The 10 Best TV Shows of the Decade

6:45 AM 11/29/2019

by Daniel Fienberg

The Hollywood Reporter’s chief TV critic picks his favorites, including a trio of powerhouse AMC dramas, a couple of boundary-pushing auteur comedies and a network gem that overcame a bad first season to achieve greatness.

Photofest (3)

It was the Breaking Bad of times, it was the Mixology of times. It was the age of Louie, it was the age of Louis C.K. It was the epoch of BoJack Horseman, it was the epoch of Family Guy. It was the season of Hannibal, it was the season of The Following. It was the spring of Fleabag, it was the winter of H8R. We had everything before us. We had nothing before us.

No decade has ever produced more great television than the '10s, but probably no decade has ever produced more awful television.

The parameters for this Top 10 list, which surely would change if I had to rewrite it in a week, are simple: Episodes airing between Jan. 1, 2010 and Dec. 31, 2019 are eligible, regardless of when the shows themselves premiered. So Mad Men is eligible, but its first three seasons don't count.

  • 10. Better Things

    Pamela Littky/FX

    When the decade began, you'd have called Pamela Adlon a respected comedic character actor and voiceover MVP. Ten years later, her FX half-hour dramedy, fictional in the broad strokes but marginally semiautobiographical in some of the intimate moments and details, has marked her as one of the small screen's boldest multihyphenate voices. She's a writer of unflinching honesty and unflagging insight, whether she's tackling family dynamics or the frustrating impotence women of a certain age still feel in the entertainment industry. She's a director of consummate sensitivity — check out the performances she has gotten from remarkable young co-stars Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward — and astounding confidence shifting between tones. And she remains a great actress, giving herself the opportunity to display a range nobody else was tapping. In three seasons packed with highlights, the graduation dance that capped the second season should make any list of the decade's best single scenes.

  • 9. Atlanta

    FX Networks/Photofest

    Perhaps the only thing keeping Donald Glover's brash and confident FX masterpiece from a higher place on this list is volume. After all, before Glover could launch his boundary-and-genre-pushing series, he had to win fans as co-star of another of the decade's more innovative shows (Community) and carve out a side career as a well-regarded rapper and musician. With Atlanta, Glover — along with regular collaborators including director Hiro Murai, writer-brother Stephen Glover and frequent scribe Stefani Robinson — has created an intimate comic epic, capable of presenting a full slate of satirical programming for a fictional cable network one week, tackling unspoken racial dynamics the next week and willing to spend a full half-hour with a mysterious Michael Jackson-esque recluse in an episode that FX wisely aired without commercial interruption. Atlanta is whatever Glover wants it to be and perhaps his greatest challenge is finding a way to provide showcases for powerhouse co-stars Brian Tyree Henry, Lakeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz. 

  • 8. The Leftovers

    HBO

    The first season of Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta's HBO adaptation of Perrotta's novel is an astonishing feat of viewer alienation, an uncomfortable, harrowing and frequently miserable attempt to scare off audiences who thought they were getting some kind of twisty, sci-fi style mythology about the disappearance of 2 percent of the world's population. Lindelof was always more interested in the impact on those who were left behind — the theme song of the second season explicitly told viewers to "let the mystery be" — and as the show moved forward, it got better and better, becoming a deeper and more emotional meditation on grief and loss, but also a celebration of the process of going on living. It was a show that could be unfathomably weird — "International Assassin" is perhaps a better episode of Twin Peaks than David Lynch's Showtime Twin Peaks revival. It could also be ridiculously funny and joyful — I give you Regina King and Carrie Coon jumping on a trampoline to the Wu-Tang Clan. The cast, from Coon to King to Justin Theroux to Christopher Eccleston to Ann Dowd to Kevin Carroll to Scott Glenn, was impeccable and, as it moved from New York to Texas to a final season spent mostly in Australia, it was a true three-season journey.

