The CNN Original Series “The 2010s” looks at a turbulent era marked by political and social upheaval. Social media transformed society and streaming upended entertainment, ushering in the era of “Peak TV”. The series premieres on CNN on Sundays, May 7 at 9 p.m. ET/PT.
The next installment of CNN’s Emmy-winning original series “Decades” returned on Sunday with the “The 2010s,” and its two-hour premiere covered the groundbreaking television of the “Peak TV” decade.
In a challenging task given the truly robust number of outstanding series, the CNN Entertainment team compiled a list of decade-defining scripted shows that best captured the zeitgeist.
Read on for a look back at some of the most impactful television of the 2010s in order of when each series debuted:
“The Walking Dead” (AMC) 2010-2022
One of the decade’s most influential and successful shows came not from a broadcaster or premium channel, but a basic-cable network – AMC – launching the zombie drama that inspired plenty of imitators as well as numerous spinoffs. Indeed, after plodding into the next decade with multiple cast changes along the way, the show will live on, perhaps appropriately, in several new programs.
“Game of Thrones” (HBO) 2011-2019
HBO’s big swing at fantasy soared through the entire decade in a manner akin to Daenerys Targaryen (Emilia Clarke) and her dragon doing, well… you know what they did. “Thrones” became one of HBO’s biggest shows of all time, inspiring a resurgence of content in the fantasy genre and breeding a number of “Thrones” spinoff series. Based on George R.R. Martin’s “A Song of Ice and Fire” book series, the weekly release of episodes prompted a return to appointment viewing, and the sprawling budget provided viewers with visually stunning hour-long episodes that felt truly cinematic. “Thrones” still had issues – like the series finale and that Starbucks cup cameo – and the violence and nudity at times felt gratuitous, but the ensemble cast led by Clarke, Kit Harington, Lena Headey, Peter Dinklage, Sophie Turner and Maisie Williams swept viewers through an unforgettable eight seasons. (HBO and CNN are both part of Warner Bros. Discovery.)
“Scandal” (ABC) 2012-2018
When “Scandal” debuted on ABC, it became the first network drama to present a Black female lead since the ’70s, with Kerry Washington as DC fixer Olivia Pope. Creator Shonda Rhimes told CNN, “I really wanted to make shows that I wanted to watch. I wanted to see shows that represented me, that represented the women I knew, that showed women in various stages of being competitive or angry or dark or joyful. You wanted to see everything.” Because the series appeared on network television’s linear format, the cast was able to interact with their audience of “Gladiators” on social media while new episodes aired in real time in a way that enhanced both the viewing experience and expanded the overall buzz of the show. Let’s also not forget about the seven glorious years where we got to watch Tony Goldwyn assert himself as dreamy president Fitzgerald Grant.
“Key & Peele” (Comedy Central) 2012-2015
While it only aired for three seasons, Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele’s “Key & Peele” had a lasting effect with the sketch comedy’s social commentary and satirization. “Key & Peele” tackled race, stereotypes and the polarizing political climate of the era with thoughtfulness and humor. President Barack Obama even got in on their jokes by welcoming Key on the dais at the 2015 White House Correspondents’ Dinner to appear as his popular recurring character Luther, Obama’s “anger translator.” Like “Broad City” and “Portlandia,” “Key & Peele” originated on the internet before expanding to a linear audience. Both men have since gone on more television and film success, with Peele winning a 2018 best original screenplay Oscar for “Get Out.”
“Girls” (HBO) 2012-2017
Comparisons to “Sex and the City” aside, Lena Dunham’s unapologetic ode to being a 20-something New Yorker in the 2010s did more for body positivity and frank conversations about sexuality and “adulting” in the first two seasons than most shows hope to accomplish in their entire runs. “Girls” also veritably launched the careers of two stars we’re more than happy to have around, namely Adam Driver and Allison Williams, who took her oft-disliked Marnie and ran with it in Jordan Peele’s brilliant “Get Out” (see above). Quirky and cringey as the “Girls” sometimes were, the show never strayed from a gritty commitment to the often penny-pinching realities of urban millennial living, and also gave us the wonder that was Shoshanna (Zosia Mamet), the best “cruel drunk” out there.
“Orange is the New Black” (Netflix) 2013-2019
Jenji Kohan’s “Orange Is the New Black” shattered tired stereotypes by lifting up stories about women of every age, size, race, sexual orientation and state of mental wellness, with critical commentary of the US justice system. It produced many breakout stars, including Laverne Cox, Dascha Polanco and Danielle Brooks, who became the faces of a TV renaissance wherein more substantive stories about women of color were told. Based on Piper Kerman’s memoir of the same name, “Orange” is also one of Netflix’s earliest forays into original content, and among the first to release full seasons at once, making “binge-watch” the new black.
“Better Call Saul” (AMC) 2015-2022
As the full withdrawal effect from “Breaking Bad” kicked in after its explosive 2013 series finale, series creator Vince Gilligan satiated viewers’ appetites with “Better Call Saul.” The legal drama was laden with cartel action and a slew of familiar characters as it followed the misadventures flawed lawyer Jimmy McGill, a.k.a. Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk), and his romantic partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). The series bounced between the past, present and future of the “Breaking Bad” timeline as viewers learned how “Slippin’ Jimmy” evolved into Goodman, a beloved character who first appeared in “Breaking Bad.” With “Breaking Bad,” “Better Call Saul” and the continuation of Jesse Pinkman’s (Aaron Paul) story in the 2019 “El Camino” movie all appearing within the decade, the 2010s were dominated by Gilligan’s universe.
