The 20 Best TV Shows of 2020: From ‘Jeopardy!’ to ‘I May Destroy You’
A “Schitt’s Creek” farewell, thirtysomething women pretending to be 13, and the best damn strippers in the Dirty Delta: Kevin Fallon gives his picks for 2020’s best TV.
What is there to say about TV in the year 2020?
It was our closest friend and most valued confidant, rescuing us from pandemic despair and loneliness, alternately charming and challenging us as we weathered the Groundhog Day of ennui and angst these last months. It was also our biggest enemy, beaming footage of that candy corn-colored demon and his incessant tantrums into our living room 24 hours a day.
The truth is, at a time of isolation, TV is what kept us connected, whether it’s texting, tweeting, and Zooming with friends about popular binges or providing us with an intimate lens on the ground at one of the most consequential and invigorating times in modern history: alongside the activists in the Black Lives Matter protests and in support of the essential workers fighting COVID-19.
Despite being stuck in the same place for so many months on end, it’s hard to shake the feeling that things are changing. They’re changing culturally and they’re changing in the industry. The explosion of streaming services is as big a disruption as there comes to Hollywood. The successes and failures of all that new content is one story. What it’s meant in terms of the diversity of experiences finally being reflected and voices being heard is another, a tide-shift inextricable from the movements of the moment.
Form and what it means to “be” TV is also fundamentally changing. The rise of streaming services and the pandemic-induced fall of movie theaters has blurred the lines when it comes to what’s a standard TV movie, what’s a streaming-release film, and what’s a movie that was meant to be in theaters but became a streaming movie because of current circumstances.
Then there’s projects like Amazon’s Small Axe. Is it an anthology of films, or a TV anthology series? It’s all so subjective and ambiguous that we didn’t include any movies, anthology or otherwise, on this list—which also meant skipping the amount of live theater that found its way onto TV screens. (Though you should absolutely watch What the Constitution Means to Me, David Byrne’s American Utopia, and Hamilton immediately.)
It’s been a year of seismic shifts, all happening while we’ve been in stasis. Yet it was unexpectedly fun to put together this list. While I’d argue it’s an unimpeachable ranking, you’ll probably disagree. And maybe that’s what we can most look forward to once this year is up: it being OK to disagree again.
20. The Crown (Netflix)
The arrival of Princess Diana (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) brought more attention than ever to Netflix’s ever-sumptuous, ever-dishy, “Royals! They’re Just Like Us!” drama. While the performances themselves proved divisive, the storytelling was more salacious than ever before, which was gratifying for viewers even as it threw a panicked Parliament into a cold sweat. Certain members recently pleaded with Netflix to add a disclaimer explaining that the show is a fictionalized telling of events. I’m not sure any fans were fooled into thinking that what they were watching was documentary, but that Prince Charles and Queen Elizabeth’s rows with Diana ignited such passions shows that the series, with its audience rabid to finally be watching the Lady Di years, delivered.
19. Search Party (HBO Max)
While telling the same, increasingly tangled and twisty story, each season of Search Party has showcased a markedly different tone and feel. Millennial satire gave way to murder-thriller, with this year’s season three transforming into a dark courtroom comedy and dissection of the media’s true-crime fascination. That the reinvention works is owed to some of TV’s sharpest, most observant humor writing, not to mention the fact that its core Scooby gang of hapless hipster narcissists are some of the most specific and recognizable characters on TV—gloriously unlikable in ways that are rarely allowed anymore.
18. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
A triumph for fans of chess, a top moment for fans of big-eye acting, and a judicious, confident binge for exhausted TV enthusiasts who just want a good story told swiftly and with closure, The Queen’s Gambit exemplified what streaming services do when they’re at their best, but which Netflix had recently been flailing at. There was something calming about its cadence and predictability; you could fall asleep watching one episode, wake up 90 minutes later and really not have missed much, something I swear I mean as a compliment. As is unsurprising when a mostly male creative team dramatizes a young woman’s spiral breakdown, there was a lot of mess to be exasperated with. But everything else was so meticulously styled and captivating that you wind up forgiving a lot in the pursuit of enjoyment.
