The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (2024)

Table of Contents
100 I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! (2002-) 99 Life on Mars (2006-07) 98The Mighty Boosh (2004-07) 97The Shadow Line (2011) 96 Broad City (2014-19) 95 The Trip (2010-) 94 Skins (2007-13) 93 RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-) 92 Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004) 91Silicon Valley (2014-) 9024 (2001-10) 89The L Word (2004-09) 88 Justified (2010-15) 87 The Leftovers (2014-17) 86 Fresh Meat (2011-16) 85Gogglebox (2013-) 84 Looking (2014-16) 83 Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) 82 Strictly Come Dancing (2004-) 81 Gavin and Stacey (2007-10) 80 Veep (2012-19) 79 Halt and Catch Fire (2014-17) 78Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000) 77 The Shield (2002-08) 76 A Very English Scandal (2018) 75 It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-) 74 The Inbetweeners (2008-10) 73Spiral (2005-) 72 Planet Earth (2006 and 2016) 71 Lost (2004-10) 70 Shameless (2004-13) 69 The Good Place (2016-) 68 Band of Brothers (2001) 67Borgen (2010-13) 66 Inside No 9 (2014-) 65 Flight of the Conchords (2007-09) 64 Six Feet Under (2001-05) 63Show Me a Hero (2015) 62 Succession (2018-) 61 State of Play (2003) 60Sherlock (2010-) 59Wolf Hall (2015) 58Orange Is the New Black (2013-19) 57 Sex and the City (1998-2004) 56 The Jinx (2015) 55Utopia (2014) 54Parks and Recreation (2009-15) 53 Black Books (2000-04) 52The Good Fight (2017-) 51 Patrick Melrose (2018) 50 Downton Abbey (2010-15) 49 Insecure (2016-) 48 Better Call Saul (2015-) 47 Nathan Barley (2005) 46 Doctor Who (2005-) 45 The Bridge (2011-18) 44 The Crown (2016-) 43 The Americans (2013-18) 42 South Park (1997-) 41 Friday Night Lights (2006-11) 40 The Power of Nightmares (2004) 39 The Good Wife (2009-16) 38 Detectorists (2014-17) 37 Brass Eye: Paedogeddon (2001) 36 The Great British Bake Off (2010-) 35 This is England (2010-15) 34 Catastrophe (2015-19) 33 Big Brother (2000-2018) 32 The Office (US) (2005-13) 31 Blue Planet (2001/2017) 30 Killing Eve (2018-) 29 Spaced (1999-2001) 28 The Killing (2007-12) 27 Transparent (2014-19) 26 Red Riding Trilogy (2009) 25 The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-) 24 The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999-2015) 23 Black Mirror (2011-) 22 Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) 21 Arrested Development (2003-19) 20 OJ: Made in America (2016) 19 The Vietnam War (2017) 18 Girls (2012-17) 17 Deadwood (2004-6) 16 Nighty Night (2004-5) 15 The West Wing (1999-2006) 14 Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-) 13 Line of Duty (2012-) 12 30 Rock (2006-13) 11 Happy Valley (2014-) 10 Atlanta (2016-) 9 Peep Show (2003-15) 8 Fleabag (2016-19) 7 Game of Thrones (2011-19) 6 The Office (UK) (2001-03) 5 Breaking Bad (2008-13) 4 The Thick of It (2005-12) 3 Mad Men (2007-15) 2 The Wire (2002-08) 1 The Sopranos (1999-2007)


I’m a Celebrity ... Get Me Out of Here! (2002-)

Crocodile penis eating in the outback with Ant and Dec didn’t exactly sound appealing, but this long-running reality series pushed the genre to entertaining new heights.


Life on Mars (2006-07)

The Beeb’s Bowie-referencing, time-travelling cop show invigorated the genre – and introduced one of the great British TV characters in the form of the swaggering, sweary Gene Hunt.

The Mighty Boosh (2004-07)

Some loathed its quirky outlook, but there was no disputing the imagination of Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt’s sticky-back-plastic comedy, full of memorable grotesques and endlessly quotable skits.

The Shadow Line (2011)

Containing next-to-no hand-holding, Hugo Blick’s sprawling drama plunged you into a world of crime and corruption as Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston investigated the same murder from different sides of the detective/criminal divide.


Broad City (2014-19)

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Abbi and Ilana’s adventures around New York City gave us five years of japes and scrapes, phone wigs and Bingo Bronson – plus the most moving depiction of the mutual neediness of friendship in TV history. Yass kweens!


The Trip (2010-)

Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon somehow convinced first the BBC, then Sky, to let them dine in Europe’s best restaurants while doing Michael Caine impressions. Even more amazingly, that vanity project became one of the funniest shows of this decade.


