26. Pushing Daisies
What It’s About: Ned (Lee Pace) is a mild-mannered, socially awkward chap with two amazing talents: He makes awesome pies, and he can resurrect the dead with a touch. But with another touch, Ned can rescind that second-chance life…which is why he can never lay a finger on his best pal and one true love, Charlotte (Anna Friel), whom he reanimates after she’s killed. With gruff private detective Emerson Cod (Chi McBride), the pair solve murders in a world of opulent whimsy that invariably finds ways to let Kristin Chenoweth’s lovelorn waitress Olive Snook sing a song.
Why It’s Cult: The heightened artifice of it all — the ornate storybook production, the mile-a-minute screwball banter, Harry Potter reader Jim Dale’s narration — polarized audiences into love-it/hate-it camps. Those who love it swear by its imaginative depiction of a romance defined by relational, not sexual, intimacy. Those who hate it think that it’s like watching a long, annoying Splenda commercial.
Secret Handshake: You can recite the rules of Ned’s power by heart. —Jeff Jensen
What It’s About: A James Bond spoof set in a spy agency populated entirely by degenerate narcissists, led by Sterling Archer, a caddish superspy with severe Freudian issues.
Why It’s Cult: With a brilliant voice cast that includes H. Jon Benjamin, Aisha Tyler, and Arrested Development matriarch Jessica Walter, the animated series is a vicious delight. It masterfully melds spy satire with rapid-fire jokes that reference everything from Burt Reynolds to Bartleby, the Scrivener (”Not a big Melville crowd here, huh? He’s not an easy read”). The peculiar mixture seems to come directly from the brain of creator Adam Reed, who also worked on cult oddities Sealab 2021 and Frisky Dingo.
Secret Handshake: You regularly try to work ”danger zone” into a conversation. —Darren Franich
24. Better Off Ted
What It’s About: Amiable single dad Ted Crisp (Jay Harrington) and his life as a research-and-development exec at the powerful megacorporation Veridian Dynamics, where he matches wits with company womanbot Veronica (Portia de Rossi), flirts with co-worker Linda (Andrea Anders), and indulges a pair of scientists, Phil (Jonathan Slavin) and Lem (Malcolm Barrett), who develop technologies like a cure for baldness (which also happens to grow hair on every surface it touches).
Why It’s Cult: Ted blended zany pep with a sly satire of corporate America — when employees are set to be fired, in lieu of a gentle conversation with HR, a SWAT-like ”Extraction Team” packs up their office and hunts them down. (Also, the company’s new automatic-lighting-system sensors don’t recognize black people.) The building chatter from TV critics wasn’t enough to save the low-rated show from cancellation, a fact that’s brought to you by the emotion ”sadness.”
Secret Handshake: ”Deal with it.” —Dan Snierson
What It’s About: American astronaut John Crichton (Ben Browder) accidentally flies into another universe, where he leads a band of rebels on a sentient ship while fighting an army of baddies called Peacekeepers and a black-leather-clad wormhole obsessive named Scorpius.
Why It’s Cult: If the wisecracking puppets didn’t make it cult, the sexy silver and blue alien babes surely did. Farscape was also one of the trippiest space sagas ever, with portions of some episodes taking place in Crichton’s subconscious.
Secret Handshake: Before Battlestar Galactica popularized frak as geek slang, there was Farscape‘s very liberal use of frell. As in ”Why did you frelling copy us?” —Dalton Ross
22. Party Down
What It’s About: Six Hollywood wannabes slum it as food caterers to the Los Angeles elite, enduring the agonies and absurdities of waiting for that Big Break while serving the spoiled A-holes who’ve already made it.
Why It’s Cult: The smart, drily funny series (co-created by Paul Rudd) featured a dream-team roster of comedy actors — Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Jane Lynch, and Megan Mullally, for starters. The premise took us to a new party each week, so every episode had the opportunity to bring new talent to the show’s proverbial (and actual) table. But the offbeat writing shone brightest in the smaller moments, when the gang was just sitting around a kitchen and bickering to pass the time.
Secret Handshake: ”Are we having fun yet?” —Ray Rahman
1999-2001, The WB
What It’s About: Dueling Kennedy High students — head cheerleader Brooke McQueen (Leslie Bibb) and reporter Sam McPherson (Carly Pope) — are forced to move in together (and try to play nice) after their parents get engaged.
