The 25 best TV shows of the decade, from 'The Americans' to 'Game of Thrones'
Shows like "Game of Thrones" and "Veep" captured big audiences over the past decade. USA TODAY
The world of TV in 2019 doesn't look anything like it did in 2010.
"Grey's Anatomy" and "Law & Order: SVU" are still on the air, but before this decade, Netflix mostly sent you DVDs in the mail, "Roseanne" had ended in the 1990s, singers were mostly unmasked and no one worried much about how many TV shows Hollywood was making.
Suffice to say, the 2010s were a significant decade for the television industry and for fans of the medium, who have more options for what and how to watch serialized stories than ever before.
Amid the hundreds of shows that aired or streamed during the decade, some stood far above the rest. They are this decade's "The Sopranos" or "Buffy the Vampire Slayer." We won't stop talking about them in 2020, or even 2030.
Choosing favorites among all the series that premiered in 2010 and beyond, we excluded some greats that started at the end of the '00s but aired many '10s episodes, including "Parks and Recreation" and "Mad Men." But we picked the 25 best TV series of the 2010s: comedies and dramas, late-night talk shows and animated series. Their characters sang, danced, killed, buoyed and knocked each other down. Their subjects included British misanthropes, fantasy kings and Russian spies.
Above all, they reminded us of the power of TV as an art form, one that will dominate the technology and culture of the 2020s, for better or worse.
25. ‘The Good Fight’ (CBS All Access, 2017-present)
The ultimate TV series about The Way We Live Now, “Good Fight” has outpaced its source material, CBS’s “The Good Wife,” which didn't qualify for this list based on its 2009 premiere date. Co-creators Robert and Michelle King, freed from the broadcast restrictions of "Wife," let loose in the spinoff legal drama. It’s still about lawyers in Chicago, but everyone’s just a little bit zanier in a post-2016 election world.
24. ‘Halt and Catch Fire’ (AMC, 2014-2017)
Some of the best TV shows demonstrate their greatness not by being perfect all the time, but by learning from past mistakes. No TV show earns the most-improved award more than “Halt,” which started as a “Mad Men” knockoff about the 1980s computer industry. It morphed into a complicated drama about communication, connection and women's struggles to achieve power at home and work. The shift came precisely in the Season 2 premiere, as the story moved away from the Don Draper-esque Joe MacMillan (Lee Pace) and made its emotional center the friendship between punky Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and straight-laced Donna (Kerry Bishé). From that moment on, “Halt” found its voice.
23. ‘Speechless’ (ABC, 2016-2019)
Of all the great ABC family sitcoms during the decade (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Black-ish,” “The Middle”), “Speechless” stands out. A series about a family in which the eldest son, JJ (Micah Fowler), has cerebral palsy, “Speechless” was the antithesis of the typical, borderline-offensive pop culture portrayal of disability. In “Speechless,” disability was never “inspiration porn” or something to be overcome to the strains of a swelling orchestra. Rather, it was a part of life that led to unique opportunities for humor. Paired with a great cast, including Minnie Driver and John Ross Bowie, “Speechless” was irreverent and hilarious, verging on bawdy and uncouth, for its three seasons.
22. ‘Catastrophe’ (Amazon, 2015-2019)
The brilliance of this sitcom from across the pond – about an Irish woman and American man whose vacation fling turns into married life after an unexpected pregnancy – stems from Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, the comedic duo behind the excellent writing and acting. Running the gamut from sweet to caustic, “Catastrophe” is an honest comedy about the unexpected twists life takes, and how much work and compromise go into marriage and aging.
21. ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ (Fox, 2013-2018; NBC, 2019-present)
This almost-canceled series is far more than the sum of its workplace-sitcom parts. One of two gems from power producer Mike Schur to make this list, “Brooklyn," starring Andy Samberg and Andre Braugher, is the platonic ideal of a sitcom, full of characters viewers can adore and giggle with; romances that feel real and moving; and gags that are funny no matter how many times you watch suspects in a police lineup sing a Backstreet Boys song. Long-running, broadly appealing sitcoms are fewer and further between in our current TV era, making “Brooklyn” and its reliably hilarious episodes even more precious.
20. ‘Last Week Tonight with John Oliver’ (HBO, 2014-present)
John Oliver is the right man for the right era. The former “Daily Show” correspondent got his big break on HBO at a perfect moment to unleash his brand of comedy. A time capsule of much of the 2010s, “Last Week” kicked off a new genre of long-form, politically activist late-night comedy that spread beyond his weekly series, adopted by broadcast hosts like Jimmy Kimmel, Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers. But no one has as perfect a mix of facts, anger and persuasion as Oliver.
