The 12 Best TV Shows of the Past Decade
We now live in an era when truly excellent television proliferates as far as the eye can stream. Since the dawn of television’s much-lauded golden age, dozens (dozens!) of unique and innovative series have changed the medium for the better. The past ten years have seen radical experimentation with narrative forms alongside expertly crafted work in tried-and-true formats like police procedurals and sitcoms. Narrowing the field to a dozen shows isn’t easy, but I tend to favor ambition, innovation, and unique aesthetic sensibilities. With that in mind, in no particular order, here are my HIGHLY SUBJECTIVE picks for the 12 best American TV shows that have debuted since 2009.
Community (NBC, 2009–2014; Yahoo! Screen, 2015)
Before Dan Harmon teamed up with Justin Roiland to create the bleakly comic cosmos of Rick and Morty, he made hilarious chaos on a much more intimate scale. Community centers on the wacky adventures of a study group at the winningly dysfunctional Greendale Community College. It’s a show about second chances and finding support among fellow misfits that studiously avoids indulging in the kind of overt sentimentality those themes might suggest. Community is best remembered for brilliant genre sendups like the paintball-themed “Modern Warfare,” but its true strength lies in the dignity with which it treats even Greendale’s most ridiculous denizens. (Not to mention its cast and writers; the show helped make Alison Brie, Donald Glover, and Megan Ganz household names.) Behind-the-scenes turmoil caused some quality issues throughout the show’s run, but its first three seasons remain an unen-dean delight.
Community is available to stream on Crackle, Hulu, Google Play, iTunes, Amazon Prime, and YouTube.
Hannibal (NBC, 2013–2015)
Bryan Fuller’s audacious primetime crime drama follows the bloody struggles of troubled FBI profiler Will Graham (Hugh Dancy) after he captures the interest of Baltimore’s most…tasteful psychiatrist (Mads Mikkelsen). The show is freely adapted from the Hannibal Lecter novels, and fans of the books will love the snippets of pure, uncut Thomas Harris prose that purple up Hannibal’s dialogue. Looking back, it’s hard to believe a show this saturated with aestheticized gore, potent psychological horror, and twisted romance ever aired at 10 p.m. on NBC, but it certainly left an impression. Echoes of its art house nightmare style can be felt in more recent atmospheric horror series like Channel Zero and The Terror.
Heady without being pretentious (for the most part), Hannibal’s operatic spectacle is shot through with a vein of self-aware humor darker than a cannibal psychiatrist’s murder basement. (In fact, you can even buy a tie-in cookbook based on the show’s mouthwatering displays of, er, people food.) Moody, cerebral, and sensuous, its three lean seasons leave viewers hungry for more.
Hannibal is available to stream on Netflix, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix, 2014–)
Back in the ‘90s, he was in a very famous TV show, but things haven’t been going so well for BoJack (Will Arnett) in the twenty years that have passed since his fleeting popularity. Depressed and alcoholic, BoJack haunts the sterile rooms of his minimalist Hollywoo mansion until deciding to hire ghostwriter Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie) to help him write the memoir that will launch his career’s second act. It’s a pretty dark premise for one of the funniest shows currently on the air, but BoJack thrives in the uncomfortable interzone between comedy and tragedy. What began its first season as a candy-colored showbiz satire has become a heartbreaking, laugh-out-loud exploration of identity, relationships, mental illness, and generational trauma—as well as a delivery system for brilliantly stupid animal jokes. Arnett’s performance walks a challenging tightrope, making BoJack sympathetic and funny despite the fact that he’s a miserable, self-defeating asshole (and also, y’know, a cartoon horse). Five seasons in and still going strong, it remains to be seen whether he can really become a better person, or if he’s doomed to fall prey to the demons that make up his family legacy.
BoJack Horseman is available to stream on Netflix.
Atlanta (FX, 2016–)
“This is a great environment for you,” quips Donald Glover’s Earn as he holds his toddler daughter in the first episode of Atlanta. The show primes viewers from the outset to think about external circumstances vs. inner life, about individuals contending with hostile environments. Glover stars as a Princeton dropout who works as a manager for his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Alfred “Paper Boi” Miles (Brian Tyree Henry, a revelation). Along with stoner sage Darius (LaKeith Stanfield), they navigate the daily grind of trying to make it in the music business.
