As you’ve likely already heard, there was more TV than ever in the last decade, prompting terms like “Peak TV” and “The Gilded Age Of TV” (the latter of which is really just another misguided reboot, according to FX boss and coiner of TV-era terms John Landgraf). But even in that cluttered landscape, some talents shone brighter—or at least more consistently—than others. Here are the actors, directors, producer, and composer who made the most of it.
First, a word or two for the prolific competition: Ryan Murphy and Greg Berlanti each produced a staggering number of shows in the last 10 years, refusing to relegate themselves to any one genre or network/platform. They even have their own shared TV universes: American Horror Story and the Arrowverse, respectively. But as the architect of Shondaland, Shonda Rhimes ushered in a new era of TV viewing, one that saw the spirit of appointment television transform into a commanding presence on social media. Rhimes’ decades-long career had already reached a turning point in 2005 with the debut of Grey’s Anatomy, which is still going strong (yes, really) in 2019. She began the ’10s with one network hit and its spin-off, Private Practice. Then Scandal premiered in 2011, starring Kerry Washington as D.C. “fixer” Olivia Pope, whose bespoke white outfits are nearly as iconic as the raiment of her namesake. Scandal’s ratings peaked in its fourth season, but in 2014, Rhimes added How To Get Away With Murder to her repertoire (and Viola Davis to her repertory). Suddenly, the days of the week had to be overhauled: Thursday was replaced with TGIT (Thank God, It’s Thursday), as three of Rhimes’ series—Scandal, Grey’s, and HTGAWM, all led by women—dominated ABC’s lineup and drove the online discourse.
There are some non-starters and short-lived series, including Off The Map and The Catch, in Rhimes’ rearview mirror, but her influence goes beyond IMDB credits or awards nominations (though they’re certainly a part of it). As a series creator and producer, Rhimes has put Black women and queer people front and center, all while telling topical stories about sexism, racism, politics, and LGBTQ+ issues. That she was able to achieve cultural omnipresence with stories led by women and told through formats that have been maligned—“soapy” is still rarely a compliment—just makes it all the more impressive. Now, as the decade winds down, Rhimes has a $150 million deal with Netflix—which includes the provocative upcoming series about Anna Delvey starring Anna Chlumsky and Julia Garner—a production company and culture site; more seasons of Grey’s Anatomy and its other spin-off, Station 19, on the way; and an untitled Bridgerton series. As far as securing a legacy goes, you can rest assured that Shonda Rhimes has it handled.
Chances are, if you’ve watched a prestige drama in the last 10 years, you’ve been treated to one of Jeff Russo’s deceptively lush musical scores, scores that swell but always find a way to highlight a single instrument, like The Night Of’s mournful cello. The erstwhile guitarist and backup vocalist for the Grammy-nominated band Tonic has been a composing mainstay in Hollywood since 2009, which is also right around the time his collaboration with TV auteur Noah Hawley began. Russo’s compositions have lent greater heft to forgettable fare like The Unusuals and Time After Time, and made the return of Star Trek sound appropriately majestic. His credits also include The Returned, Power, Manhattan, Lucifer, Snowfall, and of course, Fargo, for which he won an Emmy. His oeuvre is as expansive as any programming lineup, covering crime dramas, period pieces, and black comedies.
But unlike opening titles, which began to look more and more alike once Elastic started cranking them out, Russo’s themes and scores continue to evoke feelings specific to the shows’ genres and creators. Over the course of three seasons, Fargo’s theme has subtly changed along with the cast and setting; from orchestral to Teutonic to Russian, without ever losing the slight melancholy of the original film. The characters of Legion are further unmoored by the nerve-shredding strings of Russo’s arrangements, though Maggie Phillips deserves just as much credit for her soundtracks (on this and Fargo). At a time when streamers are being referred to as content mills, Jeff Russo’s music remains one of a kind.
