It was quite a decade for television.
It would require a book—and someone else eager and qualified to write it—to fully explore what a truly revolutionary decade the 2010s were for television, and several more books to truly grasp how transformative these changes were for the culture at large. But one way to begin to put the 2010s in perspective is to briefly consider how things were different in the previous decade.
For convenience, let's start by taking a glance at the Emmy Awards. The 2000s began with the Primetime Emmy category for Outstanding Drama Series almost entirely dominated by the broadcast networks. In 1999, upstart HBO had earned the first nomination ever for a cable drama, with a little show called The Sopranos. (It lost the award that year to ABC's conventional lawyer drama The Practice.) Throughout the 2000s, the much-discussed Television Revolution gained speed and momentum: Premium cable series like The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, and Deadwood began securing nominations and wins, while basic cable managed to break through late in the decade with shows like Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Damages. But the networks still held dominion: Of the 53 nominations for Outstanding Drama Series in the 2000s, 35 were for broadcast network shows, and NBC's The West Wing was the most lauded show of the decade.
Now let's jump to the 2010s: Of the 67 nominees for Outstanding Drama Series in the past ten years, the networks claimed only six nominations—one for Lost, two for The Good Wife, and three for This is Us—and absolutely no wins. Game of Thrones earned more statues than any other drama in the 2010s, followed by Mad Men and Breaking Bad. To the extent that the industry's own awards are any mark of quality or cultural cachet, the game completely moved away from the broadcast networks in the 2010s.
(The networks are, for the record, still producing good stuff here and there: A handful of network shows made my list below, and ABC's Stumptown is one of my favorite shows of 2019. But I suspect many of us no longer even think of the Big Four networks when you say the word "television.")
Or consider this: We can't even talk about streaming television prior to the 2010s, because streaming television was not a thing. Netflix launched its first exclusive TV content in 2011, with the Norwegian import Lilyhammer, and didn't produce its own fully original content until 2013, with the debut of House of Cards. Hulu and Amazon began producing original programming around the same time, and by the end of the decade seemingly everyone was getting in on the game, including the broadcast networks. (A Star Trek series is only available on CBS's streaming service? Say it ain't so, Spock.) And the growth in this direction shows no signs of abating: The last few months of the decade saw media powerhouses Apple and Disney launch their own subscription-based streaming services, and it is already apparent that they came to play.
And as where we watched TV changed, so, inevitably, did how we watch television. The term "binge-watching" was around in the 2000s—particularly for those of us who hoarded DVD box-sets—but it entered common usage, and became common practice, with the advent of streaming television. Television had once been a disposable medium, structured episodically so as to make onboarding relatively easy for new viewers. In the late 1990s and the 2000s, shows like Buffy the Vampire Slayer had begun to play with season-long arcs structured around episodic chapters, but truly serialized shows like The Wire were still the exception, not the rule, and they saw their ratings suffer as a result. In the 2010s, however, creators knew that new viewers could, and would, go back to the beginning and watch an entire series as one long story: The shift towards a fully serialized structure was complete, enabling—even demanding—more sophisticated, narratively and thematically coherent storytelling.
We could also talk about how, in the 2010s, the experience of watching television became almost inseparable from the simultaneous conversation about that experience taking place on social media. In the beginning of 2010, Twitter proudly boasted of trafficking in 35 million tweets per day. As the 2010s end, however, the average is closer to 500 million per day, and growing every year. "Live-tweeting" TV shows has become a popular phenomenon, and viewers and creators alike are able to read reactions to episodes long before any full reviews are posted. Like most things, this instant feedback loop—prone to hysteria, harassment, "bad takes," and spoilers—is a decidedly mixed-blessing, but it's also hard to deny that it makes watching television a communal endeavor in ways it has never been before. (It is impossible to remember some of the great TV moments of the past decade—The Red Wedding, for example—without also remembering the online reaction, and the experience of being able to instantly share our shock and delight with millions of like-minded fans.)
What I most want to touch on, however, is the obscene glut of content available, and how it is, ultimately, a very good thing that makes television better. In 2015, FX Networks president John Landgref suggested that we were nearing "Peak TV," the point at which there were too many scripted shows to be sustained with the limited resources and talent available. "My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America and that we'll begin to see decline coming the year after that and beyond," he said. Mr. Landgref gets points for coining the phrase that nearly everyone is using now to describe the current environment, but it's unclear whether we're anywhere near the peak. (In 2010, there were 216 scripted shows on television; in 2015, when Landgref spoke, there were 422; in 2018, it was 495. Data isn't readily available for 2019 yet, but the estimate is somewhere around 530, and—with Apple, Disney, and even Facebook getting into the game—it doesn't seem to be slowing down any time soon.)
"Peak TV" is, of course, the oppressive bane of a would-be critic's existence. It is literally impossible to watch every show, and for most of us it's even impossible to watch everything we know we should be watching. Here, for example, is a partial-but-shameful list of shows you are likely to find on other people's "Best of the Decade" lists, but which you won't find on mine because I either haven't seen them at all, or haven't watched enough to know where I'd rank them: Adventure Time, The Americans, Barry, Better Call Saul, Boardwalk Empire, Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Documentary Now, Enlightened, The Good Wife, Gravity Falls, High Maintenance, Lady Dynamite, Lodge 49, Nathan for You, One Day at a Time, Person of Interest, Rectify, Review, Schitt's Creek, Sense8, Silicon Valley, Southland, Succession, Superstore, Terriers, Treme, Tuca & Bertie, and Veep, among many, many others.
(I mean: That's ridiculous. I've seen some "Best of" lists that consisted almost entirely of shows I didn't get around to watching or never caught up with, and yet I still struggled to narrow my own list down to a svelte 50.)
However—apart from the headaches and humiliation it provides me as a supposed "TV critic"—I refuse to see a surplus of quality television as a bad thing. (I've always known there were more great novels and movies than I would ever be able to consume in my lifetime: Why should TV be any different?) And the expansion of the television landscape has produced some unqualified good in the important category of representation. Prior to composing this list, I went back and looked at "Best of the Decade" lists from the previous decade, and let me tell you: They were a bunch of lily-white, cishet sausage-fests. In the 2000s, the conversation around TV was dominated by straight white men. On the networks, it was the era of dramas like The West Wing, House, 24, and Lost; and of comedies like The Office and Arrested Development. On premium cable, white male anti-heroes like Tony Soprano, Al Swearengen, Dexter Morgan, and Jimmy McNulty ruled the day, while their spiritual counterparts Vic Mackey, Don Draper, and Walter White broke bad on the prestige cable channels. There are shows I absolutely love from the 2000s—including The Wire, Deadwood, Mad Men, Freaks and Geeks, and Friday Night Lights—but one has to look long and hard through "Best of the 2000s" lists to find shows that even centered LGBTQ+ people (Six Feet Under) or people of color (The Wire). And you'd have to sift through those lists with a fine-toothed comb to find shows created by people who weren't straight white men (The L-Word, Chappelle's Show).
That's changed in the 2010s (though nowhere near enough). Landgref worried that TV would eventually run out of talent, but what the increased demand has done is open up doors for new talent. At least 30 of the 50 shows on my list were created or co-created by women, people of color, and/or queer creators, reflecting a television landscape that is not only more diverse and representative, but more interesting. And releasing TV from the stranglehold of the networks' need to appeal to the lowest common denominator of "middle-America" (read: straight white people) has opened up doors for different voices to tell different kinds of stories. The result has been what I firmly believe to be the most exciting decade in the history of television.
