The Best TV of the 2010s
Some hand-picked favorites to look back on or look into
This was a weird decade for television. In terms of so-called "prestige tv," streaming is now king. Network programming has all but gone the way of terrestrial radio, made up of reality TV and broad, toothless comedies. Aside from some very rare standouts these days, most of the fare on the big four is largely uninspired and irredeemable.
Though HBO has long been at the forefront of the medium (and still is, for the most part), the beginning of the 2010s saw cable taking the reins. Shows like Mad Men and Breaking Bad (both on AMC) led the pack, taking the mantle of predecessors like The Sopranos. The "new golden age of television" is here, and it's still thriving.
Starting with Lilyhammer in 2012 and House of Cards and Orange is the New Black the following year, Netflix began its push of original content. What was once a DVD delivery service gradually became a destination for original content. Later, a network and cable aggregator (Hulu) and a book website-turned-megacorporation (Amazon Prime) would join the ranks. As the decade ended, another megacorporation would come into the fold (Disney Plus) as Netflix garnered Oscar wins.
The new and still-evolving business model has since made room for more niche audiences. Not having to seek the crossover appeal of huge segments of the population, certain shows have been able to give voices to new and exciting creators. Television is a far cry from the monolithic culture it was a generation ago. As audiences splinter off, there's a virtual arms race for high-quality content. Our eyes are being fought for like never before, and in order to fight past the "paralysis of choice," we reel from the near-endless options in front of us, seeking the best options we can. Here are a few of them (a premiere date of 2010 or later was the cutoff). There's a lot. [mild spoilers ahead]
- Game of Thrones (2011-2019) // HBO — No other TV series dominated the decade like Game of Thrones. Though the rulers on the show shifted with almost every season, it was nearly indisputable who dominated the cultural conversation. The fantasy series based on the (still-unfinished) A Song of Ice and Fire book series by George R. R. Martin seemed an unlikely hit when it debuted. Complete with dragons, giants, kings, queens, and the undead, the show's stories were rich and intricately detailed. Relying on nudity and gore in the early days, the needle eventually rested more on violence. With some of the best production values ever committed to the small screen, later episodes like "Battle of the Bastards" and "Beyond the Wall" — monumental in scope — put the medium on another level. Though fans were ultimately underwhelmed by the delayed final season, the show remains a true triumph.
- Black Mirror (2011-present) // Channel 4, Netflix — Though its elevator pitch as "a modern-day Twilight Zone" might be an oversimplification, it's not inaccurate. Both are iconic in similar ways and dive into the anxieties of their time. Created by the show's primary writer, Charlie Booker, the show originally began on the British Channel 4 before moving to Netflix in 2015. An anthology show that often breaks traditional format, it features short seasons, feature-length specials, and most recently, the choose-your-own-adventure film Bandersnatch. Ranging from the unnerving to the horrifying ("Black Museum") to the heartachingly moving ("San Junipero"), each episode sheds light on the dark corners of modern life, rightfully preoccupied with the misuse of technology.
- Bojack Horseman (2014-present) // Netflix — Though its whimsical animation style and alt-comedy tendencies make it seem lighthearted, that's simply a (forgive me) Trojan Horse. There are dark, real territories mined in Bojack, and that's where its true strength lies. Centered around an anthropomorphic horse, the show's title character is an alcoholic, narcissistic washed-up television star. He's joined by his asexual human slacker houseguest, high-strung cat agent, self-righteous human ghostwriter, and relentlessly positive Golden Retriever TV colleague (featuring the voice talents of Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Allison Brie, and Paul F. Tompkins). The show is outwardly hilarious, filled with wordplay and visual gags. It's also incredibly moving, dealing with drug addiction, recovery, and death. Some of the show's bottle episodes, like the silent "Horse Out of Water" and elegy monologue "Free Churro," are true works of art.
- Veep (2012-2019) // HBO — A pitch-perfect political comedy sporting an almost competitive vulgarity that's well-suited to our times, Veep is astounding. The show features Julia Louis-Dreyfus performing at her best — winning her a record six Emmys for her role as Selina Meyer — flanked by some of the greatest comedic improvisers in the world. It's an extremely fast-paced show in the style of British television creator Armando Iannucci's previous works The Thick of It and In the Loop. Following Vice President Meyer, the series tracks the ups and downs of a comically sociopathic politician. Though the scandals, mishaps, and gaffes that make up the show seem inconsequential to today's reality, the precision of the show's writing and performances hit their targets on every note. Unlike most high-concept programs (including some on this list), Veep maintains its incredibly high standards through every one of its seven seasons.
