Since Bill Murray's 1993 classic, time loop narratives have somehow become a genre unto themselves.
Andy Samberg's record-breaking Sundance hit Palm Springs is the latest entry in the storied genre of time loop movies.
These now-familiar stories involve one or more characters becoming trapped by mysterious forces that cause them to relive the same stretch of time (usually a single day) over and over and over again. The phenomenon was made iconic by the 1993 film Groundhog Day, in which Phil Connors (Bill Murray) is a jaded TV weatherman who becomes trapped in the small town of Punxsatawney, Pennsylvania for an endless recurrence of the titular holiday.
Watch out for that first step. It's a doozy.
It's such a bizarre, nonsensical premise that it's hardly surprising it took until 1993 for someone to give it a feature film treatment. What's much weirder is the fact that the trope has since become such a mainstay of TV and movies. It has appeared in recent years in Before I Fall, Edge of Tomorrow (AKA Live Die Repeat), two Happy Death Day movies, the Netflix series Russian Doll, among countless lesser-known works.
Each new approach tends to add its own twist to the formula, with Palm Springs trapping two people (Andy Samberg's Nyles, and Cristin Miloti's Sarah) in the same time loop at their friend's wedding in Palm Springs, California. Beyond that, the characters are largely guaranteed to go through much of the same process we've seen in every other iteration of a Groundhog-style loop—trying to convince others of what's happening, learning from their mistakes, taking advantage of their knowledge to manipulate people and events. It can begin to feel like we're watching the same movie over and over and over…
And yet, Palm Springs just broke Sundance's sales record. So what is it about this premise that keeps drawing us in?
For a start, the formula is a good one. Groundhog Day is a classic movie, one of Bill Murray's best, and I could personally watch it every day for at least a decade or two without getting sick of it. Adding some variations and some new characters while treading the familiar, satisfying path that Harold Ramis established for us isn't so bad. But there's definitely more to it than that.
For a start, it exaggerates the absurd and empty repetition of modern life—in which the routine of each day, each week, each year tends to blur and blend into the next in a uniform mass of cyclic mundanity that slowly wears us down until we're too old and decrepit to be of value to our capitalist overlords. By magnifying the drudgery of carrying on, a time loop has the potential to become the sort of prison and punishment that the ancient Greeks loved to imagine for the afterlife. Every day, Ned Ryerson—Needlenose Ned, Ned the Head—is going to try to sell you insurance. Every day, the radio replays the same drivel. Every day, we are doomed to repeat the mundane tortures.
And yet there is something about the time loop that is also freeing. You can say whatever you want and do whatever you want without consequence. One of the first things Bill Murray does when he realizes that he's trapped is to get wasted and get into a high-speed chase with the police, all with the assurance that he'll wake up in his bed with no hangover and no criminal record. The idea of speaking your mind and acting on impulse—of courting danger, excitement, and casual sex without risk of lasting consequences—is a potent fantasy.
But that still doesn't quite cover the explosive appeal of this new genre. It is tapping into a broader addition to media and culture: video games.
In the early 90s, the video game industry was in its adolescence. SEGA and Nintendo had brought it more fully to the mainstream, and facile attempts to convert that success into box office sales were already underway. But what movies like Super Mario Bros. overlooked was what people actually liked about video games. It wasn't so much about a character with a mustache fighting lizard people—or a drunken Bob Hoskins hiding his broken hand—people liked the experience of incremental improvement—of getting to try the same task over and over again, getting slightly better with each attempt, all in an environment in which the fear of failure was reduced to a transient concern. As the phenomenon of Let's Play videos has proven, people can even enjoy that experience vicariously, and that's what these time loop movies tap into.
The most obvious example of this is Edge of Tomorrow, which draws on many of the aesthetics and objectives of a sci-fi action game. Fight the aliens until you die. Figure out how to fight them better. Eventually make it to the boss alien and save the day with a climactic explosion. The centrality of the death-respawn mechanic is the most common alteration these stories make to Groundhog Day's original formula. While Phil Connors could live or die and still wake up to Sonny and Cher each morning for unexplained reasons, most of the newer versions—Russian Doll, Happy Death Day—have embraced a clearer narrative goal of not being killed. The loop resets each time the character dies, and they only need to survive/defeat their killer(s) in order to escape. Just like a video game.
