Game of Thrones will be remembered as a televisual juggernaut.
HBO This story is part of The 2010s: A Decade in Review, a series on the memes, people, products, movies and so much more that have influenced the 2010s. Whether you loved or hated the final season of Game of Thrones, you sure as hell talked about it. And so did everyone you know. The 2010s have been a banner decade for television, and social media has turned the whole internet into a giant water cooler.
For this list, we’re looking back at TV in the 2010s, from Emmy-baiting prestige shows to cheesy sitcoms, both broadcast and streamed. These shows reverberated across our lives, influenced the direction of television, made us happy and made us mad.
Our list puts a premium on the cultural zeitgeist. These are the shows that spurred you to sign angry petitions, buy Delos T-shirts and learn how to mix an Old-Fashioned just right.
We have some ground rules for inclusion. Shows that aired during the 2010s are eligible, even if they started before 2010.
We’ve got your ’80s horror nostalgia, deadly humanoid robots and https://www.facebook.com/ meth-making antiheroes right here. Our list is admittedly US-centric. Your favorite may be near the top, or it may not have made it at all. Feel free to tell us in the comments (politely, we hope) where we went right and where we went wrong.
30. Saturday Night Live (1975-present)
Video screenshot by Bonnie Burton/CNET NBC’s long-running, late-night sketch comedy show Saturday Night Live has ridden the roller coaster from innovative (’75) to cruddy (’80-’81) to revived (’95), but it managed to step firmly back into the national conversation during the late 2010s thanks to hot-button political topics and President Donald Trump’s outright hatred of the program. It was comedy gold like when it pit Game of Thrones against Avengers in a mock game of Family Feud.
29. Key & Peele (2012-2015)
Comedy Central Sketch comedy got goosed when Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele put their stamp on the genre with Key & Peele on Comedy Central. From Obama’s Anger Translator to the East/West College Bowl’s buffet of wild names, Key & Peele pulled off both racial satire and inspired absurdity. The show forged ahead where In Living Color, Mad TV and Chappelle’s Show left off. Peele then went on to reinvent The Twilight Zone and deliver acclaimed horror films Get Out and Us. How’s that for building a legacy?
28. 13 Reasons Why (2017-present)
David Moir/Netflix Teen drama 13 Reasons Why has been scrutinized for the way it depicts teen suicide, and it’s also spurred conversations among young people, mental health professionals and families. A study released in 2019 suggested the series may be tied to a rise in suicides among boys 10-17 in the month after the show came out. Netflix has since altered a graphic suicide scene from the first season, and also increased warnings about the subject matter. The show remains divisive after airing its third season, but it made this list due to its prominent role in the cultural conversation around teens and suicide.
27. Silicon Valley (2014-present)
HBO Tech culture has become one of the defining characteristics of our age, and Silicon Valley on HBO has become the defining show for a world that gets its kicks from iPhones, social media, apps and gadgets. From goofy startup names to tech buzzwords, Silicon Valley has mined it all and kept the comedy fresh and in step with the changing tech times. It’s nerdy enough for insiders and funny enough to satisfy tech outsiders, too. The fifth season of Silicon Valley premiered in 2018 minus T.J. Miller.
26. Black-ish (2014-present)
ABC ABC’s Black-ish explores a classic sitcom setup by delving into the lives of the Johnson family. It’s funny, but it’s also not shy about discussing key issues of our times through social, https://www.facebook.com/ cultural and political commentary. Black-ish explores the African-American experience and is on the leading edge of a wave of shows (including Atlanta, Fresh Off the Boat and the One Day at a Time reboot) that take classic TV formats and reinvigorate them with fresh, diverse voices.
25. Veep (2012-2019)
HBO HBO’s Veep was a regular in the Emmy category for outstanding comedy. Powered by Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ turn as US vice president Selina Meyer, the show’s political satire rocketed it to relevance during the contentious 2016 US elections. At a time when real-life politics felt like fiction, Veep’s sharp-edge satire got our vote.
24. Arrow (2012-present)
The CW Superhero shows didn’t just come from the Marvel side of things. The MCU may make a big splash at the box office, but DC has ruled broadcast television with an iron fist (sorry not sorry). Sharpshooting superhero Arrow (Stephen Amell) picked up the banner for DC on The CW after Superman show Smallville ended. It kicked off a parade of DC shows on multiple networks, including The Flash, Supergirl, Legends of Tomorrow and Constantine. Soon, we’ll be welcoming Ruby Rose as Batwoman to the Arrowverse. DC fans love a good crossover story.
