Most-watched TV series finales of all time

Stacker ranked the top 50 most-watched TV series finales, according to Nielsen Ratings. See how "Game of Thrones" compares to "Seinfeld" and "M*A*S*H."   

Posted

Star Trek

Will Rachel and Ross end up together? What brought the survivors of Oceanic Flight 815 to the island on "Lost"? Why were Will and Grace not speaking all of those years? And who would win the Iron Throne?

To see which series had the biggest turnout, Stacker looked back at the top 50 most-watched TV series finales of all time, ranked by Nielsen Ratings as of October 2022.

Answering burning questions like those at the end of a TV show can be difficult for showrunners and writers. It's almost impossible to make every fan happy, leaving the creative team to decide whether it's best to tie up every loose end or leave things more open to interpretation. Either option can make for great TV, but at the end of the day, most viewers want a sense of closure for the characters they've come to love over the years.

In the days before DVR and streaming, it was impossible to know how a TV show would end unless you were sitting in front of your screen as the finale aired. If fans wanted closure on their favorite characters, they had to be there when it happened (unless you could figure out your VCR's recording timer).

The series finales listed include the air dates along with the number of viewers who tuned in (viewership); the rating, which represents tuning or viewing as a percent of the entire population; and the percent of households using television tuned to a specific program, station, or network in a specific area at a particular time (share).

Read on to find out where your favorite shows' endings land on this list. Be warned: Spoilers ahead.

You may also like: Famous TV shows that ended in controversy

#52. The Tonight Show with Jay Leno

Jay Leno and Alex Trebek on "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno"

Big Dog Productions

- Viewership: 14.6 million
- Rating: 9.2%
- Share: 22%
- Date: Feb. 6, 2014

After 22 years on the air, comedian Jay Leno signed off from "The Tonight Show" in 2014 with a star-studded finale featuring President Barack Obama and a return visit from his first guest, Billy Crystal. It was the second time Leno had said goodbye after Conan O'Brien's brief stint in 2009. Much of the show's celebrity guests and festivities were kept secret from Leno until the show aired.

The show was nominated for an Emmy Award in the Outstanding Variety, Music or Comedy Series category 10 times between 1993 and 2005, winning the award in 1995. The famed 1992 finale of his predecessor, Johnny Carson, also appears on this list.

#51. Dynasty

Joan Collins, Jack Coleman, Betty Harford, Virginia Hawkins, Pamela Sue Martin, and Gordon Thomson in "Dynasty"

Aaron Spelling Productions

- Viewership: 14.7 million
- Rating: 10.8%
- Share: 17%
- Date: May 11, 1989

"Dynasty" was the iconic guilty pleasure primetime soap opera of the 1980s that revolved around the wealthy Carrington family. Oil baron Blake Carrington (John Forsythe) had fallen in love with his secretary Krystle (Linda Evans), causing all kinds of great TV drama when Blake's infamous ex-wife, Alexis (Joan Collins), shows up.

The opulent soap opera was in the Nielsen top 10 for most of its nine-year run, reaching #1 in 1984, but ultimately sliding in popularity by the time the network canceled it in 1989. "Dynasty" was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for Best TV Drama series every year from 1981 to 1986, winning in 1984. The series earned 24 Emmy Award nominations, winning Outstanding Costumes for a Series in 1984. It also inspired a CW reboot in 2017.

#50. Kate & Allie

Ari Meyers and Allison Smith in "Kate & Allie"

Alan Landsburg Productions

- Viewership: 14.9 million
- Rating: 11.9%
- Share: 20%
- Date: May 22, 1989

In the hit 1980s sitcom "Kate & Allie," best friends and fellow divorcees Kate McArdle (Susan Saint James) and Allie Lowell (Jane Curtin) move in together in New York City.

Initially greenlit for six episodes as a midseason replacement in 1985, the female-driven series was quickly picked up for five more seasons, earning an Emmy Award for Curtin and a nomination for Saint James, along with Golden Globes nominations for the series. The finale, aired in May 1989, drew nearly 15 million viewers.

#49. In the Heat of the Night

Joe Don Baker, Alan Autry, Byron Cherry, Michael Horton, Hugh O

MGM

- Viewership: 15.0 million
- Rating: 10.9%
- Share: 17%
- Date: May 16, 1995

TV legend Carroll O'Connor starred in the tension-filled dramatic TV series "In the Heat of the Night" (based on the Oscar-winning 1967 film and 1965 novel of the same name) as Chief Bill Gillespie, a small-town police chief in the American South, who later becomes sheriff of the county. As he tries to solve crimes and catch criminals with detective Virgil Tibbs (Howard Rollins), Gillespie must navigate tricky small-town politics where racial tensions run high.

O'Connor, reportedly disappointed with the writing, would often rewrite his scripts to the chagrin of the production staff. The series ran from 1988 to 1995, sometimes competing with "Golden Girls" and "Major Dad" in ratings.

#48. Married... with Children

Christina Applegate, David Faustino, Katey Sagal, and Ed O

Hulu

- Viewership: 15.2 million
- Rating: 10.0%
- Share: 16%
- Date: May 5, 1997

The classic dysfunctional family sitcom "Married...with Children" premiered on the then-newly launched Fox network in 1987 to rave reviews. Starring Ed O'Neill as the hapless family patriarch, Al Bundy, Katey Sagal as gold-digger Peggy, a young Christina Applegate as dim-witted Kelly, and David Faustino as intelligent, but awkward Bud, the series was originally titled "Not the Cosbys."

