America is a nation powered by its television sets. By extension, then, it would be hard to overstate the cultural significance of the American sitcom. Ever since the 1960s, television has been indispensable to the average American family, but back then, the programming was mostly depressing news (JFK assassination, the Civil Rights era, the Vietnam war), variety shows (see: The Ed Sullivan Show), and talk shows (see: The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson). Sitcoms in this period of TV’s infancy looked like Leave it to Beaver or Gilligan’s Island: in other words, sanitized, wholesome situations intended to please a large and diverse group of people. But outside the living room, the culture of the '60s was changing. Young people in particular were interested in sexual, religious, and economic freedom from what they felt was an oppressive society.
Amidst these cultural changes, television began to change accordingly. During the '70s, television started getting socially conscious: Good Times showed the first complete black family on television living normal lives, paving the way for The Jeffersons and, later in the decade, the groundbreaking Roots; M*A*S*H was a hit mostly because it was filled to the brim with sharp criticisms against war and aired during the height of the Vietnam War; Three’s Company starred two single women and a single man living together (scandalous!).
But the '70s was also the decade that birthed HBO, and along with cable television came regulation-free content. HBO changed the entire game: Throughout the '80s, television dramas (Hill Street Blues, St. Elsewhere) were more highly regarded than sitcoms. While some all-time, feel-good classics such as Cheers, The Cosby Show, and Full House also came out of the '80s, television sitcoms in general got more outspoken (Roseanne) and provocative (Moonlighting) as the years went on, and popular culture followed suit alongside the advent of MTV and talk shows like Oprah.
All of this is to say that television in general, but sitcoms in particular, tend to act as a reflection of our society. Nowadays, with the advent of Netflix, Hulu, HBO Now, and the myriad other ways of streaming original content, we have more television than ever before, and sitcoms tends to skew more adventurous and groundbreaking (see: black-ish, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Married...with Children). That means ranking the best sitcoms of all time is a difficult task: There’s more stuff to choose from, and more people watching them just waiting to fight someone in the comments...but, we tried anyway.
Related: Best TV Shows of 2017