The now-ubiquitous phrase “Peak TV”—coined by FX networks chief John Landgraf— only first appeared in 2015, but it certainly defined the entire decade of television in the 2010s. The streaming wars are upon us now, really taking off in November 2019 for anyone wanting to keep track— with the arrival of Disney+ and Apple TV+, and the debuts of HBO Max, Peacock, and others in the near future. They said viewers were drowning in content in 2017, but in 2018, 495 original scripted shows were on the air. But it’s clear that by the end of the 2010s, we’re just getting started with this era of Peak TV and Streaming Wars ™.
Peak TV, along with a nascent epoch of early streaming conflict, began at the early part of the decade, arguably around 2012, when Netflix decided they would no longer just license material, but start creating original content, and launched headfirst with “House Of Cards” in 2013. Backed by top-shelf names like David Fincher and Kevin Spacey, “House of Cards” was arguably one of the first shots across the bow that changed the game (Netflix realized this— their trademark intro sound? That’s a slowed-down augmented version of Spacey’s Frank Underwood knocking on wood). “House Of Cards” would bring Netflix everything they wanted and what HBO already had, critical acclaim, popularity, and eventually, Emmy Awards.
The thirst became real and soon, “Orange Is The New Black” would take pop culture by storm by and others would quickly get in the game, with Amazon Studios delivering “Transparent” (2014), Hulu arriving a little late with “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017), and all the while cable competitors like HBO, FX, and AMC doing their thing, receiving acclaim in the interim, and trying not to flinch at the status quo being upended.
This is barely scratching the surface—obviously, there’s more nuance to the decade— but what you need to know is that the 2010s was the decade when TV was treated seriously and with respect (with apologies to “The Soprano’s,” “The Wire” and the early golden age of TV that was just as good). The 2010s also ushered in the other arguably dubious term, “Prestige TV,” aka TV that was good, respectable, and nothing you had to treat as a guilty pleasure.
The key difference between the previous decade and the era of Prestige and Peak TV, was the stigma of television (sometimes unearned) was coming off. A-list actors would no longer feel like working in TV (see Matthew McConaughey in “True Detective” as one major example after Spacey) was slumming it. Filmmakers flocked to the medium. While David Lynch was pioneering this trend in the ’90s, it never caught on back then and the 2010s saw the likes of David Fincher, Jane Campion, Martin Scorsese (ouch, the misfire of “Vinyl“), Steven Soderbergh, Cary Fukunaga, Todd Haynes, Michael Mann (2011’s ill-fated “Luck“), Spike Lee, and dozens and dozens of Oscar-winning, top-shelf filmmakers being lured to the draw of TV, with its longer formats, more breathing time for stories, and in the case of many streaming channels—fairly gigantic budgets they wouldn’t receive from an indie studio.
In short, yes, we were plastered in content, but we received a lot of damn fine television over the last 10 years. So, here we are with our Best TV Shows and Mini-Series of the Decade. It’s fairly telling how much things skew towards the end of the decade and in-and-around or after Trump took office. And network television is barely represented which tells you how much ground they lost this decade (who here didn’t cut the chord?). Regardless, here we are. Dive in and immerse yourself with the best “content” of the 2010s.
55. “The Good Wife” (2009—2016, CBS)
Perhaps part of this program’s ranking can be attributed to its impressive spin-off, “The Good Fight,” but the original Michelle and Patrick King creation had an indelible impact on the decade. The ‘Wife’ may have featured Julianna Margulies, but an entire ensemble featuring Josh Charles, Christine Baranski, and Alan Cumming tackled a series of issues that were rarely treated so bluntly on network television this century. Creators Robert and Michelle King were never afraid to show their progressive, liberal roots, even when an issue was a detriment to that base or a character’s success. Most notably, Margulies delivered an often heartbreaking arc as Alicia Florrick, the wife of an Illinois politician (Chris Noth) who embarrasses her in a public scandal at the beginning of the series and, somehow, an even worse one at the end. At that point in the show’s seven-season run, you might not have liked Alicia anymore, but you completely understood her. – Gregory Ellwood
54. “Too Old to Die Young” (2019, Amazon Studios)