Skins (2007-13)

Euphoria may be the teen show of the moment, but a decade before it this drama was pushing boundaries for adolescent behaviour on TV. Yet crucially – and unlike so many shows of its ilk – it never talked down to the audience it depicted.


RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-)

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The perfect show for queens with charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent, RuPaul has been serving realness and throwing shade since 2009.

Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace (2004)

“Blood? Blood. Blood! And bits of sick.” The dictionary definition of cult viewing, Matthew Holness’s spoof of shonky British horror barely made a dent when it aired, but has since become regarded as a modern classic.

Silicon Valley (2014-)

Mike Judge’s genius comedy about the travails of a motley gang of developers mercilessly sends up the world of tech bros … and yet everyone from Mark Zuckerberg to Google founder Sergey Brin are superfans.

24 (2001-10)

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The longest day of Jack Bauer’s life became the most gripping TV drama of the 00s, as the hard-nosed CTU agent tried to stop terrorists, turncoat colleagues and even the odd treacherous president in thrilling real-time.

The L Word (2004-09)

The shamelessly soapy and explicit LGBT drama about Bette, Shane and their impossibly glam leather-vest-clad gang in Los Angeles.

Justified (2010-15)

The first and finest of a wave of modern small-screen westerns, this elegant Elmore Leonard adaptation was stocked full of memorable characters and dizzying dialogue.


The Leftovers (2014-17)

Daring and dumbfounding, Damon Lindelof’s drama about survivors of a rapture-like event threw everything into its three acclaimed seasons, from homicidal cults to a mass orgy on a boat.


Fresh Meat (2011-16)

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About as accurate a depiction of the debauchery, alienation and awkwardness of student life as it’s possible to imagine, this winning comedy-drama introduced us to one of the century’s true style icons in the form of the sensational Vod.

Gogglebox (2013-)

Why would anyone watch someone else watching telly? The answer soon became clear with this brilliantly executed reality show, which introduced viewers to a host of hilarious, not to mention surprisingly TV-literate, families.


Looking (2014-16)

Andrew Haigh’s cruise through the San Francisco gay scene skipped the LGBT lesson-learning in favour of a thrillingly human relationship drama.


Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003)

A ropey B-movie was reimagined as a brilliant subversion of fantasy tropes in Joss Whedon’s beloved series, which introduced the world to a feminist pop icon in Sarah Michelle Gellar’s teen slayer.


Strictly Come Dancing (2004-)

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The celebrity ballroom dance competition that quickstepped on to our screens in 2004 and has made our lives more fab-u-lous by the year. Glitterati, assemble!


Gavin and Stacey (2007-10)

The well lush Anglo-Welsh sitcom about Gav’n’Stace, Nessa and Smithy that became a BBC phenomenon then propelled James Corden to global stardom. Catch up with them again in a special this Christmas. Bang tidy.


Veep (2012-19)

Julia Louis-Dreyfus served as perfectly shambolic fictional foil to the real-life disaster that is US politics, in a Stateside companion piece to The Thick of It.


Halt and Catch Fire (2014-17)

The thrilling 80s computer-whiz drama that landed in the Mad Men slot on AMC, but never got the fanbase it deserved.

Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

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Judd Apatow’s impeccable cult show about the Bionic Woman-loving nerds and burnouts, disco dancers and Dungeon Masters of McKinley High in 1980 that was canned after just one short season.


The Shield (2002-08)

A key part, alongside the Sopranos, The Wire and Deadwood, of the golden age of antihero drama, this thriller about likable – and utterly corrupt – cops broke new ground for bold, risk-taking television.


A Very English Scandal (2018)

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Hugh Grant was on rollicking form as the Liberal party leader Jeremy Thorpe on trial for conspiring to murder his young lover, Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw). As Thorpe would say, “a very heaven”.


It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-)

Inarguably the most gleefully offensive show on this list, the sitcom about the despicable owners of a Philly dive bar is also one of the most consistent: each of its 13 seasons features a truckload of laugh-out-loud moments.


The Inbetweeners (2008-10)

The show that launched a thousand cries of “ooh friends” remains one of the most enjoyable sitcoms of the past decade, with its relatable tale of four suburban normies negotiating sixth form.

Spiral (2005-)

Frequently compared to The Wire, this French crime saga offered a forensic view of France’s justice system, albeit with enough twists and turns to keep fans totally hooked.


Planet Earth (2006 and 2016)

Groundbreaking doesn’t even begin to describe this globe-straddling documentary epic, which for the first time showed the world’s wildlife in gleaming HD. A decade later, with death-defying iguanas, its sequel wowed us all over again.


