That's that settled, then: you've told us – definitively – what the greatest 100 shows of the past twenty years are.
We presented Digital Spy readers with a shortlist of 150 shows curated from viewing figures, popularity ratings, newsworthiness and online presence, and you each voted for as many as you felt deserved a vote. That way we got a broader, fairer picture of what people really like – not just their number-one favourite, but everything.
And so the cream rose to the top. This isn't the end of the conversation, though – it's just the beginning...
Jennifer Garner's calling-card, the show that not only launched her career but proved its showrunner – one JJ Abrams – was a creative force to be reckoned with. The tale of a secret agent who discovers her entire agency is actually an evil front, it threw twist after twist at us along with sci-fi weirdness and ass-kicking action.
HBO saw what Armando Iannucci was doing to British politics with The Thick of It and decided they wanted a slice of that action – the result was Veep, a sharp, fast-moving, pay-attention-or-you'll-miss-it comedy about well-meaning Vice President Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her staff, consistently stymied by the gnarled roots of political process. Want to see how countries get run? You asked for it...
98 The Killing
Forbrydelsen, as we should properly call it, kickstarted a whole new genre that continues to cast a long shadow over crime drama: the Scandi-Noir. Its gritty, moody tone and long-tailed investigation set a new standard for realism and raised expectations ever after among audiences for scripting and performance. Plus it got everyone wearing Christmas jumpers again, so there's that.
Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan's raw, emotional sitcom went where comedies often fear to tread, deep into the truth of a new couple's fears and feelings as they negotiate the difficulty of marriage and new parenthood. Thanks to the soul-baring honesty of its creators, it was painful, extreme and absolutely hilarious throughout.
96 True Detective
Not many shows can claim to have created a word: in this case, the McConnaissance. Matthew McConaughey rose from the ashes of his – frankly – moribund career with this dark, snakey crime drama set over two timelines, as his brainy, nihilistic cop teamed up with Woody Harrelson's flawed flatfoot to bring down a serial killer.
95 30 Rock
At the time, the story was about how 30 Rock – about the making of a live comedy show –couldn't possibly compete with West Wing legend Aaron Sorkin's rival behind-the-scenes comedy-drama Studio 60 on Sunset Strip. Well, as the saying goes, who's laughing now? And come to think of it, who was laughing then? The 30 Rock fans were.
94 Avatar: The Last Airbender
The first thing fans of Avatar have to say is "No, the other Avatar," and the second is "Ignore the Shyamalan movie". The animated series, one of the greatest fantasy epics of our time, has not had the greatest PR. But look inside and you'll find a series that embraces heavyweight themes like colonialism and free will while taking you on a thrilling, magical journey with the supernaturally-talented denizens of the Air, Water, Fire and Earth Nations.
Launching in an era when a White House scandal wasn't a daily occurrence in the real world, this US political thriller told the story of Olivia Pope, her crisis management firm and how her affair with the president affected life in the corridors of power. Scandal brilliantly mixed 'cases of the week' with gripping, longer-term story arcs over its seven seasons.
92 Russian Doll
Natasha Lyonne's grubby, big-hearted and self-destructive New Yorker Nadia found herself in a Groundhog Day of a fix, forced to reset her life every time she dies (and she dies in a number of elaborate, unexpected ways). But rather than retread old material, this was a fresh, female-centred take on the ways we hide our damage and how much work it takes to fix ourselves.
91 Arrested Development
The tale of the terrible, awful Bluth family – infantilised by their wealth until patriarch George senior is incarcerated – was a showcase for some of American's finest comedic talents, including Jason Bateman, David Cross, Portia DiRossi, Will Arnett, Tony Hale and breakout star Michael Cera. It also brought new life to the acting careers of Happy Days stars Henry Winkler and Ron Howard, so for that we can also be grateful.
Lana and Lilly Wachowski's epic series connected eight disparate strangers – including a trans female hacktivist, a Nigerian bus driver, a Korean heiress-turned-convict and a gay Mexican movie star – who were able to share their minds and skills as they negotiated a hostile world and uncovered a conspiracy to eliminate their kind. Literally global in scale, its theme of the universality of human experience chimed with audiences worldwide.
Maybe it's true that we have Game of Thrones to thank for the resurgence of hairy, sword-wielding clans on our screens, but we're grateful nonetheless. Taking the Norse sagas as their starting point (this is a History Channel production after all), the bloody and lusty Vikings follows the life of Ragnar Lothbrok, the farmer who by means of his raids on England rose to become king.
88 Making a Murderer
The controversial and ongoing case of Stephen Avery, wrongfully convicted of one murder than – possibly – framed for another became an international cause célèbre following this exhaustive documentary that highlighted the flimsy evidence used to convict Avery and his teenage cousin Brendan Dassey. Though the pair remain behind bars, as far as many are concerned the murder of Teresa Halbach is still unsolved.
87 Sons of Anarchy
The Western never truly went away –and in its warring outlaw biker gangs, Sons of Anarchy has found a way to regenerate the morally grey world of bad guys who are sometimes good guys, especially when fighting against even worse guys, or when the supposed good guys turn out to be bad guys too. Still with us? Rev up your hogs and hit the road – it's going to get messy.
