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The 30 best TV shows of the decade, from This Is England to Chernobyl

The Independent logo The Independent 6 days ago Fiona Sturges, Ed Cumming
Donald Glover, Jodie Comer, John Snow, Phoebe Waller-Bridge posing for the camera © Provided by The Independent

The 2010s were the decade when streaming sent TV mad. Excited by the possibilities of a wifi-connected world where everything could be made available at any moment, and everyone had a TV in their pocket, companies launched into a war for eyeball time that still rages. In 2009, Netflix had the field to itself. Now it must compete with Amazon, Apple, Disney, YouTube and Facebook. In its struggle to keep up, Netflix spent $15bn on content this year alone, a figure that is expected to rise next year.

The most interesting change is firms spending money on TV who do not need to make a direct return on it. Amazon describes its Prime service as a “flywheel”: if we want to watch The Man in the High Castle, we must stay subscribed to Prime, and if we are subscribed to Prime, we might as well buy our nappies from Amazon, too.

Video: The 10 best TV shows of the 2010s (Time)

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As the budget has shifted to TV away from Hollywood, the lines of what is and what isn’t a TV programme or a feature film have become blurred. At the same time, the trends haven’t all been towards glossy big-budget drama. Reality TV came back with a vengeance in the form of Love Island, while Bake Off proved there remains a market for competitive tweeness. 

The only stipulation for this list is that the programme must have started since 2010. No Breaking Bad or Mad Men here. It’s too early to tell whether we will look back on the profligacy of recent years as an aberration or the start of something more lasting, but it has been entertaining either way. For all Netflix’s vaunted original series, its most popular programme in the UK is Friends. Perhaps things haven’t changed much after all.

30. Homeland (season 1, 2011)

Claire Danes, Damian Lewis © Catalyst Claire Danes, Damian Lewis Few dead horses have been more flogged, but if you stretch your mind back enough, it is possible to remember a series with a fantastic premise that kept us guessing for 12 whole episodes. The question: had returning war hero Sgt Brody (Damian Lewis) been radicalised in a foreign jail cell? CIA officer Carrie Mathison (Claire Danes) thought so, but she had plenty of problems of her own. I still think it would have been better if he’d detonated at the denouement. Twisty, compelling, briefly essential. (EC)

29. Mum (2016-2019)

The slow-burning relationship between Cathy (Lesley Manville), a widow and mother of superhuman forbearance, and her late husband’s best pal Michael (Peter Mullan) elevated what could have been a run-of-the-mill suburban comedy into a beautifully composed portrait of friendship, grief and mid-life romance. (FS)

28. The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-)

a person standing next to a tree: (Hulu) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Hulu)

Hulu’s adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, set in a pious patriarchal state, lost its way in the second series, but the first, which arrived a few months after Trump entered the White House, was a triumph. As Offred, Elisabeth Moss seethed under her mask of impassivity, while the rich palette gave us a dystopian nightmare as imagined by the 17th-century Dutch school. (FS)

27. Money Heist (2017-)

Perhaps the trashiest show on this list, but trash of the highest grade, Money Heist is Netflix’s most popular non-English series, a hit across Europe and South America, with 34 million accounts watching this year’s Part 3 in its first week of release. A mysterious mastermind known as The Professor gathers together a crew of misfit criminals to execute a robbery on the Royal Mint in Spain. Tense, funny, clever and often completely preposterous, La Casa de Papel has only been held back by its off-putting English title. (EC)

Gallery: The 30 best TV shows ever (Tech Radar)


26. Rick and Morty (2013-)

It unfortunately inspired some of the worst fans on the internet, but that shouldn’t detract from Rick and Morty’s inventiveness. Ostensibly a parody of Back to the Future, about the adventures of a young boy and his alcoholic, mad scientist grandfather, the cartoon uses its set-up to put its heroes in an endless number of frenetic, frequently insane situations. Blink and you miss a gag and two pop-culture references. (EC)

25. The Returned (2012-2015)

This exquisite French series is about the dead trying to return to their old lives in a secluded mountain town dispensed with the usual gory zombie tropes, instead dwelling on the human instincts of these confused beings – specifically their desire to love and be loved ­– and the grief experienced by those they left behind. (FS)

24. Catastrophe (2015-19)

a person sitting on a rock: (Channel 4) © Provided by Independent Digital News & Media Limited (Channel 4)

Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney were a masterful double act in this sitcom about a holiday fling resulting in an unplanned pregnancy. The pair’s attempts to build a life together yielded scabrous gags about sex and post-partum leakage, a cameo from the late Carrie Fisher and an underlying tenderness that resisted spilling into sentimentality. (FS)

