This year marks the end of the second decade of the 2000s. In honor of this, we thought we’d take a look back at our decade with an end-of-year series.
The internet loves lists, especially year-end ones, and we’ll feed that love a little bit this December. We’ll be hosting seven lists of expert Decade-Best picks. We’ve done movies, games, and writing so far, and you can look forward to music, traditional visual arts, and one surprise list at the end. Our experts include philosophers and other academics whose work concerns these topics, and people working in the relevant media. Up today: TV shows!
This decade, as everybody is well aware, has seen an immense boom in quality television. Niche programming and subscription streaming services, and the corresponding influx of money into TV production that has meant, have brought us into a new Golden Age of television. But it can be hard to know what to prioritize, and sinking fifty or more hours into a show is a commitment more serious than some relationships. To help you organize your own to-watch lists, we’ve got eight TV experts lined up to send their recs your way.
(And for the curious: Contributors were allowed to recommend shows that started last decade as long as the stuff that was released this decade is a key part of what makes the show great.)
Our contributors are:
- Dieter Declercq, lecturer in Film and Media Studies at the University of Kent
- Mark Liskevych, producer
- Christy Mag Uidhir, associate professor in Philosophy at University of Houston
- Erich Hatala Matthes, associate professor in Philosophy at Wellesley College
- Brandy Monk-Payton, assistant professor in Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University
- Shelby Moser, adjunct professor in Philosophy and Art History at Azusa Pacific University and Rio Hondo College
- Swetha Regunathan, writer and filmmaker
- Nick Stang, associate professor in Philosophy at University of Toronto
Dr Dieter Declercq is a Lecturer in Film and Media Studies
at the University of Kent. He’s currently writing a book,
Satire, Comedy and Mental Health (forthcoming with Emerald).
I will preface my list by pining for the nineties. The Simpsons is still going at the end of this decade (somehow). Sadly, there were no aesthetic reasons to engage with seasons 22 to 31 of the finest TV series of all time.
- Black Mirror (Channel 4 and Netflix, 2011–present)
When philosophers discuss whether film (or TV) can do philosophy, I usually side with sceptics who caution not to conflate their respective merits. Black Mirror seriously challenges that scepticism. The series continually thinks through our relationship with technology in a philosophical way.
- BoJack Horseman (Netflix, 2014–present)
Another man (horse) pining for the nineties. BoJack Horseman starts as a typical absurd millennial comedy – a bit too knowing for its own good. Yet, under its veneer of knowingness lies a complex unease with modern life and a thoughtful exploration of mental ill health.
- Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014–2019)
Friends vs. Broad City. When Phoebe found rats in her apartment, she kept them as pets. Ilana, by contrast, resorts to charging $10 for entry to a house party, after spending all the rent money on an exterminator. The plan, as usual, backfires. Abbi, meanwhile, kisses a co-worker that she really shouldn’t have, and tries to make up for the mistake on Tinder. Proper adulting.
- Dark (Netflix, 2017–2019)
More so than film, TV offers some great aesthetic experiences that are wholly inaccessible to most audiences. (That’s the reason why this lists omits some very funny West-Flemish comedies.) Fortunately, Netflix commits to financing productions in other languages than English. Dark is a gem which exploits the affordances of long-form storytelling to develop a dazzlingly complex plot.
- RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo TV and VH1, 2009–present)
Shamelessly commercial. Disturbingly neoliberal. Not always fully representative of drag culture. Yes, but Drag Race also moves seamlessly between camp entertainment and profound sadness. The show celebrates queerness while documenting the continuing impact of prejudice on the contestants’ lives and relationships.
Mark Liskevych is an Emmy Award-winning producer
working in sports television and digital content.
- Mad Men (AMC, 2007–2015)
Still the best show about Writing/TV/Production. Started last decade but straddled this one and is still unsurpassed. Made every interaction, scene and character arc count. Layered years and years of history on top of itself – both within the structure of the show and the mythology of 20th century America. And somehow gracefully stuck the landing at the end of it all.
- Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013)
Set the bar for pacing and unfolding narrative across an episodic arc. Managed to be a compelling show about science in both content and form. Fully earned every holy shit moment it cashed in along the way. The last plant of the flag before the deluge of binge-able streaming content.
