There was more TV to consume than ever before, with networks taking creative risks just to get into the original content game (and famously one tech company blowing a lot of money to save one beloved cult show). The ride for auteurs is probably coming to an end, but this decade gifted us a lot of shows that couldn’t have been made in previous decades and probably wouldn’t get a shot in the decades to come.
A few notes:
1. Any show that aired at least one complete season from January 1, 2010 to December 1, 2019 was eligible, but only those seasons and episodes were considered for this selection. (Apologies to Watchmen.)
2. For shows featured on my Best Episodes of the Decade list, I’ve highlighted another great episode from that season below.
3. If you’re wondering where a show is that’s not in this Top 25, there’s a list of Honorable Mentions below, plus a list of acclaimed shows that I didn’t watch (or didn’t watch enough of) to qualify.
The Americans (FX, 2013-2018)
Joe Weisberg’s impeccably crafted ’80s drama gave you all the espionage thrills you wanted, but never lost focus of the human cost of subterfuge. That Phillip and Elizabeth loved different countries drove a wedge between them more than any affairs ever could, and that in turn affected their kids, neighbors and lovers. Any friends were just liabilities, and they both had to burn the only people they genuinely connected with.
Standout episodes: “Duty and Honor” (Season 1), “Martial Eagle” (Season 2), “Walter Taffet” (Season 3), “Travel Agents” (Season 4), “Dyatkovo” (Season 5), “START” (Season 6)
Atlanta (FX, 2016-present)
As comedies drifted further into dramatic territory – to the point where some critics started to distinguish shows by length – this (and one other entry below) truly stretched the definition as far as it could go. One episode could be a bottle episode/hostage standoff, the next week a talk show parody, then detour again and have an episode about a character’s wild quest for clean piss or a good haircut. But throughout, the show never neglected to emphasize just how tenuous its characters’ upward mobility was.
Standout episodes: “B.A.N.” (Season 1), “Alligator Man” (Season 2)
Barry (HBO, 2018-present)
On paper, this could have been a wacky comedy with some occasionally sinister moments. But the show layered darkness and light in the whole thing, so you never knew when you were going to laugh or be horrified. Bill Hader’s tremendous performance carried the day, but each of its supporting cast got full interior lives and game performers to give them their own personality traits.
Standout episodes: “Chapter Five: Do Your Job” (Season 1) “What?!” (Season 2)
Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013)
Standout episodes: “Half Measures” (Season 3), “Crawl Space” (Season 4), “Gliding over All” (Season 5)
El Camino (Netflix, 2019)
Is this cheating? Probably, but it’s my list. This ever-expanding tale of the Albuquerque underworld began so simply, but its tentacles stretched out everywhere, corrupting everything. Breaking Bad was the non-stop thrill ride taking “Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and El Camino gave Jesse a proper send-off. But Better Call Saul took things into a minor register, often replacing shoot-outs (though it still had those) with wordless montages showing the monotony of the original players in this saga, and what led them to a life of crime.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox/NBC, 2013-present)
Michael Schur’s essential workplace comedy was top-notch from the beginning, but it got better every single season, making you care about every character, even Gina. In more recent seasons, it’s attempted more thematically resonant episodes, often with great success. But it’s that rich comedic ensemble that will keep it running in perpetuity.
Standout episodes: “Tactical Village” (Season 1), “The Pontiac Bandit Returns” (Season 2), “Hostage Situation” (Season 3), “The Last Ride” (Season 4), “The Box” (Season 5), “The Honeypot” (Season 6)
Community (NBC/Yahoo! Screen, 2009-2014)
Of the many great shows this decade, this is the one I find myself returning to most often. Dan Harmon never met an insane idea he didn’t want to try, which kept the show from getting stale. Its tremendous ensemble kept you in stitches, even in its most uncomfortable episodes (like the Season 2 standout “Mixology Certification”). It kept surviving even after its showrunner was fired, the season after that was poorly received, the show was canceled and then resurrected at the last hour by a tech company with money to burn. It persevered through all that, and will keep on going.
