Rotten Tomatoes has been going strong since August 1998 and began aggregating reviews for TV and giving series Tomatometer scores in 2013. As we celebrate our 25th birthday this year, we’re looking back at some of the TV milestones reached in that time. Some of the trends we’ve witnessed over the years include the dominance of reality television — both unscripted and competition programming — over traditional scripted drama and comedy; the ascendance of DVD subscription service Netflix to monster streaming giant with some of the most popular shows running, from Stranger Things to Squid Game and on; as well as the ebb and flow of cable networks like Game of Thrones home HBO being gobbled up by Discovery. Join us as we look at some facts and figures that made the past 25 years so vibrant.
AMC zombie horror series The Walking Dead has the most critic reviews of any TV or streaming series with 4,130 between its season- and episodic-level reviews across its 11 seasons. Based on the comic book series written by Robert Kirkman, the series and its cast gathered an enormous fanbase as it told the tale of apocalypse survivors searching for a permanent — Walker-free — home. Early stars Andrew Lincoln, Sarah Wayne Callies, Steve Yeun, and Jon Bernthal eventually made way for new actors like Lauren Cohan, Danai Gurira, Ross Marquand, Khary Payton, Christian Serratos, and others to take the lead, while Melissa McBride and Norman Reedus saw their Carol-and-Daryl dynamic through from the very first episode to the very last.
Here’s what critics said about The Walking Dead:
The 90-minute pilot paints a thoroughly convincing post-apocalyptic world, both visually and emotionally. Yes, it delivers astonishing scenes of devastation, but its more affecting — and more horrifying — concerns are human. (Season 1) –James Poniewozik, TIME Magazine
The element that makes it so much more than a zombie series is driven home pretty quickly – this is a show about the living, and what a horrible mess that can be now that the social fabric isn’t just torn but obliterated. (Season 5) –Tim Goodman, Hollywood Reporter
With multiple spinoffs on the horizon, the show struggled throughout its final season to retain the suspense of the series’ salad days, when seemingly anyone could die at any time. (Season 11, episode 24) –Jessica Liese, Variety
HBO fantasy juggernaut Game of Thrones started its first season with an impressive 224 critic reviews. It was Certified Fresh at 90%. By the end of the series’ run, the show more than tripled that number across season 8’s six episodes. Starring an ensemble cast, many of whom were unknown at the start of the series, Game of Thrones made international superstars of Kit Harington as Jon Snow, Emilia Clarke as Daenerys Targaryen, Sophie Turner as Sansa Stark, Maisie Williams as Arya Stark, and others.
Here’s what critics said about Game of Thrones season 8 in 2019:
I don’t think anyone can be happy that this season focused, in the end, on Jon Snow, the least complicated main character on an ensemble full of brutal instincts and grasping ambition. –Darren Franich, Entertainment Weekly
The oddest aspect of the long-awaited, much derided, but actually pretty good finale of Game of Thrones is that it tries to sell an aristocratic coup as a glorious revolution. –Isaac Butler, Slate
The last season felt a bit rushed at times, thought not nearly as much as the extremely online have been saying, but it was incredibly impressive how the show stayed true to the vision until the end. –Amanda Marcotte, Salon.com
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• Shop Rotten Tomatoes
The highest Tomatometer score possible is, of course, 100%, and the club of TV seasons that have maintained that perfect score is not especially big — there are currently under 170. In truth, it’s easier for a TV season to be Certified Fresh at 100% on 20 reviews, so it’s particularly notable when a season holds onto its perfect score with more reviews. The first season of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, with 106 reviews, can claim bragging rights for having the most perfect perfect score. (We broke the tie between the first seasons of Hacks and Yellowjackets in our list below by looking at those seasons’ “Average Ratings” under “See Score Details.”)
1. Only Murders in the Building, season 1 – 106 reviews
2. Fleabag, season 2 – 99 reviews
3. The Bear, season 1 – 77 reviews
4. Hacks, season 1 – 74 reviews
5. Yellowjackets, season 1 – 74 reviews
Stranger Things season 1 has a 96% Audience Score with almost 14K ratings, the second-highest number of ratings of any TV or streaming series season. The Netflix horror series started out set in the 1980s with a little girl named Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown) with supernatural abilities integrating into the lives of residents of a small Midwestern town. The series’ ensemble cast and nostalgic turns quickly endeared it to viewers. Winona Ryder stars as Joyce Byers, David Harbour as Chief Jim Hopper, Finn Wolfhard as Mike Wheeler, Gaten Matarazzo as Dustin Henderson, Caleb McLaughlin as Lucas Sinclair, Noah Schnapp as Will Byers, Natalia Dyer as Nancy Wheeler, Charlie Heaton as Jonathan Byers, and Joe Keery as Steve Harrington.
