The Best TV Seasons Of All Time

What do the best TV seasons of all time have in common? Their reasons for greatness could come down to any number of factors, depending on the show. A tight story with no dead weight is certainly the first thing that comes to mind. It helps if great performances by the main cast are anchored by some killer recurring performers. Pacing, clear thematic intent, and a killer premiere and finale certainly help, too. 

At the end of the day, though, it's a bit more nebulous. You can't quite measure a great season of television through analytics like it's a college basketball player — sometimes, television just clicks. It hits its stride, the creative forces firing on all cylinders for programming that embodies everything that makes the show great to begin with. There's no clear formula for it. It just happens. Even during this age in which a new great TV show seems to premiere every couple of weeks, there are a few clear standouts. These all deserve to be included in the best TV seasons of all time.

Breaking Bad goes out with a bang

It's tough to point to any single season of the modern masterpiece that is Breaking Bad and point to any season that is significantly worse than the others. It's one of those shows that, throughout its run, is about as perfect as television gets. That said, the further along the show progresses, the more tense and action-packed it becomes. Choosing between seasons four and five is tough, but it's ultimately hard not to give the nod to the absolutely riveting final season of the show, which contains at least one episode that ranks among the medium's all-time classics.

When season 5 starts, Walter White has ascended to the top of the drug trade. He's eliminated Gus Fring, his greatest rival, and seemingly nothing stands in his way. However, such an astronomical high paves the way for a devastating fall. The season pays off everything the story has been setting up — and throws in a few killer twists along the way, including the moment Walt's brother-in-law Hank discovers Walt's the meth kingpin he's been chasing for years. It all blows up in the final three episodes, the first of which, "Ozymandias," is a serious contender for the best episode of television ever made, from its stellar opening shootout to Walt's infamous phone call to Skylar. Ending a show as acclaimed as Breaking Bad is no small task. Luckily, showrunner Vince Gilligan and his crew don't flinch once. 

Parks and Recreation runs for office

Parks and Recreation really hit its stride around its third season, with the additions of Adam Scott and Rob Lowe to the cast. The show's ongoing narrative about Leslie Knope's political ambitions starts to gel around that time, and they really start to shine in the next season, which centers on Leslie's city council campaign against Bobby Newport, a local trust fund doofus played to zany perfection by Paul Rudd. It's in season four that Parks and Recreation fully cements its claim as an all-time great television comedy.

Even without the rock-solid foundation of Leslie's city council campaign, the season provides multiple series highlights, including "Ron and Tammys" and "Pawnee Rangers." But it's the campaign episodes that prove the funniest. Rudd's Bobby Newport absolutely steals the entire season, though his campaign manager played by Ana Gasteyer is also a hoot. It's the most memorable, quotable season of an already very memorable and quotable comedy. 

Justified introduces us to the Bennetts

Everyone loves a good western, and FX's Justified is just that. The show is anchored by the massively compelling rivalry between Timothy Olyphant's U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and the magnetic Boyd Crowder, played by Walton Goggins. However, as stellar as the interplay between those two is, it's not the focus of the series high point. That honor goes to the second season's story revolving around the Bennett family.

The Bennetts run a crime enterprise dealing in everything from moonshine to marijuana. Raylan is charged with bringing them down and, shocking absolutely nobody who has ever watched the show, things don't go quite according to plan. Between the Bennett clan's warring factions and family matriarch Mags' complex relationship with the daughter of a man she killed, it's about as good as Justified gets. The way it further establishes Harlan, Kentucky as the kind of hometown you can never fully escape makes for a great story and a great piece of development for Raylan as his story continues. Of particular note is longtime character actress Margo Martindale doing what is easily the best work of her career as Mags, a terrifying but strongly empathetic rattlesnake of a crime boss whose final scene you'll be thinking about for days on end. That's really the biggest problem with watching Justified: it peaks early. Everything after the second season is good, but it's never quite as great.

New Girl gets weird

Season 4 of New Girl sees the show regain its footing after an uneven third season and truly become the best possible version of itself. As much as the will-they-won't-they charm of Nick and Jess worked as a driving force in its earlier seasons, putting them together in the third season took much of the wind out of the show's sails. Rather than focus the following season on trying to reinvigorate the same chemistry between the two, the writers made the choice to keep their relationship totally platonic. This decision, plus the characters reaching the absolute peak (or nadir) of their neuroses and weirdness, makes for a perfect season of comedy.