After a viewer-led advertiser boycott in 1989, the series increased in ratings as more people became curious about the show's controversial storylines. O'Neill, who now stars on the hit show "Modern Family," has been said to have made telephone calls to fans in character during the show's heyday, but only on the condition they call him collect, in line with Al Bundy's cheapskate nature.

#47. Perfect Strangers

Bronson Pinchot and Mark Linn-Baker in "Perfect Strangers"

Lorimar Productions

- Viewership: 15.8 million
- Rating: 11.8%
- Share: 16%
- Date: Aug. 6, 1993

Created by the producers of "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork & Mindy," buddy comedy "Perfect Strangers" starred Bronson Pinchot as naive Balki Bartokomous, a sheepherder from Greece who travels to the U.S. to find his cousin, the high-strung Larry Appleton (Mark Linn-Baker). The pair end up sharing Larry's apartment despite their differences, often getting into situations in which only the well-meaning but aloof Balki can get them out.

The series ran from 1986 to 1993, anchoring the newly created ABC "TGIF" lineup and inspiring the popular spinoff "Family Matters."

#46. NYPD Blue

James McDaniel in "NYPD Blue"

20th Century Fox Television

- Viewership: 16.1 million
- Rating: 10.4%
- Share: 17%
- Date: March 1, 2005

The critically acclaimed, gritty police procedural drama "NYPD Blue" was nominated for an Emmy Award 84 times and won 20. The series, which debuted in 1993, aired its final episode in March 2005, making it the longest-running primetime one-hour drama series on ABC until "Grey's Anatomy" surpassed it in 2016.

The original ensemble cast included David Caruso, Dennis Franz, and James McDaniel, who played detectives at the 15th Police Precinct in Manhattan. Before "NYPD Blue," some of the stars had an affiliation with co-creator Steven Bochco from his previous highly acclaimed series, "Hill Street Blues."

#45. Miami Vice

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in "Miami Vice"

NBC

- Viewership: 16.1 million
- Rating: 11.0%
- Share: 21%
- Date: June 28, 1989

Noted for its colorful men's fashion and innovative use of popular music at the time—including jazzy, synthesizer tunes from composer Jan Hammer—the groundbreaking police drama "Miami Vice" focused on the Miami Police Department's vice squad as it worked to end prostitution and drug trafficking.

The series ran for five seasons from 1984 to 1990, greatly influencing popular culture, music, and fashion. The partnership of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs led to Outstanding Actor awards for both stars of the show, Don Johnson and Edward James Olmos, and inspired a film of the same name starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell in 2006.

#44. ER

Angela Bassett, Anthony Edwards, and Yvette Freeman in "ER"

NBC

- Viewership: 16.4 million
- Rating: 10.4%
- Share: 17%
- Date: April 2, 2009

"ER" aired from 1994 until 2009: It was the longest-running primetime medical drama in U.S. television history until it "Grey's Anatomy" surpassed it in 2019. Created by novelist and medical doctor Michael Crichton ("Jurassic Park"), the series followed the lives of the doctors and staff at the fictional County General Hospital in Chicago.

Crichton based the screenplay—written in 1974 but put on hold while collaborating with Steven Spielberg on "Jurassic Park"—on his experiences as a resident physician in a busy hospital emergency room. The series was nominated for 375 industry awards and won 116, including a Peabody Award and several Emmy Awards. The series also launched or amplified the TV and film careers of stars such as Noah Wyle, George Clooney, Julianna Margulies, Parminder Nagra, Mekhi Phifer, and Maura Tierney, among others.

#43. The Oprah Winfrey Show

Oprah

- Viewership: 16.4 million
- Rating: 11.5%
- Share: N/A
- Date: May 25, 2011

After 25 years on the air, the history-making "The Oprah Winfrey Show" signed off with a farewell by its namesake to her audience in 150 countries: "You and this show have been the greatest love of my life."

The two-part finale by the media icon featured appearances by Aretha Franklin, Tom Cruise, Stevie Wonder, Beyoncé, Tom Hanks, and Madonna, bringing in the highest ratings for the program in 17 years. "Oprah" remains the highest-rated daytime talk show in American television history, leading the way for spinoffs like "Dr. Phil" and "Dr. Oz."

#42. Murder, She Wrote

Angela Lansbury, Herschel Bernardi, Linda Kelsey, and Mark Shera in "Murder, She Wrote"

Corymore Productions

- Viewership: 16.5 million
- Rating: 12.3%
- Share: 21%
- Date: May 19, 1996

For 12 seasons, Angela Lansbury was a mystery writer and detective Jessica Fletcher on the highly successful crime drama series "Murder, She Wrote." A staple in the Sunday night lineup for CBS, the show garnered 26 million viewers per week until the network moved it to a new time slot for its last two seasons.

Following the finale in 1996, the series inspired four TV movies, a video game, and a spinoff book series. Lansbury holds the record for having the most Golden Globe and Emmy nominations and wins for an actress in a television drama series.

#41. Roseanne

John Goodman, Roseanne Barr, and Alicia Goranson in "Roseanne"

Everett Collection

- Viewership: 16.6 million
- Rating: 11.6%
- Share: 19%
- Date: May 20, 1997

The popular 1990s sitcom "Roseanne" was named for its star, comedian Roseanne Barr, who had been seen on "The Tonight Show" by show co-creators Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner ("The Cosby Show"). Popular from the start, the show was one of the first to focus on a blue-collar American family with two parents (Barr and John Goodman) working outside the home. Barr and Laurie Metcalf ("Lady Bird"), who played her sister on the show, both won Emmy Awards for their performances. The series took home a Golden Globe, as did Goodman.

