Of all the media that we’re covering in these best of the decade lists, TV shows possibly changed the most this past decade. Back in 2009, the zeitgeist still was driven by network TV, and to some extent basic cable. I’d argue premium networks like HBO and Showtime were still niche, it seemed like plenty of people caught up with shows like The Sopranos and Dexter by waiting for the DVDs. Obviously streaming has changed all that, and the industry is still figuring out how this new normal is going to work.
The other thing about TV is that it’s the most time-sensitive of all the media we’ll be writing about, in that historically, it’s been pretty uncommon for people to go back and catch up with shows that are off the air. That’s changing too, but it has the funny effect on making everything on my list make me nostalgic for the times in my life I was watching them. Certain shows are college shows, grad school shows, new career shows. Which makes me realize that I don’t have big set milestones for this next decade like I have had in the past, which is scary… Let’s not get existential, let’s just do this list.
Honorable Mentions: Daredevil, The Expanse, The Mandalorian, Westworld
We start with the nerd tax. These shows are for the geeks, mostly stuff dealing with space ships, super heroes, or dragons. Of these, I liked Netflix’s Daredevil the most of the many Marvel TV shows that came out this last decade, and I think The Expanse is the best sci fi show since Battlestar Galactica, but this spot had to go to Game of Thrones. Unlike John, I will admit that the wounds afflicted by the botched ending still hurt for me, to the point where I’m not sure I’ll ever try to rewatch this show. But, like John said, so much of this was so good for so long. You can’t ignore how much Game of Thrones got right, how many absolutely thrilling moments it had. It just has an asterisk now. Like the Astros World Series win.
Honorable Mentions: Hannibal, Legion, Louie (whoops), Master of None (double whoops)
Art-house TV is a thing? These shows prove the answer is yes! I was kind of split on whether to give this spot to Hannibal or Atlanta, which is weird because they don’t have a lot in common. Hannibal did an amazing job elevating the police procedural format into a twisted love story between a highly intelligent, sociopathic, cannibalistic murder and the only detective fucked up enough to get into his head. It also made me interested in a series that I had always written off as one good movie that got a bunch of unnecessary sequels. But that’s nothing compared to Atlanta, a show that seems willing to reinvent itself with each episode. Which sounds hyperbolic until you look up the show and realize it’s only had 21 episodes so far. That’s nuts!
Honorable Mentions: Documentary Now!, Drunk History, Nirvanna the Band the Show, Review
Look, when it came to categorizing shows for this list, nearly all of them are either “comedies” or “dramas,” so I had to get creative. This spot is for especially creative shows, I’m calling them the high-concept comedies. This was an intense tie for a long time, as I struggled to decide between The Good Place and Nirvanna the Band the Show, with Review occasionally rising up to challenge the throne (those pancakes, man). Maybe it’s recency bias, but I’m going with The Good Place, one of the most unusual sitcoms ever made. This show kept me guessing (and laughing) for its entire run, ending with one of the most satisfying finales I’ve ever seen that left me with more than a sense of closure: I finished The Good Place feeling better about my own mortality. Not a lot of shows can do that.
Honorable Mentions: The Great British Bake Off, Key & Peele, Queer Eye, Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City
These are my favorite sketch and reality shows. I combined them into for two reasons: (1) there aren’t a lot of them I love and (2) I think both genres are uniquely upfront about being TV shows. You know what I mean? I don’t know, maybe I’m crazy. Regardless, the winner, Nathan for You blurred the lines between reality and sketch comedy so well everything else was left shattered in its wake. A truly remarkable show and I really have no idea what Nathan Fielder will do next, but I look forward to seeing it. Just like I’ve enjoyed watching the stars of the other sketch comedy show I loved, Key & Peele, have their careers take off since ending the show. Anyway, obviously I was going to go with sketch comedy, but the three reality shows I included were amazingly useful Netflix comfort food over the years too. This was a fun group.
Honorable Mentions: Agent Carter, Downton Abbey, Fargo, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Number six is all about period shows. When it comes to shows set in the past, Downton Abbey immediately comes to mind, even though it kind of stopped being good after a while. Poor Agent Carter got cut short and The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel feels like a show that will eventually be overstaying its welcome (but not yet). Fargo nearly took this spot, especially thanks to its stellar second season. But ultimately it was another FX period drama/thriller, The Americans, that won my heart. This series never really got as popular as it should have been, so here’s my last pitch: The Americans is the show for you if you have an interest in: sexy spies, sexy spies seducing regular folks, sexy spies brutally murdering people, thrilling close calls, the biggest collection of wigs on TV, mail robots, good music from the Eighties, old school McDonald’s bags, and, of course, character actress Margo Martindale.
