It’s like the albums list, only much easier to cut down to 10! The only rule: more episodes released within the years 2010-19 than not.
Before I get complaints: an honourable mention to The Leftovers, which I sense I’m going to end up adoring, but I’m still early in season two and don’t yet feel like I’ve seen enough to put it on the list.
10. BoJack Horseman (2014-present)
The gap between the darkness of BoJack’s subject material (primarily depression and self-destruction) and the lightness of its sensational wordplay and sight gags is audacious, but necessary – without the blink-and-you’ll-miss-them shop signs or the patent lunacy that is Vincent Adultman, this show would be too much to handle. It gets close as it is. Its central tension – will washed-up actor BoJack ever be able to achieve real happiness? – is made all the more absorbing by the fact that the show is determined to push as many boundaries as possible to make you question whether or not he deserves to succeed in that quest. Will Arnett has never been better than he is in the title role, and Amy Sedaris is arguably even better as the heartbreaking Princess Carolyn. Special mention should also go to Todd Chavez, whose ridiculous misadventures contrast with his more mundane attempts to grapple with his own identity. His asexuality is handled so deftly, exploring it in depth without ever making him ‘the asexual character’; it’s a gift.
9. Parks and Recreation (2009-2015)
I haven’t rewatched Parks and Recreation since its delightful final season stuck the landing spectacularly, and I’m almost scared to do so after how horrifying politics has become in the intervening years. I worry that I’ll feel too jaded for the sincere optimism that powered this lovable workplace comedy, with Amy Poehler’s majestic Leslie Knope its beating heart. But if you’ve never had the pleasure before, then you must try it. Skip straight to the second season, when the show actually worked out what it wanted to be and started laughing with Leslie rather than at her; you really won’t miss anything important. You’ll be richly rewarded by some of the most endearing characters you’ve ever had the pleasure to meet.
8. The Expanse (2015-present)
Adapting a massive and ambitious book series for TV can easily go very wrong (citation: a certain other show that isn’t on this list) but The Expanse has handled it superbly. Something of a masterclass in changing elements of James S.A. Corey’s thrilling novels* where it has to while keeping a hold on the overall structure, it’s the rare modern sci-fi show that trusts you to keep up with its rich world-building work. The fourth season, which has now finally arrived on Amazon Prime after being dramatically saved from cancellation on SyFy, has continued the precedent of each one improving on what has come before, this time turning one of the rockiest books into a taut and thrilling instalment. The Expanse is fundamentally an exploration of how, even as the solar system and beyond are colonised, the same problems that have dogged humanity since time immemorial adapt to fit their new surroundings, with classism, tribalism and reckless curiosity ever-present. And now, thanks to Amazon’s lack of cable-channel language restrictions, it can give us the Full Profanity Avasarala I’d always wanted to see on screen.
*The final instalment of these is one of the things for which I’m most excited in 2020!
7. Chuck (2007-12)
Chuck was a silly show, deeply cheesy and often unchallenging. But I loved this mad comedy-drama – in which Zachary Levi’s titular nerd downloads a top-secret computer into his head, thrusting him unreadily into life as a secret agent while maintaining cover by continuing to work at an electronics superstore – for its heart. It boasted lightning-in-a-bottle chemistry with its three leads – Levi, Yvonne Strahovski and pretend-it’s-not-him piece of shit Adam Baldwin – plus some extraordinary guest stars and a deep love of goofy old-school spy stories. The first season is a solid but unspectacular warm-up for its creative peak over seasons two and three, after which point things start varying wildly from week to week, but by that point you’ll love its roster of characters both governmental and civilian too much not to see it through to the mostly excellent finale.
6. Community (2009-2015)
Where to start? A better-than-most first season of simply a very enjoyable sitcom set in a community college, which then made the scorchingly good action-movie parody episode Modern Warfare and levelled up into a fourth-wall-obliterating lucky dip of high- and low-concept episodes, morphing into whatever kind of show it chose on any given week. Its cast were, across the board, excellent, even accounting for the strength of their material. The second season is the most consistently excellent, but the third season contains much that is great, including my favourite episode – the multiple-timeline insanity of Remedial Chaos Theory. The fourth season is, obviously, to be skipped entirely on rewatches, but five is a return to decent form and there are even parts of six worth a second look. Will we ever get the movie that was prophesied? Probably not, no, and I can’t imagine how they could possibly do it, either… but that only makes me curious about what on earth it would look like.