A 2018 reboot of the series with the original cast premiered with a whopping 18.2 million viewers but ended in controversy after two months when a racist Twitter comment by Barr prompted ABC to nix the show. However, ABC then spun off the reboot to a Barr-free series called "The Conners," which is in its fifth season and counting.

#40. Beverly Hills, 90210

Jennie Garth, Tori Spelling, Gabrielle Carteris, and Christine Elise in "Beverly Hills, 90210"

CBS

- Viewership: 16.8 million
- Rating: 11.9%
- Share: 21%
- Date: May 17, 2000

For teens in the 1990s, "Beverly Hills, 90210" was the must-see guilty pleasure primetime drama of the era. Produced by the prolific TV writer-producer Aaron Spelling (known for "Charlie's Angels" and "Dynasty"), the series ran for 10 seasons—his longest-running—and spawned the spinoffs "Melrose Place" and "Models Inc."

The soapy series focused on the trials and tribulations of high school friends in the upscale community of Beverly Hills. It starred Shannen Doherty, Jason Priestley, Luke Perry, Jennie Garth, Brian Austin Green, and Tori Spelling.

#39. Murphy Brown

Candice Bergen, Morgan Fairchild, and Joe Regalbuto in "Murphy Brown"

Shukovsky English Entertainment

- Viewership: 17.5 million
- Rating: 12.3%
- Share: 19%
- Date: May 18, 1998

"Murphy Brown" was a hugely popular workplace comedy about a Washington-based TV news reporter played by Candice Bergen. The series ran for 10 seasons and won 18 Emmy Awards, including five wins for Bergen, a record for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series. The fact that Bergen's title character—a 40-something working woman—decided to have a baby on her own in the middle of the series sparked a controversy with conservatives at the time but boosted the show's ratings.

In the final season in 1998, Murphy Brown's battle with breast cancer led to a 30% increase in women getting mammograms that year. In the finale, Brown meets God for an interview while under anesthesia.

#38. Major Dad

Gerald McRaney and Shanna Reed in "Major Dad"

NBC

- Viewership: 17.9 million
- Rating: 12.6%
- Share: 20%
- Date: April 16, 1993

"Major Dad" ran from 1989 to 1993. It featured conservative Marine Major John "Mac" MacGillis (Gerald McRaney) and pacifist reporter Polly Cooper (Shanna Reed), who fall for each other in an unlikely romance. At home, MacGillis becomes dad to Cooper's three daughters. The popular family show received nominations for several awards, but the network canceled it in 1993 after four seasons.

#37. Jake and the Fatman

Gregory Itzin and Margaret Reed in "Jake and the Fatman"

Dean Hargrove Productions

- Viewership: 18.1 million
- Rating: 12.9%
- Share: 20%
- Date: May 6, 1992

District Attorney J.L. "Fatman" McCabe (William Conrad) worked to solve cases with his laid-back investigator Jake Styles (Joe Penny) for five seasons on "Jake and the Fatman," a crime drama that spawned the spinoff "Diagnosis: Murder." Jake is framed for murder in the series finale in 1992.

#36. The Facts of Life

Nancy McKeon, Kim Fields, Mindy Cohn, Charlotte Rae, and Lisa Whelchel in "The Facts of Life"

Embassy Communications

- Viewership: 18.2 million
- Rating: 13.2%
- Share: 29%
- Date: May 7, 1988

In one of the longest-running sitcoms of the 1980s, "The Facts of Life" (a spinoff of "Diff'rent Strokes") focused on Edna Garrett (Charlotte Rae), a housemother at a private all-girls boarding school and the girls who attend. The series enjoyed its highest ratings, particularly with teens, in season three. By season seven (when George Clooney became a regular cast member), the show helped to bolster the new series "The Golden Girls."

The two-part series finale of "The Facts of Life" showed the school becoming co-ed, with new students Mayim Bialik ("The Big Bang Theory") and Seth Green appearing as guest stars.

#35. The Big Bang Theory

Johnny Galecki, Simon Helberg, Jim Parsons, and Kunal Nayyar in "The Big Bang Theory"

Warner Bros. Television

- Viewership: 18.5 million
- Rating: 12.2%
- Share: 22%
- Date: May 16, 2019

When you're the longest-running multicamera comedy in TV history, there's a lot of pressure to give fans a satisfying finale—and "The Big Bang Theory" managed to do just that. The second half of the two-episode finale is the highest-rated episode of all 12 seasons, according to IMDb, with 9.5 out of 10 stars.

The episode tugged at viewers' heartstrings from the start: with a montage of clips from the show's 12-season run. Then, it turned its attention to none other than Sheldon Cooper (Jim Parsons), of course. After he and Amy (Mayim Bialik) win the Nobel Prize in Physics, they both struggle with the media attention that comes with it. Penny (Kaley Cuoco) eventually convinces Sheldon to accept change in a very special way: by riding the elevator that's finally been fixed after 16 years, giving closure to the show's longest-running joke.

The second part of the season finale sees Amy, Sheldon, Penny, Leonard (Johnny Galecki), Howard (Simon Helberg), Bernadette (Melissa Rauch), and Raj (Kunal Nayyar) flying to Sweden for the Nobel Prize award ceremony. After a series of events in which Sheldon disappoints his friends and regresses socially, he gets a stern talking-to from Amy. Then, on the fly, he decides to discard the acceptance speech he wrote as a child and instead acknowledges Amy and his friends.

In the series' final moments, the gang shares one last meal in Apartment 4A as an acoustic version of "The Big Bang Theory" theme song plays.

#34. Will & Grace

Eric McCormack and Debra Messing in "Will & Grace"

NBC

- Viewership: 18.6 million
- Rating: 12.9%
- Share: 20%
- Date: May 18, 2006

The beloved "Will & Grace" was revived in 2017 at NBC to critical acclaim, after its original series finale left fans largely dissatisfied and wanting more.