Some final disclaimers on my list are necessary. Against all my better instincts, I've forced myself to cram these fifty shows into an order, but it's a silly process that will be shifting up until the very moment I press "Publish." (Glancing at the list now, there are shows in my 20–30 range that I can't believe are not in my Top 10. That's how good this decade has been.) I have limited myself to shows that debuted in the 2010s, freeing me from worrying about the placement of decade-straddling shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Doctor Who, Community, Top Chef, Project Runway, and Ru Paul's Drag Race. (For the record, they all would have made the list, and Mad Men would have been Top Five. I also might have been tempted to slip in Deadwood and Veronica Mars on technicalities, since they had new episodes this decade.) I fully admit to having a bias towards one-hour dramas, and to therefore being weak on half-hour comedies. I've already listed a few of the many shows that are missing because I didn't watch them, and other critical darlings are missing because they just missed the cutoff (Justified), because they're "great-but-not-for-me" (Bojack Horseman), or because I actively, violently disliked them (Twin Peaks: The Return).
I do not for a moment pretend that this is any kind of objective list: This is nothing more than a list of the shows I personally loved in the 2010s, the shows I rewatch and revisit, the shows that challenge me and comfort me and delight me. Hopefully, there are one or two shows on here that you haven't seen, which you might be persuaded to try. That is probably, in the end, the only good reason for doing this.
If it lasts a few more seasons—and if I'm still here to do this list by the end of the 2020s—I strongly suspect Sam Levinson's Euphoria (HBO, 2019–present) will climb the charts with a bullet. But it feels somehow fitting to begin my Best of the Decade list with a youth-centered show in its debut year, reminding us that we still have glorious things to look forward to in the 2020s. Euphoria seems to have struck some early reviewers as a cautionary tale for contemporary parents, a sex-and-drugs laden "Do-You-Know-Where-Your-Kids-Are?" horror show. But focusing on the anxieties the show raises in Gen-X and Millennial parents is missing the point completely, because Euphoria is the first great drama for, and about, Generation-Z. With a cast of incredibly talented young actors—anchored by old-pro Zendaya and breakout star Hunter Schafer, who both give heartbreaking performances—Euphoria is navigating the treacherous waters of teen-age life with admirable frankness, incredible wit, and startling heart. It's been compared to Larry Clark's shock-fest movie Kids, or sexy teen melodramas like Bryan Elsey's Skins, but in reality it's something far better: Smart, sensitive, and visually stunning, it's an R-rated My So-Called Life for a new generation.
49. DRUNK HISTORY
With Drunk History (Comedy Central, 2013–present), co-creators Derek Waters and Jeremy Konner hit upon a genius idea: What if they got their comedy friends really drunk, had them recount historical events, and then brought in actors to reenact the stories they told exactly as they told them? It sounds like a shtick that would get old after a while, but Drunk History is reliably not only one of the funniest shows on television, but one of the most informative, highlighting forgotten and overlooked events from a humorous (and terribly inebriated) perspective. It's the most reliably entertaining educational series since Schoolhouse Rock.
48. THE WALKING DEAD
Behind schedule on my list as I am, I've had the opportunity to see a lot of other people's lists, and I have been surprised by how few of them made room for the one-time ratings juggernaut and critical darling The Walking Dead (AMC, 2010-present). I mean, I get it: I myself stopped watching the show somewhere around the end of Season Six, long after I'd stopped reviewing it and at least a season or two after I'd stopped actually enjoying it. But surely some recognition is due to this shambling monstrosity of a show, which has lurched its undying way across the entire decade, and shows few signs of climbing into its grave? A constantly changing slate of showrunners, and the need to keep improbably topping itself, eventually led to a decent into tiresome viewer manipulation and near torture-porn level sensationalism. But, at its admittedly infrequent best, The Walking Dead was absolutely must-see television, delivering poignant performances, heart-stopping surprises, and the most gleefully nihilistic worldview on television.
47. STRANGER THINGS
By its third season in 2019, a little of the novelty has perhaps worn off The Duffer Brothers' Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016–present). But, for a while, the show felt like a breath of fresh air in a streaming landscape crowded with backstabbing, morally-compromised anti-heroes. Much has been made about the show's retro-aesthetic—it takes place in the '80s, and comes across like a long-lost Stephen King or John Carpenter movie—but I think what really makes Stranger Things a phenomenon is its retro-worldview: It's a classic good-vs. evil story, with decent, likable characters who actually care about each other. We might come for the '80s references, the monsters, and the (sometimes meandering) conspiracy plot, but we stay for a touching coming-of-age tale about friendship and family. It's a reminder that horror can actually be fun, and even life-affirming, if there's a good heart pumping all that splattered blood.
46. THE FALL
Alan Cubitt cut his TV teeth writing for Helen Mirren's DCI Jane Tennison on Prime Suspect, and with The Fall (BBC, 2013–2016) he created a worthy successor to that legendary cop in DSU Stella Gibson, brought to fascinatingly complex life by Gillian Anderson. The bare bones of The Fall's story—in which a brilliant police detective (Anderson) matches wits with a serial rapist and killer (a creepy Jamie Dornan)—are familiar, even overly-familiar. But where many serial killer stories become every bit as dehumanizing as the serial killers themselves, what makes The Fall special is the time and tender care it takes with all of its characters: There are no stock types here, and everyone—from the cops to the killer to the victims—is a fully-rounded human being who matters. Bringing such sensitivity and empathy to the serial-killer genre is not just unusual, but deconstructive: It raises the stakes, intensifies the urgency, and reminds us that we should probably never have been allowed to think of serial rape and murder as a game.
45. AMERICAN VANDAL
In a decade overflowing with "true-crime" investigations, one of the best was Dan Perrault and Tony Yacenda's American Vandal (Netflix, 2017-2018), a smart, incisive, and relentlessly funny mockumentary series. In Season One of American Vandal, the faculty parking lot of a California high school is vandalized with spray-painted phalluses, inspiring aspiring young filmmakers Peter (Tyler Alvarez) and Sam (Griffin Gluck) to launch a cinematic investigation into the community-shaking question of "Who Drew the Dicks?" The result is a pitch-perfect satire of the manufactured narratives of these sorts of overly-earnest talking-head documentaries, but it's also a surprisingly poignant exploration of small-town life and teen-agers coming of age in the social media era. Perrault and Yacenda traded dick jokes for shit jokes in the divisive second season—which focused on the search to unmask the "Turd Burglar" who spiked a Catholic school cafeteria's lemonade with laxatives—but actually managed to avoid repeating their one-joke success, producing an even more ambitious, socially insightful story.
44. AMERICAN CRIME STORY: THE PEOPLE VS. O.J. SIMPSON
My long-time readers know I have a love/hate relationship with creator Ryan Murphy and his unfortunate tendency to go off the rails, but The People vs. O.J. Simpson (FX, 2016) turned out to be the right vehicle for his not-inconsiderable talents. The true-life crime story and its resulting courtroom drama were sufficiently sensationalistic to begin with, but the established facts of both restrained Murphy into a structure and coherence that is rare for him, while allowing him to focus on what he does do well: generating powerful emotional moments. Brought to life by a stellar cast (including Sarah Paulson, Sterling K. Brown, and Courtney B. Vance), the familiar figures from the most over-analyzed courtroom story in recent history became some of the most compelling characters on television, and a story we all knew became an unbearably tense train barreling towards its inevitable derailment. I was not quite so enamored of the anthology series' 2018 follow-up, The Assassination of Gianni Versace—in which a thin story was padded out with a bit more of Murphy's patented shock-schlock—but The People vs. O.J. Simpson was a near-perfect ten hours of television.
"Recency-bias" is a recognized risk in composing these lists—I have nine shows that debuted in 2019, I realize—but so, too, is its corollary, longevity-prejudice: The longer a show stays on the air, the more likely it is to lose some of its consistency and charm, and the less likely we are to remember why we loved it in the first place. Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss's Sherlock (BBC, 2010–2017) was always a tricky bit of TV alchemy: the plots had to be clever, but not too clever; the relationship between the detective (a not-yet overexposed Benedict Cumberbatch) and Watson (Martin Freeman) had to be emotionally poignant, but never mawkish; the series had to balance its case-of-the-week format with its larger narrative goals. It didn't always work—there was usually one dud episode in each three-episode season—and by the end of the fourth (and final?) season in 2017, these delicate formulae were all out of whack. But I still remember the giddy, dizzying pleasures Sherlock delivered when it got the trick right, managing to be smarter, funnier, and more oddly touching than almost anything on television.
