Television wasn’t spared by the pandemic, but there were still more great shows than any one person could watch. Here’s a look at the top series of the year, as well as some that signed off for good.
The best TV of 2020 included, clockwise from top left, “Schitt’s Creek,” “BoJack Horseman,” “Vida,” “Pen15″ and “I May Destroy You.”Credit…Clockwise from top left: Pop TV; Netflix; Kat Marcinowski/Starz; Lara Solanki/Hulu; Natalie Seery/HBO;
- Published Dec. 1, 2020Updated Dec. 2, 2020
Everyone knows that the year 2020 changed everything. What this 10-best list presupposes is: What if it didn’t?
The pandemic, the first and last story of this year, naturally disrupted television — talk shows, sports and especially scripted comedy and drama. My list might have included “The Good Fight,” if its unfinished fourth season had not been left dangling.
But because of the glut of material already in the pipeline when the shutdowns came, my TV retrospective of the year is surprisingly ordinary. There was still too much TV to watch it all, and still too much extraordinary material to whittle down. (In a boom year for limited series, for instance, “Unorthodox,” “The Plot Against America” and “The Queen’s Gambit” missed the cut.)
This also means that, as usual, you will not get me to create a ranked list. There is not a show I was more awed by this year than “I May Destroy You,” and there was not a show I enjoyed more than “What We Do in the Shadows.” But to weigh these exceptional and very different shows on a scale seems absurd.
Enjoy, instead, this alphabetical list of 10(-ish) great programs, a little ordinary ritual until life resumes its regularly scheduled programming.
Image Rhea Seehorn and Bob Odenkirk in “Better Call Saul,” the “Breaking Bad” prequel series.Credit…Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television
The prequel to “Breaking Bad” is television’s most finely rendered slow-motion car crash. You know where this vehicle is pointed: Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) will become Saul Goodman, the loquacious and lizardy legal consigliere to drug kingpins, eventually fleeing into Cinnabon exile. But the beauty is in how exquisitely the pieces fly apart, never better than in Season 5. M.V.P. status this year goes to the mesmerizing Rhea Seehorn, as Jimmy’s now-wife, Kim Wexler, whose gradual corruption shows us how anyone can end up on the same dark road that Jimmy chose. (Streaming on Netflix.)
I feel like I don’t watch “Better Things” so much as live in it — which is less to say that it reminds me of my life than that it replicates the experience of inhabiting someone else’s. Directed by and largely written by Pamela Adlon, who also stars as the mid-tier actress Sam Fox, the fourth season generously explores family, mortality and the ways of being a woman in the world. In the season finale, Sam’s daughter Duke (Olivia Edward) meets a mysterious elderly woman (quite likely a ghost) who recounts having had a full life without marrying, telling Duke, “One compliment from a woman is worth a thousand compliments from a man.” Fair enough: “Better Things” is beautiful TV, and I will gladly say it a thousand times. (Streaming on Hulu.)
Ethan Hawke, left, and Joshua Caleb Johnson in “The Good Lord Bird,” a mini-series about the abolitionist John Brown.Credit…William Gray/Showtime
My cheat-tie of the year is an odd couple: a documentary about the 2019 Chicago mayoral election and a mini-series about the abolitionist insurrections of John Brown (Ethan Hawke). But premiering in October, they spoke to each other in a vituperative election year that saw nationwide uprisings for racial justice. Steve James’s “City” captured Chicago as a living, roiling confederacy of neighborhoods separated by class and race, and a postscript episode set amid 2020’s protests and pandemic showed that politics is more than a rhetorical exercise. “Good Lord Bird” was a rollicking, picaresque tale of the holy madman and problematic ally Brown, seen through the eyes of the escaped slave Henry (a stunningly adept Joshua Caleb Johnson). In both shows, a country teeters on the brink; only in one do we know how the story ends. (Streaming on Hulu and Showtime.com.)
