(Photo by Hulu)

Best Hulu Shows by Tomatometer

Updated January 3, 2022

The top shows on Hulu include some of the most prestigious and binge-worthy series out there. The Handmaid’s Tale’s instant success helped establish itself as one of the best shows on Hulu and the streamer as a major player in the originals game. Other Hulu shows have since become known as buzz-worthy and prestige programs, and the addition of FX on Hulu has added the cable network’s titles to the Hulu list.

Just consider some of the newest additions to our list, Certified Fresh at 100% and 98% respectively. First up there’s Only Murders In the Building, the madcap comedy mystery series starring Steve Martin, Martin, Short, and Selena Gomez. And then there’s the groundbreaking Reservation Dogs, a hilarious new series from co-creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi about four young indigenous teens in Oklahoma.

Parent company Disney’s acquisition of 21st Century Fox also means that new Hulu TV shows can appear both on cable channel FX and streaming service Hulu, and that FX and FXX series like Atlanta, Better Things, Justified, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Nip/Tuck can now be found on the streaming platform too, alongside existing originals  Pen15, Castle Rock (based on Stephen King’s works), Harlots, Shrill, Catch-22, and Veronica Mars.

Rotten Tomatoes has put together a guide to every single Fresh-rated Hulu, FX, FX on Hulu, and National Geographic series you can stream on the service. To be included in our list of the best Hulu series, titles must be Fresh (60% or higher on the Tomatometer) and have at least 10 reviews, including episodic reviews like those on horror anthology series Into The Dark.

Recently Added: Score changes following the debut of the second half of Pen15 season 2.

Tyrant (2014)
60%

#88
Synopsis: Bassam "Barry" al-Fayeed, who has fully assimilated to living in America, is the son of a Middle Eastern dictator. Barry... [More]

Sex&Drugs&Rock&Roll (2015)
61%

#87
Synopsis: Early '90s band The Heathens lived up to that name offstage as well as on it, partying hard and using... [More]
Directed By: Denis Leary, Jim Serpico

#86
Synopsis: A "Wilderness of Error" is a five-part documentary series based on the book of the same name by filmmaker and... [More]
Starring:

The First (2018)
66%

#85
Synopsis: This sci-fi drama set in the near future tells the story of a crew of astronauts who are attempting to... [More]
Directed By: Beau Willimon

Into the Dark (2019)
69%

#84
Synopsis: Horror events inspired by holidays.... [More]
Directed By: Alexander Koehne

A Teacher (2020)
72%

#83
Synopsis: This drama series examines the complexities and consequences of an illicit sexual affair between a young teacher and her student.... [More]

Woke (2020)
74%

#82
Synopsis: Keef is an African-American cartoonist on the verge of mainstream success when an unexpected event changes his life; with a... [More]

#81
Synopsis: In early 1990s New York, Bobby Diggs strives to unite a dozen young black men who are torn between music... [More]

Synopsis: Based on The New York Times best-selling book of the same name, "The Most Dangerous Animal of All" is a... [More]

Chance (2016)
75%

#79
Synopsis: Based on Kem Nunn's acclaimed novel, this provocative thriller follows Dr. Eldon Chance ("House" star Hugh Laurie), a San Francisco-based... [More]

Y: The Last Man (2021)
76%

#78
Synopsis: Based on DC Comics' acclaimed series by Brian K. Vaughan and Pia Guerra, the drama "Y: The Last Man" traverses... [More]

Taboo (2017)
76%

#77
Synopsis: Adventurer James Keziah Delaney, long believed to be dead, returns home to London from Africa in 1814 in order to... [More]

Marvel's Hit-Monkey (2021)
77%

#76
Synopsis: A vengeful Japanese snow monkey and the ghost of an American assassin cut down Tokyo's underworld.... [More]

The Path (2016)
77%

#75
Synopsis: Aaron Paul ("Breaking Bad") stars in this Hulu original as Eddie Lane, a member of a new-age spiritualist movement known... [More]

#74
Synopsis: "American Horror Story" was created by the co-creators of "Glee," but the shows have little in common besides that. The... [More]

Trust (2018)
78%

#73
Synopsis: Inspired by actual events, "Trust" delves into the trials and triumphs of one of America's wealthiest and unhappiest families, the... [More]

#72
Synopsis: The intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family and an enigmatic mother and daughter who upend their lives.... [More]

The Strain (2014)
79%

#71
Synopsis: Dr. Ephraim Goodweather, the head of the CDC's New York-based Canary Project, is called upon to investigate when an airplane... [More]

Dimension 404 (2017)
80%

#70
Synopsis: Deep in cyberspace, there is said to be a lost dimension that is home to unspeakable terrors, unseen wonders and... [More]

Hillary (2020)
80%

#69
Synopsis: An intimate portrait of former first lady and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton; how she became one of the... [More]

