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50 Best TV Shows of the 2010s

From obscure, oddball masterpieces (‘Baskets’) to epic, blockbuster-grade spectacles (‘Game of Thrones’), this decade gave us almost too much great television to handle. Here are the 50 shows that stand above the rest

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Michael Parmelee/FX; Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios; Suzanne Tenner/FX; Van Redin/HBO

Ranking the best television shows of any decade is a complicated task, but some decades are easier than others. At the end of the 1970s, for instance, you could easily assemble a sterling top 10 featuring Roots, the four sitcoms that aired together in CBS’ legendary 1973 Saturday night lineup (All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Mary Tyler Moore Show, and The Bob Newhart Show), and a handful of the Seventies’ other great sitcoms. (Say, Taxi, Barney Miller, The Jeffersons, and Laverne & Shirley?)

Identifying the best series of the 2010s isn’t nearly as simple. Some of that is the fact that several inner-circle TV Hall of Famers began in the 2000s and continued into the 2010s. Should they be eligible? If so, do we factor in their entire runs, or only the episodes that aired this decade? Mostly, though, it’s just about how much television we’ve gotten over a period that’s come to be known as Peak TV. The rush for cable networks to follow HBO, FX, and AMC into the prestige-drama business, plus the arrival of Netflix and the Streaming Wars, means there’s exponentially more programming to consider. And a lot of it is terrific.

The last time I ranked this many shows, there were a lot of rules involved. Here, we decided on only two: 1) The majority of episodes had to have aired in this decade; and 2) No more than two seasons can have aired prior to 2010. So Breaking Bad qualified for both, while Mad Men qualified for the first rule — and would have made the top 10 just based on its 2010s seasons — but not the second. (Apologies to all who want to make like Joan in the SDCP elevator now.) Otherwise, this list leans heavily toward scripted series and narrative fiction — and often towards series that deftly balanced comedy and drama — with a sprinkling of sketch comedy and children’s programs. It also largely foregoes miniseries, even great ones like Show Me a Hero or Chernobyl, favoring instead the idea of television as an ongoing experience over years.

With those caveats out of the way, here are the shows I considered the 50 best of the 2010s.

 

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler; group†- Better Call Saul _ Season 3, Episode 1 - Photo Credit: Michele K. Short/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Michele K.Short/AMC/Sony Picture

11

‘Better Call Saul’

Perhaps the clearest example of the Alonzo Mourning gif in televised form is Better Call Saul, a Breaking Bad prequel telling the origin story of Walter White’s slick lawyer Saul Goodman — or, as he’s called here so far, Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk). Breaking Bad was so perfect that any spinoff seemed destined to be a letdown, and one about a relatively thin character like Saul seemed a particular folly. (Even Saul co-creator Vince Gilligan thought so for a while.) Instead, AMC’s Saul has proven so emotionally complex — particularly in depicting Jimmy’s relationships with his arrogant brother Chuck (Michael McKean) and tenacious girlfriend Kim (Rhea Seehorn) — that it stopped being surprising a few seasons ago to hear people suggest they prefer it to the original series. Essentially two shows in one, the other follows the unflappable Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) as he gets deeper into the local drug cartel. That side of things is more susceptible to playing like Breaking Bad fan service, but both halves demonstrate the technical mastery and commitment to character that made Breaking Bad an all-time classic.
New episodes on AMC; previous seasons streaming on Netflix 

BETTER THINGS "Easter" Episode 8 (Airs Thursday, April 18 10:00 pm/ep) -- Pictured: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Suzanne Tenner/FX

10

‘Better Things’

Despite their ample artistry, Louis C.K.’s Louie and Horace and Pete aren’t on this list, after sexual misconduct allegations against C.K. cast a shadow over his work (as discussed here). Still, many of the shows made possible by Louie are here, including this FX dramedy that he helped make with longtime creative partner Pamela Adlon. A thinly-veiled memoir of Adlon’s life as a mother and vaguely famous actress, it has an invitingly loose, almost dreamlike vibe where scenes flow together not to let an elaborate plot unfold, but so we’ll understand how it feels for Adlon’s alter ego Sam to parent three challenging but loving daughters, or to lower her expectations about her romantic prospects at this stage of her life. Adlon ran the third season on her own after C.K.’s misdeeds came to light, and Better Things didn’t miss a beat, remaining a TV show you don’t so much watch as comfortably sink into.
Previous seasons streaming on Hulu

