We’ve come to the end of my list of the 20 best TV shows of the decade. If you know me, the rest of this list will make a ton of sense. If not, enjoy!
10. Dear White People (2017-2020)
I liked the film – especially Teyonah Parris as Coco. But the conceit works better as a television show precisely because there is more time to build out the world and the characters. It’s one of a handful of shows that does a fantastic job of exploring the tensions and contradictions of millennial Black self-actualization. These young folks are as committed to Blackness as they can understand and process at any given moment. And that’s actually the point. Also – DeRon Horton is a revelation as Lionel. He is physically wrong for the role – so much so they write in a hilarious reason for his enviable physique. But he so thoroughly inhabits the character that it really doesn’t matter. It’s a meticulously detailed performance that feels effortless. And that’s likely why no one pays as much attention to his work as they should.
9. Insecure (2016-present)
Issa Rae is likely the success story that feels the most joyful for those of us who follow Black culture. She went from webseries to arguably one of the most powerful, influential Black creatives in the game. And she did it in a way that feels authentic to her own story and to those of us who have long wanted to see different kinds of Black people on TV. Insecure is about that time in your life when you realize you aren’t quite who you thought you’d be when you were younger. It is also one of the few shows on this list that arrived fully formed. Everything you need to know about what this show is and who the characters are going to be is present in the pilot.
8. Black-ish (2014-present)
Black-ish is, in so many ways, the perfect black sitcom for this historical moment. At its core, it’s about the perils (and seductive nature) of assimilation. How does one function as a Black person when you have class status, education, and all of the things you’ve wanted? How does one raise children to have race and class consciousness? Black-ish grapples with those questions in hilarious fashion. And while the show is told through the point of view of Andre Johnson (Anthony Anderson), its perfectly cast child actors have carried the show from the very first episode. None more so than Marsai Martin and Marcus Scribner, who are the most consistently hilarious performers week to week.
7. Mad Men (2007-2015)
Yes – this contradicts my inclusion of Black Lightning, but it feels weird to not include Mad Men in this list. It’s hands down the best of the largely White groupthink prestige shows that aired over the last decade or so. What I love is that the show is unabashed in its deconstruction of mid-20th century White masculinity. Don Draper is glamorous and charming, but it’s really just a facade covering up really horrifying rot. January Jones’ ability to convey tremendous sadness and barely sublimated rage throughout the show devastated me, particularly because it served as a counterpoint to the way Elizabeth Moss completely opens up over the course of the show.
6. The Legend of Korra (2012-2014)
Man, does this show deepen the world that Avatar: The Last Airbender introduced. By focusing on Korra, a female teen avatar, the show could be more emotionally and politically complex and explore more deeply what it means to have the avatar’s powers. The Legend of Korra is a beautiful rumination on the limits and dangers of power, the corruptibility of institutions, and ultimately, a winning coming of age story.
5. When They See Us (2019)
There are few things as brutal as When They See Us that feel worth it. And a big part of that is the brutality isn’t really physical. It’s psychological. The 4th episode with that powerhouse Jharrel Jerome performance is harrowing. But nothing was quite as difficult for me as the first episode when we watch the NYPD railroad those children and their families. Ava writes it beautifully, but then shoots it in such a way as to bring us into the confusion, frustration, and terror that the characters are feeling. It’s probably the best visual representation of how terrible police interrogation is. It was after that first episode, far more than any of the others, when I knew there was something special here.
4. Watchmen (2019)
To be honest, I wasn’t sold on this reimagining of Watchmen after the first two episodes. The setup in real time felt too cute by half. Tulsa massacre. Black couple with White children. Cops as the persecuted. It all felt self-conscious and half-assed. But that was by design. As the season unfolded it became clear that the initial episodes were laying a really specific, well-thought out foundation for the entire purpose of the show. But for all the “Black man is god” of the Doctor Manhattan reveal, I was most struck by the fact that this show revolved around a Black woman who was just searching for her roots and the kind of love that would ground her. That is both the simplest and most revolutionary thing in the world.
3. Queen Sugar (2016-present)
Queen Sugar boasts the best cinematography of any show on this list. It’s lush, rich, and bright. And it’s used in service of a story about family and legacy that we’ve never seen in quite this way. The show’s sense of place and generational trauma is every bit as rich as what Watchmen is doing. Charley is always operating against the challenges of being biracial in a Southern Black family where she’s somewhat of an outlier (racially and economically). Nova considers herself the keeper of the family’s legacy and often traumatizes others instead of grappling with her own. Ralph Angel so much needs to believe he can live up to what his father wished for him. Queen Sugar presents a Black family with history and desires at once grand and mundane. I still don’t care for the Blue reveal – it remains the one soap opera complication – but this is a damn near perfect show.
2. Jane the Virgin (2014-2019)
What’s impressive about Jane the Virgin is that it’s probably the most tonally complicated show on this list. That the team behind this delightful show and every single actor never messed up the delicate balance of over-the-top telenovela shenanigans, grounded family drama, and straight-ahead comedy is quite literally the most impressive thing I’ve seen all decade. I never stopped smiling when I watched this show. The sheer virtuosity of Gina Rodriguez. The comic brilliance of Yael Groblas and Jamie Camil. The open heart that is Justin Baldoni. Jane the Virgin ran for exactly the amount of time it needed and it blessed us for that entire run. I miss it, but what a complete, wondrous experience of a show.
1. The Good Place (2016-2020)
Like Jane the Virgin, The Good Place just made me very happy. The moral philosophy, used ingeniously and without an ounce of pretension, functions as window dressing for something really simple. A network comedy that suggests it’s worth it to just try to be better people. The world is on fire and The Good Place makes you feel like we might get through it to a better place. Also – I will never not be utterly in stitches at “Jeremy Bearimy,” the show’s best episode. William Jackson Harper’s “This broke me” is my line reading of the decade. The Good Place snuck up on me to become my absolute favorite show of the decade.