Spoiler Warning: There are spoilers ahead for all of the shows mentioned on this list. If you haven’t seen one, or haven’t seen up to the most recent season, feel free to skip ahead to the next entry.
In this second part of my series looking back at some of the entertainment highlights of the 2010s, I’ll be taking a look at television series. A couple of these may have premiered in the 2000s, but the criteria here was that they had to have new episodes (not re-runs) broadcast sometime between January 2010 and December 2019. So now you know not to complain that “technically this series aired in 2009”.
As is the case in cinema, television series this decade have benefited greatly from a huge increase in the quality and availability of CGI and other special effects. The result is that for a series with a sufficiently high budget, visuals and effects bordering on (and in some cases surpassing) the big screen have been possible. Additional technological changes like the availability of drones have meant that even low-budget shows have been able to get dramatic, sweeping aerial shots, and the move from standard definition (480p) to high definition (720p or 1080p) as well as the move from DVD to Blu-Ray has meant the visual quality of television series this decade is higher than ever. And that’s great, because television screens have been getting larger and larger. A few shows are even available in 4K resolution (2160p), pushing visuals even further.
The decade has also seen a major shift away from broadcast television channels to online on-demand streaming. Netflix and Amazon Prime end the decade in pole position in this new market. It’s funny to think that at the beginning of the decade I was still buying DVDs and watching them on a 4:3 CRT television. Going back to that setup today, after experiencing the convenience of Netflix and 4K visuals, would be one heck of a downgrade.
As more and more companies have tried to capture for themselves a piece of the streaming market, television budgets have skyrocketed. The result has been an exceptional decade for television storytelling. Some series have focused on telling a single story over multiple episodes and seasons, and this serialised format has become increasingly popular, largely replacing episodic television (or the “monster-of-the-week” format) across many genres. Personally, while I like some serialised shows and the format can suit some stories, I miss being able to jump into any random episode of a show I enjoy without having to remember everything that happened that season – or several seasons prior. But that’s really just a matter of personal taste.
Speaking of personal taste, this entire list is completely subjective. I’m in no way saying these shows are “objectively the best”; they’re simply the ones I personally enjoyed most over the last ten years. My number one pick is my favourite show of the decade, but the others could really be in almost any order – they’re all so good. So let’s dive in!
Number 10: Elementary (2012-19)
While the BBC won almost universal acclaim for their series Sherlock, a second modern-day take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s classic detective premiered in the USA. Elementary stars Jonny Lee Miller and Lucy Liu as Holmes and Watson respectively, the latter being “gender-swapped” to be female. I’m not usually a fan of changing the fundamentals of a character in this way, but this take on Sherlock Holmes was so altogether different from its source material that here, it worked surprisingly well.
One of the main reasons why I found Elementary to be preferable to Sherlock – and I’m afraid the comparison is an inescapable one – is simply that there was much more to watch. Sherlock, at time of writing, has had a grand total of 13 episodes over four seasons, and while most of them were good, there wasn’t actually a lot to get stuck in to as a viewer. Elementary, in contrast, ran for seven seasons and has a grand total of 154 episodes. While quantity over quality is not a good argument, if the quality is good then I’ll always be happier with a series that delivers more to watch. And as good as Sherlock was, Elementary just offered so much more.
Miller and Liu lead the cast, but there are great performances from guests such as Rhys Ifans and Natalie Dormer, the latter playing Sherlock’s nemesis Moriarty in earlier seasons. These recurring characters add an extra element to the show and allow for character development and arcs over multiple seasons, in addition to the episodic nature of much of the show. Indeed Elementary is one of the few series this decade to primarily stick to an episodic format, allowing Holmes and Watson to solve a huge variety of cases over the course of all seven seasons. As with some shows that run for a long time, toward the end the quality dipped a little as storylines became overly complicated, but overall Elementary is a really enjoyable crime drama/detective show that brings Sherlock Holmes firmly into the modern day.
