40. “Julia” (NBC, 1968-1971)
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“Julia” was an example of a major network television’s attempt to address issues of race during a period of elevated racial tensions in the country, as African Americans fought for civil rights, as well as on-screen representation. The landmark series was only the second to star a black woman in the lead role following “Beulah” 16 years earlier. Although unlike the latter, “Julia” wasn’t burdened by critiques of its caricatures of African Americans. The series revolved around the lives of Julia Baker (Diahann Carroll), a widowed black nurse and her young son, Corey (Marc Copage), after they move into a racially-integrated Los Angeles apartment building. Its atypical depictions of black people, who were not exclusively defined by race, were especially noteworthy. And Carroll plays the title role with elegance, having to balance a character that black audiences could embrace, while also appearing non-threatening to white viewers. Relatively innocuous, “Julia” was a funny, charming series that preferred to calm escalating racial tensions of the time rather than stoke or capitalize on them. For her performance, Carroll would become the first African-American woman to earn an Emmy nomination in the Outstanding Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Comedy Series. — TO
39. “Russian Doll” (Netflix, 2019-present)
Courtesy of Netflix
A comedy about characters repeatedly dying naturally lends itself to a celebration of life, and once “Russian Doll” gets into the nuances of its “Groundhog Day”-in-the-East-Village premise, creators Natasha Lyonne, Amy Poehler, and Leslye Headland deliver a richly developed existential comedy. Nadia (Lyonne) keeps restarting the same night at the world’s worst birthday party, which forces her to face her inability to connect with the world around her — a problem complicated by the fact that the world around her is starting to disintegrate. Few shows let a woman’s existential crisis serve as its dramatic center, and “Russian Doll’s” honed mysteries and intimate feel makes its first standalone season addictive viewing. If it comes back, all the better, but what’s already streaming is elite TV. — LSM
38. “Living Single” (Fox, 1993-1998)
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When it premiered on Fox, “Living Single” was one of the first sitcoms to portray the ordinary everyday lives of a group of young African American friends. It also arguably launched the acting career of rapper Queen Latifah (who performed the series’ theme song) on her way to becoming a bona fide movie star. The main setting was the New York apartment Khadijah (Latifah), editor of an urban-lifestyle magazine, shared with roommates Synclaire (Kim Coles) and Regine (Kim Fields). Khadijah’s friend Maxine (Erika Alexander) and squabbling best-friends from the apartment upstairs, Kyle (Terrence T.C. Carson) and Overton (John Henton), made frequent memorable drop-ins. From that simple setup came the warm-hearted storylines that allowed for lots of “Friends”-like bantering (although “Friends” didn’t premiere until a year later). A charming series with charismatic leads, “Living Single” picked up two Emmy nominations during its run. — TO
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.
37. “Sex and the City” (HBO, 1998-2004)
During the early days of premium cable originals, Darren Starr and Michael Patrick King forged one of the earliest, most insightful models of an adult romantic-comedy ever put to air. With its direct-to-camera addresses and constant honing of Carrie Bradshaw’s punny narration, “Sex and the City” developed its voice steadily over time, but arrived with the bang it needed to hook viewers fast. Taking on unplanned pregnancy, abortion, and STDs all in the first season, the series addressed modern dating issues with a frankness and acceptance broadcast networks couldn’t. And it did so with style: Every one of the four principal leads became part of the cultural lexicon — representing various wanted and unwanted, but always identifiable, elements of everyday women — and Sarah Jessica Parker remains a fashion icon to this day in large part due to the visual statements she made on HBO. “Sex and the City” took TV to a place it needed to go, and the best episodes have an endlessly watchable quality that will never go out of vogue. — BT
Stream on Hulu via HBO Max; Stream on Amazon via HBO; buy on Amazon.
36. “Scrubs” (ABC, 2001-2008; NBC, 2009-2010)
Nutty, uncommonly musical, and told from the first-person point of view on steroids, the medical comedy is such a mix of extreme optimism and fantastical moments that it really shouldn’t have worked — except Bill Lawrence’s vision was as strong as J.D.’s (Zach Braff) voice over. For eight seasons (plus a ninth season that signaled a narrative departure), earnest medical intern and eventual physician J.D. provided the slapstick and surreal lens through which Sacred Heart Hospital’s staff and patients lived, died, and even performed song-and-dance numbers. In some ways, it could be seen as an ancestor of The CW’s “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” in how the show’s reality is shaped through its protagonist. “Scrubs” also brought together a diverse ensemble cast — Donald Faison, Sarah Chalke, John C. McGinley, and Judy Reyes, among others — that were game for whatever lunacy Lawrence threw their way, ranging from a full-on musical episode to heartbreaking moments that rivaled any drama.
And all of this was done to a beautiful, indie soundtrack that set the trend for shows like “The O.C.” and “Grey’s Anatomy” to follow. If laughter is the best medicine, “Scrubs” consistently exerted its benevolent healing powers with style and heart. — HN
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.
