(Photo by Jack Rowand/The CW; Gene Page/AMC; ABC/Richard Cartwright)
With the number of scripted primetime and streaming series estimated to top 500 in 2018, new series are encountering a much more difficult environment to break through than ever before, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible. And it also doesn’t mean that viewers are abandoning their favorite series in favor of new things; in fact, just the opposite might be true. Faced with such a sprawling TV landscape, it almost seems easier to stick with something you know you love than to take a chance on something new.
These 11 enduring shows have been on the air anywhere from nine to 30 seasons, and they range from animated comedies to family sitcoms, dark crime procedurals to genre favorites. But they all have one thing in common: They continue to cut through the clutter and attract big audiences deep into their runs, which is a true feat in the age of Peak TV.
Here’s our list of the longest-running primetime scripted series on television right now. And, why won’t they die? Because people absolutely love them!
It’s official: The Simpsons is the longest-running scripted series on primetime television in the U.S. — ever (surpassing previous record-holder Gunsmoke in 2018). Doofus dad Homer, housewife mom Marge, 10-year-old troublemaker son Bart, 8-year-old activist daughter Lisa, and baby Maggie haven’t aged over the 29 seasons and 639 episodes that have aired. Why is TV’s bright yellow first family still sticking around Springfield after all these years? The show combines topical, pop-culture-centric (and sometimes edgy) humor with a sensibility that has evolved through the years depending on the political climate, while keeping family front and center. While the series’ Golden Age has passed, it has had some standout later seasons, ending 2017 at No. 50 in the ratings behind Lethal Weapon and above Life in Pieces. Its 29th season also has a 99% on the Tomatometer, but on only five reviews with many industry watchers recently focusing instead on the controversy surrounding how the series handled criticism about the character Apu.
Another animated series featuring un-aging characters — fourth graders Stan, Kyle, Cartman, and Kenny — South Park has been on the air for two decades and has already been renewed through its 23rd season, which will come in 2019. While animation typically has long lead times — most shows are written and animated well in advance — South Park remains more topical than any other scripted show on television (save for maybe Saturday Night Live), because for the past nearly 20 years, each episode is written and produced the week before it airs, keeping it relevant and greatly contributing to the show’s success. Creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone also created one of the biggest hits on Broadway (The Book of Mormon) and several feature films, but nothing has endured as long as their crown-jewel series.
In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. In New York City, the dedicated detectives who investigate these vicious felonies are members of an elite squad known as the Special Victims Unit. These are their stories. And — unfortunately — their stories are as relevant as ever after two decades. While it’s the only show from Dick Wolf’s original TV empire still on the air, the SVU detectives occasionally cross over to the TV megaproducer’s Chicago-set series. Plus, there’s no discounting the star power of Mariska Hargitay, a.k.a. Sgt. Olivia Benson (namesake of Taylor Swift’s second cat), the only Law & Order lead cast member to win an Emmy for the series, and activist fighting to end the backlog of untested rape kits in the United States.
Much like The Simpsons, Family Guy is about a working-class family of five, the Griffins. And, much like The Simpsons, it also has a brash (and sometimes downright offensive) mix of highbrow and lowbrow humor. While the series is an equal-opportunity offender — nothing is sacred — it also can follow a reference to a classical painter with a fart joke. And let’s not forget its sometimes eerily prescient predictions, like in 2007 when it seemingly foreshadowed the circumstances surrounding Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death. Star and creator Seth MacFarlane is involved with plenty of other shows and movies, but he keeps coming back to the series that made him a household name. The upcoming season will tackle Donald Trump and fake news, the Me Too movement, and will rename the town’s high school after Adam West (the beloved actor, who voiced the series’ oddball character named after him, died in 2017 at the age of 88).
This long-running procedural follows a team of special agents at the Naval Criminal Investigative Service — and is actually a spin-off (from military court drama JAG, which also lasted an impressive 10 seasons). But NCIS has spawned two spin-offs of its own (set in Los Angeles and New Orleans) while maintaining a large number of its core cast. The good thing about a crime procedural is that there will never be a dearth of subject matter, but it’s really the ensemble — Mark Harmon as boss Gibbs, David McCallum as medical examiner Ducky, and Sean Murray as cybersecurity whiz McGee lead the pack — that has earned the loyalty of fans over the years. And the fans tune in, too: the show has finished among the top 5 scripted broadcast series for the past decade.
