It’s pretty wild to think about the year in television for 2020. There were a lot of concerns about the content pipeline drying up, and it ultimately never did. Most likely, this is capitalism at its worst, but there were also a number of projects completed or nearly completed before the pandemic started. This was a solid movie year under the circumstances but a spectacular year for television. I have 24 shows on this list, and they represent the gambit (pun not intended) of broadcast, cable, premium, and at least five different streaming services. One show even jumped from one streaming service to another.
24. Bob’s Burgers
As it turns out, this is the last entry I decided to write about. I cannot believe we’re talking about a show being as consistently funny yet gentle for 11 damn seasons. This is a lovely show and one that has helped anchor Fox’s animated line-up for all these years. I don’t know that the highs have ever reached the best of The Simpsons, but I find myself continuing to want to watch the adventures of the Belcher family and haven’t watched a current Simpsons episode going on two decades.
23. A Teacher
As a teacher myself, I wanted to hate this show because it was yet another story of an illicit affair. Credit to Hannah Fidell for creating a nuanced piece of storytelling, one that humanizes both individuals but gives Eric Walker the last word. The last episodes where Walker gives her former teacher and lover the whatfor has stuck with me these last couple days. This show also proves that the half hour form works well for dramas as well as comedy. I can’t imagine trudging an hour every week with a show like this. Kate Mara and Nick Robinson give great individual performances but are great together too.
22. Big Mouth
One of Netflix’s best shows dealt with a major change in its fourth season as Jenny Slate was removed as the voice of the bi-racial Missyand was replaced by Ayo Edebiri. The show told a very interesting story about racial identity and made it a focal point of the season. Slate never should have been near the role anyway, but the creators did make the right call. The show really straddles the line between funny, gross, and emotionally devastating. It’s almost a shame the show is too risqué because I think teenagers could get a lot from what this show says about puberty and being in middle school/high school
21. Bojack Horsemen
Coming at the beginning of the year usually means it’s easy to be forgotten. This is not a show that should ever be forgotten because it really respond to the anti-hero narrative in the best way it knew how, by forcing Bojack to be held accountable for the stupid things he’s done. Bojack ends up in jail, and a lot of the people in his life simply move on. I’m not sure the final season totally works, but I really appreciated how they visually rendered depression and constantly experimented with the animation format. Even its weakest season thematically was still an important 2020 watch.
20. Star Wars: Clone Wars
I wasn’t prepared to enjoy anything Star Wars, especially after hating Rise of Skywalker. However, just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in with a wonderful final season that ended the narratives of the original characters. Some of the events run concurrently with Revenge of the Sith, but it’s told from the perspective of the clones and Ashoka Tano. I genuinely believe Tano is one of the greatest characters in this universe. She is allowed to have so much more depth than even a lot of the characters from the films. It was a fitting place for her to end, and the final scene got me more emotional than I was expecting.
19. The Good Lord Bird
Come for Ethan Hawke’s wild performance as John Brown. Stay for Joshua Caleb Johnson’s performance as lead character Onion. This shows some of the real life events that helped lead to the Civil War. Brown is portrayed as kind of a lunatic white savior with his heart at least somewhat in the right place, but he misgenders a Black boy for the entire series…and it somehow doesn’t come as bad as it looks. 2020 was the year of the great limited or miniseries, and this was another example, one that may not get the attention because it aired on Showtime instead of HBO or Netflix. If you’re an Ethan Hawke, I would argue this is an essential piece of his filmography.
18. Lovecraft Country
It’s hard to discuss this show because there is such a wide quality divide. The first episode is utterly spectacular and perfect. The second episode is a complete disaster, and anyone who threw in the towel was justified. Eventually, things settled down and some episodes were excellent and powerful. HBO once again did a better job educating people about the Tulsa massacre of 1921 than your educational institute ever did. Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollet anchor the show and should walk away from this being huge stars regardless of the show’s creative success. There are certainly some problematic elements which have been addressed in other places, especially with the awful treatment given to some darker skinned and Asian characters. Nonetheless, this was a solid summer watch, and the highs were really high.
