The end of a year that has seen television reach a new summit of influence and importance, with the arrival of 2021 on the horizon, provides a moment to look back at the shows that define the medium in the 21st century so far.
To that end, as so many of us have spent months of the coronavirus pandemic locked down in our homes watching the tube, we’ve put together a list of the series that got us here.
If you’re looking for a No. 1 ranking, we suggest looking elsewhere: Our list of influencers is in no particular order. The empirical prerequisite is that the show had to have debuted after January 1, 2000. The subjective push behind our selections centers not just on the series, but also the depth and width of its reach.
Let’s be clear, the picks by Deadline’s TV team also in no way dim the bright lights of true originals like Jane the Virgin (2014-2019), Orange Is the New Black (2013-2019) and The Good Wife (2009-2016). In fact, you may want to make an argument those shows or others should have included in place of some of our selections. Please do so in the comments.
Additionally, having already made TV history, the culturally defining Atlanta (2016-present) and The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-present) look assured in the next year or so to push aside some of those currently on our list. Based on this year’s I May Destroy You, whatever comes next from Michaela Coel has to be considered an instant contender. Certainly Empire (2015-2020) and Downton Abbey (2010-2015) deserve honorable mentions for the sheer phenomena both the Fox hip-hop soap and the ITV/PBS cloth-and-clobber soap were in their early seasons, if nothing else.
Correspondingly, the enduring likes of The West Wing (1999-2006), Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and The Sopranos (1999-2007) actually debuted in the 20th century and hence didn’t meet our criteria for inclusion. However, there’s no argument both the Aaron Sorkin’s NBC political drama and the David Chase and HBO’s crime family drama had iconic seasons in this millennium, as did the Sarah Michelle Gellar-starring Buffy. All three remain comfort viewing feasts you can return to again and again and always discover a new delicacy amidst the episodes.
With that, here are the 21 most influential TV series of the 21st century, so far:
The Wire (2002-2008)
It’s a crime that The Wire was never awarded the respect, the viewership, or the boatloads of Emmys it deserved when the Baltimore-based saga was on the air. Maybe the sprawling and yet so specific tales that ex-reporter David Simon and ex-detective Ed Burns told of the institutions of modern life and their underbellies were just too real for America then. Now heralded as the greatest TV series ever in prestigious circles, maybe the HBO series broke too many rules then, turned too many tables on the drug game, the media, the cops, civic government and public schools. Maybe, the long view of the sheer excellence had to come into focus to see clearly the virtuosity and craftwork of a show that had one of the deepest benches ever in Michael K Williams, Sonja Sohn, Michael B Jordan, Idris Elba, Clarke Peters, Domenick Lombardozzi, Seth Gilliam, Maestro Harrell, Dominic West, Wendell Pierce, Pablo Schreiber, Andre Royo, Lance Reddick and the Maryland city itself. Every story needs a conflict, but two things are certain: The Wire is and remains an unparalleled moonshot and “This America, man” – DP
From fashion to music to phrases like “spilling the tea” to vogueing, the New York ballroom scene dictated trends and culture in the ’80s, ’90s and even today — and the FX drama Pose gives credit where credit is due while telling a story of family and identity. Created by Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk and Steven Canals, Pose made history with its all-inclusive cast that included trans people in the role of trans characters. On top of that, Pose put LGBTQ people in front of and behind the camera to give authenticity to narratives that painted full, three-dimensional queer characters that abandoned the tragic “kill-your-gays” trope. Instead, it celebrated queer culture and shined a deserving light on talents like Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore and, of course, the Emmy-winning Billy Porter. – DR
Grey’s Anatomy (2005-Present)
ABC’s 2005-06 season introduced one of the strongest slates of new series ever. While the splashy fall premieres of Lost and Desperate Housewives quickly captured the cultural zeitgeist, it was the lower-profile midseason entry, Grey’s Anatomy, that would go the distance. The soapy drama, created by Shonda Rhimes and currently run by Krista Vernoff, holds records for the longest-running medical drama and for the most watched post-Super Bowl drama series telecast in TV history. Seventeen seasons in, Grey’s Anatomy remains ABC’s highest-rated series and continues to recruit new generations of fans on Netflix, where it has been among the most popular titles for the last decade. With Ellen Pompeo’s Meredith Grey as the show’s heart and moral compass, Grey’s Anatomy successfully navigated the departures of several original cast members, including male lead Patrick Dempsey, while reinventing itself. Dempsey is back this season, helping Grey’s to once again dominate the pop culture conversation. – NA
