Billy On the Street (2011 – present)
The late-night show is a tired format in the 21st century, the same template slapped on the program no matter what the network. You see, a suited man deliver a monologue, maybe do a skit, interview a celebrity, add, rinse, repeat. Billy Eichner has taken the boring talk show and the game show and blended them together in a chaotic, frenzied, and beautiful mess. Often, Eichner tows a celebrity guest along with him as they rush through the streets of New York, asking passersby lightning speed questions and giving them little time to respond. The best moments are those subjective questions where Eichner inserts his personal opinions as to the correct answer, usually involving Meryl Streep. The series began on the obscure Fuse cable channel, transferred to TruTv, got picked up by Funny or Die, and is now currently sponsored by Lyft. Previous seasons have hopped around digital platforms but currently find their home on Netflix.
Enlightened (2011 – 2013)
Laura Dern secured herself as one of my favorite actors working right now. My affinity for older fiftyish actors has grown in the decade with Dern at the head. This began with Enlightened, a criminally underrated show that ran on HBO for two seasons. Dern plays Amy Jellicoe, a corporate executive who has a nervous breakdown at work. The public collapse is followed by her return from a holistic treatment facility, and she has adopted a more “new age” way of approaching people. Amy tries to get her job back but ends up demoted to a basement level data processing job. There’s a constant strain between Amy’s self-help philosophy and people from her past bringing up old pains. Despite the heavy subject matter, this is a hilarious show that showcases Dern’s strength in portraying flaky, easily combustible people. The second season heightened the disconnect between Amy’s dogma and her actions and was even better than the first. Sadly, HBO canceled Enlightened due to low ratings, but it remains a beloved series by critics.
Black Mirror (2011 – present)
The Black Mirror we have now is not the Black Mirror that once was. I feel that the current Netflix version of the show is providing diminishing returns. You could argue this is inevitable in the anthology format, especially when Black Mirror is written primarily by one person, Charlie Brooker. There comes the point where you are writing just to fill an episode order. But, those first few seasons of Black Mirror are brilliant. The premise of the show is to examine the side effects of living digitally so much of our lives, the title referring to the various screens in our world when they are turned off. Season one was wonderful, and the second run of episodes just upped the ante. Black Mirror is at its best when it relies less on the spectacle of the technology and leans into the relationships. Episodes like “Be Right Back” and “The Story of Your Life” are painful in their dissection of intimate relationships affected by technology. “White Bear” is a standout horror story that plays with our sympathy by withholding information about a character until the halfway point. The move to Netflix has been mostly terrible, but that third season managed to produce “Shut up and Dance,” which is a high watermark and “San Junipero” that played with our expectations of what Black Mirror is. I wouldn’t recommend the more recent episodes, but those first six are brilliant.
American Horror Story: Asylum (2012 – 2013)
I would never include American Horror Story as a whole on this list because the range in quality is astounding. However, this second season is hands down my favorite, a statement that is quite controversial with some fans. I absolutely hated Coven, but those people can’t seem to stand Asylum. To each their own, I suppose. What I loved about Asylum was the density of the plot and how all these threads actually came together. In the present day, Briarcliff Manor is an abandoned mental asylum where a man was committed in 1964 under the auspices of being Bloody Face. The story is told in flashbacks to that period centered around Sister Jude, the domineering & conflicted nun that ran Briarcliff and Lana Winters, an investigative reporter who is forcibly committed when her homosexuality is revealed. Throughout this season, we saw alien visitors, mutant zombies, a mad scientist, and demon possession. This was before AHS went off the rails and became campy more than scary. There are definitely camp elements in Asylum, the “Name Game” sequence stands out, but it was balanced with genuine horror.
Moone Boy (2012 – 2016)
Martin Moone is a rather simple-minded 12-year-old Irish lad growing up the only boy in a house full of sisters in the early 1990s. His closest companion is his imaginary friend Sean Murphy (played by The IT Crowd’s Chris O’Dowd). The two get involved in one mishap after another, always made a bit worse by Martin’s endlessly optimistic mentality. The series was the brainchild of O’Dowd, who based it on his own upbringing in Ireland and is the type of show you simply couldn’t remake anywhere else. The humor and the characters are so specifically Irish, especially the contrast of mindless enthusiasm and darkly humorous cynicism. If you are a fan of Graham Lineham’s Father Ted, then you will likely enjoy the similar perspective of Moone Boy. This is The Wonder Years through a much more absurdist lens.
