What were the best 15 television shows of the last 10 years? Read on as Entertainment Weekly TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich talk about their respective lists.
DARREN: What an honor, Kristen, to be a couple of television critics writing about our favorite shows of the decade. Quick question, trusty colleague: What is television, exactly? The 2010s transformed the medium beyond obvious definition. Anthologies and limited series ran alongside ever-more-serialized longforms. New platforms launched meganetworks of scripted programming. Dramas could be half an hour long, comedies would break your heart, episode budgets skyrocketed, and movie people wanted to be TV people.
My No. 15 show reflects all the brave new new possibilities of the small screen — even as it warns us toward constant terror about our digital age. Black Mirror launched in the U.K. back in 2011, a gone time of Silicon Optimism, when iPhones were still a newish toy and social media was going to save the world. And the debut three-episode season of Charlie Brooker’s techno-freakout remains the gold standard for breathtakingly right-now science-fiction storytelling, inventing end-world internet paranoia half a decade before that feeling went mainstream. Later seasons have gotten bigger, starrier, and messier, and the worst Black Mirror still has something sharp and humane to say about the state we’ve found ourselves in. (Available on Netflix)
KRISTEN: At your urging, Darren, I’ve watched exactly one episode of Black Mirror — simply because I’m too afraid to watch more. But my No. 15 show also represents the infinite possibilities of what TV can do, both as a medium for storytelling and as a vehicle for truth. This decade has been a boon for documentary series like Making a Murderer, 30 for 30, and Surviving R. Kelly, but for me the most fascinating and fiercely original docuseries this decade was Leah Remini: Scientology and the Aftermath. In 2013, the actress left Scientology after more than 30 years, and since then she’s devoted a great deal of her life to exposing the so-called church and its wide-ranging alleged abuses of its members. (Let me stop here and say that representatives for Scientology deny all their claims and contend that Remini is a religious bigot.)
Historically Scientology has sued, smeared, and harassed anyone who criticized its organization — which makes Remini’s decision to front this series all the more impressive and brave. The show delivered more than 37 hours of riveting, horrifying, and incredibly emotional interviews with former members who detail countless tales of alleged abuse — families forced to “disconnect” from each other, members being denied proper treatment for psychiatric or substance abuse issues, children doing hard labor rather than attending school, just to name just a few. And through it all Remini owns up to her own long history with this organization, how she gave them millions of dollars and defended it in the press for years. Aftermath was a remarkably effective use of a celebrity platform that also managed to be completely engrossing. (Available on Hulu)
DARREN: I’m too afraid to watch any of Aftermath, so huzzah to Remini for plumbing those horrific depths. My No. 14 show left-turns us toward more lighthearted fare, although HBO’s Insecure became the best friends-hanging-out sitcom of the decade by balancing its sparkly comedic sensibility with a complicated emotional palette. Co-creator Issa Rae stars as Issa, a woman striving professionally and personally for something more. I cherish the very-early-thirtysomething confusion that motivates a lot of the central tensions between Issa and best friend Molly (radiant Yvonne Orji), and with Issa’s onetime boyfriend Lawrence (Jay Ellis). Mainly, though, I admire how Rae and showrunner Prentice Penny have crafted such a playfully specific ensemble atmosphere: girl-group trips to Malibu winepocalypses and lost Coachella weekends, awkward hookups caught between sincere romance and renegade lust, lush Los Angeles and workaday Los Angeles shot with style and substance. Insecure successfully makes millennial confusion look aspirational. (Available on HBO)