Another gorgeously limited British black comedy, Fleabag introduced the world to the insanely talented Phoebe Waller-Bridge, creator of Killing Eve and co-writer of the new James Bond movie. The BBC and Amazon half-hour, about a darkly funny and disturbed free spirit living in London, opened the door to a slew of authentic, first-person comedies such as Ramy and I May Destroy You. It broke the fourth wall and also introduced the world to Andrew Scott’s hot priest and Sian Clifford’s Claire’s pencil haircut, while giving it even more to love about Olivia Colman and Kristin Scott Thomas. The Two Brothers Pictures production heralded the latest British invasion in Hollywood and finished with a perfectly crushing ending. – PW
Friday Night Lights (2006-2011)
If everyone had a Coach Taylor in their life, the world would be a little better. Based on the H.G. Bissinger book and the feature film by Peter Berg, Friday Night Lights scored with its depiction of small-town Texas high school football (which, speaking from experience, is pretty accurate). The drama made us pine for a marriage like Eric (Kyle Chandler) and Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), root for bad boy Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch) and introduced us to the musical stylings of Landry’s (Jesse Plemons) band Crucifictorious. In the end, we all learned words to live by: “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose”. – DR
Black Mirror (2011-Present)
Charlie Brooker and Annabel Jones have been going down a dystopian wormhole since 2011, when Black Mirror launched on UK broadcaster Channel 4. The series, which moved to Netflix in 2016, has thrown out a wide variety of styles and flashes from the porcine-themed “The National Anthem”, to a Jon Hamm-fronted Christmas special via the colorful euthanasia-themed “San Junipero” and the Miley Cyrus pop deathwish of “Rachel, Jack and Ashley Too.” The series has paved the way for the return of the anthology form and also innovated with specials such as the interactive Bandersnatch. Black Mirror’s future is somewhat in the balance — the last episodes were released in June 2019, and Brooker has said that he’s focusing on writing comedy during the pandemic — but as he told Deadline, the “world certainly throws up no shortage of ideas” for its return. – PW
Lovecraft Country (2020)
Misha Green’s adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book was like nothing we have seen before. Fusing hyper-relevant social issues impacting the Black community, sci-fi and horror, the HBO series served us a family drama in Jim Crow America through a fantastical H.P. Lovecraft lens. Rooted in emotion and featuring a stellar cast that includes Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors, it changed the game when it came to historical storytelling and representation. – DR
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
The Vince Gilligan-created crime series about Walter White, a high school chemistry teacher who, following his lung cancer diagnosis, ultimately becomes a meth-dealing kingpin, was a huge hit for AMC alongside Mad Men as the network ventured into original dramas. The series had a rocky start, its nine-episode first season was cut by two due to the 2007-2008 writers’ strike. However, that delay spurred Gilligan and his writers to toss out their original idea of killing off White’s sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul) and brother-in-law lawman Hank (Dean Norris), a looming adversary — two characters who would become legacy components of the show. The series availability on Netflix enabled a a future life, creating new fans and encouraging AMC to see Breaking Bad through to a fifth season, thus disbanding its original plans to shop the show to another network after Season 3. In the end, Breaking Bad notched 10.28 million viewers in its series finale in addition to 16 Emmys, three SAG Awards and two Golden Globes throughout the show’s run. Not to mention Breaking Bad spawned a spinoff series, Better Call Saul, about White’s slippery lawyer (heading into its sixth and final season) and the Netflix movie El Camino about Jesse’s fate post-Breaking Bad. – AD
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
Born of a dire $10 million pilot that had to be almost totally reshot at great cost to HBO, it was inevitable that the eighth and final season of what became the biggest show on Earth was going to see some hardcore fans frothing over the fate of the lecherous Lannisters, the stoic Starks and Daenerys Targaryen. Let’s be honest, a lot of it was the grief talking. There has been so many Emmys for the series based on George R.R. Martin’s bestselling A Song of Ice and Fire novels, so many millions of viewers around the globe, and viewership record after record shattered for the stateside premium cabler. There was also much sex, death, cruelty and intrigue in pursuit of power — and we’re not just talking about the infamous “Red Wedding” episode from Season 3. So many characters and sometimes a lot of confusion too. So many careers made, on both sides of the camera, from EPs David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to Emilia Clarke, Sophie Turner, Kit Harington, Maisie Williams, Natalie Dormer, Peter Dinklage, Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Lena Headey – not to mention Drogon, Rhaegal and Viserion. There will be other epic series certainly, but none will ever shatter the awards genre barrier and raise the blockbuster bar on the small screen like GoT did. – DP
Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006)
Dave Chappelle’s Comedy Central sketch show was as hilarious as is it was provocative. From sketches that included Charlie Murphy’s “True Hollywood Stories” about Rick James and Prince to the “Racial Draft” to skewering takes on R. Kelly and Wayne Brady, the show opened the door to like-minded shows like Key & Peele which pushed the envelope when it came to racial identity, controversial issues and pop culture. – DR
