In October, we provided a list of TV shows that can be binged in 20 hours or less. Now we offer its companion: a rundown of the best shows that require 100 or more hours of binge time. It may seem daunting, but if you’re looking for a big commitment, these comedies and dramas are worth the investment.
Let’s start with a caveat: When a show accumulates a total run time in the triple digits, it’s impossible for every episode to be great. We’re singling out the best, longest-running scripted programs in TV history and zeroing in on the ones that, because of their quality and place in cultural history, are worthy of deep exploration. Some excellent, beloved shows — I Love Lucy, Seinfeld, Lost, Friends, to name just a few — missed that 100-hour cutoff by just that much. Also, the run times for all of these series have been researched and calculated in good faith. If we are off by a little bit, please forgive us.
If The Simpsons created a space for animated series that engage in edgy, cultural commentary — and it unquestionably did — then South Park hacked away at the boundaries of that space with an ax. Cruder and more up-to-the-minute in its satire than The Simpsons, but often just as smart, South Park isn’t consistently great. But its willingness to go to just about any “there” you can come up with is often brave, and, also, sometimes a little gross. (No offense, Mr. Hankey.) 20+ seasons, 100+ hours*.
The Andy Griffith Show
This 1960s sitcom about life in Mayberry was so beloved that even in its last season it was the number-one show in America. Not only is it a family-friendly program filled with endearing characters, it’s also a show that treats small towns as places where people are flawed but still (mostly) intelligent, gracious, and just trying to do the right thing. In other words, it did what series such as Friday Night Lights and Gilmore Girls would emulate decades later. Eight seasons, 103 hours.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
Buffy is one of those shows that scratches all sorts of genre itches: sci-fi/fantasy, teen drama, action-comedy, even musical. It’s a story about teen vampires, but it’s so layered and smart, it has inspired its own field of academic study. To increase your own credibility as a scholar of television (and your understanding of arguments that involve Angel and Spike), it’s worth watching in full. Seven seasons, 106 hours.
If you ask anyone who writes for a current TV comedy to name the shows that most influenced them, Cheers will undoubtedly be one of the first words that trips off their lips. It’s simply one of the best, most influential, longest-running comedies ever, and even though it was made in the ’80s and early ’90s, the humor still holds up. So say it loud, say it together, and say it roughly once per 270 episodes: Norm! 11 seasons, 109 hours.
The Good Wife
The latter seasons of this highly praised CBS legal drama suffered a dip in quality. But there are plenty of reasons to commit to a binge watch, including the most timely one of all: to prepare for that Good Wife spinoff that’s coming in February. Seven seasons, 112 hours.
The West Wing
TV has given us a lot of political series, especially in recent years. But The West Wing remains the gold standard of D.C. dramas, not only because it captures the frenetic pace of working inside the Beltway and often gets wonderfully wonky on matters of policy, but also because it dares to show that politics isn’t just a cesspool of deceit, treachery, and backstabbing. Sometimes, it’s actually inspiring — even after this year’s election. Seven seasons, 115 hours.
Yeah, the seventh, Sherman-Palladino-less season may not be the best. But as a recent Gilmore binger, I can attest that even the episodes that some might consider skippable are still worth watching. There’s something about Stars Hollow that pulls you into its gazebo and twinkling-lights atmosphere and makes you want to keep Netflixing through every single episode, both the greats and the ones where Jess goes to California. Eight seasons (counting the Netflix revival), 119 hours.
Like so many contemporary comedies, M*A*S*H eschews a lot of tropes often associated with sitcoms: it’s a single-camera show rather than a multi-camera one; it drives head-on into serious, dramatic material; it invests deeply in its characters; and although it uses a laugh track, it does so somewhat sparingly. It’s more than 40 years old and, while it was very in sync with post-Vietnam America, M*A*S*H wouldn’t be that out of place on a network or streaming platform today. 11 seasons, 125 hours.
Available on Netflix DVD.
Star Trek: Next Generation
Star Trek was a sci-fi game changer, but The Next Generation was the series that proved the franchise could have a life beyond Captain Kirk. As our Matt Zoller Seitz says of Next Generation in TV: The Book, which he co-authored with Alan Sepinwall: “The series continued the original’s legacy while deepening its multicultural vision and fleshing out every character with a novelistic attention to detail. The result was a milestone in televised science-fiction.” Seven seasons, 133 hours.
The idea of a real-time, hour-by-hour action-thriller seemed very novel when 24 initially debuted. But as the seasons wear on, dammit, Chloe, the challenges Jack Bauer faces became increasingly predictable. Even at its worst, though, 24 was still pretty great at dangling episodic cliff-hangers and keeping the heart pumping. If you watch the show in full, space out the seasons a little to temper the sense that it’s repeating itself. Eight seasons (not counting specials), 138 hours.
