10. The Good Place
Me watching season one, episode one: “Oh, this is a cute idea for a show.” Me watching season four, episode one: “There is no greater war for the soul of humanity happening anywhere in pop culture.”
The Good Place is a masterful work of internal exploration, challenging its viewers every week to look within themselves as well as at the characters they’ve latched upon. What makes you (or anyone) a good person? Is such a creature even possible in the 21st Century? Is such a creature possible period? The show gives me hope, but I’d be lying if I said it didn’t also give me pause. I want our heroes to survive their predicament morally sound, and redeem humanity in the process, but I sure as BAD PLACE don’t know if they will. Wading into this latest season as an inactive participant was an experience riddled with anxiety. We all have a lot riding on these loveable, fallible beasts. January will deliver the final episode and our final judgment with it. (Brad Gullickson)
Navigating the gilded world of the .001%, Succession follows billionaire media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his power-hungry progeny. Each of them feeling equally deserving of control after Logan’s ever-delayed retirement, Kendall (future Emmy-winner Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Siobhan Roy (Sarah Snook) fight each other tooth and nail, knowing they only succeed when the others fail. Helmed by creator and head writer Jesse Armstrong, the series balances biting satire and devastating family drama so deftly it’s hard to define the show as one thing or the other. Having only just finished its sophomore season this fall, it’s clear HBO’s Succession has made an undeniable impact in such a short time — especially if you’ve been on Twitter much in the past few months, where it’s been impossible to avoid memes, remixes of the beloved theme song, and the massively popular “No Context” account that proved there was a Roy-ism for any situation.
Ultimately, Succession depends on our fascination with antiheroes; none of the Roys are good people (and neither are the scores of lackeys and lawyers who flock to Waystar-Royco like moths to a billion-dollar flame) but we find ourselves rooting for their success just as often as their downfall. While we may never want to deal with any of the Roy clan in real life, we sure do love to watch them cannibalize each other in the name of wealth and capitalism. (Kristen Reid)
8. Twin Peaks: The Return
Twin Peaks: The Return is a show that holds up on rewatch and that I can only imagine will age well, allowing new viewers who pick it up to feel the pull of David Lynch and Mark Frost’s mesmerizing, heartbreaking, utterly beautiful series (or movie, if you’re nasty). But for those who watched it live, The Return was something truly special. Every Sunday night, we tuned in, and through recaps, podcasts, and good old fashioned yelling into the Twitter void, a community of fans experienced this together. After so many years away, Twin Peaks was back. And it lived up to the expectations while surprising us every step of the way.
Every episode was an immersive journey into the depths and dark places of this world; a world of chaos and unpredictability and hardship. The Return was at times incredulously funny while also being unbearably tragic. The show was impeccably well crafted, with Lynch and Frost’s vision being conveyed in every stunning frame, every heart-stopping, deeply human performance, every pitch-perfect music cue, and every beguiling plot point. Twin Peaks: The Return was a special show; a surrealist American mythology that still stuns me, that asks me and so many other viewers to reflect on tragedy, trauma, and saviors. While Lynch and Frost never gave their vision over to fan service, they gave us a show we probably needed, even if we didn’t know it. (Anna Swanson)
It would’ve been enough for Atlanta to introduce the world to one auteur, bringing Donald Glover’s bizarre, hilarious, thought-provoking artistic style to audiences who might not have already been familiar with his work as Childish Gambino or on shows like Community. But that would’ve been too easy, and Atlanta–a series that defies any categorization and tops itself episode after episode–wants to be anything but easy. Along with Glover, the series’ first two seasons have introduced a whole slate of abundantly talented actors, from Lakeith Stanfield to Brian Tyree Henry to Zazie Beetz. Then there’s Glover’s brother and fellow writer Stephen Glover, who’s so far brought us two great finales, a profound flashback episode, and Black Justin Bieber, among other gems. And let’s not forget breakout filmmaker Hiro Murai, who spins half hours of television that range from purposely disorienting to sleekly cinematic to outright horrifying.
Donald Glover has compared his FX series to everything from Twin Peaks to the direct-to-video animated movie Tiny Toon Adventures: How I Spent My Vacation, and his eclectic taste shows in series that’s at once a humanizing look at a multifaceted, clearly gentrified city, and a mind-blowing experiment in form and storytelling. “Teddy Perkins,” the season two industry riff on thrillers like Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is perhaps the series’ most widely praised outing, but even before that, Glover and co. were serving up stories that walked a razor’s edge between funny and chilling. A vision of the hip hop music scene that includes invisible cars, alligator men, and German folk demons, Atlanta is the hyper-surreal gift that keeps on giving.
There’s nothing on television quite like Barry. I’ve been doing this whole criticism thing for several years now, and the more stuff you watch and analyze, the rarer it is to come across something truly surprising, and yet, throughout its two seasons, Barry has been a roller coaster of surprises—and all pleasant ones. Grounded by a truly stellar performance from Bill Hader and a fascinating supporting player in Anthony Carrigan’s NoHo Hank, a bubbly gangster quite unlike any other character you’ve ever seen before, Barry takes a premise that sounds like the setup for an SNL bit—hitman ends up in an acting class by accident, decides to become an actor—and turns it into something utterly remarkable. The second season managed to match or exceed the first on every single level, and featured the explosive “ronny/lily,” easily one of the best individual episodes to be found in any television show in recent memory. While there’s still a tragic amount of time left until season 3, I have no clue whatsoever where the series will go next—and I couldn’t be happier about it. (Ciara Wardlow)
5. Bojack Horseman
BoJack Horseman was the ultimate dark horse show. (That’s the second time I’ve made that lame animal pun for this website. See if you can find the other!) The show started “small” with completely brilliant lightning-fire wordplay and visual humor, backed by a sense of ennui and an utterly star-studded cast. But it was still, ostensibly, a fun comedy populated by a zoo’s worth of humanoid animals, one of many in a relatively young age of “adult” cartoons. And then it took the hell off.
