This is part of our Decade Rewind, which runs throughout November. Keep up as we look back at the best, worst, and otherwise interesting movies and shows of the 2010s.
A decade ago, we were all talking about TV antiheroes. The best critical minds had a lot to say about the subject, and the discussions were nuanced and timely, but the gulf between then and now already feels immense. Ten years later, we will never again be able to look at television as a landscape and talk about just one thing again.
Now, as the 2010s draw to a close, we’re talking about the muchness of Peak TV–hundreds of shows from hundreds of sources beamed into our eyeballs at any given moment, so many shows that dozens of obviously great ones just missed this list simply because the proverbial watercooler doesn’t have room for them all. But with the dissemination of television as a form comes the individualization of pop culture discussions themselves.
Often, we get caught up in the technical stuff; awards, streaming trends, industry-threatening corporate monopolies. Each of these topics is well worth talking about, but I hope when we look back ten years from now, we remember the 2010s not only as the dawn of the streaming boom but also as the time during which unprecedented, near-limitless creativity became accessible to us at the click of a button. The shows that stand above the rest this decade–including the 50 below, voted on by 21 Film School Rejects writers, editors, and interns–blew open the supposed limits of a medium that’s long-since been viewed as a less serious alternative to film.
The best TV shows of the 2010s blend genres, structures, and tones. They’re more auteurist than ever, often-times with a singular vision behind the scenes of each season or series, and as a side-effect of that, they’re more personal and experimental than ever. More often than before, they’re cinematic, with budgets and shooting schedules akin to blockbuster films. They’re objectively more diverse than ever, as stories that integrate a variety of true-to-life characters have finally, for the most part, become the norm.
Perhaps most impressively, the best shows of the decade find a way to cut through the noise of seven billion people and thousands of other viewing options to make us–as viewers, as fans, as critics, and as people who hope to see our own selves reflected well and honestly on-screen–feel more connected. Here are our favorites:
50. Channel Zero
American Horror Story may be the reigning king of 21st century TV horror, but Channel Zero was far and away the best this decade has to offer. This was arthouse horror at its finest, weekly, beamed to your tube. It’s an anthology show based on a series of different Creepypastas – spooky internet urban legends – that took an auteur approach, allowing for there to be one central creative vision behind each season. And it works, each episode never feeling disconnected from the last to coalesce into a 6-hour long-form narrative each season. It’s unsettling, deeply disturbing, and filled with gorgeous nightmare imagery that is truly unique. I mean, have you seen Pretzel Jack and The Tooth Child? Because holy shit y’all. There was never anything like Channel Zero before, and perhaps after. Simply put: this was the best horror show that no one saw. (Jacob Trussell)
49. New Girl
New Girl, a show about a twentysomething woman named Jess who moves into an L.A. loft with three guys after her breakup, was created as a star vehicle for Zooey Deschanel who was hot off the success of 500 Days of Summer. In addition to (reluctantly) introducing “adorkable” into the lexicon, show creator Elizabeth Meriwether gave us the closest thing to Friends since that iconic ensemble comedy ended. Like Friends, New Girl’s ensemble was also a group of straight men and women whose evolving relationships with each other were always more fascinating to watch than any specific plot. But unlike Friends, New Girl’s principal cast was racially diverse.
There were relationships that moved from platonic to romantic like Nick (Jake Johnson) and Jess, whose Sam and Diane dynamic fueled the show for its first couple of seasons. There were childhood friends like Jess and Cece (Hannah Simone), an epic bromance between Nick and Schmidt (Max Greenfield), and unexpected combinations like Cece and Winston (LaMorne Morris), the group’s merry pranksters whose shenanigans resulted in some of the shows best bits over its seven-season run. Recurring star Damon Wayans Jr. (Coach) regularly flouted the one-black-dude rule sitcoms historically observed and transformed some of the simplest premises into the funniest scenes as when he and Winston take turns doing Eddie Murphy impressions or have a bake-off where he proudly threatens to bake a really moist cake. Greenfield’s line delivery as insecure high-strung perfectionist Schmidt is also one of the best comedic performances of the decade (trust me, do a YouTube search for his “bitch fish” rant or watch him opine that “pine is the wood of poor people” while contesting a roommate’s decorating choice).
