Before I begin, let me explain something: the title of this list is a lie. Every piece claiming to be the ’10 Best X of the Decade’ or ‘100 Best…’ or whatever is a lie.
By now, it’s pedantic to say that the quality of art is subjective, but it remains an annoying truth. There are no objective measures of the quality of any work of art. Every evaluative piece I’ve written has been in the form ‘I think this is good/bad and here’s why.’ Obviously, no culture writer would benefit from ending every essay with “that’s just my opinion though,” but that caveat is always implied – or, at least, it should be. Certainly, we can talk in more concrete terms about what a work of art is trying to do and whether it succeeds. Whether or not any given artistic goal is good or bad, though, is usually up in the air (there are obvious exceptions to this, like Nazi propaganda, which is always bad no matter what you heard in film school). Any self-appointed objective yardstick for art is fake and, historically, probably racist.
Another, more obvious point is that nobody has seen every episode of TV made in the 2010s. Maybe the 237th episode of an obscure South African sitcom is the best piece of drama humanity has ever produced. I never got around to Breaking Bad or Mr Robot or Twin Peaks, all of which I trust deserve a place here.
This is not to say that Top Ten lists are bad now. Rather, they’re an assertion of the sort of thing the writer likes.
Here’s the sort of thing I like. Some spoilers ahead but I only give away the ending of the one that’s 11 minutes long.
‘Moo Moo’ – Brooklyn Nine Nine
Dir. Maggie Carey, wr. Phil Augusta Jackson
Although Dan Goor and Michael Schur’s cop sitcom has slid off the rails, it was essential viewing for a couple of years and it still has its moments. By its fourth season, well on its way into the plateau, it knocked it out of the park. Essentially, ‘Moo Moo’ is an issues episode, a Very Special Episode about racism the likes of which have been done in sitcoms before and will be done again.
Sgt Terry Jeffords suffers racial profiling from another officer while outside his house looking for his daughter’s blanket. Audiences are burned out on this kind of story; some even found Doctor Who‘s ‘Rosa’ corny. This version succeeds because B99‘s early commitment to diversity in the cast pays huge dividends. Strict, stern Captain Holt initially refuses to submit Terry’s complaint because he believes it would sabotage Terry’s chances at promotion. What you see here is two black people butting heads over how best to deal with racism, rather than 22 admirable but bland minutes about how bad things are bad. In the end, the complaint is submitted and Holt’s fears come true: Terry is passed over for the promotion. Neither of them regret submitting the complaint but it’s a bittersweet ending, especially for a sitcom.
The best thing I can say in praise of Brooklyn Nine-Nine is that it’s a Trojan horse comedy. There’s nothing inherently progressive about a FOX sitcom; after all, sitcoms are usually hostile to change because the status quo rules all (one obvious rule-breaker being Schur’s vastly better show, The Good Place). It’s modelled on crime procedural cop shows, so it’s not likely to scare off right-leaning types at the outset. Within that setup, small but significant decisions were made for diversity.
Don’t get me wrong, the show rarely goes further than cosy centrism. We badly need more TV about this kind of thing, TV that isn’t Special Episodes in sitcoms. But it’s sly and effective, like slipping a shot of Black Lives Matter Juice into your weird uncle’s drink. In that respect, ‘Moo Moo’ is the show’s best episode.
‘Message Received’ – Steven Universe
Dir. Hye Sung Park, Joe Johnston, Jasmin Lai, and Ian Jones-Quartey; wr. Raven Molisee and Paul Villeco
I’ve laid out the basic gist of my thoughts on Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe on several occasions: it’s an excellent show that has something to offer for all ages; it’s at its best when it focuses on character work and at its weakest when it focuses on politics (at least in its last season). This is why I’ve chosen ‘Message Received,’ the climax of the show’s best character arc.
When she first appears, Peridot is every inch the bad guy. She aids in the kidnapping and interrogation of a war refugee, she tries to kill our heroes time and time again, and she squishes a cute robot underfoot just for kicks. Only in the second season is it made clear that she doesn’t have much influence where she comes from. She’s just the IT girl. When she finds herself stranded on Earth, she quickly loses her icy composure and becomes a comical figure comparable to Undertale‘s Papyrus or Pokémon‘s Team Rocket. Her new catchphrase is “You clods!”, which hardly strikes fear into anyone’s heart. Our heroes, the Crystal Gems, eventually defeat the doofus. That’s where the good stuff kicks in.
Peridot and our heroes face a mutual threat: the Cluster, the shattered remnants of thousands of souls hidden underground which now threaten to expand and destroy the planet. Peridot cares little for the Earth but is a big fan of not dying, so an uneasy truce is formed. Through various scrapes and clashes with the Gems, she begins to question the idea that some types of people are inherently lesser or ought to serve their superiors.
At first, ‘Message Received’ seems to see her backtrack. She still idolises Homeworld leader Yellow Diamond as a perfectly rational genius and plans to contact her. Obviously, the impression given to the audience is that Peridot is betraying the Gems and choosing to stick to her bad old ways. It even holds the audience accountable for (presumably) warming so quickly to the self-described “great and lovable Peridot” despite all the murder she tried to do.
