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10 best PBS shows ever, ranked

The cast of Downton Abbey.
WGBH-TV/ITV

The Public Broadcasting Service isn’t always fully appreciated by the general public. Even in the present, it’s still a convenient target for politicians who call for it to be defunded. What those politicians fail to understand is that PBS is truly a public service. For 54 years, PBS local stations across America have provided free programing that spans news, documentaries, educational shows, children’s series, dramas, comedies, and more. Most of the PBS originals are series that would have been been shown on America’s broadcast networks.

While the streaming era has split audiences like never before, PBS remains a bedrock for quality entertainment and informative shows. And as they often say during Pledge Week, these shows are supported through donations “by viewers like you.” To celebrate everything that the Public Broadcasting Service has to offer, we’ve put together our picks for the 10 best PBS shows ever. Nine out of the 10 are still available to stream.

10. The French Chef (1963-1973)

Julia Child on the set of The French Chef.
WGBH-TV

Cooking shows are all too common on cable and streamers in the present. But where would they be without Julia Child? The French Chef was one of the first cooking shows, and it made Child a pop culture sensation. Child had already co-written Mastering the Art of French Cooking book before the series premiered, and PBS gave her a platform that helped bring French cuisine to a much wider audience.

The majority of The French Chef’s legendary run can now be found on Pluto TV. But Prime Video also hosts a selection of episodes from the show.

Watch The French Chef on Prime Video.

9. Antiques Roadshow (1997-present)

Lark Mason poses with collectibles on Antiques Roadshow.
WGBH

When PBS finds a hit, it tends to hang on it it. Antiques Roadshow is based on a British TV series of the same name, and it’s been one of PBS’ most popular series for 27 seasons and counting. As the name implies, the series is filmed at locations around the country as everyday people are given the chance to have their family antiques examined by experts in the field. Occasionally, this leads to the discovery that something they have is much more valuable than they thought.

It’s a simple premise for a show, but fans still flock to be a part of it whenever the series announces its touring schedule. Over 400 episodes are available to stream on PBS’ official site, and that should keep fans of the series entertained for a long time.

Watch Antiques Roadshow on PBS.

8. Finding Your Roots (2012-present)

Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in a promo picture for Finding Your Roots.
PBS

How far back can you trace your family tree? For 10 seasons, viewers have tuned in to Finding Your Roots to watch Henry Louis Gates Jr. present the discoveries of his research team to celebrities and other prominent individuals.

Gates also walks his guests through their “book of life,” which tends to uncover previously unknown relatives and chapters of their family history that were either forgotten or lost. At it’s best, Finding Your Roots is compelling television, which is why it’s one of the mainstays of modern PBS programming.

Watch Finding Your Roots on PBS.

7. The Joy of Painting (1983-1994)

Bob Ross in The Joy of Painting.
WIPB/PBS

Bob Ross’ familiar face and permed hair are so iconic that he’s still famous nearly three decades after his death. Over the course of 11 years and 31 seasons, Ross’ The Joy of Painting dazzled artists and regular viewers alike with his ability to quickly create paintings while explaining his techniques along the way.

Ross’ soft-spoken voice and amusing Ross-isms like “happy little trees” made watching each episode a soothing and relaxing experience. He was essentially America’s favorite art teacher, and his legacy lives on.

Watch The Joy of Painting on PBS.

6. The Civil War (1990)

Promo art for Ken Burns' The Civil War.
WETA-TV/PBS

Documentaries didn’t often take the nation by storm before 1990, when Ken Burns released The Civil War on PBS. Across nine episodes, Burns brought the conflict to life with his innovative use of still image photography combined with cinematography and extensive voice-overs including performances by Sam Waterston, Jeremy Irons, Julie Harris, Jason Robards, and Morgan Freeman.

The Civil War was a groundbreaking miniseries that ushered in the modern era of documentaries and launched Burns to greater prominence before he debuted Baseball, Jazz, The War, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, Prohibition, and more documentary series in the decades that followed.