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KRISTEN: Yes! The best comedies create a world that viewers want to visit, and while the setting for my No. 14 show isn’t as glamorous as Insecure’s Los Angeles, I still loved spending time there every week. Based in the fictional town of Pawnee, Indiana (home of the 512-ounce “child-size” soda), NBC’s Parks and Recreation follows tirelessly optimistic public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) and her enjoyably quirky co-workers. Created by Greg Daniels and Michael Schur (who perfected the awkward workplace comedy with NBC’s The Office), Parks & Rec balanced grounded stories about goodhearted people doing their best with hilariously cartoonish high jinks (are Jean-Ralphio and Mona Lisa Saperstein TV’s best siblings? Discuss) and frank, funny debates about the role of government in modern society. (Available on Hulu)
DARREN: And what I loved about Parks & Recreation was how it turned Pawnee into such a rich world unto itself. Something similar happened in No. 13, FX’s Justified, a contemporary Western set around a multiverse of criminality lifeblooding the economic ruin of Harlan County, Kentucky. As U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens, Timothy Olyphant is an outlaw’s son who not-so-secretly enjoys the violent requirements of cleaning up his hometown. Raylan’s eternal opposite number is Boyd Crowder, a local boy gone hysterically bad whom Walton Goggins played with joyful gusto and shades of poignance. Showrunner Graham Yost adapted the dark skulldugger comedy of Elmore Leonard into six seasons that recaptured the lost promise of the Good Solid Procedural. Episode-of-the-week plots blended into an ever-expanding lineup of baddies (character actress Margo Martindale!) and a larger tale of a mining town gone to generational seed. Justified was never flashy and always witty, which means it will outlast all the narcissistic fables of highbro gun-totery that dominated TV crime this decade. Put another way: It broke badder, with truer detectives. (Available on Amazon Prime)
KRISTEN: Let’s keep the theme of law and order going, Darren. My No. 13 show, Rectify, begins with Daniel Holden (Aden Young) being released from prison after nearly two decades on death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. Though the question of his guilt still lingers — Daniel doesn’t remember the details of that night — Rectify isn’t so much interested in solving the mystery as it is exploring what it means to live with the unknown. Over the course of four seasons, this dreamy, philosophical drama created by Ray McKinnon followed the many tendrils of Daniel’s story as they wound through the fictional town of Paulie, Georgia, where Daniel, his family, and the town itself tried to construct some kind of peace. Rectify ended in 2016, but it’s especially rewarding to watch (or rewatch) today, as so much of its cast — including Timeless’ Abigail Spencer (as Daniel’s sister, Amantha), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel’s Luke Kirby (as Daniel’s lawyer, Jon), and Succession’s J. Smith-Cameron (as Daniel’s mom, Janet) — went on to peak-TV fame. (Available on Netflix)
DARREN: So much danger in these small towns! You know what else was dangerous this decade? The whole world, which was the macro setting for my No. 12, the sacred Sunday night ritual that is Last Week Tonight With John Oliver. What sets Oliver apart from a whole generation of political comedians influenced directly or indirectly by Jon Stewart is how hard he works to expand the focus of news-riff comedy beyond quick-hit gags and clap-bait cheap shots. Individual episode subjects are famously non-topical (until Last Week Tonight makes them topical). Recent standouts include a brief history of the filibuster, a closer look at the sorry state of Mount Everest, an insightful explanation of the show’s own lawsuit troubles, and a brutally hilarious takedown of the president of Turkmenistan’s decadent vanity. Also, yes, jokes about vain Trumplings and dumbo Brexiteers. I guess you could say Oliver is biased, but the rigid focus on in-depth research runs alongside a willingness to balance personal biography and a thrillingly punk-comic sensibility, with elaborate pranks (he created his own church as a tax dodge!) in the sweet spot between brainy, silly, and righteously irate. (Available on HBO)