Why It’s Cult: Popular — the first show created by Ryan Murphy — was truly the proto-Glee. While Beverly Hills, 90210 and Dawson’s Creek unspooled overwrought drama and very special episodes, Popular celebrated the value of outcasts and portrayed overplayed topics — Homecoming Court, sex, and secrets — through an absurdist lens. (See: season 1’s PMS-themed episode ”Caged!” which climaxed with a ridiculous catfight in the ladies’ room.)
Secret Handshake: ”Shut your dirty whore mouth, player player!” —Tanner Stransky
2005-present, The CW
What It’s About: The Winchester brothers, Dean (Jensen Ackles) and Sam (Jared Padalecki), hunt demons, ghosts, vampires, human-eating leviathans, and the like. Currently, that list of threats is longer than ever for Dean, who was trapped in purgatory at the end of last season.
Why It’s Cult: Supernatural began with a pretty straightforward premise — hot guys kill spooky things — but it didn’t stay that way for long. The characters have literally been to hell and back, and along the way, they have woven a complicated and compelling mythology filled with friends (angel Castiel), recurring foes (demon Crowley), and inside jokes (Wincest!). Supernatural has also, however, dedicated episodes to mocking the sillier aspects of its own existence, like its hypercritical fandom. This self-referential approach has rewarded longtime viewers and helped build a community so passionate, it’s almost scary.
Secret Handshake: A real fan won’t take offense at being called an ”idjit.” —Sandra Gonzalez
19. Wonder Showzen
What It’s About: The thoroughly twisted parody of an educational children’s show had adorable little kids saying dark, bizarre, and otherwise age-inappropriate things, often while dressed as historical figures like Hitler and ”Li’l Dead Pope.” How wrong was it? Take the music video featuring children dancing around to a catchy song with these lyrics: ”Slaves!/Built the pyramids/Slaves!/Built the Parthenon/Slaves!/Built America/Slaves!/This is your song/Thank you/Slaves!”
Why It’s Cult: Because the letter a stood for ”antiestablishment,” and new levels of subversiveness were achieved each week. It was the type of show that you’d watch in delighted disbelief while thinking, ”Is this really happening on a network owned by a giant corporation?”
Secret Handshake: ”Who did you exploit today?” —Dan Snierson
What It’s About: Agent Olivia Dunham (Anna Torv) and her team — including kookball scientist Walter Bishop (John Noble) and his son Peter (Joshua Jackson) — investigate crimes involving ”fringe science.”
Why It’s Cult: Fringe was conceived as a mass-appeal genre procedural, with a background mythology that wouldn’t detract from monster-of-the-week episodes. (Think X-Files except…well, think X-Files.) But the mythology overtook the monsters following the revelation of a parallel universe. By its third season, Fringe was overpopulated by multiple versions of every character. Unfortunately, that increasing narrative complexity steadily pigeonholed it as a niche show.
Secret Handshake: Do Peter and Olivia really need to be a couple? Discuss. —Darren Franich
What It’s About: College freshmen in Northern California (including Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, and Charlie Hunnam) deal with, well, being college freshmen.
Why It’s Cult: As much as we bow down to Freaks and Geeks, it too often overshadows this shorter-lived Judd Apatow series, which was hilarious in its own right. In addition to cementing many of the Apatovian universe’s central players (Rogen, Jason Segel, Loudon Wainwright III, and virtually everyone else in Knocked Up), the half-hour comedy gets props for replacing clichés of campus life (nonstop partying) with more realistic concerns (the freshman 15).
Secret Handshake: Few fans will forget Ben Stiller (as Segel’s mulleted roommate) explaining what ”relationship” really stands for: ”Real Exciting Love Affair That Turns Into Ongoing Nightmare…Sobriety Hangs in Peril…something like that, I got it tattooed on my back.” —Ray Rahman
What It’s About: Technically it’s about a group of oddball community-college students who form a study group. But it’s actually about seven unlikely friends — helmed by cocky ex-lawyer Jeff Winger (Joel McHale) — who spend their time paintballing, pillow-fighting, parodying movies (and basically anything else you can imagine), and occasionally exchanging longing romantic glances.
Why It’s Cult: The series’ affinity for ambitious, high-concept story lines (how many shows do you watch that are willing to turn over an entire episode to stop-motion animation?), meta humor, and constant pop culture allusions has helped it earn the kind of fervent fan following some of its higher-rated comedic competitors must envy.