19. ‘Broad City' (Comedy Central, 2014-2019)
Many TV series in the 2010s tried to capture the millennial experience, as the generation everyone loves to hate reached young adulthood. Before most TV creators “got it,” there was “Broad City,” a lewd and crude take on being young and single in New York City. Stars and creators Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson made the series both ludicrous and relatable, anchoring it with a friendship that had more chemistry than many TV romances.
18. ‘American Vandal’ (Netflix, 2017-2018)
A blistering lampoon of true-crime documentaries, this teen comedy had depth and maturity far beyond the ages of its protagonists. By treating high school pranks and humorous crimes with the serious tone of “Making a Murderer,” “Vandal” found a superb way to talk about the pressures of adolescence, where scrawling genitalia graffiti on a car can feel as grave as murder.
17. ‘One Day at a Time’ (Netflix, 2017-2019; Pop TV, 2020-)
Many of the decade's best sitcoms were single-camera comedies like “30 Rock,” filmed without the live studio audience many classic (and some derided) series employed.. But the laughter-filled multi-camera comedy is not dead; it’s just evolving, and no series better exemplified the art form than “One Day,” a remake of the 1970s Norman Lear series now focused on a Cuban-American family in Los Angeles. A modern take on mixing comedy and social issues, the series’ biggest strength is the warmth imbued in every single episode. Its passionate fan base helped make it the only series in history to make the jump from a streaming platform to basic cable, a move that will hopefully keep it on the air well into the 2020s.
16. ‘BoJack Horseman’ (Netflix, 2014-2020)
Some of the best TV episodes this decade were about a depressed talking horse in Hollywood. Netflix’s showbiz satire found unexpected depths by juxtaposing animated, bipedal animals dealing with serious contemporary issues to its advantage. An excellent voice cast (Will Arnett, Aaron Paul, Amy Sedaris) gave life to the most cynical series the 2010s produced.
15. ‘American Crime Story,’ (FX, 2016-present)
There's been no shortage of true crime series on TV, but none were as stylish and respectful as the two seasons of “ACS.” In telling the stories of O.J. Simpson and Gianni Versace, the series never exploited violence and trauma, but rather found tragic moments from the past that illuminated something about the world today.
14. ‘Fargo’ (FX, 2014-present)
FX’s “American Horror Story” may be most responsible for the current boom in anthology series, but none have mastered the format quite like “Fargo.” Each season riffs on the 1996 Cohen Brothers film in its own way, portraying a standalone story that's still intimately related to the greater series. The aw-shucks Midwestern vibe is never missing, nor is great casting that has given us an ever-growing list of fabulous performances from actors including Allison Tolman, Martin Freeman, Kirsten Dunst, Ewan McGregor and Jean Smart.
13. ‘Twin Peaks: The Return’ (Showtime, 2017)
The biggest trend of the latter half of this decade has been the reboot/revival/remake, as Hollywood becomes more invested in tapping its libraries of intellectual property instead of developing new story ideas (see Disney+). When bringing an aged cast back for an old story, no one succeeded the way David Lynch did when he produced 18 new episodes of his cult 1990s ABC series “Twin Peaks.” Mindbending, near farcical and perhaps better than the original, “The Return” dared to fly in the face of fan service and expectations, and was twice as rewarding as a result.
12. ‘Atlanta’ (FX, 2016-present)
Donald Glover’s audacious series about Earn Marks (Glover), a college dropout and father trying to climb the economic ladder as a manager for his rapper cousin Alfred (Brian Tyree Henry), is the best argument around for auteur television. Although technically a half-hour comedy, “Atlanta” resists categorization, swinging between laugh-out-loud episodes and straight-up horror stories without an ounce of whiplash between. Whenever Glover decides to return for new seasons (hopefully soon), rest assured he’ll come up with something completely new and ingenious to devour.
11. ‘Alias Grace’ (Netflix, 2017)
Underseen and underrated, this adaptation of a beloved Margaret Atwood novel far outpaces its more famous cousin, Hulu's “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Sarah Gadon is a revelation as the eponymous Grace, a notorious 19th-century Canadian murderess who is being considered for a pardon due to “insanity.” Expertly written by Sarah Polley (“Stories We Tell”) and gorgeously directed by Mary Harron (“American Psycho”), the miniseries is time-twisting, potentially mystical and deeply spiritual. Even if you have read Atwood’s excellent book, it will surprise you.
10. ‘Key and Peele’ (Comedy Central, 2012-2015)
This sketch comedy series would be notable if the only thing it did was introduce us to Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele, two incredibly talented comedians who have since gone on to huge careers (“Get Out,” anyone?). But “Key and Peele” was more than just a starting block for its stars; it was a hilarious and smart series that captured a woefully underrepresented point of view. Their sketches routinely transcended those of their peers, nailing tricky contrasts in content and tone. The best were scathing commentaries on race in America and downright jolly affairs, like the iconic “Negrotown,” set in a magical, musical land where black people can wear hoodies and avoid getting arrested.