17. I May Destroy You
Many critics fell in love with this show, and you’ll probably see it placed higher on a lot of lists. One thing is for sure. Michaela Coel is a really important contemporary voice as both a writer and performer. This is not an easy show but one that deals with important issues of consent. This was also a half hour drama but had some moments of comedy and experimented with form in the final episode. This show feels like Coel trying to take back her own agency. I admire this show in a lot of ways more than I enjoyed it week to week. This was definitely an important show as a response to the Me Too movement.
16. The Boys
I have seen two seasons and 16 episodes yet still can’t identify how good this show is. It’s excessively violent, occasionally darkly funny, and yet this show is so confident in what it is. I think season two was even more confident and introducing Aya Cash as Stormfront was a brilliant addition. It’s an anti-hero superhero show that works. I would love for us to be able to shift away from most R-rated superhero projects (Superheroes are supposed to be for kids!), but this is an exception because of its approach and the fact that isn’t entrenched in the Marvel or DC universes.
One thing I love about the show is that Issa is afraid to write messy. She writes and acts the main character as someone who is constantly trying to get her life together but just can’t. She had struggled with professional success in the first few seasons and was finally able to find some of it only for her relationship with her best friend Molly to deteriorate. The honest and real way Issa and Molly’s relationship was represented is why it made this list so high. Issa’s romantic life has been a lot of the personal focus, and even though it was a factor, it felt good to watch the show stretch its legs. I’m always excited when this show returns as it’s a favorite of my Sunday night viewing.
14. The Mandalorian
Season one of this show is fine. Season two elevated this into something much more important, for better and worse. I have mixed feelings about the season’s ending, but it was thrilling to see Timothy Olyphant as a guest star or Bill Barr discussing New Republic politics. It was clear Jon Favreau had even more of a budget to work with. I think this show benefitted tremendously from the week to week release as we got to see the building of Baby Yoda memes and focus on each episode as an interesting piece of storytelling. I still feel as though Star Wars is in danger of eating its own tail, but I almost think moving away from Grogu and focusing on Mandalore will make for an even more enriching seasons three and four.
13. Better Things
I’m not going to say auteur theory is legitimate, but Pamela Adlon has carved out a smaller corner of the television landscape. I’m happy that Louis CK’s early involvement in the show didn’t prevent this from having further seasons. I would say CK not having a voice has made the show stronger as Adlon has gone even more internal and created a better sense of continuity. The show is not strictly a comedy or drama but exists in a nebulous space. Regardless of tone, I appreciate the personal aspects and like the weekly viewing similar to Insecure.
This is now a pleasant watch but a great Netflix limited series. Shira Haas’s performance is worth seeing on its own merits as she plays a woman who lives in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn, New York. Haas as Etsy wants to try and explore her own dream of music in another country. I am definitely someone who likes watching shows and movies with a religious bent, so this was always going to be a miniseries I checked out. This did not disappoint and was ultimately another excellent limited series in a year full of them.
11. The Plot Against America
Another show that might not be the easiest watch but this directly deals with a potential harrowing scenario. Imagine an America where a fascist plays off fears of an other in order to consolidate power. This probably sounds a bit too close for comfort. David Simon has created a number of projects for HBO, and it’s hard to even say where this ranks in his personal pantheon, but this was a powerful piece of television at a time when I was hesitant to even watch this because of the hellscape that was America 2020.
Hank Azaria could have easily created a funny riff on baseball announcers and run it back for a number of episodes before running out of steam. I give him and the other writers credit for constantly trying to expand the world and to never return to what’s safe and easy. Amanda Peet was a co-star in season one but then only made sporadic appearances through the rest of the series. The fourth and final season turned Brockmire into a father, portrayed baseball as a rapidly aging game with little relevance for people, and America deteriorating because of a pandemic and climate change. Yes, this a comedy, but the show hits on important issues. It’s fascinating to see so many shows explore their anti-heroes and hold them accountable. The story of this show is Brockmire becoming a better person as the world around him gets worse.
9. High Fidelity
The movie version is legitimately one of my ten favorite films ever made, but I knew a non-white dude playing Rob Gordon could add some much needed nuance to the role. Zoe Kravitz was done dirty in Big Little Lies, but here she gets to let loose, be funny, and be messy. I’m angry this show got cancelled after one season because I wanted to see more from Rob Gordon. I especially wanted to see Cherise’s character get a showcase episode and an exploration of her love life as we did Jake in season one. It’s a shame a show as good as this didn’t survive the purge of cancellations.