42. SEX EDUCATION
The second show on my list (after Euphoria) dealing frankly with the sex lives of teen-agers, Laurie Nunn's Sex Education (Netflix) is a tiny miracle of a show. Otis (Asa Butterfield) is a repressed British teen who, following in the footsteps of his sex-therapist mother (Gillian Anderson, playing a character hilariously without boundaries), opens an underground counseling service at their school with Maeve (breakout star Emma Mackey), a girl from the wrong side of the tracks. The sexual dilemmas and peccadilloes they encounter among their fellow students are varied, raunchy, and often wince-inducingly funny, but Sex Education deals with them in a refreshingly sex-positive, non-judgmental way, treating all of its characters with real sympathy, incredible sensitivity, and genuine wisdom. Gorgeously filmed, beautifully acted, and insightfully written, Sex Education—which returns for a second season in January—already feels like one of the all-time classic depictions of teen-agers in the history of television.
41. KILLING EVE
Television is overflowing with cat-and-mouse games between killers and the people hunting them, but none was more fun than Phoebe Waller-Bridge's Killing Eve (BBC America, 2018–present). Waller-Bridge—one of the major talents of the 2010s—took a genre rife with clichés and gave it new life through two original characters played by two extraordinary and equally matched actresses. Jodie Comer's adorably psychopathic, attention-seeking assassin Villanelle has the flashier part, and is responsible for some of the most darkly funny moments of the decade. But Sandra Oh's Eve is the truly original character: A low-level government agent with no particular field skills, Eve timidly inserts herself into the hunt for Villanelle armed with nothing but her own intelligence and a near fetish-level interest in female killers. It is in watching Eve's complicated and oddly liberating evolution, under Villanelle's influence, that Killing Eve becomes something special. The will-they-or-won't-they (kiss-or-kill?) plot took some meandering and implausible turns when Waller-Bridge stepped away from writing duties in the second season, but, as with many shows on this list, the plot is hardly the point. At its darkly comic heart, Killing Eve show is an unpredictable, kinkily courageous story about two women embracing self-empowerment in whatever form it takes.
Television versions of movies are usually a case of diminished returns, but Noah Hawley's anthology series Fargo (FX, 2014–present) wisely didn't try to recreate the magic of the Coen Brothers original, but used its spirit, themes, and psychic landscape as inspiration for new, more deeply delving stories of ordinary people under extraordinary pressure. As it was in the original film, the "This is a True Story" title card that opens every episode is a lie, but that doesn't matter: By stripping crime of its glamour, and showing us the dumb, desperately spiraling banality of evil, Fargo satisfies our voyeuristic itch for true-crime stories anyway. These ones just happen to be filmed more beautifully, to resonate more deeply, and to be reenacted by some of the best actors working today.
Ryan Murphy and Steven Canal's Pose (FX, 2018–present) is a tricky show to judge. Critics have an unfortunate tendency, I think, to conflate ambiguity with sophistication, as though something can only have artistic, intellectual, or emotional merit if it is also difficult to understand. But complexity, obscurity, and obfuscation are not in themselves beautiful, and in fact they're often counter-productive to good storytelling. And Exhibit A in this imaginary argument is Pose, an admirably guileless show that wears its generous heart right on its sleeve for everyone to see. Set in New York's ball culture in the 1980s, and entirely centered on black and Latinx gay and transgender characters, Pose doesn't have a subtle bone in its endlessly voguing body. Instead, it has a mission: to tell the stories of a narratively underserved and perpetually threatened community, and to honor the secret world they built to find the support and status the straight and cisgender world denied them. Like the balls themselves, the show can be alternately outrageous, funny, catty, campy, ridiculous, moving, and stunning. And, like the balls themselves, Pose is an endlessly exuberant safe-space where beautiful, heroically resilient people can find the freedom to shine.
38. THE CROWN
Peter Morgan's The Crown (Netflix, 2016–present) is more than a genteel historical drama, or a soap-opera set among the Royal Family: It's an interrogation of the intangible purpose of the monarchy itself, and—through that—a thoughtful, nuanced exploration of what it means for anyone to have, or seek, a purpose. Elizabeth Windsor (first Claire Foy, then Olivia Colman, both excellent) is a woman of no particular qualifications, elevated to a largely symbolic role with no particular responsibilities, and yet somehow expected to represent the essential goodness of a nation and the divine will of God. As we watch her sublimate her own humanity to the ethereal demands of what is essentially a meaningless position—and as we watch her husband (Matt Smith and Tobias Menzies) and sister (Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter) try to define their own tangential roles within that same institution—we begin to realize that The Crown is as much about the universal search for identity and meaning as it is a rarified study of power and privilege.
37. JESSICA JONES
The launch of Disney's streaming service—which will feature its own TV shows based on Marvel Comics characters—meant the death of the Netflix shows about the sorts of street-level Marvel heroes who don't get invited to fight Thanos and his minions. Daredevil and Luke Cage both had their moments—Iron Fist never did, alas—but the only one of these shows I'll sorely miss is Melissa Rosenberg's Jessica Jones (2015–2018). Yes, the storytelling lost its way a few times over the course of the three seasons. (Season One was by far the best.) But Krysten Ritter's snarky, hard-drinking, deeply damaged private-eye was always compelling company, and Rosenberg turned what could have been a cheesy super-powered noir genre show into a complexly profound story of a woman's struggle to maintain her authenticity and identity. Each of the three seasons found Jessica confronting people trying to tell her who she was or should be—the "big bads" were her sexual assaulter, her overbearing mother, and her perfect best-friend, respectively—and each season found Jessica stubbornly, heroically determined to stay true to herself in all her prickly, misanthropic glory. Tough, funny, and uncompromising, Jessica Jones was one of the most unapologetically feminist shows of the decade.
A confession: As a former lit major and continuing snob, I was predisposed to not only dislike, but deride, Alena Smith's Dickinson (Apple, 2019–present). After all, the previews seemed to suggest it was taking the quintessential American poet and reimagining her teen-age years as a silly, sexy CW soap opera like Riverdale. All of which just goes to show how little I know, because Dickinson—a masterpiece of gonzo feminist reclamation—was one of the unadulterated delights of 2019. Smith's decision to approach these 19th century characters through a modern sensibility, with contemporary dialogue—this is an Emily Dickinson who calls people "Dude"—should be off-putting, but it turns out to be liberating and illuminating, freeing the passionate, groundbreaking young poet from the prissy, sexless old maid entombed in the popular imagination. This in itself would have been enough to recommend Dickinson, but the show is also wildly inventive, hysterically funny, and, on occasion, emotionally devastating. No one who saw True Grit or The Edge of Seventeen should be surprised to realize that star Hailee Steinfeld is a powerhouse comic actor in addition to being a fine dramatic one, but the real revelation here is Smith, who has created one of the most original, irreverent, and genuinely moving shows of the decade.
35. RUSSIAN DOLL
One of the strangest, most emotionally complex journeys we took all decade was the single night we spent in the acerbic company of Nadia (a revelatory Natasha Lyonne) on her 36th birthday. To be fair, however, it turned out to be a really long night, as Nadia kept dying, only to find herself inexplicably starting the evening over again. In Russian Doll (Netflix, 2019), creators Lyonne, Leslye Headland, and Amy Poehler took the familiar plot device of a Groundhog Day-style time-loop, and turned it into a smart, funny, emotionally powerful character study. Attempting to end the cycle, Nadia essentially becomes a hard-boiled detective moving through the richly textured nighttime world of her East Village home, but inevitably ends up peeling back layer after layer of her own brittle persona like an existential investigator, confronting issues of addiction, alienation, trauma, mental illness, unfulfilled potential, and the consequences of her own actions. Both Lyonne and the show perfectly navigate the permeable line between comedy and tragedy in a series that, like Nadia's night, becomes richer and more resonant with every repeat viewing.
