TV is, among other things, a way of marking time. Popular shows help to define their eras not just because they’re often topical, but also because they stick around long enough to evolve with, respond to and sometimes even change the world around them. Our cultural memory of the ’70s leans on The Mary Tyler Moore Show, All in the Family, M*A*S*H, The Jeffersons. The turn of the millennium conjures up The Sopranos, The West Wing, Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
But in the past decade, as viewing options exploded and audiences fragmented, most ratings juggernauts (The Big Bang Theory, Modern Family) lagged behind the times. The 2010s have instead been defined by the proliferation of smaller, stranger, more personal and diverse programs — not three or five standouts but dozens of them. All criticism is subjective, of course, and my list of the best shows of the last 10 years surely reflects the dearth of consensus picks. My hope is that it nonetheless represents some of the greatest cultural preoccupations of the decade — and some of the most resonant art to come out of the Peak TV glut.
Before we get started, I should mention that there are some rules for the list: Only shows that had run for at least two seasons by the end of 2019 (i.e., no miniseries, which will be covered in a separate list, and no Russian Doll, which has had only one season), and that were arguably at their best during the current decade, were eligible.
Here are TIME’s picks for the best TV shows of the 2010s, presented chronologically based on the year of their series debuts. Also read TIME’s list of the best movies, movie performances, nonfiction books and fiction books of the decade.
Mad Men (AMC, 2007-2015)
You could argue that Mad Men — the sprawling period drama that, along with Breaking Bad, brought TV’s golden age to basic cable — made its greatest impact in the 2000s. Airing between 2007 and 2009, the first three seasons followed maverick 1960s ad exec Don Draper (Jon Hamm) as he blew up the seemingly ideal life he’d created for himself; along with charming viewers, the show started a vogue for mid-century retro style. Seasons 4 through 7 felt less consistent, as creator Matt Weiner faced the greater challenge of rebuilding Don while delving deeper into secondary characters like brilliant upstart Peggy (Elisabeth Moss), debauched dinosaur Roger (John Slattery) and perennially underestimated bombshell Joan (Christina Hendricks). But, spread out over a decade as tumultuous as the one we’re living through (the series finale aired in 2015), their triumphs and sorrows cut deeper the better we got to know them. And in its final moments, Mad Men encouraged us to meditate on the wisdom of devoting your life to creative work — or, in other words, whether it’s crazy to seek spiritual fulfillment in whatever it is that you do for money.
Enlightened (HBO, 2011-2013)
There are two ways to frame the story of Enlightened protagonist Amy Jellicoe: In one version, following a humiliating public meltdown and a stint in rehab, a former corporate executive attempts to exact revenge on the company that ruined her life. In the other, a woman endeavoring to become a better person risks everything to expose corruption in her workplace. What makes Amy (played by co-creator Laura Dern, in one of her finest performances) my favorite TV character of the decade is that both versions are equally true. She’s a naive narcissist with a messiah complex, spewing self-help jargon and carelessly putting her co-workers at risk. She’s also a hero with the courage to speak out when no one else will. Written entirely by Dern’s co-creator Mike White, Enlightened premiered in 2011 and was canceled after just two seasons. But the observant dramedy anticipated many defining themes of the years to come: “flawed” female TV characters, the crucial role of whistleblowers, #MeToo, the selfish undertones of wellness culture, Americans’ increasing discomfort with corporations and the super-rich. Among Obama-era television, no series has held up better.
BoJack Horseman (Netflix, 2014-present)
No development has changed the 21st century television landscape as profoundly as the rise of streaming — and, in particular, Netflix’s transformation into an original-content behemoth. But before the service started angling to replace, rather than merely supplement, cable, it endeared itself to TV connoisseurs by throwing money at prestige projects like Orange Is the New Black and House of Cards. So when Netflix announced the first season of BoJack Horseman in 2014, the show seemed like it would be a bit out of its league. Despite a stellar voice cast led by Will Arnett, BoJack was a cartoon from untested creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg about a gloomy talking horse who used to star in a hit ’90s sitcom. Little did we know, at the time, that it would soon evolve into not just a sharp parody of Hollywood, but also a bracing exploration of ambition, responsibility and familial trauma, as well as an empathetic portrait of mental illness. By season 3, Bob-Waksberg and production designer Lisa Hanawalt had given us a virtuosic, nearly silent underwater episode; two years later, BoJack’s emotional half-hour eulogy for his mother could make you forget you were watching anything other than a flesh-and-blood human. Midway through its final season, BoJack has become both Netflix’s masterpiece and the best animated series of its generation.
