Top 21 Best TV Shows of Each Year
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 21 Best TV Shows of Each Year.
For this list, we’ll be going year by year through the 21st century and determining the greatest shows to have premiered each year. As such, these may not match our older “Best Shows of the Year” lists. For those, we considered individual seasons rather than entire shows.
What is your favorite show of the 21st century? Let us know in the comments below!
2000: “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (2000-)
It’s borderline impossible to follow up a show like “Seinfeld.” But just a couple of years after that iconic show’s conclusion, Larry David released “Curb Your Enthusiasm” through HBO. Produced, created, and entirely outlined by David, “Curb Your Enthusiasm” follows a fictional and exaggerated version of David as he lives his life and gets himself into awkward predicaments owing to his misanthropic personality and social faux pas. Much of the humor is derived from David’s social observances and the complex misunderstandings he often gets himself into. The show is still going strong, and its end credit music has become a meme, indicating its ascendency in the pop-culture consciousness.
2001: “Six Feet Under” (2001-05)
This death-filled drama isn’t the most entertaining of shows, at least in the conventional sense, but it’s necessary viewing nevertheless. Serving as a unique mixture between hard-hitting drama and black comedy, “Six Feet Under” concerns a family who deal with death on a daily basis. As owners of a funeral home, they have become fixated on the many concepts of death - what it means, how it’s approaching, how it will affect daily lives, and what it will leave behind. The show earned consistent acclaim for its thematic and thoughtful writing, and it contains a stellar cast who combined for twenty Emmy nominations. Add in one of the best finales in TV history, and “Six Feet Under” makes for an unforgettable, if difficult, viewing experience.
2002: “The Wire” (2002-08)
HBO was on an incredible and historic streak throughout the early 2000s, and it continued with “The Wire” - arguably the greatest television show ever made. “The Wire” was created and largely written by David Simon, who worked as a police reporter for The Baltimore Sun between 1982 and 1995. While there, he learned the many intricacies of Baltimore, and more broadly, cities in general. He took what he learned working as a journalist and wrote “The Wire,” a crime drama with huge ambitions. The show tackles numerous heady themes regarding city institutions, including politics, police departments, the press, schools, docks, and the criminal element. It’s also massively enjoyable, filled with great characters, fantastic acting, and often hilarious writing. This show meets its enormous reputation.
2003: “Chappelle’s Show” (2003-04)
Dave Chappelle is one of the greatest artists of our time, and while his stand-up is both hilarious and culturally resonant, his greatest work will always be “Chappelle’s Show.” Airing for just two seasons in the mid-2000s, “Chappelle’s Show” served as a sketch comedy with Chappelle both hosting and acting. Unlike many sketch comedies, this one was often written with a wider purpose. It was obviously hilarious and filled with both quotable dialogue and iconic characters, including Tyrone Biggums. But it also touched on wider cultural issues, including gun violence, politics, and the entertainment industry. The latter proves particularly impactful, as Chappelle famously quit the show owing to the fame and unbearable expectations. It’s perhaps the greatest sketch comedy ever made.
2004: “Lost” (2004-10)
Desert island stories were big in the early 2000s. Both “Cast Away” and “Survivor” premiered in 2000, and both proved enormous hits. Lloyd Braun, the head of ABC, wanted something like them for his network. J. J. Abrams was brought in, introducing some mystery and fantasy elements. The result was “Lost,” possibly the biggest cultural TV event of the 2000s. “Lost” wasn’t just a good show. It certainly was that, complete with a stellar cast of characters, intriguing mysteries, and surprisingly emotional writing. No, “Lost” was a “moment.” Everyone was talking about it, and internet theorizing proved just as much fun as actually watching it. With the fragmented nature of modern streaming habits, there may never be a show like “Lost” again.
2005: “The Office” (2005-13)
By the mid-2000s, networks were reclaiming some past glory. “Lost” proved a monumental hit for ABC, and NBC responded with “The Office.” Serving as an American remake of the British original, “The Office” got off to a rocky start as it tried too hard to emulate the cold and cynical atmosphere of the original. Things drastically improved with season two, and “The Office” soon became the most acclaimed comedy on television. The writing, characters, and performances were widely adored, and the mockumentary style proved quite fresh and invigorating for the time. The show has become even more popular over the years thanks to Netflix, and it now stands proudly as a classic. It’s the ultimate comfort food, good for any time or mood.
