The Saboscrivner’s Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade (2011-2021)

Because this is the kind of content you come to a food blog for, right?  Well, the year is ending, and I usually publish some kind of best-of-the-year lists, so here’s my first one: my Top Twenty TV Shows of the Decade, spanning from 2011-2021.  A few of them started airing in the previous decade, and I account for that below.  I’d love to know what my dozens of readers think about my choices, and what yours would be!

20. Parks and Recreation (NBC; 7 seasons; 2009-2015).
I used to love this show. It was hilarious, but also kind (most of the time, except for the characters’ horrible treatment of their harmless co-worker Jerry, which I always found off-putting). But I rank it at the bottom of the list because the first season was bad, and the second season didn’t get really good until two important characters were added at the very end. Also, it seems like such a time capsule of the Obama era now, with hard-working people in government like Leslie Knope going above and beyond for their unappreciative constituents, and also people like the rugged individualist Ron Swanson, on the surface her polar opposite, but ultimately an honorable man who could learn to be better and be persuaded to do the right thing and care about others. I don’t feel as confident in our government now, and I haven’t in a long time. This show may not have aged super-well, but I still think about all the times I laughed my ass off, and the handful of times I teared up (the proposal and the series finale).

19. The Venture Bros. (Adult Swim; 7 seasons plus a few specials; 2003-2018).
The only animated series on my list, it was almost entirely the work of two people, Jackson Publick and Doc Hammer, so there were delays of a year or more between seasons. We only got two longer specials, followed by seasons 5-7, in the past decade. Arguably, some of the finest moments of the show had already occurred, so they can’t count here, but there were still plenty of good gags, deep-cut nerd references, and complex additions to the show’s mythology in those last few years. This show could have run forever, and I would have been thrilled, but I think it ended on a good note, and I worry that any longer might have been bad for Mr. Publick and Mr. Hammer’s sanity and health. Still, Go Team Venture!

18. Warrior (Cinemax; 2 seasons; 2019-2020, but renewed to hopefully return).
A show I discovered after it ended, it was a badass martial arts-Western-historical drama from Jonathan Tropper (creator of a show that will rank higher on this list) and Justin Lin (director of Fast and Furious 3-6 and 9), so you know it’s going to be fun. Based on a concept created by Bruce Lee himself, it is the story of Ah Sahm, a skilled fighter who travels from China to San Francisco in search of his sister and gets caught up in Tong warfare. Along the way, he becomes a protector of innocent people and a folk hero in the oppressed Chinese immigrant community. Andrew Koji is terrific as Ah Sahm, who occasionally cracks jokes, letting his stone-faced persona slip. The fight choreography was always excellent – some of the best I’ve ever seen on television. Despite the ongoing plotline, my two favorite episodes were both stand-alone stories: a Western homage in Season 1, and a martial arts tournament in Season 2. But I cannot in good conscience recommend you just watch those out of context, so give it a chance from the beginning.

17. Person of Interest (CBS; 5 seasons; 2011-2016).
This looked like the kind of “dad show” I avoid – a CBS procedural about two guys who use a machine to find people in trouble or people about to cause trouble, and then swoop in to either rescue or stop them. The first season began kind of slow, but by the seventh episode, there was a twist that promised more interesting things to come, and it didn’t take too much longer for that promise to come true as enemies became allies, allies became enemies, and newer characters joined the mix. Even though the show kept the procedural aspect with a new number/person every week, it set up elaborate, ongoing story arcs, intense dramatic moments, huge action set-pieces, and became straight-up cyberpunk by the end. I like to think some fuddy-duddy CBS executives were pissed that their “dad show” evolved into something deeper and darker, but it was always fun. If you can get through the first handful of episodes, you’ll encounter major payoffs by staying patient. Also, creator Jonathan Nolan (brother of Christopher) would go on to create Westworld with his wife Lisa Joy, and he’d revisit some themes about all-powerful artificial intelligences and free will on the later show.

