John’s and Shaune’s 20 favorite TV shows of the 2010s (Commentary)


n chronological order, these were our 20 favorite TV shows of the 2010s:

“Breaking Bad” (Seasons 3-5, 2010-13, AMC, created by Vince Gilligan) – Many times in conversation, I have referred to “Breaking Bad” as “probably the best show ever made,” and I stand by that.  Gilligan created a masterpiece with huge character arcs and incredible suspense, and it set the tone for what modern television dramas could be.  I’ll never forget the moment at the end of “To’hajiilee” in the final season when I found myself standing in front of the TV as the screen cut to black with one of the biggest cliffhangers of the show’s run. “Breaking Bad” started before 2010, but Seasons 3-5 are when it hit its stride. — Shaune

“Sons of Anarchy” (Seasons 3-7, 2010-14, FX, Kurt Sutter) – Although it took a few seasons for “Sons of Anarchy” to catch on, the series and the SAMCRO eventually became household names and Sutter’s modern-day Western was among TV’s best viewing through its seven-season run.  Although the show is rough on the outside, showing us motorcycle gangs, guns, drugs and violence, underneath we get a Shakespearean drama that deals with racism, sexism and even sexuality.  Giving us some of the most shocking moments of any series (did anyone see Opie’s death coming?) and a cliffhanger on almost every episode, it kept us coming back week after week up to the satisfying yet bittersweet finale. — Shaune

“Star Wars: The Clone Wars” (Seasons 2-6, 2010-14, Cartoon Network/Netflix, George Lucas) – Anakin’s surprise apprentice Ahsoka became the most iconic character outside the movies, Darth Maul lived, and Lucas dug into the nature of the Force. The animation reached new levels of beauty at the same rate at which the storylines became more essential to the overall continuity. And then Lucas sold “Star Wars” to Disney (something he later expressed regret about), which canceled the show. “The Clone Wars’ ” legacy will become muddled, since Disney will soon deliver a Season 7 in its new canon, but the first six seasons stand as the last great project of Lucas-guided “Star Wars.” — John

“Parenthood” (6 seasons, 2010-15, NBC, Jason Katims) – It was Katims’ “other show” while “Friday Night Lights” wrapped up its run (that show ended in 2011 and just missed this list, but it was on my Aughts list). But then “Parenthood” emerged as the elite family drama of the 2010s; it wins a tiebreaker with “This Is Us” because it tackled many of the storylines first, including adoption of a troubled teen, daring career ventures in a rough economy, and the ripple effects of PTSD. Sarah Ramos (“American Dreams”) and Lauren Graham (“Gilmore Girls”) add a second great character to their resumes while Max Burkholder and Ray Romano give respectable portrayals of people with Asperger’s. Its lasting legacy, though, might be the true-to-life moments of a half-dozen or more Bravermans talking (or yelling) at the same time. — John

“The Walking Dead” (10 seasons, 2010-present, AMC, Frank Darabont and Angela Kang) – Although “The Walking Dead” has become a shell of its former self, no list would be complete without it.  “TWD” was one of the biggest shows of the decade, loved by both fans and critics, as it ushered in a new era of zombie TV and copycat shows. It even popularized a new kind of TV show, the “after show,” with “Talking Dead” immediately following each episode.  The survival story of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and company is never about zombies; it’s always about the people, their situations and their struggle.  I’ve pretty much canceled “TWD” from my DVR at this point, but I can’t deny what it once was.  — Shaune

“Game of Thrones” (8 seasons, 2011-19, HBO, David Benioff and D.B. Weiss) – Few people don’t know where the phrase “Winter is coming” originated.  HBO’s take on the George R.R. Martin novels is ambitious, epic, exciting and just plain must-see TV.  Showing us early on that no character is ever safe, Martin and HBO give us an epic tale that’s not just action and fantasy but also an incredible drama.  The fact that disappointment and even outrage from fans still resonates months after its final season is a testament to just how good Seasons 1-7 are. “Game of Thrones” was a cultural phenomenon that will be remembered for years. — Shaune

“The Mindy Project” (6 seasons, 2012-17, NBC/Hulu, Mindy Kaling) – Kelly Kapoor was my favorite “Office” character despite being in the background, so I loved that Kaling got her own show, and it ended up being my favorite long-running sitcom of the decade. The workplace setting (an ob/gyn practice in this case) is not original, but “Mindy Project” does for non sequiturs what “The Office” did for the awkward pause and “Seinfeld” did for minutiae. Ike Barinholtz’s Morgan was a secret weapon, but the writers – including Kaling and Barinholtz – are so good at making everyone uniquely ridiculous that “Mindy” overcame cast shake-ups that would’ve grounded less funny shows. — John

