There are so many obvious selections for the best of the decade on TV, not least of all “Breaking Bad.” But, as we look back over 10 years of good and great series and miniseries, let’s not forget about the ones that slipped through the cracks, the ones that haven’t quite gotten their due. To twist what Glenn Close said in “Fatal Attraction,” they shouldn’t be IGNORED, man.
Here’s a list of the 10 most underrated TV shows of the decade — many of which were also under-seen — with a second 10 for good measure.
1. “Nurse Jackie” (2009-15)
I’ve been reading all the Top 10 lists of the decade this month, and it pains me not to see this series all over them. OK, some of the comic relief didn’t quite work, and I might have pruned it all back one season. But otherwise, this Showtime series — a drama passing as a comedy — is one of the most uncompromising TV stories I’ve ever seen. Edie Falco’s Jackie is just a straight-up pill addict, and even a content life in Brooklyn — a loyal husband who owns a bar, two young daughters, a profession in which she shines — can’t stop her. She is on a journey of self-destruction, no matter how hard we want her to find her way out of it, no matter how many people she harms along the way. Falco was unforgettable, and so was Merritt Wever as the nurse whose arc took her from being Jackie’s mentee to being her caretaker. The past 20 years have focused on TV’s male anti-heroes, which makes this anti-heroine even more precious.
2. “Rectify” (2013-16)
Few viewers talked about this Sundance show — but those who did, many of them professional critics, talked about it with passionate admiration. A reaction to the busy scripting and editing of most of TV, “Rectify” unfolds at a deliberative pace — mimicking, in some ways, the consciousness of its central character, Daniel, who was on Death Row for 19 years. Played with lost stares and halting sentences by Aden Young, Daniel has just been freed from prison — but not exonerated — by DNA evidence, and he faces wary friends and family (including his mother, played with rich ambivalence by J. Smith-Cameron of “Succession”) as well as violent local vigilantes. “Rectify” isn’t a whodunit about the rape and murder that put Daniel in prison, and that frees it up to explore big questions about redemption, forgiveness, the double-edged sword that is freedom, the reach of maternal love, and the purpose of religious belief.
3. “Getting On” (2013-15)
This one didn’t catch on, alas. Perhaps that was because the physical and mental rigors of old age and the existential despair of navigating hospital bureaucracy are not generally considered comedic targets. But this HBO series, a remake of a British sitcom, succeeded in sending up — and up and up — the goings-on in the geriatric ward of a struggling hospital. The humor was dry and the décor was gray, like “The Office,” and it wasn’t above poop jokes, either. The cast was all aces, led by Alex Borstein (yup, Susie from “Mrs. Maisel”), Laurie Metcalf, and Niecy Nash, and the special guests — Harry Dean Stanton, Jean Smart, June Squibb, Rita Moreno — always added a kick. I laugh out loud when I watch “Getting On,” as it treads shamelessly on some tender ground.
4. “High Maintenance” (2016-)
I’m afraid this show (which began as a Web series, then graduated to HBO) has been pigeonholed as “the pot comedy,” but it’s so much more than that. It’s a collection of short stories about the people of New York, the multitudes that once inspired Walt Whitman, as they live their ordinary extraordinary lives behind locked doors. In the show’s narrative design, they are linked only because they share the same pot dealer — show co-creator Ben Sinclair’s “the guy” — who delivers and then, in some cases, splits, leaving us alone with them at critical moments. Each of the stories has depth and character and, sometimes, a little O. Henry-like twist at the end. The show is the equivalent of bumping into random people on a Manhattan sidewalk.
5. “Man Seeking Woman” (2015-17)
It could have been just another single-in-the-city comedy. Instead, it was a surrealistic tour de force, a string of metaphors that our young hero, Jay Baruchel‘s Josh, lived inside. Probably, it was too strange for large audiences, but it was just strange enough — and experimental enough — for me. Show creator Simon Rich turned the search for love into a hallucinatory and yet narratively tight New York adventure. It made me think of what director David Cronenberg might come up with if he ever decided to do a sitcom in the manner of his film of William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch.” Not much on TV goes this far out on a limb and stays there. An ongoing series of ingenious set pieces, “Man Seeking Woman,” which ran on FXX, is an homage to the power of the imagination.
6. “The Knick” (2014-15)
It always surprises me when I’m talking to someone who hasn’t even heard of this show, which was made by Steven Soderbergh and starred Clive Owen. Perhaps the fact that the 1900-set series ran on Cinemax held it back from more widespread embrace; perhaps it was too convincingly bloody for a hospital drama. Unlike most period pieces, “The Knick” did not prettify the past. Owen’s drug-addicted surgeon worked in the primitive operating theaters of the time, when doctors reach up elbows-deep into their patients without gloves. He and his colleagues dealt with — and, in some cases, promoted — racism and class distinctions, amid romantic tensions. As the hospital’s only black doctor, Andre Holland was remarkable.
