I’m as eager to write one more end-of-the-decade list as you are to read one. In a time of endless reboots, remakes and revivals, looking back feels redundant; we should spend more time looking ahead. Yet here I am, faced with the task of winnowing down 10 years of peak TV in some kind of usual, quantifiably final way.
Impossible, really – and, at first pass, my picks for best shows of the 2010s wouldn’t look much different from most other critics’ lists: “Breaking Bad,” “The Americans,” “Game of Thrones,” “Twin Peaks: The Return,” “Veep,” “The Good Wife,” “Transparent,” “Atlanta,” “Fargo,” “The Crown” – that’s 10, right? Hit “send” and let’s get on with life.
Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in the final season of “The Americans.” MUST CREDIT: FX
Lakeith Stanfield and Donald Glover in “Atlanta.” MUST CREDIT: Guy D’Alema/FX
(L-r) Nathan Lane as F. Lee Bailey, Courtney B. Vance as Johnnie Cochran, John Travolta as Robert Shapiro, Cuba Gooding, Jr. as O.J. Simpson and David Schwimmer as Robert Kardashian in “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson.” MUST CREDIT: FX
But perhaps there’s another way to approach this stretch of much-too-much TV, and instead categorize the shared qualities that separated the decade’s very best shows from the heap of mediocre ones. That way, we can talk about this extraordinary period of scripted dramas and comedies without starting one last argument about where they rank.
I know readers only have time anymore to read lists, but bear with me. Here are the best kinds of shows we watched over the last 10 years. Many of them belong to more than one category – a sign of their greatness.
These would be your nail-biters, seen mainly on prestige cable, often on Sunday nights.
Why we gorge on these cliffhanging, often upsetting dramas on the night we most need to rest up for the week ahead, I’ll never know, but we went to bed desperate over characters and story lines we couldn’t control: In AMC’s “Breaking Bad,” probably the decade’s finest work of story engineering and execution (and yes, I’m aware it premiered in 2008), when will Hank Schrader (or Skyler White) finally catch on that Walter White is the meth kingpin of New Mexico? Some of those close calls (the train episode!) and slow-building conflicts were almost too hard to take.
The decade’s other great adrenaline-producer, FX’s “The Americans,” aired on Wednesday nights, where the panic attacks seemed more manageable. How long would it take FBI agent Stan Beeman to figure out that his friendly neighbors, Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, were deeply embedded KGB spies? How much does Paige know? Will they outlast the Cold War? Showtime’s “Homeland,” meanwhile, neatly bundled our post-9/11 anxieties with the mental problems of a CIA agent who thought she could save the world.
These are but three shows that gave America’s TV addicts a strong case of the jitters. Others tried and sometimes came close. I started out the decade worrying way too much about Rick and the other doomed survivors of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (until I gave up on them entirely a few years ago), but the show’s success is notable for its stress-inducement, which was so strong that the network started an aftershow, “Talking Dead,” to help audiences cope with the latest gory developments.
– Immersive portraits
These were some of my favorite shows, broadly defined by the word “dramedy” (because they were sometimes intensely funny), but better described as character studies, portraiture – of characters I’ll never forget: Amy Jellicoe in HBO’s “Enlightened,” followed by Hannah Horvath in “Girls.”
Many shows in this category can in some ways be regarded as selfies. Louis C.K., who quickly became persona-non-grata, nevertheless triumphed with “Louie,” which made it possible for similar shows to act as a mirror that not only reveals a personal nature, but a universal quality that potentially can be shared by the audience. I’m thinking here of Donald Glover’s “Atlanta” (FX), Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” (Netflix), Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s “Fleabag” (along with “Catastrophe”) and Pamela Adlon’s “Better Things” (FX).
This genre also, at long last, helped television achieve the diversity it had for too long failed to produce. Issa Rae’s “Insecure” (HBO) is a triumph in the way it both inhabits its creator’s viewpoint as millennial black woman, yet welcomes viewers of any sort.
To that list add Hulu’s “Ramy” and “Pen15,” HBO’s “Looking” and Comedy Central’s “Broad City” – any show where a viewer potentially discovers someone unlike themselves: different age, different background, different race. Or, more importantly, a viewer at long last sees themselves in the main character.