“The Americans” (6 seasons, 2013-18, FX, Joseph Weisberg) – Somehow “The Americans” still seems like it’s underappreciated.  A Cold War drama about a family built on lies, the six-season series gives us a look at a man and a woman who — as Russian spies — are sent to America. They must build a family, hold normal jobs and live normal lives, all while completing their spy duties. The show’s major arc involves the family’s attempt to hold itself together while also dealing with their assignments, which fall more and more into the grey area between right and wrong. Capped by one of the better series finales in recent memory, “The Americans” stands as one of FX’s finest shows. — Shaune

“Bates Motel” (5 seasons, 2013-17, A&E; Anthony Cipriano, Carlton Cuse and Kerry Ehrin) – This series brings Robert Bloch’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s “Psycho” (1960) into modern times and chronicles Norman’s teen years. As a bonus wrinkle, we know it might not line up precisely with the events we’re familiar with. The series – like the movie before it – draws tension out of Norman killing people and our guilty hope that he will get away with it even as we learn more about his specific brand of mental illness. It also features a parade of memorable performances – Vera Farmiga’s and Freddie Highmore’s are the obvious ones, but standing toe to toe with them are Kenny Johnson’s Caleb, Ryan Hurst’s Chick and Paloma Kwiatkowski’s underused Cody. — John

“House of Cards” (6 seasons, 2013-18, Netflix, Beau Willimon) – As one of Netflix’s first major originals, “House of Cards” brought David Fincher and Kevin Spacey together to give us a look at the underbelly of Washington, D.C. It also introduced the world to quality binge-watching, as it was one of the first shows to release all episodes of a season at once, ushering in the streaming era. Oh, and it was damn good too.  Although the quality dipped with the departure of Spacey in its final season, “House of Cards” was must-see TV for its first five seasons. — Shaune

“Fargo” (3 seasons, 2014-present, FX, Noah Hawley) – All three seasons feature one of the best performances of the decade. Billy Bob Thornton plays a villain so low-key frightening that when he tells a cop (Colin Hanks) to leave him alone, we totally understand why he does. Kirsten Dunst resurrects her career as a chubby hairdresser who dreams of moving to California. And then Ewan McGregor shines in dual roles as feuding brothers. As a bonus, David Thewlis chews (and regurgitates) scenery as one of those chilling villains who always gets his way. The violence is sometimes shocking, and the accents are always extreme, but there’s a lot of truth to the lives lived on the frozen tundra of the upper Midwest. — John

“Halt and Catch Fire” (4 seasons, 2014-17, AMC, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers) – “Halt and Catch Fire” was under the radar compared to some other shows on this list, but it slowly grew into one of the best stories on TV at the time.  As AMC pushed its first season of “HACF,” “Breaking Bad” had just finished and “Mad Men” was still in full swing.  Set in the ’80s (to start), it drew me in immediately with its style. “HACF” mimics much of the real world’s web history, with the invention of the internet, search engines and online gaming. In an antiheroine-driven story, the four main characters push toward something new and try to make a difference. — Shaune

“Silicon Valley” (6 seasons; 2014-19; HBO; John Altschuler, Mike Judge and Dave Krinsky) – Judge’s “Silicon Valley” takes a few cues from “Office Space” and drops us into the tech start-up world. What started out as a show about nerds and dick jokes developed into a full-blown satirical version of the real world, with corporate buyouts, funding and data privacy in the spotlight.  Although the plotlines are fairly serious, the show maintains its signature humor to the end and recently sent us off with a heartfelt finale. — Shaune

“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (4 seasons, 2015-19, CW, Rachel Bloom and Aline Brosh McKenna) – The sheer workload of a musical TV show is staggering. There are different ways to count how many original songs were written and performed, but suffice it to say it’s well over 100. More than a few of them are all-time classics, but it’s impressive that fans’ personal favorites vary wildly. Continuing the decade’s trend of exploring mental health issues, Bloom’s Rebecca Bunch is diagnosed with conditions that she then works through, encountering as many lows points as highs. Yet the issues of Rebecca and her friends – as illustrated in songs ranging from serious to funny (mostly the latter) — are often universal. — John

