Networks and streaming services are still delivering fresh content to our screens on a daily basis, but sometimes you don't want to find a new show to binge; you just want the comforting familiarity of an old favorite, because what better way to unwind from the stresses of the present day than by seeking solace in nostalgia? Maybe you don't want to waste your time seeking out something new to watch that might ultimately disappoint you when you have entire seasons of beloved shows like Scandal, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Avatar: The Last Airbenderthat you know never fail to deliver. Or maybe you just want to re-create the magic of stumbling onto cable reruns, and you see this summer as a perfect time to dive into a long-finished series you've never seen before.
No matter the reason, it's never been easier to rediscover the greatest shows television has given us over the past 50 years. That's why TV Guide is celebrating the best TV Throwbacks. We'll be spotlighting a different decade of television each day this week, starting with the 1970s on Monday and culminating with the 2010s on Friday. We're sharing our favorite shows to rewatch right now, the best episodes of some standout hits so you can curate your own mini-marathon, and the types of TV epiphanies that can only come from rewatching one of your favorite shows years later with a fresh perspective.
So if you're looking for some ideas of what to (re)watch next, keep reading for our recommendations.
The 1970s was a decade of great cultural change. The Vietnam War and Richard Nixon stoked the political divide, music and fashion reached new heights (yes, even disco), and marginalized groups fought for equal rights as people felt more empowered. Television was also feeling the creative energy evident throughout the era, with many '70s shows paving the way for programs that premiered even decades later. Many shows, like The Jeffersons, expanded the cultural viewpoints explored on TV, while others, like The Bob Newhart Show, redefined what primetime comedy could be. But all of them offer that comforting feeling of nostalgia.
It's not necessarily that the '70s comedies as a whole were objectively better than eras that came before or after (although you could make the case for certain shows' superiority). But since TV was still in its adolescence, the shows of the '70s were the ones that challenged the status quo and broadened the possibilities for what a sitcom could look like. This decade of experimentation and redefinition kicked off with three groundbreaking series, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, and M*A*S*H, which debuted on CBS in 1970, 1971, and 1972, respectively.
Mary Richards, with her dreamy bachelorette pad and her cool but stressful job as an associate producer at a low-rated Minneapolis news station, is a fantasy of imperfect independence. There's never a doubt that, in the words of the theme song, she's "gonna make it after all," but she also has to stay late at the office, get passed over for promotions, deal with hovering parents, go on dates that go nowhere, and watch her best friends move away. All of these markers of adulthood are treated frankly. Mary isn't a Liz Lemon type, a sitcom caricature of a woman who's good at her job but disastrous at everything else. (Mary is only disastrous at hosting parties.) Mostly, she's capable but still learning. One of the most refreshing things about The Mary Tyler Moore Show is how likable and funny and interesting it finds its main character just for being a young woman who's doing the best she can.
The '80s were a unique era in television history. The shows weren't as socially conscious as they were in the '70s, when series like M*A*S*H* and All in the Family drove the conversation about contemporary issues, nor were they as artistically ambitious as they'd get in the '90s, with shows like Twin Peaks and The Simpsons that broadened the possibilities for what could be done in the broadcast format. In fact, some of the most unforgettably bad TV shows of all time were made in the '80s (gone but not forgotten, Small Wonder). But there were a number of excellent, groundbreaking series that defined the '80s and whose legacies endure.
Pee-wee's Playhouse was an instant hit with critics, kids, stoners, and gawkers, who flocked to something that seemed both so original and familiar. While other '80s kids' shows stole from Japanese culture or were spin-offs of established brands, Pee-wee's Playhouse seemed like it was from another time, influenced by children's series of the 1950s and 1960s like Captain Kangaroo, Howdy Doody, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood in which a mentor virtually welcomed his audience into a clubhouse for wholesome life lessons and fun. For parents in the mid-'80s, it was comfort food, and a relief from talking Gummi bears and squeaking blue elves.