Number 9: The Terror (2018-19)
I’m always more than a little sceptical when it comes to an entertainment product using real-world people and historical figures without their permission or knowledge. And The Terror, at least in its first season, uses the crew of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition as its cast of characters. I’m also not a fan of horror in general, but the story of the Franklin Expedition was too tempting to pass up, so I gave The Terror a chance. And I’m so glad that I did.
Sir John Franklin – portrayed by Ciarán Hinds as a somewhat pompous and ill-prepared leader – takes command of two ships on an expedition to find the northwest passage at the very end of the Age of Exploration. Almost all of the world had been mapped by the 1840s, save for some of the most northerly arctic regions, and the Franklin Expedition was aiming to find a way to cross between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This serves as the backdrop for the series, which is ultimately about the increasingly desperate attempts of the crew to survive, as well as fend off a soul-devouring monster.
Luckily the monster didn’t get too much screen time, and in the vein of classics of the monster horror genre like Jaws was the better for being largely unseen. Both Tobias Menzies and Jared Harris give incredible performances as naval commanders, and the story plays out across a single season, leaving practically the entire cast dead by the end.
The second season picks up a completely different story, set this time in a Japanese internment camp in the USA during WWII, and The Terror thus becomes an anthology series. The second season wasn’t as strong as the first, but did feature Star Trek’s George Takei among its cast – noteworthy because he was, in his youth, interred in such a camp.
An interesting premise gave The Terror the foundation upon which a truly interesting series was built, and as a horror show that didn’t focus too much on jump-scares or gore, it was something different in the 2010s. Finally, as a character study of individuals dealing with incredibly difficult, almost unimaginable circumstances, The Terror has certainly earned its spot on this list.
Number 8: The Last Ship (2014-18)
Post-apocalyptic settings have been common in entertainment this past decade, but few series nailed it the way The Last Ship did. Rather than an alien invasion, like in Falling Skies, or something supernatural, like in The Walking Dead or The Strain, the threat here is something down-to-earth and real: a viral pandemic. To me, that sense of realism heightened the drama – the premise of The Last Ship feels like something that could actually happen some day, and I found that to be absolutely gripping.
At the heart of it, though, The Last Ship is about characters, as the best shows often are. The crew of the U.S.S. Nathan James go through a heck of a lot, first to find a sample, then to create and distribute a cure, before finally facing the impossible task of rebuilding civilisation. There are some great ship-to-ship battles here, for fans of such things, and despite a lot of modern series and films having a military focus, modern-day naval combat isn’t something there’s been a lot of on television. So in that sense, those sequences are as interesting to watch as they are nervewracking and dramatic.
The show isn’t afraid to take risks – splitting up its cast at numerous points, often for multiple episodes at a time, as well as killing off key crew member and scientist Dr Rachel Scott at the end of its second season. The latter is an especially bold move given the focus The Last Ship had on the work undertaken to cure the virus and synthesise the cure in a form which was easy to distribute.
As in many post-apocalyptic settings, a significant part of the drama comes from human beings facing unprecedented situations for which they were not prepared. Many of the show’s antagonists – such as a government official illegally burning the bodies of the dead to fuel a power plant – are created by circumstance, and while in the context of the show we root for the crew of the Nathan James to bring them down, in more thought-provoking moments we’re left wondering just what we’d have done in such a situation.
Number 7: The Vietnam War (2017)
As I mentioned in my previous list, which was about the best films of the decade, I’m a big fan of documentaries. And Ken Burns has produced some absolutely outstanding documentaries about the United States, with his latest work tackling the Vietnam War.
I studied the war quite a bit when I was at university, so the overall story is well-known to me, as I’m sure it would be to a lot of people. But that didn’t mean that the way it was presented here, complete with interviews given by soldiers on both sides, and many others who were involved with or affected by the war, was in any way less interesting. The Vietnam War is a masterpiece, telling the story from the American side, but not with malice or bias toward the Vietnamese – who did ultimately win, of course.
The soundtrack is also outstanding, featuring many classic songs of the era, including a number of protest songs. In many ways, the societal divisions we’re living through today have a parallel in the Vietnam era – pro-war and anti-war activists would frequently clash, and there was no middle ground and no civility between the two sides. Sound familiar?
