The best television shows of the 2010s, as chosen by TV critics Brian Tallerico and Allison Shoemaker, illustrate the incredible range of what has become known as “Peak TV.” The narrative as the decade came to a close was dominated by the discussion around streaming services and it feels like much of the ‘20s could be about companies like Apple, Disney, Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu fighting for a bigger piece of the viewing pie. Does this mean that the ‘10s were the last great decade for shows with network homes? Sure, there are some Netflix and Amazon shows high up their list, but the breadth of the list below reminds one how quality programming was produced all over the place, with over 15 traditional networks included on the list below. It was a decade in which the major creators of the boom in TV like David Chase and David Milch passed the baton to people like Matthew Weiner and Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It was a decade rich in diversity of style with docu-series, comedies, mini-series, movies, dramas, and whatever we’re calling David Lynch’s last project sharing space on the list below. More than ever, it was an incredibly difficult decade to pare down to only 50 titles. There are great shows that we absolutely love missing entirely from this piece. But we felt like this best-reflects our combined impression of the best television of the 2010s. Even with all the competition out there, you really should watch them all.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: "America to Me," "Barry," "Big Little Lies," "Boardwalk Empire," "Community," "Dear White People," "Documentary Now!," "The Good Fight," "Gravity Falls," "Justified," "Killing Eve," "Mindhunter," "One Day at a Time," "Pose," "Review," "Russian Doll," "Schitt’s Creek," "Southland," "Steven Universe," "Succession," "Superstore," "True Detective," "Unbelievable," "Westworld," and "You’re the Worst"
25. “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” (HBO)
The final two episodes of “Last Week Tonight’s” typically excellent sixth season make for a decent example of the show in microcosm. In the finale, Oliver and company first address the conservative response to the impeachment hearings, then pivot to their usual deep dive, this time on the country’s ill-preparedness for the 2020 census. The marvelous penultimate outing saw the show respond to the righteous dismissal of a long-simmering SLAPP lawsuit with a dizzy, delirious musical number; the sequence, among the best in the show’s history, managed to take a defiant stand against those who’d use money to silence critics in the press and general public alike, while also allowing Brian D’Arcy James to triumphantly bellow out a story about how mining titan Bob Murray likes to shove candy up his ass to freak out tourists in the M&M store. In both episodes—frankly, in all episodes—“Last Week Tonight” finds a point and makes it, relying on meticulous research and savage jokes in equal measure. That’s the show in a nutshell: determined to make the world a more equitable, less stupid place, once punchline at a time. (Allison Shoemaker)
24. “Veep” (HBO)
There is no better modern comedy about not just politics but having to overcome the rampant idiocy and selfishness of the people supposedly on your side than Armando Iannucci’s HBO classic. As Selina Meyer, Julia Louis-Dreyfus gave an all-time great performance, only adding to her legacy as one of the best television comedy actors in the history of the medium. No one is better with a withering stare or defeated aside than JLD, who deftly balanced the tonal tightrope of a character who could have easily been loathsome in the hands of the wrong actress. But the genius of Louis-Dreyfus’ work here is that she doesn’t over-correct either, allowing Selina to be petty, vindictive, jealous, and self-obsessed too. In the end, we’re not sure whether to root for or against her, leaving us along for the ride like so many of the hysterically drawn supporting characters around her. History will remember this as JLD’s show, but it also contained one of the sharpest ensembles of the ‘10s, including great work from Tony Hale, Anna Chlumsky, Matt Walsh, Gary Cole, Reid Scott, and the underrated MVP of the cast, Timothy Simons. As the politics of the real world got exponentially dumber during the run of the show, Simons’ Jonah Ryan became emblematic of a Capital Hill that seems increasingly occupied by people with a stunning ability to fail upwards. (Brian Tallerico)
23. “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” (FOX/NBC)
At a structural level, “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” is the stuff of classic sitcoms; give or take a laugh track, you could pop it on any line-up of the last 40 years and it would seem right at home. It runs like clockwork: Every year, a Halloween heist; every year, the return of the Pontiac bandit; every year, new challenges and personal developments and ever-strengthening bonds. But if the skeleton is familiar, the stuff of tried-and-true TV history, then what swirls around and between the bones is uniquely “Nine-Nine.”
