Ten best TV shows of the decade, ranked: From Fleabag, Breaking Bad to BoJack Horseman and True Detective
The 2010s changed television forever. We live in a post-TV era where TV continues to peak or has already peaked, depending on whom you ask.
(The end of 2019 also marks the end of the decade, and so we bring to you a series of best films, TV shows and music, top moments and deep dives into trends from a momentous decade in the history of pop culture.)
In simpler times, if you saw it at the movies, it was a movie; if you saw it on TV, it was a TV show. The arrival of streaming services has broken the traditional TV model to such an extent that "TV show" is nothing but a convenient umbrella term for episodic narratives. We tend to say this of every decade, if not every year, but the 2010s changed television forever. We live in a post-TV era where TV continues to peak or has already peaked, depending on whom you ask.
Attention gained by one series or service is another's loss in a FOMO-afflicted, saturated streaming market. So, breaking down a decade of television, especially a productive one like the 2010s, is frankly reductive. In terms of quality, HBO continued to lead the way with ambitious dramas like Game of Thrones and Westworld, underseen gems like The Leftovers and Enlightened, and recent sensations in Succession and Watchmen. Netflix gave us some truly exceptional British imports in The Crown and the revived Black Mirror. The phenomenon of auteur comedies, led by FX's Louie and Atlanta, is one we couldn't possibly ignore either. Though these shows do not feature in the list, it would be a sin not to give them a shout-out at the very least. But assembling a list of TV's most cherished treasures is an inherently subjective undertaking and this is in no way a definitive list.
(Note: Some shows which debuted in the late 2000s have been included in the list, if more than three seasons aired this decade. Anthology series have been considered season-wise because each instalment presents a new story with new characters.)
Honourable mentions: Barry, Borgen, Halt and Catch Fire, Justified, Review
10 | Veep
Armando Iannucci gave the inner workings of a US vice presidential office the same satirical bite he brought to The Thick of It — and in the process, he gave us a hurricane of baroque profanity and inspired putdowns which we won't forget in ages. Veep often felt like the anti-West Wing, as Iannucci replaced Aaron Sorkin's reverential treatment and ideological haggling of Washington politics, with a bullying contest of utmost vulgarity which seemed symptomatic of the times. Only, even he didn't expect the reality to become more absurd and scarier than fiction. At the centre of it all was a Julia Louis-Dreyfus-led comedy ensemble which relished the improvisational freedom it gave them. Cancer be damned. The queen of TV comedy simply adjusts her crown.
9 | Mad Men
Mad Men is easily one of 21st century's cultural touchstones as Matthew Wiener plumbs the depths of the fractured American masculinity with charismatic characters to match his sophisticated storytelling. For seven seasons, the hypnotic drama seduced us, like the pitchmen of Sterling Cooper & Partners, by evoking a mythical time: the New York advertising world in the 1960s. Its dissection of the identity of Don Draper (Jon Hamm in a career-defining performance) revealed the hollowness and hypocrisies of an American culture which has since been globalised. Its Saul Bass-style opening sequence of a silhouetted man in an endless freefall along a skyscraper and advertising imagery, is representative of a society still trapped in its self-destructive consumerist excesses. Its portrait of advertising men manipulating consumers by evoking memories and the intimacy that come with them, is reflective of how nostalgia has been weaponised by today's creators of TV shows, films and music. So, skip it at your own peril.
8 | Community
Community felt like a passion project for Dan Harmon, who poured a lifetime's worth of jokes, references and love into it like only a true pop culture geek could. It's pop culture as geek therapy, and perhaps the ultimate geek comfort food since Firefly came out in the early 2000s. It is every bit as funny as fellow NBC shows like Seinfeld, 30 Rock and Parks and Recreation, but stands out by taking a metatextual approach to comedy. Rather than limit itself with the conventions of its genre, it playfully adds other pop culture texts (from The Breakfast Club to My Dinner with Andre and everything in between) and narrative codes to create a singular tentacled beast of many genres. In the end, it becomes a study of pop culture, genre and itself.
7 | Mr. Robot
If pop culture becomes a coping mechanism for Abed in Community, hacking plays a similar role for Elliot Alderson in Mr. Robot. It also becomes a catalyst for systemic social justice in a democracy, that creator Sam Esmail contends, has itself been hacked by corporations. After a masterful first season, Esmail channelled his Chuck Palahniuk once again to recover from a sophomore slump, and push TV into new, transgressive territories. In a world where big businesses have usurped the functions of government, and news media have poisoned democratic discourse, Mr. Robot may not offer a hopeful resolution but it sure delivers a cathartic payoff worth the journey. The talents of Esmail will hopefully one day be recognised at its fair value.