This acclaimed dramedy is a difficult series to pin down, encompassing both astute social commentary and untethered absurdism. In a recent Guardian interview, Glover said, “I’m not making a TV show, I am making an experience.” Like an experience, Atlanta demands active participation. It meanders and mesmerizes, leaving traditional A-plot B-plot TV storytelling by the wayside. Nightclubs and house parties become surreal labyrinths. Simple interactions are fraught with hidden meanings. As Earn struggles against his more selfish tendencies to become a better partner, father, and manager, he contends with a racist society that, underscored by Hiro Murai’s dreamlike direction, makes every day a potential waking nightmare.
Atlanta is available to stream on Hulu, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.
Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, 2015–)
Critics tend to leave nonfiction and news shows off their beloved best TV show lists, which is a shame. John Oliver’s weekly deep dive into the many issues that affect lives but rarely make front-page news is vital and valuable journalism. It doesn’t hurt that it’s also incredibly funny. The self-deprecating Daily Show alum brings his cheerfully absurd sense of humor to this uniquely formatted comedy news program. Oliver refuses to cater to whatever fresh outrage hijacks the zeitgeist in a given week, instead outlining systemic problems in painstaking detail. He spices his long-form stories with hashtag-ready stunts designed to bring awareness to pressing issues, most notably creating a bestselling children’s book with the noble goal of mercilessly trolling Mike Pence. It’s the combination of incisive, in-depth commentary with direct (if silly) action that makes the show an enduring force for good. I can’t think of a better fake newsman to guide us through the daily drudgery of Stupid Watergate.
Last Week Tonight is available to stream on HBO Now, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, YouTube, and Google Play.
Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014–2019)
Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer created the warped, wonderful world of Broad City to celebrate friendship, and whatever strange journeys their fictionalized alter egos undertake, the show is always alive with their exuberance and joy. This sitcom takes the lived reality of being a broke twentysomething in the city to surrealist extremes. A trip to pick up a package becomes Lynchian nightmare fuel; a job in a restaurant turns into a fight for survival out of Lord of the Flies (overseen by a vindictive RuPaul). It’s a cliché to point out that TV shows often treat New York like a character in itself, but in this case it’s an apt comparison. The city writhes and sprawls in Day-Glo tones or chimes in with weird sight gags like just another pal. Broad City might have started life as a feminist stoner buddy comedy, but as it enters its final season it’s grown into a rich, gross tapestry of Millennial life.
Broad City is available to stream on ComedyCentral.com, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, and Google Play.
Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011–2019)
HBO’s unstoppable ratings juggernaut is coming to an end this year, but its seven blockbuster seasons have left an indelible mark on television as we know it. David Benioff and D.B. Weiss brought epic storytelling to TV with a production that leaves every dollar of its lavish budget on the screen. Adapting George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire book series for television was a hugely ambitious undertaking, and one that forever changed TV’s storytelling scope. Although the show succumbed to a bit of narrative wheel-spinning once the source material was tapped out, its most recent season marked a return to massively satisfying popcorn entertainment. The warring houses of Westeros have moved into position for their final battle, and whoever wins, Game of Thrones will go down as one of the last shared pop culture touchstones in an increasingly fragmented TV landscape.
EDIT: Well, what can I say? TV is a living medium, and long-form storytelling has its pitfalls. The main one being, you have to wrap it up somehow. It’s kind of perversely fascinating to see a show shit the bed so spectacularly on the ending that it all but erases the whole thing from the popular consciousness. But at the very least, the cast and crew who spent nearly a decade bringing Game of Thrones to life deserved better.
Game of Thrones is available to stream on HBO Now, Amazon Prime, YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, and Vudu.
The Americans (FX, 2013–2018)
This period drama set during the final years of the Cold War has an arrestingly pulpy premise: two Soviet spies posing as the perfect American couple carry out assassinations and espionage from their affluent D.C. suburb—and find love and solace with each other along the way. Real-life partners Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys convey their characters’ decades of shared history with a single furtive glance, creating a powerful emotional center that grounds the spy escapades in real feelings. The show’s poignant family drama is sparsely punctuated by thrilling action and shocking gore (you’ll never look at a suitcase the same way again), but it never veers into exploitative territory. Showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields based Philip and Elizabeth Jennings on a pair of actual KGB sleeper agents, and The Americans never loses its sense of lived-in realism, no matter how many outlandish wigs the couple dons for Mother Russia. Even without its unfortunate relevance to current politics, The Americans’ nuanced depiction of marriage would have secured its place among the best TV shows of the decade.
