In a decade of change, ‘Game of Thrones’ was the best thing on TV

This image released by HBO shows Emilia Clarke in a scene from the series finale of "Game of Thrones." (HBO via AP)

When the decade began, who could have predicted that a swords-and-sorcerers series filled with violence, dragons and an army of the undead would turn out to be the best thing on TV?

And no one could have predicted that a best-of-the-decade list would include several streaming series — because streaming series didn’t exist in 2010. (Netfix’s first original debuted in February 2013; Amazon’s two months later.)

Binging became a thing in the previous decade, with the release of full seasons on DVD and then Blu-ray. In this decade, it became an instant thing, with Netflix dropping full seasons all at once.

[Read more: Spanning a decade of change, here are the 20 best movies of the 2010s]

But there’s still something to be said for the traditional, one-episode-per-week format. Millions of Americans endlessly debated “Game of Thrones” for six to 10 weeks at a time — and beyond. If the series was on Netflix instead of HBO, those debates would have been over in a matter of days.

Here are the 20 best shows of the past 10 years — in one critic’s opinion.

1. “Game of Thrones” (HBO) • I’m going to resist the urge to defend the show against its detractors and simply point out that there has never before been a series quite like this. Nothing with this many characters and this many plot lines on such an incredibly grand scale for this long — 73 episodes over eight years.

And it’s worth pointing out (again) that George R.R. Martin, who wrote the books, is a former TV writer who turned to novels because he was frustrated that his vision often couldn’t be translated onto the screen. “I sat down and said, ‘I’m going back to prose. I’m going to have hundreds of characters in giant battles and magnificent castles, and they’ll never make this into television or film,’” he told TV critics back in 2011.

And yet HBO and producers David Benioff and D.B. Weiss did just that. No, it wasn’t perfect. But it was great. It was the most talked-about TV show of the decade, and — what with the increasing fracturing of the TV audience — it might turn out to be the last water-cooler series ever.

2. ”The Good Wife”/”The Good Fight” (CBS/CBS All Access) • For seven seasons, “The Good Wife” proved that not all the great dramas were on cable or streaming. And there have been times when I’m convinced the sequel is even better.

3. ”Breaking Bad”/“Better Call Saul” (AMC) • That a show about a mild-mannered man who transforms to murderous drug lord could be nothing short of fantastic is amazing. And “Saul” (to date) is the greatest prequel in TV history.

4. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” (The CW) • No TV series has ever accomplished what this did — four seasons, 62 episodes and 157 original songs. Not covers (like in “Glee”), but original songs that advanced the plot of an entertaining and brave show about a young woman battling mental illness.

This photo provided by CBS shows Melissa Rauch, from left, Simon Helberg, Johnny Galecki, Kaley Cuoco, Jim Parsons, Mayim Bialik and Kunal Nayyar in a scene from the series finale of "The Big Bang Theory." "Game of Thrones," "Veep" and "The Big Bang Theory," three major series that wrapped last season, will find out with Tuesday's nominations if they have one more chance at Emmy gold. (Michael Yarish/CBS via AP)

5. “Big Bang Theory” (CBS) • It became popular to dump on this show when it became incredibly popular. But it was consistently funny for 279 episodes (228 of which aired this decade), and became part of pop culture. It was the No. 1 comedy on broadcast TV, and reruns were No. 1 in syndication and on cable.

6. “Downton Abbey” (PBS) • Yes, this was essentially a high-class soap opera with posh accents. But it was a great soap opera.

7. “Jane the Virgin” (The CW) • Behind all the telenovela trappings — love triangles, amnesia, returns from the dead — was a show about empowering women. And it was both engaging and hilarious.

8. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” (Amazon) • Creator/producer/writer Amy Sherman-Palladino followed her “Gilmore Girls” success with another triumph — a funny, smart, engaging and ultimately optimistic series about a strong woman.

9. “Modern Family” (ABC) • If you want to argue that, in its 11th season, this sitcom is not what it once was, I won’t disagree. But not only was this show fresh and funny when it premiered, not only did it maintain a high level of quality for a long time — it won five straight Emmys as best comedy — but it introduced a gay couple who were just plain folks at a time when that was still controversial.

Colleen Hayes | NBC Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope and Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson in the series finale of "Parks and Recreation."

10. “The Good Place”(NBC) • Most TV comedies are decidedly predictable. Not so with this one, which has gone in directions viewers could not possibly have anticipated — and it’s freakin’ hilarious.

11. “Parks and Recreation” (NBC) • This is a show I definitely didn’t appreciate as I should have when it was still airing. If you haven’t seen it, binge it. And the finale is marvelous.

12. “Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (CBS) • It’s hard to follow a TV legend, and Colbert was following two — both Letterman and the fictionalized version of himself that he played on “The Colbert Report” for nine years.

13. “The Great British Baking Show” (PBS/Netflix) and “Queer Eye” (Netflix) • These two shows proved that reality TV doesn’t have to be tawdry and exploitive. “The Great British Baking Show” gave us a competition without backstabbing or backbiting — where the drama derives from likable people trying to bake under pressure and the prize is a cake plate (or a handshake from judge Paul Hollywood). And “Queer Eye” is one of the great revivals of the decade, expanding its supportive message as it reentered pop culture in a surprisingly big way.

14. “The Night Of” (HBO) • This exceptional, eight-part series didn’t just tell a gripping narrative of young man whose life is changed when he’s falsely accused of murder, it served as an indictment of our justice system. It brought viewers to the edge of their seats even as it made them think.

