It’s been said that we’re in the midst of a new golden age of television and it’s hard to argue with that premise. These past 10 years have brought us some of the most imaginative and creative TV shows of all time and even as the decade comes to a close, new shows are making their way into the global zeitgeist.
There are many reasons for this explosion of great television. One is that traditional content creators have found new license to innovate due in part to the ascension of streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. At the same time, this has caused traditional cable networks to keep up, so networks like HBO, Showtime, and even FX and BBC have stepped up their quality. In turn, actors and actresses who have mostly stuck to big Hollywood movies have jumped into television. There are so many award winners on TV now it’s hard to keep up. And as we entered the final few years of the decade, we’ve seen an even more surprising shift — films like The Irishman and Marriage Story are being released on streaming services at the same time (or in lieu of) premiering on the big screen. It’s a wonderful time to stay home and watch television!
Before I get into my 10 favorites of the decade, here are some honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):
- Big Little Lies (HBO, 2018). Perhaps the best example of Hollywood’s impact on TV. HBO’s take on life, love and murder among the wealthy of Monterey stars Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Reece Witherspoon, Laura Dern and other major movie stars. And if that wasn’t enough, season two brought us Meryl Streep as one nasty mother-in-law.
- Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014). Definitely not for the faint of heart, no other show made me laugh out loud more over the past decade. Long live the adventures of Abbi and Ilana!
- Drunk History (Comedy Central, 2013). I wish I could have been there when creator Derek Waters pitched the premise of getting celebrities blitzed and having them tell historical stories which are then acted out by famous actors and celebs. So much silliness.
- Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (PBS, 2012). I’m addicted to ancestry shows and it caused me to sign up for Ancestry.com and build my own family tree. Finding Your Roots is like taking a personal tour of history. I learn so much in each episode and it constantly reminds me just how lucky it is that any of us were actually born.
- Homeland (Showtime, 2011). The first couple of seasons of Homeland were as good as anything on TV this decade. Carrie Mathison is easily one of the most compelling characters ever created.
- House of Cards (Netflix, 2013). It’s too bad Kevin Spacey ruined this show by being a fuck wad in real life because for a time this was the best show on television. House of Cards is like bizzaro world West Wing!
- Key and Peele (Comedy Central, 2012). I never watched this show during its run on Comedy Central but going back and binging it made me realize what I’d missed. It’s no coincidence that both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are such big stars now because this was sketch comedy at its best.
- Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, 2014). John Oliver is the true king of late night. Week in and week out Oliver and his team unmask the worst of America and the world using unparalleled humor and darn good investigative journalism. The mainstream media should take a look at how news is really done.
- Louie (FX, 2010). I know, he’s so icky. But during its run, Louie was one of the most unique shows in history. Oftentimes at the end of an episode I’d stare at the television in disbelief, thinking to myself now that was dark and satisfying.
- Master of None (Netflix, 2015). I don’t know what to think about Aziz Ansari’s “Me Too” issues, but without question Master of None gave us a brilliant look into the lives of non-white America in a way that made us think and made us understand. And I’d argue the Thanksgiving coming out episode with Lena Waithe was the best 34 minutes of television of the decade.
- Nathan for You (Comedy Central, 2013). I used to think nobody could make me feel more uncomfortable than Sasha Baron Cohen, but then I discovered Nathan Fielder and I realized there was a new master of awkward comedy. Nathan For You is fearless comedy that is so hard to watch you can’t help but look — and laugh.
- One Mississippi (Amazon, 2015). Speaking of fearless, Tig Notaro defines the word when it comes to television. She literally bares her soul (and her surgical scars) to give us a glimpse of what her life was like during the time she lost her mother and recovered from cancer and a terrible bout of clostridium difficile. I only wish there were more than two short seasons of this wonderful comedy-drama.
- Ozark (Netflix, 2017). Television can be good at making you cheer for bad people (see The Sopranos) and such is the case with money launderer Marty Byrde. Nobody in the Lake of the Ozarks of this show is a law-abiding citizen but each main character has a backstory that makes you at least feel for them. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore is a particularly compelling “villain” who at times you can’t decide whether to love or fear.
- Rick and Morty (Warner Brothers, 2013). Justin Roiland is a mad genius. I don’t know how he voices so many characters in one show, but without a doubt Rick Sanchez is arguably the most unique characters in animation history. This show is smart, hilarious, and out of this world.
- Silicon Valley (HBO, 2014). Mike Judge is the king of corporate parody and Silicon Valley lampooned the hell out of the world of tech. But it’s the cast that steals this series, most notably for me Martin Starr’s menacing Gilfoyle and Kumail Nanjiani’s hapless Dinesh. One sign of a great show though is that even the bit players are memorable, and I’ll never forget Lorie Bream, Jian Yang, Erlich Bachman, Gavin Belson, and Richard Hendricks. But for my money the unsung star of the show was Jared Dunn, played by a deadpan Zach Woods, who supposedly ad-libbed many of his lines and always seemed to steal the show.
- The Americans (FX, 2013). We joined the party late on this show, but eventually caught up after binging the first bunch of seasons. It’s crazy how a show could get you to root for Russian spies but that’s exactly what The Americans delivers. Matthew Rhys was particularly good in this show, which always has me on the edge of my seat.
