30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

The Mind of a Chef (2012-2017)

Aside from memes and the destruction of several industries, millennials’ greatest cultural contribution may be the cultivation of an explosion in riveting television programming about food. By the end of the decade, Netflix would provide a couple of bloated and excessive capstones in the form of Chef’s Table, an overwrought documentary series that treats modern cooking with reverence normally applied to renaissance art, and Final Table, a show where 12 acclaimed chefs from around the world cook rare and expensive ingredients in a ridiculous thunderdome of a studio for no prize money at all. Instead, the winners simply receive the satisfaction of having triumphed in Netflix’s grand cooking competition. The implication is that the competition is so pure that the chefs don’t even care about cash, but the subtext is that an acknowledgement from TV’s new kingmaker is worth more than any dollar amount. Watching this insane spectacle with an even baseline knowledge of the ways in which global food production exacerbates global warming and environmental destruction makes it feel even more ridiculous—the cooking contest we didn’t ask for but most definitely deserve.

The revolution in food TV was spearheaded, of course, by Anthony Bourdain, whose groundbreaking No Reservations series premiered in 2005. Along with hosting nine seasons of the show, Bourdain would produce several spin-offs and offshoots before moving to CNN in 2013 to begin Parts Unknown, a show that leaned even more heavily on the political consciousness that made No Reservations feel so radical in the first place. But for my money, Bourdain’s most purely enjoyable show is one that he executive produced but appears in only as a disembodied narrator: The Mind of a Chef, a PBS program that debuted in 2012. Where Bourdain’s earlier work expanded the idea of what food TV could be, The Mind of a Chef is a far more simple and humble endeavor that ties his travelogue style to the genre’s early beginnings in shows like Julia Child’s The French Chef.

Which is to say that on The Mind of a Chef, well-known cooks like David Chang (Momofuku), Sean Brock (Husk), and April Bloomfield (then of The Spotted Pig) mostly stand before you in the kitchens of their restaurants and make dishes. This is the primary appeal of the show: the simple pleasure of learning about technique and ingredients, and of seeing great food made in front of you step-by-step. But this is a documentary series, too, and over the course of each season the chefs begin to peel back the layers of influence behind their cooking, venturing out of the cocoons that are their restaurants in order to dig up the roots of their inspirations. Brock, for instance, travels to Senegal to trace the history of dishes from the low country of South Carolina, a state that was originally built on the backs of West African slaves; Gabrielle Hamilton, chef at the fantastic New York bistro Prune, escapes to Rome, where she compares ravioli recipes with an elderly Italian woman, in the process crashing headlong into cultural differences regarding feminism. Bourdain was behind far more celebrated programs than The Mind of a Chef, but it is here where you can most easily see his essence—the show was clearly created and nurtured by a generous and optimistic soul, one who loved good food and wanted it to be celebrated, and truly understood, by the world. —JORDAN SARGENT

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

On Cinema (2012-present)

When On Cinema began as an unlikely web series near the beginning of the decade, it seemed like just another of Tim Heidecker’s countless short-lived side projects, sure to end up buried among YouTube-only gems like his Comedians in Cars Getting Comedy parody, his cooking show, or his Coca-Cola standup routine. On Cinema, however, would progress a long way from its initial premise as a banal Siskel-and-Ebert-style review show where Heidecker and his cohost Gregg Turkington (best known as his anti-comedian persona Neil Hamburger) rated films they clearly hadn’t seen. Playing warped fictional versions of themselves, the two comedians gradually began using On Cinema to stage a surreal battle of the egos, sprouting from the Turkington character’s staunch commitment to keeping the show focused on the movies, and the Heidecker character’s insistence on discussing his personal life and promoting various music projects and short-lived entrepreneurial schemes.