23. Daredevil (2015-2018)
Patrick Harbron/Netflix The 2010s was the superhero decade in entertainment. Marvel and DC duked it out in theaters, but Netflix’s Daredevil was the first and perhaps best of an influential run of streaming superhero television shows following Marvel heroes Jessica Jones, Luke Cage, Iron Fist and The Punisher. There was a sense of diminishing returns in this ambitious experiment, but we’ll always have Daredevil’s jaw-dropping hallway fight.
The collaboration with Netflix paved the way for Disney’s new streaming service to launch multiple shows based on big franchises. Disney Plus will carry the Marvel TV torch forward with shows like WandaVision and Loki, while Star Wars continues in The Mandalorian and an Obi-Wan Kenobi series.
22. Chernobyl (2019)
Liam Daniel/HBO HBO’s one-off miniseries Chernobyl starring Jared Harris dramatized the devastating 1986 nuclear accident in the then Soviet Union. It played out like an incisive journalistic investigation, showing how institutional hubris can feed into tragedy. Most of the world watched the accident unfold from a safe distance back in the ’80s. This show made it feel present and relevant, and unveiled the dark mechanisms behind a historic tragedy.
21. Star Trek: Discovery (2017-present)
Jan Thijs/CBS Star Trek spent many years drifting away from its small-screen roots until the CBS All Access streaming service unveiled Star Trek: Discovery. (Disclosure: CBS Corp., which owns CBS All Access, is also the parent of CNET.) Discovery represents a grittier, darker Trek, and paved the way for the imminent return in early 2020 of beloved Captain Picard in Star Trek: Picard and for a new animated show, Star Trek: Lower Decks. Discovery’s gritty themes and violent action sequences have been divisive for some fans, but it will stand as the spark that kicked off new adventures among the stars, reinvigorating a television franchise that had been stagnant for over a decade.
20. The Expanse (2015-present)
SyFy The Expanse has been a gravity-defying triumph for smart sci-fi television. While fans are still pouring one out for dearly departed Firefly, at least they can celebrate The Expanse’s phoenix-like return from cancellation when it flew from certain doom at the Syfy network into the welcoming arms of the Amazon Prime streaming service. The show’s characters, political narratives and realistic physics propel it forward like it’s kitted out with an Epstein drive.
19. Transparent (2014-present)
Amazon Amazon fired its first broadside in the streaming wars with Transparent, a prestigious, funny and dramatic study of a family in which the father, Mort (Jeffrey Tambor), is a trans woman. Tambor left the series under a cloud of sexual harassment allegations, but Transparent will wrap up without him in 2019.
With Transparent, Netflix felt Amazon breathing down its neck; it was no longer the only game in town. This heralded the upcoming streaming battle among Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Hulu, Apple TV Plus and Disney Plus.
18. Rick and Morty (2013-present)
Adult Swim Animated sci-fi comedy Rick and Morty follows the adventures of mad-scientist Rick and his grandson Morty. The zany animation style is juxtaposed with audacious and often wildly dark subject matter as it crosses dimensions and planets on the Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. This is Back to the Future gone mad. We can also thank it for the reemergence of McDonald’s Szechuan dipping sauce.
17. True Detective (2014-2019)
HBO Every season of HBO’s creepy-weird-compelling True Detective has been very different, but the first may be the most influential of the bunch. It brought movie stars Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson onto the small screen and symbolized a new era of fluidity between the mediums. True Detective made it cool to go from a blockbuster film one month to a prestige cable or streaming show the next. Following seasons couldn’t match the buzz around the show’s debut, and it’s unknown if it’ll return for a season 4.
16. Westworld (2016-present)
John P. Johnson/HBO Westerns and sci-fi collided in the sprawling Westworld from HBO. We loved it, even if we couldn’t always figure out what the hell was going on. It’s still a young show, just heading into its third season, but it’s generated plenty of discussion about the nature of reality and what makes us human. Some viewers prefer to focus on intricate plot theories, while others just get lost in the stunning scenery and special effects. Sure, some fans figured out the big season 1 twist, but Westworld showed that challenging and complicated storytelling can still grip an audience.
