The best TV shows of the past 25 years, according to actual fans
In honor of the site’s 25th anniversary this year, Rotten Tomatoes got the idea for a timely piece of editorial content and decided to ask critics to pick what they think are the best TV shows of the past quarter-century. You can check out the series that those “Tomatometer” critics selected — including several beloved HBO classics, like The Wire, The Sopranos, and Succession — in a separate post we published at the end of July. Along those same lines, meanwhile, we’re now going to take a look at a different version of the same thing — except this time, it’ll be fans that have chosen what they think are the best TV shows over that same time period.
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You can read more about the Rotten Tomatoes-commissioned ranking right here. Here’s a quick rundown, along with some of our own commentary, about each of the 10 TV shows that fans think were the best of the past 25 years.
#10 Dark (Netflix)
This is probably the best TV show on Netflix that I daresay many of you have never heard of.
The 3-season Dark, which premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film Festival, is a cult favorite that was created by award-winning showrunners Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese. It’s set in a present-day German town, and two children have disappeared — a turn of events that exposes the double lives and relationships among four families.
There are 10 hour-long episodes to binge, and they take an increasingly supernatural twist — linking back to the same town, decades earlier. Stick with it, and I promise this show will well-reward your patience.
#9 Lost (ABC)
Moving right along, we come to Lost — one of my all-time favorite TV shows ever that, honestly, I feel should probably be higher than #9. At any rate, ABC’s six-season drama about the crash of a commercial flight onto a mysterious island is so good that it’s now been 13 years since the finale aired, and I still haven’t been able to forget many of the show’s most memorable scenes and quotes. Likewise, I find myself constantly measuring new shows against it if they venture anywhere remotely close to the territory of time travel or the supernatural (a la Netflix’s Manifest).
Lost was one of the first truly great shows I remember binge-watching, as so many fans like me got caught up in the show’s rich, complex mythology. There were blogs dedicated to analyzing the smallest details on the show, and while Lost is certainly not perfect (*cough* the finale *cough*), it very much stands the test of time, so much so that I think “you all, everybody” who haven’t seen it yet need to rectify that mistake immediately.
#8 Succession (HBO)
From start to finish, HBO’s Succession was probably one of the most consistently uncomfortable TV shows I’ve ever watched. I suppose that was sort of the point — that happiness can still elude a life of privilege. Succession was the most enjoyable miserable family drama that’s ever graced the small screen, and it also benefitted from brilliant writing and memorable quips and one-liners, as well as the novelty of watching a Murdoch-like media dynasty basically unravel from the inside out.
#7 The Wire (HBO)
No list of the best TV shows of the past 25 years could be complete without the inclusion of The Wire, creator David Simon’s sprawling crime saga set in Baltimore and following interconnected storylines involving drug dealers, police, politicians, and the news media.
Per HBO: “In the city of Baltimore, there are good guys and there are bad guys. Sometimes you need more than a badge to tell them apart. This highly realistic and totally unvarnished drama series chronicles the vagaries of crime, law enforcement, politics, education, and media in Baltimore as it follows a team of cops and the criminals they are after.”
#6 Better Call Saul (AMC)
Rare is the TV or movie spinoff series that turns out to be more impressive than the original — and rarer, still, is the spinoff that completely changes your impression and understanding of the original, the way the prequel spinoff Better Call Saul does after you’ve watched Breaking Bad.
In the former, we follow the initially earnest and occasionally line-crossing lawyer Jimmy McGill’s efforts to try and pursue a respectable career in the legal profession, only to be met by one obstacle and closed door after another. So he takes his skills to the only place he feels that they’re appreciated: To the criminal underworld. And, come to find, it’s Jimmy who actually talent-spots Walter White, to a degree that wasn’t at all clear to Breaking Bad viewers — adding a whole new dimension to the original story.
#5 Stranger Things (Netflix)
This next entry on our list of the best TV shows according to fans comes as no surprise, because it’s the Netflix series that I think the vast majority of subscribers would probably include on such a list.
Stranger Things exploded into the popular consciousness thanks to its brilliant mashup of 80s nostalgia with a supernatural-tinged story, as well as a lovable gang of young friends who team up to get to the bottom of eerie mysteries, parallel dimensions, and horrifying creatures. The show, one of Netflix’s biggest of all time according to its global Top 10 data, currently has four seasons to enjoy — though, as a result of the ongoing strikes in Hollywood, there are estimates that the fifth and final season of Stranger Things might not be available to stream until 2025 at the earliest.
#4 The Office (NBC)
Who would have thought that a half-hour mockumentary about a boring regional office of a paper supply company in Scranton, Pennsylvania, would mix heart, humor, and pathos to go down as one of the greatest TV shows in history by the end of its nine-season run?
Somehow, NBC’s remake of the Ricky Gervais-led British version of The Office managed to say something meaningful about work and the beauty of an ordinary life — mixed in with all of the absurdity that made fans love it all the more. Like Stanley’s crossword puzzles; Pretzel Day; Let’s Get Ethical, Ethical; “Conference room, five minutes”; “Identity theft is not a joke”; Mose; Bears, beats, and Battlestar Galactica. If you know, you know.
#3 The Sopranos (HBO)
HBO continues its dominance of this list of the best TV shows, as chosen by fans, with two more of the greatest prestige dramas of all time.
In creator David Chase’s unforgettable crime saga, the late James Gandolfini stars as Tony Soprano — a husband and father, as well as a mob boss who decides to go to therapy. There’s so much residual affection for the series ever since its 2007 finale, in fact, that 2021 saw the release of The Many Saints of Newark, a Sopranos prequel movie in which Gandolfini’s real-life son plays a younger version of Tony growing up during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Newark, New Jersey.
If you want to go back through the show, Sopranos co-stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa are the hosts of the (now-ended) Talking Sopranos podcast, which is described as the definitive rewatch podcast for the series.
#2 Game of Thrones (HBO)
HBO’s eight-season adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Fire and Ice” was, for a time, such an important TV series that it felt like almost every streamer was racing to try and land their own version of Game of Thrones.
The series, from showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, brought high fantasy to the small screen, captivating viewers with the power struggles among families on the fictional continent of Westeros. Hanging over everything was a never-ending struggle for Iron Throne, and the intricate world-building that gave us everything from dragons to White Walkers helped make this show so popular that HBO began weighing multiple prequel and spinoff series.
#1 Breaking Bad (AMC)
Finally, we come to the #1 spot on our fan-chosen ranking of the best TV shows of all time — and this next show, coincidentally, also happens to be the #1 pick from critics, as well.
Personally, I enjoyed Breaking Bad’s spinoff prequel series more than the OG installment in the franchise, since the original is so much darker. But I get it; Walter White was an antihero for the ages, and Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the public high school chemistry teacher-turned-gangster atop a drug empire was never anything less than spellbinding. The same, of course, was true for the compelling side characters, including everyone from Walter’s protege Jesse Pinkman to drug kingpin Gus Fring and fixer and hitman Mike Ehrmantraut. TV about bad men has no business being this good.
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