25. BEAUTY AND THE BEAST
Premise: An inquisitive young assistant district attorney (Linda Hamilton) discovers a wondrous, secret world beneath New York City and falls for the stoic, sweet Vincent (Ron Perlman), that world’s beastly protector.
Why It’s Cult: Vaguely supernatural, entirely romantic: Beauty was Twilight, 20 years ahead of its time. And the small but devoted fan base loved it to death (i.e., cancellation.) —Marc Bernardin
24. SPORTS NIGHT
Premise: A look behind the scenes of a TV show not unlike ESPN’s SportsCenter, staffed by the sort of dysfunctional workplace family Aaron Sorkin writes so vividly. Stars Felicity Huffman and Peter Krause in career-launching performances.
Why It’s Cult: Cancelled after two seasons, but most sports geeks would still kill to work there. —Whitney Pastorek
23. THE VENTURE BROTHERS
(2003-present, Cartoon Network)
Premise: Jonny Quest on acid: The blinkered, half-assed scientist, Dr. Rusty Venture, stumbles into every kind of trouble imaginable — lame-ass arch nemesis, ghosts, hot rogue assassins — with his brutish bodyguard, Brock Samson, and his two idiot sons, Hank and Dean, by his side.
Why It’s Cult: It swallows a whole host of pop-culture influences — the aforementioned Quest, comic books, Scooby Doo, spy flicks, pulp heroes — and regurgitates them as a hysterical bouillabaisse. Plus, Patrick Warburton voices Brock, which automatically equates to awesome. —Marc Bernardin
22. GET A LIFE
Premise: Comedian Chris Elliott is a grownup paperboy living atop his parents’ garage.
Why It’s Cult: Well, there’s its pre-Arrested Development wackiness (the ‘rents always wear pajamas, even when out on the town), its pre-South Park boldness (Elliott’s character died in 12 different episodes, way before Kenny got wacked by his first car), and its pre-Office quotables (”you are the most beautiful woman I have ever seen, with the exception of Charles Durning”). Or the fact that it served as a training ground for king-Cultists Bob Odenkirk and Charlie Kaufman. Oh, and its theme song: R.E.M.’s ”Stand.” —Aubry D’Arminio
21. POLICE SQUAD
Premise: Taking a bite at crime shows from Dragnet to M Squad to Hawaii-Five O, master cop Frank Drebin (Leslie Nielsen) keeps the city safe in the most bizarre manner possible (to Frank, driving ”back to the office” literally means driving backwards to the office).
Why It’s Cult: The non-sequiturs, puns, and slapstick in the six existing episodes of Squad! (which spawned the Naked Gun film franchise) get laughs even on repeat viewings. And the opening sequences in which a guest star is named, shown, and then immediately killed were years ahead of their time (check out William Shatner as he dodges bullets only to guzzle poison). —Aubry D’Arminio
20. THE BEN STILLER SHOW
(1990-1993; MTV, Fox)
Premise: Saturday Night Live skits on way more blow, with twice the talent of MADtv, and from the nascient comedy minds of Ben Stiller and Judd Apatow (who took home Emmys after the show was cancelled).
Why It’s Cult: Where else would you see unknowns Stiller, Andy Dick, Janeane Garofalo, and Bob Odenkirk testing out their Tom Cruise spoofs and Eddie Munster interpretations? —Aubry D’Arminio
19. MYSTERY SCIENCE THEATER 3000
(1988-1999, Comedy Central, Sci Fi)
Premise: Crow T. Robot was made of a lacrosse facemask, a plastic bowling pin, and a soap dish. Tom Servo’s basic parts were a bubble-gum machine, a penny bank, and a flashlight. But together with creator Joel Hodgson (just a guy in a red jump suit) they gave the 1990’s the perfect postmodern comedy.
Why It’s Cult: MST3K codified that which every geek does in his spare time: the right way to mercilessly lampoon horrible movies — with wicked smart friends. It made being a geek a communal experience. —Benjamin Svetkey
18. THE COMEBACK
Premise: Erstwhile TV star Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow) suffers humiliation after hilarious humiliation while trying to revive her career with a role on a lame network sitcom, Room & Bored, and a reality series chronicling her return to the airwaves.
Why It’s Cult: Quite possibly one of the most scathing takes on Hollywood and celebrity culture in the history of ever, The Comeback features a ferociously committed, Emmy-nominated performance by Kudrow, and dozens of quotable quips that the show’s fans continue to spout to this very day. All together now: ”Note to self: After a long day at work, I don’t wanna see that!” —Michael Slezak
Premise: Geeky underachiever Chuck Bartowski is unwittingly imprinted with the Intersect (a sort of international espionage database), and thrust into the a life of fighting crime — while still working at the local BuyMore.