86 Six Feet Under
One of the defining shows of the '00s, Six Feet Under introduced a mordantly witty streak into American family drama. Following the fortunes of dynasty of brilliant, brittle undertakers after the death of their father, it set a high bar for what domestic drama could and should cover, literally showing the life-and-death stakes present in the everyday.
85 The OC
The OC might be the best teen drama ever. A whole generation fell in love with the story of Ryan Atwood and the Cohens, thanks to a hearty blend of teen angst and a killer soundtrack. The first season, in particular, stands out thanks to its surprisingly deft handling of a classic wrong-side-of-the-tracks story.
84 Mad Men
If Mad Men had just been a period drama with a sexy cast, amazing wardrobe and snazzy hairstyling, we'd... You know what? We'd still have loved it. But what made it special was the sympathy with which it presented its flawed heroes and heroines, struggling to find or become their better selves in the ruthless world of high-level advertising in the 1960s.
The legendary graphic novel is a mighty chunk of source material to work with, but with great power,as the saying goes... Which is why it's a miracle that Damon Lindelof's ten-and-done sequel series is so successful, brilliant bringing the original's themes of power and the place of the hero in society screaming into the future with an unabashedly explicit take on the last century of the race war that has split America in two.
82 The Vampire Diaries
Vampire Diaries might have wrapped with its emotional finale three years ago, but it sparked a dedicated cult fandom that still lives on today. It’s both a classic tale of young love and a coming of age story, with a high school girl named Elena Gilbert falling for a vampire that’s looking for redemption.
81 When They See Us
This is powerful storytelling and a masterclass in acting all wrapped up into one. From filmmaker Ava DuVernay, the four-part show dramatised an infamous true-crime story – but instead of re-tracing the tragic tale of the Central Park Five (a name imposed on the group of young Black and Brown boys wrongfully convicted), it turned the narrative on its head and gave it a much-needed shift of focus.
80 Love Island
The ITV2 dating show that's guaranteed to take over your summer, Love Island has become something of a phenomenon since its relaunch in 2016. Having carved its way through the changing face of reality TV to become an international smash hit, the series –which is set in a luxury villa on a luxury island (duh!) –foregrounds a bunch of singletons as they embark on a summer of love, sun, sea and... loyalty. If you know, you know.
Ryan Murphy's groundbreaking LGBTQ+ drama is set against the backdrop of New York City's vibrant ballroom scene in the '80s and '90s. It was announced that Pose had hired the largest transgender cast ever for a scripted series, and the award-winning show has been praised as a huge step forward for trans storytelling and representation on-screen – so come down to the ball and fall in love with the show’s incredible characters.
78 Battlestar Galactica
"Why would anyone remake Battlestar Galactica?" they said. It was a shonky sci-fi show for kids, they said. But Ronald D Moore's reimagining of that cheesy '70s staple employed a degree of intellectual and political weight that nobody could have predicted. With direct parallels to the War on Terror, Battestar Galactica proved to be a thrilling, brilliant takedown of half a century of American foreign policy. Plus space battles.
77 This Is Us
Known universally as the show to always make you cry, Dan Fogelman's This Is Us is more than just a drama. It explores intergenerational trauma and what it means to be a family. Anyone who has loved and lost, whether a parent or partner, will find it moving. Its scrapbook narrative framing makes it uniquely engaging, and top-notch acting puts it a cut above.
76 The Flash
The CW's Arrowverse is a rich and wild place even by superhero standards (the MCU has nothing on this place for complexity and interconnectedness), and The Flash is the jewel in its crown. Crime-scene investigator Barry Allen (got to love a superhero called Barry) acquires the power of superhuman speed, leading to great responsibility, as we've come to expect, but also a lighter-than-usual touch which recalls better than most superhero outings the golden age of serial comics.
75 Tiger King
Most documentary series struggle to bring their subject matter to life and make it interesting to the viewer. Tiger King struggled to contain theirs – or make it even vaguely plausible. The sprawling, colourful world of US exotic animal breeders threw up a barrage of wildly improbable characters, not least the gay, polyandrous convict and former Presidential candidate "Joe Exotic" Maldonado-Passage (né Schreibvogel).
74 Horrible Histories
It was the little kids' history show that could, a sketch comedy about the bits of the past that teachers never mention that went on to win the British Comedy Award for best sketch show twice. Not to mention eight children's Baftas. Fast, fun and, naturally, obsessed with poo, it's a thousand times cleverer and better performed than anyone would expect a poo-ey kids entertainment show to be. "Stupid Deaths, Stupid Deaths, they're funny 'cos they're truuuue..."
73 Queer Eye
A revival of the '00s makeover show raised concerned eyebrows when it was announced –would it play into stereotypes of gay fabulousness? – but Netflix's Queer Eye is so much more, a show about transformation and embracing your true self whatever your environment and whatever the raw material. Straight, gay, cis-or transgender, gregarious or asocial, the message is always one of love, empowerment and authenticity.
72 The Wire
A lot of crime shows could be accused of exploiting the headlines for a quick bit of sensation. Not The Wire. Taking a slow, almost encyclopedic view of crime in Baltimore, from the street dealers to the politicians, David Simon's epic series showed the aspects of humanity – the weaknesses, the loyalty and the small moments of redemption – that hold even a broken society together.
