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Critics think these are the 5 best TV shows of the last 25 years

Published Jul 25th, 2023 8:12PM EDT
Breaking Bad
Image: AMC

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The TV and movie review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes celebrates its 25th anniversary next month. In honor of that milestone, the site has chosen to do what it does best — identifying the best TV shows of the last quarter-century, based on input from critics who were approached by the site and asked to submit shows for this ranking.

Individually approved “Tomatometer” critics were given a survey, which asked them to list in no particular order the TV series that they think were the five best of the last 25 years (the critics did this same exercise for the best movies of the last 25 years, too). After tailing the best TV show votes, meanwhile, these were the results — in descending order:

#5: Succession

By the time it ended in May, HBO’s Succession had managed to not only capture the zeitgeist — an increasingly fleeting prospect in the fractured streaming era — but made the smart decision to take its final bow while the show was still on top.

Succession on HBO
Sarah Snook, Kieran Culkin, and Jeremy Strong in “Succession.” Image source: Claudette Barius/HBO

Season 4 raced to its climactic boardroom showdown in true Logan Roy fashion — Succession was never anything short of profane and brash, as well as addictive, Shakespearean in its inherent morality play, and unforgiving in the mirror it held up to the world, revealing the foibles of the 1-percenters and Masters of the Media Universe in all their neurotic, unhappy glory. TV family dramas don’t get much better than this.

#4: Mad Men

No list of the best TV shows of the past 25 years can be complete without creator Matthew Wiener’s drama set in New York, during the Golden Age of advertising in the 1960s and 1970s. Per AMC:

Mad Men follows the lives of the ruthlessly competitive men and women of Madison Avenue advertising. Over its seven seasons on AMC, the series became one of television’s most honored shows, earning a total of 16 Emmy Awards, five Golden Globes, a Peabody Award, and receiving multiple inclusions on AFI’s Top 10 Outstanding Television Programs in addition to numerous other awards and recognitions. The series had an enormous impact on popular culture as one of the iconic series driving the New Golden Age of Television.”

#3: The Wire

For me, perhaps the clearest indicator of what a widespread impact HBO’s crime saga The Wire has had on popular culture came last year, when Russian dissident and Putin critic Alexei Navalny was sentenced after a trial on trumped-up charges. Navalny, after his sentencing by the kangaroo court, used his Twitter account to quote The Wire by way of reacting to his prison sentence: “You only do two days. That’s the day you go in, and the day you come out.”

From American TV screens to the social media account of a now-imprisoned Russian dissident. Not a bad trajectory for an at-times shockingly dark snapshot of life in the city of Baltimore — where everyone from drug dealers and low-level soldiers to the city’s cops, denizens of City Hall, newspaper reporters, prosecutors, and the police force’s detectives all contribute to a gangland circle of life in the kind of urban neighborhoods most people would rather forget.

#2: The Sopranos

Is there anything else that can be said, at this point, about one of HBO’s OG prestige dramas? Creator David Chase’s masterpiece stars the late James Gandolfini as Tony Soprano — a husband and father, as well as a mob boss (who decides, oddly enough, to go to therapy).

In something of a full-circle moment, 2021 saw the release of The Many Saints of Newarka Sopranos prequel movie in which Gandolfini’s real-life son plays a younger version of Tony growing up during one of the most tumultuous periods in the history of Newark, New Jersey.

If you want to go back through the show, Sopranos co-stars Michael Imperioli and Steve Schirripa are the hosts of the (now-ended) Talking Sopranos podcast, billed as the definitive rewatch podcast for the series.

#1: Breaking Bad

Finally, we’ve come to the top spot — and, I must say, rarely do I agree with these kinds of best TV show lists covering whatever time period, but Breaking Bad is absolutely a fine choice to put at #1.

Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad
Aaron Paul, in “Breaking Bad.” Image source: AMC

The story, the writing, the next-level acting from the entire cast, and especially Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul, made this a singular TV experience. A sick high school chemistry teacher uses his knowledge to start cooking meth in order to raise money for his health care bills, and then evolves into a deadly drug kingpin — what a dark and twisted story that the seven of you who haven’t watched it yet won’t be able to pull yourself away from.

Also: Not only is the whole series on Netflix but so is the prequel series Better Call Saul and the Netflix original movie El Camino, which serves as a standalone Breaking Bad sequel.

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.