The ninth season's premiere episode brought in 10.2 million viewers and shows Will Truman (Eric McCormack) and Grace Adler (Debra Messing) fast-forwarded 11 years into the future to reveal what happened after their falling out. Friends of the former TV roommates and fan favorites Karen (Megan Mullally) and Jack (Sean Hayes) have largely remained unchanged. The beloved show earned 16 Emmy Awards and ran for eight seasons in its original run.

#33. Matlock

Kathleen Garrett, Clarence Gilyard Jr., and Andy Griffith in "Matlock"

Dean Hargrove Productions

- Viewership: 18.7 million
- Rating: 13.2%
- Share: 20%
- Date: May 7, 1995

"Matlock" starred TV legend Andy Griffith in the title role as criminal defense attorney Ben Matlock. Full of folksy charm, the gray-suit-clad, hot-dog-eating Matlock was known for finding overlooked evidence to discover the real murderer and exonerate his wrongly accused client in a dramatic showdown in court. The series ran for six seasons, was briefly canceled in 1992, then quickly picked up again for three more until its series finale in 1995.

#32. Designing Women

Annie Potts, Delta Burke, Jean Smart, Dixie Carter, and Meshach Taylor in "Designing Women"

Bloodworth-Thomason

- Viewership: 18.8 million
- Rating: 14.2%
- Share: 22%
- Date: May 24, 1993

The Emmy Award-winning series "Designing Women" was once saved from cancellation by fans who wrote an estimated 50,000 letters in support of the show. The much-lauded sitcom, created by Linda Bloodworth-Thomason, focused on four smart, feisty women (Dixie Carter, Delta Burke, Jean Smart, and Annie Potts) who work together in an interior design firm in Atlanta. In the unique series finale in 1993, each of the women imagines themselves as Scarlett O'Hara from "Gone with the Wind."

#30. Bonanza

NBC

- Viewership: 19.3 million
- Rating: N/A
- Share: N/A
- Date: Jan. 16, 1973

From 1959 to 1973, "Bonanza" became a fixture in American life. The classic Western—the second-longest-running in TV history (behind "Gunsmoke")—was about the adventures of Ben Cartwright (Lorne Greene) and his sons (Pernell Roberts, Dan Blocker, Michael Landon) living on the Ponderosa in Nevada. Author Mark Twain would have been the Cartwrights' neighbor in the 1860s while he worked at the local newspaper, the Territorial Enterprise.

After enjoying #1 ratings from 1964 to 1967, the show was suddenly canceled in November 1972 (after the death of Blocker). It led to a finale in January 1973 that Greene said "went out with a whimper" rather than a bang since there was little notice for the cast and crew.

#30. Game of Thrones

Kit Harington in "Game of Thrones"

Home Box Office (HBO)

- Viewership: 19.3 million
- Rating: N/A
- Share: N/A
- Date: May 19, 2019

The last episode of "Game of Thrones" may not have been a satisfying series finale, but it was certainly a highly watched one. It's a unique entry among the top 50 in that the viewership numbers include streaming: The initial airing drew 13.6 million viewers, but replays on streaming brought that number to 19.3 million. But it's an understatement to say that it disappointed: The series finale, titled "The Iron Throne," only has a four-star rating on IMDb, the lowest of any in the series' eight-year run.

Of course, there was a lot riding on the ending of "Game of Thrones": Why did Daenerys (Emilia Clarke) suddenly descend into madness and murder thousands of people? Will Arya (Maisie Williams) seek revenge? Can Bran (Isaac Hempstead Wright) truly see the future?

Ultimately, the last episode left fans with more questions than answers—perhaps that was by design with the many "Game of Thrones" spinoffs to come. One 2022 Collider article called the "Game of Thrones" series finale "still inexcusable"; an immediate response to the 2019 episode from Vox said it "betrayed the show's core themes"; and even Maisie Williams said she rewatched the series in 2022 and admitted, "It definitely fell off at the end."

#29. Knots Landing

Larry Hagman, Donna Mills, Joan Van Ark, Tonya Crowe, Bobby Jacoby, Michele Lee, Don Murray, and Ted Shackelford in "Knots Landing"

Lorimar Productions

- Viewership: 19.6 million
- Rating: 13.9%
- Share: 22%
- Date: May 13, 1993

"Knots Landing," a spinoff of the popular primetime '80s soap "Dallas," became one of the longest-running primetime dramas after "Gunsmoke" and "Bonanza." Stars of the ensemble cast included Ted Shackelford as Gary Ewing, along with Alec Baldwin, Nicollette Sheridan, Kim Lankford, James Houghton, and Joan Van Ark, who all live in an exclusive cul-de-sac in Southern California where manipulation, drama, and romance are always front and center. After 14 seasons on the air, the series signed off in 1993.

#28. Mad About You

Helen Hunt, Jerry Lewis, Paul Reiser, and Maui in "Mad About You"

In Front Productions

- Viewership: 19.8 million
- Rating: 13.6%
- Share: 20%
- Date: May 24, 1999

Paul Reiser and Helen Hunt starred in "Mad About You," a beloved, sometimes-underrated sitcom about a newly married couple living in New York City. The series ran from 1992 to 1999, when it slipped in ratings. The finale was a flash forward about 22 years in the future, showing the couple's baby daughter all grown up and explaining what happened to her parents through comedic skits.

