Representation matters. Seeing our brothers and sisters on everyday TV shows is part of that representation.
There weren’t many black tv shows when I was growing up, and the ones that were made usually weren’t accessible to most.
Thankfully, while there’s still room for improvement, that’s changed a lot.
Here are some of the best black TV shows from across the last few decades, including both live-action and animated series.
1. The Proud Family
One of the first original animated series made for the Disney Channel, The Proud Family, features the main character Penny Proud and her goal of helping make her family happier. It heavily emphasizes black pop culture, including a huge list of black celebrities that came in as guest stars. It also has a recent reboot in The Proud Family. Louder and Prouder.
2. Smart Guy
Airing in 1997, Smart Guy featured Tahj Mowry as T.J. Henderson, a ten-year-old genius whose smarts got him into high school much earlier than his peers. T.J. was consistently presented as dorky but intelligent, mixing comedy with real wit to help remind audience members of the depths of the people around them.
3. The Boondocks
Airing on Cartoon Network’s aptly-named Adult Swim block, The Boondocks has been a pop culture phenomenon and a way to poke fun at anyone and anything the creators feel deserves it. A resolute desire to prove that no target is above comedy is also a keen way to provide social analysis, making this beloved show a must-watch.
It’s also on our list of best black cartoons if you’re looking for more animated content.
4. The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
Running for six seasons after its start in 1990, the Fresh Prince was just what the world needed. Starring the first Grammy-winning rapper, Will Smith, the Fresh Prince showcased many of the modern struggles and difficulties of black families, ranging across social and economic divides. Even people who had never watched the show knew the theme song.
The Fresh Prince remains one of the best African American TV series of all time, with no qualifications. If you want to watch anything from this list, the Fresh Prince is worth it.
5. Lovecraft Country
Based on a book of the same name, Lovecraft Country mixes black culture with the space horror of H.P. Lovecraft’s works. The resulting mix creates a whole new kind of terror for protagonist Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors) as he travels through a segregated world in search of his father.
6. When They See Us
This drama is heavily based on the story of the Harlem Five, five black teenagers falsely accused of an attack in the middle of New York City. Covering 25 years across its four parts, it takes an unflinching look at the unjust actions they faced, as well as their eventual exoneration when justice finally came.
Music has been a defining element of black culture for decades, and that comes to the forefront in this show about members of the 90s band Nasty Bitches as they come together to test their careers in the modern hip hop world.
8. Raising Dion
Being a single mother is hard, but it gets exponentially worse when your young sun starts manifesting superpowers. This family drama follows Alisha Wainwright as Nicole Warren, along with her efforts to protect her son while figuring out what’s going on around her.
If there’s one thing besides music that ties the black community together, it’s sports. This drama, loosely inspired by the life of Kevin Durant, follows O’Shea Jackson Jr. as Ike Edwards in an exploration of youth basketball, opportunism, corruption, and the dreams that young players still have.
Casting actor Martin Lawrence as Martin Payne, a DJ and eventual talk show host, Martin ran from 1992 to 1997 and featured a whole cast of personalities in just its main character. Aggressively comedy-focused, Martin remains a top source of laughs in black TV and has one of the best rosters of black guest stars ever compiled.
11. Sanford and Son
Debuting in 1972 and running until 1977, this American version of a British show quickly proved the template for black sitcoms. The story follows Red Foxx as Fred Sanford, a quick-witted antique salesman working alongside his son Lamont. A hit across the spectrum, it lives on in the sheer number of songs that have sampled its iconic theme music.
12. The Jeffersons
The Jeffersons is one of the longest-running sitcoms America has ever seen, going from 1975 to 1985. It focuses on the family of George and Louise Jefferson, plus their son and housekeeper, as they acquire a sudden sum of money and move into a Manhattan high-rise.
The characters were notable enough to appear in other black shows, including in a famous segment of the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’s finale.
13. The Wonder Years
Based on a popular 80s sitcom, The Wonder Years is a coming-of-age story about a boy in Alabama in the 1960s, as explained by his older self. The framing offers a way to provide retrospection and additional commentary during a tumultuous period of change in society, making it a poignant reminder that the current world isn’t everything.
14. For Life
Falsely accused and sent to prison, Aaron Wallace has a lot of time and motivation. This stark drama focuses on his actions as he works to become a lawyer and start representing other falsely-accused people in their efforts to overturn their convictions.
15. Run The World
Released on Starz, Run the World focuses on women, friendship, and teamwork as its protagonists work to balance their personal and professional lives. It also serves as a poignant reminder that teamwork and a helping hand can do far more than one person alone ever could.
16. The Kings of Napa
Napa Valley is famous for its wine. However, when the patriarch of the King family decides to leave, it’s up to the rest of his family to gather the pieces and rebuild them into something they can run themselves. The Kings of Napa also stands out as a black TV series that focuses on some life on the West Coast outside of a major city.
