The 2010s was the decade of “peak TV”, and there were plenty of amazing shows that just didn’t get the credit they deserved upon release. The past ten years of entertainment were dominated by television. Viewers had more means to watch TV, more networks and platforms than ever were making it, and the medium became ever more ambitious and cinematic in scope as the decade drew to a close.
This was the era of Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Americans, Stranger Things, and much more. Television got bigger, more expensive, and, frankly, tougher to keep up with. The current Golden Age of Television, kicking off around the time HBO became a dominant power with The Sopranos and Sex and the City, quickly evolved into what John Landgraf, the CEO of FX Networks, referred to as “peak TV”. In 2002, 182 television shows aired, while 2016 had 455 original scripted television shows and 495 in 2018.
The 2010s saw all too many television shows sink into the ether of obscurity as audiences overlooked them or simply didn’t even know they existed. Such a concept would have been unthinkable ten years ago but it is now the default mode for consumers everywhere in the era of seemingly endless choice. It’s wonderful that we have such variety to choose from, but inevitably, there are casualties to be considered. Some series had critics in their corner but not audiences, while others were victims of bad timing or a mere lack of marketing.
NBC’s Hannibal is one of those series where you watch it and are utterly stunned that such a show managed to make its way to broadcast, let alone on a major network. Bryan Fuller’s reimagining of one of the most iconic villains in pop culture history turned a familiar procedural structure into a visually astounding baroque thriller that melded the real world with the nightmarish scenarios of a Goya or William Blake painting.
Mads Mikkelsen reinvented the character of Hannibal Lecter, making him a slyly subtle monster whose charm was tough to ignore, especially when coupled with the torrid relationship he shares with Hugh Dancy’s Will Graham, which falls somewhere between romance, hatred, and mutual obsession. And then there are the death scenes. Never has murder looked more operatic or graphically enthralling. Hannibal managed to take material that many thought trite and overdone and turned it into the freshest and most sinfully overlooked network drama of the decade, although, thankfully, fans still got three seasons to devour. It was simply a show just a little too ahead of its time.
Check out any website or publication’s list of the 100 greatest shows of the decades and the chances are you’ll see the Sundance Channel’s Rectify mentioned somewhere. Critics everywhere adored this sensitive drama about the life of a man after he is released from death row following a wrongful conviction, but it seemed destined to be an indie darling and nothing more. Rectify demanded the patience of its audience and rewarded them with a nuanced slow-burn study of a deeply fragmented family trying to find normalcy in the face of the impossible. Even as peak TV saw series becoming more bravely introspective and less focused on bombast, Rectify felt like a unique entity. It still does.
Sometimes, the title of your show can make or break your fortunes. The British sitcom Lovesick about three English friends sharing a flat in Glasgow and navigating their romantic adventures seems befitting of its title, but then you remember that the Channel 4/Netflix comedy was originally called Scrotal Recall. It’s easy to forgive audiences who skipped the show based on that childish pun, but those who gave it a chance found a hilarious and surprisingly moving show about that balanced sweetness with raunch. Many shows this decade were held up as exemplifying the dreaded millennial experience but Lovesick may be the one that did it best.
Susanna Clarke’s epic 2004 novel Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell was a phenomenon upon release thanks to its achingly detailed take on an alternate 19th-century England where magic once existed and the two men of the title work to bring it back. It’s an epic, strange, and often deeply challenging read that seems impossible to adapt, but in 2015, the BBC did just that and, sadly, few people seemed to notice.
Bertie Carvel and Eddie Marsan play the gentlemen of magic in question. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, like its source material, does not hold its audiences’ hand in guidance and expects them to keep up with its labyrinthine world of politics, war, magic, and societal sniping. Watched in one sitting, it’s an especially satisfying and thrilling experience, once where you can truly appreciate the agonizing attention to detail and sweeping scope. Sadly, the show never seemed to find its audience when it aired, so it’s practically begging for a revival.
While the first season, which premiered in 2009, received its fair share of attention, Showtime’s The United States of Tara evolved into something far stranger and more satisfying as it entered the 2010s and was subsequently ignored by the masses. Toni Collette played Tara, a woman with dissociative identity disorder (often described as multiple personality disorder), forced to juggle the various manifestations of her psyche.
What started out as a pretty standard Showtime dramedy – the kind the network became somewhat infamous for in the 2000s, evolved into some of writer Diablo Cody’s finest and most complex work. At times, The United States of Tara played like a psychological thriller, embracing the surreal and bending the rules of reality to suit its narrative needs. Collette’s performance was yet another reminder of her status as one of the industry’s most underrated actors, and Brie Larson starred in one of her many pre-Captain Marvel roles as Tara’s wayward teen daughter.