- Fleabag (BBC/Amazon Studios, 2016–2019)
Singular in its voice and delivery. Even with roots in theater, managed to evolve into something totally cinematic in its technique and construction. At 30 min per episode and six episodes per season, a triumph in the fight against bloated series runs. Proof that small scope doesn’t mean compromised vision or lessened impact.
- Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017)
Took a 25 year hiatus and still unlike anything else in the medium. A rhythm completely apart from anything else out there. Just like the original, the fact this was on TV for 17+ hours is actually even hard to fathom. What else can you say?
- PBS NewsHour (PBS, 2009–present)
Impervious to contemporary production gimmicks. Restrained, deliberate and always informative. A reliable friend in an otherwise unreliable and unfriendly world.
Christy Mag Uidhir
Christy Mag Uidhir is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Houston where he works on various issues in Philosophy of Art. He just got a fancy new TV.
- Spartacus (Starz, 2010–2013)
Despite a rocky first few episodes, once this beast catches its stride, it doesn’t stop. Seriously, I can’t remember how many times I openly cheered and wept during this show. The ensemble cast is stellar, especially Lucy Lawless as Lucretia and the late Andy Whitfield as the titular Thracian. The show is also a heavenly erotic feast for the eyes with so many boobs, butts, and full frontal dicks swinging about, no one’s left wanting. If you haven’t seen it, give it a chance.
- Great British Bake Off (BBC and Channel 4, 2010–present)
I put this show on to fall asleep. Very few things in this world are more relaxing than an episode of the Great British Bake Off. Yes, it’s a competition, but everyone is so great to each other. Plus, I have a slight crush on the blue-eyed bear Paul Hollywood.
- Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013)
This makes my top 5 for one reason, and one reason only. I watched it twice. Watching Breaking Bad the second time around for me was a revelation. It was like watching an entirely different show with entirely different characters. Very rarely can shows engender that kind of return.
- Hannibal (NBC, 2013–2015)
Every time I watched this show during its run on NBC, I would say to myself “This can’t be happening. Not on network television.” For that brief period, Hannibal was doing things on network television visually and aurally that no one else was doing…anywhere.
- Fargo (FX, 2014–present)
Another great ensemble piece with terrific performances from its actors: Billy Bob Thornton, Martin Freeman, and perhaps best of all, in its second season, a career-defining outing from Kirsten Dunst. It’s the little quirks that pull you in and hold on to you.
Erich Hatala Matthes
Erich Hatala Matthes is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Wellesley College, where he teaches courses in Moral Philosophy, Philosophy of Art, and Environmental Philosophy.
- Community (the first 3 seasons) (NBC, 2009–2012)
The story of a group of misfits attending Greendale Community College, Community manages to be touching, thoughtful, funny, and absurd all at the same time. Highlighting an outstanding ensemble cast, the show also squeezes everything it can out of the most peripheral characters. The way it plays with established TV tropes is masterful. I think the show loses a lot after the departure of showrunner Dan Harmon, but those first three seasons are TV gold. It’s also much better than Harmon’s Rick and Morty. #sorrynotsorry
- Tumble Leaf (Amazon, 2014–present)
The streaming age has produced a slew of children’s programming, and a lot of it is uninspired swill. Tumble Leaf is the opposite. The show centers on a talking blue fox who lives inside a shipwreck and spends his days playfully repurposing ocean detritus unwittingly left for him by a crab with a prosthetic claw. Intrigued? The show is slow-paced and full of wonder for the simple things in life, and it’s rendered in gorgeous stop-motion animation. After a season of establishing the basic structure for the show, it begins to upend those norms in a host of clever ways. There’s a lot here for adults: I cried during the Season 4 finale. Each episode ends by invoking the viewer to go play.
- Justified (FX, 2010–2015)
Though it may look at first glance like a typical law enforcement procedural, Justified is a character-driven rumination on whether we can escape the past: our choices, our parents, our homes. It retains momentum through all 6 seasons, and has the rare distinction of managing an excellent finale. FX has produced a ton of great programming this decade, but Justified remains my favorite.
- Orphan Black (BBC America, 2013–2017)
Anchored by the amazing performance of Tatiana Maslany as a soccer-team’s worth of clones, Orphan Black is a sci-fi masterpiece. The careening plot swerves from comedy to horror at the drop of a hat. The show avoids losing steam by adding new layers of complexity with each passing season. It’s an utter joy to watch.