Watch The Civil War on Hoopla.

5. Cosmos: A Personal Voyage (1980-1981)

Carl Sagan in Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.
PBS

PBS science programs weren’t usually big-budget shows, but Cosmos: A Personal Voyage was a grand exception. Through 13 episodes, special effects allowed scientist and host Carl Sagan to seem as if he walked across the stars and other incredible locations as he led viewers on a scientific exploration of the universe. Sagan also tackled some difficult to understand topics in effective ways that allowed almost anyone to comprehend what he meant.

The final episode, Who Speaks For Earth?, raises the possibility of what might happen if aliens ever arrive on our world. But what resonates most is Sagan’s closing statement that humanity should celebrate life over destruction in order to continue our collective journey in the universe.

Cosmos: A Personal Voyage is not available to stream.

4. Frontline (1983-Present)

The logo for Frontline.
PBS

Four decades after its debut, Frontline remains the greatest investigative documentary program on television. Unlike its distant relatives on cable television, Frontline doesn’t give into sensationalism or partisan politics. Instead, it offers insightful looks inside modern political and social issues, as well as criminal justice stories, climate change, and other ongoing crises around the world.

Earlier this year, Frontline‘s 20 Days in Mariupol won the Oscar for Best Documentary Feature for its exploration of Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine. And there are more Frontline documentaries coming in 2024 as the series continues its tradition of excellence.

Watch Frontline on PBS.

3. Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (1968-2001)

Fred Rogers in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Family Communications

Few TV performers have ever exuded as much warmth, kindness, and compassion as Fred Rogers. For generations of children, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was there to walk them through a wide variety of topics about life. Rogers opened each episode with his signature song, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, before putting on his cardigan sweater and sneakers, and stepping into his role as a teacher, a host, and a beloved friend to all.

Rogers so effectively communicated with his audience that it was easy to feel like he was talking directly to you. His gentle words of encouragement touched countless lives. He would almost always close each episode with an affirmation that reminded his viewers that they made each day special just by being themselves. It’s almost impossible for anyone else to recapture that kind of connection between a host and his fans. Mister Rogers was one of a kind, and he is sorely missed.

Watch Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood on Prime Video.

2. Masterpiece (1971-Present)

The cast of Downton Abbey.
WGBH-TV/ITV

Long before cable and streaming gave viewers other options, one of the only ways that fans in the U.S. could watch British dramas was on PBS. Through Masterpiece, hundreds of the U.K.’s best programs found new viewers, including Downton Abbey, Les Misérables, Poldark, All Creatures Great and Small, and Prime Suspect.

Even in the present, Masterpiece still manages to get British shows before they head to streaming. The combined impact of these various series has been immense. Masterpiece is one of the primary reasons why PBS still has a passionate following among adults. There’s only one franchise that’s been more important to PBS …

Watch Masterpiece on PBS.

1. Sesame Street (1969-present)

The Muppet cast of Sesame Street.
Sesame Workshop

Sesame Street isn’t just the longest-running kids show, it’s one of the longest-running TV series of all-time with 4,666 episodes to date. And it all began 55 years ago when Joan Ganz Cooney and Lloyd Morrisett teamed up with Muppets creator Jim Henson and director Jon Stone to create a franchise unlike any other. The key revelation behind this series is that young children pay more attention to the puppet characters than they do to the humans, which allowed Sesame Street to become a very effective educational program.

This series has reinvented itself several times over the last five-and-a-half decades, but many of the same characters from the past remain popular with children of all ages. You know that you’re a Sesame Street kid when you can finish the following lyrics from the show’s theme song: “Sunny Day, sweepin’ the clouds away. On my way, to where the air is sweet. Can you tell me how to get …”

Watch Sesame Street on Max

Editors' Recommendations

Blair Marnell
Blair Marnell has been an entertainment journalist for over 15 years. His bylines have appeared in Wizard Magazine, Geek…
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