“Daredevil” (3 seasons, 2015-18, Netflix, Drew Goddard) – While the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s 21 movies this decade provided the spectacle, the five Netflix TV series gave us the street-level grit. The standout is “Daredevil,” the writing room of which featured several scribes who came up on “Avengers” helmer Joss Whedon’s TV shows from the previous decade. It not only resurrects in-camera fight choreography but also turns The Hallway Fight – a long sequence of the hero battling individual opponents with minimal editing cuts – into both a trope and high art. As Charlie Cox brings comic-dom’s most famous blind superhero to life, Vincent D’Onofrio stands out as arguably the best MCU villain, period: the fearsome corrupt politician Kingpin. — John

“Atlanta” (2 seasons, 2016-present, FX, Donald Glover) – In this portrait of his hometown, Glover blends absurd “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-esque social situations with a genuine and detailed portrayal of a young man (Glover himself) trying to get out of poverty while also supporting a young daughter. He often takes a step forward and two steps back, sometimes because life is unfair, sometimes because life is just life. I can’t think of another show that can be both extremely funny and extremely scary, sometimes within the same episode. The stellar supporting cast includes Brian Tyree Henry, LaKeith Stanfield and Zazie Beetz – all of whose careers have taken off. But let’s hope they’ll find time to come back to “Atlanta.” — John

“Stranger Things” (3 seasons, 2016-present, Netflix, Matt Duffer and Ross Duffer) – “Stranger Things” has a ridiculous sci-fi plot and a cheesy ’80s vibe but it works, and it’s not just because of nostalgia (although that does help). By mashing together Stephen King and Steven Spielberg, “Stranger Things” has been incredibly entertaining through three seasons, mostly in due to its amazing cast. We’ve watched these kids grow into young adults, and the show has become more about their lives and less about the Upside Down and whatever monsters are thrown at them. — Shaune

“This Is Us” (4 seasons, 2016-present, NBC, Dan Fogelman) – For one year (although it seemed longer), we endured a “Parenthood”-sized hole in the TV world. Then Fogelman gave us the next great family drama. As I noted above, “Parenthood” explored many of these storylines and issues first. However, they feel fresh on “TIU” because of a simple yet ingenious conceit: The events are told out of order. In a pilot episode that has gone down as the small screen’s answer to “The Sixth Sense,” we learn that Jack’s (Milo Ventimiglia) and Rebecca’s (Mandy Moore) story as 36-year-olds is happening in 1980; the other 36-year-olds are their kids, in present day. Not since “The X-Files” has a continuity bible been so important, but even in the fourth season, Fogelman and his team are delivering surprises about the Pearsons – a clan we know so well yet hardly know at all. — John

“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (3 seasons, 2017-present, Amazon Prime, Amy Sherman-Palladino and Daniel Palladino) – “Gilmore Girls” is an iconic series of the Aughts and “Bunheads” is one of this decade’s elite one-season wonders, but “Maisel” is Sherman-Palladino’s best and most personal series. For the first time, she has a budget commiserate with her vision, as her team expertly recreates late-1950s New York. The contrast of traditional Jewish parents (Tony Shalhoub’s Abe and Marin Hinkle’s Rose) and a stand-up comedian daughter (Rachel Brosnahan’s titular Midge) is sometimes tense and painful but mostly quite funny, as the writers certainly know how to find the humor in cultural signposts. ASP’s previous leading ladies, Lorelai and Michelle, juggle lots of things in their lives yet still “have it all.” But Midge’s conflicts are historically on point: Can she have both the love of her life (Michael Zegen’s Joel) and a professional comedy career? — John

“Cobra Kai” (2 seasons, 2018-present, YouTube Premium; Jon Hurwitz, Hayden Schlossberg and Josh Heald) – The children of the Eighties behind “Cobra Kai” simultaneously honor the “Karate Kid” legacy, lean into the natural humor, and enrich the main protagonist and antagonist. While Daniel (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny (William Zabka) are co-leads, Johnny is who we’re drawn to. Daniel hasn’t changed much from his teen days, but he lives in the present. Johnny has found new lows, but he still lives in the past – hence the incongruous mix of character growth and tech-laggard humor. He re-opens Cobra Kai, but has to fend off Kreese (Martin Kove), who is stuck on the old-school idea of “no mercy.” Johnny, for his part, is stuck on cassette tapes, badass hot rods with racing stripes, and the “bump into someone” pickup method, but he wants to shape his karate students into good (albeit badass) people. Thanks in part to a strong Gen Z supporting cast, Johnny’s balancing act is more compelling than ever heading into Season 3. – John


These were our 10 favorite shows of the decade that were/have been on the air for a season or less, or that were a single season of an anthology series:

What were your 20 favorite TV shows of the 2010s? Share your lists in the comment thread below.