From Mad Men to Watchmen
The word “Streaming” immediately comes to mind with any glance back at television trends from 2010 to the end of 2019. But a better word to use may be “Appetite.” The hunger for quality, peak-form television roared back after concerns that time-wasting diversions of cell phones, social media and video games would lay waste to the entertainment landscape. Looking back on the 2010, though, it’s clear that major television programming makers need to invest countless billions, because we want more, more, more.
Yes, we watch YouTube and cat clips on Twitter and TED Talks, but still we want our expensive, one-hour prestige drama. Still we want the comfort of familiar half-hours of Friends and The Office (apparently in perpetuity). Still we want new and challenging TV that breaks our expectations of what television can do, whether it be with wildly varying runtimes, such as dramas that go way past an hour all the time (looking at you, Fargo) and 11-minute Adult Swim shows, or programs that arrive in perfectly digestible form and then are gone in a flash, such as Fleabag and its two superior and brief seasons.
Television got more spread out across many more distribution channels, but at least there was plenty of money to fund weird, experimental bat swings in addition to juggernauts such as HBO’s Game of Thrones.
The following list is far from comprehensive, but it’s a sampling of the shows that moved or impressed me. There were lots more, from my current favorite show, HBO’s Watchmen, to gone-too-soon blips such as the brilliant Comedy Central sitcom Detroiters to shows I know were good but just didn’t get around to watching (The Americans). Here were the ones that made the most personal impact in the 2010s and seem like the best indicators of where we’re going next:
Nothing about this show should have worked, and based on its low viewership and absence from many conversations about peak TV, very few people saw it. That’s a shame, because after a depressing struggle of a first season, this series about a rapture became one of television’s all-time best meditations on life, death, grief, love, and The Meaning of Everything. Unlike showrunner Damon Lindelof’s previous show, Lost, it does so by embracing ambiguity instead of making up answers. It feels like a natural progression toward Watchmen, which also seems baffling and convoluted at first, but which pays off in earthshaking form. Groundbreaking and underappreciated.
Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul
Given the ways these shows fit together, in addition to Netflix’s “El Camino” movie, it’s hard to separate Vince Gilligan’s New Mexico underworld universe. Breaking Bad was the flashier, unimpeachable hit, one of the best and consistently entertaining series ever made. But Saul is just as well-made and performed, but in a more muted, sadder, inevitably tragic way. No fan of either show should skip the other.
A minor miracle of perfect writing, perfect casting, and the perfect length, this British comedy, which came to us via Amazon Prime, brutally self reflects on what the loss of a friend and guilt can do to someone. Season Two, a major risk given how self-contained the first six episodes were, expands its heart and finds tremendous dividends in giving creator Phoebe Waller-Bridge more time to explore the titular character.
What felt at first like an animal-populated Adult Swim knockoff blossomed quickly into television’s best show about ego, depression, and self sabotage. Each season of its six has felt more ambitious than the last, with shifts in point of view, structure, and setting that could only be done as animation. A tremendous achievement for Netflix, which recently rewarded the series by canceling it.
You can quibble that it was yet another show with a white antihero struggling with Middle Aged Bullshit, but as a period piece with gorgeous production, great acting, and influence on other TV shows, it was hard to top. Jon Hamm, who has of late been doing lots of goofy comedy roles and straight-man parts in movies, wasn’t given his due for his grounded, searching performance as Don Draper.
The more recent, Netflix-based seasons of the British anthology show have been wobbly, but the original run on the BBC, which started in 2011, remains blisteringly original and prescient. Other shows have tried to capture the bleak, whipsmart commentary Black Mirror makes on our screen-addicted culture, but nobody’s done it better than Charlie Brooker in episodes including “White Bear,” “The Entire History of You” and the sublime “San Junipero.”
American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson
A crazy story that didn’t require crazy filmmaking to bring shock and awe. With a cast that included Sarah Paulson, Courtney B. Vance, and Sterling K. Brown, it surprised with its gravitas and watchability on a subject viewers like me thought we’d never want to revisit again. Most shockingly, and when paired with the excellent documentary series, O.J. Simpson: Made in America, it was a telling document on race and celebrity in America, too.
The best show of creator Michael Schur’s impressive career, including Parks and Recreation and The Office, takes metaphysical Big Questions and turns them into smart, warmly observed sitcom writing. An ace cast led by Kristen Bell and an energized Ted Danson moved through heaven, Hell, Earth, and countless frozen yogurt shops in a series that almost wore itself out before smartly bowing out at four seasons.
Actor/comedian/rapper/cultural force Donald Glover created one of TV’s most surreal and mysterious shows, one that could take wild plot shifts from week to week without ever losing its tone. That was remarkable given that one episode could be about trying to get a haircut from a busy barber while another could be terrifying journey into the heart of abuse.
Twin Peaks: The Return
Speaking of surreal, the 2017 return to television of David Lynch and Mark Frost to Showtime, of all places, frustrated and delighted in equal measures. Was it incredibly indulgent, aimless, and too long? Absolutely. Was it magnificently idiosyncratic, visually next-level, and a stunning work of art? It was that, too. There will probably never be anything approaching it on TV, maybe not even from Lynch, and its best bits (such as the nightmare-inducing Episode 8) will be studied for a long time.
Game of Thrones, The Great British Baking Show, Enlightened, Review, Rick and Morty, Veep, Bob’s Burgers, The Eric Andre Show, Detroiters, Halt and Catch Fire, Orange is the New Black.