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The 50 best TV shows ever

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The Wire. Breaking Bad. Sex And The City. Um, Airwolf. We asked and you voted – in your droves – for the greatest TV shows/series ever committed to the small screen. The numbers have been crunched and the results are in. Here, in descending order of greatest, are Empire's 50 finest TV shows in history. It's bad news for Stringfellow Hawke...

50. Columbo

Columbo 1968-78, 1989-2003
The beauty of Columbo, and a huge reason why it continues to be a staple on the afternoon TV schedules, 45 years after its debut, is that it took a different approach. Here was a cop show that wasn’t a whodunit – we know who the killer is from the off. It’s not even a whydunit. It’s a howhegonnagetem, as Columbo slowly, painstakingly pieces together his clues, ready for the big reveal at the end. It was a glorious subversion of everything we’d been conditioned to expect from cop shows. There are few greater joys in television than watching the seemingly absent-minded lieutenant run rings around a snooty killer who underestimated him from the very second they met.

Best Episode: Forgotten Lady (Season 5, Episode 1)

49. Sex And The City

Sex and the City 1998-2004
Thanks to the passage of time and two cack-handed movie spin-offs, Sex And The City has come to be seen by many as a silly show about shoes and cocktails. But beneath the layers of Prada hid a series that was smartly written and incredibly brave, even if it did totter across the screen on a pair of immaculately fitted Jimmy Choos. It's easy to forget now how groundbreaking the adventures of four sexually liberated (okay three, plus Charlotte) Manhattan thirtysomethings were not just for women on TV, but for the treatment of sex on the box. The entire vibrator industry owes Carrie and Co an enormous debt.

Best Episode: The Agony And The Ex-tacy (Season 4, Episode 1)

48. 30 Rock

30 Rock 2006-2013
Can it really be over? 30 Rock's brains trust have since moved on to Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, an equally madcap slice of New York-icana, but we still really miss Tina Fey’s NBC-set showcase of sharp-writing, pitch-perfect performances and Frank Rossitano's trucker hats. NBC head honcho Jack Donaghy was the role Alec Baldwin was born to play (well, that and El Generalissimo), while Fey herself is the frazzled heart of the show around whom all the madness happens. And, boy, is there a lot of madness. Tracy ‘stabbing robot’ Jordan provides a good 74 percent of it.

Best Episode Tracy Does Conan (Season 1, episode 7)

47. M*A*S*H

MASH 1972-83
This series based on Robert Altman’s 1970 film managed to last over three times as long as the Korean War it used as backdrop. MASH was a searing exploration of how the doctors and nurses of the 4077th (a mobile army surgical hospital, hence the title) used humour to get through the atrocities they were faced with on a daily basis. A sterling cast, including Alan Alda, Loretta Swit, Mike Farrell, David Ogden Stiers and Harry Morgan kept this riveting (and hilarious) throughout its 11-year run, meanwhile the commentary on war continued to the very end, when, in the final episode, the unit’s news reporter discusses the growing conflict in Vietnam.

Best Episode: Point Of View (Season 7, episode 10)

46. The Americans

The Americans 2013-present
The Cold War feels that much chillier in this inventive series, which follows the lives of two Russian sleeper agents who are very much awake in 1980s Washington. Complicated, passionate and thrown together by the Mother Russia, Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Keri Russell) are fascinating creations: driven by patriotism but torn by the pull of their adopted home and the American family they raised as a cover. It can be vicious, it can be touching, but The Americans always delivers, and unlike some of the Jennings’ targets, is set to go out on its own terms with two final seasons to come.

Best Episode: The Magic Of David Copperfield V: The Statue Of Liberty Disappears (Season 4, episode 8)

45. ER

ER 1994-2009
It ran until there wasn’t a single member of the original cast left (at least, until the spectacular reunion finale) but ER amazingly showed little sign of decline throughout its 15-year run. Based on a film script by Michael Crichton, the series evolved into a weekly slice of emergency medicine at Chicago's county hospital, one that was separated from inferior imitators by smart scripts, great characters and a willingness to shock – Dr. Greene's bathroom attack, Lucy and Carter vs schizophrenic knife-wielder. The list of cameos, both in front and behind the camera, is as long as your arm and boasted such names as Quentin Tarantino, Kirsten Dunst and Ewan McGregor.

