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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.

 

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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