Except, she doesn’t betray them. When she finally makes the call, she deliberately hides from Yellow Diamond that the Gems are still alive in order to keep them safe. This, of course, is the opposite of what we were led to expect; all of Peridot’s dialogue up to this point was carefully written to conceal her plan. Instead, she appeals to Yellow Diamond to save the Earth on the grounds that it has many useful natural resources. It would be more rational, Peridot argues, to save the Earth than destroy it. Yellow Diamond dismisses this and demands that the Earth be destroyed, essentially offering no rationale beyond ‘I want to.’ This is what tears it. Peridot’s ideology – the things she chooses to notice and chooses to ignore – dictates that Yellow Diamond is a rational genius. Presented with strong evidence to the contrary, her whole worldview breaks down. So, we get the immortal lines:
Yellow Diamond: “What do you know about the Earth?”
Peridot: “Apparently more than you, you clod!“
This is extremely gratifying. It’s the most meticulous, convincing, and utterly earned redemption arc I’ve ever seen and definitely deserves the same iconic status conferred upon Zuko from Last Airbender. It even tops the similar arc in the second season of The Good Place. But then, The Good Place doesn’t peak until later.
‘The Answer’ – The Good Place
Dir. Valeria Migliassi Collins, wr. Dan Schofield
By including this, I’m cheating in a couple of ways. Firstly, I already included an episode from a Michael Schur show, the other being B99. I don’t want to double down on any single creative, but Schur isn’t credited as writer of either of the listed episodes. Lots of people make a TV show, even a TV show that’s sometimes referred to as an auteur project such as afterlife sitcom The Good Place. Secondly, this episode came out recently. It’s entirely possible that I’m jumping the gun on this one. But, at time of writing, it’s been a week since it aired and I’m still confident that it’s the show’s best outing so far (and therefore the best episode that it will air in the 2010s).
The Good Place hit the big time on the strength of the excellent twist at the end of its first season, followed by two or three absolutely bonkers episodes that dealt with the fallout and made someone else the protagonist. Any of those episodes would be a more intuitive choice. But as exciting as it is to see the show unexpectedly play with narrative form, a twisty-turny plot is only as successful as the characters at its heart. I guess what we’re learning from this list is that the main thing I care about in stories is the people rather than screwing around trying to be clever (this is why my favourite Doctor Who writer is Steven Moffat).
Going into ‘The Answer,’ I expected it to be about our heroes, the Soul Squad, helping philosopher Chidi overcome his indecision so he can figure out a new, fairer system for the afterlife. Instead, it comes at it slant. When the mind-wiped Chidi’s memories are restored, we go inside his mind and watch a clip show of his whole life/lives from beginning to the present. This takes three seasons of ideas about Chidi and slams them into 22 minutes. As a tiny nerd child, he cracks out a blackboard and gives his parents a 50-minute lecture on why they shouldn’t get divorced – and it works. Spurred on by this, Chidi believes that every problem has an answer and dedicates his life to finding the answers to the biggest questions in the universe – thus, philosophy.
We follow Chidi as he bashes his head against the unknowability of the universe again and again over the course of his life. He becomes unable to make even the tiniest decisions. Relationships fall apart. As I once said about Steven Universe: The Movie, the impression you get is of speed-running therapy. Chidi’s angst is set against the hugest, broadest anxieties of them all: what the heck is right and wrong? What’s the answer? Is it even possible to know? If not, what do we do? This, of course, is why everyone hates moral philosophy professors. It all ends on a genuinely sweet note as Chidi comes back to the present. Highly recommended viewing.
‘Now Comes the Mystery’ – Looking for Alaska
Dir. Rashaad Ernesto Green, wr. Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage
Let me put it this way: you might have heard of the video game Life is Strange. I was drawn to it by the promise of queer content and time travel. I got both of those things but the poorly-done teen drama left me frustrated. So, the universe apparently made a bargain: what if you sacrificed the queer content and the time travel in return for teen drama that’s actually, you know, good?
It turns out that buried somewhere in a 2005 John Green young adult novel was the hard kernel of What if Life is Strange Made a Damn Lick of Sense? What Then? Nerdy Miles Halter decides to transfer to Culver Creek boarding school in pursuit of what he calls ‘the Great Perhaps.’ He wants something more adventurous and exciting out of life – and he thinks he’s found it in the strawberries-and-cigarettes scent of chaotic Alaska Young. He’s wrong.
Well, kind of. There’s admittedly a sense that Miles’ life improves by way of making some new friends. But he builds Alaska up into this larger-than-life figure in his head, a figure she aspires to be. As Green wrote elsewhere, “what a treacherous thing to believe a person is more than a person.”