Lost (2004-10)

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From the murderous black smoke to the button that had to be pushed every 108 minutes to save the world, this was the bonkers plane-crash drama that got us all going in the 00s.


Shameless (2004-13)

All hail Frank Gallagher and his magnificent Mancunian ne’er-do-wells! Paul Abbott’s drama might have dragged on a little too long but at its best it provided a refreshing burst of authentically working-class TV comedy-drama.


The Good Place (2016-)

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Another heavenly sitcom from Mike Schur (The US Office, Parks and Recreation), this series about a miscreant mistakenly sent to a paradisiacal afterlife managed to combine philosophical questions, jaw-dropping twists and a deluge of gags.


Band of Brothers (2001)

Steven Spielberg’s supersized second world war epic expanded the horizons – and budgets – of prestige TV.


Proof that Scandinavian drama doesn’t have to be about glowering detectives, this Danish political saga followed glowering politicians instead. Still, it was never less than engrossing and boasted a fascinating figure in glass ceiling-battering prime minister Birgitte Nyborg.


Inside No 9 (2014-)

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Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s anthology series continues to amaze, each episode delivering a dizzyingly inventive horror-comedy one-off. Everyone has their favourite, but the Sheridan Smith-starring 12 Days of Christine might just be the show’s masterpiece.


Flight of the Conchords (2007-09)

A true TV original, Bret McKenzie and Jemaine Clement’s musical comedy about a hopeless New Zealand band floundering in NYC combined stoner comedy and inescapably earwormy songs to utterly charming effect.


Six Feet Under (2001-05)

Alan Ball’s profound drama about the Fisher family and their funeral home was gloriously moving and unnerving, and made us tackle our own mortality head-on.

Show Me a Hero (2015)

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David Simon was on typically masterful form in this epic about the housing crisis in 80s Yonkers that was tragically underwatched.


Succession (2018-)

The newest show on our list, Jesse Armstrong’s comedy-drama about a dysfunctional media dynasty already feels like a modern classic, full of magnificently malignant characters and devastating one-liners.


State of Play (2003)

Far better than the glossy film adaptation that followed it, Paul Abbott’s taut, twisty corruption drama felt like the perfect political thriller for the New Labour age. And no, we didn’t just like it because the heroes were journos!

Sherlock (2010-)

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The Baker Street reboot that made us all step inside Benedict Cumberbatch’s mind palace. At its best, few shows could match it in terms of pure event television.

Wolf Hall (2015)

Mark Rylance cemented his status as one of the greatest living actors with this performance as Thomas Cromwell in a sumptuous prestige TV take on Hilary Mantel’s historical doorstop.

Orange Is the New Black (2013-19)

Jenji Kohan revolutionised television for ever with her gripping women’s prison drama about Piper, Poussey, Taystee and the Litchfield Penitentiary inmates.


Sex and the City (1998-2004)

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“I’m dating a guy with the funkiest tasting spunk.” Faced so recently with the movie SATC2: Calamity in Abu Dhabi, it can be easy to forget just how hilarious and refreshingly candid Samantha, Carrie, Miranda and Charlotte were when they first graced our screens.


The Jinx (2015)

The best of the glut of prestige true-crime programmes that have emerged in recent years, this forensic docuseries about Robert Durst, the estate heir accused of murder, featured one of the most jaw-dropping final moments of TV ever.

Utopia (2014)

Six years on, we’re still wincing at the thought of that eyeball scene, but Dennis Kelly’s conspiracy thriller about an apocalypse-predicting graphic novel was more than just ultraviolence: gorgeously shot and endlessly beguiling, it remains like nothing else on TV.

Parks and Recreation (2009-15)

Twenty minutes a week of pure optimism, this Amy Poehler-starring sitcom about a fizzingly enthusiastic civil servant somehow did the miraculous: it made local government seem fun.


Black Books (2000-04)

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No contest in the award for the most misanthropic character of the century: Dylan Moran wins hands down for his bile-flecked bookshop owner Bernard Black in this delightfully silly sitcom.

The Good Fight (2017-)

Like its predecessor The Good Wife but dialled up to 11, this is the most daring legal drama of them all – with gobsmacking plots about #MeToo monsters, Donald’s pee-pee tape and Melania’s bid to get a stealthy divorce.


Patrick Melrose (2018)

An extraordinary self-flagellating performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as a drug-dependent aristocrat anchored this superb adaptation of Edward St Aubyn’s semi-autobiographical novels. Surely the finest portrayal of addiction ever seen on TV.


