These last ten years in television don't just invite hyperbole, but demand it: The most, the best, the biggest, the bingiest. Peak TV is here, the tsunami is still cresting, and now, at decade's end, the term "television" itself feels antiquated — something from another time, almost another another century. Paradigms didn't merely "shift" these past ten years but essentially self-nuked, with control handed over to creators, to viewers and to a growing crowd of streaming venues happy to hand over that control — for a monthly fee, naturally. We now find ourselves with more TV than we can reasonably consume in a lifetime.
Technology begat this bounty — that's obvious — but which shows changed technology? Which ones changed our habits, or the way we look at ourselves, and each other? Which ones changed us?
My candidates for most important entertainment series of the decade:
10. NCIS/THE BIG BANG THEORY (CBS) Hey, why not a pair of dinosaur network shows on a most-important list? These two should certainly qualify as the ones, right? They were important this last decade for many reasons, but just one should do: They were testament to the blunt fact that people, perhaps most people, still watch commercial network TV. Other shows could be added here ("Grey's Anatomy") but in terms of sheer viewer tonnage, these were the ones. "NCIS" remains hugely popular, and "Bang" went out with one. Yes, TV went through a revolution but dinosaurs still walk among us. Big ones.
9. VEEP (HBO) Great shows capture cultural moments, yet "Veep" seemed to capture many of them — a whole decade's worth — then vivisected each, one by one. If Washington was broken, and if politics had turned into a mud fight, if elected officials were craven, and if presidents were (well) less than ideal, surely we needed a TV series to explain all this in terms we understood. We got one. In fact, "Veep" may have been more reactive than influential, but it also gave us Julia Louis-Dreyfus, in one of the single greatest comic performances in TV in history. That has to count for something.
8. THE PEOPLE V. OJ SIMPSON: AMERICAN CRIME STORY (FX) Besides being brilliantly acted and written, we've forgotten just how groundbreaking the whole idea was here. Or ideas: An anthology series... about a real crime... about this crime. Anthologies were a staple of '50s TV, but ideally suited for the 2010's too, with our abbreviated attention spans, and over-burdened viewing lives. "True Detective" may have launched the anthology craze in 2014, but this made it relevant. "O.J." also became the reboot we actually needed, by re-trying the "trial of the century" at a dispassionate 21-year remove.
7. LOUIE (FX ) After Louis CK imploded at the outset of the #Metoo revolution, his standup and shows were broomed away. What's now forgotten is "Louie's" impact. Think of that this way: If no "Louie," then no "Master of None," no "Girls," no "Better Things," maybe even no "Atlanta" (2016) or — gulp— even "Fleabag." "Louie" opened the way for an angsty, self-referential, individualized style of "auteur" comedy. Intended or not, it also opened the way for other voices, notably those of women and people of color.
6. MAD MEN (AMC) "Mad Men" wrapped mid-decade, but much of the renown (and most of its Emmys) was in the aughts. Nevertheless, "Men" taught the TV industry that a show with a small, passionate audience could still have an outsized influence. It was a lesson best adapted to this past decade, with the advent of streaming services Amazon Prime, Netflilx, Hulu. Each would find their own "Mad Men."
5. BREAKING BAD (AMC) "Bad" launched in 2008, but saved its greatest impact for this decade. As we now know, and Netflix was to learn, that impact was vast. But "Bad's" influence was deeper and more subtle than anything measured by an algorithm (see: "The Office.") It was TV as literature, but also a propulsive entertainment that would anticipate (then drive) the binge phenomenon to follow. Whatever TV was before "Bad," TV would turn into something else afterwards. Something better.
4. THE OFFICE (NBC) By 2012, "The Office" was ending, its glory and buzz in the past. Enter the Netflix Effect: A show you missed during the network run gets sampled during the Netflix run and maybe becomes a habit, then (maybe) an obsession. That was "The Office." More than any other series, "The Office" was first and foremost the one behind Netflix's metoric rise.
3. EMPIRE (FOX) "Empire" arrived in the exact middle of the decade — Jan. 7, 2015 — and within a month or so had nearly 18 million viewers. Instant success invited closer inspection. Why this show, why now? What we learned was what we already knew: Primetime before "Empire" was filled with shows largely comprised of white casts and had been since the dawn of TV. "Empire" made no pretense at originality — a little bit of "King Lear" mixed in with a whole lot "Dynasty," plus some hip-hop, cameos, the rare Oprah sighting — but it did demand attention. "Black-ish" had arrived the year before, but "Empire" was the first primetime drama in TV history with a mostly all-black cast, the first family drama too. The networks weren't exactly chastened — they don't do "chasten" well"— but opportunities did open up for black actors, directors, writers, and show-runners. The industry got "woke," and had "Empire" to thank.
2. HOUSE OF CARDS (NETFLIX) By 2013, the major media companies had sold their franchises to Netflix, only to belatedly realize they were on the losing end of a zero-sum game. Netflix knew it was just a matter of time before they caught on so the obvious solution was to launch its own franchises. "Cards" was the first of what would eventually become hundreds of Netflix-produced series, with at least one of them a titan ("Stranger Things"). Moreover, "Cards" alerted Hollywood showrunners to a new and particularly big spender in town. The gold rush was on and allegiances switched. "Cards" got the streaming party started.
1. GAME OF THRONES (HBO) From 2011 until 2019, "Go-T" owned the world, or at least the internet, where obsessions raged, fan fiction flowered, and where Jon Snow lived-or-died until the actual show settled the matter. It's fashionable now to dismiss "GoT," such are the whims of fandom, but over the middle of the decade, this was TV's best, and emphatic proof that if the source material is good enough (George R.R. Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire") and the network profligate enough then greatness can actually follow. "GoT" changed TV and also reaffirmed that quality still matters — in fact, matters more than ever.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated how long much time passed between the O.J. Simpson trial and the series "The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story."