There were classic sitcom episodes like The One Where Everyone Is High and The One With The Group Trip, and regular holiday-set episodes, but there were also ones that tackled more serious topics like fertility, male vulnerability, and racial profiling. The show also boasts one of the most impressive rosters of guest actors ever including hilarious turns from Rob Reiner, Jamie Lee Curtis, Lisa Bonet, Megan Fox, Olivia Munn, Linda Cardellini, Peter Gallagher, Dermot Mulroney, and Prince. The stories told in New Girl’s loft were warm, fun, pop-culture comfort food. Like Friends, it benefited from a stellar ensemble cast whose chemistry and comedic talent grew stronger every year, and kept viewers invested for seven years and an infinite number of rewatches. It was the Platonic ideal of a modern sitcom. (Naomi Elias)
Riverdale is comfort food. But like those foods that are bad for us that we still find ourselves craving constantly, we can’t get enough of it. The ridiculous drama that takes place in this small town is the perfect escape from reality, but the real beauty of the show is the way that it manages to be so gripping despite being a glossy, weird soap opera. Remember when Archie (K.J. Apa) got imprisoned and boosted morale among the troubled inmates by organizing a football game? Or when Cheryl Blossom (Madelaine Petsch) warded off a masked serial killer with her bow and arrow? How about that time Betty (Lili Reinhart) became a cam girl because her brother told her there was darkness in her? The list goes on, but this show never ceases to surprise us. (Kieran Fisher)
47. The Expanse
Space sci-fi television shows have a tendency to lean more on the cheesy side. Yes, they’re fun, but they aren’t often taken seriously. But now we have The Expanse, a show that began on SyFy and became an Amazon Prime original after it was initially canceled. Based on the series of books by James S. A. Corey, the show is set in the future where Earth has colonized much of the galaxy. Colonies exist on Mars and Ceres in the asteroid belt. Earth reigns supreme, though, while the people of Ceres, or Belters, are treated like trash. Social hierarchies rule with an iron fist, but that’s all about to change when a strange, extraterrestrial slime threatens to unravel everything humans have accomplished.
The Expanse is full of loveable and, at times, idiotic characters who you can’t help but cheer for no matter what ridiculous situation they’ve gotten themselves into. At the show’s core are James Holden (Steven Strait) and his crew of antiheroes who somehow are trapped at the center of a massive galaxy-wide conspiracy. Their chemistry is electric, making their bonds all the more believable. The Expanse is complex and political, with no shortage of drama and intrigue to keep you on the edge of your seat. It’s also absolutely breathtaking, with the cinematography capturing the terrifying beauty of outer space. It is the perfect show to throw your entire self into. Surrender yourself to the galactic ooze and travel through the perilous world that is The Expanse. (Mary Beth McAndrews)
46. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
It’s hard to find a show that can simultaneously laugh at and disprove the sexist stereotype that “women aren’t funny” as well as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. This Amy Sherman-Palladino creation has all of the witty, fast-paced humor of Gilmore Girls transformed onto the bright settings of New York City in the 1950s. Funny, plucky, and headstrong Midge Maisel (Rachel Brosnahan) does everything “right” and perfect– until things go wrong and her husband leaves her for his secretary. The show sends a hilarious and political message about what to do, as a woman, when everything falls apart. Even in her rigid 50’s housewife life, Midge’s humor is undeniable, and it takes her on a path to shake up the world of comedy.