Why It’s Cult: The nerd-out-of-water humor isn’t for everyone, but the freak-show supporting cast (long live Jeffster!) inspires slavish devotion. How slavish? Fans descended upon local Subways and left pleas for renewal in the suggestion boxes. And guess who signed on as a sponsor for season 3? —Whitney Pastorek
16. THE WIRE
Premise: Baltimore police wage war on drugs. Also, America is broken.
Why It’s Cult: With dozens of interweaving plots, The Wire redefined dizzying narrative complexity for the DVR age. So the audience was always tiny. But fans experienced a place and time — Baltimore, Right Now — rendered with videogame precision. From Mad Men to Heroes, all modern serialized shows live in this masterwork’s long shadow. —Darren Franich
15. PUSHING DAISIES
Premise: Sweet-faced pie maker Ned (Lee Pace) can temporarily revive the dead with the touch of a finger.
Why It’s Cult: Take a base of detective thriller (Ned uses his powers to help a cranky detective solve murders), add a dash of comedy (said detective knits), a bit of romance (waitress Olive crushes on Ned, but Ned loves back-from-the-grave childhood sweetheart Chuck), a sprinkle of drama (if Ned touches Chuck again, she’ll re-die), and a never-before-seen-on-TV candy-coated mis-en-scene. And, voila, you have Daisies! —Aubry D’Arminio
Premise: Corporate genius and raging sociopath Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar) wiles away the hours trying to gain control of Gracen & Gracen, and if he can destroy the lives of his rivals while doing it, all the better!
Why It’s Cult: While the series’ pitch-black tone and unapologetic antihero might’ve caught on with audiences today, back in 1996, it was good for only eight episodes. Still, the weekly image of Profit laying his head to rest inside a G&G cardboard box — a leftover habit from his disturbing childhood — remains emblazoned in our heads more than a decade later. Good, if grim, stuff! —Michael Slezak
13. VERONICA MARS
(2004-2007; UPN, The CW)
Premise: Veronica (Kristen Bell) is a hardboiled high-school gumshoe who employs snark, her ever-present Sidekick, and a stun gun to help her private detective father (Enrico Colatoni) solve crimes in seedy Neptune, California.
Why It’s Cult: Series creator Rob Thomas’ canny take on teen angst was boldly original, borrowing more from Raymond Chandler than Aaron Spelling, with Bell cast as a female Philip Marlowe. At turns goofy (Bell has a way with one-liners) and surprisingly gritty (in season 1, Veronica sets out to solve her own rape and the murder of her best friend) Mars won critical praise and a rabid fan base…who mailed thousands of Mars candy bars to the CW to protest the show’s 2007 cancellation. —Chad Schlegel
12. THE TICK
Premise: A big, blue nigh-invulnerable lunkhead named the Tick patrols the City, battling villains like El Seed, Chairface Chippendale, and the Breadmaster, and making life difficult for his live-in sidekick, Arthur.
Why It’s Cult: It sits alongside Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, Looney Tunes, and The Magic Garden as one of the more subversive kids shows ever put on TV. Its lunacy — overseen by Ben Edlund, who created the Tick comic book and went on to write some particularly inspired episodes of Angel and Firefly — made the entire concept of Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim possible. —Marc Bernardin
(2005-present; The WB, The CW)
Premise: Two hot brothers (Jared Padalecki and Jensen Ackles) get in their hot car and vanquish all manner of demonic beasties. With style.
Why It’s Cult: Because some members of the show’s small but passionate fanbase have taken to writing fan fiction. And any show that inspires people to want to continue the heroes’ adventures on their own time qualifies as cult. (We’ll not mention that some of that fan fiction has the Winchester brothers doing things that brothers shouldn’t be doing. It’s called ”Wincest.” Nuff said, ja?) —Marc Bernardin
(1999-2003, Sci Fi)
Premise: Astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) is held captive on a spaceship manned by escaped prisoners — including a Klingonish warrior, a blue-skinned priestess, and what looks like a giant Fraggle.
Why It’s Cult: Because it picked up where Babylon 5 left off: A solid, intricately plotted ship-based odyssey that engaged a tiny legion of fans. That fan passion has prompted continuations in miniseries and comic book form. —Marc Bernardin
9. THE X-FILES
Premise: Mulder. Scully. Aliens. Conspiracy theories. Monsters of the Week. The truth being out there. Etc.