10. Narcos (Netflix, 2015). It was only three seasons, but Narcos was a wild ride through the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels told from the point of view of DEA agents trying to stop the illegal flow of narcotics into the U.S. The acting was superb in this series, led by the Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Pablo Escobar by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. You couldn’t take your eyes off Moura’s Escobar for two seasons, and just when you thought the show couldn’t get any better Diego Luna joined the cast as Mexican drug lord Miguel Gallardo and took the show to another level.
9. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2015). No show was more dark and disturbing this decade than the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel. More than once over the first three seasons I wanted to quit watching because the possibilities were too real but the great acting and convincing plot kept me coming back. This, my friends, is what religion looks like when taken literally. Under his eye.
8. Killing Eve (BBC America, 2018). The biggest surprise for me this decade was Killing Eve, a British show that gave us an edge of your seat plot and perhaps the best female breakout performance of the decade by Jodie Comer as the killer you can’t help but love, Villanelle. With so many police dramas out there it was refreshing to watch this cat and mouse game.
7. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010). Plenty of other HBO shows got more recognition, but Boardwalk Empire sneaked under the radar and was so good. Yes, Steve Buscemi can carry a show. But it helps that he had arguably the best ensemble cast of the decade that included Michael Shannon, Shea Wigham, Michael Kenneth “Omar Coming” Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jack Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Patricia Arquette, and scene-stealer Bobby Canavale. You gotta love a show that’s not afraid to kill major characters. Nobody was safe on Boardwalk Empire.
6. Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013). For seven seasons I loved tuning in to the goings-on at Litchfield Prison and watching the lives of some of the most inventive and classic television characters ever created. How could you not love Piper, Red, Crazy Eyes, Tastee, Sophia, Alex, Lorna, Pennsatucky, Flaca, Nicky, Big Boo, Poussey, Fig, Caputo, Luschek, and on and on. OITNB was funny, dramatic and sad all at once. It was also female-led and female-driven and that in and of itself made it historic.
5. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017). This very funny and creative period piece made a late decade charge and after three seasons is poised to be the first mega hit of the next decade. Rachel Brosnahan came out of nowhere to bring us Midge Maisel, who is as bitingly funny as she is charming and beautiful. But like most great shows, the ensemble cast really kills on this show. Alex Borstein’s Susie Myerson has already brought home an Emmy, and Tony Shaloub is surely going to win one as well for his portrayal of Midge’s dad Abe. And Luke Kirby literally transforms into Lenny Bruce and makes the viewer wish the world didn’t lose the real Lenny so soon. Tits Up!
4. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, 2015). If there is a recurring theme to my favorite shows of the decade than surely it’s dystopia. Five of my top 10 and all four of my top shows feature a world where the future (or past) looks very different than we’d bargained for. What if the Axis won World War II and Germany and Japan divided up the United States and brought their world view to America? And what if the Nazis could use technology to bring their vile views to all worlds even those in parallel universes? Amazon did a tremendous job bringing Philip K. Dick’s horrific world to life and this show kept me enthralled for four glorious seasons. I was happy to learn series creators burned all the Nazi paraphernalia after the show came to an end.
3. Mr. Robot (USA Network, 2015). Big props to show runner Sam Esmail for never thinking inside the box with this show about a group of hackers trying to overthrow the world’s largest company and restore democracy to the people. Esmail’s vision and Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Alderson brought us a dark, explosive look at what happens when evil corporations have too much power, something all too close to reality as we approach 2020. This series brought us some of the most suspenseful shows of the decade, playing tricks on our ears and eyes along the way. And about that episode shot in one take? I have no idea how Esmail choreographed it but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on television.
2. Westworld (HBO, 2016). Of course a show about a theme park filled with realistic androids who begin to gain self-awareness is going to be the hit of the decade. HBO delivers a stunning version of the 1973 Yul Brenner classic with special effects that look so real you never doubt for a moment this world exists and a plot with so many twists and turns you need to watch a YouTube video to explain each episode afterward. Westworld features a world-class ensemble cast that includes Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton, James Marsden and at least one Hemsworth. Westworld is a roller coaster ride through a maze and I never want it to end.
1. Black Mirror (Channel 4, Netflix, 2011). It wasn’t easy to choose, but when push came to shove the show I enjoyed most over the past decade was the British anthology series Black Mirror. Every single episode made me rethink what I know about technology and gave me pause about where it could lead us as a species. Technology can make life better, and it has, but if we don’t keep a noose around it, it can and will take us to very dark places. Black Mirror preys on the hope of technology and strikes a warning blow for humankind. Because it’s an anthology show, each episode brings us new actors and actresses, most of whom are at the top of their game, with plots that leave you stunned and terrified that your Google Home device is going to kill you in the dark of knight. I used to be a big proponent of the singularity theory, the one that predicts man and machine will soon merge. Who wouldn’t want their brain downloaded into the cloud where you can live on forever? Not me anymore. Thanks Charlie Brooker for ruining the future for me. Black Mirror takes the viewer down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and deftly explores the consequences of unregulated technology. I loved every minute of it and want more.