With just a green hood and that infamous salmon ladder, Oliver Queen kickstarted a whole universe of beloved superheroes with his fight to protect Star City. Each of these shows have successfully brought DC Comics to life on the small screen, but Arrow is the one that started it all, and therefore remains an essential pillar of the Arrowverse.
Community sets itself apart from other ensemble comedies thanks to a unique setting and razor-sharp writing from mastermind Dan Harmon. Delightful cast chemistry, including a brilliant performance from Donald Glover, mixed with genuinely dynamic storytelling makes for a show that goes beyond what you might think sitcoms are capable of. Let’s just not talk about the gas-leak season.
David Fincher's cool, dispassionate style restored gravitas to the serial-killer genre in Netflix's history of the FBI's serial-murder specialists the Behavioural Science Unit, putting the splashy, gore-hungry tabloid focus to one side (you never see a crime take place) in favour of understanding the psychological distortions that drive unimaginable acts.
Is he or isn't he? That was the question at the heart of the first season of this adaptation of Israeli hit Hatufim, which saw US soldier Damien Lewis rescued from captivity by al-Qaeda. But had he been "turned" by his captors into a weapon of mass destruction? Only Claire Danes' Carrie Mathison, bipolar counterterrorism specialist, had the nous to work out where his sympathies truly lay.
67 The X Factor
It's time! To face! The biggest entertainment show in the UK! Taking his lead from we're-gonna-make-you-a-star shows like Pop Stars and Fame Academy, Simon Cowell turbo-charged the talent-show format with a brilliant eye for controversy, intrigue and suspense, turning a singing competition into drama so high it sometimes verged on Greek tragedy.
66 The Thick of It
A savage takedown of the utter cynicism clogging the very air in Whitehall, where if you're not a thieving liar, you're still just a well-meaning incompetent. Everyone from the ministers to the special advisors is thrashing wildly upstream just to keep their jobs as despairing civil servants give meaning to their lives by hurling ever more inventive insults at the walls.
At one point it was the most-watched show in the world, a clever, medical reinvention of the Sherlock Holmes model, with Hugh Laurie as our grumpy, rude and brilliant detective and sickness itself as his Moriarty. It helped that Laurie's performance was so effortlessly charismatic that it didn't matter that the formula was so easy to spoof. ("It's not lupus.")
How do you follow Buffy The Vampire Slayer? Go big! Joss Whedon's space opera, starring Nathan Fillion and Gina Torres among others, made the "Western in space" subtext of Star Wars et al completely explicit as a gang of outlaw smugglers hopped from one wild-west planet to another, always staying one step ahead of the repressive Alliance. Yee-har!
63 Peep Show
It began so modestly –a little sitcom about two loser flatmates, with their misadventures seen from their literal point of view. But then it kept growing and growing, and by the end it was Channel 4's longest-running comedy, with Baftas, RTS Awards, British Comedy Awards and even a Rose D'Or to its name. It will also forever remain (we expect) the show most often quoted in pubs. PS Crunchy Nut Cornflakes are just Frosties for wankers.
62 Better Call Saul
How do you engage audiences in a prequel when they already know what's going to happen to the protagonist? By investing him with such warmth and humanity that you just have to know how he turned from optimistic, reformed petty criminal Slippin' Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, the irredeemable legal sleazebag of Breaking Bad. 'S'all good, man.
61 How to Get away with Murder
Viola Davis is Queen, and we’ll be taking no further questions. The show introduced us to magnetic law professor Annalise Keating as she pulled a band of students into her fold –and a murder plot. It’s melodramatic and entirely unbelievable in places, but it always left you wanting more.
60 Rick and Morty
Animation has always broken barriers that live action can't compete with, but when cartoons first arrived on TV, no one could have predicted quite how squanchy an adult series like Rick and Morty could be. Four seasons in, no other show compares to how inventive these transdimensional adventures are every damn time, and the jokes are pretty great too... in a nihilistic, soul-destroying sort of way.
59 This Is England
Shane Meadows' incomparable series (which follows on from his brutally, beautifully moving film of the same name) is an unflinchingly honest look at growing up, at being honest, at how hard it is sometimes to just be a person. All set to an impeccable soundtrack, This Is England has some of the finest acting featured on TV.
58 True Blood
True Blood is not a subtle show, with an overwrought civil-rights metaphor at the center of its 'vampires coming out of the closet' concept. But who wants a subtle vampire show? At its peak it was everything you want from HBO: sex, violence and alarmingly attractive immortal characters. It doesn’t hurt that the show might have had the best intro song of all time.
57 How I Met Your Mother
When Friends ended there was a hole in our lives and HIMYM, with its cast of attractive, loveable twentysomethings, was perfectly poised to fill it. Cleverly constructed as a series of extended flashbacks, it purported to be Ted's story, told to his children in 2030, of how he met their mum. Significantly, the identity of their mother was withheld for the longest time, and while some narrative chicanery to make the 'right' person fit the bill didn't please all fans, it was a hell of a funny ride along the way.
