious show ever created. “The Wire” consistently sought lofty heights, and it mostly saw creator David Simon using the television medium to realistically depict the realities of inner city life and politics. “The Wire” has consistently garnered acclaim for its realism, and that’s largely due to Simon’s background as a police reporter at The Baltimore Sun. He knew what was happening on the streets and in the police stations, schools, and government offices, and he used “The Wire” to accurately, and dramatically, relay that story. It’s The Great American Novel in TV form.

#2: “Breaking Bad” (2008-13)

Now if you want to talk entertaining, let’s talk “Breaking Bad!” This is easily one of the most well-written and tightly-plotted shows in history. You’d think the story was planned from the very beginning, as each action has a thrilling consequence, and the story remains fluid and natural throughout its entire run. It all culminates in the unbelievably thrilling and emotional Ozymandias, which some critics call the greatest episode of television ever made. It also contained a slew of iconic characters, including Mr. White, Jesse Pinkman, and Saul, Mike, and Gus, who were so popular and richly characterized that they received their own, surprisingly excellent, spin-off. We’ve been chasing the high of “Breaking Bad” since 2013, and nothing has come close.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

“Arrested Development” (2003-06; 2013-)

“Watchmen” (2019)

“Parks and Recreation” (2009-15)

“It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (2005-)

“Community” (2009-15)

“Sons of Anarchy” (2008-14)

#1: “The Sopranos” (1999-2007)

“The Sopranos” changed the way television was made, and it legitimized the medium as a serious art form. While prior shows had garnered their share of acclaim and popularity, TV was always seen as a lesser medium. “The Sopranos” not only showed that TV could tell dark, complex, and richly thematic stories, it single handedly launched the Golden Age of TV Dramas, and many of the dramas on this list owe their very existence to “The Sopranos.” Most people expected a traditional gangster story, and while it was that in some ways, it also served as a dark and contemplative look at American life at the turn of the 21st century. It’s a masterpiece of television, and it has yet to be dethroned.
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