If I were composing a list of shows that the industry, critical community, and viewing public all failed in the 2010s, Misha Green and Joe Pokaski's Underground (WGN, 2016–2017) would be in contention for the top spot. God knows, there is no shortage of slavery stories in film and television. (As a character in my #15 show below once said, "Man, y'all white people love slavery movies even more than you loved actual slavery.") But it is a genre prone to narratives of white saviors and black victimhood, in which African-American resistance is often depicted as, at best, a sort of passive, stoically heroic endurance. Underground, however, reclaimed this unforgivable era of American history as a valid subject for exciting genre storytelling, in which the enslaved people could be the active, brave, and resourceful heroes fighting for their own liberation. ("It's about not lettin' the white folks define your story, right?" star Jurnee Smollett-Bell's character says at the end of the second episode, in what served as a mission statement for Underground. "It's about makin' it your own.") A powerful yet endlessly entertaining combination of historical drama, action-adventure, and heist story, Underground unfortunately fell victim to a purge of high-end original programming when WGN America was sold to the Sinclair Broadcast Group in 2017. If ever an orphaned show deserved to be picked up by another network, it was Underground, but creator Misha Green—in an open and justifiable state of fury—was eventually forced to give up the fight. Green has moved on to co-create the forthcoming (and wildly anticipated) Lovecraft Country with Jordan Peele, but alas, Underground remains an underwatched, overlooked two-season wonder that deserved far better than it got.
33. AMERICAN CRIME
To say that racial injustice was the most important issue of the 2010s would be to imply that there was a day in American history when it was not prevalent and important. But this decade—which began with America's first black president in the White House, ended with an openly white-supremacist president, and was punctuated throughout with a series of murders of unarmed black people being captured on social media—elevated these issues into mainstream consciousness in unignorable ways. Fictionalized television needs serious examinations of race in America, and it had no better example of how it can be done well than John Ridley's anthology series American Crime (ABC, 2015–2017). Using a stock group of unbelievably talented actors—including Regina King, Felicity Huffman, Timothy Hutton, and Lily Taylor—each season of American Crime explored a different story about the complex intersectionality of race, class, gender, politics, and money. And it did so with intelligence, sensitivity, and a sometimes frustrating recognition that there are no easy answers. American Crime suffered throughout from low-ratings, and so the surprise is not that ABC cancelled the under-appreciated show after three seasons: The surprise is that something so incredibly ambitious, unfailingly honest, and intentionally challenging ever got made at all.
32. THE DEUCE
I'll be honest: James Franco playing not one but two characters—identical twin brothers—was roughly 200 percent more James Franco than I generally like. But that turned out to be a minor complaint about David Simon's The Deuce (HBO, 2017–2019), because this show was all about the women. Tracing the evolution of New York's sex and porn industries from the early '70s through the mid-'80s, the most compelling stories in The Deuce were of the women fighting to gain a modicum of power and agency in industries literally built around their objectification and exploitation. A few succeeded better than others, like sex-worker-turned-avant-garde director Eileen "Candy" Merrell (Maggie Gyllenhaal, in the best performance of her fine career). But most of the women found that no matter how their value in the marketplace might rise or fall, they remained commodities, not players. (Over the course of the series we watch as midwestern girl Lori Madison—an absolutely heartbreaking Emily Meade—goes from streetwalker, to star, and back to streetwalker.) Typical of his shows, Simon finds plenty of soulless systems to blame—from the mob to the cops to the politicians—while treating all the poor doomed souls trying to carve out a life between them with sympathy and admiration.
31. NEW GIRL
I'll confess: I mocked Elizabeth Meriwether's New Girl (Fox, 2011–2017), based on the promos, before I ever watched it. The first time I heard it—and for a long time after—I cringed, appropriately, at its cringe-inducing theme song. I found the show's apparent protagonist—adorable dorkette Jess (Zooey Deschanel)—almost completely insufferable. But for some reason I wouldn't have been willing to explain, I kept watching, and at some point I realized that New Girl had cast a peculiar but powerful spell. The writing was sharp, and surprising, and ridiculously funny. The show became less about the manic-pixie-dream-girl alone, and evolved into a true ensemble in which she was just one of the pinballs crazily cracking together. (And it turned out that the entire cast—which included Max Greenfield, Jake Johnson, Hannah Simone, Lamorne Morris, and, sometimes, Damon Wayans, Jr., all had brilliant chemistry and insane skills.) Mostly, the show—with the contagious, irrepressible, good-natured optimism of its lead—dared you first to acknowledge, and then to celebrate, the undeniable fact that everyone is a total dork: The nerdy people, the beautiful people, the cool people, the chipper and caustic alike. Perhaps the greatest testament to New Girl's infectious dorkiness is that, when they finally phased out that deliberately cheesy theme song—and the perfect check on cynicism it represented—I found, somewhat to my surprise, that I missed it.
2019's Deadwood: The Movie (barred from this list on a technicality, but absolutely an honorable mention) is almost certainly the last new work we will see from the great David Milch, who recently revealed that he is struggling with Alzheimer's. The last series we were blessed to receive from him, however, was the tragically short-lived Luck (HBO, 2011). Set behind the scenes at a California racetrack, the show was a passion-project for racing enthusiast Milch, and its world—a nexus of money, power, obsession, and desperation across the classes—was potentially as rich and promising a one for him to explore as the gold-mining community of Deadwood. Luck brought together an impossible ensemble of some of the best actors alive—including Dustin Hoffman, Nick Nolte, Dennis Farina, Joan Allen, and Michael Gambon—and hearing them deliver Milch's poetic and profane dialogue was a gift we hoped to enjoy for years. Alas, it wasn't to be: HBO was initially committed to the show—despite low-ratings and a contentious relationship between Milch and director Michael Mann—but balked at PETA protests after three horses had to be euthanized during filming. The plug was pulled while Milch was still fleshing out his world and its slow-burn story, and we are left with just nine near-perfect episodes to wonder what might have been.
A deft combination of workplace satire, romantic comedy, and buddy-picture, Issa Rae's Insecure (HBO, 2016–present)—like Rae's character herself—navigates the life of the modern black woman with wit, insight, and aching vulnerability. Though more than capable of delivering big moments—whether laugh-out-loud absurdist set-pieces, or wrenchingly emotional confrontations—it's at the small ones that Insecure really excels: the micro-aggressions Rae's Issa and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) endure in their respective careers; the tiny, cringe-inducing embarrassments and gaffes Issa's "Awkward Black Girl" can't stop herself from committing; and the almost imperceptible moments of support, forgiveness, and grace between women that make Insecure the best depiction of female friendship on television.
28. ORPHAN BLACK
Surely, any list of the greatest performances of the decade has to include Tatiana Maslany as Sara Manning…and as Cosima Niehaus…and as Alison Hendrix…and as Rachel Duncan…and as Helena…and at least half a dozen other characters on Graeme Mason and John Fawcett's Orphan Black (BBC America, 2013–2017). Like many conspiracy shows, Orphan Black's convoluted and undisciplined storytelling took a few ill-chosen turns over its five seasons, but ultimately the plot—about a group of clones fighting to get answers and freedom from their mysterious makers—was the show's least important element. At its best, Orphan Black had important things to say about the feminist struggle against institutionalized patriarchy, whether in the form of religion, science, or capitalism. And, even at its occasional worst, it was always a thrilling engine for generating amazing character moments—primarily between Maslany and one or more of her funhouse-mirror sisters—that would not be possible on any other show. Imbuing each clone with such a unique and distinct soul that I still have trouble remembering they're all played by the same actress, Maslany delivered and embodied one of TV's most powerful and empowering celebrations of sisterhood.
