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The 50 coolest TV shows ever

The drug of the nation

The 50 coolest TV shows ever
24 January 2012

Some would have it that TV is no more than a glorified idiot box sent to sanitise and dupe the masses. Those people are either academic cultural theorists or have obviously watched nothing more than Loose Women. Or both.

Back in the real world, however, we know different. Television is right up there with music, films and books when it comes to being cool. How could you watch Monty Python, The Simpsons or The Wire and think differently? Exactly.

So, herewith are the 50 coolest TV programmes of all time. The shows that changed the way we think, the way we dress and how we watch TV itself.

Think differently? Let us know below. We know you will anyway…

(Images: All Star, Rex Features, YouTube)

Dragnet (1951-1959)

As long as there is TV there will be programmes dedicated to the police. And Dragnet is arguably the daddy of them all. Having sprung from a successful radio show (always a nice feed for TV), Dragnet – a term for a police manoeuvre – detailed the adventures of Sergeant Joe Friday (Jack Webb, who actually created the show) in Los Angeles. Unbelievably realistic, the show not only gave the public a glimpse into the daily operations of police detectives, but provided a template for future cop-based shows.

Top Cat (1961-1962)

Friendships don’t get funny or furrier than on Top Cat. Set in a Manhattan alley, Top Cat, renamed Boss Cat in the UK because there was a Top Cat brand of cat food, details the colourful antics of T.C. and his buddies – Benny, Spook, Choo Choo, Brain, Fancy-Fancy – and their efforts to get one over local cop, Officer Dibble. Purportedly inspired by Phil Silvers, there were only 30 episodes of the cartoon produced. Yet its influence, and the love it engendered, is comparable to a show with 10 times as many.

The Avengers (1961-1969)

Traversing the most tumultuous decade in recent history, The Avengers was in an ideal place to reflect the grand changes sweeping society. Appearing one year before the first James Bond film, it captured the fascination with spies and secret agents and attached this to the burgeoning area of science fiction. In the shape of John Steed (Patrick Macnee) evergreen British staples such as style and eccentricity were maintained. Most importantly it treated women – most notably Honor Blackman as Cathy Gale and Diana Rigg as Emma Peel – as equals. Not merely an historical curio, The Avengers stands up to repeated viewing today.

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (1964-1968)

Spy shows were big business in the Sixties – a legacy of the Cold War and the rising popularity of 007 – and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. was up there with the best. Less tongue in cheek than The Avengers and straighter than The Prisoner, it featured the ultra-suave pairing of Robert Vaughn and David McCallum as secret agents Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. The sharp suits, snappy dialogue and reliance on ever-more ingenious gadgets meant the programme was an instant hit.

Batman (1966-1968)

If you look hard enough comedic material can be found in the unlikeliest of sources. And so it was with this TV adaptation of DC Comics original Dark Knight in the mid-Sixties. Played out as pop art, this light-hearted approach might have verged on parody, but the Technicolor dynamism made it perfect for its age. The flamboyant theatrics of Batman and the boy wonder Robin, might have been usurped by a return to the Caped Crusader’s return to his darker source material, but this Sixties high camp romp will always induce a smile among aficionados.

The Prisoner (1967-1968)

The coolest TV shows will always induce fan fervour. And none more so than the surreal Sixties spy thriller, The Prisoner. The idea of star, director and producer Patrick McGoohan, it mixed regular secret agent tropes with more sinister Kafka and Orwellesque overtones as McGoohan’s titular character attempted to escape his holiday resort prison. Echoing the counterculture’s cherishment of freedom, devotees would regularly invoke the line, “I am not a number, I am a free man.” The location for filming, Portmeirion, is still visited by the programme’s numerous acolytes.

Joe 90 (1968-1969)

In the days before all-singing, all-dancing HD3DflatscreenTV, it’s tempting to think a kid had to get his broadcasting pleasures where he could find them. But these simpler times actually were a golden age, and nowhere is this better exemplified than in the Gerry Anderson Supermarionation series’ Stingray, Thunderbirds,Captain Scarlet and the Mysterons and Joe 90. Incredibly for puppet shows, the programmes have aged magnificently, not least Joe 90, the entertaining story of nine-year-old spy Joe McClaine.