In The Joy of Painting, the whole world was reduced to Bob Ross, his paints, canvas, and all the happy little landscapes brought to life. In the show, there were no real stakes, and if a mistake was made, Ross didn't fret; he calmly found a fix that made you forget that the result wasn't his original intention. It was a show in which failure didn't exist, only "happy little accidents" and a love of trying. As Ross painted hundreds of landscapes throughout the show's run, it was clear that he wasn't trying to create the next great piece of art; he was just enjoying painting, savoring every aspect of the process. In doing so, Ross invited viewers to share in this peaceful pleasure, either through creating a painting of their own or through learning to just appreciate the journey.
Whether that meant eating midnight cheesecake, throwing on slinky nightgowns to entertain a barrage of bedroom suitors, or just telling wild stories about St. Olaf, these ladies needed no one's permission to do the things they loved with the people they'd chosen to spend their final days with. What was a somewhat unusual character set then now feels like a promise. Even if you spend your youth raising children, they'll eventually fly the coop, and you might outlive your spouse, if you even had one. But what's left doesn't have to be loneliness. There's still a "you" in the future ahead. These women weren't devoting their time to moping about the loss of husbands or their empty nests; they seized the opportunities they had to pursue their own interests and surround themselves with friends who were funny, compassionate, sometimes even bitter, and, best of all, honest about their ups and downs.
The 1990s were an especially transformative decade for television. Fox had firmly established itself as a fifth broadcast network after a shaky start in the 1980s, basic cable began to expand at an exponential rate and divided audiences more than ever with all the options that became available, and HDTV entered the market in 1998, setting the stage for a whole new era of television we could actually see. Aside from the streaming era of the 2010s, the '90s changed the way we watch television more than any decade since TV sets went color.
There's an X-Files episode for everything. Chris Carter's iconic sci-fi drama churned out 218 episodes and two movies over a span of 25 years, experimenting with form and genre in a way that pushed the boundaries of what a TV show could do. The X-Files could be a surreal black-and-white fable for a week; it could tell stories without any supernatural elements; it could be absurd, funny, romantic, horrifying. That range also means that aside from the obvious classics, the details of any best-of list come down to personal preference.
If you're reading this list, chances are you grew up watching '90s cartoons. You have fond memories of turning on the Panasonic on a Saturday morning or after school, eating a packet of Dunkaroos, and escaping into a world of adventure, talking animals, and weird-looking hand-drawn people. Many of these shows you probably watched so many times that they got etched in your brain forever, and watching them again will be like hearing a song you haven't listened to in years but still remember all the words to. You may be surprised by what you remember, or what you don't. You'll definitely catch some jokes that went over your head when you were a kid.
It has been more than 20 years (!!!) since Buffy the Vampire Slayer debuted and introduced us to the Slayer, the Hellmouth, and the enigmatic Cheese Man. And yet the groundbreaking supernatural coming-of-age series from Joss Whedon remains a fixture in our viewing rotation because it is as timeless as a vampire-with-a-soul's beautiful face. Yes, some of the fashion makes us cringe now, and yes, we scrutinize some of the choices the writers made at the time, especially now that we're older and wiser and have new perspectives. But the fact remains that Buffy's (Sarah Michelle Gellar) story, however full of vamps and Keys and tap-dancing demons it may be, holds universal appeal and is insanely rewatchable.
If you're binge-watching The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, whether for your first time or your 40th, we recommend you keep your eyes peeled, because the celebrated series attracted an impressive array of guest stars who sought to be a part of this touchstone comedy during its six-season run. (The fact the series was created by music legend Quincy Jones didn't hurt when it came to attracting the show's expansive roster of singers and rappers for cameos.) Watching The Fresh Prince today is like going on a treasure hunt for celebrity guest spots — everyone from Queen Latifa to Tom Jones to Oprah Winfrey to Dick Clark to Naomi Campbell to Milton Berle appeared on the beloved sitcom.
Charmed, which ran from 1998 to 2006, came of age in those special years when the late '90s melded into the early aughts, a time when the women were kickass, the fashion was, uh, interesting, the aspect ratio was a little wonky, and the results were pure magic. Sure, Charmed cranked out some duds, but over the course of its eight seasons, The WB drama also aired some great episodes of television that more than stand the test of time.