27. GENTLEMAN JACK
Sally Wainwright may not be a household name to American viewers, but, on any list of the great TV creators and showrunners of the 2010s, she deserves a place of honor. In addition to creating three series that just missed my list (Scott & Bailey, Last Tango in Halifax, and To Walk Invisible), Wainwright produced two of my favorite shows of the decade in Gentleman Jack (HBO, 2019–present) and another show you'll find in my top ten. Based on the true story of Anne Lister (the brilliant Suranne Jones), an openly-gay landowner in early 19th century Halifax, Gentleman Jack is a period piece that feels as fresh and relevant as any contemporary drama. If Wainwright had just resurrected this overlooked figure from history into the public consciousness, that would have been accomplishment enough. But this is no mere hagiographic reclamation: Lister stubbornly refused to live and love as anyone but herself, and Wainwright and Jones pay Lister the tribute of presenting her in all her flawed, frustrating, fiercely complex glory. At turns funny, romantic, harrowing, and infuriating, Gentleman Jack is a brilliant character study, an incisive social commentary, and even—as the brazen Lister courts the more conventional Ann Walker (a wonderful Sophie Rundle)—a startlingly heartfelt love story.
26. BOB'S BURGERS
With The Simpsons a good twenty seasons past its prime, its neighbor on the viewing schedule—Loren Bouchard's Bob's Burgers (FOX, 2011–present)—quietly reigns as TV's most consistently funny cartoon comedy. The comparison between the two shows is no doubt imperfect and unfair, but it's also illustrative of what makes Bob's Burgers such an unassuming triumph. While The Simpsons was doing desperately implausible storylines like "Homer becomes an astronaut" as early as Season Five, Bouchard has crafted ten near-perfect seasons out of a simple story of everyman diner-owner Bob (H. Jon Benjamin), his awkwardly enthusiastic wife Linda (John Roberts), and their odd but endearing children Tina (Dan Mintz), Gene (Eugene Mirman), and Louise (Kristen Schaal). Just as the writers never seem to run out of puns for the Burger-of-the-Day menu ("The Focaccia Red-Handed" burger comes on focaccia with beets), or the opening-credit storefront sign gags (The "Attempted Crepe" School of French Cooking), neither does the show ever run out of comedic scenarios rooted firmly in character and the rules of its own oddball reality. In fact, forget what I said about "cartoon comedies": Bob's Burgers is one of TV's all-time best family sit-coms, full-stop.
25. DON'T TRUST THE B––––– IN APARTMENT 23
Every time I watch Krysten Ritter work, I wonder: Why doesn't everyone realize that she's a fucking genius? Part of the answer to the riddle may lie in the fact that—in between her heartbreakingly vulnerable performance as Breaking Bad's doomed Jane at the end of the last decade, and her stunning turn as damaged private-eye Jessica Jones at the end of this one—too many people missed her working on a completely different frequency in Nahnatchka Khan's Don't Trust the B–––– in Apartment 23 (ABC, 2012–2013). Deceptively ditzy, gleefully alcoholic, sexually and ethically amoral, and just a little bit sociopathic—but with a sliver of (deeply) hidden heart—Ritter's Chloe was a dazzling, recklessly destructive force of nature who could easily have carried her own (albeit lesser) sit-com. Instead, Khan wisely gave Chloe a worthy foil in Chloe's decent-but-surprisingly-formidable roommate June (an excellent Dreama Walker), and she surrounded these two co-leads with an eccentric cast of characters (led by a self-parodying James Van Der Beek, playing Chloe's celebrity friend "James Van Der Beek"). I try not to be too snobbish about broadcast television, but Don't Trust the B was clearly a tiny miracle ABC neither understood nor appreciated: They screwed with the title (insisting on those off-putting hyphens); they aired some episodes out of order and dumped the rest online; and they finally canceled the series altogether after just two short seasons. Alas, some shows are just too good for network television, burning too brightly to last too long. But whatever: Somewhere out there, Chloe has already moved on to her next party or scheme, having completely forgotten that she ever even had a sit-com. And we are left with the 26 precious episodes of Don't Trust the B, which seems to have belatedly developed the reputation it deserved all along: as one of the freshest, funniest comedies of the 2010s.
24. QUEEN SUGAR
Ava DuVernay's Queen Sugar (OWN, 2016-present) seems to be flying beneath the radar of viewers and critics alike, which is a shame, because it consistently features—among a lot of other impressive things—some of the best acting, direction, and cinematography on television. The story of three adult siblings (Dawn-Lyen Gardner, Rutina Wesley, and Kofi Siriboe) sharing ownership of their late father's struggling sugar plantation, Queen Sugar is reminiscent, in many ways, of old-school family dramas like Dallas or Dynasty. But that description doesn't do justice to the intelligence of the show's writing, the richly textured world it presents, or how its complex characters and their relationships gracefully carry the weight of black history in their effort to hold onto their family's legacy. Queen Sugar occasionally dips into soapy melodrama and sensationalism, but these turn out to be minor plot points punctuating what is, at its core, a thoughtful, sumptuous, courageously languid story about family loyalty, community, and black America's struggle to hold onto and build generational wealth.
23. D.C.'S LEGENDS OF TOMORROW
There is incredible freedom, joy, and power in being a total misfit: This is the philosophy of the ragtag group of B- to D-list superheroes who travel through history to correct the timeline in D.C.'s Legends of Tomorrow (CW, 2016–present), and it's also the lesson we can take from the show's implausible rise from unloved afterthought to beloved cult sensation. Legends began life as an ill-conceived spin-off of the CW's Arrow and The Flash, and its first season vacillated unpromisingly somewhere between vaguely mediocre and unbearably crappy. But no show on television course-corrects more nimbly than Legends, and late in its (inexplicable) second season something wonderful happened: This perpetually teetering-on-cancellation show seemed to say Fuck it, we're gonna have fun. Legends began to run towards its own ridiculousness—ruthlessly jettisoning any characters along the way who couldn't keep up—and play to its own strengths: absurdist adventures, character-based humor, and a genuinely endearing cast with a sweet, found-family dynamic. It gave up on being the misbegotten stepchild of the Arrowverse, and embraced becoming something more like a quirky love-child of Firefly and Drunk History. By the third-season finale—which saw a giant immortal demon doing battle with a giant blue teddy bear for the fate of the world (don't ask)—Legends of Tomorrow had become something unique, wildly entertaining, and giddily transcendent.
22. THE GOOD PLACE
Just when you think there is nothing interesting left to do with the sit-com, along comes Michael Schur's The Good Place (NBC, 2016–present), the story of four deceased humans (Kristen Bell, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto) seeking redemption in the afterlife with the help of an immortal being (Ted Danson) and a plucky artificial intelligence (D'Arcy Carden). Everything about The Good Place challenged preconceptions about what the half-hour comedy could do, from it's high-concept premise, to its fully-serialized format, to its ability to completely reset the narrative every so often without losing a stitch of continuity or an ounce of carefully earned character development. Each episode of The Good Place has about 15 more original ideas than most shows go through in a year, being batted around by an ensemble cast made up entirely of scene-stealers without a straight man in sight. When it completes its more than 50 chapters in 2020, The Good Place will inevitably stand as one of TV's best, most inimitably original examples of serialized storytelling.
21. CALL THE MIDWIFE
An "iron hand in a velvet glove": That's how critic Caitlin Moran in The Times describes what is, to me, the most under-appreciated show on my list: Heidi Thomas's Call the Midwife (BBC, 2012-present). For eight seasons (and counting), the midwives of Nonnatus House (a mixture of secular nurses and Anglican nuns) have served the women of Poplar, in the East End of London, with unfailing decency, compassion, and humor. (That's the velvet glove.) And, through those adventures—which so far span from the late 1950s through the mid-'60s—they (and the show) have dealt unflinchingly with the harshest realities of life: abject poverty, domestic violence, child abuse, sexual assault, backstreet abortions, incest, birth-defects, racism, homophobia, mental illness, and much, much more. (That's the iron hand.) Like any good nurse, Call the Midwife offers a gentle tone, a comforting hand, and a good lacing of sugar to help the medicine go down. But—also like any good nurse—Call the Midwife is as tough as nails beneath its kindly, palliative surface. The result is a show that manages to celebrate the power of kindness (and the benefits of socialized medicine), while offering an unsparing and unsentimental history of nearly every social issue of the mid-20th century. Come for the gentle period drama, stay for what Moran perceptively calls "the most radical piece of Marxist-feminist dialectic to ever be broadcast on prime-time television."
