30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (10-1)

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.

Black-ish title slide

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.

Jane The Virgin title slide

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.

30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (30-21)
30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (20-11)

30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (20-11)

The list continues….

20. Atlanta (2016-present)
No Black television creator has embraced the sheer freedom that Peak TV provides them more than Donald Glover. This is the TV equivalent of Moonlight – a masterwork that truly forces you to rethink how Black people can tell stories. I don’t know that the show is coherent or even compelling at the pure story level – I mostly find Earn to be kind of half-formed (perhaps by design) for instance – but the filmmaking and the ambition is striking and revolutionary.

19. Survivor’s Remorse (2014-2017)
One of the great pleasures of the decade was the sheer diversity of worlds that we got to see Black people explore on television. Sure, we’ve seen Black athletes. But we hadn’t seen a story that explores how that world affects a Black athlete’s family. And how that family’s past in the hood doesn’t stop affecting you just because you got rich. Survivor’s Remorse – aptly titled – did all of this, making generational, economic,and racial trauma funny, poignant, and compelling.

18. Giants (2017-present)
With only two seasons under it’s belt, Giants is hands down the best webseries I’ve ever seen. The production value alone is astonishing for what I imagine is a relatively low budget. The show itself – about three Black millennials struggling to get their lives together – is amazingly clear-eyed about how hard it can be in your late 20s to know what the next step in life is. There’s really nothing quite like it out there and that makes it special. That it’s outstanding in every way from the writing, acting and directing makes it required viewing. I will be interested to see if there will be more seasons, but even if there aren’t what James Bland and his team created here should be applauded.

17. The Carmichael Show (2015-2017)
A throwback to the Norman Lear shows of the 1970s, The Carmichael Show pulled back the curtain on the kinds of conversations that happen in Black homes. It was uncompromising and frequently downright hilarious. Doing a show like this is actually quite difficult because you could risk too much “but on the other hand…” But the show did a fantastic job of rooting everyone’s perspectives in character that it nearly always worked. 

16. Power (2014-2020)
We’ve never had a show quite like Power. It’s pure populist entertainment for Black people. So it makes sense that Power is from a writer/producer who worked on The Good Wife. It’s the same kind of show – a deceptively complex, broadly appealing show about corrupt people who think they are more decent than they are. James St. Patrick’s unceasing commitment to believing he’s a good person drives the show in such a beautifully maddening way. But the showrunners are smart enough to know that no one on that show is worth a damn.

15. American Crime (2015-2017)
I’m still astonished that American Crime lasted three years on a major network. The show pulls no punches in its depiction of the ways injustice in America lead us to do horrible things to one another. Every season told a self-contained story that exposed America’s underbelly. But it’s the show’s masterful, flawless second season that still floors me. We talk about rape; we almost never talk about male rape. And we certainly don’t talk about it in the context of teen male sexuality. I remain convinced that Joey Pollari and Connor Jessup gave two of the finest television performances of the decade. It’s a shame the show didn’t last longer. But what we got was some of the most rewarding, challenging TV of the decade.

14. Happy Endings (2011-2013)
I was initially not super interested in this show. But when I finally dug in, I fell hard. A huge part of its appeal is that it’s about young adults who came of age in the 90s. So every reference was pretty much made for my generation. The ensemble was airtight from unsung gem Zachary Knighton (who is the center of my favorite episode, “More Like Stanksgiving”) to the sublime Eliza Coupe. I wish it had run a few more years, but there is real comfort in the fact that these crazy Chicagoans didn’t overstay their welcome.

13. The New Edition Story (2017)
As a card-carrying member of the #NE4Life movement, it was actually a bit overwhelming to experience how good The New Edition Story actually was. The filmmakers’ attention to detail was wonderful. And, most crucially, they cast it beautifully from top to bottom. Woody McClain and Tyler Marcel Williams note-perfect as Young and Adult Bobby Brown, Jahi Di’Allo Winston remarkable as Young Ralph Tresvant, and especially Algee Smith and Elijah Kelley bringing devastating pathos to Adult Ralph and Adult Ricky Bell. The miniseries provided information we didn’t know, lovingly recreated timeless music, and made us fall in love with NE all over again. This will go down as required viewing for all black people, much the way Roots, The Five Heartbeats, and The Jacksons: An American Dream have. 

