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TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate 

Ranker TV
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Updated March 10, 2020 1.3M votes 74.9k voters 793.2k views 391 items

Since about the early 2000s, TV audiences have been blessed with what many experts call The Golden Age of Television. In other words, TV has never been so darn good or so darn smart. This list features smart TV shows that are currently running new episodes, even if we’re just anxiously awaiting for a fresh season. Here are the best shows with the best writing, characters, and storylines that smart people watch.

There are several reasons why TV has never been better. First, there are more channels that cater to different tastes. Not only are cable networks like AMC and FX churning out Emmy Award winning dramas, but streaming channels like Amazon and Netflix, are also producing high-caliber programming that are not constricted to the tight guidelines typically associated with network television.

It’s not just about cursing and showing a little nudity, it’s about telling complicated stories that don’t just wind up neat and tidy at the end of a half hour episode. It’s safe to say that television is not just for the masses anymore to simply idle away wasted evenings, a smart TV show is a welcomed form of entertainment in even the most highbrow of houses.

You will see the total gamut of programming on this list. There’s the animated comedies. It’s true that a middling 8-year-old can watch The Simpsons or Family Guy and be extremely entertained. But, for the shows to truly be appreciated, an intellectual mind is needed to pick up on all of the nearly laugh-a-second nuances and understand the less obvious references.

Additionally, programs like True Detective, Sherlock, and Fargo, offer a lot of hidden meaning. The better read the viewer is, the more the material will come to life. It’s not to say that a regular Joe Schmo can’t enjoy a show like The Americans, of course they can. However, these types of shows aren't dumbed down. They require a person to actually pay attention, to be active spectators aware of narrative shifts, and to be able to put the pieces of a complicated puzzle together without a lot of hand holding.

Which intelligent TV shows are your favorite? Be sure to vote up the TV series you think are the smartest shows on television.

Data-driven recommendations based on voting from over 40 million monthly visits to Ranker. Try the free app
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1
Sherlock is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Martin Freeman & Una Stubbs (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Premiered: 2010

Number of Seasons: 3

Genres (Tv): Crime Fiction, Action/Adventure, Police procedural, Crime, Drama, + more

Sherlock is a British television crime drama that presents a contemporary adaptation of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes detective stories. Created by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss, it ...more

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2
House is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Lilian Stock Bonzi added Starring Hugh Laurie, Omar Epps & Robert Sean Leonard (Fox Broadcasting Company)

Premiered: 2004

Number of Seasons: 8

Genres (Tv): Black comedy, Medical drama, Procedural drama, Drama, Mystery, + more

House (Fox, 2004) is an American television medical drama created by David Shore. The show's main character is Dr. Gregory House, a pain medication-dependent, unconventional, misanthropic ...more

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3
Breaking Bad is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
-1456031746037 added Starring Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul & Anna Gunn (AMC)

Premiered: 2008

Number of Seasons: 5

Genres (Tv): Black comedy, Crime Fiction, Crime, Suspense, Drama, + more

Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008) is an American drama television series created and produced by Vince Gilligan. A high school chemistry teacher diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer turns to ...more

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4
Game of Thrones is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Peter Dinklage, Lena Headey & Emilia Clarke (HBO)

Premiered: 2011

Number of Seasons: 8

Genres (Tv): Medieval fantasy, Drama, Adventure film, Epic, Action, + more

Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011) is an American fantasy drama television series created by David Benioff and D. B. Weiss, based on the series of fantasy novels by George R. R. Martin. Nine noble ...more

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5
The X-Files is listed (or ranked) 5 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Lilian Stock Bonzi added Starring David Duchovny, Gillian Anderson & Mitch Pileggi (Fox Broadcasting Company)

Premiered: 1993

Number of Seasons: 11

Genres (Tv): Cryptozoology, Supernatural, Crime Fiction, Drama, Live action, + more

The X-Files is an American science fiction horror drama television series created by Chris Carter. The program originally aired from September 10, 1993 to May 19, 2002 on Fox, spanning nine ...more

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6
Firefly is listed (or ranked) 6 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
MidnaTP added Starring Nathan Fillion, Gina Torres & Alan Tudyk (Fox Broadcasting Company)

