As the landscape of TV continues to shift, it's always a good time to pause and look at the medium's history. The first American TV station began broadcasting in 1928, but television didn't really start growing into the influential, widespread phenomenon that it is now until the 1950s.
For many years, there were only a few TV networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—and a limited number of channels and studios. The advent of cable TV and streaming services has allowed diverse forms of televised storytelling. The most popular show that aired in 2012 when a 10-year-old was born looks vastly different than the most popular show that aired in 1965 when a 57-year-old was born.
Some of the older TV shows obviously still hold a place in American culture and TV history today. For example, "The Twilight Zone" forever shaped the anthology series and how the science fiction and suspense genres unfold within the medium. However, pinpointing every major show that's come out since TV took off can be a time-consuming task.
Stacker conducted manual research to compile a list of notable TV debuts from the past 73 years, listing one show for each year and using a variety of unique sources. When selecting shows to add, Stacker looked for TV series that weren't just popular when they were airing but remained influential and iconic in pop culture to this day.
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This early TV comedy turned its titular married couple into one of the most respected duos in Hollywood. George played the straight, serious husband, while Gracie and their neighbor Blanche (Bea Benaderet) frequently annoyed him with their mischief.
Real-life comedy couple Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball starred in "I Love Lucy" as bandleader Ricky and his feisty, troublemaking wife Lucy. The show made the pair major Hollywood stars and is generally regarded as one of the most influential sitcoms ever made.
"Guiding Light," which began as a radio show, followed the trials and tribulations of the Bauer family in the fictional Midwestern town of Springfield. The show aired until 2009 and is the longest-running soap opera—and one of the longest-running dramas—of all time.
"The Danny Thomas Show" revolved around nightclub singer Danny Williams (Danny Thomas), who struggled to balance his career and dysfunctional family life. The show, originally named "Make Room for Daddy," was renamed ahead of its fourth season. When actress Jean Hagen, who played Danny's wife, Margaret, departed the series after the third season, writers chose to kill off her character rather than show the two getting a socially unacceptable divorce, making Margaret the first major sitcom character to die.
One of American pop culture's most famous dogs was introduced in 1954. "Lassie" ran until 1973, showcasing the adventures of its titular collie and her various human and animal companions.
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When Alfred Hitchock created this anthology, he already had 30 years of filmmaking experience under his belt. The show's opening was particularly well known, as he introduced a mystery thriller story as "Funeral March of a Marionette" played in the background.
Created as a spinoff of the soap opera "Guiding Light," this soap concerned itself with the intrigue between families in the fictional Midwestern town of Oakdale, Illinois. It ran until 2010, and current Hollywood stars like Meg Ryan, Amanda Seyfried, and Julianne Moore started their careers on the show.
This CBS series follows a titular lawyer, played by Raymond Burr, who defends innocent people in Los Angeles. "Perry Mason" was one of Hollywood's first one-hour TV shows and was recently rebooted as an HBO drama starring Matthew Rhys. The series was adapted from Erle Stanley Gardner's detective books.
"The Rifleman" tells the story of Western rancher Lucas (Chuck Connors) and his young son, Mark (Johnny Crawford). The series was named after Lucas' signature weapon and was one of the first major TV shows to focus on a single parent.
This iconic Rod Serling-hosted anthology combined numerous genres, from sci-fi to horror, and each episode took on themes of prejudice and morality, often with an unexpected twist. The original series ran for more than 150 episodes and inspired multiple reboots, including a 1983 Steven Spielberg-produced film of the same name.
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Yes, this beloved anthology cartoon has been around for more than 60 years. Bugs, Daffy Duck, Sylvester the Cat, Tweety Bird, and the rest of the Looney Tunes gang also appeared in the 1996 hit Michael Jordan vehicle "Space Jam," and in an HBO Max reboot launched in 2020.
This CBS comedy centers on misadventures with a TV writer's family and coworkers. Mary Tyler Moore, Morey Amsterdam, Larry Mathews, and Rose Marie also appeared in major roles.