7. “Enlightened” (2011-13)
It lasted only two seasons on HBO, which is too bad. Laura Dern has been extraordinary right from the start of her career, with her breakthrough in 1985 in “Smooth Talk” through a series of bravura turns in “Rambling Rose” and “Wild at Heart.” Some say she’s a favorite for the best supporting actress Oscar for her brash turn in “Marriage Story.” And “Enlightened” serves up pure, unadulterated Dern, as her highly strung Amy Jellicoe has a breakdown, then returns from a New Age retreat ready to change the world. She is newly idealistic, but everyone around her — including her mother, played by Dern’s mother, Diane Ladd — finds her annoying. She works for a corporation that definitely doesn’t want to hear her truths. Written by Mike White, who costars as one of Amy’s shy co-workers, it’s about the will to change in a world where people prefer stasis.
8. “Please Like Me” (2013-16)
Few people found this one, which initially aired in the States on the now-defunct Pivot, and that was too bad. Australian comic Josh Thomas created and starred in this wonderfully bittersweet, affectionate comedy that is the tonal opposite of classic American friendship sitcoms such as “Seinfeld” and “Friends.” Thomas’s Josh is the central character in a small group of pals, all of whom are looking for love and stumbling toward grace. They’re eccentric, but quietly so, without catch phrases or applause. Josh is an awkward, endearing, and tall gay man caring for his mother, who is bipolar and has suicidal tendencies — all of which adds some gentle drama to the mix. A then-unknown comic named Hannah Gadsby plays Mum’s best friend.
9. “Downward Dog” (2017)
I still feel irritated by what ABC did to this series, a single-camera comedy that the network snuck into its lineup with almost no promotional support, then canceled after six of its eight episodes aired. It’s a wonderful comedy about the tightly woven lives of a dog named Martin and his owner, Allison Tolman’s Nan. If you know dogs, you’ll find a lot of jokes directed at you; if you don’t know dogs, you’ll still enjoy the story of a woman trying to break off with her slacker boyfriend. Here’s the big quirk: Martin the dog speaks directly to us, the audience, in mockumentary form. I know the idea of it is awful; the reality is sweetly funny, though, as Martin — voiced by show co-creator Samm Hodges — is not your average dog. He doesn’t fit dog clichés — he’s not heroic, he’s not loyal, he’s not all about play and food — but instead lapses into narcissism and philosophy.
10. “Show Me a Hero” (2015)
WHY? Why are David Simon’s HBO series and miniseries generally under-recognized? OK, “The Wire” finally got its due, after a low-rated run. But his other stories — this decade, they were “Treme,” “The Deuce,” and this six-episode portrait of city politics — don’t seem to rouse viewers, despite, or perhaps due to, their documentary-like approach to social, economic, and political realities. “Show Me a Hero” took a dry fact-based topic — about white resistance to 200 units of public housing in 1980s Yonkers, N.Y. — and transformed it into a compelling drama about a man torn apart by political dysfunction. As councilman and then mayor Nick Wasicsko, Oscar Isaac was heartbreaking, caught between justice and small-mindedness. Simon’s ability to take us on journeys into the heart of national darkness is matched only by his ability to inspire compassion and understanding in viewers.
THE SECOND TEN
On a different day, these could have been in the top 10:
“Documentary Now” (2015- ) These parodies of documentaries from Fred Armisen, Bill Hader, Seth Meyers, and Rhys Thomas are expertly done comic tributes — and clever and kooky enough to appeal even to those who don’t know the originals.
“Angie Tribeca” (2016-18) Featuring the best bad puns of the decade, this star-studded crime-show spoof borrowed from “Get Smart,” “Reno 911,” and “Airplane!” to become inspired and highly binge-able nonsense.
“Good Behavior” (2016-17) Dark and twisty, this drama finds Michelle Dockery traveling a long way from Downton to brilliantly play a messy con artist who meets her match with an Argentine assassin.
“Difficult People” (2015-17) The spiky post-“Seinfeld” New York comedy about a pair of misanthropes picking through pop culture just might have been too mean for the masses, but it hit the sweet spot for me.
“Mr Inbetween” (2018- ) Another tale of a hit man with a heart, this FX series has no right to be as affecting as it is, thanks to writer and star Scott Ryan’s turn as a man who lives between two moral worlds.
“Lady Dynamite” (2016-17) An oddball Netflix treat from comic Maria Bamford, it took on a pair of related topics — Hollywood and mental illness — with hallucinogenic flights of fancy and funny supporting characters.
“The Bisexual” (2018) This six-episode British import got lost in the coffers of Hulu, which was too bad since it was an endearing take on the cultural and social fallout when a lesbian comes out as bisexual.
“Corporate” (2018- ) In the manner of “Dilbert” and “Better Off Ted,” this cheeky Comedy Central series takes internal company politics to some nihilistic and highly entertaining levels.
“Howards End” (2018) Few look to Starz for classic adaptations, such as this rich four-part treatment of E.M. Forster’s novel about class and money, written by Kenneth Lonergan and starring Hayley Atwell and Matthew Macfadyen.
“Lodge 49” (2018-19) Fans are still reeling from the recent cancellation of this sweetly optimistic take on a down-and-out surfer played by Wyatt Russell and the community he finds at the titular home away from home.