The 30 Best TV Shows of the 2010s (Part One)
From Mad Men to Mr. Robot to Hannibal to The Leftovers, we ranked the thirty best-scripted shows from 2010 to 2019.
There’s no denying that the last ten years have delivered an insane amount of great television and a plethora of shows that have pushed the boundaries of creativity, storytelling, and innovation. When the decade began, we were already blessed with the likes of Mad Men and Breaking Bad, but that was just the start of must-see TV in a decade that would give us groundbreaking work like Twin Peaks: The Return and Watchmen. It’s been a busy decade for TV watching, to say the least, and Peak TV has made it nearly impossible for us to keep up with every one of the great shows that air week after week (sometimes all on the same night). And with the number of streaming services and networks now competing, things will only get crazier moving forward. Before we look to the future, however, we wanted to look back one last time and celebrate the shows that made the decade so special. What we have here is a list of the best-scripted shows of the past ten years.
In choosing our favourites, we narrowed down one hundred options to the thirty we feel represent this era best. With that in mind, we ultimately had to cull many of our favorites, but here are some honorable mentions that almost made the cut: The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, One Mississippi, Better Things, Wilfred, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, True Detective, The Night of…, Black Mirror, Treme, Sharp Objects, Sherlock, Homeland, The Fall, The Eric Andre Show, The Expanse, Cougar Town, You’re The Worst, Mom, Key and Peele, Horace and Pete, Fargo, Happy Endings, Lodge 49, Good Eats, Superstore, Catastrophe, Adventure Time, Escape at Dannemora, Louie, Fringe, Joe Pera Talks With You, Luck, Archer, Legion, Master of None, Terriers, Chernobyl, New Girl, Luther, OJ: Made in America, The Jinx, American Crime Story: People v OJ, The Mandalorian and Watchmen.
30) Mr. Robot
When Mr. Robot hit the scene, it was one of the breakout critical sensations of that year. It was a series that was legit must-watch television thanks to its tremendous zeitgeist appeal and Rami Malek’s performance as the disaffected hacker protagonist Elliot Alderson. Mr. Robot put its network, USA, on the map and made Malek a bona fide star. It revived the career of former Hollywood bad boy Christian Slater and it made creator-writer-director Sam Esmail one of TV’s most talked-about new auteurs.
The first season of Mr. Robot will always be remembered for the two big reveals, the first, when Eliot’s family is revealed, and the second when Elliot realizes that Mr. Robot is a fragment of his damaged consciousness. When the season ended and the needle dropped “Where is my mind?” by the Pixies, it was clear Mr. Robot was on its way to being one of the best shows of the decade. While the second season was a disappointment, Mr. Robot bounced back with a surprisingly poignant third season which featured some truly outstanding episodes—most notably “eps3.4_runtime-error.r00”, a brilliant hour that was filmed and edited to seem as if it all done in one long, continuous single shot. Writer and director Sam Esmail still had plenty of tricks up his sleeve, however, and returned to end the decade with a thrilling final season that surprised its fanbase and kept them at the edge of their seats. The stakes in season four were higher than they’ve ever been—opening with a major character death and making it clear that Elliot’s mission to take down Whiterose and the Dark Army was going to come at a high cost.
Much has been said about how the show critiques consumerism, the internet, capitalism, and the use of technology to oversee and control our daily lives, and much has been said about its ambitious stylistic and experimental filmmaking— but what makes this crime thriller unique, is how it focuses on mental health. At the center of this show is Rami Malek whose emotional range as an actor has helped carry the series through both the highs and lows and kept viewers guessing what’s going on in his warped, troubled mind. Mr. Robot is a testament to his incredible talent and that of Sam Esmail who’s given us one of the decade’s signature prestige dramas centered around characters we truly care about, and a story with twists and turns we couldn’t predict, no matter how hard we tried. (Ricky D)
29) Review with Forrest MacNeil
It’s often said that obsession is the ultimate cinematic theme; the hyper-constructed medium of film is uniquely suited to it. That’s usually said in relation to drama, though; what’s less often discussed is the comic potential of obsession; in an age of hyper-ironic detachment, there’s something exceptionally funny about characters who are utterly devoted to something. Maybe that’s why Andy Daly’s Forrest MacNeil is so funny: for no discernible reason, he makes it his personal mission to assign one-to-five “star” ratings to…well, everything. Or more precisely, anything his viewers suggest. The “why” never seems to matter much. A lesser show would play this concept for gross-out gags and cringe comedy; OK, Review has plenty of both of those things, but it also pushes Forrest, and the series’ concept, to delirious and yet weirdly logical extremes (as in the immortal “Pancakes, Divorce, Pancakes”), ultimately lending the show a weird sense of grandeur. The fact that James Urbaniak is on hand as Forrest’s manager Grant, one of the most delectable villains ever to appear in a sitcom, is just icing. Five stars. (Simon Howell)
For over two decades, David Fincher has been analyzing America’s obsession with serial killers, often focusing on why the crime was committed and not necessarily who committed the crime. From Se7en to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Fincher’s psychological thrillers aren’t just about psychopaths, but equally about the people who hunt them down. Mindhunter is no different, although of all his work it bears a closer resemblance to Zodiac more than anything else. And like Zodiac, Mindhunter is about obsessive people on both sides of the law, and why they do what they do.