16. iZombie (The CW; 5 seasons; 2015-2019).
Extremely loosely based on a comic book co-created by my favorite artist, Michael Allred, the iZombie show jettisoned almost everything about the comic and improved the concept in every possible way. Rose McIver pulled off a memorable performance as Liv Moore, a woman who was bitten and turned into a zombie at a doomed boat party. In this show, zombies have pale skin and white hair, but they can retain their mental functions as long as they consume one human brain per week. To keep from going feral, Liv (a medical school dropout) gets a job as an assistant medical examiner to have easy access to brains, then discovers they temporarily give her flashes of the recently deceased people’s memories and aspects of their personalities. She uses this newfound ability to help a detective solve their murders, so it’s a case-of-the-week (or “brain-of-the-week”) procedural. However, the show also establishes some pretty complex, intertwining plots for every season. The brain-eating may not work for squeamish viewers, but it is the central conceit of the plot, and the show is all about plot rather than shock value gore. iZombie was a CW show, so everyone in the cast is ridiculously hot, and every character has multiple opportunities to be the best character.

15. Atlanta (FX; 2 seasons so far; 2016-present).
This brilliant show, co-created by actor-writer-comedian-singer-rapper-musician Donald Glover, is so exciting because you never know what it’s going to be from one episode to the next. It can be a dark, stark slice of urban life, an absurdist comedy, an exploration of race and racism, or a brutal, horrific nightmare. With director Hiro Murai around to set a strong visual element, Atlanta packs one of the best casts on television: Glover as hapless, passive underachiever Earn, Brian Tyree Henry as his cousin, up-and-coming rapper Paper Boi, Zazie Beetz as Earn’s love interest Van, and LaKeith Stanfield – maybe one of the best actors working today – as spaced-out, sagelike Darius. Atlanta has been on hiatus for what seems like forever, but Season 3 should be out in 2022, and they are already hard at work on Season 4. Whatever comes next, it will be worth watching, because there won’t be anything else like it, before or after.

14. Daredevil (Netflix; 3 seasons; 2016-2018).
This show is close to my heart because Daredevil is my favorite Marvel superhero, and I earned tenure because of a law review article I wrote about Daredevil in 2019 (download it for free at https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3389544)… so I can say without exaggeration that a superhero literally saved my career. But also, the show was terrific, with excellent casting and outstanding fight choreography. Each season had one memorable fight sequence that probably blew a chunk of the budget, but you could always see where all that money and expertise went. Just think of “hallway fight,” “stairwell fight,” or “hospital fight,” and it may come rushing back to you. The show borrowed liberally from Frank Miller’s legendary noir-tinged comics, while remixing key moments and going its own way with a lot of them. Sometimes this worked (Punisher), and other times, not so much (Bullseye). My biggest complaint about Daredevil and the other Marvel shows on Netflix were that the seasons were too long, leading to a lot of slow pacing and filler. I think it would have ended with an even better reputation if seasons were eight episodes long, or even ten, rather than 13. But I remain hopeful and optimistic that we haven’t seen the last of these characters, or the perfectly cast actors who played them, in other live-action Marvel projects. And Daredevil has been the most consistently written Marvel comic for the past 20 years, with so many more classic stories by the best writers in comics to adapt.

13. The Americans (FX; 6 seasons; 2013-2018).
A show that shifted between slow, methodical pacing and breakneck, stressful intensity (often in the same episode), The Americans may be the least-flashy show on this list, but it was always a master class in acting. Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell played two Soviet spies, living deep undercover as an all-American family in the Washington, D.C., suburbs in the 1980s, raising unwitting kids while committing acts of espionage (and occasionally straight-up murdering people), all under the nose of their next-door neighbor and “friend,” an FBI agent played by Noah Emmerich. Like I said, intense. There are a lot of dangerous missions (aided by fascinating analog technology and fabulous wigs), close calls, horrible betrayals, and the highest of stakes. A final standoff in a parking garage in the series finale featured some of the best performances I’ve ever seen, and it led to a heartbreaking conclusion. But no spoilers from me! You probably didn’t watch this show (not nearly enough people did), so what are you waiting for?

12. Black Monday (Showtime; 3 seasons; 2019-2021).
Another ‘80s period piece, this one is a comedy – ostensibly a sitcom – about Wall Street iconoclasts who engineered the biggest stock market crash in history. But as silly as it often was, it was also a smart and clever show, with intricate plotting, full of twists and turns and plenty of brutal betrayals. The ‘80s references were a treat to pick out, and the snappy wordplay was unparalleled. Plus, you had a terrific cast anchored by Don Cheadle, with some of the funniest people around: Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, Paul Scheer, Casey Wilson, June Diane Raphael, and Ken Marino playing TWO of the slimiest characters ever. Black Monday could surprise me by returning for another season, but if not, it ended on a perfect note. Unfortunately, because it was broadcast on Showtime, I suspect that kept a lot of people who would have loved it from discovering it.