KRISTEN: Agreed about Last Week Tonight — even the production values on their musical number about coal CEO Bob Murray were Emmy-worthy. My No. 12 show is a sketch comedy from two equally passionate writer-performers. With Comedy Central’s Key & Peele, former Mad TV players Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele created a show that was endlessly, wonderfully silly (four words: East/West College Bowl), and also brilliantly examined broader themes of race, pop culture, and politics without ever being strident or pedantic. While sketch shows are notoriously uneven, Key & Peele had a remarkably high laugh-per-episode ratio, and the show still holds up years later. Their best sketches demonstrate the duo’s remarkable technical craft, from the elaborate physical comedy of “Liam Neesons” to the verbal (and literal) theatricality of “Othello.” (“If a brother killed himself every time he broke up with a white bitch, this world would be bereft of brothers!”) Five years after it went off the air, Key & Peele is still my go-to when I need a guaranteed laugh. (Available on Hulu)
DARREN: I’m in tears just thinking about their hyperbolic Les Miserables parody. Speaking of hyperbole: Ryan Murphy!!!! Everything the megaproducer does requires extra exclamation points, and no single season of his far-flung projects captured his ravenous roidcamp sensibility better than my No. 11, American Horror Story: Asylum. The crazyhouse opera flavorblasted the anthology with disparate scares: aliens and Satan, spooky nuns under the same roof as a Nazi experimenter and a serial killer. Then came the biggest shock: a sensitive tale of human beings struggling against the prison of society itself. Sarah Paulson rose to stardom off her turn as investigative journalist Lana Winters, and Jessica Lange corroded marvelously as the imperious-yet-fragile Sister Jude. A Killer Santa, a skinlamp, some homophobic aversion therapy, a woman who might be Anne Frank, an electroshock musical number, a prologue where Adam Levine loses his arm: yes, definably A LOT, and later seasons of AHS went full-bore into kooky-crazy excess. I love Asylum most because it’s such a coherent, gleefully malicious vision of retro America as a torture chamber of repression. (Available on Amazon Prime)
KRISTEN: Gah, I’m still haunted by the image of Asylum’s legless, syphilitic Nazi experiment victim Shelly (Chloe Sevigny) desperately crawling toward daylight. My No. 11 showcases the battle between good and evil too, but the war is waged in the heart and soul of one man. Better Call Saul charts Jimmy McGill’s evolution from small-time New Mexico lawyer to Breaking Bad’s attorney-to-the-drug-dealing-stars, Saul Goodman.
While it takes place in the same big-sky New Mexico universe that brought us Walter White, the prequel from Vince Gilligan tells a quieter, more relatable tale about brothers, redemption, and the unadulterated thrill of breaking society’s rules. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy is a man forever overshadowed by and desperate for approval from his older brother Chuck (Michael McKean), and that mix of longing and resentment ultimately calcifies into criminal ambition. Though Saul’s most recent season spent a little too much time tromping through Breaking Bad territory, the show can still turn small moments — like Rhea Seehorn’s Kim listening to Jimmy read a letter from Chuck — into devastating drama. (Seasons 1-3 available on Netflix)
DARREN: Yeah, Better Call Saul still has a prequel asterisk for me, though it’s a marvelous collection of talent. My No. 10 show is a different kind of talent showcase, with two great comedians pinballing improvisations off each other. The Trip launched as a BBC miniseries in 2010. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon play themselves, two funnymen with divergent careers. Coogan’s the gasbag icon long gone to Hollywood, while Brydon’s an approachable Welshman whom grandmas love meeting. The first series sends them on a restaurant tour of northern England. It’s a travelogue where most of the action is meal-adjacent. They talk seriously about getting older, and then they steer away from serious conversation with spot-on impressions of Michael Caine, Al Pacino, and various James Bonds.
