The Most Significant Television Shows of the 2010s
There’s certainly no shortage of television shows out there — any one of us surely has a watchlist of countless programs across basic and premium cable, not to mention the plethora of original offerings each digital streaming service boasts. As this era of Peak TV enters its third decade — beginning in the 2000s and now stretching into the 2020s — it’s worth taking a look back on some of the most influential shows of the last 10 years.
The Starz original series Spartacus (also known as Spartacus: Blood and Sand, Spartacus: Vengeance or Spartacus: War of the Damned, depending on which season you’re watching) kicked off the 2010s with force. No, seriously — with the amount of violence in the show, it’s fair to say it literally kicked the decade off.
Not only was the show incredibly well-received during its relatively short run, but it also went on to influence the CW show Arrow, which premiered toward the end of Spartacus‘ run by casting many of the show’s actors.
Judging by the show’s ads back in the spring of 2010, some FX viewers might’ve dismissed Justified as just another cop procedural. They’d be wrong, though — Justified is far from your run-of-the-mill police drama. It’s much more important than that.
Focusing on a U.S. Marshal forced to return to his rural Kentucky roots, the show is the epitome of premium cable excellence. On top of this, two of the show’s stars went on to other great TV shows later on in the ’10s: Timothy Olyphant and Walton Goggins.
Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule (2010–2017)
The 2010s can be seen as a time when absurdist humor was allowed to thrive and run rampant across the comedy scene. Untethered from the traditional joke formats of the past, comedies in the ’10s were stranger than anything that came before them. Case in point: Adult Swim’s Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule.
A spinoff of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, the low-budget comedy stars John C. Reilly as the titular doctor who doesn’t seem to be completely…there. The show’s surreality laid a foundation for the decade’s comedy.
Downton Abbey (2010–2015)
A sensation across the United States and Europe, Downton Abbey proved that prestige TV wasn’t just a thing for Generation X and viewers who are younger. Following the lives of a family of British aristocrats, their servants and their daily goings-on in the early 20th century, Downton Abbey shattered expectations from the start.
Downton Abbey also managed to successfully transition to the big screen and make quite a significant profit. The quintessentially British show proved to executives that older folks, and all folks, still care about Peak TV and movies.
Shameless (2011– )
There’s really no other show like Showtime’s Shameless. Recently surpassing 10 seasons, the show is not only a monumental achievement for the network but is also a staple of the decade’s comedic stylings. Raunchy, unapologetic and surprisingly heartfelt, Shameless is exactly what its title suggests.
Starring William H. Macy as the patriarch of the Gallagher family and a whole ensemble of young up-and-comers as his children, Shameless shows that television can abide by the conventions of traditional family sitcoms while simultaneously shattering the family-friendly expectations that come with those old-fashioned TV structures.
Game of Thrones (2011–2019)
Based off of the series of hit fantasy novels by George R.R. Martin (that have still yet to see a conclusion), HBO’s Game of Thrones can be seen as a metaphor for Peak TV in the 2010s. Arriving in 2011 and concluding in 2019, the show stretched throughout the decade and continually captivated audiences.
What makes Game of Thrones so influential going forward is its lasting impact as a cultural event and its significant staying power as an awards-season behemoth. Every network is clamoring for its own version.
Black Mirror (2011- )
In our current cultural climate, a time when technology is integrated into our daily lives and relationships with other people, it was only a matter of time before someone came along and mined this reality for the sake of entertainment. In Black Mirror‘s case, that person is Charlie Brooker.
Originating on British TV station Channel 4 and eventually moving over to Netflix, the show is more or less an updated version of The Twilight Zone. It no doubt determined the way TV handled allegories about modern times and our future.
The Eric Andre Show (2012– )
Like Check It Out! with Dr. Steve Brule, Adult Swim’s The Eric Andre Show harvests the surreality of 2010s comedy and amplifies it to the Nth degree. A parody of the old-school talk show format, the sketch show is genuinely absurd beyond words.
Starring comedian Eric Andre and Broad City fan favorite Hannibal Buress, the sheer number of memes the series has spawned should tell you how important the show truly is to this generation of TV viewers. It’s comedic genius, to be sure, but it’s also completely singular.
Nathan for You (2013–2017)
Money makes the world go ’round. It’s a simple fact of life in the Western world. This means that, in search of the American Dream, countless businesses come and go. Comedian Nathan Fielder managed to tap into this desire and create a completely baffling bit of TV.
His Comedy Central show Nathan for You follows struggling small business owners who take on Fielder’s nonsensical, out-of-the-box ideas in order to turn their businesses around. The end result — including series finale Finding Frances — is some of the greatest television of the decade.
These days, it seems sequels and prequels and spinoffs are driving the television and feature film industries more than any other story idea. NBC’s Silence of the Lambs prequel, which arrived back in 2013, does an amazing job showing how it’s done.
