IMDb 25: Top 25 TV Shows by User Rating From the Last 25 Years

by IMDb-Editors | created - 07 Oct 2015 | updated - 14 Oct 2015 | Public

Popular culture has transformed rapidly since 1990, and no medium has captured shifts in public tastes more dynamically than TV. This list, which runs down the top 25 television shows by year from 1990 to 2014 according to all-time user ratings averages, reflects a variety of genres and themes — from crime anthology to animated series — and demonstrates just how widely IMDb user preferences have evolved as well. — Giancarlo Cairella

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1. True Detective (2014– )

TV-MA | 55 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

Seasonal anthology series in which police investigations unearth the personal and professional secrets of those involved, both within and outside the law.

Stars: Vince Vaughn, Colin Farrell, Rachel McAdams, Taylor Kitsch

Votes: 455,740

Viewers expecting another garden-variety crime show were taken by surprise when "True Detective" began airing in the summer of 2014. Ostensibly a serial-killer mystery but in reality a character study about two very flawed police detectives played by Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey (both amazing), "True Detective" drew in audiences with a labyrinthine plot packed with offbeat characters and creepy conspiracies (The Yellow King!), a rich Southern-gothic atmosphere, and stunning visuals, including a much celebrated how-did-they-pull-this-off? single-shot action sequence in episode 4.

2. Rick and Morty (2013– )

TV-MA | 23 min | Animation, Adventure, Comedy

An animated series that follows the exploits of a super scientist and his not-so-bright grandson.

Stars: Justin Roiland, Chris Parnell, Spencer Grammer, Sarah Chalke

Votes: 294,493

Animated TV shows have always been popular with IMDb audiences, and Adult Swim's "Rick and Morty" is only the latest example of this trend, surpassing "House of Cards" as the highest rated show of 2013. This one, however, is not for the kiddies: Created by Justin Roiland and "Community"'s Dan Harmon, "Rick and Morty" chronicles the time-space adventures of an elderly alcoholic scientist and his teenage grandson. Think of a gross-out, comedy version of "Doctor Who", where the good doctor spends a large portion of his time burping, drooling and vomiting.

3. Gravity Falls (2012–2016)

TV-Y7 | 23 min | Animation, Short, Action

Twin siblings Dipper and Mabel Pines spend the summer at their great-uncle's tourist trap in the enigmatic Gravity Falls, Oregon.

Stars: Jason Ritter, Alex Hirsch, Kristen Schaal, Linda Cardellini

Votes: 57,242

In creating the most popular series about weird happenings in a small town not called Twin Peaks, the writers of "Gravity Falls" took a page from the Pixar playbook and came up with a smart, original show that is entirely appropriate for children but also very watchable and entertaining for adults. It's no surprise that Forbes magazine in August 2015 declared it the "best show on television." Of course, IMDb users, ahead of the critical curve, already knew that and rated it as the top show of 2012.

4. Game of Thrones (2011–2019)

TV-MA | 57 min | Action, Adventure, Drama

Nine noble families fight for control over the mythical lands of Westeros, while an ancient enemy returns after being dormant for thousands of years.

Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Lena Headey

Votes: 1,595,441

Only audiences living under the proverbial rock will not have watched or heard of "Game of Thrones," HBO's adaptation of George R.R. Martin's series of fantasy novels. Taking full advantage of cable TV's permissive approach to violence and nudity, "Game of Thrones" rapidly blew past the confines of must-watch-TV status and became a full-blown cultural event. It spawned imitators and parodies, and generated constant debates over its depiction of a male-dominated universe.

5. Sherlock (2010– )

TV-14 | 88 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

A modern update finds the famous sleuth and his doctor partner solving crime in 21st century London.