In episodes like “Moo Moo,” Dan Goor, Michael Schur, and the rest of the show’s writers demonstrated keen understanding of characters, of social relevance, and of the complicated role a cop sitcom has to play in the current moment. In hours like the note-perfect “The Box”—itself a tribute to the best-ever bottle episode, “Homicide: Life on the Street’s” “Three Men and Adena”—they make plain their ambition, intelligence, and the tremendous gifts of their ensemble. Led by the irrationally likable Andy Samberg and, giving a hall-of-fame sitcom performance, “Homicide’s” Andre Braugher, this winning cast has never let the show’s high jokes-per-minute count interfere with the empathetic, textured performances they’re giving. The result is a sitcom that’s as traditional as it is timely; may it run forever. Nine-Nine! (Allison Shoemaker)
22. “The Tale” (HBO)
Picked up at Sundance by HBO and quietly released months later, documentarian Jennifer Fox’s autobiographical first narrative feature carries the unique distinction of containing the best Laura Dern performance of the decade—and the decade was full of great performances from Laura Dern. “The Tale,” however, is next-level. Dern plays Jennifer Fox, a documentarian who finds herself unexpectedly digging into her own past when a discovery by her mother (Ellen Burstyn) reframes everything she thought she knew about her own sexual history. In “The Tale,” the truth is ever-present but reality is elusive; the real Jennifer Fox films Dern’s Jennifer Fox as she confronts the reality of Jenny Fox, age 13 (Isabelle Nélisse), a choice that’s incredibly painful to which but which, righteously and unflinchingly, centers this story on Jenny and Jennifer, and not on her abusers (Jason Ritter and Elizabeth Debicki, horrifying). Like this year’s “Unbelievable,” the thought and care put into telling this story feel quietly revolutionary, but beyond all that, it is quite simply one of TV’s most searing character studies, taking the fallibility of memory and the power of the lies we tell ourselves to survive and making them not an obstacle, but an essential part of the telling. It is an absolutely astonishing two hours. I will never forget it. I will never watch it again. (Allison Shoemaker)
21. “Bob’s Burgers” (FOX)
When it premiered on FOX in January 2011, “Bob’s Burgers” felt a little too much like another clone of “The Simpsons” or “Family Guy,” and the show took a little while finding its voice, hitting the punchlines in an awkward way for a season and a half or so. By the end of the decade, the saga of the Belcher clan was the best family comedy on network TV, and it’s not really even close. Not only is the writing consistently inventive and the voice work divine, the show has become a wonderful story of familial unity in tough times without a single maudlin or forced moment. Bob and Linda Belcher are working-class people who support and love their kids—awkward Tina, goofy Gene, and precocious Louise—no matter the latest mess they've gotten everyone into. It’s incredibly difficult to make a family comedy that doesn’t feel manipulative or sentimental, but the writers and actors here find the truth in even small comedic beats. They teach you that it’s OK for kids and adults to be a little weird in a way that’s not even remotely cynical. After a decade, they’ve become a part of the TV family in a way no one could have expected. May Bob Belcher keep flipping burgers for at least another decade. (Brian Tallerico)
20. “American Crime Story” (FX)
There’s more linking the two exemplary seasons of Ryan Murphy’s “American Crime Story” than, well, American crimes. For example, each features some remarkable performances, from reliable talents doing excellent work (Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, Penelope Cruz, Judith Light), to familiar faces excelling outside their comfort zones (David Schwimmer, Ricky Martin, and the electric Darren Criss). Both excelled as an opportunity for character study, not just of the ostensible subjects (Criss and Cuba Gooding, Jr. as Andrew Cunanan and O.J. Simpson), but of those caught up in their orbit—particularly Paulson’s Marcia Clark, who sits at the center of “Marcia, Marcia, Marcia,” one of the decade’s best single episodes. The shared list goes on—smart writing and thrilling direction, Murphy’s typically excellent musical choices, you get the idea—but it’s a shared dedication to exploring our reaction to these events, as a society, that truly makes this limited series feel so cohesive. In the hands of writers like Tom Rob Smith and Scott Alexander, “American Crime Story” has as much to say about the American part as it does about the crime stories, serving as a sometimes searing indictment of our prejudices, cruelties, fixations, and terrible blind spots. Scene by scene, it asks us if we’re really comfortable pleading ‘not guilty.’ (Allison Shoemaker)
19. “Rectify” (Sundance)