Mad Men (2007–2015)
Matthew Weiner’s meticulous love letter to the 1960s, set in the world of Madison Avenue, had a seismic impact on U.S. television. The show, along with Breaking Bad, essentially turned AMC from a classic movie network to an original drama hit factory and paved for the way for other mid-tier channels to explore premium series It also added to the myth of the television anti-hero with the identity-faking, hard-living Don Draper, while making period dramas cool and making stars of the likes of Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss and Christina Hendricks. Also featuring the likes of January Jones, John Slattery, Jared Harris and Kiernan Shipka, the series ran for seven seasons and won 16 Emmys including best drama series for its first four seasons. – PW
The Americans (2013–2018)
In an era where watercooler TV was in a drought, the Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys starrer stealthily took us back week after week to a time when the Cold War was terrifyingly chilly and a constant topic of conversation. Tossing retrograde nostalgic notions on the narrative dust heap, ex-CIA officer Joe Weisberg created The Americans on one level as a taunt thriller about embedded Soviet spies seeking to bring the West to its knees from the suburbs, which at the same time, with a transcendent humanity, the acclaimed Reagan Era-set FX series was more poignantly a dysfunctional family drama. Building a distinctly non-evil empire of Emmys, Golden Globes and two Peabody Awards, The Americans maintained a Sputnik-like trajectory around its lost but highly functioning souls played as superpower pawns in the realpolitik of nobody or nuthin’ being what they seemed – DP
Six Feet Under (2001-2005)
As HBO was mining for more gripping, dysfunctional family drama in the midst of The Sorpranos’ success, they found it in American Beauty Oscar winner Alan Ball’s absurdist dramedy series about a family of morticians. They all live in their funeral home, and while dressing bodies in the basement contend with infidelity, sibling rivalry, drugs, a neurotic mother and coming out — all in the wake of the death of their father who dies in the first episode. Each episode began with the sudden death of one of the bodies which brothers David Fisher (Michael C. Hall) and Nate (Peter Krause) worked on, setting that show’s thematic tone. The series yielded a gold mine of talent, i.e., co-EP Joey Soloway would ultimately launch Amazon’s multi-award winning success Transparent, future One Day at a Time star Justina Machado was introduced to a wider audience, Ball delivered HBO a pop fanboy and fangirl vampire franchise in True Blood, and Hall made a killing as a serial murderer-Miami police analyst in Showtime’s lauded Dexter. – AD
Fresh Off the Boat (2015-2020)
Based on the book by Eddie Huang, the sitcom Fresh Off the Boat ran for six seasons on ABC and had a significant impact on the cultural landscape when it came to representation of the Asian American experience. The first Asian-led sitcom since the 1994 sitcom All American Girl starring Margaret Cho, it also was a universal family sitcom, and also served as a launchpad for a golden age of Asian representation in film and TV, putting a brighter spotlight on the talented Randall Park and introducing the world to Constance Wu, who would later star in Crazy Rich Asians and Hustlers. – DR
The Office (2001-2003) /
The Office: An American Workplace (2005-2013)
NBC’s The Office has endured as one of the most popular television comedies of the 21st century with Steve Carrell’s Michael Scott becoming both the world’s best boss and most loveable idiot. But the single-camera sitcom, which has streaming services battling it out for rights, wouldn’t have been what it was if not for Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s Slough-based original. The subtle and humorously drab BBC series, in classic British fashion, only ran two seasons and 14 episodes, but it led to the creation of Dunder Mifflin and a much more optimistic and colorful American remake that, after Season 1, was able to untangle itself from the adaptation straightjacket and become an uplifting exploration of an American workplace. It also launched the mockumentary comedy genre that spawned a slew of shows, most notably family comedy Modern Family, the most heralded half-hour series of the 21st century so far. – PW
The Walking Dead (2010-present)
Once bigger than the NFL, the AMC zombie apocalypse series adapted from Robert Kirkman’s comics has aged well as its heads towards its 11th and final season next year. Lauren Cohan is back, Norman Reedus and Melissa McBride are getting their own spinoff, though Andrew Lincoln, Danai Gurira, Sonequa Martin-Green and Steven Yeun are long gone. Still, there are a bevy of spinoffs current and to come, and a trio of Rick Grimes movies starring Lincoln are on the slate. The Frank Darabont-developed drama may have premiered on Halloween a decade ago, but TWD sharply reflects the horrors of 2020 in a frightening figurative manner. Snubbed for years by the awards crowd, the now Angela Kang-run ensemble has long asked the question of what would you do if the world ended? This year, the unrelenting answers of TWD’s long history provided a knowing herd immunity of responses, if you know what I mean? – DP
