Sunday, April 14, 2024
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Feature: The top 20 television shows of the decade

It’s not just the end of the year, it’s the end of the damn decade, so join Counteract as we cast our eyes across the best content we’ve collectively consumed since 2010.

Twin Detective body image
Twin Peaks & True Detective

Ah, yes. Another ten years ticked off, and another obsessive need to quantify and qualify what content most tickled our collective fancies. Ignoring the fact that Counteract’s fledgling Film & TV section hasn’t even been around for a full year, let alone ten of them, our vast team of TV writers (read: four men) set out armed with a loose understanding of excel spreadsheets and some questionable-at-best opinions. What follows is our completely objective findings.

20. The Vietnam War by Ken Burns & Lynn Novick
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‘There’s something happening here
What it is ain’t exactly clear’
(Buffalo Springfield – ‘For What It’s Worth’)

With the use of compelling battle footage, powerful and varied interviews and measured narration, all set against the backdrop of a righteous counter-culture soundtrack, The Vietnam War gave viewers a comprehensible and even-handed narrative with which to understand one of the 20th centuries’ defining and most consequential moments. No mean feat. [Jeremy Arblaster]

19. Spiral
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French crime drama Spiral continues to excel in providing taut thrills as it navigates its gritty Parisian streets. A comprehensive and unflinching look into the gears of crime and punishment, Spiral finds the nuance in well-worn tropes of the genre through sharp writing and a terrific ensemble cast. The rare crime drama that dramatically earns its darkness. [William Blanchard]

18. Parks & Recreation
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Proof that a lighter, more humanist philosophy can still have cultural sway, Parks & Recreation led the bright-eyed charge that defined the decade in U.S. comedy. Without Leslie Knope’s incessant optimism, we wouldn’t have sister shows Brooklyn Nine-Nine and The Good Place, or spiritual siblings like Master of None. Thankfully, its giant heart never stopped it being wickedly funny. [Blaise Radley]

17. True Detective
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True Detective’s legacy may be reopening the door to TV for Hollywood’s biggest stars. A-Listers headlining Netflix shows may be the new norm, but when Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson signed up to True Detective, it was anything but. The first season was both brilliant and wildly successful, boasting fine performances and an authentic visual and aural identity that continued into seasons 2 and 3. [Jeremy Arblaster]

16. The Americans
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Joe Weisberg and Joel Fields’ criminally overlooked Soviet spy show The Americans not only served as a tightly focused take on undercover Cold War operatives, it also had some of the decade’s best period-appropriate needle drops (see above). As much about the sleuthing involved in family life, as the more treasonous wig-necessitating variety, this might be the most effective thriller on this list. [Blaise Radley]

15. Game of Thrones
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Game of Thrones combined the sheen of prestige TV with the bombast (and budget) of a blockbuster with potent effect. For a time, at least, it wove the cynical violence and sleaze into an absorbing and thoughtful critique of power. HBO’s fantasy epic single handedly birthed a new generation of genre television that will surely shape the next decade. [William Blanchard]

14. BoJack Horseman
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What started as a riff on a bad horse joke (barman asks: why the long face?) laced with uninspired celebrity satire, morphed into something riveting once it took its depressed horse seriously. Adult animation is no longer solely the realm of crass humour, and BoJack Horseman’s frank look at mental health played a large part in that. Even better, it managed to be funny all the same. [Blaise Radley]

13. Rick and Morty
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At first glance, Rick and Morty seems like just another crude shock comedy from Adult Swim, the premier purveyors of vacuous edge. Beneath this exterior though is a hilarious, inventive comedy that revels in pushing the boundaries of its sci-fi concepts. Expertly counterweighting the absurdity and nihilism is a wellspring of empathy that dares to find light in the abyss. [William Blanchard]

12. The Leftovers
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Damon Lindelof’s reputation entered the decade needing rehabilitation. Lost may have defined the tide of television in the 00s, but its ending left some fans… upset, and his writing credits on Prometheus and Cowboys & Aliens didn’t exactly appease them. Thank god then for The Leftovers, a striking rumination on grief, community, and, well, god, that doubled down on all the best parts of Lost, without its headache-inducing puzzle boxes. [Blaise Radley]

