Ranking television shows is much harder than ranking movies. While movies are judged primarily by a singular, 90 minute to three hour experience, shows can span different lengths, change in quality over time, and leave more confounding and complicated legacies. It’s also harder to be comprehensive; I feel confident in saying my list of favorite movies is very complete and researched, but there are certainly gaps in my knowledge of television.
This all being said, television is one of the most exciting art forms of our time and as a fan of the visual medium, I feel as if I should take the time to celebrate the best this decade offers. I’m taking into consideration the lasting impact of these shows, and even if some have weaker seasons or episodes, they have left an impact in one way or another. I’m also including shows that began airing the previous decade if enough of it aired during the 2010s.
These are my picks for the best shows of the 2010s.
The Night Manager
Parks and Recreation
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
Narcos and Narcos: Mexico
The End of the F***ing World
The rare superhero story that’s more interested in using color, style, and vignettes to convey mood and character shifts rather than traditional structure, Legion is easily one of the most visually and aesthetically dazzling achievements of the decade that revels in its own indulgence to create a wholly original method of storytelling.
Best Episode: “Chapter 14” (Season 2, Episode 6)
While it eventually became more interested in fan service and plot twists than satisfying story, the early Sherlock episodes were a brilliant modern take on the classic detective duo, perfectly taking the original Arthur Conan Doyle stories and inserting them in a 21st Century context. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman have chemistry to spare, and Andrew Scott’s take on Moriarty remains one of the better TV villains of the decade.
Best Episode: “A Scandal in Belgravia” (Season 2, Episode 1)
18. Better Call Saul
One of the more creative television spinoffs, Better Call Saul takes the comic relief Saul Goodman of Breaking Bad and uses him as a catalyst to tell the slow, methodical breakdown of a lawyer’s morality as he fights family and allies to come out on top. Bob Odenkirk nails a role that soon becomes as nuanced as Cranston’s, and is somehow able to make the world of legal sabotage as accessible as the drug conflicts of Breaking Bad.
Best Episode: “Chicanery” (Season 3, Episode 5)
17. Killing Eve
The epitome of what a great cat and mouse game looks like; tracking the parasitic, obsessive relationship between a witty MI5 analyst (Sandra Oh) and a sarcastic, psychopathic assassin (Jodie Comer), Killing Eve takes a look at what happens when justice becomes personal and whether the ends will justify the means.
Best Episode: “Don’t I Know You?” (Season 1, Episode 3)
16. House of Cards
While its legacy is complicated due to the both the fallout of the Kevin Spacey allegations and the show’s general decline in quality overtime, it’s also easy to see why House of Cards kicked off the streaming boom; the first two seasons make for a cutthroat, thrilling take on what it takes to get to the top off the political game, and were able to draw us into the behind the scenes of political maneuvering through a great Macbeth/ Lady Macbeth character duo.
Best Episode: “Chapter 26” (Season 2, Episode 13)
Adopting the style of the Coen Brothers’ classic to tell a wholly new story, Fargo features a wonderful collection of standalone stories that include masquerading hitmen, midlife crisis murderers, naive police lovers, incompetent FBI agents, and fixers. Despite its often shocking violence and perpetual weirdness, Fargo is rooted in deep sincerity as it wraps its head around this crazy world.
Best Episode: “Buridan’s Ass” (Season 1, Episode 6)
14. The Good Place
Simultaneously a response to the serialization of television and an exercise in breaking down complex philosophical concepts through idiosyncratic humor, The Good Place is the best example of a network sitcom in an era where the genre isn’t typically associated with artistic audacity. Filled with witty characters and an ever expanding world, the series is able to dissect the very complex question of what makes someone good without ever compromising its refreshingly good-natured comedy.
Best Episode: “Michael’s Gambit” (Season 1, Episode 13)
Easily the greatest television adaptation of a comic book character ever, Daredevil infused the moral struggle of Matt Murdock as he balances being a superhero, a lawyer, and a man of faith with brilliant action sequences and the overwhelmingly great Vincent D’Onofrio as the villain Wilson Fisk.
Best Episode: “Blindsided” (Season 3, Episode 4)
12. Stranger Things
More than just a collection of references to ‘80s films, Stranger Things has been able to capture the tone and style of classic hits such as The Goonies, E.T. the Extra Terrestrial, and Gremlins by its unique blend of memorable and relatable characters and rich world building.
