what were the 2010s?

How Much Has TV Really Changed in This Decade?

Steve Carell as Michael Scott in The Office.
Michael Scott, still the reigning TV champ. Photo-Illustration: Illustration by Ari Liloan; Photo by NBC

The 2010s were, without a doubt, a transformative time for television. The number of TV shows and ways in which we watched them exploded on an unprecedented level. In the year 2010, our viewing options were akin to an overstuffed closet: There was a lot to sort through, but it was manageable. We had a handle on how to get rid of the stuff that didn’t spark joy. But in 2019, our potential binge-watches are more like the stock room in The Matrix: an endless series of shelving units that extend into infinity. Even if you’re the One, there’s no way you can stream this many damn episodes.

Every end-of-decade retrospective about the medium — even our own! — will tell you a version of this same story: The big news about TV in the 2010s was its abundance and how much more nichified it became. But in a decade that will also be remembered as a time of great polarization, it seems only right to offer another perspective. As much as the TV landscape transformed, it’s remarkable how much didn’t change at all.

In the decade’s first couple of years, 3-D TV seemed like the future of television. Companies and cable networks swore that watching live sporting events and HBO shows with a set of ridiculous glasses on would become the new norm. It did not. By 2017, 3-D TV was dead. While many people cut cords or opted to use their laptops or iPads as their primary viewing devices, according to Nielsen data, 96.1 percent of U.S. homes in 2019 still have televisions that receive “traditional TV signals via over-the-air, cable, DBS or Telco, or via a broadband Internet connection to a TV set.” In 2011, Nielsen estimated that number at 96.7 percent. Yes, the ways in which people watch shows has changed, but the television itself hasn’t gone anywhere.

Now consider the content. Obviously, we didn’t have such robust offerings of original programming from Netflix, Amazon, or Hulu in 2010, and we definitely didn’t have Apple+ or Disney+. But a lot of shows that were on the airwaves when this decade dawned haven’t gone away.

Grey’s Anatomy: still on ABC. NCIS: still on CBS. Blue Bloods: also still on CBS. The Walking Dead, which debuted in 2010: still dealing with that pesky zombie apocalypse on AMC. The Bachelor and Dancing With the Stars: still being hate-watched regularly on ABC. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills: still catfighting it out on Bravo. Bob’s Burgers, Family Guy, The Simpsons: still on Fox (The Simpsons will probably survive if we experience an actual zombie apocalypse).

Of course, many shows have come and gone over the past ten years, a lot more than have stayed. But even some of the ones that ended have stuck around in certain ways. Lost came to a halt in May 2010 — you may remember its finale, which, you know, a few people talked about at the time. In a sense, though, the idea of Lost has very much remained on the air during the last half of this decade. TBS aired Wrecked, a Lost parody that arrived six years after the drama it was satirizing had ended; it lasted three seasons. The short-lived Resurrection, about a town where a bunch of dead people show up very much alive, and The Returned, Carlton Cuse’s adaptation of the French series Les Revenants, both had a Lost-esque supernatural-mystery vibe. Netflix picked up The I-Land, a series that borrowed blatantly from Lost but wasn’t a parody of it as much as a parody of … itself? NBC offered its own version of a mysterious-plane-crash series in the form of Manifest. This season, ABC unveiled Emergence, a strong network drama that also involves the aftermath of a mysterious plane crash. And that doesn’t even take into account the shows that aren’t Lost knockoffs but have it in their DNA, like The Good Place and Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers and Watchmen. The beginning of the decade said, Lost is dead. The second half of it responded, Long live Lost.

In 2010, Steve Carell announced he would leave The Office the following season; his last episode, not counting a cameo in the series finale, was broadcast in spring 2011. But in 2019, thanks to Netflix, The Office is as popular and omnipresent as ever, if not more so. I don’t go a single day without seeing an image of Michael Scott in my social-media feeds, on merchandise, or on a screen in my house where my kid is streaming episodes of the show. Did Steve Carell leave The Office? Yes, that is a fact. But is he also kind of still on it, 24/7? Yes.

The biggest TV story as the decade began was the battle over The Tonight Show, which Conan O’Brien had taken over after Jay Leno retired. For those who don’t recall, Leno basically got his job back — the one he’d retired from mere months before — and forced O’Brien out of Tonight. After the smoke cleared (and his NBC exit package permitted it), O’Brien started a new late-night show on TBS that didn’t necessarily seem like it would run long-term. But Conan is still on TBS, albeit it in a slightly different format from where it started, and O’Brien remains a late-night host as this decade ends. Leno does not.

In 2011, The Oprah Winfrey Show, a central piece of daytime television for decades, came to an end. But as 2019 winds down and we head toward 2020, Oprah is still part of the TV landscape. She has her own network, OWN, with critically acclaimed shows like Queen Sugar and David Makes Man. More important, she has teamed up with Apple+ to rejuvenate her book club, a celebrated element of the talk show she left behind.

The longer you spend on this planet, the more you realize how much history repeats itself and how much sameness manages to exist amid even significant change. Which is a long way of saying: Oh my God, this decade resurrected so many shows that hadn’t been gone that long. Arrested Development looked dead and buried at the beginning of the decade, but Netflix brought it back for two disastrous seasons in 2013 and 2018. Gilmore Girls ended in 2007 but was back for a brief revival in 2016. Will & Grace stopped “Just Jack”–ing in 2006, then got resurrected in 2017 as though its finale had never happened. The Comeback got just one season on HBO in 2005, but then, yes, it came back in 2014. Curb Your Enthusiasm didn’t officially end in 2011, but it went on enough of a hiatus that it appeared to be over … that is, until it returned in 2017. (And a new season is coming in January 2020.) At the beginning of the decade, a reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210 (titled simply 90210) aired on the CW, but it was canceled by 2013; as we ended this decade, a second, much more meta reboot of Beverly Hills, 90210 (BH90210) was on Fox until it also got canceled. This is what that song from The Lion King about the circle of life and whatnot is all about.

What does all of this portend for 2030? I have no idea. Who even knows what TV will be by then? Maybe Ring TV+, the home-security system–slash–streaming service, will be sweeping the Emmys in 2029 and we’ll all be watching shows by pressing the power button embedded in our contact lenses. Things could look very different, and that’s assuming the planet is still here in its existing form, which is a very big assumption! But I will make one prediction and stand by it: Somewhere, in some way, people will still be watching The Simpsons and The Office a decade from now. Guys like Homer Simpson and Michael Scott? They never go away.

How Much Has TV Really Changed in This Decade?