35. “The Bernie Mac Show” (Fox, 2001-2006)
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Created by Larry Wilmore, the sitcom starring comedian Bernie Mac as a fictionalized version of himself encapsulates the push-and-pull of loving your children yet being tempted to “bust [their] heads ’til the white meat shows.” In the series, the gruff standup comic steps up to foster his sister’s three kids — teenager Nessa (Camille Winbush), anxious Jordan (Jeremy Suarez), and baby terror Bryana (Dee Dee Davis) — and this sudden guardianship creates combative, hilarious, and ultimately heartwarming interactions. Known for regularly addressing “America,” Bernie invites the audience to be his confidants and share in his woes, no matter how wrong-headed he might be. Full of colorful insults and bizarre parenting strategies, the comedy reveals just how ill-equipped adults can feel while still doing their best. This empathy earned the series widespread critical acclaim, an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and the Humanities Prize. America, you’re welcome. — HN
Stream on Hulu; buy on Amazon.
34. “The Good Place” (NBC, 2016-present)
Making a network sitcom rooted in the tenets of morality and philosophy is a difficult enough task. Making it sing with the same engines of empathy and a celebration of silliness is a grand achievement. With an ambitious first season that not only challenged assumptions about serialized comedy but built to one of the most satisfying conclusions of any season in recent memory, it’s also a great example of a creator using cachet to avoid doing more of the same. Taking advantage of the same fundamental striving to be good that powered “Parks and Rec” and employing a large assembly of writers who worked on both shows to help do it, Michael Schur’s most recent TV effort is another example of how great comedy and human decency so often go hand-in-hand. Also, it’s just really funny to hear Ted Danson say phrases like “hanging bits.” — SG
Buy on Amazon.
33. “All in the Family” (CBS, 1971-1979)
Norman Lear’s first hit — and one of the biggest success stories of all-time — only marked the beginning of a prolific career, but the endearing and award-winning CBS sitcom was even more important for what it did with the spotlight. Breaking ground on television for its deft approach to dicey issues like racism, LGBTQ issues, abortion, war, and more topics many sitcoms shy away from even mentioning, “All in the Family” used its seemingly prejudiced family patriarch Archie Bunker (Carroll O’Connor) to ease white working-class families into difficult discussions on a wide array of diverse topics. Though certain archetypes are outdated today — a husband mocking his wife every week doesn’t (or shouldn’t) fly so easily now — the series was a perfect balm for fractured generations. It healed the divides and ushered in even more outstanding programs from Lear, who continues to celebrate kindness and understanding through families to this day. “All in the Family” started it all, and deserves recognition for it. — BT
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32. “M*A*S*H” (CBS, 1972-1983)
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Arguably the most popular program ever created, “M*A*S*H” spun off from the Oscar- (and Palme d’Or) winning Robert Altman film of the same name, but it put the movie to shame in terms of sheer audience. While Altman’s black comedy earned accolades around the world, Larry Gelbart and Gene Reynolds’ half-hour sitcom managed to sustain the source material’s tricky balance between absurd comedy and sobering drama while hooking viewers week in and week out — all while a real war was raging overseas. Using sly humor to implicitly question America’s role in Vietnam, the 4077 surgical unit made a star of Alan Alda (as Hawkeye) and endeared a generation to Hot Lips Hoolihan (Loretta Swift), Radar (Gary Burghoff), and Klinger (Jamie Farr). Moreover, it predated the rise of “dramedies” still dominating TV’s golden age by spending its first five seasons blending the elements within the same episodes and later years (steered by Alda) consciously guiding episodes toward one genre or the other. “M*A*S*H” showcased ingenuity, perseverance, and intelligence, all within a broadcast sitcom, and throughout a now-unimaginable 256 episodes. — BT
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31. “Sanford & Son” (NBC, 1972-1977)
“Elizabeth! I’m coming to join you, honey!” Those were the words often heard coming from 9114 South Central, in Watts, home to Fred Sanford (Redd Foxx) and his son Lamont (Demond Wilson) — known more affectionately to each other as “Pop” and “Dummy” — and their junkyard business. “Sanford and Son” was the second TV series from Norman Lear and Bud Yorkin, who created the groundbreaking “All in the Family” the year before. It was an astute, socially conscious comedy, where much of its more caustic commentary was expressed with nimble creativity. It was a sitcom with heart, and a big hit for NBC, introducing cultural diversity to a largely white middle America, and serving as a forerunner to other biting comedy series centered around black families that would follow. It earned seven Emmy and six Golden Globe nominations during its run, with one Globe win for Redd Foxx as Best Television Actor in a Comedy or Musical Series, in 1973. — TO
Stream on Hulu; stream via Starz on Amazon; buy on Amazon.