The ’50s gave us I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners, and The Twilight Zone. Then came Star Trek and Monty Python’s Flying Circus (in the ’60s), The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Dallas and M*A*S*H (in the ’70s) and Cheers, The Simpsons and Seinfeld (in the ’80s).
The ’90s brought us Twin Peaks, Law & Order, ER, NYPD Blue, Friends, The X-Files, The West Wing, NYPD Blue, South Park, Buffy, The Sopranos and The Larry Sanders Show. And the 2000s The Office, Deadwood, Curb Your Enthusiasm and many more.
So where do you even begin with the past decade?
Was Chernobyl too short? Is Succession too recent? Is Stranger Things too demographically skewed? We have only just seen Years & Years, so is it risky to choose the best of the decade from the best of the last six months? And how do you explain a list of the best shows of the decade that doesn’t have Broadchurch, Fargo and The Handmaid’s Tale on it?
The Haunting of Hill House was as thrilling as The Marvelous Mrs Maisel was hilarious and yet the sheer volume of content pushes both off the list. Unlike its forebear, Twin Peaks: The Return was perhaps too strange and divisive. And Westworld, The Americans, Black Mirror and The Bridge might all be worthy candidates for a final top 10, except that there are so many worthy candidates that some, despite their brilliance, don’t have a hope.
In the end, our selection of five Australian and five international shows comes down to cultural power, narrative impact and, in some cases, what the show represented for the broader genre. You will nod approvingly, you will disagree passionately and perhaps, in the broad church of television, that is how it ought to be.
THE 10 BEST SHOWS OF THE DECADE
A Danish political thriller about a minor centrist politician who becomes the first female prime minister of Denmark; in addition to giving the world (and Westworld) the brilliant Sidse Babett Knudsen, the series is best in show for the Scandi noir genre, which included brilliant series such as The Killing and The Bridge. – MI
The Slap (2011)
A stunning television drama based on Christos Tsiolkas’ bestselling novel about a seemingly perfect world of comfortable living and friendship which is split open with a single slap. The series starred Jonathan LaPaglia, Essie Davis, Alex Dimitriades, Sophie Lowe, Melissa George, Lex Marinos and Sophie Okonedo. – MI
Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo (2011)
Brilliant miniseries about the creation of the iconic Australian women’s magazine Cleo, and the powerful business alliance of publisher Ita Buttrose, played by Asher Keddie, and emerging media baron Kerry Packer, played by Rob Carlton. The success of Paper Giants spawned a genre of Australian social history-and-soundtrack dramas. – MI
Game of Thrones (2011-2019)
The most successful fantasy television drama of all time, which brought the genre in from the fringes and defined, for much of its life, “high concept” narrative cable drama. The final season was met with a mixed reception, but that’s not enough to dull the lustre of the series overall. – MI
Created by Armando Iannucci, this brilliant satirical political comedy followed US senator Selina Meyer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) and her jangling entourage of experts, analysis and lobbyists, on an electoral misadventure that saw her first installed as vice-president and finally president of the United States. – MI
Redfern Now (2012-2015)
This ABC-produced, anthology-style series of self-contained dramas marked a breakthrough for Australian TV, not only by focusing on previously untold stories of contemporary, urban Aboriginal families but by uncovering a wealth of talented Indigenous writers, directors and actors. It wasn’t so much the “issues” but the depth and complexity of the storytelling, and the series’ refusal to deliver glib takeaway messages, that continues to resonate. – PK
Not so much a remake as a reinvention of Prisoner (1979-86), Wentworth was both a homage to Australian TV and a gritty prison drama that, like the original, was built around characters we don’t normally see on our screens; distressed mothers escaping violent marriages; crooked, power-drunk wardens and social miscreants who had fallen foul of the law. – PK
No Activity (2015-present)
Just as everything in TV-land was scaling up, the enterprising people at Jungle Boys (now Jungle) created this hilarious, no-budget, improvised and deeply Australian-inflected comedy about two barely functional cops, a couple of bickering dispatch officers and a ragtag of unsucessful criminals. As the title suggests, nothing actually happened throughout 12 episodes and a Christmas special, but the little that did was at times eye-wateringly funny. – PK
There’s no shortage of dramas and comedies from the past decade homing in on flawed, messed-up women thumbing their noses at social conventions and the so-called rules of relationships. But few pulled it off with the audacity of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, whose solo stage show about an irreverent, wounded, over-sexed young woman living in London was expanded into 12 razor-sharp and exhilarating episodes that effortlessly spun from laugh-out-loud comedy to heartbreaking pathos. -PK
The Crown (2016-present)
Netflix is setting a new benchmark for the prestige historical drama with the sprawling, star-studded and sumptuous 60-episode The Crown, based around six decades of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. Unafraid of taking risks, most notably by recasting roles rather than “ageing” the actors and reframing in a critical light numerous events that befell the House of Windsor, at this halfway point it is destined to become the most compelling and possibly most-watched show of the coming decade. – PK
Michael Idato is the culture editor-at-large of The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.