Stars: Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman, Una Stubbs, Rupert Graves

Votes: 729,874

Sherlock Holmes turned 128 years old this year, but he doesn't look his age at all — especially since lately he has been portrayed by the handsome likes of Robert Downey Jr. on the silver screen and Benedict Cumberbatch in the TV adaptation that IMDb users rated as the best show of 2010. BBC's "Sherlock" pulled off the difficult feat of updating the character for the 21st century and making it look fresh and contemporary, with edgy twists such as turning romantic interest Irene Adler into a professional dominatrix while staying faithful to Arthur Conan Doyle's original stories.

6. Fullmetal Alchemist: Brotherhood (2009–2012)

TV-14 | 24 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

Two brothers search for a Philosopher's Stone after an attempt to revive their deceased mother goes awry and leaves them in damaged physical forms.

Stars: Iemasa Kayumi, Kent Williams, Muriel Hofmann, Lili Troncale

Votes: 95,392

"Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood" came out on top of a list of highest-rated TV shows for 2009, beating a field of contenders that included critical and ratings hits such as "Parks & Recreation," "Archer," "Community," and "Modern Family." The series is a reboot of an anime series from 2003, which is also featured in IMDb's Top 250 TV Chart but didn't manage to rate quite as highly — making "Full Metal Alchemist: Brotherhood" one of those rare TV remakes that manages to qualitatively surpass the original.

7. Breaking Bad (2008–2013)

TV-MA | 49 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to manufacturing and selling methamphetamine in order to secure his family's future.

Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Anna Gunn, Betsy Brandt

Votes: 1,266,813

Hal who? Before "Breaking Bad" aired, Bryan Cranston was known to TV audiences as Frankie Muniz’s dad in the popular sitcom "Malcolm in the Middle." Now he is, and will probably always be, recognized as Walter White, aka Heisenberg, the meek high school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer and criminal mastermind in Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad." One of the most critically acclaimed shows of the past two decades, "Breaking Bad" also holds the distinction for being the series with one of the highest-rated individual TV episodes in IMDb's history: Season 5's "Ozymandias," which held a perfect score of 10 for several months after airing.

8. Flight of the Conchords (2007–2009)

TV-MA | 28 min | Comedy, Music, Musical

Bret and Jemaine are Flight of the Conchords, a folk-rock band from New Zealand living in New York City in search of stardom.

Stars: Jemaine Clement, Bret McKenzie, Rhys Darby, Kristen Schaal

Votes: 51,762

Fun fact: Before they were immortalized on the eponymous HBO TV show, Flight of the Conchords were the subject of a BBC radio series, centered around the same basic idea — New Zealand's self-described "fourth most popular guitar-based digi-bongo-a cappella-rap-funk comedy folk duo" tries to find fame and commercial success in a foreign land.

9. Death Note (2006–2007)

TV-14 | 24 min | Animation, Crime, Drama

An intelligent high school student goes on a secret crusade to eliminate criminals from the world after discovering a notebook capable of killing anyone whose name is written into it.

Stars: Mamoru Miyano, Brad Swaile, Vincent Tong, Ryô Naitô

Votes: 194,510

Hugely popular in Japan since its initial print run, the "Death Note" series has been adapted into three feature films and a TV show. A Hollywood version has been in development for years, with Shane Black attached to direct at some point. Nevertheless, it's the anime version that stays closest to the spirit of the original manga and that our viewers voted as the highest-rated series of 2006, narrowly surpassing the similarly dark-themed "Dexter."

10. Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005–2008)

TV-Y7-FV | 23 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

In a war-torn world of elemental magic, a young boy reawakens to undertake a dangerous mystic quest to fulfill his destiny as the Avatar, and bring peace to the world.

Stars: Dee Bradley Baker, Zach Tyler, Jack De Sena, Mae Whitman

Votes: 199,401

Running for three seasons, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" these days is remembered mostly for being the source material that inspired M. Night Shayamalan's movie. To call Shayamalan's version disappointing would be an understatement, but the TV show, which narrowly surpassed HBO's "Rome" as the top rated of the year, is worthy of being rediscovered.

