20. Big Little Lies
There is a moment in the finale of the first season of Big Little Lies that I consider to be the most powerful seconds of television of the last decade. And if you love this series as dearly as I do (and I know that we are legion) I suspect you know exactly what I’m referring to. It is a wordless moment. Our four leads — Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, Laura Dern’s Renata, Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, and Shailene Woodley’s Jane — stand atop a staircase when suddenly, Jane is confronted with a trigger from her past trauma so jarring that she need do nothing to signal this to the others but tighten her grip on Madeline’s arm and let her friends read her face. The camera follows as the subtlest knowing glances are exchanged between them, and the look of terror spreads as they each instantly come to the same realization. It is a moment of near telepathy, and a perfect representation of what this show has always been about; the deep and incredibly strong bonds and networks between women, and the ways that we depend on them for survival.
For a show that boldly wove together so many heartbreaking narratives –the intricacies and complexities of long-term domestic abuse (emotional, physical, and sexual), the day-to-day of living with post-traumatic stress disorder, the ramifications of spousal infidelity, and the struggle of existing in the world as a woman who wants to be both a mother and also her own person– it is an absolutely perfect touch that it all culminates in this scene. While the show may have waned a bit in its second season, it has always stayed true to these themes, and, of course, it also added Meryl Streep to its stacked cast and thankfully expanded on Zoe Kravitz’s role as Bonnie. Looking back, the television landscape of the 2010s would be immeasurably different if it were not for my beloved Monterey moms. (Madison Brek)
19. Black Mirror
The brilliant thing about Black Mirror is that it’s constantly changing with the times. Indeed, the Charlie Brooker anthology series was once popularized – and at times, continues to be categorized by – the nihilism of its earlier episodes. You can’t just unsee pig-fucking. That said, Black Mirror notably continued to make a mark on television throughout the 2010s because it isn’t afraid to shift narrative gears to reflect on humanity’s most pressing cultural anxieties. As gems like the Emmy-winning episodes “San Junipero” and “USS Callister” will prove, empowering and loving stories can and will take the day. Black Mirror thankfully remains a quiet but poignant mainstay in peak TV – bold and freaky and decidedly chameleonic – because it is truly a blessing to be able to consume a series that unabashedly tells appalling and tender stories alike. (Sheryl Oh)
When it was announced that David Fincher would be making a television show about serial killers, we knew it would be good but we didn’t know how revolutionary it would be. Fincher created an atmosphere unlike any other on TV, an eerie lurking of violence without ever needing to show it. The first season gave us a masterful look at how the definition of good and evil is out of our reach. The second explored how we are damned when we think we can act on our own definition and persecute others. Mindhunter redefined crime dramas in the decade and set the precedent for thrillers to follow. (Emily Kubincanek)
In the pilot episode of this NBC comedy, a motley crew of seven people comes together ostensibly to form a study group at Greendale Community College, but really to become friends and change each others lives à la The Breakfast Club. The core group includes a glib lawyer who got caught practicing law without a degree (Joel McHale as Jeff), a devoutly Christian black mother (Yvette Nicole Brown as Shirley), a pop-culture obsessive (Danny Pudi as Abed), a goofy former jock (Donald Glover as Troy), a neurotic type-A ballbuster (Alison Brie as Annie), a sardonic and performatively socially conscious hipster (Gillian Jacobs as Britta) and an old man who seemingly has no reason to attend school but does anyway (Chevy Chase as Pierce). Over six seasons (the first five on network television and the last on Yahoo! as a high-quality web series) Community would stray further and further from the safety of this premise to nail riffs of every sitcom trope available or imaginable, often with a meta-layer of Abed narrating the group’s actions that became a hallmark of the show.
