toatali’s best TV shows of the decade

As the 2010s come to a close, I too decide to hop on the bandwagon of judging which of its many creations are allowed to be remembered. The rules are simple; only shows which started their run in 2010 or later qualify for this list (there’s one cheat, but the first season is short and crap anyway), and like my best of the year lists, there is no ranking; just one singular winner. Also, remember that I’m only one man, with limited time on my hands; so if I haven’t seen your favourite show… why not try sending me an angry message on twitter telling me to watch it?

Let’s also talk about lists for a moment – why do them at all? Of course, this list isn’t me being really serious – these may be my favourite TV shows of the last ten years right now, but that’s so arbitrary. It’s also why I hate ranking lists, because you’re too often comparing apples and oranges. But – and here’s the crucial part – this is basically recommendations. I often think of what Paul Thomas Anderson said about the Oscars. Although they often get it ‘wrong’ and have a lot of problems, they also allow arthouse films to be promoted to a mainstream level that they wouldn’t otherwise get. This is obviously not the Oscars. But if you get even one TV recommendation from this list, it will have been worth writing.
Plus, it’s fun.

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Parks and Recreation (2009 – 15)

Although Mike Schur has by now become a celebrated figure in comedy circles thanks to his work on shows like The Office, Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place, all by themselves great works of television, there is no better encapsulation of Schur’s unique sensibilities as a creator than his first work as a full series creator; Parks and Recreation.

Although the show’s six episode first season feels like a shoddy knock off of The Office set in local government as opposed to an office supplies distributer, by the second season Schur had realised that the show needed to stand on its own and have its own voice and vision. That vision is ultimately an optimistic one. Where The Office buries its optimism below layers of snark and cringe comedy, Parks and Rec lets itself be happy almost all of the time, but without ever being saccharine. It’s a tightrope balance of tone, a show that is about tireless tenacity in the face of adversity that never itself becomes tireless.

Most of this is down to the show’s game cast. It’s obviously the relationship between Amy Poehler’s preppy democrat Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman’s grouchy libertarian Ron Swanson that fuels the show, but the supporting cast are all excellent and watchable on their own right. No one lets the side down, there’s not a single character that ever makes me want to turn the show off. Even Aziz Ansari’s intentionally insufferable Tom Haverford is given enough pathos to stop him from becoming a one-note annoyance.

Most of all though? It’s really funny – a group of scriptwriters and comic actors giving it their all and working to the peak of their abilities. FRIENDS may have dominated streaming services in the 2010s with its familiar nostalgia, but for a show that’s truly like a warm blanket of comedy, there’s nothing better than Parks and Recreation.

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The Tatami Galaxy (2010)

I could have really put any of Masaaki Yuasa’s shows on this list – from the sketchy Ping Pong to the edgy Devilman Crybaby, Yuasa’s anime go above and beyond in their visuals in a way that’s particularly inspiring in a medium that’s otherwise defined by an immediately recognisable, somewhat generic style. Yuasa’s shows are definitely anime, but they all push the boat out in as many ways possible. The movement is fluid and natural in its inhumanity and the faces of his characters are distorted but extremely expressive. Yuasa’s shows are also distinct in the way they use and play with traditional anime genres, mining them for hidden depths.

But while Ping Pong and Devilman are undeniably great, Yuasa has yet to top his 2010 adaptation of Tomihiko Moromi’s 2005 novel The Tatami Galaxy. Focusing on a Groundhog Day-esque premise, the series revolves around a third year university student reflecting on his two years at Kyoto University so far. But, with each episode, those two years change, based mainly on the club he decided to join on his first day. It’s a slightly frivolous premise, but one that slowly unfolds into an exploration of what we decide to do with the limited time we have, and the struggle to find what it is that’s truly meaningful to us.

Of course, as a Yuasa show, it’s beautiful – every shot, every motion is stunning to watch and put together with a craftsmanship that really cares about colour, positioning, scene layouts, visual comedy and everything else that makes a show truly worth paying attention to. Although none of the shows on this list are ugly to look at, each pales in comparison to The Tatami Galaxy, a show that exemplifies the power of visual storytelling.

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Space Dandy (2013 – 14)

Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe’s Space Dandy follows the adventure of a Zapp Braniggan-esque would-be playboy named Dandy, as well as his long-suffering crewmates QT and Meow as they comb the galaxy on a rusty spaceship looking for aliens to hunt. As a follow up to the slow, often melancholic Bebop, Space Dandy’s broad comedy and often nonsensical plot progression risked feeling like a step down, especially in the show’s inconsistent first season.