Best Episode: Hell And High Water (Season 2, Episode 7)

44. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine

Deep Space Nine 1993-1999
The perfect show for binge-watching before the concept existed. In its earliest days, this spin-off to Star Trek: The Next Generation felt like the storytelling was going to by-the-numbers Trek, only on a space station. Flash-forward a couple of seasons, and this is the show that broke the Star Trek mould, filled with flesh-and-blood human beings (even if they were aliens), character arcs that frequently stretched over the course of seasons, groundbreaking storytelling and complex characters. Some complain this station-bound show doesn’t go anywhere, but this is the Trek that went where none had gone before.

Best Episode: In The Pale Moonlight (Season 6, Episodes 19)

43. Arrested Development

Arrested Development 2003-
Now the story of a groundbreaking sitcom that very nearly died a quiet, ignominious death at the hands of an indifferent network, before it was saved by an internet streaming site. When it first arrived in 2003, Arrested Development was so fiendishly clever, so densely plotted, so shrewdly ironic, that Fox barely knew what to do with it. Despite Fox’s best efforts to bury the show in strange timeslots, the Bluth family earned an feverishly loyal cult audience, one that eventually conferred upon it a Netflix rebirth. The brain-melting ambition of Season 4 may have been a noble failure for some, but it remains one of the most innovative comedies ever produced.

Best Episode: Pier Pressure (Season 1, episode 10)

42. The Bridge (Broen)

The Bridge 2011-
The title refers to the Øresund Bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, with the show focusing on a détente between the two police forces. Like The Killing, its success came from the characters as much as the crimes committed. Front and centre are the leather-trewed, autistic-spectrum Swedish detective Saga Norén and her alternately amused and anguished Danish counterpart Martin Rohde: both outstanding performances from, respectively, Sofia Helin and Kim Bodnia. Bodnia’s absence from the third season was keenly felt.

Best Episode: Series 1, episode 10

41. Fargo

Fargo 2014-
A standing embodiment of the advice that you shouldn’t judge ideas before you see them realised, alarm klaxons rang when it was announced that someone was going to make a TV series based on the Coen brothers’ crime classic. But Noah Hawley was incredibly smart in how he used the movie’s faux true crime trappings and small-town settings but wove his own story into them. Bumbling chancers, dangerous crooks and smart lawfolk all made the first season work well, and then everything pivoted for the second, turning the clock back to one of the characters’ earlier days to chronicle mobsters and strange goings-on. A quality cast that has included Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks, Patrick Wilson, Kirsten Dunst, Billy Bob Thornton and Bob Odenkirk hasn’t hurt matters, and we can look forward to Ewan McGregor (as twins, no less) in season three.

Best Episode: Loplop (Season 2, episode 8)

40. Parks And Recreation

Pars and Rec 2009-2015
First conceived as a spin-off of the US Office, Parks & Rec initially struggled to shuffle out of the shadow of its bigger brother. But while the first season wobbled, the second soared and sustained that quality right the way to its emotional finale. Retaining The Office’s ‘workplace mockumentary’ format, it ribbed the pernickety pedantry of small-town politics from the perspective of always-optimistic bureaucrat Leslie Knope, played with sheer brilliance by Amy Poehler, and propped up by a faultless ensemble, perhaps most notable of all being grumpy libertarian alpha male Ron Fucking Swanson (choice quote: “I need five courses for dinner, and each of them will be steak”).

Best Episode: Ron & Tammy Part 2 (Season 3, episode 4)

39. The Walking Dead

The Walking Dead 2010-
There have been zombies before – Lord knows, there have been zombies – but it wasn’t until The Walking Dead that people started really taking them seriously. Set in an increasingly savage post-apocalyptic society, Rick Grimes and his not-particularly-merry band of survivors find themselves grappling not only with the undead – sorry, walkers – but also the un-undead. It’s as much a show about survivalism and ethics as it is about gore and cool make-up – and it’s done with characters we truly care about. Witness the recent furore over Glenn, or Negan, and you’ll realise this zombie business really is no laughing matter.