12. Black Lightning (2018-Present)
This feels like a bit of a cheat since it’s relatively new and might end up running longer in the next decade than it did in this one. But I can’t leave Black Lightning off this list because this is the best example of taking the ethos of a superhero and transporting it to television. To be sure, the story of Jefferson Pierce is made for our post-Michael Brown moment. But the show goes deeper into what it means when Black people have superpowers in a white supremacist society than the comic ever did. Led magnificently by Cress Williams and featuring a killer performance by China Anne McClain as youngest daughter Jennifer, Black Lightning debuted as the best DC comic book television adaptation ever. And if it continues at its current pace, it’ll end that way too.

11. Underground (2016-2017)
I remain eternally grateful that something like Underground was ever developed, ordered to series, and aired at all. This show, runaway slaves as heist film, provided a new way into a story that could have felt overwhelming. Instead, we were treated to the experience of marveling at the sheer ingenuity of enslaved people. We deserved so much more from this beautiful show. I remain irritated that no one bought it so we could have gotten it more. But, man, what a phenomenal piece of art to have gotten at all.

30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (30-21)
30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (10-1)

30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (30-21)

Television has surpassed movies and music to be the defining cultural medium of the decade. 

So when I say I watch a lot of television that likely doesn’t seem quite as weird as it might have in decades past. The medium itself rewarded my devotion with a glut of beautiful, emotionally fulfilling content over the decade. 

Here’s what I loved most:

30. The Vampire Diaries (2009-2017)
That The Vampire Diaries became a mess after Elena becomes a vampire is why this show isn’t higher. But despite that there is nothing that can diminish the luster of the damn-near perfect first three seasons. The show burned through plot at break-neck speed and definitely ran longer than it needed to (No Elena, no show, far as I’m concerned). But it still featured some of the finest writing, plotting, and acting – particularly Nina Dobrev as Elena/Katherine, Michael Trevino as Tyler, Zach Roerig as Matt, and Candice King as Caroline – in fantasy television history.

29. Cleverman (2016-2017)
Cleverman is an Australian show that uses First Nations Dreamtime concepts as a way to tell a quasi-superhero story about racial injustice in Australia. I am still learning about racial injustice in Australia, so I can’t speak to how accurate it is. But as allegory and as story, the show is fascinating and beautiful. It only ran for two short seasons of six episodes each. And it managed to build out the world and characters really well with relatively truncated real estate.

28. Jessica Jones (2015-2019)
Overall, I think Jessica Jones is the strongest of the five Marvel Netflix shows for one really important reason: it hued the closest to who the character is in the comics. Jessica is a hot mess. The show never let us lose sight of that, even in the final season when she and Trish switched roles in the narrative so Jessica serves as the show’s moral center. It also had the best villains and arguably the best fit of lead actor (the remarkable Krysten Ritter) to role of all the Marvel Netflix shows. It’s a shame that we won’t get more of this show – and the others, weaker though they may be – but the final season provided a really solid conclusion to this phase of Jessica Jones’ life.

27. Luther (2010-present)
I’ve long felt that Luther is Idris Elba’s James Bond. It’s an iconic character in the world of a London Americans in particular have never really seen before. Idris Elba is famous for a lot of things. But it’s Luther that showcases his range to stunning effect. He’s charismatic to be sure. But it’s the way he conveys John Luther’s tenuous grip on his moral conscience that is the most astonishing aspect of his work in this remarkable show.

26. Person of Interest (2011-2016)
For a lot of Black folks Person of Interest might go down as the show that drove Taraji P. Henson away. And there is something disturbing and sad about the fact that the show’s themes didn’t start to cohere until her character dies. But once it does, boy does the show blossom. It’s the best show we have ever had that depicts with frightening clarity just how dangerous and scary technology can be in the context of policing. Plus – Amy Acker and Sarah Shahi were remarkable in their roles.

25. Lost Girl (2010-2015)
The best female-led genre show since Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Lost Girl was a revelation when I stumbled across it. The show handled Bo’s sexuality so casually that it truly became just one of the many things that defined her character. And yet because the show was about a succubus – and thus about female sexuality as a manifestation of female power – the show got to explore the many ways that society and culture warp and manipulate female possibility.

game of thrones title card

24. Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
There was a time when I thought Game of Thrones might be in my top 3 for the decade. The early seasons expanded, twisted, and adapted the source material in mostly interesting ways. I am partial to the interactions between Arya and Tywin Lannister in Season 2, for instance. But somewhere the show lost its way, not surprisingly somewhere around the time that the show ran out of books to adapt. It weren’t for the fact that Sansa and Arya had the clearest, most beautifully rendered arcs of the decade, the show might have been even lower. But those final two seasons…ugh.