Family Matters is one of the most beloved '90s sitcoms, and probably most famous for Steve Urkel's (Jaleel White) catchphrase — "Did I do thaaat?" — and his alter ego, Stefan Urquelle. But the Perfect Strangers spin-off, which ran on ABC/CBS from 1989 to 1997, was so much more than the suspenders-loving nerd who went from a side character to its eventual lead. It was a heartfelt and humorous look at three generations of a Black middle-class family in Chicago. That's probably why, when TV Guide asked star Kellie Shanygne Williams in 2018 for her picks for the most memorable Family Matters moments, she didn't think of any of the Steve Urkel shenanigans.
Beginning with the early years, the 2000s featured several influential programs that left a lasting impression on the television landscape and viewers alike, and while some of these shows changed the way we watched TV and interacted with fellow fans (Lost), others came to define entire generations through their storytelling (The West Wing). The following list includes some of the best and most influential shows of the decade, including shows that debuted in the late '90s but aired most of their episodes in the beginning of the 21st century.
The Office may have gone off the air in 2013, but the NBC sitcom remains one of the most popular shows to stream. And while it is leaving Netflix in the not-too-distant future for the NBC Universal streaming service Peacock, you can still binge all 201 episodes right now. Although, do you really want to watch all of them? That's gonna take up a lot of time, and let's be real: Not all episodes of The Office are created equal. That's why we've curated this list of the best 50 episodes the celebrated sitcom has to offer. We even went through the grueling process of ranking them, which got particularly dicey once we hit the top 10. (Have you ever tried to pit "The Dundies" against "Dinner Party"? These are the kind of debates that can tear whole families apart for generations!)
If you, like me, didn't leave your love of animated TV and movies behind when you turned 13, you probably stumbled across Avatar: the Last Airbender at some point. This three-season saga became a Nickelodeon classic and developed an intense following while it was on the air from 2005 to 2008, but its legacy is still alive and well all these years later. When Avatar: The Last Airbender dropped on Netflix on May 15, there was a resurgence of interest in the series, which rocketed to the top of Netflix USA's Top 10 list. It's the first animated TV series to ever take the No. 1 slot. There aren't many 15-year-old TV shows that make that list in the first place, let alone top it, so why are viewers, new and old, flocking to this series?
DCOMs not only gave big breaks to some of Hollywood's brightest stars (hello Zac Efron, Danielle Panabaker, and Demi Lovato!) but united many of us through heartwarming, albeit cheesy, scenarios and catchy earworms. (Don't try and tell us that you're not singing "Zoom, zoom, zoom" from Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century every time you have to log on for a work meeting or family chat.) These films are embedded in our shared lived experience, and there are over 100 of these gems available to watch on Disney+ right now. TV Guide has selected the best of the best DCOMs — including our favorite sports movies, musicals, genre films, friendship stories, and family flicks — to make it easy for you to recapture the joy of the late '90s and early '00s.
Since Greek premiered in 2007 on ABC Family (now Freeform), fans of the dramedy set within the Greek system at a fictional Ohio university have been divided into two camps: Team Cappie or Team Evan. Cappie, embodied by Scott Michael Foster in a quintessential late 2000s-emo shag haircut, is a slacker and partier who brings out the fun side of the show's protagonist, Casey Cartwright (Spencer Grammer). Evan (Jake McDorman), meanwhile, as the son of a wealthy businessman, represents structure and a bright future, and he forces Casey to think about her goals. Depending on what you want to see from Casey determines which team you were on. But during my first Greek rewatch since the show went off the air in 2011, I realized I am not on either team, because the actual best boyfriend for Casey is Max (Michael Rady).
Although the 2010s ended just seven months ago, we're already revisiting the decade and the best it had to offer. The decade started off ridiculously strong, with arguably the best seasons of both Mad Men and Breaking Bad, as well as the debuts of Person of Interest and Scandal, but it closed it out with impressive showings from programs like Atlanta and Jane the Virgin, two series with strong points of view that tell stories about the Black and Latinx experiences in America. There was more TV in the 2010s than any one person could watch, and so much of it was worth watching that we'll be revisiting the prolific decade for years to come. But for now, we're starting with the following list of standouts, all of which are available to stream.