There have been a few great shows about dealing with trauma in the Peak TV era but none as lyrical as Ray McKinnon’s Southern Gothic, a show that never broke out and found the audience it deserved. Like great independent drama in cinema, “Rectify” twisted and turned around its characters, letting the storytelling come organically from the people instead of forcing narratives upon them. “Rectify” starts with a mystery and a horror—a 35-year-old man named Daniel Holden (Aden Young) has been released after spending nearly two decades on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. While the truth about that crime would dominate the show at the beginning, it was a drama that evolved in a way that gave other characters, many in Daniel’s family, their own arcs and agency. As Daniel’s sister Amantha, Abigail Spencer gave one of the most underrated performances of the decade, but no one here got enough press, including Adelaide Clemens, J. Smith-Cameron, Clayne Crawford, and Luke Kirby. Ultimately, “Rectify” became a show about accepting our problems instead of fixing them. So much fiction is about how to overcome something, but life is as often about managing as it is overcoming. There’s a beat in the final season that I’ll never forget when Daniel’s girlfriend Chloe recognizes the trauma in her love and says that she can’t save him, but she can hold him. Sometimes that’s all we truly need. (Brian Tallerico)
18. “Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown” (CNN)
It’s nearly impossible to look at the remarkable achievement that was “Parts Unknown”—the most ambitious, most empathetic, and most entertaining travel show in the history of the genre—without dwelling on its end. The loss of Anthony Bourdain, a tremendous writer and producer and perhaps a once-in-a-generation on-camera talent, sits heavy at the center of the show’s final batch of episodes, his inimitable narration vanishing before the footage runs out. Yet even within those final episodes, there’s tremendous joy, because somehow, no matter where he ate, no matter what he ordered, joy was what always seemed to make it to the table, even in darkness.
And there was darkness. Bourdain, one of our greatest humanists, demonstrated again and again his insistence on truth, and that determination played out not just in the destinations he chose or the subsequent writing. It was also apparent in the way he and the show’s exemplary directors (notably Tom Vitale, who directed almost 40 percent of the episodes) used the camera, borrowing from great works of cinema to capture the feeling this one moment in this one place in a language all movie-lovers speak. There will never be another “Parts Unknown,” because there will never be another Anthony Bourdain. We’re lucky to have had both. (Allison Shoemaker)
17. “OJ: Made in America” (ESPN)
Fans of ESPN’s excellent docuseries “30 For 30” knew that it was doing great work largely unheralded by TV critics but even we were stunned at the overall quality of Ezra Edelman’s 467-minute dissection of race, privilege, class, and murder in America. Yes, this won an Oscar for Best Documentary, but a vast majority of people saw it on TV, broken up into episodic installments, and so it qualifies for us as television (and actually couldn't win the Oscar today with new rules enacted after it took home the prize). What more could be said about “OJ: Made in America” that hasn’t already been said? It’s a landmark achievement in documentary filmmaking, a project that didn’t just hit the beats of a well-known story but placed them in new, striking context that illustrated why the story of O.J. Simpson was one of the defining stories of the end of the last century. From his rise to fame at USC to the trial for double murder that captivated the world and tore open racial divides in ways we had never really seen before, Edelman’s doc tells a story that everyone thinks they already know, but he gives it added depth and resonance in a way that makes it feel new again. It is not only the definitive statement on O.J. Simpson but a master class in how to do a television news docuseries. (Brian Tallerico)
16. “30 Rock” (NBC)
Funny story: It turns out that maybe Kenneth the Page was some kind of godlike being after all. That’s one explanation for how “30 Rock”—Tina Fey’s smart, patently absurd showbiz satire about a comedy writer who wants to “have it all” and the nutcases in her orbit—managed to predict so much about where television is headed now. In a season five episode, Jack (Alec Baldwin) shows Liz (Fey) a pie chart of NBC’s priorities; the second-biggest wedge is “Make it 1997 again through science or magic.” There’s an all-fireworks spectacular; the doomed “Gold Case;” Liz’s short-lived catchphrase-based talk show; Jenna’s “Rural Juror” and her stint as the mean judge on “America’s Kids Got Singing;” Tracy’s “Hard to Watch;” “MILF Island;” “Queen of Jordan;” “Seinfeld-Vision;” the list goes on. These things were jokes. Now they’re not really that far off, most of them.
