Once upon a time, television was known as (to quote former FCC chairman Newton Minnow) “the vast wasteland,” where anyone thirsting for exciting, substantive programming was expected to go on wandering and wandering. By the start of the 2000s, ambitious and thoughtful series like The Sopranos and The Wire had begun to quench that thirst, in the process suggesting that TV could maintain a steady stream of transcendent shows like them.
In the 2010s, that stream unexpectedly turned into a fire hose. In the era that’s become known as Peak TV, there is not only more TV than ever, but more good-to-great TV than ever. Even if you were to do nothing in your waking hours but watch television, you wouldn’t have enough time to keep up with all the interesting things being done in the medium these days.
The phrase “Peak TV” was coined in the middle of the decade by longtime FX networks chief John Landgraf, who looked at a year in which there would be more than 400 original scripted series across broadcast, cable, and streaming networks. “This is simply too much television,” Landgraf argued to reporters. “My sense is that 2015 or 2016 will represent peak TV in America, and that we’ll begin to see declines coming the year after that and beyond.” He wasn’t even close. Industry estimates suggest that before the ball drops in Times Square, 2019 will have featured more than 500 original series, and the totals only figure to keep going up and up now that Disney, Apple, and others are entering the streaming game.
Landgraf is as much to blame as anyone for this high-class problem, having developed many of this era’s best and most influential shows. FX’s success at borrowing HBO’s prestige-TV playbook in the 2000s with shows like The Shield, Rescue Me, and Damages inspired AMC to try later in that decade with Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Then everyone else followed suit. The arrival of the streamers — Netflix most of all — only exacerbated the issue, as did the way that many of them release entire seasons at once, creating the illusion of TV viewing as competitive sport: “I had to binge all of American Vandal this weekend so I’d have my schedule cleared for when the new season of Big Mouth comes out!”
But too much of a good thing still gives you good things, and boy did TV give us a lot of that over the past 10 years. Some were hanging chads from the 2000s, like Breaking Bad and NBC’s delightfully warm and silly Parks and Recreation, both of which debuted late in the previous decade but aired nearly all of their classics in this one. Others were singular achievements like The Leftovers, HBO’s gonzo, emotionally overwhelming meditation on grief and madness in a time when the real world was providing ample opportunity to feel both.
It was a period in which television expanded in some ways and contracted in many others. On the biggest end of the scale, Game of Thrones presented epic spectacle that replicated the best of what we expect from summer blockbuster films. Its narrative sloppiness was also reminiscent of those movies, but Thrones expanded the possibilities of what TV can do and be at least as much as The Sopranos once did.
If Thrones was a reminder of the increasingly novel concept of shows that everyone watches at the same time, much of the Peak TV landscape was filled with series whose aims, and potential audiences, were far smaller. Often, this translated into memoirlike series inspired by the lives of their auteur stars. The most influential of these — and one of the best at the time, not that anyone will likely want to watch it ever again — was another FX show, Louie, where comedian Louis C.K. appeared to be interrogating his own foibles while demonstrating a deep reservoir of empathy for the people around him. After that series concluded, C.K.’s career was derailed by the revelation that he was exposing himself to women and harming their careers. It makes nearly everything about Louie ring hollow now(*). But if the series’ individual merits feel tainted, what it accomplished in paving a path for others to make their own deeply personal series — including Pamela Adlon (Better Things) and Tig Notaro (One Mississippi, whose brave second season had a subplot about a thinly-disguised C.K. type), who created shows with C.K. involved to varying degrees — can’t be ignored.
(*) The same goes for Horace and Pete, an extraordinary, star-studded, filmed play-for-television that C.K. made in secret and sold directly to viewers through his website — maybe the most Peak TV show of them all. The miniseries’ most critically acclaimed moment was a nine-minute monologue by Laurie Metcalf, filmed in an unbroken take, about her character masturbating in front of another person. Like a lot of moments from Louie, the speech now feels like a confession hidden in plain sight.
Beyond Louie’s autobiographical descendants (many of which are on our list of the decade’s best series), Peak TV got specific in other ways. Though creators spent a lot of time fabricating Walter White knockoffs, the sheer amount of programming made way for more inclusive storytelling, as shows like Netflix’s Orange Is the New Black, Amazon’s Transparent, and FX’s Pose put front-and-center the kinds of characters (poor and/or brown and/or LGBTQ) who had once been presented on TV’s margins, if at all. The landscape was also dotted with shows — for instance, Amazon’s Patriot (a dramedy about a suicidally depressed spy), or Netflix’s Lady Dynamite (an often surreal exploration of star Maria Bamford’s struggles with bipolar disorder) — that seemed designed to be the favorite thing of a few dozen people and ignored by everyone else. Yet these shows not only got made, but often hung around for multiple seasons.
(This weirdly marvelous state of affairs has faded a bit since someone at Netflix woke up one day and realized, “Hey, we can cancel things, too!” Earlier in Peak TV, shows like the Nineties high-school dramedy Everything Sucks! or animated BoJack sister-series Tuca & Bertie might have had solid runs; instead, Netflix said goodbye to each after only one season.)
The post-apocalyptic nihilism of AMC’s The Walking Dead became not only a big hit, but a metaphor for the way the decade was littered with undead versions of long-ago canceled series. As more and more new shows and networks sprang into existence, the old guard leaned heavily on brand names from the past to get attention. Roseanne Conner, Jack Bauer, and Lorelai Gilmore were among the familiar faces lured out of character limbo. Most of these reboots and revivals offered diminishing returns from the original adventures, but there were a few creative miracles, like Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return or HBO’s long-awaited Deadwood: The Movie, that justified the entire trend on their own.
Twin Peaks also became one of many 2010s series to blur the lines between film and television. It wasn’t just that folks like Nicole Kidman (Big Little Lies), Julia Roberts (Homecoming), and Matthew McConaughey (True Detective) finally eradicated the old stigma about movie stars working in TV. It was that Peaks’ David Lynch and many other creators kept insisting that they weren’t making television at all, but movies that just happened to run anywhere from eight to 18 hours long. Episodes were passé on these series, which were usually structured as huge, amorphous blobs of plot. Some creators, like Lynch or David Simon (Treme, The Deuce), proved talented and adept enough to make this work. More often than not — particularly in glum, interminable streaming dramas like Bloodline or most of Netflix’s Marvel series, like Luke Cage — the “movies, but longer” approach sucked the life out of the story being told, and told, and told some more.
Those leaden shows can create the illusion that Peak TV is all about quantity rather than quality. It can feel staggeringly hard to find the creative peaks of Peak TV — and will surely get harder over the next decade, as everyone tries to set up their own version of Netflix. But the very best this decade had to offer can go toe-to-toe with the top of the 2000s, when we could gawk at the likes of The Wire and Deadwood.
To paraphrase that show’s profane hero, saloonkeeper Al Swearengen: Welcome to fuckin’ Peak TV. Can be combative — but the victories are sweet.