Thief (2006)
81%

#68
Synopsis: After a job goes bad, professional thief Nick Atwater becomes the target of Chinese gangsters and a crooked cop. Complicating... [More]

The League (2009)
81%

#67
Synopsis: Some friends who are all avid fantasy football fans try to balance their time between the league and their real... [More]

Fosse/Verdon (2019)
81%

#66
Synopsis: Spanning five decades, "Fosse/Verdon" explores the singular romantic and creative partnership between Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. Bob is a... [More]

Monsterland (2020)
82%

#65
Synopsis: Encounters with mermaids, fallen angels and other strange beasts drive broken people to desperate acts.... [More]

Devs (2020)
82%

#64
Synopsis: "Devs" is an FX limited series that focuses on a young software engineer named Lily Chan who works for Amaya,... [More]

11.22.63 (2016)
83%

#63
Synopsis: James Franco plays the role of Jake Epping, an ordinary high school teacher, who is presented with a chance to... [More]

Wilfred (2011)

#62
Synopsis: Elijah Wood stars in this comedy based on a popular Australian series of the same name. Wood plays Ryan, a... [More]

The Handmaid's Tale (2017)
83%

#61
Synopsis: Based on the best-selling novel by Margaret Atwood, this series is set in Gilead, a totalitarian society in what used... [More]

Dave (2020)
84%

#60
Synopsis: "Dave" centers on a neurotic man in his late 20s who has convinced himself that he's destined to be one... [More]

Catch-22 (2019)
84%

#59
Synopsis: Artful dodger Yossarian is a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force during World War II who is upset that thousands... [More]

()
%

#58

Das Boot (2018)
85%

#57
Synopsis: A story of choices and survival that explores the emotional torment of life during World War II -- and the... [More]

Marvel's Runaways (2017)
85%

#56
Synopsis: There are times when pretty much every teenager thinks his or her parents are evil -- but what if it... [More]

The Riches (2007)
86%

#55
Synopsis: Wayne and Dahlia Malloy, along with the kids, are Irish con artists and thieves -- Travellers as they're called. After... [More]

Mayans M.C. (2018)
86%

#54
Synopsis: "Mayans M.C." follows the life of Ezekiel "EZ" Reyes, a newly patched member of the Mayans M.C. charter on the... [More]

High Fidelity (2020)
86%

#53
Synopsis: Rob, a record-store owner in the rapidly gentrified Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn, revisits past relationships through music and pop... [More]

The Mindy Project (2012)
86%

#52
Synopsis: Mindy Lahiri is a successful, skilled doctor, but when she leaves the office, all bets are off. She aspires to... [More]

Dopesick (2021)
87%

#51
Synopsis: How one company triggered one of the worst drug epidemics in American history.... [More]

Snowfall (2017)
87%

#50
Synopsis: "Snowfall" is a drama set against the infancy of the crack cocaine epidemic in Los Angeles and its ultimate radical... [More]

Shrill (2019)
87%

#49
Synopsis: Annie is a full-figured woman who wants to change her life -- but not her body; she is trying to... [More]

Sons of Anarchy (2008)
87%

#48
Synopsis: Single father Jax Teller finds his loyalty to his outlaw motorcycle club tested by his growing unease concerning the group's... [More]

Marvel's M.O.D.O.K. (2021)
88%

#47
Synopsis: While pursuing his dream of conquering the world, a megalomaniacal supervillain runs his evil organization into the ground.... [More]

The Act (2019)
88%

#46
Synopsis: Dee Dee Blanchard is overprotective of her daughter, Gypsy, who is trying to escape the toxic relationship she has with... [More]

The Looming Tower (2018)
88%

#45
Synopsis: "The Looming Tower" traces the rising threat of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida in the late '90s and how a... [More]

Castle Rock (2018)
88%

#44
Synopsis: The psychological-horror series set in the Stephen King multiverse combines the mythological scale and intimate character storytelling of his works,... [More]

Staged (2020)
89%

#43
Synopsis: David Tennant and Michael Sheen's play is put on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.... [More]
Directed By: Simon Evans

()
%

#42

Rescue Me (2004)
89%

#41
Synopsis: New York firefighter Tommy Gavin is a hot mess. He talks to his cousin, Jimmy, who died at the World... [More]

City So Real (2020)
90%

#40
Synopsis: Featuring the city of Chicago, set against the backdrop of its history-making 2019 mayoral election, and the tumultuous 2020 summer... [More]
Starring:
Directed By: Steve James

The Bisexual (2018)
90%

#39
Synopsis: New Yorker Leila lives in London with her girlfriend of 10 years and business partner, Sadie, but Leila has a... [More]

Animaniacs (2020)
90%

#38
Synopsis: The Warner siblings wreak havoc in the lives of everyone they meet.... [More]

The Shield (2002)
90%

#37
Synopsis: Vic Mackey is a rogue cop in an experimental division of the Los Angeles Police Department, willing to sink to... [More]
Directed By: Shawn Ryan, Scott Brazil