Halt and Catch Fire (AMC, 2014-2017)
“Computers aren’t the thing. They’re the thing that gets you to the thing.” So says tech entrepreneur Joe MacMillan (a wonderfully dynamic Lee Pace) at multiple points throughout the four-season run of Halt and Catch Fire. At first, in early episodes that tried too hard to make Joe the Don Draper of a Mad Men narrative transposed onto the 1980s personal computer revolution, it sounded like empty pitch-speak. But Halt came into its own once the characters around Joe — programming prodigy Cameron Howe (Mackenzie Davis), frustrated-genius engineer Gordon Clark (Scoot McNairy) and Gordon’s visionary wife Donna (Kerry Bishé) — came into focus. “The thing that gets you to the thing” was about the power of technology, and creative collaboration in general, to forge interpersonal connections. It captured the way these sometime business partners made each other better, more genuine and fulfilled people — and it articulated the dangers of treating monetizable innovation as an end in itself. In the past decade, as we’ve suffered the consequences of a tech sector that can seem devoid of human insight and empathy, Halt dared to imagine an alternate history of the industry in which those qualities mattered most.
The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-2017)
What if we were living in the End Times? I don’t mean the apocalyptic headspace an increasing number of us occupy as the awareness that climate change or geopolitical mayhem could doom our planet in the foreseeable future spreads around the globe; I’m talking about the world of The Leftovers, the epic drama based on a novel by Tom Perrotta. Spanning seven years in the aftermath of a rapture-like event dubbed the “Sudden Departure,” in which 2% of Earth’s population vanished, the show began as a bleak portrait of collective mourning. But it soon blossomed into an exploration of faith and its relationship to love in a contemporary setting stripped of the certainty that has come with scientific progress — a context in which an inexplicable incident catalyzes brutal nihilism at one extreme, religious zealotry at the other, and a whole lot of cultish mythologies in between. If 140 million people could simply disappear one day, what’s so far-fetched about miracles, resurrections and modern-day messiahs? With The Leftovers, Perrotta’s co-creator Damon Lindelof found the profundity that had eluded him in an earlier mystery-box series, Lost. The result was the rare secular 21st century narrative endowed with real spiritual resonance.
Better Call Saul (AMC, 2015-present)
Breaking Bad was appointment television: a tightly coiled, smartly written, virtuosically acted, artfully shot neo-Western that spent five seasons hurtling toward a foregone conclusion. It didn’t seem to demand a spinoff. And before the premiere of Better Call Saul, conceived by Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould as a comedic prequel focused on Bob Odenkirk’s crooked lawyer character, Saul Goodman, the show sounded kind of silly. But Saul’s origin story, as the petty criminal turned repentant attorney formerly known as Jimmy McGill, turned out to be a serious (if also darkly funny) meditation on what it means to be a good person — an inquiry that weighs law against morality and hinges on the question of whether harboring pure intentions is enough to redeem a man who’s constitutionally incapable of playing by society’s rules. While Odenkirk’s heartbreaking tragicomic performance sets the tone, a cast of distinctive characters — from Jimmy’s ambivalent sometime girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) to quasi-principled gangster Nacho Varga (Michael Mando) — illustrates just how sticky seemingly basic ethical dilemmas can become.
Atlanta (FX, 2016-present)
In 2009, 26-year-old 30 Rock writer Donald Glover was kicking off his acting career with a role in Dan Harmon’s rule-breaking NBC sitcom Community. Now he’s a cultural force, starring in Disney blockbusters (The Lion King) and releasing critically adored, platinum-selling R&B albums (as Childish Gambino); his music video “This Is America” dominated the cultural conversation for weeks in 2018. But the linchpin of his success was Atlanta, a restlessly experimental FX comedy about a broke Princeton dropout (Glover) who’s pinned his hopes to managing his up-and-coming rapper cousin Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry). Within that loose framework, Glover — who is also the show’s creator, frequent writer and sometimes director — has offered an episode-length parody of BET, complete with absurdist commercials; an extended riff on the Florida Man meme; and a short horror movie that doubles as a critique of the “black excellence” narrative. Often hilarious and consistently surprising, the show’s commentary on race, class and the entertainment industry is always on point. And along with rocketing Glover into the top echelon of artists in any medium, it helped launch visionary director Hiro Murai and co-stars Henry, Lakeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz.