Michaela Coel’s revelatory series was to 2020 what Season 2 of “Fleabag” was to 2019: a seamlessly conceived masterwork that is impossible to imagine being written or performed by anyone else. As an author dealing with the aftermath of her hazily remembered rape, Coel is like a juggler keeping flaming torches, bowling balls and cream pies in the air, balancing a story that is simultaneously incendiary, weighty and shockingly funny. The title announces itself; the show delivers. (Streaming on HBO Max.)
“Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!” is an artful rendering of the creative process.Credit…Dark Horse Comics
Based on a Japanese manga and overseen by Masaaki Yuasa, this smart, spunky anime about anime earned its exclamation point. A trio of high school girls — an eccentric animator, a popular model and a business obsessive — form an anime club, a part-time diversion that soon grows, like a radioactive monster, into an all-consuming obsession. Woven into the let’s-put-on-a-show story line is one of the best renderings of the creative process I’ve seen on TV (with special meta-attention to the exhausting labor of animation) and an affecting theme of discovering identity through art. This is a giddy flying robot of a story, and it’s worth letting it scoop you up and rocket you away. (Streaming on Crunchyroll and HBO Max.)
Dahvi Waller’s double-barreled story of the fights for and against the Equal Rights Amendment went a half-century into the past and found today. In the ensemble story of the feminist movement’s advocates, we can see not just the promise (realized and unrealized) of women’s equality but echoes of up-to-the-moment arguments between revolutionaries and pragmatists. In the parallel story of the E.R.A. opponent Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) — who, ironically, used her crusade to find the power denied her as a woman in conservative politics — there’s a direct line to our era of culture wars and alternative facts. Have we come such a long way, babies? (Streaming on Hulu.)
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in “Normal People,” a heaving, complex love story.Credit…Enda Bowe/Hulu
This 12-part adaptation was like a warm Instagram filter laid on the black-and-white portraiture of Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name. Rooney (who helped adapt the series) rendered its hormonal first-love story in spare, dispassionate prose that paid close attention to the power and class dynamics between its small-town Irish sweethearts. The series layers on poetic imagery (thanks to the directors, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald), while Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal connect in a way that makes the central relationship a living character in itself. This is a heaving, complex romance that breaks your heart in all the best ways. (Streaming on Hulu.)
There is a fine line between horror and humor, and that line runs straight through your middle-school years. In the second season of their retrospective comedy, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle handspring down that line like Olympic gymnasts. The seven episodes (intended as the first half of a two-part season that was interrupted by the pandemic) found new depths of cringe and heights of weirdo glee, as its turn-of-the-millennium besties had their friendship tested and found a calling in the school drama club. Erskine and Konkle, who in their 30s are wholly convincing as teens, remember early adolescence better than most of us would care to. But their curse is our blessing. (Streaming on Hulu.)
Vickie Eng and Nicco Annan in “P-Valley,” a melodrama of ambition set in a Mississippi strip club.Credit…Tina Rowden/Starz!
People think of a stripper pole as something you slide down. “P-Valley” knows that it’s something you climb up. Katori Hall translated her 2015 play “Pussy Valley” into a swaggering melodrama of ambition, building out the stories of the women who command the stage of the Pynk, a threadbare club in Mississippi’s “Dirty Delta” at the center of a web of dreams and schemes. The vibrant dialogue is well-served by the cast, including the remarkable Nicco Annan as Uncle Clifford, the club’s silver-tongued, gender-fluid proprietor. The fuchsia-lit sex appeal may get you in the door, but what keeps you coming back is the show’s devotion to its characters as athletes and strivers, working muscle by muscle to get a leg up. (Streaming on Starz.)
The funniest hangout comedy of 2020 featured no hugging, no learning and no direct exposure to sunlight. The second season of this series, about a clan of decadent vampires living (or unliving) in reduced circumstances in Staten Island, highlighted an elite cast of regulars (this was an especially strong season for Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou) and well-chosen guests, including Mark Hamill as an undead ex-landlord out for revenge. I was skeptical, in Season 1, about whether “Shadows” could sustain the comedy of the 2015 movie it was based on. But this premise proved tough to kill. (Streaming on Hulu.)