Here’s what critics said about Stranger Things season 1 in 2016:
Stranger Things might feel like a mere retro roller coaster were it not for that slow drip of sorrow and trauma, the residue of Reagan-era anxiety about the nuclear family.–Emily Nussbaum, New Yorker
For the most part, and in absolute defiance of the odds, Stranger Things honors its source material in the best way possible: By telling a sweet ‘n’ scary story in which monsters are real but so are the transformative powers of love and fealty. –Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times
Stranger Things has promise as a peculiar and critical historical survey of geek culture. –Jeff Jensen, Entertainment Weekly
What’s the season with the highest number of ratings? Another hit Netflix fantasy series, The Witcher season 1 has over 22K ratings, but a lower Audience Score at 90%.
(Photo by © Columbia TriStar Television/ Courtesy: Everett Collection.)
Seinfeld reached 34.1 million viewers in the 1997-1998 period with a 21.7 Nielsen rating; however, the series ended in May 1998, missing Rotten Tomatoes’ birth by a mere three months. But we’re going to give top spot to the NBC comedy classic anyway for being one of the last broadcast scripted shows to claim such a stellar audience. The series focused on four neurotic single friends living in New York City: a fictionalized version of comic Jerry Seinfeld; working professional Elaine Benes played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus; bumbling George Costanza played by Jason Alexander, and eccentric Cosmo Kramer played by Michael Richards.
Over the course of the show’s nine-season run, the NBC comedy won 10 Emmys on 68 nominations. The series scored nominations for each of its main actors. The show won for Outstanding Comedy Series in 1993, three supporting actor awards for Richards, and one supporting actress award for Louis-Dreyfus. Larry David received an Emmy for writing in 1993, while Larry Charles and Elaine Pope shared another writing Emmy in 1992. Ten-time Emmy nominee Janet Ashikaga won three for editing the show.
The next highest scripted series of the past 25 years was season 5 (2004-2005) of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation on CBS with a 16.5 Nielsen rating, which would place it at No. 6 on the list.
1. Seinfeld (NBC) 1997-1998 – 21.7 rating
2. Who Wants to Be a Millionaire (Tuesdays, ABC) 1999–2000 – 18.6 rating
3. American Idol (Tuesdays, ABC) 2005–2006 – 17.6 rating
4. Survivor (CBS) 2000–2001 – 17.4 rating
5. American Idol (Wednesdays, ABC) 2006–2007 – 17.3 rating
What we’ve learned: A plague of reality television took over at the turn of the 21st century.
(Photo by Joe Del Valle/©Castle Rock Entertainment/Courtesy Everett Collection)
Seinfeld had a monster finale, called “The Finale,” with a 41.3 Nielsen rating and a 58 share with an estimated 75 million viewers. In the episode, NBC picks up Jerry and George’s sitcom, but then the four friends are arrested in a small Massachusetts town for breaking the good Samaritan law. The ending was polarizing to viewers and critics alike.
The hilarious final episode was everything ”Seinfeld” was at its best…. –Caryn James, New York Times
The hype before the Seinfeld farewell was one event the country should never go through again. The sitcom had its weakest season this year and should have gone off the air a year ago. –Hal Boedeker, Orlando Sentinel
It was such a terrible letdown. I don’t know what was worse, the Knicks losing to the Pacers, or this. –Marvin Kitman, Newsday
(Photo by ©NBC/Courtesy Everett Collection)
With 52.5 million viewers, Friends’ May 6, 2004, episode “The Last One” is the second-most-viewed series finale of the past 25 years.
Compared to its hit Seinfeld, NBC took a somewhat different approach to BFF comedy with Friends, which kicked off on September 22, 1994. The series focused on six attractive twenty-somethings living in the same NYC building and starred Jennifer Aniston as privileged Rachel Green, Courteney Cox as chef Monica Geller, Lisa Kudrow as free-spirited singer Phoebe Buffay, Matt LeBlanc as struggling actor Joey Tribbiani, Matthew Perry as corporate accountant Chandler Bing, and David Schwimmer as museum paleontologist Ross Geller. The series lasted 10 seasons and won six Emmy Awards on 62 nominations with one win in 2002 for Outstanding Comedy Series, one going to Aniston for lead actress, one supporting actress win for Kudrow, and two guest actor awards going to Christina Applegate and Bruce Willis.
In the last episode — spoiler alert — Phoebe had previously found her happily-ever-after married to piano-man Mike; married Monica and Chandler, with adopted twins in tow, prepared to move to tony Westchester in the New York suburbs; Rachel and Ross, who had split, reunited when Rachel got off of a plane to her new job in Paris to stay with him; and Joey got his own Hollywood-set spin-off series, Joey.