15. “Veep” (HBO) • The political commentary was biting, and the laughs were big.

(Photo courtesy of Maarten de Boer/NBC) "This Is Us" hasn't been officially renewed for Season 4, but it will be. Sterling K Brown stars as Randall, Susan Kelechi Watson as Beth, Milo Ventimiglia as Jack, Mandy Moore as Rebecca, Justin Hartley as Kevin, Chrissy Metz as Kate, and Chris Sullivan as Toby.

16. “This Is Us” (NBC) • The family drama lives on in this show, which bounces back-and-forth between decades as it weaves an often surprising saga.

17. “Mad Men” (AMC) • Yes, it got bogged down at times. And, yes, it was often incredibly full of itself. But when it hit on all cylinders, it was great.

18. “Parenthood” (NBC) • I don’t think this show ever got the credit it deserved, but it was one of the great family dramas in TV history. And it opened up discussions about autism, among other things.

19. “Stranger Things” (Netflix) • It was decidedly unexpected when the first season of this set-in-the-′80s, inspired-by-′80s-horror-movies turned out to be superior TV. That Seasons 2 and 3 have also been so good is nothing short of astonishing.

20. “The Americans” (FX) • This portrait of a marriage between two Soviet spies who are so deeply embedded in the United States that their children don’t know who they really are was an amazing twist on the antihero phenomenon.

My own arbitrary rule for this list was that the majority of a series’ episodes must have aired after Dec. 31, 2009, to be considered. That eliminated shows like “Friday Night Lights” and “Rescue Me,” but allowed “Mad Men.”

And, following my own rules, I did not include CBS’ “Late Show with David Letterman.” Dave was, without a doubt, one of the best things about TV until his retirement in 2015, but the 982 episodes he hosted during the decade constituted just 23 percent of his “Late Show” total. (And just 16 percent if you add in the 12 years of “Late Night.”)

There are shows on my yearly top 10 lists I never for a moment considered for the best-of-decade list. I had “The Walking Dead” No. 1 in 2010, No. 4 in 2011 and No. 8 in 2012, but the show has since degenerated into unwatchability.

And there are shows on the end-of-decade list that never made one of my yearly top 10 lists. Maybe I overlooked them at the time; I’d prefer to think that, looking at them in totality, they stand out more.

FYI, I considered this year’s “Watchmen” — No. 1 on my 2019 list — for the best-of-decade list, but there’s a recency issue. There just hasn’t been time to put the show in perspective.

By the way, just because a show isn’t on this list doesn’t mean I didn’t like, even love, it. I agonized over dozens of series — some were on and off the list several times and most bounced around the rankings — before I was forced by deadlines to make up my mind.



1. “The Walking Dead”

2. “The Big Bang Theory”

3. “Mad Men”

4. “Breaking Bad”

5. “The Good Wife”

6. “Modern Family”

7. “Better Off Ted”

8. “The Pacific”

9. “Sherlock”

10. “Glee”


1. “Friday Night Lights”

2. “Breaking Bad”

3. “The Good Wife”

4. “The Walking Dead”

5. “Big Bang Theory” and “Modern Family”

6. “Downton Abbey”

7. “Game of Thrones”

8. “Torchwood: Miracle Day”

9. “Rescue Me”

10. “Revenge”


1. “Homeland”

2. “The Good Wife”

3. “Breaking Bad”

4. “Revenge”

5. “The Big Bang Theory,” “Modern Family,” “New Girl” and “Raising Hope”

6. “The Newsroom”

7. “Downton Abbey”

8. “The Walking Dead”

9. “Elementary” and “Sherlock”

10. “Game of Thrones”


1. “The Good Wife”

2. “Game of Thrones”

3. “Breaking Bad”

4. “Broadchurch”

5. “House of Cards”

6. “Downton Abbey”

7. “The Big Bang Theory

8. “Trophy Wife”

9. “Rectify”

10. “Scandal”


1. “The Good Wife”

2. “Game of Thrones”

3. “Jane the Virgin”

4. “The Big Bang Theory”

5. “Fargo”

6. “Parenthood”

7. “The Mindy Project”

8. “Mad Men”

9. “How to Get Away with Murder”

10. “Sleepy Hollow”


1. “Late Show with David Letterman”

2. “Game of Thrones”

3. “The Good Wife”

4. “The Flash”

5. “Jane the Virgin”

6. “Mad Men”

7. “The Americans”

8. “Fargo”

9. “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst”

10. “The Big Bang Theory”


1. “Game of Thrones”

2. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

3. “American Crime”

4. “Better Call Saul”

5. “The Night Of”

6. “This Is Us”

7. “O.J.: Made in America” and “The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story”

8. “The Flash”

9. “The Crown”

10. “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee”


1. “Game of Thrones”

2. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

3. “The Vietnam War”

4. “Star Trek: Discovery”

5. “Better Call Saul”

6. “The Good Place”

7. “The Handmaid’s Tale”

8. “Mindhunter”

9. “Big Little Lies”

10. “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert”


1. “The Good Fight”

2. “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

3. “Better Call Saul”

4. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

5. “Queer Eye”

6. “The Good Place”

7. “Succession”

8. “The Expanse”

9. “The Americans”

10. “Atlanta”


1. “Watchmen”

2. “Game of Thrones”

3. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel”

4. “Chernobyl” and “When They See Us”

5. “The Crown” and “Succession”

6. “Jane the Virgin” and “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend”

7. “The Good Fight”

8. “The Good Place”

9. “Star Trek: Discovery”

10. “Evil”

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