11. The Leftovers (HBO; 3 seasons; 2014-2017).
This was certainly a polarizing show, especially since Season 1 is full of unpleasant subject matter and is difficult to get through. But there are plenty of great moments along the way, and then the series was retooled for a very different second season that led to even more unforgettable television. The general concept of the show is that 2% of the world’s population instantly, randomly disappeared during a moment that would be referred to as the “Sudden Departure,” and the survivors were forced to deal with grief and loss, along with reexamining everything they thought they knew about religion, science, life, and death. Some of The Leftovers is brutally sad, but I think there is a lot of hope there too. Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston, and especially Carrie Coon and Regina King are incredible in this, and there are a few dreamlike episodes that come later that will fill you with awe for their audacity and ambition.

10. Hannibal (NBC; 3 seasons; 2013-2015).
People (including me) always say that it’s a wonder this show existed at all, much less on NBC for three seasons. Bryan Fuller’s artsy take on Thomas Harris’ novels redefines the relationship between sophisticated, multitalented psychiatrist/surgeon/gourmet chef/snappy dresser/cannibal serial killer Hannibal Lecter and sensitive, vulnerable FBI profiler Will Graham. Each man is fascinated by the other, and they have a bizarre mentor/mentee relationship where they constantly hunt and hurt each other, while being the only people who could possibly understand each other. Every aspect of the show is gorgeous, from sets to costumes to elaborate feasts designed by food stylist Janice Poon. Even the murder scenes staged by Lecter and competing serial killers (there sure are a lot of them in this beautiful nightmare reality) are elaborate tableaux that fascinate as much as they repulse. This show is definitely not for the squeamish, but it is so much better than it had any right to be. Mads Mikkelsen’s performance as Lecter makes Anthony Hopkins’ award-winning portrayal from earlier movies seem like hammy community theater by comparison; when Eddie Izzard appears in the show as a killer who is far more vile and depraved than the refined Lecter, he is doing a straight-up Hopkins impression.

9. Justified (FX; 6 seasons; 2010-2015).
Another crime show, and another show that could be hilariously funny. It achieved greatness on the strength of the two leads in the roles of their lifetimes, Timothy Olyphant as trigger-happy U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens and Walton Goggins as backwoods crime lord Boyd Crowder, two men who grew up in abusive, poverty-stricken homes in the hollers of Harlan, Kentucky, dug coal together, and then went in very different directions in their lives. Raylan and Boyd spend almost the entire series as “frenemies” – they hate each other and wouldn’t mind killing each other, but often find themselves in uneasy alliances against common threats and more dangerous foes. Raylan isn’t as upstanding as he appears and Boyd is much smarter than he appears, but both men are formidable adversaries and incredible fun to watch. Based on source material by the late, great novelist Elmore Leonard (who also wrote Get Shorty, Out of Sight, and Rum Punch, which Quentin Tarantino adapted into Jackie Brown), Justified always had clever, snappy tough-guy dialogue, memorable performances from the “big bads” of each season, and a real sense of place that made it feel different from every other show on television. You’ll never leave Harlan alive, but you’ll want to watch these guys try.

8. The Good Place (NBC; 4 seasons; 2016-2020).
I think this Michael Schur sitcom will age better than Parks and Recreation, due to balancing jokes with philosophical exploration of what it means to be a good person and lead a good life. Four deeply flawed people die and find themselves in “The Good Place,” an afterlife that is not what it appears to be, and this kicks off an epic saga with some major plot twists, status quo shakeups, extremely high stakes, ongoing mysteries, noble sacrifices, and more aspects that you would expect from big-deal prestige dramas, not scrappy, hilarious, underdog network sitcoms. It’s a funny show, and a feel-good show with heart, but it’s also a seminar in philosophy and ethics with a strong point of view. You will be a better person if you watch it, and not just because it’s a good TV show that I’m recommending.

