How a TV revolution swept the 2010s

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s

From the rise of female showrunners, to the fall of reality TV, Sarah Hughes looks at how the last decade changed television forever.

The past 10 years have rung in some huge changes for television – perhaps greater than in any other single decade. We have moved from the weekly watch to the all-night binge; seen the rise of Netflix from an online DVD rental service to the world’s biggest streaming platform; and with the growth of social media, found our own little corners of the world to hang out in and discuss the shows we loved, hated and obsessed over. Here are the era’s 10 biggest trends.

More like this:

–       The decade that changed film

–       How reading changed in the 2010s

–       10 TV shows to watch in December

From prestige TV to binge viewing

The biggest shift that occurred was in the way we watched TV. In 2010, we still all viewed it at the same time. Thanks to the continued cultural reach of The Sopranos (which ended three years previously in 2007) and The Wire (which finished in 2008), prestige cable networks like HBO and its peers AMC, Showtime and FX monopolised the cultural conversation. In the UK, terrestrial TV remained dominant with 2010’s new shows including  Downton Abbey, Luther and Sherlock.

That all changed in 2012, as a quirky comedy called Lillyhammer – the first ever original TV series commissioned by Netflix, which had relaunched as a streaming platform – kickstarted a revolution. The decision by Netflix to start producing its own original content – early hits also included House of Cards (pictured below) and Orange is the New Black – changed the way in which we consumed television. That was thanks in large part to one simple decision: making every episode available at once.

The arrival of Netflix both opened up the world to audiences – these days it offers everything from Korean period drama to German horror – and made them more atomised. Where once television was a shared experience – something discussed at work and debated with friends – now our viewing is increasingly fragmented. We watch more greedily, but, increasingly, we watch alone.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The anti-hero became toxic

The era of prestige cable TV was also the age of the anti-hero. From Mad Men’s Don Draper to Breaking Bad’s Walter White, not forgetting Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Vic Mackey and Jax Teller, TV drama was stuffed full of brooding, complicated men doing the wrong thing even as they struggled to get it right.

But, as the decade progressed so the types of men we saw on screen began to change, with fewer alpha-males, and more questioning of masculine norms. Take last year’s Bodyguard, for example, which managed to be both an edge-of-your-seat thriller and a subtle examination of male vulnerability. The lead David Budd (Richard Madden) was not a James Bond-like tough guy, despite his job protecting the British government’s Home Secretary, but a conflicted former soldier struggling with PTSD and too proud initially to get help.

And this trend continued into 2019’s two most interesting dramas, Succession and Top Boy. Despite their very different milieu – the former set amid the skyscrapers of Manhattan, the latter in the mean streets of East London – both dissected masculinity through ever-shifting power dynamics, presenting scenarios where perceived weakness can be a strength and winning isn’t the prize it first appears.

The key moment in Top Boy came when the show’s soul, the disheartened, disillusioned Sully (Kane ‘Kano’ Robinson) told his  childhood friend Dushane (Ashley Walters), a more straight-forward anti-hero, at the end of Top Boy: “Just because we didn’t lose, doesn’t mean we won.” It was an admission that felt a million miles away from the unrepentant ferociousness of a Tony Soprano – and one that suggested that the new model of masculinity is one that can look defeat in the eye and accept it.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

And women writers began to be heard

The death of the anti-hero came in tandem with a rise in female showrunners, who were responsible for leading shows as diverse as Orange is the New Black, Scandal, Transparent and Unreal. The creator of the latter, Shonda Rhimes, would go on to be awarded her very own night on ABC on which, in affirmation of her talent, only shows produced by Shondaland, as her production company is named, were aired.

Elsewhere Sally Wainwright revolutionised the crime series with Happy Valley and then took on period drama with Gentleman Jack; Sarah Phelps brought Agatha Christie roaring back into dark life; and Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s Glow brought cheer and dark humour to the world of female wrestling. Alison Newman and Moira Buffini’s Harlots gave the period drama a welcome jolt while, in the UK, Marnie Dickens turned the trope of the kidnapped girl on its head in 2016’s Thirteen before performing a similar act with the older woman/younger man relationship in this year’s Gold Digger. Most recently, Netflix’s Unbelievable, created by Susannah Grant, proved that if you focus a story of rape and abuse through the female gaze, it feels both very different and far more relevant.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The documentary entered a golden age

While Netflix’s dramas have often been a bit hit and miss, their documentary strand is a class apart. From headline grabbing true crime series such as Making a Murderer to fascinating oddities like Wild Wild Country, potentially life-changing films like Cowspiracy and scorching indictments of American justice like 13th (directed by Ava DuVernay, Netflix has given documentary makers the space to tell their stories in detail.

