The Emmys don’t always get it right. Some shows get horribly ignored (HBO’s The Wire being perhaps the most egregious example) while others likely outstay their welcomes at the party. These particular awards have a problem wherein they get stuck in a rut, determined to continue awarding a single show into oblivion, even after it stops being the best in its category. In 2016, the Emmys offered up some genuine surprises in many of its smaller categories. Still, in its top spots, Outstanding Drama and Comedy series, both picks were repeats of last year’s winners.
In general, though, the Emmys are useful because they provide a barometer of what people were talking about and watching in a given year. That isn’t to say that they capture the full breadth and depth that television often offers. That goal is becoming more and more impossible as the years go by and more and more scripted shows are created. Still, they can function to give you a sense of the moment you’re in, plugging into the buzziest (and hopefully best) shows on the air. For some programs, this happens for an extended period, and they’re able to pick up quite a bit of hardware. In that spirit, here are the 16 TV Shows With The Most Emmy Award Wins.
16. The Sopranos – 18
HBO is an Emmys juggernaut. They’ve had an air of prestige about them now for over a decade, and a lot of that has to do with the incredible rise of The Sopranos. The show, which should probably be higher up on this list than it is, single-handedly redefined the television landscape and helped repopularize the antihero mold that dominated the medium for much of the next 15 years. Tony Soprano is a completely consuming character, and it comes from the legendary James Gandolfini, who made the man both incredibly human and incredibly dangerous.
Even without Gandolfini, the cast was filled with a surreal amount of incredible talent. No character was one note, and the series was only made stronger by the interactions between various family members. The Sopranos came from a long line of gangster films which had dominated cinema for decades. All this series did was prove that the gangster story worked just as well (if not better) on the small screen.
15. Murphy Brown – 18
A workplace comedy, Murphy Brown was indebted to The Mary Tyler Moore Show (which we’ll get to in a bit) in many ways. In other ways, though, Murphy Brown was completely original. The show was entirely focused on the titular Murphy Brown, an investigative journalist who also happens to be a single mother and a recovering alcoholic. Even if that were all the series had to offer, the show still feels like an evolution on everything that came before it.
Murphy Brown was a careful character study of its central character, a complex woman who has a demanding home and work life. When the show debuted in 1988, it was peerless, and it helped pave the way for many of the dramedies headlined by complex women that would come after it. In its own right, it was a hilarious and complicated show that was worthy of the regular praise it received. Murphy Brown was special because it used its comedy to reveal its character’s internal lives, and it provided a template for dozens of shows that would follow.
14. Taxi – 18
Cabbies are an eclectic group, almost by definition, and that’s part of what makes Taxi so fascinating. It was populated by a group of people who only took cab driving jobs for the easy money and were sure that they would eventually move on to other jobs. There was a sadness at the core of Taxi that infused the laughs with even more weight. While the characters on the show were largely convinced that this job was just another step, that it was something less than permanent, it rarely worked out that way.
Of course, the reality of the matter is that most of these people will be cabbies for years. The economic realities of Taxi tell us that its characters live in a world that resembles our own. In many ways, Taxi is a show about dreamers who are crushed by the reality of their world. It’s not a dark show, though. These cabbies find joy in community, and they delivered a lot of laughs in the process. It was a show that managed to be as heartbreaking as it was jubilant, as would many shows that followed it.
13. NYPD Blue – 20
In its heyday, NYPD Blue was seen as one of the grittiest shows on the air. The show was a step forward for televised drama, and it was rewarded as such. The show won 20 Emmys over the course of its run and redefined what a drama could be. Over the course of its 12 seasons, NYPD Blue created an environment in which its characters’ personal lives intersect with the city they work in.
This became the template for drama moving forward, creating stories in which the case of the week is both compelling in its own right and a reflection of the internal life of the characters involved. NYPD Blue was a cut above the rest in its time, and it still holds up as one of the best crime dramas ever created. It deserved every Emmy it ever won, and the legacy it has created is an enduring one. Police procedurals were never the same.
12. 24 – 20
Keifer Sutherland is just now returning to prominence on the small screen, but he’s most well-known for his work on 24 as Jack Bauer. Each episode focused on a single hour in Bauer’s incredibly tense life, and so each hour was theoretically told in real time. Jack Bauer didn’t live in our reality, and the show’s conceit made that clear. When does the guy sleep? Eat? Use the bathroom? None of that mattered. 24 told an incredibly gripping and emotional story that also pulsed with an equally incredible level of excitement.