Secret Handshake: ”Six seasons and a movie!” —Nuzhat Naoreen
15. Battlestar Galactica
What It’s About: This reboot of the short-lived sci-fi series from the late 1970s traced the weary struggles of Adm. William Adama (Edward James Olmos), President Laura Roslin (Mary McDonnell), and their ragtag human band as they strive to find Earth and defeat the vengeful, synthetic Cylons.
Why It’s Cult: The original BSG has a fiercely loyal following, but exec producer Ronald D. Moore expanded the show’s central premise into an addictive post-9/11 parable and one of the most critically acclaimed series of the decade. Stars Katee Sackhoff (as the headstrong pilot Kara ”Starbuck” Thrace) and Tricia Helfer (as the knockout Cylon Number Six) became geek and feminist icons, and best of all, the show introduced this peerless profanity into the national lexicon: Frak!
Secret Handshake: ”So say we all!” —Adam B. Vary
14. Veronica Mars
2004-06, UPN; 2006-07, The CW
What It’s About: A popular blonde-turned-spunky outcast (Kristen Bell) moonlights as a fearless teen detective.
Why It’s Cult: It’s not easy telling the story of a girl’s mission to solve her best friend’s murder — while also investigating her own rape — but creator Rob Thomas’ tough assignment was made easier by putting the tirelessly smart and snarky Veronica Mars on the case. Her wry one-liners injected much-needed lightness into sometimes grim mysteries. But what makes this series a cult fave comes down to potential — or, some would say, unfulfilled potential. Three seasons weren’t enough, especially considering the lack of resolution after the show’s abrupt cancellation. And nothing riles audiences for years to come quite like an unfinished story.
Secret Handshake: You understand that Mars lives in Neptune. —Sandra Gonzalez
13. Twin Peaks
What It’s About: A surreal and sprawling soap set in a logging town woolly with kinky secrets, quirky locals, and otherworldly creeps, Twin Peaks was a midnight movie stretched into a prime-time serial. Put too simply, the story tracked endearingly odd FBI agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) on his quest to nab the killer of troubled teen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). It was also about many other things. And coffee.
Why It’s Cult: Because of its co-creator, director David Lynch (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet), whose alt-and-arty sensibility is pure fringe. The show itself was only fitfully brilliant and ultimately unfulfilling, but the cult lives, fueled by nostalgia for the extraordinary pop phenomenon it inspired, for its significance to the medium (behold the big bang of auteur TV!), and for a sensuous strangeness that possesses you and never lets you go.
Secret Handshake: ”Damn good coffee — and hot!” —Jeff Jensen
What It’s About: In a future where superpowers China and the United States have teamed up to colonize the galaxy by terraforming inhospitable planets, a cynical veteran of a failed revolutionary war named Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) and the crew of the ramshackle spaceship Serenity eke out a living hauling cargo and evading cannibal Reavers, intergalactic mobsters, and agents desperate to recapture River (Summer Glau), a child prodigy whom the Alliance tried to make into a superhuman assassin. Instead, they drove her bonkers.
Why It’s Cult: The sci-fi/Western mash-up. The Chinese curse words. Everything that made Joss Whedon’s first TV foray beyond the Buffyverse unique also screamed ”for smart nerds only.” And, as it often does, martyrdom has only enhanced its legend: Fox canceled the show after airing 11 of 14 episodes produced.
Secret Handshake: You call yourself a Browncoat. —Jeff Jensen
What It’s About: An airplane filled with flawed souls crashes on a mysterious island that may or may not be the spiritual heart of the world. Fixer addict Jack (Matthew Fox), meaning seeker Locke (Terry O’Quinn), father-killing Kate (Evangeline Lilly), con man Sawyer (Josh Holloway), and many more form a fragile community as they tangle with time travel, the loony legacy of utopian mad scientists, and assorted morally ambiguous Others, most notably Great Man wannabe Ben Linus (Michael Emerson).
Why It’s Cult: At first, it wasn’t. Lost was initially celebrated as a moving character-driven drama with a broad humanistic worldview that also presented itself as dramatic cryptography that demanded to be solved. The appeal narrowed as seasons progressed and the mythology became more complex, culminating in a still-debated finale that was deeply meaningful to some and dissatisfying poppycock to others.
