Most of us love TV. Whether it’s a drama, sitcom or “reality”, relaxing and watching your favorite show is a priority for many. Certain shows evoke incredibly intense emotional reactions, some others are so funny they continue to be regularly quoted even decades later. And when a show succeeds this way, it’s thanks in large part to the writing. Although a great team and fantastic actors make a good script great, even the best actor can’t turn a bad script into a masterpiece – and the best-written television shows truly are masterpieces.
These are the inspired, game-changing scripts that made their actors into huge stars and production companies rich. Of course, the ‘best’ is always subjective to some degree, but this list is as objective as it’s possible to be, as we’ve compiled reviews and critical consensuses to present the most unanimously agreed-upon fantastic scripts in television history. Many critics and ratings sites such as TV Guide, The Writer’s Guild of America, and others have weighed in on their opinions of the greatest TV shows ever written, and we’ve drawn largely on these with a few reorders and additions at our discretion.
10. The Simpsons
The Simpsons is the most popular animated series ever created. With 552 episodes broadcast since 1989, the show is the longest-running American sitcom, the longest-running American animated program, and the longest-running scripted primetime TV series of all time. When Matt Groening’s popular comic strip “Life in Hell” was passed to producer James L. Brooks, Homer, Bart, Marge, Lisa, and the rest of the iconic characters were born and developed by Groening, Brooks, and Sam Simon. The decision to give The Simpsons a chance on screen has resulted in 31 Primetime Emmys, scripted comedic genius, and Homer’s exclamatory catchphrase “D’oh!” being adopted into the English language.
9. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
The Mary Tyler Moore Show broke boundaries by having the first ever non-married, independent career woman as its lead. The Museum of Broadcast Communications has cited the show as “one of the most acclaimed television programs ever produced in US television history.” TIME magazine claimed in 2007 that The Mary Tyler Moore Show “liberated TV for adults – of both sexes.” The show would prove to be an inspiration for sitcoms such as The Bob Newhart Show, Taxi, Cheers, Frasier, and 30 Rock. The Mary Tyler Moore Show became a forum for writers to infuse sophisticated sensibility into their writing, helping to change the framework of independence and sexuality forever.
The TV series M*A*S*H is one of the highest rated shows in US television history. It was adapted from the 1970 feature film MASH, and became wildly successful. So much so that the February 28, 1983 finale of the show’s 11-season run, titled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen,” still holds the record for the most-watched television episode in US history, with a record-breaking 125 million viewers. Although it struggled in its first season and was on the brink of cancellation, the show – based around three army doctors in the Korean War – eventually became one of the top 20 programs for the rest of its 11-season run. The series, like the movie, became an allegory on the Vietnam War – which was still in progress when the show began – although it was ostensibly about the Korean War.
7. I Love Lucy
Both TV Guide and the Writer’s Guild of America have cited I Love Lucy close to the top of best written shows of all time. This iconic sitcom set the bar for all others, and it also set many records at the time. It was the first scripted TV program to be shot in 35mm film in front of a studio audience. It won five Emmys. It even won the all-elusive Peabody award for “recognition of distinguished achievement in television.” Thanks to its zany cast of Lucille Ball’s Lucy, the loyal Mertzes, Ricky, and the five amazing scriptwriters, I Love Lucy created a mould for sitcom that is been replicated to this day.
6. All in the Family
All in the Family was based on the BBC sitcom Till Death Us Do Part. Although its approach was softer, the comedy broke grounds by depicting ‘controversial’ issues such as sexual assault, miscarriage, homosexuality, racism, abortion, menopause, and impotence: Remember, this show was broadcast from 1971 until 1979. That being said, All In The Family became one of the most influential comedy shows of all time by injecting a sitcom format with realistic and topical issues – the first to do so. It is at number 4 on both the Writer’s Guild of America and TV Guide’s lists of best written shows of all time.
5. Breaking Bad
The premise of this most recent entry on our list is possibly one of the most difficult sells in TV: a cancer-stricken teacher who resorts to meth-making to help his family financially. Of course everything spirals out of control from the get-go, but Vince Gilligan’s addictive, transformative TV show has had the world reeling since its release in 2008. Gilligan successfully turned Bryan Cranston and others into formidable superstars, but even while doing so, he gave audiences an unprecedented look at what it means to be vulnerable and human, the dichotomy of good and bad, and how far people are willing to go for their families and for themselves. The show won 108 industry awards in its five season run, and the final season currently boasts an incredible 99% approval rating on Metacritic.
4. The Wire
The Wire was an HBO show written and created by a former police reporter, David Simon. In its five seasons (2002 – 2008) the show became one of the forerunners of great TV writing. Each season takes a different face of Baltimore – the illegal drug trade, the city government, the seaport system, the school system, and the print news media – and weaves together some of the most incredibly real, scripted stories that you will ever see on television. Although it didn’t win any major TV awards, The Wire has been described by many as one of the greatest TV dramas of all time. Creator David Simon’s vision is a clear, stark depiction of the underbelly of modern America.
3. The Twilight Zone
Rod Serling’s ground-breaking The Twilight Zone first aired in 1959 became iconic and formative in the sci-fi and horror genres. Viewers are still fascinated by the black-and-white show to this day, and for good reason. It gives a look into the unknown, into the fascinating, and into the human conditions of intrigue and fear. In the end, that’s what creator Rod Serling always wanted; a curious audience. He created some of the best-acted, best-written and creepiest stories even shown on television while simultaneously amazing us in a show that is still revolutionary even into the 21st century.
The “show about nothing” is really much more than that. Co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David created one of the masterpieces of outrageous sitcom. It was the most popular show of its time, and it’s still one of the most syndicated shows on the planet. People just can’t get enough of Jerry, George, Elaine, and of course Kramer. The show finished among the top two Nielsen ratings every year from 1994 to 1998. TV Guide has claimed it’s the greatest TV program of all time, but they revoked that title after 2002. They still hold it as #2, and so does the Writer’s Guild of America. There’s no getting around it: the “show about nothing” holds a special place in many people’s hearts, and the writing is absolutely superb.
1. The Sopranos
The Sopranos is often named as the best TV series of all time. TV Guide and WGA both agree, as do many others. David Chase saw the potential of the story of an Italian mob-boss conflicted with balancing his family and his organization, and HBO agreed. As fantastic as all of the actors are – James Gandolfini, Edie Falco and Michael Imperioli among them – it’s not any one star in particular who makes this the best show of all time – it’s the writing. The show won 21 Emmys, five Golden Globes, and has become a staple of American pop culture and beyond. David Chase took the Godfather and Scarface motifs and threw them upside-down, and created a conflicted family piece that is as yet unsurpassed.