Top TV Series of the Past 20 Years

The IMDb Editors' Top TV Series list is based upon the overall importance, impact and popularity these television shows have enjoyed for the past 20 years. Note that "Top" does not mean "Best" and after some discussion and enjoying a few microwaveable dinners with compartmentalized courses, we came up with the following rankings.
Log in to copy items to your own lists.
The Sopranos (1999 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.2/10 X  
New Jersey mob boss, Tony Soprano, deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life, which affects his mental state and ends up seeking professional psychiatric counseling. (55 mins.)
“ Examinations of mobsters navigating their loyalties to their regular families and their crime families are numerous. But from the moment Tony Soprano had his first panic attack and sought the help of a therapist, this drama announced itself as a different animal altogether. And as Tony examined his soul and morality, embracing his darkness and failing to evolve as the seasons passed, executive producer David Chase and his writers forced the audience to take a hard look at themselves and figure out why they were drawn to this mean, cruel, womanizing bear of a man and his violent, opportunistic crew. ” - IMDb-Editors
Law & Order (1990 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.7/10 X  
Follows a crime, usually adapted from current headlines, from two separate vantage points, the police investigation and the prosecution in court. (45 mins.)
“ The series from which all modern procedurals borrow is actually little more than a modern update to a crime-solving formula that began in the 1950s with "Dragnet." But it also innovated the crime drama by placing the focus on the crime and perps as opposed to the detectives and lawyers, and closing each case at the end of every hour. This formula makes it easy to watch reruns of "Law & Order" time and again, which is why it's one of the most successful and ubiquitous syndicated series in history. It's not much an exaggeration to posit that "Law & Order" will likely air in some form somewhere on earth until the sun burns out. ” - IMDb-Editors
Seinfeld (1989 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.9/10 X  
The continuing misadventures of neurotic New York stand-up comedian Jerry Seinfeld and his equally neurotic New York friends. (22 mins.)
“ Yes, it was a show about nothing, yadda yadda yadda. It also was the first to challenge the traditional idea of what a sitcom could be as we followed four selfish, greedy New Yorkers navigating a variety of inane situations, usually having to do with the annoying quirks of people who, in the real world, would be considered normal. "Seinfeld" became the poster child for NBC's Thursday night comedy line-up in the '90s, and its co-creators Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David became stars. When it ended, this inimitable half-hour laugher also left a void from which the network, and the sitcom genre in general, has yet to recover. ” - IMDb-Editors
The Wire (2002 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.3/10 X  
Baltimore drug scene, seen through the eyes of drug dealers and law enforcement. (59 mins.)
“ Crime procedurals will come and go, but no other series examined the levels of political will and personal foibles - within a police precinct, in city hall, and in the criminal underworld - that go into working a case like "The Wire" did. No hero is completely clean, and in fact, the favorite character of the series, Omar, is a street thug who preyed on other criminals. And while other great series have been compared to cinema, "Wire" creator David Simon approached each episode like chapters of a great novel, painting its characters in various shades of grey. As a result, we are forced to look at seasons as a whole as opposed to episode by episode. It's an approach that won't soon, if ever, be replicated on television, largely because it was impossible to drop in in the middle of a season. Because of this fact, the series earned the show very low ratings while it was in production. ” - IMDb-Editors
Survivor (2000 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.0/10 X  
A reality show where a group of contestants are stranded in a remote location with little more than the clothes on their back. The lone survivor of this contest takes home a million dollars. (60 mins.)
“ The show that defined the reality competition genre initially hooked audiences with the proposition of challenging average Americans to survive for over a month with limited supplies on an uninhabited island. But it soon became an examination of predatory psychology, as the top contestants revealed themselves to be the most adept at scheming as opposed to the physically strongest. Hence one of the most unforgettable speeches in history about choosing between the snake or the rat. ” - IMDb-Editors
ER (1994 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.7/10 X  
The lives, loves and losses of the doctors and nurses of Chicago's County General Hospital. (44 mins.)
