Culture

The 25 Best TV Shows This Decade

From "American Crime Story" to "Game of Thrones," boob tubers have never had it better.

Photo Credit: Sarah Anne Smith/Flickr Creative Commons

It's said we live in the era of peak TV — a golden age of golden ages where prestige is often as important as ratings. Sure, we've got reality shows about nude dating and people who make semi-inedible cakes. But we've also got some of the most well-produced, most thoughtful, most engrossing and most expensive weekly and streamable series ever created.

This decade, in particular, has offered a bumper crop of picks from HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Showtime, basic cable and, yes, even those old-fashioned big networks. Scifi, fantasy, spy thrillers and historical dramas have risen to the top, though single-camera sitcoms haven't lagged far behind. Throughout, production values have never been higher, scripts have never been more well-written and performances by talented actors have never been more three-dimensional. Honestly, it's almost too much to deal with at times.

To help you make sense of it all — and wear a hole into your sofa — we've collected the best (and only the best) intelligent, gripping works available on your HD idiot box. Dig in.

It's said we live in the era of peak TV — a golden age of golden ages where prestige is often as important as ratings. Sure, we've got reality shows about nude dating and people who make semi-inedible cakes. But we've also got some of the most well-produced, most thoughtful, most engrossing and most expensive weekly and streamable series ever created.

This decade, in particular, has offered a bumper crop of picks from HBO, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon, Showtime, basic cable and, yes, even those old-fashioned big networks. Scifi, fantasy, spy thrillers and historical dramas have risen to the top, though single-camera sitcoms haven't lagged far behind. Throughout, production values have never been higher, scripts have never been more well-written and performances by talented actors have never been more three-dimensional. Honestly, it's almost too much to deal with at times.

To help you make sense of it all — and wear a hole into your sofa — we've collected the best (and only the best) intelligent, gripping works available on your HD idiot box. Dig in.

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"Bojack Horseman," 2014 - present
At first glance, "Bojack Horseman" is a great late-night cartoon, one that draws you in with absurdist comedy. But its deep emotional layering is surprising, as are its emotional, dynamic characters. You can't help but relate to these cartoon animals.

The universe itself is bizarrely intriguing. "Hollywoo" posits a world where humans and anthropomorphized animals live amongst each other in every aspect of their daily lives. Bojack himself is a washed-up former sitcom star who struggles to find personal happiness and peace of mind in his life years after working in the television industry. (The show frequently includes flashbacks and scenes from times long before the show takes place in order to give the audience a deeper look at the type of person Bojack is, and why he acts certain ways and makes self-destructive decisions in the present time.) His self-loathing can often be exaggerated, but it's remarkably relatable — depressing and entertaining all at the same time.

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"Game of Thrones," 2011 - present

It's frequently said, but this is one of the best, if not the best, television show out there (even for all its many glaring faults). The author of the book series upon which it is based, George R.R. Martin, created an entire world so filled with complex characters, it's almost impossible to keep up with. This is not a show you watch while using your phone. The intricate plot lines and politics mixed with constant foreshadowing makes every second of the series necessary.

Indeed, the show has a narrative style that seems specifically geared toward angering the audience or leaving them stunned — particularly given that characters you become deeply attached to are killed off with the swing of a sword or the sip of a glass of wine. While more recent seasons have narrowed down the storyline and increased focus on fewer characters, "Thrones" as a whole has redefined storytelling and mainstream drama.

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"Westworld," 2016 - present

HBO hit it out of the park with "Westworld" from the very first episode. Like "Game of Thrones," it engulfs viewers in a world that is far different from the one we currently live in, but one that continues to offer parallels to contemporary society. It makes you think about artificial intelligence in a completely different light, leaving you more scared about the future than eager for it.

With heavy, heavy performers such as Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris buttressing a flock of talented core players and a plot that brings out some of the worst qualities humans can exhibit, it's so much more than an exercise in world building. In an amusement park in which guests hang with "hosts" that look, think and act lifelike and are expected to serve the visitors' every want and need imaginable, what could possibly go wrong? Answer: Everything.

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"Louie," 2010 - ???