Hunt's role almost went to Teri Hatcher ("Desperate Housewives"), but it was Hunt and Reiser's chemistry that made the show work. Two decades later, the show returned for a limited run on Spectrum's On Demand platform. In the reboot, the Buchmans say goodbye to Mabel as she heads off to college a few blocks away. The reboot's season premiere was written by Reiser and directed by Hunt.

#27. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

Will Smith, James Avery, and Janet Hubert in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air

NBC Productions

- Viewership: 19.9 million
- Rating: 13.1%
- Share: 22%
- Date: May 20, 1996

The viewers saved the 1990s favorite sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" from getting canceled after season four, bringing it back for two more seasons before the network canceled it for good in 1996. The series, which catapulted Will Smith into fame, showed the upper-class, quirky Banks family living, laughing, dancing, and loving as they take in their street-smart cousin Will, who hails from Philadelphia.

The heartbreaking series finale was a real goodbye—as Will is left alone in the empty house to reflect on all the memories as the family prepares to move away. Fun fact: the cab driver in the iconic opening credits was executive producer Quincy Jones. The series reboot, now called "Bel-Air," was reimagined with more dramatic flair in 2022. Peacock ordered two seasons based on the popularity of a fan-made trailer by Morgan Cooper and the resulting pitch to studio execs.

#26. Who's the Boss?

Embassy Television

- Viewership: 20.5 million
- Rating: 12.7%
- Share: 24%
- Date: April 25, 1992

One of the most popular sitcoms of the 1980s was "Who's the Boss?" starring Tony Danza as Tony Micelli, a former baseball player forced to retire due to a shoulder injury. Alyssa Milano played Danza's daughter Samantha, while Judith Light co-starred as Angela Bower, an advertising executive with whom they live as Micelli works as her live-in housekeeper. Frank Sinatra made a guest appearance on the show in 1989.

Its one-hour series finale aired in April 1992, along with the series finales of "Growing Pains" and "MacGyver."

#25. Quantum Leap

Ernie Hudson, Nanrisa Lee, Mason Alexander Park, and Caitlin Bassett in "Quantum Leap"

NBC

- Viewership: 20.6 million
- Rating: 13.7%
- Share: 23%
- Date: May 5, 1993

In the early '90s cult favorite sci-fi series "Quantum Leap," physicist Sam Beckett (Scott Bakula) finds himself trapped in time. He temporarily takes the place of other people to correct historical events. In the 1993 series finale, Beckett leaps through space-time back to his own birth to learn that he is in charge of his destinations and is doing them to "make the world a better place," choosing never to return home.

The series was nominated for and won a number of awards, particularly for its cinematography and editing. A 2022 revival features Raymond Lee as Dr. Ben Song, who follows in Sam's footsteps hoping to solve the mystery of his whereabouts.

#24. The Wonder Years

ABC

- Viewership: 21.0 million
- Rating: 13.9%
- Share: 23%
- Date: May 12, 1993

Inspired by "A Christmas Story," and one of the most popular shows of the 1980s, "The Wonder Years" was a coming-of-age show in which Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage) recalls through voice-over and flashbacks what it was like growing up during the radical 1960s and '70s. Daniel Stern, Dan Lauria, Danica McKellar, and Alley Mills rounded out the ensemble. Savage, who at the time was a big star from the film, "A Princess Bride," became the youngest actor to be nominated for an Emmy Award as a Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, helping the series win for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1988.

Fans were disappointed when the network canceled the series after six seasons and when the finale didn't show Kevin and Winnie (McKellar) ending up together as a couple. A 2021 remake now follows a Black family in 1968 Montgomery, Alabama.

#23. The Mary Tyler Moore Show

Valerie Harper and Mary Tyler Moore in "The Mary Tyler Moore Show"

CBS

- Viewership: 21.2 million
- Rating: 16.5%
- Share: 28%
- Date: March 19, 1977

In one of the most famous and unforgettable sign-offs in television history, Mary Richards (Mary Tyler Moore) turned off the lights on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" in 1977 after seven seasons. The episode won an Emmy Award and inspired numerous other series finales as "the gold standard." Moore starred as the perky, intelligent, and independent news producer who befriends coworkers (Ed Asner, Betty White) and neighbors (Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman).

A groundbreaking and critically acclaimed series for its writing and treatment of controversial issues of the day, "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" held the record for the most Emmy Awards with 29 until "Frasier" broke that record in 2002.

#22. ALF

Max Wright in "ALF"

Alien Productions

- Viewership: 21.7 million
- Rating: 13.1%
- Share: 24%
- Date: March 24, 1990

"ALF" was the classic, highly rated 1980s family sitcom about the furry, friendly extraterrestrial ALF (which stands for "Alien Life Form") and his suburban, middle-class family, the Tanners (Max Wright, Anne Schedeen, Andrea Elson, Benji Gregory). As ALF (Paul Fusco as the puppeteer and voice) learns about Earth, he makes new friends, but creates problems frequently due to his slovenly and cynical nature.

The series finale ended with an unintentional cliffhanger as the series was canceled suddenly by NBC after four seasons, a decision the network reportedly later regretted.

#21. L.A. Law

Corbin Bernsen, Dann Florek, Susan Ruttan, and Michael Tucker in "L.A. Law"

20th Century Fox

- Viewership: 22.1 million
- Rating: 15.9%
- Share: 27%
- Date: May 19, 1994

Prolific, Emmy Award-winning TV producer and writer Steven Bochco and Terry Louise Fisher's "L.A. Law" was the legal drama series that ran from 1986 until 1994, setting the gold standard for future series like it. The ensemble cast playing the staff at the Los Angeles-based law firm included Richard Dysart, Alan Rachins, Blair Underwood, and Jill Eikenberry, as well as numerous guest stars who went on to great success, including Don Cheadle, Jeffrey Tambor, Kathy Bates, and William H. Macy.