Best Episode: Here’s Not Here (Season 6, episode 4)

38. Monty Python’s Flying Circus

Monty Python 1969-1974
Forty-five episodes of bite-sized genius showcases the Pythons at their riffiest, daftest, most out-there best. A bold blueprint for British sketch comedies for years to come, its deliberately outsized Britishness is embroidered by Terry Gilliam’s surrealist animations – a little like Dali once did for Luis Buñuel, only with more giant feet and mutant chickens. The gang take turns to poke fun at the nations’ bureaucrats, toffs, gameshow hosts and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (among others). Its upside worldview reaches its logical conclusion when the village idiot turns out to be the smartest character in the show.

Best Episode: Impossible to pick one but How To Recognise Different Types Of Trees From Quite A Long Way Away has the best name

37. Doctor Who

Doctor Who 1963-1989/2005-
Sydney Newman, Verity Lambert and the others who brought the world’s most famous time-traveller into existence knew what they were doing when they turned the need to replace the lead into one of the canniest ways to reboot and refresh the show. And so it has kept going – albeit with that 16-year blip – for more than 50 years. Evolving from the days of cardboard sets and plastic monsters (which, let’s be honest, were a big part of the show’s charm) to the much more polished, but still incredibly fun version of today. Generations have grown up watching the series, delighting at the idiosyncratic main character and running scared from the various creatures he outwits. It’s a series that prioritises brains over brawn, and shoots you off to the far corners of the universe. What’s not to love?

Best Episode: Genesis Of The Daleks (Series 12)

36. Six Feet Under

Six Feet Under 2001-2005
Dark, comical and really rather wonderful, it's little wonder that Six Feet Under flowed from the same pen that gave us the equally incredible American Beauty. Alan Ball's HBO series about a dysfunctional Pasadena family who run an independent funeral home was a wonderful meditation on life, love and grief. Headed up by Peter Krause as prodigal elder son Nate Fisher and featuring Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose and Rachel Griffiths, the cast, like every facet of this compelling production, oozed class.

Best Episode: It's The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year (Season 2, episode 8)

35. Friday Night Lights

Friday Night Lights 2006-2011
Clear eyes. Full hearts. Can’t lose. Yeah, you knew we were going to lead with that. But if we’re describing the feeling of watching the show about a struggling Texas high-school American football team, it might need to be amended to “watery eyes, full hearts, sometimes lost, but we loved the team anyway”. Peter Berg’s knowing adaptation of the H. G. Bissinger book and the 2004 movie he drew from it, broadened the scope of the world and wrangled memorable characters that live and breathe. In coach Eric Taylor (Kyle Chandler) and wife Tami (Connie Britton), we got one of the best examples of married couple on TV. And, most importantly, you don’t need to worship at the church of the gridiron to appreciate it.

Best Episode: Mud Bowl (Season 1, episode 20)

34. Only Fools And Horses

Only Fools And Horses 1981-2003 The later Christmas specials may have been about as funny as an Oxfam ad but for most of its run, Only Fools And Horses was a sitcom that made you proud to be British. Del Boy and Rodney Trotter's doomed attempts to become millionaires kept the nation smiling for over 20 years and, even with constant repeats, they still manage to raise a giggle today. No matter how many times you watch the best bits (the chandelier scene, the yuppie bar fall, the Batman And Robin run), they never fail to make us laugh.

Best Episode: Yuppy Love (Series 6, episode 1)

33. I’m Alan Partridge

I'm Alan Partridge 1997-2002
When Norwich city council recently announced that they were to pedestrianise their city centre, thousands took to Twitter to express mock displeasure, protesting in unison that “traders need access to Dixons”, to the bafflement of councillors. That’s the power of I’m Alan Partridge, which in two series has become part of cultural lexicon, providing an endless well of absurd quotes to repeat in any given scenario. ‘Partridge-esque’ is now a clearly-defined adjective. Petty, bitter, entirely lacking in self-awareness, the ultimate little Englander, Steve Coogan’s Partridge is one of the most exceptional and keenly-observed comedy characters ever conceived; this sitcom remains his greatest manifestation. It’s a TV show which has been described as, and I quote, “lovely stuff”. Not my words – the word of Shakin’ Stevens.