This ongoing struggle culminated with Heidecker being charged with murder for selling faulty vapes that killed 20 people at an electronic music festival. Adult Swim subsequently posted a full five-part trial, featuring exhaustive attention to the formal tedium of legal proceedings and little in the way conventional jokes. That willingness to take a patently silly setup to its most elaborate possible conclusion is the norm for On Cinema, a show that has now spawned live tours; a yearly Oscar special; an entire book (and an exhaustive Vulture reference manual) devoted to its complex mythology; the secret-agent spoof Decker, an entirely separate Adult Swim series supposedly conceived by Heidecker’s On Cinema alter ego; and, most recently, a feature film. Taken all together—and with thanks to Cartoon Network’s admirable tolerance for Heidecker and Turkington’s high-conept antics—the On Cinema universe has transcended its humble beginnings, becoming the most ambitious avant-comedy experiment in recent memory. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Vanderpump Rules (2013-present)

An offshoot of one of the predominant reality TV franchises of the 21st century, Vanderpump Rules follows a group of aspiring models, actors, and musicians who are paying their bills by working in a Los Angeles restaurant owned by Lisa Vanderpump, a former Real Housewife of Beverly Hills. These people clearly want to be celebrities, and in some sense, they’ve made it: it’s just that they’re famous now for their status as fame-seekers on the show, forever condemned to a limbo of playing themselves at the day job that was supposed to briefly support them on the way to some other, ostensibly more substantive, form of stardom. Reasonable people might view this outcome as some sort of hellish paradox—the result of a wish on a cursed monkey’s paw. But the men and women of Vanderpump Rules are not reasonable people. They seem quite happy with the way things have worked out.

Their onscreen adventures generally involve drinking too much, sleeping with each other’s partners, publicly accusing each other of sleeping with each other’s partners, and—in the case of DJ James “White Kanye” Kennedy—constantly getting fired. The self-absorbed drama and petty narcissism of a bunch of service workers with showbiz ambitions isn’t unique in and of itself; any current or former restaurant employee is familiar with the sort of sexual musical chairs that can go on between staffers. But there’s something transfixing about this particular bunch of vapid freaks—the way they make the same mistakes over and over again, but show just enough growth to delude you into thinking they may someday get their shit together. 

Perhaps unintentionally, Vanderpump Rules more vividly illustrates the insane ouroboros of this decade’s attention economy than most things on TV. But the genuinely compelling interpersonal drama, and occasional moments of unexpected sympathy, make it more than that, too. These people may be drunk shitheads, but they’re our drunk shitheads. —MAGGIE SEROTA

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

The Americans (2013-2018)

When the possibility of collusion between the Trump campaign and the Russian government—give or take a piss tape—became the biggest news story in the country in 2016, The Americans still had two more seasons to run. Russian covert operations of the sort depicted on AMC’s Cold War spy drama had once again become a point of popular interest, and the show could have easily turned itself into a heavy-handed allegory for the Trump era. Fortunately for viewers, it stuck with the precision-crafted plot arcs its writers had already planned out. “We try to stay in a bubble because we don’t want anybody to ever feel like the people doing this show are watching current events,” series creator Joe Weisberg told The Hollywood Reporter in 2017. Nonetheless, The Americans, which had already established its reputation as a remarkably potent and reliable drama, suddenly became easy to view as a cipher for contemporary issues, whether or not it was intended that way.

The plot revolves around two KGB spies—Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Elizabeth and Philip Jennings—enjoying a cozy life in 1980s D.C. with an FBI agent as a neighbor. The show was restrained in its style from the very beginning, eschewing bloody kills as much as possible to make the ones that had to happen really count. It paid special attention to the emotional effect that violence had on its perpetrators, who were often acutely uncertain of whether they were doing the right thing. The storylines in which conflict was ultimately avoided could be more powerful than the violent ones, enhancing an apropos atmosphere of paranoia for an era in which fears of international conflict were just as often baseless as grounded in fact. 

Russell and Rhys’s unimpeachable performances drove the show through six slow-burning seasons, the real-life partners subtly exploring the intimacies and contradictions of a marriage arranged by the KGB for the purpose of espionage. Noah Emmerich’s Stan Beeman, the G-Man neighbor, was a perfectly unassuming adversary; for long stretches of the series, it was easy to forget that he was anything other than a close family friend of the central couple. Emmerich rendered his character’s emotional conflicts expertly, even when he was just giving a worried stare and lightly flicking his lip—a weird and unforgettable tic. It’s rare that television portrayals of stoic and repressed people are as emotionally sensitive and credible as these three. 

The Americans established its tone, ethos, and mood in its first episode—fear and unfulfillment always hanging thick in the air—and maintained it to the very end. It should be judged on the same level as its star AMC siblings Mad Men and Breaking Bad; at quite a few junctures in its run, it was a cut above. In the Wild West era of the medium, a modest and effective television series that stays the course and knows when to bow out is a rare and valuable thing. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Read our 2018  essay “Goodbye to The Americans, One of the Century’s Finest TV Dramas” here.

