30 Best TV Dramas of All Time, Ranked

Table of Contents

It’s no secret that there’s an overwhelming number of great TV dramas out there. People often speak of a “golden age” of TV, though it’s sometimes up for debate when that period was. For some, it started as early as the 1990s and may have ended some 10 to 20 years later. Others might feel that TV is still in a golden age, with it being one that streaming services helped usher in during the 2010s. However, one thing that’s undeniable is that the past few decades have been rich with some of the greatest TV dramas of all time. The following shows demonstrate this well, with all being broadly definable as dramas – while often crossing into other genres, too – and providing excellent entertainment over multiple years.




While the following great TV shows don’t all fit into the category of “drama” and nothing else, they are all definable as dramas, and can be counted among the best shows of all time. Those looking for compelling, emotional, and relatable works of television ought to make it a priority to seek these out, considering they’re largely the best TV series of all time. Some may be imperfect, and some had their quality vary from season to season, yet all are undeniably impressive accomplishments and are ranked from great to greatest.


30 ‘Friday Night Lights’ (2006 – 2011)

Developed by Peter Berg

Image via NBC


While it was a hit among critics, Friday Night Lights was never huge when it came to ratings, making it fortunate that it still managed to run for five seasons. It’s centered on a high school football team in West Texas but isn’t only concerned with sports, given Friday Night Lights has a large cast of characters who are explored while being depicted as dealing with ups and downs in their lives.

It was based on a book that was also adapted as a movie in 2004, shortly before the TV series began airing. With the added length that comes from long-form, years-spanning television, the show was able to explore more characters than an ordinary movie ever could, and became arguably more engaging and emotionally resonant as a result.

Friday Night Lights

Release Date
October 3, 2006

Seasons
5


29 ‘The Leftovers’ (2014 – 2017)

Created by Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta

Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon sitting by each other in 'The Leftovers'
Image via Max

Several years after he concluded being a lead writer on another acclaimed drama series, Damon Lindelof co-created The Leftovers, which many would consider his best TV show so far. It’s a very grounded look at what happens to the world after a Rapture-like event which sees approximately 2% of humanity disappearing without a trace.

It’s not so much of a dramatic change to the world that things become post-apocalyptic, but the event causes enough of a disturbance to radically alter the lives of those left behind, which is where much of the drama in the show comes from. Watching it can make for a strange and sometimes exasperating experience, but there isn’t much else like it out there, making it a trip worth taking for anyone who finds the premise intriguing.


The Leftovers

Release Date
June 29, 2014

Creator
Damon Lindelof, Tom Perrotta

Seasons
3

Watch on Max

28 ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (2004 – 2009)

Developed by Ronald D. Moore

President Laura Roslin and Admiral William Adama in Battlestar Galactica.
Image via Sci-Fi

Yes, Battlestar Galactica would technically qualify as a science-fiction show, but it can broadly be considered a drama series, too, and was considered a drama series for the purposes of the Emmys, for example. It ran for 76 episodes over four seasons between 2004 and 2009 and had a considerable cult following that gradually became big enough to call the show a mainstream success.


It was a reimagining of a 1970s series of the same name and had a story that takes place in a distant galaxy, following a crew on a military ship that’s searching for Planet Earth, given they’re at risk of being killed by an android race. It’s surprisingly epic and consistently engaging for a show of its kind, and though the show’s finale was controversial, it’s still an intergalactic trip worth taking for sci-fi fans.

Battlestar Galactica

Release Date
December 8, 2004

Creator
Glen A. Larson, Ronald D. Moore

Seasons
4

Buy on Apple TV

27 ‘Ozark’ (2017 – 2022)

Created by Bill Dubuque and Mark Williams

Jason Bateman as Marty Byrd in Ozark
Image via Netflix


Netflix is a company that’s really only been making TV shows for about a decade now, but has already risen up to become remarkably influential, and behind numerous popular shows. One of the company’s most critically acclaimed was Ozark, which is a bleak crime/drama series that had a total of four seasons released on the Netflix platform between 2017 and 2022.

Broadly speaking, it’s about a family that decides to become affiliated with a Mexican drug cartel by being money launderers, only to find that there are plenty of drastic consequences for engaging in such a dangerous line of work. It’s a constantly tense and riveting show, and also a great showcase for the range of its star Jason Bateman, who’s otherwise best known for his more comedic roles.

