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The 2010s: Shows that defined a decade and redefined TV

Reading time: 7 mins

We may be in the early stages of 2020 and looking forward to what the new decade is set to offer when it comes to TV, but there’s still time to reflect on the enormous and vital contributions that graced the small screen during the last 10 years.

While 2007 gave us Mad Men and 2009 gave us RuPaul’s Drag Race, there are many shows that shaped, defined and revolutionised the 2010s – because, let’s face it, we’ve been privy to some truly wonderful and era-defining televisual events:

Game of Thrones (2011 to 2019)

Starting with the most obvious entry and for good reason, HBO’s fantasy epic – based on the books by George RR Martin – gathered more and more pace with each season as it became the biggest TV event on the planet, made global superstars of its wildly talented cast, and created a whole new bar to measure the quality of an episodic series: movie-like set pieces and sequences to rival some of Hollywood’s grandiose productions. Breaking records along the way, scoring an unfathomable pile of awards, and giving us some of the greatest moments in TV history, Thrones will forever be remembered as the most special of shows that others will measure against.

Planet Earth II / Blue Planet II (2016 / 2017)

For years the BBC has been synonymous with making breathtaking and groundbreaking documentaries, so when the sequels to two of their most prestigious shows landed in 2016 and 2017 respectively, audiences salivated for another dose of Sir David Attenborough. However, with climate change and planetary preservation taking up more headline space in recent years the messages accompanying each episode were even more impactful and hard-hitting when the reality was presented to us. In (Ultra) High Definition, they are stunning to witness. Weave in its poignant social pleas for plastic reduction, and with a living legend at the narrative helm, it becomes generationally vital.

Transparent (2014 to 2019)

The world’s changed a lot since Barack Obama was sworn in as President of the United States in 2009, especially when it comes to the visibility of trans people and the strengthening of the voice of the LGBTQ+ community. Back then, there were no voices, no mainstream stars, and no outlet for any form of education or understanding. It wasn’t really until 2014’s Transparent (and other shows such as Orange is the New Black) that they did – and even then it was cautionary and gradual process. While talents like Trace Lysette were finally given a platform to represent and form a programme that scooped awards left, right, and centre, it wasn’t without its controversies and talking points – notably its straight, male lead Jeffrey Tambor playing a trans woman, and the unsavoury details that later emerged of his alleged on-set conduct. Nonetheless, it took nothing away from the importance of the programme’s intentions.

Rick and Morty (2013 to present)

Every so often a cultural phenomenon grows out of absolutely nothing to cement itself as something significant. Zany adult animated comedy Rick and Morty, from the minds of Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, is such a gem. But this didn’t merely establish itself as another foul-mouthed cartoon series; it raced to insane stardom due to its razor-sharp comedy (and redefining of a subgenre), quickly establishing itself as one of the smartest shows on television. With literal years of anticipation between seasons, Rick and Morty is recognisably quotable and referenced both within and outside of its (sometimes too) dedicated fanbase. What other show could make people scream at McDonald’s employees?

Black Mirror (2011 to present)

From the twisted and, it has to be noted, brilliant mind of Charlie Brooker (and producer Annabel Jones), Black Mirror became a hit with its terrifyingly on-the-nose social commentaries and depictions of a nightmare future where both fantasy and technology were concerned. The innovation of 2018’s Bandersnatch – an interactive, feature-length experience – saw viewers able to choose their own adventure where Fionn Whitehead’s young programmer was your pawn. The show’s evolution suddenly gave people the power to participate rather than merely observe,. Create-your-own-story elements aside, the showrunners have crafted some of the most prevalent, poignant, and important commentaries of the 21st century, with the likes of San Junipero, Nosedive, and Hang the DJ as standout episodic entries.

Breaking Bad (2010 to 2013)

Breaking Bad BAFTA

Despite originally starting in 2008, AMC’s show was shrewdly picked up by Netflix post-2010 and aired weekly for its remaining blistering seasons – and what a show it was. Aside from its Netflix-enabled jump to the UK, what’s significant about this Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul vehicle was its audacity to not only make the world of drug dealing mainstream but to take Cranston’s inoffensive, family-friendly Malcolm in the Middle fame and flip it on its head to forge a sociopathic meth kingpin. And it worked to superlative effect. Tight dialogue, memorable moments – Hank’s toilet epiphany, anyone? – and brilliantly written characters made Vince Gilligan’s creation one of the most iconic shows in history.

Money Heist (2017 to present)

Approaching its fourth season, the exquisite Money Heist broke a foreign-language TV record when it amassed 34.3 million household viewers during its Season 3 debut. Created by Alex Pina, it tells the story of a group of bank robbers who task themselves with the audacious challenge of stealing 2.4 billion Euros. Set in Spain, its twisty, ingenious plotting turned people onto one of the most thrilling shows of recent times. Not only a streaming service hit on Netflix, but it re-energised the complacent attitude some home bingers had towards subtitled content, as they invested in a set of characters and story that increasingly raised the bar and became impossible to match when imitators tried to capture its electric formula.

Love Island (2015 to present)

Sure, this slice of sexed-up reality television’s not an obvious choice to rub shoulders with such royalty as Game of Thrones but the ITV 2 programme is significant in its own right – the product of the near-full cycle redundancy of reality TV, and a reflection on trends among millennials. While bickering and scorned (ex)lovers would air their grievances for millions to indulge in their misery – and many did, attracting over six million last summer – it proved a catalyst for serious debate when it came to exploitation and addressing mental health. Couple that with the heartbreaking suicides of two former contestants, even for those who don’t enjoy seeing the carnage of on-screen relationships develop and break, the show had – wittingly or otherwise – opened up discussion around how the stars of such shows are treated during and after broadcast.

Making A Murderer (2015)

The 2010s saw a real thirst for documentaries (especially true crime and murder) and an influx came as a result, whether it was TV, podcasts, cinema, or, as per the recent trend, straight onto streaming services for the binge generation. 2015’s enthralling ten-parter debuted on Netflix and became a viral sensation, after viewers became outraged at the apparent injustice Steven Avery and nephew Brendan Dassey had suffered. Shaping what seemed a local conspiracy into a somewhat thrilling series about the false imprisonment of two innocent men admittedly made for great TV. as the entire world gasped. Its impact was so great that it spawned protests and petitions – even calling for then President Obama to step in to what appeared a clear case of US injustice. Conspiracies emerged, as did further snippets of information, in a case that still rumbles on today.

The Great British Bake Off (2010 to present)

Baking. Never has a nation been so invested in the creation of cake, but it’s frankly the most quintessentially British of things behind tea and bad weather. So when the BBC introduced the nation to Mary Berry, a star had risen (sorry) for a charming weekly programme that would reign for an entire decade and beyond. Making Paul Hollywood a household name too, Bake Off, as it’s affectionately known, has become one of the biggest annual programmes of the British calendar as we marvel at the highs and lows of the art of baking. However, controversy reared its head when the Beeb eventually sold out its show to Channel 4, meaning a sad farewell to the wonderful Berry in 2016, but the pleasant additions of Prue Leith and Sandi Toksvig in 2017.

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