Downton Abbey (2010-15)

This was TV drama as comfort blanket: at a time of austerity, Julian Fellowes’s country house epic offered elegantly realised solace in the homilies of the past. If the plotting felt formulaic, the performances were entirely convincing – from Maggie Smith’s dowager countess Violet Crawley to Jim Carter’s impossibly decorous butler Carson, everyone knew their place. PH
Read the review.


Insecure (2016-)

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Issa Rae started her acting career with a web series called The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl. While popular, Rae was able to have her seat at the table for real with Insecure. A show about black female friendship and relationships that isn’t filtered through a white gaze and doesn’t play into tired stereotypes, this HBO series refuses to compromise on authenticity, and, despite changing viewing habits, has proved one of the biggest web-to-screen hits to date. HJD
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Better Call Saul (2015-)

The Breaking Bad prequel, centred on a ducking, diving lawyer called Jimmy McGill who will one day become Saul Goodman, is an entirely different drama – albeit exploring the same theme of what actions people are willing to take when their American dreams refuse to come true. A supremely measured character piece that has steadily improved as its central tragedy has materialised. JS
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Nathan Barley (2005)

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In 2005, Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris’s twatcom seemed oddly dated – a satire of a cultural moment that had already passed. But time has rendered it deeply prescient: Barley occupied a perfectly sealed echo chamber of self-conscious idiocy, and he self-branded furiously, long before social media came for our souls. Before there were hipsters, Nathan and his fellow self-facilitating media nodes were already keeping it Mencap. PH
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Doctor Who (2005-)

The revitalised Doctor Who occupies its rightful position in the TV firmament: rarely the best show in any week or year but always there, always changing, always offering fodder for analysis, arguments and lists. Jodie Whittaker’s arrival as the first female Tardis-jockey maintained the show’s record of refreshing itself just when its relevance threatens to wane – and with so much goodwill behind it, its standout episodes are still a celebratory shared experience. JS
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The Bridge (2011-18)

None more noir but containing flashes of unexpected humour, this was one of the more impressive of the bleak dramas that flooded out of Scandinavia. The bridge of the title was the Øresund, which connected Sweden and Denmark and led to multinational cooperation on a murder enquiry. Step forward ill-matched cops Martin Rohde and more interestingly Saga Norén, a brilliant but bizarre investigator unlike any maverick TV detective ever seen. PH
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The Crown (2016-)

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Filigree telly, with every painstakingly staged scene a plush indulgence – but Netflix’s more-or-less true story of the British royal family has enough grit to make it more than just a luxury. Claire Foy’s steely Elizabeth II introduced a fine study of people unsure how to live lives made extraordinary by huge privilege and indistinct power. JS
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The Americans (2013-18)

Terminally overlooked in favour of flashier, flimsier fare, Joe Weisberg’s tale of suburban subterfuge rewarded the few who did tune in with six seasons of gorgeous, slow-burning drama. Real-life husband and wife Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell convinced as a pair of Russian spies playing house in picket-fence 80s America, struggling with notions of loyalty, fidelity and family. The show’s finale, which shifts between toe-curling tension and devastating poignancy, should be regarded as one for the ages. GM
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South Park (1997-)

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A starburst of fantastically inventive offence, Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s crude animation combined grotesque hilarity with a deceptively serious purpose. South Park was both a gleeful dismantling of the American dream and a laser-guided exploration of the tender spots where freedom of speech and liberal sensitivities collide. As such, it has proved surprisingly prescient; many of America’s current cultural fault lines first became apparent here. PH
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Friday Night Lights (2006-11)

A tender, truthful look at the beating heart of small-town America, shone through the prism of one of its most engrained institutions: high school football. It had us all rooting for the Dillon Panthers, for Coach Taylor and Tami Taylor, quarterback Matt Saracen, co*cky running back Smash Williams, badboy fullback Tim Riggins, endlessly lovable nerd Landry Clarke and Tyra Collette, the town’s only anti-football fanatic. We followed them for every triumph and every touchdown, all the while screaming at our screens: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose.” KA


The Power of Nightmares (2004)

Arriving in 2004, when US president George W Bush was becoming almost as much of a concern as Al-Qaida leader Osama Bin Laden, Adam Curtis’s startling documentary series explored the shockingly congruent aims of fundamentalist Islam and American neo-conservatism. Equally striking was Curtis’s trademark style, all logical provocations and uncanny juxtapositions; it’s historical documentary as polemical art installation. PH
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The Good Wife (2009-16)

