Welcome to the era of Peak TV or the Gilded Age of television — you can thank FX chief John Landgraf for coining both of those terms — when the glut of offerings on the small screen has yielded an embarrassment of series riches. It’s not just that a crowded marketplace has pushed creators to become even more innovative and daring in their work to gain attention; the very definition of what TV is and how to watch it has allowed an unprecedented freedom in storytelling.
Do you want a revival of an avant-garde series that reveres a damn fine cup of coffee? Are you itching for a show like “The Good Wife” but even more progressive? Want to revisit the Minnesota-nice flavor of a 1990s Coen Brothers film? Are you craving ridiculous puns with your existential crisis? There’s a series for every single one of those desires.
This level of excellence on the small screen, however, hasn’t spontaneously arrived, like Athena fully grown from Zeus’ head. No, television has been on a steady climb since the Golden Age, which critics estimate started around 10 years ago. Therefore, IndieWire’s team of TV experts deemed it necessary to celebrate some of the best TV shows of the past decade.
With so many TV shows on offer, it seemed prudent to set forth strict guidelines to narrow the field. This was by no means an easy task and caused endless debates and gnashing of teeth. But in the end, the rules of engagement for the list are as follows:
To qualify, a show must have aired the majority of its run during the 2010 – 2019 range, inclusive. The show must be scripted — whether it’s a drama, comedy, limited series, or anthology series. The totality of the series must be weighed, not just one spectacular or abysmal season. Liking a show isn’t enough; the series must also have had an impact on the culture. Even with these stringent requirements, there were a surfeit of choices to choose from, and below are the 50 best of the best (in addition to some honorable mentions). So let’s have at it. What a time for a couch potato to be alive!
50. “The Terror” (AMC, 2018 – present)
Bless AMC for seeing beyond its “Walking Dead” franchise to “The Terror,” an anthology period drama that views historical events through the lens of horror and the supernatural. In its first season, the series gives a fictionalized account of Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition to the Arctic in the 1840s in which two Royal Navy ships become icebound in the Northwest Passage and left no survivors. The beauty of the first installment is how — despite a relatively static setting and a huge cast that mainly had to be distinguished by their facial hair — the show manages to build an atmosphere of paranoia, claustrophobia, and yes, terror. Supernatural touches such as the mysterious creature known as the Tuunbaq give the series extra oomph, while the dedicated cast from Jared Harris to Tobias Menzies tether the show to reality. Such incredibly specific circumstances only help to distill the ways in which humanity reacts in times of great distress. The masterful execution of Season 1 bodes well for the second season, which puts a Japanese ghost story twist within an internment camp during World War II.—HN
49. “True Detective” (HBO, 2014 – 2019)
Two out of three ain’t bad — especially when the two seasons are as remarkable as these. In 2014, “True Detective” started a trend that would change Hollywood for the foreseeable future. Limited series offered a compromise between audiences demanding longer stays with their movie stars and movie stars’ preference for, well, movies. While viewers hoped for more time with Matthew McConaughey than a two-hour film could offer (especially during the McConaissance), the actor didn’t have to sacrifice taking on a multitude of exceptional roles being offered to him (especially during the McConaissance) — not when he could do eight episodes of “True Detective,” a one-and-done miniseries that started a new mystery each season. Soon, other writers took to Nic Pizzolatto’s model, and the limited series revival brought us an explosion of star-studded miniseries — many of which are on this list. But where “True Detective” went is beyond industry impact. The first season is a testament to aesthetic beauty enhancing what’s put on the page, as Cary Fukunaga added a touch of humor, intensity, and texture to Pizzolatto’s labyrinthian mystery. Moreover, the writer & director worked like the partners on screen: Maybe they didn’t get along, but together they produced something they could’ve never accomplished apart. Season 3 found similar success in advancing the structure, shifting the partner dynamic (Carmen Ejogo played as much a partner as Stephen Dorff), and benefitting from a breathtaking central turn. Season 2? Let’s not go there. Two out of three ain’t bad.—BT
48. “Superstore” (NBC, 2015-present)