11. Mad Men
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Mad Men is probably one of the most iconic shows of all time, let alone this decade, and John Hamm’s swarve, charming Don Draper is a character as big as any to grace our screens. Consistently immersive in its 60s backdrop, Mad Men’s sharp dialogue and commitment to character dynamics made for something more soap opera than epic TV drama, and that’s exactly why we love it. [Harry Jones]

10. Boardwalk Empire
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After The Sopranos finished in ‘07 there was a gangster-shaped hole left in HBO’s schedule. What better way to fill that gap then, than with a prohibition-era crime drama starring Steve Buscemi featuring a pilot directed by Martin Scorsese? Though it may not be as groundbreaking, the way Boardwalk Empire chronicles the rise and fall of a criminal bootlegger in New Jersey is no less fun.

It’s pulpier, juicier and trashier than a show like The Sopranos, but it remains an undeniable piece of entertainment. Even if its cultural impact may be less than many of its contemporaries, it holds up as a piece of pure television that we’ve not been lucky enough to see the likes of since. [Harry Jones]

9. Nathan for You
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It takes a certain strength of character to disappear completely into one, and no comedy this decade evidences that better than Nathan for You. Just as hidden-camera prank shows seemed fated to be relegated to the realm of ITV2, Nathan Fielder’s deeply lonely and anxious host offered a refreshing counterpoint to the blunt energy of Sasha Baron Cohen & co.

Less prankster than misguided helper, Fielder presents himself as a wily business expert tasked with aiding struggling businesses. It’s not just that his ideas are uniformly so-bad-they’re-good strokes of brilliance, it’s the sheer lengths he’s willing to go. Be it starting a reputable film festival just to save a souvenir shop, or ferrying a Bill Gates impersonator to his long lost love, Fielder never broke character, even as he routinely cracked us up. [Blaise Radley]

8. Twin Peaks: The Return
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You’d be hard pressed to find a show more daring, baffling or silly than the third season of Twin Peaks. More than 25 years after the previous season ended, David Lynch took us back to the small town of Twin Peaks. Well, kind of.

Taking place in New York, Texas and Vegas, Twin Peaks suddenly felt not very Twin Peaks. The quirky small town vibes were replaced with confusion, sleaze and nastiness, the endearment of Agent Dale Cooper was replaced with the frustratingly absent Dougie Jones and the mysterious supernatural forces were doubled down upon.

There is no saying that Twin Peaks: The Return is an easy watch, or even a satisfying one, but its sheer scope, absurdity and originality is unmatched in the medium of television. And no, it’s not a film. [Harry Jones]

7. Community
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It’s difficult to think of any other comedy in the past ten years that has been as wildly ambitious or uniquely creative as Community. From the start, Dan Harmon’s sitcom established a comic universe so elastic it could constantly shift to accommodate any type of story. This allowed the show to cross genres week-by-week and turn the ‘high concept’ episode into an art form.

Time and time again, Community showed an admirable dedication to innovating with their format to hilarious results. And yet despite this, Community never stopped being genuine. It was a deeply warm and honest look at our failures elevated further by a murderer’s row of comedic talent.

Well, except the gas leak year. [William Blanchard]

6. Atlanta
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Donald Glover is one of the biggest multidisciplinary artists working today. From writing for 30 Rock and starring in Community to starting a rap career as Childish Gambino, Glover has always wanted to have his fingers in more than one pot, but Atlanta is where he struck gold.

Tightly scripted, culturally relevant and ingeniously funny, Atlanta can seemingly do no wrong. Atlanta is an eyebrow-raised emoji to whiteness of a show whose self deprecation feels earned and un-wallowing, always pointing fingers whilst looking in its rearview mirror. With daring concept episodes, decade-best title cards and a cast of some of the best young actors working today, Atlanta is really one of the most important pieces of television still airing. [Harry Jones]

5. Succession
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It’s only been two seasons, but Succession has already cemented its place as one of the best shows of the century. At the centre of it all is the powerful and wealthy Roy family, a dysfunctional collection of sublimely written characters, all with their own poisonous agendas, who dance around one-another like some sort of twisted political ballet.