Here’s what critics said at the time:
The “Friends” soap opera ended predictably and blandly last night, with no big surprises, just two little ones — Monica’s and Chandler’s twins. –Matthew Gilbert, Boston Globe
Kauffman and Crane stick the landing with a two-part series finale that doesn’t forsake the show’s signature comedy for non-stop emotions — though there are plenty of emotional moments too. –Adam Chitwood, Collider
The much anticipated finale episode on NBC signed off with an episode of surprises. But one story line turned out exactly as fans expected. –Bryan Long, CNN.com
Soap opera Days of Our Lives premiered on November 8, 1965, and ran until 2022 on NBC. The show then moved to its new streaming home on Peacock. The streamer announced on March 15 this year that DOOL has been renewed for two more seasons. The series’ enduring appeal could be attributed to reinvention, as cast members cycled in and out and the storylines — amnesia, love triangles, murder, mental health issues, assault, mobsters, and other soapy mayhem — reached ever-fantastical heights. The series is set in the fictional city of Salem, Illinois, and focuses on the Brady and Horton families.
Over the series’ run, stars have included Kristian Alfonso as Hope Brady, John Clarke as Mickey Horton, Deidre Hall as Dr. Marlena Evans, Drake Hogestyn as John Black, Peter Reckell as Bo Brady, Frances Reid as Alice Horton, Suzanne Rogers as Maggie Horton, Alison Sweeney as Sami Brady, and oh so very many more. Fun fact: John Aniston, who played underworld figure Victor Kiriakis for 37 years in the show, is the father of Friends star Jennifer Aniston with actress Nancy Dow, and Friends later incorporated the soap into one of its storylines.
Saturday Night Live has the most Emmy nominations of all time with 305 and the most Emmy wins with 82.
Created by Lorne Michaels, the NBC sketch-comedy series debuted on October 11, 1975, and brought widespread fame to such comedy luminaries as Dan Aykroyd, John Belushi, Dana Carvey, Chevy Chase, Jimmy Fallon, Chris Farley, Will Ferrell, Tina Fey, Bill Hader, Darrell Hammond, Phil Hartman, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Kate McKinnon, Tim Meadows, Eddie Murphy, Bill Murray, Mike Myers, Bob Odenkirk, Amy Poehler, Gilda Radner, Chris Rock, Maya Rudolph, Andy Samberg, Adam Sandler, Molly Shannon, Jason Sudeikis, Kenan Thompson, Kristen Wiig, and many other now-legendary talents. The show’s most frequent hosts include Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin, who have each hosted the show 17 times. The series often sees former SNL cast — Chevy Chase, Tina Fey, Will Ferrell, Bill Murray, and on — return for hosting duties. Drew Barrymore, Tom Hanks, Melissa McCarthy, and Justin Timberlake are also frequent hosts.
SNL cast members Will Ferrell and Chris Kattan starred in October 1998 film release Night at the Roxbury, based on their popular “Roxbury Guys” skit. Fellow cast members Mark McKinney, Colin Quinn and Molly Shannon also appeared in the film, which has an 11% Tomatometer score.
Other popular sketches and characters of the past 25 years include Rachel Dratch’s “Debbie Downer,” Will Forte’s “MacGruber” (also made into a film), The Lonely Island digital shorts, Maya Rudolph’s Donatella Versace, Black Jeopardy, Pete Davidson’s Chad, Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impressions and “More Cowbell” sketch with Christopher Walken, Fred Armisen and Kristen Wiig’s Garth and Kat, Bill Hader’s Stefon, and so many more.
The long-running NBC sketch comedy series is followed in its Emmy dominance by HBO’s Game of Thrones with 160 nominations and 59 wins.
Netflix launched as a DVD subscription service on April 14, 1998, four months ahead of Rotten Tomatoes, but it would be another 14 years before the streaming giant launched its first Netflix Original, Lilyhammer. The series launched in January 2012, starred Steven Van Zandt as Frank Tagliano, a mobster-turned-witness who moves to Norway hide from his enemies, and lasted for three seasons. Netflix programs House of Cards and Derek launched in February 2013, followed by Hemlock Grove (April 2013) and Orange Is the New Black (July 2013).
Streaming services abound now in 2023 — AMC+, Apple TV+, HBOMax, Paramount+, Peacock, Prime Video, and on — but the granddaddy of all streamers is Netflix, which reports that Squid Game is the most popular series of all time with over 1.65 billion hours watched in its first 28 days. Stranger Things season 4 follows with over 1.35 billion hours; Wednesday with 1.23 billion hours; Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story with 856.2 million hours; and Money Heist part 5 with 792.2 million hours.
The most popular English-language TV shows (based on hours viewed in their first 28 days):
1. Stranger Things 4 – 1,352,090,000 hours
2. Wednesday: Season 1 – 1,237,150,000 hours
3. Dahmer – Monster: The Jeffrey Dahmer Story – 856,270,000 hours
4. Bridgerton: Season 2 – 656,260,000 hours
5. Bridgerton: Season 1 – 625,490,000 hours
The most popular non-English-language series (based on hours viewed in their first 28 days):
1. Squid Game: Season 1 – 1,650,450,000
2. Money Heist: Part 5 – 792,230,000
3. Money Heist: Part 4 – 619,010,000
4. All of Us Are Dead: Season 1 – 560,780,000
5. Money Heist: Part 3 – 426,400,000