Aden Young - in the SundanceTV original series "Rectify" - Photo Credit: Tina Rowden

Tina Rowden/Sundance

9

‘Rectify’

As a teenager, Daniel Holden was convicted of the rape and murder of his girlfriend and sentenced to death row. As Rectify begins, Daniel (Aden Young) is an adult startled to find himself released from prison after new DNA evidence turns up. That plot description suggests a thriller where Daniel and his crusading sister Amantha (Abigail Spencer) begin an intense hunt for the true killer. But the Sundance series wasn’t particularly interested in the law-and-order of it all, preferring to focus on the emotional wallop of his return to a world that he never expected to see again. An ethereal, deeply spiritual experience, Rectify was a series in which very little seemed to be happening in terms of plot (Daniel listens to Harry Nillson’s cover of “Many Rivers to Cross” with a new friend), even as everything seemed to be happening in terms of how Daniel, Amantha, his sister-in-law Tawney (Adelaide Clemens), mother Janet (J. Smith-Cameron), and more made sense of their unlikely new existences. An achingly beautiful series.
Streaming on Netflix 

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Fx Network/Kobal/Shutterstock (5885693i)Timothy Olyphant, Erica TazelJustified - 2010Fx NetworkUSATelevision

Fx Networks

8

‘Justified’

“You make me pull, I put you down.” This was the motto of U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, a modern-day gunslinger created by the legendary crime novelist Elmore Leonard, embodied for TV by the superhumanly charming Timothy Olyphant. Raylan’s threat wasn’t an empty one, but the efficiency of those eight words was pure Leonard: lean, mean, evocative, and terribly entertaining. As Raylan was assigned to his home state of Kentucky, he was pitted against one colorful villain after another, but always returned to his combustible old frenemy Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins, somehow even more charming than Olyphant). The rare great drama that was also a fun drama, the FX show employed a structure that many “10-hour movie” series would have done well to follow, with a spate of self-contained episodes in the season’s first half to keep things lively before the more serialized mayhem followed. In one episode, Raylan finds Boyd on the verge of killing a man Raylan needs to take elsewhere. As the longtime foes stare each other down, Boyd wonders, “Well, are you asking me or are you telling me?” Raylan quips, “Makes you feel better, you can tell people I asked.” No bullets fly that day, because Raylan’s words are the only violence needed.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video 

ATLANTA Robbin' Season -- "Crabs in a Barrel" -- Season Two, Episode 11 (Airs Thursday, May 10, 10:00 p.m. e/p) Pictured (l-r): Lakeith Stanfield as Darius, Donald Glover as Earnest Marks, Brian Tyree Henry as Alfred Miles. CR: Guy D'Alema/FX

Guy D'Alema/FX

7

‘Atlanta’

Before Donald Glover was one of the funniest actors on Community, he was one of the sharpest writers on 30 Rock. He moved on from the world of sitcoms to focus on his rap career as Childish Gambino, but also so he could write his own material rather than being a cog in another TV show’s machine. The result: this profoundly specific, always surprising FX comedy where Glover plays Earn Marks, a Princeton dropout who tries to escape poverty by managing the hip-hop career of his cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), a.k.a. Paper Boi. More than any other series on this list (and more than any series this decade other than Louie), Atlanta kept you guessing as to what kind of show it wanted to be. One episode might be a light, hilarious shaggy-dog story about the indiginites Paper Boi suffers to to appease the one man in town who knows how to cut his hair. (Henry’s exasperated scowl is an incredible comic weapon.) The next would be a horror tale — and incisive commentary on the connection between abuse, self-loathing, and some of the great black musicians of the 20th century — where Alfred’s buddy Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) finds himself in the haunted mansion of a deracinated ghoul named Teddy Perkins (Glover, unrecognizable under a pile of makeup). Like a number of series on this list, each new season seems contingent on the schedule and inspiration of its busy creator. The indelible first two make the next one worth waiting for.
Previous seasons streaming on Hulu 