What was great about The Vietnam War is that Ken Burns didn’t treat the retreat from Saigon as the end of the affair. Instead the documentary continues, exploring in detail the consequences of a communist victory for the south – and the country overall. In many ways, Vietnam was a turning point for the Americans, who’d never been on the losing side of a war since 1812, and a reality check on their foreign policy. The legacy of that conflict persists today, both for the Americans and Vietnamese, and The Vietnam War explores the issues as carefully as possible while trying to remain balanced.
Number 6: Hannibal (2013-15)
Sir Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of the famous cannibal was always going to be a difficult act to follow, as his performance in 1991’s Silence of the Lambs is iconic. But to my surprise, Hannibal actually managed to bring something new to the table – pun absolutely intended – and in a positive way, showing off Thomas Harris’ serial killer in all his devious glory.
The premise is interesting – a police procedural where the killer is already known to the audience and is hiding out among the cast. Known to us but unknown to them. It’s something which is incredibly hard to get right, because it risks the story becoming either boring or over-the-top. Luckily, at least in its first two seasons, Hannibal avoids that trap and instead tells a fascinating, if somewhat complicated, story.
The two leads, Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelsen, give outstanding performances as Will Graham and Hannibal Lecter respectively, and the chemistry between the two of them carries the show forward. Unfortunately, the show’s ratings were never great, partly due to its heavy, overly artistic style (a scene which is literally just a slow-motion teacup shattering and then coming back together is always going to have very limited appeal) and it had to be saved from cancellation after both its first and second seasons. The third season was much weaker, at least in my opinion, and I’d have preferred if the second season’s finale – where Hannibal walks away from a wounded Will Graham into the night – had been the series’ end. The first two seasons, however, were fantastic, and there really isn’t another series quite like Hannibal.
The level of gore was very high, but much of it was treated in a very artistic way. Hannibal himself, at least this version of the character, tends to display his victims in a variety of poses, often imitating art or making a point. In one famous sequence, the brain and heart of a judge are cut out, and his corpse is displayed with the two organs balanced on a scale in a brutal display. For some viewers, such content would be shocking and enough to stop watching. In that sense, Hannibal is much more of a niche product than its big screen cousins.
Number 5: Game of Thrones (2011-19)
It’s not in the slightest unfair to say that television in the 2010s was dominated by Game of Thrones. It’s a seminal work, rightly hailed as a classic, and one which will be a joy to return to even in twenty or thirty years’ time. At some point in the future I’d like to do a full retrospective of Game of Thrones, including its controversial and disappointing final season, but there’s far too much to go into on this list.
I hadn’t read George R. R. Martin’s fantasy epic before I watched the show – but that’s okay, because he still hasn’t finished writing it. It took me a while to get into Game of Thrones, because despite loving the fantasy setting, the sheer volume of characters introduced in the first few episodes is hard to keep track of at first, especially for a total newcomer.
Game of Thrones changed the way television was produced in three key ways – firstly, it wasn’t afraid to kill off regular cast members. Soaps had been doing this for years, it has to be said, but most prime time shows simply didn’t have a disposable cast until Game of Thrones came along. Secondly, it made multi-season serialised storytelling mainstream for the sci fi/fantasy genre, which had previously been much more episodic in nature. And finally, it demonstrated to television companies that it can be worth investing cinema-level money into television.
Speaking as a fan of science fiction and fantasy, Game of Thrones took what had been a fairly niche, geeky genre and pulled it firmly into the mainstream. People who, a few years ago, wouldn’t have been caught dead watching something like this were drawn into the realm of fantasy – many for the first time – and from the point of view of ensuring more fantasy and sci fi will be produced, and with bigger budgets, that’s a really great thing.
There are too many great individual performances to cover here, but as a whole the cast did a fantastic job bringing these characters to life. And in terms of visual effects, Game of Thrones really does throw cinema-quality visuals at viewers. There are a small number of awkward CGI moments, especially in earlier seasons, but these don’t really notice when taking the series as a whole. As a landmark in the history of television, and a truly outstanding fantasy epic that rivals greats like The Wheel of Time and even Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones is absolutely unmissable. And with prequels and spin-offs set to premiere in the coming years, we haven’t seen the last of the land of Westeros.