More than any season of New Girl, these episodes delve into exploring modern dating, from Jess downloading a pseudo-Tinder app for the first time to the roommates' forced efforts with casual dating as seen in the season premiere or the Thanksgiving episode. That said, the easy standout is "Background Check," which ranks among the greatest bottle episodes of all time. The story sees an in-home background check as part of Winston's application to become a police officer. Over the course of the examination, the crew spirals into insanity; by the end, there's a very real chance they'll all go to jail. Easily one of the odder sitcoms in recent memory, New Girl was never more irreverent or wonderful than it was during its fourth season.

Lost shows us what a great debut looks like

There are few TV series more divisive than Lost. A person who watches the show is just as likely to think it's an all-time great television achievement as they are to think it completely fails to deliver on its potential. Its finale is polarizing to this day. All controversy aside, though, it's pretty hard to deny the show's first season as a genuinely special piece of television.

Right from the pilot, the season hooks you in with stellar character work and the ever-present question of, as Charlie says, "Where are we?" It builds its characters with stunning efficiency and economy, balancing the exploration of who's stuck on the island with exploration of the island's mysteries perfectly, making for compelling, can't-miss television. Later seasons would skew this balance too far in either direction, but the show's debut season gives equal attention to the mystery of the hatch as it does to Jack's complex relationship with his departed father. From the perfect pilot to the riveting finale, season one of Lost is just as good today as it was when it first aired.

Jessica Jones cuts deep

Marvel's Netflix shows have been mixed at best. One minute you're watching an insane hallway fight sequence, the next you're trying to figure out if you're supposed to care about why the Hand just showed up. That said, when this section of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is good, it's very, very good, and Jessica Jones' first season ranks among the cream of the crop.

We live in an era in which superhero shows and movies are a dime a dozen. The best way for one to stand out is to center itself around unique themes and ideas, and Jessica Jones does this better than just about any entry in the genre. The first season serves as a 13-episode meditation on trauma, abuse, and recovering from toxic relationships. It never flinches from the unpleasantries of such subject matter, and handles it with the delicate touch necessary. Past that, it's anchored by a very strong hero and a very strong villain. Krysten Ritter shines as Jessica, while David Tennant turns out a uniquely menacing performance as the villainous Kilgrave, playing him as the rare supervillain that's entirely uninterested in being endeared to the audience. Shocking and emotionally resonant, these episodes will leave audiences reeling for years.

Bloodline explores the rot of the modern American family

Bloodline never quite got as much attention as other Netflix hits like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black, and it isn't hard to understand why. It's not nearly as flashy as other major Netflix programs — but don't let the lack of hype fool you. Bloodline's first season is among the best Netflix has to offer.

The show revolves around the Rayburns, a large family residing in the Florida Keys. When their oldest son Danny, something of a black sheep, returns from an extended disappearance, events are set in motion that lead to his brother John killing him. The show chronicles the trudging, turbulent march to Danny's murder nonlinearly. Like Mad Men before it, Bloodline is the kind of show in which not a lot seems to happen. Its story is carried through conversations, micro-aggressions, and slowly simmering feuds. The writing is so strong, though, that you'll hardly notice, and it's all carried by a stellar cast that includes Kyle Chandler, Ben Mendehlson, Sissy Spacek, and Sam Shepard. Bloodline's first season is an addictive, compelling family drama that will leave you screaming at your TV by the finale's closing moments.

Game of Thrones ascends to television royalty

It's tough to compare the various seasons of Game of Thrones. So many monumental character arcs, deaths, and story pivots happen season to season that the show you're watching in season four seems to be entirely different from the first. With the pace of each season increasing as the show goes on, it's also very easy to give higher praise, be it worthy or not, to seasons taking place later in its run. It's not entirely fair, but it can also be hard to argue against the show being at its best when it realizes its full potential as a vast, sweeping fantasy epic — and season six stands as the series highlight.  

By the time the sixth season of the show comes around, the story has progressed past territory covered by the book series it's drawn from, leaving the showrunners free to run wild with the story and take it in new, surprising directions that can't be spoiled by the books. They build a number of conflicts to a head, namely the war between the Starks and Boltons for control of the north, and pepper in a hefty number of game-changing revelations. From Daenarys finally making her way to Westeros to the Battle of the Bastards (perhaps the show's finest hour), Game of Thrones' sixth season is riveting genre television, finally becoming the show it's been building up to for years.