15. Bojack Horseman (2014-present)
Netflix The horse-headed main character of Bojack Horseman (voiced by Will Arnett) put the genre of animated shows aimed at adults on its back and peeled out of the starting gate in 2014. The Netflix series boldly tackles topics ranging from America’s gun crisis to sexual harassment and the #MeToo movement. Those are heavy subjects for an animated show, but Bojack Horseman handles them with grace and humor. It also delivered one of the most cutting comments on modern TV when Princess Carolyn declared, “It’s confusing, which means the show is daring and smart.”
14. Black Mirror (2011-present)
Netflix British anthology series Black Mirror took the basic idea behind The Twilight Zone and updated it as a pointed examination of how technology touches our lives today, for good or bad. Mostly bad. Black Mirror’s move to Netflix after starting as a traditional broadcast show in the UK propelled it to international stardom in a world that was ready to see tech portrayed as dark and freaky. The show’s cautionary tales are formed from a gripping combination of entertainment and sci-fi honed to a bleak edge that screams out a warning as we race forward into our tech-obsessed future.
13. Modern Family (2009-present)
ABC What does a family look like today? That’s a question at the heart of ABC’s long-running documentary-style comedy Modern Family. One of the families is a gay couple with an adopted daughter, and family members come from a range of cultural backgrounds. It finally felt like sitcoms could portray the complex reality of a US society that is struggling to weave itself together.
Modern Family is heading into its 11th and final season. It hasn’t always been perfect in its handling of social issues, but it will be remembered for showing that the stereotypical family of yesteryear is not the only way to do things. And it did it on a major network.
12. The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-present)
Hulu Hulu’s benchmark drama The Handmaid’s Tale took the dystopian premise of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel and held it up as a heartbreaking and frightening mirror to our current societal and political turmoil. We stared into the shine, gasped and got nightmares. The costumes from the series appeared in political protest situations in the real world and viewers felt the tenuousness of the line between fiction and reality.
11. Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
Suzanne Tenner/SHOWTIME Confusion. Elation. Wonder. WTF. Brilliant. David Lynch’s return to the world of Twin Peaks sparked a lot of different reactions. The one-off season managed to be way more surreal than the infamous ’90s show filled with doughnuts, FBI agents and owls. It was pure, mainline Lynch. Some people loved it. Others shook their heads, but it showed just how daring television could be when you let a creative mind loose with a Showtime budget. And episode 8? One of the most stunning hours of TV ever aired. Don’t ask too many questions. Just watch it.
10. Broad City (2014-2019)
Comedy Central Toto, I don’t think we’re in Sex and the City anymore. Broad City grabbed the young-women-in-New-York-City motif, shook it up and carried it into the most intimate parts of Ilana and Abbi’s lives. Even the bathroom wasn’t off-limits to this brazen female-led comedy that showed how a YouTube series could strut onto an actual network and rock the transition.
Broad City called out to millennials, a group grappling with debt, nebulous job prospects and derision from older generations. The show often focused on the trials of scraping by in a bitter world, but it never lost touch with the furiously funny friendship at its heart.
9. Orange is the New Black (2013-2019)
JoJo Whilden/Netflix Orange is the New Black helped launch Netflix’s reputation for original programming, turning the streaming service into a major contender for recognition, awards and viewers. While the accolades were nice, OITNB was about more than that. It was funny, touching and dramatic. It showcased a diverse cast of women dealing with life behind bars and threw itself deep into issues surrounding race, identity, economics and the privatization of prisons. Was it a drama or a comedy? It was both, but the drama was its beating heart.
8. Glee (2009-2015)
Fox Broadcasting Co. Dancing, singing high schoolers once ruled the airwaves back when Fox’s Glee was in its heyday. Gay glee club member Kurt Hummel (Chris Colfer) became a breakout star at a time when LGBTQ characters were few and far between on broadcast television. The show spawned a whole genre of mashup music and launched a string of hit cover songs, ranging from Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ to Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. The show inspired fans to kick up their heels and sing with abandon and managed to make some viewers wish they had another shot at high school.