Nor were they the only ones. ESPN’s magnificent OJ: Made in America (2016) used the rise and fall of OJ Simpson to examine attitudes towards race and justice in the US while this year alone, HBO gave us the headline-grabbing Leaving Neverland, the bizarre Out for Blood, and At The Heart of Gold, which looked deep into the recent USA Gymnastics scandal.

In the UK, Arena, Imagine and Storyville continued to showcase a huge variety of stories from across the world while earlier this year BBC Four aired the incredible Secret History of the Troubles, a sustained and serious piece of reporting from Northern Ireland’s Spotlight investigative team that repeatedly demonstrated the importance of giving factual programming the level of support that other strands automatically command.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The death of the mass entertainment sitcom

Back in 2016 when British writer Stefan Golaszewski came up with the idea for his comedy Mum he was clear on one thing: the show would be structured like an old fashioned mass entertainment sitcom – minus the laugh track and audience presence but taking place in one location, heavy on the one-liners and featuring characters who, initially at least, were broadly drawn. But the show would also dissect the genre, presenting viewers with stereotypes and then peeling back the layers to present the person beneath. It was a smart idea but one that arguably only worked because the mass entertainment sitcom has been dying a slow death for years. Where once traditional sitcoms dominated the TV landscape, providing a welcome release in the evening, these days they are few and far between

While the beginning of the decade saw primetime US TV filled with countless spins on the genre from Two and a Half Men and How I Met Your Mother to 2 Broke Girls and New Girl, the end of The Big Bang Theory earlier this year means that Modern Family, which began in 2009, is arguably the last true mass entertainment sitcom. When it ends next year it will leave a surprisingly large hole.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The rise of the comedy auteur

The traditional sitcom may have faltered but in its place has come a whole array of distinct comic voices.

While Lena Dunham might have turned out to be, as her creation Hannah Horvath said: ‘a voice of a generation’, her 2012 comedy Girls was also at the forefront of a new wave of  storytellers. From the bawdy women of Broad City to the conflicted men of Donald Glover’s smart, dark Atlanta, US comedy has opened up and allowed an array of stories to be told. Additional highlights have included Pamela Adler’s Better Things, Issa Rae’s Insecure, Rachel Bloom’s Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Mindy Kaling’s The Mindy Project, Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi and, most recently Ramy Youssef’s Ramy.

In the UK Michaela Coel, Daisy May and Charlie Cooper and, of course, Phoebe Waller-Bridge, have all similarly won praise for their unique takes on the form. Thanks to recent Emmy champion Fleabag, Waller-Bridge, in particular, has become one of comedy’s most in-demand voices. The comedic voice of the decade, however,  was surely Sharon Horgan, who started it best-known as the author of much-underrated, prematurely-cancelled flatshare comedy Pulling and ended it as the pioneering force behind hits such as Catastrophe, Divorce and Motherland.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Reality bites

Reality TV once seemed like the perfect TV genre: cheap, and capable of self-generating storylines that were endlessly recyclable. But this decade has proved to be the one in which the wheels came off the wagon.

The untimely deaths of former UK Love Island contestants Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis opened up a conversation in the UK about the treatment of contestants. Meanwhile the horrific recent story that the Spanish version of Big Brother forced a contestant to watch her alleged rape, an attack that had occurred while she was unconscious, have only increased the sense that a terrible line has been crossed. With increasing concern about contestants welfare, it’s no wonder that Dutch channel RTL recently cancelled their versions of dating shows The Villa and Temptation Island, following scenes of men making unwanted advances on women.

Meanwhile, where talent shows once reigned supreme, former juggernauts such as American Idol (pictured below) in the US and the X Factor in the UK have seen viewers switching off in droves. As Simon Cowell attempts to recycle his formula with increasing desperation – via emperor’s new clothes ideas like Celebrity X-Factor and X-Factor: The Band in the UK – it’s hard not to feel that this is one format whose moment has ended.

