Today’s television audiences are playing a vital part in the new age of the small screen. With more quality TV series than networks know what to do with, it no longer pays to be just good. The shows that survive are the ones that grab viewers’ attentions and continue to rise through the ranks as the very best the television world has to offer.
Before the dawn of Netflix and the golden age of cable TV, shows merely competed to stay on the air. The competition against rival networks for ratings was fierce, but the number of five-star shows was comparably much lower. Of course, this meant that a fall in quality didn’t necessary mean a show’s termination. Still, some shows managed to stay above and beyond the competition by avoiding repetition and staying as new and fresh as ever.
We’ve compiled a list of shows throughout the years which have yielded only the most premium of content. In choosing these shows, we had only one rule: each one must no longer be on the air. Although some had seasons which would prove to be more exceptional than others, none can claim to have a mediocre year under its belt. So, for your viewing pleasure, we present the 15 Great TV Shows That Never Had A Bad Season.
Don’t watch them all at once — that’s just too much awesome.
15. 30 Rock
Loosely based on Tina Fey’s experiences as a head writer for Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock took a while to gather its legs as one of NBC’s most unconventional sitcoms. Focusing on Liz Lemon, a single woman managing The Girlie Show, the series’ own show within the show, the series focused on the ins and outs of the TV industry as Liz deals with the senseless network executive Jack Donaghy, as well as the wildly unpredictable B-list movie star Tracy Jordan and the attention-seeking actress Jenna Maroney.
Tweaking the standard sitcom format, 30 Rock steps away from the familiar to showcase an irreverent meta-comedy which gets its giggles from critiquing the very industry it’s a part of. Using its cast of characters to its advantage, the series was a critical darling operating at an almost manic pace. Although many of the characters seem completely inept at their jobs, the show was praised for speaking truths about the reality of the entertainment industry. In its seven seasons, 30 Rock would accumulate many awards despite never being a ratings juggernaut. Still, in all its time, the series never lost its wit, and it went out just as clever as ever.
14. Mad Men
Reinvigorating the period drama and catapulting ’60s pop culture back into the mainstream, Mad Men was a roaring success which took the television awards season by storm. Created by Matthew Weiner, the series revolved around the suit-wearing advertising executives of Madison Avenue as they lit up the marketing world. The chain-smoking womanizer Don Draper would be the center of attention as he continued his story of success at Sterling Cooper while sleeping with every attractive female along the way.
Filled with a supporting cast of executives, secretaries, and typists, the allure of the 1960s setting served as a jumping point from which many of the show’s themes came to life. At a time where men chided women in the workplace and often entered sexual relationships with them, the series managed to provide viewers with some of the finest female performances of the past decade. Not only has the show been commended for its honest portrayal of male chauvinism, but it’s served as a comparative piece of work with which to discuss issues such as the male and female wage gap. For seven seasons, Mad Men maintained its unsentimental look into a not-so-distant past, rarely losing sight of its historical outlook.
Taking place almost entirely in one location, the bar from Cheers would become the most iconic TV setting in sitcom history. For the first five seasons, viewers tuned in to a truly unforgettable on-screen relationship, as the former Boston Red Sox player turned bar owner Sam Malone dated his class opposite Diane Chambers, the academically gifted graduate student left by her fiance. After a series of hook-ups and break-ups, Diane would finally depart for Los Angeles to pursue a writing career.
Although Diane left early, the colorful cast of characters remained. A Nielsen ratings giant throughout its eleven season run, the revolving crew of bar regulars kept the series fresh. The character of Frasier Crane famously began as Diane’s love interest, later relocating to Seattle for his own spin-off series. Other big-time cast members included the occasionally-employed accountant Norm, the co-bartender Coach, and the ill-mannered waitress Carla. Ending with one of the most superbly written series finales to date, Sam would be confronted with the option of leaving his bar when Diane returned to town, but would ultimately make the choice of sticking with the place he knew best.