That prescience—that, and the pitch-perfect performances from Fey, Baldwin, Jane Krakowski, Tracy Morgan, Jack McBrayer, and others—would be enough to guarantee it a spot. But “30 Rock” is, at its heart, the story of the weird friendships we form at work: oddly intimate, unknowable to outsiders, and often, though we pretend otherwise, ephemeral. These things end, but like the show itself, they sure are good while they last. (Allison Shoemaker)
15. “When They See Us” (Netflix)
There is no tougher watch on this list than Ava DuVernay’s stunning mini-series about The Central Park Five, a group of boys wrongly accused, abused, and convicted of a crime they didn’t commit. But that’s one of the reasons it’s so remarkable. This story should be tough. Any number of filmmakers might have softened the edges of police abuse of children, but DuVernay and her team of writers and creators know that to soften this story is to diminish its power. We need to feel this pain. We need to feel this outrage. We need to feel this injustice. For DuVernay, the act of seeing can’t be done in the half-hearted, melodramatic way we so often see in TV movies and mini-series—it must be done with raw, unapologetic humanity and empathy. And her entire team understands this fearless approach, never hiding behind the acting tics that so often define the “true story” mini-series. They all jump in with both feet, giving some of the most unbridled performances of their careers. We “look” at more and more things with each passing generation from the phone screens in our pockets to TVs on seemingly every wall in our homes. This masterpiece asks us to truly “see.” (Brian Tallerico)
14. “Enlightened” (HBO)
If I had to name the best television performance of the ‘10s, I might pick Laura Dern’s work in Mike White’s (too) short-lived HBO comedy, which ran from 2011 to 2013 before HBO pulled the plug after only 18 episodes. But, oh, what Dern accomplishes in those 9 hours. Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a woman who tries to put her life back together at the age of 40 after it all falls apart in a brutal, public meltdown. After a mental breakdown at work, she goes to a treatment facility and comes back to Los Angeles as a holistic, positive “agent of change,” whatever the hell that means. The people who knew the aggressive, ladder-climbing Amy don’t buy it, and Amy sometimes has trouble convincing even herself. “Enlightened” becomes a fascinating study of trying to live a better life in a world that’s not exactly getting better along with you. The second season is a perfect season of television, a great novel in half-hour series form that only could have been done by HBO. Yes, they canceled it cruelly early but the fact something this nuanced and complex existed at all should make someone at the company feel more enlightened than the competition. (Brian Tallerico)
13. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW)
It’s impossible to pick a definitive “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” song. For one thing, anyone attempting such a task is spoiled for choice: In its four seasons on The CW, creators Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna, as well as Bloom’s fellow songwriters Adam Schlesinger and Jack Dolgen, created well over 100 original songs, some savage pop parodies, some affecting ballads, and many that were some combination of those and countless other things. (The fact that this accomplishment is not more widely known is the most perplexing aspect of the show’s still under-the-radar status.) For another, the story of Rebecca Bunch (Bloom) was always many shows in one, a feminist satire that tripled as a gentle dramedy about identity and mental health and a genre-bending musical, one that could switch gears from rom-com to psychosexual thriller, from legal comedy to surreal meta-textual commentary on the nature of storytelling itself.