The show manages to touch upon almost every modern-day concern – media corruption, the #MeToo movement, incel “culture” – with subtlety and a forensic eye for detail. And yet it remains rooted in classic tales of Kings and Heirs, and the backstabbing and intrigue that bring down even the most powerful dynasties. It’s an examination of humanity’s very worst traits that’s never not absorbing. [Jeremy Arblaster]

4. Fargo
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When you hear there’s going to be a spin-off show of a near perfect film, you have to question why. The Coen Brothers’ iconic 90s crime film Fargo was a dark comedy that rewrote the rules of the genre, so when there’s a contemporary take on such a film, it’s time to hold your breath. Fortunately Noah Hawley has managed to capture the heart or lack of one, in the new Fargo cinematic, televised universe (so to speak).

A hilarious, violent, ludicrously entertaining imagining of crime by way of Minnesota, it’s a show that rips characters and their predicaments straight from the source, yet somehow stands on its own two feet. With some of the best acting talent in the world flocking to work on new seasons, Fargo could simply never end. [Harry Jones]

3. Fleabag
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“You know, either everyone feels like this a little bit, and they’re just not talking about it, or I’m completely fucking alone.”

Fleabag delivers utterly devastating lines like this with ease. Just writing it made me cry. Seeing yourself on screen is perhaps one of the most emotional experiences there is, especially when that person has such recognisable, familiar and painful flaws. The fact that so many saw themselves in Fleabag’s short stint on our televisions emphasises just how beautifully crafted her character is.

Fleabag’s world is more than what is around her, it’s more than love, grief and sex. It’s how confidence-shattering a bad hair day can be. And it’s how funny that can be too. “Hair is everything.” It’s the old adage that if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, played out in a perfect way. [Jeremy Arblaster]

2. Hannibal
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It’s hard to imagine a show more destined to fail than Bryan Fuller’s Hannibal. Part-origin story, part-reboot – on paper it reads like every other floundering IP in the last decade. And yet shockingly, instead we got a wonderfully weird gothic fairytale, unafraid to dabble in camp, and practically antagonistic in how uninhibited its poetic violence was.

For three delirious seasons, Hannibal proved that the infamously prudish US network channels could rub shoulders with the big boys. Fuller may have been fated to spend the rest of the decade spinning between unrealised projects and half-fulfilled promises (pour one out for Star Trek: Discovery and American Gods) but here, at least, he made a masterpiece. [Blaise Radley]

1. Breaking Bad
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Oh come off it, of course it is. Given its cultural omnipresence, and its ascension to The Wire’s previously occupied throne of “TV show you must habitually prescribe every time you’ve had more than two pints”, it’s easy to feel a little jaded about Breaking Bad. “It’s not that good,” you might say, “Better Call Saul is actually better now.” Well on that count we say: it bloody is, and it bloody isn’t (but yes okay BCS is really quite good).

If the previous decade saw The Sopranos prove that serious prestige drama had a place on television, then Breaking Bad proved you could do it all with a pulpier flare. Less genre-deconstruction than medium-restructure, Walter White’s descent into the meth-dealing underworld tackled toxic masculinity before we even knew that buzz word, and it did it so deftly that bastards everywhere barely even noticed. No, Skyler actually wasn’t the bad guy, even if she was a bit sour-faced.

More than anything though, Breaking Bad was a flat-out teeth-chattering thrill ride. Thanks to Vince Gilligan’s patient pacing and keen eye for domestic dread, even the simplest set pieces popped off the screen with a suitably nasty glee. Given that the sequel movie El Camino’s loving but suitably downbeat elegy premiered this year, it feels like a perfect moment to once more acknowledge Breaking Bad as one of the all time greats. And that’s why it had to be number one. [Blaise Radley]

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Blaise Radley

Film editor, occasional writer, and sporadically coherent ranter. Bear in mind that if it stars Robert Pattinson or is directed by Bong Joon-Ho it's probably getting an extra star off the bat.