Downton AbbeyFleabag, The Americans, Community and more also made the list

By Tom Gliatto
December 23, 2019 04:00 PM
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Credit: Helen Sloan/HBO; Netflix

If you came looking for Below Deck or Southern Charm, you’ve got the wrong list. (Although in that case what list could you be looking for?) This is our roundup of the best scripted shows of the decade, whether in comedy, drama or, as has happens frequently nowadays, both. Note: Shows that premiered before 2010 haven’t been included — so that leaves off Mad Men, The Good Wife and Breaking Bad, all of which belong on a list of best shows ever.

Downton Abbey (PBS, 2011-16)

Dan Stevens as Matthew Crawley and Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary Crawley
| Credit: Nick Briggs/PBS

There’ll always be an England, or at least a really cozy facsimile to one, thanks to this beloved Masterpiece Theatre hit imported from the U.K. The first season, which involved smuggling a good-looking corpse out of Lady Mary’s (Michelle Dockery) bedroom, was wicked fun. Other seasons were generally less fun and less wicked, but always plushly snug and requiring an umbrella as insurance against tears. Downton made millions of Americans nostalgic for an existence they could never possibly have known or lived.

Girls (HBO, 2012-17)

The cast of Girls
| Credit: Apatow Productions/REX/Shutterstock

Lena Dunham’s millennial comedy of manners was about a young Brooklyn woman’s unsentimental education: She and her three closest friends learned that what had seemed like an unbreakable bond was maybe just a temporary link forged by circumstance and convenience — a product of its moment. The show turned Williamsburg into hot real estate and, for many viewers, something like a state of mind. It also made a star out of a tall, lanky dude named Adam Driver.

Game of Thrones (HBO, 2011-19)

The cast of Game of. Thrones
| Credit: HBO

TV finally found a way to rival those ginormous fantasy movie franchises, particularly The Lord of the Rings, and rapidly conquered all the realms of the world. (Secret sauce: a would-be empress with golden braids and pet dragons.) Since the show’s controversial finale, entertainment writers have been vigilantly scouting for whatever new series could be billed as “the next Game of Thrones.” That, ironically, may turn out to be Amazon’s upcoming TV version of The Lord of the Rings.

Fleabag (Amazon, 2017-19)

Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Andrew Scott
| Credit: Steve Schofield/Amazon Studios

In the course of two short seasons — 12 episodes in all — Phoebe Waller-Bridge, who looks like a jauntier Virginia Woolf, explored the journey of a single Londoner who discovers the difference between misery caused by meaningless sex and anguish caused by romantic love. (The point is you’re better off suffering through the anguish than the misery.) For good measure, there were also an allegorical fox and guinea pig and a hot priest. Nothing in this paragraph conveys how funny the show was — it’s probably a bad idea to start out describing a comedy with a reference to Virginia Woolf.

Parks and Recreation (NBC, 2009-15)

The cast of Parks and Recreation
| Credit: Mitchell Haaseth/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank via Getty

In its first season, Amy Poehler’s sitcom was treated, rather patronizingly, as a knockoff of The Office. But watered with care, skill and possibly love, the show grew into a kind, funny celebration of American life, in particular life in a Midwestern town where no one worries too much about the health effects of trans fats. Iconic bits: Ron Swanson’s (Nick Offerman) Pyramid of Greatness and L’il Sebastian.

Stranger Things (Netflix, 2016- )

The cast of Stranger Things
| Credit: Netflix

The phenomenally popular Netflix horror series was a savvy pastiche/synthesis/reworking of mainstream 1980s pop-culture — everything from the mall as the high temple of middle-class life to hit movies about underdog kids overcoming otherworldly forces. The show somehow tapped into a motherlode of meaning while still managing to scare up essential scares: There were few things more weird or upsetting than Winona Ryder trying to communicate with her missing son through Christmas lights. The retro-synth score was highly influential.

It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (FX and now FXX, 2005-)

The cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia
| Credit: FX Networks/courtesy Everett Collection

Seinfeld’s hard-edged farcical humor has been an influence on a number of shows — including ABC’s Happy Endings, one of the decade’s better sitcoms — but Sunny has been its most successful heir. The misadventures of a group of rather hostile friends at Paddy’s Pub, it’s now tied with Ozzie and Harriet as television’s longest-running live-action comedy. It’s the strangest heir, too, with humor that thrives on shocking, low-aimed aggression. At random moments you may feel as if you’d turned over a shoebox and liberated a large, hairy-legged spider. Or (more whimsically and more cruelly) put socks on some poor cat.

Scandal (ABC, 2012-17)

Kerry Washington in Scandal
| Credit: Mitch Haaseth/ABC/Getty

Shonda Rhimes’ breathless ABC hit about the ultimate Washington insider/broker (Kerry Washington) was the perfect show for our political decade, a time of unending campaigns and 24/7 crisis management. (Is there even such a thing as a non-crisis anymore?) The show burned through storylines faster than President Trump burns through chiefs of staff.

Enlightened (HBO, 2011-2013)

Laura Dern in Enlightened
| Credit: Lacey Terrell

Sort of a bookend to Fleabag. Laura Dern, who could be described here as laceratingly funny yet devastatingly sad, gave arguably her best performance as a marketing executive who returns to work after a breakdown. She thinks group therapy in Hawaii has given her the zen calm to meet and override obstacles. This is one of many delusions. Enlightened, which was canceled after two seasons, is probably the only show ever to be both misanthropic and life-affirming.

American Horror Story (FX, 2011-)

Jessica Lange in American Horror Story: Coven
| Credit: FX

Co-creator Ryan Murphy’s anthology horror series, which circled through genre stories about witches, ghosts and killer clowns, sustained a tone both of queasy, gory suspense — isn’t cheap horror the best?! — and dry camp. It was a vile brew with a little cocktail mix thrown into the cauldron. It also featured a string of epic performances from Jessica Lange, who served as de factor leading lady. She managed to convey an eternity of damnation with just the words “knotty pine.” Murphy created another impressive anthology, American Crime Story, that also ranks among the decade’s standouts.

Community (NBC, 2009-2015)

Chevy Chase as Pierce (left) and Donald Glover as Troy in Community
| Credit: Lewis Jacobs

The sitcom about a study group at Greendale Community College was a masterwork for nerds and twerps (which is another way of saying it struggled for five seasons before sputtering out on Yahoo). The show’s absurd but intricate inventiveness was unmatched, except possibly by NBC’s The Good Place, which basically replaced college with the afterlife. Donald Glover, who became a TV groundbreaker with the great Atlanta, played LeVar Burton’s biggest fan. Favorite surreal gag: the pen-stealing monkey.

The Americans (FX, 2013-2018)

This grim, powerful series had possibly the most inspired concept for any drama of the decade, and possibly also the trickiest: In the 1980s — just as the USSR is beginning its arduous descent into the dustbin of history — two married KGB spies (Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell) set up shop in a suburb outside Washington, D.C. But husband and wife aren’t equally committed to the Motherland. In that case, can they be equally committed to each other? Or will an iron curtain of incompatibility separate them? The tensions between party loyalty and marital fidelity were drawn out with a suspense so fine it was almost granular. The show was like Marriage Story for commies.