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20 Impactful TV Shows That Defined The 2010s

Thanks for the Meme-ories

These are the TV shows that had an impact on our culture and made significant waves on social media throughout the 2010s—birthing memes and references with their memorable quotes, characters, aesthetics, and dramatic storytelling. While many of these are far from perfect and not even necessarily always quality TV (and are often even quite problematic), their culturally impact is undeniable in that they helped to shape the ways we understand and engage with the world and each other, as well as how we interact online. There are many shows to choose from, but we cannot realistically cover them all, so here is an incomplete list, in no particular order, of the TV shows we believe helped to define the 2010s.

1. Black Mirror (2011- present) 

This Twilight Zone-esque series exclusively about technological horror was a seminal watching experience throughout the 2010s—a decade in which technological advances continued to bring us closer and closer to a reality in which our consciousness might actually be uploaded to “The Cloud” or be trapped in a robot or hologram one day. Oh, and robot police dogs.

2. Game of Thrones (2011-2019) 
20 Impactful TV Shows That Defined The 2010s

For better or for worse, HBO’s Game of Thrones took the world by storm by bringing George R. R. Martin’s world of medieval-like turf wars, dragon fire, and ice zombies to life with fan-favorite characters like Jon Snow (Kit Harrington) and Daenerys (Emilia Clarke). Even those of us who haven’t watched the show are familiar with the “Winter is coming” and Iron Throne references. The nosedive it took in later seasons, particularly S8, is just as memorable as the great moments in its beginning years. As such, it serves as a perfect modern example of white men failing up.

3. BoJack Horseman (2014-present) 

Not only did this flawed animated series take us by surprise with its candid exploration of depression, addiction, and generational trauma through the eyes of an anthropomorphic horse—even producing some incredibly poignant lines about life, like “When you look at someone through rose-colored glasses, all the red flags just look like flags”—but it also helped to bring asexuality into mainstream discussions, giving a largely invisible group of folks in the queer community thoughtful representation.

4. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (2013-present) 
20 Impactful TV Shows That Defined The 2010s

The only copaganda we love to see. We fell in love with Jake Peralta’s (Andy Samberg) “Cool, cool, cool” and Captain Raymond Holt’s (Andre Bauer) muted sass immediately, as well as the rest of the cast of eccentric characters and their quotable, meme-able antics. It’s not only genuinely funny, but also manages to tackle serious issues with care, like workplace sexual harassment and the different ways women might choose to respond to it while working within the gendered power dynamics of a male-dominated world. 

5. This Is Us (2016-present)

We can always expect to hear about whatever is making This Is Us fans cry this week. The emotional show’s format of splitting between past and present has allowed audiences to become acquainted with multiple generations of one blended family while exploring how ripples from events of the past can continue to affect us for years to come. Sterling K. Brown’s presence and acting especially has been not only impactful but also award-winning.

6. Scandal (2012-2018) 
20 Impactful TV Shows That Defined The 2010s

Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) was passionate and smart as a damn whip with a blow-out fit for the gods and wardrobe that consistently slayed, and she was also hardcore fucking the president whenever she took a break from being everyone’s go-to “fixer” after they’d done some shady shit. It’s casual. Shonda Rhimes’ second hit show was the first to star a Black woman on prime time TV since the 70s and helped launch ongoing conversations about Black women’s experiences with interracial relationships and the world’s knee-jerk impulse to hating anything Black women love en masse. It also helped propel “live-tweeting” to popularity.

7. How To Get Away With Murder (2014-present)

Shonda Rhimes did her thing yet again and gifted us with the chaotic bisexual defense attorney Annalise Keating. As Keating, the radiant Viola Davis has given us an abundant selection of reaction memes and gifs, especially for when we are ready to grab our purse, get up, and walk out of an asinine or completely unnecessary conversation.

8. The Walking Dead (2010-present)

Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) doesn’t know how to pronounce his own son’s name—”Cooooooooooral!!!”—and would rather be farming vegetables or doing “stuff and things” than killing zombies. From Daryl (Norman Reedus) and his crossbow to Michonne (Danai Gurira) and her katana blade, the show has given us memorable characters, creative zombie kills, and astonishing special effects, as well as moments of emotional devastation and great frustration. The polarizing series has been a part of pop-culture conversations during this entire decade, from Twitter and other social media platforms to mainstream publications and academic journals.