Archer (2010)
90%

#36
Synopsis: The suave, confident and devastatingly handsome Sterling Archer may be the world's greatest spy, but he still has issues with... [More]

Breeders (2020)
91%

#35
Synopsis: "Breeders" explores the paradox experienced by nearly all parents, the willingness to die for one's children coupled with the near-constant... [More]

Future Man (2017)
91%

#34
Synopsis: Janitor Josh Futturman leads a pretty boring life, spending much of his time playing video games when he's not working.... [More]

This Way Up (2019)
91%

#33
Synopsis: A smart young teacher tries to pull her life back together after a nervous breakdown.... [More]

Damages (2007)
91%

#32
Synopsis: While still pursuing big litigation cases, high-powered attorney Patty Hewes has been caring for her granddaughter and experiencing a second... [More]

Normal People (2020)
91%

#31
Synopsis: Marianne and Connell come from different backgrounds but the same small town in Ireland, weaving in and out of each... [More]

Legion (2017)
91%

#30
Synopsis: David Haller is a troubled young man who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a child. Shuffled from one psychiatric institution... [More]

Terriers (2010)
92%

#29
Synopsis: Former cop Hank Dolworth and his best friend, Britt Pollack, team up to open their own private investigation agency. They... [More]

Looking for Alaska (2019)
92%

#28
Synopsis: Miles "Pudge" Halter wants to gain a deeper perspective on life, so he enrolls in boarding school. While he's there,... [More]

Sasquatch (2021)
92%

#27
Synopsis: After hearing a haunting story about a savage Bigfoot attack, David Holthouse revisits Northern California 25 years later to hunt... [More]
Starring: David Holthouse

Baskets (2016)
92%

#26
Synopsis: Chip Baskets has always dreamed of being a classically trained clown. After flunking out of French clown college -- probably... [More]

Casual (2015)
92%

#25
Synopsis: You can go home again -- sort of. Bachelor Alex Cole finds himself living with his newly divorced sister in... [More]

Synopsis: In this day and age of heightened political unrest and deep-rooted factions in the U.S., Sarah Silverman is doing her... [More]
Starring: Sarah Silverman

Fargo (2014)
93%

#23
Synopsis: In this anthology series inspired by the 1996 film, each season follows a mostly new cast of characters who get... [More]

Legit (2013)
94%

#22
Synopsis: Jim Jefferies stars in this comedy series as Jim, an edgy, foul-mouthed comic from Australia -- essentially a fictionalized version... [More]

Man Seeking Woman (2015)
94%

#21
Synopsis: Naive 20-something Josh Greenberg is in search of love. Things aren't exactly in his favor to find his ideal mate... [More]

The Great (2020)
94%

#20
Synopsis: A genre-bending, anti-historical ride through 18th-century Russia following the wildly comedic rise of Catherine the Nothing to Catherine the Great.... [More]

Synopsis: Depraved underachieving might look easy, but for the egocentric Mac, Charlie, Dennis, Frank and Dee, it's an art form. "It's... [More]

Mr Inbetween (2018)
95%

#18
Synopsis: "Mr Inbetween" is a half-hour comedy series inspired by the cult film "The Magician" and centers around Ray Shoesmith. Juggling... [More]

The Wrong Mans (2013)
95%

#17
Synopsis: A case of mistaken identity catapults two council employees into the middle of a deadly conspiracy.... [More]

Love, Victor (2020)
95%

#16
Synopsis: "Love, Victor" is set in the world of the groundbreaking movie, "Love, Simon," which was inspired by Becky Albertalli's acclaimed... [More]

You're the Worst (2014)
95%

#15
Synopsis: "You're the Worst" is a modern look at love and happiness told through the eyes of two people who haven't... [More]
Directed By: Stephen Falk

#14
Synopsis: A family of aliens from a better world must take refuge in middle America; they disagree on whether Earth is... [More]

Difficult People (2015)
96%

#13
Synopsis: Life is really tough for Julie and Billy, two 30-something aspiring comics living and working in New York City. While... [More]

Ramy (2019)
96%

#12
Synopsis: Ramy Hassan is a first-generation Egyptian-American who is on a spiritual journey in his politically divided New Jersey neighborhood. He... [More]

Mrs. America (2020)
96%

#11
Synopsis: "Mrs. America" tells the story of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), and the unexpected backlash led... [More]

National Treasure (2016)
97%

#10
Synopsis: Much-loved comedian Paul Finchley faces an accusation of rape dating back to the 1990s.... [More]

McCartney 3,2,1 (2021)
97%

#9
Synopsis: Paul McCartney sits down for an in-depth one-on-one with music producer Rick Rubin to discuss his groundbreaking work with The... [More]

