Best TV of the Decade, from 2010 to 2019

It's been a great decade for TV, and that makes it it's tough to choose a list of best shows. But we'll try

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 14, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Better Call Saul, RuPaul's Drag Race, and Atlanta (Guy D'Alema/FX/Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel/VH1)
Better Call Saul, RuPaul's Drag Race, and Atlanta (Guy D'Alema/FX/Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Tel/VH1)

There are many different ways to evaluate the worth and meaning of a decade. Viewing it through the lens of what kind of entertainment it yielded is just one of them. But that single framework contains an intricately faceted galaxy of choices and interpretations owing to the explosive expansion of the medium.

The period between 2010 and 2019 was once defined by the term Peak TV, but that was before streaming platforms that did not yet exist leapt into our lives. Now the term feels inaccurate, if not outdated. Television shows no signs of peaking. Not yet.

There's a positive side to this: So many TV options means there was a lot of extraordinary TV to choose from. There's a surfeit of mediocrity along with that, of course, but even the act of sorting that chaff was pleasing. And I say this as a person who, need I remind you, dreads the annual tradition of year-end lists.

That means the usual caveats apply: One, all lists are subjective, and obviously this one is no different. Your absolute best show of all time may not be on this list. That doesn't mean it's not good; it merely didn't make my top 15.

Two, this list favors series that aired the majority of their episodes between January 1, 2010 and now, and premiered their first episodes close to 2010. This means you will not find two of the greatest series ever on this list: "Breaking Bad," which debuted in 2008,  and "Mad Men," which premiered in 2007.  I feel like their magnificence needs no further burnishing from the likes of me.

That said, they're shoo-ins on any list of best episodes of the last decade, which may be forthcoming. (FML.) For the same reason you're not going to find "BoJack Horseman" on my main list, or "Rick and Morty," "Archer" or "Bob's Burgers," even though I love those shows. Again, additional validation from me is not required. (Skip to the honorable mentions section to find them.)

Lastly: Why yes, I did indeed snub "Game of Thrones" — a groundbreaking work of technical brilliance buoyed by extraordinary characters and a few incredible performances, but one that was unevenly written and downright infuriating at times for a variety of reasons.

Still with me? Cool. Here we go.

15. "Downton Abbey," PBS. (2010-2015)

Who could have predicted that PBS' most popular scripted series in decades would grow into a full-blown international phenomenon over the course of the decade? Hindsight being 20/20, it bore all the markers of a broad-appealing TV hit: love, rivalry, reputation-shattering secrets and betrayals, all playing out through an old-fashioned upstairs- downstairs period piece about post- Victorian upper class life in Britain.

Differentiating "Downton Abbey" from the majority of its comparatively staider "Masterpiece" relatives is creator Julian Fellowes' crisp, shady wit, the lioness' share delivered by way of Maggie Smith's Dowager Countess, along with its thoughtful, elegant and quite fantastical examination of class dynamics.

In examining the ways that changing economic realities were leading to the decline of the aristocracy, it also navigated viewers through the servants quarters, their personal hopes and aspirations, and their own struggles to find their way in a quickly changing social landscape.   Fellowes gifted us this by way of touching portraits of humanity, even within the smallest interactions. No wonder the 2019 film set hearts aflutter: the reality of that era must have looked quite different and half as beautiful. But in this time of chaos and casual evil, one can't be blamed for taking refuge with the Crawleys.

14. "Hannibal," NBC (2013-2015)

Frankly it's amazing that the grisly, gorgeous world of Bryan Fuller's "Hannibal" made it to network television, let alone lasted for three seasons. There's no questioning why NBC brought it to primetime – Hannibal Lecter (seductively interpreted by Mads Mikkelsen) is one of the 20th century's most recognizable villains, and Fuller outdid himself in bringing him into the 21st.

Fuller treats the story and the fractured psyche of protagonist Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) as an opportunity to transform high definition TVs into a canvas, using every shade and CG trick imaginable to evoke simultaneous wonder, horror, repulsion and hunger. For as much as "Hannibal" is a stunning procedural, it is also, in its very twisted way, extraordinary gourmet food porn.

Leaves shivering on trees take on an ominous implication, but so does a tight focus on white cream swirling in sensuous tendrils through black coffee. Blood spatters become art, viscera becomes a still life – and somehow, queasily, the preparation of a victim's body part can look delicious. There may never be another show like it on TV . . . thank goodness?

13. "RuPaul's Drag Race," Logo/Vh1 (2009-?)

So what if RuPaul Charles and World of Wonder didn't exactly break the mold in the inventiveness department? (Basically it's the beautiful love child of "Project Runway" and "America's Next Top Model.") No other series has done more to celebrate and elevate the artistry of drag performance, along with turning a spotlight on the discrimination, trauma and injustice that LGBTQ people face simply for being true to themselves.

