It’s hard to believe the decade is half gone already. In these five years, I’ve graduated from college, moved back in with my parents, struck out on my own, and gotten married. And I’ve consumed a ridiculous amount of pop culture. And thanks to streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, there’s more of it than ever before. Of everything I’ve seen and heard, this is what I found to be the best.
First, some honorable mentions. It was really hard for me to cut these lists down to my final picks, especially since these honorable mentions would make a strong Top 10 in their own right. (Note: I never really got into Mad Men, Game of Thrones or Downton Abbey. So they’re not on here.) Also, I could only judge these shows based on the episodes they aired from January 2010 to fall 2014. This really wouldn’t have affected their rankings too much any way.
Honorable mentions: The Americans (FX), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Fox), Fargo (FX), It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX/FXX), Key & Peele (Comedy Central), Men of a Certain Age (TNT), The Newsroom (HBO), Orange is the New Black (Netflix), True Detective (HBO), Veep (HBO)
On to the list…
10. Terriers (FX, 2010)
The greatest of all one-season wonders from this decade, I’ve never seen anything like Terriers before or since: a buddy comedy underscored with tragedy, with both snappy dialogue and intricately woven stories. These low-brow, low-class private detectives broke the mold, so much so that no other show has even tried to replicate its chemistry and brilliance.
Standout episode: “Fustercluck” (Season 1)
9. Modern Family (ABC, 2009-present)
It’s an easy show to hate, what with its continued success at the Emmys in the face of more daring shows. Even with some filler episodes, which have gotten more prevalent in later seasons, when this show is on its A-game, there’s nothing on TV that will provide more laughs. It also helps that comedy MVP Ty Burrell never phones it in, even when some of the rest of the cast does.
Standout episodes: “Truth Be Told” (Season 1), “Caught in the Act” (Season 2), “Aunt Mommy” (Season 3), “Goodnight Gracie” (Season 4), “Message Received” (Season 5)
8. Happy Endings (ABC, 2011-2013)
Sometimes, the TV landscape is an unforgiving place. Snatched from its sweet spot after Modern Family to flounder on Tuesdays and then on Fridays, it failed to get picked up by any other networks. And it was so close to syndication! More than just a Millennial Friends, especially when it found its groove in Season 2, this was the most rapid-fire joke delivery system on TV, filled with a cast that always knew its gifts. And let’s just take a minute to appreciate Brad and Jane, a real rarity in TV and film: they’re a happily married interracial couple. He’s not stupid, she’s not a bitch, and they can’t keep their hands off each other. Just one of the many exemplary things about this show that we won’t see again anytime soon.
Standout episodes: “Dave of the Dead” (Season 1), “Spooky Endings” (Season 2), “The Marry Prankster” (Season 3)
7. Hannibal (NBC, 2013-present)
By the time it premiered, I thought Hannibal Lecter had been played out. Beyond that, there were already plenty of serial killer shows on the air (including Criminal Minds and The Following). But Bryan Fuller, master that he is, brought his beautifully twisted vision to tell a haunting story of two men who can’t live with each other – because one or both of them will die – but can’t seem to live without each other either – even though both of them try. The case-of-the-week format almost seems secondary to Hannibal and Will’s relationship, which is filled with homoerotic subtext (that becomes text in Season 2). It’s a tragedy happening in slow motion, as Todd VanDerWerff put it, and it’s fascinating to watch, a literal and metaphorical gutting.
Standout episodes: “Entrée” (Season 1), “Mizumono” (Season 2)
6. Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-present)
Season 1 wasn’t great. Season 2 was a big improvement. But ever since Rob Lowe and Adam Scott moved into town, the show took off and became one of the best comedies on television, gifted with a brilliant ensemble. Pawnee has come to rival Springfield as the most detailed, hilariously incompetent fictional town. By now, Leslie Knope (and Amy Poehler herself) has become a feminist icon. But we all know who the real star of the show is: Ron Swanson, one of the 10 greatest characters ever to appear on television. He’s such an effective caricature of libertarian blowhards that libertarian blowhards probably don’t even know the difference.