The Trip appeared on these shores edited into feature length, and then the pair reunited for the masterful Trip to Italy and the trickily acidic Trip to Spain, which also got chopped into theatrical features Stateside. (The Trip to Greece is on the horizon.) Seek out the episode versions, I beg you: Director Michael Winterbottom finds an unique rhythm, intellectually seeking with a touch of romantic melancholy. Brydon and Coogan capture the spiky closeness of middle-aged friendship, torn between egotist peacockery and genuine feeling. Serenity for me is watching these two drive around coastal Italy, quoting Wordsworth and Coleridge, listening to Alanis Morrissette’s Jagged Little Pill. (Season 1 available to purchase on Amazon, seasons 2-3 never properly released in the United States, which is why I watched them legally in the United Kingdom, of course)
KRISTEN: “Meal-adjacent action” is my favorite kind of action, Darren, so I’m definitely adding The Trip to my “stuff to watch” list. My No. 10 show falls into the reality-comedy hybrid genre as well. In 2014, HBO ordered a second season of Lisa Kudrow and Michael Patrick King’s hilarious showbiz-satire-slash-tragicomedy The Comeback, nine years after it first went off the air. The show follows Kudrow’s Valerie Cherish, a former ’90s sitcom star who, in the first season, tries to revive her career with a dopey new sitcom called Room and Bored, while simultaneously having her life documented for a celebreality show called The Comeback. By season 2, she’s starring in a dark cable comedy called Seeing Red, which is based on the behind-the-scenes drama at Room and Bored. With its second season, this vicious and painfully funny excoriation of celebrity culture added a moving layer of humanity. For once, Valerie is treated with kindness and respect on set — by her costar, Seth Rogen (in a charming performance as himself) — and she finally puts her real-life priorities in order. Kudrow’s performance, an uncanny blend of buffoonery and heart, is a true marvel. (Available on HBO)
DARREN: Sometimes entertainers stare into their navel and see the universe. That’s certainly true of my No. 9, Netflix’s Bojack Horseman. The title character, voiced with smoky bummer snark by Will Arnett, is a family sitcom star gone to alcoholic seed. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and chief visual designer Lisa Hanawalt have built Bojack out from Bojack into a lacerating, lush toonscape. By now, every character can support their own focal episodes: Amy Sedaris is heartbreaking as tart executive climber Princess Carolyn, Aaron Paul as Todd is a whimsically holy goofball, Paul F. Tompkins is the very voice of stupid joy as Mister Peanutbutter, and whatever the problematic casting norms behind her casting, I treasure how Alison Brie’s confident confusion has made Diane Nguyen a sweetly sincere psychodramatic goof on the whole thinkpiece generation. The series is a thoughtful portrait of emotional brokenness, which never lets its characters off the hook for their own faults. The redemptive half-season that just aired set the stage, quite stunningly, for a dark reckoning. (Available on Netflix)
KRISTEN: That’s a perfect segue into my No. 9 show, a dark and chilling British crime drama. In The Fall, Gillian Anderson stars as Stella Gibson, a brilliant and unflappable detective on the hunt for a man who is murdering young women in Belfast. It all sounds very CBS procedural on paper, but creator Alan Cubitt upends the tired violence-against-women TV tropes by forcing charismatic serial killer Paul Spector (played by a pre-50 Shades Jamie Dornan) to confront the thing he fears most: a woman who sees that he’s a misogynistic monster and is not afraid. Anderson is typically mesmerizing as Gibson, a boss who knows her brilliance and beauty are intimidating but isn’t about to apologize for either. Paul Spector may be a “sexual psychopath,” in Stella’s words, but he’s also just another man who underestimated her — and will live to regret it. (Available to purchase on Amazon)
DARREN: My No. 8 is another dark crime drama featuring an ace Gillian Anderson performance, though she’s just one glossy star in the sexy-terrifying firmament of NBC’s delectable Hannibal. Mads Mikkelsen stars as a seductive Hannibal Lecter opposite Hugh Dancy’s burnt-ember-of-a-man FBI profiler Will Graham. Producer Bryan Fuller launched his reboot as a delightfully gross riff on the vogue for chatty network-TV investigators, and then careened ecstatically into love-drunk nightmare territory. The third season kitchen-sinked with luscious grotesquerie, clashing giallo horror into a Euro-trippy showdown. The ratings were the only thing not high about Hannibal, and it’s an important reminder that even the most played-out bits of intellectual property can get a tasty new life. (Available on Amazon Prime)
KRISTEN: It’s time to take a hard left from Intense Murderville to Wacky Sitcomtown, Darren. So far there’s only been one broadcast TV comedy on our list — not because we’re snobs (I swear!), but because they’re really hard to do well. My No. 8 show never fails to elicit actual laughs, first on Fox and now on NBC: Brooklyn Nine-Nine hails from former Parks & Recreation writers Dan Goor and Michael Schur, and it shares the latter’s silly-smart tone and kind heart. Though season 1 pitted Andy Samberg’s goofball cop Jake against his rigid and rule-bound new boss, Captain Holt, Brooklyn Nine-Nine — much like Parks and Rec before it — went from good to great when the central characters left the squabbling behind and actually started to like each other.