However, at a certain point, after the crew had ended a couple of episodes dead, or stranded, or zombified, something happened. Space Dandy ceased to be a show in and of itself, and instead became a template on which anime’s greatest writers, directors and animators, could freely experiment. All an episode of Space Dandy really needs is some kind of vague sci-fi theme, as well as the three well-established but simplistic characters of Dandy, QT and Meow. After you have that, the rest is up to whichever director happened to want to take on the challenge that episode. As such, Space Dandy’s second, magnificent season varies wildly in terms of tone and style but remains consistently fantastic. Although not really about space, it’s a show whose many unique and unexpected wonders emphasise the infinite possibility of what the universe might hold.

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Nathan for You (2013 – 17)

If you need any proof of comedian Nathan Fielder’s skills as an interviewer and documentarian of human strangeness, look no further than an interview with a pet psychic he did long before Nathan for You, which takes an already funny premise and shifts it into the most unexpected direction. Still, there’s a sense of something a little cruel about Fielder’s work, a sense that he’s prodding at people who (mostly) don’t deserve it. Nathan for You is a funny, often hilarious, reality TV series where the comedian attempts to ‘help’ struggling businesses with stupid and elaborate business schemes.

It might occasionally go too far, but the key to Nathan for You is its undeniable sense of humanity. Fielder so often manages to dig into the hidden lives of people in an instant, whether it’s getting a guy to admit he has threesomes with his brother, or getting a group of strangers to bond on a group camping trip so they can save some money on petrol. When Fielder isn’t trying, he’s bound to come up with something really funny, but when the show is at its best, he’s able to come up with something funny and touching.

If you watch only one thing from Nathan for You, make it the show’s finale – Finding Frances. It’s here where the under the surface pathos of the show bursts into one of the greatest documentaries ever made, to the extent that it had a place on my best films of the decade list before finding itself here. Finding Frances sees Fielder help a struggling Bill Gates impersonator try and find a lost love from his school days that he couldn’t ever move on from. In doing so, Fielder paints an engrossing character study of a slightly creepy old man and his journey of late-life self-reflection, but also manages to sneak in questions about the nature of documentary and artificiality in his own relationship with a prostitute. All of Nathan for You is funny and worth watching, but seeing all its brilliant ideas congeal into one project is immensely satisfying.

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Master of None (2015 – 17)

Although revelations about his sex life have somewhat tarnished Aziz Ansari’s career, it’s undoubtable that his impact on 2010s television is huge, appearing on two of this list’s entries. It’s Master of None, however, the brainchild of his and Alan Yang’s, which marks him out as a true talent.

The first season of Ansari’s semi-autobiographical show is a budding flower of an idea, following Ansari’s Dev on a trek through the unstable worlds of modern romance and showbusiness. It’s ostensibly a comedy, and in episodes such as ‘Hot Date’, this shines through, but it’s clear that the show has loftier ambitions than simply that of getting a cheap laugh. Dev’s brief time with Rachel is an achingly true-to-life take on a modern relationship that is destined by the weight of choice to fail. How, the series finale asks, can anyone choose anything, let alone who to be with for the rest of your life, in a world where so much is on offer to you all the time? It cannot provide answers, only heartbreak.

While the first season often shows signs of promise, it’s the second season where the show can truly realise the full extent of its premise. In some of its best episodes the focus shifts away from Dev and onto subjects as diverse as coming out to your family; to deviating from your parents’ religion and, in one particularly stunning episode, shifts focus throughout to various citizens of New York. When the series does return to Dev, its new experimental approach far better sells the relationship between him and Francesca. Calling back to Italian cinema and Woody Allen, the crushing impossibility of their relationship is bought to life by some beautiful episodes like ‘Amarsi Un Po’ and ‘Buona Notte’.

I think if any scene best encapsulates the qualities of Master of None, it’s certainly the taxi ride in ‘The Dinner Party’. Starting with a flirty conversation between Dev and Francesca, it’s immediately obvious just how well Ansari and director Eric Wareheim use small silences to give their conversations a brilliantly naturalistic feel. When Francesca reveals she can’t see Dev again for a while, the camera stays on his face throughout the whole of his ride home as Soft Cell’s ‘Say Hello, Wave Goodbye’ plays. This sort of daring experimentalism combined with a great soundtrack and Ansari’s surprisingly subdued performance shows Master of None at its best, and proves why it deserves to be remembered above the waves of other similar comedian-helmed projects.

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Fleabag (2016 – 19)

As a Brit, I sometimes think that our shows are exalted in the US for less than good reasons. Sherlock? Doctor Who? The Great British Bake Off? All shows with a certain amount of entertainment value (some more than others), but ultimately nothing all too special. It’s the kind of thing that makes you wonder if your American friends just like you for your accent. What’s more, the British shows that do deserve more of an international audience, like Peep Show or Garth Marenghi’s Darkplace are stuck in the realm of the cult. Occasionally though, a British show breaks through that truly deserves the acclaim – for this decade that’s Fleabag.