There is a more frightening way in which video games have altered our culture, which these movies also point to: the gamification of life. While Groundhog Day doesn't specify how many times Phil Connors relives the same day, there's reason to believe his temporal captivity lasted multiple decades, if not much longer. That explains how Connors achieves a godlike knowledge of every person and event in the town—though not how he manages to maintain any semblance of sanity. He also becomes an accomplished pianist, a talented ice sculptor, a fluent French speaker, a practitioner of various life-saving skills, and really good at flicking playing cards into a hat.
The concept of having all the time in the world to develop those skills is alluring, but there are far too many influences telling us that this is how we need to spend the little bit of free time we have. Until you actually get stuck in a time loop, you are not a video game character, and you should not feel compelled to optimize every aspect of your life for some imagined future success. Just as you are never going to compete with a 19-year-old from South Korea who plays League of Legends professionally, you will probably never speak as many languages as Pete Buttigieg or learn as many household skills as Martha Stewart. And that's okay.
Whatever the message of Palm Springs or any of these other time loop stories, Groundhog Day makes its message clear: All those skills Phil picks up are not the key. It's not until Phil Connors engages authentically with his life and finds love that he is able to escape the prison of mundane repetition. Skill and success are both nice, but they cannot be goals themselves, because life is not a video game. All that work is empty without human connection. Love is the only real goal… Which is probably something Andy Samberg should have kept in mind before he decided to rip off the concept of his wife's fourth studio album.
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- Groundhog Day movie review & film summary (1993) | Roger Ebert ›
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The 2010s saw the advent of binge-watching.
Thanks to streaming platforms like Netflix and Hulu, it was suddenly possible to watch multiple episodes of a single TV series in one sitting without the interruptions of commercials. As the way we watched TV changed, so too did the kind of shows we watched. Gone was the overabundance of vapid, sugary-sweet sitcoms, and in came the era of political satire, dramatic comedies, and searing commentaries on everything from abortion to Hollywood. Summarily, the 2010s saw a golden age of television. Here are our 50 favorites, with the top 25 and bottom 25 listed in alphabetical order.
The Top 25 TV Shows of the 2010s
Atlanta first aired in 2016, with Donald Glover's Earn learning that his cousin Alfred has released a hit song under the stage name Paper Boi. Since then, the show has followed Earn's struggle to navigate different worlds as he takes over managing his cousin's burgeoning music career while also trying to be a good father to his daughter, Lottie, and to prove himself to Van, his ex-girlfriend and Lottie's mother. The show uses varying perspectives to flesh out the city of Atlanta and the complexities of being black in America with surreal touches that highlight the real-world absurdity. Yet despite the heaviness of much of its subject matter, it frequently manages to be among the funniest shows on TV.
For anyone who ever wondered whether or not SNL-alum Bill Hader could carry a serious TV show, Barry answers with an overwhelming "yes." To be clear, Barry is technically a dark comedy, or perhaps a crime comedy-drama, but Bill Hader brings a level of unprecedented seriousness to his titular character that oftentimes makes the show feel like a straight tragedy.
Playing a hitman who wants to leave his life of crime behind in order to pursue a career in acting, Bill Hader imbues Barry with an earnestness that makes us as an audience truly want him to succeed. This likability serves to make Barry's violent acts all the more disturbing. Barry's greatest success is its ability to effortlessly fluctuate between the quirks of life as a struggling actor in LA and the violent inclinations of a man who murders for a living and can never really escape that truth. It's one of the best character studies currently on TV and is sure to cement Bill Hader as an extremely versatile A-list talent.
