Four shows: Jessica Jones, She-Ra, Breaking Bad, Unreal

What Was the Best Show of the 2010s?

The best show of the past decade is different for everybody. We all hold something close that strikes us as formative, that pushes boundaries, or that defines that period of time. One person might say “Fleabag”, another “Atlanta”, and none of those are wrong answers.

Articles like this should exist to spur conversation and communicate why something is important to the writer. They shouldn’t pretend to be objective; there’s no such critic. They should reach out and communicate why other people might find that show just as vital.

The Other Best Shows

For this, I’m considering shows that had multiple seasons in the 2010s. I came down to four, but one consistently stands heads and tails above the rest.

“Breaking Bad” has polished storytelling, incredible performances, and arresting visuals. I consider “Jessica Jones” the most complete and complex entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s also a show that speaks to trauma and recovery in very blunt ways.

My runner-up would be “UnREAL”, a messy, high-risk/high-reward show with piercing commentary on media manipulation. Its story arcs about producing reality TV describe how lies and a convincing narrative can be normalized to replace truth. While it occasionally goes over the top, it also critiques a continuing ethical descent in how media profits from blurring the lines between truth and fiction. It also takes the next step in describing how the best repeat customers are the rabid fandoms who no longer consider facts or context.

Shiri Appleby’s performance in “UnREAL” ought to have an argument for best of the decade. It should be talked about alongside Bryan Cranston’s, and the series finale is one of the most fitting I can remember for what came before it.

Those are all mature, complex shows with the dramatic weight to make a claim for best series of the 2010s. Then why on earth am I picking a cartoon called:

“She-Ra and the Princesses of Power”

The best science-fiction serves as allegory that anticipates and reacts to the things that threaten our humanity here and now. It speaks to the elements that erode our ability to see other people as human. It reveals how we permit that by first chasing what’s human out of ourselves.

The best children’s shows are the most emotionally thorough programs out there. They speak in raw emotion in a way that programming for adults too often makes melodramatic or convenient to the plot. Great young adult programming builds its plots around the emotion its characters grapple with, not the other way around.

“She-Ra and the Princesses of Power” was something in which I had zero interest. I made assumptions about it. The initial trailer made its animation look overly simple. It looked annoyingly wholesome, which made me think its plot and characterizations must be simple. I’m not sure I’ve ever been so wrong about a show in my life.

Very quickly, “She-Ra” defines itself as a show about recovery – from abuse, from being othered, from emotional manipulation. The show hinges on a friendship between childhood friends Adora and Catra that quickly turns to enmity. While Adora is favored as a future leader by a ruthless army, Catra isn’t. They support each other nonetheless.

Adora gets out. She learns the truth about a group that’s fed her propaganda all her life. She finds a sword – the kind that comes with all sorts of astonishing fantasy powers and associated quests.

Catra doesn’t get out. She no longer has Adora to help her endure a toxic environment. She also no longer has to compete with Adora as a future leader in this army. She survives by learning to embrace hate and manipulation, by excelling in it.

Translating the Trauma of Abuse

This isn’t just a starting point. This is the emotional through-line of the show. Adora and Catra have each reacted to an abusive environment in opposite ways, they were each favored differently, and one is given opportunity to succeed outside of that environment in a way the other isn’t.

That doesn’t mean Adora’s healed. She’s traumatized. She veers between pride at her accomplishments and debilitation at an impostor syndrome she has no chance of figuring out on her own – especially now that there are expectations that go along with her powers.

Catra is traumatized, too. She lashes out, and she’s good at it. She’s a villain who you care for because you can see how her actions are a response to exceptional pain and anger.

As we learn and understand this dynamic and so much more, the show reveals that nobody here is evil. The villains who roll armies out to conquer are all somewhat nice people trying to live up to toxic standards – they’re all just “doing their job”. Few shows – for mature audiences or otherwise – describe the dangers of this so well.

I don’t want to go too much into this element because there’s so much here to discover, and one of the most compelling parts of the show is understanding the shadows that make everyone jump, change their minds, lash out instead of embrace. And because it’s a fantasy/sci-fi mashup, sometimes those hounding shadows are literal, too.