True Detective draws us into the ultimate mystery

In just eight episodes, True Detective's first season accomplished more in terms of creativity and critical acclaim than some shows do in ten-season runs. The Nic Pizzolatto-scripted, Cary Fukunaga-directed miniseries stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson as quarrelsome detectives attempting to solve a series of murders — a story told nonlinearly and occasionally in an epistolarian fashion, creating even more mysteries for the viewer to solve. Over the course of its run, the show created television that felt uniquely literary, even in a golden era of television.

True Detective wears its influences on its sleeve from the start. It's laden with Lovecraftian themes and structure, making a story about two men hunting a killer feel like one about two mortals grappling with an otherworldly force beyond their comprehension. It borrows from the short story collection The King in Yellow and comics like Grant Morrison's Mystery Play and Alan Moore's From Hell, but the show doesn't simply rip off these properties; rather, it uses them to create a depth of influence, to give viewers more to dissect. When this is combined with the dense themes, fully formed characters, and complex plot, the result is a show you can analyze and break down a million different ways. It's massively compelling television, the likes of which we haven't seen since — not even in the show's second season.

Westworld guides us through the maze

Much of the first season of A.I. sci-fi drama Westworld centers on the idea of a maze, both literally and figuratively. The show's characters, both human and robot, find themselves drawn into a conspiracy involving a maze symbol left by one of the titular theme park's original founders. While it's easy to get distracted by some stellar performances and special effects, this is what makes the show so memorable and addictive. It is, for all of its violent romps and scenes so sexually charged they'd make Game of Thrones blush, an immaculately structured mystery.

Modern TV shows from Game of Thrones to Lost love mysteries, but few shows manage to pay them off in ways that don't cheat the viewer in some way. The withholding of information becomes less a natural occurrence and more a plot device designed to prolong the mystery for the viewer at the expense of contrived writing. Westworld is the rare conspiracy mystery that never commits this folly. Its plot is structured like the maze it revolves around. At no point are characters kept in the dark solely for our sake — it's a journey of discovery, and we learn about every necessary thread as they do. By the time we reach the center of the maze, it's just as shocking to us as it is to them. It's a stellar start that promises a stellar series. 

The Sopranos defines prestige TV

Few shows have changed the game like The Sopranos. The modern concept of prestige television — the kind of shows that make up most of this list — can be traced back to the runaway success of HBO's mob drama. The whole run is excellent, right up to the finale, and the acclaim and awards speak for themselves. Look no further than the show's immaculate second season as evidence as to why it still holds the reputation it enjoys today.

We take for granted watching shows like Game of Thrones and Lost that there was once a time when the idea of every character being expendable wasn't a given. It used to be far more outside the norm for shows to kill major characters with little to no warning. The Sopranos made its bones in this trade, and focuses its sophomore season on the best friend of James Gandolfini's Tony Soprano — a mobster nicknamed Big Pussy — becoming an FBI informant. The story spirals to an inevitable confrontation between the two that plays out just as shockingly today as it did when it first aired. Even with all the stellar prestige TV shows on the air today, we can't forget the original.

The Wire cements its legacy

There's very little to say about The Wire that hasn't already been said. It's perhaps the single most acclaimed television show of all time, its tale of the complex lives of Baltimore cops and criminals forming a tremendously powerful narrative about life, death, poverty, corruption, and finding the light amidst it all. While every batch of episodes has its strengths, season four of The Wire is easily the best the show has to offer — and when you're talking about the best season of possibly the best show of all time, you know it's something special.

The show's fourth season sees the narrative weave a story about the Baltimore school system and follows the lives of four young boys who have grown up in the area. While there are other stories going on throughout the season — the relationship between Dominic West's McNulty and a street dealer named Bodie is particularly compelling — the four boys become the season's linchpin. Season four is where the show stops asking questions and starts giving answers, boldly claiming that in a world ravaged by systemic poverty, there is no level playing field for those who grow up in it. Their fate is predetermined and impossible to escape. They are, as Bodie tells McNulty, pawns on the chessboard. The game is rigged. All they can do is try to survive.