- The Great British Bake-Off (BBC and Channel 4, 2010–present)
When it often feels like the world around us is burning to the ground, it can be hard to stomach the gritty prestige dramas that characterized the previous decade (and spilled into this one). Enter the most wholesome and heartwarming show there is. While reality TV became ever more antagonist and confrontational, The Great British Bake-Off sprinted in the other direction. The contestants are endlessly supportive of each other, cheesy puns and shticks abound, and the show survived a significant shake-up among the judges and hosts, speaking to the enduring appeal of its setup. Keep a cookie close at hand: watching this show induces cravings for butter.
Brandy Monk-Payton is Assistant Professor of Communication and Media Studies at Fordham University, and is currently writing a book on the aesthetics and politics of contemporary black celebrity. Find her on Twitter: @brandybeephd
In 2015, FX Chairman John Landgraf coined the term “peak TV” to describe the onslaught of programming on our increasingly small screens. Four years later, no list can capture the sheer amount of programming in an age of narrowcasting and streaming, assorted web series and Instagram Stories. Thus, inspired by HBO’s new late 2019 hit Watchmen (which creator Damon Lindelof says is in part influenced by Ta-Nehisi Coates’ award-winning essay “The Case for Reparations”), here I’ve chosen to spotlight five series from the decade that comment on Black experience in America.
- The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (FX, 2016)
Ryan Murphy is arguably the most prolific writer/producer of the current moment and dominated the past ten years in the industry with his expansive televisual oeuvre from American Horror Story (FX, 2011–present) to Pose (FX, 2018–present). The first season of American Crime Story tackles race relations as manifested through the televised spectacle of Simpson’s trial and acquittal, while self-reflexively engaging tabloid media and celebrity culture. It also gave audiences some of the best performances of the decade by actors Courtney B. Vance, Sterling K. Brown, and Sarah Paulson.
- Atlanta (FX, 2016–present)
Donald Glover’s exploration of quotidian blackness verges on the Afrosurreal in both storytelling and audiovisual style. Episodes like the first season’s “Juneteenth” and the second season’s “Alligator Man” and “Woods” reflect the program’s deep philosophical forays into the humor and horror of Black life in the (sub)urban milieu of Atlanta, Georgia.
- Being Mary Jane (BET, 2013–2019)
At a time when Scandal (ABC, 2012–2018) gained attention and praise for its black female protagonist, another series flew under the mainstream radar. Mara Brock Akil’s intimate and poetic exploration of black female interiority stars Gabrielle Union as the title character who navigates a demanding position as a cable news anchor alongside the ups and downs of her personal life. Perhaps the foil to Scandal’s Olivia Pope, Mary Jane breaks the Strong Black Woman mold to embrace vulnerability.
- Black-ish (ABC, 2014–present)
I was initially skeptical of what seemed to be Kenya Barris’ twenty-first century version of The Cosby Show. Once Black-ish loosened its grip on attempting to educate a demographically diverse network TV audience on Black middle class life, it became a nuanced and heartwarming family sitcom that discusses timely issues with earnest honesty.
- The Good Fight (CBS All Access, 2017–present)
The spinoff of The Good Wife (CBS, 2009–2016) finds esteemed attorney Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) working at a Chicago law firm…that happens to be all Black. Lockhart initially stands out at the African American-owned Reddick, Boseman, & Kolstad that made a name for itself by taking on police brutality cases. The fast-paced legal drama is refreshing in its examination of racial politics in the Trump era, often approaching controversial topics with a balance of cynicism and witty optimism.
Shelby Moser is Adjunct Professor of Philosophy and Art History at Azusa Pacific
University and Rio Hondo College. Her research focuses on digital art and aesthetics.
I consume a lot of crime/mystery/thriller TV so that’s what I’ve ranked here. It’s been a great decade for must-see mysteries, so this was a weighty task. It may seem that I’ve woefully ignored a few obvious greats (Broadchurch (ITV, 2013–2018), The Killing (AMC and Netflix, 2011–15), and Sherlock (BBC, 2010–2017)), but I’ve selected the ones below because, for the most part, each ended or continues to be just as strong as when it began.