It's almost difficult to describe what exactly this show is. The fun of it is — or should be — that you just get to witness an incredibly awkward, yet lovable character played by Louis C.K. go through his daily life as a single dad with two daughters in New York City. Yet, it's the weirdness, the cringeworthy moment, the dad jokes and sometimes deflating insights that make it so valuable.

Truly, the whole series is just a hilarious extension of Louis C.K.'s dry, sarcastic and piercing sense of humor seen in his stand-up routines, one that only becomes more developed as the show cycles through seasons. Standout performances by supporting actors — Pamela Adlon in particular — only deepen the offerings here.

Yes, this is perfect for anyone looking for late-night laughs, anything that is — on its surface — a little bit less serious than typical shows. But its humanity and unavoidable weirdness make it something much, much more.

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"Better Call Saul," 2015 - present

For those who loved "Breaking Bad," this is a seamless transition into the absurd backstories of some of your favorite characters. Saul Goodman — real name Jimmy McGill — is ridiculous, pathetic and yet often noble and heroic. No matter what kind of jam he find himself in, with his wit and sometimes pure luck, he manages to weasel out of trouble in intriguing ways. The same could be said for the series itself.

The production alone, just as in "Breaking Bad," is one of a kind, grounded in the world outside our windows and yet surreal. The characters, too, are both commonplace and Lynchian. For anyone who wanted more out of Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus Fring, Hector Salamanca and other favorites from "Breaking Bad," this series adds dimension and light touches to their stories. For fans of the former AMC show, this shouldn't be passed up — though it stands on its own as a fully realized work.

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"Master of None," 2015 - present

Aziz Ansari plays a charming and witty — and yet often defeated — character who experiences the various ups and downs of being a struggling actor in New York City. The show provides humor that's similar to "Parks and Recreation" but also evokes a range of other emotions, some of them beautiful, some of them complicated. Overall, it offers a wholly different, though sometimes problematic, look at modern masculinity with strong nods to multiculturalism, the patriarchy and queer issues. If you can find a better looking, better directed half-hour show, go watch it.

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"The Night Of," 2016

This HBO miniseries is one that won't leave you wanting more from it, which is, surprisingly, a good thing. It was perfectly fit into eight thrilling episodes that pull you in from the first scene. It shines a light on politics, law enforcement and the justice system in America post-9/11, and hits a strong note on what it's like to live in this country as a Muslim-American. Plot-wise, character-wise, direction-wise, every moment almost impossibly gripping.

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"House of Cards," 2013 - present

This brilliantly executed political drama shows you the dirty inner workings Washington, D.C., and the politicians who run our country, albeit in a heightened, often Shakespearean format. Kevin Spacey does a fantastic job as Frank Underwood, a delectable villain/protagonist you love to hate through and through. Anyone who enjoys politics and mystery thrillers will have a blast with this Netflix Original.

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"Homeland," 2011 - present

Another political thriller that keeps audiences yearning for more — even when it lazes off its own track — "Homeland" provides a churning look into the Central Intelligence Agency and covert operations in the Middle East (though in sometimes problematic ways). Ultimately, though, it all hangs on Clare Dane's engrossing performance as Carrie Mathison, a manic-depressive operative who becomes more and more estranged from the agency as the seasons go on.

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"Black Mirror," 2011 - present

A dark and thrilling "Twilight Zone" for the iPhone age, "Black Mirror"  provides an intricate look into the consequences of technology and is filled with plot twists and satire. Creator Charlie Booker's mastery of dread and allegory has produced what may be the most disturbing must-watch series of all time.

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"Orange Is the New Black," 2013 - present

"OITNB" is refreshing not for its prison location, but for a wide range of three-dimensional characters played by a game cast of talented women. The glimpse at life behind bars in a women's prison can be stagey at times, but the array of characters, all from different backgrounds, gives it an almost unmatched humanity. It's funny, sad, angry and highly, highly entertaining.

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"Shameless," 2011 - present

The one thing to know about this show is that it more than lives up to its name. "Shameless" is filled with intense, hysterical characters all wrapped around a family that redefines the word "dysfunctional." It's hard to believe the show is going on its eighth season, but each episode and each season seems to outperform the previous one with antics both comical and shocking.