"The Beverly Hillbillies" followed the Clampetts, a redneck family that moved to Beverly Hills after discovering oil on their property that made them rich overnight. The show enjoyed high viewership throughout its nine seasons, and 16 of its episodes rank among the most-watched TV episodes ever.
This BBC show, which depicted the time-traveling adventures of an alien Time Lord known as "the Doctor," is one of the most well-known British TV shows of all time. Since the main character could regenerate into different forms, the part has been played by numerous actors over the years. However, William Hartnell played the first version of the Doctor.
"Gilligan's Island" began as seven stranded people became castaways on an island after a shipwreck. Much of the sitcom's humor was derived from the ensemble's squabbles over how best to survive in a new life. The show's iconic theme song, "The Ballad of Gilligan's Isle," was once voted the greatest theme song of all time in a Yahoo TV reader poll.
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In "Days of Our Lives," the personal and professional lives of middle- and upper-class families in the fictional town of Salem, Illinois, get tangled in immeasurable ways. In December 2020, the series celebrated its 14,000th episode on NBC.
The iconic pop cultural touchstone "Star Trek" began in 1966 as the crew of the USS Enterprise first set out to "boldly go where no one has gone before." Iterations of the popular sci-fi show still air today and have led to numerous films and spinoffs.
This CBS variety show often poked fun at recent news and topics of the day through satire. It was canceled after two years when the network accused the brothers of breach of contract, but they successfully sued and received a settlement of almost $1 million.
For more than five decades, the CBS television news magazine has spent an hour delving into controversial issues thanks to reporter-centric journalism. When the show began, it was hosted by Harry Reasoner and Mike Wallace.
This instantly recognizable sitcom told the story of the Bradys, a large blended family with six children. The series' popularity led to multiple spinoffs as well as the 1990s satirical movies "The Brady Bunch Movie" and "A Very Brady Sequel."
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Mary Tyler Moore starred as Mary Richards in this 1970s comedy, playing a woman who navigates the male-dominated Minneapolis news station where she works and figures out life on her own terms. The series is celebrated for paving the way for independent leading women in mainstream American TV and holds the record for the most Emmys for outstanding writing for a comedy series.
"Sanford and Son" centers on the misadventures of junk-dealing widower Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his long-suffering, more progressive son Lamont (Demond Wilson). Based loosely on the British comedy "Steptoe and Son," the hit show is considered a landmark precursor to other popular network sitcoms starring African American families.
The saying goes that laughter is the best medicine, and that's certainly a true sentiment in Fox's smash hit war comedy "M.A.S.H." Originally an Oscar-nominated 1970 movie, this iteration followed Hawkeye (Alan Alda) and the rest of the 4077th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital unit as they used humor to cope with their time in the Korean War.
For more than four decades, this CBS soap opera has focused on the conflict between various families in Genoa City, Wisconsin. The show exists in the same universe as "The Bold and the Beautiful," which debuted in 1987. In 2018, "The Young and the Restless" celebrated 30 consecutive years as the #1 daytime soap.
In "Happy Days," teenager Richie Cunningham (Ron Howard) struggled through the highs and lows of adolescence in Milwaukee during the 1950s and 1960s. The show is particularly well-remembered because of the supporting character Fonzie (Henry Winkler), a dropout greaser who often showed up to help the Cunninghams in unexpected ways.
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Originally created as a spinoff of "All in the Family," this series centered on a recently wealthy African American family named the Jeffersons, as they moved into a luxury apartment building and learned to live near their eccentric neighbors. The comedy was one of the first major American shows to feature a prominent interracial leading couple and one of the longest-running series with a predominantly Black cast.
In this iconic example of 1970s "jiggle TV," a trio of women—Kate Jackson, Farrah Fawcett-Majors, and Jaclyn Smith—fight crime in the name of a Los Angeles detective agency, as directed by their unseen boss, Charlie (voiced by John Forsythe). The show's popularity led to several reboots and spinoffs, most recently an Elizabeth Banks-directed 2019 film of the same name.
Based on the British comedy "Man About the House," this ABC sitcom followed three roommates in Santa Monica, California, played by Joyce DeWitt, Suzanne Somers, and John Ritter. The show was particularly known for its recognizable theme song, "Come and Knock on Our Door."