20. KEY AND PEELE
Good sketch comedy is funny. Great sketch comedy is funny and smart. But the highest form of sketch comedy is funny, smart, and saying something, and that's the kind Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele consistently delivered on their eponymous series Key & Peele (Comedy Central, 2012–2015). Centered on (though straying occasionally from) the richly fertile topic of race in America, Key and Peele's comedy never lapsed into laziness—the easy target, the cheap gag, the recycled catch-phrases—as even brilliant comedians are apt to occasionally do. Instead, nearly every sketch on the show was structured to within an inch of its life, fine-tuned and measured until it found the exact right point and the most potent laugh. Key and Peele wisely chose to end their show before they did run out of steam, and both have taken their considerable talents to an array of other projects. (Peele, in particular—with Get Out, Us, and the forthcoming HBO series Lovecraft Country—seems poised to rule the world if he wants to.) But if neither man every worked again they still would have left behind five seasons of the best sketch comedy the decade produced.
Craig Mazin's fantastic mini-series Chernobyl (HBO, 2019) starts out with the suicide of one of its main characters, and then somehow gets even more bleak with each of the five hours that follow. Even those of us who remember it probably never knew the full extent of the 1986 nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, or how close it came to killing tens of millions of people and rendering most of the continent uninhabitable for thousands of years. Telling that story would be public service enough, but Mazin has more than a history lesson on his mind here. Chernobyl unfolds as many things at once: A harrowing account of the disaster and the efforts to contain it; a searing indictment of political bureaucracies and cultures of "alternative facts"; and a strangely affirming testament to the simple, unassuming heroism of flawed, ordinary people who find the courage to do the right thing for the sake of all humanity. Relentlessly realistic, unsparingly honest, and acted to perfection by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgård, Emily Watson, and the entire ensemble, Chernobyl is a 33-year-old horror story with powerful lessons we all may need in the months and years to come.
The decade's most honest depiction of marriage—in all its funny, raunchy, infuriating glory—came in Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's Catastrophe (Channel Four, 2015–2019). The story of an Irish woman and an American man (Horgan and Delaney) who discover they're going to be parents after a brief, no-strings-attached fling, Catastrophe starts out like a charming, profanely frank comedy about strangers thrown together for life. Over the course of the show's four seasons, however, it matures—as the best relationships do—into something much more, for parenting is only the first "catastrophe" Rob and Sharon will contend with: They also deal with infidelity, alcoholism, health scares, the death of parents (including the real-life death of Carrie Fisher, who got the last great role of her life as Rob's mother), and all the other soul-crushing, dream-compromising realities of a life shared with another person. But that, Catastrophe recognizes, is what marriage is. "If I met you right now, I'd still want to marry you, and mess it all up from there," Rob tells Sharon in the show's final episode. In a decade of disappointing finales, Catastrophe ends on a perfect, beautifully ambiguous note: Rob and Sharon could be giving up on everything, but I think they're just leaning into acceptance of the fact that any great love story is just one disaster after another.
17. HALT AND CATCH FIRE
After an interesting but uneven first season that focused on the battle between engineer Gordon (Scoot McNairy) and entrepreneur Joe (Lee Pace) to create the next great computer, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers' Halt and Catch Fire (AMC) just kept getting better. The creative turnaround—one of the most remarkable of the decade—was largely due to the creators' recognizing that the real heart of their show was the relationship between programmer Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and business whiz Donna (Kerry Bishé), who evolved from supporting roles into two of TV's strongest, most emotionally complex women. But the real beauty of Halt and Catch Fire is how it found the perfect synthesis of subject and theme: Going back to the beginning to explore the nature of the digital age we live in now, Halt and Catch Fire brilliantly utilized computers as a two-edged metaphor, drawing on their potential for both alienation and connection. As Halt and Catch Fire's makeshift family broke apart and came back together—culminating in as perfect a finale as any show got this decade—we realized it was never about the computers: it was always about the characters, and their—and our—longing for community.
Don't hate NBC for finally cancelling Bryan Fuller's strange, wonderful Hannibal (NBC, 2013–2015) after three seasons: Celebrate them for every putting something like this on the broadcast airwaves in the first place. Simultaneously philosophical treatise, Grand Guignol horror show, visual tone poem, and the strangest, most unconventional love story on television, Hannibal was a feast for nearly every sense, served up by a visionary creator and two of the best actors on television (Mads Mikkelsen and Hugh Dancy). Those of us who doubted there was anything new to do with Thomas Harris's over-adapted characters were proven delightfully wrong by Fuller's sumptuous style, and more by his surprisingly successful—and perversely romantic—plumbing of their emotional depths. Sometimes frustrating, often absurdly funny, occasionally revolting, Hannibal was never less than fascinating, and it put to shame the limited imaginations, lazy filmmaking, and Puritanical mores of most broadcast shows. It's unlikely we'll ever see its like again.
15. YOU'RE THE WORST
One of the decade's sweetest, most romantic love stories played out between two characters who were incapable of sweetness, were disdainful of romance, and didn't believe in love. Stephen Falk's You're the Worst (FX) was something of a Trojan horse: a broad (and viciously funny) sex comedy that turned out to be about genuine emotional growth. When we met them, novelist Jimmy (Chris Geere) and publicist Gretchen (Aya Cash) were both cynical, bitter, amoral, relationship-averse singles who hooked up for some no-strings sex, and happened to discover—to their own surprise, mistrust, and terror—that the jagged shards of their damaged souls happened to fit together perfectly. Falk could easily have milked the show's brutally honest sexual humor and its can-they-or-can't-they relationship comedy for the entire run: Instead, he and his wildly talented cast—including scene-stealing regulars Kether Donohue and Desmin Borges—kept upping the stakes, deepening the willfully shallow characters and their relationship almost against their will. Without ever surrendering its joyfully misanthropic heart, You're the Worst had more real wisdom and sympathy for human foibles than its cold, black heart would ever admit.
When the wrongfully dismissed sexual assault claims of young Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) finally come across the radar of two female detectives (Merritt Wever and Toni Collette) who take her seriously, we breathe a sigh of frustrated relief that the case (and Marie) are now in responsible hands. That, too, is how I felt watching the entirety of the mini-series Unbelievable (Netflix, 2019), from creators Susannah Grant, Ayelet Waldman, and Michael Chabon. Police procedurals are a dime a dozen on television, but this one—based on an infuriating true story—was made with such a strong female perspective, and such rare, astonishing sensitivity, that it felt like an entirely new and necessary genre. Wever and Collette are two of the greatest actors we have, and the investigation conducted by their two (opposite, but equally driven) detectives is a master class in the human decency that should be—but so rarely is—an essential component of law enforcement. But, even up against these two acting giants, Kaitlyn Dever's performance stands out as television's best of the year: She never overplays either Marie's naive victimhood or her surprising stores of strength, but creates a heartbreakingly real and soulfully heroic survivor whose raw, aching humanity will haunt us for years to come. Every other showrunner needs to watch Unbelievable and take careful notes: This is how you tell a story about sexual assault, and if you can't bring this level of intelligence and sensitivity you probably shouldn't do it at all.
