Nearly 25 years into the Golden Age of Television, we are finally ready to create a definitive list of the greatest queer television of all time. Any sooner, and the pickings of series that are both fully embodied in their queerness and top notch artistically would have been a wee bit slim. Luckily for those of us who prefer a fuller bodied canon, slim fit is over. It’s time to celebrate the wonderful wide world of queer television that has exploded over the last nearly quarter of a century.
With so many options to consider, we decided to open this list with a bang: Just the classics. After years of sifting through sweeps-week teases and low-budget soaps, it feels both exhilarating and overwhelming to be able to cull from a wealth of excellent queer programming. This list recognizes the trailblazing classics that paved the way, as well as the boundary-breakers forging ahead into our bright and shining future. Some, like “RuPaul’s Drag Race” are cultural phenomenons that live in our veins. While something like Michaela Coel’s “I May Destroy You” may not read as overwhelmingly queer, the daring dark comedy about sexual trauma features a queer storyline so powerful it merited inclusion. And let us all wonder at how brilliantly Rebecca Sugar’s “Steven Universe” uses zany animation to explode gender boundaries out of this world.
While beloved omissions are inevitable, these titles were evaluated on their consistent quality over many seasons, as well as their staying power and impact on broader queer culture. There are so many wonderful recent entries that are just getting started, and we can’t wait to see how they evolve over time. With a recent swell of teen dramas (thank you, Greg Berlanti) and offbeat comedies filling their colorful worlds with an eclectic mix of queer characters, it felt important to highlight shows that felt fully — even unquestionably — queer. That’s why we chose to highlight shows with at least one queer character in the main cast. You know, shows where you don’t have to squint to find the representation.
Let’s rest our eyes and feed our souls, honeys.
Check out IndieWire’s streaming guides for…
- The Best LGBTQ TV Shows and Movies on Netflix
- The Best LGBTQ TV Shows and Movies on Hulu
- The Best LGBTQ TV Shows and Movies on Prime Video
- The Best LGBTQ TV Shows and Movies on Peacock
- The Best LGBTQ TV Shows on HBO Max
10. “RuPaul’s Drag Race” (2009-present)
What it is: “Racers, start your engines. And may the best drag queen win!” This reality competition series-turned-LGBTQ institution first hit Logo in 2009 as a golden-filtered platform for the titular RuPaul to preside over campy mini and “maxi” drag challenges, as performed by artists recruited from across the country to compete for the title of America’s Next Drag Superstar. It lived at Logo and then VH1 until 2022, dropping the aforementioned filter and picking up Michelle Visage, Carson Kressley, and Ross Matthews as mainstay judges along the way. The series eventually moved to MTV in 2023, where it continues to reign as the foremost television showcase for the art of drag — even as more of its cast members launch series and business empires of their own to the franchise’s countless fans.
Why it’s essential: “Drag Race” has jumpstarted the careers of dozens of the world’s most famous drag queens; not to mention a slew of international spinoffs; the accompanying “Untucked” behind-the-scenes series and various webisodes via YouTube; six spectacular “All Stars” reunion seasons; touring stage shows, including a residency in Vegas; and annually held, widely attended, hugely lucrative fan conventions. It’s easy to make the argument that more unscriptied programming should be providing opportunities for queer performers to break through, and “Drag Race” has a deeply troubled history when it comes to trans inclusion that really strengthens the case. But “Drag Race” remains an undeniable triumph for queer art, and one of the funniest puns in reality TV history. —AF
9. “The L Word” (2004-2009)
What it is: The sexy drama about a group of lesbians living, laughing, loving (and fighting, fucking, crying, breathing) in mid-aughts West Hollywood needs no introduction. Creator Ilene Chaiken immediately became the uber power lesbian when she debuted the hit series on Showtime in 2004, where it played a double bill with fellow queer series “Queer As Folk.” Ushering in the era of “lesbian chic,” for better or worse, queer women and NB folks were never the same.
Why it’s essential: As Brian did on “Queer As Folk,” the shaggy-haired lothario Shane McCutcheon (Katharine Moennig) is responsible for generations of sexual awakenings — and copycat f-bois. But it’s Jennifer Beals’ Bette Porter who has endured as the iconic power lesbian, and quirky Alice (Leisha Hailey) who was the comedic heart of the show. Though it jumped the shark many times over (RIP Dana), its outsized place in culture has overshadowed the fact that the first two seasons feature consistently solid and episodic writing. It’s hard to maintain an hour-long comedy, but the first two seasons zip by with entertaining plotlines, zingers, sex, and unique characters. In addition to being the first lesbian and trans (as flawed as that was) TV show, “The L Word” was also entirely about women, including two Black women in lead roles (Beals and none other than Pam Grier). Not many shows could claim that at the time, not to mention for years to come. —JD
8. “Veneno” (2020)
What it is: A biographical drama of Cristina Ortiz Rodríguez, or La Veneno, a Spanish media personality and a pioneering trans celebrity, from her career in the ‘90s to her 2016 death. The show alternates between Veneno’s career arc and the story of Valeria Vegas (Lola Rodríguez), the journalist who wrote the biography the series on a whole is based upon.
Why it’s essential: A hit in Spain that went slightly under the radar when it debuted in America, Javier Ambrossi and Javier Calvo’s show is a moving story about identity, self-actualization, and the prices and rewards of becoming an icon. Filled with great performances — particularly from Jedet, Daniela Santiago, and Isabel Torres as different versions of La Veneno — “Veneno” is a clear-eyed monument to a legend, with as much room for joy as sorrow. —WC
7. “Will & Grace” (1998-2006)
What it is: Though it premiered in 1998, the majority of the defining gay sitcom aired post-2000, and its influence is felt far and wide to this day. Starring Debra Messing and Will McCormack as the titular best friends living it up in New York City, “Will & Grace” introduced two lovable and hilarious gay characters to primetime television viewers.