In the soap opera "Dallas," a wealthy Texas oil family known as the Ewings engaged in dirty schemes and blackmail among themselves and a rival family named the Barnes. The show aired for more than 350 episodes, making it one of the longest-running scripted dramas ever made in the United States.
"Dukes of Hazzard" follows Bo Duke (John Schneider) and Luke Duke (Tom Wopat), two Georgia cousins who dodge the rules and run moonshine in their rural hometown. The show is based on the 1975 action comedy "Moonrunners," and the characters' 1969 Dodge Charger is a particularly well-known element of the series as a whole.
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Tom Selleck starred in "Magnum, P.I." as Thomas Magnum, a detective who investigated bizarre crimes in Oahu, Hawaii. The crime drama was one of the most popular shows in America early on in its run, and a CBS reboot of the show premiered in 2018.
Originally conceived as a rival to the CBS drama "Dallas," this series centered on the antagonistic relationships between the Carringtons and Colbys, two wealthy Denver families who made a living in the oil business. Although the show was canceled after nine seasons, a CW reboot of the show aired from 2017 until September 2022.
"Sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name," and over the course of 11 seasons, Sam Malone, played by Ted Danson, and the other quirky characters of "Cheers" did just that at the show's Boston bar. Today anyone who wants to reminisce can visit the beloved Cheers on Beacon Hill, the establishment that inspired the show.
In "The A-Team," four Vietnam War veterans—George Peppard, Dirk Benedict, Dwight Schultz, and Mr. T—escaped from a military prison after being locked up for a crime they didn't commit. As military agents attempted to catch them, the men dedicated their lives to doing good deeds while on the run. The premise was later turned into a 2010 film of the same name.
For more than 35 years, the current iteration of "Jeopardy!" has been bringing stimulating trivia into millions of American homes. Originally hosted by Art Fleming and John Harlan in its previous versions that started in 1964, the late Alex Trebek took over in 1984 as the syndicated game show's famous host until his death in 2020.
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"Golden Girls" provided a look into the rambunctious lives of four older, but young-at-heart women—played by Beatrice Arthur, Betty White, Rue McClanahan, and Estelle Getty—living together in Florida. It also happens to be one of the only shows in which all of the principal actors won Emmys for their work on it.
"The Oprah Winfrey Show," which aired for 25 years until 2011, still stands as one of the highest-rated American daytime talk shows. The series featured countless memorable episodes, from an interview with Ellen DeGeneres after she first came out as being gay to an "Islam 101" episode to debunk false myths spread after 9/11.
Set nearly a century after the original "Star Trek's" conclusion, this series reboot follows the explorations of a new crew aboard the USS Enterprise, still led by Captain Jean-Luc Picard, played once again by Sir Patrick Stewart. The "Next Generation" cast also went on to star in four in-universe movies while the show was airing.
For almost a decade, ABC's "Roseanne" brought the joys and struggles of a working-class Illinois family to network TV. It later had a short-lived revival in 2018.
This satirical cartoon comedy about the Simpsons, an American family living in the fictional city of Springfield, holds the record for the longest-running scripted primetime series in U.S. history. In 1999, Time magazine hailed it as the best TV show of the 20th century.
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Will Smith established himself as an A-list star over six seasons of "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air." He played a fictionalized version of himself, a Philadelphia teenager who's sent to live with his more conservative, upper-class relatives in California.
Inspired by star Tim Allen's own comedy routines, "Home Improvement" centered on the Taylors, an everyday family in Detroit. The show lasted eight seasons, launching Allen's onscreen career and becoming one of the defining sitcoms of the 1990s.
Set behind the scenes of a fictional late-night talk show, "The Larry Sanders Show" often guest-starred real celebrities playing dramatized versions of themselves. It was one of HBO's first critically acclaimed series, and inspired the "walk and talk" technique later found in shows like "House" and "The West Wing."