After eight seasons, too many doppelgängers to count, and approximately 1,000 snapped necks under its belt, the series about the Brothers Salvatore and the woman they both loved came to an end in 2017. But The Vampire Diaries has continued to live on through its two spin-offs (The Originals, which ended in 2018, and Legacies, which will premiere a third season in 2021) as well as its popularity on streaming. Thanks to its dense mythology and complicated storylines, The Vampire Diaries makes returning to Mystic Falls a delight, since there's no way anyone remembers every single twist and turn. But it's the show's early years that we find ourselves drawn to again and again.
Underground is worth revisiting because it's not so much a slavery story as it is a thriller with enslaved heroes — including Noah (Aldis Hodge) and his love interest Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) — as the principal characters. Noah and Rosalee are joined by comrades on the plantation and assisted by white abolitionists; they're double-crossed and doubted by fellow Black people too. Underground digs into the mechanics of slavery — the economics of the business, the inhumane atrocities, and the unfathomable choices they had to make to stay alive — while making it anything but a stale history lesson. Unfortunately, the show was canceled after WGN America became collateral damage following a purchase by another company. Still, the show leaves a lot to unpack and a lot to love.
When Rafael Barba (Raul Esparza) first met Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) in Season 14 of Law & Order: SVU, he asked her interim captain whether it was Take Your Daughter To Work Day. Benson, a Special Victims Unit detective with nearly two decades of experience, nodded a polite hello to the new assistant district attorney with a look in her eye that promised she wouldn't forget that snide little comment. In the early post-Stabler (Chris Meloni) era of the series — during which the show struggled to find the right balance of personalities and frequently cycled through new characters — Barba's introduction seemed poised to tip the carefully balanced energy that always existed between the law and the order into chaos. But despite their rocky start, Barba became Benson's most compelling partner out of SVU's entire 21-season run.
After airing four seasons and with a fifth on the way, The Expanse has proven itself time and time again to be one of the best sci-fi shows on the air — and one of the best shows, period. Based on the popular James S.A. Corey book series, The Expanse is set in a future where humanity has colonized the solar system, providing the series with a near-limitless playing field to explore the tensions between corporations, politicians, and the everyday people fighting for power, wealth, better lives, or just to survive. With a fifth season expected later this year, now's the perfect time to catch up on the action.
When quarantine first began during the coronavirus pandemic this spring, the desire for escapism was top of many people's minds. It made sense; everyone was looking for a distraction from the real world, and plenty of us turned to entertainment to find it — light-hearted comedies to take our minds off the panic and confusion, intense dramas to make our own problems seem minimal, sci-fi epics to transport us to another place. But as the world begins to open back up, despite the fact that this pandemic is very much still going on, people who have been on lockdown are less interested in escaping and more inclined to re-immerse themselves in the world they've been deprived of, safety precautions be damned. Personally, I can't relate to that impulse at all. Conditions still aren't safe and leadership is lacking, which means I'm looking for motivation to continue staying inside, and I want the things I'm watching to reflect that. That's why the series I'll continue to turn to is You're the Worst, a show that has provided me with the ultimate inspiration for finding joy while staying at home.
Two years after that heart-stopping series finale, Scandal remains one of the most exciting and addictive shows to ever hit the airwaves. Over the course of the ABC drama's exhilarating seven-year run, we saw everything from a rigged presidential election to politicians backstabbing each other for power to a secret black ops organization carrying out some of TV's most brutal murders. And while the show took audiences on a rollercoaster ride of fast-moving storylines and jaw-dropping plot twists, you could always count on Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) and the rest of her white hat-wearing Gladiators to be there to clean up those inconceivable messes.
Edited by Sadie Gennis, Kaitlin Thomas, Tim Surette, and Noelene Clark
Contributions by Sadie Gennis, Kaitlin Thomas, Tim Surette, Liam Mathews, Allison Picurro, Amanda Bell, Keisha Hatchett, Kelly Connolly, Krutika Mallikarjuna, Lindsay MacDonald, Malcolm Venable, Megan Vick, and Tony Maccio
Creative by Anthony Roman
Photo editing by Jessie Cowan