Standout episodes: “Modern Warfare” (Season 1), “Mixology Certification” (Season 2), “Regional Holiday Music” (Season 3), “Herstory of Dance” (Season 4), “Cooperative Polygraphy” (Season 5), “Emotional Consequences of Broadcast Television” (Season 6)
Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-present)
Larry David doesn’t take any shit, which makes him both lovable and misanthropic at the same time. Watching him for an extended time can drive you crazy, but in weekly installments, seeing him get to say what many of us wish we could, is comedy heaven. In these two seasons, more than six years apart, he kept doing his thing, getting into petty fights with Rosie O’Donnell, Michael J. Fox and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
Standout episodes: “The Bisexual” (Season 7), “Fatwa!” (Season 8)
Fleabag (Prime, 2016-2019)
One woman’s journey of personal growth sounds insufferable on paper, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag showed us exactly that, reeling from her best friend’s unexpected death in Season 1, and falling headfirst into an unexpected romance in Season 2. It was viciously funny, disarmingly sincere and truly moving, making it one of the greatest shows of all time.
Standout episodes: “Episode 4” (Season 1), “Episode 4” (Season 2)
Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-2011)
The show essentially ended in 2009, but these two DirecTV co-financed seasons gave it a real reason to stay. After getting drummed out of Dillon by a rich asshole and child abuser, he moved to the recently re-opened East Dillon High, and Eric and Tammy suddenly had to come to grips with less equipment, decrepit facilities and a hodgepodge roster that was less talented and had far more socioeconomic problems than their old life. The show saw much of its original cast move on, but added two megawatt stars in Michael B. Jordan and Jurnee Smollett. Texas Forever.
Standout episodes: “Stay” (Season 4), “Always” (Season 5)
Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-2019)
As someone who is admittedly not a fantasy guy, even I can’t deny the astonishing craft and the mostly successful story told. Yes, it got out in front of its skis once it no longer had George R.R. Martin’s books to use as a springboard, but I’m not going to throw the baby out with the bathwater for that. It was the last piece of monoculture, and a towering achievement, no matter how times its showrunners tried to sabotage it.
Standout episodes: “You Win or You Die” (Season 1), “Blackwater” (Season 2), “The Rains of Castemere” (Season 3), “The Lion and the Rose” (Season 4), “The Dance of Dragons” (Season 5), “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6), “The Spoils of War” (Season 7), “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms” (Season 8)
The Good Place (NBC, 2016-present)
What does it mean to be a good person? Is it even worth it to be a good person in this day and age? Michael Schur’s existential and endlessly clever comedy asks these questions and more in a series about the afterlife that sidesteps any thorny questions about religion (and is all the better for it), getting to the root of our innate selfishness and the bountiful rewards of being kind and generous, even when those rewards seem smaller because of our present circumstances. There were many times when I wondered if such a project was too ambitious, only for it all to click into place eventually. I’m expecting the same will happen in the final few episodes.
Standout episodes: “Chidi’s Choice” (Season 1), “Dance Dance Resolution” (Season 2), “Janet(s)” (Season 3), “The Answer” (Season 4)
Hannibal (NBC, 2013-2015)
The most violent and most compelling network drama of the decade, it’s a miracle Hannibal lasted as long as it did. A satisfying mystery in its first season, the show got more and more aesthetically and thematically daring, turning its queer subtext into text. I still hold out hope for their ultra-stylish take on The Silence of the Lambs, even though I know we already have a perfect adaptation.
Standout episodes: “Savoureux” (Season 1), “Mizumono” (Season 2), “The Wrath of the Lamb” (Season 3)
Happy Endings (ABC, 2011-2013)
Taking the same dynamics as Friends, but updating it for the 2010s, then tripling the jokes, the laughs came at a rapid clip, and Happy Endings eclipsed the iconic sitcom in far fewer episodes. It premiered at the exact time to last as long as it did, but the exact wrong time to get picked up by another network or streaming service. Still, its cult will only grow as more and more people discover this ah-mah-zing show.