Baskets premiered on FX in 2016, telling the story of Chip Baskets, an aspiring clown played by Zach Galifianakis, who is moving back to Bakersfield, California to live with his mother after a failed stint at clown school in Paris. Galfianakis' talent for melancholy slapstick makes the show by turns hilarious and touching, but it's his mother Christine Baskets—artfully portrayed by Louie Anderson—whose simple enthusiasm for small-town life makes the show one of the best of the decade. Watching Christine, Chip, and his twin brother Dale (also Galifianakis) heighten relatable family drama to exquisite absurdity never gets old.
Nothing would be the same without Black Mirror. Though its later seasons have been inconsistent in quality, its earliest contributions were digital horror at its finest, with some of the episodes being downright visionary in terms of how accurately they predicted the near future. From the nostalgic visions of virtual afterlife in "San Junipero" to the eerie foresight of "Nosedive" and its digital ranking systems, Black Mirror made an indelible impact.
Whatever you've heard about Family Guy or South Park, Bob's Burgers is the true successor to the golden age of The Simpsons. The Belcher family offers an update to The Simpsons' satirical view on middle class family life that reflects how America has changed since the 90s—slightly more urban, with less overt child abuse and a lot more economic precarity. And just as with the best seasons of The Simpsons, Bob's Burgers maintains a touching core of familial love and solidarity amid the absurd hijinks and veiled political commentary. Throw in the added value of the frequently hilarious, occasionally moving musical numbers, and Bob's Burgers easily secures a spot as one of the best shows of the decade.
In terms of the quality of its writing, BoJack Horseman outdid itself season after season. What began as a parody of Hollywood's excesses quickly turned into a searing, and boundary-pushing meditation on depression, addiction, and what it means to change (or to be unable to). Increasingly self-aware and conscious of its hypocritical tendency to obsess over the misadventures of an evil but sympathetic celebrity, thereby glorifying them while criticizing them, BoJack Horseman is the political, devastating, timely, often hilarious show about an animated horse that none of us knew we needed. It's buoyed by the strength of its secondary characters, from the workaholic Princess Carolyn to asexual Todd to self-loathing Diane, and altogether the show takes deep-rooted fears that many share and refracts them in a funhouse mirror that's impossible to look away from.
Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson began producing an independent web series about their struggles to "make it" in New York City in 2009. Soon, Amy Poehler took interest in the series, and it moved to Comedy Central in 2014. The smash hit comedy was not only laugh-out-loud funny, but a beautiful portrait of a genuinely healthy, supportive female friendship—something TV has historically seen little of. Broad City can be credited for helping to usher in a new generation of female comedy creators and has become a cultural touchstone for millenials.
Catastrophe, created and written by the show's stars, Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, is one of the realest, grossest, and funniest takes on love and the mess of life. Two people entering middle age meet and hit it off, they spend a reckless night together, and when she gets pregnant, they decide to make things work—not realizing how complicated that will be. It's a simple enough premise, but the cutting dialogue and the absurd comedy that plays out as two near-strangers build a life together make Catastrophe one of a kind.
Anthology series like True Detective and American Horror Story can be really hit or miss, but in the three seasons that have aired on FX since 2014, Fargo has been consistently great. Maybe it has to do with the leisurely production schedule, the all-star cast, or the near-perfect movie that forms the basis for its tone, but whatever the cause, Fargo delivers murderous midwestern tragicomedy better than any show on TV—and nearly as well as the original. Season three, which followed the rivalry of the Stussy brothers—as played by Ewan McGregor—deserves a particular call-out, with season four due next year and featuring Chris Rock, Timothy Olyphant, and Jason Schwartzman.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge's stage-play-turned-two-season-TV masterpiece took the world by storm at the end of the 2010s. In the series, the viewer is made into the protagonist's (an unnamed woman played by Bridge) confidante as she uses sex to cope with grief and complicated family dynamics. As the show progresses, the closely protected inner life of the protagonist begins to reveal itself. Many consider the second season to be an essentially perfect season of television, in large part because of the hot priest (played by Andrew Scott). Fleabag is a funny, searing commentary on what it means to exist as a sexual, complicated being in a world with ever-changing expectations of women.