Washington, D.C., certainly saw its uglier self in Armando Iannucci’s gloriously foul-mouthed “Veep” (HBO), the true definition of comic relief and on-point satire at a time when politics grew unfathomably absurd.
– Metaphorical profundity
The best dramas in the 2010s reflected a larger message about the society that watched them – sometimes obliquely, sometimes bluntly. Despite its notably weakened final season, HBO’s “Game of Thrones” has proper claim, I think, to be deemed the show of the decade, but not just because it grew so popular. It’s because how much of it seemed to eerily echo our surroundings: Climate change (and denial of it); shocking acts of violence; widespread social collapse; galling politics; extreme disparities in class and wealth; weapons of mass destruction … I could go on.
Timing is everything. Hulu took a 1985 dystopian novel – Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” – revved it up and released it just as the Trump administration began detaining, locking up and banning immigrants, appointed conservative judges and looked the other way at nationalist fervor. The metaphor there was almost too applicable; fortunately, the show was strong enough to withstand the hype.
Viewers learned how to find meaning in just about any show – the better ones made it more compelling: AMC’s “Mad Men” was a beguiling search for the soul of the 20th century; CBS’ “The Good Wife” was a wicked running commentary on politics, technology and modern relationships; NBC’s “This Is Us” was (and still is) a fascinating rumination on the essence of what makes a family. (Note to all you Ancestry genealogy nuts: It’s not just DNA.)
Certain comedies just make us feel better (and also sharper, wittier – empowered, even) no matter how many times we re-watch old episodes. It’s in the camaraderie aspect, the life lessons, the archetypal arrangements, the snarkiness glossed over by group cohesion. It’s a continuation of what began in the best multicamera, studio-audience, ersatz-family sitcoms (“Cheers,” “Seinfeld”), rejiggered for a wired generation. Most of them aired on NBC: “Parks and Recreation,” “30 Rock,” “Community,” “The Office,” “The Good Place,” “Superstore” – now joined by “Brooklyn Nine-Nine.” A few others aired on other networks, giving viewers a similar satisfaction: “The Big Bang Theory” on CBS; “Modern Family,””Happy Endings,” “Cougar Town” and “Black-ish” on ABC.
– Transformative tellings
In addition to finding new narrative styles and (quite belatedly) focusing on overlooked demographics, TV turned out to be an excellent venue for recasting an old story from a fresh perspective or enlightened distance.
I’m thinking here of FX’s “American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson,” a compelling departure from the way we popularly regarded that murder trial. It inspired others to dramatize previous events with a corrective, even courageous new viewpoint – such as Netflix’s “When They See Us,” about the unjustly imprisoned teens who were wrongly coerced into confessing to a 1989 Central Park attack on a female jogger.
Crime wasn’t the only subject in need of a remix. Both “Downton Abbey” (PBS) and “The Crown” (Netflix) succeeded because of the way they re-examine extreme privilege, without preventing us from enjoying the luxurious roll in it.
Some shows were revelatory in more subtle ways: Jill Soloway’s “Transparent” (Amazon Prime) masterfully wove a woman’s journey with the entirety of modern American Judaism, enlightening its audience to more than just the trans experience. And Showtime’s “The Affair” played with the very nature of truth, telling the story of marital infidelity from competing – and crucially different – perspectives.
– Impossible puzzles and true art
If the decade in TV will be remembered for anything, it will likely be the complexity of some shows. The weirdness. The unexpected swerves. It turned its viewers into perpetual puzzle-solvers and conspiracy theorists. After beginning the decade with an unsatisfying wrap-up of ABC’s “Lost,” co-creator Damon Lindelof returned on HBO with a confounding take on “The Leftovers,” finally mastering the balance between befuddlement and momentum with “Watchmen.”
There are, finally, two standouts – and they challenged my ceaseless harangue about reboots. One was Noah Hawley’s expanded and wholly reimagined take for FX on “Fargo,” a Midwestern crime saga first seen in Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 film classic.
The other was David Lynch’s long-delayed but staggeringly beautiful sequel to his 1990 TV sensation “Twin Peaks.” Critics argued, somewhat pointlessly, whether “Twin Peaks: The Return” (Showtime) was a very long film or a strangely protracted TV series.
I can settle that: It was nothing short of pure art – unexpected, absolutely original and layered with deep, trippy meaning. Of all the TV I slogged through in the 2010s, it’s the show I most look forward to someday watching again.