9. The Good Place (2016-present)
20 Impactful TV Shows That Defined The 2010s

This show brought questions to weekly television that a lot of us didn’t even know we should be asking—exploring life, death, soul mates, morality, ethics, eternity, frozen yogurt, and more. Many of the characters are absolutely lovable, but the sweet and nervous Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) stole the show, marking the return of the Black male nerd to mainstream television. Fans have also developed non-binary Janet (D’Arcy Carden) and ace-aro Michael (Ted Danson) headcanons. Delightful.

10. Key and Peele (2012-2015) 

The Substitute Teacher sketch—an excellent commentary on how white teachers treat Black students’ names as impossible to pronounce and often even “correct” Black kids on how to pronounce their own names—doomed anyone named Aaron, Denise, Blake, or Jacqueline to a possible eternity of having their name comically mispronounced, and inspired many of us to use “insubordinate and churlish” as terms of endearment to describe ourselves. With a whole slew of smart, funny sketches that explore social issues, like the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” parody that makes the creepiness of the song quite clear, the show marked a re-emergence of sketch-comedy and ultimately helped launch Jordan Peele’s career as a horror film director.

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11. The Haunting of Hill House (2018-present)

The first season of the anthology horror series both blew our minds with a looping story about time, space, and memory and haunted our dreams with specters like the “Bent-Neck Lady” and the floating long boy in the top hat. There was even more fun and entertainment in finding all the hidden ghosts during subsequent watches and contributing to fan theory and analysis, like the fact that the Crain siblings may each represent the five stages of grief.

12. Stranger Things (2016-present)

Full of retro aesthetics and 80s nostalgia, this series gave us a nightmare fuel and sleep paralysis demon imagery in the Demogorgon and Demodogs, but also lots of entertainment and intrigue with the mystery of the Eggo-loving Eleven (Millie Bobby Brown). Her relationship with Hopper (David Harbour) is a sweet spot in the center of an unsettling story, as is Single Mom Steven Harrington (Joe Keery) unexpectedly finding himself looking after the four main protagonists. And we can’t forget the scene-stealing little sister, Erica (Priah Ferguson)—”You can’t spell America without Erica” after all. For all of its flaws (especially S2 and S3), the Duffer brothers created something that people could not stop talking about when it first dropped and Winona Ryder’s performance as Joyce Byers is certainly a stand-out one.

13. Pose (2018-present)

“The category is… Live! Work! Pose!!!” This groundbreaking, history-making series brings 1980s ballroom culture to life with queer and trans Black and brown lives front and center, as they goddamn should be. We love to see the likes of Indya Moore, MJ Rodriguez, Angelica Ross, and style icon Billy Fucking Porter getting their due, and Janet Mock’s work on the show makes her the first Black trans woman to write and direct for television. Iconic.

14. Bob’s Burgers (2011-present)

We love the Belchers. The eternally-anxious Tina’s obsession with zombie butts, riveting erotic friend fiction, and untouchable twerking skills. The chaotic Gene’s entertaining incredulity, possible gender fluidity, and appreciation for the art of jingle-writing. Louise’s all-out anarchist terrorism and pink bunny ears. Bob’s cluelessness, pure passion for burgers, and sloppy kisses. And Linda’s… EVERYTHING. This brilliant gem of an animated show has consistently provided us with the warmth, joy, and the laughs that we needed throughout the 2010s. We are forever grateful.  

15. Westworld (2016-present)

Another piece of technological horror that doesn’t feel so far removed from our reality. Its first season was a fucking ride, telling an epic Frankenstein-on-steroids kind of story with robots, death, mystery, and intrigue in a new kind of Old West. It also brought many questions about sentience and “violent delights” to the forefront, while allowing a lot of folks to get reacquainted with the work of performers like Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins, and Thandi Newton, shining beacons of talent. 

16. Atlanta (2016-present)
20 Impactful TV Shows That Defined The 2010s

Atlanta follows Earn (Donald Glover), a Princeton dropout who is trying to shake the stench of bum-dog and get his life together and also get back into the good graces of his parents and ex-girlfriend/baby mama, Van (Zazie Beetz). And he may finally get his chance once he reconnects with his rapper cousin Alfred aka “Paper Boi” (Bryan Tyree Henry) who himself is on the edge of stardom. The show has rightfully garnered praise for its surrealist humor and accolades that include two Golden Globes and two Emmys. And honestly? It gave us Lakeith Stanfeld, Beetz, and Henry, so that’s already enough to earn its place on this list.