Best Episode: “The Mind Flayer” (Season 2, Episode 8)
It’s all about the journey. Westworld is so fun to watch because it’s so fun to figure out, and any of its endless mysteries could feel like gimmicks if they weren’t so perfectly paid off and able to approach the concept of intelligence and consciousness in such an accessible way.
Best Episode: “Kiksuya” (Season 2, Episode 8)
A great character piece about a dark and disturbed lead, Barry never sacrifices story for jokes, and is able to effortlessly glide between the hilarious and devastating as we follow a complicated hitman turned actor who we’re not sure we should be rooting for, even if we really, really want to.
Best Episode: “ronny/lily” (Season 2, Episode 5)
9. The Leftovers
The Leftovers is simultaneously able to inform us of the stakes, rules, and dynamics of its own mysterious sci-fi tragedy, yet is also able to ground everything in a nuanced depiction of grief and loss that could never have been expressed in a film. The journey to reach the conclusion of its mystery is thrilling, but it’s the individual moments of empathy throughout that make the series a masterpiece.
Best Episode: “International Assassin” (Season 2, Episode 7)
8. BoJack Horseman
Who knew an animated sitcom about a washed up actor (who’s also a horse) would be one of the deepest and most affecting dramas on television? BoJack Horseman draws us in with its deep wit (including a lot of animal puns) and consistently comes to startling and fascinating conclusions about celebrity, trauma, depression, and the human (?) condition.
Best Episode: “Fish Out of Water” (Season 3, Episode 4)
A fascinating insight into the minds of serial killers, Mindhunter asks the big questions about the nature of evil through a highly specific, morally challenging perspective that combines ‘70s stylistic choices with gripping mystery. Like it’s brilliant lead Jonathan Groff, it’s both unnerving and charismatic.
Best Episode: “Episode 10” (Season 1, Episode 10)
The excesses of wealth are hard to even grasp, yet Succession puts us in a deeply technical corporate family power struggle with nearly no redeeming character- yet it’s gripping? The level of character writing and performances are simply astounding, as we revel in the wit and plotting of each lead, whilst silently sitting in disgust at the implication that we’re even remotely involved in this world.
Best Episode: “Nobody is Ever Missing” (Season 1, Episode 10)
5. Breaking Bad
Unfolding like a five act Shakespearean drama, Breaking Bad is the taught, tight journey of Bryan Cranston’s Walter White as he turns from pathetic high school teacher to drug kingpin. Cranston’s work is among the best in history, and Breaking Bad’s strong collection of supporting character actors make for an often devastating, yet always entertaining slow burn.
Best Episode: “Felina” (Season 5, Episode 16)
4. Mad Men
If Breaking Bad is a modern Shakespeare tragedy, Mad Men unfolds like a great American novel; the passing of time throughout a highly eventful decade is felt as Jon Hamm’s Don Draper and the eclectic cast are always there to warp our perspective and challenge our view. Mad Men encapsulated the excitement, fear, inequality, charm, and impact of the ‘60s through the eyes of an advertising firm, concluding in what is still the greatest finale in television history.
Best Episode: “Person to Person” (Season 7, Episode 14)
3. Game of Thrones
There has never been an artistic creation like Game of Thrones; here is a series filled to the brim with characters, histories, backstories, mythology, and events that grips its audience through a genius-level staging of events that make for some of the most memorable moments in entertainment history. There are so many terrific moments that benefit from our commitment and patience that they it would be silly to try and list them all, but I’m left most remembering the wonderful characters that inhabit this fantasy and took us on this nine year journey.
Best Episode: “The Winds of Winter” (Season 6, Episode 10)
2. Mr. Robot
Creative and daring in a way that shows rarely are, Mr. Robot brought to life the surprisingly thrilling world of hacking and secret politics to life to tell the deeply personal story of a young man dealing with mental illness and trauma. Rami Malek delivers consistently electrifying work in a show that is always able to break its own format; from sitcoms to one shots to bottle thrillers, Mr. Robot has it all.
Best Episode: “eps3.5_kill-pr0cess.inc” (Season 3, Episode 6)
1. Twin Peaks: The Return
A cinematic achievement like no other, David Lynch’s memorizing return to his landmark series pushed the medium forward through its tantalizing contextualization of the original Twin Peaks saga within the never-ending struggle to confront evil. Filled with quirkiness, genuine terror, and plenty of shocks, The Return never went the way we expected, and we’re still left analyzing. Like Lynch’s cinematic works of Eraserhead or Mulholland Dr, this can be viewed countless times to soak up the nuanced meaning of each scene, and we’ll still never fully understand.
Best Episode: “Part 16” (Season 3, Episode 16)