As always, don’t take the word “best” in the headline too seriously. What follows are 10 things I loved, listed in alphabetical order, among the hundreds upon hundreds of shows from other countries that had premieres or new seasons in the United States this year — a deep and unnavigable sea, swollen by the lack of new American production during the pandemic.
Saying anything general about this wild variety of television from all over the world is a ridiculous proposition, but it just might be true that creators outside the United States feel a greater freedom to simply tell a story, without looking over their shoulders to see which brigade of thought police is catching up to them. That may have something to do with why I turn to them so eagerly, and I think it’s reflected in the choices below.
Tamsin Grieg, left and Alice Eve in “Belgravia,” a British mini-series set in the early Victorian era.Credit…Carnival Films
Julian Fellowes adapted his own novel, set in the early Victorian era, and reunited with the producing team from “Downton Abbey” to turn it into a British mini-series. Many elements of the story were familiar for “Downton” fans: societal ferment, musical-chair heirs, dissolute gentlemen, duplicitous servants. More important, the storytelling was as sharp and the performances as satisfying, particularly from Tamsin Greig and Harriet Walter, as “Downton” at its best. (Streaming on Epix.)
The five seasons (so far) of “The Bureau” take place in the present, but in its subtlety, its complexity and its moral seriousness, this French series is the ultimate Cold War spy show. Each season is a chapter in the disastrous, endlessly compounding fallout from a mistake the French agent Malotru (Mathieu Kassovitz) made in the show’s first episode; in Season 5, the consequences of that original sin played out in Moscow, Cairo and Phnom Penh. The season’s last two episodes, directed with expressionist flourishes by the filmmaker Jacques Audiard, only reinforced how the show’s power has been a function of its rigorousness. (Streaming on Sundance Now.)
“For Sama” is a personal account five years in Aleppo, Syria.Credit…PBS Distribution
Including this Syrian documentary — the highly personal account of five years in the lives of its narrator, Waad Al-Kateab, and her husband, the doctor Hamza Al-Kateab, in the increasingly unendurable confines of Aleppo, Syria — in this list is a bit of a cheat. It’s a feature, and it was broadcast in late 2019, as that year’s last installment of PBS’s “Frontline.” But I have to because it’s the most dramatic, the most heartbreaking and the most essential thing I’ve watched on TV in 2020. (Streaming on Kanopy.)
The wizards of South Korean TV drama can play countless variations on the romantic comedy. This archly clever series about an imperious, emotionally challenged children’s book author and the impossibly noble health care worker she falls for mixes the rhythms of a sex farce with the ambience of a dark fairy tale. (Among other things, it’s a tart commentary on cancel culture.) Making it work is a mesmerizing performance by Seo Ye-ji as the writer, who’s both Cinderella and evil stepmother. (Streaming on Netflix.)
A charming, fantastical and relentlessly practical story about freeing (and harnessing) the energy of young imaginations. Animation is the medium and the message in this Japanese coming-of-age saga about three high school classmates who form their own anime club; instead of heading to the barn to put on a show, they head to an abandoned industrial space to draw new worlds, and make some money while they’re at it. (Streaming on Crunchyroll and HBO Max.)
Kim Sung-kyu in “Kingdom,” a South Korean zombie thriller.Credit…Juhan Noh/Netflix
Along with the feature films “Train to Busan” and “Peninsula,” this spirited mix of fast-moving monsters and royal skulduggery puts South Korea at the forefront of the action-zombie genre. In Season 2, while the male characters exerted a lot of frantic effort to save the kingdom of Joseon from the treacherous and the undead, Bae Doona and Kim Hye-jun shone as the plucky peasant doctor trying to contain a plague and the sociopathic queen who refused to hand over power. (Streaming on Netflix.)
