The 30 Best TV Shows of the 2010s (Part Two)
With so many TV shows to choose from, it was hard selecting only thirty to feature on this list. As mentioned in the first part of this article, we had to cut some of our favourites but in the end, we feel these are the best-scripted series the past decade offered. What follows it the second half of our list of the best shows of the 2010s.
15) Stranger Things
Stranger Things is so damned good. If cynicism clouds your jaded heart, there are many reasons to want to not love it. It’s pastiche, it panders to nostalgia, and it is, at least right now, nearly constantly hyped. And you know what else Stranger Things is? So. Damned. Good. Yes, it is pastiche, it panders, and it is over-hyped. But it is also well-paced, smart, well-acted, and beautifully made. It has horror, mystery, comedy, and the most talented ensemble of kids on a screen since some pre-teens heard about a dead body and took to the train tracks to find it. The story is compelling, the world is rich, the throwbacks are fun, the cast is inspired, but what Stranger Things nails so perfectly is the ineffable feeling it conveys. The viewer is transported to Hawkins, and you feel this town and the mythology crawling under your skin. Suburbs-gone-wrong done right.
By mixing together a very real nostalgia with a very real sense of creeping fear, and then viewing it through a modern lens, what gets spit out the other side is nothing short of riveting, the pinnacle of binge-worthy in an age of binge. And in the midst of an amazing cast, not the least of which features a soaring performance from a renewed and gripping Winona Ryder and a group of kids who actually know how to act like kids, there is a true standout in the town of Hawkins. Millie Bobby Brown, the supernatural wonder-kid who portrays the mysterious Eleven is a revelation, a young actor who holds court on the screen, portraying vulnerability and strength that leaves you standing up in your seat to root for her. Step inside the town of Hawkins and feel the pull of a world that was sewn by Stephen King, Stephen Spielberg, John Carpenter, and a decade so memorable it becomes a character in itself. All of that pastiche and nostalgia amounts to an homage, and this homage becomes its own new beast, different than its source and greater for having drawn from such excellent inspirations – its own new and wonderful creation. Stranger Things is so damned good, and we can’t wait to see what happens next in Hawkins. (Marty Allen)
While many shows succeeded in the golden era of television by exploring murky moral territory and brutal violence, few leaned into them with the grimy glee of Banshee.
Based on a premise so absurd it ought not to have been able to support more than a single season, Banshee‘s tale of an ex-convict who takes on the role of small town sheriff in the titular town didn’t just hobble on, it got better and better. As the diverse and intriguing cast got more back story and more to do, Banshee did more with its original concept than anyone could have imagined.
With some of the most shocking and visceral scenes of violence in television, Banshee was not for the faint of heart. However, for those who could overcome their gag reflex, Banshee had a pulp sensibility and knack for vicious, tense twists and turns that went unmatched by everything this side of Game of Thrones.
With a mere 38 episodes over its 4 seasons, Banshee is some of the most rewarding TV imaginable. A quick and dirty romp through the underbelly of the criminal justice system, Banshee isn’t just one of the best crime dramas of the last decade, it’s one of the best shows on television. (Mike Worby)
13) The Girlfriend Experience
There were a lot of shows with stories about sex and power in the decade, but none combined them all into one intoxicating package of cinematic mastery and dramatic profundity than Starz’s The Girlfriend Experience (which will make an unexpected return for season three in 2020, helmed by Anja Marquardt).
The first season is among the greatest seasons of TV in the 2010s, a stunning character study of a woman drawn to the life of sex work, featuring an all-time great leading performance by Riley Keough. Daring, sexy, and devastatingly honest, the 13-episode first run of The Girlfriend Experience – written and directed by co-creators Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz – is a testament to television at its most ambitious.
A fantastic, if little-watched second season (which split its story in half, two parallel plots playing out across 14 episodes) proved The Girlfriend Experience wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder. More explicitly dramatic and capital-r Relevant than its predecessor (especially as society’s reflection on sexual dynamics grew more potent), season two was impressive and evocative in a completely different way, proving the show’s versatility and mastery of its form wasn’t just a one-hit-wonder. One of television’s hidden gems, The Girlfriend Experience is quietly one of the most provocative, introspective shows on television, one it’s hard to believe will continue on into the next decade. (Randy Dankievitch)
Another series built on its emotional, and narrative, versatility, Fleabag is one of the decade’s great feminist works, a careful character study in the form of a foul-mouthed British comedy. Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s saga of sex, family drama, and religion only ran for 12 episodes (half in 2016, half earlier this year), but its sharp wit – and sense of fashion – is already iconic, and deservedly so. Waller-Bridge’s chain-smoking, depressed protagonist is fascinatingly messy, a character whose life experiences let Fleabag push the boundary between its genres, as shows like BoJack Horseman and The Leftovers would make their namesake in later seasons. Considering Fleabag was a half-hour drama with a total running time of about six hours, the emotional arc of the series is quite impressive.