Premiered: 2002

Number of Seasons: 1

Genres (Tv): Space Western, Space opera, Drama, Comedy-drama, Science Fiction

Firefly is an American space western science fiction drama television series created by writer and director Joss Whedon, under his Mutant Enemy Productions label. Whedon served as an executive ...more

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7
Dexter is listed (or ranked) 7 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Angie Meche added Starring Michael C. Hall, Jennifer Carpenter & David Zayas (Showtime)

Premiered: 2006

Number of Seasons: 8

Genres (Tv): Black comedy, Crime Fiction, Action/Adventure, Police procedural, Suspense, + more

Dexter (Showtime, 2006) is an American television drama series. Set in Miami, the series centers on Dexter Morgan, a blood spatter pattern analyst for Miami Metro Police Department who also ...more

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8
Doctor Who is listed (or ranked) 8 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant & Matt Smith (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Premiered: 1963

Number of Seasons: 38

Genres (Tv): Sci-fi, Adventure, Drama

Doctor Who (BBC, 2005) is a British science-fiction television show created by Sydney Newman, C. E. Webber, and Donald Wilson. The further adventures in time and space of the alien adventurer ...more

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9
Star Trek: The Next Gene... is listed (or ranked) 9 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
William Patrick Consoliver added Starring Patrick Stewart, Brent Spiner & Jonathan Frakes (CBS)

Premiered: 1987

Number of Seasons: 7

Genres (Tv): Action/Adventure, Drama, Adventure film, Action, Science Fiction

Star Trek: The Next Generation is an American science fiction television series created by Gene Roddenberry twenty-one years after the original Star Trek series debuted in 1966. Roddenberry, ...more

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10
House of Cards is listed (or ranked) 10 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Kevin Spacey, Michel Gill & Robin Wright (Netflix)

Premiered: 2013

Number of Seasons: 6

Genres (Tv): Political drama, Political thriller

House of Cards (Netflix, 2013) is an American political drama television series developed by Beau Willimon, and an adaptation of the BBC mini-series based on the novel by Michael Dobbs. ...more

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11
Westworld is listed (or ranked) 11 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Brody Hillstock added Starring Evan Rachel Wood, Thandie Newton & Jeffrey Wright (HBO)

Premiered: 2016

Number of Seasons: 3

Genres (Tv): Sci-fi, Drama, Western

Westworld (HBO, 2016) is an American science fiction western thriller television series created by Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy, and based on the 1973 film. In a technologically advanced Wild ...more

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12
Vikings is listed (or ranked) 12 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Mike Dishmon added Starring Travis Fimmel, Katheryn Winnick & Clive Standen (History)

Premiered: 2013

Number of Seasons: 6

Genres (Tv): War film, Drama, Historical fiction, Action

Vikings (History, 2013) is a historical drama television series created by Michael Hirst. A farmer (Travis Fimmel) rises to fame by successful raids into England, and eventually becomes a ...more

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13
Criminal Minds is listed (or ranked) 13 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Shemar Moore, Matthew Gray Gubler & Thomas Gibson (A&E)

Premiered: 2005

Number of Seasons: 15

Genres (Tv): Crime Fiction, Police procedural, Crime, Suspense, Drama, + more

Criminal Minds (CBS, 2005) is an American police-procedural television program. The series follows a team of profilers from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit based in Quantico, Virginia. The ...more

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14
MythBusters is listed (or ranked) 14 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Jon Lung and Brian Louden (Discovery Channel)

Premiered: 2003

Number of Seasons: 13

Genres (Tv): Non-fiction, Special Interest, Educational television, Science, Documentary, + more

MythBusters is a science entertainment television program created by Peter Rees and produced by Australia's Beyond Television Productions for the Discovery Channel. The series is transmitted by ...more

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15
Jeopardy! is listed (or ranked) 15 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Alex Trebek, Johnny Gilbert & Jimmy McGuire (NBC)

Premiered: 1964

Number of Seasons: 35

Genres (Tv): Game show

Jeopardy! is an American television game show created by Merv Griffin. The show features a quiz competition in which contestants are presented with general knowledge clues in the form of ...more

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16
Penny Dreadful is listed (or ranked) 16 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
bubbletrouble added Starring Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton & Eva Green (Showtime)

