30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Atlanta (2016-present)

At first, Atlanta—the brainchild of actor, rapper and comedian Donald Glover—seemed like an unlikely prospect. A show about a rapper living in the most bustling city in hip-hop, made by a guy who once rapped about Asian fetishes and being the only black guy at Sufjan Stevens concerts, seemed like a recipe for comic misfires and generally embarrassment.

Instead, the FX series ended up playing to Glover’s strengths as an actor and comedian, doing oddball service to the city. With the help of a crack team, including directors Hiro Murai and Amy Seimetz and writers Stephen Glover and Stefani Robinson, the show offers a complex and nuanced look at the everyday business of being a mid-tier street rapper in a city that is full of them. It offers oblique commentary on fame, pop culture, and family, as well as uncommonly truthful and empathetic portrayals of black southerners and young people whose lives have run astray. 

Atlanta follows Earnest (Glover), a college dropout who hopes to glom onto the local success of his rapper cousin Alfred, aka Paper Boi (Brian Tyree Henry), and also prove that he can be a provider for his young daughter and sometime partner Van (Zazie Beetz). But the show is at its best when it departs on surreal tangents from its guiding plotline. Episodes like “Juneteenth” and the season two premiere “Alligator Man” are isolated forays into the lives of characters at the edges of the show: the former finds Earn and Van attending an extravagantly weird dinner party of a wealthy mixed-race couple, and the latter centers around Earn’s uncle Willy (Katt Williams), who exemplifies a worst case scenario for Earn’s professional career. Season two standout “Woods” takes a bizarre approach to exploring the trauma people carry around with them unknowingly, taking Alfred on a dreamlike spirit quest.

Perhaps Atlanta’s most infamous episode is “B.A.N.,” which is basically Glover and company’s extended version of a Chappelle’s Show skit. Alfred goes on a public access talk show to defend his offensive lyrics from the criticisms of an educated feminist, complete with a series of hilarious fake commercials for Arizona Iced Tea and a Trix-like cereal, reaching an unexpectedly disturbing climax that we won’t spoil here. With “B.A.N.,” Atlanta definitively proved that it could be whatever it felt like being from week to week, and audiences agreed to go along for the ride. —ISRAEL DARAMOLA

Read our 2016 essay “Donald Glover’s Atlanta Is Black and Essential” here.

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

When Twin Peaks premiered on ABC in 1990, it seemed like it could be a typical crime procedural. The plot seemed to revolve around a dead homecoming queen, a do-right lawman, and a small town full of secrets—nothing too out of the ordinary. However, it became clear soon enough that David Lynch and Mark Frost’s whodunit was something much more unusual and unprecedented. It explored otherworldly mysticism and adopted a postmodern approach that sometimes served as a hilarious commentary on popular television genres of its era, including daytime soaps, teen dramas, and mystery-of-the-week stories.

The adventures of Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) and the residents of the town of Twin Peaks only aired for a little over a year, but the show remained consistently exciting, confounding, and truly strange throughout its 30-episode run. Still, the idea that 27 years later, a network would mount on a reboot of the series—and one that was significantly more experimental—must have seemed incredibly unlikely after the show’s cancellation for sagging ratings, and especially in the wake of the commercial failure of its follow-up film Fire Walk With Me in 1992.

Of course, Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me were released before David Lynch had solidified his reputation as one of the most uncompromising and influential filmmakers of all time. As his profile rose, the cult around the Twin Peaks universe expanded greatly. By the mid-2010s, the director’s style was much better understood and accepted by fans and industry executives alike, and television had turned into a diverse medium that could accommodate Lynch’s expansive vision for a new Twin Peaks story.

With Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch and Frost returned to the eponymous town to explore the secrets and traumas still haunting it 25 years later. Cooper’s doppelgänger from the Black Lodge, or Mr. C (MacLachlan), has been terrorizing the world the real Cooper has remained stuck in the Lodge. Cooper is meant to re-enter the world after 25 years and automatically replace Mr. C, but the evil twin has devised a plan to keep himself around and trap Cooper in the body of Dougie Jones, a shady businessman in Las Vegas. While stuck in that body, Cooper is initially barely able to move or speak, let alone track down his double. In the meantime, Twin Peaks’ deputy police chief Hawk (Michael Horse), deputy Andy (Harry Goaz), and Sheriff Truman—not the original but his brother, played by Robert Forster—revisit the Laura Palmer case, while FBI agents Albert Rosenfield (Miguel Ferrar), Gordon Cole (Lynch), and Cooper’s former assistant Diane Evans (Laura Dern) investigate a series of connected “Blue Rose” cases. This is only the tip of the iceberg: the series introduced many other new characters, locations, and mysteries, making the town of Twin Peaks itself hardly even the focal point. 

Less light-hearted than the ABC seasons—to say the least—certain sections of The Return function like extended meditations on suffering, the tangled legacies people leave behind them when they die, and the ways in which we carry grief with us throughout our lives. There are strangely tear-jerking moments, and drawn-out sequences that seem intentionally tedious. For some reason, most episodes end with a musical performance, like Lynch’s take on Saturday Night Live. Inevitably, the often-inscrutable series makes a point of shifting gears just when you think you understand what’s happening. 