Every episode, at its core, is about people trying to do the right thing — as detectives, co-workers, friends, parents. But the thing I love most about Brooklyn Nine-Nine is how the show rewards the loyalty of its fans, creating a cumulative effect of humor through long-running gags (title of your sex tape), yearly traditions (like the Halloween heist), and ever-deepening character backstories. And I dare say that no show in the history of TV will ever find a better use for the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way.” (Available on Hulu)
DARREN: Another famous genre that’s hard to nail: the legal procedural. One of the things I love about my No. 7 show is how The Good Fight clearly situates the attorneys of Reddick, Boseman, & Lockhart as familiar TV archetypes in a world where nothing is remotely familiar anymore. Producers Michelle and Robert King spun off from their acclaimed The Good Wife, sending Christine Baranski’s fancy-tough Diane Lockhart into a maddening new world of omnipresent paranoia and surreal subversions of law. Delroy Lindo’s majestic as her partner Adrian Boseman, a wily-yet-sensitive operator keeping his firm afloat in treacherous waters. All the actors are incredible — no show has better guest stars — and the Kings have a knack for ripping headlines. Season 3 pushed deeper into political satire, complete with cartoon interludes and a genuine behind-the-scenes censorship battle. (Available on CBS All Access, which might as well be called Just Subscribe So You Can Watch The Good Fight, Already!)
KRISTEN: Missing The Good Fight oughtta be against the law, Darren! (I’ll rave more about Baranski & Co. later in this list.) Orange Is the New Black lands at my No. 7 spot. When this comedy from creator Jenji Kohan premiered in 2013, it pulled us in with a novel twist on the traditional fish-out-of-water sitcom trope: Privileged, upper-middle-class white lady Piper Chapman (Taylor Schilling) is sent to prison and must adjust to a world where she is the minority. But Piper was the dramedy’s Trojan horse; over the next six seasons, Orange transformed Litchfield Penitentiary into a microcosm of society’s most underrepresented voices — black and brown women, queer and trans women, rape survivors, drug addicts, the mentally ill, and more. Like many long-running series, Orange could be uneven, and it sometimes leaned too heavily on sitcommy high jinks, but Kohan and her sprawling cast created a host of female characters who were uniquely strange and funny and necessary, and always immensely watchable. (Available on Netflix)
DARREN: Orange looks ahead to the possibility of new voices and unexplored-by-Hollywood communities coming to the forefront of entertainment. Another great mission of pop culture this decade stared in the opposite direction, analyzing how the internal traumas of the 20th century exploded into the chaos of the 21st. Welcome back, Ryan Murphy, because my No. 6 is the The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story. Even with the great cast (including pre-This is Us Sterling K. Brown), returning to the media circus of the O.J. Simpson trial could have been a cheap prestige gag. But showrunners Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski bring a commandingly skewed sensibility to the politically charged courtroom horror that followed that tragic double murder in Brentwood. Sexism, racial discord, police brutality, and the debilitating effects of fame and fortune swirl around Cuba Gooding Jr’s O.J. Hail Sarah Paulson, again, for pulling Marcia Clark out of punchline status into something like (complicated, ambiguous, but sincere) sainthood. (Available on Netflix)
KRISTEN: Let’s stick with the “basically every problem our country can have” theme, Darren, because my No. 6 show spent the majority of this decade making award-winning comedy out of our government’s profound dysfunction. Chronicling the political ambitions of the selfish, ambitious, and outright venal Vice President Selina Meyer, Veep is part political satire, part workplace comedy, part vehicle for trenchant social commentary, and all a brutally funny and unforgivingly brutal examination of humanity at its absolute worst. As Selina, Julia Louis-Dreyfus helped created her second iconic (and thrillingly mercenary) TV character of the half-century, while the cast — one of the greatest comedy ensembles of all time — delivered inimitable, profanity-laden (and often improvised) riffs at an Adderall-worthy pace. Armando Iannuci (and later showrunner David Mandal) brought us a White House that seemed impossible — and somehow kept us laughing even when our reality out-crazy’ed Veep’s fictional circus. (Available on HBO)
DARREN: My No. 5 couldn’t get away with that kind of profanity until it got away from network television, but Community is still my pick for the best broadcast series of the decade. The NBC sitcom debuted in 2009, and by the time the first paintball episode aired the following May, creator Dan Harmon had turned the interactions among a study group at Greendale Community College into a tour de force of chattily hyperstylized comedy. In the best years (kaleidoscopic season 3 and elegiac season 5, IMHO), it was an event to watch the show riff itself bizarro, with concept episodes like a Ken Burns-ish mockumentary and an all-time Law & Order parody playing alongside elaborately emotional meta-pranks (a bottle episode about bottle episodes! a butterly effect dice-roll adventure!) Witness a league of new TV legends: Donald Glover, Gillian Jacobs, Alison Brie, Yvette Nicole Brown, and Danny Pudi rose to stardom alongside a self-lacerating Joel McHale and a believably obnoxious Chevy Chase.