  • 7. Halt and Catch Fire

    AMC

    Hampered slightly by a confusing title and a somewhat unearned reputation for "starting slow," AMC’s Halt and Catch Fire is one of the more confusing "victims" of the Peak TV era — a great show that was nearly ignored as it was airing, yet still lasted four seasons, leaving a perfect record for audiences who will discover it on streaming and wonder why they didn't get to it sooner. Perhaps the problem was the mistaken impression that the series was basically Mad Men with computers and Lee Pace was playing another version of Don Draper. This was not the case, because as anybody who watched will tell you, as great as Pace and Scoot McNairy were, the series belong to Mackenzie Davis and Kerry Bishé and its depiction of female friendship was second to none. The events of Halt and Catch Fire — created by Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers and initially run by Jonathan Lisco — took place over more than 10 years, but despite the jumping through time, it never felt choppy. Quite the opposite. Driven by a commitment to character, Halt and Catch Fire gained more and more emotional heft with each passing season and every tear I shed in the final three or four episodes felt completely earned.

  • 6. Bojack Horseman

    Netflix

    Like more than a few critics, I was slightly dismissive of Raphael Bob-Waksberg's animated Netflix series after an initial batch of episodes stopping after the first season's fifth episode. Sure, it was a cute and funny and frequently smart Hollywood satire in a world occupied simultaneously by humans, animals and Jessica Biel. But was it great? Nah. Apologies. I couldn't have predicted the searing betrayals of "Escape From L.A." in the second season, the dialogue-free audaciousness of "Fish Out of Water" and the heartbreak of "That's Too Much, Man!" in the third season, the play on memory and trauma in "Time's Arrow" in the fourth season or the episode-long eulogy/monologue that was "Free Churro" in the fifth season. Yes, Bojack Horseman continued to be a delight filled with freeze-frame sight gags, endless pun-strings and delicious Biel humor — she killed and ate Zach Braff, for goodness sake! — but it evolved as a complex depiction of depression, addiction and clinging to human connection, even if you're a horse or a dog or a cat. Much credit to Lisa Hanawalt, who gave the show its colorful and whimsical look, and to an amazing vocal cast led by Will Arnett, Alison Brie, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris, Paul F. Tompkins and truly too many others to list.

  • 5. 30 for 30

    Courtesy ESPN Films

    The first seven films in ESPN's landmark documentary series, meant to honor the sports network's 30th anniversary, premiered in 2009, but Bill Simmons and Connor Schell's ambitious project only accelerated in depth as it moved into the next decade. The franchise's 2010 installments include Dan Klores' ridiculously fun Winning Time, Steve James' provocative No Crossover, Brett Morgen's audacious archive-fueled June 17th, 1994 and, best of all, Jeff Zimbalist and Michael Zimbalist's The Two Escobars, a two-hour examination of Colombia's soccer and drug industries that, for several years, marked the best illustration of the series' wide-ranging potential. Then came 2016's 30 for 30 miniseries event O.J.: Made in America. Over five parts and a whopping 467 minutes, Ezra Edelman's documentary started with O.J. Simpson and delivered nothing less than a 30-year snapshot of our country's fraught relationship with race, fame, sports and justice, the places they intersect, the places they bring us together and the ways they can tear us apart. In short, it's America in documentary form. All on its own, O.J.: Made in America could have made this list, but no matter what Oscar voters think, it's a piece of an ongoing TV project, the best thing ESPN has ever been involved with.

  • 4. Breaking Bad

    Ursula Coyote/AMC

    Taking the first two seasons of Vince Gilligan's AMC thriller out of the equation for best-of-decade purposes still leaves us with the impossibly tense third season, featuring the breathless terror of "One Minute" and the indelible bottle episode "Fly," and a fourth season that may have my favorite mid-run finale of all time with the cheeky "Face Off." And it builds to the second half of a fifth season climaxing in "Ozymandias," as good a TV episode as you'll ever see. Losing those first two seasons for best-of-the-decade consideration takes away a little of Bryan Cranston's all-timer performance turning Walter White, as Gilligan has frequently said, from Mr. Chips into Scarface and some of the arc that saw Jesse Pinkman go from semi-comic nuisance to series conscience. But Cranston and Aaron Paul still earned every one of their awards, as did unfairly maligned Anna Gunn and the unjustly Emmy-free Dean Norris, Jonathan Banks and Giancarlo Esposito. Then Gilligan and Breaking Bad producer Peter Gould went and spun Breaking Bad off with Better Call Saul and, against all odds, made a series that was very nearly as good.

