Defining trends of the decade in TV and streaming, from the Game of Thrones phenomenon to 'sadcoms'

Prahlad Srihari

Dec 30, 2019 08:05:53 IST

The 2010s proved that TV no longer plays a secondary role to cinema the way it did back in the 20th century. TV shows, like films, have provoked discussions and disapprovals, and have been fawned over and slagged off.

The streaming revolution and the continued rise of cable TV have further divided the public into fans, stans and haters. But TV events like Game of Thrones and Stranger Things have united viewers of all kinds, from those watching them on their phones, iPads and laptops to those watching at screening parties at local bars and homes. The past decade also saw us bid our goodbyes to beloved shows like Breaking Bad, Parks and Recreation and Mad Men among others. 

As we get ready to welcome a new host of shows the coming decade, we revisit some of the trends which defined TV of the 2010s.

TV = Cinema

 Defining trends of the decade in TV and streaming, from the Game of Thrones phenomenon to sadcoms

TV's finest talent delivered one quality show after another. Top: Twin Peaks: The Return; Bottom (from L-R): Fargo, The Leftovers and True Detective

TV asserted its cinematic ambitions with ground-breaking new dramas, which brought novelistic storytelling, Shakespearean personalities, Hollywood production values and radical stylistic experimentation to the small screen. Shows like Game of Thrones, Fargo and True Detective attracted the attention of a film-loving audience which had resolutely steered clear of TV until then. TV's golden age saw it become an El Dorado as the finest talent from cinema queued up to build on their resumes. This included actors like Meryl Streep (Big Little Lies), Kevin Spacey (House of Cards), Amy Adams (Sharp Objects), and Matthew McConaughey (True Detective), and renowned directors, like Martin Scorsese (Boardwalk Empire), Steven Soderbergh (The Knick), Jane Campion (Top of the Lake) and Paolo Sorrentino (The Young Pope). Meanwhile, TV's finest talent delivered one quality show after another: Damon Lindelof improved on Lost to give us The Leftovers and Watchmen, while The Wire creator David Simon continued his hot streak with Treme, Show Me a Hero and The Deuce. As the lines between cinema and TV got fuzzier, many films even got rebooted into successful TV adaptations, like Fargo, Gomorrah, Westworld and The Girlfriend Experience.

Streaming wars

Netflix has shaken up the TV industry and set new benchmarks that others can't help but follow. By producing its first series, House of Cards, it revolutionised the way we consume TV, by allowing us to watch a whole season in one sitting without having to deal with ads. Soon, binge-watching became a buzzword and Netflix, a cultural phenomenon. But is there room for more than one phenomenon? Amazon Prime Video and Hulu would like to think so, as they have been trying to match the Netflix model with their own catalogue: one they think favours quality over quantity. Now, Apple TV + and Disney + hope to carve themselves a substantial part of the streaming business. The battle for streaming supremacy is here but we all know who the top dog is for now.

It's not TV, It's HBO

HBO reigns supreme. Stills from Barry, Watchmen and Succession

Despite the advent of OTT content and the more family-friendly programming of network television, HBO still reigns supreme in this era of peak TV. This decade, the premium cable network had something for everyone: sci-fi fans got Westworld; vampire fiends couldn't get enough of True Blood; those suffering from millennial angst got a "voice of a generation" in Girls; those with a Sopranos hangover were treated to Boardwalk Empire; and pretty much everyone enjoyed Game of Thrones until they didn't. By employing a single director in Cary Joji Fukunaga across a whole season of True Detective, it also gave us what was arguably the most gripping eight episodes of TV this decade. Of course, FX (The Americans, Fargo, American Horror/Crime Story, Atlanta) and AMC (Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, Mad Men, The Walking Dead) too had their fair share of victories. But with big budgets ready to back their big ideas, HBO continues to set the benchmark for quality television, as their old network slogan glorifies: "It's not TV, It's HBO."