Veep (2012 – 2019)
Veep will forever be one of the great comedies of this decade. Created by Armando Iannucci, who did something similar about British politics with In the Thick of It and that show’s film spin-off In the Loop. Veep follows Selina Meyer, the first female vice-president of the United States. She’s never happy about playing second fiddle and sees the VP’s office as runner up. Selina’s best bet to bring the spotlight on herself is through relevant legislation, but she doesn’t really care about anything. Throughout the series, she gets herself into increasingly worse predicaments due to her own ambition. Her staff is regularly abused by her, yet they are just as craven for relevance in D.C. This is the best example of what really goes in the United States’ capitol, the anti-West Wing you could say. Veep thinks Sorkin is cute with his quick-witted & well-intentioned White House. The reality is closer to the biting snark and constant crisis control of the Selina Meyer’s crew.
Utopia (2013 – 2014)
If I had to pick my top three favorite shows of this decade without hesitation, Utopia makes the list. To try and compare this show to anything is a near-impossible task. It’s science fiction, horror, comedy, and political espionage all wrapped up into one brightly primary-colored masterpiece. The opening scene of Utopia is a brilliant exercise in how to tell your audience everything they need to know before the title appears. They even give away the secret of one of the mysteries right away, you just won’t realize it until you go back. The plot follows a group of people caught up in a global conspiracy, being framed by a powerful organization into appearing as criminals to the general public. In six tightly written episodes, season one delivers a complete mystery with an ending that will blow you away. As if to prove they weren’t a one-trick pony, season two comes out of the gate with a premiere that challenges the audience’s perceptions of season one and proceeds to tell an even more harrowing tale. Ultimately, Utopia was canceled, but it was never going to be a ratings darling, always the sort of show that appealed to a niche crowd. Amazon Studios is currently reviving Utopia with an American remake helmed by Gillian Flynn and original series director Dennis Kelly. I genuinely hope this revival finds the audience that works, and we can keep this story going for as long as Amazon allows. Check out my episode reviews for more of my thoughts.
Nathan For You (2013 – 2017)
Nathan Fielder knows how to fix your business. You run an ice cream shop? Make shit flavored ice cream that’ll get them coming in out of curiosity. You are a realtor? Advertise the houses as haunted. You are an electronics store competing with the big box franchises? Give away a free big screen tv that is if the customer can get into the locked room and past the alligator. Nathan Fielder came to our screens via Canada’s This Hour Has 22 Minutes, a comedy news program. I first saw him on the short-lived, and criminally underrated Jon Benjamin Has a Van on Comedy Central. None of his previous work could prepare us for the genius that was Nathan For You. It was such a cleverly sly critique of capitalism that never got preachy and allowed the everyday people Nathan encountered to speak for themselves. The best moments were when a business owner or customer was just allowed to talk, and you could see the slight glee in Nathan’s eyes. It also has one of the most fantastic series finales I’ve ever seen, a feature-length documentary that follows a Bill Gates impersonator back to his hometown in Arkansas.
Man Down (2013 – 2017)
Comedian Greg Davies became one of my favorite people this decade. He’s the host and star of the British game show Taskmaster, and this sitcom, loosely based on his own life, is one of the best. Davies plays Dan Davies, a man whose maturity has been stunted. He lives at home in his late 40s, pals around with his childhood best friends Jo & Brian, and works as a middle school drama teacher. Dan has problems with relationships and finds himself in ridiculous situations that he only manages to worsen with his own awkward handling. His friends act as the devil & angel on his shoulder but to extremes. Jo falls into success without knowing what she is doing, and Brian is so stiff, and by the book, he can’t handle a crisis. The series went through a significant change in season two after the death of Rik Mayall, who played Greg’s dad. However, the show recovers beautifully and uses this to give us two legendary characters in Nesta, an estranged aunt & Daddy, his mother’s new demented boyfriend.
True Detective Season 1 (2014)
It’s been memed to death since its release, but True Detective Season 1 is still one of the most subtle, atmospheric horror stories to come to the screen in years. There’s no overt monster or cliche serial killer. The focus of the season is on the bleak outlook of the world Detective Rust Cohle (Matthew McConaughey) possesses. He’s balanced by his grounded partner, Martin Hart (Woody Harrelson). The story is told across time, weaving through three distinct points to deliver a sweeping tale. The direction by Cary Fukunaga cemented him as one of my favorite contemporary filmmakers, understand that subtle horror is always more effective than flashy things. Some viewers complained about a perceived anti-climax, but I believe it was fitting with the overall nihilistic themes of the show. These were two men up against a conspiracy much more powerful than themselves, so they achieve a minor victory. The final scene even sums this up, with Hart attempting to convince Cohle that what they did put a chink in their enemies’ armor.