Before we get going, let’s get this out of the way: the best show of the decade was Game of Thrones.
There might have been better shows but nothing compares to Game of Thrones. I don’t even care that the ending was (in strictly professional terms) 100% bush league.
In it’s prime, Game of Thrones was an unstoppable juggernaut and had every other show on television struggling to keep up. The show had a profound effect on the medium of television and that effect will be felt for years to come. Television was already becoming a force in popular culture but Game of Thrones pushed it over the finish line.
Rounding out the top five for best shows of the decade would be Atlanta, Veep, The Americans and The Good Place.
However, what if we narrowed our focus a bit and took a look at the best seasons of television from the decade? And let’s put one rule in place: it has to be a season from a show that premiered this decade.
10. Big Little Lies: Season One
Should this show have only been one season? Yes, definitely. The second season was fine but there’s too much good television out there. We don’t have time for “fine.”
The first season of Big Little Lies, though? That was significantly better than fine. For a show that revolved around a rapist’s death and the pain surrounding it, it was a lot of fun. It was equal parts lifestyle porn, intense family drama, murder mystery, a revenge story, and even a dark comedy at times.
It was also a lot of big-name, front-line talent under one roof as the show’s main characters were played by Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley. Right behind them was a cast that included Adam Scott, Zoe Kravitz, and Alexander Skarsgard.
Big Little Lies wasn’t messing around.
The show was an intense, character-driven drama that was so well-grounded in the emotions of its characters and deeply rooted in the town of Monterey, California that at times it felt like a documentary; as if you were there with them, keeping tabs on everything while peering in from a window.
While the second season ultimately felt unnecessary, the prospect of returning to the show’s characters and setting proved more valuable than the closure it sought to provide.
9. Master of None: Season Two
Master of None (along with a show like Atlanta) is what we should want from our young, creative geniuses. If Aziz Ansari had been pegged to star in his own show before the start of the past decade, he would have likely piggy-backed off the success of both his stand-up career and his time on Parks and Recreation and the result would’ve most likely been a more traditional sitcom where Ansari owned a restaurant or did something that allowed him to be surrounded by a colorful cast of characters, all of whom would work to highlight his strengths.
Master of None was not that.
Master of None was more akin to Ansari and his co-creator (Alan Yang) bailing on the meeting where traditional concepts were pitched and instead spending that time plotting a show that was significantly more original and daring and in line with what they wanted to do as opposed to what they felt they should do.
After a successful first season, they took even bigger risks in the second.
The followup danced back and forth between a season-long arc that centered around Dev (Ansari) moving on from a failed relationship and spending time in Italy before returning to the States to get his career back on track. Upon his return, he struggles with his feelings for a friend he met while in Italy in the stand-alone episodes that really elevated the second season,
“New York, I Love You” highlighted the intersecting lives of random New Yorkers, while in “Thanksgiving,” Ansari handed the reins over to Lena Waithe, giving her the chance to dramatize her own story of coming out to her mother.
And then there was Arnold, Dev’s best friend, who was also the show’s comic relief; the breath of fresh air and (at times) the voice of reason.
I love Arnold. I wish Arnold was my friend.
Allegations of sexual misconduct directed towards Ansari took some of the shine off of the show’s second season and have cast doubt as to whether or not there will be a third. But if all we have of Master of None are those two seasons, we should still consider ourselves lucky.
8. The Americans: Season Three
Not enough people watched The Americans, and to this day, that’s something that continues to bother me. I’d be hard-pressed to think of a show that rivaled its completely raw version of intensity. It was also one of those few shows where it was hard to imagine how it would end.
I mean, you had an idea, but for the most part, that idea was limited to “not well.”
The show’s third season was where things really started to get ratcheted up and the tension seriously began to mount.
Philip (Matthew Rhys) was tasked with recruiting a girl the same age as his daughter, he and Elizabeth (Keri Russell) bug the infamous mail robot that roamed the halls of the F.B.I., Nina’s imprisonment bring Stan the F.B.I. man and Oleg the KGB man together, and Paige’s involvement with religion and Pastor Tim create problems at home—especially when she tells him the truth about her parents.
Guys, her parents are Russian spies. Not great!