Following the infamous Hannibal Lecter and a young FBI criminal profiler named Will Graham in the years before Lecter became the serial killer that so many got to know in the ’90s, Hannibal was short-lived but undoubtedly quite important in shaping the way networks tackle rebooted intellectual property.
True Detective (2014– )
One of the most popular trends in 2010s television was the anthology series. Abiding by the same basic structure and themes from season to season but recasting the series roles and telling new stories with each new batch of episodes, anthologies really resonated with viewers.
HBO’s True Detective is definitely one of the most ambitious examples of this anthology format. A cop procedural of a different breed, True Detective focuses on baffling cases that span decades, frequently remaining unsolved for years and years (much to the detriment of lead investigators).
Silicon Valley (2014–2019)
Wrapping up right in the nick of time — just mere weeks before the end of the decade — Mike Judge and Alec Berg’s big-tech satire Silicon Valley started out as a pleasant little comedy about hapless internet billionaires and eventually evolved into a searing critique of some of the most controversial figures in tech today.
The show poked fun at coders, internet start-ups, tech geniuses and modern technology in the same cartoonish way that got Judge famous — his shows Beavis and Butt-Head and King of the Hill are some of the best examples.
Fargo (2014– )
Combining the format of an anthology series with the popularity of rebooting intellectual property, Noah Hawley’s FX series Fargo extrapolates on the Coen Brothers’ hit film Fargo by applying its themes and setting to separate stories within the same universe.
Never before has a television show based on a movie (or a movie based on a television show) managed to so perfectly encapsulate the mood and the tone of its source material in the way Hawley’s Fargo does. FX should be proud of it, most definitely, and Hawley should too.
BoJack Horseman (2014–2020)
One of the earliest Netflix Original Series and the streamer’s very first adult cartoon, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s BoJack Horseman stars Will Arnett as a talking horse from a retro sitcom who’s struggling to make do (and find work) in a modern world where humans and anthropomorphic animals co-exist.
It’s hard to compete with The Simpsons, Family Guy, South Park and Rick and Morty, but BoJack Horseman seemed to have a leg up by originating on a streaming site where there wasn’t anything even remotely similar to compete with.
Better Call Saul (2015– )
A spinoff of/prequel to AMC’s smash-hit television series Breaking Bad, Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul tracks the origins of Bad‘s scene-stealing criminal lawyer Saul Goodman (formerly Jimmy McGill, as Saul reveals) while occasionally providing a glimpse at his life after Breaking Bad.
While spinoffs are not a new concept at all, Better Call Saul proves that they don’t have to be carbon copies of their original source materials. The show is quite funny, but it also manages to remain incredibly tense on a smaller scale.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (2015)
Another hugely popular trend of the 2010s was true crime. Across TV, film and podcasts, the true crime genre hooked millions by telling true (and often truly baffling) stories that continue to perplex and mystify those involved years after the events transpired.
Early on in the trend’s boom, HBO released one of the most shocking entries in the genre to date: The Jinx. Starting off by telling the story of its subject, Robert Durst, and concluding by revealing shocking information not even the police knew, the show captivated the nation.
Mr. Robot (2015–2019)
Like Black Mirror, USA’s Mr. Robot sets out to tackle the ways in which we allow technology to infiltrate our lives and our privacy in ways we would never let another person do. Unlike Black Mirror, though, Mr. Robot is not telling a different fable with each episode. It’s serialized, and it’s arguably a lot more serious.
Focusing on cybersecurity and hacking, Mr. Robot hit the 2010s hard — in the aftermath, viewers no doubt chose to look at their devices a lot more carefully than they had before watching.
Credited with kicking off Marvel’s desire to create a congruent set of television shows akin to their Cinematic Universe (MCU) on the big screen, Netflix’s short-lived but highly successful series Daredevil undoubtedly started a movement.
Set in the same universe with Iron Fist, Jessica Jones and the Punisher, the show can be credited as one of the main reasons the MCU has decided to create a set of shows they can call their own starting in the early 2020s. These Netflix-Marvel co-productions might be through, but the impact is still felt.
Ash vs Evil Dead (2015–2018)
Unlike Fargo or Hannibal, Starz’s Ash vs Evil Dead is nothing more and nothing less than a straight-up sequel to the Evil Dead trilogy. Catching up with Bruce Campbell’s inimitable horror movie hero Ash many years after the events of Army of Darkness, the show was as big a cult favorite as the films themselves.
It’s hard to name another TV show like Ash vs Evil Dead even though it’s been a couple years since it concluded. Is anyone willing to make a sequel to a film trilogy on TV?
Making a Murderer (2015– )
Netflix’s answer to HBO’s success with The Jinx came in the form of 2015’s Making a Murderer. Continuing to update viewers with new information regularly, the true crime series ignited a debate among viewers that was unlike anything the streamer had seen before or after.
