Best Classic TV Shows to Stream Right Now — and Where to Watch Them
With the need for content at a premium, it’s not just enough to stick to the shows you know. Television has a rich history going back decades, though you might not know it considering how much of it is — or, more often than not, isn’t — available to stream. But with so much time on our hands it’s worthwhile to seek out the shows made before the rise of the Peak TV streaming era that you can actually access. Prepare to laugh, cry, and scratch your head with some of the best classic TV shows available right now:
Note: “Classic” in this sense is defined as within the last 30 years. Hate to tell you, fellow millennials, but our television has officially gone retro.
“Alfred Hitchcock Presents” (1962-1965)
There’s no greater way to learn about horror and tension than with the Master of Suspense himself, director and auteur Alfred Hitchcock. From the minute the series’ iconic theme music plays and Hitchcock’s shadow emerges to fill in his famous outline, the audience knows to expect 26-50 minutes (depending on which season you watch) of excitement. The anthology series sees Hitchcock introduce each story that generally involved crime and deceit. The series came right as Rod Serling’s “The Twilight Zone” was winding down and is often considered in league with the series. Hitchcock helmed 17 episodes, and 0ther big names behind the camera throughout the series’ run include Arthur Hiller, Robert Altman, Ida Lupino and William Friedkin. You’ll also get quite the acting showcase with appearances from stars Steve McQueen, Bruce Dern, and Bette Davis. You can stream the complete series on Hulu.
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“The Flintstones” (1960-1966)
You can meet the modern Stone Age family on your television! The animated sitcom was developed in the early 1960s by animation impresarios William Hanna and Joseph Barbera as a riff on “The Honeymooners.” The show was the first animated series to ever hold a primetime slot, airing on ABC for six season. If you don’t remember the opening credits, the series follows Fred Flintstone, his wife Wilma, and their neighbors, the Rubbles, as they navigate the Stone Age with an eye towards the modern day. It also was one of the first animated shows to get A-list guest stars, from the likes of Tony Curtis (playing a character called Stony Curtis) and Ann-Margret (playing a character named, you guessed it, Ann-Margrock). The show has become a landmark in classic television, as well as animation history, inspiring a cadre of merchandise, theme parks, and two film adaptations. The Flintstones can be streamed via Amazon with a subscription to Boomerang.
“The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” (1990-1996)
The minute you see the title the theme song is already in your head. The series that gave us Will Smith is available via DirectTV and Sling, providing you six seasons of entertainment. As the theme song says, Smith plays a West Philadelphia “born and raised” teen sent to live with his wealthy family in the tony section of Los Angeles known as Bel Air. “The Fresh Prince” was the brainchild of music mogul Benny Medina and was, in fact, based on his own life. But by the 1990s the idea of black teen living with a privileged white family, like Medina’s background, had been the plotline of numerous series throughout the 1970s and 1980s. So, instead, the show took a turn and created a world made up of African-Americans and, more importantly, putting the spotlight on a black family living in a wealthy white neighborhood. “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” looked at all manner of serious topics throughout its six seasons, from racial profiling to parent abandonment. The series also became a trending topic to explore how wealthy African-Americans had to act in order to be accepted by white peers. It also gave us Smith’s charisma and the Carlton dance, can’t forget that.
“The Golden Girls” (1985-1992)
If you can’t hang out with your own friends there’s no better substitute than “The Golden Girls,” streaming on Hulu. Over its seven seasons on NBC, “The Golden Girls” focused on four older single women who end up living together in Miami. The show’s ensemble stars became household names, if they weren’t already (including living legend Betty White). The show was an instant hit in 1985 and became a ratings juggernaut that hadn’t been seen — especially with an ensemble group of women — since “I Love Lucy.” “The Golden Girls” went on to win 11 Emmy Awards throughout its run, with all four actresses winning individual awards. More importantly, “The Golden Girls” broke the mold in its focus on women over 50, something that still isn’t particularly common.
