Have you heard of the phrase “idiot box?”
It is generally used to refer to a TV set.
Are you really going to spend all afternoon staring at that idiot box?
The common idea is that TV shows are often idiotic (stupid). They are considered cheap entertainment, with no educational value.
But is this always true?
These days, popular TV shows in the U.S. rival Hollywood movies in terms of budgets, ideas and stories. They have gathered fan bases from around the world. They cover historical events, political topics, technology, art and much more.
Plus, they use realistic language from across the U.S., making them especially useful for English learners.
We will show you how the most popular American TV shows can give you important lessons in English language and culture. You will improve your listening comprehension, slang knowledge and pronunciation.
All while watching TV shows that almost every American has seen! This will give you plenty to talk about with English speakers from the U.S.
So much for the “idiot box!”
What Can Popular American TV Shows Teach You?
- American English has a lot of regional accents. The U.S. is a huge country and every region has its own version of English. This video tour of American accents demonstrates how many there are.
As you will see later in this article, popular TV shows take place all over America. So you will be exposed to many of these different regional accents.
- TV shows reflect American slang and language trends. They will teach you how to use English the way native American speakers do. You will hear slang and other trends—for example, a lot of words used in social media quickly find their way into TV series.
Similarly, you will see how pop culture impacts the English language. Popular TV shows often reference music movements, celebrities and other elements of pop culture from the English-speaking world. We will point to several specific examples in the TV shows discussed later in this post.
- Big budgets means big learning opportunities. Popular TV shows in the U.S. very often have the largest budgets in the world—sometimes even more than Hollywood movies. This allows them to create special effects, have longer storylines and generally raise the quality of entertainment.
What does this mean for English learners? You become totally absorbed in the story and action, which makes the language, vocabulary and accents much more memorable.
- You can connect with a global community. Since these shows are so popular, they generally reach beyond the U.S. to a global audience. Watching highly popular shows like the ones below will allow you to connect to fan communities both in the U.S. and all over the world.
Try searching for your favorite shows on reddit or Twitter for opportunities to chat about them in English!
As you dive into the popular shows below, you will discover how entertaining and effective this learning method is. If you get really hooked (attached) to learning English with TV, you can use FluentU to take your learning to the next level!
FluentU takes authentic videos—like music videos, movie trailers, news and inspiring talks—and turns them into personalized language learning lessons.
This way, you will actively build your vocabulary while watching super entertaining English videos. FluentU is built for all English learners, from beginners to advanced, so you never have to worry that a TV show is too easy or too hard for you.
But wait, there’s more!
From the team behind the FluentU program comes an equally entertaining and deeply educational English learning YouTube channel.
Ellen DeGeneres is a world-famous TV presenter, comedian and actress, but did you know she’s also a great English teacher? Check out the video below to explore how you can learn authentic English with fun videos. For even more great content and English learning tips, be sure to explore the FluentU YouTube channel and subscribe now to keep up to date with all the latest uploads.
The Top 19 American TV Mega-hits for Learning English
Genre: Science fiction/horror
Synopsis: Will, a 12-year-old boy, goes missing from his house without a trace. His whole town is looking for him but no one can find him.
Meanwhile, a girl who was kept captive in a government facility (named “Eleven”), has escaped. It seems like some supernatural experiments have given her mental powers.
Mike, Lucas and Dustin are Will’s best friends. They are looking for him and protecting Eleven from the authorities. What they uncover is truly terrifying.
“Stranger Things” has been a massive success in the U.S. Audiences love the nostalgia of the show’s small town, 1980s setting. They also love how the show uses the science fiction and horror genres.
Why it is great for learning English: This show is great to learn about American science fiction and the recent historical past of the U.S. Since several of the main characters are kids, the language is not too complicated to follow. Most importantly, it is an engaging series with superb storytelling.
Synopsis: The hugely popular sitcom show follows three related families who represent the new, unconventional family life of 21st century Americans.
It explores gay marriage, interracial marriage, adoption, sibling rivalry and romance between people who belong to different generations. The show highlights the value of accepting differences.
Why it is great for learning English: The cast is a mixture of people from diverse backgrounds and ages. Each character represents a unique way of speaking. For instance, Cam and Mitchell speak in a way that is typical of the gay community in city areas. Gloria speaks English with a Colombian accent. Haley, a teenager, uses a lot of internet slang (informal vocabulary used on the internet).
Genre: Cooking show
Synopsis: This is an entertaining cooking show where the rude and strict (but extremely talented) Gordon Ramsay hosts. This version of MasterChef is famous for pushing the contestants to the edge and making them cry. However, the cooking challenges are always interesting and the talent of the participants is unbelievable.
