The Best TV of 2020
10 series that made sheltering in place a little easier.
Did we watch more TV this year than last year? Or even, perhaps, more than we’ve ever watched before? I don’t know. Probably. It might not be useful to think back on our former selves before we were slumped over couches for months on end, living in stained sweatpants long after the excitement of sourdough baking wore off, the only novelty being our newest patterned mask hanging from a doorknob.
Nobody had a good year, and we need not pretend differently. But television was there—more television than any other generation has had at their disposal, on such a glut of streaming services that the form of escapism dubbed “binge-watching” became positively egalitarian. Some of the TV produced this year was mindless claptrap; some was ambitious if ultimately mediocre; and some of it was art. All of it helped.
From excruciating character studies centering on middle schoolers and college sweethearts, to docuseries detailing peculiar human behavior and American sports icons, to stylish book adaptations tailing heroes of chess and record stores, to feel-good sitcoms and prestige ruminations on sexual assault’s lasting trauma, these ten utterly divergent television series simultaneously soothed and stirred our troubled psyches. — Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
10. High Fidelity
By now, Hollywood’s lazy reliance on the gender/sexuality/race-swapped reboot to cheaply meet demands for diversity has been done to death. High Fidelity, Hulu’s adaptation of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel and Stephen Frears’ 2000 film, could have easily followed the same trope in its swapping out of John Cusack for Zoe Kravitz, making her queer, and pairing her with a queer man and Black woman (David H. Holmes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph) for best friends.
But instead of a tired cover, we got a cool remix. Kravitz’s Rob was a revelation: bruised by breakups but whip smart at her job. The show’s greatest strength came from its ability to display, with painful precision, the frustrations of anyone who passionately occupies a space that still only seems welcoming to straight white men. No more clear was this seen in the standout fifth episode, “Uptown,” in which Rob and her half-boyfriend Clyde (Jake Lacy, in peak nice guy mode) meet up with a rich, middle-aged guy with a treasure trove of records to sell. Clyde and and the man proceed to have an entire conversation about music, completely excluding her, despite the fact that she’s more knowledgeable than the two of them combined—something she ultimately reveals when she corrects Tom over the release date of the live Paul McCartney and Wings album Wings Over America and is promptly condescended to. When Rob, undeterred, presses on to school him even more with casual ease, it feels not just like a small win for her, but a vicarious win for us, too.
High Fidelity worked as a capsule miniseries, sure, but its characters were the kind you wanted to spend more time getting to know. Given the promises that season two would showcase more of its strong supporting cast—especially the glorious, scene-stealing Da’Vine Joy Randolph—it’s a shame Hulu pulled the plug so prematurely. — Carrie Courogen
Self-referential to a fault—in the spirit of its original run back in the ’90s—the new iteration of Animaniacs on Hulu drinks from the faucets of pop culture and the political zeitgeist to pile on the non-stop laughs. Manic siblings Jacko, Wacko, and Dot return to the Warner Bros. lot to wreak havoc with songs parodying reboots—their own included in fabulously meta ways—and to point out how drastically the world has changed since their final episode aired in 1998.
The years, however, haven’t tamed Pinky and the Brain’s hunger for power—the pair of rodents is still trying to figure out how to take over the world. The pervasive presence of digital technologies and social media in the modern world create new avenues for them to pursue their life’s purpose. The “zany to the max” cartoon sharply comments on the implosion of the entertainment industry into rehashed IP, and repurposes mythology and historical events to mock, among other timely items, Trump at every chance they get. Their triumphant return to our screens, now on streaming for our insanity-ruled reality, couldn’t be more welcomed. — Carlos Aguilar
8. I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You has been one of the few shows appearing on critics’ best TV of the year lists across publications, across countries, and across demographics. Deservedly so—Coel’s limited series finds ineffable personal depth and an astounding amount of levity as it watches a young, successful, Black, London-based writer navigate, examine, and recover her daily life after being raped. The show hinges on Coel—the writer, co-director, and star of this semi autobiographical journey—but it gives breathing room to each of its characters, walking with them through gray situations that can turn dark and brutal in an instant. I May Destroy You doesn’t leave you in any set amount of time. It’s simmered with me through all of 2020, causing rewatches and rereadings, as well as encouraging me to research every interview Coel has given while attempting to understand and reckon with her lucid, year-altering creation.