“I Love Lucy” (1951-1957)
The most famous of all sitcoms can now be streamed in its entirety via both CBS and Hulu, in their original, non-colorized state no less. Lucille Ball plays the wacky Lucy Arnaz who, over 181 episodes does anything and everything to “be in the show” put on by her husband, Cuban bandleader Ricky Ricardo (Desi Arnaz). “I Love Lucy” consistently ranks high as one of the most beloved, and influential, television shows in existence. Ball’s physical comedy is second-to-none and inspired a host of imitations throughout the 1950s. The show has sparked all manner of essays and thinkpieces with regards to its depiction of Latinos to the role of women in the 1950s, enhancing its reputation. At the end of the day, though, it’s just a great series to put a smile on your face. If you need a quick pick-me-up there’s nothing an episode of “I Love Lucy” can’t fix.
Based off of the 1970 Robert Altman movie of the same name, “M*A*S*H” was a situation comedy about key members of the United States Army’s Mobile Army Surgical Hospital working in Korea. Both the movie and series connected with audiences coming out of the grips of the Vietnam War, and took difficult topics (like what we now know as PTSD) and discussed them with a mix of seriousness and levity. “M*A*S*H” was nominated for over 100 Emmy Awards throughout its 11-year run and would win 14; five of those awards would go to leading man Alan Alda for Best Actor, Director and Screenwriter on various episodes. The series’ final episode, entitled “Goodbye, Farewell and Amen” would break the record for the number of audiences watching it on their televisions. It was both the most-watched and highest-rated single episode in television history. You can stream all 11 seasons of “M*A*S*H” over at Hulu.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968-2001)
Mister Rogers really has become the embodiment of light in times of darkness. The 2018 Morgan Neville-directed documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” returned Fred Rogers to our collective consciousness, with Marielle Heller taking the story and turning it into a narrative with last year’s “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” But now you have the opportunity to go back to the beginning with seven seasons of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” via Amazon Prime. The series followed the titular Fred Rogers as he teaches children about tolerance, human kindness, and other joyous topics, while visiting his puppet friends in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. With so much feeling uncertain and frightening, and with kids being home, now might be the perfect time to introduce (or revisit) Mister Rogers and his neighborhood.
“Murder, She Wrote” (1984-1996)
There’s nothing like a little murder in a beautiful locale to help chase the blues away. “Murder, She Wrote” tells the story of successful mystery writer and sleuth Jessica Fletcher (Angela Lansbury) as she solves homicides in her small Maine town of Cabot Cove. “Murder, She Wrote” has been lampooned a lot over the years, particularly for the fact that Cabot Cove, according to the show at least, is the murder capital of the world. The series was a consistent ratings darling over its 12 seasons, giving Lansbury a second life after a lengthy career in movies. The actress holds the record for the most Golden Globe and Emmy nominations. The entire series isn’t currently available to stream but you can get 5 of the 12 seasons under your belt via Amazon Prime.
“Mystery Science Theater 3000” (1988-1999)
If you’re looking for a television series with an actual movie inserted in you can’t do better than “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” The show initially started in 1988 before becoming a staple on the then-burgeoning Comedy Central Channel throughout the 1990s. Every episode sees original host Joel Hodgson (who was later replaced by Mike Nelson) playing a lowly employee on the intergalactic spaceship, the Satellite of Love. For various reasons that would change based on the season, the host and his robot compatriots would be forced to watch a terrible B-movie, providing commentary at the bottom of your screen. The series has showcased bad-movie staples like “Manos: The Hands of Fate” and “Eegah,” and are great fun to watch with anyone who enjoys so-bad-they’re-good movies. The show was rebooted in 2017 for Netflix with a more modern slate of bad content, but there’s nothing like the original. You can classic episodes of “MST3K” using the Shout Factory! app available on Roku, Amazon and Apple TV. There’s also a 24/7 channel purely dedicated to the show available to watch for free on Pluto TV.
“Perry Mason” (1957-1966)
Before HBO reboots the series with Matthew Rhys, now is the time to revisit the original detective, Perry Mason. The stories of the Los Angeles-based criminal defense attorney initially started in a series of novels written by Erle Stanley Gardner. From there, the books were adapted into six feature films released between 1934 and 1937, predominately with Warren William playing Mason. The novels also into a 15-minute series of radio episodes for CBS Radio between 1943-1955. But the most famous iteration saw actor Raymond Burr playing Mason and helping the wrongly accused achieve justice. “Perry Mason” easily outdistanced its competition in the ratings, particularly the juggernaut that was “Bonanza,” which made its cancellation in 1966 a great mystery that’s really never been solved. The show was later revived in 1973 but only lasted half a season. You can stream seven of the nine seasons of “Perry Mason” via CBS.