Best Episode: The Colour Of Alan (Series 2, episode 2)

32. The Thick Of It

The Thick Of It 2005-2012
Political satire used to be a mere wry quip here, a raised eyebrow there (the iconic Yes Minister aside). Then The Thick Of It stormed in and told everybody: “fuckity bye”. With Peter Capaldi’s fire-breathing fixer Malcolm Tucker at its centre, Armando Iannucci's foul-mouthed comedy remains one of the sharpest, fastest-witted comedies ever, skewering Britain’s political class via a tornado of creative cursing. Bizarrely, and to the general bemusement of its creators and fans, life has unwisely decided to imitate art – Michael Gove announced plans to have children design apps mere days after the ‘Silicon Playgrounds’ episode, while George Osborne's 2012 budget was widely described as an “omnishambles”.

Best Episode: Spinners And Losers

31. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb Your Enthusiasm 2000-
Part of the genius of Curb Your Enthusiasm is that it's impossible to tell where the real Larry David ends and the fictional David begins. After all, this is a man who used to go out on stage for stand-up shows, peer at the audience and then walk off if he didn't like the look of the crowd. Every episode sees him getting into ass-puckeringly awkward scrapes with waiters, doctors, salesmen and other celebrities, from Ben Stiller to Martin Scorsese. The combination of David's lack of social skills with the right-on political correctness of LA's denizens makes for edgy, hilarious viewing.

Best Episode: Opening Night (Season 4, Episode 10).

30. Star Trek

Star Trek 1966-1969
From tiny acorns, a gigantic franchise was born. And you don’t spin all those movies, follow-up series and reboots out of nothing. But for all its limited budget, Shacting and occasionally silly aliens, the Trek universe would be nothing without the parent show. Gene Roddenberry and his team cannily brought together big ideas and intergalactic vistas, then injected a healthy, adventurous spirit into the proceedings. It’s pulpy, it’s fascinating, and it’s probably partly responsible for the mobile phone you may be reading this on. That is impact.

Best Episode: The City On The Edge Of Forever (Season 1, episode 28)

29. Sherlock

Sherlock 2010-
Like Dracula, Sherlock Holmes is one of those evergreen characters that is endlessly reinvented, either with a period-appropriate take or adapted for the present day of whoever tackles him. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss plumped for the latter, bringing the great grouse detective bang up to date with texting, sexual innuendo, bromance and gusto. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have long since entered the canon of great Sherlocks and Watsons, and their every move is charted by a massive, enthusiastic fan base. The show is witty, wonderful and far too infrequently on our screens.

Best Episode: A Scandal In Belgravia (Series 2, episode 1)

28. Twin Peaks

Twin Peaks 1990-1991
Who killed Laura Palmer? That was the question on everyone's lips during 1990 as David Lynch's bizarre small town mystery unfolded on our screens. A demon called Bob, a little man who talked backward and minor pie fetish were just some of the features on display here. But despite a healthy dose of surrealism everything fell into place. Until the rather less appealing second season, that is, where the question on people's minds was more akin to 'who is Windom Earle and what in God's name is going on?' but that's beside the point.

Best Episode: Episode Twenty-Nine (Season 2, Episode 22).

27. The Office (UK)

The Office 2001-2003
Ignore those who claim that the American remake of The Office is superior. For while the Steve Carell-headed sitcom is undoubtedly brilliant, it is perhaps a bit too... cheerful? The joy of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s original series was its total lack of joy: in 14 episodes, it deftly depicted the wretched reality of dreary office life. It was a life of muted greys, PowerPoint training sessions, and an all-pervading hopelessness, led by a deluded boss who thinks he’s everyone’s mate (“basically just a chilled-out entertainer”). Sometimes, there’s nothing like a bit of old-fashioned British pessimism.

Best episode: Charity (Series 2, episode 5)

26. Lost

Lost 2004-2010
Few TV shows gripped viewers' imaginations quite like this hybrid of Swiss Family Robinson and Twin Peaks. A byzantine central mystery intertwined with character-centric subplots (expertly embellished through the use of flashbacks, flashforwards and eventually flash sideways) kept audiences captivated and spread the focus across the entire ensemble cast. But aside from the host of colourful characters – from earnest Jack to cocky Sawyer, noble Jin to bug-eyed Ben – it was the ever-deepening mysteries that kept us coming back: what did the number mean? What was the black smoke? Who were The Others? How come Hurley never lost weight despite being marooned on an island?