Monty Python’s Flying Circus (1969-1974)

Although it only ran for five years, Monty Python’s Flying Circus is a comedic institution. Formulating a new form of absurdist observational comedy, its impact was so profound that it has embedded itself into the very fabric of our cultural life. Sketches such as the Dead Parrot, The Ministry of Silly Walks, Nudge, Nudge and The Spanish Inquisition are endlessly quoted. In many respects the surreal humour gave birth to the alternative comedy scene that we enjoy so much today, making it possibly the most influential TV show of all time.

Happy Days (1974-1984)

It doesn’t matter whether Happy Days was a sanitised version of American life in the Fifties and Sixties – propaganda for the American Dream – the fact is, it connected. It spoke to those baby boomers, and successive generations thereafter, that hankered after more idealistic, less complicated times. And in the Fonz it had one of the best TV characters of all time. Who didn’t wish they had their own Fonz to guide them through those perilous teenage years?

Starsky & Hutch (1975-1979)

When fashions change, as is their wont, the notion of cool shifts accordingly. However, some things will always be cool. Namely fast cars, daring stunts, wise-cracking repartee between two cops and a frisky jazz funk soundtrack courtesy of Tom Scott. In other words, Starsky & Hutch. Surprisingly gritty for a mainstream hit, the relationship between Paul Michael Glaser and David Soul was the basis for this enduring buddy classic. The timeless style, nefarious character and police informant Huggy Bear and that car were the icing on the very cool cake.

Saturday Night Live (1975–present)

A few names for you: John Belushi, Bill Murray, Will Ferrell, Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Dan Aykroyd, Eddie Murphy, Mike Myers, Chris Rock, Kristen Wiig, Adam Sandler… we could go on, but you get the gist. All made their name on the original leftfield comedy and variety show. Now a much-loved New York institution, the show’s anarchic edge is still as cutting as ever and much like the city that hosts it, if you can make it on Saturday Night Live, you can make it anywhere.

The Muppet Show (1976-1981)

Like Monty Python’s Flying Circus, The Muppet Show only ran for five years, yet, such was its success, it feels as though it ran forever. The characters are among the most loved to have appeared on TV. And in effectively appealing to both children and adults alike (predating The Simpsons by a good decade) a broad viewing demographic lapped up the nonsensical drama at the surreal variety show. Such was its success stars as famous as Peter Sellers, Elton John, Diana Ross, Rudolf Nureyev, Steve Martin, Liberace, Sylvester Stallone, Dudley Moore, Johnny Cash and Debbie Harry all appeared on the show.

Monkey (1978-1980)

In the worlds before Monkey, primal chaos reigned. So goes the opening title sequence, by way explanation, for this most unlikely cult TV hit. For chaps of a certain age – think late 30s and early 40s – Monkey was the coolest thing on TV. A bizarre retelling of the epic Chinese novel, Journey To The West, it combines Buddhism with kung fu, although we guessing that it was the latter that drew kids’ attention. That and the ace theme tune. Monkey Magic indeed.

Magnum, P.I. (1980-1988)

In this day and age top rated shows aren’t generally much cop, quality programming being sacrificed in favour of bland platitudes. However, and this isn’t a fanciful flight into nostalgia, the Seventies and Eighties were different – a last hurrah of shows that weren’t subject to focus groups and designed by committee. Magnum, P.I. was one such show: big, bold, brash, it concerned the cool, alpha male, Vietnam Vet private investigator Thomas Magnum (Tom Selleck) and his adventures around the sun-kissed island of Hawaii. Never has the phrase, ‘Woman wanted him, men wanted to be him’, more apt.

Knight Rider (1982-1986)

The Eighties was the first real computer decade, a time when the future was tantalisingly close. Nothing exemplified this better than a computer-controlled car – KITT – and a dashing young detective (David Hasselhoff) with big curly hair. Much like Magnum, P.I., The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard, Knight Rider was pure entertainment escapism, but it was delivered in a compelling and stylish fashion. By the end of the decade, hit US shows started dealing in introspection, you know, feelings. That was way off the agenda here.