THE AMERICANS -- "Start" -- Season 6, Episode 10 -- (Airs Wednesday, May 30, 10:00 pm/ep) Pictured: (l-r) Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings, Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings. CR: FX

FX

6

‘The Americans’

The best TV dramas of the start of the 21st century were Trojan horses that used genre tropes (Mafia for The Sopranos, cops and crooks for The Wire, Western for Deadwood) to smuggle in much bigger commentary about the birth and/or death of the American dream. The 2010s show that best followed that model was this period spy drama (from FX again) that was not-so-secretly a show about marriage. It is suburban Virginia at the dawn of Ronald Reagan’s America, and a pair of KGB deep-cover operatives calling themselves Philip and Elizabeth Jennings (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) have been pretending to be married for so long that they have two adolescent children, while Philip has begun feeling like he wants to treat their relationship as the real deal. The Americans worked stupendously well as a spy thriller, particularly as Philip stumbled into becoming best friends with Stan Beeman (Noah Emmerich), the FBI counterintelligence agent who moved in across the street. But its most painful moments — particularly a train moving past a platform as “With Or Without You” played — were about the hard compromises husbands and wives, parents and children, have to make even in a far less dangerous life than the one Mr. and Mrs. Jennings led.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video 

Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

5

‘Fleabag’

More humor and heartbreak in expert proportions, courtesy of genius creator-star Phoebe Waller-Bridge as a well-meaning, self-destructive woman who can’t get out of her own way. On the one hand, Fleabag settles comfortably into a long tradition of bawdy farce as the title character makes one bad choice after another, often turning to us in the audience to share her disappointment with herself and those around her. (Where other shows of this decade drove the direct-address device into the ground, Waller-Bridge’s expressive features made it a delight; in the second season, it even became a commentary on the relationship between fictional characters and their audiences.) On the other, the show is a profound, heartbreaking meditation on loneliness, as Fleabag copes with the death of her best friend Boo (Jenny Rainsford), estrangement from her sister Clare (Sian Clifford) and their widower father (Bill Paterson), and — in the phenomenon-making second season — her inescapable attraction to a hot priest (Andrew Scott). In an era where no show ever seems to be truly dead, Waller-Bridge has been adamant that Fleabag’s wave goodbye to us is the last she wants to show of her alter ego. The ending, and the series as a whole, are so perfect, I hope we never see Fleabag again.
Streaming on Amazon Prime Video 

Netflix

4

‘BoJack Horseman’

Yet another series capable of making you laugh or weep uncontrollably from one moment to the next. What had initially seemed like a clever but familiar animated showbiz satire — about a washed-up Nineties sitcom star (Will Arnett, never better) struggling with his own irrelevance — soon revealed itself to be something much deeper, even as it never lost its comic edge. As BoJack battles depression and addiction, the series (created by Raphael Bob-Waksberg) is simultaneously a hysterical parody of TV antihero clichés and a genuinely moving example of the genre. BoJack deploys every comic tool in the book, from wordplay (as BoJack’s manager/ex Princess Carolyn, Amy Sedaris is frequently called upon to deliver shockingly intricate tongue-twisters) to bawdy slapstick (BoJack’s asexual buddy Todd, voiced by Aaron Paul, once got into a lube-soaked brawl with his girlfriend’s libertine parents). But it’s also keenly aware of the loneliness that can cripple BoJack, Princess Carolyn, Todd, Diane (Alison Brie), and even the gregarious Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins). The show can go anywhere and be anything, from BoJack’s silent misadventures at the bottom of the ocean, to him delivering an episode-length monologue about his late mother. Most Netflix shows top out at very good; this one is phenomenal.
Streaming on Netflix 