“Master of None” (Netflix) 2015-2021
As aspiring actor Dev Shah, Aziz Ansari used his background (and his actual parents playing his parents on the series) to personalize the immigrant experience and make the point that even within varied cultures, many family dynamics and life experiences are shared. “Isn’t it weird, all of us first generation kids, we have these amazing lives all because our parents made these crazy sacrifices. Shouldn’t we find out more? Shouldn’t we at least try to thank them somehow?” Ansari as Dev asks in one episode. With “Master of None,” he does exactly that.
“Stranger Things” (Netflix) 2016-
When it comes to “Peak TV,” few titles come close to Netflix’s “Stranger Things,” which arguably hasn’t even peaked yet (that fifth and final season is still coming). With homage and nostalgia that hearkens back to ’80s-era classics like “Stand By Me” and “Ghostbusters,” “Stranger Things” simultaneously feels new and fresh. That same mix is mirrored in the impeccable casting, which features Winona Ryder in one of her best roles since coming onto the scene in 1988’s “Beetlejuice,” and Millie Bobby Brown as the still-mysterious, Jean Grey-like Eleven. Each season has brought stellar actors into the Hawkins fold, from Season 2’s Max (the excellent Sadie Sink) to the best kid sister ever Erica (Priah Ferguson) to last season’s raucous Eddie (Joseph Quinn). Plus, let’s not forget that incredible title sequence with its synth-heavy instrumentation.
“Insecure” (HBO) 2016-2021
Issa Rae was one of the stars who successfully transitioned from YouTube to the small screen and we are all the better for it. Her hit HBO comedy “Insecure” is as authentically awkward as only someone struggling with adulthood can be. While Rae’s character spent many seasons searching for romantic love, in the end we discover it is the love of her friends which really sustains her. With Rae’s unapologetic wit, “Insecure” is a celebration of Black female friendship. She kept it real, and audiences responded with devotion and gratitude.
“Killing Eve” (AMC) 2018-2022
Featuring stupendous performances from Sandra Oh and Emmy-winner Jodie Comer, this engrossing series from Phoebe Waller-Bridge – the genius behind “Fleabag” (see below) – had viewers second and triple-guessing at every turn. “Killing Eve” took the well-trodden spy thriller trope and turned it on its head with a fresh and fiendish female perspective. The show was also undeniably funny, giving Comer and Oh an ever-expanding playground in which to spar.
“Pose” (FX) 2018-2021
This groundbreaking FX series from Ryan Murphy explored New York’s ballroom scene at the height of the AIDS crisis in the ’80s. Beyond the glamour and vogueing and “tens across the board,” “Pose” is a show about love, compassion, acceptance, fearlessness and family. The series helped usher in a new era of representation for transgender actors in entertainment. “Pose” is lauded for its depiction of how the LGBTQ+ community remained resilient in the 1980s and 1990s, a theme that feels more topical than ever in the current political climate.
“Modern Family” (ABC) 2009 - 2020: With heart and humor, this sitcom broke stereotypes with aplomb, and had you belly laughing – and sometimes tearing – at every episode.
“Downton Abbey” (PBS) 2010 - 2015: PBS provided further evidence that TV success can come from all over with a very commercial hit in the form of this addictive upstairs/downstairs drama, chronicling the early 20th-century challenges of an aristocratic family and its army of servants.
“Homeland” (Showtime) 2011 - 2020: With cinematic scale, international intrigue and high-stakes drama, episodes of this edge-of-your-seat terrorism thriller were like weekly installments of the “Bourne” franchise. Claire Danes’s portrayal of CIA agent Carrie Mathison, was, like “Homeland” itself, powerful and INTENSE.
“Veep” (HBO) 2012 - 2019: Never has a sitcom more brutally (and, according to actual politicos, accurately) satirized US lobbying, campaigning and governing. Julia Louis-Dreyfus was hilarious as Vice President (and in Season 3) President Selina Meyer, but hail to the ultimate bagman Gary (played brilliantly by Tony Hale.)
“The Americans” (FX) 2013 - 2018: The Cold War received a fresh look from FX’s series about spies hiding in plain sight before the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, which burnished its reputation by doing what a lot of series can’t in its finale – namely, sticking the landing.
“Jane the Virgin” (The CW) 2014 - 2019: The CW dramedy captured just the right balance of romance, soapy drama and comedy with its telenovela-inspired story starring Gina Rodriguez as a young woman who gets accidentally artificially inseminated, and winds up caught between her boyfriend and the biological father.
“Black-ish” (ABC) 2014 - 2022: This series about a well-to-do Black family was not afraid to tackle real-life issues around race and class all while making us laugh.
“Mr. Robot” (USA) 2015 - 2019: Few shows encapsulated the paranoia and political apprehension of the decade better than USA’s twisty “Please tell me you’re seeing this too?” thriller, which made Rami Malek a star in the process.
“Fresh Off the Boat” (ABC) 2015 - 2020: An Asian American family’s move from a Chinatown neighborhood to Orlando, Florida proved to be a hilarious fish out of water series.
“The Crown” (Netflix) 2016 - 2023: As the real-life end drew near for Britain’s longest reining monarch, the late Queen Elizabeth II, viewers are taken back to the early days of the young queen’s ascension in “The Crown,” a dramatization of the personal and historical events that shaped her reign, providing plenty of internet fodder for royalists along the way.
“Fleabag” (Amazon) 2016 - 2019: Phoebe Waller-Bridge perfected what so many had failed to do before her sharp Amazon Prime series – breaking the fourth wall for cutting and insightful commentary on the scene at hand. Plus, the show’s wrenching back-and-forth between sidesplitting laughs and well-earned tears made it an instant classic.