Secret Handshake: ”We have to go back!” —Jeff Jensen
10. My So-Called Life
What It’s About: High school sophomore Angela Chase (Claire Danes) makes out in the boiler room with her pencil-chewing crush Jordan (Jared Leto), rescues her best friend Rayanne (A.J. Langer) from an Ecstasy overdose, and offers scrawled-across-your-Trapper-Keeper wisdom like ”School is a battlefield for your heart.” Meanwhile, teenage girls across America sigh, ”Angela Chase, c’est moi.”
Why It’s Cult: Yes, it introduced the world to the tender-hearted brilliance of Claire Danes. But more important, it was the first teen drama that didn’t feel like an after-school special. No one ever learned a very important lesson or uttered the phrase ”I love you, Dad.” Angela acted like a real 15-year-old, with all the crying jags and Buffalo Tom concerts that implies. What’s even more impressive is that anyone who watched the show back in the ’90s, when angst and Manic Panic felt totally of the moment, can now enjoy it on a very different level. Suddenly, Angela’s parents are relatable. Dammit, we’re old.
Secret Handshake: ”Where’s Tino?” —Melissa Maerz
9. The Comeback
What It’s About: On her superb one-season wonder, Lisa Kudrow played Valerie Cherish, a former sitcom star trying to make a comeback (duh) on a new show, Room and Bored, while being trailed by a crew shooting a reality show about her, also called The Comeback. Kudrow and co-creator Michael Patrick King captured the predatory nature of reality TV, the desperation of middle-aged female stardom, and the pampered but threatening Hollywood-bubble life.
Why It’s Cult: Both painfully uncomfortable and deadpan hilarious, The Comeback was spot-on in its inside-showbiz look at the making of a sitcom — while featuring one of the decade’s biggest sitcom stars, no less. But it was so inside, it was too inaccessible to a mass audience, or even an audience that might have returned for a second season on HBO.
Secret Handshake: ”I don’t want to see that!” —Ken Tucker
8. Star Trek: The Next Generation
What It’s About: Gene Roddenberry’s second Trek show — set a century after the original series — chronicled the voyages of the starship Enterprise; her cerebral captain, Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart); and her crew, including loyal first officer William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), Klingon security chief Worf (Michael Dorn), android Data (Brent Spiner), blind chief engineer Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton), ship’s physician Dr. Beverly Crusher (Gates McFadden), and ship’s counselor Deanna Troi (Marina Sirtis).
Why It’s Cult: The original Star Trek was cult TV before cult TV was even a thing, but its younger, sleeker offspring brought, yes, a new generation into the Trekker fold, and reignited the promise of sci-fi on television. Over seven seasons, fans devoured story lines both poignant (Data’s rights as a sentient being are put on trial) and action-packed (the Borg, a race of relentless cyborgs, kidnap and transform Picard).
Secret Handshake: Who’s the better captain, Kirk or Picard? (Obviously, it’s Picard.) —Adam B. Vary
7. It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia
What It’s About: When they’re not running Paddy’s Pub, a dive bar in South Philadelphia, five disorderly half-wits known as ”The Gang” smoke crack, get cancer, go on welfare, compose a rock opera about a pedophile troll, and kill a guy with a chain saw.
Why It’s Cult: See: ”What It’s About.” Plus, it’s a great underdog story. Made for less than a third of a typical network sitcom’s budget, and created by Rob McElhenney — who cast his real-life friends (Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day) and now wife (Kaitlin Olson) and continued to wait tables throughout the first season — the show served as a financial model for other cult favorites like Louie and The League. If it sounds too dark for you, consider that there’s an episode about making mittens for kittens, and it’s adorable.
Secret Handshake: You dressed up in costume for the live musical staging of ”The Nightman Cometh.” —Melissa Maerz
6. The Wire
What It’s About: The show followed the inner workings of Baltimore, with a different setting for each of its five seasons: the inner-city drug trade; the seaport; city hall; the school system; and the journalism world of The Baltimore Sun, from which creator/exec producer/writer David Simon came.
Why It’s Cult: Dense in the number of its characters, its dialogue, and its interconnected story lines, The Wire was one of the most highly praised series in HBO history, but never one of its hits. The stellar ensemble yielded several cult-favorite characters, most notably the eerily omnipresent Omar Little (Michael K. Williams), a Robin Hood-like figure who robbed drug dealers but never harmed an ordinary citizen. The show’s vaunted reportorial critiques of various Baltimore institutions occasionally gave it a near-documentary feel.
