The turning of the decade has produced a large number of cultural lists, including plenty of the best TV of the 2010s, so I will take the opportunity to join the fun. The lists have varied in number from ten to a hundred, though it seems that, in most cases, the list-maker has probably settled on the number which best fits what he, she or they wanted to include (or, more likely, didn’t want to exclude). I will go for 25 but will include factual titles as well as the drama and comedy which exclusively make up many of the lists.
Enough has been written and spoken about the developments which gave us such a great decade of television – and so much of it – that there is little point repeating it here. For me personally, the defining experience of the decade was being invited onto the Peabody Board of Jurors, which both sharpened my critical faculties and meant I had to engage with American television in much greater depth than I had ever done before. And it was the perfect time to do so (I served on the board from 2011 to 2016), as this was the time of greatest innovation in all genres. I can point to a number of documentaries and series on my list which initially came to my attention through Peabody, including my number 1 pick.
Of course, British TV remained my professional focus until my retirement in late 2016, and that is also reflected here. At the same time, the availability of the best things from around the world on British TV platforms also increased as never before, so the choice was wide. I have omitted anything which debuted before 2010, even though its main impact may have been in the decade in question, so no Breaking Bad, Getting On, The Thick of It or Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle.
Counting down from 25 to 1, my best TV of the 2010s is as follows:
25: Listen to Me, Marlon (Passion Pictures, 2015)
Outstanding documentary by Stevan Riley which uses Brando’s own tape-recorded legacy, together with a wealth of brilliantly sourced archive material, to tell the actor’s story as you’ve never heard or seen it before. Who’s Marion? (sorry: in-joke for my Peabuddies)
24: The Legacy (Arvingerne) (DR, 2014-17)
Danish TV drama hit the world with Scandi noir titles in the previous decade, but continued to produce outstanding material in other genres in the 2010s, such as the political drama Borgen, the historical epic 1864 and this melodramatic family saga which featured the best ensemble acting of the decade from Trine Dyrholm, Jesper Christensen and the rest.
23: The Secret History of Our Streets (BBC, 2012-14)
Television social history at its finest and most accessible in this documentary series from BBC, Open University and Century films, examining social change over more than a century in the minutest detail, literally street by street.
22: How to Die: Simon’s Choice (BBC, 2016)
Voluntary euthanasia has been the subject of a number of documentaries, but never one as moving or involving as this. Simon himself provides a magnetic focus, but the effects of his decisions on his family and friends is equally devastating.
21: Fargo (FX, 2014-17)
To make a riveting and highly entertaining original drama series in the spirit of the Coens’ movie was a magnificent achievement by Noah Hawley. To repeat the trick twice more was little short of miraculous.
20: All Aboard: The Canal Trip (BBC, 2015)
OK, slow TV was invented in Norway, but was never put to better use than in this glorious two-hour real-time journey along a beautiful section of the Kennet and Avon Canal. It shouldn’t work, but it keeps you enthralled for the duration. Just like my canal walks along the Grand Union, though, alas, without the fitness benefits.
19: This is England ’86, ’88 and ’90 (Channel 4, 2010-15)
Some of the most searingly intense moments of the decade were provided by Shane Meadows and Jack Thorne’s ongoing working-class saga, as well as some of the most memorably comic. A great cast of characters and superb work from Vicky McClure, Stephen Graham and the rest of a brilliant cast.
18: Life According to Sam (HBO, 2013)
The most outstanding of a number of great HBO single documentaries I watched as part of my Peabody duties. It tells the inspirational story of a young sufferer from the deadly wasting disease progeria and his parents’ attempts to combat the condition worldwide.
17: Fleabag (BBC, 2016-19)
A wonderful first series and an even better second. Funny, honest, innovative, constantly surprising, brilliantly acted by all the cast and, above all, superbly written by Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
16: 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony (BBC, 2012)
Simply the most profound statement about British culture and history in the last decade in any medium. Yes, it was a stadium event and there is a “director’s cut” version, but it was broadcast worldwide by the BBC and that is enough to include it here. Even the usually tiresome parade of athletes was a joy.
15: Louie (FX, 2010-15)
Louis CK revolutionised the situation comedy by including unrelated sequences, some of them almost sketches, in single episodes. The fluidity of both style and content comes across as a kind of stream-of-consciousness, or, indeed, the dramatisation of a stand-up routine – and it can be brutally to the point.
14: Wolf Hall (BBC, 2015)
Peter Kosminsky’s fractured realisation of Hilary Mantel’s award-winning novels re-invented and resuscitated the historical costume drama, with mesmerising performances from Mark Rylance, Damian Lewis and Claire Foy. Can’t wait for the concluding part.
13: The Jinx (HBO, 2015)
The greatest of the sub-genre of investigative true-crime documentary series, much imitated and parodied (by the brilliant American Vandal), Andrew Jarecki’s dramatic and headline-grabbing pursuit of the truth in the cases associated with Robert Durst entertained and intrigued from start to finish. My own theory is that Durst, a man whose extreme wealth must make his life something of a bore, is seeing how far he can go without being brought to justice.
12: Utopia (Channel 4, 2013-14)
The only thing stopping Dennis Kelly’s Utopia being higher on my list is Channel 4’s shameful axing of the show after two remarkable and stylish (and very yellow) series, before it could be brought to a satisfactory conclusion. The astonishing first episode of season two remains a stand-out moment in the television decade and a hint of what might have been.