Why it is great for learning English: Even though Ramsay himself was raised in the U.K., the contestants are from all over the U.S. The conversations are more natural and simple as this is not a fictional story, and you get to hear the diversity of American English.
“Dear White People”
Synopsis: The series is set in a prestigious American university where the protagonist Samantha White hosts a radio show called “Dear White People.” After a racist “blackface party” on the campus, the conflict between students of different races drives the whole university into tense and dangerous situations.
Why it is great for learning English: This show is excellent for people who are learning English to study in an American university. There is a lot of specialized vocabulary used in the series, which is often picked up from current events.
Words like privilege (unfair social advantage), oppression (cruel or unjust treatment) and more are present in practically every sentence. The accents are diverse in the show but it focuses mostly on the African American community. It many times accurately represents American campus life, especially the political part of it.
“American Horror Story”
Synopsis: Each season (a set of episodes within a certain timeframe) of this show has a different plot. But you can always expect murder, blood and betrayals.
Previous seasons have been set in mental hospitals, a traveling circus, a haunted house, a glamorous hotel and a secret society of witchcraft. Interestingly, many incidents in the show are based on real life incidents.
Why it is great for learning English: The different plot lines always have a historical aspect to them. For instance, Season 4 is set in 1952 when the circus was dying in the U.S. Season 5 is set in present day Los Angeles, but the story starts from the 1920s.
Naturally all the characters belong to different times and regions and the actors do an impressive job of speaking English that is appropriate to the context. This show is great for learning how American English has changed and how different regions of America speak differently.
Synopsis: A war has broken out between the Old Gods of various mythologies and the New Gods of Media, Technology and Money. The protagonist Shadow Moon is stuck between them, trying to understand the supernatural things happening around him. It is based on a book by the famous writer Neil Gaiman.
Why it is great for learning English: The series basically explores the historical and mythological creation of the U.S. It traces how every god from various world mythologies came into America while the people from that region migrated.
Just like “American Horror Story,” it mixes history with the present context. Many characters speak in foreign accents, making it easier for people not from America to connect with them and understand them.
“13 Reasons Why”
Synopsis: Hannah Baker, a high school student, commits suicide and leaves behind 13 tapes listing out the reasons why she took her own life. What follows is the uncovering of the ugly reality about her friends, classmates, teachers and the whole society.
This show talks about bullying, sexual assault and how it is silenced. It was an instant sensation when it was released, and inspired lots of conversation among audiences.
Why it is great for learning English: The story is set in California, and most actors speak a Western American accent (where words like “caught” and “cot” are pronounced the same way). This show is also great for learning the different ways American adolescents speak, and the topics and the group dynamics that are generally seen in their circles (social groups).
“The Get Down”
Genre: Musical drama
Synopsis: The series follows the rise of hip hop from the poverty stricken community of South Bronx, New York.
The protagonist Zeke is a poet who becomes the songwriter of the hip-hop group “The Get Down Brothers.” Filled with good music, a historically accurate plot line and the glamour of the 70s era, this show is short and powerful.
Why it is great for learning English: Most of the shows above are about Americans who belong to the upper class. This show is all about those people in New York City who are struggling to survive. The Bronx is a community that has numerous communities living together and their English is both dynamic and unique.
Learners will also recognize the English in this show since it is popular in hip-hop.
Synopsis: This show reimagines the popular Archie comics as a dark murder mystery where the most lovable characters of the comics like Betty, Archie, Jughead and Veronica explore their unappealing sides. Riverdale as a safe town is transformed into something evil.
Why it is great for learning English: In order to best understand the show, it is recommended that you read some of the comics while watching it. The comics are perfect for beginners and the show is good for both intermediate and advanced learners.
The various twists and turns in the plot and the beautiful visuals will keep you on the edge. The background narration and the simple dialogue makes the show easy to understand for English learners.
“Rick and Morty”
Genre: Comedy/science fiction
Synopsis: Rick Sanchez returns to his daughter’s family after 20 years and starts taking his grandson, Morty, to dangerous adventures with him to outer space.
The series is filled with adult humor and crazy science fiction themes.
Why it is great for learning English: The show is really great to understand today’s American humor.
The various scientific terms you will encounter in the show are mostly made up. But they can make things confusing, so this show is best for intermediate level English learners.
The internet community is crazy about this show and there are thousands of “Rick and Morty” memes (a funny image with text) floating around online.