For everyone who watched HBO’s exemplary miniseries Chernobyl and found themselves craving more historical drama featuring Jared Harris taking on the miserable hubris of man, The Terror was right there waiting for them. AMC’s series, which evolved into an anthology in season 2, struggled to hold onto viewers despite a highly-watched premiere. Fans who stuck around got to experience an enthralling horror based on Dan Simmons’s speculative take on the doomed Franklin expedition to the Arctic.
In terms of sheer scares, The Terror provided them and then some, but the show’s real power came in taking on the ego of the British empire and the horrifying inevitability of death, particularly when said process is long, slow, painful, and depicted in minute detail. The blending of history with horror has seldom felt so fresh, and it carried over into the show’s second season, which took on the Japanese folklore of bakemono in the setting of an internment camp during World War 2.
One of the best and worst things about the age of peak TV is that there is more to watch than ever, spread across multiple platforms that many viewers may never have even been aware of. That means more choice but also the inevitability that many shows and channels will simply slide under the radar. The original programming of WGN was one such example, even as its output was consistently strong, from the paranormal historical thriller Salem to Manhattan, a drama about the scientists behind the Manhattan Project. The most criminally overlooked series of WGN’s originals before they ended them entirely is Underground. Based on the true story of the underground railroad, the series followed a group of slaves from Georgia as they escaped imprisonment and made the dangerous journey towards the Canadian border for freedom. Over two all-too-brief seasons, Underground offered an urgent and sharply executed drama that took on an area of American history that Hollywood has typically overlooked.
Animation made some real strides on TV this decade, particularly on Cartoon Network and Adult Swim. Rick and Morty became an instant audience favorite with its nihilistic take on classic sci-fi tropes while Steven Universe brought some much-needed vibrancy and inclusivity to the medium with an endlessly positive and progressive fairy-tale subversion. However, animator Patrick McHale, formerly of Adventure Time, made possibly the network’s most perfect series this decade and he did it in only ten short episodes. Over the Garden Wall was such an achingly detailed blend of tone, mood, style, and characterization that mixed together folk tales with children’s storybooks and gothic horror. There was a handmade quality to the show, right down to the witty and moving soundtrack that sounded like it begged to be played on a phonograph. While it left you begging for more after less than two hours of story, Over the Garden Wall knew how and when it needed to end.
BoJack Horseman was one of Netflix’s first-ever original series and it stands as one of the true jewels in its crown. Hopes were high for Lisa Hanawalt, the cartoonist who designed BoJack’s distinct look, as she launched her own series. Tuca and Bertie is a decidedly more melancholy and laid-back show than the bleakness of BoJack, although it was no less emotionally affecting. More importantly, Tuca and Bertie was a proudly feminine show, from its soft pastel style to its adoring focus on the complexities of modern 30-something female friendships. Sadly, the series was canceled after only one season. It certainly deserved more.
Ask any TV critic what the greatest television show of all time is and there’s a solid chance they’ll mention The Wire or at least place it in their top five. David Simon helped to radically reshape the crime drama genre with its ambition, interweaving storylines, and grandeur in its tackling of the War on Drugs and its various intersections with race, class, poverty, and justice. To follow that up, Simon set himself and exceedingly high bar. Treme may not have cleared it, but that was never its intention. Set in New Orleans three months after Hurricane Katrina, Treme follows the residents of the eponymous neighborhood as they try to rebuild their lives and keep the unique way of life of the city alive in the aftermath of devastation. Treme was an experiment that many saw as a failure but it deserves so much more than that dismissal.
A great upside of peak TV is that showrunners have the ability to make hyper-specific and extremely geeky series about things that they know will only appeal to the tiniest of demographics. Comedians Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, and Seth Meyers joined forces to create Documentary Now!, a mockumentary series for IFC that is a film lover’s dream. Each episode takes on either a notable subgenre of documentary or parodies a specific title, from Grey Gardens to The Thin Blue Line to Talking Heads: Stop Making Sense. The genius of Documentary Now! is in how incisive and knowledgeable it is about whatever is being parodied. Mel Brooks once said that the best parodies were made by people who clearly loved the thing they were making fun of and that ethos is evident in every frame of this series. Many of the jokes will fly over the heads of viewers not intimately aware of the subject matter, but therein lies its genius. Not a single moment of Documentary Now! is phoned in either. It’s a comedy show that gives you hope for the future.
Next: Best TV Episodes Of The Decade