56 Inside No.9
Inside No.9 is anthology horror done right. Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith manage to cram more into half an hour than most prestige shows would dare, and 99% of the time they pull it off with aplomb. Standouts include a career-best performance from Sheridan Smith, and an episode told completely in iambic pentameter.
The had us at Don't Stop Believin', a choral rendition in episode one of Journey's rock anthem, and they held us through six seasons of joyful, campy drama. Though few would disagree that show missed its steps a few times, its fiercely pro-inclusivity, pro-diversity stance on screen made it a cheerleader for being gay, being trans, being a geek, being whoever you wanted to be and not apologising for it.
54 The Office US
Remaking an established hit in another culture isn't usually a recipe for innovation, but the US adaptation of Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's workplace comedy was an entirely different beast, resting not on the painful embarrassment that followed David Brent like a bad smell but on the altogether warmer, befuddled presence of Steve Carrell's (no less idiotic) Michael Scott.
53 Band of Brothers
The true story of 101st US Airborne Division's Easy Company, Steven Spielberg's lavish drama sees a wealth of future stars including Tom Hardy, Michael Fassbender, Andrew Scott and James MacAvoy among the GIs fighting their way from the Normandy beaches right through to the conclusion of the war. Stirring without being sentimental, it's a gripping story that feels authentic to its bones.
52 Happy Valley
Put writer Sally Wainwright and star Sarah Lancashire together (not to mention a supporting cast including Siobhan Finneran and James Norton) and you have a recipe for extraordinary TV. Where other crime dramas focus on, well, crimes, Happy Valley was more interested in the personal cost of criminal acts to everyone affected, yet it also managed to pull off a gripping thriller at the same time.
51 Grey's Anatomy
Is there a doctor in the house? Why yes, there are hundreds. But while the medical-drama format is long, long established on the TV landscape, Grey's brought something new to the mix – a unique combination of romance, black humour and inclusive storytelling that over its 18 years has showcased talent including Sandra Oh, Patrick Dempsey, Katherine Heigl and Chandra Wilson.
Looks like you like 'em brainy, because Westworld's the kind of show where it can help to have a spreadsheet running just to keep track of what's happening. Multiple timelines, an abstract approach to storytelling and some deep philosophical leanings make it a must-see for those who care about what life, consciousness and morality actually mean in the 21st century.
Adapted from Jeff Lindsay's Darkly Dreaming Dexter novels, Dexter turned serial-killer cliches inside out by making the murderer the hero – a born psychopath raised by a sympathetic policeman to turn his lethal instincts into a force for good. And so we ended up with a blackly comic thriller where our hero happily offed even worse guys than himself and we all cheered him on.
48 Shameless (UK)
Now, no one's saying the Chatsworth Estate is the Garden of Eden... No really, no one is. But the comings and goings of the gobby, mischievous Gallagher family and their neighbours set TV on its end, not least for Shameless's unsentimental and, yes, shameless celebration of life at the bottom end of the working class. A breakneck pace and creator Paul Abbot's sharp-witted talent for shocking the bourgeoisie cemented its place in history.
47 The Handmaid's Tale
Author Margaret Atwood herself has collaborated on this adaptation of her seminal novel, and her influence has been invaluable, turning a classic feminist text into a touchstone for our era, channeling the sinister undercurrents of contemporary politics into a terrifying vision of a misogynistic, patriarchal future that feels only one misplaced vote away.
Whether you vibed it or not, Skins was undoubtedly the defining youth drama of the late 2000s and easily the edgiest show of its era. Following the highs and lows of a three batches of hedonistic six-formers in Bristol, the irreverent comedy drama explored all the confusion, complexity and crevices of being a noughties teen on the perimeter of adult life. Covering everything from chaotic parties to casual sex to substance abuse, the series also concerned itself with the more complicated parts of adolescence, with its portrayal of mental illness, teenage identity exploration, teenage pregnancy, parental abandonment and grief.
Hospitals may not feel like the funniest of places, but the activities of Sacred Heart's junior doctors were surreal, charming and usually utterly adorable. A workplace comedy separated from real life by about six inches of surrealism, Scrubs made us fall in love with JD, Elliot and Turk – but mostly with the inevitable, inscrutable force of nature and symbol of opposition, the Janitor.
44 The Apprentice
While many long-running reality shows can destroy themselves with pointless producer tinkering and twists as the years go on, The Apprentice is one of the few to still be running strong with a largely unchanged format. The reliable mix of hapless contestants, silly tasks, boardroom showdowns – and of course, Lord Sugar's obviously-scripted one-liners –continues to provide brilliant entertainment each year.
43 Parks and Recreation
From the opening bars of its infectiously jaunty theme tune to the twinkle in Rob Lowe's smile, Parks and Rec is a half-hour dose of pure, sparkly delightfulness. Relentlessly positive minor civil servant Leslie Knope and her team of variously devious, lazy, brainless and grumpy misfits make local government offices of Pawnee Indiana look like the most super fun place to work, like, ever. And without it, we'd never have had Ron Swanson. Life without Ron Swanson would be meaningless.
42 Prison Break
It's just about the perfect high-concept pitch for an action series – a brilliant architect gets himself sent to prison so he can break his brother out, and tattoos all the information he needs from maps of the layout to the dimensions of fixings he needs to sabotage in a codified tattoo on his not-exactly-unwatchable torso. Wentworth Miller's strong, silent presence meant it ran for five seasons, long after the break actually happened.