But if forced to pick one of those excellent songs, it would have to be “You Stupid Bitch,” an anthem of self-loathing which has become, when performed live by Bloom, a piece of musical group therapy. It lives now as an en-masse acknowledgment that we’ve all walked down that dark path and doused ourselves in enthusiastic self-recrimination. In that context, it suddenly becomes joyful; we are all stupid bitches together, and like Rebecca, we’ll be okay. (Allison Shoemaker)
12. “Halt and Catch Fire” (AMC)
Why didn’t you watch AMC’s “Halt and Catch Fire”? Did you think it was too much of a period piece? Or too nerdy given its subject matter? The truth is that this is one of the best character studies of the decade, an actor’s showcase for performances from Lee Pace, Mackenzie Davis, Scoot McNairy, and Kerry Bishé that should have been nominated by awards-giving groups each of the four seasons it aired. Yes, on paper, this was a fictionalized version of the tech revolution of the ‘80s, but it became a show about so much more than data and microchips. It’s a show about the intersection of brilliance and insecurity—those competing voices in the human head that often keep true pioneers from the success they deserve. And no show was smarter than this one when it comes to chronicling what success (and failure) does to personal relationships. No wonder the final season ended in the development of a search engine—this show was always about how all of us are seeking something—and yet that fourth year also carried a beautiful, poignant energy that reminded us it was also about the development and journey more than the final product itself. As Joe said, “It was never about where it ended up, it was about how it felt.” Few shows felt more resonant and powerful than “Halt and Catch Fire.” (Brian Tallerico)
11. “Better Call Saul” (AMC)
If Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” was about a good man turning bad, his prequel “Better Call Saul” is about a bad man trying hard to be good. We know that Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill’s will not only become criminal enabler Saul Goodman but that he will end up miserable at a remote Cinnabon after the action of “Breaking Bad.” That knowledge fuels the poignancy of Jimmy’s constant attempts at legitimacy, many of them foiled by his brother Chuck (Michael McKean). The prequel aspect of “Better Call Saul” has been fun for fans, but this is a brilliant character study completely removed from the legacy of Walter White. It is a slower show, and so hasn’t reached the cultural heights of its predecessor, but it is arguably richer on a character level. Not only is Odenkirk giving one of the decade’s best performances, he’s matched by one of TV’s best supporting casts, including McKean, Rhea Seehorn, and Jonathan Banks. The cast is amazing, but this is a writer’s showcase—every decision from a line of dialogue to a plot twist feels carefully considered and yet the show never loses its human touch. We know where Jimmy McGill will end up, but “Better Call Saul” reminds us that even predetermined destinations can provide for fascinating journeys. (Brian Tallerico)
10. “Twin Peaks: The Return” (Showtime)
Of course, “Twin Peaks: The Return” is a television show. What else would it be? Each time the credits rolled on the improbable revival of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s groundbreaking series, it served as a kind of break in the line, a pause for breath in the dizzying, meditative, electrifying tone poem Frost and Lynch were writing, hour by hour. Like pie, a prom queen, or a damn fine cup of coffee, they used our associations with another comfortable, familiar aspect of life—the American TV series, particularly those with a detective at the center—to pull us ever closer to the Black Lodge, latching onto our subconscious minds like an invasive species and then spreading out. “Part 8” alone would make this one of the most notable and daring efforts of the ‘10s, a terrifying journey into the heart of a mushroom cloud that creeps in, like a bug between the teeth, but the series as a whole—its pervasive sense of mortality, its unexplained mysteries, its moody score, and the Dougie of it all—has moved the goalposts on what television can be with all the force of a ceaseless scream. If you think that kind of boldness can only exist as cinema, then as Gordon Cole might say, “Change your hearts or die.” (Allison Shoemaker)
9. “Parks and Recreation” (NBC)
Many of history’s best comedies are essentially about the makeshift families we find in our lives whether it’s the bar patrons of a place like “Cheers” or the employees of Dunder-Mifflin in “The Office.” One of the decade’s best makeshift comedy families just happened to form from the employees of a local government office in Pawnee, Indiana. When Greg Daniels and Michael Schur’s comedy premiered in 2009, it felt like a pale echo of “The Office,” but there’s no better example of why networks should be patient with certain shows. As this one found its comedic voice, it became one of the best programs on television, consistently funny for the remainder of its seven-season run. And it had such a big heart, turning the quirks of its characters—Leslie Knope’s bizarre love of bureaucracy, Ron Swanson’s no-frills existence, Andy Dwyer’s puppy dog idiocy, and even Tom Haverford’s gleeful materialism—into strengths instead of merely fuel for comedy writers. In terms of laughs-per-minute, it’s the best comedy of the decade. (Brian Tallerico)
8. “The Good Place” (NBC)
What do we owe to each other? “The Good Place” asked that question for four seasons, and the questions that resulted from that question—to say nothing of the possible answers—just kept getting more complicated. That, as we learned last week, seems to be the point of Michael Schur’s fiendishly clever, deeply felt metaphysical sitcom, the last of the three Schur comedies on out list. To say too much about last week’s “The Answer” is to rob those who haven’t seen it of experiencing its simple pleasures firsthand, so let me just say that it reinforces what “The Good Place” has been telling us all along: because it’s so complicated, the answer is actually simple. Just try.