As an example of how The Americans wasn’t exclusive in its doling out of misery, Paige’s admission to Pastor Tim was bad for everyone involved. Suddenly Philip and Elizabeth found themselves exposed, Paige was worried about experiencing the wrath of her parents (valid), and Pastor Tim knew very well that nothing good would come from finding out that one of his prized student’s parents were Russian spies.
Nearly every episode of The Americans ended with me sighing, as I had been holding my breath for the bulk of the episode courtesy of the tension. Season three was no exception.
No really, more people should have been watching The Americans.
It hurts my feelings that the show wasn’t more popular.
7. Mr. Robot: Season One
Who the hell watches USA? I don’t even know what’s on that network. Isn’t it just, like, Suits and wrestling?
Those were the questions Mr. Robot was facing when it premiered in 2015. The show looked cool and certainly interesting but it was on USA and, you know, who the hell is watching USA.
The risk of venturing into the unknown waters of USA was worth it because the first season of Mr. Robot was a delightfully sinister mind fuck of an experience. There had been unreliable narrators before but Eliot (played by Rami Malek) was a new breed. The show, seen through his bulging, morphine-addled eyes, was unsettled and existed on grounds that could disappear beneath your feet at any time.
Nothing was real yet everything was real. It all could change in a matter of minutes, if not seconds.
The season’s big reveal that Christian Slater’s character was a figment of Eliot’s imagination wasn’t earth-shattering, as the bread crumbs had been laid out leading up to that point and the signs were there. With that said, it almost didn’t matter. By the time that was revealed, we had come to expect that anything we saw from Eliot’s point of view was shaky at best. It was Eliot’s story anyway. Eliot was Mr. Robot and that was confirmed by the time the season was over.
Mr. Robot’s first season felt like being trapped in a snowstorm in that it was confusing and uncomfortable, but in its quiet moments, reflective.
6. The Knick: Season One
If it was a stretch to turn to USA for quality television then it was even more of one to turn to Cinemax for the same. You know what Cinemax is predominately known for and I know what Cinemax is predominately known for. There’s no need to even discuss it further.
But The Knick was not that.
The Knick was helmed by Steven Soderbergh and starred Clive Owen as a doctor in the fictional Knickerbocker Hospital in New York in the early 1900s. It was a grimy time for medicine and the show didn’t shy away from that fact. As a result, The Knick was a tough hang. It was not easy to watch but it was also beautiful to watch.
The show was a visual masterpiece thanks to the way it operated within black and white color palettes and the way Soderbergh (who directed the entire series) moved the camera around. It brought you into this bleak and unforgiving time in our country’s history where medical practices and advances were largely based on guessing and trial and error.
Owen is relentless as Dr. John Thackery, balancing his genius and skill with a dangerous addiction to cocaine and morphine.
Because it was on Cinemax and not somewhere like HBO (which is where it was supposed to go but Soderberg didn’t want to wait out HBO‘s long development schedule) The Knick never really got the attention it deserved and that’s a shame.
5. Atlanta: Robbin’ Season
There are a handful of shows out there that routinely keep you on your toes. When they start, you have no idea where they’re heading or what they’ll be about (and I’m not just talking about plot developments).
Some shows reset the deck every single week. Master of None is like that. So is Atlanta.
With Atlanta, I have no idea what to expect as I’m starting an episode. Will it be more of a traditional episode that follows Paper Boi’s rap career or will it be a Van-centric one? Will it be an episode built around Earn’s quest to scrape some money together? Does it involve a trip to a German celebration of sorts or will it essentially be a Get Out-style mini horror film?
You never know.
Atlanta is an absurdist comedy/drama that manages to flirt with aspects of both magical realism and gritty realism. It shouldn’t work, but it does.
It can be a buddy comedy, it can be a tragedy, it can deep dive into the complexities of a relationship between friends and/or lovers, and it can be a sociological study into the very real threat of Florida Man.
It might be the most exciting show on television if only because of its level of unpredictability.
4. Homeland: Season One
You hooked us all in, lost most of us, brought some of us back, and (somehow) you’re still going.
Good for you.