Grace and Frankie
70 is the new 30, or 20, or whatever arbitrary year of life we as a culture are deciding to glorify for no reason, because age is just a number. If you weren't aware that Jane Fonda glowed with money or that Lily Tomlin is our collective spiritual mother, then Grace and Frankie enlightened you. When two septuagenarian women are told that their husbands are gay and in love with each other, the best phase of their lives begins.
It's almost 2020, the world is upside down, and yes, an anime about high school volleyball is genuinely one of the best shows of the decade. Haikyu!!, literally "Volleyball" in Japanese, is about the trials and tribulations of the Karasuno High School Boys Volleyball Team. Unlike pretty much every other high school sports anime out there, Haikyu!! takes a relatively realistic approach to...well...high schoolers playing sports. In doing so, Haikyu!! translates the genuine passion that goes into high school sports and the real dynamics of teamwork, better than any other show I've ever seen.
The protagonist, Hinata, isn't a superpowered Volleyball God; he's an extremely short boy who can't reach the top of the net, but works his butt off because he loves the game. Likewise, all the other boys in Haikyu!! have realistic strengths and weaknesses (both on and off the court) that they work to overcome with help from their teammates. Haikyu!! is an exercise in wholesomeness––there are no villains, just other kids at other schools who love the same sport our boys do––and in a decade full of so much bitterness, it's a much needed dose of medicine.
Hunter x Hunter
For anyone who likes long-running shonen anime, Hunter x Hunter is, without a doubt, the pinnacle of the genre. While the original manga began publication in 1998, and a previous anime adaptation ran from 1999-2001, the 2011 adaptation re-started the series from scratch and, most importantly, covered the Chimaera Ant arc (or season––kind of––for you non-anime watchers).
The entirety of Hunter x Hunter is fantastic, featuring likeable protagonists, dastardly villains, and a brilliantly creative power system called "Nen." But there's a reason the Chimaera Ant arc is often considered the greatest shonen arc ever, and that's because it's a total deconstruction of the genre's tropes and conventions. Everything from the "always optimistic protagonist" to "the ultimate evil villain" is turned completely inside-out. The Chimaera Ant arc is intensely brutal and ultimately poignant, making us question the very nature of what makes us human.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge can do no wrong, and even if she could and did, I'd probably still clap. The combination of Waller-Bridge's cutting wit and Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer's flawless performances makes for a TV show that never quite lets you find your balance before sending you spinning again. It's dark and surreal, while managing to still be deeply human.
Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
Being a professional stand-up comedienne is hard, but being Midge Maisel is wrapping chaos in a designer dress. Created by the fast-talking husband and wife behind Gilmore Girls, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel created a stage for Rachel Brosnahan to showcase her comedic timing and Alex Borstein to be a solid, deadpan pillar within Mrs. Maisel's world of quippy, fast-talking, energy. Also Michael Zegen (Joel) is dead cute.
Mob Psycho 100
While One Punch Man might be manga artist One's best known series (and is fantastic in its own right), his other series, Mob Psycho 100, is profound in a way quite unlike anything else I've seen. The show revolves around Mob, an awkward, unconfident middle school boy with god-like psychic powers. Any other shonen anime would use this premise as a gateway to epic battles (and there are a few, and their animation is absolutely incredible), but Mob Psycho 100 focuses far more on the coming-of-age angle instead.
See, Mob doesn't like his psychic powers because they make him feel weird. So instead of focusing on the one thing he's innately talented at but doesn't like, Mob tries to improve himself in the ways he actually cares about improving––making friends, talking to girls, working out with his school's Body Improvement Club. If anything, Mob's incredible psychic powers are a backdrop for the show's larger message––that no person, no matter what natural abilities they may have, is better than anyone else. Mob Psycho 100 shows that everyone has their own struggles, and that the only person you should ever hold yourself up in comparison to is the person you were yesterday.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij's labyrinthine show only ran for two seasons, but it managed to earn a cult following during that time. Deeply weird, profoundly earnest, and full to the brim with observations on the connections between the environment, parallel universes, and technology, the two seasons that we do have are irreplaceable and paradigm-shifting examples of what TV could become, if we let ourselves believe.