A spinoff from the beloved sitcom Black-ish, Grown-ish takes a closer look at the star family’s eldest daughter Zoey as she enters college and starts trying to navigate adulthood. Things often get hard once you leave home, but personal experience with that can also be a catalyst for change and growth in someone who needs it.
18. Good Times
Set in Chicago’s housing projects, this 1974 family comedy showcases Florida and James Evans as they try to provide for themselves and their three children while finding their way to a new home. Although primarily an entertaining show, Good Times wasn’t afraid to hit some poignant highs of emotion to drive a point home.
19. What’s Happening!!
What’s Happening!!, unusual punctuation aside, looks at three boys growing up in the middle of Los Angeles as they look for a way to get rich but usually just find trouble. It also addressed a wide slate of issues, from teen pregnancy and divorce to financial problems and how families can support each other.
20. Chappelle’s Show
Chappelle’s Show is the brainchild of famed comedian Dave Chappelle, operating as a sketch comedy addressing a huge amount of the nuances of both culture and race. It’s also heavily award-winning, with seven notable awards and sixteen nominations. Maybe wait to show this one to the kids, though, as it’s definitely for older audiences.
21. Living Single
Running from 1993 to 1998, Living Single follows a group of single friends and roommates of both genders as they live in Brooklyn. Funny without being silly caricatures, the cast got plenty of laughs and even more acclaim from critics than future hit FRIENDS, which would follow much the same formula without quite as much artistic devotion.
22. The Godfather of Harlem
Based on a true story, The Godfather of Harlem stars Forest Whitaker in the role of Bumpy Johnson, who went to jail for a decade and returned home to find his neighborhood in the thrall of Italian mobsters. While this is a partially fictionalized account, most of the major plot points are quite real and add a sense of gravity as the story unfolds.
23. Lupin, A Black TV Show
Lupin follows Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a gentleman thief orphaned when a powerful man framed Assane’s father for a truly incredible theft. Beyond its other qualities, Lupin stands out as the first French title to ever rank in the top 10 on Netflix in the United States, and it’s already won numerous awards (and major nominations) for sheer quality.
Launched in 1968, before most of the other shows on this list, Julia Baker was a trailblazer for family shows. Featuring Diahann Carroll as the widowed Julia Baker after her husband’s death in Vietnam, it ran for three seasons despite accusations from critics that it was a failure for not having a male role model in the show.
25. The Bernie Mac Show
Running from 2001 to 2006, The Bernie Mac Show began as a segment but quickly turned into an entire sitcom in its own right. The show itself centers around Bernie Mac’s own style of comedy, which carried the show through a hundred episodes before its strong conclusion.
26. The Wire
One of the most acclaimed crime dramas of all time, The Wire shows the deep complexities of Baltimore’s drug scene. Few things are ever wholly good or bad, and outstanding action makes every episode tense and deeply human.
Starring Donald Glover and Brian Henry in its main roles, Atlanta tells the story of two cousins making their way through Atlanta’s rap scene as they confront a variety of issues that touch on every aspect of their lives.
Set in the 1980s, Pose is a dance musical showcasing many of the complex elements of New York’s cultural scene, from balls and literature to the self-selected members of a house for LGBTQ children rejected by their families. As a modern show, many of the themes it addresses ring true for audience members watching it today.
29. The Amos ‘n Andy Show
One of the earliest black TV shows ever made, The Amos ‘n Andy show ran from 1951 to 1953 and focused on genuine comedy from its cast. Along the way, it helped introduce audiences to many elements of black life at the time, helping pave the way for many of the other shows on this list.
30. Frank’s Place
Though it ran for just one season, Frank’s Place was a solid dramedy focusing on an intelligent professor from Boston brought in to run his father’s restaurant in New Orleans.
Starring Idris Elba as talented but unpredictable police detective John Luther, this crime thriller follows the complex life of its protagonist as he deals with bizarre cases and, at times, gets perhaps a little too far in.
32. Key & Peele
Starring Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, this mix of live studio bantering and filmed sketches provides some of the most aggressively entertaining comedy from the last decade while offering parodies of a huge spectrum of modern issues.
Set in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, this musical drama focuses on people’s efforts to rebuild not just their lives but their homes and their very culture after a truly catastrophic disaster. Beset by more than regular trouble, Treme also helps showcase the resiliency of a culture formed from hardship.
34. Black Dynamite (Animated)
Not to be confused with the live-action comedy movie, Black Dynamite is an action-comedy show that follows a former CIA agent as he deals with drug dealers, pimps, masters of Kung-Fu, and most of all, The Man.