Best Episode: Exodus (Season 1, Episodes 23-24)

25. Seinfeld

Seinfeld 1990-1998
It began as a summer replacement series, and a low-rated one at that, but Seinfeld, based on the comedy of and starring Jerry Seinfeld, was given the one thing that few shows get these days: time for an audience to find it. Patience on the network’s part paid off, as Seinfeld, the show about nothing, became an unprecedented juggernaut. The audience fell in love with four self-centred pals whose self-involvement drew them together, turning Jerry (Seinfeld), Elaine (Julia-Louis Dreyfus), George (Jason Alexander) and Kramer (Michael Richards) into household names. Not to mention (though obviously we are) such supporting characters as Newman, Puddy, Babu Bhatt, George’s parents, Frank and Estelle; Uncle Leo and, of course, the Soup Nazi. As a reflection of society, the image is not a pretty one, but it is classic.

Best Episode: The Contest (Season 4, episode 11)

24. Fawlty Towers

Fawlty Towers 1975-1979
One of British TV’s greatest ever sitcoms, the central question of Fawlty Towers – why the world’s least hospitable man would go into hospitality in the first place – remains tantalisingly unanswered across 12 kipper-serving, Siberian hamster-hunting, German-baiting episodes. A straight zero on TripAdvisor, the very layout of Fawlty Towers itself offers comedy gold as Basil (John Cleese), his wife Sybil (Prunella Scales), waitress Polly (Connie Booth) and poor, benighted Manuel (Andrew Sachs) manoeuvre themselves (and the odd corpse) around its dowdy interior without ruining anyone’s stay. Basil, needless to say, fails. Often and hilariously.

Best Episode: The Germans (Series 1, episode 6)

23. 24

24
2001-2015
Okay, so the recent miniseries wasn’t great, but 24 has bounced back before and we're hoping the forthcoming 24: Legacy will see the Jack Bauer Power Hour back on form (albeit without Jack Bauer). At its best, there was just nothing like it – insane levels of adrenaline, finely calibrated political intrigue and twists that hit you in the face like a two-fisted punch from Tony Almeida. 24 was some of the most cinematic TV we’ve ever seen, with no expense spared to depict CTU's intense battles against cunning terrorists and the odd occasional rogue President. Even when 24 was rubbish, it was still loveable – admit it, you still have a soft spot for the cougar that menaced Kim Bauer in the show's worst ever plot device, back in Season 2.

Best Episode: 6:00 AM - 7:00 AM (Season 3, Episode 18) – the death of Ryan Chapelle

22. Buffy The Vampire Slayer

Buffy The Vampire Slayer 1997-2003
Imagine, for a moment, a world where the only version of Buffy was the movie. Terrifying, isn’t it? Fortunately, Joss Whedon reclaimed his knowing, meta stab at horror movies with the TV incarnation, casting Sarah Michelle Gellar as the cheerleader-turned-chosen-one supernatural slayer and launching a thousand memorable lines of dialogue. Buffy excelled because it ran real-world struggles through the medium of fantasy and horror and gave us great villains, romantic entanglements that felt painfully honest and a Scooby gang we’d all hang out with. Plus: monsters.

Best Episode: Becoming: Part 2 (Season 2, episode 22)

21. The X-Files

The X-Files 1993-2016
Yes, we know the series came back this year with that truncated tenth season. We're... just choosing to ignore that (except for possibly episode three). In its '90s heyday, Chris Carter's series was the perfect stew of conspiracy theories, romantic drama, monster-of-the-week shocker and just the right leavening of humour when called for. David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson's Mulder and Scully deserve a place in the pantheon of TV partnerships, evidenced by the fact that the show suffered when Duchovny stepped away. Still, when it worked, it really worked.

Best Episode: Squeeze (Season 1, episode 3)

20. The Shield

The Shield 2002-2008
When the very first episode sees the lead shoot another cop in the face to cover up his own corruption, you know you're not watching a run-of-the-mill police procedural. A brutal look at life behind the badge, Shawn Ryan's down-and-dirty drama basked in its protagonist's cavalier approach to right and wrong and a reliance on street justice over the letter of the law. It was to Michael Chiklis' eternal credit that, despite acts of murder, torture, theft, drug distribution and other transgressions too numerous to list, Detective Vic Mackey remained a sympathetic and highly charismatic character – you just wouldn't want to get on his bad side.