17. Jeopardy! (Syndicated)
Thirty-six years after Alex Trebek first started hosting Jeopardy!, the game show mattered more than ever. For people held captive in their homes for most of the year, nightly viewings of Jeopardy! became a nostalgic, sentimental tradition. At a time when “misinformation” and scandal ruled, this was a show about facts and stability. The show has been immensely popular, too. A special The Greatest of All Time tournament airing in primetime at the beginning of the year produced the kinds of ratings ABC—or any network, for that matter—just doesn’t get anymore. And of course, Trebek’s passing in November brought an urgent focus to the show and his impact. His last filmed episodes will air the first week of 2021, a heartbreaking, must-see swan song for someone who himself was the Greatest of All Time.
16. Normal People (Hulu)
It was the show with all the sex. There is, of course, a lot more to Normal People than just that, but there’s no underselling how vital the sex—and all the nudity!—is to the devastating intimacy of the series. Newcomers Paul Mescal as Connell and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne manage to trap you inside their psyches as they work through their emotional and psychological hang-ups. When you throw in the frank and passionate sex scenes, the result is a look inside a relationship so voyeuristic that it’s as uncomfortable as it is titillating. Something this moody and quiet about tortured love isn’t—and wasn’t—for everyone. But something about its vibe provided a respite from the more chaotic dramas you’d find elsewhere on TV this year.
15. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
There’s no underplaying the timely importance of Mrs. America, an event series that dramatized a pivotal decade in the women’s rights movement, when second-wave feminists and activists in the '70s fought to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in 38 states—something that only happened this last year—while a vocal contingent of conservative women lobbied to stop it in its tracks. The major talking point was Cate Blanchett’s calculated and complicated performance of anti-feminist figurehead Phyllis Schlafly as part-ambitious, part-monster, part-misunderstood, and part-opportunist. But the sweep of Mrs. America, which cut between Schlafly’s efforts and those of crusaders like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), gave an invigorating, hippie-cool vibe to a subject matter rarely afforded such kinetic on-screen treatment.
14. Insecure (HBO)
When Insecure finally returned for season four this year after a longer-than-usual 18-month hiatus, it was the source of joy fans desperately needed during the pandemic’s traumatizing spring. But it was also a source of pain. Reflecting just how richly this show and its characters have matured, the central tension of the season was the changing relationship between Issa (Issa Rae) and her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji). The long and slow dissolution of their friendship was so painful to witness because it was all-too-real: the idea that, as you get older and change, you must decide who you still hold space for in your life. The series’ filmmaking also rose to the level of its writing, producing some of the most gorgeous storytelling about Los Angeles, about love, and about this journey of Black female friendship.
13. Schitt’s Creek (Pop)
Not since Team U.S.A. gymnast Kerri Strug finished her vault has there been so many tears over someone sticking the landing. The final season of the heartwarming little-show-that-could hit every emotional note that its devoted fans hoped for and, it turned out, needed. Who could have predicted that the series’ last episodes would air during some of the scariest times of our existence, reminding of the power of love, acceptance, growth, and family when we needed to receive it the most? The beautiful last episode was an ode to happy endings, a “we see you” moment to fans of the show who have been so moved by its depiction of David and Patrick’s (Dan Levy and Noah Reid) relationship—a promise that, no matter how it may feel now, a happy ending is in the cards for them, too. And let’s not forget that Catherine O’Hara’s Moira Rose likely ranks among the greatest comedy creations of all time.
12. Better Things (FX)
Creator and star (and director and writer) Pamela Adlon has called her very personal FX series “The Big Feelings Show,” and I’m not sure if there’s ever been a time more attuned to Big Feelings than now. The reason Adlon’s approach is so resonant with Better Things, in which she plays a single mom working in Hollywood while raising her three daughters, is because of the gravity and weight she gives to the small life moments that a person needs to weather just to get through the day. Those small moments don’t typically get the dignity they require, especially in these fraught times. The episode “New Orleans,” in which Sam takes a break from her family to go to a wedding in Louisiana, is so bursting with heart, love, and significance of connection between family and friends that, especially if you watched when it aired in April at the beginning of stay-at-home orders, you may have been rendered inconsolable by the sheer emotion of it all.
11. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
As Donald Trump’s bangs away on Twitter in protest of the presidency-ending election results, it becomes official that no series on television handled life under his administration as elegantly or deliciously as The Good Fight. When it premiered in 2017, it was one of the very first scripted dramas to incorporate Trump and his real-world scandals. Its abbreviated season four, which aired this spring, carefully calibrated the feelings of delirium and lunacy that accompany a four-year existence spent tethered to the Trump news cycle. And, my god, find me another show so bold as to not just tackle the Jeffrey Epstein conspiracies in its finale episode, but move in such a, um, phallic direction while doing so.
10. The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix) & Saved By the Bell (Peacock)
This is the only entry on this list that sneaks two shows into one slot—I can practically feel Mary Anne Spier’s disappointment in me for cheating—but it’s too hard to choose which tween-and-teen-aimed nostalgic revival to include. Both took properties whose popularities peaked three decades ago and found ways to modernize and make them fresh while never losing sight of what it was about them that was so beloved in the first place. The approaches slightly diverge; Baby-Sitters Club sticks to extreme earnestness while Saved By the Bell filters Bayside High through a meta, digital-age satire. But each deepens and renders poignant the experiences of its characters by, in a rare move in the world of reboots and remakes, having respect for the emotional intelligence of the young audience they’re meant to serve.
9. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Ted Lasso is every bit as delightful as you’ve heard. It turns out that “niceness” is factoring heavily into the list of this year’s best shows, and being nice is Ted Lasso’s whole thing. The unflappably upbeat American coach played by Jason Sudeikis greets the fool’s errand at which he’s set up to fail—taking the reins of a British football (soccer) club despite not knowing a thing about the sport—with a genuine certainty and optimism that unsettles everyone he interacts with. It’s the most aggressive “is this charming or annoying?” character since The Office’s Michael Scott, but Sudeikis is so winning that he’s impossible to resist. Before you know it, you’re crying over a fictional British soccer game—the 2020 twist none of us saw coming.
8. P-Valley (Starz)
When there’s this many TV networks, streaming services, and shows, it’s rare for a project to emerge that truly feels like something you’ve never seen before. Of course, that speaks to the monolithic, exclusionary nature of Hollywood and the stories it chooses to tell. And it’s why the arrival of P-Valley this year was borderline rapturous—ecclesiastical diversity, agency, and sexual power delivered from a pulpit at the top of a stripper pole. Katori Hall’s equal parts gritty and slick series took the backdrop of a Dirty Delta strip club and used it to create a noir melodrama about the ambitions and struggles of Southern Black women, told through their own gaze. That, and it boasts one of the year’s most interesting, not to mention groundbreaking, scene-stealing characters in Nicco Anan’s gender-noncomfirming den mother Uncle Clifford.
7. The Great (Hulu)
The rumor that Catherine the Great had sex with a horse is so undeniably ludicrous that it turns out to be just about the cleverest entry point yet into dramatizing the story of the ruler’s rise to power in Russia. Taking that rumor at face value—tantalizingly salacious, anachronistically ribald, obviously untrue—seemed like somewhat of a mission statement for Hulu’s unexpected The Great. It spun that ethos into a period drama that is refreshingly, perhaps revolutionarily, and maybe even realistically cheeky. Lavishly styled, delightfully crude, and blessedly breezy, it was the definition of a romp, boasting two of the year’s strongest performances in Elle Fanning as Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as the petulant imbecile Peter.
6. Unorthodox (Netflix)
A detailed cultural character study coupled with elements of an international chase thriller, Unorthodox may have been the biggest surprise triumph of the year in TV. Series lead Shira Haas gives a monumental performance as Esty, a teenager made to feel so suffocated and claustrophobic by the expectations and, more so, limitations placed on her by her Brooklyn community of ultra-Orthodox Jews that she risks everything to break free and run away to Berlin. The bliss she feels as she discovers an internationally diverse group of new friends and starts to learn who she is as a woman is counteracted by the terror of her husband and his cousin in hot pursuit. What will happen if she’s caught? It’s an extremely intense, but also rewarding viewing experience.
