It says a lot about our relationship with sports that the cancellation of the NBA season this year was the first big signal that the Covid-19 pandemic was going to be unlike anything we’d seen before. When just about every professional sports league on earth followed suit and I could no longer watch my beloved Atlanta United or Manchester City, I found myself turning to Netflix’s The English Game for comfort. From 1978, when CBS’ The White Shadow assembled one of the first network dramas with a mostly black cast, to the recent debut of Apple TV+’s dramedy Ted Lasso about an American football coach hired to lead a Premier League soccer club, TV producers have found fertile ground in the world of sports for their dramas and comedies.
For our list of the best sports TV shows of all time, we’re looking at scripted series primarily revolving around a sport, and there are plenty represented here: football, soccer, baseball, martial arts, tennis, horse racing and professional wrestling. The characters can be players, managers, sportswriters, agents or even fans, but sports have to be central to the show (sorry, Sam Malone).
Created by: Joe Gangemi, Gregory Jacobs
Stars: Craig Roberts, Ennis Esmer, Jennifer Grey, Gage Golightly, Paul Reiser, Richard Kind
Watch on Amazon Prime
Red Oaks arrived with a hell of a pedigree. It’s produced by Steven Soderbergh and David Gordon Green, Green directed the pilot, and it’s created and written by long-time Soderbergh associates Joe Gangemi and Gregory Jacobs. (Jacobs also directed Magic Mike XXL.) Other episodes are directed by people like Amy Heckerling and Hal Hartley. Set in a country club in New Jersey in the mid-’80s, the show openly evokes movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Caddyshack and The Flamingo Kid, and with a consortium of creators who understand both comedy and drama behind it, it falls into the same realm of bittersweet nostalgia as beloved comedies like The Wonder Years and Freaks and Geeks. —Garrett Martin
Created by: Joel Church-Cooper
Stars: Hank Azaria, Amanda Peet, Tyrel Jackson Williams, J. K. Simmons, Tawny Newsome
Watch on Hulu
Based on a character created by The Simpsons star Hank Azaria, Brockmire follows a baseball announcer named Jim Brockmire who has fallen on hard times. A decade ago, Brockmire walked in on his wife mid-orgy and then had a very public meltdown in the broadcast booth. He spent the intervening time traveling every decadent hellhole known to the world in an effort to stretch “rock bottom” as far as it can go. He’s been brought back to America by Jules James (Amanda Peet) who owns a small-town baseball team that she thinks Brockmire can inspire to success. She’s kept the full extent of the truth from Brockmire, including the small details that the team is a mess of blacklisted baseball players and that Brockmire has a weird internet fame from his previous breakdown becoming one of the first viral internet hits. All of this is supposed to be mediated by Charles (Tyrel Jackson Williams) who is a black Millenial with no interest in baseball or in any of this white people nonsense. It’s a truly incredible show. —Brock Wilbur
Created by: Stephen Levinson
Stars: Dwayne Johnson, Rob Corddry, John David Washington, Omar Miller
Watch on HBO
Ballers star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson is, by all financial measures, the biggest movie star on the planet right now. And yet, Johnson only seems to live in that success on the small screen. Despite what his careers in the ring and on film have established, his TV persona is far closer to the moneymen than the meatheads. That’s because, despite the Entourage-esque success porn of Ballers, it operates mostly as a response to Johnson’s predominant popular image. In fact, it’s perhaps the closest we’ll get to watching the real Dwayne Johnson—at least, Dwayne Johnson as he sees himself—navigate his life. In his hyper-lucrative movies, we never get a glimpse of Johnson that goes deeper than the surface: His physicality is everything. In Ballers, Johnson plays ex-football pro Spencer Strasmore, who becomes a success in retirement by transitioning to financial management. He helps old cronies and current stars, alongside his business partner, Joe (Rob Corddry). Corddry’s role here is comic relief—on top of some moral instigation—but, unlike that of Johnson’s film co-stars, Johnson has the intellect, the right disposition, and the body. Corddry’s just along for the ride, an audience surrogate ogling Johnson for all the reasons the actor wants to be ogled. Like the real Johnson, Spencer has moved up in the world, knowing that real power comes from being a step or two removed from the action the people see. As The Rock continues to dominate the big screen, Johnson is making himself into the mogul he (and Ballers) perceives himself to be, three movies and a TV season at a time. —Jacob Oller