The series was kept alive by fan campaigns through a Harmon-less season 4 and resurrected for a brief-yet-essential run on the short-lived Yahoo Screen. For all the reality-warping, let’s-do-another-animated-episode games Community could play, it was powered by a deep, abiding love for the old-fashioned power of sitcoms. Every week, the characters sat in a room together, tore each other to pieces, and put each other back together again. (Available on Hulu)
KRISTEN: Like Community, my No. 5 show took the traditional half-hour-comedy format and busted it wide open. Back in 2016, FX announced it was picking up a new series co-created by Louis C.K. and Pamela Adlon — a writer, working TV actor, and voice-over actor — called Better Things. The press release described Better Things as a comedy starring Adlon as “a single working actor with three daughters, as she navigates personal and professional situations.” That description may sound flat, and even a little boring, but Adlon’s quasi-autobiographical dram-com consistently delivered some of the most vivid, moving, deeply hilariously relatable television of this past decade. (Louis C.K. was fired from the show, and FX, in 2017.) Adlon’s Sam Fox is an L.A.-based actress and mother to three very different and very challenging daughters (played by Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood and Olivia Edward).
Her days are an endless loop of cooking, driving, working refereeing, and suffering — through perimenopause, endless power struggles with her kids, and the sheer exhaustion of being an adult in America today. It’s nearly impossible to describe the immersive nature of Adlon’s storytelling, other than to say that Better Things is not so much a show you watch as experience. (Available on Hulu)
DARREN: I loved Louie so much, an internal struggle I won’t bore you with, and I am so happy that Adlon has carried forward the possibilities of personalized sitcom storytelling with such confessional generosity. My No. 4 has a similar quality of twisted emotional whimsy. Also: cross-dimensional hellscapes, magical futuretech space fantasies, and sweet beats. Cartoon Network’s sprawling Adventure Time focuses loosely on Finn the Human (voiced by Jeremy Shada) and Jake the Dog (John DiMaggio), though the cast swells to include dozens of colorfully screwy weirdoes, each one of them a wonderful art project in gonzo pathology. Holy wow, this show was as miracle, and creator Pendleton Ward launched a generation of cartoon masterminds, including longtime showrunner Adam Muto and Steven Universe creator Rebecca Sugar.
Adventure Time will return next year with special episodes on HBO Max, and its legacy is already assured. It burst the possibilities of family television, defenestrating gender norms and crafting a compelling, expectation-upending portrait of a young hero kid becoming a complex citizen of a wild world. I hope to show this to my son someday; I truly think it will make him a better person than I am. (Available on Hulu)
KRISTEN: God, I love how much you love Adventure Time, Darren. It warms my heart. My No. 4 could not be more different, and it’s a bit of a cheat: Both seasons of Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story series (The People v. O.J. Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace) exhumed pivotal moments in American culture and re-examined them under a modern lens — and the result was stunning in its compassion. As you pointed out above, People v. O.J. forced us to look at how and why Marcia Clark — a divorced working mom — bore the brunt of so much unjustified mockery. And with Versace, Murphy and his writers pulled back the layers of a sensational crime, the murder of fashion designer Gianni Versace, to show us the lives and loves of the men who were overlooked: Andrew Cunanan’s first four victims, Jeffrey Trail, David Madson, Lee Miglin, and William Reese. The show used the stories of Trail, a gay former Marine, and Madson to illuminate the very real, very relatable fear many young gay men and women still face. I can’t wait to see how Team Murphy will make us re-evaulate everything we think we know about Monica Lewinsky when Impeachment: American Crime Story premieres this fall. (Available on Netflix)
DARREN: I don’t think anything is a cheat in contemporary TV category definition, says the guy who purposefully selected just one specific season of American Horror Story. My No. 3 is a prime example of just how far-flung the basic foundational tenets of TV narrative could be pushed in the 2010s. When Twin Peaks: The Return arrived in summer 2017, even people who adore the original Mark Frost-David Lynch demonic mystery soap didn’t know what they’d be getting. And the 18-part epic remains elusive even on my current fourth rewatch. Kyle MacLachlan stars as three or four characters: an ensemble unto himself, matched on all sides by brilliant performers like Laura Dern, Naomi Watts, Sheryl Lee, and the whole original Twin Peaks cast. Lynch directs every episode with a style that stands apart even from his artistically daring filmography, slipping new notes of horror and humanity into a collection of stories that can turn humorous or heartbreaking.