Best Episode: Post Partum (Season 5, Episode 11)

19. Frasier

Frasier 1993-2004
Frasier was one of those rare things: a comedy series that relied on smarts (and the odd pratfall) to get its laughs. Cleverly transposing the beloved Cheers stalwart to his home town of Seattle and shifting the broader format of the original show to suit the unique quirks of its new characters, the most successful spin-off of all time was wordy and wise and not averse to indulging in the odd moment of high farce. Like the quality comedy theatre it aspired to emulate, Frasier's appeal will continue to endure.

Best Episode: The Show Must Go Off (Season 8, episode 12)

18. Homicide: Life On The Streets

Homicide 1993-1999
People use the word ‘gritty’ in relation to film and TV drama all the time, but as a TV cop drama, Homicide: Life On The Street was the real deal. An avowed attempt by creator David Simon to get into the business of day-to-day procedural police work, as opposed to the glossier cop-show version audiences were used to, it ran for seven seasons in the 1990s, and remains incredibly influential. Testament to its quality was the ridiculous guest cast it attracted: Vincent D’Onofrio, Robin Williams, Paul Giamatti, Jake Gyllenhaal and J.K. Simmons were among those who temporarily joined the outstanding regulars.

Best Episode: Prison Riot (Season 5, episode 3)

17. Spaced

Spaced 1999-2001
Spaced, in which Edgar Wright, Jessica Hynes and Simon Pegg channelled their own pop-cultural obsessions and witty observations to spin gold out of a well-used sitcom idea, is endlessly rewatchable. Kicking the careers of the three creators up a notch, it can be uproarious, but it’s also heartfelt, never forgetting to make the characters into people you care about while riffing on different genres. And the fact that only 14 episodes exist adds to the reason we all like it so much – it never overstayed its welcome, no matter how much we might have pineed for more.

Best Episode: Chaos (Series 1, episode 5)

16. Mad Men

Mad Men 2007-2015 For the unconverted, Matthew Weiner’s show was just a lot of people in suits aggressively smoking at each other. But for fans of the multi-Emmy and Golden Globe-winning AMC drama, there’s magic in even the slower moments as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his advertising kin negotiate first the perils and pitfalls of Madison Avenue, then a fast-changing America, often while sloshed on whisky. A show of great moments (the lawnmower, the death of Lane, Betty’s shotgun, the LSD), it made an early bid for greatness and maintained it across seven seasons. There aren’t many shows you can say that about.

Best Episode Far Away Places (Season 5, episode 6)

15. Hill Street Blues

Hill Street Blues 1981-1987
Launched to low ratings and audience confusion, it looked like Hill Street was destined for a short life on TV. But it endured, and rightly became known as one of the most audacious series on TV, effectively re-inventing the cop drama. It eschewed much of the hard-nosed cop cliches (but used them well when embracing them) and presented a serialised mixture of drama and comedy, featuring a diverse cast of three-dimensional characters at a run-down police precinct. And Hill Street Blues is just as notable for what it led to as the show itself: it scored 98 – count ‘em – Emmy nominations across its run, and won eight in the first season alone, while also becoming a template for the sort of ambitious TV drama that was to follow.

Best Episode: Trial By Fury (Season 3, episode 1)

14. The Sopranos

The Sopranos 1999-2007
Those who tuned into the first episode of The Sopranos in 1999 found not a documentary about opera singers but a dark, offbeat drama about a New Jersey gangster with a fixation on the ducks who visit his swimming pool. As the first season wore on, viewers became hooked on creator David Chase's uncompromising vision of an old-school criminal organisation beset by all the stresses and tensions of the modern day. A fusion of sharp, unpredictable writing and powerhouse acting ensured this show classic status, spawning spoofs by The Simpsons and the Clintons (!) as well as an Artie Bucco recipe book, so you can make like Tony and feast on 'gabagool' yourself.