23. Killing Eve (2018-)

A wicked cocktail of comedy and humanity, shock and gore, the first series of Killing Eve, written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, was a subversive joy. Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer played, respectively, a spy and an assassin whose continental game of cat-and-mouse was a blood-spattered love story for the ages. Sadly, when Waller-Bridge handed off writing duties in the second series, the magic wasn’t quite the same. (FS)

22. Borgen (2010-2013)

The Killing may have started the Scandi craze, but it aired in Denmark in 2007, so it doesn’t count for these purposes. Borgen was everything The West Wing wasn’t: a cliché-resistant drama that showed politics in grating reality, with plenty of plausible schemers in slick outfits and a wonderful central performance by Sidse Babett Knudsen as Birgitte Nyborg​, the prime minister trying to balance principles with power. (EC)

21. Detectorists (2014-17)

Toby Jones, Mackenzie Crook are posing for a picture: (BBC) © Provided by The Independent (BBC)

Following the exploits of Lance (Toby Jones) and Andy (Mackenzie Crook), dedicated treasure hunters and members of the Danebury Metal Detecting Club, Detectorists was about people and their passions, community and camaraderie. It’s a wonderfully tranquil meditation on male companionship. (FS)

20. The Americans (2013-2018)

Where other series burn brightly and fade after a couple of years, FX’s Cold War spy drama took its time. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell, married in real life, shone as the Russian couple working as spies in suburban Washington DC. The tension built over six seasons to a magnificent finale, rewarding those who stuck with it. (EC)

19. The Leftovers (2014-2017)

The premise is one of the most intriguing in television: people struggling to come to terms with something called the “Sudden Departure”, a mysterious event in which 2 per cent of the world’s population simply disappeared. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s drama received iffy reviews at first, but its reputation grew through its second and final outings, with writing and performances that explored the full depth of the setup without losing the pervasive air of mystery. (EC)

18. The Crown (2016-)

Olivia Colman standing in front of a building: (Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix) © Provided by The Independent (Sophie Mutevelian/Netflix)

The third series is a noticeable drop-off in quality, but for two series The Crown achieved a number of unexpected feats. It made viewers genuinely interested in the royal family, and not in a Prince Andrew “should they go to prison?” kind of way. With sumptuous sets and costumes and some excellent performances, especially Claire Foy as the young monarch, this remains the high-water mark of Netflix polish – proof that money can, sometimes, buy you love. (EC)

17. The Great British Bake Off (2010-)

Reports of the death of TV’s baking behemoth have been greatly exaggerated: despite host departures, a channel move and the off-screen antics of a certain perma-tanned judge, this big-hearted competition in which friendships are forged and adults weep over sagging soufflés remains the ultimate feel-good reality show. (FS)

16. The Trip (2010-)

Two men bicker over bottles of fine wine. Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s low-key, semi-improvised and implausibly funny tours of high-end European restaurants saw the pair’s insecurities deliciously laid bare as they discussed sex, ageing and ambition. Michael Winterbottom directed. (FS)

15. Happy Valley (2014-)

a boy wearing a hat: (BBC) © Provided by The Independent (BBC)

This Yorkshire-set, Bafta-festooned series gave us Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), a pleasingly complex, no-nonsense police sergeant up to her neck in rapists, murderers, addicts and the odd ailing sheep, together with some superbly earthy dialogue courtesy of writer Sally Wainwright. (FS)

14. Girls (2012-2017)

Without Girls there is no Fleabag or Adam Driver, and it would probably merit inclusion on those two facts alone. But Lena Dunham now attracts as much opprobrium as praise, and it’s easy to forget how new her breakthrough comedy felt in its naturalistic depiction of young women in New York. This was Sex and the City for people who spent more time on Instagram than at work, created by people the same age as those they were portraying. Its look and feel have cast a long shadow. (EC)

13. Sherlock (2010-)

Witty, inventive and dazzling to look at, Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’s relocation of the Arthur Conan Doyle stories to the present day worked beautifully, as did the casting of Benedict Cumberbatch as the “high-functioning sociopath” Holmes and Martin Freeman as the put-upon army veteran Watson. While later series would drift, the first three were unbeatable. (FS)

12. Chernobyl (2019)

A five-part drama about a nuclear disaster in 1986 is not the most promising prospect for a night in with a bottle of wine. It is a tribute to the writer, Craig Mazin, and director, Johan Renck, as well as its cast, especially Jared Harris, that Chernobyl managed to be totally gripping, with frequent moments of stark, horrendous beauty. (EC)

11. Atlanta (2016-)

Keith Stanfield, Donald Glover on a sidewalk: (AP) © Provided by The Independent (AP)

At first, the musician and comedian Donald Glover’s series about struggling rappers in Atlanta looked like a familiar, safe kind of sitcom about loveable losers. But it quickly evolved into something fresh: a smart, occasionally surreal examination of life at the margins of America, whose angry heart never spilled into preachiness or got in the way of the jokes. (EC)