The show only managed to chalk up one Outstanding Drama Series win, but it was able to perform incredibly well in the technical categories, which only makes the allure of the show greater. The series was beautifully executed week to week, and whether a particular episode featured an incredible action sequence or more subdued dialogue, 24 was always compelling. Even at its worse, 24 was always well-crafted and chock full of Jack Bauer, which is more than can be said for most shows.
11. All in the Family – 22
All in the Family wanted to be more than just a sitcom. It was interested in cultural relevance and the questions surrounding working class families during the seventies. Most sitcoms were designed as escapes from the real world, but All in the Family decided to attack the issues head on instead. It may seem like a controversial approach, especially considering the open racism and sexism displayed by Archie Bunker, but it was truly innovative at the time, and it was a large part of what ushered in the show’s incredible success.
Of course, All in the Family remains the template for many sitcoms today. Its confrontation of sensitive issues was a complete revelation. It made things easier to deal with, and it let the families who dealt with these problems in their own home know that they were far from alone. All in the Family is an all-time great comedy, and it deserves every single one of its 22 trophies.
10. Modern Family – 22
Modern Family is the kind of show that likely outlasted its welcome at the Emmys, but it’s also a show that provides fairly consistent entertainment. It follows the mold of series like The Office and Parks and Recreation, using a mockumentary format to give personal insight into each character. Modern Family doesn’t break a ton of molds, but it’s a genuinely funny show that capitalizes on an incredibly solid cast.
Perhaps Modern Family has won a few too many Emmys, but it’s hard to begrudge the series for being a throwback filled with simple pleasures. The show is a lot of fun, and it’s filled to the brim with simple but effective comedic performances. Is it the best show on TV? No, of course not. Modern Family should be appreciated for what it is, though: a fun, family-friendly way to pass a half hour. Emmy voters love it, so it’s definitely worth a look.
9. ER – 23
The medical drama might have reached its zenith with ER, the series that also launched George Clooney into mega-stardom. The show ran for an impressive 15 seasons and featured an incredible number of actors. The marvelous thing about ER was its consistency. The actors on the show were always able to straddle the line between their personal lives and their jobs, and became models of decency inside of their Chicago hospital.
ER was a rich and enduring portrait of people at work, and it resonated with audiences and Emmy voters for years. Of course, the show’s early run is often remembered its best, but the fact that it managed to stay on the air for such a long time speaks to its lasting relevance. ER will be remembered as a show that launched a number of huge stars not named Clooney, but it should also be remembered for its lasting quality.
8. The West Wing – 26
Aaron Sorkin’s magnum opus, The West Wing was seven seasons full of equal parts patriotic idealism and awards season magnetism. The show garnered recognition not only for its writing, which was as banter-filled and on-brand as anything Sorkin ever created, but also for its stunningly realized performances, all of which were perfectly pitched. In today’s political climate, The West Wing is looking more and more like a throwback to an era of good will. The show had a liberal bend, of course, but it tried to be fair to both sides of the aisle on every issue.
Of course, The West Wing was also a show designed for Emmy voters. It was a clever combination of serialization and episodic drama, and it could be both personal and professional. Some of the best dramas are about people who are overcommitted to their jobs, and The West Wing takes that idea to the extreme. On The West Wing, America was already great, and that resonated with the country almost as much as it did with Emmy voters.
7. Hill Street Blues – 26
In its seven seasons, Hill Street Blues kept its gaze largely focused on the policemen inside the Hill Side precinct. It’s a show about the men and women who keep society safe, but it’s remarkable in that it focuses much more on the lives of its characters within the precinct than it does on the cases occurring in the streets outside. That isn’t to suggest that the law was not an important part of the show. Instead, it managed to be a show about what being a cop means to the people who don the uniform.
Today’s best television characters have rich, three-dimensional internal lives, and we have shows like Hill Street Blues to thank for that. It won a remarkable number of Emmys, thanks in no small part to the ways it pushed the medium forward. It’s a complicated show, set in a complicated world, one that’s about fundamentally good people trying their best to do the right thing and uphold the law. Sometimes, the Emmys just get it exactly right.
6. Cheers – 28
Cheers is already considered a classic. It’s a show that entered America’s homes for over a decade, and each episode was romantic and simple. There was a friendly bar filled with eccentric clients and customers — and that was about it. They laughed, they cried, they loved and lost. What may be most important about Cheers, though, was its sense of community. The people on the show weren’t related, but they had come together to share their time, and the series made us believe that that was just as meaningful.