At a time where the middle class is rapidly being erased from reality, NBC’s “Superstore” offers an unapologetically hilarious look at employment in a Midwestern big box store, where employees flirt with each other – and the poverty line. But while on the surface “Superstore” may appear to be just another workplace sitcom, in reality the series walks a tightrope, engaging head-on with myriad pressing socio-cultural issues, including gun control, parental leave, sexism, labor organization, and undocumented immigration, all while remaining one of the funniest shows of the decade. Anchored by Mark McKinney, Ben Feldman, and a dynamite America Ferrera, it has all the pathos of a Michael Schur show and all the absurdity of a Greg Daniels show, mixed with a healthy dose of retail hell. This is your favorite show you’re not watching yet.—LH
47. “One Day at a Time” (Netflix, 2017-2019)
No other show on television looks like Netflix’s “One Day at a Time” and not because the central family is Cuban-American, or because it’s shot in the increasingly rare multi-cam sitcom format. “One Day at a Time” is unlike other series because it radiates warmth and humanity, both for the characters on screen and the audience watching at home. Crafted by Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce, with oversight by Norman Lear himself, the series showcases difficulties the family face, including racism, homophobia, and PTSD. Never one for high-mindedness, “One Day at a Time” comes at issues on their own level and without pretense. The series is a balm for the soul and a reassurance in difficult times that love and goodness were not just real, but still attainable.—LH
46. “The Good Fight” (CBS All Access, 2017 – present)
CBS All Access
The CBS All Access series, which picks up after the events in the final episode of the CBS series “The Good Wife,” enters its third season following a thrilling Season 2, helping to make it among the best of TV in 2018. The series becomes even more political as the attorneys at top-shelf African-American-owned Chicago law firm Reddick, Boseman & Kolstad are pushed further into the madness that is the country’s current civic climate, decidedly taking on Trump. But it’s less a series that preaches to what’s perceived to be a liberal choir, and instead it shrewdly satirizes the left. In fact, one of this season’s most memorable episodes tackles more commonplace and potentially more insidious forms of racism, as opposed to the blatant, like overt white supremacists. This season sees Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) continue her furtive efforts to resist the current administration; Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) and Liz Reddick-Lawrence (Audra McDonald) are forced to contend with a past moment of vulnerability that resurfaces; Maia Rindell finds herself in a dogfight with the devious Roland Blum (Michael Sheen); and finally Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo) tries to balance life as a single mom with rising pressures at work. Through it all, the series never strays very far away from the zeitgeist, with just enough crazy that’s in keeping with the times. —TO
45. “Justified” (FX, 2010-2015)
Rare is the show that can work as a procedural with a distinct stylistic flair, a season-by-season set of conflicts, and a series-long story about learning who your real friends are. Making that switch from an Elmore Leonard outlaw of the week show to one of FX’s most trusted, densely-filled dramas is one of the most impressive reinventions of any show on this list. And the show is truly great in both modes, which is a lot easier to do when you have a pantheon-level protagonist in Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant). The people on “Justified” always speak with purpose, whether they’re bumbling petty thieves, criminal masterminds, or the law enforcement officials trying to suss out to which of those two categories their intended target belongs.—SG
44. “Big Little Lies” (HBO, 2017 – 2019)
Based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, the HBO series reads like a strong draft pick for a fantasy TV league, from David E. Kelley writing to Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman executive producing and starring alongside Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Alexander Skarsgård, Zoe Kravitz, and Adam Scott. But it’s not until tuning into the Jean-Marc Vallée-directed mystery that the true atmospheric genius of the story unfolds to reveal a world of privilege and appearances that are only barely held together to hide the toxicity below the surface. Visually and aurally stunning, “Big Little Lies” seduces the senses as well as the spirit as the story wends its way to its inexorable, empowering conclusion. “Big Little Lies” is more than satisfying as a limited series, but now with a second season featuring Meryl Streep, the series has cemented its place in the annals of prestige TV.—HN
43. “Homecoming” (Amazon Prime, 2018 – present)
Jessica Brooks / Amazon
