Ten TV shows that represent American culture

If you’re new to the US, watching television is one of the easiest ways to get to know what kind of people Americans are, what they value, and how they live. Of course, nothing can compare to the real-life conversations you’ll have when you get out into the community and meet people face-to-face—but TV is an accessible introduction to American culture before you make new friends.

Even though they’re often exaggerated versions of real life, American TV shows can tell you more about the dynamics of everyday life in the US. They can also offer you a glimpse into American core values and traditions. Watching TV shows, you can learn about American family life, workplace dynamics, how to use common phrases, trends in dress, and hot topics of conversation.

Interested in watching some American TV? Check out our ten favorite shows that represent American people, values, and culture.  

1. Modern Family

The title of this show offers a glimpse into what this comedy is all about. “Modern Family” reflects what American families look like today.

“Modern Family” explores the relationships between different types of American households. We follow the stories of one extended family: Mitchell and Cameron, a gay couple, and their adopted Vietnamese daughter; Phil and Claire, a straight couple, and their three children; and Jay and his second wife Gloria, a Colombian emigrant, and her son Manny, from a previous marriage.

The show first aired in 2009 and is popular with more conservative Americans. It focuses on how this family interacts with each other, rather than their relationships with the outside world. The show covers many other themes that will help you to understand modern American culture, including technology (it wouldn’t be a modern family without that)  and defining the roles of mothers and fathers in modern-day American society.

2. Friends

“Friends” aired on TV for ten years, beginning in 1994—and it continues to be a pop culture phenomenon in America, even 13 years after its last filmed episode. “Friends” has inspired trends in clothing, hairstyles, and even some slang words. It probably wouldn’t be going too far to say that the show has even changed the way Americans interact with each other.

“Friends” follows the friendships of six 20-something New Yorkers. While most TV shows up to this time focused on family life, this show is about friendships—it shows that a group of friends can be a family.

Where older American TV shows often end each episode with a moral lesson, “Friends” instead focuses on the daily life of the characters. Instead of  concentrating on topics like race, class or other big issues, the episodes center on the dynamics of friendship.

Years after the show ended, you can still say famous phrases from the show, like, “We were on a break!”, “How you doin’?”, and “Oh. My. God.” Americans will know that you’re referencing “Friends”. Of course, the last two phrases will only work if you say them in the characters’ voices—you’ll just have to watch the show to hear them firsthand.  

3. Full House

“Full House” was a staple of many households’ TV viewing in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The show is still popular to this day— it inspired a reboot in 2016 called “Fuller House”.

“Full House” centers on Danny Tanner and his family. After the death of his wife, Danny is struggling to raise his three young daughters, so he enlists the help of his best friend, Joey, and Danny’s brother-in-law, Jesse. This living situation is supposed to be temporary, but it ends up becoming long-term, and Joey and Jesse become like second fathers to the three girls.

The show was a major influence on American pop culture when it originally aired. “Full House” represents society’s transition from a conventional family structure to less traditional families—or, perhaps, more realistic families. It also had some pretty memorable catch phrases, like, “You got it, dude,” “How rude!”, “Oh, Mylanta!”, and “Cut. It. Out.” But don’t try to say these phrases now—the show ended in 1995, so they’re not quite as well-known anymore.

4. Parks and Recreation

“Parks and Rec” (as it’s abbreviated) ran for seven years, starting in 2009. While the show is full of laughs, it also gives you a glimpse inside a section of American government on a tiny scale.

This show is based around the rising career of Leslie Knope, an overly positive, mid-level government employee in the Parks Department of Pawnee, a fictional town in Indiana. Using the setting of the Parks Department, “Parks and Rec” tackles current-day American issues such as advancement of women in the workplace, political activism, and anti-corporate sentiments in a funny way.

Watching the show, you’ll become acquainted with cultural slang words and the American sense of humor as Leslie and the other Pawnee government employees react to the daily and sometimes mundane tasks of running the Parks Department.

5. Seinfeld

This comedy was voted the greatest show of all time in 2002 by the American magazine TV Guide. “Seinfeld” ran for nine years, starting in 1989, and is a good representation of the type of humor Americans find in everyday city life. It makes light of topics such as traffic, crime, American holidays, and the kind of people you encounter in New York City.

Famous for being a show about nothing, “Seinfeld” is named after the main actor, Jerry Seinfeld, who plays a fictionalized version of himself on the show. The other characters are based on Seinfeld’s friends and the people he met in real life. This is part of what makes “Seinfeld” so popular in the US—each of the show’s characters has so much personality that Americans can’t help but see a little of themselves in each of them. It makes the show relatable even though it ended 15 years ago.

6. Roseanne

This show was a big deal for being the first of its kind to realistically portray a working-class American family and the issues they faced.

“Roseanne”, like “Seinfeld”, is named after its leading actor, Roseanne Barr. Roseanne’s fictional version of herself is loud, abrasive, and blunt—but she also shows a loving, realistic, and funny portrayal of family.