HBO offered two very different series about women whose friendships are tossed around by the violent currents of 20th-century European history, and each provided the pleasures of well-made, intelligent melodrama. “My Brilliant Friend” is based on Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. Its second season, subtitled “The Story of a New Name,” after the second book in the series, was as voluptuous in its emotions as the mini-series “Patria,” based on Fernando Aramburu’s novel about families caught up in the Basque separatist movement, was severe. (Streaming on HBO Max.)
An outback police procedural with an incantatory feel, powered by the performances of Aaron Pedersen, Tasma Walton and, in Season 2, Jada Alberts and graced by the hallucinatory landscapes of northwestern Australia. (Streaming on Acorn TV.)
Mark Strong in “Temple,” about a doctor who keeps his comatose wife in a secret clinic.Credit…Gareth Gatrell/Sky UK
A British remake of the eccentric Norwegian series “Valkyrien” — about a doctor who keeps his comatose wife in a secret clinic he’s rigged up below a subway station, while he tries to find a cure for her condition — improved on the original. The writer Mark O’Rowe (“Boy A”) and the wonderfully steady actor Mark Strong made the loony premise seem perfectly plausible. (Streaming on Spectrum.)
Honorable mentions: “Arde Madrid,” MHz Choice; “Babylon Berlin,” Netflix; “Burden of Truth,” the CW; “Deutschland 89,” Sundance TV; “Don’t Forget the Driver,” BritBox; “Fauda,” Netflix; “I May Destroy You,” HBO; “In My Skin,” Hulu; “Killing Eve,” BBC America; “Normal People,” Hulu; “Quiz,” AMC; “Ragnarok,” Netflix; “Roadkill,” PBS; “Speakerine,” MHz Choice; “Unorthodox,” Netflix; “ZeroZeroZero,” Amazon Prime Video.
We said goodbye to a lot in 2020. That made it a little easier to mourn a show — it’s just a show! — but also a little harder — must everything be so terrible? My attention span, my capacity to engage and my willingness to ingest sorrow and violence also took big hits this year, and that redefined my tastes in ways that are hard to specify. Every year I am sure I’ve missed dozens of wonderful shows; I’m even more sure that’s true this year.
To qualify for this list, which is arranged in alphabetical order, a show must have aired new episodes in 2020, and limited and mini-series do not count. Shows are judged on their entire runs, not just their final seasons. Did not meet the criteria, but man I will miss them: “GLOW” and “Drunk History.” Neither aired new episodes in 2020, and in fact both were in production when Netflix and Comedy Central, respectively, pulled their plugs. Their cancellations are tremendous bummers.
Over six seasons, “BoJack Horseman” was a searing satire with emotional depth.Credit…Netflix
If there’s another comedy that respects and challenges its audience with such aplomb, I’ve never seen it. Over six seasons, “BoJack” made the story of a washed-up sitcom star a searing satire, a bold artistic experiment and somehow a good time, too — it embraced the clever, punchy side of suicidal depression. Every time I watch this show, I’m impressed anew by some facet of it: a tiny aside or the contrived dorky wordplay, and also the natural causality inside its complicated plots and the depth and dynamism of its understanding of humanity. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Like “BoJack,” “Brockmire” is about addiction, accountability and redemption, but “Brockmire” is sunnier — and filthier. The four-season comedy about a baseball broadcaster, played by Hank Azaria, reached ever racier depths with its dialogue and took interesting creative leaps past its sports setting: A time jump put Season 4 in a disease-ravaged future and toyed with tech dystopia and apocalyptic fiction, along with its more grounded stories. Every episode was a naughty treat. (Streaming on Hulu.)
