Ten years ago, 211 scripted series aired during 2009. By 2019, that output had more than doubled to over 500 shows. That Peak TV era increase is largely due to the advent of streaming services like Netflix, and a wider swath of cable networks entering the scripted space (though several of them have since retreated). With consumers drowning in TV content, that makes the shows that managed to crack this list even more impressive.
A few rules: I only included shows that debuted in 2009 or later, in order to insure that the bulk of each series aired during the 2010s (this disqualified masterpieces like Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which debuted earlier in the ’00s but would have ended up very high on this list). I also discarded series that have been irrevocably tarnished by the #MeToo-related actions of their creator-stars (that knocked out a pair of Louis C.K. shows: Louie and Horace and Pete).
But even factoring in those omissions left an abundance of candidates, encompassing some of the greatest broadcast, cable and streaming series ever. Here are our picks for the best TV shows that aired during the 2010s (for broadcast and cable entries, we have also included the streaming service the series are currently available on):
10. Community (NBC/Yahoo Screen; streaming on Hulu)
This ensemble comedy about a group of community college students (among them: Joel McHale, Donald Glover and Alison Brie) who form a study group routinely displayed a level of experimentation and subversiveness rarely seen on broadcast TV. Creator Dan Harmon would send up action movies one week (in the Modern Warfare paintball episode) and have stories branching out in seven alternate timelines the next (Remedial Chaos Theory). Yes, the fourth season (in which Harmon was fired, though he returned for Season 5) was a big step down, but this show redefined what a broadcast sitcom could be.
9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
The very first original series from CBS All Access has the distinction of ranking higher than the show it spun off from—CBS’ The Good Wife, which ran from 2009-2016—because its shorter season orders enabled the legal drama to be leaner and meaner, avoiding the usual bloat of 22-episode broadcast seasons. Shifting the spotlight to Christine Baranski’s Diane Lockhart, the series’ debut dovetailed with President Trump’s election, reinventing itself on the fly to become the first, and still foremost, scripted chronicle of all the outlandish ways his administration has wreaked havoc on our legal system and society.
8. Justified (FX; streaming on Amazon)
As one would expect from a series based on an Elmore Leonard short story (Fire in the Hole), this drama—about deputy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), whose quick trigger finger gets him reassigned to his Kentucky hometown—wove a weekly tapestry of sublime dialogue (“I’ve shot people I like more for less.”). And Season 2—featuring Margo Martindale as brutal drug kingpin matriarch Mags Bennett—is one of the most perfect, satisfying seasons of TV ever created.
7. Atlanta (FX; streaming on Hulu)
Only two seasons of this comedy have aired so far, but Donald Glover (who created, stars, writes and often directs) has made every episode count. The show is ostensibly about two cousins trying to navigate Atlanta’s rap scene, but Glover routinely embarks on delightful flights of fancy that leave audiences unsure of what to expect next. One episode will spotlight a surreal, reclusive former pop star named Teddy Perkins (played by Glover in whiteface); the next satirizes African American TV programming (and ads); the next will follow Brian Tyree Henry’s Alfred on an unexpected journey as he gets lost in the woods. The only constant: It’s all brilliant.
6. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Animation aimed at adults is certainly not a novelty, but BoJack has raised the bar for the genre, using it not only for outlandish hijinks but to movingly explore serious issues like depression, addiction and loss over multiple seasons. The comedy also boasts several of the decade’s top standalone episodes, including Fish Out of Water, which takes place entirely underwater, and Free Churro, in which Will Arnett’s BoJack spends the entire episode giving a heartbreaking eulogy for his deceased mother.
5. Better Things (FX; streaming on Hulu)
While much of the disgraced Louis C.K.’s TV work is now unwatchable, this series that he co-created has transcended his association with it thanks to the force of nature that is Pamela Adlon (who stars, directs each episode and writes almost all of them). Adlon tackles two subjects that have been covered ad nauseam on TV—parenthood and working in Hollywood—and somehow makes them fresh, funny and poignant on a weekly basis. And given that each season has built upon its predecessor, it’s likely that better things are still to come.
4. Better Call Saul (AMC; streaming on Netflix)
Given that Breaking Bad is one of the best five shows ever made, the likelihood of prequel Better Call Saul living up to that legacy was slim at best. But given that this was the descendant of a series whose characters consistently wriggled themselves out of seemingly no-win situations, it shouldn’t be surprising that Saul pulled off the same feat. As it follows lawyer Jimmy McGill’s (Bob Odenkirk) inevitable, tragic descent into the slippery conman known in Breaking Bad as Saul Goodman, the drama has proven to be a worthy heir—and one that might even be able to confidently stand toe-to-toe with its predecessor by the end of its run. And even though awards panels continue to overlook Rhea Seehorn, she’s quietly delivering one of the decade’s most remarkable performances as McGill’s seemingly doomed partner and love interest, Kim Wexler.
3. The Leftovers (HBO)
Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s adaptation of Perrotta’s novel about the aftermath of an unexplained event in which 2% of the world’s population simultaneously vanished had a rocky first season. But the duo recalibrated for Season 2, taking a gargantuan leap forward, and did it again for its third and final year. From a pivotal storyline about the ’80s ABC sitcom Perfect Strangers to a lion sex cult on a Tasmanian cruise and the trippy International Assassin episode that seemed to take place in the afterlife, Lindelof and Perrotta took wild swings that no one else would dare attempt—and their batting average was astronomical.
2. Parks and Recreation (NBC; streaming on Netflix)
Given our politically polarized culture, this sitcom already seems anachronistic: A team of employees at an Indiana town’s parks department tirelessly band together to look beyond their differences and work within the political system to do some good for their constituents. But TV, and the world, needs more characters like Amy Poehler’s relentlessly optimistic, passionate and waffle-worshiping Leslie Knope. After some early tweaks, the series morphed into one of the top workplace comedies of all time, thanks to a powerhouse cast (including Poehler, Adam Scott, Nick Offerman, Chris Pratt, Aubrey Plaza and Aziz Ansari) and the confident touch of creators Greg Daniels and Mike Schur.
1. The Americans (FX; streaming on Amazon)
The series followed a pair of Russian agents (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) working undercover as a married couple in ’80s suburban D.C., but calling it a spy drama is kind of like saying that The Godfather was just a mob movie: It only scratches the surface of what makes it so remarkable. By Season 2, showrunners Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields had pivoted away from an “assignment of the week” procedural approach to focus on meatier topics: delving into the spies’ fascinating relationship (has there ever been another one like it on TV?), the long-term physical and psychological impact of their jobs, and the ripple effect that their decisions have on the people around them. The Americans never received its proper due from Emmy voters, but the series will rightfully be remembered as one of TV’s greatest modern dramas.
This decade was packed with so many masterful series that it was inevitable several of them would miss the cut. These 15 shows also belong in that echelon of the decade’s finest offerings, and are worthy of praise:
American Crime Story (FX; streaming on Netflix)
The Crown (Netflix)
Fargo (FX; streaming on Hulu)
The Good Place (NBC; streaming on Hulu)
The Good Wife (CBS; streaming on Hulu and CBS All Access)
Hannibal (NBC; streaming on Amazon)
The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
Mr. Robot (USA; streaming on Amazon)
Rectify (SundanceTV; streaming on Netflix)
Terriers (FX; not currently streaming)
You’re the Worst (FX/FXX; streaming on Hulu)