Sherman-Palladino’s trademark style is arguably at its best when Midge is onstage with a microphone in hand. In these moments, this slightly fantastical version of the 50s creates just enough distance that Midge can directly address us, the audience, and through levity and jokes, point out all of the ways that the status of women have and have not changed since this time. Both uproariously funny and undeniably political, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel finds a way to make nostalgia and humor work together to unique ends. (Hannah Payne)
45. The Haunting of Hill House
This Netflix adaptation of the classic horror story by Shirley Jackson took on time and trauma with poignant and heart-breaking results. Yes, there are scares, as any show about a haunted house (and haunted family) should have, but really, this is a show about the entire spectrum of human emotion– not just fear, but love, joy, and grief. Through the lens of one family, The Haunting of Hill House explored how the persistence of memories and trauma can follow us, culminating in an ending where the past and the present collide and fuse, shaping and resolving each other. The show’s construction, casting, and self-contained nature set it above most in the genre, and there’s no other show, in terms of subject or structure, like it this decade. In respect to the first season as a discrete story and ending, the upcoming second season The Haunting of Bly Manor will take on an entirely new plot based on the Henry James 1898 novella “The Turn of the Screw” with much of the same cast. (Hannah Payne)
44. Sharp Objects
An HBO limited-run series, Jean-Marc Vallée’s Sharp Objects immerses the viewers in the sweaty gentility of small-town Missouri and the horrific secrets that hide below the surface. Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) returns to her hometown of Wind Gap to report on a series of brutal murders but finds herself wrapped up into a much more personal intrigue. This is no stereotypical CSI-esque crime flick, but a deep, personal look into a fucked-up mother-daughter dynamic that intertwines coddling, neglect, abuse, and adoration. It delves into the transmission of trauma and abuse between generations and the different ways that female killers express their rage. It should be no surprise that these dark female leads are based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn, known for her novel and its 2014 film adaptation Gone Girl. Camille’s trauma blends past, present, and a really killer soundtrack as this Southern facade unravels to show the ugly reality of abuse and trauma that was hiding beneath. Adams faces off against the cruel magnetism of her mother (played by Patricia Clarkson) in an attempt to save her manipulative younger sister (Eliza Scanlen) from sharing the same fate as the girls who have gone before her. (Samantha Olthof)
43. Peaky Blinders
Sumptuous period dramas, particularly as far as the Brits are concerned, are usually restricted to the lives of the rich and blue-blooded. And then came Peaky Blinders. A visually stunning, delightfully twisty roller coaster of a show, Peaky Blinders follows the rise of the eponymous Birmingham-based gang run by the Shelby family after middle son Tommy (Cillian Murphy) returns home from World War I. At the time of his casting, Murphy might not have been considered an obvious choice for a hardened gang leader, but his stellar performance as Tommy in all his antiheroic, PTSD-suffering glory has been the backbone of the series since day one. What he lacks in physical build he more than makes up for with intense screen presence and soul-piercing gaze. And he’s in great company, with Helen McCrory as the formidable Aunt Polly, who ran the “family business” while the men were away and isn’t about to just hand over the reins and disappear off to the sidelines now that they’ve returned.
With a stellar slate of supporting characters, from the devious Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill) to the utterly incorrigible Jewish gangster Alfie Solomons (Tom Hardy), Peaky Blinders has pulled off five excellent seasons and is heading full steam ahead for an estimated two more. While I’m glad we live a time where more and more shows are being crafted with an end in mind instead of being dragged out until everyone’s lost interest, Peaky Blinders has been a definitive show of the 2010s—and had the greatest influence on hairstyling trends of any television show since Friends gave us “the Rachel”—and saying goodbye in a few years will undoubtedly be bittersweet. (Ciara Wardlow)
42. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend
Crazy-Ex Girlfriend will always be a miracle of a show. Championed by co-creators Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom, it blessedly came to realize its intended four-season arc, and gifted us a catalog of 157 (!!) original songs along the way. Each season of this perfectly paced musical comedy marked a new stage in the life of one Rebecca Bunch (also played by Bloom), a girl in love who does wonders with deconstructing the show’s title stereotype. Indeed, her journey towards receiving a BPD diagnosis made for some trailblazing representation of mental illness on screen, and it didn’t just stop with a label. Rather, the show continually gave Rebecca and the rest of its supporting cast the space they needed to grow, to address all of their underlying issues while belting out songs about group hangs and heavy boobs and visits to the zoo. With these delightfully flawed people, ever-changing, at its heart, Crazy-Ex Girlfriend deserves to be remembered as one of the decade’s best: an exuberant and sharp look at the sometimes far-flung expectations we carry about love stories in our culture, and at the more grounded steps that we, too, can take towards accepting ourselves as we are. Hopefully, like Sunil’s (Parveesh Cheena) collection of vintage Broadway playbills, it’ll only become more appreciated over time. (Christina Smith)
41. Broad City
Raunchy and unapologetic, Broad City’s Abbi and Ilana were newfound representation for a generation of young, outspoken women. From humble beginnings as a self-made, no-budget web series, Broad City will be remembered as one of the cornerstones of feminist storytelling. The semi-autobiographical comedy followed the two twentysomething best friends as they misstepped through hilarious and bizarre moments in their everyday lives. The genuine love between Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer, both on- and off-screen, inspired us to be better friends and cherish our own friendships with the same unwavering adoration they did. After five incredible seasons, the show concluded earlier this year with a poignant, bittersweet finale that proved just how much Jacobson and Glazer have grown through the years and how it hurts that much more to say goodbye. (Kristen Reid)