5. The Real Housewives of Potomac (Bravo)
If you’re surprised to see a reality show, let alone a Real Housewives entry, on a list of the year’s best series, then I demand to know how you gained access to a time machine from 2011 when that kind of discourse was still remotely relevant. These series have become masterpieces of TV editing, their stars have become breakout comedians in a meme-crazed world, and the content is in-step with the broader issues of the real world in ways much of scripted television can’t cover. The recent premiere of a Salt Lake City-set season may have been the most universally praised episode of Real Housewives ever. But it is The Real Housewives of Potomac, anchored by an explosive physical altercation between two cast members, that has bordered on a perfect season of reality TV, centering that scandalous fight into a fascinating conversation about friendship, trust, anxiety, and, most importantly, race and what it means to be a Black woman in the public eye.
4. How to With John Wilson (HBO)
Why is there so much scaffolding in New York? How do you cover an armchair with plastic? What’s the perfect recipe for risotto? These are seemingly innocuous questions that John Wilson asks in his HBO docuseries, threads that he tugs at and then follows as they wind along to unexpectedly profound revelations about what it means to be a human alone in a city teeming with people like New York. I’ve made the comparison to those Sesame Street mini-documentaries that would air in between Elmo’s screeching and the fun songs, but for adults: transfixing, informative, and illuminating. And while you’ll notice that the industry’s various, messy attempts at COVID programming are entirely absent on this list, How to With John Wilson may rank this high entirely because of how understated, heartbreaking, and triumphant its season finale’s surprise departure into pandemic content was.
3. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
There is perhaps no TV genre more common than the “friends hanging out together” comedy. There’s also no genre that’s harder to get right. When the formula hits in the exact right way—the chemistry is there, the dialogue is sharp, the vibe feels different enough yet also pleasantly familiar—there’s nothing better. I will say, however, that What We Do in the Shadows is likely the first and only time the “friends hanging out together” also happen to be vampires. But the glibness of that sentence is inherent to the show’s genius, a matter-of-fact treatment of something that should be outrageous. They cycle through your run-of-the-mill sitcom hijinks—hilarious misunderstandings, the stress of throwing a party, taking a road trip—but it’s all shaded with the extra layer of comedy born out of the preposterousness. They’re vampires!
2. PEN15 (Hulu)
People were shocked to find that the first season of PEN15, in which creator-stars Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves as 13-year-olds in the year 2000 opposite a cast of age-appropriate tweens, was so much richer than the SNL-like gimmick it appeared. While relentlessly awkward and funny, the show revealed the scars and trauma we carry from battling the behemoth feelings of life at a time when our still-growing hearts are so fragile. Season two plunged even deeper into all of that while expanding its scope outside Maya and Anna’s friendship, showing how their mothers deal with the extremity of their emotions and also shining a spotlight on a classmate named Gabe (Dylan Gage), who is starting to realize that he might be questioning his sexuality—as nuanced as that particular journey has ever been portrayed. It’s a surprisingly rich emotional tapestry, decorated with gel pens.
1. I May Destroy You (HBO)
You’ll see I May Destroy You at the top of many critics’ best-of lists, and that’s exactly how it should be. What creator and star Michaela Coel accomplished with the series is nothing short of miraculous. It’s intensely personal, yet universal. It’s provocative. It’s necessary. It’s dangerous and unexpected. The series was inspired by Coel’s own experience being drugged and sexually assaulted at a bar, forced to piece together what happened. It took some fortitude on the part of even her most admiring viewers to watch each episode each week, the rare case when you could tune into a new installment of a TV series and legitimately have no idea where its creator was going to take you. That’s not just in terms of the bold, careening ways it charged into topics like consent, sexual assault, responsibility, and revenge, but in how no one—not Cole’s character Arabella, not her perpetrator, not her friends, not the culture, not the viewer, not even Arabella herself—is let off the hook. In I May Destroy You, pain and catharsis exist in equal measure, a lesson about life that we far too often try to run away from. Michaela Coel wasn’t going to let us get away.