Standout episodes: “Dave of the Dead” (Season 1), “The St. Valentine’s Day Maxssacre” (Season 2), “The Marry Prankster” (Season 3)
The Honourable Woman (SundanceTV, 2014)
Criminally underseen, this British miniseries is as bleak and thrilling as they come. Set in the West Bank – and refusing to shy away with all the complications that come with that – and London, Hugh (Stephen Rea, in world-weary agent mode) investigates a suspicious suicide and uncovers a far-reaching plot that includes kidnapping, terrorism and shady business deals. Maggie Gyllenhaal gives one of her best performances as Nessa, the woman at the center of the mystery: the head of a tech company with a closet full of skeletons.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX/FXX, 2005-present)
The uproarious, unconscionable comedy is still going strong after 14 seasons, finding new ways for the Gang to get into wacky, morally depraved predicaments. It should have gotten stale by now, and there have certainly been some dud episodes, but its refusal to be anything other than a gross, ridiculous excuse for its great ensemble to prove how reprehensible these characters are has kept it alive.
Standout episodes: “Who Got Dee Pregnant?” (Season 6), “Chardee MacDennis: The Game of Games” (Season 7), “The Maureen Ponderosa Wedding Massacre” (Season 8), “Gun Fever Too: Still Hot” (Season 9), “Charlie Work” (Season 10), “Chardee MacDennis 2: Electric Boogaloo” (Season 11), “The Gang Turns Black” (Season 12), “Time’s Up for the Gang” (Season 13), “A Woman’s Right to Chop” (Season 14)
Key & Peele (Comedy Central, 2011-2015)
Jordan Peele and Keegan Michael-Key were the best parts of the twilight years of MADtv, and they took all they learned there, then crafted the perfect showcase for their skills. Working closely with director Peter Atencio, each sketch had a distinct look, and they followed every crazy idea to the very end. Where else would you find sketches about Gremlins 2, college football, fucking the devil for revenge, and an incredible musical number about a paradise called Negrotown?
Master of None (Netflix, 2015-2017)
Like Atlanta, this was an extremely elastic show that provided some enormous laughs and devastating gut-punches. A deeply personal romantic comedy and exploration of identity in its first season, it got even better and more melancholy in its second season, riffing on Italian cinema and passing the mic to other voices.
Standout episodes: “Parents” (Season 1), “New York, I Love You” (Season 2)
American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson (FX, 2016)
Standout episode: “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia”
I never got around to the second season of American Crime Story, so I’m choosing to keep these two shows bound together, just as I did when they topped my list of the best shows of 2016. Ezra Edelman’s super-sized doc did win the Oscar, but I’ve always chosen to view it as a miniseries, since that’s how 99 percent of people (myself included) saw it. It’s a widescreen view of not just Simpson and his victims, but of all the circumstances that led to multiple injustices. The Ryan Murphy-produced fictional take zooms in on the trial, making O.J. more opaque as it focuses on the other key players, including Johnnie Cochran (Courtney B. Vance), Marcia Clark (Sarah Paulson) and Chris Darden (Sterling K. Brown), all doing career-best work. Since this is a Ryan Murphy show, it also finds time for Nathan Lane and John Travolta to ham it up as F. Lee Bailey and Robert Shapiro, respectively.
Orange Is the New Black (Netflix, 2013-2019)
While its focus started on a rich white woman (Taylor Schilling), the show quickly expanded to include perspectives from people across the LGBTQ spectrum and from women of color. This fish-out-of-water comedy grew into a scathing indictment of the private prison industry and the cruel society that feeds it. It got so dark that I haven’t even been able to finish Season 7, with its harrowing look at life inside an ICE detention facility.
Standout episodes: “Lesbian Request Denied” (Season 1), “Take a Break from Your Values” (Season 2), “A Tittin’ and a Hairin’” (Season 3), “Friends in Low Places” (Season 4), “The Reverse Midas Touch” (Season 5), “Be Free” (Season 6), TBD (Season 7)
Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-2015)
A show that took all the worst lessons from the U.S. version of The Office eventually surpassed the show in every way. Its characters were funnier and warmer, even curmudgeonly types like Ron and April. It grew as it went along to, dropping its weakest character (Mark) and adding two gems (Ben and Chris), cementing the show as one of the best ensemble workplace comedies on TV. It also wasn’t afraid to show its emotions, providing tear-jerking moments between Leslie & Ann, Leslie & Ben, and Leslie & Ron.