What you get from Twin Peaks: The Return most of all is a mood: a sense of our country as a ruin full of grace, with regular people living astride the mystical infinite. The monumental eighth episode gets all the buzz as a standalone origin saga for the franchise, and it’s an ongoing kick trying to dig deeper into the central head-spinning mysteries. And yet, the more I watch The Return, the more I find myself reacting to it in a deeply emotional way. Just a couple years later, it’s become a memory-box monument to a whole host of great performers who’ve passed since they appeared on the show. Robert Forster, Peggy Lipton, Harry Dean Stanton, Catherine E. Coulson, and so many more: We’ll see them all again at the Roadhouse, where the bands play on. (Available on Showtime)
KRISTEN: The Twin Peaks revival was a pure and baffling miracle for sure, Darren, and I’d argue it’s the only revival that deserves to come near a Best TV of the Decade list. I’m guessing my No. 3 show, though, will land on most if not all lists from critics summing up TV in the 2010s. On one level, Mad Men was a drama about a country and a culture in transition. Kicking off in 1960, it chronicled the booming advertising industry in New York City, a time when working women started to climb out of the secretarial pool, and Brylcreemed men in spiffy suits angled to maintain a hold on their societal dominance, even as a wave of counterculture youth bore down upon them. But really it was a story about the yawning gap between image and identity, told through Sterling Cooper’s star adman, Don Draper.
As a straight, white, dashing, upper-class businessman, Draper (Jon Hamm) was a man who had it all — from the outside, at least. Inside, he had nothing: not the poverty and shame-stricken childhood he obliterated, not the love of the wife and children he pushed away, not even the confidence in his own legendary skills as a pitchman. Matthew Weiner’s meticulously assembled retro-glam saga was the best type of prestige TV: The kind that could launch memes both uproarious (not great, Bob!) and empowering (burn it down, Joan — burn this place down!), while also piercing our hearts with its keenly moving depiction of the human struggle. (Available on Netflix)
DARREN: I have a lot to add to your splendid description of that splendid series, so first let me rave about my No. 2 series. There have only been two extraordinary seasons of FX’s Atlanta, and the no-guts-no-glory strangeness that powered every perfect episode of the comedy’s second season might overload into sheer absurdity as it continues. I have faith in creator Donald Glover (a top 5 two-timer!). Atlanta begins when Glover’s Earn, a college dropout with existential money problems, starts managing the rap career of his ascendant cousin Alfred, played by Brian Tyree Henry in my personal pick for Best TV Performance of the Decade. Close behind: sad-eyed LaKeith Stanfield as the astrally stoned Darius and bemused Zazie Beetz as Earn’s sometime-girlfriend Van.