Harlots (2017)
97%

#8
Synopsis: In this drama set in 18th century London, Samantha Morton stars as Margaret Wells, a brothel owner and mother to... [More]

PEN15 (2019)
97%

#7
Synopsis: This comedy series depicts middle school as it really happened. Comics Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play versions of themselves... [More]

Atlanta (2016)
97%

#6
Synopsis: Two cousins work through the Atlanta music scene to better their lives and the lives of their families. Earn Marks... [More]

Better Things (2016)
97%

#5
Synopsis: "Better Things" is the story of Sam Fox, a single mother and working actor with no filter trying to raise... [More]

Synopsis: Based on the feature film of the same name from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, "What We Do in the... [More]

Justified (2010)
97%

#3
Synopsis: Deputy Raylan Givens has his own, Wild West-style methods of upholding justice, putting him at odds with the criminals he... [More]

Reservation Dogs (2021)
98%

#2
Synopsis: Four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma steal, rob, and save in order to get to the exotic, mysterious, and faraway... [More]

Synopsis: Three strangers share an obsession with true crime and suddenly find themselves wrapped up in one. When a grisly death... [More]


Read More:


Thumbnail image: Rafy Winterfeld/FX

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating with a series of features that look back at the brightest moments on screen of the past two decades – and one year – and the things that have us excited for the future.

The mortality rate for television characters has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Really, since cable shows like Game of Thrones — with its Stark family curse — chucked out the rule book governing the survival of beloved characters, no one is safe.


Spoiler alert! This article contains plot details for major character deaths in Game of ThronesThe Walking Dead, and 19 other TV shows.


The best surprise deaths can make viewers mourn for fictional characters. When it’s just a publicity stunt or a blatant contract termination, it doesn’t hurt quite as bad. Real-life losses like John Ritter (8 Simple Rules), Phil Hartman (NewsRadio), and Bill Paxton (Training Day), are a different sort of heartrending tragedy.

Rotten Tomatoes rounded up 21 of the most shocking and heartbreaking TV deaths of the last 21 years, which you can read below. Fictional characters only.

Want to argue for a more heartbreaking death? Tell us in the comments below.


21. Laurel Lance (Katie Cassidy), Arrow 86%

The CW

(Photo by The CW)

This most certainly was NOT in the comics! Laurel returned so that softened the blow a little bit, but Cassidy’s goodbye episode of Arrow was brutal. Sent to the hospital after fighting Damien Darhk (Neal McDonough), the doctors made us think she was going to be OK before flatlining her.


20. Lizzie Samuels (Brighton Sharbino), The Walking Dead 80%

The Walking Dead, season 4 episode 14 "The Grove" Melissa Mcbride as Carol and Brighton Sharbino as Lizzie screencap (AMC)

Carol (Melissa McBride) had a crushing decision to make in season 4 episode “The Grove.” After Lizzie killed her own sister and indicated that she planned to kill more — and saw nothing wrong with that — and knowing that there is no way to manage a person having a dangerous psychotic break when you’re on the run with an infant during a zombie apocalypse, Carol made the call to shoot the girl. It was a shocking turn of events in the series and even became a meme (“look at the flowers”).


19. Lane Pryce (Jared Harris), Mad Men 94%

Lane takes his own life after Don discovers he’s embezzled money to cover debts and insists that the SCDP partner resign. The series plumbed the depths of Lane’s despair over his perceived failure, and yet his extreme response was still somehow thoroughly unexpected for the buttoned-up Brit.


18. Teri Bauer (Leslie Hope), 24 87%

Teri Bauer - 24

(Photo by Fox)

24 was a game-changing show for executing its real-time format an hour at a time for 24 hours, and showing the toll it takes on Jack (Kiefer Sutherland) — beginning with the loss of his wife Teri.


17. Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo), The Sopranos 92%

Adriana - The Sopranos

(Photo by HBO)

When a family member cooperates with the FBI, there’s really only one thing for a Soprano to do about it. That didn’t make it any easier to say goodbye to Adriana when Silvio (Steven Van Zandt) drove her out to the woods and chased her through the forest.


16. William (Ron Cephas Jones), This Is Us 93%


William’s death was inevitable from the beginning of This Is Us. Randall (Sterling K. Brown) found him already in the final stages of cancer. On a father-son road trip to Memphis to find out more about William’s childhood, William’s health declined before they could make it home. At least they got to reconnect with one final trip, and William got to leave this Earth with the love of his family.


15. Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), Nashville 91%

Rayna - Nashville

(Photo by CMT)

After an automobile accident, country superstar Rayna James passed away in the hospital. It’s still sad to see an exit so permanent, but Britton’s heartfelt thank you note to all the fans and her colleagues jerked even more tears.


14. Carl Grimes (Chandler Riggs), The Walking Dead 80%


Carl was just a kid when The Walking Dead started. As he grew up, he grew into more and more of a central character, much to some fans’ discontent. Still, few wished him actual harm. Carl went out the way most supporting characters do on The Walking Dead: death by zombie. At least his bite gave him time to say goodbye and gave Rick a chance to wail “Caaaarrrruuuullll” once more with feeling.