More importantly, Fleabag is fascinating in how it experimented with form; it is a theatrically staged, profane dissemination of one woman’s journey through life’s endless parade of bullshit. Fleabag, like The Office and Parks and Recreation before it, blurred the line between performance and audience, turning the relatively ubiquitous moments of the unnamed protagonist’s life (orgasms, breakups, deaths) into deeper, richer experiences – though it sometimes felt like Fleabag’s use of fourth-wall-breaking is a shade too clever, it was an essential component of its DNA, a vessel to reveal the series’ surprising emotional (and comedic) depth.
While Fleabag‘s cultural cache definitely peaked in season two with the arrival of Hot Priest (Andrew Scott, in a terrific, if over-memed, performance) both of Fleabag’s seasons are memorable in their own right, a deification of imperfection that, on some level, all of us can somehow relate to. (Randy Dankievitch)
Part Southern Gothic, but mostly a quiet meditation, Rectify might have got to live out its life and earn its creative freedom by being Sundance TV’s first original series at a time when dozens of networks were pursuing original programming for the first time. Not having to worry too much about ratings dictating its chances for renewal meant that the series, which follows ex-convict Daniel Holden’s release from death row due to new DNA evidence, got to breathe in ways that few get to.
There’s a kind of series that exists (HBO’s Enlightened is another great example) that presents itself so honestly and with such introspection that it becomes hard coming out of an episode and not feeling like you’re somehow a better person for having experienced it. To maintain that quality for four seasons and shade in different places and characters in its setting of Paulie, Georgia in ways that just seemed to make its heart grow was Rectify’s greatest feat. This kind of story—much less interested in the “Did he do it?” than the “How has this changed him?”—lends itself more towards a miniseries, but Rectify’s longevity points towards something timeless about the Holden family dynamic and how creator Ray McKinnon chose to present the American South.
Aden Young’s performance as Daniel will go down as one of the most underrated and understated in all of television, not just the decade. But the entire cast—and especially the women that Daniel feels comfortable around: Adelaide Clemens’ Tawney in the first season, Caitlin Fitzgerald’s Chloe in the final season and Abigail Spencer’s Amantha throughout—shine so bright and with such warmth that it’s sometimes worth reminding yourself that this is a TV series and some of these people aren’t actually family. It sure felt like it, though. (Sean Colletti)
Have you ever heard the term ‘darkest timeline’? It comes from that little weird show, Community. In one of the finest episodes of television ever aired, season three’s ‘Remedial Chaos Theory’ portrays seven alternate realities, one of which ends with a lost arm and several evil goatees. And that’s pretty standard for the Community gang. On its surface, Community looks like a well written and well-acted ensemble sitcom about some unlikely friends from a study group at a community college. But when you dig in to Community, it takes you beyond its own story into a kind of meta-narrative about being a viewer, and it’s there that the deep love of its cult following has brewed and stewed. If the idea of rooting in a meta-narrative sounds nerdy to you, you’re right, it is, but the wonky self-awareness never becomes intolerable because Dan Harmon and his talented team root the show in so many great stories and characters. Troy and Abed, Dean Pelter and Pierce are all the stuff of TV legend.