The audacious legal drama took on a ripped-from-the-headlines case every week, tackling everything from fake news to election tampering, police racism and the terrors of surveillance culture. It responded so staggeringly fast to events that it sometimes felt too real. But it was also a rare drama that focused on women – rounded, complex, great, flawed, wonderful women – from the eponymous Alicia Florrick, who moved so far beyond the pained good wife of the opening episode, standing by her man through a humiliating sex scandal, to Diane Lockhart, the barnstorming firebrand in fabulous jewellery (one of the most glorious characters of the century). An exciting, exhilarating slap in the face to the very end. KA
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Detectorists (2014-17)

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What initially appeared to be a charming muse on the lives of two eccentric metal-detecting hobbyists soon revealed itself to be something more profound. Mackenzie Crook’s labour of love was very funny, but it became ever more moving and thought-provoking. It was underpinned by a deep but open-minded and inclusive respect for our collective past, and animated by one of the most sweetly convincing friendships in television history. PH
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Brass Eye: Paedogeddon (2001)

Even viewers familiar with Chris Morris’s original 1997 current affairs satire raised a few startled eyebrows at Brass Eye’s one-off return in 2001. Morris plunged into what, at the time, was one of the most emotive issues in British life – press coverage of paedophiles – and steamrollered every taboo he could get his teeth into inside half an hour. Newspapers howled, commentators pontificated, politicians blustered – and perhaps that was the point. PH
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The Great British Bake Off (2010-)

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With reality TV shifting from catty to comforting in recent times, both the BBC and Channel 4 have enjoyed the sweet smell of success with Bake Off. Mel and Sue’s exodus was a blow to its softly-softly charm and Prue Leith is a more straight-talking judge than Mary Berry. But 10 series in, the amateur baking contest is still an autumn staple. As with most long-running reality shows, there’s still a sense of familiarity despite some changes; this year’s series features its youngest ever set of contestants. HJD
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This is England (2010-15)

The characters introduced in Shane Meadows’s 2007 film of the same name have acquired a vibrant small-screen life of their own. No wonder: they’re incredibly resonant – they depict the kinds of British lives that are rarely explored at all, let alone with such tenderness and wisdom. We’ve taken This is England’s characters to our hearts but the series also functions as a parallel history of our country, warts and all. PH
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Catastrophe (2015-19)

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Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan made their comedy great by never playing safe. At first it was a filthy gutbuster about a careless sexfest; then it frankly faced the grim reality of parenthood without losing its dirty grin. Finally, killing their darling just before it could flag, the pair delivered one of the best TV endings ever. A hardcore sitcom classic. JS
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Big Brother (2000-2018)

The recent 10th anniversary of Jade Goody’s death sparked much conversation around the original lock-em-up-and-throw-away-the-key-for-a-bit reality show. Big Brother was in many ways one of the most heinous shows ever broadcast, from “Nasty Nick” Bateman fleeing the country to escape the tabloids to Kinga’s wine bottle and Shilpa-gate. But it was also a show that would change TV – and our concept of celebrity – for ever. HJD
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The Office (US) (2005-13)

Cross-continent reboots are notoriously rubbish. But when they evolve beyond by-the-numbers remakes and find an identity of their own, they can become excellent. A case in point: The Office US (originally subtitled “An American Workplace”) found its feet once it stopped trying to be Gervais Part Two and instead established its own perpetually bored protagonists, led by Michael Scott, Steve Carell’s self-proclaimed “world’s best boss”. HJD
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Blue Planet (2001/2017)

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It would be easy to take David Attenborough’s startling odysseys into the natural world for granted. But technological developments have only increased their wonder, while the exponential destruction of the environment has lent them a polemical edge. Attenborough’s two Blue Planet series have presented more mindblowing, naturally occurring psychedelia – long, strange trips into beautiful but inhospitable realms previously unexplored (and all-too-often degraded) by humanity. PH
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Killing Eve (2018-)

Few shows in TV history have scythed on to the screen with as much elan as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s spy v spy thriller, which arrived with dialogue as impossibly sharp and cool as the European locations and Jodie Comer’s couture costumes. The death dance between Comer’s psychopath and Sandra Oh’s coiled-spring MI5 nerd means each episode has a handful of outlandish payoffs that other dramas spend whole seasons working towards. JS
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Spaced (1999-2001)

It might have ended back in 2001 but Simon Pegg, Edgar Wright and Jessica Hynes’s flatshare sitcom can stake a legitimate claim as the most influential comedy of this millennium: its quick cuts, genre parodies and geek humour have been adopted by everything from Community to Preacher. Yet for all the Star Wars homages, Spaced was, at its heart, a terrific character comedy, boasting a cracking cast that included Mark Heap’s tortured artist Brian and Julia Deakin’s formidable, chianti-powered landlady Marsha. GM
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The Killing (2007-12)