Standout episodes: “The Master Plan” (Season 2), “Flu Season” (Season 3), “The Debate” (Season 4), “Leslie and Ben” (Season 5), “Gin It Up!” (Season 6), “Leslie and Ron” (Season 7)
Schitt’s Creek (Pop, 2015-present)
And speaking of shows not afraid to reveal their emotions, this joyous fish-out-of-water comedy was in heavy rotation for several months in 2019, as I caught up on Netflix. The Roses were all wealthy assholes, but being forced to move to the titular small town, without any of the luxuries they were used to, pushed them to become better people, finding deep friendships and true love. The romance between David (Dan Levy) and Patrick (Noah Reid) is among the sweetest ever put on screen.
Standout episodes: “Carl’s Funeral” (Season 1), “Happy Anniversary” (Season 2), “Grad Night” (Season 3), “Open Mic” (Season 4), “The Hike” (Season 5)
Show Me a Hero (HBO, 2015)
This devastating real-life story stands alone among the limited series of boom of this decade. David Simon’s adaptation of the tragic life of Nick Wasicsko (Oscar Isaac) is like a skeleton key, unlocking problems lingering in almost every major city in our country. It’s also sharper than any Oscar bait-y films about a racist person (in this case, Catherine Keener) learning to empathize with people of different classes and ethnicities. It’s unfortunately underseen, but essential viewing for understanding America at the time and today.
Terriers (FX, 2010)
The greatest of all one-season wonders, Terriers has unfortunately never been made available on DVD or Blu-ray and has only streamed intermittently. A private detective show with two of the most lovable fuck-ups you’ll ever meet (Donal Logue and Michael Raymond-James), they uncovered a vast conspiracy of corruption that went higher than even they imagined. Poor life choices kept them from ever getting a footing, eventually leaving them in a worse place than when they started (which wasn’t that great to begin with).
Standout episode: “Fustercluck” (Season 1)
Twin Peaks (Showtime, 2017)
Yes, it’s a fucking TV show. Spending the summer of 2017 watching a third season of one of the wildest shows to ever make it on network television was an experience I’ll never forget. I won’t pretend that all of it made sense, or even that all of it was good (those Sherilyn Finn scenes were especially rough), but it felt like nothing else on TV. And given total freedom, David Lynch and Mark Frost got to mess with form and structure, a departure even from its two seasons in the early ’90s. I’ll cherish it forever, all 18 episodes of it.
Veep (HBO, 2012-2019)
Armando Iannucci spared none of his venom in eviscerating U.S. politics, just as he did with British politics in The Thick of It and the geopolitical disaster of In the Loop‘s Middle East invasion. With an all-timer performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the neediest and most narcissistic politician ever, plus a murderer’s row of supporting players who stole every single scene, few shows were funnier or more cynical.
Standout episodes: “Catherine” (Season 1), “Shutdown” (Season 2), “The Choice” (Season 3), “Testimony” (Season 4), “Kissing Your Sister” (Season 5), “Blurb” (Season 6), “Pledge” (Season 7)
The Louis C.K. Problem
Louie (FX, 2010-2015)
C.K. created one of the most brilliant, hilarious and eclectic shows of the decade. But he’s also an unrepentant piece of shit, and his legacy is forever tainted. It feels gross to honor him, but it would also feel weird to completely ignore this amazing show.
Standout episodes: “Poker/Divorce” (Season 1), “Duckling” (Season 2), “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2” (Season 3), “So Did the Fat Lady” (Season 4), “Sleepover” (Season 5)
American Vandal (Netflix)
Big Little Lies (HBO)
The Colbert Report (Comedy Central)
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central)
Documentary Now! (IFC)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Killing Eve (BBC America)
Men of a Certain Age (TNT)
Modern Family (ABC)
The Newsroom (HBO)
The Night Of (HBO)
Russian Doll (Netflix)
Sharp Objects (HBO)
Silicon Valley (HBO)
Stranger Things (Netflix)
Acclaimed Shows I Wanted to Watch But Never Got Around To
Better Things (FX)
Boardwalk Empire (HBO)
Bob’s Burgers (Fox)
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (The CW)
The Deuce (HBO)
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC)
Jane the Virgin (The CW)
The Knick (Cinemax)
The Leftovers (HBO)
Mad Men (AMC)
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Prime)
Mr. Robot (USA)
Nathan for You (Comedy Central)
Peaky Blinders (Netflix)
Review (Comedy Central)
Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (Netflix)
When They See Us (Netflix)
You’re the Worst (FX/FXX)