Best Episode: Long Term Parking (Season 5, episode 12)

13. Deadwood

Deadwood 2004-2006
The rootinest, tootinest, sweariest show that ever dared raise its head on television? That'll be Deadwood. Set in the lawless Dakota Territory town when the disenfranchised of the world descended on the Black Hills to find their fortune, David Milch's masterpiece presented the frontier townspeople as disparate souls with morals more muddy than the main thoroughfare. Happily throwing traditional notions of good and evil out the saloon window, the show constantly shifted audience loyalties, presenting a world where every act, noble or not, had repercussions. And in Ian McShane's foul-mouthed barman, Al Swearengen, we were presented with one of television's most complex and interesting characters.

Best Episode: Requiem For A Gleet (Season 2, episode 4)

12. The Twilight Zone

The Twilight Zone 1959-1964
Such is the impact of Rod Serling’s series, which gathered some of the best speculative writers and stories of the time, that it keeps coming back in different forms, and its impact is felt through popular culture to this day. Aiming to explore universal concepts while creeping us out or making us think (or both), The Zone merged big ideas with popular ideals and proved that smart storytelling could work on television. Once seen, rarely forgotten; especially with that unnerving theme and Serling’s iconic introductions.

Best Episode: To Serve Man. (Season 3, episode 24).

11. Cracker

Cracker 1993-1996, 2006
In Edward 'Fitz' Fitzgerald, Robbie Coltrane concocted one of television's most memorable antiheroes. The gambling, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, overweight psychologist may have incorporated almost every vice known to man but viewers delighted in the ease with which he mercilessly beat lesser men to an intellectual pulp. Jimmy McGovern’s tautly-written drama was never concerned with the whodunit aspect (the perpetrator was generally revealed in the first scenes) but rather built up to the moment Fitz got the suspect in an interview room. Assaulting them with cutting insight and outright provocation, the portly profiler bent them to his will and put the squeeze on until they finally cracked. One of the finest dramas Britain has produced – just don't mention the lamentable US remake.

Best Episode: To Be A Somebody (Series 2, episode 1)

10. The Killing (Forbrydelsen)

The Killing 2007-2012
One murder; three intricately interwoven plotlines; 20 episodes. In its home country of Denmark, The Killing’s first series was supposed to be split into two halves with a year’s gap in the middle, but demand for the conclusion was so great it was brought forward by six months. As an export, it was right in the eye of a perfect storm of Danish noir: its breakout UK success coming hot on the heels of Wallander, and paving the way for Borgen and The Bridge. Sofie Gråbøl’s chunky-knit sweater became a star in itself.

Best Episode: Season One, episode 20

9. Blackadder

Blackadder 1983-1989
For a show that began expensive and extravagant, and only survived the chop when its creators (including Ben Elton and Richard Curtis) agreed to turn it into a studio-bound production, Blackadder quickly entered the national consciousness for its well-constructed gags and some consummate acting from the likes of Rowan Atkinson, Tony Robinson, Hugh Laurie, Tim McInnerny and a revolving-door troupe of guests. For all its formulaic nature, the show was consistently sharp and funny, and even, with its fourth series, Blackadder Goes Forth showed off a beating heart of compassion.

Best Episode: Bells (Series 2, episode 1)

8. Oz

Oz 1997-2003
Long before Orange Is The New Black blended humour and pain behind bars, Oz took a much darker look at prison life, set in the Oswald State Correctional Facility. Bleak but brilliant, it gathered a group of characters from different walks of life and then subjected them to terrifying traumas on a weekly basis. If anyone you know shudders when they see the perfectly charming (and not at all psychopathic) J.K. Simmons in other roles, Oz is to blame. We highly recommend watching it if you’ve never caught the show, but a word of advice if you go bingeing: have something lighthearted and fun to watch in between seasons. Trust us.

Best Episode: Revenge Is Sweet (Season 4, episode 11)

7. Game Of Thrones

Game of Thrones 2011-
TV – and the lesser restrictions/bigger budget allowed by HBO – really was the only place Thrones would have worked outside of George R.R. Martin’s books. And even then, it’s a juggling act given the sedate pace of the author’s output. While it makes some significant changes from the pages, much of what people enjoyed about Martin’s mixture of fantasy and grimy medieval politics remains intact. With a cast led by the likes of Peter Dinklage, Emilia Clarke, Lena Headey and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, it’s full to the brim of all the death, betrayal, laughter and dragons that you might wish for.