Why It’s Cult: Few shows in the history of television have inspired so much obsessive cultish behavior — or so much head scratching. As the beloved FBI agenting duo attempted to uncover and prevent the apocalyptic endgame of the Syndicate, viewers not invested to a cultish degree were pretty much left in the black oily dust. —Whitney Pastorek
8. MY SO-CALLED LIFE
Premise: Claire Danes was crushingly honest in her portrayal of Angela Chase, a high schooler in the midst of an identity crisis.
Why It’s Cult: Cancelled before its time (then frustratingly out of print on DVD for far too long), the show still feels like a personal letter of encouragement to anyone who’s ever felt like they could never belong. —Whitney Pastorek
7. BATTLESTAR GALACTICA
(2003-2009, Sci Fi)
Premise: After humanity is nearly wiped out by the Cylons — i.e., a race of sentient robots who’ve redesigned themselves to look human — some 50,000 survivors travel through space to a mythical home called Earth, protected by a hulking battleship called Galactica.
Why It’s Cult: Unlike the late-1970s series it was based on, this show took its apocalyptic premise dead seriously. Actions had consequences — usually dire, often far-reaching — and its emotionally rich characters were up to their eyeballs in moral ambiguity. Also, the space battles were frakking mind-blowing. —Adam B. Vary
Premise: Long into our future, a ramshackle crew aboard the Firefly-class spaceship Serenity try to scrape together a living in deep space, whether lawfully or not so much lawfully, while avoiding the authority of the Alliance.
Why It’s Cult: Creator Joss Whedon’s cast teemed with instantly relatable characters, the story pulsed with intrigue, and the dialogue crackled with a unique mix of old West patois and Mandarin profanity. So of course Fox cancelled the show after its 11th episode — but it lived on in the 2005 Universal film Serenity, and a series of comic books. —Adam B. Vary
5. TWIN PEAKS
Premise: Actually, the word ”premise” does a disservice to David Lynch’s short-lived, but much-loved TV experiment. Ostensibly about a federal agent (Kyle MacLachlan) trying to solve the murder of Laura Palmer in a damp northwestern town, Twin Peaks unspooled as a snapshot of the bizarre.
Why It’s Cult: No one had ever seen anything like it on network TV, and for one glorious year, it recast the kinds of stories one could tell to a weekly audience. Grief, absurdity, humor, romance, the macabre: all found a home in Twin Peaks, and subsequently in America’s living rooms. —Marc Bernardin
4. THE PRISONER
Premise: Gilligan’s Island for people with brains. Patrick McGoohan played No. 6, an ex-spy kidnapped and marooned on freakishly cheery island known as The Village. Every episode — and there were only 17 — he would try to escape, often being stopped by a giant white balloon named Rover. Hey, it was the 60s. People did drugs.
Why It’s Cult: The Prisoner was unlike any other TV show before it: intensely cerebral, subversively allegorical, maddeningly mysterious. —Benjamin Svetkey
3. FREAKS AND GEEKS
Premise: Two groups of misfits attempting to survive an American high school in humiliation-rich 1980.
Why It’s Cult: Because it’s basically ground zero for the brand of humor that now rules Hollywood. Created by Paul Feig and produced by Judd Apatow, it starred Jason Segel, James Franco, and Seth Rogen (among many familiar others) — proving once and for all that the stoners and dweebs really shall inherit the earth. —Whitney Pastorek
2. BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER
(1997-2003; The WB, UPN)
Premise: The titular Buffy Summers (Sarah Michelle Gellar) is a teenage girl with supernatural strength, deadly agility, and great fashion sense, battling demons real and figurative with her band of friends in the Hellmouth-y town of Sunnydale, CA.
Why It’s Cult: Mixing pulpy horror with deeply felt drama, kick-ass action with gut-busting wit, exec. producer Joss Whedon created a juicy, resonant metaphor for the traumas of high school, and later, young adulthood. Alas, many could not even get past its title. —Adam B. Vary
1. DOCTOR WHO
Premise: A time and space traveling ”Doctor,” played overtime by several different actors, secretly saves the world from aliens, monsters, zombies, intergalactic drug-dealers, you name it.
Why It’s Cult: The ultimate geek out: It’s old, British, sci-fi, and has gadgets galore. But Who‘s really just the ultimate cool, especially in today’s incarnation with tenth (and soon departing) Doctor David Tennant, his smashing asides, his lovely companions, and his perfect (and soon returning) evil nemesis, the Master (John Simm). Yes, Whovians, he’s baaaaaack! —Aubry D’Arminio