Ozark

Release Date
July 21, 2017

Creator
Bill Dubuque, Mark Williams

Seasons
4

Watch on Netflix

26 ‘The Crown’ (2016 – 2023)

Created by Peter Morgan

Claire Foy in The Crown
Image via Netflix


Though not everyone is a fan of the Royal Family, it seems that a huge number of Netflix users are a fan of watching a somewhat historically accurate account of the British Monarchy’s behind-the-scenes drama from throughout the 20th century. The series about this drama, The Crown, focuses on Queen Elizabeth II, who admittedly has a remarkably long run as the United Kingdom’s Queen between 1952 and 2022.

Those who aren’t exactly into the lives of this family need not apply, but anyone who finds an interest in the UK’s Monarchy will likely find the performances and production design on offer here to be very impressive. Each season of The Crown takes place over a different period of time, meaning numerous actors have portrayed various characters at different stages in their lives, which is one of the more interesting aspects of the show.

The Crown

Release Date
November 4, 2016

Seasons
6


Watch on Netflix

25 ‘The Shield’ (2002 – 2008)

Created by Shawn Ryan

Vic Makey taking cover behind a car while holding a gun in The Shield
Image via Sony Pictures Television

The Shield began and ended the same year as another groundbreaking series revolving around police work and crime (more on that one much further down). It therefore helped usher in a new kind of cop drama; one that was grittier, more ferocious, and more morally complex than most that had come before, centering on a protagonist who was arguably too villainous to be considered an anti-hero.

That protagonist was Vic Mackey, a corrupt cop who’d brutally fight crime with his squad, technically helping their department while also doing things like profiting from illegal goods they confiscated, primarily drugs. Within its seven seasons, The Shield starts strong, sags a little in the middle, but then excels in its last couple of seasons, and delivers a series finale for the ages.


The Shield

Release Date
March 12, 2002

Seasons
7

24 ‘Buffy the Vampire Slayer’ (1997 – 2003)

Created by Joss Whedon

James Marsters' as Spike and Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy in Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Image via 20th Television

While Buffy the Vampire Slayer was technically a drama series, it also excelled at being an action-packed fantasy/romance show and could be very funny at times, too, largely thanks to Buffy‘s lovable and often hilarious main cast. It followed the titular character as she fulfilled her demon-fighting destiny while making friends, falling in and out of love, and trying to make it in high school (during Seasons 1 to 3) and then the adult world (in Seasons 4 to 7).


With close to 150 episodes over seven seasons, it’s natural that a few hours misfired here and there; this sometimes uneven quality technically makes it a flawed show. However, by and large, it was great TV, and when Buffy the Vampire Slayer was at its very best, few other shows could touch it when it came to quality.

23 ‘Lost’ (2004 – 2010)

Created by Jeffrey Lieber, J. J. Abrams, and Damon Lindelof

Lost Pilot - 2004

Well over a decade since it ended, and almost two decades after it started, Lost remains a somewhat divisive show. It began with a group of plane crash survivors trying to get by on a mysterious island, with things feeling grounded and only occasionally fantastical for a good chunk of its first season.


As it went on, the mysteries increased. Lost pivoted into a show that was about more than just survival, with the island having a complex backstory, and later seasons involving time travel and differing timelines and/or dimensions. The ride was a wild one, but if you let Lost do its own thing and just keep up as best you can – while accepting you might not receive a concrete answer for literally every mystery – it’s a fantastic, fun, and undeniably unique show.

Lost

Release Date
September 22, 2004

Seasons
6

22 ‘True Detective’ (2014 – )

Created by Nic Pizzolatto and Issa López

true detective0


True Detective was a surprise hit back when its first season aired in 2014, and a show that seemingly everyone was talking about. It starred Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, following their characters – a pair of detectives – reopening a mysterious murder case many years after it took place, and making a series of disturbing revelations along the way.

The acting, writing, and overall storytelling felt unparalleled, with the show soon becoming an anthology series that followed different characters and different cases each season. These have proven to be more divisive than Season 1, though the show remains compelling and interesting TV, with an intriguing Season 4 – starring Jodie Foster – surprising everyone with its high quality and clever use of supernatural elements.

True Detective

Release Date
January 12, 2014

Creator
Nic Pizzolatto

Seasons
4


21 ‘Fargo’ (2014 – )

Created by Noah Hawley

Billy Bob Thornton holding a suitcase in Fargo
Image via MGM Television

Fargo began airing the same year as True Detective, similarly stands as an acclaimed anthology series. It’s based on the acclaimed 1996 crime movie of the same name, directed by the Coen Brothers, and aims to capture the tone and feel of that film with different stories each season.