11: Horace and Pete (Pig Newton, 2016)
Louis CK’s second appearance on my list is an instant American classic in the tradition of Williams or Miller. An intimate and coruscating 6-part family drama, it was shot on a few sparse sets and released, unheralded, on the author’s own website. Great contributions from Alan Alda, Steve Buscemi, Jessica Lange and Edie Falco.
10: Brakeless (BBC/PBS/NHK, 2014)
Pretty much the perfect documentary – a masterclass from Kyoko Miyake. Examining the causes and implications of a fatal Japanese train crash from all angles, including the historical, social, economic and cultural contexts and the human cost, it uses beautifully drawn animations to convey the horror of the crash. Everything is done full justice, yet the whole thing is completed in under an hour. Outstanding.
9: Inside No.9 (BBC, 2014-)
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith have given us four tremendous seasons of their wonderful mystery/comedy/horror anthology, with scarcely a dud episode in sight but masses of highlights. The Twelve Days of Christine is probably the greatest half-hour of TV drama imaginable, but I also love The Trial of Elizabeth Gadge, Diddle Diddle Dumpling, Zanzibar, Bernie Clifton’s Dressing Room and, of course, the live Halloween special.
8: Black Mirror (Channel 4, 2011-14/Netflix, 2016-)
This is probably the most emblematic series of the decade, not just because it spans the whole decade, or because it deals with the social, political and personal implications of the newest technologies, or because it represents the shift in power from broadcasters to streaming platforms (by moving from Channel 4 to Netflix), or because it is the product of the genius mind of Charlie Brooker, one of the most perceptive commentators of our times, but for all these reasons together. Oh, and it is brilliantly performed, directed and produced, too.
7: The Vietnam War (PBS, 2017)
Ken Burns’ monumental and meticulous examination of the American involvement in Vietnam was the greatest thing he has given us since The Civil War in 1990 (and he has given us many great things). Stretching over 18 riveting hours, nothing is superfluous (so don’t watch the 9-hour version – its only half as good) and everything is considered, illuminating and moving, perfectly complemented by Burns’ usual outstanding use of archive material.
6: Him & Her (BBC, 2010-13)
Stefan Golaszewski’s minimalist masterpiece, each episode shot in real time in a single location (a bedsit for the first three seasons – a hotel for the concluding wedding special) but containing a universe of character and incident. At the calm centre, lovable layabouts Steve (Russell Tovey) and Becky (Sarah Solemani); revolving around them, a gallery of friends and family ranging from the inept to the hateful. Hilarious, moving and totally engaging.
5: Mr Robot (Universal/Esmail Corp/Anonymous, 2015-19)
Ostensibly a thriller set in the contemporary world of global digital control and anarchic hackers, it soon became clear that we couldn’t rely on the veracity of what we were seeing, which placed it even further ahead of our times as it proceeded and allowed creator Sam Esmail to produce some startling dramatic shifts, such as the episode in which the characters found themselves in their own traditional sitcom. By the end we, the audience, were implicated in the uncertainty and simply had to sit back and enjoy the wildly entertaining ride.
4: Les Revenants (The Returned) (Haut en Court, 2012-16)
The inhabitants of a small French Alpine town face the religious, philosophical and, above all, personal consequences when a group of children, long thought dead, return to resume their lives. This supernatural premise opens the door to a magnificent meditation on life, death, grief, and the clash between logic and emotion, as well as providing the basis for intriguing mystery and community-based drama, all accompanied by a terrific and atmospheric score by Mogwai.
3: Twin Peaks: The Return (Showtime, 2017)
In the early 90s, David Lynch and Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks redefined what a TV drama series could be. In 2017, they did the same again with an 18-part epic which Lynch described as a single film cut up into hour-long segments. It was as surreal and mysterious as you would expect and then some – episode 8 will long remain as one of the most remarkable (and beautiful) things ever to grace a TV screen. The whole experience was something to immerse yourself in, without the need to seek explanations.
2: The Shadow Line (BBC, 2011)
A staggeringly assured drama series debut from writer/director Hugo Blick, previously best known for comedy series. His subsequent series The Honourable Woman and Black Earth Rising confirmed him as the greatest auteur working in British television, but neither of those excellent pieces quite reached the heights of this wonderfully stylish and characterised thriller, which explored themes of good and evil, honour and betrayal amongst both legal and criminal networks. Great cast, stunning set pieces and, in the character of Gatehouse, a memorably malevolent presence.
1: The Leftovers (HBO, 2014-17)
Like Les Revenants, Damon Lindelof and Tom Perotta’s The Leftovers uses a supernatural premise (the sudden unexplained disappearance of 2% of the world’s population) to explore the big philosophical and personal themes. The brilliantly conceived and performed central characters all undertake their own journeys towards their own reconciliation with the fallout from the event and it is where those journeys intersect that the drama lies. Is there a final explanation? Some think so – I don’t. Is it a religious piece? Some think so – I don’t. It seems to be loved by both believers and atheists like me. The ending is perfect and moving , however you take it. Great writing, direction and acting (Carrie Coon, Justin Theroux, Christopher Eccleston among many) throughout and a really memorable score from Max Richter.
Twelve of these titles won Peabody Awards (and others may yet) – five of them in the 2015 roster – what a year that was!
It seems to me that my top 5 picks (and several of the others) explore themes related to the search for meaning (or something to believe in) in a meaningless and bewildering world. Whether this reflects a preoccupation of the decade or just my own personal preferences, I don’t know – you tell me!