It’s been reported that Coel (rightfully) declined a $1 million offer from Netflix in order to retain full rights ownership for the series. With I May Destroy You, Coel imprinted herself and the seemingly (and sadly) endless stories of sexual assaults and their honest impact on television and the culture of 2020. The BBC 1 and HBO comedy-drama fills that billing with hilarity and atrocity paired from one moment to the next, as Coel consistently creates reflection for audiences and characters alike. It pushes narrative, emotional, visual boundaries with nearly every decision, from its view of publishing to trauma to dating to law enforcement to social media. In any year, the series would be vital viewing. In 2020, it should be mandatory. — Michael Frank
The idea of a dystopian universe, its glum inhabitants, and a violent godhead—or at least a set of similarly unpleasant, fin de siècle–sensitive plotlines with scowls to match—is an overused television trope as of late (Watchmen, Westworld), and one with varying degrees of success in regard to all things solipsistic and desolate. That said, U.K. author and filmmaker Alex Garland—author of The Beach, screenplay writer of Danny Boyle’s film adaptation, and breakout director of Ex Machina and Annihilation—does it right, does it fresh, and with just enough smug, British haughtiness to make the location and the circumstances of its characters sing.
A chilly, future-focused Silicon Valley tech corporation looking to empower-enhance-destroy the planet, a blank-faced set of women (Sonoya Mizuno and Allison Pill) focused on forwarding or thwarting said goals, a suicide that starts the continuously eerie action off properly, and an enigma at the front of the line (Nick Offerman portrays the CEO with a subtle twitchiness) all come together, cattily, with Garland in control. FX called this a “limited series,” and maybe it did say all it had to. Then again, Garland is so breathlessly in love with his own words and elegantly creepy twists (and rightly so), I’m certain something could be whipped up in the name of Discrete Event System Specification. — A.D. Amorosi
6. The Last Dance
Being a kid in the ’90s, the NBA always felt so two-dimensional to me—none of my favorite players existed outside of my basketball card collection or a brief weekend appearance on Inside Stuff. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I discovered that what went on behind the scenes in the league was nearly as exciting—if not more so—than the social media era’s headlines centered on the league’s stars and peripheral characters’ extracurricular lives, from the all-too-common tragedies of substance abuse issues, sexual assault cases, and post-career foreclosures, to, more specifically, one of Madonna’s alleged exes mysteriously dying at sea.
It was a bit surreal, then, to watch over eight hours of off-court footage in The Last Dance—in a way, the candid scenes of the MJ-era Chicago Bulls in locker rooms, at practice, on buses, and out in the world felt akin to Peter Jackson improbably bringing WWI back to life in its revelation of unknowingly captured reality. The focal point of the series always seemed to be the decades-spanning drama among the team’s marquee-name players and how personally they took things (not to mention a handful of new anecdotes to shed light on the enigma that is Dennis Rodman), but there’s just as much appeal for the side plots starring Scott Burrell and Jordan’s septuagenarian entourage. Last Dance is the perfect synthesis of reality TV, cultural history, and sports documentary with a conclusion that could make any Utah Jazz fan tear up. — Mike LeSuer
5. How to With John Wilson
I lived in New York for almost three years and never gave a second thought to scaffolding, even though the so-called temporary structures crept up half the city’s buildings like rigid cobwebs. The appeal of How To, an HBO docuseries produced by Nathan for You’s Nathan Fielder (his absurdist fingerprints are all over it) lies in this sort of strange and unexamined universe. In a pre-pandemic New York City, filmmaker John Wilson shot, narrated, and co-wrote all six half-hour travelogues, deceptively billed as tutorials on topics like the history of scaffolding, cooking the perfect risotto, plastic furniture covering, and making small talk.
Wilson is an anthropologist in the grand tradition of David Attenborough, whose subjects aren’t birds of paradise but rather NYC weirdos. His camera fixates crudely on the city’s overflowing piles of trash, dirty street corners, and nutty folks who haunt the avenues and subways; oftentimes Wilson captures moments of fleeting poetry, like when a Ronald McDonald balloon deflates pathetically in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade or a paramedic stumbles on his way out of an apartment, causing a body to nearly slide off its stretcher. Wilson conducts interviews with many gadabout citizens—and like Nathan Fielder, somehow maintains a straight face (or voice, since we never actually see John’s face) throughout. Though initially focused on the anticipated topics, the episodes trend toward the personal, winding up in unexpected directions depending upon John’s whims.