Off-screen, Alaska dies in a car crash. This episode shows the consequences of that for everyone left behind. It’s unusually light on plot or incident. The rail that the show was travelling along is gone along with Alaska. The childish competition against another group of teenagers, the so-called Weekday Warriors, is up in smoke. Any sense of the main characters wanting things or carrying out a plan to get those things is just totally absent. It’s excruciating inactivity. Alaska is gone and there’s nothing these kids can do now except sit around and grieve and suffer and snap at one another. I don’t usually cry at shows but I cried a whole bunch while watching this. Very few stories have ever made me this upset or this uncomfortable. There’s another notable one, though:
‘Escape from L.A.’ – Bojack Horseman
Dir. Amy Winfrey, wr. Joe Lawson
Netflix’s cartoon-horse-with-depression show has a good few plausible contenders for the list. A lot of people went with ‘Free Churro’ or ‘Fish Out of Water.’ I’m going with this one because (if you’ll permit me to recycle a joke) it’s the biggest “How did this get made?” moment in How Did This Get Made?: The Show.
Exhausted by his own foibles and his L.A. life, Bojack drives across the country to visit Charlotte, a deer he hasn’t had a proper conversation with in 30 years. Similar to Miles, Bojack has built Charlotte up in his mind to be a larger-than-life figure who can solve all his problems. By getting out of the “tar pit” of L.A. and striking up a relationship with Charlotte, Bojack hopes to get himself back on track. Similar to Alaska, Charlotte is a basically normal person; worse yet, she has a husband and two kids.
This obviously upsets Bojack’s plan but he still wants to take the chance to escape L.A. and the person he was in L.A. So, in what is clearly a terrible and uncomfortable decision, he moves in with Charlotte. He strikes up a paternal relationship with Charlotte’s daughter Penny. Although husband Kyle makes only scant appearances, there’s a clear sense that they’re jostling for the patriarch position without having any obvious confrontations; for example, Kyle is disappointed when Penny chooses Bojack as her escort to prom. Like lots of things in Bojack Horseman that end up deeply unsettling, this is initially played as a joke.
Much of this episode makes for breezy, enjoyable viewing. Bojack has a few drinks, lets loose balloons with glow-sticks inside for a cheap-and-cheerful light-show, and dances with Penny on top of a water tower. Of course, all of this is highly irresponsible chaperoning – and the episode pulls the rug out from under you in that regard.
Bojack Horseman is so good at making the audience sympathise for a terrible person that it beggars belief. The climax of this episode, where Bojack permanently ruins his relationship with Charlotte, is the best example of that. You can escape a place but you can’t escape yourself.
All of this, of course, is preamble to an episode so excellent that it may as well be the only good thing anyone has ever made:
‘Hell Bent’ – Doctor Who
Wr. Steven Moffat, dir. Rachel Talalay
God help me but I will fight anyone on this one, tooth and nail.
Previously on the show I have not stopped talking or thinking about since 2012: thrill-seeking disaster bisexual Clara Oswald died a beautiful death. She died standing for her morals, to save an innocent life. After, the Doctor stubbornly refused to process his grief in a healthy way. He finds himself back on his home planet Gallifrey, ready to tear off heads.
For those who don’t know the show: we don’t know the Doctor’s original name. We do know that they chose the name ‘Doctor’ because it expresses the morals they want to live up to. Only a hack would think they’re a complete pacifist but they prefer to avoid violence. Every now and again, Modern Who runs a story about the Doctor, in reaction to one thing or another, breaking their own rules. This is ‘Hell Bent’: a story about the Doctor not being the Doctor. He takes over Gallifrey pretty much through sheer force of eye-acting, a ridiculous idea on paper that Peter Capaldi utterly sells because he is excellent. Showing no mercy, he banishes the old High Council from the planet. Then he sets about breaking the rules of life and death because he wants to.
The core point of this episode is that men ain’t shit. I think Moffat was trying to write about class and the Doctor’s aristocratic entitlement, and that’s definitely there. It’s true that this script could also be played by Jodie Whittaker in a pinch. But, as Moffat said in an interview, you can see how an old white man is a good fit for this story. All through the episode, he is surrounded by women who tell him that he’s a goddam idiot – and they’re all right.
Speaking of Whittaker, this episode very much sets the table for her. Apart from another white male Time Lord regenerating on-screen into a black woman, we see the less literal regeneration of Clara. Two episodes previous, a raven flew into her heart. Her arms extended in the classic regeneration pose (or, if you prefer, the crucifixion pose), she is reborn in the same instant through the Doctor’s hubris. Throughout the two seasons leading up to this point, she had taken on more and more Doctor-like traits, leaving behind her ‘normal’ life, neglecting a nice-but-boring workplace romance. In this finale, she completely assumes the role of the Doctor in her own right. It’s essentially the pilot of an imaginary serial story called, let’s say, Clara Oswald: The Untold Adventures. The implication is clear: a woman can be the Doctor. Say what you will about Moffat’s failure to cast a literal female Doctor but Clara Oswald was vastly, embarrassingly better than the so-called genuine article.
Thanks for reading! Honourable mention goes to Sherlock‘s ‘His Last Vow,’ which turns Mary Morstan into a cool assassin and advocates for the extra-judicial murder of Rupert Murdoch. I just didn’t want to double up on Moffat.
Another HM goes to the episode of the Bake Off where Iain’s ice cream melted, arguably due to interference from another baker, and he threw the ice cream in the bin and left the tent and got disqualified. It’s been five years and people still talk about that, which is a lot more than you can say for basically every other episode of reality TV.