A semi-satirical portrait of an upper-middle class Londoner and her troubled relationships with men and family, Fleabag slowly reveals its genius over the course of the first episode and keeps unfolding it from there. Without its twist, Fleabag is an extremely entertaining dark comedy. The unnamed protagonist feels like an anti-heroine with the depth to distinguish the character from male-written versions of the same archetype. Her grief over the loss of her best friend and her strained relationships with her family are constantly challenged and explored so that they never feel like just background details but instead perfectly inform the audience as to why “Fleabag” (as she’s credited) hides behind such a thick layer of sarcastic distance.

But then there’s the twist. Like Kevin Spacey in the downwards spiralling House of Cards, Phoebe Waller-Bridge is constantly breaking the fourth wall and addressing the audience. In the first season, her smirks and snarky asides feel like a friend watching with you, bringing you into the action. By the second season, the introduction of Andrew Scott’s charming and perceptive Priest dismantles the entire charade, exposing the true escapist nature of Fleabag’s inner monologue. It’s a sign of a show that understands itself, its characters and its appeal perfectly – a show that’s one step ahead of the audience at all times. Fleabag is truly brilliant, and I couldn’t be happier that it has made its way across the pond intact.

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The Terror (2018)

The Terror’s mediocre “second season” would normally disqualify it from a place on a list like this, but I think that only speaks to the overwhelming strength of its first, a complete story that has played in my head ever since I first saw it. Following the crews of the real life ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus in 1845, The Terror attempts to link real human tragedy to horrific supernatural artic creatures. It’s a challenging balancing act, but one that succeeds in the show’s favour when it manages to pull it off.

The real triumph comes in its performances; Tobias Menzies plays a fragile leader figure in Commander James Fitzjames, Adam Nagaitis is genuinely chilling in his role, while Jared Harris puts in one of the best performances of any actor in this list as Captain Francis Crozier. Together, they create an tangible sense of claustrophobia within the confines of two ships stuck in an impenetrable wall of ice. Combined with the threat of a seemingly supernatural being, The Terror very slowly ups its paranoia to breaking point, skilfully throwing you off your balance before you even realise what’s happening.

The Terror also has a complete grasp of death and how to depict it on-screen. Lots of shows over the past ten years have racked up a death count, but none make each death as gruelling and occasionally beautiful as The Terror. In consistently putting the viewer in the eyes of each victim as they die, the show treats death not as a plot twist but as a character beat. The gruesome demise of one character early on is a visual delight of spinning cameras and facial close-ups, while a later suicide is beautiful in the ambiguity of its imagery.

The Terror isn’t perfect; some dodgy visual effects and occasional odd choices hold it back. But the sheer power of its ambition and daring leave a lasting impression.

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Succession (2018 -)

Created by Peep Show’s Jesse Armstrong, Succession is a toxically brilliant piece of television on what it means to be part of the rich and powerful. ‘Power corrupts’ isn’t really a new sentiment, but Succession mines its depths to see just how far these tendrils reach. The show revolves around the Roys, a thinly veiled allegory for the Murdochs or Trump billionaire families. The patriarch figure, Logan Roy, is a man of seemingly pure evil. Reminiscences with his brother about their days in relative poverty ground the character in a sense of some reality, but it is a mistake to claim there’s anything salvageable about Logan, a father as petty and cruel to his children as he is to his employees, and whose negative effect on the entire world around him is not lost on the show or its characters.

Luckily, Logan isn’t at the centre of the screen as much as he’s the centre of Succession’s universe. Instead, the show mainly revolves around Logan’s four children; Kendall, Shiv, Roman and Connor – along with Shiv’s fiancée Tom and Logan’s nephew Greg. Each represents a different way in which Logan’s sphere of power twists and ruins the lives of people around him. Kendall is a recovering drug addict desperate for his father’s attention but unable to cope with the responsibility it brings. Shiv tries to rebel against her father but is unable to escape being sucked back in. Roman is a playboy asshole blinded to how much of an idiot he really is. Connor has been driven madly into the sphere of conspiracy theories with his unlimited access to his father’s wallet. Meanwhile, Tom and Greg, both outsiders, are gradually being drawn into the unescapable black hole that is Logan Roy; Tom running head-first into it, Greg half-heartedly resisting.

There’s some sympathy, then, for these people in an almost unescapable situation, but the show never cuts them any slack. The keyword there is ‘almost’, and Succession is always keen to remind the viewer of just how awful all the members of the Roy family are. It luckily couches all this depressingly realistic political commentary with a healthy dose of comedy, making the otherwise unwatchable backstabbing and malice turn into something unputdownable.