The Young Ones (1982-1984)

The Comic Strip Presents… and The Young Ones dragged alternative comedy kicking and screaming into the mainstream when it both shows were first broadcast within a week of each other in November 1982. While both were superb representations of the fertile comedy scene, The Young Ones was the timelier. A hilarious flipside to the rise of Thatcherism, it also brilliantly parodied student life and the nuclear family in general. Genuinely anarchic with a charm that most shows would die for, The Young Ones is fondly remembered. And rightly so.

Miami Vice (1984-1989)

If ever a programmed desired cool it was Miami Vice. Purposefully stylised, it was designed, according to one of its directors, to complement the MTV generation’s perceived fondness for ‘images, emotions and energy’ over ‘plot, character and words’. In Don Johnson (as Sonny Crockett) they had the epitome of suave, Eighties modernism – for all intents and purposes Crockett was the decade personified - and the show’s ongoing battle with drug dealers echoed the era’s wider war on drugs.

The Singing Detective (1986)

Dennis Potter was arguably the greatest dramatist and playwright of his, or any other, generation. Implicitly understanding the power of TV, his genius peaked with the controversial The Singing Detective. A multi-layered tale – featuring three, sometimes four, interwoven stories – starring the mesmeric Michael Gambon as the musical sleuth in question, it served as wry political commentary, magical fantasy and hard-boiled mystery. An unforgettable and rightly acclaimed piece of television history.

The Simpsons (1989-present)

Most TV shows run out of steam after a couple of series. The Simpsons has now been going strong for over 20 years. Effortlessly combining elements of every successful TV programme – soap opera, surreal humour, observational comedy, social critique, kids’ cartoons – it is the ultimate post-modern, multi-layered show. And in Homer Simpson, Matt Groening has created a character that will be spoken of – like Macbeth and Don Quixote – in centuries to come.

Seinfeld (1990-1998)

Seinfeld has been likened on a number of occasions to Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, in that it is a programme about nothing. In many respects, it’s true: Seinfeld, the hilarious creation of comic masterminds Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld, is about nothing in particular. But it’s actually about everything: life in all its ad-hoc, humdrum, miniscule glory. The wry observations and the self-deprecating nature might be second nature in sitcoms today, but 20 years ago, such anti-aspirational TV making was profound. The programme has since gone on to have a second life as a box set must have.

The Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990-1996)

By 1990 hip hop was big business, but no mainstream TV show had yet to really incorporate this thrilling new street culture into its programme narrative. The Fresh Prince of Bel Air achieved that. Unashamedly conventional, the rebellious aspects of Will Smith’s Fresh Prince were more cheeky than truly subversive, but for all that, the show did deliver something new, demonstrating that the hip hop generation was not just about unruly boyz in the hood. From here, Will Smith, and hip hop, would take over the world.

Twin Peaks (1990-91)

Surreal, maddening, innovative… trying to explain Twin Peaks can be something of a thankless task. Based around the FBI investigation (led by the memorable Special Agent Dale Cooper) into the murder of Laura Palmer in the titular town, the show – co-created by David Lynch – was really concerned with the odd underbelly of this seemingly normal community. Praised for treating its audience with a respect not normally associated with TV dramas, in many respects Twin Peaks begat the likes of The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire and co.

The Larry Sanders Show (1992-1998)

Spoof TV shows are ten a penny these days, but when Garry Shandling initiated The Larry Sanders Show it was incredibly innovative. Taking a fine scalpel to the self-absorbed world of TV, the programme featured a litany of Hollywood superstars superbly sending themselves up. But the show’s real success was in capturing the daily backbiting, internal politics and drudgery of working in an office environment. Ricky Gervais was taking note.