A World Built on Deft Touches

There’s so much else I didn’t expect in this show. Most kids shows have jokes. I didn’t expect this one to be genuinely funny. It has exquisite comedic timing in the writing, performances, and editing. Elements of meta humor nearly step outside the show sometimes, but they always stay just inside the bounds. A lot here is subversive, too.

The world-building teases and foreshadows a stunning amount of larger detail and context. It does more than many serious dramatic hourlongs do with twice the runtime and multiple seasons. What’s most impressive about this is how effortless it all is. The storytelling feels precise, and what happens feels natural even if the writers and animators are winking at you as they tell it.

That it manages this all so deftly allows episodes to nestle into cleverly layered comedy bits or head-tripping sci-fi depending on the moment.

Most shows would be stellar if they could realize a single one of these elements clearly. “She-Ra” is a magician of a show. It juggles them all, and it finds ways within the plot to show you exactly why. It is one of the most emotionally thorough shows I know.

And I get it if someone is reading this and thinking that all sounds really unlikely. How could this wholesome looking show with an overly simple first impression do all that? How could something that speaks to kids speak to me, how could it help me deal with stress, with tragedy, with burnout?

The Art that Shapes Us

I’ve said in various spaces that art shapes us when we put a piece of ourselves into it. We store something emotionally in it. When the world bears down, when we get tired after three years of resistance and mitigating awful damage, and hoping and fearing for marginalized communities, when we wonder if it will ever get better, when we wonder if there’s going to be a livable planet left in a few decades’ time…we have to look for those places where we stored pieces of who we are.

For me it’s the series “Deep Space Nine” and the novel “Watership Down”. It’s “There will come soft rains” and “my hair is bold, like the chestnut burr”. It’s entire series and it’s individual lines of poetry that evoke something that’s too easy to lose track of…until you remember that piece of art, until you use it to soothe yourself, until its memory stills something inside you that was moments ago anxious or panicked or frenzied.

Sometimes we know when we meet these pieces of art in our lives that we’ll be storing a part of ourselves in them. We keep them by our side, always ready to keep us company in the next moment, though it may take years to return to them. Sometimes we only realize how much they meant to us later, when we miss their presence and seek them out. It takes time to know ourselves well enough to understand how they’ve shaped us.

When the world gives us a harsh winter, these are the things that keep us sustained through it. We call them different things…masterpieces, favorites, instant classics, nostalgia, traditions. They’re different for everybody and that’s good. It means we can help each other sustain by sharing them.

I wouldn’t have watched “She-Ra” if a good friend hadn’t shared her own experience watching the original series growing up. Now she was excited about this one. She’s helped me through a lot of tough things, and I wanted to know why she loved it even if I didn’t. Knowing the art that sustains someone we care for helps us understand each other better. It helps us feel safer, and create safer spaces for other people. That’s something we all dearly need right now.

And yet “She-Ra” turned out to be something that’s sustained me and given me hope, too. It’s an exemplar of acceptance, diversity, self-care, trauma recovery, dealing with loss, making sense of impostor syndrome, cycles of abuse. It does this all in a way that’s good for children to watch, which is a seemingly impossible task for a show to accomplish.

At the same time, it’s a kids show that adults can watch, too, because it respects the emotional complexity that children can understand and translate in a story. Maybe some of the reason adults can love something like this is because we’re often still kids when it comes to understanding how to cope with these things. Nobody trained us to face these things, to resist them. Nobody discussed what it was like to hate yourself or suffer anxiety or collapse at loss or be overwhelmed day after day. These are things we were not taught and, if anything, we were taught not to discuss and legitimize and share them with each other.

When it comes to a show like “She-Ra and the Princesses of Power”, we’re not much further along than the kids. Something like this may speak to you more than you might imagine. It might legitimize what you feel, what you struggle with, and become just one part that can help you slow things down and feel more still in the face of panic and fear and anxiety.

It’s something that sustains me, and I know it’s something I’ll one day look back on alongside all my other favorites. I’ll look back to see what part of myself I stored here, for when I need to connect to it again and understand how it’s shaped me since.

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