Like True Detective, certain seasons seem to have a few more fans than others, though at least most will agree Seasons 1 and 2 of Fargo made for great TV. With a dark sense of humor, unpredictable storylines, and a willingness to experiment more and more as the seasons go on, Fargo is undoubtedly one of the best TV anthology series of all time.

Fargo

Release Date
April 15, 2014

Seasons
5


20 ‘Hannibal’ (2013 – 2015)

Developed by Bryan Fuller

Hannibal Lecter and Will Graham in intimate moment.
Image via NBC

It’s a shame that Hannibal only lasted three seasons and never got to finish on its own terms, but what viewers got is still great overall. The show presents an interesting spin on the iconic Hannibal Lecter, following his uneasy (and unusual) relationship with a young – and very troubled – FBI criminal profile named Will Graham.

Hannibal is certainly a slow burn, and some viewers may wonder what all the fuss is about during the solid yet sometimes underwhelming first season. Things build satisfyingly, though, with Season 1 ending strong, and much of Season 2 making for particularly great television. Time will tell if it ever gets “un-canceled” and granted a Season 4, though it looks unlikely at this point.


Hannibal

Release Date
April 4, 2013

Creator
Bryan Fuller

Seasons
3

19 ‘Stranger Things’ (2016 – )

Created by The Duffer Brothers

Joyce Byers looking at a person offscreen Stranger Things
Image via Netflix

Before 2022’s fourth season aired, it might have been tempting to call Stranger Things the TV equivalent of a one-hit-wonder. 2016’s first season was a cultural phenomenon upon release, offering a nostalgic, funny, and emotional story set during the 1980s that followed various people in a small town working together to find a young boy after his mysterious disappearance.


Seasons 2 and 3 naturally broadened the scope, with the results sometimes being a good deal of fun, but sometimes feeling strained. Season 4 successfully managed to up the stakes, thankfully, and though the show still feels like it’s in the process of chewing the huge amount of stuff it bit off, the intense, genuinely creepy, and overall very impactful fourth season has got things back on track for a (hopefully) equally good fifth and final season.

Stranger Things

Release Date
July 15, 2016

Creator
Matt Duffer, Ross Duffer

Seasons
5

18 ‘Justified’ (2010 – 2015)

Developed by Graham Yost

Timothy Olyphant in Justified
Image via FX

Elmore Leonard adaptations are more common in film rather than TV, but Justified shows his style works just as well in the format of a serialized TV show. Running for six seasons between 2010 and 2015, Justified follows a US Marshal returning to Harlan County – where he grew up – and enacting his own unique brand of justice there.


There’s an unending stream of crime/thriller shows out there, but Justified stands out from the crowd because of its great characters and extremely well-written dialogue. Each season generally follows a different storyline while retaining a main cast and numerous recurring characters, effectively making the show’s world feel believable and lived in. It’s also been given a reboot/revival of sorts with Justified: City Primeval.

Justified

Release Date
March 16, 2010

Seasons
6

17 ‘The X-Files’ (1993 – 2018)

Created by Chris Carter

Dana Scully and Fox Mulder X-Files


Few TV shows from the 1990s are quite as iconic as The X-Files, which has endured in pop culture thanks to two seasons (in 2016 and 2018) that aired long after the show’s original run (1993-2002). It’s also had two theatrically released films: one in 1998 and one in 2008.

The show primarily revolves around two FBI agents – one who believes in alien and/or supernatural forces, and one who’s a skeptic – investigating various paranormal cases, uncovering surprising conspiracies in the process. It effectively combined overarching stories with single, “case-of-the-week” episodes, making for an iconic and addictive show that may have peaked in the 1990s but is still looked back upon fondly to this day.

The X-Files

Release Date
September 10, 1993

Creator
Chris Carter

Seasons
11


16 ‘ER’ (1994 – 2009)

Created by Michael Crichton

Several doctors gathered around a patient in ER
Image via NBC

Running for over 300 episodes and spanning 15 seasons, ER was a mammoth show and is widely considered one of the best medical dramas of all time. It had a huge cast of characters that came and went over the show’s run, all shown to struggle with their professional and romantic lives while working at Chicago’s County General Hospital.

It’s perhaps best known today for the famous actors who starred in it before they had their big movie breaks, the most notable of course being George Clooney, who was a member of the main cast for the show’s first five seasons. Did it run too long? Maybe. But it was a seminal series for TV, and a significant work within pop culture, enabling it to be counted among other greats within the realm of TV drama.