Ahead of its premiere, “Homecoming” was notable for several reasons: First, it was a new project from “Mr. Robot” architect Sam Esmail. Second, it marked Julia Roberts’ initial foray as a leading lady in an episodic television series. And finally, it was one of the industry’s earliest significant gambles on adapting podcasts for the screen. Soaring from the start, the noir-drama proved to be a tense thriller that was a magnet for audiences; an intricate puzzle for its viewers to unpack, all the way up to its startling ending. It’s an emotionally-involved ride that bewilders with fun twists and turns, as well as a hallucinatory score. In addition to Roberts, it’s also a TV season-long appreciation for Stephan James, who is utterly convincing as Afghanistan veteran Walter Cruz. Both give measured, naturalistic performances, alongside a supporting cast that includes Bobby Cannavale as Roberts’ disreputable boss, and Shea Whigham as the unrelenting, bespectacled official investigating the truth at the center of the series. “Homecoming” is an assured, compelling and fully formed drama, whether for fans of the podcast it’s based on, or those who’ve never listened to an episode of it.—TO
42. “Archer” (FX/FXX, 2009-present)
The last thing the TV world needed was another reference-heavy animated workplace comedy with a smart-aleck title character. Yet “Archer” distanced itself from all those simple descriptors and became a lively romp through a ‘60s-looking spy world and any number of adventurous environments since the first season. Sterling Archer (voiced by the incomparable H. Jon Benjamin) has occasionally been surrounded by bumbling fools and overqualified companions, but it’s the effortless way that each member of the show’s inner circle has slid into each successive change of scenery that shows how singular and strong this show’s comedic style has always been. The encounters, entendres, and Burt Reynolds cameos are just part of the cavalcade of jokes that run behind this handful of would-be crimefighters. Some of them may require an almanac to parse, but hey, that’s just part of the fun. —SG
41. “Master of None” (Netflix, 2015 – 2017)
Based on the comedic viewpoints of Aziz Ansari, the series follows the personal and professional life of Dev, a 30-year-old actor in New York who has trouble deciding on the mundanities of day-to-day existence, as well as on life’s bigger challenges. Amusing and cinematic while exploring various everyday themes, the series is simultaneously broad in scope and intensely personal. With oodles of heart and charm, it’s a refreshingly idiosyncratic take on an otherwise familiar premise that manages to outdo itself in its second of two seasons thus far, delivering an increasingly ambitious series of episodes. Boasting a diverse cast of eclectic characters, and beautifully shot on location in New York and Italy, it’s a remarkable undertaking in storytelling and demonstrates what a modern TV series can be.—TO
40. “Fargo” (FX, 2014 – present)
Ah, jeez. Noah Hawley’s Emmy-winning anthology black comedy-crime series is a surprisingly tone-perfect extension of the universe that was created in the Coen Brothers’ 1996 film of the same name. Off-kilter and dangerous, the series creates fascinating characters who are dropped into intense circumstances, and what results is (besides a body count) a contemplation of morality touched by just enough of the absurd. It’s no wonder that A-list stars from Billy Bob Thornton and Kirsten Dunst to Ted Danson and Ewan McGregor want to sink their teeth into such colorful dialogue and characters. It’s a testament to the show’s excellence that critics still find it fruitful to debate whether the show’s first or second season is superior, with compelling arguments to support both. And while Season 3’s storytelling falters a bit, it still presents some beautifully wacky moments — most notably anything to do with Carrie Coon’s character and technology. On the whole, Hawley’s continuation of the FCU is innovation through imitation, and somehow makes the world his own, with the introduction of Allison Tolman in Season 1 alone is enough to confirm the series’ contribution to TV. —HN
39. “Killing Eve” (BBC America/AMC, 2018-current )
It’s not a stretch to say that psychopaths are interesting – what is a stretch is making depictions in entertainment of ye olde standard bad guy psychopaths feel new, fresh and different. “Killing Eve” does this perfectly, thanks to the cat-and, well, cat game of chase depicted between fashion-forward hall of fame gleeful assassin Villanelle (gloriously portrayed by Jodie Comer) and – spoiler! – her borderline psychopathic Javert, Eve Polastri (Sanda Oh, who winningly rolls with the punches as her character becomes more unhinged as the show goes on.) While showrunner Emerald Fennell’s second season isn’t as narratively tight as Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s first set of episodes, the psychosexual interplay between the two women remains propulsive, compulsive and groundbreaking. Comer continues to find new ways to be terrifying as she turns the charm up to 10 in her encounters with the emotionally functioning world; Oh does a beautiful delicate dance between allure and revulsion during her character’s slow and steady descent into the dark side. Plus, it seems inevitable that someone is going to be turned into a gyro. -AD