Community certainly deserves a spot among the greatest shows of the decade, though it shines most brightly in its first few seasons, before its own meta-meta-narrative emerged. Midway through the series the creator and showrunner, Dan Harmon was fired, and though there are still great episodes and seasons after, its full glory was never restored. After an outcry and a less well-received fourth season, Harmon was rehired, though shortly thereafter cast mainstay Donald Glover left the show, arguably the point at which it could never find its stride again (a fact that Harmon himself now affirms). Nonetheless, a wonderful show shines throughout, and it’s commitment to breaking down storytelling walls remains. From note-perfect Law & Order parody to truly epic paintball battles; from Chevy Chase’s off-putting rants to Troy and Abed’s everything – Community, particularly in its first three rapid-fire seasons, delivered ensemble comedy perfection. (Marty Allen)
9) Parks and Recreation
Parks and Recreation was once intended to be a spinoff of The Office. Whilst this would have been interesting, Parks and Rec became its own show that some believe to be even better than The Office. I certainly think it has earned its place as one of the best shows of the decade. Following the lives of the workers at the Pawnee Parks Department, the shows likeable characters and their hilarious antics makes for a show that is always amusing whilst keeping the characters and situations fairly grounded. Amy Poehler’s hopelessly optimistic Lesley Knope is a brilliant protagonist to surround with wayward supporting characters with irrational tendencies such as Chris Pratt’s haplessly adorable Andy, Aubrey Plaza’s kind of crazy and yet hugely relatable April and of course Nick Offerman and his astonishing moustache as the iconic manly man Ron Swanson. Lesley’s sweet nature and genuine attitude keeps everyone firmly grounded as she flourishes as the heart of the show. As the years went by, the characters developed phenomenally well and even the newer characters such as Adam Scott’s Ben and Rob Lowe’s Chris become welcome additions to the cast. The show came to an end in 2015, running for seven seasons over the course of six years. Long-running shows can often feel like they have run their course when they meander on for so many years. Although it was sad to see the show conclude when it was still so good, ending Parks and Rec on a high note whilst it was still in its prime was the right decision. A television hit that can make you laugh and cry (yes, I am referring to Lil Sebastian) in equal measure, Parks and Rec is a show that is greatly missed but won’t be forgotten. (Antonia Haynes)
8) Bojack Horseman
What is great about BoJack Horseman is how much more there is to the show then meets the eye. Starring a cast of anthropomorphic animals living normally alongside humans, you’d be forgiven if you thought the show was just another adult cartoon chock full of dirty jokes. It may have started off as such, but BoJack Horseman has evolved beyond comprehension. Starting off as a pretty average cartoon comedy, as the seasons went on the show began to thoughtfully tackle real issues like depression, selfishness, addiction and how to go about finding your place in an often cruel and chaotic world. The show focuses on the titular BoJack Horseman, an alcoholic horse who was once the star of a cheesy 90’s sitcom. The show is about his various self-destructive habits as well as the relationships he develops with characters such as his agent, a pink and prim cat called Princess Caroline. Watching BoJack struggle to find happiness is often full of hilarity- I honestly think it’s one of the funniest shows around at the moment- but also genuine despair. His behaviour can become infuriating as every time he seems to be going down the right path, an explosive act of selfishness takes him back to the beginning. This makes for a protagonist who never gets dull as you are constantly wondering when and if he will ever change. He is often berated by the other characters for his actions too, making it clear that no matter how funny it may be, actions have consequences. Full of complex characters, funny moments and a real sense of raw human emotion, BoJack Horseman is one of the best and most surprising shows of the decade. (Antonia Haynes)
7) Mad Men
Seemingly destined from its pilot to join the Mount Rushmore of TV series, Mad Men (which aired four of its seven seasons in the 2010s) fittingly became an appreciation of times gone by not just within the show but as a show. Since its conclusion, other series centered around the now-traditional white, male anti-hero have cropped up and found long-term homes, but the movement—incredibly popular in the decade before—largely transitioned away from what The Sopranos had lain the groundwork for back in 1999. Mad Men was a spectacular high-water mark of a send-off for a kind of series that both perpetuated and challenged the stereotypes it presented.
Slick beyond comparison (until Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal), the production oozed style in ways that will be written about in retrospective books for years to come. But, amazingly, Mad Men always had the substance to match. Its strongest seasons both ended and began a decade, with major plot points at the end of the fourth season taking the series into new and multiple directions, focusing less and less on its centerpiece, Don Draper (Jon Hamm). Hamm was so unconscionably good in the role that Mad Men might have continued to pivot around Draper until the end, but it had already built up a handful of characters so utterly three-dimensional and interesting that it felt like a true ensemble making something special.
Now, in the age of the Streaming Wars, Mad Men is also somewhat of a relic in structure: a series designed to be viewed week-to-week and a series best-viewed week-to-week. There may be better series on this list, however, you define that, but nothing this decade had a kind of attention to detail packed into every scene that demanded the thoughtful breakdowns that Mad Men demanded for all its run. (Sean Colletti)
6) Game of Thrones
What The Lord of the Rings did for fantasy in the cinematic realm, Game of Thrones did for fantasy in the TV realm. Based on George R.R. Martin’s world-class fantasy series, Game of Thrones isn’t just the best fantasy show on television, it’s also one of the best fantasy properties of all time.