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Tracking a single murder case across 20 hours of subtitled drama might have seemed a hard sell. But this Danish procedural had a secret weapon in detective Sarah Lund (Sofie Gråbøl). Lund’s knitwear became an unlikely totem of the show, but the real appeal was Gråbøl’s remarkable performance. Over three gripping seasons, Lund told us everything and nothing about herself, becoming one of the great TV enigmas. PH
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Transparent (2014-19)

Amazon has struggled to get its TV originals right, but it made a perfect start with this mercurial, millennial dramedy. The plaudits for breaking new ground by centring on a transgender character were deserved, and no TV show before or since has handled diversity of gender and sexuality so assuredly. On top of all that is a seriously funny look at people failing to turn fluid modern adulthood into happiness. JS
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Red Riding Trilogy (2009)

Set in the Ripper-plagued Yorkshire of the 1970s, David Peace’s original novels are strewn with feverish internal monologues. Adapting them for television was always likely to prove tricky. However, this trilogy rose to the challenge superbly, drawing on the diverse but complementary visions of three different directors (Julian Jarrold, James Marsh and Anand Tucker) and a host of superb performances to bring the era unnervingly to life. PH
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The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)

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Arriving on our screens with almost eerie timeliness three months into the Trump presidency, this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel serves as a helpful reminder that, if we’re not careful, things could get even more like Gilead. The show’s patriarchal hellscape, where the chaste culture of kept women sits uneasily next to the machine guns and combat gear of the men doing the keeping, is terrifyingly well-realised, while Elisabeth Moss delivers a remarkable performance as Offred, the Handmaid who dreams of blowing it up. GM
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The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (1999-2015)

Wise-ass but frequently just plain wise, Jon Stewart was a broadcasting natural with such range that he was equally convincing whether presenting a show in the aftermath of 9/11 or excoriating Chicago’s fondness for deep-pan pizza. For more than a decade, he was a unique and persuasive liberal voice in American affairs; we shudder to imagine what he would have made of the current US political situation. PH
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Black Mirror (2011-)

Ambition is probably Charlie Brooker’s best quality as a writer: he had the balls to start his sci-fi anthology with an episode about the prime minister being forced to violate a pig, then took the chance to take Black Mirror global by shifting from Channel 4 to Netflix. Now every new helping of his dystopia is event telly, drawing in A-list talent and, with one-offs such as the interactive Bandersnatch, continuing to push at the medium’s limits. JS
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Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

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No one knew what to expect from the reappearance, after nearly 30 years, of David Lynch’s mystery drama. From its first frame to its soul-rending primal scream of a conclusion, The Return proved thrillingly baffling, full of indelible images (nuclear explosions, demonic co*ckroaches, David Bowie as a giant kettle) and dizzying dream logic. At the centre of the chaos was Kyle MacLachlan, radiating previously untapped levels of magnificence as both the valiant Agent Cooper and his breathtakingly evil doppelganger. GM
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Arrested Development (2003-19)

The underwhelming Netflix reboot of Mitch Hurwitz’s comedy, about a dysfunctional and in retrospect vaguely Trumpian dynasty, shouldn’t detract too much from the legacy of its brilliant first three seasons, which raised the bar for intricate, intelligent sitcommery. Such was the density of references, callbacks and gags that Arrested Development proved to be that rare thing – a show that became funnier on repeated viewings. GM
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OJ: Made in America (2016)

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It was the story of a US footballer, accused of murder and subsequently acquitted. But it was so much more besides. Over seven compelling hours, Ezra Edelman pulled back from his immediate subject by homing in on its minutiae. Exploring the context of OJ Simpson’s rise and fall, Edelman constructed a startling treatise on race, gender, celebrity and capitalism itself. The result was an alternative history of modern America. PH
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The Vietnam War (2017)

More like a definitive historical document than a TV series. While Vietnam remains a scab at which America is compelled to pick, this panorama by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick feels like the last word. Beginning decades before the war and following its echoes up to the present day, the series plunged into the quagmire, illuminating the horror for all to see but concluded with threads of humanity reclaimed from the carnage. PH
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Girls (2012-17)

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For all its problems (and there were many, from a lack of diversity to Lena Dunham’s impressive propensity for foot-in-mouth moments), Girls changed the half-hour sitcom for the better. Originally billed as an updated Sex and the City, it grew into something more troubled and more troubling, bringing the best of mumblecore to the small screen via a spaghetti-slurping, often half-naked antihero (Dunham’s Hannah Horvath), who proved as relatable as she was entirely out of control. HJD
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Deadwood (2004-6)