7. Childrens Hospital (Adult Swim; 7 seasons; 2010-2016).
This parody of medical dramas like E.R. and Grey’s Anatomy started out as eight-minute “webisodes” that aired during the writers’ strike of 2008, then launched as 15-minute episodes on Adult Swim that got more ambitious and high-concept as the show continued, against all odds. It features so many beloved names in comedy, very few of whom would be considered “stars” or household names, but they were all amazing here, usually playing it completely straight, which made it even funnier. Lake Bell, Erinn Hayes, Ken Marino again, Rob Huebel, Megan Mullally, Henry Winkler, Rob Corddry, and Malin Akerman played the core cast, but some of the recurring characters, like Nick Offerman’s Detective Chance Briggs and co-creator David Wain’s Rabbi Jewy McJewJew, filled me with delight whenever they showed back up. And later on, we’d find out that the ”Childrens Hospital” we were watching this whole time was a show within a show, and we’d spend time with the actors playing the characters on that show, which somehow had been running for decades. It all makes sense. Kind of. Or maybe not. But it was brilliant, inspired, chaotic comedy that included everything from direct parodies to slapstick to wordplay to callbacks to gimmick episodes to changes to the entire status quo of the show. Oh yeah, and it was all set in a hospital in Brazil. Which was where they were the entire time.

6. Breaking Bad (AMC; 5 seasons; 2008-2013).
I don’t think any shows have built tension better than Breaking Bad. I’m talking edge-of-your-seat, pit-in-your-stomach, heart racing, teeth chattering tension. It makes you feel real fear for the characters, all various shades of bad people who bring their worst problems upon themselves. It’s a show about one brilliant man’s hubris, and how he poisoned his own life and the lives of everyone he interacted with. It’s a pulpy, violent, brutal show about criminals – some of the worst people you’ve ever seen – and a sad tale about how the American health care system fails people. If we had Medicare For All, this public school teacher who developed cancer could have gotten the care he needed without embarking on a life of crime that would cause untold suffering for thousands of people, and so much death and destruction. But a show about a man getting health care would not have provided the gripping drama we got. The only reason I didn’t rank this show higher was because only seasons 4 and 5 aired during this decade. But then we got a prequel/spinoff that surpassed it in some ways, so stay tuned for that!

5. Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime; 1 season; 2017).
I was too young to watch the two seasons of Twin Peaks when they first aired from 1990 to 1991, and I would definitely have been too young to fully understand or appreciate them. But when I finally binge-watched the show in 2009, it quickly became one of my all-time favorites, and it made me a huge fan of the works of co-creator and visionary filmmaker/visual artist/musician/avuncular weirdo David Lynch. Still, it always saddened me that Twin Peaks ended on a maddening cliffhanger. When it returned for a new season of 18 episodes on Showtime in 2017, each one directed by Lynch himself, it felt like a dream come true – a chance to revisit the town, see some old friends, and get some closure. Well, as you might expect from Lynch, the dream was often more like a nightmare. It was often darker, drearier, and more dreamlike than the earlier episodes. Some things never made sense. Others contradicted things we thought we knew or dashed our hopes for happy endings. As nice as it was to reconnect with some beloved characters, the actors were so much older, so frail and infirm. Some died before this season went into production, and a few passed during production or shortly after it aired. The methodical pacing made me think a lot about the passage of time, and how time ravages us all, one way or another. But even when Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost gave us a bit of comic relief or a few happy moments, I found that a lot of the show still frustrated me, and it didn’t give me the ending I hoped for so badly. In the end, I should have known better. Lynch’s works often belie explanation, and he never gives audiences easy answers, catharsis, or finality. Why did I rank this show so high on my list, even when it ultimately left me disappointed? Because it was a gift, because it was the uncompromised vision of an auteur, and because I don’t need to love everything to realize what a damn fine work of art it was. And maybe we’ll see Lynch and his characters and the town of Twin Peaks again… just hopefully not in 25 more years.

4. Halt and Catch Fire (AMC; 4 seasons; 2014-2017).
Some people might have read a blurb about this show and thought it sounded boring. Some might have dismissed it as “Mad Men, but in the home computer industry in Texas in the early ‘80s.” Many probably never heard of it at all. But give it a chance, and I promise you’ll be impressed. You will never believe how much you’ll care about five people working in the home computer industry in Texas in the early ‘80s, or how much you’ll both love and hate them at various times, and how deeply you’ll care about all of them relatively early on. I’ve already written about shows that are “master classes in acting,” and here’s another one. None of the leads are household names, but that’s a shame, if not a crime. You should get to know Lee Pace, Scoot [not a typo] McNairy, Mackenzie Davis, Kerry Bishe, and Toby Huss, because they deserved to become big stars after this show, which should have made more of a cultural impact. It’s not too late for any of that to happen. Just like Mad Men showed this advertising agency as a microcosm of the vast societal changes of the 1960s, Halt and Catch Fire shows how much these five characters in their 1980s setting pioneered the technological advances that made our world the way we know it today, allowing you all to be reading my list right now. Watch it. I promise you’ll bawl your eyes out at least once. And they introduce a character in the final season who I really wanted to get a spinoff – let’s see if the dozens of fellow Halt and Catch Fire fans can guess who that was.