Timed perfectly to fall in with a nervy, paranoid new current in American culture after 9/11, 24 was one of the first TV shows to feature a bona fide movie star as the lead. It revived the carer of Kiefer Sutherland as dogged counter-terrorism agent Jack Bauer, struggling in real time against a ticking clock attached to a bomb, a viral threat, or a deadly conspiracy of one kind or another. DAMN IT, CHLOE!
How many times can two brothers die battling mystical forces? Loads, it turns out –Digital Spy even ran a feature once called "All of Supernatural's dead guys, ranked in order of mortal elasticity". But that's just part of the reason this show has such an intensely engaged fanbase – it's the goofy humour, the dark fantasy trappings and, at its heart, the loveable brothers Winchester: Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles.
39 Orange is the New Black
Netflix shows come and go, yet it's hard to imagine another having as much of a lasting impact as Orange Is the New Black. It revolutionised queer representation for women on screen and constantly pushed the boundaries across its seven-season run. Litchfield might have finally closed its door, but we'll never forget it.
38 Modern Family
You can't argue that the title doesn't set out its stall – Modern Family is the classic domestic sitcom updated to reflect the diversity of reality. There's a standard grumpy grandpa, but he's married to a younger second wife and has a stepson thirty years younger than his stepsiblings, one woman, one man, both of whom are married to a loveable idiot husband, one with biological kids, one with adopted kids. Almost as colourful as our own families, in other words.
37 RuPaul's Drag Race
You may have wondered why everyone started saying "Yaaaaas, slay!" all over the place a few years back. RuPaul's Drag Race can't claim to have coined the phrases but it's undoubtedly the show that brought drag culture into the mainstream, spreading the love of living big, being true and celebrating the fact that sometimes, gender doesn't have to mean earnest political debate: sometime it can be a glorious playground where everyone gets to have fun.
Or LOOFAAAAA as it should be called, is BBC crime drama at its darkest and most horrifying. As brilliant as Idris Elba is as troubled cop John Luther, it's Ruth Wilson who frequently steals the show as the psychotic Alice Morgan, and when they're both on screen, twisted sparks fly. Unforgettable, however much you might want to forget it.
35 Life on Mars
Taking its cue from the disjointed, haunting Bowie song, Life on Mars took what could have been a surreal premise – cop John Simm wakes up from an accident to find himself in the 1970s –and made it not only seem perfectly sensible, but thrilling and audacious too. It combined the best of the 1970s maverick rulebreaker aesthetic with a grown-up '00s sensitivity and even spawned an '80s sequel, Ashes to Ashes.
34 Planet Earth
Just when you'd expect someone of David Attenborough's stature to be resting on their laurels, he and the BBC Natural History Unit created the greatest work yet. Following on from the aquatic Blue Planet, Planet Earth is a record of the extraordinary variety of life on the planet, simultaneously a visually stunning celebration of existence and a cry for restraint, as the hand of man becomes ever more visible in the destruction of natural environments.
33 The Office UK
Its single-camera, kitchen-sink style may be ubiquitous in British comedy now, but back then it was revolutionary. Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant's fake docusoap perfectly skewered the daily behaviour that stifles and destroys joy in pursuit of approval, but also identified the glimmer of hope buried under the mundanity and despair. It would be relentlessly, unbearably sad if it weren't so funny.
32 American Horror Story
Jessica Lange's reign as the Supreme might be long over, but American Horror Story continues to terrify us each year with a rotating cast of killer talent and killer monsters. With a new spinoff on the horizon and plenty more seasons confirmed, American Horror Story isn't done telling its story just yet.
31 Big Brother
The mother (brother?) of all reality shows truly did set the tone for all that came after it —and in its purest form, lived up to its ideals as a genuine social experiment. While its housemates tended to serve as tabloid fodder later on, Big Brother at its best was an exploration of raw human behaviour, warts and all.
30 The Good Place
Holy forking shirtballs, it turns out there was still room for a surreal, fantastical comedy in the TV landscape. Michael Schur's afterlife sitcom combined a crash-course in moral philosophy with fart gags and a masterclass in comic performance from the likes of Ted Danson, Kristen Bell and –wait – is that T4 presenter Jameela Jamil?
Jed Mercurio followed Line of Duty with another riproaring contemporary thriller, placing Richard Madden's close protection officer at the heart of the action when the twin pincers of a political conspiracy and terrorist cell threaten to derail British democracy for good. Shocks, twists and terrible secrets are Mercurio's stock-in trade, and Bodyguard was him at his peak.
28 Downton Abbey
It's easy to spoof the soapy, class-concious, mansion-porn aspects of Downton Abbey, but only a fool would overlook one of the most popular British dramas of the last ten years. While, yes, the show really does love its aristocrats and their lavish lifestyle, the "downstairs" aspect of the show – and most importantly, the places where the classes overlap – has always been at least as important to its success.