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"Fargo," 2014 - present

This is another show with star-studded casts each season that really help bring the show to life. As surreal, mordant and funny as the Coen Brothers film that inspired it, Noah Hawley's anthology crime drama will have you in deeper with each episode you watch. Though currently on hiatus, there's a good reason why so many are clamoring for a fourth installment of the series.

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"Stranger Things," 2016 - present

Both an '80s film pastiche and a unique thriller, fans of science fiction and the supernatural will come for the retro perks and stay for the vision and performances (many of them from child actors). The show is intense and reminiscent of the works of Stephen King; you can't really walk away from it without a smile (or a set of jangled nerves).

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"Making a Murderer," 2015
No lie, these are 10 of the most infuriating, jaw-dropping episodes of television you'll ever see. The story of a convicted murderer who may — or may not — be innocent, the incredible documentary series took 10 years to make and provides an intense look at America's sometimes cruel and often unforgiving justice system. There's a reason many people watched the whole thing in one day.

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"American Crime Story," 2016 - present

The first season was a brilliant, intense and sometimes farcical deep dive into the trial of O.J. Simpson. There are plenty of crime-thrillers and shows that center around the justice system on this list, but the charm and tumult of the first installment of Ryan Murphy's anthology series may just be the best. For those too young to remember the trial of a former football icon, it offers the chance to see the truly bizarre series of event unfold before their eyes. For those who lived through it, it's a powerful, sometimes funny reminder.

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"Mr. Robot," 2015 - present

This thrilling, unique show will leave you wanting to know more about the world of cybersecurity and what the future holds for it — two subjects that are rough going for many. Anchored by Rami Malek's standout performance as a possibly mentally ill hacker, the plot both reminds you that technology is something we can never fully understand or keep up with, both in its subject matter and its complicated, twisting format. It almost needs its own category.

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"The Handmaid's Tale," 2017 - present

This is a show that brings an all-time classic novel to life in many different ways and pulls you into a misogynistic, patriarchal dystopia that is frightening to imagine through a indelible performance by Elisabeth Moss and a script that keeps you permanently on edge. As if it wasn't chilling enough to read in print, the story gains new dimension as you watch. The parallels between the show's enslavement of women and today's political trends are unmissable and necessary.

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"Transparent," 2014 - present

"Transparent" deeply explores not only ideas of gender identity, but of family. Jill Soloway's sophisticated show gains strength from its cast — Jeffrey Tambor as a transitioning father and Judith Light, Amy Landecker, Jay Duplass and Gaby Hoffman as his neurotic, self-destructive family — and its illuminative themes of acceptance, both social and personal. It's almost too human.

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"Sherlock," 2010 - present

There isn't a bad thing to say about "Sherlock." It really brings a legendary character to life and adds unique twists and turns that constantly leave viewers on the edge of their seats. It's different from other crime-thrillers in the sense that Sherlock (Benedict Cumberbatch) is perhaps more florid and cartoonish than other leads. But, oh, what a ride it is!

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"Downton Abbey," 2010 - 2015
This beloved historical drama that dives deep into the lives of British aristocrats and those who serve them begins with the sinking of the Titanic and cycles through all the broad social changes of the 1920s to the 1930s. A unique look at British society, it's also as lush and beautiful a soap opera as you'll ever find.

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"Key & Peele," 2012 - 2015

Easily one of the funniest shows of this century, this easygoing sketch series by the comedy duo Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key leaves its audience in tears of laughter and hands out ample food for thought. It contains plenty of political satire and ridiculous scenarios you'll be quoting with your friends for years to come.

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"The Americans," 2013 - present

While "The Americans" takes place during the final throes of the Cold War, it seems eerily similar to contemporary political theater. The story revolves around the marriage of two Soviet spies and how they cope with having children while living in enemy territory. More about daily life than it is about international politics, it offers a unique kind of intrigue and enough to keep you up at night.

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"Black-ish," 2014 - present

A rare great sitcom in an era with fewer and fewer of them, "Black-ish" is refreshing, easygoing, funny, touching and illuminating. Centering around an African-American family, the show accurately and unapologetically highlights social-justice issues in everyday black life. The discussions of racism, police brutality, LGBTQ rights and Donald Trump are serious, but always effortless within its genuinely charming context.

Charlie May is a news writer at Salon. You can find him on Twitter at @charliejmay.

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