13. Rita Bennett Morgan (Julie Benz), Dexter 71%

Rita Bnnett/Morgan - Dexter

(Photo by Showtime)

Why didn’t Dexter (Michael C. Hall) kill Trinity (John Lithgow) sooner? Once Trinity was onto Dexter, he knew how to hurt him. By the time Dexter finished him off, it was too late. Dexter came home to find his wife, Rita murdered in the bathtub. This was the ultimate reminder that killing serial killers doesn’t make anything right. The victims they took away are still gone.


12. Will Gardner (Josh Charles), The Good Wife 93%

Will Gardner - The Good Wife

(Photo by CBS)

When it came time for Charles to depart the series on which he’d starred for five seasons, his character, Will, didn’t just move to another city. He was shot to death by his own client in the courtroom in a legitimately shocking episode made all the more impactful by the fact that news of Charles’ imminent exit did not leak beforehand.


11. Charlie Pace (Dominic Monaghan), Lost 85%

(Photo by ABC)

It’s hard to single out one death from Lost since the show was so good at making us attached to every character. In the end, it had to be Charlie sacrificing himself to warn Desmond it was NOT PENNY’S BOAT radioing the Oceanic survivors.


10. Wallace (Michael B. Jordan), The Wire 94%

(Photo by HBO)

Jordan was only 15 when he played a teenage drug dealer on HBO’s landmark series The Wire, making the moment when druglord Stringer Bell (Idris Elba) orders his murder all the more tragic.


9. Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke), Game of Thrones 89%

Game of Thrones season 8, episode 6, series finale "The Iron Throne" (HBO)

(Photo by HBO)

The Mother of Dragons and Breaker of Chains went power mad in the final moments of the series as she ascended to became ruler of Westeros. Ultimately, however, she wasn’t even able to sit on the Iron Throne she’d dreamed about as a kid; she was betrayed by her lover-nephew, Jon Snow/Aegon Targaryen (Kit Harington), who professed his loyalty, then kissed her while stabbing her in the heart mere feet from her father’s throne.


8. Matthew Crawley (Dan Stevens), Downton Abbey on Masterpiece 86%

Matthew Crawley - Downton Abbey

(Photo by ITV)

Crawley estate heir Matthew was so happy to be a new father that he took his eyes off the road to appreciate nature, causing the fatal accident that shocked viewers. Fans later found out that Stevens wanted off the show to explore other opportunities.


7. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies), Prison Break 61%

Sara Tancredi - Prison Break

(Photo by Fox)

Callies could have made our list as Lori Grimes in The Walking Dead for her death during pregnancy, but on Prison Break her head was in a box! Fans demanded her return, so she came back and even showed up in the Fox reboot for a fifth season. At the time during season 3, her demise sure felt permanent.


6. Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland), Buffy the Vampire Slayer 83%

(Photo by The WB)

Buffy (Sarah Michelle Gellar) herself came back to life twice, but her mother Joyce did not have magic to resurrect her. For all the supernatural demons and monsters on Buffy, the Vampire Slayer, Buffy spent one very real hour dealing with a loved one’s death.


5. Denny Duquette (Jeffrey Dean Morgan), Grey's Anatomy 84%

Denny Duquette - Grey's Anaomy

(Photo by ABC)

Denny’s death was a real gut punch, because throughout the entire second season of the long-running medical drama, it looked like Izzie (Katherine Heigl) had done everything to save her patient-boyfriend, including violating protocol to get him a heart transplant. The transplant itself took, but Denny still died of a blood clot and stroke. The silver lining is this role made Morgan a star.


4. Catelyn, Robb, and pregnant Talisa Stark + direwolf Grey Wind (Michelle Fairley, Richard Madden, Oona Chaplin), Game of Thrones 89%

While earlier deaths in the HBO hit fantasy series tipped fans off that anyone could go at any time, the episode nicknamed “The Red Wedding” (season 3, episode 9 “The Rains of Castamere”) took Game of Thrones death pools to another level. Half of the surviving Stark family died in the massacre carried out by Lord Walder Frey and his murderous brood: family matriarch Catelyn, King in the North Robb, his wife Talisa, and their unborn child. And while Roose Bolton was thrusting a dagger into Robb, his men outside killed Robb’s direwolf, Grey Wind, further stunning an audience that was perhaps hoping the animal might avenge its faithful human companion.


3. Glenn Rhee (Steven Yeun), The Walking Dead 80%

Jeffrey Dean Morgan as Negan, Steven Yeun as Glenn Rhee, Christian Serratos as Rosita Espinosa, Norman Reedus as Daryl Dixon - The Walking Dead _ Season 7, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Gene Page/AMC

On another show where anyone could go at any time, The Walking Dead really psyched people out over the death of main character Glenn. First they made everyone think he died in a walker horde, but then he was somehow safe under a dumpster. Later, Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) beat him beyond recognition as, with his last words, he called out to wife Maggie (Lauren Cohan).