3. Banshee (Cinemax; 4 seasons; 2013-2016).
Really? He liked it that much? Yes, I did. This little-seen Cinemax series by Jonathan Tropper (who would later co-create Warrior) is on HBO Max now, so you have no excuse. The show is pure id – pulpy action drenched in sex and violence, with plenty of nudity and blood. A criminal tracking down a woman from his past finds himself in a small Pennsylvania town and finds himself thrust into the position of impersonating the new sheriff, who conveniently, nobody had met or even seen yet. He gets together with his old crew, pulls some jobs, makes a few friends and a lot of new enemies, and realizes that outrunning his past is impossible. We meet an incredible villain in the form of the local crime boss, a former Amish man who was cast out of the pacifist community and now rules the town with an iron fist (and a really scary henchman), keeping everyone in fear… except the new impostor sheriff. Like Justified, Banshee is a saga of small-town badassery that often feels like a modern-day Western, but while Justified has it beaten for cleverness and wit, Banshee wins with brutal fight choreography, hot women, and dangerous people doing very bad things to each other. The show is so audacious in what it gets away with, it almost becomes transgressive, and I love and respect it for that.

2. Better Call Saul (AMC; 5 seasons with one coming next year; 2015-2022).
With one season remaining to wrap everything up, I can say with certainty that this prequel/spinoff surpassed its original source material, Breaking Bad – at least for me. Both shows were about the criminal rises and downfalls of flawed but good men, full of potential for greatness in their fields. Walter White could have been a successful chemist, but he could never get along with others. Jimmy McGill did become a successful attorney, but he had the heart of a con artist, and he had a better time doing things the wrong way — taking shortcuts, skirting the law. He identified more with his criminal clients than the polished, pompous lawyers who stood in his way and set him up to fail when he was trying so hard to be good, until he realized he didn’t have to do things their way. Sadly, we still don’t know how Jimmy’s hubris and bad choices as Saul Goodman are going to affect his (and our) beloved Kim Wexler, the best woman on television, played by one of the best actresses on television, Rhea Seehorn. Oh yeah, Mike from Breaking Bad is in this too, and we see the origin story of how both men got involved with the cartel. This show has some of the most gut-churning, intense drama since Breaking Bad aired, but it can also be one of the funniest shows on TV. That balance is necessary to break all the tension, and there is a lot of tension.

1. Mad Men (AMC; 7 seasons; 2007-2015).
Maybe this is recency bias, because I never watched this series as it aired, but binged the entire thing with my wife earlier this year. I was skeptical, fully expecting to hate it, but it surpassed all the hype. For me, it completely lived up to its reputation as the pinnacle of prestige TV, alongside The Wire (my favorite show of the previous decade). Only seasons 5-7 aired during this decade, but those were still three impeccable seasons of television. Sometimes Mad Men was inscrutable, sometimes it was frustrating, sometimes it was funnier than most actual comedies, but it always delivered the best writing and acting on television, to say nothing of incredible sets, costumes, and general production design, as you can imagine for a show that spanned the tumultuous era of 1960 to 1970s. Jon Hamm’s mysterious, suave, and deeply flawed Don Draper is an unforgettable character, but the entire ensemble was important, with Elisabeth Moss’s Peggy Olsen as the closest we ever had to an audience point of view character (and poor Ted Chaough emerging as my favorite character). I never expected I would “mark out” at so many legendary moments during what I expected would be an understated drama, or laugh so much, or be shocked, or saddened, or pissed. This show had everything. It was a carousel through one of the most important, turbulent decades in history, and it could only ever have been crafted with this much care, attention, wit, and art during these past two decades. Plus, Mad Men brought us Vincent Kartheiser’s perfectly emphasized reply while his life was falling apart and someone asked how he was doing: “NOT GREAT, BOB!”

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