For six seasons, Carlton Cuse, J. J. Abrams and Damon Lindelof created a world that millions of viewers were invested in — despite its divisive finale. Each episode gave fuel for watercooler conversation, out-of-left-field theories and kept watchers guessing until the very end. That said, there is no way denying that Lost changed the way we watched television and influenced other sci-fi dramas with its existential time-traveling mysteries. Even though we still didn’t fully understand what was going on, audiences tuned in every week to be transported to this world of enigmatic hatches, smoke monsters, healing energies and other unexplained plot points that remain a mystery. – DR
Mr. Robot (2015-2019)
For a long time, USA was known as the network for bubble-gum comedies and sexy dramas, but Mr. Robot blasted the network into a gripping storytelling stratosphere, an arena typically occupied by its basic rivals FX and AMC and pay cable foes like HBO and Showtime. The Sam Esmail series follows hacker Elliot Alderson (Rami Malek), who while battling a dissociative identity disorder makes it his mission to take down mega tech company E Corp with Mr. Robot (Christian Slater) a very close ally. The series redefined TV series noir with a surprise first-season twist no one saw coming, and was a harbinger to a Trump-intoxicated, bitcoin-obsessed culture. The series reignited Slater’s career and put Malek on the map as a leading man, who out of the gate in the first season won a drama series Best Actor Emmy. This was only an appetizer for what was yet to come for Malek, who went on to win Best Actor at the 2019 Oscars (off his first nomination) for his turn as Queen frontman Freddie Mercury in Bohemian Rhapsody, in addition to notching the starring villain role in the next Bond movie No Time to Die. – AD
Curb Your Enthusiasm (2000-present)
Larry David could have retired quite comfortably as co-creator of Seinfeld, but Curb Your Enthusiasm has arguably equaled the comedy feats of the NBC sitcom with a fictionalized version of David’s own life. The HBO series has pioneered the awkward comedy format and, over 10 seasons and 100 episodes, David has remained steadfastly indignant and hard done by, with humorous effect. The introduction of J.B Smoove, alongside Jeff Garlin as Jeff Greene, Cheryl Hines as ex-wife Cheryl David and Susie Essman as the operatically foul-mouthed Susie Greene in Season 6 has helped move the show forward. It will be fascinating to see how David deals with a post-Covid world in Season 11, which he recently joked, “Believe me, I’m as upset about this as you are.” – PW
Having debuted less than two months after the horrific attacks of 9/11, the real-time Kiefer Sutherland-led Fox thriller was the only series that mattered in the early years of the War on Terror. In retrospect, 24’s depictions of Muslims and almost facile use of torture as a necessary means to justify and normalize the explosive ends stains the legacy of the serial drama series created by Joel Surnow and Robert Cochran. However, in the fog of war and truth that marked those early years of the century, 24’s unique format of each 24-episode season being the latest longest day in Counter Terrorist Unit agent Jack Bauer’s life was a massive shot of TV adrenaline. We’ll never know if Dennis Haysbert’s David Palmer plowed the road for Barack Obama’s real-life election, but there is no question that 24 peerlessly suspended disbelief and pulled back the veil on the cost and corruption of power in the real and fictional world. – DP
The David Milch-created series reinvigorated the Western to an R-Rated sensibility not even seen in Clint Eastwood films about the saloon owners, gold diggers and whores who descended upon 1870s Deadwood, South Dakota, looking for riches in the mountains. Post NYPD Blue, it reenergized Milch’s career, as he drew inspiration from real-life historical characters like lawman Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), saloon keeper Al Swearengen (Ian McShane) and prospector George Hearst, who spoke in a quasi-Elizabethan rhythm, punctuated with profanity. To many fans’ ire, HBO pulled the plug on Deadwood after Season 3 due to the network’s clash with Paramount over the show’s budget, declining ratings not to mention HBO wanted Milch to work on his next series John From Cincinnati. The show’s cast continued on to bigger pastures: McShane on the big screen in The Pirates of the Caribbean and John Wick franchises, Olyphant in FX’s Emmy-lauded Justified, Anna Gunn in Breaking Bad, and John Hawkes to a supporting actor nomination in Winter’s Bone, among several others. Milch was able to bring them all together again for one last huzzah in 2019’s Deadwood: The Movie; a movie initially deemed impossible given everyone’s post-series fortunes. – AD
AWARD OF DISTINCTION: The Thick of It (2005-2012)
Having hatched the exquisitely vile Veep and the often overlooked In the Loop and The Death of Stalin films, Armando Iannucci’s profanity drenched UK political satire spun the era of spin around on its self-serving head. With future Doctor Who Peter Capaldi as pugilistic Downing Street communications director Malcolm Tucker, based in no small part on Tony Blair’s lethal henchman Alastair Campbell and Harvey Weinstein, The Thick of It ruthlessly skewered the spoilt meat that lines the halls of power and its flawed occupants. Is it any surprise that The Thick of It is where Succession creator Jesse Armstrong used to work? The show and writer Tony Roche also brought the world the sublime term “omnishambles,” the dictionary definition of an outstanding achievement unto itself. – DP