6 | Fargo (Season 2)
The snowbound Minnesota setting seems familiar. So do its inhabitants and macabre mechanics. But Noah Hawley's reinvention of the classic Coen brothers flick does not feel like a copy-paste job. It instead feels like a terrifying new burlesque where endearing townsfolk and pitiful town fools, honest cops and underhand businessmen, petty criminals and unstoppable killers all clash like mice in a maze. In the second season, Hawley finds that perfect Coen balance between bloody drama and black comedy, resolving all the complicated repercussions with clockwork precision. It's magical TV, surprising us at every turn by, playing with our foreknowledge before turning everything upside down. It's as if Hawley was the Coens' long-lost third brother.
5 | Twin Peaks: The Return
When Twin Peaks was set to return 26 years after being cancelled, many would have expected it to be another exercise in nostalgia, one they could watch with a piece of cherry pie and two cups of “damn fine coffee.” All it took was the first episode to realise that was not what Lynch was serving. Though it kicks off from where it left off with Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) still trapped in the Black Lodge, the season sees him embark on a journey to the very edge of reality, space and time. Twin Peaks: The Return again leaves you with a host of questions rather than answers. It's the one show you will want to keep coming back to, hoping to decipher clues you may have missed in earlier viewings. But even as you begin to grasp its contours and try to assemble the puzzle, you will still be left with pieces that don't quite fit together. Maybe they don't fit because you're solving a jigsaw when Lynch has designed a four-dimensional polyhedron.
4 | Fleabag
You may laugh, you may cry. You may let out an occasional naughty smile or a sheepish grimace. You may cringe and even get angry. You may lose hope before you find it back again — all of this and more happens within 25-odd minutes of each episode of Fleabag. By frequently breaking the fourth wall, Phoebe Waller-Bridge turns her show into a deeply intimate work. The beauty of Waller-Bridge's performance lies in how a silence, a breath, a raised eyebrow or a furtive glance can convey exactly what she has on her mind. Furthermore, Waller-Bridge never tries to steal the spotlight from her brilliant co-stars, especially Sian Clifford as her sister and Olivia Colman as her godmother. Her acerbic feminism, tinged with self-awareness and biting humour, prevent her thirty-something struggles from turning into melodrama. She knows she can be self-destructive and laughs at her own self-inflicted problems, compelling us to laugh with her.
3 | Breaking Bad/Better Call Saul
When we were introduced to Walter White back in 2008, we knew his story was not going to end well. The once-harmless chemistry teacher could not become a meth kingpin without making a few dangerous enemies. But what a journey it was. From the pilot to the sobering epilogue, Vince Gilligan was in complete control of his tragic narrative of Shakespearean proportions — and that made all the difference. He was able to call time on it as he chose, realising the series had reached its expiry date. Instead, he gave us an equally masterful spin-off which sadly hasn't received the praise it deserves, despite Guillermo del Toro's compelling endorsement. We don't want to get into which is better because Better Call Saul doesn't just piggyback on Breaking Bad's success. It in fact takes the opposite route of Breaking Bad, aiming higher by lowering the stakes. Saul and Walter's rise-and-fall trajectories will go down in history as prestige TV's two most uncompromising character studies.
2 | BoJack Horseman
Has such brutal emotional honesty ever been depicted on the small screen? How many shows have engineered catharsis into digestible 30-minute episdoes? Has any show taught us so much about ourselves? Has it illuminated the human condition through the prism of anthropomorphic experience, especially that of a half-horse, half-man, has-been TV star? BoJack Horseman is so ingrained in our cultural psyche, it’s hard to imagine we lived in a world without it. Shows like The Simpsons and South Park have been running for over two decades but none of them explored the psychology of its characters, dissected our identities, our loneliness and our traumas in such an articulate way. BoJack Horseman is the most memorable and meme-able TV show of the decade. Each of its seasons were an emotional earthquake, and we can't help but want more. Netflix, we hope you're listening.
1 | True Detective (Season 1)
A young woman is found naked, tortured and killed in a cornfield in the hinterland of Louisiana. She is tied to a tree, crowned with antlers, and adorned with mysterious symbols. Two cops — Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) and Marty Hart (Woody Harrelson) — investigate and reinvestigate the murder over 17 years across three different periods. The first season of True Detective is a talky slow burn drama with no frills, no cliffhangers, no high-speed police pursuits, and no explosions whatsoever. It should really be boring TV, but creator Nic Pizzolatto, director Cary Fukunaga, and the two leads turn it into the finest season of television this decade. As Fukunaga's images plunge us into the desolate bayous of Louisiana, Pizzolatto's words plunge us into the darkness of the human soul. Even if the following seasons don't match up to the first, True Detective still marks an important milestone in television. There has long been talk of TV's cinematic ambitions to achieve the same level of visual novelty and narrative complexity. HBO truly fulfilled them in Season 1 of True Detective.
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