17. Insecure (2016-present) 

Whether you like the show or not (it’s rather polarizing), it’s proven itself to be impactful—sparking many a conversation about expectations and responsibilities in romantic relationships, everyday gender dynamics, non-monogamy, sexual ethics, condom use, sisterhood, non-profit work, and professional ambition.

18. True Detective Seasons One (2014) and Three (2019)

Both are among the best seasons of TV of the decade, arguably ever. Season one brought on the “McConnaissance” and its season finale caused HBO Go to crash. Let’s not discuss the second season, but let’s definitely acknowledge how season three further cemented Mahershala Ali as a magnificently talented and versatile performer to continue watching for years to come. And those opening credits. Amazing.

19. Orange Is The New Black (2013-2019) 

Despite its glaring issues—particularly with pedaling Black pain for entertainment and using a bland white woman as the entry point for a story about a large, racially and ethnically diverse cast of characters—OITNB introduced many of us to the lovely Laverne Cox, Uzo Aduba, Danielle Brooks, Samira Wiley, and Dascha Polanco. Fans particularly latched onto the love story between Taystee and Poussey, and also developed a soft spot for Crazy Eyes and a deep appreciation for Sophia.

20. The Handmaid’s Tale (2017-present) 

As problematic as it is—taking the real-life history of BIPOC, especially enslaved Black people, and imagining it as a dystopian future threat against white women’s reproductive freedoms—this episodic adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel has had a cultural and social impact that is unquestionable and tangible, with many using the show as reference to discuss current attacks on reproductive rights and justice, and it even sparked The Handmaid’s Protests.

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Honorable Mentions

Killing Eve (2018-present)

People love a good psychopath on TV, and fans have found a very lovable one in Villanelle, portrayed by Jodie Comer with an unexpected sweetness. This show is bold and innovative, and the catalyst for Sandra Oh to become the first woman of Asian descent to win multiple Golden Globes for her performance in the series as the investigator trying to track down the beautiful killer.

The Crown (2016-present)

It feels odd to enjoy watching colonizer drama, but Netflix’s The Crown masterfully dramatizes the ascent of Queen Elizabeth II to the throne and the following decades of her reign, all punctuated by real-life events and moments of cultural and historical significance (from the Suez Canal crisis to the Aberfan disaster). The changing cast began with award-worthy performances by rising stars Claire Foy and Matt Smith and have continued on with Oscar-winner Olivia Colman as QEII. The Crown’s production expenses ($13 million per episode) are second-only to Game of Thrones ($15 million per episode). Worth it? *Insert Shrug*

Lucifer (2015-present)

Based on the Biblical story, this show flips Lucifer’s (Tom Ellis) narrative on its head. Instead of writing him as an evil character incapable of feeling anything beyond anger, the show portrays him as a human, fed up with his life in Hell, and only committed to punishing those who do harm. He is compassionate, empathetic, and wrestling with what it means to feel love while working through his infamous Daddy issues. This is the perfect dramatization of a story so often intended to demonize marginalized people. Instead, this sexually-fluid, fun-loving, handsome devil completely shifts how we know and understand Lucifer’s story.

Sherlock (2010-present)

The eccentric, “high-functioning sociopath[ic]” Consulting Detective and drug-addict was updated and modernized along with his trusty sidekick in Stephen Moffat’s stylized version of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous work. Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman helped bring Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson back into the mainstream consciousness. This Sherlock and Watson are majorly, but reluctantly in love and the platonic intimacy of their precious friendship was a welcomed dynamic, and it served to make both actors into household names and icons of “bromance” on TV. Also, the internet had lots of fun intentionally misspelling, misreading, and mishearing Benedict’s unusual name.

New shows to look forward to in the 2020s

Euphoria (2019-)

There’s no other succinct way to sum up Euphoria, except to call it Skins… on some high-powered drugs. The freshman HBO show follows Rue (Zendaya), a teen drug-addict attempting recovery who meets some interesting people along the way—including friend and love interest Jules (Hunter Schafer) and villain—white supremacist and privilege demon-incarnate—Nate (Jacob Elordi). While it is fairly explicit TV that sometimes overly sexualizes the girls, it has been praised for its unflinching look at addiction, sexuality, and pushing the boundaries of so-called gender, particularly where Jules is concerned. Long live Euphoria.

Watchmen (2019-)

It’s just getting started and it’s already redefining and reimagining the way stories are told on TV, weaving in real historical events and contextualizing Black history within the larger US historical narrative. Nobody expected this adaptation of Alan Moore’s politically-tinged graphic novel to become one of the Blackest shows on TV and directly address white supremacist attitudes and violence.

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