The series earned 15 Emmy Awards and gave then-former lawyer David E. Kelley ("Big Little Lies") his start in writing and producing television. The finale refused to have the "characters' stories tied up in a neat package," however, a particularly memorable moment was when one member of the firm plummeted to her death in an elevator shaft.

#20. MacGyver

Richard Dean Anderson in "MacGyver"

TNS Sofres

- Viewership: 22.3 million
- Rating: 13.8%
- Share: 26%
- Date: May 21, 1992

The iconic 1980s action-adventure series "MacGyver" originally ended in 1992 but was rebooted in 2016. Secret agent Angus MacGyver (originally played by Richard Dean Anderson) was the ultimate hacker-troubleshooter, with his seemingly encyclopedic knowledge of the sciences and novel ways of solving complex problems with ordinary objects. The series ran for six years as the lead-in to ABC's "Monday Night Football," though its seventh season was shortened when it disappeared for four months from the schedule, followed by a finale and a previously unaired episode in May 1992.

Anderson told TV Guide, "the only reason it went off the air was that everybody was ready to move on. I was physically exhausted and had no life."

#19. St. Elsewhere

Ed Flanders and Christina Pickles in "St. Elsewhere"

MTM Productions

- Viewership: 22.5 million
- Rating: 17.0%
- Share: 29%
- Date: May 25, 1988

"St. Elsewhere" was the gritty, critically acclaimed medical drama series that ran from 1982 to 1988. The ensemble cast featured established actors Ed Flanders, Norman Lloyd, and William Daniels, as well as Denzel Washington, Mark Harmon, Alfre Woodard, and Christina Pickles as the staff at St. Eligius, an urban teaching hospital in Boston.

The series finale featured huge changes for several characters, but it's best known for its famous final moments that led viewers to believe the entire series (and its spinoffs) were all constructions of an autistic boy's imagination when he's shown looking at a snow globe which contains a replica of the hospital.

#18. Full House

The cast of "Full House"

ABS

- Viewership: 24.3 million
- Rating: 14.6%
- Share: 25%
- Date: May 23, 1995

The 1980s family sitcom "Full House" focused on the Tanner family living in San Francisco, helmed by single dad Danny Tanner (Bob Saget). With the help of his best friend (Dave Coulier) and brother-in-law (John Stamos), Tanner brought up three daughters, including Michelle, played by Mary-Kate Olsen and Ashley Olsen, launching them into fame. The series ran for eight seasons and inspired various merchandise items, such as games, dolls, and clothing.

Its spinoff "Fuller House" premiered on Netflix in 2016 with a gender-reversed plot.

#17. The Golden Girls

Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, Bea Arthur, and Betty White in "The Golden Girls"

Touchstone Television

- Viewership: 27.2 million
- Rating: 18.9%
- Share: 38%
- Date: May 9, 1992

Dorothy (Bea Arthur), Blanche (Rue McClanahan), Rose (Betty White), and Sophia (Estelle Getty)—four feisty, young-at-heart, hilarious female housemates—made their debut as "The Golden Girls" in 1985 to widespread acclaim. Even Queen Elizabeth was reportedly a fan of the show, which was groundbreaking for focusing on an all-female cast dealing with important issues, particularly as women who were "over the hill."

It ran for seven seasons and paved the way for spinoffs and future iterations, such as "Sex and the City" and "Girls." Earning 68 Emmy nominations and 11 wins, it's one of only three shows where all of the principal actors won at least one Emmy.

#16. Happy Days

Ron Howard, Marion Ross, Tom Bosley, Erin Moran, and Randolph Roberts in "Happy Days"

ABC

- Viewership: 30.5 million
- Rating: 20.5%
- Share: 31%
- Date: Sept. 24, 1984

The idealized version of the 1950s and '60s in the Midwest was served up on "Happy Days," courtesy of legendary film and television producer and director Garry Marshall.

The hit sitcom about Richie (Ron Howard), "The Fonz" (Henry Winkler), and his cousin Chachi (Scott Baio) drew inspiration from George Lucas's film "American Graffiti." It became an influence on sitcom archetypes and catchphrases and inspired hit spinoffs, including "Laverne & Shirley" and "Mork & Mindy."

#15. Gunsmoke

James Arness and Richard Keith in "Gunsmoke"

CBS

- Viewership: 30.9 million
- Rating: N/A
- Share: N/A
- Date: March 31, 1975

The longest-running dramatic series in network TV history, the iconic western "Gunsmoke" ran for 20 years from 1955 to 1975, featuring future stars such as Harrison Ford, Jodie Foster, Leonard Nimoy, William Shatner, and even three of the future "Brady Bunch" kids. The series, originally developed for radio, was almost canceled in 1967 when it slipped from its top ratings, but then-CBS President William Paley—a fan of the show—decided to move it and cut "Gilligan's Island" instead.

All of the actors who played the main characters on the show were inducted into the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum, including James Arness (Matt), Milburn Stone (Doc), Ken Curtis (Festus), Dennis Weaver (Chester), and Amanda Blake (Kitty).

#14. Star Trek: The Next Generation

Paramount Television

- Viewership: 31.0 million
- Rating: 17.4%
- Share: 34%
- Date: May 23, 1994

The popular 1980s sci-fi series "Star Trek: The Next Generation" focused on the 24th-century adventures of Capt. Jean-Luc Picard and his colleagues aboard the U.S.S. Enterprise, a starship much larger than Capt. James Kirk's in the original "Star Trek" series of the 1960s.