By supplanting tropes, and turning them on their heads for the fun of it, Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss made the ultimate in must-watch TV. Sunday nights became events, as fans tried to predict where the story would be going next, who would die, and who would ultimately win the titular “game of thrones”. As political intrigue and social questions clashed with the limitations of medieval times and primitive ideologies, the omnipresent threat of ice zombies and fire-breathing dragons loomed in the background. Somehow Game of Thrones managed to mash all of these disparate entities and ideas into a single show, not just managing to succeed but soar in the process.
Even if the last two seasons left a bad taste in some fans’ mouths, Game of Thrones remains one of the best, and most important, television shows in the history of the medium. (Mike Worby)
5) The Americans
Fittingly for a series about deep-cover KGB operatives, The Americans is a duality. Its plot is a slow, methodically-paced narrative, and yet no other series has character dynamics that shift as quickly. The changes in emotional subtext recast the meaning of every single exchange between its protagonists, scene-by-scene, moment-to-moment. The riveting drama is a result of the series’ focus: a story about the growth of and tensions in a marriage—Philip Jennings enjoys the cultural freedoms the USA offers; Elizabeth Jennings is far more parsimonious. The Americans is ensconced in the Cold War, examining the American condition under Reaganism and the speculative fear both the FBI and KGB laboured under, but these are conduits towards exploring how two parents raise their children and understand each other. The subtle layers in the writing are largely apparent owing to a sterling cast spearheaded by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell. Rhys’ ability to contort his mouth in expressions of restrained pain makes Philip’s crises devastatingly raw. Russell is able to capture Elizabeth’s fury and disbelief at the American lifestyle in a single look. The two actors intimately bridging the emotional voids between their characters lead to a complex, fascinating, and frankly sexy relationship.
There is certainly a suspension of disbelief that two Russian spies would live right across the road from the FBI agent hunting them (played wonderfully by Noah Emmerich), but the dramatic licence feels authentic due to the fastidious detail with which creator and former CIA-officer Joe Weisberg and fellow showrunner Joel Fields replicate and evoke the period. The fashion, pop and rock soundtrack, and the frequently abused “Mail Robot” patrolling the FBI corridors are atmospherically perfect. Furthermore, The Americans’ commitment to realistically portraying the conflict’s murky panic gifts several revelatory Russian-speaking performances from actors such as Costa Ronin and Annet Mahendru.
By sifting through the toll that espionage takes on its operatives’ lives, where the most mundane acts of spy-craft or the simplest of conversations between husband and wife equally have the potential to destroy lives, The Americans is one of the greatest dramatic series ever. (Declan Biswas-Hughes)
It could’ve gone the way of a USA Network procedural and that probably would’ve been good enough. Leave it to FX to let creator Graham Yost indulge his inner Elmore Leonard fanboy to honor the author and one of his less well-known characters, thereby catapulting ornery lawman Rayland Givens into the pantheon of classic TV crimefighters. Effervescently cool Timothy Olyphant imbued Givens with a sly wit and a begrudging sense of duty that made him a complicated hero that skirted the line between “by the book” and “break the rules.” The Kentucky set series helped to dispel the frustrating myth of modern crime fiction: the criminal mastermind. Week after week, Rayland would pursue bail dodgers, fugitives, and petty crooks, none of whom could get the drop on him due to sheer foolishness or downright stupidity (long live Dewey Crowe!).
That’s not to say our hero wasn’t matched by some all-timer villains. Season 2’s Mags Bennett was a brilliant spin on the benevolent matriarch, as played by Margo Martindale, a honey-tongued store owner and moonshine maker who spit pure vinegar when it came to protecting her minor marijuana empire. And series’ long foe Boyd Crowder became a fresh spin on the evil mirror cliche. Walton Goggins’ performance made Boyd a cool as a cucumber but vicious as a snake in the grass, righteous man full of contradictions. It’s his blood-soaked rivalry with Rayland that ultimately made this modern Western a story about relinquishing anger and violence.
Justified’s legacy may not reach the heights of Breaking Bad, but time should be kind to its mix of Faulknerian eloquence and dimestore pulp that only Elmore Leonard could pull off. The show’s Southern charm never betrayed its pension for black comedy or for pure tension. As the most entertaining show of the 2010s, preceding the quantity over the quality glut of peak TV, Justified bridged procedural, pulp, and prestige like no other. (Shane Ramirez)
3) The Leftovers
Damon Lindelof has always loved himself a good mystery. With his previous show, Lost, being built almost exclusively around mysteries, it was no surprise that Lindelof’s post-Lost successor would have a major mystery at its center as well. The difference here is that Lindelof has no interest in solving the mystery in The Leftovers.