27 Blue Planet
Encompassing everything we’ve learned to expect from a nature documentary – from Sir David Attenborough’s wealth of knowledge to breathtaking cinematic scenes – Blue Planet (and others like it) can certainly get credit for inspiring new generations to learn about and care for the planet and its furry,feathered or fishy inhabitants.
26 The Walking Dead
Adapting an – at the time – open-ended comic series about the zombie apocalypse was a project too big for anyone to manage. The series has changed showrunners more often than Rick Grimes has been shot, but its powerful message – that we only know what really matters when we have nothing left – continues to resonate even as the survivors struggle to rebuild society in a time of chaos.
25 I'm a Celebrity Get Me out of Here!
Lose any one element and it would stumble, but I'm A Celeb is a mighty edifice (18 years and counting) held up by three sure-fire pillars: 1. Famous people cooped up together in a pressure-cooker environment. 2. Those celebrities made to eat ghastly things for our entertainment, and 3. Ant and Dec. Win, win, win.
24 The Crown
Not for nothing have the royal family dominated newspaper headlines since newspapers began: aside from the constitutional considerations, their lives are a magnificent soap opera. Following the live of Queen Elizabeth since her coronation, with the cast changing every two seasons, The Crown is more than a gossipy bit of drama, it's a record of British history and of how the nation has changed along with its sovereign.
23 Peaky Blinders
You might not want to hang out with them in real life, but Peaky Blinders has seen the Shelby clan, led by the outstanding Cillian Murphy as Tommy Shelby, captivate us across five seasons of murder, politics and horse racing. By order of the Peaky Blinders, if you haven't seen it yet, now is the time to catch up.
22 Derry Girls
The first period sitcom to properly nail the '90s, Derry Girls' warm and raucous recreation of Derry in the last few years before the Good Friday Agreement brilliantly foregrounds the teenage angst of four Catholic Ulster girls (and one longsuffering English boy) while the very real horror of a decades-long civil war plays out in the corner of all our eyes.
Few comedy-dramas have exploded quite so spectacularly across the TV sky as Fleabag, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's heartbreaking, wince-inducing tale of a woman struggling to forgive herself for sins that are only gradually revealed. Packed with sincerity and precise observation and presented with a technical skill that marked Waller-Bridge out for superstardom, it's one of the defining comedies of our age.
20 Strictly Come Dancing
When a format's right, it's right: few would have thought back in the day that all it would take to revive a national love of ballroom dancing (ballroom dancing!) was a sparky, feisty panel of judges and a celebrity tournament structure, but that's what happened – and sixteen years on, the formula remains unchanged. TV magic, which has returned family entertainment to its rightful place on Saturday and Sunday nights.
19 Sex Education
Somehow, Sex Education managed to top its already-excellent first season with its second. Few other shows manage to switch as seamlessly from cheeky comedy to genuine gut-punching drama that covers very real topics like sex and trauma – it's a show that knows how to party and when to get serious.
Perhaps the last great serial from the era before box-set bingeing, Lost was a juggernaut, a ruthless machine for making you come back next week. JJ Abrams, Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse threw everything into the mix: a plane crash, a shapeshifting monster, a rogue polar bear, numerological codes, time-travel, literally buried secrets and the biggest mystery of all – what is the island?
Before Broadchurch, crime dramas had a murder, a detective and a range of suspects. But Chris Chibnall's Dorset-set mystery changed everything, expanding the scope of the genre and showing how far the ripples go when a stone is thrown into the pond. Chibnall's interest wasn't just in the crime, the victim, the perpetrator or even the detective: he put the whole town itself, a single organism, under his microscope.
16 Brooklyn Nine-Nine
Yes, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is 'copaganda', but as copaganda goes, it does what few do: tackles real-world issues, even when they relate to policing (and promises to do more). Its heart is the relationships between the characters. As each individual develops, their relationships change. The show isn't scared to tackle this, but always with a laugh-out-loud sense of humour.
Against all odds, the TV show about people watching TV shows has become one of Channel 4's most popular programmes. While some fans argue Gogglebox lost some of its charm when the families became celebrities in their own right, the show still entertains millions each week with a classic mix of wit, warmth and brutally honest reviews.
14 The Big Bang Theory
Nerds are funny, everyone knows this. But instead of laughing at the geeks, The Big Bang Theory took the revolutionary step of laughing with them, foregrounding the socially inept, the awkward and the brilliant. If half the cast of Friends had PhDs, you'd get The Big Bang Theory – and the laughs are just as big, because even genius astrophysicists have the same human foibles as the rest of us.
13 Black Mirror
From the very start, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror has struggled to outpace the horrific reality of the 21st century: no matter how far his dystopian, sci-fi-tinged tales go – of social media gone wrong, of technology reshaping human interaction, of Prime Ministers having sexual contact with pigs – it seems reality is mere days behind.
He's one of the most fascinating and beloved cinematic creations of all time – so how would a TV show live up to the legend of Hannibal Lecter? With ease, it turned out. Stylish, gory and paced to perfection, Hannibal took the characters and themes of Thomas Harris' novels and wove a complex tapestry of interdependency and twisted desire between Mads Mikkelsen's urbane serial-killer psychiatrist and Hugh Dancy's dogged FBI investigator.