Not since Hannibal has a TV crime thriller been this good. Only unlike Hannibal, Mindhunter toys with our fascination of the macabre without ever showing the gruesome acts of violence, outside of the occasional crime-scene photo. Its big set pieces aren’t horrific murders, but scenes where killers describe their heinous acts, and the talk is ghastly enough to make your skin crawl. TV in the past several years has been obsessed with serial killers. Shows like Hannibal and Dexter have given us killers who are complicated antiheroes, and whose crimes are the focal point of every episode. Mindhunter is far more academic than lurid, and it’s terrifying at times to find unexpected parallels to modern society. It also helps that the show looks and sounds great.
It’s a masterclass of building suspense, and nobody does it better than Fincher. Mindhunter is part detective story and part character study, a series confident enough to avoid the need to include chases, shootouts, grandstanding climaxes, and blood and gore. Yet make no mistake, Mindhunter is undoubtedly creepy as fuck, and often concludes with horrific stories of childhood trauma, physical and mental abuse, or sexual assault. It’s often unpleasant as it should be and is something that will linger in your memory long after the credits roll. (Ricky D)
When Looking premiered in 2014, it was touted as HBO’s first prestige drama about the lives of contemporary gay men. The show was a pioneer of sorts, charting the everyday struggles of three thirty-year-old men navigating life, relationships, family, and careers in modern-day San Francisco. It was referred to in the press as the gay version of Girls and distinguished itself by moving past the tired clichés involving gay life to a more down to earth and intensely personal snapshot of a tight-knit group of friends in search of love and lasting relationships. Unlike Girls, however, Looking never had a chance to find a larger audience and after only two seasons, HBO pulled the plug just when the show was finding its rhythm.
Those who have watched all two seasons and the 90-minute series finale would agree that the second season was a vast improvement over the first— and those of you who’ve watched every minute of Looking will remember the best episode by far, titled “Looking for a Plot”. It is the seventh episode of the second season when Doris finally gets her moment in the limelight as Patrick takes a back seat (literally), and unsurprisingly, the leading man becomes all the more likeable for it. “Looking for a Plot” is an episode devoted to memories of troubled childhoods and desperate attempts to break free from your past while making the leap into adulthood. And when the characters finally do accept their current place in life, their celebration is short-lived as their car swerves off the road, sending the characters once again into a tailspin. “Looking for a Plot” just one of many examples of why Looking is on this list. It’s not just the network’s best and most original effort in the half-hour category this decade, but it demonstrated the potential of what the series could be if only HBO hadn’t cancelled it too soon. (Ricky D)
26) Halt and Catch Fire
Launching halfway through Mad Men’s final season, Halt and Catch Fire felt a lot like AMC trying to hold onto the magic of one of its pillars of original programming. Many critics, at the time, decried the first season of Halt and Catch Fire as derivative of its predecessor, but I think that’s a short-sighted, superficial observation that doesn’t do justice to the storytelling of Christophers Cantwell and Rogers, the co-creators. That’s not to say that the series didn’t get better and better as it went along—it certainly did—but the excitement that accompanies innovation and taking risks that defined this period piece about the rise of the PC and internet was there from the beginning.
Boasting one of TV’s best opening credits sequences at the time, Halt and Catch Fire is smooth around all its edges. It’s not just an incredible cast or smart direction or a writers’ room that clearly knew these characters and how they speak inside and out that made Halt and Catch Fire one of the best series of the decade. It’s the music, the set design, the wardrobe and the sheer effort and time that went into re-creating a world across multiple time jumps, making sure everything was period-appropriate for a time and place that weren’t so far in the past and weren’t as distinct as in something like Mad Men.