Stranger Things title slide

23. Stranger Things (2016-present)
Stranger Things is fun, sometimes terrifying, and gets by – to a great degree – on the strength of it’s astonishing young cast. Each and every one of them are terrific, particularly Noah Schnapp in Season 2. But it would be a mistake to underestimate how beautifully the show depicts friendships at that really critical phase of life right before puberty. That is where the show for all its genre, scary trappings really comes alive. 

22. Looking (2014-2016)
I expected to like Looking because I loved Andrew Haigh’s Weekend. But I wasn’t quite prepared for how nakedly the show would explore the self-involved, self-destructive nature of White gay men in places like San Francisco. The show did a brilliant job of exposing Patrick’s casual racism in his initial interactions with Richie. And smartly, the show treated it so matter-of-factly because that kind of thing happens. It’s part of who Patrick is and part of who a lot of White gay men are. Looking was interested in being a true slice of life and not an issue-based show that turned characters into causes. And for that, it’s the most revolutionary White gay show we’ve ever had.

Greenleaf title slide

21. Greenleaf (2016-present)
I remain fascinated with the tonal balancing act that Greenleaf achieves. It’s a show that could very easily be a melodramatic soap opera, but it’s not. It’s actually a tonal cousin to Six Feet Under, a Black dramedy about a family business. This just happens to be about Black megachurches, something we’ve never seen explored before. The show itself has both deep reverence for church and is clear-eyed about the way that these kinds of churches are – first and foremost – businesses. Lynn Whitfield, not surprisingly, holds this together with a performance that is always subtly grand, without being too big. 

30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (20-11)
30 Best TV Shows of the Decade (10-1)

Best TV Shows of 2016

I don’t know that I have much to say other than I watched a lot of TV in 2016, most of it was damn good, and increasingly this is because we are finally getting black TV that is for, by and about us.

So without wasting any more of your time, here are the 20 shows that I think are the best TV had to offer this year.

20.  The Magicians – For my money, this show worked almost entirely because of Arjun Gupta as Penny.
19.  Suits – The show finally made Mike pay for his crime and turned out its best season since season two.
18.  Survivor’s Remorse – This show gets deeper and more slyly profound every season.
17.  Fresh Off The Boat – Constance Wu, Forrest Wheeler and Ian Chen kept me in stitches.
16.  UnReal – Season two was messier than season one, but it was also much more ambitious and a beautiful, brilliant indictment of white liberalism’s limited ability to address race.
15.  Insecure – One of the finest first seasons of a comedy in years and the best depiction of friendship on TV.
14.  The Carmichael Show – Somehow, this show manages to not feel like work despite always being about something important.
13.  Luke Cage – A perfectly cast show that found a way to make Luke Cage relevant in the 21st century.
12.  The Good Place – High concept, lots of laughter. You can’t really ever go wrong with Kristen Bell.
11.  Pitch – Smart, fun and filled with fascinating characters that make baseball compelling.

And the 10 best TV shows of the year…

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My 2016 Primetime Emmy Wishlist

Photo Credit: Television Academy

Photo Credit: Television Academy

There is so much good TV that nearly any average TV viewer could probably do an Emmy wishlist and put together something that another average TV viewer couldn’t really fault. This is a good thing.

But the glut of goodness does mean that the structural biases and barriers of the Emmys are more present than perhaps they’ve ever been simply because the single biggest factor in getting an Emmy nomination is having gotten one before. The sameness of these awards are partly a function of the way TV is made (shows run for years), but my suspicion is that this (admittedly reasonable) factor is mostly a crutch for Emmy voters who are frequently behind the 8-ball on TV innovation and biased against whole swaths of shows (sci-fi, soap, multi-cam comedy, most anything specifically produced for people of color/or on a POC network).

So why not put together my own dream list? And that’s what this is. This is simply a list of who I would love to see get nominations.  I have no illusions that the Emmys would ever be this awesome and diverse in its tastes.

I kept each category to 6 nominees as is pretty typical of the Emmys. Let me know what you think in the comments.

One note – I didn’t pick episodes for writing or directing because I don’t really have access to all of the episodes and for categories like that I feel like I would have had to rewatch everything to make honest, informed choices. But I think we can all probably agree that the writing and (especially) the directing on American Crime was remarkable.

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