Tsunami TV: Best of a booming decade

By Tom Long
Special to The Detroit News

Two letters just aren’t big enough anymore.

If TV was a constant flowing stream in 2010, by 2019 it has become a tsunami. TV is everywhere: In cars, cabs, on computer screens, at gas stations, in living rooms, bars, airports, waiting rooms and, most importantly, in the phone most people carry at all times. In the modern world, TV lives in your pocket.

In 2010 it would have been amazing to predict 300 new narrative television shows being produced in a year’s time. At this point the number is surely more than twice that but there are so many apps, networks and odd iterations – Facebook TV?  – that an accurate count is impossible. TV is moving so fast it’s hard to pin down.

But TV is much more than just the sum of its original series. For millions it functions as an all-day companion, a talking lamp of sorts that fills the air with you-are-not-alone background chatter. And for a frightening number of people it has become a political propaganda reinforcement tool, constantly chastising, criticizing, fueling fear and fury.

TV is reality show competitions, litanies of disastrous lives and unsolved murders, baking shows and sports-sports-sports. In Great Britain there’s a show called “Gogglebox” that simply watches people watching TV.

“Gogglebox” is in its 14th season.

The advent of streaming television, which took hold in 2013 with “House of Cards” on Netflix, was the big TV game changer of the decade, obviously. Now streaming is the main cause of that cultural tsunami – Apple TV and Disney Plus just became available, the behemoth HBO Max is due in the spring – while cable struggles to keep subscribers from cutting cords and traditional broadcast television suffers its death throes. 

In 2011 there were six narrative shows produced for streaming services; by 2018 there were 160.

All of this has arguably (and really, it would be a short argument) made for the best decade of TV ever as competition has been fierce, innovation valued and the sheer scope and size of television has become unprecedented. This year many Oscar race contenders will be films made by and for TV; who would have predicted that a decade ago?

Of course the TV tsunami has also made the illusion of an all-knowing TV critic downright laughable. It’s literally impossible to take in even a quarter of what’s available. It has also made a list of the decade’s best shows even more of a subjective joke than all the other cultural hosanna lists popping up.

Still, let’s give it a go. Here are the parameters: Only TV series (that knocks off a lot of superb limited ventures like this year’s “Unbelievable” or “When They See Us.”). Only TV series which began after 2009 (this murders the final broadcast network standouts like “The Good Wife” and “Parks and Recreation”). And as far as reality TV… please.

Which sets up:

Regina King as Sister Night in "Watchmen."

1 – “The Leftovers” (2014) and “Watchmen” (2019) HBO

The top two places on this list belong to showrunners as well as their shows. In the middle of the decade Damon Lindelof adopted Tom Perotta’s novel about a world in which two percent of the population simply vanishes and turned it into an often surreal, always gripping meditation on mortality and survival that dared to question reality while never losing its way. Lifted by wondrous performances from Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux, Ann Dowd, Regina Knight, Scott Glenn and many more it would have topped this list under any circumstance. But then this year Lindelof returned with Knight for ‘Watchmen,” a comic book reinvention that did a deep, troubling dive into America’s racist history while also featuring a blue guy who lives in outer space (it’s not called a series yet, but count on it). This was TV at its finest.

Phoebe Waller-Bridge accepts the award for outstanding lead actress in a comedy series for "Fleabag."

2 – “Fleabag” (2016) and “Killing Eve” (2018) Amazon/BBC-Hulu

Virtually unknown five years ago, Phoebe Waller-Bridge adapted her one-woman “Fleabag” stage show into a razor-sharp examination of family, tragedy and sex as a coping strategy. Although its two seasons total only 12 episodes, they are so filled with wit, social criticism and dagger plunges of heart-wrenching drama that they are simultaneously exhausting and exhilarating. “Fleabag” would also be here on its own but Waller-Bridge then served up the most adorable sociopathic assassin (Jodie Comer) in memory, pairing her with an emotionally perplexed spy (Sandra Oh) in “Killing Eve” for a mesmerizing, hilarious, daring look at women dancing on the line between love and hate. As the British say: Brilliant.