2. Ned Stark (Sean Bean), Game of Thrones 89%


By the end, almost no Game of Thrones death was shocking, but this was the first — and it was the one that told viewers that if the star of the show could die, anyone could. It happened just when things were looking up for Bean, after famously dying in Goldeneye and Lord of the Rings too. For a while, the meme #DontKillSeanBean became a thing.


1. Jack Pearson (Milo Ventimiglia), This Is Us 93%

After Jack escaped the Pearson family’s burning house — saving everyone and the dog — fans all breathed a collective sigh of relief. But he wasn’t safe yet. Viewers were gobsmacked when This Is Us delivered the cruelest twist, killing Jack with a massive heart attack related to smoke inhalation. Because of the NBC series’ unique format, however, this is one character that fans get to spend time with even after he’s dead.


LOST, (from left): Josh Holloway, Terry O'Quinn, Daniel Dae Kim, Yun Jin Kim, Naveen Andrews, Dominic Monoghan, Malcolm David Kelley, Harold Perrineau, Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lilly, Jorge Garcia, Maggie Grace, Ian Somerhalder, (Season 1), 2004-2010. photo: Bob D'Amico / © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection

(Photo by Bob D'Amico / © ABC / Courtesy: Everett Collection)

In 2019, Rotten Tomatoes turns 21, and to mark the occasion we’re celebrating with a series of features that look back at the brightest moments on screen of the past two decades – and one year – and the things that have us excited for the future. 

The first episode of a TV series is the most crucial episode of the entire show: It introduces the characters and the plot, sure, but most importantly, it helps viewers decide immediately whether they want to keep watching.

In the Peak TV era, that’s more important than ever — especially since the internet means literally any TV series that ever existed is usually just a few clicks away from streaming directly into your brain (OK, not yet, but soon).

Rotten Tomatoes consulted the Tomatometer and more than a half-dozen reputable best-of lists to very scientifically rank the top 21 TV pilots of the past 21 years (no, seriously, there were spreadsheets involved). We also applied a touch of editorial discretion to make some big calls, leaning into which have stood the test of time. What resulted is a list that includes series dating from 1999 to 2017. They’re sci-fi classics, beloved sitcoms, teen dramas, and dystopian commentary. And they all have one thing in common: They’re brilliant, re-watchable television.


Pushing Daisies 96%


Rank: 21
Network: ABC
Premiere date: October 3, 2007
Stars: Lee Pace, Anna Friel, Kristin Chenoweth

Creator Bryan Fuller’s distinct, quirky style is on full display in the pilot of his canceled-too-soon Pushing Daisies. The pun-tastic episode name alone — “Pie-lette” — shows you exactly what tone to expect from the bright, fun series (which, since it’s actually about star-crossed lovers who can’t touch because one possesses a supernatural gift that would lead to the death of the other, is quite a feat).


Alias 86%


Rank: 20
Network: ABC
Premiere date: September 30, 2001
Stars: Jennifer Garner, Bradley Cooper, Michael Vartan, Merrin Dungey

Jennifer Garner may have at one time been married to Batman, but the true action star of that marriage was definitely the woman also known as Sydney Bristow. Garner was smart and funny and badass as the CIA double agent working to bring down an evil alliance — plus she had a collection of wigs that The Americans’ Elizabeth Jennings would envy. The pilot episode not only showed off Garner’s badassery, but also allowed the world to fall in love with the girl next door who happened to be one of the world’s most accomplished spies.


Orphan Black 93%


Rank: 19
Network: BBC America
Premiere date: March 30, 2013
Stars: Tatiana Maslany, Tatiana Maslany, Tatiana Maslany, Tatiana Maslany

The opening minutes of Orphan Black are intriguing enough, with British twentysomething Sarah Manning encountering a troubled woman on a subway platform moments before she commits suicide — but the shock when the woman turns around and looks identical to Sarah is just as surprising to the audience as it is to Sarah, who soon uncovers a global conspiracy and learns that the woman is one of many who look like her. They’re clones. It’s the first glimpse at the incredible work star Tatiana Maslany does as the seestras, and a fascinating start to an expansive, imaginative modern sci-fi series.


The West Wing 75%


Rank: 18
Network: NBC
Premiere date: September 22, 1999
Stars: Bradley Whitford, Allison Janney, Martin Sheen, Richard Schiff

This behind-the-scenes look at politics is not only smart and funny — Aaron Sorkin at his best — but it also managed to tackle current politics and world affairs in a way that few other shows had been able to before. And while Sorkin’s writing is a direct response to what was going on in the country at the time, it never feels dated. It was instantly thrilling to be transported into the Beltway in the pilot. Part of that can be attributed to the show’s famous walk-and-talk technique, which was established in the first episode.


