20 Best Classic TV Shows of All Time
These old TV shows set the stage for the small screen as we know it today.
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Oldies but goodies
What makes old TV shows classics? Some TV shows were pioneers of the small screen—think of what I Love Lucy did for the sitcom and The Ed Sullivan Show did for variety and live performance shows. And there are other classic shows, like Saturday Night Live, that have brought us indelible characters, catapulted hundreds of comedians to stardom, and are still on air to this day. Most shows we consider classics, though, have come and gone, but their legacies are still strong, especially since we can still binge so many of them on streaming services like Hulu and Netflix.
As enjoyable as these old TV shows are, one unfortunate legacy plagues the majority of shows from the golden age of TV: a lack of diversity. Television wasn’t nearly as inclusive in the 20th century as it is today, though we can thank sitcoms like The Jeffersons for providing some much-needed representation.
Whether they were known for beloved characters, are critically acclaimed Emmy Award winners, or feature writing that’s as fresh and relevant today as it was 50 years ago, here are the best classic shows to ever have aired on television.
The Golden Girls (1985–1992)
Memorable quotes: “Picture it, Sicily…” and “Back in Saint Olaf…”
The Golden Girls is as beloved today as it was when it originally aired on NBC in the late 1980s. The show’s stars—Bea Arthur, Rue McClanahan, Betty White, and Estelle Getty—were all established comedic actresses when they signed on to the show, but it was the time they spent as Miami housemates, cavorting over cheesecake and telling stories about life back in Sicily, or Minnesota, or Brooklyn, that cemented their status as TV legends. Packed with jokes, the classic sitcom, which won 11 Emmy Awards during its run, was as funny as it was ahead of its time, celebrating the sex lives of these older women and quietly including storylines about gay rights, immigration, and suicide. And let’s not forget that the theme song will be etched in our brains forever. Thank you for being a friend, indeed.
Sesame Street (1969–present)
Memorable quote: “Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?”
It’s safe to say that many of the very first viewers of Sesame Street probably have grandchildren who now watch the show. What started in 1969 as an educational children’s television show that featured Jim Henson’s Muppets, including Big Bird, Oscar the Grouch, Grover, and even Kermit the Frog, has become a global empire that’s now broadcast in over 140 countries. The show was groundbreaking for blending animation, puppetry, live actors, and writing that was geared toward children but was funny enough (and often sneakily subversive) for adults to enjoy too. In its time on air, Sesame Street has proven to be one of the best kids shows on television, and it has dealt with some important issues, too, like death, disabilities, and race. For a certain generation, Elmo was the show’s superstar, but for those of us who are a touch older, we’re partial to the classic Sesame Street songs and the totally ’70s animations, like the one that has helped us remember our grocery list to this day: “A loaf of bread, a container of milk, and a stick of butter.”
The Mary Tyler Moore Show (1974–1978)
Memorable quote: “You’re gonna make it after all.”
Mary Tyler Moore made a name for herself with the Emmy-winning role of Laura Petrie on The Dick Van Dyke Show, playing the wife of Rob Petrie, Dick Van Dyke’s character. After that show ended, she made the groundbreaking decision to star as Mary Richards, a single, professional woman whose career was at the forefront of her namesake series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Mary’s focus on her career rather than a husband was a groundbreaking notion at the time. Some even consider it a landmark moment in women’s history. Thanks to the stellar supporting cast, including Ed Asner, Betty White, Valerie Harper, and Cloris Leachman, this old TV show set the bar for workplace comedies. The show produced three spin-off series, won 29 Emmy Awards, and has often been referred to as one of the greatest TV shows of all time.
Memorable quote: “Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake’s plane was shot down over the Sea of Japan. It spun in. There were no survivors.”
M*A*S*H was a sitcom that started out its run on television in 1972—amid heated national discourse about our continued involvement in the Vietnam War. The show, about a mobile Army surgical hospital stationed in Korea during that war, played politics for laughs and leaned into the charming, witty performances from stars Alan Alda and Gary Burghoff during its first few seasons. Eventually, as cast members left the series and the writers’ room evolved, the old TV show pivoted more heavily into drama. The line above marked one of the most dramatic moments of the series, announcing the death of a beloved character, Lieutenant Colonel Henry Blake, played by MacLean Stevenson, who earned a Golden Globe for his work when he left the series at the end of the third season.