Created by: Ken Howard, David E. Morine, Bruce Paltrow
Stars: Ken Howard, Jason Bernard, Ed Bernard, Joan Pringle, Byron Stewart, Kevin Hooks, Timothy Van Patten, Thomas Carter, Nathan Cook
While this series about a white former NBA player (Ken Howard) coaching a racially-mixed inner city LA high school team only ran for three years (from 1978 to 1981), it was a truly groundbreaking and influential show that has remained a fan favorite for decades after its initial run. The first ensemble network drama to feature a majority black cast, The White Shadow was also the first network show to portray inner city high school life warts and all, going far beyond the basketball court, covering previously taboo topics like student alcoholism, sexual orientation and sexually transmitted diseases. Its influence also reaches far beyond the US, with many attributing the rise in popularity of basketball in Turkey to 1980-82 airings of the show. Despite having a lengthy stage, film and TV resume, star Howard (on who’s high school years in Manhasset, NY the show was partially based) was greeted with “Hey, Coach,” everywhere he went, until his death in 2016. —Mark Rabinowitz
Created by: Mike O’Malley
Stars: Jessie T. Usher, RonReaco, Erica Ash, Teyonah Parris, Tichina Arnold, Mike Epps
Watch on Starz
One of Starz’s best comedies, Survivor’s Remorse is about a pro basketball phenom going from the projects to fame and fortune, and all the problems that arise from the trappings of wealth—plus the “survivor’s remorse” that stems from “getting out” and all the people you left behind in your old life.
Mike O’Malley’s canny, provocative comedy about a middle-class black family that joins basketball star son/brother/cousin/nephew, Cam Calloway, when he moves to Atlanta has continued to pick up converts, rewarding viewers’ commitment throughout its run. O’Malley and his diverse, take-no-prisoners team of writers (including Allen Maldonado, Ali Leroi, Tracy Oliver and Victor Levin) explore their appealing premise, digging deeper into racial and gender politics than almost any show on television. And despite navigating some fairly heavy material—sudden death, sexual assault—Survivor’s Remorse, true to form, never moralizes, consistently finding the funny in knockout satire, wry observations and adolescent stoner gags. Young lead Jessie T. Usher is a standout, but Survivor’s Remorse also features strong performances from RonReaco Lee (as Cam’s cousin, Reggie), Teyonah Parris (Reggie’s wife, Missy) and Tichina Arnold (Cam’s mom, Cassie), all delivering Emmy-worthy performances. —Kenny Herzog
Created by: Ben Best, Jody Hill, Danny McBride
Stars: Danny McBride, Steve Little, Katy Mixon, John Hawkes, Jennifer Irwin
Watch on HBO
I can pinpoint the exact moment I turned into a massive Danny McBride fan, having previously been confused and annoyed by his presence in Pineapple Express. (I was in the wrong, I know). Early in the first season, Kenny Powers downs a beer in his car while listening to his own audiobook. As he puts in a new cassette of his boastful, foul-mouthed ramblings, a calm male audiobook voice intones “You’re listening to You’re Fucking Out, I’m Fucking In, by Kenny Powers.” All was forgiven. Initially conceived as a movie that became too good at four hours to cut down to two, Eastbound & Down turned the story of a washed up ex-major league pitcher obsessively striving for relevancy into a comeback story of epic proportions. Kenny would undergo an absurd odyssey on his path back to fame, but series creators McBride, Jody Hill, and Ben Best would never sacrifice their honest portrait of a man eaten alive by his own ego for the sake of a joke (except, of course in that insane episode with Will Ferrell, a Civil War plantation, and a cannon). The same team reunited for the tonally similar Vice Principals and now The Righteous Gemstones, again capitalizing on McBride’s magnetic, spontaneous onscreen presence, and adding in a killer repartee with Walton Goggins. —Graham Techler