Some great series announce themselves as great. They’re loud or stand out in ways that make you immediately think “Oh, yeah, I like this.” Halt and Catch Fire managed to earn its place in the TV canon without being showy—a perfect example of the kind of series that not enough people watch, but the ones who do absolutely love it and recommend it constantly. In this case—please—listen to them. (Sean Colletti)
25) Nathan For You
It seemed like a one-joke premise: an ex-This Hour Has 22 Minutes contributor advises small businesses on how to stay competitive with the help of his outlandish “innovations” (i.e. advertising deep-discount televisions but guarding them with an alligator). With each successive season, though, Comedy Central’s brilliant Nathan For You managed to not only up the ante on Nathan Fielder’s labyrinthine schemes, it subtly toyed with our feelings towards Nathan himself, exposing him as a sad, pathetic loner longing for human connection. Obliterating the line between reality television, social satire, and cringe comedy, Nathan is the ultimate series about the craven lengths to which it’s necessary to hustle to make a dent in our late capitalist hellhole; but it’s somehow also a tender story about a social misfit looking for validation and genuine friendship in the absolute worst, most roundabout way possible. Even if it weren’t so resonant, though, it would still have a place on this list for the deranged comic setpieces of “Smoking Allowed”, “The Hero” and “The Claw”, not to mention the series’ remarkable, form-busting conclusion, “Finding Frances”. (Simon Howell)
24) Bob’s Burgers
Like a reliable fast food meal deal, Bob’s Burgers endures. Equal parts smart, absurd, and laugh-out-loud funny, Bob’s Burgers has delivered consistently hilarious and smart animated TV for ten strong seasons. Like many great shows before it, it takes two seasons to truly hit its stride, but once it does, it’s unstoppable in its reliability – reliably funny, sweet, and emotionally resonant – unlike anything else on contemporary TV.
When Bob’s first arrived, it was easy to dismiss it as another stab at the Simpsons/Family Guy/Flintstones formula, a feisty family and their ensuing antics, and indeed the show does owe a debt to Homer and his clan. But Bob’s Burgers takes the animated family further by adding a level of depth that’s hard to achieve on any sitcom, cartoon or other. Following in the proud tradition of sitcoms like Roseanne, All In the Family, and Good Times, the Belchers are resolutely working-class – constantly struggling to get by, always messing it up, and always sticking together. But meshed in with this familiar and well-executed TV DNA is a kind-of sideways sense of humor that feels like it is cribbed from the pages of a very real and very funny family, a family who do in fact love each other and drive one another crazy.
The Belcher family are as ridiculous as they are relatable, and at the end of the day, they are each brilliantly weird. Bob is the beloved and bedraggled father and husband brilliantly voiced by unstoppable H. Jon Benjamin. Linda is the daffy, defiant, and blindly enthusiastic Mom hilariously voiced by John Roberts. Eldest daughter Tina takes being socially awkward to new great heights while writing zombie erotica, brother Gene writes songs on his Casio about farts, and Louise, memorably voiced by Kristen Schall, is the antihero wild child we love to watch wreck the place while wearing an unexplained bunny hat. And then there’s Teddy and Zeke and Tammy and Felix and Hugo and Jocelyn…the list goes on, because the Belchers are supported by an endless cast of inspired and hilarious supporting characters who are, on their surface, generally pathetic weirdos, too. And this is where the show truly shines: despite how pathetic and weird and ridiculous they all are, each character is consistently and lovingly treated with respect, and you come to love and root for all of them (except for the lousy Jimmy Pesto). Over the years, The Belchers have earned their place in TV history as one of our favorite families to watch fail and pull together. Here’s to another ten years of burger puns and weirdo antics, Belchers, keep serving those enduring burgers, TV needs you. (Marty Allen)
23) Twin Peaks: The Return
Is it television? Is it cinema? Ultimately, this never-ending debate over taxonomy is pointless, though it does sort of point to the disorienting effect of watching Showtime’s revival of Twin Peaks. Hell, no one can even seem to agree on whether it’s appropriate to refer to it as the third season or an entirely new miniseries. But never mind all that. Whatever you want to call it, David Lynch’s long-awaited return to his favorite playground was the most radical act of pure, unabashed creativity unleashed on small screens this decade, a sustained comic horrorshow with absolutely no regard for the storytelling conventions of the prestige TV the original Twin Peaks inadvertently helped to spawn. Grotesque, beautiful, maddening, and ultimately essential, we’ll never see its kind again. Unless… (Simon Howell)
22) Better Call Saul
For many—including my dad—Breaking Bad is not just the best television series this decade, but of all time. It’s therefore astounding that Better Call Saul functions as plausible prequel that is its predecessor’s equal as a gripping, thoughtful character study. In some ways, the tragedy of Better Call Saul supersedes that of Breaking Bad for the simple reason that Saul Goodman née Jimmy McGill is immensely likeable. Very quickly, Walter White became a manipulative—if sympathetic—man, and his familial altruism soon gave way to hubris. Jimmy McGill is a far more genuinely caring person, who hopes his love is returned by his best friend, Kim Wexler, and his brother, Chuck (Rhea Seehorn and Michael McKean are incredible). Thus, knowing his penchant for cutting corners and skirting legality through charisma is the flaw that both undermines his otherwise meticulous legal approach and will inevitably cause his downfall, is heartbreaking. Better Call Saul is a Shakespearean tragedy set in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
It’s not Saul Goodman’s origin story alone though, and as the audience watches Jimmy’s fall, they are privy to the rise of Mike Ehrantraut. Mike’s transformation is less drastic, merely hardening the stoically cautious and resolute persona we meet in Breaking Bad, but his imperfections give the audience a welcome look at Mike’s interior life. In focussing on Mike and Saul’s softer, more permeable past lives, the door is open to a retinue of new characters seamlessly integrated into the returning cast, impeccably acted.
