It’s hard to imagine, given what makes for TV news these days, but just 10 years ago no one had heard of Netflix originals, Amazon Prime series, YouTube TV, Apple TV+, Disney+, or even HBO Go. Most folks still defaulted to cable and we watched on dedicated sets (even if the push for multi-screen experiences and laptops/computers as primary consumption devices had already started). TiVo existed and felt cutting edge.
Perhaps more than any other entertainment medium, TV has really changed a lot in the last decade. And that makes trying to piece together a Best Of list for the 2010s extremely difficult. To start, there’s simply more stuff than ever before. When even Facebook consistently debuts original “TV shows” at this point, keeping up with everything may literally be impossible. That breadth of what’s availability is also at an all-time high. How do you compare some 10-episode, 12-minute sketch comedy show on a streaming service to something on traditional cable drama with 10 seasons and many, many hours of thought put into it? Well, you probably can’t in any authoritative or comprehensive way, but that won’t stop us from trying.
For an Ars-y Best TV of 2010s list, know up front this isn’t necessarily an all-encompassing best exercise. Many undeniably great things (Justified, Mad Men, The Crown, Parks & Rec, Insecure, Treme, Veep, Mindhunter, et al.) do not really fall within our narrow wheelhouse of science, technology, and genre fare. And to make things slightly simpler, we only considered scripted TV (so no Tidying Up or The Grand Tour, but no Last Week Tonight, United Shades of America, or Parts Unknown, either). Instead, the following shows are some combination of stuff from the last decade that really changed what we think of as “TV” and stuff we’ll certainly be thinking about and returning to in our maybe-cable-less future.
So with apologies to the many close calls that felt too small (American Vandal, Nathan 4 You, The Knick), too uneven (Mr. Robot seasons 1 and 4 could definitely be here; same for American Gods S1), or just too-good-but-not-great in the face of this competition (The Handmaid’s Tale, Master of None, Twin Peaks, The Americans), here are Ars’ “ten” favorites, in alphabetical order:
Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
What more can you say about Breaking Bad at this point? It delivered the most anti-anti hero of a Golden Age of TV riddled with such characters. Its fourth season featured perhaps TV’s greatest villain. And it features immensely clever applications of science and tech both on-screen (“Science, bitch!”) and off.
But Breaking Bad should perhaps be remembered just as much for how influential it was in changing the way TV worked for many of us. Though this is the lone series on this list to start outside of the 2010s, most fans likely didn’t see it until after 2011. That’s when Netflix reached a deal with AMC Networks to exclusively carry the network’s programming for a bit. The star of that deal at the time was, of course, The Walking Dead, but Breaking Bad quickly became the big benefactor. Maybe AMC marketing couldn’t get a massive fan base for a show about a chemistry teacher selling meth, but—whether it was word of mouth or critical recommendations driving it—Netflix seemed up to the ask. The show’s S4 premiere reached 5.9 million viewers, more than double the show’s previous best. With all-at-one drama releases not yet the norm, Breaking Bad may have represented the first major bingewatch of the decade.
Many other soon-to-be TV culture norms would follow. Expanded universes? Look to the (equally great) Better Call Saul and (perfectly enjoyable) El Camino to start. Miss TV monoculture and “everybody’s watching” moments? The Breaking Bad finale hit 10.3 million viewers (that’s at least in the conversations with industry heavyweights like The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones). And enjoy a good aftershow? Both Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul inspired a tremendous one—no, no, not Talking Saul (which is a totally real thing AMC aired). Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould take listeners behind the scenes of the writer’s room and production effort of each episode in their official show companion podcast.
Chernobyl (2019) / Watchmen (2019) / …and Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
Yes, yes, this decade of TV can’t be discussed without a mention of Game of Thrones. Its early seasons felt revolutionary for how they subverted audience expectations, it propelled much of the show’s female-centric cast to stardom, and its VFX may very well be the best we’ve ever witnessed on TV. And yet… those later seasons, right? After George RR Martin’s books ended, the show’s mojo seemed to follow. It may have still constituted event TV, but in retrospect that was based on the strength of the fan community and massive marketing moreso than the material itself. We’ll remember the show as immense cultural capital, not as anything with something immense to say about culture.
But if TV watchers felt concerned about the next era of HBO as corporate behemoth AT&T took over and stalwarts like Thrones, Veep, and Silicon Valley signed off, 2019 should provide some comfort. With Chernobyl and Watchmen, the network showed its penchant for innovative and kinetic storytelling is alive, well, and adapted for the current TV landscape. Definitely a one-season limited series, Chernobyl showed audiences the dangers of authoritarian governments that refuse to acknowledge reality and insist on the narrative above all else. And maybe a one-serson series, Watchmen somehow spun a nearly four-decades old comic franchise rapidly into the 2020s, asking questions about nostalgia, inherited tragedy, and race and authority in America. Each show has powerhouse performances (Jerad Harris as Valery Legasov; Regina King as Angela Abar), each show looked like little else on TV, and each showed a level of creativity and thought that the writers behind Westeros’ late seasons could only dream of. (You’ve listened to Chernobyl writer Craig Mazin’s podcasts about each, right?) Having any of these titles on your network would be an accomplishment in any decade; HBO aired all of ’em within a matter of months.