Created by: David Milch
Stars: Dustin Hoffman, Dennis Farina, John Ortiz, Kerry Condon, Nick Nolte
Watch on HBO
Unfortunately for David Milch’s unique and layered series, Luck is mostly known for being canceled after several horses died on the set. The series’ story largely takes place at the Santa Anita racetrack, which in real life has also continued to see an enormous number of horses die over the course of the last year. But, er, if you’re able to give the series any kind of chance beyond that, you’ll find a deeply personal character study of not just the owners, trainers, and jockeys of the tracks, but of the gamblers, drunks, and hangers-on. Watching Luck transports you into a world deeply known by Milch, one that is gritty and tough but also resilient and beautiful. —Allison Keene
Created by: John Eisendrath
Stars: Omar Gooding, Marcello Thedford, Christopher Wiehl, Jason Matthew Smith, Russell Hornsby, Anthony John Denison
When your fictional football show hits so close to home that the National Football League has you shut down, you’ve done it right. Such was the fate of Playmakers, ESPN’s first (only?) scripted series from 2003, which ran for eleven highly-rated episodes before pressure from the NFL took it off the air. If you don’t remember it, it’s because it was buried after that—no reruns, no streaming. If you can find a DVD from 2004 of it, you are blessed.
The setup of the series is fairly basic in that it follows the lives (on and off the field) of the fictional Cougars, a professional football team in “The League.” But Playmakers had a raw edge to it that made it gripping television. With an excellent cast and a solid mix of drama, business, brotherhood, and human foibles (including no small amount of drug use, sex scandals, and violence), the show turned out to be a little too true for the real-life NFL’s liking. Pearls were clutched and the series was quickly canceled, but it won’t be forgotten. —Allison Keene
Created by: Josh Heald, Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg
Stars: Ralph Macchio, William Zabka, Courtney Henggeler, Xolo Maridueña, Tanner Buchanan, Mary Mouser, Jacob Bertrand, Gianni Decenzo, Martin Kove
Watch on YouTube Premium
With 11 award nominations (one Emmy included), the Golden Tomato Award for Best TV Drama, a 100-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes (“making it the highest-reviewed reboot of all time,” per the official YouTube blog) and a reported 20 million views in six days for the Season Two premiere, you don’t need us to tell you that Cobra Kai is more than worth your time and money. Still: Cobra Kai is more than worth your time and money. Bringing William Zabka and Ralph Macchio back to reignite their 80s-era Karate Kid rivalry just as the various tender/hurting teens in their lives are finding themselves in desperate need of mentorship from an ass-kicking sensei or two, Cobra Kai is a feast of brutal sentimentality, awkward puppy love and heartbreakingly scruffy nostalgia—and, of course, killer karate set pieces. As Paste’s own Amy Amatangelo put it in her review of the first season, “[Cobra Kai] excels at not allowing anyone to be truly evil or angelic, understanding that human beings are complex and cannot be summed up by a one-line character description.” As the sullen goth-makeupped tattoo parlor clerk in a Season 2 episode of Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television (a.k.a. the “hilar cop show with serialized elements that’s about to get a third season”—it did not get a third season) says, it’s “literally the only show worth watching on the channel.” Either way, this is the show you’re paying the big bucks to watch, and we can assure you—it’s worth it. —Alexis Gunderson
Created by: Julian Fellowes, Tony Charles, Oliver Cotton
Stars: Edward Holcroft, Kevin Guthrie, Charlotte Hope, Niamh Walsh, Craig Parkinson, James Harkness
Watch on Netflix
The English Game arrives at a good time for two reasons. One, the 21st century has really been lacking in great sports movies that so dominated the 1980s and ‘90s. Two, sports are cancelled right now because of the spread of coronavirus. So why not settle in and watch some pale but fit English lads run around the pitch in what is essentially Chariots of Fire: The Series?