One of the longest-running spinoffs ever made, "Frasier's" titular character, played by Kelsey Grammer, was first introduced on "Cheers" before his character headed to Seattle to work as the psychiatrist host of a radio show. The critical darling won 37 Primetime Emmys, a record for scripted television that was only recently broken by "Game of Thrones."
"Friends" told the story of six 20-somethings navigating life and love in New York City, and became a worldwide phenomenon over the course of its 10 seasons. An unscripted reunion special from HBO Max aired in May 2021.
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Originally greenlit as a spinoff of the TV series "Hercules: The Legendary Journeys," this fantasy series follows Xena, played by Lucy Lawless, a powerful warrior who seeks to resolve her past wrongs by helping those in need. "Xena: Warrior Princess" gained a particularly strong cult following, with TV Guide naming it one of the top cult shows ever made.
Ray Romano starred in this long-running sitcom as Raymond Barone, a sports writer with a comically dysfunctional family. In October 2020, the cast reunited for a reunion special to raise money to fight myeloma, the disease that claimed the life of one of the show's late stars, Peter Boyle.
Created by Joss Whedon, this quippy teen drama featured Sarah Michelle Gellar as Buffy Summers, the latest in a long line of women known as Slayers. It was her destiny to fight vampires and other evil forces, although she fought to live a normal high school life in the meantime.
Based on Candace Bushnell's 1997 book of the same name, this New York City-set comedy detailed the platonic and romantic lives of four female friends in Manhattan. The show's success led to two spinoff movies, as well as a prequel series called "The Carrie Diaries."
In "The Sopranos," New Jersey mob boss Tony Soprano, played by James Gandolfini, struggled to balance his family responsibilities with his life of organized crime. The HBO series won multiple Emmys during its six-year run, becoming a largely influential piece of media that Rolling Stone named the best TV show of all time.
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Known for its fast-paced dialogue and colorful cast of characters, "Gilmore Girls" followed single mom Lorelai, played by Lauren Graham, and her daughter Rory, played by Alexis Bledel, who maintained a close bond as they navigated life in the fictional town of Stars Hollow, Connecticut. The show returned for a four-part Netflix revival in 2016 called "Gilmore Girls: A Year in the Life."
Although many medical shows are tense dramas, "Scrubs" featured plenty of slapstick humor as its main cast of young doctors slowly became pros at the hospital where they worked. The show ran for a whopping nine seasons and stars Zach Braff and Donald Faison currently recap the show on their podcast, "Fake Doctors, Real Friends."
Set in Baltimore, "The Wire" approached crime and corruption in the city through the eyes of cops and drug dealers. Each season focused on a different issue, from the illegal drug trade to Baltimore's seaport systems.
"Arrested Development" centered on the Bluths, a wealthy family adjusting to the real world after their real estate empire crumbled and their patriarch is sent to jail. Although Fox canceled the comedy after three seasons, it later aired a fourth and fifth season on Netflix. The show is often credited with influencing other single-camera comedies, like "Community" and "30 Rock."
"Lost" began as a plane flying from Sydney to Los Angeles crashed on a remote island, stranding survivors in a mysterious place with strange supernatural elements that were slowly revealed. It's often regarded as one of the best TV shows ever made, as well as one of the most expensive.
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Remade from the original United Kingdom comedy of the same name, this mockumentary-style comedy followed a dysfunctional group of employees at Scranton's Dunder-Mifflin Paper Co. It grew into a huge hit as it aired from 2005 to 2013, and has found even more fans since hitting Netflix and Peacock.
Adapted from H.G. Bissinger's 1990 book "Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream," this NBC drama revolved around a small-town Texas football team and its coach, played by Kyle Chandler. The show was based on a 2004 film of the same name and received multiple Emmy nominations during its five-year run.
Set in Manhattan during the 1960s and 1970s, "Mad Men" chronicled the morally gray life of advertising director Don Draper, played by Jon Hamm, as well as the cultural shift that America went through during those decades. The drama was the first basic cable show to win outstanding drama series at the Primetime Emmy Awards and is a prime example of the 21st century's Golden Age of Television.