The sadcoms and auteur-led comedies


Sadcoms ruled the roost. (Clockwise from top left) Stills from Fleabag, BoJack Horseman and You're the Worst 

The decade saw the birth and growth of an atypical comedy, which effortlessly blends humour and misery to create what Vulture's Jenny Jaffe christened "sadcoms". Shows like BoJack Horseman, Fleabag and You're the Worst portrayed depression, alcoholism and mental illness in a refreshingly realistic manner, far from the stereotypes we had become accustomed to. They feature flawed protagonists who wear their condition like a second skin. They can't escape their suffering and almost seem impervious to happiness. Yet, these shows are ultimately optimistic, like Jaffe points out.

The rise of sadcoms also coincided with the phenomenon of auteur-led comedies like Louie, Better Things, Master of None and Atlanta. Often written, directed and produced by the creator, these shows are essentially semi-autobiographical reflections on managing personal and professional lives in a big city. It is hard to pin down their style of comedy as they navigate across the spectrum, from comedy to tragedy, ignoring all genre codes.

John Oliver makes the news more digestible


The king and queen of news satire: John Oliver (R) and Samantha Bee

Watching Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj has turned us all into armchair experts on American, if not global, politics. Though Jon Stewart's The Daily Show must be given credit for birthing this renaissance of news satire shows, John Oliver's Last Week Tonight perfected it. Playing to his strengths as an outsider looking in, he brought a typically British acerbic style necessary to critique American society. It's the same acerbic British wit which makes Armando Iannucci's Veep and Jesse Armstrong's Succession irresistible TV. But where Oliver stands out from fellow news satirists is his call to action to the audiences watching at home to take a more active role in the democratic process, inspiring social and legislative changes.

The return of anthology TV

Black Mirror revived the phenomenon of anthology series, popularised in the 60s by shows like Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twilight Zone. Charlie Brooker tackled different aspects of our relationship with technology with standalone episodes that told distinct stories. Philip K. Dick's Electric Dreams and Into the Dark followed suit. Meanwhile, Ryan Murphy redefined anthology TV in his own way with American Horror Story, where the story stretched over one season, jumping from one setting (haunted house, asylum, cult, coven, etc.) to another. But by using fan-favourite recurring cast members in different roles each season, he made sure the series never lost its discernible identity. He then developed an equally successful companion anthology series with American Crime Story. Soon, HBO and AMC jumped on the anthology bandwagon with True Detective and The Terror respectively, but both were unable to follow up their strong first seasons in their following instalments.

Game of Thrones leads a TV revolution

Game of Thrones was the defining TV phenomenon of the decade

Whether you loved it or hated it (at the end), winter came and went leaving a huge void in many of our hearts. Game of Thrones was a series a whole generation watched together, leaving us grief-stricken and scandalised but more often than not satisfied. No other TV show provoked more discussion and theories than David Benioff and DB Weiss' adaptation of George RR Martin's fantasy novels. Its twists and turns, and its proclivity to give the viewers the exact opposite of what they expect, meant it lived and died by the sword in its Iron Throne. It was undoubtedly blockbuster TV and paved the way for ambitious shows like Netflix's The Crown and Amazon's upcoming The Lord of the Rings.

Animating adolescence and adulthood

The 2010s saw an explosion of animated series aimed not at children, but adults. These shows not only opened up a wide range of narrative possibilities for its writers but they also provided a platform to explore topical issues in some of TV's most engaging character studies. Animated series like Undone, Big Mouth and BoJack Horseman have addressed trauma, sexuality, and fame's emptiness (respectively), provoking laughter and introspection in equal measure. Even Archer and Rick and Morty have explored the self-destructive behaviours associated with alcoholism by serving a more irreverent brand of humour through genre subversion. No wonder the 2010s have been referred to as the era of peak TV. Like Morty says, “Nobody exists on purpose. Nobody belongs anywhere. Everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”

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Updated Date: Dec 30, 2019 10:02:09 IST