When "Drag Race" is at its best (i.e., in its early seasons) its contestants inspired viewers with their extraordinary artistry, slicing one-liners and wrenching vulnerability. But I'd also argue that its stumbles provided lessons, too. The series' tone-deafness on its treatment of transgender issues – its classic mailroom call being the worst example of that – mainstreamed the conversation about respecting trans men and women, and it's one of the earliest broadly-cast conversations I can recall that sparked awareness about gender identity and proper usage of pronouns. Putting aside its political relevance and appeal, it's simply a series that inspires everyone who watches to feel better, do better, and love themselves. Because if you can't love yourself, how in the hell you gonna love somebody else?

12. "Parks and Recreation," NBC (2009-2015)

Modern workplace comedies don't usually get many points for sweet earnestness. Nevertheless, these very qualities fuel this NBC comedy that gifted us with idealist Leslie Knope, Amy Poehler's cheerfully, solutions-driven bureaucrat who went to ridiculous lengths to do the right thing and keep her loved ones happy – a desire to spread goodness that eventually leads her to seek office.

But the stalwart, prematurely grizzled Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) is the cement that holds the Pawnee Parks Department gang together through every development in Leslie's political life, even after she meets and falls in love with Ben Wyatt (Adam Scott).

"Parks" boasted a broad ensemble of actors who have achieved greater fame since the show went off the air, including Retta, Rashida Jones, Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza, and Chris Pratt. What keeps people returning to the series, or seeking it out for a first look,  is its relentless faith in people like Leslie who deeply believe they were put on Earth to make their small corner of it more efficient, fairer and better.

11. "The Good Place," NBC (2016-2019)

Our Michael Schur tribute section continues with the "Parks & Recreation" creator's next mission to bring joy into the universe, and a true surprise in the realm of broadcast TV: an afterlife comedy starring Kristen Bell, Ted Danson, D'Arcy Carden, William Jackson Harper, Jameela Jamil, and Manny Jacinto as a group of misfits traveling through realities on an odyssey to find redemption – first for their souls and now, for all of humanity.

"The Good Place" really shouldn't work as a network comedy. Its existential themes quote moral philosophy and play out their principles week by week, eventually stumbling upon some of the bigger existential quandaries of our time. And yet it does work due to the writers' commitment to keeping the story bound and rooted to very simple truths – that we are connected to each other, that even the worst of us are capable of becoming better versions of ourselves, and all that we owe to each other is our best efforts to be good.

. . . Damn, I'm going to miss this show.

10. "Atlanta," FX (2016-?)

Donald Glover holds the unique position of starring in two of the decade's best half-hours. Granting a place to this one over "Community" feels right, owing to Glover's willingness to shatter the thematic restrictions of what a half-hour must be.

Where the first season feels like a dreamy cinema verité comedy about struggling hip-hop artists in Atlanta, Season 2 raises the bar with its "Robbin' Season," a series of stories in which its characters are robbed time and again, materially or figuratively.

Glover's Earn can only take his ambition so far in an industry and a country that limits the social and economic ascension of black Americans to a select few. Lakeith Stanfield's Darius finds creative solutions to circumventing those barriers, but even those sometimes trap him in a murder house. Zazie Beetz's Van struggles between her love for Earn, the father of her child, and her need to transcend the limits of their small circle. And Brian Tyree Henry's Alfred wants his hip-hop career to flourish but is unwilling to sacrifice the truth of who he is.

For these reasons I referred to "Robbin' Season" as a translator that demystifies and explains the black experience to white viewers, but honestly that applies to the entire series. FX has picked up a third and fourth season of the series, but it has been on hiatus since 2018 – and is one of the few series whose absence has been felt.

9. "The Good Wife, " CBS (2009-2016)

Robert and Michelle King introduced the world to Julianna Margulies' Alicia Florrick in the wake of a number of scandals involving philandering politicians and the accompanying photos of the dutiful spouses standing by them. In our post-Stormy Daniels world, the fact that we found such political dish scandalous feels quaint somehow.

Soon enough, Alicia pushes her husband out of the spotlight as she throws a few haymakers in the law firm where she returns to work; in the media that seeks to paint her as either a fool or a corroborator, with a man who compromised his office (again, it was another time!) and at home, where her marriage enters a precarious new period. Between Margulies, Chris Noth, Christine Baranski, and Archie Panjabi's quietly intimidating investigator Kalinda Sharma, the performances make this drama one of best of its time.

8. "The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story," FX (2016)

Each best of the decade list is subjective, but from my point of view it is impossible to refrain from including Ryan Murphy's first installment in his "American Crime Story" anthology series. On the ephemeral end it provides us a fleeting look at what my predecessor coyly refers to as the origin story of the Kardashians, the modern era's most resilient reality TV family and brand.