All of this rests on the central performance, however, and if Better Call Saul is Shakespeare, then Bob Odenkirk plays many parts through Jimmy McGill. He is the crooning lover sighing like a furnace over Kim; a soldier full of strange oaths with his more dubious clients; and a justice for those taken advantage of by society. We see where he ends up, however: a charmless existence wearing spectacles to hide his identity. For Saul Goodman and Jimmy McGill, this neutering might as well be oblivion sans everything. But watching his demise is as irresistible as it is sad. (Declan Biswas-Hughes)
21) Boardwalk Empire
Boardwalk Empire may not have gained the popular acclaim of The Sopranos but that doesn’t change the fact that it is one of the best dramas of the last decade. Created by Sopranos producer Terence Winter, Boardwalk Empire is the show you recommend to fans of gangster films—and not just because the pilot episode was directed by Martin Scorsese but because no other show of its kind could top Boardwalk Empire’s production values. The pilot alone was made for a reported $18 million (the most expensive pilot in history to that point) and HBO did everything in their power to recruit the most talented filmmakers and cast to get the job done.
Thinking back, the show really does feel under-rated. It arrived at the dawn of a new decade, at a moment when it was clear to everyone that TV was changing in big ways, yet nobody knew yet how far television would come. Everything from the budget to the presence of Terence Winter to the big-name filmmakers attached to direct to the award-winning cast— made Boardwalk Empire feel like the first show to really give Hollywood films a run for their money. One could write an entire book about the cinematography and camerawork alone; the writing is impeccable; the costumes are beautiful; the sets are gorgeous, and the acting is across-the-board sublime. Even the music (something often overlooked) is great, and not just the opening track by The Brian Jonestown Massacre but the entire soundtrack composed by such artists as Regina Spektor, Leon Redbone, and Martha Wainwright, to name some. And did I forget to mention the large and incredibly talented cast, one of the best ensembles for any drama, ever! (Rick D)
20) Rick and Morty
Another cartoon that pushes the boundaries of what we expect from animation aimed at adults, Rick and Morty is a sci-fi show that follows the adventures of a genius scientist and his hapless grandson. Character-wise, Rick is probably going to become infamous in years to come in the same vein as Homer Simpson, Peter Griffin or Eric Cartman. An alcoholic with a genius intellect and very little moral boundaries, Rick’s reckless disregard for pretty much any form of life contrasts well with Morty’s inherently good nature (which seems to be diminishing as he spends more time with his grandfather Rick). Rick has the best one-liner out there (“Your boos mean nothing. I’ve seen what makes you cheer” is now my favourite quote of all time) and the contrast of his character with Morty works hilariously well as they embark upon various interdimensional excursions. The rest of the family have their moments too, with Morty’s parents Jerry and Beth (Beth being Rick’s daughter) having an insanely dysfunctional relationship and his sister Summer somehow rolling with the madness better than anyone. The show has an irreverent and often dark sense of humour that can at times seem genius and other times ridiculously random. Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland are also incredibly good at merging humour with relatable, emotional moments in a similar fashion to that of BoJack Horseman. Despite certain controversies surrounding the fans of the show (looking at you Szechuan sauce lunatics), Rick and Morty has well and truly cemented itself not only as one of the best shows of the decade but also one of the best-animated shows of all time. (Antonia Haynes)
Mike White’s Enlightened is the ultimate “ahead of its time” and “destined to be criminally underrated” series; despite critical acclaim for both of its seasons, Enlightened‘s short, 18-episode run was barely watched, and remains surprisingly absent from most conversations about the Era of Too Much Television.