Based (somewhat loosely) on Tom Perrota’s novel, The Leftovers focuses on how humans deal with the aftermath of the sudden disappearance of 2% of the world’s population. Was it the rapture or a dimensional rift? Can it be explained at all? And if so, where did everyone go? Rather than answering these questions, The Leftovers is more comfortable (or uncomfortable) with ruminating on them. This isn’t a huge surprise, as the other thing that Lindelof loves is studying characters and going in-depth on what makes them tick. Some characters grieve and obsess, creating their own narrative in the process, while others simply wait to die, or mock the whole process of existence in and of itself.
It makes no difference really, and that’s what makes The Leftovers a show as frustrating as it is endearing. Like in real life, there are no easy answers for the eternal questions, and The Leftovers doesn’t just understand that, it embraces it. We have to let the mystery be, but The Leftovers is still an intriguing and worthwhile exercise in examining the question, and for that, it’s like nothing else on television. (Mike Worby)
A full-length book—let alone a short entry on this list—wouldn’t be enough space to write about what makes Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal so special. Many will remember its clever Standards and Practice workarounds, portraying its implied and explicit violence in beautiful, troubling ways. Others have fresh memories of its transcendent second season, capped off by “Mizumono”, the episode which earned its Game of Thrones-inspired “Red Dinner” nickname. And most viewers can recall the detail-oriented visual and aural styles that defined the series, including its incredible classical soundtrack and innovative score.
Hannibal, though, is ultimately a love story. Fans (or Fannibals) can—and have—applied traditional romantic connotations to the relationship between Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) and Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen). But, as with just about every aspect of the series, it’s interested in much more than what’s on the surface. Love in Hannibal moves beyond the physical into something more like the spiritual or philosophical. Why do we love the people we love? What are the limits of that love? Can love be a one-sided experience, or does it need a reciprocating recipient? Hannibal may have been wrapped up as a procedural prequel to Thomas Harris’ trilogy (which eventually adapted the first novel), but its insides were dripping with a desire to figure out how human beings seek out and try to maintain connections.
Even now, it’s still shocking to think that we got three seasons of this series before NBC had to cancel it. The next best broadcast network dramas of the decade—The Good Wife, Parenthood, Jane the Virgin, Elementary—don’t really belong in the same conversation as Hannibal in terms of aesthetic sophistication, genre ingenuity and—to me, at least—emotional depth and maturity. If you revisit any series on this list, let it be Hannibal. (Sean Colletti)
1) Breaking Bad
Much ink and many pixels have been sacrificed to extol the pleasures, anxieties, and theories of Breaking Bad. What began in 2008 as a follow up to AMC’s breakout drama, Mad Men, ended in 2013 as a bonafide cultural phenomenon. The ascension of sad-sack science teacher—and cancer patient—Walter White into meth kingpin Heisenberg has entered the pantheon of not just television or pop culture, but practically modern mythology. WW is the new Icarus, the new Macbeth, the new Jekyl and Hyde.
Creator Vince Gilligan was able to distill the folly of the contemporary American male into one character, a wish-fulfillment fantasy from lowly to loathsome and all the compromise for power that requires. Breaking Bad may be the nadir of the middle-aged, white male anti-hero era of prestige drama (joined by The Sopranos, The Shield and Mad Men), but it solidified the sub-genre’s cultural cache by being a delivery device for maximum tension and the darkest of humor.
Plucking from Westerns, gangster pictures, even chamber horror pieces, each week saw Breaking Bad breaking convention and genre to glamorize capers (greatest train robbery ever, maybe), humorize violence (that poor bathtub), terrorize its side characters (the countdown of a single minute has never felt so dread-inducing) or inspire incredulous awe (“Magnets, bitch!”). At the forefront was the destruction of a middle American Albuquerque family, slowly chiseled away by the hubris of one man and his thirst for ever-elusive control over his destiny.
Ultimately, Breaking Bad may be the greatest storytelling “machine” that television has birthed. The writing felt unpredictable and inevitable in equal measure, paying off minute details from seasons past and evolving the characters’ arcs virtually episode to episode, unlike some serialized shows that are content with circular writing. This was a show that rejected wheel spinning, that understood that its conclusion was certain, and chose to barrel toward it with abandon.
Succeeded by a prequel series every bit it’s equal (Better Call Saul), and fun if unnecessary feature-length coda (El Camino), Breaking Bad is not the new icon of television but the new icon for television. It’s all of the medium’s potential and possibility. Funny, weighty, blunt, subtle, garish, artistic, the show launched us into the 2010s on a psychotic crystal blue high we’ll always be chasing. (Shane Ramirez)