There’s a sense, too, that we’re increasingly fed-up with sharp tongues on reality TV. When even that most genteel of programmes, The Great British Bake Off, comes under fire for mean comments to contestants then something has clearly gone wrong. Thank goodness then for the two feelgood hits of reality TV – Queer Eye and Ru Paul’s Drag Race. Entertaining, witty, warm-hearted and above all fun, both shows prove that there is some life in the format – but only if you know how to be kind.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

The personal is political: how nature TV got heavy

There used to be a time when you knew where you were with nature TV. It was a nice slice of gentle viewing – the sort of thing you could switch off in front of, knowing that nothing too harmful would occur. But that’s no longer the case as nature programming has increasingly shown its teeth, tackling serious issues, amid the pictures of animals gambolling across fields and flying through trees.

It’s arguably the single TV genre which has changed most radically over this decade, and particularly over the last two years. Where once these programmes focused on merely showing us animals in their natural environment, nowadays nature programmes come across more as warnings of our imminent demise. And understandably so: climate change is probably the biggest issue of our times and nature programmes cannot ignore that. No wonder then that the latest series from veteran naturalist David Attenborough, Seven Worlds, One Planet, saw him address destruction on a global scale, from melting ice caps to plastic clogged seas and the deforestation of the Amazon’s famous rainforest.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Game of Thrones and super-sized TV

If there was one show that could be said to have dominated the landscape in this fragmented decade, it’s HBO’s fantasy juggernaut. Beginning in 2011 and ending this year, Game of Thrones was a true pop culture phenomenon – referenced in film, books and even other TV shows, dissected by rappers and loved by presidents. So omnipresent was it that even those who have never seen an episode can make jokes about Khaleesi, the Red Wedding and ‘Jon Snurr’.

And Game of Thrones’ influence continues to be felt in the wave of fantasy commissions made since, from the recent Good Omens to Netflix’s upcoming The Witcher and Amazon’s bank-busting new take on Lord of the Rings.

Will any of them be a success on its scale? It seems unlikely. For, coming out of the end of the prestige cable TV era and just before the arrival of streaming, it is arguably the last show of the ‘weekly TV’ era, with mass audiences around the world watching each episode, as it was released, on the same day. Those that follow will be watched, certainly, but it’s unlikely that they will be talked about to quite the same extent.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

TV for the masses or niche TV for all?

Fast-forward to today and, with ever more shows on ever more platforms, the television landscape has certainly become fragmented. But while that means fewer collective cultural experiences of the kind that made TV such a force in the first place, that is not necessarily a bad thing. For the proliferation of shows out there has gone hand-in-hand with a diversifying of  the sort of stories that are being told.

American showrunner Ryan Murphy was one of the first to spot that the growing numbers of platforms on which to tell a story meant there was room for new kinds of stories to seize centre stage. Last year that vision reached its apogee with the launch of the ground-breaking Pose, a drama notable for the way in which it both centres LGBTQ+  lives and employs trans actors and writers to tell them.

In Britain, Russell T Davies did something similar, vowing to only tell stories in which the gay experience was central, a decision which can be seen in his sparkling scripts for last year’s A Very English Scandal and this year’s Years and Years.  But Davies and Murphy are not alone. Freed from the traditional gatekeepers, television is becoming more inclusive, allowing for very specific tales to nestle alongside more generic hits. For every standard-issue crime drama, so desperate to appeal to everyone that it loses the very things that might have made it unique, there is a Pose or a Sweet/Vicious or a Los Espookys, an End of the F***ing World or a Borgen or a Top Boy – and many, many more.

The rise of niche TV has also led to the definitive age of the showrunner, in which creative vision trumps executive notes time after time. With ratings of less importance, now that anything can be watched on catch-up, so shows can afford to take risks or play with audience expectations by telling a different kind of tale. It used to be that we all watched what we were told to; these days there’s a show out there for us all.

How a TV revolution swept the 2010s
View image of (Credit: Alamy)

Love TV? Join BBC Culture’s TV fans on Facebook, a community for television fanatics all over the world.

If you would like to comment on this story or anything else you have seen on BBC Culture, head over to our Facebook page or message us on Twitter.

And if you liked this story, sign up for the weekly bbc.com features newsletter, called The Essential List. A handpicked selection of stories from BBC Future, Culture, Worklife and Travel, delivered to your inbox every Friday.