A Western set in an outlaw state, covered in mud, blood, and guts, Deadwood went out the same way it came in: an unsettled land with plenty of story left to tell. After only three seasons, HBO pulled the plug on its critically-acclaimed series, leaving viewers clinging to the dream of a movie to wrap up the remaining plot points.
Set in the 1870s, the series follows Seth Bullock as he travels from Montana to South Dakota, hanging up his hat as a marshal to set up a hardware store in the gold-mining camp of Deadwood. It’s there that he discovers the many colorful, foul-mouthed characters hoping to become filthy rich. The word is law in the town, and few words are spoken without malice. Ripped from actual accounts from newspapers and personal diaries, creator David Milch depicts many historical truths in his series while also using fictional stories to dramatize the time period. Above all, it’s the cast that’s the true winner, namely Ian McShane as the cutthroat, diabolical tavern owner Al Swearengen. A decade removed from the finale, this graphic depiction of civilization building still stands among the best HBO has ever produced.
Before the 1994 sitcom season, the majority of small screen comedies centered around home or workplace environments. The focus of sitcoms was either the crazy family or a group of wacky co-workers; then Friends came along with its cast of Gen X adults finding their way through life in New York City. The theme song was catchy, the characters were eccentric, and the plot lines often revolved around the group just hanging out. The show’s success had everything to do with the cast members’ on-screen chemistry, and it worked wonders for ten consecutive seasons.
Ross, Rachel, Chandler, Monica, Phoebe, and Joey — no matter what that week’s episode was about, all six members worked their way into the episode, sharing their screen time. During its run, the will they/won’t they relationship between Ross and Rachel kept viewers in suspense, the budding romance between Chandler and Monica brought a new maturity to the group, and the shenanigans of Joey and Phoebe kept the laughs coming. It was a series that showcased how opposing personalities can make for the best friendships, and in the end, it influenced many of the sitcoms that would come after.
Regarded as one of the greatest spin-offs in television history, Kelsey Grammer would become the first actor to be nominated for multiple Emmys for playing the same character on three separate series, with appearances on Cheers, Wings, and Frasier. After the end of Cheers, Frasier Crane moves from Boston to Seattle, where he takes care of his father Martin, a retired police detective who was shot during a robbery. He hires live-in physical therapist Daphne Moon to help, and soon, his younger brother Niles develops a close relationship with her.
Although applauded for its high-brow humor, Frasier wasn’t afraid to show its more farcical side by embracing the craft of physical comedy. The chemistry between Frasier and his brother Niles often resulted in hilarity as the two bickered like children as their plans went wrong in all the right ways. With a host of writers creating some of the most finely tuned jokes of the ‘90s sitcom era, not a moment went by without a laugh. Although some would critique the later seasons for taking themselves too seriously, the series remained critically lauded until its end, making it a show that never truly went out of style.
As visually compelling as it is unsettling, Hannibal’s life was cut short after three seasons, putting an end to one of the most tasteful horror series of the past few years. Brought to life by Bryan Fuller, the series borrowed from the characters of Thomas Harris’ famed crime novels. Focusing on criminal profiler Will Graham, the series follows the relationship between Graham and the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Described as having an unusual level of empathy for psychopaths, Graham places himself in the shoes of the murderers he investigates, which inevitably takes its toll on his psyche.
Apart from the finely tuned performances of Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, whose performance as Lecter has received praises across the board, Hannibal excels at establishing its mood with a tantalizing score and use of atmosphere. Although the visceral depictions of the series may be too much for some viewers, the show’s biggest achievements are in its subtleties. From the rich color palette to the extravagant scenes of Lecter preparing meals from his victims’ remains, each scene is designed to make the viewer recoil in horror. Ultimately, it’s the devilish charm beneath the show’s surface which makes it stand out amongst other recent series.