ER

Release Date
September 19, 1994

Creator
Michael Crichton

Seasons
15

15 ‘Hill Street Blues’ (1981 – 1987)

Created by Steven Bochco and Michael Kozoll

Hill Street Blues - 1981-1987

There are various crime/cop shows – particularly in the 21st century – that owe some degree of gratitude to Hill Street Blues. To borrow a clichéd saying, it was one of those shows that walked so that other similar shows could run (for any number of seasons – sometimes more, and sometimes less than Hill Street Blues’ seven).

It was ambitious for its attempts to balance a large ensemble cast, as well as provide a more realistic and gritty look at police work than TV audiences at the time might’ve been used to. Its ambition paid off, as the show won a staggering 26 Emmys while it was on the air, and helped give writers like David Milch (the creator of Deadwood) and Mark Frost (the co-creator of Twin Peaks) experience in TV writing, with both going on to help create even better shows later in their careers.


Hill Street Blues

Release Date
January 15, 1981

Cast
Daniel J. Travanti , Taurean Blacque , Bruce Weitz , Joe Spano , Kiel Martin , Betty Thomas , Charles Haid , Veronica Hamel

Seasons
7

14 ‘Better Call Saul’ (2015 – 2022)

Created by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould

Better Call Saul - Alpine Shepherd Boy - 2015
Image via AMC

A spin-off/prequel series to Breaking Bad that some would argue surpassed its parent show, Better Call Saul focuses on the character of Saul Goodman before he adopted the name/persona he’s shown to have in Breaking Bad. For much of Better Call Saul, he’s actually known as Jimmy McGill, with the show demonstrating how he gradually becomes the Saul Goodman viewers know.


It’s a slower show than Breaking Bad, but one that ultimately rewards patient viewers by gradually increasing the tension, building to an impactful sixth and final season. It’s amassed a similar popularity to its parent show, and can proudly stand as one of the few TV spin-offs that equals – or sometimes even surpasses – what came before.

13 ‘Deadwood’ (2004 – 2006)

Created by David Milch

deadwood

Deadwood is a staggering achievement in TV production, even by the standards of HBO – a company that’s funded some of the most expensive shows in history. Deadwood follows an entire town in the late 1800s, becoming something of a cross between a historical drama, a Western, and a crime show, thanks to the lawless nature of its setting.


Its cast of characters is one of the strongest of all time, and its beautifully written (and profanity-filled) dialogue needs to be heard to be believed. The show’s first season is maybe its best, but the quality remains high throughout the other two seasons, and though it was canceled after its third, it at least got a 2019 movie to tie up as many loose ends as possible.

Deadwood

Release Date
March 21, 2004

Creator
David Milch

Seasons
3

12 ‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’ (1987 – 1994)

Created by Gene Roddenberry

star-trek-the-next-generation-social-featured


Though the original series that aired in the 1960s will always be beloved for coming first, Star Trek: The Next Generation is often considered the best Star Trek TV show. It ran for an impressive seven seasons and 176 episodes overall, with its story set about a century after the adventures of Captain Kirk and his crew.

It follows a new generation of Starfleet officers as they set out with roughly the same mission the original crew had, only doing so in an even more advanced and less predictable sci-fi world. A sequel series to a beloved TV show from the 1960s was always going to be risky, but The Next Generation was a soaring success, running for four more seasons than the original series did.

11 ‘Twin Peaks’ (1990 – 1991)

Created by Mark Frost and David Lynch

Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn) looking at Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) as he looks out a window in Twin Peaks
Image via ABC


David Lynch already had a reputation for making wonderfully strange movies by 1990, with the early 1990s seeing him turn to TV to create Twin Peaks, along with co-creator Mark Frost. It was a mix of soap opera, comedy, fantasy, crime, and surreal horror, being a wonderfully eccentric, unusual, and unpredictable series.

Tragically, it was cut down in its prime, as the writers were pressured to wrap up the show’s central murder mystery prematurely, leaving things feeling aimless for numerous episodes before it was canceled at the end of Season 2. A 1992 prequel movie followed, as did a groundbreaking (and even stranger) new season called Twin Peaks: The Return in 2017, meaning that though the main show was canceled, it at least didn’t spell the end for Twin Peaks as a whole.

Twin Peaks

Release Date
April 8, 1990

Creator
Mark Frost and David Lynch

Seasons
3