- Trapped (RÚV, 2015–present) Icelandic Crime, Thriller
This procedural mystery begins just as a storm hits a remote Icelandic town where cold and darkness become a perfect backdrop for a claustrophobic noir-like thriller. This series has top-tier storytelling but the real treasure is Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, who plays the lead detective.
- Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 2012–2015) Australian Period/Cozy Mystery
My love-addiction for mysteries was born from the cozy murder genre, so this series offers a lot of nostalgia. Each episode is a fun British-inspired ‘whodunit’ with glamorous costumes, endless cocktails, hints of romance, and tidy resolutions.
- Happy Valley (BBC, 2014–present) British Crime, Mystery
This police/crime series set in West Yorkshire offers some intense moments of good old fashioned sleuthing by a tough but relatably flawed cop (played by Sarah Lancashire). Contrary to the title, this show gets pretty dark.
- Bron-Broen (Sveriges Television/Danmarks Radio, 2011–2018) Scandinavian Crime-Noir, Thriller
When a body is discovered in the middle of a bridge between Sweden and Denmark, jurisdiction falls on both sides. Two detectives must work together, one from each country, despite clashing personalities and cultures. The mystery that unfolds is gritty and thrilling, and the messy dynamic between the two leads is thoroughly engaging (it’s also worth watching the remakes).
- Big Little Lies (HBO, 2017–present) American Mystery, Drama
Ok, this series is more about character-relationships, but there is an underlying mystery that’s wonderfully melodramatic. BLL has a stellar cast and some great one-liners (especially those delivered by Laura Dern).
Swetha Regunathan is a writer and filmmaker based in NYC. // IG: @regunomics
- Atlanta (FX, 2016–present)
Donald Glover and Lakeith Stanfield are outstanding in this comedy cum drama cum fable cum fever dream about slackers, rappers, and Princeton dropouts in the titular city. There are couches beached on unkempt lawns, whitewashed ghosts, and invisible cars. This is as cinematic as TV gets, in that each episode is a bit like a short film. In an age of bingeability, my #1 pick is adamantly unbingeable and, instead, meant to be chewed carefully.
- Breaking Bad (AMC, 2008–2013)
It should come as no shock to anyone living above a rock that Breaking Bad was one of the best shows of the decade. There’s a reason Vince Gilligan’s pilot for the series has become standard in screenwriting classes. It is suspenseful, elegant, brilliant drama with a finely drawn moral dilemma. We are firmly in the era of anti-hero, and Walter White is our meth king martyr.
- Nathan For You (Comedy Central, 2013–2018)
Nathan Fielder is more than a comic genius; he is a hymnal monotone receding into the distance. A satire on business makeover shows, this docu-comedy begins each segment with a simple “fix” for a struggling—yet unsuspecting—business, before it quickly melts into slush. Some may take issue with the format, but if you’re not laughing out loud when watching this show, you’re probably doing life wrong.
- Planet Earth II (BBC, 2016)
One million Chinstrap penguins make a daily commute to the water in order to fish for their families. They are thrown back relentlessly by the waves onto sharp rocks, sustaining all kinds of injuries, and sometimes dying. If you can stomach this kind of brutal Darwinian drama, you’re in for a sublime experience, all set to the dulcet tones of David Attenborough’s voice.
- The Crown (Netflix, 2016–present)
I have never cared about royals, never wanted to care about royals—until now. Now, I giddily dust off my college copy of Leviathan. Now, I Google… “Did the Earl of Snowdon have a lovechild born out of a threesome?” with great fervor. This series’ ability to elicit sympathy for what seem like the most unsympathetic people on the planet—the British monarchy, the crown that crushed my own ancestors—is truly a feat.
Honorable Mention (’cause it only premiered in 2019)
You might believe that two 30-something actresses playing thirteen-year-olds (and surrounded by actual thirteen-year-old actors) would get gimmicky very quickly. But hilariously, magically, heartbreakingly, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle don’t let it. Perhaps it is my own nostalgia for 2000—a marathon year of hormone-berserk AIM chats—but PEN15 allows me to access that girl, hold her close, laugh at her even.
Nick Stang is Associate Professor of Philosophy at University of Toronto, and currently
a Humboldt Research Fellow at Humboldt University in Berlin. He is writing a
book titled How is Metaphysics Possible? A Critique of Analytic Reason,
which he procrastinates working on by watching too much TV.