All in the Family (1971–1979)
Memorable episodes: “Sammy’s Visit” and “Everybody Tells The Truth”
All in the Family may go down in history as Norman Lear’s greatest creation: The television writer and producer is responsible for dozens of legendary series, like The Jeffersons, Good Times, and One Day At A Time, but All in the Family is his flagship series. Starring Carroll O’Connor as the bigoted Archie Bunker, the show played up Bunker’s misogyny, racism, and inappropriate insults for laughs, most of which were ultimately at Bunker’s expense. The show costarred Jean Stapleton as Archie’s long-suffering wife, Edith; Sally Struthers as his politically progressive daughter, Gloria; and a young Rob Reiner as the son-in-law he not-so-affectionately refers to as Meathead. It featured memorable guest appearances from the likes of Sammy Davis Jr., whose impromptu kiss on Archie’s cheek earned one of the longest laughs from an audience in TV history.
The Honeymooners (1955–1956)
Memorable quotes: “Baby, you’re the greatest!” and “One of these days, POW! Right in the kisser!”
It’s hard to believe that as influential a show as The Honeymooners is, it only ran for a year. The characters of Ralph Kramden (played by Jackie Gleason), his wife, Alice (Audrey Meadows), and his best friend, Ed (Art Carney), originated in a sketch on the variety show Cavalcade of Stars and later became part of The Jackie Gleason Show. They were so popular that Gleason spun them off into their own show in which Kramden’s short temper made him prone to outbursts directed at Alice, like “One of these days, POW! Right in the kisser!” and “You’re going to the moon!”
The old TV show was immensely popular during its original run, but it found even greater success running in syndication. It even inspired the creation of the beloved Hanna-Barbera show The Flintstones, one of the best cartoon shows of all time, whose characters were based on those in The Honeymooners.
I Love Lucy (1951–1957)
Memorable quote: “Lucy, ‘splain!”
I Love Lucy was groundbreaking television when it first premiered in 1951, and many shows today owe a lot to its format alone: Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz pioneered the multi-camera format that most sitcoms employ to this day. But we wouldn’t be here talking about the show if it weren’t for Ball’s amazing comedic chops or the indelible performances from Arnaz, William Frawley (as Fred Mertz), and Vivian Vance (as Ethel Mertz). The show had a crack team of writers who came up with some of the greatest TV gags of all time, including Lucy and Ethel stuffing chocolates into their mouths as they worked at a candy factory assembly line and Lucy stomping grapes at a winery to show off her genius physical comedy.
St. Elsewhere (1982–1988)
Memorable episode: “The Last One”
St. Elsewhere may be more famous these days as a breeding ground for talent than as one of TV’s greatest shows about doctors. The series was responsible for helping to launch or define the careers of Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Ed Begley Jr., and Howie Mandel, among many others. Set at the fictional Boston hospital, St. Eligious, nicknamed St. Elsewhere due to its lack of prestige, the show became the template for medical dramas like ER and Grey’s Anatomy, weaving the imperfect, often soap-operatic lives of the doctors in with their day-to-day dealings with patients. The show featured one of the most famous series finales of all time, “The Last One,” in which a young autistic boy, played by Chad Allen, is seen playing with a snow globe that contains a replica of St. Eligius inside it, and we learn that the entire series took place inside his imagination.
Murder, She Wrote (1984–1996)
Memorable episode: “Magnum on Ice,” a crossover event between Murder, She Wrote and Magnum, P.I.
How many people have been murdered in the small Maine town of Cabot Cove anyway? Well, at least 264. That’s how many episodes there are of Murder, She Wrote, each one featuring a murder of the week, solved by author-detective Jessica Fletcher, played by Angela Lansbury. Each episode of this crime show begins with Lansbury saying, “Tonight, on Murder, She Wrote…” The formula would follow as such: A dead body is discovered in town. Jessica rides her trusty bicycle around town, looking for clues and conferring with the sheriff or local doctors. She meets with special guest stars, most of whom refer to her as “Aunt Jessica,” including big names like Sonny Bono, George Clooney, and LeVar Burton. At the end, Jessica always catches her man, and resourceful as she is, she turns the caper into her next novel.
Saturday Night Live (1975–present)
Memorable Quotes: “I’m Chevy Chase … and you’re not.” and “You look mahvelous!”