Number 4: Chernobyl (2019)
After Game of Thrones went off the air, I was legitimately wondering how HBO could possibly follow its success. It didn’t take long to get the answer – Chernobyl, produced in conjunction with Sky here in the UK, is probably the best miniseries I’ve ever seen.
The aesthetic of Chernobyl is perfect. I’ve talked before about how nostalgia for the 1980s has been big this decade, but Chernobyl nailed the mid-80s look and feel better than any other show or film. Even the smallest details were perfectly replicated, and while some of the green screen special effects stray a little into the “uncanny valley”, overall the way Chernobyl looks and the way it captures the feel of the 1980s is outstanding.
Telling the story of the 1986 nuclear disaster, Chernobyl might seem like a weird choice for a big-budget production, but as with other entries on this list, what makes it such gripping television is its characters. Jared Harris features in a leading role for the second time on this list, and for good reason. His work in Chernobyl – as whistleblowing scientist Valery Legasov – is one of the best individual acting performances of the decade. A conflicted man, trying to do the right thing while being hampered by the corrupt and ineffective Soviet state, Harris puts his heart and soul into the real-life Legasov, and though there are only five episodes, by the end of the series his death really hits hard. And feels like it matters.
Though the story takes some liberties with the facts of the Chernobyl disaster – supporting character Ulana Khomyuk is a “composite” representing dozens of scientists, the helicopter crash is moved to much earlier after the initial explosion, and the risk of another explosion causing a much more widespread disaster seems to have been overstated – the majority of it is firmly grounded in fact, and Chernobyl is one of the rare drama shows that the audience can learn a lot from. Not just the history of what happened, but some basics of how nuclear power is made. “Now I know how a nuclear reactor works,” says Boris Shcherbina (played by Stellan Skarsgård – father of It actor Bill Skarsgård) and I think the audience feels the same way.
The show explores all aspects of the disaster, from the faults in the design of the nuclear reactor, all the way through to the culling of animals in the radiation zone and the disposal of the horribly radioactive corpses of those who died in the immediate aftermath. Chernobyl is both grim and gripping, detailing the story of how individuals rose to the occasion to deal with one of the most challenging moments in recent history.
Number 3: The Expanse (2016-Present)
Based on a series of novels, The Expanse is one of the most unique and interesting science fiction settings I’ve seen in a very long time. It takes many sci fi tropes – like faster-than-light travel, a united human species, and a galactic community of aliens – and ignores them, charting a path for itself that is completely different than anything else on television.
The Expanse is set in a near-future solar system where humans have colonised Mars and parts of the asteroid belt, but Mars has broken away to become a fully independent power, and “The Belt”, as it’s known, is far enough removed from Earth as to be practically autonomous. There’s a cold war going on between Earth and Mars, and it’s with this backdrop that the drama of the series unfolds.
For a SyFy channel original, I was impressed with the production values, visuals, and acting. Across the board, The Expanse delivered an exciting and cinematic story. When SyFy cancelled the series in 2018, fans started a campaign to have someone else pick it up, and Amazon stepped in. A fourth season will premiere in only a few days time. A modern-day version of the Star Trek letter-writing campaign of 1968, this success in bringing the show back shouldn’t be understated. It would have been a great shame to leave the story incomplete – especially as it had reached such an interesting point – and the fact that Amazon was willing to step in and pay for a fourth and fifth season is testament to the power of online fan communities.
There are some great performances in The Expanse too, notably from Thomas Jane, Dominique Tipper, and Shohreh Aghdashloo. The series starts with several completely separate story threads – a police detective in The Belt looking for a missing girl, the crew of a freighter transporting ice receiving a distress call, and a UN representative questioning a terrorist. Subsequent episodes bring in additional characters, like a marine from Mars and the crew of a space station run by The Belt. The way these stories play out and slowly work their way together is narratively brilliant, and the way the books have been adapted for television has been hugely successful. Casting choices were on point, and the aesthetic is great. It can be difficult to visually convey something as radically different as an extraterrestrial, but The Expanse manages to do so in an interesting way. In many shows and films, aliens end up looking just like people with a funny prosthetic, or puppets, or variants of animals or people from Earth. The weirdly ethereal way that The Expanse treats its alien element is unique and fascinating to see. There’s a heavy reliance on CGI at times, but generally it’s well done.
