Perhaps no decade has seen as radical a shift in the world of television – what it is, what it can be, how we watch it – as the 2010s. Back in 2009, cable was booming, thanks to networks like HBO, AMC, FX, and Showtime, and TV at large produced about 200 shows per year. Networks retained fairly rigid annual schedules, even for shows that opted for the compact 13-episode format. Netflix had only begun to include “streaming” as an option, and was still primarily seen as a DVD-by-mail service.
Ten years later, streaming TV has exploded. Netflix shows frequently dominate the conversation, with outlets like Amazon Prime, Hulu, CBS All-Access and Disney Plus each vying for a slice of the action. TV shows can go on hiatus for two years or more, free of the typical network constraints (and even episode counts) of previous years. And the number of shows produced each year now tops out around 500.
Perhaps it wasn’t the decade of the best TV (the 2000s may have had higher peaks), but it was certainly the one with the most TV, and plenty of the shows it produced were pretty spectacular. As is custom, I’m ready to discuss my picks for the Best Shows of the Decade. But because decade endings are a pretty rare occurrence (this is only the third one I’m living through myself), it calls for something more special and extravagant. Which is why I’m launching my largest monthlong project since I first began online writing.
Over the entire month of December – five days a week, across four weeks – I will be going through my Top 20 TV Shows of the Decade, one by one. Each show will get its own article, where I discuss its merits and place on the list. By the end of the month, I will have discussed a lot of great television, and I hope you’ll join me on the journey.
A few ground rules: I’m only judging shows based on their output in the current decade (i.e. seasons and episodes aired from 2010 onwards). I’m not including miniseries, which despite their developmental growth, aren’t quite the same category as ongoing TV (limited series – shows that air multiple seasons with different casts and storylines – are fair game, though). And I’m mostly sticking to American shows, though you may see an imported series or two that’s been acquired by an American outlet.
With that out of the way, let’s jump right in. We start with my pick for the 20th-best TV show of the decade…
It’s been a while, but there was a time when JJ Abrams’ name was synonymous with TV gold.
This is despite the fact that, on closer inspection, Abrams hasn’t technically “created” a whole lot of TV. He had his boom at the turn of the century with Felicity and Alias, two shows he worked extensively on in their early years. But though he left his indelible thumbprint on the Lost pilot (and a few subsequent Season One episodes), that show quickly became the darling of Damon Lindelof and his Nash Bridges cowriter Carlton Cuse.
Though he began ceding his TV ground to others in order to devote time to films like Mission Impossible III and Star Trek (and, eventually, the bookends of the new Star Wars trilogy), Abrams still had his name attached to many of the more experimental network dramas of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, including cult hits like Fringe and forgotten series like Alcatraz and Undercovers. But perhaps the most peculiar show of the era to bill him in the executive producer role was CBS’ Person of Interest.
Created by Jonathan Nolan (best known at the time as Christopher’s little brother), the series starred Jim Caviezel and Michael Emerson as a pair of freelance do-gooders, surveilling New York City and attempting to prevent crimes before they happen, with the help of an advanced government AI referred to as “the Machine.” The show also starred Taraji P. Henson (who had earned recognition for her Oscar-nominated role in Benjamin Button but hadn’t yet broken out with Empire) as a police detective trying to track down the vigilantes, and character actor Kevin Chapman as a hapless detective caught between the law and the Machine.
I watched the pilot episode when it premiered in 2011 and was plainly underwhelmed – the show seemed like another formulaic CSI clone, and Caviezel’s performance made David Duchovny look caffeinated. (Besides, the show’s schedule conflicted with Bones, a show I didn’t watch but which had DVR preference at my house.) I stopped watching quickly and didn’t think to look back.
But time passed. Somewhere around the third season, buzz began to reach my ears. Apparently, Person of Interest had changed. It had grown. It had become more sci-fi than police procedural, with complex arcs and detailed themes about government surveillance in the 21st century.
Intrigued, I started the show up again. The transition was slow – Season One fought to break free of the procedural element, only rarely producing a great episode. But the series began to evolve. Midway through Season Two, the larger story began to come into play. The addition of characters like Root (Amy Acker) and Shaw (Sarah Shahi) helped the series expand its scope, and new recurring characters (played by such game actors as John Doman, Camryn Mannheim, and Enrico Colantoni) deepened the show’s world and drama.
Though it stuck to the typical network structure of airing 22-23 episodes a season (only resorting to 13 episodes in its fifth and final year), Person of Interest proved remarkably adept at maintaining suspense. The best example of this is likely Season Three, which features two excellent consecutive runs: the battle against HR corruption in the NYPD (climaxing in “The Devil’s Share,” perhaps the show’s most thrilling episode), and the rise of the government-run Samaritan. The season wove standalone stories into the larger arc, creating some of the most entertaining and bingeable television of the decade.
Not that Season Four was any slouch. It featured the terrific Decima arc, and plenty of excellent individual episodes – none more memorable than “If-Then-Else,” perhaps the most ingenious and down-to-earth riff on Groundhog Day ever devised for television.
Although the third and fourth seasons received critical acclaim, accolades did not translate to viewership. The show’s ratings declined, underscoring that it was perhaps not a great fit for the network of NCIS and The Big Bang Theory. In addition to shortening Season Five to a cable-sized 13 episodes, CBS aired it in just a few short weeks in the early summer of 2016, scuttling any chances of it going out with a Nielsen bang. (The first three seasons each averaged over 14 million viewers; the fifth season barely scrounged up over 6 million.) But the writers sent the show out on a high note, wrapping up the series with a memorable run that demonstrated just how much the show had evolved from its earliest days.
In the years since PoI has ended, Jonathan Nolan (along with his wife, Lisa Joy) have gone on to create HBO’s Westworld, one of the most expensive and intricate shows ever made. Now equipped with a massive budget and no network restrictions, Nolan and co. are free to write stories as complex and serialized as they want. The vague of the network drama was already ending at the time Person of Interest premiered; these days, there’s almost no reason for creative minds to stick with the broadcasters.
But if network dramas are on their way out, at least Person of Interest was a lyric in their swansong. It took some time to grow, but at its best, it could be as riveting as anything that cable or streaming gave us at the time.
Not bad for a JJ Abrams afterthought.
Tune in tomorrow for the 19th best show of the decade, which proved that cowboy hats are still cool if a certain someone is wearing them.