  • 3. Mad Men

    Carin Baer/AMC

    In its own lifetime, Matthew Weiner's advertising opus was never underrated, but my sense is that owing to memory and some outside factors, it may become just a hair overlooked. The first three seasons of Mad Men aired in the '00s and put the AMC show comfortably in my Top 5 for that decade. But let's not sell short that the majority of the series actually aired in the '10s, starting with a fourth season that is surely among my favorite runs of 13 episodes ever, peaking with "The Suitcase," another of those installments required to be on every list of the decade's best episodes. With "Far Away Places," "The Other Woman" and "Commissions and Fees," the fifth season isn't far behind. Even the final season — criticized in some circles for the sort of self-indulgence that would torpedo Weiner's lone post-Mad Men project, Amazon's The Romanoffs — is still a run of episodes full of highlights and fitting sendoffs for the ridiculously great ensemble headed by Jon Hamm, Elisabeth Moss, Christina Hendricks, John Slattery, Vincent Kartheiser and January Jones.

  • 2. Rectify

    Jackson Lee Davis/Sundance

    I've never been able to adequately convince people to watch Ray McKinnon's miraculous SundanceTV original, because as much as I want to give it a flashy, sexy description — "After 18 years on Death Row, a man is released from prison and returns home determined to clear his name!" — I invariably end up talking about how Rectify is actually an indescribable blend of Southern gothic and poetry, a sincere exploration of faith and redemption that somehow was ignored by religious advocacy groups who whine about how their interests are never depicted on TV. Rectify is slow and meditative and avoids easy answers at every turn, so even if I could sell it to you as a John Grisham-esque legal thriller, I'd be doing it and you a real disservice. Better to rave about Aden Young's lead performance, heartbreaking and deadpan and expressing a world of emotion in halting silence. Better to salute an ensemble featuring Abigail Spencer, Clayne Crawford, Adelaide Clemens and J. Smith Cameron. Better to just tell you that no matter how familiar it sounds or no matter which of my chosen keywords scare you off, Rectify is something unique and nourishing and odd. A thing we were blessed to have for 30 episodes.

  • 1. Parks and Recreation

    Courtesy of Photofest

    If, following the criteria for this list, Breaking Bad and Mad Men were hindered by losing beloved episodes to the '00s, Parks and Recreation is the big winner. Let the '00s have the sloppy first season and even the start of the vastly improved second season. The '10s run of Parks and Recreation, featuring 107 of the show's 125 episodes, starts halfway through the second season, includes a 16-episode third season that borders on utter perfection and carries the show through to its satisfying end. In a decade that continued the Golden Age of prestige TV anti-heroes, creator Mike Schur cemented his place as TV's great and enduring optimist, somebody who wanted to see the potential in government as the Obama Era ended and the Trump Era loomed. Like Frank Capra, Schur is fundamentally hopeful and led by his heart, but his shows have never been obliviously pie-in-the-sky. Leslie Knope's (Amy Poehler) Pawnee was a town awash in impediments and complications and even her co-workers presented speed bumps aplenty. Yet the series carried along with the profound belief that people, working together, can make things better for each other and for the world. The decade surely didn't lack for dark and tormented shows, so let's top this list with one that's full of hope and heart and humor.

     

    My 10 runners-up: Fargo, Fleabag, Review, The Americans, Better Call Saul, Orange Is the New Black, Game of Thrones, Hannibal, Justified, Louie