The greatest TV shows of all time, as chosen by your fellow citizens.
We’ve all been sitting on our butts for far too long this year. One upside—we have all become experts on TV shows, and in particular, which ones are the best.
So, on top of everything else you have been wondering about this year (will Auckland’s lockdown finish, when will I see Dune, what’s for dinner) we asked the most important question ever: what are the greatest TV shows of all time?
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Over 10,000 votes came in from all around New Zealand. As an extra incentive to vote, we gave away a bunch of prizes including a year’s subscription to seven major streaming platforms.
Congrats to Ruby from Auckland, who writes in response to winning: “NO WAY!!!! This is the best news EVER!!! We had so much fun debating the top shows over dinner that night. And so many good ones we had forgotten about too. I can stop piggybacking off the sister’s Netflix and finally an excuse to get AppleTV.”
Today we reveal the top 50 titles, with Breaking Bad, Game of Thrones, The Sopranos, The Wire and Friends among the highest-voted shows, The results confirm Aotearoa’s appetite for the all-time greats remains undiminished (witness M*A*S*H also taking a Top 10 spot).
Please spare a thought for Joe Exotic, with Tiger King—voted most-watched show in our lockdown survey last year—only picking up a single, solitary, vote in the poll. But hey, that’s one more than “the six o’clock news”.
Some of the classic shows on this list, like The Sopranos, enjoyed a fresh wave of popularity during lockdown. And while this may change in future polls, no shows exclusively debuting on streaming have cracked the top ten, even as Squid Game’s huge recent popularity saw it leap the likes of Mad Men into 13th place.
Perhaps next time we’ll see the streaming giants figure more prominently—although it should be said that most of the shows on this list are available to stream in Aotearoa, and you can find all the info you need to watch them by here at Flicks (of course).
Now, without further delay, let’s begin your countdown of the greatest TV shows ever.
“I’ll see you again in 25 years,” said Laura Palmer in 1991, and bucking the 21st century trend of disappointing sequels and reboots, Palmer’s words were prophetic—Twin Peaks’ third season from 2017 is still reverberating in our psyches alongside the magnificent original series.
Since its premiere in 1990 Twin Peaks moved far beyond the “who killed Laura Palmer?” hook that drove early interest in the show (and pitched this complex, wonderful beast as a mere murder mystery). Its DNA lives on in the decades of increasingly sophisticated television that eventually followed, even as its recent return proved no one’s got anything close to David Lynch’s gumption in challenging his audience. Twin Peaks is so singular an achievement that its legacy is far more about the evergreen content of its episodes than anything it may have inspired.
Whether its the original UK version or its longer-running Trans-Atlantic American cousin, The Office has a painfully real comedic grip on audiences that it’s not likely to relinquish any time soon. Identifying—and magnifying—the everyday boredom and inter-personal idiocy found in office workplaces, there’s a universality powering this often cringey comedy that helped make it a humongous hit.
So recognisable are the personalities seen here that you probably don’t even need to be in a hum-drum office environment to identify them among your colleagues and peers (or, yikes, friends). And in taking banal normality to an absurd conclusion, well, the results speak for themselves in how many laughs and squirms were served up by this deceptively simple office-set premise. That’s aided considerably by the mathematical precision with which its characters have been formed and hurled into comedic conflict with one another—and, lest we forget, when Ricky Gervais had something truly worthwhile to contribute to our lives.
The genius of a “show about nothing” is that it’s actually a show about anything and, as Seinfeld proved, the smaller, most specific and pathetic these things are, the better. Examining the minute details of modern life through a cynic’s view of human nature (continued by Seinfeld co-creator Larry David to great, if even more misanthropic, effect in Curb Your Enthusiasm), there were more of our own personalities to be found in Seinfeld‘s characters than perhaps we’d care to admit.
Unflattering portrayed, but somehow likeable (sometimes?), Jerry, Elaine, George and Kramer are a perfectly-balanced group, brought to life by fantastic performances (even Jerry’s… sometimes). Add the show’s weekly fixations, schemes gone awry, quotable catch-phrases and social faux pas (and a horrifically effective earworm of a theme song—you can probably hear it right now), what may have been a hard show to sell on paper became unmissably addictive onscreen—leading the culture as much as commenting on it.
Infamously running for much longer (more than twice as long!) as its Korean War setting, M*A*S*H occupied a pre-6pm news spot for what seemed like forever, and has probably done more to celebrate pacifism, alcoholism, anti-authoritarianism and pre-dinner horniness than it’s given credit for.
With a magnificent cast capable of both traditional sitcom comedy and genuine dramatic pathos, laugh-heavy hijinks frequently took centre-stage. The grimness of its wartime setting was never far away, though, conveying the pointlessness of cannon fodder death tolls and the crushing emotional impact on those left to deal with the consequences. If comedy equals tragedy plus time, it’s no wonder M*A*S*H scores high on that equation thanks to its wartime awfulness and long eleven season run.