Why it’s essential: It’s hard to overstate the impact of “Will & Grace,” though the show has been criticized for relying on gay stereotypes for laughs. Will was a successful gay lawyer who was happy and out, even if such a happy fate wasn’t always true for the actors. A master of physical comedy, Sean Hayes’ Jack remains one of the great comedic TV performances, a descendant of Lucy Ricardo and echoed in Kenneth on “30 Rock” and Elliott in “Search Party.” That it survived a 2017 revival with its reputation relatively intact proves its consistent quality. —JD
6. “I May Destroy You” (2020)
What it is: A nuanced character study of Arabella (Michaela Coel, who created and wrote the show), a twentysomething writer whose life is upended by a sexual assault. The series examines consent and violation from multiple angles, with considerable focus on Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), Arabella’s gay friend, and his own sexual assault.
Why it’s essential: “I May Destroy You” is one of the best shows of the 21st century in general, but Kwame’s storyline is a particularly insightful, devastating look at the dynamics of gay dating, hookup culture, and queer identity in the 21st century. Kwame’s assault is painful to watch, but the show is patient and generous in its portrayal of how it alters his relationships with his friends and lovers, and his slow journey to recovery afterwards. And, partially thanks to Essiedu’s lived-in performance, the series never feels didactic, handling all of the balls it throws into the air effortlessly and with gorgeous empathy. —WC
5. “Steven Universe” (2013-2019)
What it is: Rebecca Sugar’s popular kids cartoon focuses on the title character as he joins the Crystal Gems — a race of mostly queer aliens once led by his mother — to protect the world from their own kind.
Why it’s essential: Children’s TV has slowly but steadily embraced LGBTQ characters over the course of the last 10 years, and “Steven Universe” is arguably the single show most responsible for that shift. Between the character of Garnet, a fusion between two female Gems in love with each other, the messy and tragic relationship between Pearl and Steven’s mother Rose Quartz, and forays into nonbinary representation with Steven’s fusion with his friend Connie, “Steven Universe” led the charge into proving that kids aren’t just capable of handling queer stories, they deserve queer stories. —WC
4. “Queer as Folk” (2000-2005)
What it is: We owe so much to British TV creator Russell Davies, and it all begins with “Queer As Folk.” While the UK version is equally (if not more) compelling, its 1999 premiere spared us having to make a Sophie’s Choice of which to include on this strictly 21st century list. The American version, while considerably soapier, is also about ten times sexier. It follows a group of five gay friends living, laughing, and loving (wait, that’s a different show) in the unbelievably fabulous city of…Pittsburgh.
Why it’s essential: Ushering in Showtime’s era of delivering two of the most impactful queer shows ever made, “Queer As Folk” was America’s first entirely LGBTQ+ TV show. In terms of impactful characters, it’s hard to name one who outed more teenage boys than Brian Kinney, an effortlessly smooth top with an enviable loft. But in addition to the many hot sex scenes and crushable cuties, “Queer As Folk” offered a magical refuge away from what was then a very straight homogenous culture. It offered overly supportive moms played by TV icons (we love you, Sharon Gless), bickering lesbians who were maybe a little too annoying but also hot, and a vision of a fabulous life surrounded by chosen family. —JD
3. “Pose” (2018-2021)
What it is: An ensemble drama about the world of New York’s ballroom subculture from the late ‘80s to early ‘90s. Michaela Jaé Rodriguez leads the series as Blanca, the leader of House Evangelista who guides the other members through personal crises and the evolving HIV crisis.
Why it’s essential: A groundbreaking work in terms of trans representation on TV, “Pose” featured five trans women of color (Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Indya Moore, Hailie Sahar, and Angelica Ross) in central roles, and gives them the opportunity to be kind, mean, messy, magnificent, and most importantly, human. The show’s exploration into ballroom culture is unapologetic and uninterested in hand-holding straight audiences, and its portrayal of how the queer community navigated the AIDS crisis is alternatively heartbreaking and life-affirming. —WC
2. “Six Feet Under” (2001-2005)
What it is: Premiering on HBO in 2001, “Six Feet Under” was once as important to the HBO brand as “The Sopranos” was. Created by gay screenwriter Alan Ball, the hour-long dark comedy takes place in a family-run funeral home, and each episode opens with a death scene. But the heart of the series are the lovably eccentric members of the Fischer family, who are reluctantly thrust together after the death of their patriarch.
Why it’s essential: In addition to just being extremely good TV that never dips in quality over six seasons, “Six Feet Under” introduced much of America to its first long-term committed gay relationship in Keith (Mathew St. Patrick) and David (Michael C. Hall). Though they had their ups and downs, ultimately their relationship became the show’s strongest and most enduring, as confirmed by the gutting last episode, which ranks high on any list of the best TV finales ever. —JD
1. “Angels in America” (2003)
What it is: Tony Kushner’s Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award-winning play had already made a huge impact since its Broadway premiere in 1991. As with any revered piece of theater, but especially one as monumental as Kushner’s ensemble AIDS epic, audiences were right to be wary of a screen adaptation. But director Mike Nichols, firmly in command of this new form of film/series hybrid, worked brilliantly to shepherd Kushner’s fantastical storytelling to the screen.
Why it’s essential: With its sweeping scope and career-defining performances, “Angels in America” is probably the most definitive piece of art about the AIDS crisis. From the wrenching dance between Louis and Prior as they try as they contend with life with HIV, to the monumentally grotesque character study of dangerous homophobe Roy Cohn, played electrically by Al Pacino in his last great role. Add Meryl Streep in Rabbi drag, and it’s one for the ages. —JD