And just as the original series did, The Return interacts with the conventions of television in the modern age, stacking its cast with “difficult men” and scenes of unsparing violence. It also set an important example for other creators of reboot series and films, which are only becoming more popular in the era of streaming TV and Marvel movies. The Return foiled pre-existing expectations to dazzling effect, exemplifying how filmmakers can resume an old creative project in a dynamic way, and without leaning on nostalgia and fan service.

More broadly, Twin Peaks: The Return proved that in our current era of small-screen oversaturation, the medium can still provide new opportunities for directors and writers. Few showrunners could reasonably pull off an experiment this strange and grand-scale—and not even Lynch and Frost managed to land a ratings hit—but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t keep trying. —ISRAEL DARAMOLA

Read our 2017 essays “Twin Peaks Ended, Once Again, With a New Beginning” and “Why Twin Peaks: The Return Was One of the Funniest Shows of 2017” here and here.

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

American Vandal (2017-2018)

As this decade’s fetish for high-end true crime programming turned into an industry craze, driven by breakout hits like Serial and Making a Murderer, the genre received its fair share of parodies, but none disrespected the form more satisfyingly than Tony Yacenda and Dan Perrault’s Netflix scripted comedy series American Vandal. The show applies a trendy template—an earnest journalist investigating a controversy on behalf of the accused—to the dumbest possible crimes. In the first season, someone spray-paints penises on high school teachers’ cars, and in the second, someone sneaks laxatives into a high school cafeteria’s lemonade supply. Vandal’s central joke—painstaking, poker-faced analysis of doofus pranks—manages to get funnier as the pranks are broken down from every possible angle by straightfaced student journo Peter Maldonado, played by Tyler Alvarez, over the course of many hours. He is assisted by his friend and partner Sam Ecklund (Griffin Gluck) and their several dozen sources, including a nun who explains: “This poop was not wet and gooey, this was more of a poop dusting.”

Vandal gets the condescending tropes of post-Serial crime-doc storytelling correct. It’s told from the perspective of Maldonado, who shapes the narrative around his own reporting process, profiles suspects as human interest stories, and expresses doubts with boilerplate asides like “maybe I was seeing it all wrong.” New pieces of evidence become melodramatic cliffhangers. Sources recount events in needless detail: “I was dizzy around the second spin, but I got my balance back,” one student says while describing hitting a poop-stuffed piñata. Maldonado’s writing is frequently hilariously redundant, like when he concludes a dubbed monologue by stating that threats “were posted after Kevin was put on house arrest,” and then says to Sam in front of their cork board: “Okay, so I think Kevin posted these after he was put on house arrest.” He grows outraged over comically stupid systemic abuses and develops an increasingly friendly relationship with his subjects. Vandal recognizes the irony that reporters who use these tricks take their reporting very seriously, but package it as moralistic entertainment for an audience they don’t trust to watch and appreciate an actual report. 

At the same time, Vandal succeeds, especially in its second season, as something more than an exercise in satirical journalism by depicting contemporary high school life as convincingly as any series in recent memory. It understands smartphone culture, the many ways social media platforms mediate young peoples’ relationships, and the schoolyard drama that crops up as a result. A key piece of evidence in the investigation involves that weird iOS glitch where question marks replace the letter “I.” Sam contributes savvy insights like: “Periods after emojis? That’s serial killer weird.” As the season starts to follow Tillman, a basketball star on scholarship, and Kevin “Shit-Stain” McClain, a consummate oddball who reviews tea on YouTube and karate chops fruit that kids throw at him while yelling “Fruit Ninja,” it evolves into a timely study of corrupt school athletic programs, bullying, and harassment. By foregrounding the so-called turd burglar’s crime, the show spotlights these facts of teenage life incidentally, and avoids the sensationalization built into more self-serious contemporary shows about Kids These Days. —TOSTEN BURKS

Read our 2017 essay “American Vandal’s True-Crime Satire Perfectly Captures the Stupidity of the Trump Era” here.

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Babylon Berlin (2017-present)

The best series about a city that I’ve seen this decade was not made by David Simon, but a trio of heavyweight German filmmakers—including Run Lola Run and Perfume director Tom Twyker—with a 44 million dollar budget. To U.S. viewers, Babylon Berlin may have looked like just another low-stakes period piece shoved errantly into their Netflix recommendations. Those daring enough to click through quickly became immersed in a visually breathtaking and action-packed sociopolitical study of Weimar-era Germany, nested within a hair-raising spy-crime yarn.