Orange Is the New Black
Piper Kerman's post-grad rebellious stage went from a felony to a cultural touchstone. As Netflix's most-watched original series, OITNB boasted a female-led cast and cutting commentary on race, class, and the industrial prison complex.
Those who didn't have a gruelingly awkward middle school experience are, by scientific evidence, simply inhuman. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle tell it best in Hulu original PEN15, which co-stars the real-life BFFs (who also wrote and executive produced together) as 13-year-olds. Here, there's no sugarcoating the calamities of tweenhood, whether they're as trivial as thongs and AIM messaging or as weighty as race identity. All delivered with Erskine and Konkle's razor-sharp wit, it's absolutely hysterical to anyone who's lived past the seventh grade.
Rick and Morty
"To be fair, you have to have a very high IQ to understand Rick and Morty. The humour is extremely subtle, and without a solid grasp of theoretical physics most of the jokes will go over a typical viewer's head."
Okay, so first things first, we need to separate Rick and Morty from the Rick and Morty fandom. The Rick and Morty fandom is so annoying that memes making fun of them are barely distinguishable from the things they actually say. But, to be fair, Rick and Morty really is a great show full of smart writing, surprisingly deep characterization, and the exact kind of bizarre, abstract humor that lends itself perfectly to endless memes. No doubt, Rick and Morty will be the defining animated comedy of the 2010s.
This tightly-wound and big-hearted thriller stars Natasha Lyonne as a jaded New Yorker who gets caught in a loop in time and has to relive the night of her 36th birthday party over and over again. A perfect blend of humor and seriousness, and riddled with quantum leaps and profound connections, it's as satisfying as it is provocative.
We fell in love with the trainwreck family the Gallaghers when it debuted on Showtime in 2011. William H. Macy brought so much toxic charm to the abusive and neglectful father Frank Gallagher that we actually found him, if not likable, then good television. Emmy Rossum managed to cause tears and laughter within the same scene, and the entire cast was as impressive as their characters were appalling.
Shingeki no Kyojin (Attack on Titan)
After the first season of Attack on Titan premiered in 2013, it received so much hype that even people outside of the anime community were raving about it. The show featured an incredibly high-concept premise, following the last surviving humans as they tried to fight back against giant, man-eating monsters called Titans. Had Attack on Titan stuck to that premise, it would have been top-notch action-horror, albeit not necessarily one of the best shows of the decade.
But Attack on Titan turned out to be so much bigger than its initial premise. As the seasons progressed, Attack on Titan reshaped itself time and time again, leading viewers through an increasingly complex, expertly plotted narrative featuring some of the most compelling characters and intensely emotional moments that I've ever experienced in fiction. At its core, Attack on Titan is a deeply thematic contemplation on war, othering, and humanity's will to survive against impossible odds, alongside the moral sacrifices they oftentimes make to do so.
It shouldn't be revolutionary for a show to feature a fat female lead, but it is. Shrill, the brilliant Hulu adaptation of Lindy West's memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, gave audiences a badly needed narrative about a woman who is actively seeking to change her life for the better, in ways that have nothing to do with her body. It's funny, it's heartfelt, and it shows a woman getting an abortion and finding it empowering. Woah. Hell yes.
When Steven Universe first aired on Cartoon Network in 2013, it was a light-hearted and silly children's show with some super-powered action from the Crystal Gems and a lot of silly jokes from their sidekick—the childish titular character. Since then an entire galaxy has been fleshed out around the boardwalk of Beach City where much of the show takes place. Along with the alien gem creatures and their elaborate history, the show has introduced us to a cast of characters that have grown and changed—overcoming insecurities and facing complex questions of love and identity. While Steven matured and developed into a hero worthy of his last name, the show evolved to become one of the best of the decade.
25-50 Top TV Shows of the 2010s
- American Horror Story
- Big Mouth
- Inside Amy Schumer
- Jane the Virgin
- Jessica Jones
- Last Week Tonight
- Stranger Things
- The Good Place
- The Newsroom
- This Is Us
- True Detective
VeepThe 5 Worst TV Shows of the 2010s9-1-1
- Chicago PD
- Once Upon a Time