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Review (2014 – 17)

It might seem a curiosity for me to claim that this 22 episode, mostly unheard of, Comedy Central remake of an Australian sketch show is the ‘best TV show of the decade’, but I’d like you to hear me out. For one thing, I think Review’s relative obscurity stands in its favour in this regard. After the success of shows such as The Sopranos and Mad Men in the late 2000s, it became common to talk of ‘the Golden age of Television’. In saying that, people are mostly referring to big-budget, long running dramas/dramadies, a few of which have made this list. But swimming in their wake is a proliferation of smaller talents who were allowed by this influx of television attention to create some weird and wonderful stuff. Of those, there is little doubt in my mind that Andy Daly’s Review is the best.

The original Australian Review with Myles Barlow based itself on a relatively simple premise – a mockumentary/sketch show where each sketch consisted of the psychopathic TV host Myles Barlow reviewing a different life experience. In the first couple of episodes, for example, Myles reviews both stealing and murder. Review borrows the premise but removes the sketch part, creating a series of interconnected, snowballing reviews.

Let me explain. In the show’s first episode, the host Forrest McNeil starts off reviewing stealing, where he quickly becomes addicted to the rush and becomes a kleptomaniac. In the next segment, addiction, we already know that Forrest’s insistence that he doesn’t have an addictive personality is a lie, and we’re quickly proven right as he becomes addicted to cocaine. Despite going to rehab, the final review; going to prom, involves him stealing a teacher’s wallet to buy more coke. It’s a simple chain reaction in one episode, but over three seasons the effects of each of Forrest’s reviews begin to slowly wreak havoc on his otherwise idyllic life.

At its worst, Review is simply one of the funniest black comedies ever put to screen, each moment of cringe comedy feeling both surprising and the only logical outcome for a character such as Forrest. At its best, Review proves to be as able a character study as any of the most lauded crime or advertising-based dramas out there. Forrest McNeil is a picture of the self-possessed arrogance of a critic who would claim some random show they like is the ‘best show of the decade’, taken to an extreme. His insistence of the importance of his life’s work is simultaneously ridiculous and heart-breaking. It’s the crumbling downfall of a man sacrificing it all for something he sees as important, but Forrest isn’t a newspaper tycoon or a drug lord; he’s a tv critic. The characters in his periphery are less detailed but still beautifully sketched, in particular his long-suffering wife Suzanne and devilish producer Grant.

Review’s situations are clearly fictional, often blending into the surreal, but whenever I show people the first episode, there’s sometimes a bit of confusion as to its veracity. I think that’s because despite everything crazy going on around him, the show remains grounded in Forrest’s emotional reality. That’s because the reviews really aren’t that important. What’s so much more important is how Forrest interprets them. Sure, for some, like ‘what’s it like to eat 15 pancakes’, there’s only one way to take it, but for bigger topics it’s always filtered through the lens of ‘Forrest McNeil’.

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Like all critics, Forrest takes his word as some kind of objective truth that deserves to be heard above all else; his is the rational, logical take that the world needed. With the stakes blown up to absurdity and our view of Forrest filtered through the TV lens, we can see his follies. But at its heart, it’s somewhat of a reflective show (at least for me). As platforms for people to voice their opinions become more readily available, we can start to see more and more Forrest McNeils. Like him, they’re often the self-important white men who believe their opinion is the voice the world needs. Sure, they might not be reviewing joining the mile high club, but the core principles are the same. We’re living in a world of Forrest McNeils, and where some shows risk glorifying them, Review gets to the heart of them while playfully poking fun. Eventually, however, Forrest gets the only real ending he deserves.

Review certainly isn’t a show for everyone. Dealing so heavily with criticism, I think critics are somewhat pre-disposed to like it, and those without such a cruel sense of humour might find some of the show’s moments of cringe comedy nigh on unwatchable. But Review is such a singular vision executed to such perfection; a show that got bad ratings but was so loved by Comedy Central that they allowed it a second season and a short epilogue to end the way it wanted to, that I can’t not put it as one of the defining TV shows of the 2010s. There are so many small, brilliant shows that sprung up on networks everywhere and allowed some bizarre minds to exorcise their demons. But I don’t think any deserves the top spot on this list quite like Review, my pick for the greatest TV show of the decade.

One Reply to “toatali’s best TV shows of the decade”

  1. I haven’t seen a lot of these shows. But your reviews really stood out and your comedy infused outlook on these shows made me want to watch some of them. I do love Space Dandy and it rocks.

    Like

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