11. House (2004–2012)

TV-14 | 44 min | Drama, Mystery

An antisocial maverick doctor who specializes in diagnostic medicine does whatever it takes to solve puzzling cases that come his way using his crack team of doctors and his wits.

Stars: Hugh Laurie, Omar Epps, Robert Sean Leonard, Jesse Spencer

Votes: 384,791

What if Sherlock Holmes were a physician? That was essentially the premise of "House," a show whose protagonist was, like Arthur Conan Doyle's creation, a very smart and incredibly arrogant and drug-addicted detective tasked with solving a medical mystery in every episode, aided by a team of several Dr. Watson surrogates. Hugh Laurie, at the time a relative unknown in the U.S. but a popular comedian in his native U.K., fleshed out Gregory House into a flawed but compelling and fascinating, if not very likable, human being, never straddling into caricature or self-parody territory over the course of eight seasons.

12. Arrested Development (2003– )

TV-14 | 22 min | Comedy

Level-headed son Michael Bluth takes over family affairs after his father is imprisoned. But the rest of his spoiled, dysfunctional family are making his job unbearable.

Stars: Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett

Votes: 260,442

Shows about dysfunctional families are a staple of comedy television. But "Arrested Development" stood out in a crowded sitcom field by virtue of its very dry, deadpan humor and unusual quasi-documentary style. Often shot with a handheld camera, the series featured no laugh track but relied on an omniscient narrator, played by Ron Howard. More of a critical and cult fave than a popular hit, the show was canceled after only three seasons. However, it launched or revitalized the careers of numerous actors — Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Will Arnett, and Tony Hale, to name just a few — and gave birth to countless Internet memes and catchphrases ("I've made a huge mistake," "There's always money in the banana stand").

13. The Wire (2002–2008)

TV-MA | 59 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

The Baltimore drug scene, as seen through the eyes of drug dealers and law enforcement.

Stars: Dominic West, Lance Reddick, Sonja Sohn, Wendell Pierce

Votes: 253,879

Created by former reporter David Simon and employing a staff of writers that included some of the best authors working in the crime genre (like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price), "The Wire" is not only one of the best and most realistic dramas ever made but also the rare TV show that successfully married hard-boiled crime fiction and trenchant social commentary (about topics as diverse as the drug war, police corruption, public education, labor unions and ethics in journalism) without ever coming across as heavy-handed or preachy. No wonder the series won hundreds of awards and endorsements during and after its run, including being called out by U.S. President Barack Obama as his favorite TV series ever.

14. Six Feet Under (2001–2005)

TV-MA | 55 min | Comedy, Drama

A chronicle of the lives of a dysfunctional family who run an independent funeral home in Los Angeles.

Stars: Peter Krause, Michael C. Hall, Frances Conroy, Lauren Ambrose

Votes: 112,590

You would think that a series about a conflicted family who runs a funeral home would not exactly be cheerful and full of laughs, and you'd be right. "Six Feet Under," a show where every episode begins with someone's death, has often been described by some as depressing and grim. It also featured — thanks to creator Alan Ball, of American Beauty fame — some of the best written and most poignant characters to grace TV screens during its five-season run.

15. Coupling (2000–2004)

TV-14 | 30 min | Comedy, Romance

Six best friends talk about all aspects of sex and relationships on their never-ending quest to find true love.

Stars: Jack Davenport, Gina Bellman, Sarah Alexander, Kate Isitt

Votes: 40,768

One of two shows on our list about a group of young friends and their relationships and romantic escapades, "Coupling" didn't exactly sweep U.S. audiences off their feet; it only aired on the BBC America channel, and a U.S. remake was canceled after only four episodes. But the original U.K. series was highly regarded by our worldwide users, enough to steal the No. 1 spot as the highest-rated show of 2000, ahead of popular hits like "CSI" and "Malcolm in the Middle."

16. The Sopranos (1999–2007)

TV-MA | 55 min | Crime, Drama

New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano deals with personal and professional issues in his home and business life that affect his mental state, leading him to seek professional psychiatric counseling.

