We all love television. We watch everything from cartoons and news reports to soap operas and sports. Sometimes, it seems like people just can’t get enough TV. The 21st century has revolutionized this industry with streaming services, more shows, and bigger budgets; we even have TV shows about TV shows now.
Binge-watching entire seasons of a show has become a national pastime. People debate whether to watch each episode as it comes out or wait and watch the whole season simultaneously. Add in a global pandemic with mandatory lockdown, and we have created a culture that consumes TV shows like candy. Moreover, with social media on the rise, viewers have made TV characters and catchphrases iconic. These are the most iconic television shows of the 21st century.
Related: Top 10 Truly Terrible Television Series
10 Battlestar Galactica (2004–2009)
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In an era of reboots, this sci-fi series from the late 1970s, remade for the 21st century, is considered by some to be the best series in this genre of all time. Sci-fi fans love this series, particularly its depiction of space combat in non-atmosphere conditions. This series deals directly with political and religious issues that are very real and present. Battlestar shows both sides of every situation, such as military overreach or the need to respect those sacrificed for the greater good.
In addition to tackling challenging topics, this show features new and improved Cylons. The Cylons are a race of artificial life forms created by humans to serve; they rebelled, they destroyed the human’s 12 home worlds, “and they have a plan.” The series received critical acclaim and multiple awards, including a Peabody Award and the Television Critics Association’s Program of the Year Award.
9 The Big Bang Theory (2007–2019)
For twelve seasons, audiences enjoyed the antics of theoretical physicist Sheldon Cooper and friends. This nerdy sitcom revolves around the friendships and romantic relationships of a group of scientists living in California. The characters have apparent behavioral issues, causing awkward social situations. In addition to the comedy, the characters confront their issues each week and help each other grow. Jim Parsons’ portrayal of Dr. Cooper won him four consecutive Emmys for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series between 2011 and 2014. In the same four years, the show received nominations for outstanding comedy series.
The show featured the most prolific parade of cameos in history, from Kathy Bates to Stephen Hawking and countless others. Perhaps the most appealing aspect of The Big Bang Theory is episodic storytelling. Many popular shows today adhere to a season-long story arc, meaning viewers can’t miss an episode without becoming lost. Big Bang fans can rest assured that Sheldon will be just as brilliant and simultaneously naive week in and week out, whether they miss an episode or not.
8 Grey’s Anatomy (2005–Present)
This long-running series is centered around Meredith Grey, an aspiring surgeon. The title references a well-known human anatomy textbook published in 1858 in London and written by Henry Gray, titled Gray’s Anatomy. Premiering in the middle of the 2005/06 season, this medical drama, now a household name, is still going strong after 19 seasons. Created by Shonda Rhimes, it is the longest-running medical drama and the most-watched post-Super Bowl drama series telecast in TV history.
It has remained ABC’s highest-rated show for years and has significantly affected popular culture. Grey’s has won numerous awards, including the Golden Globe Award for Best Television Series–Drama and 38 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, including two for Outstanding Drama Series. It seems this popular series will get renewed for a 20th season.
7 The Wire (2002–2008)
For five seasons over six years, HBO viewers tuned in to follow the adventures of Detective Jimmy McNulty. Created by author and former police officer David Simon, the show is supposedly based on Simon’s partner, retired homicide detective Ed Burns. The Wire is considered one of the grittiest, most realistic, and critically acclaimed crime series. It stands out from other cop shows because it is, in many ways, an anti-cop show.
Instead of focusing on individual heroics within a flawed system, this show highlights how badly corrupted the system is and how it fails its citizens regularly. Over 200 critics voted The Wire to be the most remarkable television series of the 21st century in a poll by BBC. The Wire expertly blurred the lines between “good guy” and “bad guy” and without the goal of longevity. The show’s producers didn’t aim for the longest-running series, just the best one, and according to many, they created the best crime drama ever.
6 Chapelle’s Show (2003–2006)
Dave Chapelle broke into superstardom with his own brand of sketch comedy on one of Comedy Central’s most successful programs. His show tested the boundaries of controversial topics, especially racial identity. Chapelle has had a storied career; in his early days as a stand-up comic, he was once booed off the stage at Harlem’s famed Apollo Theatre. Yet, as recently as 2019, he was presented with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
After minor successes, such as the film Half Baked in 1998, Chapelle finally got to show the world his full talent. When the show concluded its third season, America was quoting his show habitually and salivating for more. Then Dave walked away; the media had a field day with the story. Chapelle, needing to tell his side of the story, spoke to Oprah Winfrey on her show. He explained why he stepped away from the series and moved on as best he could. Most poignant of those reasons was his social responsibility. He explained that while his sketches were funny, they may send the wrong message concerning racism.