Six Feet Under 81%


Rank: 17
Network: HBO
Premiere date: June 3, 2001
Stars: Peter Krause, Lauren Ambrose, Frances Conroy, Michael C. Hall

The finale of Alan Ball’s family drama has one of the best closing sequences of all time — just try to listen to Sia’s “Breathe Me” and not cry, we dare you — but what’s sometimes lost is how original and even magical the pilot is as well, setting up the story of the Fisher family and their journeys through life and death.


The O.C. 67%


Rank: 16
Network: Fox
Premiere date: August 5, 2003
Stars: Ben McKenzie, Adam Brody, Mischa Barton, Rachel Bilson

“Welcome to the O.C., bitch.” The pilot for The O.C. is, in some ways, incredibly, painfully 2003 — the fashion alone makes it very apparent when the series takes place — but it’s also a fascinating look at a very specific time in life (high school), with class commentary to boot.


Atlanta 97%


Rank: 15
Network: FX
Premiere date: September 6, 2016
Stars: Donald Glover, Brian Tyree Henry, Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield

Donald Glover’s love letter to his hometown is a slice-of-life look at a group of friends who are just trying to get by. And, despite the series’ humor, it doesn’t devolve into sitcom theatrics, but portrays its inhabitants, setting, and situations authentically. The visually stunning pilot, directed by Hiro Mirai, also showcases honest writing and superb music by Glover, who now has five Grammys as music artist Childish Gambino.


Homeland 85%


Rank: 14
Network: Showtime
Premiere date: October 2, 2011
Stars: Claire Danes, Mandy Patinkin, Damian Lewis

The premiere of Showtime’s long-running CIA drama would’ve been a tense, compelling episode of television no matter what, but Claire Danes’ performance as troubled CIA field operative Carrie Matheson gave us a strong, complex character, and one of TV’s all-time greats.


The Shield 90%


Rank: 13
Network: FX
Premiere date: March 2, 2002
Stars: Michael Chiklis, Walton Goggins

Chiklis won an Emmy for his performance in the pilot as Det. Vic Mackey, a dirty cop who will do anything to keep the streets of Los Angeles free from crime, including commit some himself. Creator Shawn Ryan seemingly wrote himself into a corner in the pilot, when Mackey shoots a fellow cop, but, in truth, Ryan set high expectations that the series would go on to live up to and more over the course of seven seasons.


Friday Night Lights 97%


Rank: 12
Network: NBC
Premiere date: October 3, 2006
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton

Words spoken to many a person about the Texas-set drama: “It’s not about football, though.” And while the first episode of the critically acclaimed series is, yes, about a high school football team and, yes, culminates at a high school football game, it’s also clear that this is a series about family, emotion, class, dedication, and other universal themes.


Mr. Robot 94%


Rank: 11
Network: USA
Premiere date: June 24, 2015
Stars: Rami Malek, Christian Slater, Carly Chaikin, Portia Doubleday

Mr. Robot is a show ostensibly about technology (and, you know, the pitfalls of capitalism), but, as made clear from its first episode, it’s not a show you can watch while scrolling on a smartphone. It’s a show that demands complete attention, something that’s hard to come by in an increasingly distracted world.


The Wire 94%


Rank: 10
Network: HBO
Premiere date: June 2, 2002
Stars: Dominic West, Idris Elba, Wendell Pierce, Michael K. Williams

Tired of friends asking you if you’ve seen The Wire? That’s probably because you haven’t. If you had, you’d join them in gushing about the five-season HBO series about the drug scene in Baltimore. David Simon’s series opens with an hour that perfectly sets a tone that the show admirably maintains throughout its run.


Arrested Development 74%


Rank: 9
Network: Fox
Premiere date: November 2, 2003
Stars: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera

Plenty of TV shows take a bit of time to find the perfect rhythm and tone, but not Arrested Development. From Ron Howard’s narrator to the eccentric Bluths, every character is fully formed in this practically perfect half hour of television.


Battlestar Galactica: The Plan (2009) 83%


Rank: 8
Network: Syfy
Premiere date: December 8, 2003
Stars: Edward James Olmos, Mary McDonnell Katee Sackhoff, Tricia Helfer, Jamie Bamber

While plenty hail the official first episode of the Battlestar Galactica reboot, “33,” as one of TV’s all-time best episodes, that hour owes much of its success to the miniseries that essentially served as a four-hour pilot for the show. The miniseries built a world and introduced characters in much greater detail and depth than any 42-minute broadcast ever can. Is that cheating? Maybe, but it also was directly responsible for the renewed interest in the classic sci-fi property that allowed it to become one of TV’s most critically acclaimed series.