The Day Today (1994)

The best spoofs are rendered so accurately that those viewing often believe they’re watching the real thing. And so it was with The Day Today. A hilarious parody of TV news and other current affairs shows, it brought its creators Chris Morris and Armando Iannucci instant notoriety, and paved the way for Steve Coogan and Patrick Marber. Although only six episodes of the show were ever broadcast, its influence was dramatic. Even watching Newsnight today can be an embarrassing experience thanks to the rib-tickling antics of The Day Today.

Our Friends In The North (1996)

The fact that people still talk about this incredibly ambitious show in such reverential tones tells you everything you need to know. Covering 31 years of British social history in a captivating drama was a tall ask, but thanks to powerful performances from Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee, Daniel Craig and Mark Strong (the last two being relative unknowns then), it was achieved effortlessly. The ending, soundtracked by Oasis’s Don’t Look Back In Anger, remains one of the most memorable scenes in British TV history.

This Life (1996-1997)

Although it ended in something of a mediocre whimper, Britain in the mid-Nineties was a confident, fresh and vital place. This Life was part of that. Focussing on five 20-somethings – in this case a group of lawyers - just starting out on life’s great journey fed into the idea of this vibrancy. The writing and acting reflected this, and the quick cut directing gave the programme an authentic tension. If any programme could be said to epitomise Cool Britannia this was it. The less said about the risible 2007 reunion show the better.

Spaced (1999-2001)

Anyone who’s found themselves at some point in their mid-20s experiencing some sort of existential ennui will love Spaced. Of course that’s not the only stipulation, but such was Simon Pegg and Jessica Stevenson’s implicit understanding of a very British take on the Generation X culture of the Nineties, that it directly spoke to that generation (and successive slackers since). Hugely influential, and with a reach that belied its mere 14 episodes, it launched the careers of Pegg, Nick Frost and director Edgar Wright.

The Sopranos (1999–2007)

Although there had been precedents – Twin Peaks chief among them – The Sopranos changed everything. Every series that followed in its wake owed a debt to the programme. A drama concerned with the mob (a subtle metaphor for the family) it was dripping in pop culture references, was hysterically funny, glamorised nothing and, for a programme that dealt in murder and deception, was incredibly poignant and moving. Alongside The Wire it is the ultimate in box set viewing.

Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000)

The TV schedules can be an unforgiving place – an environment where ratings unfortunately triumph over quality. Freaks and Geeks discovered this when it was cancelled after only one season in 2000. Set in a Detroit high school in 1980, it perfectly captured the angst, the drama and the fun of being a teenager – much more than any Dawson’s Creek or The O.C. ever could. That its cast – James Franco, Seth Rogen, Jason Segel among them – are now prime players in Hollywood tells you everything you need to know about the stupidity of some people who run TV.

Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)

For his part in creating Seinfeld, Larry David will always be hailed as a genius. For devising Curb Your Enthusiasm he is nigh-on untouchable. A sardonic and bittersweet portrayal of the minutiae of his, admittedly exaggerated, life, the programme is really a show about manners. By exposing the hypocrisies that plague much of modern life, David is a hero to many. That he does it in such a brutally frank and humorous way only serves to increase the esteem in which we hold him.

Six Feet Under (2001-2005)

A show fascinated with the messy business of death and its even more entangled aftermath might not be a barrel of laughs, but Six Feet Under was certainly compulsive viewing. An intelligent mainstream show that treated mortality with a remarkable equanimity, it centred upon the complicated lives of the Fisher clan, the owners of a Los Angeles funeral home. Running for five seasons, it also had the sense to draw a line under the show when the programme was at an all-time high.

The Wire (2002-2008)

The Wire has been called the greatest TV show ever by so many people that repeating such an opinion feels like damning it with faint praise. No matter, The Wire’s excellence is apparent to all who have fallen under its spell. Ostensibly a crime drama set in Baltimore, it is so much more than that. An unflinching expose of modern America – the death of the American Dream and the post-industrial urban decay - critics have called the show’s five series the closest thing we have to a modern Shakespeare. They are not wrong. We envy those who have yet to watch it.