10. Love Island (2015-)

Who could have anticipated a dating show in which twenty-somethings sit around in microscopic swimwear would tell us so much about the human condition? Gaslighting, bromances, the complexities of “girl code” – Love Island delved beneath the spray tans and schooled the nation on modern manners. (FS)

9. Patrick Melrose (2018-)

Benedict Cumberbatch wearing a suit and tie: (Sky) © Provided by The Independent (Sky)

An electrifying study of addiction, trauma and the corrupting power of privilege, based on the autobiographical books by Edward St Aubyn. Benedict Cumberbatch played the feckless antihero grappling with his past and trying (and mostly failing) to be better than the wretched aristos that raised him. (FS)

8. The Vietnam War (2017)

Ken Burns’s epic 10-part documentary followed up his other conflict opuses, on The Civil War and The War, with a detailed story about Vietnam. Using new interviews from both sides as well as archive footage, the documentary shows in unrelenting detail a catastrophe that unfolded in slow motion. Some critics accused it of underserving the experience of the Vietnamese civilians. But it left viewers in no doubt that not only did the US leadership pursue it long after it was a lost cause, but they knew from the start it was unwinnable. (EC)

7. Black Mirror (2011-)

Charlie Brooker sent every other TV critic, or at least one of them, into a spiral of envy by proving not only that it was possible to cross over into creation, but to do so in style. Black Mirror’s taut near-future tales of techno-dystopia are almost always interesting, even if they sometimes fall short of their ambitions, as with the high-concept recent film “Bandersnatch”. The best episodes, like 2016’s tour de force, “San Junipero”, are gripping examinations of human connection in a world where interactions are increasingly by screens. (EC)

6. Blue Planet II (2017)

a painting in a dark room: (BBC) © Provided by The Independent (BBC)

The first of the Attenborough documentaries to speak directly of the human impact on the natural world, this kaleidoscopic ocean odyssey provided a visual feast of clam-cracking tuskfish, alien-looking pyrosomes and anthropomorphic ­dolphins, while reminding us how it could all be lost. (FS)

5. BoJack Horseman (2014-)

Only in a world of Netflix budgets can you imagine a concept as wild as BoJack Horseman’s getting off the ground. It’s a cartoon set in LA, ostensibly a comedy about celebrity, except half the characters, including its lead, are anthropomorphised animals. Halfway through its final season, which has been split into two, its initial zaniness has given way to something darker and more interesting. Lurid colours and visual wit dress one of the most humane explorations of depression, addiction and cycles of abuse. (EC)

4. Fleabag (2016-19)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge sitting at a table with wine glasses: (BBC) © Provided by The Independent (BBC)

What began, in its first series, as an enjoyably acid-tongued portrait of modern womanhood became a fully fledged masterpiece in the second. Written by and starring Phoebe Waller-Bridge, Fleabag gave us perfectly calibrated scenes of familial dysfunction and sexual longing – the latter memorably culminating in the Priest’s simple, thrilling instruction: “Kneel.” (FS)

3. This Is England (2010-15)

The first spin-off series from Shane Meadows’s 2007 film, about a gang of ex-skinheads from the midlands, was set during the 1986 World Cup, and remains one of the great British dramas, depicting working class lives with humanity and humour. This Is England ’88 and ’90 followed, both of them similarly infused with heart and soul. (FS)

2. Succession (2018-)

Said to have been a decade in the making, Succession is worth every minute spent on it. Brian Cox enjoys a dream of a late-career role as Logan Roy, the ageing media tycoon unwilling to relinquish control of his company to any of his ungrateful and talentless children. There’s oblivious eldest son Connor (Alan Ruck), troubled addict Kendall (Jeremy Strong), scheming daughter Shiv (Sarah Snook) and the abrasive youngest Roman (Kieran Culkin), along with a host of hangers-on, partners and support staff. None of them seem to have the right stuff. It’s an intriguing set-up, but Succession is lifted by its script, performances, locations, costumes, music and direction, which place it firmly in a tradition of laughing at our rulers, where the mirth comes tempered with the knowledge that these are really the people in charge. (EC)

1. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)

Emilia Clarke standing in front of a blue background: (AP) © Provided by The Independent (AP)

Yes, the final series went a bit weird. Maybe the final two series. A case could be made that the TV adaptation was never as emotionally resonant when it went beyond George RR Martin’s novels. The final series were only disappointing compared to what had come before, which was a fantasy on an unprecedented scale that managed to be grandiose without slipping into melodrama. An invented universe with necromancers, dragons, magic swords and ice zombies was notable for its plausible realpolitik. At a time when viewing tastes were meant to be becoming more atomised, Game of Thrones was global event TV, which made household names of the Starks, Lannisters and Greyjoys and provided a whole generation of English character actors with a regular income. (EC)

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