Every episode hits unexpected gears of satiric richness and imaginative myth-of-the-modern-world fantasy, microscoping racial and economic discord in stories that communicate major problems in ever-less-obvious ways. A strip club reveals a foundation of predatory capitalism, a black man can’t spend a $100 bill, and Michael actual Vick is runracing for quick cash in a parking lot — and that was just one episode! (Available on Hulu)
KRISTEN: Cheers to FX! Here’s hoping next year they schedule Atlanta and Better Things back-to-back. (Dare to dream?) The No. 2 series on my list is truly a product of this decade of industry upheaval. The Good Fight premiered in 2017, sold as a spin-off to CBS’ savvy, long-running legal drama The Good Wife. But it came at a time when CBS — along with every other major media conglomerate — was simultaneously trying to fend off extinction by launching its own streaming service. The new platform has been Good Fight’s blessing and its curse. Freed from the confines of broadcast TV standards, creators Robert and Michelle King have spiked their spin-off with narrative psychedelics. Characters hallucinate, deliver soliloquies to the camera, suck on fentanyl lollipops; episodes are interrupted by animated musical tutorials about troll farms, Roy Cohn, non-disclosure agreements.
On the downside, though, is anybody watching? CBS All Access doesn’t reveal numbers, but it’s a fact that The Good Fight certainly doesn’t have the buzz (or the Emmy love) that its network sibling received. It’s a damn shame, because the Kings have pulled off a truly impressive trick: Not only is The Good Fight bold, funny, experimental, and weird, it’s also a superbly smart and satisfying legal procedural. Every week (yep, it airs weekly, just like old-fashioned Tee-Vee), incredible actors in gorgeous clothes argue both sides of fascinating, complex, and timely issues: Censorship, immigration, driving while black, dealing with your mother-in-law. It’s everything you could want in a TV show — only better. (Available on CBS All Access)
DARREN: Loving The Good Fight is a special kind of experience, though. If you find the one other person who’s seen it, you’re friends with that person for life.
And now, friend, it’s time for me to loudly agree with everything you already said about my No. 1 TV series of the last 10 years. Only seasons 4-7 of Mad Men are part of our Best of the Decade purview, but that happens to include three of the best seasons of narrative television EVER — plus the unnerving, ever-more-resonant season 6. And the second half of Matthew Weiner’s ’60s saga expresses something unique about television that I worry has gotten a bit lost in this decade: the way that a TV show can grow and evolve, leaving behind initial concepts to paint in new shades with the passage of time. There’s no character in TV history I feel closer to than Peggy Olson, played by Elizabeth Moss with a restrained and smirkish power that previewed her rise to acclaim. When Mad Men started, I was a twentysomething just beginning work in a creative-field Manhattan job. And although I swear never smoked weed on a work weekend in the old EW Midtown offices, I still marked my own advance thirtyward and beyond by Peggy’s slow rise through the ad world.
Weiner and his collaborators nailed something in the theatrical specificity of their depiction of office life, and the broader sense that every character was reacting to a changing world in their own confusing-yet-enthralling ways. It’s the rarest of rare great dramas in this high-stakes decade where the violence was mostly internal, and something as hyper-specific as The Philosophical Feud Between Creative and Accounts became the stuff of rich, darkly funny psychology. Mad Men could make you weep for a candy bar, and craft prose poetry about potato chips. Now throw all your repressed sadness in the suitcase, and buy the world a Coke. (Available on Netflix)
Kristen: What Mad Men did for repressed sadness, my No. 1 show of the decade did for raw and intense pain. To be honest, I stopped watching The Leftovers midway through season 1. Though I was a fan of Tom Perotta’s novel — in which the world is traumatized by the Sudden Departure, a mysterious event that causes 140 million people to disappear from the planet — the first season of the Damon Lindelof-created series felt grim, of course, but also hollow and nihilistic. But plenty of other people kept watching, and soon after season 2 began, the word-of-mouth praise was deafening. “My God, The Leftovers — are you watching?”
TV shows based on books can be dicey — more often than not, the storytelling suffers once the source material has dried up. But once Lindelof and his writers left Perotta’s blueprint behind, something shook loose — and in its final two seasons, The Leftovers transformed into a gripping, bizarre, and profoundly emotional meditation on the many ways to deal with, or succumb to, grief. Propelled by beautiful performances from Justin Theroux and Carrie Coon, The Leftovers illustrated that corny-but-true key to happiness — focus on what you have, not what you want — by creating a world where everyone has suffered an unfathomable loss, and no one can focus on anything else.
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