Much has been made of the Hollywood A-listers who have flocked to the small screen in the last 10 years, heading up a series or otherwise carving out a niche in a star-studded ensemble. But what’s been just as great a boon for TV is the expanded presence of actors like Jeffrey Wright, who bring great versatility instead of a specific persona. The last decade has seen the Tony-winning actor transform into Boardwalk Empire’s Valentin Narcisse, an amalgam of influential figures in the Harlem Renaissance; Harvard Law professor Charles Ogletree in Confirmation; Bernard Lowe, the co-creator and disillusioned soul of Westworld; and most recently, the eponymous O.G. of Madeleine Sackler’s 2018 drama. It is perhaps not as extensive a list of credits as some of Wright’s contemporaries, but the breadth of these portrayals is just as noteworthy. Wright oozed charm and menace on the Steve Buscemi-led HBO period crime drama, only to give a restrained, but determined performance as the counsel for Anita Hill in Confirmation. And as Westworld’s Bernard, the newly awakened host, Wright was able to steal the spotlight from the likes of Sir Anthony Hopkins, all while taking viewers on the journey of discovering his not-so-limited humanity.
But what makes this array of roles most notable is how they represent the actor’s forward-thinking while capturing how the larger narrative is moving forward. In the last 10 years, Wright’s gone from playing Harlem power players to contemporary activists; from parsing an age-old quandary about what defines human nature to a discussion of restorative justice, a conversation whose vocabulary is still being written.
Though not unique to the 2010s, the idea of the series director certainly seemed to gain traction in the last several years. Game Of Thrones regularly booked directors like David Nutter for back-to-back episodes, while Michelle Maclaren helped develop the visual language of Breaking Bad throughout an 11-episode tenure. That’s all without mentioning Cary Joji Fukunaga taking on directing duties for all of True Detective season one. But we’re not sure anyone covered more ground than Anthony Hemingway, who’s guided us through arch supernatural dramas like True Blood; a chapter of American Horror Story; the misadventures of the Shameless Gallagher family; and the late, great Underground, for which he helmed the stellar “Minty” episode.
Hemingway’s versatility has surely been key to his ongoing success; he’s just as comfortable in the plot-driven world of procedurals like CSI: NY as he is the character-driven one of Orange Is The New Black. But Hemingway has also helped change the way that more politically engaged shows, including Black-led series like Underground, look and move. He helped depict the unflagging spirit of the people of New Orleans on Treme, while also finding the time to highlight the Shakespearean chicanery of Empire. After tackling the Unsolved: The Murders Of Tupac And The Notorious B.I.G. miniseries, Hemingway will return for one of the final episodes of Power. And on American Crime Story: The People Vs. O.J. Simpson, one of the decade’s TV highlights, Hemingway captured both the sensationalism of the crime of the century as well as the drudgery of the criminal justice system (specifically, in the bottle episode, “A Jury In Jail”).
Pamela Adlon has over 200 acting credits, many of them for voice-over roles on King Of The Hill, Phineas And Ferb, and Bob’s Burgers. But in 2016, Adlon ditched the sound booth for the the soundstage as the co-creator, co-writer, lead actor, and eventually, director of Better Things. This exceptional FX dramedy is based on Adlon’s life as a working actor and mother, and all the joys and horrors that come with the territory; rarely has motherhood looked so manageable and impossible at the same time. Sam Fox (Adlon) is a wonderfully flawed matriarch, who struggles to find much time for herself in between raising three kids (Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, Olivia Edward), looking after her elderly mother (the inimitable Celia Imrie), and minding the egos of directors on the sets of B-movies. But instead of adding another entry to the “selfless mother” canon, Adlon has made Sam a relatable and enviable presence—someone who worries about her changing body and dwindling romantic prospects but is only too happy to tell so-called “nice guys,” a deadbeat husband, and all other disappointing men to fuck off.
This approach extended to Adlon’s real life when she, along with FX, cut ties with Better Things co-creator and scribe Louis C.K., who admitted to sexual misconduct nearly two years ago. But any concerns that the show would lose any of its visual panache or incisiveness were misplaced; Adlon has always been the heart and soul of the series. Better Things’ plentiful insights are rooted in her experiences, as demonstrated by the third season, which Adlon directed in its entirety, along with writing or co-writing more than half the episodes. Season three was the show’s best, and confirmed Adlon is one of the most talented and versatile creators out there.