5. The Americans (2013-2018)
The only entry on my list to have aired a series finale that I haven’t actually seen yet – I’m still a season behind on this intense Cold War drama about KGB spies embedded in deep cover as a married couple in America – but all reports suggest it’s just as excellent as everything that went before it, so I’m looking forward to ticking this box soon. That the espionage is just a trick to tell you an absorbing story about marriage hardly matters, as there are nevertheless countless moments of action, intrigue and nail-biting tension. Led by the amazing Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys and supported ably by Noah Emmerich as the FBI agent next door as well as the impressive Holly Taylor as the Jennings’ young daughter, among others, it’s a show that never quite got as much attention as it deserved.
4. The 100 (2014-present)
A show about stranding 100 teenagers on a seemingly uninhabited Earth, generations after radioactive disaster forced humanity to escape into orbit, should not have worked this well. But right from the start, The 100 was remarkably unwilling to spend too much time indulging in melodramatic nonsense (there’s not none, but a little bit of that is good for the soul), and quickly set about telling thrilling stories about survival, what we’re willing to do for it and at what point one stops deserving it. The first season will get you hooked but the second is the clincher – an all-time-great season of television firing on all cylinders. There have been ups and downs since then but The 100 has a good habit of both starting and ending strongly, while not being afraid to make paradigm-shifting changes. Eliza Taylor is magnificent as protagonist Clarke Griffin, while Marie Avgeropoulos’s Octavia gets one hell of a transformative arc after starting as one of the show’s least interesting characters. Quite literally anything could happen when the show comes to a close next year, and I’m fascinated to see what route they’ll take.
3. Taskmaster (2015-present)
This isn’t the kind of show that I’d usually put up at the top of my lists, but quite simply nothing else in the last few years has made me laugh out loud as consistently or as hard as Taskmaster does – and I’m the sort of person who rarely laughs out loud at TV and film. The premise is simple: five funny people have been filmed trying to complete daft tasks – ranging from ‘make the most dramatic entrance’ to ‘camouflage yourself, then be photographed in position and have the Taskmaster try to spot you’ – and are then judged on their efforts. I’ve liked a lot of show-mastermind and beleaguered Taskmaster’s assistant Alex Horne’s work over the years, and this is really just peak Horne, with a staunch commitment to thinking up nonsenses both mundane and massive that really have no right to be as much fun to watch as they are. The game really brings out the contestants’ personalities, as well, making it a pleasure to root for them all throughout. If you haven’t dived in yet, check out the back catalogue immediately.
2. The Good Place (2016-present)
A few entries ago, I nearly described Community as “certainly the most ambitious comedy I’ve ever seen”, but then I had to delete it. Because The Good Place exists. Starting with a delicious high concept – Kristen Bell’s absolute garbage-person Eleanor Shellstrop wakes up in Heaven by mistake and must avoid discovery – and soon developing a zeal for not to much shifting the paradigm as constantly exploding it, this show takes huge swings every week and hits with most. It’s riotously funny, both in the foreground with top-notch dialogue and a commitment to exploring its premise as well as in the background with some best-in-class wordplay. But it’s also fiendishly clever, delivering crash-courses in ethics and philosophy and posing big questions about the nature of being. I didn’t know that comedies could be like this. I doubt many will ever be able to reach its heights again.
1. Justified (2010-2015)
When US Marshal Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) is reassigned to Kentucky, he’s forced back into the turmoil of Harlan County, his birthplace from which he thought he’d got away for good. Justified is a whip-smart adaptation of an Elmore Leonard story and, in the Leonard tradition, crackles with some of the best dialogue around. Expertly juggling standalone episodes with more tightly serialised fare ramping up towards its season finales, the show immersed you in the crime and intrigue rife in Harlan, as Raylan reckons with everything he can’t quite leave behind – including Walton Goggins’s fantastic Boyd Crowder (to Raylan, a nemesis, mirror and occasional ally all at once, with whom he used to dig coal).
There’s almost no fat on this show: even season five, Justified’s weakest, is more compelling than almost anything else you could be watching instead. It’s effortlessly cool throughout, packed with characters on both sides of the law who feel fully alive, and its final season manages to be its biggest home run of all. Many of Peak TV’s most celebrated shows can be demanding to watch; rewarding, yes, but sometimes a slog. No such problem for Justified, which is endlessly digestible but every bit as satisfying as the most serious fare. I miss it dearly.