Over the years, BoJack Horseman has evolved into one of the finest series of the decade, if not beyond. Grappling with depression, forgiveness, addiction, and even its own elevation of the anti-hero, the show has consistently doubled down on its own capabilities with bitter character examination, game-changing artistic feats, and a tenacious grip on silly animal gags that’s as admirable as it is bizarre. It’s slated to come to an end this January, which is sad. But that also means its run will slip just over the line into 2020, and ten years from now we’ll all technically be able to put it on our next Best of the Decade lists, which is good. (Liz Baessler)
4. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones altered the TV landscape beyond recognition; not even a seriously muddled final season could change that. From its very first handful of episodes, Thrones established a vice-like hold on audiences, gleefully administering blow after blow to our expectations with false protagonists, pithy verbal sparring, and deliciously devilish power plays before graduating on to breathtaking war set-pieces and weddings even bloodier than the battles. It did falter, particularly in its treatment of characters of color and women, and was far from perfect, particularly once HBO’s production rate surpassed George R. R. Martin’s and the emphasis moved from substance to spectacle. But at its best (its mid-point), Thrones was peerless TV, raising the bar for the medium by delivering moral complexity and dramatic curve-balls with great finesse.
Its thrills were well-rounded, too: not just cerebral, but visceral and emotional, thanks to its superlative cast. It succeeded where other shows have tried and failed, having expanded the frontiers of nerd-dom well into the mainstream, turning even the most lukewarm of fans into Targaryen family historians. Thrones leaves behind a complicated legacy, but undeniably, this is the show that defined the decade, and we’re sure to feel its continuing influence on the medium well into the next one. (Farah Cheded)
3. The Leftovers
Tom Perrotta’s novel The Leftovers, which traces the aftermath of a rapture-esque event where 2% of the global population disappeared, was adapted by Damon Lindelof into a so-so season of television for HBO in 2014. Critics and audiences alike found the religious drama to be dour and dark, although impressively crafted and performed. Going into season two, Lindelof turned away from Perrotta’s source material and the two men found a new story to tell in the fictional town of Miracle, Texas. While season one laid the foundation for what followed, it was quickly overshadowed by the delicate writing, unparalleled imagination, and meticulously plotted story structure of seasons two and three.
It has, arguably, the best finale of any modern television series–one which prioritizes finality, catharsis, and care for its characters over an endless elongation of the show that only benefits ad sales. The entirety of season three—from Lindsay Duncan’s scene-stealing role as the enigmatic Grace to Laurie’s “I’m Judas” speech to the double-whammy ending of “The Most Powerful Man in the World (and His Identical Twin Brother)” and “The Book of Nora”—make The Leftovers an unforgettable and undeniably relevant show today. All about religion, mental illness, collective memory, and grief, The Leftovers used its fantastic premise to explore powerful issues with surprising candor and sensitivity.
I’d be remiss not to acknowledge the tremendous performances of Justin Theroux, Carrie Coon, Ann Dowd, Christopher Eccelston, Amy Brenneman, Liv Tyler, Regina King, Margaret Qualley, Kevin Carroll, Scott Glenn, Jovan Adepo and Jasmin Savoy Brown, who are all given ample opportunities to shine and showcase their talents. Although the show received mediocre ratings, it has developed a fervent and very vocal fanbase who have kept it firmly in public discourse surrounding the new “golden age of television.” (Cyrus Cohen)
2. Breaking Bad
For some it’s The Wire, for others it’s Mad Men. But for a good deal of us, the drama that announced the arrival of “prestige TV” was Breaking Bad. A tragic ballad of Shakespearean proportions, the rise and fall of science teacher turned meth lord Walter White kicked the door down, and cemented a new high bar for the small screen landscape. Breaking Bad didn’t just kill off the slow burn antihero drama, it buried it in the desert and forgot the goddamn coordinates. Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul put in game-changing performances, throwing the pH balance off on all future litmus tests. Breaking Bad managed to go out as the sum of its parts, tying loose threads and sticking the landing where other beloved shows stumble. Aggressive, taut, mesmerizing, and precisely plotted: Breaking Bad isn’t just one of the greats of the decade, but of all time. (Meg Shields)
If you somehow haven’t watched Fleabag yet, stop reading this now and go watch Fleabag! Are you crazy and/or have you been living under a rock? Starring and written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the BBC and Amazon-coproduced series was adapted from Waller-Bridge’s one-woman performance of the same name. It tells the story of the eponymous Fleabag as she attempts to fuck her way through the compounded grief of her mother and best friend’s deaths in close succession, putting a strain on her few remaining relationships. Fleabag embodies everything women are taught to stifle: she’s messy, angry, and a self-described pervert. She’s also sarcastic and witty and speaks her mind to a fault — especially when she’s breaking the fourth wall and addressing us directly.
Although season one was already critically acclaimed, it was season two that skyrocketed Fleabag to its much-deserved level of notoriety. In season two, Fleabag has grown up a bit and we see her steering away from promiscuity as she develops a close relationship with Andrew Scott’s internet-breaking “Hot Priest”. Premiering in the US in May, the follow-up season of Fleabag was the talk of the summer and ended up taking home three Emmys, including Outstanding Comedy Series. Only running about four hours in totality, Waller-Bridge crafts every moment with infinite precision, drawing us in with outrageous comedy before delivering gut-punches of sincerity. Personal and genuine, Fleabag does more than just strike a chord, it hammers it. (Kristen Reid)