2006: “30 Rock” (2006-13)
Not content with just “The Office,” NBC released another critical hit with “30 Rock.” Created by and starring Tina Fey, “30 Rock” follows the cast and crew of an NBC sketch comedy program. It obviously refers to “Saturday Night Live,” and Fey modeled the show and its events after her experiences as head writer. “30 Rock” became known for its unique style of humor, serving as a blend between surreal parody and live-action “Family Guy.” Like the latter, “30 Rock” contained a rapid pace and made extensive use of cutaways. In 2009, the show’s 22 Emmy nominations made it the most-nominated comedy season in TV history. “30 Rock” left behind an incredible legacy, and it solidified Fey as a television legend.
2007: “Mad Men” (2007-15)
Expectations were quite high for “Mad Men.” It was created by Matthew Weiner, who worked extensively with David Chase on “The Sopranos,” co-writing the penultimate episode “The Blue Comet” with him. Weiner did not disappoint with “Mad Men.” Following the employees of an advertising agency, “Mad Men” primarily concerns itself with the cultural revolution of the 1960s. It often frames its characters through the pop culture and historical moments of the time, including the civil rights movement, Vietnam, second-wave feminism, the counterculture, and even The Beatles’ monumental shift in musical style. Impeccably written, designed, directed, and performed, “Mad Men” easily stands as one of the greats.
2008: “Breaking Bad” (2008-13)
AMC served us a wonderful one-two punch with “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad,” the latter premiering just six months after the former. Widely heralded as one of the greatest shows ever made, “Breaking Bad” not only proved the ascendancy of cable TV, but also Netflix. While it premiered with just over a million viewers, the series finale, which aired long after the show found a wider following on Netflix, earned ten million. It became a cultural institution through its incredible writing and binge-ability, not to mention Bryan Cranston’s remarkable performance as Walter White. Other shows may be more “meaningful” in regards to their themes, but none are as exciting, visually inventive, or as relentlessly enjoyable as “Breaking Bad.”
2009: “Parks and Recreation” (2009-15)
This is a spiritual successor to “The Office,” sharing much of the same crew (including creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur), the same mockumentary format, a similar aloof protagonist, a modest setting, and even a rocky first season that many fans tend to ignore. This one follows the Parks Department of a small and rather insignificant town in Indiana. Like “The Simpsons” did with Springfield, Pawnee quickly became its own character, and its many inhabitants prove warm, welcoming, and endlessly entertaining. The show also comes with a who's who cast of comedians, including Amy Poehler, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, Nick Offerman, and Chris Pratt. If “The Office” is comfort food, then “Parks and Recreation” is a comfort meal.
2010: “Downton Abbey” (2010-15)
It’s exceedingly rare for a period drama to reach such fevered heights and cultural obsession, but “Downton Abbey” managed to bridge the gap between critical stuffiness and widespread enjoyment. On the surface, “Downton Abbey” sounds just like any number of turgid period pieces following an aristocratic family. But the show is handled much like “Mad Men,” as it uses historic events as a means to reflect on the characters’ lives and social situations, and it uses its period setting to depict the fall of the British aristocracy. Of course, it happens to be enormously entertaining as well, complete with stellar production values and a particularly fantastic performance from Maggie Smith.
2011: “Game of Thrones” (2011-19)
The television event of the 2010s, “Game of Thrones” aired its incredible first season throughout the spring of 2011, and the world was immediately hooked. It helps that the show had such strong foundational material in George R. R. Martin’s legendary “A Song of Ice and Fire” series, and “Game of Thrones” helped make fantasy cool again. It included a wide range of exciting creatures, including dragons and ice zombies, but the human drama involving politics and war proved just as captivating - if not even more so. Filled with amazing characters, brilliant writing, and the greatest production values that television has ever seen, “Game of Thrones” quickly established itself as one of the greatest shows ever made.
2012: “Veep” (2012-19)
Larry David wasn’t the only one to successfully move on from “Seinfeld.” Somehow, someway, Julia Louis-Dreyfus landed another role of a career with Selina Meyer, the fictional Vice President of the United States. If nothing else, “Veep” proves the incredible legacy and talent of Louis-Dreyfus, as she has now provided us with two of the greatest characters in comedy television history. The performance earned her six consecutive Emmy awards for Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series, and the show itself earned seven straight nominations for Outstanding Comedy Series, winning three. It was just the show we needed in the turbulent 2010s, showing us that politics is less “House of Cards” and more inane bumbling and hilarious incompetence.
2013: “The Americans” (2013-18)
This spy thriller follows in the footsteps of “Breaking Bad.” Set during the Cold War, “The Americans” follows two undercover KGB posing as a married couple from Washington, D.C. The story contains many aspects similar to “Breaking Bad,” including protagonists living a secret double life and a government agent in their social circle, as FBI agent Stan Beeman is the Soviets’ neighbor and good friend. The show was widely heralded for both its surface excitement and its clever underlying themes regarding marriage and domestic American life. And, further in “Breaking Bad’s” footsteps, “The Americans” became the first drama since it to win two Peabody Awards throughout its run. And yet, not nearly enough people watched...