But although the series premiered nearly 22 years after O.J. Simpson's fateful Bronco chases, it came to us only two years after the fatal shooting of teenager Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson sparked waves of protests in Ferguson, Mo.

Simpson's murder trial, as portrayed by a cast led by Cuba Gooding Jr. as O.J. Simpson; Sarah Paulson and Sterling K. Brown as prosecutors Marcia Clark and Christopher Darden – and with Courtney B. Vance, David Schwimmer, and John Travolta as defense attorneys Johnnie Cochran, Robert Kardashian, and Robert Shapiro, respectively – dominated news headlines for more than a year. It is credited for juicing up the 24-hour cable news industry and tabloid journalism. The long view of history also marks it as the modern era's first major example of the inequities within the justice system and lingering animus surrounding race relations, wealth disparity, and the public's dismissal of domestic violence.

These elements nimbly play out within "The People v. O.J. Simpson's" 10 episodes alongside issues such as gender and cultural bias in the workplace, and intra-racial tension within the African-American community. And if we'd been paying attention, we might also have seen it as a predictor of how the coming years might shape up.

7. "Justified," FX (2010-2015)

In spinning off a character from a short story by Elmore Leonard, executive producer Graham Yost created one of the most intriguing exciting lawmen on television: Raylan Givens. But it took Timothy Olyphant's quietly fierce performance to take the U.S. Marshal Givens beyond a mere ode to Western-style justice and into the modern age.

Olyphant and the writers left room for Givens to grow beyond simple anger into a world-weariness one; to read it, the difference may seem subtle, but Olyphant makes it palpable through his numerous clashes with local criminal Boyd Crowder (Walton Goggins) and his many ways of frustrating his boss Art Mullen (Nick Searcy). Equal to Raylan's glorious smolder are the villains he faced, none more fascinating than Margo Martindale's mining town crime boss Mags Bennett.

Martindale made Mags easy to like but dangerous to trust, and her contentious face-offs with Raylan, rooted in an intergenerational rivalry between her family and his, often began with friendly conversation and, perhaps, an offer to sample Mags' legendary Apple Pie moonshine. Like the woman herself, the drink occasionally masked a deadly poison. That did not stop people from agreeing to a glass of it – and wanting more long after she was gone.

6."Insecure," HBO (2016-?)

Issa Rae is far from the first YouTube star to cross over to TV, but she might be one of the most creative and emotionally intelligent web series stars to make a mark in the auteur TV space.

The ongoing adventures of Issa, her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji) and the cast of friends surrounding them helped establish a forum for the voices of young black women to be heard, appreciated and more than this, understood. Considering that TV has tended to favor the stories of single white women over and over again, Rae's honest and bracingly hilarious stories are refreshing and somewhat revolutionary.

At the same time, Rae and her writers refuse to shy away from the realities facing black professionals in larger cities such as Los Angeles, where traditional outposts for black culture are gentrifying hastily, leaving fewer affordable places for 20-somethings like Issa to live. Where the characters on "Girls" have the luxury of navel-gazing and finding themselves, Issa and Molly have to focus on forward movement.

Nevertheless, "Insecure" finds insistent joy in contemplating the direction Issa and Molly are taking, together and separately, in stories blessed by stunning cinematography and an addictive soundtrack.

5. "Rectify," Sundance TV (2013-2016)

Sundance's first original scripted series lasted four seasons, each one of them a gift – in no small part owing to the fact that it was so low rated that the cable channel would have been well within its rights to cancel it.

Sometimes a piece of art is so powerful that the usual business concerns take a back seat. So it was, thankfully, with Ray McKinnon's story of Aden Young's Daniel Holden, a man imprisoned as a teenager for the rape and murder of his 16-year-old girlfriend, Hanna, and left lingering on death row until his sentence is vacated nearly two decades later.

"Rectify" is a family story and a redemption tale merged into a complex and lovely tale that intersects reality and doubt. Daniel's life is an ethereal, dreamlike place that crashes in uncomfortable ways against the stony brutality of his hometown's suspicion. It ended in a place of uncertainty and benediction for its characters.

As I previously wrote, "that it existed at all — and leaves four tremendous seasons to savor and contemplate — is its own lovely blessing."

4. "Better Call Saul," AMC (2015-?)

A shared theme among some of the best series in recent years is the concept of redemption. Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould's "Breaking Bad" prequel show us what happens when a man like Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill finds his every effort to become a better man thwarted.

But that doesn't only apply to Jimmy, either. In the most recent season Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler became a fan favorite simply by playing the stand-in for people everywhere who devote themselves to hard work and have little to show for it.