Taking place in the 1870s, the six-part miniseries (from Downton Abbey’s Julian Fellowes) introduces us to the true story of two players from opposing sides who will change the game in critical ways. The first, brashly handsome Arthur Kinnaird (Edward Holcroft ), has dominated the field for years playing for the Old Etonians—whose team has not only won four FA (Football Association) cups at this point, but who also double as FA board members and chairman. (You see the problems already). The second, Fergus Suter (Kevin Guthrie ), is a wee Scottish powerhouse who has been brought to play for Darwen FC, a northern mill-town club, before being wooed by Blackburn.
The larger question that The English Game tackles (pun partially intended) is one of inclusion. Who is this game for? It was crafted by wealthy Englishmen, but are they the future of it? We know they answer is “no,” but it’s something in the 1870s that was only just beginning to become clear. Fergus and Love—two of the best players in the game—are Scottish and working class. This is already revolutionary. But their play style is also evolving from the one the Old Etonians employ. Fergus encourages his teammates to move out farther and pass more, something we’ve seen Spanish players in just the last decade take to an exceptional art form.
The short run and miniseries format (one that is a true miniseries, with a very clear end) make The English Game an easy investment, and one that everyone can enjoy while under quarantine orders or beyond. But it’s also a story whose questions are still very relevant today (regarding hooliganism, playing for money versus pride, the role of amateur clubs). Its answers are, too. Who is the game for? That is clear enough: Anyone who loves it. When speaking of the growing numbers of supporters in the stands or those anxiously sitting at pubs waiting for scores, characters note again and again that it “gives them hope and pride and so much more.” And that’s what makes it not just The English Game, but the beautiful one.—Allison Keene
Created by: Jeff Schaffer, Jackie Marcus Schaffer
Stars: Mark Duplass, Nick Kroll, Stephen Rannazzisi, Paul Scheer, Jon Lajoie, Katie Aselton
Watch on Hulu
Don’t let all the fantasy football talk deter you if you’re not into sports. For all its NFL-star cameos and inside-baseball terminology, The League, at its heart, is really just a show about a group of friends who like to compete with and talk smack about each other. It’s basically Friends, if Ross and Chandler were allowed to call each other “shit-sippers” on primetime network TV. This semi-improvised show is wonderful, weird and features a bunch of people who are very funny but usually relegated to more bit roles in TV and movies (Nick Kroll, Paul Scheer, Katie Aselton, etc.). And when it comes to the show’s smack-talking bros, there’s a favorite for everyone, be it crass, sex-obsessed loose cannon Rafi or Kevin and Jenny, who despite occasionally playing the goofy-dad/smart-mom TV-cleaning-product commercial dichotomy, will remind you of all the things you liked about the good relationships you’ve been in. The shortened first season plays more like a TV miniseries and will take you less than an afternoon. It’ll be worth it. —Lindsay Eanet
Created by: Bill Lawrence, Jason Sudeikis, Joe Kelly, Brendan Hunt
Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, Brendan Hunt, Juno Temple, Brett Goldstein, Phil Dunster, Nick Mohammed, Jeremy Swift
Watch on Apple TV+
Seven years ago, NBC Sports released a very funny sketch starring Jason Sudeikis as an American football coach named Ted Lasso who manages to get hired as the manager of Tottenham, one of the top soccer clubs in England’s Premier League, which is one of the best leagues in the world. The comedy is the culture clash—a shouting alpha male with a southern accent trying to figure out a totally unfamiliar sport in a strange place, too stubborn to adapt and bringing all the wrong lessons over from America. As soccer becomes more familiar in the U.S., that sketch becomes increasingly quaint, since even your average deep-south gridiron jock knows more and more all the time about the world’s most popular sport. Which makes the premise of Ted Lasso the 2020 TV show questionable; can you really translate a premise that’s thin in the first place, and extend it to a ten-episode season even as soccer becomes less and less exotic to us all the time?