With the proviso that it would be impossible to see all of the good TV that this decade produced, here are the five shows that stuck with me. If The Wire is the crowning achievement of the 21st-century Golden Age of Television, my first three shows can be understood as playing in its sandbox. One of the thing that struck audiences about The Wire was that the density and plausibility of the fictional world it created, as it explored a different element of its fictionalized version of Baltimore each season (e.g. unions, schools, newspapers). My first three shows are variations on that theme of ‘worldhood’ (here understood as something like a comprehensive context of meaning) and its vicissitudes.
- The Leftovers (HBO, 2014–2017)
2% of the world’s population vanishes without a trace, in an event that comes to be known as the “Sudden Departure.” The Leftovers, based on Tom Perrotta’s eponymous novel, begins three years later. While it can be read as an allegory of climate change, I think the show is about something more universal: what it means to live in the wake of an event that cannot be made sense of in terms of any previous framework. Their world has ended, and while some embrace this (with terrifying consequences), some of them want to pretend they are still living in the old one. Just like us.
- Mad Men (AMC, 2007–2015)
If the Leftovers is about the loss of one’s world, Mad Men is about a world that is alive and functioning, indeed suffocating many who live in it, but which will soon collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. In the first season, everyone at Sterling Cooper thinks they are the only one who feels alienated from the world of the early 60s, that they are the only one that does not ‘fit,’ but over the course of its seven seasons and ten years of fictional time, they will learn that they are very much not alone in their alienation.
- Friday Night Lights (5th season, DirecTV, 2010–2011)
After the apocalyptic doom and societal decay of the first two Friday Night Lights represents the happiest case of a ‘world’ in American TV: the close-knit town of Dillon, TX, where communal aspiration and recognition centers around high school football. With its deep racial and class inequalities, Dillon is no utopia, as the fifth and arguably greatest season attests (the only one from this decade), but it is a place where something like human excellence can still be enacted and collectively recognized. The institutions of Dillon, above all football, are not yet the metric-driven zombies indifferent to human flourishing that they are in the Wire’s Baltimore, nor the bad faith attempts to forget what cannot be assimilated in the Leftovers, nor the oppressive norms and mores of Mad Men-era America on the eve of their own undoing—they are still a world, and a home, for those who live there.
- Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017)
If the first three shows were about the destruction, and possible survival, of worlds, in Twin Peaks: The Return David Lunch continued his life-long interest in subverting our desire for cinematic world-hood and narrative, indeed even spatiotemporal continuity itself. This would have earned its place on the list merely in virtue of being Lynch’s first return to the director’s seat (aside from a few digital shorts) since Inland Empire (2006), but constituting, as it does, a continuation and simultaneous undoing of one of the masterpieces of a previous decade of television, the original Twin Peaks (1990–1991), this was one of the TV events, perhaps even the event, of the decade.
- Enlightened (HBO, 2011–2013)
Whereas the other four shows painted on a grand canvas, Enlightened was essentially a character study of Laura Dern’s Amy Jellicoe. Amy is an idealist, possessed of high, but vague, moral purpose that she has no idea how to enact in the hellscape of a corporate office park where she works. But Amy’s predicament might be the closest to our own: amid the moral wreckage of what may once have been a humanly coherent world (though that too may have just been mere Sterling-Cooper ad copy to make us buy more junk), to struggle, with the help of some trusted friends (e.g. Mike White’s Tyler), to kindle some spark of justice in the midst of gathering darkness.
Edited by Alex King
December 17, 2019 at 10:03 pm
A massive second here for Shelby Moser’s choice of Trapped as the best crime series of the decade. What a show.
December 18, 2019 at 2:47 am
Yes yes yes!
December 19, 2019 at 5:04 pm
Some (to my mind) notable omissions:
1- The Good Place (brilliant set-up, great execution)
2- Homeland (first few seasons were unbelievably good)
3- The Newsroom (Sorkin gets a bad rap, but this show was both current and prescient)
4- The Handmaid’s Tale (I worry it’s too prescient…)
5- Master of None (the moods throughout change a lot, but they always seem in sync)
6- Veep (beyond witty)