Stars: James Gandolfini, Lorraine Bracco, Edie Falco, Michael Imperioli

Votes: 262,422

A mobster walks into a psychiatrist's office … Sounds like the beginning of a joke. And, in fact, it was also the premise of the Robert De Niro and Billy Crystal's comedy vehicle, Analyze This. But "The Sopranos" used it as the starting point of a very serious, dark and brilliant show that transcended its crime-drama background and offered one of the sharpest and best acted dissections of the state of the American family in modern television.

17. Cowboy Bebop (1998–1999)

TV-MA | 24 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

The futuristic misadventures and tragedies of an easygoing bounty hunter and his partners.

Stars: Kôichi Yamadera, Unshô Ishizuka, Megumi Hayashibara, Steve Blum

Votes: 78,260

A few years before Joss Whedon's "Firefly" became a cult and critical hit, IMDb users were obsessed with another sci-fi show about the adventures of a group of bounty hunters traveling across space: Japan's "Cowboy Bebop." In retrospect, it's easy to see why. Each episode of the show packs more movie references and pop-culture influences — from film noir to Sergio Leone westerns and, of course, Star Wars-style space operas — than your average Quentin Tarantino movie, who reportedly is also a fan of the series. Dismiss this as simply a cartoon at your own peril. Even if you are not a fan of anime, "Cowboy Bebop" deserves a look. And if you are not familiar with the genre, this is a great place to start.

18. Oz (1997–2003)

TV-MA | 55 min | Crime, Drama, Thriller

A series chronicling the daily activities of an unusual prison facility and its criminal inhabitants.

Stars: Ernie Hudson, J.K. Simmons, Lee Tergesen, Dean Winters

Votes: 83,010

IMDb users love their prison-set dramas, as witnessed by the massive popularity of The Shawshank Redemption. HBO's "Oz" is no exception. Set in an experimental rehabilitation unit within a fictional New York State prison, the show mixed time-tested prison-genre tropes — the naïve new inmate tossed into a terrifying world of hardened criminals, the evil white supremacist gang leader, racially-fueled rivalries between gangs and cliques — with offbeat touches like the inclusion of a character, played by Harold Perrineau, who often broke the fourth wall and commented on the proceedings, essentially acting as a Greek chorus. It also showcased many talented actors such as Christopher Meloni, Edie Falco and J.K. Simmons, who all went on to much bigger fame and recognition.

19. Dragon Ball Z (1996–2003)

TV-PG | 24 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

After learning that he is from another planet, a warrior named Goku and his friends are prompted to defend it from an onslaught of extraterrestrial enemies.

Stars: Doc Harris, Christopher Sabat, Scott McNeil, Sean Schemmel

Votes: 104,063

"Dragon Ball Z" started airing in Japan in 1989, but began its U.S. broadcast run in an English-dubbed version in 1996. IMDb users rated the U.S. version as the top series of the year. It's got extraordinary and long-lasting popularity, especially with younger viewers, which prompted Hollywood to make a live-action version in 2009, starring Justin Chatwin and Chow Yun-Fat. This movie is among the lowest rated on IMDb. Our advice is to stick with the original series.

20. Father Ted (1995–1998)

TV-14 | 25 min | Comedy

Three misfit priests and their housekeeper live on Craggy Island, not the peaceful and quiet part of Ireland that it seems to be.

Stars: Dermot Morgan, Ardal O'Hanlon, Frank Kelly, Pauline McLynn

Votes: 33,719

A sitcom about the adventures of a trio of Catholic priests banished due to their bad behavior on a remote island off the coast of Ireland seems like an unlikely candidate for the highest-rated show of 1995, but that's exactly what "Father Ted" is. The brainchild of writers Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan — who a decade later went on to create the best sitcom about tech workers, ("The IT Crowd" — "Father Ted" is probably Ireland's best and most well-known pop culture export of the past two decades, after U2 and Jameson whiskey.