Premiered: 2014

Number of Seasons: 3

Genres (Tv): Horror, Supernatural, Mystery

Penny Dreadful (Showtime, 2014) is a British-American horror drama television series created by John Logan. Explorer Sir Malcolm Murray (Timothy Dalton), American gunslinger Ethan Chandler (Josh ...more

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17
Hannibal is listed (or ranked) 17 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
CorbyDaniel added Starring Hugh Dancy, Mads Mikkelsen & Caroline Dhavernas (NBC)

Premiered: 2013

Number of Seasons: 1

Genres (Tv): Police procedural, Crime, Drama, Psychological thriller, Thriller

Hannibal (NBC, 2013) is an American psychological thriller–horror television series developed by Bryan Fuller. The series is based on characters and elements appearing in the novel Red Dragon by ...more

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18
M*A*S*H is listed (or ranked) 18 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Kevin R. McMonagle added Starring Alan Alda, Wayne Rogers & Loretta Swi (CBS)

Premiered: 1972

Number of Seasons: 11

Genres (Tv): Black comedy, Medical drama, Sitcom, Satire, Military, + more

M*A*S*H is an American television series developed by Larry Gelbart, adapted from the 1970 feature film MASH. The series, which was produced in association with 20th Century Fox Television for ...more

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19
Downton Abbey is listed (or ranked) 19 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Hugh Bonneville, Phyllis Logan & Elizabeth McGovern (ITV)

Premiered: 2010

Number of Seasons: 6

Genres (Tv): Drama

Downton Abbey is a British period drama television series created by Julian Fellowes and co-produced by Carnival Films and Masterpiece. It first aired on ITV in the United Kingdom and Ireland on ...more

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20
Stranger Things is listed (or ranked) 20 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Andrew Parmi added Starring Winona Ryder, David Harbour & Finn Wolfhard (Netflix)

Premiered: 2016

Number of Seasons: 3

Genres (Tv): Sci-fi, Horror, Supernatural, Period drama

Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016) is an American science fiction-horror web television series created by The Duffer Brothers. When a young boy (Noah Schnapp) disappears, his mother (Winona Ryder), ...more

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21
American Horror Story is listed (or ranked) 21 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Isabela Quintão added Starring Connie Britton, Dylan McDermott & Evan Peters (FX)

Premiered: 2011

Number of Seasons: 9

Genres (Tv): Anthology, Horror, Supernatural

American Horror Story (FX, 2011) is an American anthology horror television series created by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk. An anthology series centering on different characters and locations, ...more

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22
Last Week Tonight with J... is listed (or ranked) 22 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring John Oliver, David Kaye & Noel MacNeal (HBO)

Premiered: 2014

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, 2014) is an American late-night talk and news satire television program hosted by comedian John Oliver. The half-hour-long show takes a satirical look at ...more

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23
Fringe is listed (or ranked) 23 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Starring Anna Torv, Joshua Jackson & Jasika Nicole (Fox Broadcasting Company)

Premiered: 2008

Number of Seasons: 5

Genres (Tv): Drama, Horror Film, Mystery, Thriller, Science Fiction

Fringe is an American science fiction television series created by J. J. Abrams, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci. It premiered on the Fox Broadcasting network on September 9, 2008, and concluded ...more

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24
Mr. Robot is listed (or ranked) 24 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate

Premiered: 2015

Genres (Tv): Drama, Thriller

Mr. Robot (USA Network, 2015) is an American drama–thriller television series created by Sam Esmail. Elliot (Rami Malek), a cybersecurity engineer and hacker who suffers from social anxiety ...more

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25
Buffy the Vampire Slayer... is listed (or ranked) 25 on the list TV Shows That Only Smart People Appreciate
Gael added Starring Sarah Michelle Gellar, Alyson Hannigan & James Marsters (UPN)

Premiered: 1997

Number of Seasons: 7

Genres (Tv): Paranormal romance, Supernatural drama, Supernatural, Action/Adventure, Drama, + more

Buffy the Vampire Slayer is an American television series which aired from March 10, 1997 until May 20, 2003. The series was created in 1997 by writer-director Joss Whedon under his production ...more

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