Babylon Berlin is adapted from the Gereon Rath series of political crime novels, by German author Volker Kutscher. Its complex plot is held together by a slate of unforgettable characters, from the PTSD-suffering and morphine-addicted central investigator (Volker Bruch) to the endlessly clever flapper-turned-aspiring-detective Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) to the cross-dressing cabaret singer and Russian spy Countess Svetlana Sorokina (Severija Janušauskaitė). The series remains ongoing, and the 16 episodes that have been released so far are almost overwhelmingly full of details to savor—no plotlines left unsculpted, no imperfections in the stunning production design, no opportunities for Bryan Ferry cameos squandered. Without the wonder of streaming services making major international television sensations available to audiences elsewhere in the world, Twyker and the gang’s achievement might have remained one of Europe’s best-kept cultural secrets of the past several years. In this case, it’s fortunate that we have Netflix. —WINSTON COOK-WILSON

Read our 2018 review of Babylon Berlin here.

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Random Acts of Flyness (2018-present)

With only one season to its name, HBO’s Random Acts of Flyness has already established itself as a singular sketch show, bringing new levels of formal ambition and political engagement to the sort of anything-goes, late-night surrealism that first cropped up on Cartoon Network last decade. Created by Terence Nance, with a writing and directing staff including indie filmmakers like Frances Bodomo and Naima Ramos-Chapman, it ping-pongs across formats, condensing huge blocks of ideas into dense and essayistic half-hour blasts. The focus is black identity and everything that shapes it: media culture, state violence, food, masculinity, whiteness, hair. Flyness samples vernacular video in the bittersweet style of Arthur Jafa, skewers kiddie programming with Wonder Showzen’s gallows-humor flair, and revels in the subliminal possibilities of Adult Swim-style bumpers. (“The KKK murdered Muhiyidin Moye,” reads one.)

Random Acts of Flyness’s fearless sense of structure belies an inquisitive humility that is inherent in the writing. Some of its funniest moments involve self-critique. In one memorable scene, Nance and several doppelgangers argue about the ethics of devoting an entire episode to Hollywood’s white savior complex, as the show has just done. Flyness eludes easy characterization, but let’s call it a postmodern Le Joli Mai for members of the woke Twitter generation, whose inundated condition the show attempts to evoke. In an ASMR reading that closes the season, Flyness offers a small reassurance to them: “You are entitled to rest.” —TOSTEN BURKS

30 Great TV Shows That Defined the 2010s

Years and Years (2019)

Techno-futurist sci-fi is now so ingrained in our culture that Black Mirror long ago took the baton from Banksy as the preferred meme vessel for cynical jokes about our scary future: “Video games… but it’s your house” having replaced “The Oval Office desk… but the President is Ronald McDonald.” It is this easily accessible numbness towards the very real possibility of living in a world crushed by capitalism, where the rise of apps has pushed modern society to unprecedented levels of dehumanization, that makes Years & Years, the recent limited series from Queer as Folk creator Russell T. Davies, so staggering. The show submits that the problems of our future are not only more real than jokes—they aren’t actually our future.

Years & Years focuses on the Lyons family of Manchester—a tight-knit but fraying collection of spouses, siblings, parents, and children who communicate with each other seamlessly through Señor, an Alexa-style device that allows anyone to instantly conjure a family-wide conference call out of thin air. The Lyonses live in a slightly accelerated version of our world, both in a political and technological sense. A harrowing timeline 10 minutes into the first episode informs us that Donald Trump wins reelection, and later, a teenager named Bethany communicates with her mom through a translucent mask that displays Snapchat filters over her face. There is a certain humor in Davies’ riffs on technology—Bethany’s mom is distraught by having to talk to a dog emoji, while her father is forgiving and slightly bemused—but the show is mostly a relentlessly bleak saga about a family trying to hold back a crashing tide. It requires no spoiler alert to say that the Lyonses fail, their lives turned upside down by the sort of very literal, global political and economic upheaval—a reactionary MP and banking crisis in Britain, a collapsed government in Italy—that Black Mirror usually leaves to subtext. Jobs and wealth disappear, as do people, and the show ends in a place that subscribes to the ethos of the new wave of American progressivism: the only people left to save us is ourselves. Good luck. —JORDAN SARGENT

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All images screenshots except: American Crime Story (Ray Mickshaw/FX); American Vandal (Scott Patrick Green/ Netflix); Atlanta (Guy D’Alema/FX); Babylon Berlin (Netflix); Billions (Jeff Neumann/Showtime); Fleabag (Amazon); Fresh Off the Boat (Richard Cartwright/ABC); Game of Thrones (HBO); Girls (Mark Schafer/HBO); Making a Murderer (Netflix); Parks and Recreation (NBC/Kobal/Shutterstock); Random Acts of Flyness (Rog Walker/HBO); RuPaul’s Drag Race (VH1); Teen Mom (MTV); The Americans (Patrick Harbron/FX); The Leftovers (Ben King/HBO); The Night Of (Craig Blankenhorn/HBO); True Detective (Warrick Page/HBO); Twin Peaks: The Return (Suzanne Tenner/Showtime); Vanderpump Rules (Nicole Weingart/Bravo); Veep (Colleen Hayes/HBO); Vice Principals (Fred Norris/HBO); Years and Years (Robert Ludovic/HBO)

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