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Nathan for You (2013-2017)

At the turn of the decade, the United States was still feeling the effects of one of the largest economic downturns in history. The crushing weight of the financial crisis was always bound to fall on the backs of small-business owners, who received little assistance in comparison to leviathanic Wall Street companies’ generous stimulus packages. Hundreds of thousands of Americans had the carpet pulled out from under them, with foreclosure and unemployment rates soaring as part of an implosion many consider more devastating than the Great Depression.

Comedy Central’s Nathan For You focuses on the kind of small businesses that were affected by the recession, and introduces us the people behind them. However, everything is channeled through the singular sensibility of Nathan Fielder, an awkward comedian who plays an exaggerated version of himself as a successful business consultant. After graduating from “one of Canada’s top business schools with really good grades,” Fielder makes it his mission to help small businesses chart a course to profitability. He justifies his value to clients with elaborate schemes ranging from the convincing (installing video ads in bathrooms) to the chaotic (selling poop-flavored froyo, creating something called “Dumb Starbucks”) to the mind-bendingly cruel (forcing gas station customers to climb a mountain in search of an impossible rebate). It’s a journey into the black heart of managerial capitalism, and a candidate for the most original and rewarding comedy series of the decade.

Lots of comedy series have derived punchlines from unsuspecting participants, but Fielder’s genuine sympathy for his victims always shines through in unusual ways. In its incredible Season 4 finale, Fielder helps an old man named Bill Heath track down his high school sweetheart, road-tripping across the country to scour gravestones and attend Heath’s high school reunion. As the episode veers further and further away from its ostensible central storyline, viewers are forced to confront the profound loneliness of the pair’s situation, as Fielder breaks through the artifice he’s sustained throughout series to reveal just a glimpse of something deeper. Even if Fielder left us hanging a little in the end, it’s a poignant and appropriate conclusion to a show about the human cost of corporate ineptitude. —ROB ARCAND

Read our 2017 essay “The Series Finale of Nathan For You Was a Flawless Documentary on the Black Heart of the American Dream” here.

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Hannibal (2013-2015)

Let us never forgot how insane it was that NBC greenlit a homoerotic crime show in which the most visually beautiful scenes feature a dandified serial killer either cooking his prey or serving the final product to his unwitting guests. It’s even more ridiculous to think about how such a violent and transgressive show managed to last three seasons on the network, especially with creator and showrunner Bryan Fuller constantly pushing the envelope in terms of what he could get away with. He closed the second season with a scene in which deranged meatpacking magnate Mason Verger (played to perfection by Michael Pitt) slices off pieces of his own face and feeds them to a pack of dogs. Despite this, there was another more Hannibal the following year, even if the show’s time slot kept having to be moved around to accommodate more consumer-friendly shows.

Novelist Thomas Harris’s characters Hannibal Lecter (Mads Mikkelsen), Will Graham (Hugh Dancy), and Jack Crawford (Laurence Fishburne) have been reimagined several times in various films. The most famous Harris-based adaptation, The Silence of the Lambs, earned Anthony Hopkins an Academy Award for the definitive portrayal of the culturally refined “Hannibal the Cannibal.” That makes it all the more impressive that Fuller was able to highlight completely fresh aspects of Harris’ universe in his show. He made a daring but brilliant choice, too, in casting Mikkelsen, a creepy-hot Danish superstar with black shark eyes who was previously unknown on this side of the Atlantic before his turn as a poker-playing, bloody-eyed Bond villain in Casino Royale. Mikkelsen, a former gymnast and ballet dancer, interpreted Lecter with a newfound physicality and muted menace.

Fuller’s flair for baroque visuals also set the show apart not just from other network programming , but from anything on television; quickly, it distinguished itself as one of the best horror shows of all time. The writer and director often borrowed from creators of iconic art-horror films like Stanley Kubrick and Dario Argento, with imagistic, dreamlike episodes that created an experience that felt truly cinematic. Hannibal was never a hit, but the fact that it weathered the storm on the same network that airs America’s Got Talent for 39 episodes is no small triumph. —MAGGIE SEROTA

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