Community came from the mind of creator Dan Harmon, who clearly enjoyed making television as much as he enjoyed roasting television. The end result of this combination of traits is a TV show that was always aware it was a TV show. From its stop-motion animated Christmas episode to a clip show full of clips that never actually aired, to a subtle Beetlejuice sight gag that only rewards those who pay close attention to background actors, the show reveled in play. Nothing better encapsulates the spirit of Community than the series of epic paintball episodes the show did, which understandably rank among the series’ top-rated episodes on IMDB. Over three different episodes in three different seasons the show created games of Paintball Assassin that commanded campus-wide participation and alternately paid homage to and subverted tropes from The Terminator, Die Hard, Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, Star Wars, 28 Days Later, and John Woo. The show also launched the careers of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, who would go on to direct Marvel’s Captain America: The Winter Soldier–which would go on to be spoofed on Community. No show had more fun in the last decade than Community. (Naomi Elias)
16. Brooklyn Nine-Nine
From Halloween Heists to a criminal lineup singing the Backstreet Boys, Dan Goor and Michael Schur’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine has catapulted to being one of the most consistently funny comedy series of the decade. With the perfect balance of silliness and heart, the show has fully fleshed out its entire cast of characters and has tackled serious topics such as Rosa’s coming-out story and Terry facing racial profiling by police. The show’s diversity and positivity have created a dedicated fanbase; when Fox canceled it after five seasons, fans rallied around the show and it was picked up by NBC. The show has thrived on the new network and a seventh season is on its way in February of 2020. Brooklyn Nine-Nine is proof that television comedies are stronger with diverse characters and storylines and it has raised the bar for the genre. (Hannah Payne)
15. The Great British Bake Off
The Great British Bake-Off is TV of the purest kind. You couldn’t get a sweeter, warmer atmosphere in an oven full of blueberry muffins. GBBO plays like an anti-reality show insofar as it stands in stark contrast to everything that genre defined itself as in the ‘00s: there’s no dehumanizing humiliation here, and the only currency that matters is a Paul Hollywood handshake, the stakes being otherwise low (no cash prize, only a bouquet of flowers and a cake stand). That’s not to say the show is without its thrills – anxieties over soggy bottoms run high throughout the signature, technical, and showstopper bakes – but what’s radically, blessedly missing from GBBO is schadenfreude. The competitors are always sweetly supportive of each other, never cut-throat, and it’s a genuine joy, if not a surprise, to scroll through Instagram and see the bakers have all become real friends outside of the show. GBBO is a true televisual balm for the soul. (Farah Cheded)
Never has a cowboy been as cool or as filled with rage as Timothy Olyphant portraying Deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens. For six seasons, we watched him bristle, grit, and beat his way through a number of scumsucking tough guys, but for every one of the villains he put away, he could not escape himself. Raylan is all anger, and it will probably never go away. What we witnessed in Justified was an emotion transformed into a bullet and carefully aimed at targets that demanded wrath. When they got popped, the satisfaction was delicious. The characters of Elmore Leonard have found themselves all over the big and small screens. Some are certainly better than others. Justified, though, is tops. My apologies to Quentin Tarantino and Steven Soderbergh. Sorry. Not sorry. (Brad Gullickson)
13. True Detective
The first season of True Detective is some of the best television out there. A sprawling Southern Gothic murder mystery with sprinklings of cosmic horror, spearheaded by Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson at the top of their respective games, it’s an example of television at its most haunting and mesmerizing. The sophomore season was less successful, but it had a tough act to follow, and taken on its own terms it’s a captivating slice of LA noir with great performances by another phenomenal cast. The third series, meanwhile, was a return to the sensibilities of the first, even though it favored real-world events over the strange qualities that made the first so unique. All in all, though, it’s an anthology show where each installment has been high caliber, and time will be kind to the seasons that are considered lesser than the first. (Kieran Fisher)
Chernobyl. The name alone invokes a sense of dread, but if you asked someone a year ago to tell you about what actually happened there – what went wrong, what happened afterward, how serious it was – people knew a lot less. HBO’s five-episode docudrama Chernobyl takes a complicated nuclear reactor tragedy and distills it down to a compelling narrative about the people who were there, the decisions that they made, and the global consequences of those choices. Now ranked one of the best TV series of all time on IMDB, it features incredible performances by Jared Harris, Stellan Skarsgard, and Emily Watson. Although creator Craig Mazin started writing this series over five years ago, this narrative about the cost of lies could not be more topical than in the current political climate. Far from being a disaster spectacle, the show also takes the time to explain the science behind the disaster, the incredible bravery and fortitude that was needed to prevent the disaster from spiraling into further tragedy and the long, difficult remediation that followed. (Samantha Olthof)
11. Mad Men
When I think of Mad Men, despite the series’ many profound symbols, it’s not an image that comes to mind, but a feeling. The sum of Matthew Weiner’s opus is the great, immeasurable feeling of time passing, and despite what Don Draper (Jon Hamm) may say, there’s no magical carousel to take any of us back. For most of us, time simply happens, but in the seven seasons we spent with the staff of a New York ad agency, the passage of a decade has never looked so lovely, nor been felt so deeply. In the pristinely designed world of Mad Men, time is measured by national tragedies, by changes to hemlines and hairlines and sentiments, and by patterns of behavior that tend to repeat themselves only until one’s distinct lack of development becomes untenable.
Mad Men uses the backdrop of cutthroat business and an era that was unfair to anyone who wasn’t able to smoke cigars in back rooms to tell stories of access and power, but also stories of the small everyday gestures that make us human in a world that’s constantly selling us something. If The Wire is, as many have said, the great American novel written for TV, then Mad Men is the small-screen equivalent of our great American play. The four seasons that aired this decade–kicking off with the arc that brought us “The Suitcase” and ending with the deceptively soda-sweet finish of “Person to Person”–embody highbrow visual drama at its most finely-tuned. There will always be another great series around the corner, but there will never be another Peggy Olson (Elizabeth Moss), another Joan Holloway (Christina Hendricks), another Betty (January Jones) or Pete (Vincent Kartheiser) or Roger (John Slattery) or Don. They live in this snapshot. How lucky we were to see it.