At first glance, “Too Old to Die Young” has all the hallmarks of enfant terrible Nicolas Winding Refn’s past work: a pulsating, throbbing synth score by Cliff Martinez,a brooding, morally compromised protagonist (Miles Teller), slow-motion montages of surreal, hyper-violent imagery, and of course, neon-drenched lighting. In fact, you’d be forgiven for assuming Refn was using his most expansive canvas and largest budget yet to play some sort of practical joke, a winking attempt at self-parody. But there’s something oddly mesmerizing about watching Refn fully embrace his best and worst tendencies, as if he were wrestling with his most perverse instincts. ‘T.O.T.D.Y.’ is still unapologetically violent, — and it’s honestly a bit odious at times — but for the first time in the Danish director’s career, the violence feels genuinely horrific, as if dismissing his earlier use of violence as spectacle to craft an indictment of himself and his audience’s appetite for carnage. Despite the show’s nearly juvenile provocations—that will make or break the show for many— Refn is surprisingly able to overcome nasty proclivities and tap into the current era of fascism. Ultimately embracing genre over political posturing, ‘T.O.T.D.Y.’ is still mad as hell, which allows the series to thrive as a brooding, unflinching crime epic, armed with a disarmingly satirical/incensed perspective on the current state of America. It doesn’t hurt that the show is shot by virtuoso cinematographers Darius Khondji and Diego Garcia, who shoot Los Angeles like a more mythological Michael Mann thriller. An audacious, hypnotic and dazzling crime saga about the societal rot intrinsically tied to living in a police state, it’s Refn’s most searing and evocative work yet. — Max Roux
53. “Search Party” (2017—Current, TBS)
Who woulda thought some unseen comedy from TBS would be on this list? “Search Party” doesn’t look appealing from the outside: exasperating millennials doing obnoxious things out of entitled self-interest. Only, then you realize, this hook is a catalyst for deep generational anxiety, millennial angst as created by Sarah–Violet Bliss (co-director, co-writer and star of the wry indie “Fort Tilden“), Charles Rogers (“Fort Tilden,” co-director, co-writer), and comedy genius Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer,” “The Big Sick“). Take lost generation sensibilities—biting, sharp, hilarious—and then add a genre twist. “Search Party” starts out as a sorta possible-murder/mystery comedy about a missing 20-something and the aimless, looking-for-purpose girl (Alia Shawkat from “Arrested Development“) that takes it upon herself to up-end her life looking for her despite no real connection to her. Featuring an outstanding cast of hilarious supporting players—John Paul Reynolds, John Early, Meredith Hagner, Brandon Micheal Hall— “Search Party” gets dark, surreal, strange, and twisted fast. A big vote of confidence for the show: it’s been renewed for two more seasons and it’s moving to WarnerMedia’s HBO Max for launch. Catch up while you can. – Rodrigo Perez
52. “Black-ish” (2014—Current, ABC)
Can you remember the last time an upper-middle-class Black family was the center of a network sitcom? That’s how rare an every-day aspect of American life has been on broadcast television. Creator Kenya Barris changed all that by channeling the talents of a brilliant ensemble including Anthony Anderson, Tracee Ellis Ross, and Jennifer Lewis to touch on some of the hardest-hitting issues facing the nation (often to ABC’s frustration). The critically acclaimed program featured episodes on the election of Donald Trump, Black Lives Matter, police brutality, homophobia, and more. Issues that were all tackled through the lens of the African-American community to often hilarious effect (and did we mention there were musical episodes?) And not only did it inspire one-hit spin-off, “Grown-ish,” but a second with “Mixed-ish.” – GE
51. “SMILF” (2017—2019, Showtime)
Perhaps tied with “Search Party” for the best series on this list that no one watched, or tied with “I Love Dick,” for the best show canceled too soon, Showtime’s “SMILF” never really received the love it deserved and many are probably wondering, “Huh? Why is it on this list?” But trust, that writer/creator/star Frankie Shaw’s (who also directed episodes as well) series about a struggling single mom in Boston who just can’t catch a break was brilliant and far too short-lived. Based on her 2014 short film of the same name and inspired by her life of moving to Los Angeles to make it big, only to get pregnant—much of the show is influenced by Shaw’s struggles to work as an actor while being a single mother, “SMILF” was hilariously tragic, heartbreakingly self-deprecating and funny. It was also wonderfully weird and sometimes achingly “the struggle is real” sad. Written with strong feminist sensibilities that kept taking on more of idiosyncratic absurdist humor— terrific magical realist dream sequences— by Season 2, “SMILF” was doing the social surrealism of “Atlanta” and weaving it through the iniquitous heartache that women and moms face on a daily basis. “SMILF” also beautiful drew around the idea of the broken family, but the only one you got—keeping her ex close to her son, which means his hot girlfriend too—and the pains of that generosity in favor of the greater good (life imitates art: Shaw’s ex-baby daddy is Mark Webber who she also cast in the show in a supporting role). “SMILF” was just hitting its stride, and while there is grief in its cancelation, at least we know to watch every single thing Shaw creates next. – RP