Seattle Grace Hospital has gone through numerous staff and name changes — it’s Grey Sloan Memorial now, and RIP McDreamy — but at its core, Grey’s Anatomy is the same show it was a decade and a half ago. The doctors at Seattle’s preeminent hospital — led by Meredith Grey (the ever-charming Ellen Pompeo) — are still saving lives and dealing with soap opera drama in their spare time. While the series leaned heavily on the dramatic for a while, the past two seasons have brought back the light heart and humor that infused the first few seasons. That’s also allowed Pompeo to shine — and prove why she’s the star of the show (and earns every penny of her major paycheck). Although Shonda Rhimes moved her TV empire to Netflix for any new productions beyond those currently airing, ABC will want to hold on to this TGIT anchor series for as long as possible. Plus, since it’s streaming, new fans can catch up before the next season airs on ABC.
While most TV crime procedurals focus on the victims and the detectives solving the crimes, Criminal Minds follows the criminals instead — and the team of special agents profiling them. It’s creepy and eerie, and there’s an argument to be made about the link between its continued popularity and the current true-crime craze. Plus, much like NCIS, the cast has ultra-loyal fans. When CBS fired AJ Cook and reduced the episode count for Paget Brewster, fans rioted — and both were brought back full-time the following season.
UPDATE: On March 22, 2019, star Jared Padalecki shared a video on Twitter in which he and costars Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins announced that season 15 would be the series’ last.
Padalecki and Ackles were twentysomething teen heartthrobs when they were cast in The CW’s longest-running series. Now, they’re both married fathers of three. The two play demon-hunting brothers Sam and Dean Winchester, who encounter supernatural creatures including angel Castiel, demon Crowley, Lucifer, and even God as they drive their Impala, Baby, around the country fighting evil. The series has gone through several different showrunners, but the CW boss has said as long as Padalecki and Ackles want to do the show, it’ll stay on the air. Despite the failure of two spin-offs — Wayward Sisters and Supernatural: Bloodlines, which both aired backdoor pilots within the run of the original series — Supernatural remains the longest-running fantasy series on TV.
It might be more than a decade old, but The Big Bang Theory is still one of the biggest shows on television, and its stars, including Kaley Cuoco, Johnny Galecki, Jim Parsons, Simon Helberg, and Kunal Nayyar, are some of the highest-paid actors on TV. (They all earn a reported $900,000 to $1 million per episode, with their costars Mayim Bialik and Melissa Rauch making $500,000 each.) Between the broad comedy of Chuck Lorre’s series and the way its characters manage to evolve in a way that’s not typically seen in a multi-camera sitcom, viewers keep coming back to CBS (and syndication). It was the second-most-watched comedy in the 2017-18 season, with only the rebooted Roseanne beating it in the ratings.
After years dominating the Emmys, ABC’s family sitcom seems to be in the late stages of its run (the creators have said they’ve thought season 10 would be the end). But there’s no denying the impact this multi-generational comedy has had on society. Prominently featuring a gay couple might not seem groundbreaking now — and it shouldn’t have been in 2009, either — but it was, and it paved the way for other non-traditional families on TV. The enduring quality of the show’s writing and the charm of its cast mixed with a reliable family-conquers-all formula have kept the series in the top of tier of ratings, with Modern Family rounding out the top 10 of highest rated scripted primetime series last year.
Rick Grimes and co. have been fighting the zombie apocalypse for years now, but somehow the walkers still aren’t their biggest threat – other humans have proven to be the most dangerous. TWD remains the highest-rated scripted TV series because of its built-in comic book fan base, gorgeous cinematography, Fresh writing (the first six of its eight seasons are Certified Fresh on the Tomatometer, while the two most recent seasons are still Fresh) with occasional watercooler moments, a reliable horror factor that has mesmerized gorehounds since the beginning, and, yet again, a talented ensemble cast, including Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Melissa McBride, Danai Gurira, Lauren Cohan, and — RIP, Carl and Glenn! — Chandler Riggs, and Steven Yeun. With Lincoln officially saying goodbye in the upcoming ninth season, TWD should retain its must-watch status for at least another season — but all bets are off for what comes next.