Firefly (2002)

If the name Joss Whedon appears anywhere near a TV show you are pretty much guaranteed not only a cult hit, but, moreover, crossover mainstream success too. Firefly was the strange exception. Set in 2517, it depicted the adventures of a renegade space crew in a new star system and in many respects the frontier aspect of the show rendered it a Western in outer space. Surprisingly, it didn’t hit home with viewers and was cancelled after one series. In this case, the viewers – or lack of them – were wrong.

State of Play (2003)

With a stellar cast – John Simm, David Morrissey, Bill Nighy, Kelly Macdonald, James McAvoy, Marc Warren and Philip Glenister among them – and having sprung from the inordinately creative mind of Paul Abbott, there was no way State of Play could fail. However, not even the most bog-eyed optimist could have hoped for something this good. A gripping thriller that took in murder, infidelity, deception, conspiracy and a political cover up that went to the top of Westminster this was the equal of anything being produced across the pond. Easily the best British drama of the last decade.

Arrested Development (2003-2006)

Arrested Development was like an unruly teen: frequently misunderstood, prone to moments of high farce and always entertaining. Why it never lasted longer than three series will trouble the minds of critics forever. Dissecting the colourful lives of the troublesome Bluth family, Arrested Development was the best, most dysfunctional, and certainly coolest sitcom of the Noughties. Hopefully, continued rumours of a Hollywood film will come to pass.

Deadwood (2004-2006)

Unsurprisingly, the cemetery housing once proud TV programmes is a muddled and bulging place. Some shows are affectionately remembered, some are never given a second thought. And some – Deadwood being a prime example – were cut down in their prime and shouldn’t be interred at all. The most raucous programme of the last decade, Deadwood – as befitting a show set in the lawless Wild West - wore its unabashed violent imagery as a badge of honour. Ian McShane’s depiction of the profane Al Swearengen is one of TV’s most memorable.

Nathan Barley (2005)

A sitcom deconstructing the present-day infatuation with cool, but actually achieving layers of cool itself? Surely some post-modern joke. But no, Charlie Brooker and Chris Morris properly lanced the boil of all things Shoreditch with this painfully wise-cracking and oftentimes cringe worthy programme. Not only did they expose the vacuous lifestyles of these ‘creative’ idiots they allowed everyone else not cool enough to be cool to feel just that little bit cooler in the process. Like, totally Mexico!

The IT Crowd (2006-present)

As co-creator of Father Ted and Black Books, and having been involved in The Fast Show, Brass Eye and Big Train, Graham Linehan’s TV pedigree is second-to-none. The IT Crowd could be his crowning glory, however. A traditional sitcom it centres upon the information technology department of the clandestine Reynholm Industries. There the hapless trio of Maurice, Roy and Jen attempt to fit into the workplace – and by extension, society – with varying degrees of success. Although the TV series has now finished, Linehan has said an extended special will air this year.

30 Rock (2006-present)

There are some people who believe women are not funny. These people have clearly not seen 30 Rock. Penned by and starring the irrepressible Tina Fey and based on her experiences working at Saturday Night Live, 30 Rock, much like The Larry Sanders Show, pulls the drama, the goofs and the Machiavellian politics from behind the making of a TV show and places it squarely in the centre of the story. Proving that not only is the truth stranger than fiction, but there’s no diva like a Hollywood diva.

Life On Mars (2006-2007)

The premise of Life On Mars sounds dreadful. A police officer (John Simm) ends up in 1973 after being hit by a car in 2006. There typically OTT Seventies stereotypes come up against our more politically correct sensibilities. However, thanks to classy acting (not least from Simm and his nemesis Philip Glenister) and razor sharp scripts, the makers pulled it off. It helped that the viewer never really knew why Simm had been sent back 30 years. Was he dead? In purgatory? Was it all a dream? Had he gone stark raving bonkers? Or did he really go back in time? Whatever it was, and everyone seemed to have their own theory, it had everyone hooked.

Flight of the Conchords (2007-2009)

When it first aired in 2007, Flight of the Conchords was like a breath of fresh air. Deliberately lo-fi, it mined a seriously self-deprecating anti-cool aesthetic, which, obviously, made it really cool. Focussing on two hapless shepherds-turned-folk musicians from New Zealand trying to make it in New York with an even more incompetent manager, the show was a musical sitcom combined with high farce. The music extended beyond pure pastiche and the humour was bitingly satirical. A gem of a programme.