Fleabag (Amazon, 2016-2019)
After years of prestige dramas that captured the inner turmoil of straight, middle-aged white men, the flailing young woman finally snatched away the spotlight as Lena Dunham’s often-irritating but undeniably groundbreaking Girls gave way to more lighthearted yet equally profound shows: Broad City, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, Russian Doll. Fleabag, a raw, funny account of grief, guilt and sexual compulsion from British writer and star Phoebe Waller-Bridge, stood out from even that impressive crowd. Three years after its first season established the plight of Waller-Bridge’s titular heroine — whose professional, romantic and familial ties had all come undone since the deaths of her mother and best friend — the show returned with a surprising redemption arc. A new infatuation with a (hot) priest played by Andrew Scott offered a poignant and believable path forward for a self-sabotaging character whose prospects had seemed bleak. As millennials struggled through their first two decades of adulthood, Fleabag’s spiritual journey suggested how a lost generation might begin to find itself.
The Good Place (NBC, 2016-present)
It’s been a bleak decade for broadcast networks, which saw their audiences usurped by cable, streaming, social media and a rapidly expanding video-game culture. With just a few exceptions (Hannibal, The Good Wife, Community, black-ish, Bob’s Burgers, early Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder), broadcasters in ratings free-fall started catering to the lowest common denominator. By the time The Good Place premiered, in 2016, it felt like a miracle that creator Michael Schur (The Office, Parks and Recreation) had managed to get such a smart, strange comedy on NBC primetime. As he’d done with Parks, Schur used marquee stars — in this case, Kristen Bell and Ted Danson — to smuggle in a fresh, diverse cast. But what really made the show unique was a surreal premise that placed four newly dead humans in an afterlife where nothing is as it seems. In order to save their souls, the characters embark upon a quest that doubles as a course in moral philosophy. With Donald Trump in the White House and mass shootings dominating the news, Schur’s central question of whether humans can change for the better took on new salience. Sadly, the question of whether network TV will ever produce such an ambitious show again remains unanswered.
Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017)
Who could have guessed that the single best show of the decade would turn out to be a revival? Perhaps as compensation for deluging us with awful reboots and sequels — Fuller House, Will & Grace, MacGyver, Dynasty — the TV nostalgia machine offered up David Lynch’s first major audiovisual work since 2006’s Inland Empire: 18 new episodes of Twin Peaks. Title aside, Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost had far more in mind than a return to the show’s namesake small Pacific Northwest town, one still occupied by a handful of the lovable cops, diner waitresses and sundry eccentrics from the original ’90s seasons. Loosely structured around righteous FBI man Dale Cooper’s (Kyle MacLachlan) reemergence after decades stuck in the eerie interzone of the Black Lodge, The Return gave us an uncanny Cooper doppelgänger, weekly musical guests including Nine Inch Nails and a breathtaking experimental sequence that identified the atomic bomb as 20th century America’s cardinal sin. Every episode was a mystery with infinite solutions.
For the purposes of this list, The Return qualifies as the third season of Twin Peaks, but it was more of a remix than a sequel. Originally a simpler, semi-satirical mashup of horror movie, police-procedural and soap-opera tropes, the series metamorphosed into a funhouse mirror of such current fixations as screens and nostalgia. It was more than that, too — more, I’m afraid, than the blurb format can adequately cover: a series of vividly beautiful nightmares; a product of Lynch’s fascination with Eastern mysticism; a war between Cooper’s goodness and the evil unleashed by the bomb, with archetypal dead girl Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) anguished spirit hanging in the balance. A cryptic finale fueled debate over which side won out. I prefer to believe that for Lynch, just as it did in real life throughout this tumultuous decade, the fight for the soul of humanity rages on.
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