Game of Thrones 89%


Rank: 7
Network: HBO
Premiere date: April 17, 2011
Stars: Emilia Clarke, Peter Dinklage, Kit Harington, Sean Bean

“Winter Is Coming” is both the title of the sprawling HBO drama’s premiere and, as the motto of House Stark, also the promise (or threat?) the series has offered since it began: that dark days are headed to the medieval-esque fictional kingdom of Westeros. Upon its premiere, it was hailed as a strong, faithful adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s book and was successful enough to earn a second season renewal just two days after its debut. (Everything could have been different, however; series creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss famously scrapped the first pilot.)


The Walking Dead 80%


Rank: 6
Network: AMC
Premiere date: October 31, 2010
Stars: Andrew Lincoln, Norman Reedus, Steven Yeun, Jon Bernthal

The opening episode of AMC’s zombie apocalypse series was the network’s highest-rated premiere ever, and the tense installment that opened the show was both stunningly gorgeous and incredibly terrifying, locking in an audience that would stick around to make it one of the biggest shows on television — a true feat in an era of increasingly fractured viewership.


The Sopranos 92%


Rank: 5
Network: HBO
Premiere date: January 10, 1999
Stars: James Gandolfini, Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco

David Chase’s series about mob boss Tony Soprano, the original cable antihero, and his extended family is largely credited with ushering in a second golden age of television. The most acclaimed scene from the pilot, where Tony is feeding ducks in his pool and has a panic attack when they leave, encapsulates Tony’s existential dread, which the series would go on to portray so well.


The Handmaid's Tale 83%


Rank: 4
Network: Hulu
Premiere date: April 26, 2017
Stars: Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd

When Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel was released in 1985, it seemed like a far-off fiction. But the story, about an authoritarian theocratic dictatorship that has taken over the United States and subjugated women to less-than-human roles in society, felt much closer to reality for certain audiences when it premiered in politically turbulent 2017. That timeliness, combined with the stunning direction of experienced cinematographer Reed Morano (for which she won an Emmy) and star Elisabeth Moss’ chilling performance turned the series into a hallmark program of the post-Obama era.


Breaking Bad 96%


Rank: 3
Network: AMC
Premiere date: January 20, 2008
Stars: Bryan Cranston, Aaron Paul, Betsy Brandt, Anna Gunn

The Breaking Bad pilot introduces one of the defining antiheroes of Peak TV: Walter White, a suburban chemistry teacher making ends meet by moonlighting at the car wash until the day he’s diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer and told he has two years to live. The pilot shows the exact moment Walt begins his descent from hero to villain: when he recruits his former student Jesse Pinkman to help him make crystal meth (and the money he’ll need for his family when he’s gone).


Mad Men 94%


Rank: 2
Network: AMC
Premiere date: July 19, 2007
Stars: John Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery

Matthew Weiner spent years researching the 1950s and ’60s for his iconic series, and the pilot — which he first wrote in 2000 and shelved until after he finished working on The Sopranos — bears the fruit of that meticulous work. It introduces the world of ’60s ad agency Sterling Cooper and its hard-drinking, strikingly handsome, womanizing ad exec Don Draper along with the distinct visual style and tone that would define the series.


Lost 85%


Rank: 1
Network: ABC
Premiere date: September 22, 2004
Stars: Matthew Fox, Evangeline Lily, Josh Holloway, Jorge Garcia

The pilot of Lost is two hours long, which might seem a little like cheating, but it’s actually the perfect distillation of what the series would turn out to be: scary, mesmerizing, and sometimes very, very confusing. Our hero Jack wakes up after his plane crash-lands — then immediately snaps into action and tries to use his skills as a doctor to save as many of his fellow passengers as possible. They’re all trapped on a tropical island, and — oh yeah, there’s a polar bear. Wait, what? That’s something we would continue saying well into the series’ six-season run.


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No one is safe on The Walking Dead — except for maybe Rick (Andrew Lincoln). Other central characters can be killed off week to week, and the uncertainty has often been the most exciting part of watching the show. In the midseason premiere of season 8, AMC’s hit zombie series said goodbye to a character who has been on the show since the very beginning.


Spoiler alert! This article contains plot details for a major character death in The Walking Dead and 18 other TV shows.



The mortality rate for television characters has increased dramatically in the last two decades. Really, since cable shows like Game of Thrones — with its Stark family curse — chucked out the rule book governing the survival of beloved characters, no one is safe. The best surprise deaths can make viewers mourn for fictional characters. When it’s just a publicity stunt or a blatant contract termination, it doesn’t hurt quite as bad.

Real-life losses like John Ritter (8 Simple Rules), Phil Hartman (NewsRadio), and Bill Paxton, who was starring in CBS series Training Day when he died in 2017, are a different sort of heartrending tragedy.

Here are 19 of most heartbreaking TV deaths of the last 20 years. Fictional characters only.

Want to argue for a more heartbreaking death? Tell us in the comments below.

 

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