- The Handmaid's Tale (2017-present) // Hulu — Elisabeth Moss continues her remarkable television track record (The West Wing, Mad Men) as the lead in this dystopian series. Based on the 1985 novel by Margaret Atwood, the story is a densely chilling what-if scenario about the horrific and systematic subjugation of women in the wake of worldwide infertility. Taking place after a second American Civil War, the nation of Gilead rose to power. Founded on strict and severely misguided Christian principles, the new totalitarian leadership has created a class hierarchy with roles like Wives, Aunts, Marthas, and Handmaids. Moss plays June, aka "Offred," her new name signifying her male owner Fred Waterford (Joseph Fiennes). The first few episodes of the series are truly masterful, providing the tone for the remainder of the series. Though the quality has minimally declined into its third season, the unforgettable punch of Hulu's first great series is something that stays with you.
- Nathan for You (2013-2017) // Comedy Central — Few works of genius are this laugh-out-loud funny. In this documentary/reality series, comedian Nathan Fielder turns the genre on its head and takes a gonzo approach to his subjects. Founded with the notion that he is trying to help small businesses, Fielder takes ludicrous steps to do so. Over the course of the show's history, he's gone viral multiple times, gaining national attention of the mainstream media for things like his "Pig rescues baby goat" video or "Dumb Starbucks." By going to such extremes, he often gets in wildly over his head. And by losing the original thread he started with, he finds some of the most absurdly gratifying comedy ever.
- The Good Place (2016-present) // NBC — In what might be one of network TV's best death rattles, The Good Place is one of the most inventive comedies ever made. As Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) awakens in the afterlife, she is greeted by Michael (Ted Danson), who shepherds her through a neighborhood he created. There she meets an indecisive ethics professor, a jealous socialite, a hapless Floridian, and a helpful guide named Janet (D'Arcy Carden). As the show has found its characters rocketing up and down situationally, Season Four has wisely been set to be its final one. A smart mix of humor and heart, its bright color palette and bouncy score make it easy to like, and its content makes it worth loving.
- Stranger Things (2016-present) // Netflix — Recently confirmed to be the most-watched Netflix original series, Stranger Things has been a well-loved hit since its debut. A throwback to 1980s culture, the show mixes Stephen King with Steven Spielberg to generate a nostalgic tale of light horror. Taking place in the fictional town of Hawkings, Indiana, the story follows a group of young friends. As they battle beings from "the Upside Down," they befriend the mysterious "Eleven" and slowly trace her roots. After the initial adventure, the gang attempts a return to normalcy. As the new Starcourt Mall opens up, things start to swing out of control as the kids stave off the Mind Flayer. Its first season still being its greatest, the splash it's made is undeniable.
- Letterkenny (2016-present) // Crave, Hulu — Creating something wholly different, Jared Keeso's Letterkenny began as a Youtube web series. It was then picked up by Canada's Crave network before finding a much wider American audience on Hulu. Taking place in an Ontario town of 5,000, it has a wonderful cast of characters: The hicks, the Skids, and the hockey players. One of the most remarkable things about the show is its inventive use of language, employing catchphrases, repetition, and alliteration (take a look at some of the season's cold opens). It's deservedly gained a strong cult following.
- Bob's Burgers (2011-present) // FOX — There aren't many shows as watchable as Bob's Burgers. In the pantheon of Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and The Office, it has a warming effect every time it comes on the screen. The long-running animated series from Home Movies co-creator Loren Bouchard stars the Belcher Family — made up of Bob and Linda and their three children Tina, Gene, and Louise — as they run a small neighborhood burger restaurant. It's an endlessly charming series that will hopefully be around for years more to come.
The Walking Dead (2010-present) // AMC,
The Leftovers (2014-2017) // HBO,
Happy Endings (2011-2013) // ABC,
Orange is the New Black (2013-2019) // Netflix,
Broad City (2014-2019) // Comedy Central
Game of Thrones photo by Helen Sloan/HBO, Black Mirror photo by Laurie Sparham/Netflix, The Handmaid's Tale photo by George Kraychyk/Hulu
Nick Warren paradoxically watches both too much tv and not enough. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org