7. House of Cards (2013-2018)
David Giesbrecht/Netflix Netflix’s first original television series kicked off a new era for streaming shows. You no longer had to be a cable or broadcast TV network to make award-winning programs with a mass audience tuning in. This show helped make binge-watching a widespread phenomenon. Not only did House of Cards fuel the streaming revolution, it became a touchstone moment in another defining cultural movement: #MeToo. Netflix fired alleged sexual predator Kevin Spacey (Francis Underwood) from the show before the final season. Robin Wright carried the finale with her magnetic performance as Claire Underwood.
6. Stranger Things (2016-present)
Netflix Netflix’s Stranger Things turned back the clock on horror by reveling in 1980s nostalgia replete with references to Stephen King and Dungeons & Dragons. It could have been a one-trick pony, but instead riffed on the themes of the horror stories that came before while still building a fresh, new and scary world.
Taut storylines, creative supernatural elements and likable young actors made Stranger Things a Netflix smash with tons of product spin-offs to keep fans’ pocketbooks engaged. It looks set to continue its run into the next decade.
5. Downton Abbey (2010-2015)
The Grantham family of Downton Abbey.
PBS Part soap opera, part history lesson, Downton Abbey was the British show that transcended its PBS-audience-pleasing roots and gently rocked the world while genteelly sipping tea. The series followed the triumphs and woes of the aristocratic Grantham family and their house staff through a time of social and political change starting in 1912.
Likable characters, lavish period-piece settings and costumes and Maggie Smith dropping scathing one-liners as the Dowager Countess fueled the Downton Abbey phenomenon. The show is still so beloved that it made an appearance on the big screen in September. Downton Abbey proved you don’t need to be gritty and cutting-edge to make an impact. Sometimes stately and classic do the trick.
4. The Walking Dead (2010-present)
AMC Sometimes The Walking Dead is a great show. Sometimes it’s not. But it’s almost always a hot topic of discussion, especially when it unapologetically kills off your favorite character. While the zombies are plenty scary, the most frightening villains are the people who are still sentient.
The show may be infamous for its creative gore, but it also examines what happens when society breaks down and what we will do in the name of protecting ourselves and the ones we love. The Walking Dead wraps all of this up with a big bloody bow on top, and viewers can’t seem to look away, even all these years later.
3. Mad Men (2007-2015)
AMC AMC’s Mad Men was more than day drinking, dandy hats and Heinz ads. The story of Don Draper’s (Jon Hamm) mixed-up journey through life and the advertising industry ranks as one of television’s great dramas.
Mad Men spawned a retro fashion movement and pushed Canadian Club whiskey to prominence. It’s also been the poster child for the new Golden Age of Television, an epoch of quality programming kicked off by The Sopranos in the late 1990s. Mad Men showed there was room for other networks besides HBO to launch shows that were both prestigious and popular.
2. Breaking Bad (2008-2013)
Frank Ockenfels/AMC A high school teacher dying of cancer becomes a meth-making underworld kingpin in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It’s remarkable AMC greenlit the show to begin with, but Breaking Bad turned out to be one of the most tense, dark and artistically triumphant shows in television history.
Walter White’s (Bryan Cranston) journey from forlorn chemistry teacher to The One Who Knocks was a masterclass in character development. Breaking Bad also cooked up another critical darling with the still active spin-off show Better Call Saul, also one of the finest series of the 2010s, and forthcoming Netflix movie El Camino, which streams on Oct. 11.
1. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
HBO Over 1.7 million people cared enough about Game of Thrones to sign a petition demanding a remake of the final season. But the HBO fantasy hit based on George R.R. Martin’s novels will be remembered for more than just a divisive season 8. It will be remembered as a televisual juggernaut, the absolutest of absolute units when it comes to television in the 2010s.
We obsessed over Jon Snow, spouted endless theories, rooted for Arya and lost ourselves for years in a world full of swords, dragons, sex, magic and intrigue. HBO truly went cinematic with Game of Thrones, turning the small screen into a massive canvas of lavish locations and big-bucks special effects.
The sheer number of YouTube parodies alone shows how much Game of Thrones worked its way into popular culture. It turned Northern Ireland into a global vacation hot spot, gave parents a vocabulary full of new baby names, and left every television exec in Hollywood asking, “What’s the next Game of Thrones?” We eagerly await that answer as gritty fantasies like Carnival Row and The Witcher arrive, but the truth is there will probably never be another show quite like this one (at least until the prequel comes along).
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