Mad Men (2007-present)

Put unbridled masculinity, sharp suits, the dawn of the Sixties, infidelity and a heavy dose of liquor into the mixer and you get something very cool indeed. You get Mad Men. Mad Men evokes this heady time with a wry sensibility and an almost unerring authenticity. While an undoubted narcissist and charlatan, Don Draper, the show’s pivot, is one of the most absorbing TV characters of recent history.

Breaking Bad (2008- present)

A teacher dealing crystal meth in order to provide for his family before he succumbs to terminal cancer might not sound like a fridge full of chortles, but the astounding Breaking Bad is just that. Unsurprisingly dark, the show flicks back and forth between surrealism and gallows humour. Moreover, it serves as a modern-day fable; a show that while dealing in the murkier aspects of human life (a suitable reflection of our current malaise) demonstrates that actions do have consequences. Amusingly moral in other words.

Party Down (2009-2010)

In its tragically short two season run, Party Down managed to score awful ratings yet a suitably dedicated cult following. The lo-fi comedy follows a group of wannabe actors who moonlight for a catering company and hate every second of it. Tapping into that feeling of camaraderie you get with other unenthused colleagues while working at a job you hate, it’s all about striving for coolness in an uncool workplace. Something we know nothing about, obviously.

Eastbound & Down (2009-present)

Kenny Powers (played to perfection by the boisterous Danny McBride) is one of best comic creations of recent times. An obnoxious misanthrope, Powers was once a pro baseball player, but having fallen on hard times is forced to return to his home town to teach the sport at his old school while he prepares for a comeback. No longer worshipped by those around him and approaching middle age, this is a classic comedy of errors with Powers trying to find his place and purpose in life.

Misfits (2009-present)

Managing to combine dark humour with genuine thrills, this South London set-story of reprobates struggling to deal with their recently gained superpowers operates in a league of its own. Despite a low budget, the rather unglamourous inner-city location becomes something utterly cinematic. It's one of the few shows that dares to take on the Americans at their own game (non-period shows with ambition) and unsurprisingly, there's a US-set remake on the way....

Bored To Death (2009-2011)

Everything about Bored To Death screams too cool for school. Written by Jonathan Ames and featuring a fictional writer called Jonathan Ames (played with suitable panache by Jason Schwartzman) who moonlights as a private detective; this is post-modern neo-noir comedy of the highest order. Alongside Schwartzman, it stars Zach Galifianakis and Ted Danson as friends of Jonathan, both of whom have serious personality issues. Knowing, self-referential and tapping into a mine of New York material, this is present day dark (anti-)humour at its finest.

Community (2009-present)

Despite not bringing in the massive ratings it deserves, this community college sitcom has managed to rack up a terrifyingly dedicated fan following. Due to its insistence on rewarding eagle-eyed viewers with a selection of smart in-jokes, it’s pretty much become the younger, slightly more attractive, cousin of Arrested Development. It doesn’t bode too well for its future on network TV but does suggest a long life of frenzied conventions and worryingly detailed fan art.

How To Make It In America (2010-2011)

This hipster take on Entourage wore its cool badge on its vintage sleeve with a portrayal of young New Yorkers trying to make it in the world of fashion. It progressed from one warehouse party to the next with a parade of disgustingly attractive people getting drunk and listening to music that you probably won’t have heard of. Luckily, it also boasted sharp dialogue and an infectious sense of hedonism. It’s just been cancelled as well which makes it even cooler, right?

Portlandia (2011-present)

Rather like Nathan Barley before it, Portlandia brilliantly satirises hipster culture in its every embarrassing incarnation. Revolving around a different pair of characters, played by the same two actors each week, it expertly captures the specific ridiculousness of try-hards. For instant amusement, check out the couple who like to put birds on things to increase their value and the friends who aimlessly compete with each other over what they’ve read.