8. The Larry Sanders Show
Paving the way for many HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show is often overlooked as one of the premium network’s greatest achievements. Pulling the curtain back on the entertainment industry, Garry Shandling developed his satire based on his experiences in stand-up comedy as well as his time as a guest host on The Tonight Show. Mixing fiction with just a touch of Hollywood reality, the series followed the late night talk show host Larry Sanders as he dealt with off the wall celebrity guests and juggled his everyday life with help from his producer Artie and his sidekick Hank Kingsley.
Imitated by such series as Curb Your Enthusiasm and 30 Rock, The Larry Sanders Show shocked viewers with its depiction of celebrity life. The brilliance of the series came with its guest stars, of which there were many. Stopping by for interviews, the guest celebrities were often polar opposites of their on-screen personalities. Lasting a total of six seasons, the series managed to paint a perfect picture of the ‘90s Hollywood landscape while capturing the shifting structure of the late night talk show, making it a nostalgic series that’s as rewatchable as the day it first aired.
Premiering during the last years of the Vietnam War and running for eight years after its end, M*A*S*H was a spin-off of the 1970 Robert Altman film of the same name. Centered on the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital during the days of the Korean War, the series followed the exploits of Captain Hawkeye Pierce as he used humor as a means to escape the tragedy of war. A prankster made famous for his antics, he was a leader who embodied the ongoing protests against Vietnam during the early seasons and continued to speak for the conscientious objectors long after the war was over.
Bringing in 125 million viewers for its series finale, M*A*S*H was the hottest show around for more than a decade, serving as a reminder that hot button topics don’t always have to be taken so seriously. Although many of the cast members would leave during the show’s time, the writers still managed to deliver on the laughs while injecting the characters with enough drama to keep the series effective. The fact that the show remained relevant for eleven years is a testament to its strength as an essential viewing experience.
6. Breaking Bad
Screaming, crying, hurling your remote at your new 60” flat screen – Breaking Bad showrunner Vince Gilligan had viewers on a roller coaster ride of emotions during his show’s six years on air. Over the course of five seasons, viewers came to know Walter White. They watched him build his empire, narrowly escaping death, and slowly deceiving his family as he was overwhelmed with greed.
Like the other series on our lists, Walter White’s journey from chemistry teacher to meth cook to drug kingpin was flawless, delivering few down moments on the way to its epic conclusion. In the series’ 62 episodes, sympathies flipped as the realities of the characters set in. The once humble Walter found himself too far down the rabbit hole to ever return to his former life. Meanwhile, the Jesse Pinkman once known as the drug-addicted meth cook who put chili powder in his recipe became the broken man just looking for a way out. It was an infuriating wave of cliffhangers and questionable decisions that resulted in one of television’s most perfectly executed shows, and with Better Call Saul now continuing to build upon Gilligan’s franchise, the series’ legacy only grows stronger.
5. The Mary Tyler Moore Show
Earlier this year, TV lost one of its greatest living legends. Coming off the success of The Dick Van Dyke Show (another near flawless series in its own right), Mary Tyler Moore was tasked with finding her next big project. She took her talents to writers James L. Brooks and Allan Burns, and together, the trio concocted an unprecedented idea in the world of sitcoms: a female-driven series about a woman pursuing a career as an associate producer for a news show. Written by a group of mostly female writers, the series gave fresh insight into the mind of the modern day woman.
Assembling an all-star supporting cast which included veteran actors like Ed Asner as Lou Grant, the grumpy producer of WJM-TV’s Six O’Clock News, Valerie Harper as Mary’s best friend and upstairs neighbor Rhoda, Ted Knight as the series’ dim-witted anchorman Ted Baxter, and Cloris Leachman as Mary’s controlling friend Phyllis, The Mary Tyler Moore Show would go on to collect multiple Emmy Awards during its seven seasons. Many years after the show’s end, it still remains one of the most heartwarming series around, complete with some of the best belly laughs available.