21. Friends (1994–2004)

TV-14 | 22 min | Comedy, Romance

Follows the personal and professional lives of six twenty to thirty-something-year-old friends living in Manhattan.

Stars: Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc

Votes: 706,931

This sitcom turned six unknown actors, who commanded $1 millon-per-episode salaries by the end of its run, into celebrities almost overnight and immediately attained the level of bona fide cultural phenomenon — with "The Rachel" briefly becoming a popular hairstyle. More than 10 years after the series finale aired, "Friends" remains a landmark in television history. Its monster ratings are still unequaled: Every episode was watched by more than 20 million people on average for its entire run.

22. The X-Files (1993–2018)

TV-14 | 45 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

Two F.B.I. Agents, Fox Mulder the believer and Dana Scully the skeptic, investigate the strange and unexplained, while hidden forces work to impede their efforts.

Stars: David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson, Mitch Pileggi, William B. Davis

Votes: 186,346

The last few seasons, especially after David Duchovny's departure, can only be described charitably as underwhelming. But at least for the first four or five years of its run, "The X Files" was one of the most exciting and, in many cases, downright scary sci-fi-themed shows ever made. Taking inspiration from cult '70s show ("Kolchak: The Night Stalker"), Chris Carter's tale of FBI agents Mulder and Scully's investigations into paranormal phenomena, alien abduction and shadowy government conspiracies gave viewers a glimpse of some of the creepiest monsters ever shown on the small screen.

23. Batman: The Animated Series (1992–1995)

TV-PG | 23 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

The Dark Knight battles crime in Gotham City with occasional help from Robin and Batgirl.

Stars: Kevin Conroy, Loren Lester, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Bob Hastings

Votes: 77,819

The popularity of Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns was likely a huge factor in getting a new TV series devoted to the Caped Crusader on the air. Although targeted to younger audiences, this show was decidedly darker in tone than any animated superhero show that preceded it. The show rapidly became a hit and one of the most highly-regarded entries in the Batman canon outside of the comic books, easily eclipsing misfires such as the Joel Schumacher-directed movies Batman Forever and Batman & Robin.

24. The Adventures of Tintin (1991–1992)

TV-Y7 | 30 min | Animation, Action, Adventure

The adventures of the young reporter, his faithful dog and friends as they travel around the world on adventures.

Stars: Colin O'Meara, Thierry Wermuth, Christian Pellissier, Henri Labussière

Votes: 15,719

Before becoming a high-profile, 3-D motion-capture film directed by Steven Spielberg and produced by Peter Jackson, "The Adventures of Tintin" was a beloved comic book series, created by Belgian artist Hergé more than 80 years ago, which is still immensely popular, especially in Europe, and was the subject of an eponymous short-lived French-Canadian animated TV show. Although not exactly a ratings juggernaut — it originally aired on HBO in the U.S. — "The Adventures of Tintin" was a critical success and managed to gather enough accolades from IMDb users to overtake more familiar titles like "Home Improvement" and "The Ren & Stimpy Show" and come out on top of our list of highest-rated series of 1991.

25. Twin Peaks (1990–1991)

TV-MA | 47 min | Crime, Drama, Mystery

An idiosyncratic FBI agent investigates the murder of a young woman in the even more idiosyncratic town of Twin Peaks.

Stars: Kyle MacLachlan, Michael Ontkean, Mädchen Amick, Dana Ashbrook

Votes: 158,514

Network TV executives are often accused of playing it safe, but in 1990 ABC went out on a limb when they greenlighted "Twin Peaks," one of the weirdest and most unusual shows in television history. The gamble paid off when critics and, surprisingly, audiences embraced David Lynch's bizarre Peyton Place-on-LSD vision about strange happenings in a small city in the Pacific Northwest — at least for a while, as the show only lasted two seasons. But the cult of Twin Peaks has lived on for over two decades, resulting in one of the highest-rated shows in the history of IMDb and in an upcoming cable-TV sequel.

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