If you’d guessed that Matt Groening’s interstitial cartoons in between Tracy Ullman sketches would end up being the single biggest repository of human popular culture history after the internet… well, no one could have imagined the evolution of The Simpsons, surely.
At one point this dysfunctional family sitcom was both the show everyone watched and a show that some argued was everything wrong with America. Now the arguments are more about what era of The Simpsons is the greatest (“seasons three to eight!” this old man yells at cloud), and when—or if—this show, now 33 seasons old, will ever end. Some of us may have checked out when it comes to new episodes, but key moments, lines and characters are never far from our minds. There’s no overstating the impact of this popular culture juggernaut, even if we may have moved on from doing the Bartman.
Generation X and its cynical slackerdom may have dominated 90s culture, but couldn’t escape the allure of a traditional sitcom—especially one that spoke to their own desires, following a group of friends in their 20s and 30s who share impossibly unaffordable apartments. Sharply written dialogue was matched by an exponentially-evolving understanding by the show’s writers about what made its characters tick—and yet again here we see the victory of casting the right actors (not a straight-forward process, and with some approaching their last shot at the sort of big break this show provided).
Just like a real group of friends, the show teased its characters, but always with a loveable foundation. And, with one of the classic will-they-won’t-they couples of TV history in Ross and Rachel, Friends knew when to embrace some soapy aspects and tug on our heartstrings. Stray thought—while those of us in Auckland wait to get a haircut, is anyone considering asking for the once-ubiquitous ‘do “The Rachel”?
Hear me out—I’ve got a theory: The Wire is one of Aotearoa’s first experiences with bingeing a newly-discovered TV show. Consigned to an impossibly late-night broadcast slot, the show went largely unnoticed when it aired, until box-sets of DVDs started doing the rounds, shared between friends or seemingly always rented out at video stores (remember them?).
So, when we started on The Wire, it was with a bunch of episodes on hand—and nothing could have suited the rich and real world of the show or its patient, season-long plotting better. Digging into his background as an author and crime reporter, building on his time on Homicide: Life on the Street, creator David Simon documented what was happening in everyday Baltimore—from the corners to the towers, docks, all the way up to city hall. Along the way we fell in love with McNulty and Bunk, and saw a generation of fantastic actors get their breaks. All the while it felt tangible and real, always one step ahead of us, evolving as it pulled back one curtain after another to show us how things really work.
The Sopranos followed in a long line of interrogating screen archetypes, peeling back the layers and revealing the humanity (and its motivations, frailties and complexities) lying within. Here clichéd mobster tropes were reexamined, and true three-dimensionality brought to its characters, all of whom lived a way of life still fuelled by familiar bluster, but depicted in some of its most banal moments (and a far from picturesque New Jersey setting).
The mob had been mythologised and moralised for so long—but we’d never seen something like this. A shining example of the millenium-era Golden Age of Television and a standard-bearer for HBO, The Sopranos captured the full potential of television of the time. High production values were accompanied by its compelling serialised storytelling, and adult content that may be the norm today, but back then could only have belonged on cable. A game-changer, and as this year proved, eminently rewatchable (or to be discovered for the first time). And as for that ending!
Perhaps we should avoid any talk of endings, arriving at Game of Thrones. At its best when faithfully bringing George R.R. Martin’s rich mythology, complex characters, and addictive storylines to life, the further the show diverged from its source material, the less consistent it became—until a finale that left many cold.
Possibly the peak of the recent Golden Age of TV—watched by damn near everyone, spending amounts of cash that were impossible to conceive of (until the streamers started their budgetary arms race), achieving a cultural ubiquity—Game of Thrones repeated The Lord of the Rings’ feat of bringing fantasy to the mainstream. The right show at the right time to leave an enduring mark, it’s spawned plenty of imitators—and upcoming GoT spin-offs have their work cut out living up to the original series’ gargantuan critical and commercial success. Will there be another show of this impact? Or was this perhaps the last of its kind for HBO?
Showrunner Vince Gilligan may have known the dark places Walter White was headed, but when Breaking Bad started, we could all relate to White’s everyday displays of wish-fulfilment and acting out. It’s human nature to want to break our shackles, and that process started relatively innocently here (if one sets aside the ginormous societal plague that is methamphetamine). Somewhere along the way, at a moment that may differ from viewer to viewer, the masterfully-controlled trajectory of White from family man to villain reached a point of no return. One of the most genius elements of Breaking Bad was this slowly bending moral compass in the background, while White found himself facing increasingly threatening moments episode to episode.
Causing panic-causing urgency when it counted, drawing out tension almost unbearably across multiple episodes elsewhere, and conjuring ever-increasing heartbreak in its central surrogate father-son relationship, Breaking Bad is a modern masterpiece which captivated its viewers in a number of different ways. Whatever your entry point, or hopes for its characters, Gilligan was determined to hook you, thrill you—and eventually ruin you. That’s in no small part to what’s been mentioned a few times already, and in truth applies to all the shows that rated high in this poll—the show’s casting is pure genius, from Bryan Cranston on down. Roles of lifetimes, all round.