Genre: Dark comedy
Synopsis: Sam Gardner is a person who has autism (a psychological condition usually involving an inability to understand others people’s perspectives). When he announces that he intends to start dating, everyone around him tries to help. What follows is sometimes humorous and sometimes disturbing.
Why it is great for learning English: Sam typically does not understand the social rules of having a conversation with other people. So, other characters often have to directly tell him what to do. This gives English learners the golden opportunity to learn what is usually left unsaid in daily interactions in the U.S.
“Orange is the New Black”
Synopsis: The main character, Piper Chapman, is sentenced to prison for smuggling drugs. The series explores how she, along with her fellow women inmates, deal with the prison system. It also follows their families and friends outside of jail.
The show often includes flashbacks (views into the past). These flashbacks sometimes explain how the various women ended up in jail.
Why it is great for learning English: The cast includes women from different communities and all of them speak a different kind of American English. Moreover, it tells us about the problems that the American society faces and how people stuck in the prison system are impacted.
This series is helpful for English learners who want to be engaged in international legal bodies or in the social service sector.
Genre: Science fiction
Synopsis: Westworld is a theme park where human-like robots have been created for the entertainment of the visitors. However, some of the robots stop behaving by the human’s rules.
This series explores the dangers of technology and what happens to human beings when they are no longer in control.
Why it is great for learning English: There are actually a lot of different English accents in this show. Most of the robots are meant to have a Southern American accent. The human characters on the other hand usually have British accents or a standard American accent.
It provides a nice way to contrast and understand the different types of English. However, this show is definitely for advanced level English learners, since a lot of quotes from literature and other complex sentences are regularly used.
“The Walking Dead”
Synopsis: Rick Grimes wakes up from a coma and discovers that most of humanity has a disease that turns them into zombies. Zombies are called “Walkers” in this series, and they eat any living thing they find, including humans.
Rick joins a group of survivors and becomes their leader. The show is full of blood and violence and has gained a large following in the English-speaking world.
Why it is great for learning English: This show is good for learning the Southern accent of American English. The dialogues are simple and the conversations are easy to follow in most parts of the show.
“The Handmaid’s Tale”
Genre: Dystopian drama
Synopsis: The U.S. is under a Christian dictatorship called “Gilead.” Fertility rates have crashed down due to environmental pollution and diseases. All fertile women have been taken prisoner by the government and they are forced to become “Handmaids,” having children for the leaders.
June Osborne is one such handmaid who joins the rebellion against the government.
Why it is great for learning English: This show is based on a book by the famous writer Margaret Atwood. The story is considered a classic, and this new show renewed its popularity. This series can help you understand and take part in the current social conversations you will hear everywhere in the English-speaking world.
“That’s So Raven”
Synopsis: Raven is a teenage girl who gets visions of the future at various points in her day. While she tries to make them true, she always gets her family, friends and herself in trouble. This show ended in 2007 but many Americans still fondly remember it.
Why it is great for learning English: The flashbacks often mean that some conversations are repeated and the language is also very easy to follow since it was made for teenagers.
“The Suite Life of Zack and Cody”
Synopsis: Zack and Cody are twins who live in the fictional Tipton Hotel with their mother, who sings there. They often make plans that get them into trouble with Mr. Moseby, who is the manager of the hotel.
Why it is great for learning English: The show is hilarious and uses language that beginners can understand. It will also help with learning informal American English.
Synopsis: Each episode has a different story and focuses on different animals. The series offers a humorous take on humans and the American lifestyle through animals. The most interesting parts happen in the background when the animals observe the humans and comment on their corrupt or stupid behavior.
Why it is great for learning English: The show is very casual and has relatively short episodes. This is one of the best series if you want to learn informal English spoken in America along with being entertained.
Genre: Drama and thriller
Synopsis: This is a story about a hacker named Elliot Anderson who joins a group aiming to bring down the biggest and the richest company in the world.
The series explores the social, psychological and political aspects of our current world. This series is for people who love technology and want to use it to bring about change.
Why it is great for learning English: This series is for advanced learners as there is a lot of technical language and psychological terms. It builds upon the hacker activist culture, which might interest some learners. There are a lot of monologues (speech presented by a single character to the audience) by the main character, which makes it easier to follow the story and learn new words and phrases.
All these TV shows are not only entertaining to a large part of the world, they also show the culture and concerns of American society. This makes them ideal for English learners since they not only teach words, but also teach about the people who live in the U.S.
Dhritiman Ray is a writer of fiction, poetry and non-fiction. He specializes in topics like education, psychology and lifestyle. Click here to visit his online home.