Wisely, creators Sudeikis and Bill Lawrence didn’t really try. Now focused on AFC Richmond, a middling English soccer club facing relegation, the success of the show begins and ends with Sudeikis (whose Lasso is almost pathologically nice as a coach and motivator rather than tactical genius), but the rest of the cast is also superb. In short, I found it genuinely moving more than it was uproarious, although the climactic scene in the final episode might be one of the greatest athletic set pieces in comedy history, and will make any sports fan bust a gut. There’s also something very timely about the fact that the competitive drama here isn’t about winning a glorious championship, but about avoiding the shame of relegation. And yet, when faced with the unofficial AFC Richmond credo, “it’s the hope that kills you,” Lasso disagrees. “It’s the lack of hope that comes and gets you,” he tells his team, and whether or not that’s strictly correct is irrelevant. What actually matters is, do you believe? —Shane Ryan
Created by: Liz Flahive, Jenji Kohan and Carly Mensch
Stars: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Sunita Mani and Marc Maron
Watch on Netflix
Netflix’s bubbly celebration of a long-forgotten corner of the wrestling world takes a little time to come together, but once it does, it’s pure joy. That’s not to say that there isn’t still a ton of drama among the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW)—the story does start out with an infidelity that affects two best friends—but once the bright colors and bold energy of this 80s-set series ignite there’s no slowing it down. Boasting a wonderfully sprawling and diverse cast (who do their own stunts), the series never shies away from deeper issues of race, gender, and the realities of a career on the stage. But what binds the show together are its friendships, especially among its core cast. (Plus, it brought Betty Gilpin to our national attention, for which we shall be eternally grateful).
GLOW will always be a show that understands femininity in a way few others do, and is often a pop-filled good time. Sometimes it’s messy, but that’s what GLOW is all about. The women try, and fail, and try again. They weather the sadness and the chaos. Choices are made, mistakes happen. And they try again. And again.—Allison Keene
Created by: Aaron Sorkin
Stars: Josh Charles, Peter Krause, Felicity Huffman, Joshua Malina, Sabrina Lloyd, Robert Guillaume
Watch on Hulu
As a screenwriter for films like A Few Good Men and The American President, Aaron Sorkin loved his job and was very good at it. So, naturally, when he developed his first TV series for ABC, he filled it with characters who loved their jobs and were very good at them. More than the rapid-fire dialogue or deft blend of comedy and drama, it’s the utter competence of the sportscasters and producers that quickly separates Sports Night from the other 30-minute laugh-tracked TV shows of the ’90s. The bosses are smart and helpful, except when they’re meddlesome network executives. You’re held accountable for mistakes, but your co-workers always have your back. Instead of the classic reliance on miscommunication for situational comedy, the tension arises from a pressure to excel in the national spotlight, and the humor comes from genuinely funny characters. Sorkin worked hard to respect his audience’s intelligence with clever dialogue and heady subject matter. With film-worthy writing and one of the best casts ever assembled for a sitcom (Robert Guillaume shone both pre- and post-stroke and William H. Macy was a regular guest), Sports Night changed the trajectory of television. It was a half-hour comedy with better, more emotional storylines than most hour-long dramas. It was one of the first hybrids of a multi-camera and single-camera show, benefiting from the strengths of both approaches. And its echoes could be felt in some of the best shows that followed: the volleys of witty repartee between Lorelai and Rory Gilmore, The Sopranos’ psychiatrist scenes, and the meta-story lines about the show’s impending cancelation in Arrested Development. And, of course, every other TV show that Sorkin created. —Josh Jackson
Created by: Peter Berg
Stars: Kyle Chandler, Connie Britton, Taylor Kitsch, Jesse Plemons, Aimee Teegarden, Michael B. Jordan, Jurnee Smollett
Watch on Hulu
Watch on Peacock
Who ever thought football, a sport infamous for its meatheads and brute force, could be the cornerstone of one of television’s most delicate, affecting dramas? Heart-rending, infuriating, and rife with shattering setbacks and grand triumphs—Friday Night Lights is all of these, and in those ways it resembles the game around which the tiny town of Dillon, Texas, revolves. “Tender” and “nuanced” aren’t words usually applicable to the gridiron, but they fit the bill here, too. Full of heart but hardly saccharine, shot beautifully but hyper-realistically, and featuring a talented cast among which the teenagers and parents are—blessedly—clearly defined, the show manages to convince episode after episode that, yes, football somehow really is life. Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose. —Rachael Maddux
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