I'm just going to say this outright: Way too many of you are sleeping on one of the best shows of the 21st century in Tanya Saracho's Vida (Starz, 2018–present). The story of two Mexican-American sisters—Type-A overachiever Emma (Melissa Barrera) and reckless wild-child Lyn (Mishel Prada)—who move back to their gentrifying L.A. neighborhood to run their late mother's bar, Vida is doing everything we could possibly ask from a TV drama. It's fun, funny, sexy, and stylish, and it's telling a sharp, smartly layered story about family, gentrification, and identity: cultural identity, gender identity, sexual identity, and the basic challenges of becoming an adult and inheriting the world. The two leads are both giving stunning performances as very different, equally complex, not-always-likable women, and they are bolstered by a fantastic supporting cast including Ser Anzoategui as their late-mother's widow and Chelsea Rendon as a furious young activist fighting to preserve the character of the rapidly changing neighborhood. Saracho locates both the sensitive interpersonal drama and the razor-sharp socio-political commentary in incredible specificity of character and place, eschewing simple stereotypes and easy answers to create one of the most richly realized studies of community since The Wire.
12. LAST WEEK TONIGHT WITH JOHN OLIVER
When you think about it, it's a format that really shouldn't work at all: just a guy, sitting at a desk, lecturing us about topics like immigration reform, payday loans, and police militarization. Every week, John Oliver says some variation of, "Here's a thing you probably don't know enough about, but it's important, so let me explain it." And we listen, not because it's important—though, by the end of each episode, we are inevitably convinced it is—but because Oliver is smart, and funny, and entertainingly passionate. Last Week Tonight isn't a talk show, and it isn't a comedy show, and it isn't even really a news show: it's America's best classroom, and Oliver is the funny, brilliant, morally wise teacher we all wish we'd had.
Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' legendary 1986 comic-book series was intended to be the last word on superheroes, but in Watchmen (HBO, 2019) Damon Lindelof dared to crack that sacred tome open and prove that there was plenty left to say in—and with—that oversaturated genre. Lindelof didn't so much adapt or continue Moore and Gibbons' story as riff upon it in a different key, using the basic bones of their world to tell a new and even more resonant story about white supremacy, appropriation, generational trauma, and the all-important question of who gets to control the narratives and power. Featuring a smart, textually rich story; some stunningly audacious storytelling; and fantastic performances from Regina King, Tim Blake Nelson, Jean Smart, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, and Jeremy Irons (among others), Watchmen was a tight, ambitious, wildly entertaining nine episode masterpiece. Superhero stories are coming at us from every direction these days, but Watchmen has forever raised the bar for what they can and should try to do.
10. WHEN THEY SEE US
The title of Ava DuVernay's devastating mini-series When They See Us (Netflix, 2019) has been explained by the cast and crew as a reflection of their desire to have us finally see the five young men who disappeared into the criminal justice system in 1989 as "The Central Park Five." But what it makes me think of—and perhaps some version of this meaning was also intended—is a passage in James Baldwin's If Beale Street Could Talk, in which the black narrator describes the eyes of a white policeman: "If you look steadily into that unblinking blue, into that pinpoint at the center of the eye, you discover a bottomless cruelty, a viciousness cold and icy," she says. "In that eye, you do not exist: if you are lucky." In When They See Us, DuVernay dramatizes the experiences of these five boys who were unlucky enough to come under the gaze of the criminal justice system, and be railroaded for a vicious crime of which none of them were guilty. Though already familiar to many of us from news accounts, and from Ken and Sara Burns' 2012 documentary The Central Park Five, this story is brought to life by DuVernay and her talented cast as never before, forcing us to reckon with both their humanity and the inhumanity of what was done to them. I mean it as the highest of compliments when I say that I watched the first episode in June, and only managed to finish the series in November: The opposite of a "binge-watch," When They See Us is almost unbearably wrenching and infuriating, and all but demands that we give space to its lessons and learn to accommodate the rage and heartbreak it evokes.
9. BETTER THINGS
With apologies to the great Pamela Adlon—I promise this is the last time I'll ever mention this man's name in relation to her work—the invisible ghost that haunts this list is Louis C.K.'s Louie, undeniably one of the most influential series of the decade. I once, I confess, would have found it almost impossible to imagine leaving Louie out of my top ten shows of the decade. But with C.K.'s fall from grace—and his own stunningly graceless reaction to his own mistakes—came a reassessment of not just the man, but also of his work, which now rings so hollow with phony empathy and shallow self-awareness that I doubt I'll ever be able to watch it again. If there's any reason to feel happy Louie existed, however, it's that without it we might not have Adlon's Better Things (FX, 2015-present), which pulses with all the humor, authenticity, insight, and empathetic heart we could ever have imagined we saw its predecessor. Adlon's character Sam Fox (a lightly fictionalized version of herself) is a realistic, fully rounded woman, balancing—never perfectly—her roles as a working actress, a struggling single-mother, a patient-if-prickly daughter, and an unapologetic sexual being. And Adlon's sensitive performance is bolstered by the two generations of actresses on either side of her: Celia Imrie, revelatory as Sam's needy, eccentric mother Phyllis; and Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward as the three children Sam is awkwardly guiding through various stages of growing up and finding their own identities. Patient, playful, precisely tuned to nuance, grounded in reality, and always funny, Better Things finds humor, horror, and heroism in moments of always imperfect effort.
8. HAPPY VALLEY
"There are some men in this world who are born to do our unpleasant jobs for us," Harper Lee tells us in To Kill a Mockingbird. And Sally Wainwright reminds us that men ain't got nothing on women, in Happy Valley (BBC, 2014-2016, with one more series expected someday). Police Sergeant Catherine Cawood (an astonishing Sarah Lancashire) spends her life doing unpleasant jobs, whether tracking down a kidnap victim, euthanizing a stolen sheep, or just dealing with the run-of-the-mill "scrotes, druggies, and nutters" who make life squalidly interesting in her small Yorkshire village. And she does all this while caring for her recovering-addict sister Claire (Siobhan Finneran), and raising her emotionally disturbed grandson Ryan (Rhys Connah), after the suicide of her only daughter. Happy Valley's plot-lines—of small-time crimes gone stupidly wrong—could make it sound like a British Fargo, but this is not really a cop-show, or even a crime show: It's a stunning character study of a woman with the weight of the world on her shoulders, who bears that weight—and everything else they throw at her—with heroic decency, humor, and fortitude. Every time I rewatch Happy Valley—and I do so as often as anything on this list—I think of the legend from the Talmud of the Tzadikim Nistarim, the 36 righteous people who, without even knowing it, justify the continued existence of humanity. As we watch angry, exhausted Catherine Cawood shoulder one burden after another, we become convinced that she may in fact be one of these secret saints of the world, thanklessly holding it together with both hands. For sure, she is one of TV's greatest characters, and Sarah Lancashire—let me say this very clearly—has given the absolute best performance of the decade.
7. STEVEN UNIVERSE
Like it's titular protagonist—a human/alien hybrid being raised by three alien women—Rebecca Sugar's Steven Universe (Cartoon Network, 2013–2019) was a tiny, life-affirming wonder. Each of the show's short episodes could feel light, charming, funny, and almost disposable, but the cumulative effect was as emotionally powerful and thematically profound as anything on television. Throughout its six-year run, Steven Universe delivered hysterically silly slapstick comedy, lovely and amazingly catchy musical numbers, and thrilling action-adventure sequences with aliens and monsters. At its unfailingly generous heart, however, it was dealing with important, difficult, deeply humane issues of love, family, forgiveness, gender, consent, insecurity, morality, and the challenges of growing up. Having ended its glorious run this year—Sugar having satisfactorily completed both her long sci-fi story and the subtle, almost stealth emotional development of her characters—Steven Universe deserves to become one of those classic children's stories that is enjoyed by children and adults alike for generations to come.