Whether or not The Inbetweeners' brand of foul-mouthed and raunchy humour was to your taste, you couldn't deny how significantly the comedy infiltrated the mainstream. The show connected with a generation and their own growing pains to make it a gigantic hit and led Will, Jay, Simon and Neil to the big screen – twice! –as well. All together now... Ooh, Fwiend!
With an attention to detail that left viewers gasping, Chernobyl's recreation of the Soviet culture of fear and deceit that led to the most catastrophic nuclear disaster in human history is a high-water mark in dramatic reconstruction. Never reaching for the easy gimmick, it trusted the horrifying reality of the tale to speak for itself, and the results were shocking, moving and frightening.
Jared Harris led the cast with a performance of enormous restraint as haunted nuclear physicist Valery Legasov, while Stellan Skarsgard glowered and fumed alongside him as the no-less doomed Soviet minister Boris Shcherbina, afraid he has been sent to save Chernobyl merely because he is expendable.
Grotesque images piled up until the brain couldn't process them: a beam of blue light piercing the heavens as the air above the power station ionises; the first-responding engineers literally melt away in their beds, unable to receive painkillers; an army of naked coalminers work around the clock to build a liquid nitrogen heat exchange under the station; conscripted soldiers roam the countryside, shooting every living creature that could carry the radioactive poison with it...
You wanted to look away, but duty compelled you to watch.
9 Line of Duty
Now one of the most popular and talked-about programmes on British TV, it's easy to forget that Jed Mercurio's addictive police drama started off in 2012 as an under-the-radar BBC Two show. Promoted to BBC One for its fourth series in 2017, Line of Duty is the master of reinventing itself with a new guest lead taking centre stage in each series alongside the regular faces from AC-12, a police anti-corruption unit.
In each series, Superintendent Ted Hastings and his trusty sidekicks Steve Arnott and Kate Fleming are relentless in their pursuit of bent coppers, but with wider conspiracies and ever-more-cunning villains to contend with, it's never an easy task. Much like Mercurio's Bodyguard series, Line of Duty is one of the few watercooler TV dramas that you just have to watch live week by week, with its endless supply of game-changing twists and jaw-dropping moments.
By the time the show aired its most recent series in 2019, an eager audience of nearly 14 million viewers were tuning in for the latest AC-12 action, as even the integrity of Hastings himself was called into question. We knew not to expect all of the answers, though –there's still a series six to come, after all.
8 Gavin and Stacey
Written by James Corden and Ruth Jones – who star as on-off couple Nessa and Smithy respectively – Gavin and Stacey was an amiable, affable comedy about two quirky clans coming together from opposite sides of the country.
Launching on BBC Three back in 2007, it told the story of how Gavin Shipman (Matthew Horne) from Essex and Stacey West (Joanna Page) from Wales, fell in love over the phone, and brought their friends, family and all their chaos in with them. Endlessly relateable and packed to the rafters with loveable incidental characters, it chimed brilliantly with the national mood.
Just don't ask why all the characters share surnames with British serial killers. Over three series plus a Christmas special it found its place as one of the country's most loved shows –and ten years after we left it behind, it was impressively resurrected in 2019 for a much-anticipated festive episode, once again penned by James and Ruth, which went on to win the battle of the Christmas Day ratings that year.
In fact, more fans tuned in to watch the Shipmans and the Wests reunite after a decade on Christmas Day 2019 over any other programme the whole day. Wowzers.
7. Killing Eve
"Lesbian assassin falls for MI5 agent tasked with tracking her down" sounds like a lurid exploitation movie, but thanks to producer Sally Woodward Gentle, who first optioned Luke Jennings' source novels, a series of first-class female showrunners has kept Killing Eve on track as the groundbreaking, witty, audacious drama we know and love.
In Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer it has two dynamic, magnetic leads, supported by world-class acting talent including Fiona Shaw, Kim Bodnia and David Haig. It's also got some fabulous locations and wardrobe choices.
But most of all, it takes storytelling to new and uncharted places. Be honest: had you ever seen anything like the time Villanelle leaped out from behind Konstantin's sofa dressed like him and wearing a fake beard? For no good narrative reason! Or Villanelle and her unwitting, soon-to-be victim dancing round an English country garden, roaring at each other while pretending to be Godzilla?
At its heart, though, it's a twisted love story, one where neither of the lovers are really in love, but neither can relinquish or fulfil their obsession without, well, either killing... or dying.
6 The Great British Bake Off
In troubled times there is perhaps no more soothing balm for the soul than The Great British Bake Off, a high-drama contest where our emotional investment is in inverse proportion to the actual stakes.
It's a show about bread rolls, FFS. Yet we end up caring so much over the course of the challenge that we literally shed tears with the bakers when one of their number is knocked out for having underproved their sourdough. That the format has survived despite changes of home channel, judges and presenters – only Paul Hollywood remains from series one – is testament to its enduring appeal.
But it's not because baking is a national obsession (though it has since become one). It's because the Bake Off is glimpse into a Britishness we all pine for, a shared identity above race, gender or sexuality, forged by a love of innuendo, buns (tee hee!), kindness and craftsmanship. It truly is the best of us.