“The Rockford Files” (1974-1980)
There have been a lot of sharp-dressed detectives in television and film, but there are none to beat James Garner’s Jim Rockford. Like detectives Sam Spade or Phillip Marlowe, Jim Rockford is a private detective solving crimes while living out of a small trailer in Los Angeles. The film is pure 1970s cheese, with a lot of uniquely dated costumes and high hair. But what makes the series so watchable is Garner, whose charisma and charm makes him a leading man you can’t help but be drawn towards. Really, “The Rockford Files” just seemed so slick and cool. It probably explains why the series has failed to be revived; a 2010 television reboot starring Dermot Mulroney went nowhere, and a 2011 feature film starring Vince Vaughn didn’t make it far. IMDb TV has all six seasons of “The Rockford Files” to stream now.
“The Simpsons” (1989-Present)
Where “The Flintstones” was the first animated sitcom to hold a primetime spot, “The Simpsons” has held a similar position for over 30 years. The story of the Simpsons and their neighbors living in Springfield has been documented in all manner of books and essays. Then again, what do you expect from both the longest-running American sitcom and the longest-running American scripted primetime series in television history? There’s not a piece of popular culture that “The Simpsons” hasn’t lampooned and with all those accolades; it’s a show that doesn’t necessarily need to be sold. The reason to watch it is you’ve probably watched several episodes and just need that joy of visiting old friends. You can stream all 30 seasons of “The Simpsons” (that’s over 600 episodes) on Disney+.
“The Twilight Zone” (1959-1964)
In 1959 writer Rod Serling created the anthology series “The Twilight Zone.” The series explored the topics Serling himself found interesting, from questions of morality, to definitions of personal happiness, greed, and desire. A large portion of episodes discussed the military – Serling served in the Army – and was one of the first to tackle racism against Asian-Americans. Each episode generally ended with a twist, a moral, and Serling’s intro and outros to the camera to remind the audience that they’d just entered “the Twilight Zone.” The series is one of the few classic shows to remain a staple on traditional cable, having regular marathons on New Year’s Day and the Fourth of July. Classic film stars like Ida Lupino, Roddy McDowall, and Robert Duvall were some of the few to star in various episodes. Jordan Peele would reboot the series, presenting them as longer episodes, on CBS All Access. The benefit to watching the original series on Hulu – where you can stream all five seasons – is you can see them in their uncut format since Syfy Channel usually cuts them to fit their commercial breaks.
“Twin Peaks” (1990-1991)
The first two seasons of David Lynch’s mind-bending murder mystery can be streamed in their entirety on both Hulu and CBS. The series focuses on FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) who is sent to the small town of Twin Peaks, Washington to solve the murder of local beauty Laura Palmer. The series initially premiered against the mega-hit show “Cheers,” so it was assumed the series would meet a quick and easy demise. But first two episodes received a large audience and massive critical acclaim. But in the early-1990s, it was unlike anything audiences had seen and the drop-off between episodes was stark. Its home network, ABC, never truly got what the show was about – believing it to be a typical murder show when Laura Palmer’s death was really a MacGuffin – and moved the first season around the schedule. By the second season, Lynch and the network were at odds and the series suffered from a severe downturn in quality leading to a hasty cancellation. But the show had a remarkable cult following and Lynch would cultivate a strong movie career after “Twin Peaks’” demise. The series would return for a revival in 2017, garnering even more critical love than was seen in its earlier incarnation.
“The Wonder Years” (1988-1993)
Who doesn’t love a good coming-of-age drama? “The Wonder Years” centers around suburban teenager Kevin Arnold (Fred Savage), his family, friends, and girlfriend as they live through the years 1968 to 1973. The series attracted both Baby Boomers who’d grown up during the time the series is set in, as well as adolescents and teens of the late-1980s who identified with Kevin’s predicaments. In fact, much like the recent “Lizzie McGuire” controversy, a key reason why “The Wonder Years” was canceled in 1993 was because the producers and ABC couldn’t agree on how to progress Kevin into adulthood; ABC wanted more simplistic storylines. “The Wonder Years” would go on to inspire a wave of teen dramas, ushering in the arrival of “My So-Called Life.” The NBC series “American Dreams” would also draw comparisons to “The Wonder Years” with its 1960s setting. “The Wonder Years” is available to stream on Hulu.
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