“The Good Place” certainly did, arguing for kindness one wild narrative leap at a time. After giving us a first season built on twist after twist, the show consistently defied expectations, at times rocketing through seasons’-worth of plot in a single half-hour (Megan Amram’s giddy “Dance Dance Resolution”), at others slowing way down (“Jeremy Bearimy, baby.”) But no matter how many plot twists, puns, or flying shrimp were around, it remained a story about decency, brought to life by a top-tier cast and led by the definitive sitcom voice of the decade. What do we owe to Michael Schur? Our thanks, for a lot of entertainment and, impossibly, a slightly better world. (Allison Shoemaker)
7. “Atlanta” (FX)
Creator-driven comedy became a driving force for Peak TV with people like Louis C.K., Aziz Ansari, and Ramy Youseff creating shows that largely reflected their life experiences. The best of this subgenre remains Donald Glover’s fearless, hysterical, genre-pushing FX critical darling, a show that is breathtakingly unpredictable while it somehow finds a way to be confident and vulnerable at the same time. What’s “Atlanta” about? It’s about being young, black, and successful in America in the ‘10s, but it’s also about much more than that. It is as complex and nuanced as anything this era, a show that blends styles and tones in ways that other programs wouldn’t dare. Like the best of these shows, there’s not a single note of desperation yet to be seen. So much comedy on TV desperately wants you to laugh. You can see it in the forced punchline hits and laugh tracks. And so much TV drama desperately wants to “move you.” There’s absolutely none of that in “Atlanta,” a show that has maintained it artistic vision through two brilliant seasons without a sign of wanting anything other than to express itself. (Brian Tallerico)
6. “Hannibal” (NBC)
The Black Swan of Peak TV is Bryan Fuller’s NBC drama, a show that’s so twisted, violent, and downright strange that it’s hard to believe it existed anywhere, much less on network TV. There’s no reason this should have worked. A definitive version of Hannibal Lecter already exists in the American conscious—who needs another? And yet Fuller fearlessly created his own companion piece not only to Thomas Harris’ source material but some of the acclaimed films that have already been made from them. Much more than just another study of a madman, “Hannibal” was one of the most visually stunning shows of its era, a program that had a visual language that was so rich and daring that it challenged every expectation one brings to the network TV drama. There’s never been anything quite like this on network television, and while it’s truly tragic that it was canceled before Fuller and company could get to Clarice Starling (which they were planning), it’s amazing we got three seasons at all. This is a show like “Twin Peaks” that people will find over the years, marveling at its rich storytelling, incredible performances, and stunning visual compositions. It took 25 years for that one to come back, let’s hope we don’t have to wait as long for “The Return” of “Hannibal.” (Brian Tallerico)
5. “Fleabag” (Amazon)
Humans have a tendency to joke, even shock, to deflect attention from our vulnerable spots; to immerse ourselves in one hot distraction or another to keep ourselves from acknowledging and treating our wounds. We laugh and curse and drink and fuck, bleeding all the while. That tendency takes the form of a whole TV show in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s wondrous “Fleabag,” and with each glance to the camera, she makes us her confidante, even—and perhaps especially—when she’s lying. “Fleabag” began life as a one-woman play, and it somehow retains that intimacy in its two brief seasons, Waller-Bridge making us, her audience, as active a part of the experience as we might be were we sitting in the front row of a dingy black box theater. That connection established, she’s free to explore lust, selfishness, grief, ego, hopelessness, loneliness, the capacity for self-improvement, self-destruction, compassion, connection, and forgiveness in 12 perfect, deceptively simple episodes. “This is a love story,” Fleabag says at the beginning of the second season, and she’s right. It’s also a masterpiece. (Allison Shoemaker)
4. “The Leftovers” (HBO)