“ The longest-running medical drama in American history brought the triumphs, heart-pumping action and tragedies of life in an emergency room to audiences through the perspective of some of the most memorable and romantic characters on television, tackling issues such as AIDS, health crises in Africa and urban violence along the way. If you can't respect it for those things, it at least deserves props for launching George Clooney into stardom. ” - IMDb-Editors
American Idol (2002 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 4.2/10 X  
Twelve finalists and/or future singers (six men and six women) who were selected from America, compete... (42 mins.)
“ Simon Cowell and Nigel Lythgoe borrowed the tried-and-true talent show format, took the role of creating stars out of the hands of professional judges and, for better or worse, assigned that power to the American people. The result: television's most popular program. The success of the "Idols" over the years has been mixed, but one aspect that cannot be questioned is the show's ability to unite an audience otherwise fragmented by the proliferation of choices across broadcast and cable - and vacuum up ratings from any other series that dares to go up against it. ” - IMDb-Editors
CSI: Crime Scene Investigation (2000 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.7/10 X  
An elite team of police forensic evidence investigation experts work their cases in Las Vegas. (60 mins.)
“ If "Law & Order" modernized the police drama popularized by "Dragnet," the "CSI" franchise took it to an entirely different level by sexing up the forensics science behind case-solving. At the same time, while Dick Wolf's procedurals largely kept the personal lives of its detectives and lawyers out of the stories, "CSI" hooked viewers by revealing small details one bit at a time, making fans completely invested in the lives of its investigators as the years have gone by. ” - IMDb-Editors
Friends (1994 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 9.0/10 X  
Follows the personal and professional lives of six 20 to 30-something-year-old friends living in Manhattan. (22 mins.)
“ "Friends" made being a young adult getting started in the world into a light-hearted fantasy, buoyed by the idea of friendship and romance and, much to the ire of many real twenty-somethings, easy living in well-appointed, roomy New York City apartments. It also blessed the world with the gigantic coffee cup, for which caffeine fiends must be eternally grateful. ” - IMDb-Editors
Lost (2004 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.4/10 X  
The survivors of a plane crash are forced to work together in order to survive on a seemingly deserted tropical island. (44 mins.)
“ From the opening moment of the pilot, when heroic doctor Jack Shephard opened his eyes to realize his plane had crashed, it was clear that ABC had stumbled upon something special. Not to mention frustrating. Provided you stayed around to find out why the survivors of Oceanic 815 were stuck on an island inhabited by an insane French woman, violent villagers with a penchant for kidnapping children and an ageless handsome man, where scientific equipment was hidden in hatches and traveling through time became an accepted aspect of reality - well, you were rewarded with one of the more emotionally satisfying and intellectually complex series in the history of television. And if you didn't stick around, that's OK. It's probably better to experience "Lost" on DVD anyway. ” - IMDb-Editors
South Park (1997 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.8/10 X  
Follows the misadventures of four irreverent grade-schoolers in the quiet, dysfunctional town of South Park, Colorado. (22 mins.)
“ What began as a crudely rendered cartoon using animated construction paper cut-outs of four Colorado grade-school kids with foul mouths evolved into one of the most subversive, ruthlessly un-P.C. critiques of American culture and politics on television. Cool! ” - IMDb-Editors
Desperate Housewives (2004 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.5/10 X  
Secrets and truths unfold through the lives of female friends in one suburban neighborhood, after the mysterious suicide of a neighbor. (45 mins.)
“ Credit the resurrection of ABC's scripted primetime lineup to four women - and a rotating fifth over the years - whose problems may have been heightened for melodramatic effect but, at their core, reflect many of the same struggles encountered by the men and women who watch them each week. Yes, life on Wisteria Lane is often unbelievably bizarre and frothy, but themes of sisterhood spun through creator Marc Cherry's biting wit magically holds it all together. ” - IMDb-Editors
The West Wing (1999 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.8/10 X  
Inside the lives of staffers in the West Wing of the White House. (44 mins.)
“ This is first show to give us a window into the mechanics of day-to-day life and work in the White House, and though it frequently took knocks for its unrealistic optimism, it was the humanity within the stories and its central characters that made it one of the finest hours of television in its time. ” - IMDb-Editors
Mad Men (2007 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.6/10 X  
A drama about one of New York's most prestigious ad agencies at the beginning of the 1960s, focusing on one of the firm's most mysterious but extremely talented ad executives, Donald Draper. (47 mins.)