2014: “True Detective” (2014-19)
While “True Detective” has since aired three seasons, most people single out the first for praise. Starring Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey as homicide detectives, “True Detective” had all the trappings of a typical police procedural - wearied detectives, a mysterious killer on the loose, tantalizing clues, and grisly murder scenes. But as well told as the police stuff was (complete with some intriguing time hops), the show earned most of its acclaim through the themes and philosophies it presented - especially through Rust Cohle’s jaded pessimism. This is a dour show, both in terms of story, character, visual design, and thematic heft. And it is brilliant.
2015: “Better Call Saul” (2015-)
Never in a million years should “Better Call Saul” have worked. But despite everyone’s reservations, the show has matched its legendary predecessor in nearly every way - and, according to some people, has even exceeded it. This is more of a character-driven show, largely content with exploring the life of Jimmy McGill and his moral decline into Saul Goodman. In that way, it shares an overarching theme with its predecessor. It also proves more tragic, as Jimmy slips for more complex and nuanced reasons. Of course, the show has its cake and eats it too, as the concurrent Mike and Gus storyline provides all the great “Breaking Bad” excitement we know and love. It’s a beautiful, and a beautifully-written, piece of work.
2016: “Atlanta” (2016-)
This certainly isn’t what we expected from Donald Glover following “Community,” but we’re glad that he defied expectations. On the surface, “Atlanta” tells a simple story of a poor young man and father who manages his up-and-coming rapper cousin. But that’s just an entry point for Glover and his team of writers and filmmakers to get weird. Famously called “Twin Peaks with rappers” by Glover himself, “Atlanta” is a surreal comedy that focuses less on rap and more on outlandish situations that stretch everyday occurrences and observations to hilarious, and sometimes frightening, extremes. The show also has its serious and more down-to-earth episodes, and these prove just as captivating as the dream-like weirdness. “Atlanta” is unlike anything else on TV.
2017: “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017-)
Released in 1985, Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” quickly became a masterpiece of dystopian fiction. Set in the near future where most women have gone infertile, Offred and a group of fertile Handmaids are subjected to oppression and sexual abuse by the male leaders of Gilead, who use them to bear children. Playing Offred in the Hulu adaptation is Elisabeth Moss, one of the most talented actresses currently working in TV. The show made history by being the first released through a streaming service to win the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. “The Handmaid’s Tale” often makes for horrifying viewing, but no one ever said great art had to be fun.
2018: “Barry” (2018-)
Much like Donald Glover and “Atlanta,” Bill Hader went way off course with “Barry,” a dark comedy-drama about a hitman who falls in love with acting. This is sort of a reverse “Breaking Bad,” as it concerns a bad person trying to do better while hiding his secret identity from those closest to him. The show has received widespread acclaim for its acting, with Hader, Henry Winkler, Stephen Root, Anthony Carrigan, and Sarah Goldberg all receiving Emmy nominations - with Winkler winning once and Hader twice for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy. Barry finds new life through acting, just as Hader found new life through “Barry.” It’s an exceptional piece of television and one that proved a welcome surprise.
2019: “Watchmen” (2019)
Superhero and fantasy stories should often comment on wider societal implications, and in that regard, “Watchmen” was a genuine success. Created by Damon Lindelof, “Watchmen” primarily focuses on issues of racial violence and injustice. At the heart of the story is Angela Abar, also known as Sister Night. Abar is just one of many police officers who must conceal their identities owing to racist violence at the hands of a white supremacist group. The series received widespread praise for its themes and cultural relevance. But it’s also a well made and entertaining show, filled with award-winning acting, writing, cinematography, editing, and costume design. No matter how you view it, “Watchmen” is a modern-day masterpiece, and it stands proudly beside the iconic comic book series.
2020: “I May Destroy You” (2020-)
Given the current climate, it’s not surprising that so many recent shows have dealt with sexual consent. This British dramedy is one of the most unique and realistic examples. Part of that’s because our protagonist doesn’t entirely remember the encounter and the audience is also in the dark. Piecing together the events of that night, she’s taken to places that are shocking, devastating, and at times darkly humorous, which only adds to the uncomfortable tension. In addition to starring, “I May Destroy You” was created, written, co-directed, and executive produced by Michaela Coel, who previously left her mark with the sitcom “Chewing Gum.” This series feels like Coel’s big breakthrough, though, guaranteeing we’ll be hearing a lot more about her in the years to come.
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