It’s two top 10s for the price of one: My favorite shows of the year, and of the decade. They’ve got nothing in common.
In March 2011, news hit the trades that upstart DVD rental company Netflix had outbid HBO and Showtime for a David Fincher political drama called House of Cards. This was strange, to say the least: If television is on the internet, is it really television? But the rest is history. Cards debuted in 2013, Netflix poured millions into developing more original series, other companies (Amazon, Hulu, Disney) followed suit, and now any network worth its salt has its own streaming service that, if you subscribed to them all, completely dwarfs what you were paying for cable a decade ago. There were over 500 scripted series “on the air” in 2019, and that bubble has yet to burst.
In short, it was the most consequential decade in the history of the medium since it first began. How do you begin to identify the best shows of the bunch, when you could only hope to watch 10% of what was out there?
This is my best attempt, with apologies to series like Justified, Review, and The Leftovers, which are surely excellent but I just never got around to (hopefully one day). Sorry!
1. Breaking Bad / Better Call Saul (AMC): Ironically, it was second life on Netflix that helped catapult Vince Gilligan’s thriller into the top of the zeitgeist. And instead of resting on their laurels after Breaking’s barn-burning final season, you could make the case that Saul is even superior to that. You could!
2. The Americans (FX): Espionage! Wigs! Mail robot! Anchored by brilliant performances from Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, The Americans was more an allegory for modern marriage than a Cold War drama, but it was so, so good at the latter, too.
3. Parks and Recreation (NBC): Mike Schur is the king of the warm and fuzzy, and Parks was simply a joy to watch for all seven of its seasons. Even in these troubled times, it’s worth revisiting for its generous, humanist vision.
4. Game of Thrones (HBO): Not just the biggest show of the decade, but probably the biggest of all time — a Herculean feat of production, to say nothing of its storytelling. And however you feel about the ending, remember how the world held its breath during “The Rains of Castamere,” “Hardhome,” and countless other thrilling episodes.
5. Atlanta (FX): In just two seasons, Donald Glover’s edge-of-reality dramedy solidified its place in the pantheon. Episodes like “Teddy Perkins” and “B.A.N.” helped redefine what television can be, and pushed LaKeith Stanfield, Zazie Beetz, and Brian Tyree Henry into the mainstream.
6. BoJack Horseman (Netflix): The streaming giant’s best series is Raphael Bob-Waskberg’s animated satire, as razor sharp with Hollywood foibles as with social issues — especially in the age of #MeToo. And that would be enough, if it wasn’t also one of the best depictions of depression and substance abuse.
7: Veep (HBO): An acid-dipped counterweight to the sunny Parks and Rec, the Emmy-gobbling series depicted government as a clown car rolling rapidly downhill as its occupants scrambled to throw each other out of it. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a titan of galactic proportions.
8: Halt and Catch Fire (AMC): It’s hard to think of a bigger one-season turnaround than Halt, which began as a unsatisfying Mad Men clone about a Difficult Genius, then re-tooled before its second year into a thrilling, feminist ensemble series. One of the all-time great finales, too.
9. Nathan For You (Comedy Central): This little miracle of a quasi-reality series was purportedly about one mild-mannered Canadian’s questionable business ideas, but with each successive trap door revealed more about America than a hundred high-minded dramas.
10: Mad Men (AMC): I have to include it, right? It doesn’t feel like Mad Men ended this decade, let alone had the bulk of its seasons this decade. But it did, and it was generally brilliant, and it gave us many GIFs, and “Next Week on Mad Men” became its own weird art genre, so here it goes.
The Next Ten: Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown (CNN), Community (NBC), Detectorists (Acorn), Documentary Now! (IFC), Fargo (FX), The Good Place (NBC), Fleabag (Amazon), Rectify (Sundance), Succession (HBO), Watchmen (HBO)
My Top Shows of 2019
This time, honorable mentions first:
- BoJack Horseman (Netflix): Relegated for only airing the first half of its final season, though it was as funny and insightful as ever.
- The Crown (Netflix): Sumptuous and poignant, Season 3 of the royal drama brought in a new cast and is already laying tracks for the next one.
- Dark (Netflix): The most brain-melting series I’ve seen since the heyday of LOST. Don’t be put off by the subtitles, but bring a notebook.
- The Expanse (Amazon): After being personally granted a second life by Jeff Bezos, the fourth season of the hard sci-fi series is the best yet. Things might be going from bad to worse on
New TerraIlus, but it’s thrilling to watch.
- Game of Thrones (HBO): I haven’t forgotten “A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms,” and neither should you. And “The Long Night” ruled, visual controversy aside.
- The Good Place (NBC): It only has a few episodes left in its run, but earns recognition for a strong close to its third season (“The Time Knife?!?”), especially its hapless depiction of the real Good Place.
- The Mandalorian (Disney): The first live-action Star Wars series calls back to old-school TV in the best way — a stoic hero, an “adventure of the week” format, rock-solid action, and a weekly release schedule. Oh yeah, and Baby Yoda.
- Mr. Robot (USA): The final season of Sam Esmail’s series has been a series of big swings, highlighted by the thrilling “silent hack” episode and an searing bottle drama back-to-back.
- Undone (Amazon): Strikingly animated, trippy, and highly binge-able; Rosa Salazar is a star. 2-1-0 represent!
- What We Do in the Shadows (FX): BAT!