Cult television shows happen when there’s hot soon-to-be-famous people onscreen, they’re written by some genius who did all your favorites, and people can’t stop talking about them even though they’ve been off the air for years. Here are 11 such shows fitting that definition perfectly.
This Joss Whedon (Avengers, Toy Story) creation centers around a teen vampire hunter (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her Scooby Gang (Alyson Hannigan and Nicholas Brendon), who fight evil, fall in love with evil and always deal with evil under the guidance of Buffy’s mentor, Rupert Giles (Anthony Head).
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: Buffy is more than just a TV show — it’s a phenomenon. It launched the vampire on TV category, leading to an entire Buffyverse studied by scholars, academics and philosophers. Just the Buffy Speak alone is a marvel: adding a random “y” to words, like calling it a “shooty gunny thing,” or Buffy’s now iconic “much” at the end of a sentence, as in, “Geek out much?” Culturally, it’s a 10 on the importance scale.
Where to watch: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime
2. The Wire
It’s been called the best show on television by fans and critics alike. A five-season drama that explores the soul of Baltimore on The Wire turns everything from the war on drugs to corruption in politics, education and the media inside out and splatters it on the ground. There has never been a smarter, more intense drama before or since. If you watch nothing else on this list, do not miss The Wire.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: It gave us Idris Elba. That should be enough, but the acting across the board here is perfection, as demonstrated by Dominic West (The Affair), Seth Gilliam (The Walking Dead), Amy Ryan (Birdman, Bridge of Spies), Wendell Pierce (Suits, Confirmation) and so many more. That and the subtle unexpected Shakespeare references throughout the series keep your brain in overdrive.
Where to watch: HBO-GO, Google Play, Amazon
3. Arrested Development
The Bluth family is a mess. Patriarch George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is jailed for fraud, leaving his only responsible son Michael (Jason Bateman) in charge of the Bluth business. Michael is also saddled with his spoiled, entitled family, who don’t give him a moment’s peace.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: The ensemble of eccentric actors who make up the self-involved Bluths will keep you glued to the screen. Michael’s twin, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), drinks entire bottles of vodka because, she says, “Once it’s opened, it goes bad.” Her husband, Tobias (David Cross), is the first analyst/therapist — or as he says, “analrapist.” And then there’s Michael’s son, George-Michael (Michael Cera), who is the patsy to his Uncle Gob’s (Will Arnett) terrible magic tricks.
Where to watch: Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime
4. The X-Files
Scully (Gillian Anderson) and Mulder (David Duchovny) are good-looking Federal Bureau of Justice agents who investigate the outlier cases their colleagues refuse to touch — you know, the ones with aliens, mind readers and monsters that live in the sewers. Scully is the skeptic, Mulder the believer, all shrouded in undertones of “Will they or won’t they?”
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: The X-Files grabbed the sci-fi nerds, conspiracy theorists and cop-procedural-show fans immediately with its perfect marriage of all three. By season two, the rest of the country (skeptical of our real government) began to enjoy the escapism and the possibilities the show proposed.
Where to watch: Seasons 1–9 on Netflix; season 10 on the FoxNow app; all 10 seasons on Amazon
5. Freaks and Geeks
A group of high school burnouts (James Franco, Jason Sudakis and Seth Rogen) — the freaks — take a mathlete (Linda Cardellini) under their wing, while her younger brother endures the nightmares of being a geek in high school.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: This show is an early television victory for Judd Apatow (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Love) and Paul Feig (Bridesmaids), primarily because it was ahead of its time. In the show’s one and only season, Apatow and Feig nail the funny, anxiety-ridden, rowdy, socially confusing experiences we all have in high school. Iconic in tone and star power, Freaks and Geeks was too revolutionary for the ’90s yet would fit in perfectly today.