6. BLACK MIRROR
If you're anything like me, you spent much of the 2010s staring into one glassy screen after another. It's how we got our information and entertainment. It's how we worked and played, how we interacted with friends and family, how we fell in love and lusted. We poured the best and worst of ourselves into those screens, and we cared far too much about what we got back from them, letting them define our identities and our own self-worth. Online is where most of us live now, and Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror (Channel Four and Netflix, 2011–present) was the cautionary guide we needed for navigating the treacherous shoals of this brave new world. The anthology series' parables about life in the digital age were always hit-and-miss, and it's one of the pleasures of the show that the value of any individual story's insights fluctuate with the rapidly changing media landscape itself. (As the reality television boom goes bust, an episode like Season Two's "White Bear" seems more mean-spirited and histrionic than it did when it first aired. Meanwhile, stories I originally found underwhelming—like Season Four's "Nosedive"—have come to seem eerily and powerfully prescient.) Brooker takes big, audacious swings at the modern age—this is a show whose premiere episode, after all, featured the Prime Minister of Great Britain fucking a pig on national television—and sometimes he misses. (The most recent series, Season Five, was the first without at least one masterpiece.) But at its frequent best Black Mirror does what all great art should do: It becomes a mirror in which we can examine ourselves, and a lens through which we can view the world more clearly.
5. THE GREAT BRITISH BAKE-OFF
Look, we all know that—outside of television—it's been a rough decade for the world. But who could have predicted that what we'd need—to maintain our sanity, and reclaim our faith in humanity—would be a gentle reality show about endearingly awkward amateur bakers? Yet The Great British Bake-Off (BBC/Channel Four, 2010–present)—rechristened The Great British Baking Show here in the states (because a soulless corporation somehow owns the phrase "Bake-Off")—is the comforting, healing tonic for our times. Despite the fact that the contestants are playing for nothing besides accolades and the pride of a job well done, GBBO finds compelling—even unbearably tense—human drama in the simple quest to create beautiful cakes, complexly plait strands of bread dough, and avoid—at all costs—the dreaded "soggy bottom." But the real genius of GBBO is how it eschews all the manufactured drama and mean-spirited conflict of other televised competitions, emphasizing creativity, gentle enthusiasm, and basic human decency. It's the anti-reality-show reality show that somehow made reality itself bearable in the 2010s.
The entire run of Phoebe Waller-Bridge's extraordinary series Fleabag (BBC & Amazon, 2016–2019) can be consumed in a single sitting, but every moment of it—No, seriously, every fucking moment—is gold. A pitch-black comedy with a hidden heart, Fleabag creates a hero for the ages in Waller-Bridge's nameless title character, a young London cafe-owner who describes herself in the first episode (quite accurately) as "a greedy, perverted, selfish, apathetic, cynical, depraved, morally bankrupt woman who can't even call herself a feminist." Constantly breaking the fourth-wall to speak to us in wry asides about her interpersonal, sexual, and financial misadventures, the character endears herself to us nonetheless with perfect comic timing, an outrageously filthy frankness, and a startling vulnerability. In the fabulous first season we eventually learn that our heroine is not so much brass as broken, and not so much anti-social as emotionally quarantined. (We come to suspect, in fact, that she's talking to us because she has no longer has anyone else to whom she can really open up.) But the surprising emotional depths Waller-Bridge hints at in Season One become the dizzying chasm Season Two leaps into with both feet. Our damaged hero's combination of neediness and protective isolation finds the perfectly inappropriate outlet in her attraction to a Hot Priest (Andrew Scott), bringing her grief, selfishness, lust, loneliness, and existential crisis to a perfect storm of emotional vulnerability and growth. It is hard not to wish for more Fleabag when its six brilliant hours are over, but in its final moments Fleabag brings this character to the most quietly stunning moment of self-awareness any character could ever ask for. So I hope Waller-Bridge sticks to her guns and moves on to other projects, because this is a perfect series of television just as it is.
3. THE LEFTOVERS
Between the worldwide phenomena of Lost and Watchmen, Damon Lindelof made his best (and least watched) series in The Leftovers (HBO, 2014–2017). I can't cast the first stone here—I myself didn't catch up with it until it was almost over—and to be fair The Leftovers was a hard sell. A deliberately (and as it turns out, brilliantly) unclassifiable drama based on the novel by Tom Perrota (an executive producer here), The Leftovers imagines Earth's society moving on after 2 percent of the world's population has mysteriously vanished. This odd premise could fit a science-fiction tale, a conspiracy show, an apocalypse story, or a "puzzle-box" series like Lost itself had been—and yet The Leftovers was none of these things. It was a lovely, thoughtful, elegiac meditation on grief, and survivor's guilt, and our desperate need for meaning in a universe where all available evidence tells us that everything is meaningless. (If I tell those of you who haven't watched it that it's also funny, and entertaining, and even romantic, you probably won't believe me, but it's all of those things and more.) Wrenchingly realistic one moment, hilariously dreamlike the next, and featuring some of the best acting and filmmaking of the decade, The Leftovers never fully answered its own riddles, and never intended to. Much as he used Moore and Gibbons' Watchmen as the oddly perfect vehicle for a story about white supremacy and appropriation, Lindelof found in the inexplicable mysteries of Perrota's tale a perfectly desolate and strangely beautiful canyon from which we could hear all the doubt, anxiety, and tentative hope of our modern age echoing back to us.
The strangest, funniest, most wickedly mercurial show of the 2010s was Donald Glover's Atlanta (FX, 2016–present). In 2012 FX had popularized the enviable "Louie-deal"—giving talented comedic actors the creative freedom to tell whatever kind of stories they wanted, in what were essentially loosely-serialized anthology shows—and the decade has been full of honorable half-hour comedies and dramedies like Master of None, Broad City, and One Mississippi. But Donald Glover is operating on another level altogether, reminding us that "comedy" is a serious business, and more of a worldview than a genre or style. As struggling would-be music mogul Earn Marks, Glover is the calm, dry center of his own experimental formal storm, and Atlanta's unpredictable short stories resonate with sadness, anger, and the incomprehensible oddness of life. Glover is proving that he can do anything in realizing his unique and uncompromising vision, and he's partnered with a brilliantly evocative directing partner (Hiro Murai) and a supporting cast that can carry all the comedy and tragedy he asks them to bear. (Brian Tyree Henry, as morose rapper Paper Boi, is probably the acting MVP of this particular All-Star Team—but you're apt to question that opinion whenever you watch Zazie Beetz or Lakeith Stanfield work.) Poignant and gritty one moment, silly or surreal the next, Atlanta doesn't so much straddle genres as break down the walls between them, not just reflecting the world but actually altering our perception of how it works as only great art can do.
1. GAME OF THRONES
At this point, probably the only person surprised to see my #1 pick is me. No, I still haven't recovered from the crushing disappointments of the final season, and for a long while—I swear—I had bumped Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–2019) several slots down my countdown in bitter protest. But c'mon: No show dominated and defined the decade like Game of Thrones. No show captured the imagination like it did. No show riveted us to our TV screens as firmly, or made us swear at them so loudly. No show was more narratively ambitious, or more visually inventive, or expanded the possibilities of the medium like it did. No show delivered more iconic moments. (I mean: Ned's death? The Red Wedding? "Tell Cersei it was me"?) And, in the end—and this may be the real reason I had to give it the top spot on my list—no show was more consistently dismissed and disrespected. Adapting George R. R. Martin's mammoth (and inconveniently unfinished) saga should always have been an impossible task, but deeply flawed geniuses David Benioff and D.B. Weiss pulled it off to a dazzling degree, delivering season after season of astonishing breadth and depth, even during the weakest bits. My regular readers know that I spent the decade arguing that Game of Thrones was always much more than an addictive genre series, and much larger than the sum of its many moving parts. Just beneath the surface of this sword-and-sorcery epic, Martin, Benioff, and Weiss were dealing with important, deeply humane themes: of sympathy and empathy, of the objectifying corruption of power, of blood families and found families, and of the nature and necessity of storytelling itself. Yes, Benioff and Weiss made some unfortunate choices along their long journey, and when they fumbled the ending it was heartbreaking—but that was only because Game of Thrones had raised the bar, and our expectations, so unreasonably, impossibly high. TV has been, and will be, searching for the next Game of Thrones for some time, but it's unlikely to find one anytime soon.