In the series finale, coronavirus hits: news stations begin to track the virus and Wilson’s camera ambles through grocery stores to find people waiting in endless lines with stuffed shopping carts. He worries about infecting his elderly landlady, and regrets taking too long to perfect the risotto intended for her. Miraculously, John rallies in the end, connecting everything he’s learned over the course of the preceding episodes to this pandemic: it has changed our routines forever, he admits, but New York is resilient. —Anya Jaremko-Greenwold
The cringe factor is so high on this series—about uber-realistic, awkward middle schoolers in the aughts—that I avoided finishing the first season for months, and kept putting off the second. But it’s worth sticking with, because season two of the beloved Hulu dramedy takes everything that was great about the first season (romantic obsession, a slow-burn divorce, an end-all-be-all best friendship) and adds more flavor in the form of new activities. The girls join the wrestling team! The girls join the school play! In a standout episode, the girls become witches!
Many viewers saw themselves in the closeted pubescent Gabe (Dylan Gage), just beginning to come out to himself but terrified of others learning his secret, as well as in Maya (Maya Erskine), doing much the same thing but about her own menarche. This season also introduced the series’ first true villain, Maura (Ashlee Grubbs), an emotionally volatile, maniacally manipulative rich girl whose antics most adults wouldn’t even attempt. But if you can stomach and survive her, you might actually come out a more empathetic person, which isn’t something you can say about most half-hour sitcoms (or hour-long dramas, for that matter). — Lizzie Logan
3. Ted Lasso
From the desk of the man who wrote smart-ass comic classics such as Scrubs, Spin City, and the altogether too-brief run of Whiskey Cavalier (Bill Lawrence) comes a weirdly warm—even touching—sports comedy starring Jason Sudeikis in a bushy mustache. Sudeikis in a mustache is always good—a rubbery face with big eyes, the authority of a baritone voice topped with that awkward bushiness, poring over something he knows little about with unerring confidence.
Hired to manage the AFC Richmond soccer team in the U.K., but knowing near-zip about the sport, the league, or even the country, really (he’s from Kansas) all makes for dumb, awkward laughs on Lasso. But as an optimistic nice guy trying to make his marriage work by putting oceans between he and his wife while rising above a club owner looking to sink her team, Sudeikis’ Lasso is a tender-hearted and -footed sweetheart as apt to yank on the heartstrings as he is the funny bone. — A.D. Amorosi
2. The Queen’s Gambit
It’s tricky to evaluate art during a global health crisis—inevitably, the ways in which the world has been reshaped by COVID-19 affect our views on entertainment so that a pandemic gem could very easily be forgettable in more precedented times. Scott Frank’s The Queen’s Gambit excels as quarantine programming: Orphaned prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy, a pro at letting deep emotion through the few cracks in a steely facade) lives mostly inside her mind, taking tranquilizers and watching chess matches unfold on the orphanage ceiling at night.
It’s this solitary obsession that drives and empowers her to chart a path out of misery, traveling the world by virtue of her wits alone—and in a time when feeling like a shut-in is the norm, it’s particularly cathartic to watch someone manifest an exciting exterior life entirely on the strength of their interiority. But one gets the sense The Queen’s Gambit, adapted from Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name, would have connected in the Before Time, too: At its core, it’s an underdog sports story and coming-of-age tale rolled into one, in which Beth ultimately comes to realize she can’t just rely on her own mind—she needs the support of a community to make it, as do we all. — Scott Russell
1. Normal People
It’s all there in the title: This is a tale of normal people, albeit two people far more beautiful than you or I could ever hope to be. Daisy Edgar-Jones’ Marianne tops her Bambi eyes with a curtain of raven bangs, and Paul Mescal’s Connell is far too often clad in short shorts and a silver neck chain encapsulating some sort of gruff, working-class sensuality; but they’re basically like the rest of us, flushed with classic twenty-something anxieties over intimacy and identity.
The Hulu series, based on a breakout book by millennial author Sally Rooney, follows a pair of Irish teens who graduate high school, enter college, and travel through Europe. The connective thread is Connell and Marianne’s tenuous romance, which ebbs and flows across the years, marked by sex scenes so intimate you’ll nervously tick down the volume on your laptop, plus one career-making monologue in which Mescal’s Connell accidentally lets slip the protective coating over on his soul during a therapy session.
There’s a devastating truth at the center of this narrative: no matter how much you love another person, sometimes you’ll be unable to express it properly. Some of life’s greatest tragedies stem from misunderstandings or withheld confessions, and by the time Marianne and Connell finally realize their connection is fragile as a bird’s egg but no less precious, we are left to wonder if it isn’t too late. First loves are rarely built to last. —Anya Jaremko-Greenwold