Saturday Night Live and Sesame Street are not just two of the longest-running television shows on TV. They’re also the only two classic shows from our list that are still on air. Created by Lorne Michaels in 1975, the show began as a subversive sketch comedy show featuring comedians like Gilda Radnor, Chevy Chase, and Dan Aykroyd. Over more than 40 years, it has propelled dozens of comedians, like Will Ferrell, Chris Rock, and Tina Fey, to massive stardom. Audiences watch it for its topical sketch humor, satirical news delivery on Weekend Update, and memorable characters, which have included Wayne and Garth, Roseanne Rosanadanna, and Mary Catherine Gallagher. Over the years, critics have often compared the show to earlier versions of itself, but as it nears its 50th anniversary, its legacy will be as one of the most influential comedy shows of all time. Oh, and fun Emmy Award fact: SNL is the most awarded show in prime time Emmy history, with 86 awards as of the time of this writing.
Memorable Quotes: “Norm!”
Cheers, a show about a Boston bar and its lovable patrons was well-written and brilliantly acted, and we genuinely cared about the characters. It stars Ted Danson as a playboy ex-baseball player named Sam Malone, who owns the bar where Woody Harrelson, Rhea Perlman, Shelley Long, and, later, Kirstie Alley, all worked. Patrons like Cliff Claven (John Ratzenberger), Norm Peterson (George Wendt), and Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) rounded out the show’s hilarious ensemble. (Grammer would go on to star in a spin-off, Frasier, which was massively successful in its own right.) The series’ clever writing included long-running gags that always paid off, like Cliff’s never-ending supply of trivia (which landed him on Jeopardy once), Norm’s constant complaints about wife Vera, and the bar’s ongoing feud with Gary’s Old Town Tavern.
The Dick Van Dyke Show (1961–1966)
Memorable quote: “Oh, Rob!”
The Dick Van Dyke Show was created by comedy legend Carl Reiner and starred Dick Van Dyke as Rob Petrie, a comedy writer and family man married to wife Laura (Mary Tyler Moore). The old TV show gave audiences a look at what life was like behind the scenes of a TV show, as Rob worked each day on a fictional sitcom, The Alan Brady Show. With incredible comedic performances from both Van Dyke and Tyler Moore, as well as a supporting cast that included Reiner, Rose Marie, and Morey Amsterdam, the show earned 15 Emmy awards over its five seasons. Though the show would often be referenced in pop culture for Laura’s outfits and the opening credits, which saw Rob tripping over the living room ottoman, it’s the writing that makes the series as funny now as it was five decades ago.
The Carol Burnett Show (1967–1978)
Memorable quote: “I saw it in a window and just couldn’t resist it.”
Carol Burnett had already become a popular television personality in the decade before her eponymous show premiered, but The Carol Burnett Show made her one of the greatest television personalities of all time. The sketch and variety show starred Burnett, Vicky Lawrence, Harvey Korman, Lyle Waggoner, and Tim Conway and featured costumes designed by the legendary Bob Mackie. One of the most iconic moments from the show was from a sketch titled “Went with the Wind,” a parody of Gone with the Wind that featured a dress designed by Mackie fashioned in the shape of a curtain, complete with a rod running across the shoulders. When Burnett appeared on screen wearing it, she famously explained, “I saw it in a window and just couldn’t resist it.” The show had several signatures, including a weekly ad-libbed question-and-answer session between Burnett and the live studio audience and Burnett’s ear-tug at the end of each episode, a signal to her grandmother. Every episode also featured an appearance from a special guest, and over the years such legendary figures as Lucille Ball, Sonny Bono, Cher, and Ray Charles appeared.
The Twilight Zone (1959–1964)
Memorable quote: “You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind, a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead—your next stop: the Twilight Zone.”
The quote above, recited in the opening credits of The Twilight Zone each week by series creator Rod Serling, helpfully explains the premise of the show while also ominously portending that you’re about to experience something wild, unlike anything you could fathom in the real world. The show was an anthology series featuring different actors, many of them already famous, appearing in various science fiction scenarios, such as “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet,” in which William Shatner’s character spies a terrifying monster on the wing of an airplane, and “Time Enough at Last,” which zeroes in the experience of a man (Burgess Meredith) alone in the world in the aftermath of nuclear war. Though many of the episodes are fantastical and sometimes terrifying, the series was acclaimed by fans and critics alike and set the standard for similar shows, like Black Mirror and The Outer Limits.
The Brady Bunch (1969–1974)
Memorable quotes: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!”