Starring an ensemble cast including Patrick Stewart, LeVar Burton, Marina Sirtis, and Wil Wheaton, the series garnered a number of accolades and ran for seven seasons, with its finale competing for the top spot between fellow hits "Home Improvement" and "Seinfeld" in 1994.

#13. Everybody Loves Raymond

Talk Productions

- Viewership: 32.9 million
- Rating: 20.2%
- Share: 29%
- Date: May 16, 2005

Based on the stand-up comedy of Ray Romano (as seen on "The Late Show with David Letterman"), the hit sitcom "Everybody Loves Raymond" ran for nine seasons. The series, which focused on the hilarious mishaps of family man and sports writer Ray Barone (Romano), his wife (Patricia Heaton), and well-meaning but overbearing mother (Doris Roberts), earned 69 nominations for Emmy Awards—winning 15 of them.

The series made Romano the highest-paid actor on television at the time. He was paid about $1.8 million an episode in its final two seasons. Creator Phil Rosenthal said he ended the show when the writers "ran out of ideas" and no longer wished to fight with their wives to drum up material.

#12. Dallas

Barbara Bel Geddes, Brian Dennehy, and Linda Gray in "Dallas"

Lorimar Productions

- Viewership: 33.3 million
- Rating: 22.0%
- Share: 38%
- Date: May 3, 1991

One of the longest-running full-hour primetime dramas in American TV history, "Dallas" was the unforgettable 1980s soap that ran for 14 seasons, and frequently quarreled with "Dynasty" for viewership and ratings.

The popular series, premiering in 1978, revolved around the power struggles of oil tycoon J.R. Ewing (Larry Hagman) and his wealthy family (Patrick Duffy, Barbara Bel Geddes, Linda Gray). It inspired a spinoff series, "Knots Landing," and a reboot in 2012 with many original cast members. The 1980 episode that answered the famous question, "Who shot J.R.?" received the highest ratings for a show at the time, surpassed by the "M*A*S*H" finale in 1983.

#11. Frasier

Kelsey Grammer, David Hyde Pierce, and Moose in "Frasier"

Grub Street Productions

- Viewership: 33.7 million
- Rating: 16.3%
- Share: 25%
- Date: May 13, 2004

"Frasier," the highly successful spinoff of the popular series "Cheers," ran for 11 seasons from 1993 to 2004. It followed the story of psychiatrist and radio talk show host Dr. Frasier Crane (Kelsey Grammer) as he returns home to Seattle to contend with his newly retired father and brother, a fellow psychiatrist (David Hyde Pierce).

Frasier was originally a temporary character on "Cheers," but was so popular he became a series regular by season six. Dr. Crane's spinoff also became incredibly popular. It was his dog Eddie—played by a Jack Russell terrier named Moose—who reportedly received the most fan mail, though. "Frasier" won 37 Primetime Emmy Awards, breaking the record previously held by "The Mary Tyler Moore Show."

#10. Home Improvement

Tim Allen and Richard Karn in "Home Improvement"

Touchstone Television

- Viewership: 35.5 million
- Rating: 21.6%
- Share: 43%
- Date: May 25, 1999

One of the most-watched sitcoms of the 1990s, "Home Improvement" revolved around the Detroit-based Taylor family, led by Tim "The Toolman" Taylor (Tim Allen), his wife Jill (Patricia Richardson) and their three sons (the middle child, Randy, played by Jonathan Taylor Thomas, became a teen heartthrob).

Each episode included his "Tool Time" program (a parody of PBS' "This Old House) with assistant Al Borland (played by Richard Kam), in which Allen would inevitably have a hilarious accident from playing with too much power.

The eight-season series, based on Allen's stand-up comedy, won numerous awards and its finale in 1999 became one of the highest-rated in TV history.

#9. Family Ties

Michael J. Fox, Justine Bateman, Meredith Baxter, Tina Yothers, and Michael Gross in "Family Ties"

Paramount Television

- Viewership: 36.3 million
- Rating: 20.8%
- Share: 35%
- Date: May 14, 1989

Grounded in comedy but also tackling important issues such as alcoholism, "Family Ties" was the family-oriented, Reagan-era sitcom that held the attention of a third of American households for seven seasons in the 1980s. Starring Michael J. Fox as Alex P. Keaton, an ambitious, conservative son to liberal parents Steven and Elyse (Michael Gross and Meredith Baxter), the critically acclaimed series shed light on the political changes happening culture-at-large at the time.

It won multiple awards, including three consecutive Emmy Awards for Fox for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Comedy Series, putting him on the map and launching his long and fruitful film and TV career. A then-unknown Courteney Cox ("Friends") was cast as Fox's girlfriend in the last two seasons.

#8. All in the Family

CBS Television

- Viewership: 40.2 million
- Rating: 26.6%
- Share: 43%
- Date: April 8, 1979

TV Producer Norman Lear's legendary, critically acclaimed sitcom "All in the Family" changed the face of television when it premiered in 1971. The #1-rated series ran until 1979 (continued as "Archie Bunker's Place"). The series focused on the infamous bigot Archie Bunker (Carroll O'Connor), his wife Edith (Jean Stapleton), daughter Gloria (Sally Struthers), and son-in-law Mike (Rob Reiner), and their discussions of the hot-button political and social issues of the day.

All four actors won Primetime Emmy Awards. Lear's father in real life called him "Meathead," and his family members were always shouting, something he mimicked in "All in the Family" and its spinoffs "Maude," "Good Times," "The Jeffersons," and "Gloria."