In AMC's "Breaking Bad," chemistry teacher Walter White began making meth to support his family after his cancer diagnosis. The show's success led to the prequel spinoff series "Better Call Saul," which ran for six seasons and aired its final episode in August 2022.
The political mockumentary "Parks and Recreation" centered on the public officials of the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana, and the misadventures they encountered as they tried to make their town a better place. A reunion episode aired in April 2020, and real-life politicians like Joe Biden and Michelle Obama appeared in episodes of the series.
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Adapted from Robert Kirkman's comic books of the same name, "The Walking Dead" follows survivors' attempts to remain alive in the midst of a deadly zombie apocalypse. The show's long-term success has sparked multiple spinoff series, and when its third season aired, the apocalypse drama became the first cable TV series to garner the highest viewership of any fall show.
HBO's groundbreaking fantasy series "Game of Thrones" was based on George R.R. Martin's book series, and detailed warring families' quests to seize power of the fictional continent of Westeros. Although it received criticism for its final season, the show is often regarded as one of the best shows of all time and received a record 59 Emmys.
Loosely inspired by creator and star Lena Dunham's own life, "Girls" centered on the lives of four 20-something women in Brooklyn, after Hannah, the main character, is cut off by her parents. The acclaimed comedy has been praised for depicting the imperfect lives of millennials but criticized for its privileged outlook and lack of diversity.
Adapted from Piper Kerman's 2010 memoir, "Orange Is the New Black" followed the lives of female inmates at a low-security federal prison. In 2016, the dramedy was Netflix's most-watched original series.
The titular protagonist in "BoJack Horseman" is an anamorphic horse who, after fading from stardom as the lead of a 1990s sitcom, hopes to regain his place in the spotlight through a ghost-written memoir. The show has been praised for its explorations of mental illness and addiction, and in 2020, IndieWire named it the greatest animated TV show ever made.
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Saul Goodman, played by Bob Odenkirk, was first introduced as a shifty lawyer in AMC's "Breaking Bad," but this prequel series fully delved into the character's origins. The spinoff received 46 Emmy nominations and its sixth and final season ended in August.
Drawing from '80s sci-fi tropes, the popular Netflix series "Stranger Things" opens as a young boy, played by Noah Schnapp, disappears in a small Indiana town. This leads to the town residents discovering supernatural threats that tie back to a young girl (Millie Bobby Brown), with mysterious abilities.
Adapted from Margaret Atwood's classic 1985 novel, "The Handmaid's Tale" imagines a dystopian American theocracy where most women are forced into sexual servitude and stripped of their rights. The Hulu show became the first streaming series to win a Primetime Emmy for outstanding series with its complex explorations of gender, religion, and power.
"Succession" portrays members of the wealthy Roy family, who fight for control of the powerful yet corrupt media empire built by patriarch Logan Roy (Brian Cox). The series won the Emmy for best drama series in 2020, and a fourth season of the popular HBO drama will air in 2023.
Billed as a "remix" of the 1986 comic series of the same name, "Watchmen" depicts an alternate reality 2019, where Tulsa police detective Angela Abar, played by Regina King, investigates a white supremacist organization linked to the death of her friend while uncovering secrets about her own family's past. The show was praised for its explorations of generational trauma and systemic American anti-Blackness, and won 11 Primetime Emmys in 2020—the most for any show that year.
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HBO's "I May Destroy You," which stars and was created by Michaela Coel, tells the story of Arabella, a writer who was drugged and raped. The story is partly based on Coel's own experiences of being sexually assaulted.
The show went on to receive several accolades and a slew of wins including a 2021 Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing and a Peabody award in entertainment.
Netflix's "Squid Game" series became an instant hit with viewers when it was released in September 2021. The show follows Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and a group of other debt-ridden people who decide to participate as contestants in deadly games for a chance to win a lump sum of money. The show went on to win six Emmy awards.
"House of the Dragon," with its massive budget, was the talk of the town before it even premiered as many wondered if the show would live up to the hype. The HBO "Game of Thrones" prequel series cost a little under $20 million per episode to make and had a successful debut in August with 9.99 million viewers, making it the most-watched HBO series.