35. South Side
South Side is a modern comedy focusing on a pair of community college graduates as they try to establish themselves in Chicago’s South Side neighborhood. It can be hard to break into an established zone, however, as the two soon find out.
36. Unsolved. The Murders of Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G.
Rap has been a part of black culture for decades, but the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls a few months apart threw the entire rap scene into unknown territory. This True Crime biopic investigates both cases with extensive research and thoughtful consideration of the facts.
37. Blood & Water
Blood & Water follows the story of a teen from Cape Town who transfers to an elite school to figure out one thing – whether one of the school’s star students is her sister, who was taken away as a baby.
Underground focuses on the tensions present just before the Civil War, as slaves tried to make their way to freedom. Although a fictional account, it’s all the more harrowing because it’s so heavily based on real events.
227 follows the middle-class Jenkins family, led by Lester and Mary, with a focus on family and laughter. A hit in its time, 227 beat out every other black TV series except The Cosby Show to create a cultural mainstay many people still enjoy watching today.
Set in Baltimore, Roc focused on offering a positive look at the black community without shying away from the real issues facing its members. Starting from the second season, it also began airing episodes live instead of taping them ahead of time, playing to the cast’s strengths as trained stage actors. The result is a very different feel from most other shows on this list.
41. Diff’rent Strokes
The show that propelled Gary Coleman to fame, Diff’rent Strokes, focused on two brothers adopted by a wealthy businessman and dealt with issues ranging from race and violence to eating disorders. Its relatively long run, from 1978 to 1985, is a testament to its smart writing and enduring popularity within the community.
42. Family Matters
Most famously featuring Jaleel White in an iconic role as Steve Urkel, this spinoff from Perfect Strangers lasted almost a decade and focused on both family and comedy with its predominantly black cast.
43. Sister, Sister
This 1994 family comedy showed twins Tia and Tamera meeting after fourteen years apart. Despite being opposites in practically every way, and nothing like their adoptive parents, they eventually learn more of what it means to be family.
44. The Steve Harvey Show
Although he may be best known for his role as a game show host these days, Steve Harvey also played the main character in his namesake show, where he took a job as a music, drama, and art teacher at a Chicago high school. As with many black sitcoms, it features a solid roster of guests from the rap and music scene.
45. That’s So Raven
Launched on the Disney Channel in 2003, That’s So Raven follows the story of psychic teen Raven Baxter as she tries, and fails, to manage the events leading to her prophetic foresight. It achieved numerous milestones, including being the first original show on the channel to reach 100 episodes and the first to reach three million viewers.
46. Real Husbands of Hollywood
This parody of celebrity reality shows follows Kevin Hart and numerous other Hollywood actors, mostly playing fictional versions of themselves and lampooning all of the chaos that can happen in their real lives.
47. The Carmichael Show
The Carmichael Show follows Jerrod Carmichael as he balances the opinions of his girlfriend, a therapist in training, with the aggressive and distinct opinions of his family. Its solid comedic timing and unpredictable characters make it a riot the whole way through.
48. Star Trek (The Original Series)
Although not the first television show to feature at least one black actor in a major role, nor a show with a predominantly black cast, Gene Roddenberry’s 1966 sci-fi classic series famously featured Nichelle Nichols as Nyota Uhura, a black woman in a major and important role within the bridge crew.
Cast as an intelligent and responsible officer, Nichols’ character defied the stereotype of blacks as criminals or sex workers on truly mainstream TV, famously leading to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. personally asking her to continue the role when she thought about leaving it. While the show is a little dated today, it remains an important milestone in African American TV shows.
49. The Wayans Bros.
The Wayans Bros. follows the story of Shawn and Marlon, who ditch the traditional sitcom setting to deal with life in Harlem. Although lambasted by some for buffoonery, it also featured some serious acting credentials and surprised its audience when Marlon moved on to pursue his dream of being an actor.
Unfortunately, it never got a proper series finale, but it remains one of the most popular shows from the mid-90s even today.
Launched in 1996, Moesha stars the titular character Moesha Mitchell as a teen living in South Central with her family. The wide circle of friends dealt with a slate of issues, with guest appearances from notable figures like Bernie Mac and Kobe Bryant. Lead actor Brandy also got an accelerated start in the music world thanks to the help from other artists.
51. The Get Down
The Get Down is a musical drama following a group of misfit teens as they go through the Bronx in the 70s. Armed with only friendship, verbal technique, and some dance steps, this story shows the start of hip-hop, a genre of music with an overwhelming impact on black culture.
The Get Down also features one of the largest budgets in TV history, costing about $10 million per episode, and it shows in the high production values.
Black TV Series, Final Thoughts
There are more black TV shows now than ever before. Numbers do matter, though. If you want to see more, check out some of these shows from any service carrying them and encourage studios to produce more.