The show aired from 1988 to 1997, and deals with common themes of parents trying to juggle work and family, and struggling to make money to support three children. One of the factors that makes “Roseanne” so popular with Americans is that none of the show’s characters fit into the typical stereotypes so often seen in other TV families.

The characters in “Roseanne” may remind you of your American neighbors or co-workers, or other people in your daily life.

7. The Simpsons

“The Simpsons” is a cartoon series that parodies the American way of life. It makes fun of American culture and what it means to be an American. First aired in 1989, “The Simpsons” is still running, making it the longest running primetime comedy in the US.

The Simpsons family live in a town called Springfield. The father, Homer, is a blundering safety inspector at a power plant. He is married to Marge, a typical American housewife. They have three children: troublemaker Bart; Lisa, an activist in training; and baby Maggie.

The people of the fictional town of Springfield share different beliefs, religions, and nationalities. It’s meant to represent the United States as a whole, which provides lots of opportunities for placing the characters in situations that reflect American culture. “The Simpsons” covers issues such as corporate greed, environmentalism, women’s rights, organized religion, and so much more, while still being humorous and sarcastic.

“The Simpsons” also touches on immigrant issues through the show’s many characters. Moe, of the famous Moe’s Tavern, hides the fact that he’s not American because he’s afraid of being rejected by his American friends and customers. He never shares what country he’s from and goes to great lengths to hide it.

Another immigrant character, Apu, is an employee of the town’s Kwik-E-Mart. Apu has a PhD in Computer Science from his native country but has to work at a convenience store because he is an undocumented immigrant. Both Moe and Apu feel they have to fake interest in American customs to feel integrated into the American way of life.

One of the show’s producers says the purpose of “The Simpsons” is to “Get people to re-examine their world, and specifically the authority figures in their world.” That’s a pretty American concept.

8. Mad Men

This drama series aired from 2007 to 2015. “Mad Men” follows the lives of executives, management, and lower level employees at an advertising agency in Manhattan during the 1960s. The storylines in the series mostly center on issues of gender, race, sexuality, and class.

“Mad Men” will show you a tumultuous section of American history—and it will hopefully give you an idea of how far the American people have come, and what we have yet to achieve.

Throughout the series, you see the characters’ reactions to huge historical events, like President John F Kennedy’s assassination, the first manned moon landing, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Vietnam War, President Nixon’s inauguration, and other major events in American history.

9. All in the Family

“All in the Family” has been called one of the most influential shows in American television history. It captures an important point in American history, as the 1960s transition into the 1970s, and as older generations’ views of life clash with the younger, more liberal generations’ ideas.

The show aired from 1971 to 1979 and is about Archie Bunker and his wife Edith, their daughter Gloria, and her husband Mike.

The show follows a family struggling to keep up in a rapidly changing world, and uses topics of race, war, sex, politics, immigration, gun control, and women’s rights as major plots.

Archie is a hot-headed, blue-collar worker who is politically conservative and socially misguided. He often argues with his son-in-law Mike, who is liberal-minded and aware of the concerns of minorities.

Even though the show originally aired in the 1970s, you’ll be surprised how many of the topics are still being debated in the US today. “All in the Family” will serve you well as a cultural guide to how and why some Americans feel the way they do on social issues—whether they’re justified or not.

10. The Andy Griffith Show

A classic American TV show that aired from 1960 to 1968,  “The Andy Griffith Show” is named after the actor who plays the main character, Sheriff Andy Taylor. The sheriff moves to Mayberry, a small town in North Carolina, with his son Opie after the death of his wife. The series is about the sheriff’s interactions with his family and the interesting townspeople.

This show doesn’t necessarily represent American culture through its storyline—it’s more about the time in American history that the show was aired. Like “Mad Men”, which is set in the same period that “The Andy Griffith Show” was filmed, the 1960s was a period of transition. Americans were dealing with racial discrimination, the women’s liberation movement, war, and other historical events.

In such a turbulent time, this show offered a break from reality. Centered on a charming small town filled with well-meaning people, its storylines are light, and no problem takes more than a half hour to solve. It shows the disconnect between what Americans were talking about and experiencing in real life versus what American TV shows were portraying during that time.

“The Andy Griffith Show” is on this list to give you an idea of how Americans sometimes use TV as an escape from serious real-world issues. Although the show did break the mold at the time by portraying a family without a mother, it still featured an idyllic American setting not representative of reality in that time period.

Watch more American TV shows:

Good television in the US often reflects American life right back at us, even if it is with a dose of humor. It can often shape opinions on how other people live, or define how you choose to live your life in the US.

If you’re unfamiliar with these shows, you can still find most of them running on TV, streaming online on Netflix and Hulu or even on YouTube.

We hope you find this article—and the TV shows you’ll soon be enjoying—useful for learning about American society and Americans. Be sure to let us know in the comments what you think about the TV shows we’ve suggested.

For more tips on successful integration into American society, check out our blog article Six Tips to Help You Successfully Integrate Into American Society.

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