Best Episode: Blackwater (Season 2, episode 9)

6. Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica 2003-2009
As Hollywood continues to indulge in self-consumption through a never-ending supply of reimaginings and reboots, there is one example that demonstrates what happens when it’s done right: Ronald D. Moore’s Battlestar Galactica. Created in the shadow of 9/11, this new take on the 1978-79 series (great concept, poor follow-through) brought relevancy, riveting character arcs and a newfound grit to television science fiction as what’s left of humanity fights for survival against the cybernetic Cylons as they seek the supposed lost colony, Earth.

Best Episode: 33 (Season 1, episode 1)

5. Friends

Friends 1994-2004
How is it that a certain digital TV channel can show this quintessential '90s sitcom on a virtual loop and it doesn't get old? It's because Friends, at its best, is as perfect a sitcom as you will find. In its earliest days, the adventures of six beautiful pals who apparently earned money by drinking coffee featured writing much sharper than the cuddly exterior suggested. Even when the quality dipped a little mid-run, the ensemble remained perfectly matched and the best comedy collective on TV.

Best Episode: The One With The Prom Video (Season 2, episode 14)

4. The Simpsons

The Simpsons 1989-
Any show that runs for 27 seasons (and counting – 28 will be with us later this year) is bound to come in for some stick about not living up to former glory. But be honest: what could compete with The Simpsons at its height (around season 4-6, according to most people)? Still, the continuing misadventures of Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa and the multitudes surrounding them still find plenty of scope for laughs, commentary and pop culture nonsense. It’s already in the telly hall of fame, and continues to bring out great episodes at a higher ratio than some of its long-running brethren (looking at you, Family Guy).

Best Episode: Marge Vs. The Monorail (Season 4, episode 12)

3. The West Wing

The West Wing 1996-2006
For a long time a walk-on part in The West Wing was the pinnacle to which all jobbing TV actors aspired. Smart and funny, Aaron Sorkin's political drama showcased the writer's gift for rapid-fire dialogue and layered, politically resonant storylines, proving that television can be funny and insightful all at the same time. The series took a temporary downturn after Sorkin's departure at the end of season four but rallied soon after with a number of surprising changes to both character roles and format. It all came to a natural close at the end of President Bartlet's second term in office but The West Wing remained one of the most intelligent shows on television throughout its run and a comforting image of what a more benevolent White House could look like.

Best Episode: Two Cathedrals (Season 2, episode 22)

2. Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad 2008-2013
“It doesn’t get really good until Season 2,” people said. “Stick with it.” The first season was not without its moments, and it laid key groundwork for Bryan Cranston’s Walter White to later descend from family man to soul-shucked demon, but season two was when Vince Gilligan’s astonishing, gripping, often plain harrowing show really took off. There followed murders, plane crashes, betrayals, ferocious set pieces, indelible dialogue (“I am the one who knocks!”) and meth – enormous quantities of meth. At the beginning of the bingeing era, here was some Class A, serious addictive television.

Best Episode: One Minute (Season 3, episode 7)

1. The Wire

The Wire 2002-2008 “You come at the king, you best not miss...” There have been plenty of challengers for The Wire’s crown as Greatest TV Show Of All Time™, but nearly a decade after we left Baltimore, nothing has come close. The incredible achievements of David Simon’s landmark crime drama have been repeated ad nauseum (at one point in the noughties you could barely move without someone asking “are you watching The Wire?”) but heck, they bear repeating. The way it stubbornly avoids all procedural tropes; the flawless ensemble cast, a mix of veteran actors and authentic Baltimoreans; the vast, book-like world-building, spanning corruptible institutions and hundreds of characters, each with their own unique and surprising arc; the ambiguous moral ground all those characters occupy – no heroes or villains here; and the intelligent, angry way it evaluates modern America, highlighting the devastating impact of neoliberal policies on the country’s underclass. All that ��� and it still manages to be a dependably riveting drama, with emotional stakes and gallows humour in equal doses? All in the game, yo. All in the game.

Best Episode: Middle Ground (Season 3, episode 11)

READ MORE: The Definitive History Of The West Wing

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