Rather than treating alien life as commonplace, as other sci fi series tend to do, The Expanse shows it off as something radically different and unique, and highlights the incredible danger even a molecule could do to us if we’re not prepared for it. Now that the show has been saved and its future on Amazon looks secure, it’s going to be fascinating to see what’s in store for the crew we’ve come to know.
Number 2: Phineas and Ferb (2007-2015)
I firmly believe that Phineas and Ferb is one of the best cartoon series ever made. A Disney Channel original, the show ran for four seasons across seven years, and even spawned a feature film. The characters have since cropped up in episodes of Milo Murphy’s Law – created by the same team behind Phineas and Ferb – so while it went off the air in 2015, the characters are still kicking around over at Disney.
What Phineas and Ferb does well is that it throws in little jokes, references, and easter eggs which adults can enjoy, while still being 100% kid-friendly. The best kids shows and films do this, and the little inside jokes between us and the creators that kids wouldn’t necessarily get is part of what gives the show its near-universal appeal.
Unlike many cartoons, which tend to follow a single story thread, Phineas and Ferb uses its ten-minute runtime to tell three distinct stories. The formula of each story doesn’t really change all that much from one episode to the next: Phineas and his step-brother Ferb build something or invent something, often with their friends; their older sister Candace tries (and fails) to get them in trouble with their mother for their dangerous activity; and all the while family pet Perry the Platypus is actually a secret agent who disappears to battle an evil scientist. Simple, right?
The two wholly separate elements – the boys’ invention and Perry’s battle with the evil Dr. Doofenshmirtz – don’t interact much with each other, essentially making the series two shows rolled into one. The voice acting is great, and the plot, while silly and totally aimed at kids, is a perfectly fun distraction. Practically every episode also features a song, and many of the songs are catchy and downright hilarious. There are also some touching moments, notably in the Christmas special and in the series’ finale. Phineas and Ferb also attracted some great guest stars over the course of its run, including boxer Evander Holyfield, the cast of Top Gear, actor Ray Liotta, actor and producer Seth MacFarlane, and singer Kelly Clarkson.
On a personal note, Phineas and Ferb has been a show I drift back to when my mental health is poor. The happy tone, the musical elements, and the bright colours can absolutely take the edge off when things seem dark. It’s really for that reason that I’m putting it here on the list.
Before I end the list I wanted to briefly highlight another ten shows, which could’ve easily been the top ten themselves. As I said at the beginning, it’s been a great decade for television, and there’s certainly way more than ten or twenty series worth watching. I have a pretty long list of shows I’ve been meaning to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet – including highly-recommended ones like Breaking Bad, Stranger Things, and The Orville. I know, I haven’t seen The Orville yet. Sue me.
The Simpsons (1989-Present) – It may surprise some of you to know that this classic cartoon is still running, but it is. After years of declining quality, recent seasons have improved greatly and the series is well worth a second look.
Page Eight (2011, 2014) – AKA The Worricker Trilogy, this political thriller was gripping from start to finish, and features a wonderful performance from Bill Nighy.
Terra Nova (2011) – A fun dinosaur/time travel series that was unfortunately cancelled after one season, just as the story was looking to get even more interesting.
Turn – Washington’s Spies (2014-17) – Telling the history of a spy ring that aided the Americans during the War of Independence, this show was entertaining and exciting, with some fun moments for a history buff like me.
Rick & Morty (2013-Present) – A hilarious animated show that satirises the science fiction genre, and plays fast and loose with its timeline and canon to great effect.
Short Treks (2018-Present) – Designed as a way to keep Star Trek on the air in between seasons of Discovery, these short-format episodes have told some amazing and occasionally very funny stories of their own.
The Strain (2014-17) – A vampire apocalypse comes to New York City in this show created by Guillermo del Toro. David Bradley gives an incredible performance as a seasoned vampire hunter.