8. Harley Quinn
This is a truly remarkable piece of television because it takes a character who started out in animation and not only expand who she is as a person, but allow her to become a survivor who pursues a queer relationship with Poison Ivy. This was a hidden gem on a basically defunct streaming app. I’m not sure a lot of people realize this is even on HBO Max. I don’t like the fact that it’s so adult, but this show really worked. It allowed for an emotional investment and got away from the huge stakes of so many superhero shows and movies. I’m glad this show got a third season, but even the first two seasons work as a complete story.
7. Ted Lasso
What a wonderful relaxing piece of television this is. Bill Lawrence and Jason Sudeikis created an underdog sports television show, something that probably shouldn’t have worked, yet it does. I talk about emotional investment, and I think that’s the biggest reason a show works. In an era of 500 shows a year, Ted Lasso was pleasant, 10 30 minute episodes, and actually made me feel better about the world. This show might be the biggest miracle on the list because I wasn’t a huge fan of this character or the sport. It speaks to the quality of writing that Lasso is able to be softened yet still be a full character.
6. The Crown
I never thought a show about British royalty could ever make me feel anything. The idea that a country could still have kings, queens, dukes, and whatever else is absurd. Season four of The Crown takes all the characters we developed a liking for and reveals them all to be monsters based on their treatment of Diana Spencer. We know this story doesn’t have a happy ending, but there is a cruelty on display here that I only think a streamer like Netflix would allow for. I also like that these episodes stand on their own although there are also ongoing storylines too. I’m very much dreading season five but am impressed by the performances, production design, and writing.
The way I would describe this show to someone is imagine if Deadwood, The Wire, and Hustlers had a child. There is a tremendous use of language that feels authentic to the area (one that I’m familiar with) in Mississippi. Katori Hall has been given an unbelievable chance thanks to Starz, not just to tell this story, but to help other creators tell theirs as well. There is a unique sense of language and we get to see the stories of working class sex workers. In some ways, I think the character ambitions don’t totally work. It’s hard to be all things for all people. I walked away from this show thinking I wanted to see a second season but also feel it’s important to see more stories of sex workers being regular people and not just abused or damaged.
4. What We Do in the Shadows
This might be the most purely comedic and pleasurable show on the list. Season one was funny, but season two had two of the best episodes of television I’ve ever seen. One is about Colin Robinson, a mostly supporting character who gets a great showcase. Then there was episode six. Two words. Jackie Daytona.
3. The Queen’s Gambit
Another underdog sports show with a warm heart and a kind center. The Queen’s Gambit is a showcase for the writing of Scott Frank and another star making turn for Anya-Taylor Joy. It makes chess look really interesting and shows one of the most interesting mother/daughter relationships ever portrayed on-screen. The show also deals with addiction in interesting ways too. A theme of this list is shows that very pleasurable to watch and this was another one.
2. Better Call Saul
Okay, maybe this show isn’t pure pleasure, but it’s about time I finally saw this show and its predecessor Breaking Bad. I spent 2020 watching and podcasting about it. I’m glad it took most of the year and not just a couple weeks. It was really important to be able to take some time and really process what I was seeing. The fifth season has a lot of great showcase moments for Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Sheahorn. We also got to see the characters become more entangled with the drug dealers. I don’t think individual episodes stand out as much, but as a whole, this worked as a penultimate season of television, and I can only imagine what the sixth and final season will bring us.
1. Normal People
I think this is not only one of the best shows but also one of the horniest. Paul Mescal and Daisy-Edgar Jones have a wild chemistry that is somehow able to make you want to see them be together but also witness their lack of ability to emotionally connect. This is an extraordinary show because of how it treats the characters. It straddles the line between comedy and drama. In so many ways, this is the ultimate 2020 show because it aired on a streamer and strived to be more of a singular story as opposed to a series of individual episodes. I hope we don’t ultimately see a second season and that this show lives on as a one season miracle. This show did find some popularity because it premiered shortly after the pandemic sent us all into our homes, but I wish it reached Tiger King levels of popularity.