Jesse PInkman (Aaron Paul) and Walter White (Bryan Cranston)  - Breaking Bad - Season 3, Episode 6 - Photo Credit: Ursula Coyote/AMC

Ursula Coyote / AMC

3

‘Breaking Bad’

For the purposes of this exercise, we’re only counting the episodes that aired starting from January 1, 2010. That means we lose the origin story of teacher-turned-meth-cook Walter White — one of the great pilots in television history — as well as some other classic installments from the AMC series’ first two years, like “4 Days Out,” where Walt (Bryan Cranston) and his pupil Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) got stranded in the desert together. But Breaking Bad in its first season was a show still figuring itself out, and even in its second wasn’t quite the Mt. Rushmore edifice it would become starting in Season Three. Virtually all the iconic moments we think about when we think about the ballad of Heisenberg — Hank vs. the Cousins, Gus Fring straightening his tie, and especially the series’ relentless, devastating endgame — took place in this decade. Breaking Bad in many ways remains the pinnacle of what dramatic storytelling on television can do, with its mix of riveting episodic plots and the long, gradual, brutal moral descent of Walt playing out across the whole series. We got an awful lot of that starting in 2010.
Streaming on Netflix 

Editorial use only. No book cover usage.Mandatory Credit: Photo by Nbc-Tv/Kobal/Shutterstock (5881897e)Rob Lowe, Amy PoehlerParks and Recreation - 2008-2013NBC-TVUSATelevision

NBCUniversal

2

‘Parks and Recreation’

Losing the episodes from 2009 is even less painful here than it is with Breaking Bad. All that costs us is the NBC sitcom’s mostly underwhelming first season, where Amy Poehler’s civil servant Leslie Knope mostly came across like a clueless cousin of The Office’s Michael Scott, plus a handful of episodes from the start of Season Two, where co-creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur were starting to figure out how best to write Leslie (less oblivious, more a friendly force of nature), her stoic, meat-loving boss Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman), eager puppy dog Andy Dwyer (Chris Pratt), and the rest. On May 13, 2010, an episode called “Master Plan” added Adam Scott (as buttoned-down numbers man — and future Leslie love interest — Ben Wyatt) and Rob Lowe (as terrifyingly enthusiastic political fixer Chris Traeger) to the ensemble, and Parks went off on one of the great runs in sitcom history. A sincere, and sincerely ridiculous, ode to civil service, friendship, and breakfast foods, Parks captured Obama-era optimism to a T.
Streaming on Hulu 

Mark Hill/HBO

1

‘The Leftovers’

Two percent of the world’s population just vanished without any explanation from either science or religion. What now? Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s adaptation of Perrotta’s novel about the aftermath of this sideways Rapture was often — particularly in its bumpier first season — among the most emotionally grueling television dramas of this or any other decade. It did not flinch in the face of the grief and madness of characters like irrational small-town cop Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux), his mute wife Laurie (Amy Brenneman), or, especially, Nora Durst (Carrie Coon, in an all-time performance), who lost her husband and both kids in what became known as the Sudden Departure. But that commitment to exploring the heartache of this parallel reality also meant that Lindelof, Perrotta, director Mimi Leder, and company were remarkably well-equipped to delve into its odder, even funnier, aspects. The show’s slightly less grim second and third seasons stack up comfortably with the best that HBO’s classic dramas of the previous decade had to offer, as the characters traveled to Texas, then Australia, and occasionally to a hotel in the afterlife where Kevin had to sing karaoke to make it back to his family in the real world. Where Lindelof’s Lost was attacked for not providing satisfying answers to the island’s mysteries, The Leftovers began by promising that it would never explain the Departure. Then Nora kind of did anyway in the gorgeous finale, but in a manner that felt utterly true to the spirit of this amazing, inscrutable achievement. No show of the 2010s was sadder — or more cathartic, especially as our own world began to make less and less sense — but no show was also more creative, or unexpected, or just plain entertaining as The Leftovers could be.
Streaming on HBO Now

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