Whether Slippin' Jimmy is pushed down by his pathologically envious and sadistic brother Chuck (Michael McKean) or cannot help but succumb to his addiction to grifting, viewers somehow never lose their taste for the guy, even though we all know what kind of man Jimmy is destined to become.

And in choosing to end its current season with a scene that reveals us all to be his marks, the series creators place "Better Call Saul" in the minuscule league of spinoffs that very well may end up being better than the series from which it originates.

3. "Fleabag," Amazon. (2016-2019)

What an amazing double act. In its first season Phoebe Waller-Bridge introduces us to her heroine whose true name is never mentioned, and sells us on the image she projects as a cool, nihilistic sex machine. By actively seducing us by breaking the fourth wall in the middle of conversations to reveal what she's really thinking, she makes us accomplices to her willful insouciance, making the finale's reveal utterly gutting.

How on earth does a woman follow that? With a redemption story that leaves us in a state of grace and affirmed in our humanity. And Fleabag achieves this by, yes, romantically pursuing a Hot Priest. The attraction here is less about the taboo nature of her focused desire but the realization that Fleabag and Hot Priest (played by Andrew Scott) share a level of true affection few people ever experience. Not only does he see through her B.S., he can also tell when she's breaking the fourth wall to confide in the unseen viewer, robbing her of any emotional hiding place.

Left with no choice but to be genuine and honest with each other, the pair surrender to the inevitable truth that sometimes the most divine aspects of living, like finding true love, are more important than adhering to dogma. And in its sacrilegious way, this makes "Fleabag" one of the television's most sacred works of, if not humanism, then maybe the church of the human heart.

 2. "The Americans," FX (2013-2018)

FX's '80s-era Cold War spy thriller came on the scene before Russia interfered in our elections and the current president declared his love for its leader Vladimir Putin. A nostalgic soundtrack, retro wardrobe, and one of the craziest wig collections TV has ever seen in action granted it a certain kitsch factor. But the seriousness with which Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields treated it as a study of a marriage under pressure for Keri Russell's Elizabeth Jennings and Matthew Rhys' Phillip Jennings bestowed a certain timelessness upon it.

And their effort to walking that finest of lines between loyalty to their family, especially their children, and loyalty to Mother Russia led them to do terrible things. To survive, yes, but sometimes to achieve vengeance. Quite often the deaths in the series felt sudden, heartless, and cruel, constantly reminding the viewer that this drama is as far from a romance as one can get.

Even so, it managed to tie up the story that remained true to the series' original intentions while serving up a couple of painful surprises, a feat few series manage to pull off.

1. "The Leftovers," HBO (2014-2017)

How can I summarize this show's brilliance differently from how I have already? I can't , so why not just repeat: This is the first drama to capture, directly and metaphorically, what it's like to grieve on a massive scale, in all its horror and humor and wonder and gloom.

And what is the story of our time if not one of worldwide grieving? Of course that's the story of any year – light and loss are always present, and to know this is to embrace the sting and glory of being human.

Memorable episodes of "The Leftovers" take on a dreamlike and even an unapologetic silliness, but the soul of this series is feeling. And I mean feeling it all – joy and complete despair, confusion and absolute anger. What it leaves us with in the end is the choice of what to do with those feelings, and the knowledge that even if there is some way to connect with the people we lose, sometimes the kinder move is to find comfort and closeness with the people who are with us now, whether they be at an arm's length or on the other side of the world, hiding in the Australian wilderness.

"We can't just be going through all of this for nothing," a character blurts out, maybe echoing some frustration about the series or maybe simply speaking a truth about the human condition. The beautiful message of this series is that it doesn't offer any solid answers, only the invitation to find our own reasons.

Obligatory shout-out:

"Terriers," FX (2010)

One of the mottos the heroes of this shaggy dog P.I. series adopted was that they were "too small to fail." Sadly it did: "Terriers" is a one-season wonder, canceled due to depressingly low ratings. It also happens to one of the most consistently smart, surprising, and heartbreaking little shows to ever grace the small screen, thanks to stellar performances by stars Michael Raymond-James and Donal Logue. We'll never know what it could have become . . . but we hope more people have a chance to appreciate what it was.

Very honorable mentions: "Key & Peele," Comedy Central. "Broad City," Comedy Central. "Drunk History," Comedy Central. "BoJack Horseman," Netflix. "Orange is the New Black," Netflix. "Spartacus," Starz." "Banshee," Cinemax. "Portlandia," IFC. "Luther," BBC America. "Orphan Black," BBC America. "Rick and Morty," Adult Swim. "Archer," FX. "Better Things," FX. "Boardwalk Empire," HBO. "Bob's Burgers," Fox.

We had some good times for a while there: "The Walking Dead," AMC. "Game of Thrones," HBO. "Revenge," ABC. "Pretty Little Liars," ABC Family.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland