There is a lot of loose talk about the proverbial “algorithm” these days, and you can thank Netflix for much of it. In the mid-2000s, when it was still just a DVD rental service (and a similarly minded company like Spotify was still years away from launching), Netflix was already tuning proprietary software that went through customers’ viewing habits with a fine-tooth comb, trying to predict what movies they’d want to watch next. The streaming era brought a wealth of new data with it, allowing Netflix to turn that comb into an atomic microscope. By 2013, after they’d finally pulled the plug on the DVD business and also begun moving into producing original programming, Netflix engineers told Wired that they could track users’ “different viewing behavior depending on the day of the week, the time of day, the device, and sometimes even the location,” as well as when they “pause, rewind and fast forward” in a given program.
That year saw the premiere of House of Cards, the first original series produced exclusively for Netflix. (Today, users may forget their first foray into TV production: 2012’s misbegotten comedy-thriller Lillyhammer, featuring Little Stevie Van Zandt as a gangster in witness protection, which made in collaboration with Norwegian television.) Today, House of Cards stands as perhaps the most important television show of the 2010s. It was, for one thing, the second show ever (again, we are forced to account for Lillyhammer) to release all of its episodes at once. The ritual of binge-watching itself became a part of the selling point. Also, Netflix claimed that it based its decision to buy David Fincher’s political drama on the same user data that was powering its recommendations—an elaborate system of microtargeting that made old-school practices like focus groups and ratings analysis look primitive by comparison.
According to a report from the New York Times after the premiere of House of Cards’ first season, Netflix agreed to produce the show after it determined that Fincher’s films were especially popular on their service, as were movies starring Kevin Spacey (remember those days?) and British TV thrillers like the original House of Cards. Everything about the show made it a sound investment for Netflix—a sure enough bet that the service reportedly ordered two seasons of the series up front, without even watching a pilot, and shelled out $100 million for the privilege. The move was unprecedented at the time, but today, we are inundated with products that seem reverse-engineered to fulfill existing algorithmic niches and resonate with popular keywords: from uncannily targeted print-on-demand t-shirts for mothers who listen to Iron Maiden and were born in August to Netflix’s own Stranger Things, which is hard to imagine existing without known market demands for ‘80s nostalgia, alien stories, and Spielberg-eque shots of kids on bikes.
Not everyone in the industry was on board. “Data can only tell you what people have liked before, not what they don’t know they are going to like in the future,” FX president John Landgraf commented to the Times in their report. “A good high-end programmer’s job is to find the white spaces in our collective psyche that aren’t filled by an existing television show.” History’s great television shows, he argued, were created “in a black box that data can never penetrate.” But House of Cards proved Landgraf’s theory wrong, at least in terms of public engagement. Thanks to (or in spite of) its subtlety-free high melodrama and protagonist Frank Underwood’s Batman-villain antics, the show was instantly popular, and remained so across five more seasons, even as it buckled under the weight of its own self-seriousness and scrambled awkwardly to a conclusion following the public disgrace of its star actor. Its commercial success spurred a complete repositioning of Netflix’s role in the industry, helping the company to grow drastically and driving it to exponentially increase its original offerings. In 2015, Netflix produced Beasts of the Southern Wild, the first of hundreds of feature films. The company broadened its service to international markets in 2016, and was available in 190 countries by 2018. That year, it spent $8 billion on a proposed slate of 700 series and 80 original films.
Now, six years after House of Cards premiered, everyone in the television business is trying to be Netflix. Networks and corporations from Amazon to Epix to YouTube to (most recently) Apple are trying to compete by producing their own top-shelf original programming, and mounting video streaming subscription services to put their exclusive IP behind a paywall. Companies face a creative quandary: balancing the seemingly boundless demand for creative new programming with their natural instincts toward conservative, fiscally defensible business decisions. Netflix found success by attempting to solve this problem with data analysis, but not all companies have access to the algorithm they’ve developed for over a decade. Other corporations use whatever techniques they can to determine what expensive star-studded programming is a “safe” bet. (Amazon made its foray into original programming by having viewers vote on their favorites among a collection of pilots to determine which be produced.) With even Netflix running up billions of dollars in debt every year, one wonders how much money television producers—and streaming services, especially—will throw at the wall before the bubble bursts.
On Spin’s staff list of television picks from the 2010s, we privileged shows that spoke to the more utopian possibilities of the Wild West period, rather just House-of-Cards-level commercial triumphs. In an industry where anything seems possible, the anomalies—the weird niche programming we find deep in our recommendations queue—feel as emblematic of the era as the zeitgeist successes. As we noted back in a 2016 year-end essay about the state of television, the TV and video streaming-industrial complex is becoming more and more like the modern Internet as a whole. Theoretically, it should be a place where anything is possible, with endless opportunities for strange and individual visions to find audiences, but the field is still largely defined and controlled by the whims of just a few corporations.
There’s only so much critiquing we can do of the cynical race for TV eyeballs without acknowledging our own similar motivating factors. We hope that this list of the 30 shows that mattered most to Spin staffers this decade (we limited this to series that premiered no earlier than 2009, Mad Men and Breaking Bad fans) provides some enlightening or at least interesting perspective. But we can also call it what it is: a flashy piece of content produced by a mid-sized online media company that—like the Netflixes and Epixes of the world—is also in constant need of devising new ways to get through to its perceived audience and keep them coming back for more. Throw us a bone and read on below.
See also: 30 Great Movies That Defined the 2010s
RuPaul’s Drag Race (2009-present)
Everything ever written about RuPaul’s Drag Race is true. There is perhaps no show on this list as holistically successful as this one, which has enriched its participants and our society in different but equal measures. As the decade concludes, drag culture has been pulled from gay clubs squarely into the mainstream, giving a whole generation of teenagers—and adult pop stars—a refreshingly diverse new set of idols to pattern themselves after. World of Wonder, the bootstrapped production company behind Drag Race, is now a cottage industry unto itself, producing a constant stream of shows, live tours, conferences, and, as a result, millionaires. Real Drag Race heads will encourage you to dive into Drag Race Thailand, available to watch only on World of Wonder’s streaming app, WOW Presents Plus, which also features myriad original series from Drag Race contestants.
RuPaul embarked on the endeavor of turning drag queens into crossover superstars decades ago, and it certainly could not have been an easy road. Drag Race has elevated him to pop culture royalty, but it came after decades in the figurative wilderness. RuPaul’s personal triumph, like that of his little-show-that-could, is also a societal one, but all the righteous good feelings about Drag Race can obscure the fact that it became a sensation not just because of its cultural timing, but primarily because it’s insanely good television. It turned out, after all those years, that the best vehicle to convey the totality of drag—the performances, fashion, slang, camaraderie, and community—was not music, or movies, or even the stage; it was, instead, a competition show that requires queens to sing, dance, act, joke, sew, and walk the runway, in the process peeling back the curtain to show the blood, sweat, tears, and shade of it all. One could say plenty about everything reality television has wrought; but for this show alone, it was worth it. —JORDAN SARGENT
Parks and Recreation (2009-2015)
Nearly fifteen years after its premiere, it’s hard to understate the influence of NBC’s The Office on television comedy. The American adaptation of the British series of the same name mapped the screwball sensibilities of Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries and Monty Python onto a story about white-collar bureaucracy at an inherently banal paper company in Pennsylvania. From its deadpan interviews and low-budget production to its often impressive commitment to unflinchingly specific bits, the show rethought foundational assumptions about the sight and sound of the primetime sitcom, stretching the possibilities of an endlessly familiar workplace setting to their limits in pursuit of an unexpected laugh.
As its closest successor among a number of NBC offshoots, Parks & Recreation built on the success of The Office’s handheld, faux-vérité style, trading one form of agonizing middle-management ennui for another. SNL alum Amy Poehler plays Leslie Knope, the deputy director of Pawnee, Indiana’s Parks and Recreations Department; joined by a cast of then-rising stars including Aziz Ansari, Chris Pratt, and Aubrey Plaza, Poehler’s character constantly subjects herself to the most demeaning aspects of being a local government official in her clumsy attempts to climb the ranks of local government. Like many comedies before it, the series plays up all the worst qualities of its transparently flawed characters, riding the ups and downs of an office full of brain-damaged narcissists and their futile attempts to affect change in their community.
While there’s an inherently political dimension to any show about local government, the series largely shies away from meatier questions about partisanship, keeping it light with a focus on civic inefficiency. In season two, when Pawnee faces a government shutdown amid what’s implied to be the 2008 financial crisis, the characters largely shrug off what could be a compelling look at the political process. Even the show’s most ideologically consistent character Ron Swanson (Nick Offerman) rarely escapes his own myopia, ending each episode steeped in the same bullish delusions that he had at its beginning. Such is the glue of nearly every primetime sitcom since Seinfeld, but despite it all, Parks & Recreation remained one of the funniest and most comedies on the small screen in this decade. —ROB ARCAND
Teen Mom (2009-2012; 2015-present)
Say what you will about the artistic merit of MTV’s long-running teen parenthood docuseries franchise, which was birthed after the launch of 16 and Pregnant in 2009, but it seems to have had an important real-world impact. Naysayers might argue that these shows glamorize teen pregnancy, but studies have shown that the opposite seems to be true. One such report, published in 2014 by Wellesley College economist Philip Levin and University of Maryland economist Melissa Kearney, theorized that Teen Mom and 16 and Pregnant could be partially credited for a dip in the teen birth rate that occurred over its first year and a half on the air.
Beyond inspiring teens to use contraception by showing the difficulties of being a young parent, MTV’s franchise has been a major force in television culture throughout the 2010s. After the success of Teen Mom OG, MTV launched Teen Mom 2, Teen Mom 3, Young and Pregnant, Young Moms Club, and multiple standalone specials, including one about abortion. Across the pond, there’s MTV UK’s Teen Mum, and even a Teen Mom Australia. TLC also got into the game in 2012 with High School Moms, then launched Unexpected in 2017.
There’s a reason why MTV’s franchise has been so successful: The unscripted drama is hopelessly addictive. OG and TM2 stars Maci Bookout, Catelynn Lowell, Amber Portwood, Chelsea Houska, Kailyn Lowry, and Leah Messer, along with former subjects (and trainwrecks) Farrah Abraham and Jenelle Evans have since become reality stars and tabloid fodder. Stories about the cast members’ most private moments—weddings, splits, pregnancies, miscarriages, feuds, arrests, custody battles, drug issues—appear frequently in anything from celebrity and gossip magazines to prestigious national publications. After the news cycle, viewers then see the events play out on the shows, which often have cameras capturing these news-making moments as they happen, with the film crew also breaking down the fourth wall to provide a glimpse into how decade-long storylines survive and become appointment TV.
The longevity of the Teen Mom franchise means that none of the girls are actually financially struggling or teens anymore, but their tales still serve a double-pronged purpose: entertaining viewers with unsparing character studies and educating them about the trials and tribulations of teen parenthood. —ANNA CHAN
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
People forget that Game of Thrones used to be good. Back before the stray Starbucks cups, the Bam Margera lookalikes, and the nonsensical, would-be poetic plot twists, it reimagined big-budget TV both in its scope and substance. Couched in pseudo-medieval fantasy plotlines, the series and the books it drew from thoughtfully explored the dynamics of power and politics. Thrones raised the bar set by Peter Jackson with his adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings nearly ten years earlier in creating a richly symbolic universe with a popular appeal that drew in fans far beyond the ranks of genre fiction obsessives.
The story begins simply, with knight-hero Ned Stark riding south to stake a claim for his family in the continent’s capital. To the East, the last survivors of a once-great royal family are plotting their eventual return from exile. In the far North, whispers of an ancient evil are exchanged among rangers of an order known as the Night’s Watch. From there, the narrative branches off in countless, disparate directions. Some plotlines are only tangentially related to the core themes established in episode one. These strands might be drawn out for five seasons without resolution, or be cut off prematurely after a few episodes with minimal fanfare. Traditional narrative structure was never important to showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, but that helped make the show compelling and, inevitably, surprising.
Beyond the pulpy maximalism of its source material, the show’s greatest strength has always been its acting. The books were told from multiple points of view, building readers’ investment in characters over time, and modulating perspectives to allow for a healthy dose of dramatic irony. Without the benefit of shifting lenses, the heavy lifting in the final seasons of the show was done by its cast, many of whom delivered some of the decade’s great TV performances. Even in the last season, when the show’s story surpassed the still-unfinished book series and took a turn for the ridiculous, Liam Cunningham, Gwendoline Christie, Peter Dinklage, and, in particular, Alfie Allen, outshined the increasingly disappointing scripts. Minor characters, too, were assets at different points throughout the show’s run—think of Kate Dickie’s Lysa Arryn and Pedro Pascal’s Obyern Martell, in the role that gave him a career.
Standout acting anchored the series’ most ambitious moments, from the Battle of the Blackwater to the Red and Purple Weddings. In these scenes and many more, GoT established itself as the most technically masterful show on television, with shots costing millions of dollars and production crews numbering in the thousands. An entire documentary covering production of the eighth season, with its unprecedented $90 million budget, demonstrates how much work went into making the show’s world as immersive as it is. Though it was visually dazzling until the end, the show eventually undermined its central themes, morphing into something too grandiose to be controlled. But before it lost sight of the power struggles and plot twists that made it great, Game of Thrones was a genuinely revolutionary 21st-century epic: fantasy elevated to the level of high drama, and television made on a Hollywood scale. —WILL GOTTSEGEN
Depending on your personal tolerance for Lena Dunham’s insular take on post-collegiate life in the big city, the initial “voice of her generation” headlines that came in Girls’s wake may or may not have seemed warranted. (“Or at least a voice. Of a generation,” Dunham joked during the pilot.) But it’s hard to contest the point that there was no true analog for her NYC-based millennial dramedy Girls on television when it aired. There were also not many young showrunners with limited small-screen bonafides getting that level of professional opportunity, let alone female ones—let alone with as much creative carte blanche as Dunham clearly had. The TV industry had not yet inflated into a leviathanic balloon where any piece of vaguely enticing intellectual property could get a writer a foot in the door.
HBO and producer Judd Apatow took a leap of faith by allowing Dunham, a 25-year-old writer and director with only one niche indie film to her name, to helm a series. It paid off. If you were looking to reduce Girls to a simplistic tagline, it would be easy to describe it as Sex in the City for people born in the late 1980s, with with Hannah (Dunham), Marnie (Allison Williams), Jessa (Jemima Kirke), and Shoshana (Zosia Mamet) defining the categories that viewers could place themselves into. These characters had a classic-sitcom je ne sais quoi about them that made it easy to follow their bleak and ribald capers, whether you found them to be relatable, or detestable, or sociologically fascinating, or all three.
But Dunham pushed the limits of her familiar ensemble-comedy frame, exploring extreme bedroom realism and weighty plotlines about substance abuse, depression, and sexual coercion. In later seasons, Girls experimented with bottle episodes and elliptical plot lines; episodes ceased to flow into one another in the manner of a normal serial show, or remain discretely episodic. (At the same time, Louis C.K., who was then frequently spoken about in the same breadth as Dunham, was engaging in formally similar but much less ideologically progressive experiments on Louie.) Dunham’s polarizing series ran for six seasons despite modest and declining ratings, following an unstable trajectory shaped by its own miscalculations. Strangely, the worst ideas on Girls—say, season two’s half-baked Donald Glover arc, seemingly carroted in due to criticism of the show’s near-total lack of people of color—helped it remain close to the zeitgeist. Its missteps and unexpected triumphs were perfectly suited to a changing internet that was just starting to turn toward TV recap content and politicized debates about pop culture on platforms like Twitter.
The influence of Girls on today’s TV landscape is massive. There are plenty of shows that might not have been greenlit at all without Dunham’s series paving the way for uncompromising television about the lives of anti-heroic women and millennials more generally, from Broad City to You’re the Worst to Difficult People to Fleabag and beyond. As Crazy Ex-Girlfriend’s showrunner and creator Aline Brosh McKenna put it to Vulture in 2016: “A lot of the things we’ve done we wouldn’t have been able to do without Lena.” —WINSTON COOK-WILSON
It’s easy to forget that Veep is a remake—at least, kind of. Creator Armando Ianucci adapted the HBO political comedy series from The Thick of It, his viciously funny mid-aughts satire of the backbiting bureaucracy of the British government. Like its English forebearer, Veep offers a refreshing, if demoralizing, view of the inner workings of the White House and Capitol Hill. In this way, it diverges meaningfully from over-earnest and milquetoast fairy tales like The West Wing, and forms an absurdist counterpoint to the Machiavellian cloak-and-dagger operations in House of Cards.
Like Frank Underwood and his amoral allies, Vice President Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her underlings’ self-interest supersedes any genuine investment in the well-being of the American people. Unlike in House of Cards, though, Veep’s characters aren’t brilliant and connected backroom operators tossing journalists off train platforms and thinking twelve steps ahead of their enemies. Instead, the government officials foregrounded in the Veep universe are portrayed as petty Capitol Hill lanyard-wearers, middle aged burnouts, and schlubby men in baggy suits whose senses of dignity were surgically removed the moment they stepped inside the Beltway. Meyer’s rank-and-file desk jockeys spew bile and call each other things like “Frankenstein’s Monster, if his monster was made entirely of dead dicks.” Any would-be shrewd power play turns into a comedy of errors where the fabulists, careerists, grifters, and—in Jonah Ryan’s case—dipshits routinely trip over their own egos.
Some of the best comedic moments in the show stem from Louis-Dreyfuss’s character being unable to hide her revulsion while interacting with the regular folk she ostensibly sought higher office to serve. In the pilot episode, Meyer cynically refers to a photo op with constituents as an opportunity “to meet some regular normals,” and then spends those meet-and-greets either awkwardly fumbling for conversation, passive-aggressively insulting everyone, and feigning a comically strained smile. (In a particularly resonant moment in the Season 3 premiere, Meyer pretends to be impressed when a woman at a book-signing brings her an unsolicited butter sculpture in the shape of Iowa.) Veep panders to our sinking suspicion that the people who have sworn to look out for our best interests only care about advancing their own. Luckily, the staggering volume of surgically well-crafted jokes packed into each 30-minute episode offsets the grimness of that implication. —MAGGIE SEROTA