The Brady Bunch is not prestige television by any stretch—at this point in history, it borders on campy—but it is one of the most memorable shows of all time. The theme song sets up the entire premise: a lovely lady (Florence Henderson) with three very lovely girls meets a man named Brady (Robert Reed) with three boys of his own. And somehow, they formed a family, complete with a maid (Ann B. Davis) and a dog named Tiger. There was nothing terribly controversial or dramatic about the show (unless you count the time Peter and Bobby found a “cursed” Tiki idol in Hawaii that wreaked havoc on their vacation plans), and yet so many scenes from the show are iconic pop culture touchstones. There was the time middle daughter Jan, jealous of her older sister, declared “All I ever hear is ‘Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!'” Or the time the kids formed a band and sang “Time to Change,” but Peter’s voice cracked in the middle of recording. How about the time when Marcia invites Davy Jones from The Monkees to her school, but he shows up at her house instead? The show was entertaining and fun and very much of its time, which is to say, it was just groovy, man.
The Jeffersons (1975–1985)
Memorable episodes: “Florence in Love” and “A Friend in Need”
The Jeffersons was a groundbreaking TV series for several reasons. Spun off from All in the Family, it was one of the first sitcoms to feature a predominantly Black cast and the first to feature an interracial couple. The theme song, iconic in its own right, explains that the Jeffersons, George and Louise (played by Sherman Hemsley and Isabel Sanford), moved on up from Queens to Manhattan’s tony Upper East Side neighborhood to “a deluxe apartment in the sky.” The characters of George and Louise had appeared on All in the Family for several seasons, and due to their popularity (and some pressure on the show’s creator to show a realistic representation of middle class Black Americans on TV), they received their own sitcom. Nominated for an Emmy for seven consecutive years, Isabel Sanford’s 1981 win made her the very first African American actress to win in the Best Actress in a Comedy Series category.
The Bob Newhart Show (1972–1978)
Memorable episode: “Happy Trails to You”
Bob Newhart proved that he was a pioneer of the 20th-century sitcom, and the success of both The Bob Newhart Show and the subsequent Newhart speak for themselves. The former features Newhart as Dr. Robert Hartley, a psychotherapist in 1970s Chicago. The comedic chemistry between Newhart and his on-screen wife, played by Suzanne Pleshette, and the hilarity that was mined from Dr. Hartley’s patients is comedy gold. Newhart has always played the perfect straight-man character, and his Dr. Hartley was the perfect foil to the genius performances from actors like Jack Riley and Henry Winkler, who let their neuroses have a field day on his couch.
Via The Ed Sullivan Show/Youtube.com
The Ed Sullivan Show (1948–1971)
Memorable quote: “We have a really big show tonight.”
The Ed Sullivan Show was a Sunday night entertainment staple in American households from 1949 until its final episode in 1971. It showcased performances from musicians, comedians, dancers, and even circus acts, all broadcast live from New York City and presented by entertainment columnist and personality Ed Sullivan. The show featured new and emerging talent acts like Elvis Presley and The Beatles, beloved children’s entertainment like the Muppets, and performances from Broadway shows with their original casts. While the show was universally beloved and generally wholesome, it was not without its controversies, as when The Doors famously sang the drug-referencing line “Girl, we couldn’t get much higher” from the song “Light My Fire” live on air, to Sullivan’s dismay. For any young act to appear on the show was a critical career move, and for decades, an appearance on Ed Sullivan was a symbol of making it in show business.
The Muppet Show (1976–1981)
Memorable quotes: “Wakka wakka!”
People may not know it, but The Muppet Show, created by Jim Henson, was filmed entirely in England. No American TV network wanted to air the comedy show when it was pitched by Henson, so it was originally produced for the British TV station ATV. Only after it aired there did CBS pick it up and air it in America. Starring all the classic Muppets, including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy, Gonzo, and Fozzie Bear, the show featured a memorable theme song, a house band (The Electric Mayhem), comedy sketches, musical performances, and appearances from such entertainment legends as Julie Andrews, Milton Berle, and Gene Kelly. Some of the most memorable, beloved sketches from the show include “Pigs in Space,” “The Swedish Chef,” and “Veterinarian’s Hospital,” a parody of soap operas like General Hospital.
Memorable quotes: “No soup for you!” and “Yada, yada, yada.”
Seinfeld is one of those shows where even if you’ve never seen it, you’ve very likely made a reference to it. It’s also one of the best classic shows on Netflix. There was no topic the show, with its spot-on observational humor, didn’t cover, and it offered up a catchphrase for just about every situation. From “yada, yada, yada” and “No soup for you!” to “It’s not you, it’s me,” the show, created by star Jerry Seinfeld and writer Larry David and costarring Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander, has made an indelible mark in our brains. Seinfeld was the recipient of Emmys, Golden Globes, and even a Peabody Award in 1993, but perhaps its biggest achievement will be its place in the cultural zeitgeist. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.