Honorable Mentions: Chernobyl, Sherlock, True Detective, Watchmen
I’m not particularly interested in limited/anthology TV as a concept, but there was enough great examples of the form this last decade that I’ll have to pay attention to these weird shows going forward. There were two seasons of American Crime Story in the 2010s, and while I liked The Assassination of Gianni Versace, it was that first season, The People v. OJ Simpson, that guaranteed it a place on my list. Making a TV show out of one of the most-watched events in TV history seems like an obvious choice, but American Crime Story did such a good job wringing all the pulpy fun out of this story that it really didn’t matter if you knew what was going to happen. There are few shows that are this enthralling, exhilarating, and devastating an experience, and even fewer of them based on real events. Can you tell I’m really looking forward to that Clinton-Lewinsky season?
Honorable Mentions: Bob’s Burgers, BoJack Horseman, Rick and Morty, Steven Universe
Number four is all about animation, perhaps the most diverse group on my list. We have both the most affirming show (Steven Universe) and the most depressing show (BoJack Horseman) I watched all last decade. There’s a show all about family unity (Bob’s Burgers) and also one that tries to prove that everything – including familial bonds – is bullshit (Rick and Morty). But my favorite of all of them is The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender. Look, this show took what was awesome about the first series (over-the-top magical martial arts) and then just started bolting on other things I liked: bad guys who have a good political point, steampunk everything, entertaining made-up sports, cute animal friends, lipstick lesbians, spirit creatures, they even got to giant robots by the end. It’s a great evolution on the characters and world of the original while still being totally accessible to newcomers. I’m all in if these guys wanna make a third show, I’m just saying.
Honorable Mentions: Catastrophe, Fleabag, Girls, Succession
So these are the “cringe” shows – dramas or comedies about people making mistakes and dealing with the consequences. Basically, BoJack Horseman, but not specifically that show, because it’s animated so I put it in that group. Mad Men probably fits the least well in this group, but I didn’t want to put it in the period category and have to try to decide between it and The Americans, so here we are. Plus, you gotta admit at least some of what made this show good was watching someone who seemingly had it all be miserable and slowly destroy his life. It seems like everything will always work out for Don, until a few more seasons go on and realize things are trending upward for everyone except the dashing Mr. Draper. Also this show is the only show that is specifically old enough that I caught up with it by buying the blu rays. Really quite a 2009 thing to do.
Honorable Mentions: 30 Rock, Community, Happy Endings, New Girl
When I divided all the TV shows I loved from the last decade into groups, there was one bucket that ended up a lot bigger that the others: sitcoms. It’s just the most reliable format for me: get a likable group of people in a comfortable place and I’m ready to sign up for eight years of entertainment. Parks and Recreation did it the best, creating in Pawnee, Indiana the only funny fictional city that could possibly rival Springfield. More than that, it told a story about plucky, hard-working optimists trying to make the world a better place despite terribly broken bureaucracy. Who doesn’t want a Leslie in their life? Or a Ron, an Andy, a Donna? It’s really inspiring in a very Obama-era way. I’m really glad Parks and Rec ended well before any Trump stink could get on this perfect little show.
Honorable Mentions: Barry, Better Call Saul, Justified, Mr. Robot
In the end, it comes down to the thrillers/crime dramas. And none of them were better than Breaking Bad, save for possibly Better Call Saul, but it’s hard to tell how much I’d like that show if I hadn’t watched Breaking Bad first. So I gotta give it up to Heisenberg, that dude can make some great blue meth. The story of a pathetic every-man turning into the most-wanted drug dealer in the country might sound silly when told in short form, but it was absolutely riveting to watch unfold over five years and 62 episodes. I’m always going to affectionately remember how this went from something I watched on a whim because I thought it was interesting Bryan Cranston shaved his head to an event worthy of gathering my friends together every week. And they stuck the landing! Plenty of other 2010s shows proved that’s quite a challenge to do. This was one of the best shows ever to be on television, and it would be a mistake to pretend it was anything but the show I most loved watching in the entire last decade. You’re goddamn right.