David Milch’s unique, picaresque western earned its spurs in the early stages of the HBO TV gold-rush. But it was more singular and ornery than any of its contemporaries. Milch created a universe that was simultaneously recognisable and utterly alien – then peopled it with extraordinary characters such as Ian McShane’s Al Swearengen. Sacred, profane and well deserving of its glorious feature-length resolution this year. PH
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Nighty Night (2004-5)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (28)

Julia Davis’s Jill Tyrell is the most grotesque comedy creation in living memory. Jill responded to her husband’s cancer diagnosis by attempting to break up the marriage next door, then staging an exceptionally excruciating mock funeral for her spouse (who had recovered but been forcibly committed to a hospice) and trying to seduce a 12-year-old. An absolute monster and an absolute masterpiece of provocation and bad taste. PH
Read the review.


The West Wing (1999-2006)

Aaron Sorkin’s sparky, witty and (some would say excessively) erudite political drama achieved the impossible: it made niche US legislation, from lame-duck sessions to filibusters, utterly compelling. Plus it gave us the most popular president in US history, Josiah “Jed” Bartlet. Fans must watch it now and weep into their fake newspaper at the Trumpian state of things. There were certain missteps (the patronising 9/11 episode, we’re looking at you), but this was TV that showed America it is possible to hope for better, even the best, from the leader of the free world. KA
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Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-)

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Was Larry David ever wrong? Frequently. But you could usually just about sympathise with his wrongness and understand his arrival in a variety of hideous scrapes. In a sitcom that was both deeply meta (David was playing a constructed but also deconstructed version of himself) and proudly traditional (it overflowed with sight-gags and classic setups), the comedy of excruciation reached its peak. PH
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Line of Duty (2012-)

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Rarely has a drama demanding such commitment from viewers captured the popular imagination to this extent. It’s testimony to the excellence of Jed Mercurio’s writing but mainly to masterful central performances from Martin Compston, Vicky McClure and Adrian Dunbar who, as anti-corruption unit AC12, represent a still point around which all manner of police malfeasance swirls. Line of Duty’s interrogation scenes have set a new standard in small-screen tension and release. PH
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30 Rock (2006-13)

Still badly underrated, Tina Fey’s sitcom rendering of her experiences inside the US TV machine was a fiery take on the tension between creative types and money men, the latter embodied by an all-timer performance from Alec Baldwin as an insane network exec. But it was as cynical about comedians as it was suits, the result being a joke machine with few limits on its satire or its silliness. JS
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Happy Valley (2014-)

A corrective to the cliche-ridden and frequently blokey police procedurals that dominated the first two decades of this century, Sally Wainwright’s slice of Yorkshire noir pulsated with poignant realness. In Sarah Lancashire’s stoic sergeant Catherine Cawood, it found a true heroine for our times, resourceful, funny and empathetic. A good thing too, because the world Wainwright constructed around her – full of death, addiction and desperate poverty – was almost overwhelmingly, authentically bleak. GM
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Atlanta (2016-)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (31)

Donald Glover’s foray into dramedy fizzes with pop-culture callbacks, political subtext and dark lols, following underachieving Earn, wannabe rapper cousin Paper Boi and their black millennial peers. Its best episodes are the ones where racial conflict meets all-out weirdness, among them Helen – in which Earn feels thoroughly adrift at a Germanic festival – and Teddy Perkins, the Shining-inspired, Get Out-style tale of Darius’s (Lakeith Stanfield) trip to pick up a piano from a mysterious hermit. HJD
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Peep Show (2003-15)

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The king of 00s sitcoms: formally innovative, with its point-of-view filming and audible inner monologues, and unflinching in how it used that format to be disgustingly honest about diseased male minds. A textbook contrasting duo in careless Jez and cowardly Mark gave writers Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain the platform for greatness, and the quality barely dipped across nine seasons. Peep Show was always, hilariously, an inch over the boundary of good taste. JS
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Fleabag (2016-19)

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When Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag arrived on stage in London some six years ago, critics had their doubts (one even commented “I doubt if this material will spin off into a long-running radio or television series”). How wrong they were: as well as returning to the stage for a sold-out run this year, Fleabag’s two-series TV run saw Waller-Bridge infuse the nascent sadcom genre with classic British awkwardness, encompassing grief, family breakdown and, of course, Obama-themed masturbation. HJD
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Game of Thrones (2011-19)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (34)

Despite the widespread calls by superfans to rewrite the entire last series, from Daenerys’ descent into madness to Starbucksgate, Game of Thrones remains the biggest show of the century so far. Even Ed Sheeran sitting by a fire singing a ditty about hands of gold can’t irreparably dent its reputation. And it did come up with the goods throughout its eight-year reign: from the thrills and blood spills to the men baked in pies and the best battles ever seen on the small screen, right through to Cleganebowl. Only The Winds of Winter book will spare us all from Westeros withdrawal. KA
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The Office (UK) (2001-03)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (35)