Where to watch: Netflix
6. Dead Like Me
One of the most ingenious and creative one-hour dramadies ever written, Emmy-nominated Dead Like Me centers on Georgia (“George”), a teenage girl (Ellen Muth) who dies when a toilet seat from the MIR space station thumps her on the head. However, she remains among the living, functioning as a Grim Reaper. Her boss and father figure, Rube (Mandy Patinkin), helps her learn to appreciate the life she always took for granted.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: Jokingly referred to as “My So-Called Afterlife,” Dead Like Me is The Walking Dead meets Daria with lots of fun cameos (John Waters, Eric McCormack, Gavin DeGraw). Reapers get their assignments on Post-its during their morning meeting at a waffle house and have to be on hand to collect souls. (Best deaths: strangled by leg warmers, piano out of nowhere and victim of malfunctioning exercise machine).
Where to watch: Amazon, Google Play, Hulu
7. Veronica Mars
A high school outcast (Kristen Bell) uses her father’s detective agency to right the wrongs of the town while trying to solve the murder of her best friend (Amanda Seyfried). Add to her roster finding her missing mother, solving her own rape and unraveling the mysteries of a city full of billionaires.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: Veronica Mars is as satisfying as finding a $20 bill in the pocket of an old coat. You didn’t realize you needed it, but when it’s in your hands you’re incredibly grateful. There’s swift justice to bullies, wry one-liners and compelling characters. It also has one special ingredient that makes it incredibly culty: It ended abruptly after three seasons with no real wrap-up, leaving you having to fend for yourself.
Where to watch: Amazon, Google Play
8. Twin Peaks
Part soap opera, part detective story and 100 percent quirky, the investigation into the death of beauty queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) is brought to you by creator David Lynch (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). We follow lead detective Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) to the fictional town of Twin Peaks, where inner darkness is revealed to comical, campy but always surreal results.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: Anything David Lynch touches becomes a cult classic. He has had a loyal following ever since his first film, Eraserhead, best known to midnight moviegoers of the ’80s and ’90s. The show itself had a look unlike anything of its time. Throw in the oddball characters, unexpected plot twists, dialogue and imagery that spawned its own college classes, and you have an unforgettable show that left fans wanting more.
Where to watch: Google Play, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon
9. Breaking Bad
When chemistry teacher Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with stage-three cancer, he figures he’s got nothing to lose and starts making and selling meth with his student Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul). I mean, how else is he going to provide for his family on a teacher’s salary? But as he gets deeper into the game, he doesn’t want to stop — he wants to rule the world.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: Breaking Bad is one of those shows that if you were on it from episode one, you were angry at all the bandwagon people jumping on it later, yet you realized it was their fandom that helped secure it six seasons. Vince Gilligan’s writing makes you want to cheer, vomit, scream, cry and throw your TV out the window all at the same time. You’ll have very strong feelings about every character, as nobody is on the fence about any part of Breaking Bad.
Where to watch: The AMC app, Amazon, Netflix
10. Six Feet Under
The Fisher family is trying to run their Los Angeles funeral home, but brothers Nate (Peter Krause) and David (Michael C. Hall) are so busy with their own drama, sex lives and seeing dead people they can’t comfort the grieving families, let alone each other. From the mind of Alan Ball (True Blood), each episode begins with an unexpected death that sets a dark yet comedic atmosphere lasting an entire five seasons.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: It checks off everything on the cult-TV list: dark comedy, death and death-related things and semi-sci-fi non-reality. Six Feet Under introduced us to several stars before their big breaks (Lauren Ambrose, Ben Foster, Justin Theroux and Peter Facinelli). The final episode is a classic — arguably the best series finale in TV history.
Where to watch: HBO-GO, Google Play, Amazon
The survivors of a plane crash are forced to work together to get off a tropical island but soon find it is not as deserted as they thought. The island itself seems to hold more questions than answers.
Why it’s Cult-a-licious: J.J. Abrams (Fringe, Star Wars: Episode VII), dead people, Matthew Fox and Ian Somerhalder. Do you need more? OK, well, Lost will keep you guessing right up until the very last episode. Find a friend to binge-watch with because you’re going to want to discuss it!
Where to watch: Amazon, Netflix, Google Play