5 Lost (2004–2010)
The pilot episode of Lost aired on September 22, 2004, to 18.6 million viewers. It exploded onto the scene, creating one of television’s most loyal fanbases. The show centers around a group of survivors of the fictional Oceanic Flight 815 from Sydney to Los Angeles. They land on a mysterious island full of mystical properties, internal struggles for control… and polar bears. Lost perfected the “flashback, flashforward, and sideways flashes,” included a culturally diverse cast, and consistently foreshadowed something sinister on the horizon. People still talk about the ending of Lost, so many of its supernatural mysteries went unsolved. What was Walt’s connection to the island? How did it appear to move?
While some people are infuriated by the lack of closure, many feel the show is open to interpretation. Most fans wanted the series to continue for a seventh season, and there is little doubt that viewers would continue to tune in. However, producers and showrunners felt the characters and story would be better honored by ending their run after the sixth season. The series won many awards, inspired tons of fan fiction, and even has its own encyclopedia, Lostpedia.
4 Mad Men (2007–2015)
This period drama focuses on the Sterling Cooper advertising agency on Madison Avenue in Manhattan. The “Mad” in Mad Men is revealed in the pilot episode to be short for Madison. It concludes at the new firm of Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce (both fictional). The show earned critical acclaim for its nuanced look at 1960s social life in NYC. The show follows the lead character, Dom Draper, his career, coworkers, and home life from 1960 to 1970. “As the series progressed, it skillfully explored the complexities of its characters and their professional and personal travails.”
This series drew viewers in with its authentic look at gender roles in America 50 years ago. It illustrates the difficulty the older generation faced adapting to a seemingly youthful and volatile society. The show aired on AMC for seven seasons and 92 episodes, winning multiple awards, and is considered by critics as one of the greatest television shows ever.
3 Game of Thrones (2011–2019)
Despite the ending, it is one of the most well-known and beloved shows ever. Game of Thrones was HBO’s flagship show for eight years and has spawned a spin-off with more on the way. Based on George R.R. Martin’s book series A Song of Fire and Ice, GoT was shot in England, Canada, Croatia, Iceland, Malta, Morocco, and Spain. The exotic locations were used to depict the fictional continents of Westeros and Essos. They followed the stories of Houses Stark, Lannister, Baratheon, and several others as they vied for control.
GoT is a fantasy series with magic, dragons, politics, religion, and war. It’s D&D come to life, complete with a Sean Bean beheading. Among the awards it received were 59 Primetime Emmy Awards, the most by a drama series, including Outstanding Drama Series in 2015, 2016, 2018, and 2019. However, none of that prevented the harsh backlash received over the disappointing conclusion.
2 Breaking Bad (2008–2013)
This series premiered in January of 2008, with lead character Walter White discovering he has terminal lung cancer. He decides to manufacture and sell meth to provide for his family after he’s gone. As a high school chemistry teacher, he has the manufacturing know-how; he teams up with a former student to facilitate the selling. The teacher and student are unlikeable characters, but they are written and played so expertly that viewers cannot help but continue watching their story. The series aired for five seasons and 62 episodes, with a film, El Camino, released six years later, filling in some gaps and answering some questions that the show skipped over.
Breaking Bad received numerous awards, including 16 Primetime Emmy Awards, two Golden Globe Awards, two Peabody Awards, and four Television Critics Association Awards. Cranston’s Walter White won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead in a Drama Series four times, and his co-stars also brought home plenty of hardware. The writing, acting, character development, attention to detail, and ability to know when to stop made Breaking Bad one of the greatest shows of the 21st century.
1 The Daily Show (1996–Present)
The only entry on our list that started in the 20th century and the only news-based show is The Daily Show. Although this show mocks many news outlets, many Americans still get their daily dose of politics from this long-running series. It originally aired with host Craig Kilborn on July 22, 1996. Kilborn left in December 1998, and Jon Stewart took over on January 11, 1999. Stewart hosted the show and focused intensely on political satire until 2015 when he left The Daily Show in the capable hands of Trevor Noah.
Including all three tenures, the show has received 24 Primetime Emmys. It is a news show, despite the sarcastic edge and whacky reporters. This show has caught the attention of millions of Americans who have become tired of the status quo and bipartisan politics and yearn for fresh ideas. Trevor Noah’s run ended on December 7, 2022. Comedy Central has announced a list of guest hosts, including Sarah Silverman, that will carry the show while the network finds a new permanent host.