9. ‘The Good Place’ (NBC, 2016-2020)
The 2010s without “The Good Place” would have been quite the “bad place.” Another winner from Schur, the existential afterlife comedy continuously surprises and delights. Considering how well-known it is for its often philosophical narrative, it’s easy to forget that “Good Place” is also the home of a thousand puns (”You Do the Hokey Gnocchi and You Get Yourself Some Food,” “Beignet and the Jets”). The direction and production design offers superb blink-and-you’ll-miss-it visual humor, while its writers and actors have perfected characters and performances that remain true to their core amid hundreds of mind-wipes.
8. ‘Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’ (CW, 2015-2019)
A mix of romantic comedy, mental-health drama and, oh yeah, original songs every single week, “Crazy Ex” was an act that many lesser series couldn’t keep up for one season, much less four critically-acclaimed ones. But with co-creator and star Rachel Bloom steering the ship, it was never in doubt that protagonist Rebecca Bunch was so much more than just a girl who followed an old boyfriend across the country. The situation is a lot more nuanced than that.
7. ‘Justified’ (FX, 2010-2015)
Violent, funny, horrifying, electrifying and chaotic, FX’s crime drama about a Kentucky U.S. Marshal (Timothy Olyphant at his most charming) with his own moral code consistently rose above its cop-show peers. The series is full of the kind of interesting good guys and bad guys (particularly the manic Boyd Crowder, played with panache by Walton Goggins) you’d expect from anything based on a story by legendary writer Elmore Leonard. Most importantly, over six seasons it never lost an innate sense of fun and absurdity with its unique brand of action, mystery and havoc.
6. ‘Veep’ (HBO, 2012-2019)
American politics have changed dramatically since “Veep” premiered in the midst of the Obama presidency, and it can be hard to remember when the series was less uncanny documentary and more searing parody. A mildly disappointing final season does not erase the acerbic writing or pitch-perfect performance from Julia Louis-Dreyfus. The humor of "Veep" was, and still is, unparalleled.
5. ‘Game of Thrones’ (HBO, 2011-2019)
At any moment during its eight seasons and 73 episodes, “Game of Thrones” could be the best or worst series on TV, but when it was at its peak, there was nothing else like it. Recency bias will emphasize the terrible series finale, the constant violence against women and the overly long episodes. But a fuller exploration of this complex series reveals impeccable acting, gorgeous costuming and an expansion of our collective ideas about what TV can achieve. Don’t think of the Iron Throne burning, or the $15 million spent on a single episode. Think instead of the powerful, near-silent shot of birds flying away as Arya (Maisie Williams), watched her father Ned (Sean Bean) be publicly executed. As much as we love the dragons, it was in subtler moments that the series really caught fire.
4. ‘O.J. Made in America’ (ESPN, 2016)
Much more than a retelling of Simpson’s much-publicized murder trial, “Made in America” is a searing history of our country through the lens of race, sport and celebrity. The documentary arrived the same year as the "American Crime Story" take on Simpson, and it could have been a footnote. Instead, thanks to riveting and insightful filmmaking, ESPN’s five-part series outshone “People vs. O.J.” and wowed Emmy and Oscar voters alike.
3. ‘Fleabag’ (Amazon, 2016-2019)
What is left to say about Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s genius, or the brilliance of her TV show? Much ink has been spilled this year about the second season of “Fleabag,” a remarkable examination of self-actualization, love and faith. Its first, far more below-the- radar season in 2016 was nearly as accomplished a character study, boisterously funny and a coming-out party for one of the best artists working in Hollywood right now. Here’s to more Phoebe in the 10 years to come.
2. ‘The Leftovers’ (HBO, 2014-2017)
Even if the tone of this overwhelmingly somber series isn’t your style, it’s hard to ignore the level of artistry delivered over three seasons from co-creators Damon Lindelof (“Lost,” "Watchmen") and Tom Perrotta. Two percent of the earth’s population disappears without an explanation, but the story is not in the mystery but in the aftermath, the broken people forced to keep living in a world that doesn’t make any sense. Perfectly timed to a real world that felt increasingly senseless and chaotic, “Leftovers” leaned into unreality over its three short seasons, improving almost episode and culminating in a gorgeous finale, with a showstopping performance from Carrie Coon that won’t be topped anytime soon.
1. ‘The Americans,’ (FX, 2013-2018)
Over its six seasons, the Soviet spy drama was exemplary in its acting (particularly from Keri Russell), its writing, its directing, its music choices, its wigs and everything else. Thoughtful, insightful, thrilling and even funny at times, the series is the epitome of this era of TV. That it was able to end on such a brilliant note in 2018 (a feat few series have managed), only cements its legacy as the best of the decade.