#7. The Cosby Show

Bill Cosby and Keshia Knight Pulliam in "The Cosby Show"

NBC Television

- Viewership: 44.4 million
- Rating: 28.0%
- Share: 45%
- Date: April 30, 1992

"The Cosby Show" was stand-up comedian Bill Cosby's hit family sitcom that ran from 1984 to 1992. The series was conceived by Marcy Carsey and Tom Werner, and focused on the Huxtables, an upper-middle-class Black family living in Brooklyn, helmed by then-TV-Dad-favorite Dr. Cliff Huxtable (Cosby).

Having been nominated for and winning numerous awards, it was one of the first successful sitcoms to feature a predominantly African American cast, spawning a spinoff, "A Different World." The show ranked #1 in the Nielsen ratings for five consecutive seasons, though its legacy has since become tangled up with Cosby's sexual abuse allegations. It is no longer aired as a result.

#6. The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson

Johnny Carson and Carl Reiner in "The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson"

NBC Television

- Viewership: 50.0 million
- Rating: 30.0%
- Share: 46%
- Date: May 22, 1992

In one of the most unforgettable TV finales in history, Johnny Carson bid 50 million viewers a final "heartfelt good night" after 30 years on the air on "The Tonight Show." Carson is credited with establishing the modern format of the late-night talk show followed by his successors today: a monologue of rapid-fire jokes, sketch comedy, guest interviews, and performances by stand-up comedians and musicians.

Famous guests and guest hosts who appeared on the nightly show included Jay Leno (who took over the program from 1992 to 2014), Joan Rivers, David Letterman, Bob Newhart, and Jerry Lewis.

#5. Magnum, P.I.

Tom Selleck and Paul Burke in "Magnum, P.I."

Belisarius Productions

- Viewership: 50.7 million
- Rating: 32.0%
- Share: 48%
- Date: May 1, 1988

From 1980 to 1988, Tom Selleck was Thomas Magnum, a private investigator in Oahu, Hawaii, on the popular crime drama series "Magnum, P.I." Created by Don Bellisario ("JAG" and "NCIS"), storylines centered around Magnum's cases and his luxurious, beachside life (including his thick mustache and aloha shirts). Selleck, who won an Emmy Award for his work on the series, was unable to appear in "Indiana Jones" because of the show; the part instead went to Harrison Ford.

CBS greenlit a reboot in 2018, but canceled it in 2022 because of a licensing issue. NBC picked it up for a fifth and sixth season through 2023.

#4. Friends

Courteney Cox, Matthew Perry, and David Schwimmer in "Friends"

Warner Bros. Television

- Viewership: 52.5 million
- Rating: 29.8%
- Share: 43%
- Date: May 6, 2004

The iconic, hit sitcom "Friends" followed the adventures of six 20-somethings in 1990s Manhattan. Originally paid $22,500 per episode, each ensemble cast member—Jennifer Aniston, Courteney Cox, Lisa Kudrow, Matt LeBlanc, David Schwimmer, and Matthew Perry—became huge stars as a result of the show. They also became best friends off-screen—most notably Aniston and Cox.

When 52.5 million viewers tuned in to the series finale when it aired in 2004, it became the most-watched entertainment telecast since the "Seinfeld" finale in 1998.

#3. Seinfeld

Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Jerry Seinfeld in "Seinfeld"

NBC

- Viewership: 76.3 million
- Rating: 41.3%
- Share: 58%
- Date: May 14, 1998

Created by Larry David ("Curb Your Enthusiasm") and Jerry Seinfeld, "Seinfeld" is considered one of the most influential sitcoms in TV history. A "show about nothing," the series broke tradition with its quirky ensemble cast that refused to be sentimental about much of anything.

Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Michael Richards, and Jason Alexander each helped deliver many of the trademark catchphrases from the series, such as "yada, yada, yada" and "not that there's anything wrong with that." News of the series finale made the front page of New York newspapers and brought in an audience of more than 76 million viewers when it aired in May of 1998 after nine seasons.

#2. Cheers

Kirstie Alley, Woody Harrelson, and Ted Danson in "Cheers"

Charles/Burrows/Charles Productions

- Viewership: 84.4 million
- Rating: 45.5%
- Share: 64%
- Date: May 20, 1993

For 11 seasons, the popular sitcom "Cheers" took viewers to a Boston-based bar "where everybody knows your name." It was nearly canceled during its first season for poor ratings but eventually became one history's highest-rated and most critically acclaimed shows.

The all-star ensemble cast included Ted Danson as Sam Malone, the owner and bartender at Cheers, Shelley Long as Diane Chambers, Kelsey Grammer as Frasier Crane, Kirstie Alley as Rebecca Howe, and Woody Harrelson as Woody Boyd. The show earned 111 Primetime Emmy Award nominations, winning 28 of them.

#1. M*A*S*H

Alan Alda, Brett Cullen, and Gene Evans in "M*A*S*H"

20th Century Fox

- Viewership: 105.9 million
- Rating: 60.2%
- Share: 77%
- Date: Feb. 28, 1983

After 11 seasons on the air, the 1983 series finale for "M*A*S*H" became the most-watched series finale in TV history, with nearly 106 million viewers tuning in—77% of the households that had televisions at the time. Based on the novel and 1970 feature film of the same name, the dramatic-comedy series focused on the team of army doctors stationed in South Korea during the Korean War, starring an ensemble cast led by Alan Alda as Hawkeye Pierce and Loretta Swit as Margaret Houlihan.

The series was nominated for more than 100 Emmy Awards and won 14, as well as several Humanitas awards and a Peabody award for its "profound statement on the nature of war."

Our Papers

Ad blocker detected

We have noticed you are using an ad blocking plugin in your browser.

The revenue we receive from our advertisers helps make this site possible. We request you whitelist our site.