There was a lot of television this decade that felt like it was trying to replicate the success of something else, but “The Leftovers” remains one of the era’s most singular, unique experiences. You were never quite sure where the next plot turn or emotional earthquake would come from in Damon Lindelof’s show (and he’s doing something that feels similarly unpredictable in “Watchmen” now, the only other show that one could say feels like this one). After a rocky start that felt like it was a bit too loyal to the source, Lindelof and company broke off to tell their own stories in two perfect seasons of television. There’s no better modern piece of fiction about trauma than “The Leftovers.” It’s about how we move on after tragedy, climbing our way back to a new version of normalcy. Trauma isn’t about healing, it’s about adapting, and the characters of “The Leftovers” have to do that in a world they don’t really understand anymore. There’s also no better show than this one about the human search for a happiness that feels just out of reach. The show’s amazing final scene—the best ending of the ‘10s—perfectly wraps all of this up, reminding us that the best thing we can be is present for someone else. (Brian Tallerico)
3. “Breaking Bad” (AMC)
Vince Gilligan famously set out to take Walter White “from Mr. Chips to Scarface,” and he did just that. Yet much of what made “Breaking Bad” great had less to do with gradual transformation and more to do with who Walter White was all along. As brought to life by Bryan Cranston, Walter’s insatiable need for more—more money, more freedom, more time, more power, more control, and especially, more recognition—was “Breaking Bad’s” great superpower, a nuclear reactor churning out more and more energy, especially when it seemed likely to blow. Think of “Dead Freight,” the show’s masterful train heist episode, and the brilliant and divisive “The Fly,” a Rian Johnson-directed bottle episode which trapped Walt and Jesse (the invaluable Aaron Paul) in their lab. Two very different episodes, the same narrative force: Walt needs more.
“Breaking Bad” may have hooked us with its infernal, unshakeable plotting, but those wild yarns always emerged directly from Walter White’s wants and the acts of those who would oppose him. In never straying from that link, Gilligan—one of TV’s greatest scribes and a very fine director in his own right—gave us a series with as firm a foundation as any before or since. (Allison Shoemaker)
2. “Mad Men” (AMC)
Matthew Weiner’s “Mad Men” is, at its core, the story of how Don Draper (Jon Hamm) murdered Dick Whitman. The felling stroke arrives in the show’s final moments, when a single, solitary moment of true peace is regurgitated as a siren song beckoning the sad and lonely to come, one and all, and drink from the sugar water fountain, for it’s there that happiness lives. That story, a tragedy that ends with a Coke commercial, would by itself make “Mad Men” one of the greats, a triumph of subtlety, suggestion, and potent metaphor. Weiner took the advertising world and used it as a means of exploring truth, identity, and transformation, most frequently through the struggle between Don and Dick, the image of success and the terrified runaway beneath. But “Mad Men” is also the story of Peggy Olson (Elisabeth Moss), who left behind the pieces of the person she was supposed to be and found her way, in fits and starts, to the person she really was. It is cynical and optimistic, compassionate and cruel, a man finding enlightenment and turning it into a jingle, and a woman finding a place for herself without compromising her identity. We’ll be picking it apart for many years to come, jumping back on the carousel and finding new layers each time. (Allison Shoemaker)
1. “The Americans” (FX)
It’s somewhat ironic that the best television program of the decade would be a family drama about Russian spies. The premise of “The Americans” was sexy and enticing—Russian operatives living in suburban America in the ‘80s—but the show quickly developed into something so much richer than its concept (while never losing its ability to bring out some awesome ‘80s wigs and outfits for a mission or two). Like a great piece of fiction, “The Americans” is about its characters more than its concept, and Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell ended up giving two of the best performances of the decade. You can slowly watch Rhys’ Philip Jennings unravel over the course of the six-season run—the pressure of balancing his past life and his new life slowly breaking him apart. Ultimately, this was a major theme of “The Americans”—how do we balance who we were with who we are now and who we want to eventually be? Ultimately, this was a show that excelled in every single possible department with which one could judge television. The writing, direction, acting, and ambition were unmatched in the ‘10s, and that’s why it’s our choice for the decade’s best. (Brian Tallerico)