Television has surpassed movies and music to be the defining cultural medium of the decade.
So when I say I watch a lot of television that likely doesn’t seem quite as weird as it might have in decades past. The medium itself rewarded my devotion with a glut of beautiful, emotionally fulfilling content over the decade.
30. The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017)
That The Vampire Diaries became a mess after Elena becomes a vampire is why this show isn’t higher. But despite that there is nothing that can diminish the luster of the damn-near perfect first three seasons. The show burned through plot at break-neck speed and definitely ran longer than it needed to (No Elena, no show, far as I’m concerned). But it still featured some of the finest writing, plotting, and acting – particularly Nina Dobrev as Elena/Katherine, Michael Trevino as Tyler, Zach Roerig as Matt, and Candice King as Caroline – in fantasy television history.
29. Cleverman (2016-2017)
Cleverman is an Australian show that uses First Nations Dreamtime concepts as a way to tell a quasi-superhero story about racial injustice in Australia. I am still learning about racial injustice in Australia, so I can’t speak to how accurate it is. But as allegory and as story, the show is fascinating and beautiful. It only ran for two short seasons of six episodes each. And it managed to build out the world and characters really well with relatively truncated real estate.
28. Jessica Jones (2015-2019)
Overall, I think Jessica Jones is the strongest of the five Marvel Netflix shows for one really important reason: it hued the closest to who the character is in the comics. Jessica is a hot mess. The show never let us lose sight of that, even in the final season when she and Trish switched roles in the narrative so Jessica serves as the show’s moral center. It also had the best villains and arguably the best fit of lead actor (the remarkable Krysten Ritter) to role of all the Marvel Netflix shows. It’s a shame that we won’t get more of this show – and the others, weaker though they may be – but the final season provided a really solid conclusion to this phase of Jessica Jones’ life.
27. Luther (2010-present)
I’ve long felt that Luther is Idris Elba’s James Bond. It’s an iconic character in the world of a London Americans in particular have never really seen before. Idris Elba is famous for a lot of things. But it’s Luther that showcases his range to stunning effect. He’s charismatic to be sure. But it’s the way he conveys John Luther’s tenuous grip on his moral conscience that is the most astonishing aspect of his work in this remarkable show.
26. Person of Interest (2011-2016)
For a lot of Black folks Person of Interest might go down as the show that drove Taraji P. Henson away. And there is something disturbing and sad about the fact that the show’s themes didn’t start to cohere until her character dies. But once it does, boy does the show blossom. It’s the best show we have ever had that depicts with frightening clarity just how dangerous and scary technology can be in the context of policing. Plus – Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi were remarkable in their roles.
25. Lost Girl (2010-2015)
The best female-led genre show since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl was a revelation when I stumbled across it. The show handled Bo’s sexuality so casually that it truly became just one of the many things that defined her character. And yet because the show was about a succubus – and thus about female sexuality as a manifestation of female power – the show got to explore the many ways that society and culture warp and manipulate female possibility.
24. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
There was a time when I thought Game of Thrones might be in my top 3 for the decade. The early seasons expanded, twisted, and adapted the source material in mostly interesting ways. I am partial to the interactions between Arya and Tywin Lannister in Season 2, for instance. But somewhere the show lost its way, not surprisingly somewhere around the time that the show ran out of books to adapt. It weren’t for the fact that Sansa and Arya had the clearest, most beautifully rendered arcs of the decade, the show might have been even lower. But those final two seasons…ugh.
23. Stranger Things (2016-present)
Stranger Things is fun, sometimes terrifying, and gets by – to a great degree – on the strength of it’s astonishing young cast. Each and every one of them are terrific, particularly Noah Schnapp in Season 2. But it would be a mistake to underestimate how beautifully the show depicts friendships at that really critical phase of life right before puberty. That is where the show for all its genre, scary trappings really comes alive.
22. Looking (2014-2016)
I expected to like Looking because I loved Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how nakedly the show would explore the self-involved, self-destructive nature of White gay men in places like San Francisco. The show did a brilliant job of exposing Patrick’s casual racism in his initial interactions with Richie. And smartly, the show treated it so matter-of-factly because that kind of thing happens. It’s part of who Patrick is and part of who a lot of White gay men are. Looking was interested in being a true slice of life and not an issue-based show that turned characters into causes. And for that, it’s the most revolutionary White gay show we’ve ever had.
21. Greenleaf (2016-present)
I remain fascinated with the tonal balancing act that Greenleaf achieves. It’s a show that could very easily be a melodramatic soap opera, but it’s not. It’s actually a tonal cousin to Six Feet Under, a Black dramedy about a family business. This just happens to be about Black megachurches, something we’ve never seen explored before. The show itself has both deep reverence for church and is clear-eyed about the way that these kinds of churches are – first and foremost – businesses. Lynn Whitfield, not surprisingly, holds this together with a performance that is always subtly grand, without being too big.