What shouldn’t be lost on any of us is how captivating and gripping that first season of Homeland was. That shit was intense, man!
An American soldier finally comes home after being imprisoned in the Middle East, and while most people are celebrating his return, a bipolar CIA agent suspects he might be a double agent.
And he is!
And then they hook up, which was weird.
The soldier, Nicholas Brody, eventually straps on a suicide vest with the intention of assassinating the Vice President before having second thoughts after a heart-to-heart with his daughter.
Homeland’s first season was nuts and I loved it.
3. Fargo: Season Two
Fargo just should not work as well as it does. It’s an anthology series that wasn’t so much as based on the movie of the same name but inspired by it.
Again, it just should not work as well as it does.
So far, creator Noah Hawley has done three seasons of the show, and while all three are entertaining, the second one is a damn near-masterpiece.
The second season is a prequel of sorts to the first, connected via the relationship of each season’s main law enforcement officers. The events of the second season also serve as a mythology and legend that is referenced several times during that first season, as the events in question have a lasting effect on Patrick Wilson’s character, a Minnesota state trooper who’s tasked with investigating the murder of a local crime family’s son.
Fargo takes the best parts of the movie (the dialogue, the characters, the nature of good and evil, and the desolate nature of the upper Midwest in winter) and expands it out over ten episodes.
The plot of the show’s second season weaves in and out between the wheelings and dealings of the Gerhardt crime family, a young couple looking to cover up a fatal hit-and-run, and what may or may not be proof of extraterrestrial life.
There’s been no shortage of crime shows this decade and a lot of them have found new and exciting ways to tell their stories but there’s something about Fargo that separates it from the rest. It has a heart and real human emotion to it that a lot of the other shows don’t have.
It’s also just clever and witty as all hell.
2. True Detective: Season One
Speaking of crime shows, the decade’s highwater mark is the first season of True Detective.
Starring Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson, the first season of HBO‘s anthology series was a revelation and proof of what TV could be under the right circumstances. The rise of anthology series has been one of the best things to come along this decade and True Detective helped show what makes them so appealing for both the creators and the audiences.
From a creative standpoint, the limited scope makes it appealing to big-name actors as well as directors. True Detective’s first season was directed entirely by Cary Fukunaga, something that helped the show have a distinct vibe and look in addition to a level of coherence that is sometimes missing from a season of television.
For an audience, knowing that (for the most part) there will be a resolution at the end of a season is fantastic. You’re in and then you’re out and able to turn to one of the 87 other shows you’ve been meaning to check out.
The mood of True Detective is what might have the most legs when talking about the show’s legacy. It was so dark and ominous and mysterious. It put you on high alert, and just like with McConaughey and Harrelson’s characters, audiences had their eyes peeled constantly for suspects. The setting also helped with the overall sense of unease as well by dropping you into some of the most overgrown and underpopulated areas of Louisianna.
In the end, the season may not have totally delivered and left people a little confused as it had been hinting towards a supernatural presence that was then not there. However, up until that point, True Detective was a thrill ride and dominated the cultural conversation or a few weeks at the start of 2014, become a Thing that was entrenched in the zeitgeist.
While the two seasons that followed never quite matched it in terms of quality and level of discourse, it did set the stage for shows like Big Little Lies and American Crime Story.
1. Game of Thrones: Season Three
Let’s see here:
Daenerys acquires the Unsullied.
Jon Snow goes undercover north of The Wall, climbs The Wall, and learns the ways of the women.
Arya is captured by the Brotherhood Without Banners and then hits the road with The Hound.
Bran starts learning about the strength of his powers.
Tyrion and Sansa are forced to marry.
Jaime becomes likable, Cersei gets pissed, and The Night King is still an urban myth.
Oh. There’s also the Red Wedding.
Season three of Game of Thrones was when people realized it wasn’t messing around and was like nothing anyone had ever seen before on television. It was the one that messed with our heads and our hearts and our ability to differentiate between right and wrong.
Season three is the one we should immediately think back to when we find ourselves frustrated with how the show eventually ended because it was the show at the height of its powers and operating at the highest levels.
“What is dead may never die.”
In the case of Game of Thrones, it may be gone, but as long as season three is around, it’ll live forever.