The 2010s may have been the best decade ever in terms of television produced. The rise of streaming services coupled with the fall of traditional network television led more shows to be risky, daring and unconventional. Gone are the days of 30-episode sitcoms, “villain of the week” dramas and lengthy commercial breaks. Instead, consumers are free to browse shows at their leisure, find content that fits their niche and witness television series as they were meant to be seen. With that said, here are some of the best TV shows of the past decade.
“Key and Peele”
When one thinks of sketch comedy, one’s first instinct is to probably cite “Saturday Night Live,” “MADtv” or “SCTV.” But “Key and Peele” showed that you don’t need live on-air energy nor traditional television backings to produce quality sketch comedy. Bits such as the “East/West College Bowl,” “Substitute Teacher” and “Obama’s Anger Translator” are some of the most defining comedic moments of Generation Z comedy and continue to live on in memes and internet culture. Calling someone “A-A-Ron” instead of “Aaron” will never not be funny.
“Parks and Recreation”
A show about municipal government that features episodes about a miniature horse and town hall meetings should not be funny, but “Parks and Recreation” defies initial expectations. Rather than continuing to be a lesser version of “The Office,” “Parks and Recreation” came into its own during the latter half of its second season, and from then on out, the show became must-see TV. Whether it was saying good-bye to Little Sebastian, yelling at Jerry/Terry/Larry or watching the strange love between Andy and April, “Parks and Recreation” was a barrel of laughs and heartwarming moments.
“Community” is a show that flew under the radar of most TV watchers but was nevertheless one of the best comedies of the decade. Home to an all-star cast including Donald Glover, Alison Brie and Chevy Chase, “Community” is centered on six community college students who form a study group. Despite the premise, the show is less about academics and tests and more about group dynamics and sitcom parody. “Community” set the standard for comedy with its multilayered and self-referential humor, imaginative storytelling and clever style. Creator Dan Harmon fully embraced the weird side of comedy, creating a show that both utilizes and revolutionizes satire and the sitcom structure.
“The Good Place” and “Brooklyn Nine-Nine” were comedies that proved network TV still had some life in it. “Veep” brought excellent political satire just before that comedic category became overdone. “Rick and Morty” and “Bob’s Burgers” were both excellent animated comedies that also deserve some recognition.
On the surface, this show is about KGB spies and the Cold War. But beneath its prima facie appearance is a story not about spies and Soviets, but about marriage. Just like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos,” “The Americans” uses its premise to disguise an intensely personal drama between married couple Philip and Elizabeth Jennings. The series nails its spy and covert operation beats, but “The Americans” shines brightest when it focuses on the complex relationship and love between Philip and Elizabeth. Noah Emmerich, who plays FBI agent Stan Beeman, won a Critics’ Choice Television Award for his role as a supporting actor and has phenomenal moments throughout the show’s six-season run. Come for the Russian-American political narrative, stay for the award-winning performances.
“Game of Thrones”
If you ignore how the series ended, “Game of Thrones” was one of the best shows in television history — every actor perfectly cast for their parts, every scene in the first four seasons perfectly executed, every character developed in unique and satisfying ways. Who can forget when King Joffrey, who might have been the most hated character on TV, was poisoned? How could one possibly miss the gut-wrenching end of the fight between The Mountain and the Red Viper? Who didn’t feel the highest degree of satisfaction when, after decades of abuse, Tyrion murdered his own father? These are but a few of the hundreds of moments in “Game of Thrones” that left viewers in awe. Almost every drama is afraid to pull the trigger on a main character, yet “Game of Thrones” pulled no punches. It was willing to tug at the heartstrings of viewers in one episode and give them a brutal battle in the next. It might not have ended well, but at its peak, “Game of Thrones” was the best show on television.
“Say my name.” “Heisenberg.” “You’re goddamn right.”
When you first see Walter White, your immediate reaction is sympathy. You feel for the man who was diagnosed with cancer, works two jobs to put food on the table and has a pregnant wife and a son with cerebral palsy. But by the end of “Breaking Bad,” Walter isn’t a mild-mannered chemistry teacher but a tidal wave of chaos, genius and moral ambiguity. It’s in this transformation and descent that “Breaking Bad” shines. The series poses questions about the relationship between law and society, the ethics of doing bad things with good intentions, the benefits and faults of pride and the “binary” of good and bad. Yet those questions are sandwiched in a series that moves from one excellent plot arc to the next, from the fear and instability of Tuco Salamanca to the cold calculation of Gus Fring to the Walter White revenge tour. With such a brilliant cast and spectacular writing, “Breaking Bad” should be considered not only the best drama of the 2010s but one of the best dramas of all time.
Like “Breaking Bad,” “Mad Men” and “Better Call Saul” were two hard-hitting AMC dramas that rejected the traditional good guy/bad guy dichotomy. “The Leftovers” and “Twin Peaks” brought the science fiction mystery drama back into the public consciousness, and “Hannibal” reminded us just how dark dramas can be.
This is an unconventional pick for this genre, but “GLOW” was quietly one of the best shows produced in the 2010s. “GLOW” tells the story of a group of women who star in a television series called “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” or “GLOW.” The series features hilarious characters (both in and out of costume), impressive wrestling moves and heartbreaking interpersonal drama. In the first episode, Ruth Wilder loses her best friend, Debbie, after Ruth reveals that she slept with Debbie’s husband. From there, the series centers around the complex dynamic of their work relationship, the connection between Ruth and “GLOW” director Sam Sylvia and the lives of each wrestler in the show. But in between the emotional forces that drive the series are hilarious moments about wrestling, love and family. It may not have the same draw as other Netflix shows, but “GLOW” was a force to be reckoned with in its own right.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge seemingly came out of nowhere and hit it out of the park with “Fleabag.” Wonderfully witty yet emotionally gripping, “Fleabag” is all over the comedy-drama spectrum with commentary on dating and “taking it up the bum” to coping with grief, identity and family. Waller-Bridge’s mini interior monologues, which are said straight to the camera, are a source of consistent laughs and often give the viewer a much-needed reprieve from the heavy issues that plague the characters of the show. Andrew Scott, who plays the character colloquially known as the “hot priest,” and Sian Clifford put in excellent performances that raise the quality of the series. Scott’s character delves deep into the complexity of religion, God and commitment, while Clifford’s portrayal of Claire centers on the experience of a woman desperately trying to build her own identity apart from her family and loveless marriage. Ultimately, “Fleabag” delivers a message about the difficulty of love and happiness while also meshing comedy with true-to-life experiences.
As a show, “Atlanta” oscillates between drama and comedy at will. No two episodes carried the same tone, as each was a work of art in and of itself. Earn Marks is a manager for his cousin Paper Boi, whose rap career is taking off. But describing the show’s premise does a disservice to all of the things “Atlanta” accomplishes. Each episode feels more like a mosaic that meshes comedy, surrealism, drama, parody and even horror. Episodes like “B.A.N” give political commentary on media, race relations and more, while episodes like “The Club” hit the viewer with brilliant comedy. “Atlanta” is spectacular because it defies description, and like many of the best shows of this decade, it was clearly a labor of love.
“BoJack Horseman” was definitely the best animated show of this past decade and unfortunately doesn’t receive as much attention as live-action shows. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” balanced the comedy and drama of obsession, mental illness and love in a musical showcase. “Fargo” also deserves some recognition for its black comedy crime drama that honored the original film while establishing its own niche.
Contact Michael Brust at [email protected].