Secret Handshake: ”Sheeeeeeeit.” —Ken Tucker
5. The X-Files
What It’s About: FBI agents Fox Mulder (David Duchovny) and Dana Scully (Gillian Anderson) are a pair of black-suited Kolchaks, investigating the cases that are too out-there for their colleagues. You know, parasitic monsters, alien abductions, murderous inbred hillbilly families — the usual overflow.
Why It’s Cult: The X-Files was a paean to oddballs, sci-fi fans, conspiracy theorists, and Area 51 pilgrims everywhere. Ratings improved every year for the first five seasons, while Mulder and Scully’s believer-versus-skeptic dynamic created a TV template that’s still in heavy use today.
Secret Handshake: You own a replica of Mulder’s ”I Want to Believe” poster. —Keith Staskiewicz
4. Mystery Science Theater 3000
1988, KMTA; 1989-91, The Comedy Channel; 1991-96, Comedy Central; 1997-99, Syfy
What It’s About: Space-traveling janitor Joel Robinson (Joel Hodgson) and later Mike Nelson are forced to watch terrible B movies like The Brain That Wouldn’t Die along with their robot sidekicks — a torture. They survive by heckling their way through the screenings (”Cruelty to small animals is one of little Bobby’s few outlets”) and spawning endless catchphrases.
Why It’s Cult: MST3K taught us that snarky commentary about media can be way more entertaining than the actual media — a lesson that was subsequently taken to heart by Beavis and Butt-head, Talk Soup, Tosh.0, and every blog ever.
Secret Handshake: ”Deep Hurting.” —Melissa Maerz
3. Arrested Development
2003-06, Fox; 2013, Netflix
What It’s About: A privileged, self-obsessed Orange County family falls apart when its patriarch and CEO of its real estate company (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for fraud, prompting levelheaded son Michael (Jason Bateman) to try to pick up all of the dysfunctional pieces.
Why It’s Cult: The critically acclaimed comedy jacked up the bar on what to expect from a network show: fast, delirious, interlocking jokes that don’t pander to the masses; winky gags (e.g., fake preview scenes for the following week’s episode); and a cast of absurd characters, including a mama’s boy named Buster (Tony Hale) who has a hook for a hand because a seal in a bow tie bit it off. The legend grew so powerful in cancellation, AD was revived as a TV show on Netflix — and possibly as a movie as well.
Secret Handshake: ”Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money…or candy.” —Dan Snierson
2. Buffy the Vampire Slayer
1997-2001, The WB; 2001-03, UPN
What It’s About: A teenage vampire hunter (Sarah Michelle Gellar) and her loyal Scooby Gang (Nicholas Brendon and Alyson Hannigan) fight — and sometimes fall in love with — supernatural baddies under the watchful eye of wise librarian Giles (Anthony Stewart Head).
Why It’s Cult: You could say it was Gellar’s fully committed portrayal of the slayer that caused TV fans to rally. Or Joss Whedon’s witty dialogue (”Didn’t anyone ever warn you about playing with pointy sticks?”). Or the lovable ensemble. Or the attractive, broody vampires with whom Buffy kept company. In truth, all of the above inspired the show’s fierce following, as did the fact that every one of Buffy’s adventures — though filled with monsters and Big Bads — was totally relatable. (For example: Buffy sleeps with Angel, then wakes up to discover he’s turned evil. Raise your hand if you haven’t been there.)
Secret Handshake: ”Grr! Argh!” —Sandra Gonzalez
1. Doctor Who
The U.S. broadcast history of the 49-year-old British science fiction show is a tangled one. But since 2009, the show has been screened here on BBC America
What It’s About: A two-hearted humanoid alien capable of periodic physical ”regeneration” and known only as ”the Doctor” travels through space and time in an old British phone box battling monsters with the assistance of a ”sonic screwdriver” and routinely confused ”companions.”
Why It’s Cult: Did you not read the above summary? Suffice to say that even other cult shows, notably the Who-referencing Community, regard this theoretically children-aimed scare machine as being ”a bit culty.”
Secret Handshake: ”Would you like a Jelly Baby?” —Clark Collis