Which is an absolute shame; led by Laura Dern’s stunning performance as the infuriating, inspiring Amy Jellicoe, Enlightened is perhaps the decade’s most poignant mediation on the state of modern living. After an epic breakdown and subsequent trip to anger rehab, Amy returns to her post-divorce, corporate-defined life with a new goal: to find her true self among the madness.
Straddling the line between comedy and drama, Enlightened was a challenging half-hour series, asking fundamental questions about society’s ills, through the lens of a woman firmly in the middle of an existential crisis, surrounded by people similarly stuck on the treadmill of corporate life, a melange of personalities that included White himself, Sarah Burns, and Timm Sharp, not to mention career-defining performances from both Molly Shannon and Luke Wilson.
Though intensely focused on Dern’s Amy and all her starkly defined strengths and weaknesses, Enlightened delivered some of the most impressive character studies of the decade with episodes like “Consider Helen” and “The Ghost Is Seen,” powerful anecdotes focused on supporting characters that echoed in the show’s central narrative.
A story of failure, resiliency, and finding peace, Enlightened remains one of the beautifully singular achievements of the decade, a combination of creative direction, performance, and writing that deservedly sits in the highest echelon of HBO’s library. (Randy Dankievitch)
Garish, gory, and totally uninhibited, Spartacus has never gotten its due – and it likely never will. The reasons for that aren’t difficult to diagnose: it aired on Starz, not exactly known as a hotbed for prestige television; its first season took a little while to get the heavily stylized dialogue right; most importantly, it simply did not look or feel like any of its more esteemed (and much better-funded) period cousins like HBO’s Rome. Most likely, many early viewers dismissed it as 300: The Series thanks to the slo-mo fight scenes and extreme levels of sex and violence. Those who stuck around, however, were rewarded with a humane, emotionally rich, and incredibly rousing series about the oldest struggle known to man: the battle for freedom from oppression. If that sounds like a lofty goal for a bloody bodice-ripper to take on, well, that’s the point: the tension between the series’ “low” style and its epic thematic scope is what made the show so special. That, and its huge number of larger-than-life performances, especially the respective season’s major villains. Lastly, it cannot be overstated just how incredible it is that the show lost its original Spartacus (Andy Whitfield) to cancer, bounced back with a prequel season that actually enhanced the series while they looked for a replacement, and successfully integrated their second Spartacus (Liam McIntyre) to pick up seamlessly where the first season left off. (Imagine what would have happened to Mad Men or Breaking Bad if Jon Hamm or Bryan Cranston had gotten hit by a bus after their first seasons!) Spartacus remains a tremendous achievement and one of the most complete narrative visions the medium has ever delivered, and for that, we can only say: gratitude! (Simon Howell)
It’s easy to overlook Girls in 2019. Lena Dunham isn’t the omnipresent cultural force she once was, and its principal cast has mostly gone on to take low-key roles or ditch acting altogether, with the lone exception being Allison Williams’ turns in Get Out and Netflix’s The Perfection. Still, it’s hard to overstate the show’s influence on comedic storytelling and TV more broadly. No Girls means no High Maintenance, no Broad City, no [insert your favorite millennial-antics-in-NYC show here]. But more importantly, Girls was, for most of its existence, one of the sharpest, funniest, and best-acted shows around, making fantastic use of the episodic format while never losing sight of its characters’ overall evolutions (or, just as often, their stubborn refusal to evolve). It wasn’t always the most consistent series – some seasons were plainly more successful than others – but its highs haven’t been matched by any of its supposed successors. And hey, it gave us Adam Driver, and for that, we are forever thankful. (Simon Howell)
While the legacy of Louie is now (understandably) tainted, it’s hard to imagine Donald Glover’s wondrous Atlanta getting to exist without it, and for this, we are thankful. Glover’s time spent as an actor/singer/rapper straddling multiple cultural currents while not quite belonging to any of them informs every aspect of the series’ ambivalent, distanced take on contemporary hip-hop culture, the value of “authenticity”, the hustle required to make a buck in any branch of the entertainment industry, and, yes, late capitalism. Like Louie, with which it shared a network and a similar sweetheart “what I say goes” deal, Atlanta gleefully swerved from goofy surrealism to open-hearted angst, often within the same episode. Unlike Louie, though, Atlanta never felt like a one-man show, despite owing so much to Glover’s experiences; Zazie Beetz, Lakeith Stanfield and especially Brian Tyree Henry all got wonderful material as remarkably distinct and beautifully realized characters, and Hiro Murai’s stylish, ice-cold direction was a great match for Glover’s cynical, wounded scripts. (Simon Howell)