It’s pretty fair to say that over the course of the last decade, television as a medium has changed forever. In fact, there have been so many waves of change, not to mention the absurd amount of content produced, that you could say that maybe three decades have been mashed into the 2010s. First there was the end of cable’s stranglehold, probably best encapsulated by the series finale of “Lost” (2004–10) and the ensuing copycat shows that never got off the ground. Then came the era of “peak TV,” as titled by FX Chairman John Landgraf, where brooding characters like Don Draper and Walter White ruled the television landscape. Now, we find ourselves on the other side of the peak. Quality television led to such an arms race of producing content and fighting over already existing intellectual property that, in a weird way, the mode of cable now exists in the form of streaming television: there are a few big operators that viewers all go back and forth between watching. What was once the proliferation of television soon became the oligopolization of television.
Below is a list of the top ten TV shows of the decade. Like all rankings, this list is incredibly arbitrary; but given the circumstances of the last decade, it’s probably more arbitrary than ever, and that’s kind of the point. As the amount of content grows with each passing year, people are watching more and more different content. The amount of overlap in everyone’s top ten list is only going to keep declining. There are a number of shows on this list that continued to rise in popularity or were given second lives thanks to Netflix, but just as many you’ve probably mentioned in conversation only to hear back, “Oh, I’ve totally missed that show but I’ve heard so many good things about it! Should I check it out?” So if you haven’t watched any of the shows on this list, or you think this list is lacking anything, then honestly that makes sense.
With that in mind, here are the definite top 10 television shows of the decade:
Honorable Mentions: “High Maintenance” (2016–), “Halt and Catch Fire” (2014–17), “Fleabag” (2016–19), “Nathan For You” (2013–17), “Parks and Recreation” (2009–15), “Happy Endings” (2011–13), “American Vandal” (2017–18), “Better Call Saul” (2015–) and “True Detective” (2014–)
- “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” (2005–), FX/FXX
Consistency deserves at least some respect and admiration. More importantly, as this show got older it also adapted and became self-aware. In an era where the word “antihero” became a well-known term for television watchers, no group of people was more disgusting and vile than the gang. Still, it’s their vileness and stupidity that makes them so hilarious.
Best episode: “The Gang Solves The Bathroom Problem” (2018)
- “Game of Thrones” (2011–19), HBO
Arguably the last grasp of television’s hold on popular culture, it was the show everyone was talking about thanks to its epic plot twists and reveals. A heavily-debated last season aside, it cannot be disputed how the show was able to build a world and its characters despite having nothing really based in reality.
Best Episode: “The Winds of Winter” (2016)
- “Veep” (2012–19), HBO
No television show this decade more accurately followed the narrative arc of its subject. Transitioning from hilarious ineptitude to pure evil, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ performance as Selina Meyer is absolutely one of the most memorable lead characters of the decade, not to mention the hilarious ensemble cast. So many great one-liners, so little time.
Best Episode: “C**tgate” (2016)
- “Community” (2009–15), NBC/Yahoo
This is a long-gone show whose best episodes were definitely on the earlier side of the decade, but in no way should it be forgotten. The meta-construction of so many episodes made it clever, but on a superficial level, it was just as hilarious from episode to episode thanks to the chemistry between the cast members. Donald Glover, Alison Brie, the Russo Brothers: the show caught so many actors and creators just before they exploded to greater fame and were powered by them.
Best Episode: “Remedial Chaos Theory” (2011)
- “Mad Men” (2007–15), AMC
The mythic ad salesman figure came to life. No words better describe this show than Don Draper‘s epic monologue at the end of the first season: “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent … This device isn’t a spaceship, it’s a time machine. It goes backwards, and forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again.” The show itself was a time machine back to a historically significant era of American culture — the 1960s.
Best Episode: “The Suitcase” (2010)
- “Twin Peaks: The Return” (2017), Showtime
Filmmaker and auteur David Lynch returned to his great television show in only the most Lynchian manner possible: a show that made little sense but still was incredibly captivating. It is peak “this TV show is actually a long movie,” an idea showrunners loved to toss around this decade. Episode 8 is one of the most confounding things ever to be on television, but also encapsulated an entire filmmaking philosophy into a TV episode: the moving image as an opportunity to teleport to a dreamlike scape and unearth the deepest parts of our subconscious. Gotta light?
Best Episode: “Part 8” (2017)
- “The Leftovers” (2014–2017), HBO
The first season was one of the toughest seasons of television to get through, thanks to its never-ending dark tone, and if viewers were able to get to the other side, they were absolutely rewarded. With all the spotlight on how he would move past the controversial ending of “Lost,” showrunner Damon Lindelof came back with an even more thoughtful examination of trauma and the process of grieving.
Best Episode: “The Garveys at Their Best” (2014)
- “Breaking Bad” (2008–13), AMC
Say his name! Walter White is the single most memorable character of the decade and for good reason. Watching a chemistry teacher descend into a meth-making king was an absolute thrill ride, and watching it all come crashing down was arguably even more satisfying to watch. In an era filled with great TV show after great TV show, few if any had a more complete start-to-finish run than “Breaking Bad.”
Best Episode: “Ozymandias” (2013)
- “BoJack Horseman” (2014–20), Netflix
This show constantly took on issues and was able to consider them with a level of nuance that no other show this decade could match. Constantly, when it felt like characters were completely understood or like they were simplistically cornered, “BoJack” was able to play on your expectations and go deeper. It expanded its universe to give each of BoJack’s friends and family a level of depth and background most shows don’t. BoJack and Diane’s ability to describe their own shame and depression is so impressive and admirable because at the end of the day, they have the words many wish they were able to find.
Best Episode: “Free Churro” (2018)
- “Atlanta” (2016–), FX
Here it is. The best show of the decade. In an era when it felt like a myriad of shows were changing or pushing television, “Atlanta” felt like it was redefining what was possible week after week. The level of invention and creativity it packed into a half-hour series had not been seen before. Racing Michael Vick, the invisible car, Florida Man, The Alligator Man, the fake commercials: this show had a running series of absurd bits that also felt somewhat relatable. And that’s what makes this show the greatest of the decade: its absurdity which could shock and surprise, but was also able to give you relatable moments you could connect with, made it an absolute revelation.
Best Episode: “B.A.N” (2016) / “Teddy Perkins” (2018)