It didn’t invent the mockumentary, but Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s debut was so stylistically confident it defined swathes of the comedy that followed its 2001 premiere: two decades on, people are still making pale imitations. Its creators haven’t topped it either but with time, their casting decisions look as extraordinary as their scripts. It’s hard to fathom now that Martin Freeman, Mackenzie Crook and Gervais himself were all then relative unknowns. JS
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Breaking Bad (2008-13)

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The show that arguably killed off the antihero drama: nothing since has been able to top the depraved descent made by Walter White (a never-better Bryan Cranston), from milquetoast chemistry teacher to meth overlord, and few have dared to try. Yet as grimly engrossing as White’s transformation was, what kept us returning to Vince Gilligan’s low-key epic was Aaron Paul’s performance as his reluctant partner in crime, Jesse Pinkman, whose frayed humanity shone through the moral murk like a beacon. GM
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The Thick of It (2005-12)

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The craven, idiotic likes of Peter Mannion and Nicola Murray would be paragons of probity and wisdom in today’s parliamentary landscape. But at the time, Armando Iannucci’s scabrous comedy felt like an indictment of everything wrong with the spin and cynicism of British politics. Luckily, it was also hilarious, mainly thanks to the inventive invective of Peter Capaldi’s ferocious “Iago with a BlackBerry” Malcolm Tucker. PH
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Mad Men (2007-15)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (38)

The sex! The swagger! The suits! Matthew Weiner’s Madison Avenue masterwork went down with all the smooth, smoky allure of one of Don Draper’s copious Old-Fashioneds. But by spanning the entire 60s, showing the mammoth social shifts in an ad agency in minute detail – from the advent of the Pill and second-wave feminism to the rise of hippies and the dropping of LSD – it became more than just the tale of one mystery man and compulsive philanderer come good: it was a meditation on how modern America came to be made, one iconic advert at a time. KA


The Wire (2002-08)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (39)

Along with The Sopranos, David Simon and Ed Burns’s Baltimore crime saga showed that small-screen entertainment could be anything it aspired to be: polemical, panoramic, funny, tragic or all of those things at once. Beautifully written and performed, this was both TV as high art and TV wrenched from the soul. To this day, it’s an exemplar of a certain brand of intelligent, ambitious and uncompromising television. PH
Read more here.


The Sopranos (1999-2007)

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (40)

It is hard to fathom now, but when Tony Soprano first slumped into an armchair in his psychiatrist Dr Melfi’s office, TV was still largely looked down upon. The slogan for the Sopranos’ broadcaster – ‘It’s not TV, it’s HBO’ – felt telling in its dismissiveness, as if making a television programme was something to be ashamed about. The Sopranos changed all that.

When it first aired, some were quick to dismiss it as just another mob drama. But David Chase took a cleaver to the conventions and cliches of the gangster epic. Its Family wasn’t some pinstripe-clad crew swaggering down Brooklyn back alleys, but a tragicomic rabble reigning over the unprepossessing suburbs of New Jersey. It was a world populated by fragile and petty people, arguing over Tupperware like Paulie Walnuts or ordering a hit over rumours about their bedroom activities like Uncle Junior. And its protagonist was a hulking, ferocious don beset by panic attacks and cowed by his far more ferocious mother.

And what a protagonist! Here was a man who would break off from his daughter’s college open day to brutally murder an informant, and we were supposed to if not actively root for him, at least follow him into the abyss. Yet follow him we did, because of the qualities that moved him beyond the mobster stereotype. From the off, this was a show with bigger thoughts in mind: the downfall of the white working class, Jungian psychoanalysis, shifting sexual politics and the eternal question of whether an interior decorator could kill 16 Czechoslovakians. And it played with form with the eagerness of Tony tucking into some ‘gabagool’, staging Godot-like one-acters in the Pine Barrens and devoting entire episodes to the fever-dream musings of a comatose Tony.

The Sopranos hastened TV’s transformation into a medium where intelligence, experimentation and depth were treasured. Critics still put it at the top of best of lists like this one. Fevered conversations are still had online about the show’s symbolic use of eggs, ducks and teeth, and of course that rug-pull of an ending. For anyone currently making TV, the show stands as something to aspire to, perhaps even better. That is easier said than done, of course. Plenty of programmes have come at the boss, but none has managed to carry out a successful hit. GM

The 100 best TV shows of the 21st century (2024)
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