In much the same way the bar created a safe place for its characters, the show did the same for its audience. Cheers was a place viewers of all backgrounds could go to forget about their day, and enjoy the antics of a series that was simple, easygoing, and consistently great. Filled with completely hilarious and utterly human characters, it utilized their humanity to make the situations on the show completely relatable. Cheers is a piece of beautiful comfort.
5. The Mary Tyler Moore Show – 29
A classic from an earlier period, The Mary Tyler Moore Show holds up better than almost any other show of its day. Always whip smart, this sitcom managed to be an all-time great without compromising on its specificity. In many ways, Mary Tyler Moore was ahead of its time in its depiction of a woman who was as interested in her career as she was in her personal life. Mary was spunky, and it got her into a lot of trouble, but it ultimately endeared her to the people around her.
What’s more, The Mary Tyler Moore Show was also consistently entertaining. It was a sentimental show about a family that worked together, and it was one that helped establish the template for both workplace comedies and comedies that had a woman at the center. Mary Tyler Moore won Emmys across the board over the course of its 7 year run, and it’s a perfect example of the kind of series that the Emmys helped to validate. This is a comedy with a legacy, and the Emmys helped to establish that.
4. The Simpsons – 32
The Simpsons is an institution. Over its incredible 27 season run, the show has satirized everything under the sun. It’s entered our home on a regular basis, and rarely been anything less than a pure joy to watch. Homer is an icon of the idiot, a stupid oaf of a father that has inspired TV fathers for over a generation. The Simpsons is the best kind of animated escapism. It gives us a way out of the real world by allowing us to laugh at the things that happen in theirs.
The show already has an unimpeachable legacy, one filled with an innumerable number of memorable characters, guest stars, and episodes. It almost singlehandedly launched the adult animated comedy that is still incredibly ubiquitous today. The Simpsons started it all, and it’s been around long enough now to watch the seeds it planted grow. It’s also been rewarded handsomely for its work, which is just as it should be.
3. Frasier – 37
Until quite recently, Frasier held the record for most Emmys won by a scripted series. It dominated the comedy categories in the ’90s, winning Outstanding Comedy Series a record five consecutive times. A spinoff of the aforementioned Cheers, Frasier follows its titular character as he transitions from being a Boston therapist to a Seattle talk radio host. From there, the show was winsome and conventional, the perfect combination of qualities that defined all great sitcoms of that period.
It was never too twee or wholesome. In fact, part of what made Frasier so delightful was its decidedly edgy depictions of its characters. Their frustrations were real, as were their struggles. Frasier was an Emmy darling because it was never less than entertaining, and it could be much more than that. It could be sad or dark or hilarious, sometimes in the course of a single episode. It may have won a few too many Emmys in the minds of some, but the majority of those accomplishments were entirely warranted.
2. Game of Thrones – 38
An enormous amount of people watch Game of Thrones, and there’s a reason for that. It’s one of television’s finest works, and it’s one of the last shows left that can be dissected and discussed at the water cooler. Everyone watches it, and that’s part of what makes it so alluring. You can discuss its every detail, trusting that those around you generally know what you’re talking about. It’s popularity isn’t lost on the Emmy voters, of course, as its incredible number of golden statues have been accrued in just 6 seasons.
It’s an easy consensus show, the kind that’s hard to argue with, and so it often gets the nod from voters who may not know what to pick in an era so filled with quality choices. Game of Thrones has technical trophies to thank for its incredibly high placement on this list. That’s not to say the show hasn’t won any awards during the main event, but they practically sweep the Creative Arts Emmys, taking home wins for everything from VFX to Costume Design, as well they should. Game of Thrones is likely the most spectacle-driven series in television history, and its mind-boggling 12 wins at this year’s awards show helped make it the winningest fictional series in Emmy history. With two more seasons left before the show completes its run, we imagine the Emmy magic is far from over.
1. Saturday Night Live – 45
It’s hard to feel angry about Saturday Night Live’s placement on this list. The show has been on since the ’70s, and in that time, it has become one of the definitive cultural landmarks of American television. Having been on the air for 42 seasons, some may argue that Saturday Night Live is starting to show its age. Even so, the show only just received its 45th Emmy this year for Kate McKinnon, whose performance is beyond reproach, even if you no longer enjoy the show as a whole.
Of course, over its forty plus years on the air, SNL has provided more than enough winning segments to earn the appreciation of its most devoted fans. Weekend Update was the original news satire show that spawned everything from The Daily Show to Full Frontal. Most of our greatest comedic stars were on SNL at some point, and it’s become something of a rite of passage for comedians looking for a big break. Saturday Night Live defines American television, and for that alone, it deserves this spot.
Which of these shows do you feel have been/were overly rewarded? Let us know in the comments.
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