“ Announcing AMC as a force to be reckoned with in the basic cable TV landscape - and making stars of previously little known actors Jon Hamm, Elizabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks and January Jones - "Mad Men" captures the stunning glamour and free-wheeling social mores of the '60s as well as its darker truths. Casual references to racism, homophobia and sexism serve shatter our Pleasantville visions of yesteryear. At the same time, it continually builds on the idea that everything we present to the world is illusion and advertising, and the best of us sell lies about ourselves to get ahead. ” - IMDb-Editors
Sex and the City (1998 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.0/10 X  
Four female New Yorkers gossip about their sex lives (or lack thereof) and find new ways to deal with being a woman in the '90s. (30 mins.)
“ In defiance of a culture obsessed with youth, this series turned the idea of a woman's being single - and sexually adventurous - over 30 into something to be celebrated as opposed to feared. Carrie, Miranda, Samantha and Charlotte are financially successful, independent minded women who gorge themselves on all the gifts New York City has to offer. All that, and they have great taste in shoes too. ” - IMDb-Editors
24 (2001 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.4/10 X  
Jack Bauer, Director of Field Ops for the Counter-Terrorist Unit of Los Angeles, races against the clock to subvert terrorist plots and save his nation from ultimate disaster. (44 mins.)
“ Never mind that the series conceit of being presented in real-time was tossed out the window soon after it took off. Over the years as Jack Bauer faced one bad day after another, he was put in situations so outrageously unbelievable that Wile E. Coyote would have questioned their veracity. Yet it spoke to the world's post-9/11 angst like few other series did, and when it was great, it was ridiculously addictive. ” - IMDb-Editors
Battlestar Galactica (2004 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.7/10 X  
When an old enemy, the Cylons, resurface and obliterate the 12 colonies, the crew of the aged Galactica protect a small civilian fleet - the last of humanity - as they journey toward the fabled 13th colony, Earth. (44 mins.)
“ Syfy channel's re-imagined version of ABC's 1978 series changed the idea of genre programming as something to be ashamed of. Even with its space battles and cylons "Battlestar" evolved into one of the more intellectually challenging dramas of the last 20 years, becoming an allegory of religious fundamentalism and an examination of what it truly means to be human in the face of utter annihilation. ” - IMDb-Editors
Dexter (2006 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.8/10 X  
Dexter Morgan is a Forensics Expert, but that's what he seems to be, as that's not what he really is. Dexter is a serial killer that hunts the bad. (53 mins.)
“ Before Dexter Morgan first appeared on our screens, the idea of rooting for a serial killer must have been beyond comprehension for most. Yet in the age of the television anti-hero, Michael C. Hall's magnetic portrayal of a sociopath vigilante fascinates us and, perhaps even more squeamishly, makes us empathize with his plight of being a monster cursed to hide right in front of our faces. ” - IMDb-Editors
Everybody Loves Raymond (1996 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 7.1/10 X  
The comical everyday life of a successful sports columnist and his dysfunctional family. (22 mins.)
“ As sports writer Ray Barone, comedian Ray Romano gives us a kind, if beleaguered, family man embraced by millions over the course of his show's run. "Raymond" endured for nine successful seasons thanks to its spot-on portrayals of marriage, family, and negotiating your own way through life in spite of interference by one's well-meaning adult parents and siblings. More than this, it established CBS's Monday night comedy line-up as the contender to beat as competitor NBC's dominance waned on Thursdays. ” - IMDb-Editors
The X-Files (1993 TV Series)
    1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 8.7/10 X  
Two FBI agents, Fox Mulder the believer and Dana Scully the skeptic, investigate the strange and unexplained, while hidden forces work to impede their efforts. (45 mins.)
“ A hybrid of detective series and sci-fi anthology, "The X-Files" captivated viewers with its entertaining mixture of thrills, conspiracy theory, religious mythology and humor. During its run it also spoke to the growing distrust of government and authority flowering throughout the late '90s, turning tagline "The truth is out there" into a motto among its legions of fans. ” - IMDb-Editors