Another milestone for televised sci-fi, The X-Files spawned a spinoff, a couple of movies, and this year’s less-than-fully-embraced reboot. Even if you dig into the Mulder-Scully dynamics, conspiracy theories, and freakish monsters while avoiding the most recent season, you’ve still got well over 100 hours of truth that’s out there to explore. 10 seasons, 155 hours.
Little House on the Prairie
Little House is often remembered, like The Andy Griffith Show, as an example of wholesome family entertainment. And a lot of the time, it was. But it also didn’t shy away from depicting hardship or characters behaving in ways that weren’t always becoming. Laura (Melissa Gilbert) could be jealous and petty, and Nellie (Alison Arngrim) was just downright mean. People died, became ill, or, like Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) were struck blind. Things weren’t easy on the prairie, and the idea that viewers of all ages were encouraged to see both the good and bad of that life felt revolutionary in the ‘70s and ‘80s. To this young female audience member, so did the idea of seeing a TV world primarily through the eyes of a girl still in pigtails. Nine seasons, 170 hours.
It’s difficult to pinpoint a moment when mainstream network television officially became more “adult.” But with its realism, rough language, and then-controversial shots of bare butts, NYPD Blue may have been that moment. The David Caruso and Jimmy Smits seasons are considered the drama’s best. But if you’re a cop-show junkie, you’ll want to stick around for the Rick Schroder and Mark-Paul Gosselaar seasons, too. 12 seasons, 191 hours.
The Simpsons has been on since the dawn of humankind, otherwise known as 1990, and shows no sign of stopping. The family from Springfield will likely outlive all non-animated humans, probably all cockroaches, and possibly even planet Earth itself. Of course, when a comedy lasts that long, it’s impossible to hit the same highs that were hit, episode after episode, in the halcyon days of seasons four and five. Still: As this year’s Treehouse of Horror installment proved, it’s still better than many TV sitcoms. Watching every little thing Marge does that’s magic is hardly a waste of your time. 28+ seasons, 230+ hours*.
The medical drama has been a staple of TV since … well, since forever. But when ER, with its dizzying camera work and cinema vérité style, rushed on to the NBC airwaves in 1994, the hospital show felt new again. Admittedly, as the seasons went on and the Clooneys and Margulieses left, ER lost some of its allure. But it’s still one of the quintessential doctor-and-nurse series, and one of the more emotionally affecting. 15 seasons, 249 hours.
Law & Order
The foundation upon which Dick Wolf’s legal series machine was built, Law & Order is what every subsequent legal series must measure up against. If you haven’t seen every episode multiple times over years and years of sick days, go ahead and — dun! dun! — dig into the D.A. drama. 20 seasons, 456 hours.
This classic Western series is best known for its endurance. It debuted on CBS during the first golden age of television and stayed there until the mid-1970s; its presence on TV spanned two decades and five presidential administrations. But Gunsmoke is also credited with bringing more depth and nuance to the genre. Although you might have to squint to see it, this is the pioneering predecessor to Deadwood and Westworld. 20 seasons, 518 hours.
Six seasons available on Amazon with a Starz subscription. Also available on DVD.
Time travel is a trendy topic on TV right now. And in so many ways, we have Doctor Who and the TARDIS to thank for that. The classic sci-fi series that still has Comic-Con currency started in the early 1960s, and has (mostly) stayed on the air for every decade since. (The Doctor did take a break, save for a TV movie, in the ‘90s.) There are a ton of episodes and many, many hours to consume. Best move: Pick your favorite (or potentially favorite) doctors and work from there. 36 seasons (not counting specials), 526 hours.
Saturday Night Live
I know what you’re going to say: Most episodes of SNL don’t warrant watching to completion, let alone all 42 seasons. But no other sketch show has lasted this long nor had such a massive, sweeping influence on American comedy. If you’re a student of this stuff, sketches or entire seasons that bomb (hi, season 11!) serve as an comedic education, not to mention a snapshot of what was happening in America at the time. Watching 1,200+ hours may be an impossibility for a lot of reasons, the chief one being that many seasons are nearly impossible to stream or find on DVD in their entirety (hi, season 11!). But even committing to a fraction of that is still worth it. 42+ seasons, 1,200+ hours*.
Admittedly, this binge watch makes a lot more sense if you’re the parent or guardian of preschoolers. But if you are, it makes so much sense. Sesame Street is the queen mother of children’s television, a groundbreaker that, since 1969, has been teaching kids letters, numbers, and lessons. No, you don’t need to watch all 3,000-plus hours. But some long-term investment in the institution that PBS built will have a positive influence on your children. It may prove even more enjoyable for you, the adult, than you might think. 46+ seasons, 3,600+ hours*.
*Show is still running.