Matt Ingebretson, left, and Jake Weisman in “Corporate,” which tempered its nihilism with silliness.Credit…Comedy Central
There are only three scanty seasons of this bleak workplace comedy, though given its sense of despair maybe that’s for the best. “Corporate” is live action, but it had a cartoon sensibility and episodic style, and it tempered its nihilism with straightforward silliness and a kind of resigned sense of wonder. It’s going to be a long time before cubicle culture returns, but until then, we have this. (Streaming on CC.com.)
This doctor show for the preschool set broke ground with its Black protagonist, a rarity in children’s programming and programming generally. Its loose, cheery songs were on the sanity-preserving side of catchy, and the show’s messages about bodily autonomy and healing processes were surprisingly refined. One of the show’s central philosophies is that articulating a problem is one of the first steps in solving it — a good lesson at any age. (Streaming on Disney+ and Hulu.)
Ted Danson in “The Good Place,” one of TV’s most ambitious comedies.Credit…Colleen Hayes/NBC
Among the most ambitious network comedies of all time, “The Good Place” is to moral philosophy what “CSI” was to forensics — but also funny and beautiful and as inspiring as a beloved social studies teacher whose guidance fills you with a sense of “wait … I actually could.” Even as its swan song got maybe a little too swanny, “The Good Place” never lost track of its greatest strength: specificity. The grander the scope, the more essential the details, and each dopey, perfect suggestion from Jason or moment of awe from Michael made the show feel so full, even as it expanded its reach to all existence. Let us all now take it sleazy. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Were this the end end for “Last Chance U,” I’d be in a puddle on the ground — luckily, the show is getting a spinoff, “Last Chance U: Basketball.” If it’s even half as good as the five seasons of “Last Chance U,” it will be among TV’s best documentaries. The original follows community college football players and coaches, and some professors and administrators, and it started out in Mississippi for two seasons, then moved to Kansas for two and finished with a season in Oakland, Calif. Each year I thought, “Well, I’ll never be able to care as much about these people as I did about the people last season,” and every time I was of course gloriously wrong. I’m not sure any show of any format has so consistently expanded my sphere of caring. (Streaming on Netflix.)
I’m not sure what the last great doctor show was, but it’s definitely been a minute, which is why the frank elegance of this documentary seemed even more potent during our pandemic spring. (There was even a Covid-specific special ninth episode.) “Lenox” captured a staggering range of human emotion, so it felt like both a riveting narrative and a modern wisdom text about the ebbs and flows of life and loss. Sadly, it’s a one-and-done. (Streaming on Netflix.)
From left, Dan Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy and Eugene Levy in “Schitt’s Creek,” which swept the comedy categories at the Emmys this year.Credit…Pop TV
“Schitt’s Creek” swept the comedy categories at the Emmys this year, a tribute less about the show’s being good — though it is! very! — than about its being adored for its light in such a dark time. It was like giving awards to an oasis. After a rocky first season, “Schitt’s” settled into its happy self, loving and goofy and romantic, a show that’s a genuine pleasure. (Streaming on Netflix.)
This one is extra painful not only because its one season ended on a cliffhanger but also because it feels as if Netflix barely gave the show a chance — it debuted in August and was canceled in October. But any of us who love whimsical, voicey, female-driven shows know they’re often too precious for our cruel world, and so it is here. I loved this show’s patter, like peak-era “Gilmore Girls,” and I loved its perspective. Coming-of-age stories are often about tempering one’s idealism, and one of the many appealing aspects of “Teenage Bounty Hunters” was that its characters experienced mostly the opposite: They became steadier in their convictions, in the special ways they understood the world. (Streaming on Netflix.)
Melissa Barrera, left, and Mishel Prada played sisters in “Vida.”Credit…Kat Marcinowski/Starz
I wonder how great “Vida” could have been if it had had a more robust run instead of just 22 episodes. The first season was only six episodes, so the show didn’t quite blossom until the 10-episode second season, when it really became electric. Then Season 3 was back to six, which rushed some of its conclusions but still made room for a meaningful variety of queer and Latinx characters, all puzzling out how to reconcile their pasts and presents. (Streaming on Starz.)