Making my best of the decade list for TV was both very frustrating and very easy. Frustrating because unlike an album or a movie, you can’t easily rewatch a whole TV series in the name of research. So instead of spending hundreds of hours rewatching these shows, I’m doing this all from how well I remember them. Which, of course made things all very easy, considering the lack of research and reassessment involved in writing this. So… let’s just hope these shows are still as good as I remember.
The Good Place
Key & Peele
That first season of Fargo really was quite a surprise. Sure, it had an impressive cast, but improving upon one of the best films by maybe the best American filmmaking duo ever? How do you do that? Well, the way Noah Hawley’s adaptation did it was by being true to the oddball spirit of the film, while also going for broke with Breaking Bad-levels of left turns and cinematic flourishes. The fact that the second season was even better was maybe the only time that happened for an anthology series this decade, and even though Hawley seems less adept at crafting movies (anyone remember Lucy in The Sky?), I still look forward to a fourth season of Midwestern crime shenanigans.
I’m not sure whether Justified was an anomaly or a transitional crime drama, but whatever it was, it was a whole lot of fun. Despite being endowed with endless charm and charisma, Timothy Olyphant had never quite found the perfect project for him until Elmore Leonard’s Raylan Givens character entered the picture. The show’s mix of impeccable coolness, biting Southern wit, and fantastic performances from Olyphant and Walton Goggins made it just an absolute pleasure to watch. Which, considering it didn’t take itself nearly as seriously as the other anti-hero dramas of its era, made it as intoxicating as a glass of Kentucky bourbon on the rocks.
Yup, another FX show. Though it couldn’t quite convince me to hang on to a cable subscription, FX had a fantastic decade as far as bringing about weird offbeat television that didn’t necessarily win Emmys. I’m not sure there was any FX show as good (or as weird) as Atlanta, which I often forget is about the Atlanta hip-hop scene. That said, the show always manages to keep itself fairly grounded, despite the fact that it feels like it exists in a very specific little universe all its own. Actually, now that I think about, Legion was probably a weirder FX show; I just didn’t watch that much of it. Anyways, I wish Atlanta seasons didn’t take so long to make, but I guess that’s the price of Donald Glover being so ridiculously talented.
New Girl certainly had its ups and downs in terms of quality (and cast line-ups), but man, when it was good it was good. Like rivaling Friends in terms of cast chemistry, but combined with better writing and the possibilities of improvisation that a single-camera comedy offers. It’s a hard show to break down and talk about critically, because its biggest selling point was that it was just really, really funny. Which felt especially vital in a decade where the more critically-acclaimed shows used the half-hour comedy format to make shows that were less funny. Why, it’s the kind of show that made you wanna get all your pals together and get drunk over a round of True American.
It’s odd to realize that only 3 seasons of Breaking Bad aired during this decade, because it feels like it cast a long shadow over pretty much all other 2010s TV. I’m not sure I was ever quite as in love with it as the rest of the TV obsessives out there (after all, I still haven’t watched El Camino). Though as a piece of can’t-wait-to-see-what-happens-next entertainment, its hard to find anything to complain about. Watching Walter White (in a career-defining performance from Brian Cranston) make bad decision after bad decision was just a nerve-rackingly beautiful thing to behold and I can’t think of anything original to say about it. Sorry.
Nathan For You was such an odd anomaly of the 2010s TV landscape that it’s easy to forget about it. But then you remember all of the sublimely awkward and hilarious moments from this show and its genius becomes hard to ignore. Perhaps more than any other show on this list, it’s one I’d love to revisit. I remember Nathan For You offering me some of the biggest belly laughs of any comedy this decade, while the show also provided some incredibly humane moments, perhaps best illustrated by its fantastic finale.
Perhaps the greatest slow burn ever concocted, The Americans was a show that was easy to harp on as a show where nothing happened, but in the end, it was all worth it. Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys give two fantastic lead performances (which both should’ve won more Emmys) as two characters that should probably be completely unlikeable, and yet something about them was always hard to take your eyes off of. Also, the way the show’s writers constantly push these characters into muddy moral waters and forced them to question ideas of loyalty and patriotism always remained fascinating.
It’s a little hard to wrestle with whether Mad Men‘s best years were in the ’00s or ’10s, since the show’s first few seasons certainly had the most immediate impact, becoming really the first period-piece TV show in a while to actually work. Though the show’s latest seasons are just as memorable, as the cast’s sideburns grew just as much as their existential dread. It’s a show that I’m a little hesitant to rate so high, because it’s like, who cares about a bunch of well-off white people being sad? But, for a few years there, Mad Men made the case that a TV show could be as nuanced and thematically rich as a great novel.
It’s a show about animal people that somehow ended up being one of the most emotionally affecting showbiz satires ever. There were a lot of shows in the 2010s that mixed comedy and drama, though I’m not sure any of them did them in quite as extreme a way as BoJack Horseman, and which I always loved. Some of the most superbly silly animal puns are always crowding the edge of each scene, while a certain kind of sadness always seems to be hiding somewhere under the skin (or fur?) of each of its characters. I still haven’t gotten around to watching the final episodes of BoJack that aired this weekend, but however they turn out, I’m already happy/heartened by having gone on BoJack’s personal journey through Hollywoo.
Back when I wrote about Parks and Rec‘s finale after it aired, I talked about how it might have been the end of an era for sitcoms. A few years removed, it seems like I was maybe right, but of course, these things can often be cyclical. Along with 30 Rock, Parks and Rec felt like the last of a certain kind of workplace sitcom. One where you liked all the characters, the writing was sharp, the laughs were aplenty, and you just wanted to go where everybody knew your name.
Pawnee, Indiana turned out to be one of the great, harmonious little TV universes, and also one where all of the shining stars of the comedy universe seemed to assemble. After all, the creative team of this show not only gave us Parks and Rec, but also gave us the likes of The Good Place, Master of None, Russian Doll, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and probably others I’m forgetting. Sure, you could say it was a distinct product of the Obama era, an era that actually saw a lot of people getting more cynical about politics rather than more optimistic. But it created the kind of place I wanted to be, week after week, and I’m sure for years to come I’ll continue to like it and love it.