Kristofer Hivju, from left, Kit Harington and Emilia Clarke in a scene from "Game of Thrones."

3 – “Game of Thrones” (2011) HBO

Oh, get over grumbling about the final episodes; this was the show of the decade for very good reasons. The production values and ensemble cast were through the roof, the storylines were complex and entwined like no others in history, the shocks were actually shocking and the characters were ruthless, noble, savage and yet still often endearing. “Game” cast a grim but revealing light on the machinations of power and may also have been the last everybody’s-taking-about-it television show. I don’t understand how Jaime could have left Brienne either, but that doesn’t negate the power this show held over eight seasons.

4 – “Succession” (2018) HBO

Timing isn’t everything but it doesn’t hurt. This impressive series about a ruthless media tycoon (the majestic Brian Cox) and the progeny who fight to become his heir all while caring not one whit for the toxic effect their Fox-like empire is having on civilization is in some way a modern “Game of Thrones” minus the literal bloodletting. And its resonance in the age of Trump and rising income inequality is unmistakable.  Eldest son Jeremy Strong stands out but the entire ensemble cast is delicious.

Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell in "The Americans."

5 – “The Americans” (2013) F/X

Talk about prescient. In 2013 Russia was just Russia and this story of Cold War Soviet spies pretending to be Americans seemed like a high-quality throwback. By the time the series ended in 2018 Russia had become our shadow overlord and this series about ideology, culture, a fractured family and the way dark moves lead to more dark moves was painfully, frighteningly relevant. Plus it was just so damn watchable.

6 – “Justified” (2010) F/X

Speaking of watchable, this series about Kentucky-based U.S. Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant), based on a character by Elmore Leonard, managed to bring that writer’s sly sense of crime management alive. Good guys came and went but it was the yin-yang of Given’s morally flexible lawman and his longtime frenemy Boyd Crowder (a transcendent Walton Goggins) that made the show sizzle. Extra points for wonderful use of supporting actors such as Patton Oswalt, Kaitlyn Dever, Margo Martindale, Mykelti Williamson and many others.

Emily Moss in "The Handmaid's Tale."

7 – “The Handmaid’s Tale” (2017) Hulu

The timing of this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian classic was enough to make the show hard to watch. And the first season was such a phenomenon that subsequent seasons have been somewhat lost in its wake. Also, why watch a show about immigrants in cages when you can watch the news? But star Elisabeth Moss, as a woman who suffers government-ordered systemic rape in an America gone terribly wrong, brought some major crazy in the show’s third season and this show’s relevance, unfortunately, remains all too strong.

8 – “Happy Valley” (2014) BBC-Netflix

This import only ran two seasons but it’s probably the most exquisite of the many small-town British crime sagas (Runner-up: “Broadchurch”) that brought joy over the decade. Sarah Lancashire plays a uniform cop in West Yorkshire, where the accents are thick and the problems are plentiful. As much a detailed portrait of semi-rural, working class life in a run-down kingdom as a police story, these characters stick to your bones.

Claire Foy, center, and Matt Smith, right, in a scene from "The Crown."

9 – “The Crown” (2016) Netflix

The past decade has been all about income equality and the erosion of tradition. This lovely period piece has followed the rise of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth in the 20th century even as England itself loses ground; in the first two seasons Claire Foy played the young Elizabeth, trying to find her way in a straitjacketed life, this year the estimable Olivia Colman took over as the mature Elizabeth. Lessons in quiet burden, pomposity and the illusion of control abound.

10 – “Fargo” (2014) F/X

This always lively anthology series takes bizarre cop cases from the Minnesota/Dakotas area and twists them into crime epics, just as the original film did. The acting talent here has been a marvel – Billy Bob Thornton to Jean Smart to Kirsten Dunst to Mary Elizabeth Winstead and onward – but the underlying current creator Noah Hawley seems to obsessed with is just how damn strange apparently regular people can be. Pretty strange indeed. And that may sum up the past decade.