5 Breaking Bad
"Technically, chemistry is the study of matter, but I prefer to see it as the study of change," says Walter White in episode one. "It's growth, then decay, then transformation." Right there, creator Vince Gilligan was telling us what was going to happen over the course of the next five seasons: transformation.
There was no milking of a winning formula, no repetition of cool gimmicks – Breaking Bad was a perfect five-act Greek tragedy, with Walter White starting out as a decent but flawed man forced by circumstance to examine his place in the world, and who allows his worst traits to take him down a path that ends with him destroying his own soul for the sake of ambition and pride.
Critics often talk about stories "leading to their inexorable conclusion", but that was literally the case for Breaking Bad. No other show can claim its winning streak of placing every step firmly in front of the last in exactly the right place. Every cause led to its natural consequence, which became the cause of the next thing, and so on, tumbling downhill at ever greater speed with no way to get off. To its inexorable conclusion, indeed.
While Walter and Jesse's story could not have played out any other way, we never saw any of it coming: truly a rollercoaster ride into hell.
"Our Sherlock and Watson don't solve mysteries," said co-creator Steven Moffat (we paraphrase here) "they have adventures."
It's key to understanding the phenomenal success of their revival of Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle's socially-difficult sleuth: in a nutshell, the show was relentlessly entertaining. It just never slowed down over each two-hour episode's run.
There was Benedict Cumberbatch's charismatic performance as the "high functioning sociopath" (not a thing, sorry Steven), perfectly balanced by Martin Freeman's no-nonsense Watson and surrounded by the cream of British thespianity giving it their absolute biggest.
Every inch of the screen was packed with novelty, from text messages to clues, dream sequences and trompe l'oeils, secret thoughts to secret codes. There were juicy mysteries tucked inside bigger mysteries, the narrative thread yanked this way and that by outrageous twists that would only have been dared by creators who between them have shepherded both Doctor Who and The League of Gentlemen to our screens.
3 Doctor Who
How do you revive (or regenerate, if you will) a legendary show that had sunk into disrepair and lived on only as a cult-interest relic? Russell T Davies knew how: he applied a storytelling defibrillator to the ancient Gallifreyan and brought Doctor Who screaming back to life for the 21st century, injecting all the humour, scares and excitement that OG fans loved and winning an entire new audience, not only of 10-year-olds willing to look over the sofa, but also adults relishing the action, adventure and wit.
And then – then! – they changed Doctors and it got even better, polishing the idea of the series arc to a high shine and bringing unavoidable sexual chemistry into the mix with David Tennant's charm.
Thought it couldn't get better? Steve Moffat took over the show, Matt Smith became the Doctor and it was all change again, upping the twisty-brain-aching storytelling devices, bringing in the beautiful Rory-Amy relationship and setting a bar for family entertainment so high that no one's matched it since.
And we haven't even got to the bit where the Doctor became a woman and a million little girls finally saw themselves validated and represented in the role of the greatest time-travelling hero of all time. (And space.)
2 Stranger Things
A lot has been said of Stranger Things' formula – a dash of Stephen King, a dollop of Spielberg, a video arcade and a handful of hand-me-down jackets from the '80s – but if it were that simple we'd all be having smash-hit ten-part series.
It's not that Stranger Things is more than the sum of its parts, it's that the important parts aren't usually acknowledged. So we're here to set that straight. Let's begin with the Duffer brothers' genius for creating a suspenseful, frightening, funny world in the heart of smalltown America, setting a mood that's nostalgic but relateable to all ages within the audience.
Let's celebrate a cast of extraordinary young actors in Millie Bobby Brown, Caleb McLaughlin, Gaten Matarazzo, Noah Schnapp and Finn Wolfhard. And the adults! Let's talk about the Winonaissance! And while we're here, yes, let's talk about the '80s trappings, which cut so much deeper than Atari games and Rubik's cubes.
The Cold War paranoia, the unreliable government scientists, the doughy, tough-but-trying-to-be-better cops may hail from the '80s but they resonate right now, and it's no accident. It sounds like something from the show itself, but in Stranger Things the Duffers and their cast have tapped an underground current within the culture, a nerve that we all sense but can't articulate.
Something is wrong. There's something wrong, and we all feel powerless to fix it. Superheroes can't help us, but... maybe the children can?
1 Game of Thrones
George RR Martin likes to tell a big story. And in adapting his books, DB Weiss and David Benioff managed to retain every nuance as they unfurled the grand tapestry of the Song of Ice and Fire, the account of the warring dynasties that shaped the continent of Westeros even as existential threats beyond their understanding descended from the frozen North.
It's no easy thing to pull off a fantasy epic without looking silly, but Game of Thrones laid its cards on the table from the start: this would be an epic about the futility of the battle for power, the myriad ways in which greed and selfishness poison society and the tiny moments that define lives.
From Tyrion, the brilliant, cynical, unwanted black sheep of the Lannister family, through Arya Stark, the headstrong child shaped by chaotic forces to become the most dangerous woman alive, to Jon Snow, bastard son of a Northern lord who rises unwillingly to be the saviour of all humanity, Game of Thrones was the story of constant becoming, of change and growth, both for good and evil.
It speaks volumes for the show's wisdom that even when the battle was done and dust settled, no one could say for sure who really won, or even if there had been a victory at all.
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