The Americans is available for streaming on Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and Vudu.
Fargo (FX, 2016–)
This series loosely based on the Coen brothers’ 1996 film of the same name unfolds as a series of riffs on the original movie’s quirky brand of prairie noir. Each of its three short seasons takes place in a different time and place, but they all share the unlikely pairing of Upper Midwestern folksiness and devious criminality. Showrunner Noah Hawley’s elemental avatars of good and evil battle it out over proverbial plates of hot dish, animated by career-best performances from Martin Freeman, Billy Bob Thornton, Kirsten Dunst, and Carrie Coon, just to name a few. Hawley packs his series with biblical imagery and karmic retribution, fusing epic themes with mundane small-town malfeasance. Although the third season with its wolfish villain (David Thewlis) and multiple Ewan McGregors leaned a little too far into outright farce and grotesquerie for some critics, Fargo remains a compelling meditation on decency and darkness. Real good, then.
Fargo is available to stream on Hulu, Amazon Prime, Google Play, iTunes, YouTube, and Vudu.
The Magicians (SyFy, 2015–)
Any list of the best TV shows of the decade should include a little boxed wine to wash down all that prestige cable foie gras. Like a quality cardboard-packaged pinot, The Magicians is unashamed to be pure, snark-fueled, darkly comic entertainment; it’s an absolute blast. This show’s premise can be boiled down to “Harry Potter goes to grad school,” but The Magicians is about so much more than sex, drugs, and lessons in advanced conjuring. It’s a relentless thrill ride, tearing through plot at a breakneck pace, but it never misses an opportunity to throw in a clever pop culture reference—or an entire musical number from Les Mis, for that matter.
The hapless students of Brakebills University might have magical powers, but the whimsical world they inhabit is just as cruel and cynical as our own, filled with manipulative fairies, douchey vampires, and egotistical gods. The show makes it abundantly clear that the ability to harness magic stems from pain, a theme it uses to explore the effects of trauma with surprising respect and nuance, especially for a series that regularly employs the phrase “don’t nutsack out.” In a genre TV space dominated by caped crusaders, The Magicians’ R-rated mere mortals are a breath of fresh air.
The Magicians is available to stream on Netflix, Google Play, Amazon Prime, iTunes, YouTube, and Vudu.
Big Little Lies (HBO, 2017–)
The title sequence to Big Little Lies glides along the Pacific Coastal Highway to bring viewers into its world of almost unimaginable privilege. Solitary beach houses loom like fairytale castles; serene vibes permeate the surroundings, along with the constant whisper of waves. This is a setting where the biggest problem most people have to worry about is the drama surrounding a child’s insanely lavish birthday party. The wealthy moms of Monterey have secrets, though: what they’ve done, and what they’ve endured.
Big Little Lies is a deliciously effective potboiler that doubles as a celebration of female friendship and solidarity. With clarity and style, it shows that domestic abuse knows no tax bracket, and that a show for and about women can garner massive ratings and critical acclaim. The first—originally only—season is a near-perfect murder mystery all tied up in a strand of Breakfast at Tiffany’s pearls. Now that HBO has greenlit a second season, the question remains: where will David E. Kelley take a story that has reached its natural conclusion?
Big Little Lies is available to stream on HBO Now, YouTube, Amazon Prime, iTunes, Google Play and Vudu.
The Deuce (HBO, 2017–)
David Simon and George Pelecanos’ latest complex exploration of gray urban morality portrays the Times Square sex trade in its 1970s heyday. Maggie Gyllenhaal stars as Candy, an independent sex worker who dreams of making it as a director in the nascent porn industry. Her performance is riveting, full of humor, vulnerability, and steel. The Deuce’s motley, nocturnal ensemble populates a New York that is gritty without being grimdark, and includes welcome faces from The Wire as well as talented newcomers like Dominique Fishback and Gary Carr (and James Franco hamming it up in a flashy double role).
Trapped in a parasitic industry, they look toward an uncertain future as Ed Koch’s cleanup initiatives threaten to wipe their livelihood off the map. In a case of life imitating art, the show is on thin ice ratings-wise, and its upcoming third season will probably be its last, proving once again that the man who gave us the word fuckbonnet continues to be underappreciated in his own lifetime.
The Deuce is available to stream on HBO Now, HBO Go, Amazon Prime, Google Play, YouTube, and Vudu.