The 100 (2014-20) – Set 99 years after a nuclear war, the show follows survivors who return to Earth after spending their whole lives in space. While it can be a bit “teenager-y”, it’s a solid work of post-apocalyptic sci fi.
11.22.63 (2016) – Based on the Steven King novel of the same name, this time travel thriller follows an attempt to prevent the assassination of JFK, and comes with a great twist.
Black Sails (2014-17) – Imagined as a prequel to classic novel Treasure Island, this series takes a more serious look at the Golden Age of Piracy than the recent Pirates of the Caribbean film series.
Number 1: Star Trek: Discovery (2017-Present)
It couldn’t possibly be anything else at the top of this list, right? After a twelve-year period in which the Star Trek franchise received three decent, but imperfect, action-heavy films, I was longing for it to return to the small screen where it belongs. Star Trek: Discovery is the reason I signed up for Netflix (we don’t have CBS All Access here in the UK) and it’s been well worth it.
As with most Star Trek shows, the start was rocky, but it picked up over a solid first season, with a great performance from Jason Isaacs as Capt. Gabriel Lorca. The second season improved greatly, and Anson Mount’s portrayal of legendary Star Trek character Capt. Christopher Pike has justifiably spawned a campaign for him to get his own show – seemingly catching the creators off-guard.
Discovery has taken a serialised approach to Star Trek, following the trend of many shows this decade, and that has allowed it to tell two season-long stories. The visuals have been updated massively; even the original Enterprise got a redesign. Some fans have felt the aesthetic was too similar to that used in the Kelvin timeline films, but taken as a standalone show, I think there’s nothing wrong with that. And the special effects and CGI have been fantastic.
Though we haven’t spent as much time as I’d have liked with all of the characters, there have been some wonderful character moments and relationships. A show like Discovery needs that, and the character development that has taken place over the first couple of seasons has been a joy to watch for the most part. Characters like Saru and Stamets have come into their own over the course of the series so far, gaining in confidence and going above and beyond for their crew.
Unfortunately, as with Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, this return to the Star Trek franchise hasn’t sat well with some fans, and in that sense that show has been divisive in the wider Trek fanbase. That’s a shame, but it’s a natural consequence of studios playing on nostalgia. There are some people who just don’t want anything new – if they want more Star Trek at all, they want to see carbon copies of what’s come before, not a show that tries to take the franchise to new places. Personally I’m just glad to see Star Trek back on our screens, and I hope it stays around for a long while yet.
For me to rank Star Trek: Discovery so highly considering that two of its key narrative elements in its first two seasons – the Mirror Universe and time travel – are generally not my favourite Star Trek stories is testament to just how good this series has been, and how happy I am to have Star Trek back after years in the wilderness.
Star Trek legend (and future Star Trek: Picard guest star) Jonathan Frakes stepped up to direct several episodes of Discovery across its first two seasons, further cementing its connection to the franchise. His episodes were actually among my favourites, and I look forward to seeing more from him in both Picard and the third season of Discovery when they premiere next year.
Star Trek: Discovery aimed to breathe new life into a franchise that had started to run out of ideas, and it has succeeded beyond all expectations. Its success has paved the way for Star Trek: Picard, as well as Lower Decks, Section 31, and other future Star Trek projects, and while it may not be everyone’s all-time favourite, in that sense it’s been great news for the franchise. I’m more than happy to crown it my favourite show of the decade.
So that’s it. Those are my picks for the decade’s best television shows. As I indicated, there have been a number of series that I just haven’t found the time to sit down and watch yet, despite meaning to. But that happens, life gets in the way sometimes! There will be plenty of time to get caught up and binge-watch them in future. If your favourite series didn’t make the list, please just remember that this is all subjective. These are just the shows I enjoyed, it doesn’t mean what you like isn’t just as good. In case you missed it, you can check out my picks for the decade’s top films here. And stick around, because coming up next will be the final part of this series where I’ll look back at the decade’s top ten video games. See you next time!
All television series discussed in the list above are the copyright of their respective studios and distributors. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.