The story that will be told about film in the 2010s is going to be the story of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. A massive gamble that paid off amazingly and gave comic fans some of the greatest film moments we never thought we’d ever get to see.
But the other story of film this decade for me is the rise of Black auteurs like Ava DuVernay, Dee Rees, Ryan Coogler and a resurgence in films made for, by and about Black folks.
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.
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.
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.
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.