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000
Although MST3K has recently been rebooted on Netflix, the original MST3K dates all the way back to 1988. As good of a series as creator Joel Hodgson could have hoped for, this wacky concept saw scientist Dr. Clayton Forrester and his lab assistant Frank kidnapping Joel and subjecting him to the worst movies in existence. While watching the films, he’s joined by Tom Servo, Crow, Gypsy, and Cambot, a crew of robots which he built in order to keep him sane. Beginning with season six, Joel escapes from captivity and is replaced with Mike, a temp worker from rural Western Wisconsin.
Although there’s debate as to which host of MST3K was better, there are reasons to argue for both. Although Joel was the creator of the show and a genius when it came to hilariously obscure references, Mike’s jokes often felt more accessible to the audience. Looking back on all the episodes, most of them are still amusing today. The beauty of the show lied in its simplicity. Like a group of friends sitting down to watch a bad movie, you could join in on the laughter as the crew made fun of each film, and no matter which season you chose, there was always a smile to be had.
3. The Shield
The Farmington district of Los Angeles is the primary setting for Shawn Ryan’s crime drama, The Shield. Overrun by gangs, the area is policed by an experimental part of the LAPD known as the Strike Team, led by Detective Vic Mackey. There’s just one catch: Mackey just happens to be one of the most deplorable lead characters to ever grace the small screen.
First seen shooting a fellow police officer in the face at the end of the pilot episode, Mackey is a man without morals. The murder in episode one wouldn’t be his last evil deed. Throughout the show’s seven season run, he would use a variety of unethical methods, from planting evidence to outright torture, to clear his name. By the finale, his actions leave him ostracized. He’s abandoned by his family and tossed from the LAPD, stuck at a mundane desk job with nothing to show for his life choices. In a series which brutally depicts instances of race wars, child pornography, explicit cockfighting, and serial rapists, Mackey’s punishment feels like a storybook ending. As a hard look into the darkest recesses of the justice system, The Shield isn’t always easy to watch, but it’s a definitive example of must-see TV.
2. Six Feet Under
On paper, it’s easy to see how a show like Alan Ball’s Six Feet Under could have failed. A family drama set inside a funeral home sounds like a morbid idea, but Ball injected his show with a touch of humor and the occasional surrealist fantasy sequence to delve deeper into the minds of the Fishers, depicting a set of lives which didn’t just become accustomed to the inevitability of death, but learned to face the issue head-on on a daily basis.
Each episode began with someone’s life coming to an end. The person to die was always the next person to receive a funeral at the Fisher & Sons funeral home. Sometimes, the deaths were brutal; oftentimes, they were tragic; and occasionally, they provided a moment of comic relief. Somehow, the dead always managed to have a lasting effect on the family, even if they couldn’t see it themselves. With one of the most profound series finales you could ever hope to see, Six Feet Under lasted a total of five seasons, all culminating in a final sequence which brought every character’s story full circle in a touching moment that won’t be soon forgotten.
1. The Wire
In 1995, after working more than a decade at The Baltimore Sun, David Simon bitterly accepted a buyout from the newspaper he once called home. With a new purpose, he set out to tell the stories of the people of Baltimore from their perspective. Teaming up with former Baltimore police detective Ed Burns for The Wire, the duo shared their experiences and gained insight from the surrounding communities, gathering an ensemble of players from the area to act in the series.
Spread out across the urban sprawl of Baltimore, the city gets a life of its own in the show, depicting various aspects of the area from the locally organized gangs to the underfunded police departments. Each season was a self-contained story focusing on a larger narrative that ultimately centered on the web of political and economic institutions that play a role in the war on drugs. From the carefully thought out metaphors to the realism of the accents and settings, the series was universally praised for its attention to detail. Although there is a bit of debate about the quality of season two compared to other seasons, there’s no denying that all five years of Simon’s series have continued to impress years after the show’s end.
What other TV shows never experienced a true low point? Let us know in the comments.
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