With the legal battles portrayed in the docuseries still raging on today, the show seems to have its material laid out for it. As long as the baffling murder trials continue on, Making a Murderer won’t stop being an essential highlight of the streamer’s original offerings.
American Crime Story (2016– )
By combining key story elements of the true crime genre and utilizing the structure of an anthology series, Ryan Murphy’s American Crime Story — with two seasons so far, one covering the OJ Simpson trial and the other covering the murder of Gianni Versace — is an exemplary master class in storytelling.
By profiling large-scale American crimes that many know about but few can fully understand, Murphy and his team of writers, directors and actors effectively re-ignite old cultural flames in order to assess the way society played a part in their stories.
Stranger Things (2016– )
There’s one big aspect of entertainment in the 2010s that hasn’t really been discussed yet: nostalgia. A yearning for the way things used to be in the ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s — you name it. It’s a longing for the past that drives shows like Stranger Things.
Taking place in the ’80s and following a group of kids straight out of a classic Steven Spielberg film, Stranger Things is the type of sci-fi family adventure series that rarely sees the light of day today. It’s on record as Netflix’s biggest show.
Atlanta (2016– )
When Donald Glover (also known as Childish Gambino) left NBC’s Community to focus on his own projects, it was unclear what exactly that would entail beyond “new music.” When his FX masterpiece Atlanta premiered, it was obvious he made the right choice to go his own way.
Profiling life as an up-and-coming rapper in Atlanta, Georgia, while incorporating plenty of abnormal goings-on straight out of a dream, Atlanta stars Glover, Brian Tyree Henry and LaKeith Stanfield as a trio of Atlanta residents trying to make it big in the world.
Planet Earth II (2016)
Ten years after David Attenborough’s Planet Earth provided audiences around the world with access to wildlife they might never have seen before or after, the famed documentarian returned with Planet Earth II. Equipped with even more breathtaking footage, the series resonated even more strongly than its predecessor.
Taking viewers from mountains to islands to jungles and deserts and grasslands and even cities, Attenborough completely tops his own work by giving viewers images of nature and animals unlike anything captured on film before. Simply put, it is essential viewing.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017– )
The second show to come from the mind of Amy Sherman-Palladino in the years that followed hit CW series Gilmore Girls, Amazon’s The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel follows a 1950s housewife (Rachel Brosnahan) who gives it all up to become a stand-up comedian.
In typical Palladino fashion, the show features an incredible soundtrack and impeccable set design with fast-talking characters and witty scenarios that leave the viewer with warm feelings. In a decade where TV got quite dark, it’s refreshing to have a series that’s so light and airy available on Amazon.
The Handmaid’s Tale (2017– )
Based off of the ever-popular novel of the same name by author Margaret Atwood, Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale brings Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss back to the small screen to tell a political allegory about a dystopian America where women live as concubines under a dictatorship.
Viewed by many to be a warning about our current political climate, the show continues to win awards year after year and capture the attention of audiences on all sides of the political spectrum. Some consider it fiction, while others consider it a stern warning.
Twin Peaks (2017)
A continuation of the story David Lynch started all the way back in 1990, Showtime’s Twin Peaks picks up 25 years after the events of the original series and its prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Combining the best elements of both the show and the film, Twin Peaks completely stands alone.
Easily one of the best shows to hit airwaves in the past decade, Twin Peaks answers the age-old question of whether TV can be as good as film. (Yes.) There’s nothing else out there like Twin Peaks; this much is absolutely certain.
Pose (2018– )
For fans of Ryan Murphy, it’s pretty hard to keep up with all the projects the writer-director-producer involves himself in. By picking and choosing what he writes, what he directs and what he produces, Murphy is able to spread himself across multiple TV shows and networks at once.
Perhaps the most important show he’s involved in is FX’s Pose. In a time when many call for better representation of marginalized groups, Pose prides itself on casting diverse leads across the board to tell the story of New York circa 1987.
Surviving R. Kelly (2019– )
Originally airing on Lifetime and spanning the course of six incredibly difficult episodes, the documentary miniseries Surviving R. Kelly managed to confront the nation with the cold, hard facts surrounding popular R&B singer R. Kelly and the profoundly disturbing details of his personal life and relationships.
By structuring itself professionally, rooting itself in history and overwhelming the viewer with the sheer amount of first-hand testimonies from women who were abused by R. Kelly, the show completely changed the way we view the singer and his illustrious catalog of songs.
The most recent series compiled here — and one of the shortest — HBO’s Watchmen sequel (also titled Watchmen) comes from showrunner extraordinaire Damon Lindelof and provides a completely original look at what happened to the world in the wake of the events of the hit graphic novel from the ’80s.
Completely separate from Zack Snyder’s take on the same material from the late 2000s, Lindelof’s Watchmen shows future showrunners how to take beloved and cherished material and do something completely new with it. Watchmen will no doubt change television.