Standout episodes: “Telethon” (Season 2), “Lil Sebastian” (Season 3), “The Debate” (Season 4), “Leslie and Ben” (Season 5), “Moving Up” (Season 6)
5. Louie (FX, 2010-present)
Louis CK has finally received the credit he deserves for his brilliant stand-up comedy. But his greatest gift to the world might be this groundbreaking series, which blows up the Comedian Starring in a Series Based on His Life format. Some weeks it’s a traditional three-act sitcom, others it’s just a series of vignettes about New York City. Or you might just get an extended flashback to Louie’s druggy youth. Through it all, Louie remains painfully honest, tackling parenting and dating, sure, but also more taboo topics like homophobia, racism and masturbation.
Standout episodes: “Poker/Divorce” (Season 1), “Come On, God” (Season 2), “Daddy’s Girlfriend, Part 2” (Season 3), “So Did the Fat Lady” (Season 4)
4. Friday Night Lights (NBC, 2006-2011)
Logic would have dictated that the lights go out after the show’s third season, which saw its core cast graduate and go on with their lives (and movie careers that didn’t pan out). Instead, the writers split up the town, moving Coach (and eventually Mrs. Coach) to the poverty-stricken East Dillon High. There was still plenty of football, but the real-life tension felt much more intense. The Taylors cemented their place as one of TV’s all-time great couples, but the show is really about Coach as a father figure to teams of young men. He wasn’t always a great dad to Julie, but he’s a character on a show that doesn’t seem to exist anymore: A good person who tries to do his best.
Standout episodes: “The Son” (Season 4), “Always” (Season 5)
3. Community (NBC, 2009-2014)
Year after year, Community defied the odds. A benefactor of NBC’s lean years, it somehow found a way to keep getting renewed. And thank God for that. No show was ever so clever, churning out brilliant parodies but never losing focus of its human element. Dan Harmon may be a genius, but he was a terrible employee, which led to his firing before Season 4. While that wasn’t quite the disaster it had been proclaimed, it tried way too hard and completely whiffed the ending. It righted the ship in Season 5, bringing back Harmon, and now is headed off to the wild blue yonder of Yahoo! Screen. So many of the best shows of the last few years have been about the surrogate families we create as we get older, and no show had a better group than Community.
Standout episodes: “Modern Warfare” (Season 1), “Mixology Certification” (Season 2), “Remedial Chaos Theory” (Season 3), “Herstory of Dance” (Season 4), “Cooperative Polygraphy” (Season 5)
2. The Colbert Report (Comedy Central, 2005-2014) /
The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central, 1999-present)
What the hell happened to our news? Thanks to the internet and our 24-hour news cycle, the quantity of news exploded while the quality shrank to nothing. Enter Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert, who took their combined hour of programming to point out political hypocrisy and the absurdity of our lawmakers doing everything but making laws. Their Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear sadly ended with fear winning out, as we saw people freak out over a mosque near Ground Zero, small-town police militarize, and the government calling U.S. whistleblowers “traitors.” Through it all, these two geniuses did the actual journalism. And since no one else was doing it, they got to do it their way.
1. Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008-2013)
What else did you expect? Vince Gilligan’s grand tragedy played out over a canvas as vast as the New Mexico landscape. Bryan Cranston continued to find nuances inside the duality of Walt and Heisenberg. While his performance is the stuff of legend, let’s be sure to give praise to the rest of the cast: the weariness of Jonathan Banks, the fearlessness of Aaron Paul, the boldness of RJ Mitte, the gutsiness of Anna Gunn, the crassness of Bob Odenkirk and, um, Betsy Brandt. Walt is addicted to power, and no show has better depicted the downfall of addiction like Breaking Bad.
Standout episodes: “Half Measures” (Season 3), “Crawl Space” (Season 4), “Gliding over All” (Season 5, Part 1), “Ozymandias” (Season 5, Part 2)