Part 1: 10–6
When one tries to rank the greatest shows of a decade that was filled with them, there are many benchmarks you can use. High quality acting, writing and directing, groundbreaking tropes, setting new benchmarks in what the medium can do. But what I’d looked for when I was establishing my list was consistency. Sustained excellence, ideally over its entire run, superb performances all the way through, and above all, a superb finish.
I’ll admit, when you look at my list, you will see some surprises. I don’t believe a series that may have been a watercooler series that was rewarded by the Emmys (like Game of Thrones) a groundbreaking popular series (like The Walking Dead), or a series that for a time was one of the greatest (like Mad Men) will be here because they were either were too violent or sexual in the first case, or had there best moments prior to the decade beginning in the last case. And there are some series that frankly don’t appeal to me at all (Downton Abbey always left me cold) or had moments of peak that ended too soon, and were inconsistent the rest of the way. Homeland is the perhaps the best example of this. And there are some series that have been brilliant in the beginning but are nowhere near their end. (The Crown and Atlanta are extraordinary series that still haven’t run long enough for me to consider them.) I’m also willing to combine series that take place in the same universe or setting.
Are these series the most famous of the 2010s? Maybe not. But if you’re looking for a list of series that will, decades from now, be considered among the pantheon of greatness, in my mind, the list starts here.
10. The Good Place (NBC)
Technically, this series is an outlier among my contenders because it has yet to finish its run (there are still four episodes to go next year before it concludes.) But few comedies have been as consistently funny, been more willing to deal with daring ethical issues, feature some of the most memorable twists of the decade (‘Michael’s Gambit’ is one of the greatest of all time) or do things that completely reshape the format of the episode (Janets was a mindbender that made your head and your heart ache.) I’m not sure which issue concerns me more as the series wraps up: whether humanity can be saved or whether Eleanor and Chidi end up together for eternity. What I know is that this show is brilliant because it knows both are equally important. And considering that this series has proven once again that Ted Danson is one of the greatest talents of all time, that’s worth in its itself.
9. Masters of Sex (Showtime)
This decade proved that Showtime was in the same market as HBO, and while this series may not have been as successful as Shameless or Homeland, or even got a proper finale for its characters, in my opinion, it was the most consistently engaging. With Michael Sheen playing William Masters as a man who wanted to revolutionize the scientific world but not disrupt his own and Lizzy Caplan more then demonstrating her dramatic chops as Virginia Johnson, a woman fighting for equality every step of the way, these two leads led us through more than a decade of a brave new world. Featuring one of the greatest guest casts ever assembled, from Beau Bridges and Allison Janney to Niecy Nash and Betty Gilpin, and some of the most incredible episodes in the history of the decade (‘Fallout’ in Season 1 and ‘Fight’ in Season 2 rank among the greatest I’ve ever seen) this series never got the proper appreciation from either the Emmys or its audience. Its four seasons on the air seemed not long enough and just right, which is the perfect way for lives like theirs to be measured.
8. Jane the Virgin (CW)
It’ was always going to be a battle as to which of this show or Crazy Ex-Girlfriend was going to be on this list. And while Crazy was more creative and energetic, and certainly could deal with dark subjects as well, the final vote went for the more daring ways that both the title character and the series were willing to completely shake up the format. It had one of the most heartbreaking turns of the decade (Michael’s death) and the biggest shock (Michael’s actually still alive.) It dared to suggest that it is possible for a person to have more than one soulmate in their lives. And it was willing to deal in love in a way that few series in any medium will even try any more. Perhaps the biggest crime existing today is that Gina Rodriguez, as well as the series, were completely ignored by the Emmys for their entire run. The fact that the Emmys will recognize services that aren’t even on TV, but ignore a network on broadcast television appalls me to this day. But I’m sure reacting to all this, Jane would just say: ‘Eh. The world never did know how to deal with telenovellas.”
7. Fargo (FX)
This decade has seen a resurgence in the anthology series, and FX has been at the forefront of this change. None have been more true to their source material or consistently excellent as Noah Hawley’s tribute to the Coen Brother’s classics that has nothing in common with the movie and is yet completely faithful to it. Watching Billy Bob Thornton inflict chaos and violence on everyone and everything he approaches to seeing Kirsten Dunst leave a man in her windshield and come home to make dinner to seeing Ewan McGregor play twin brothers, each about to enter their own world of misery has been some of the greatest joys I’ve ever seen. There is utter mayhem and carnage and insanity and there are the forces of good let by the authorities such as Alison Tolman and Patrick Wilson and Carrie Coon — always being outflanked by the law they try to enforce. I don’t know how many more ‘true stories’ we’ll get before Hawley runs out of ideas — we’ve had to wait more than three for Season 4. But its always a wonder to go into the snow and ice.
6. American Crime (ABC)
I was reluctant to include another anthology series on this list, but this incredible piece of work (from ABC!) was either number 1 or 2 on my top ten list all three seasons it was on the air. A series which each year took most of the same actors and put them into stories involving some of the most impossible issues of our day (racism, homophobia among teenagers, illegal immigration) put some of the most impressive characters and just let it boil if never explode (we never saw the actual crime that instigated the series) could be utterly incredible. The series had no comic relief and offered no easy solutions, which is probably why it couldn’t survive particularly on a network dedicated to all things Shondaland. But watching this incredible group of actors (particularly Timothy Hutton, Felicity Huffman and the awe-inspiring Regina King) create characters this indelible made you realize that broadcast TV could still good great thing. This was as close to The Wire as the network will ever approach. You owe it to yourself to watch it.