TV has rarely been more central to our lives than it was in 2020, when it suddenly became a lifeline to sanity during quarantine as well as a window on the sheer chaos of the past year. And given that we’ve seen nearly everything on “small screens” ever since the start of stay at home orders, I should note that I’m defining “TV” here as episodic series, multi-part stories, and/or one-shot programs never intended for theatrical distribution, starting with:
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Good Lord, what a great show, swinging easily from comedy to heart-stopping suspense while showcasing the strongest acting and writing currently on television (not to mention one of the most complicated, multidimensional depictions of an adult romantic relationship I’ve ever seen in any medium). On the surface, “Better Call Saul” is a “Breaking Bad” prequel about the lawyer who one day winds up working for drug dealers and how he got so shady — but at this point, that’s like saying “Citizen Kane” was just a movie about a guy who liked sledding. And while the scary, soul-destroying cartel machinations are a big part of the drama powering Vince Gilligan’s masterpiece, the most harrowing suspense has always been the question of whether the perfect chemistry between a pair of misfits too smart for their own good (America’s sweetheart Bob Odenkirk and the astonishing Rhea Seehorn) can survive a deeply imperfect world — or whether it even should.
2. Her Effortless Brilliance: A Celebration of Lynn Shelton Through Film and Music (YouTube)
In a year full of death where so many couldn’t even gather in person to mourn together, this intimate, socially distanced special released online in the scary early weeks of the pandemic not only celebrated the life and work of filmmaker Lynn Shelton (sadly and unexpectedly cut down at 54 not by COVID but rather a rare blood disorder) while also serving as a representative time capsule of grief and resilience in the face of tragedy.
3. PEN15 (Hulu)
The premise (a pair of adults playing pubescent versions of their younger selves alongside actual teenagers) sounds almost too gimmicky to work — but somehow it all comes together in “PEN15” thanks to sharp writing and a fantastic ensemble anchored by Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. Their performances are committed, layered, funny, bizarre, and specific enough to feel universally relatable for anyone who was ever an awkward adolescent (particularly during the show’s spot-on drama club season finale).
4. RAMY (Hulu)
The films and TV shows I’ve see about contemporary Muslim life are few and far between, so this series by creator/star Ramy Youssef would have been revelatory in any case. Yet my curiosity quickly shifted to binge-watching thanks to the sharp, funny, occasionally relatable, sometimes cringe-inducing storylines about a New Jersey millennial and his family and friends grappling with faith and immigrant life in modern America — and bonus points to Laith Nakli and Steve Way, stealing every scene they’re in as, respectively, the protagonist’s unlikely MAGA uncle and a white friend grappling with MS.
5. I May Destroy You (HBO)
Leave it to the Brits (and creator star Michaela Coel) to provide one of the most layered examinations of rape, abuse, consent, guilt, and responsibility of the #MeToo era — all without losing track of the messy, complicated humanity of its central characters. Plus, setting aside the core themes of gender, race, and class dynamics, it also features one of the most accurate depictions of life as a working writer since “Can You Ever Forgive Me?”
6. Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV/Comedy Central)
The final January to April season of this beloved, instant classic sitcom almost seems like a pleasant, half-remembered dream before waking up to the hideous realities of 2020. Maybe that’s why the ending where everybody got exactly what they wanted felt a little more bittersweet than it might have played in 2019 — though it’s hard to begrudge such a talented, open-hearted cast (including living comedy legends Eugene Levy and Catherine O’Hara) a happy send-off for a show and ensemble who brought so much joy to the world.
7. Late Night with Seth Meyers (NBC)
I needed a whole lot of political comedy to keep me sane over the course of the past four years in general and throughout 2020 in particular. And for me, Meyers and his “Closer Look” segments were the gold standard, consistently eviscerating Trump and his cult of toadies, cultists, and co-conspirators with brutally precise comic venom. Plus, while “SNL at Home”, the “Parks & Recreation” reunion, and Bill Maher in particular came up with some especially fun, creative solutions to keep broadcasting during the early days of the pandemic, nothing surpassed the surreal performance art of “Late Night”‘s supporting cast of inanimate objects (and, occasionally, Ethan Hawke).
8. Fargo (FX)
If this relentlessly entertaining 1950s mob war epic had played out as the firstseason of Noah Hawley’s tribute to the films of the Coen Brothers, it probably would have ranked much closer to the top of this list. Yet by now we’ve already had three seasons of the “Fargo”-verse’s homicidal weirdoes, unexpected heroes, startling deaths, shifting alliances, and otherworldly elements (like the fourth season’s ghostly sea captain). And even taking such a high quality show for granted is tough when it’s so packed with great performances and sharp observations on race and the yin-yang intersection of crime and the American dream.
9. GIRI/HAJI (BBC/Neftlix)
Packed with the balletic violence and operatic drama of classic Asian crime cinema, this endlessly entertaining tale of a Tokyo detective (Takehiro Hira) seeking his fugitive brother (Yōsuke Kubozuka) before he’s gunned down by warring yakuza families is high level escapism and a total gas. Extra bonus points to creator Joe Barton for providing the great Kelly Macdonald with her best role in ages and the fantastically bizarre dance number in the final episode.
10. THE QUEEN’S GAMBIT (Netflix)
Though it didn’t quite stick the landing with a memorable ending, neither did it unravel with a completely ludicrous one (I’m looking at you, “The Undoing”) — and along the way, Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’s novel about a troubled prodigy somehow managed to make 21st century Americans care about chess again thanks to a killer opening episode, great performances from Isla Johnston as a sullen young prodigy and Bill Camp as her mentor, pretty darn good performances from everyone else (including Anya Taylor-Joy as the grown-up version of Johnston’s character), and midcentury style to burn.
Wild Cards (potentially list-worthy 2020 shows as yet unseen by moi): Picard, Search Party (Season 3), The Good Lord Bird, Big Mouth, The Mandalorian (Season 2)
Honorable Mention (and/or list-worthy shows/seasons that came out prior to 2020 unseen by moi until now): Babylon Berlin (Season 3), The Good Place (final season), High Maintenance (season 4), Real Time with Bill Maher, Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Survivor: Winners at War, Saturday Night Live, Akwafina is Norah from Queens, Unorthodox, My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name, Rosehaven, Waco, Pale Horse, Undone, The Crown (season 4), The Amazing Race
Gave It A Shot, Then Gave Up:
Avenue 5, Lovecraft Country, We Are Who We Are, #blackAF
Can’t Believe I Watched the Whole Dumb Thing:
And, Again, Seriously…How Dumb Was The End of The Undoing?
SPOILER-ISH ALERT: I mean, okay, among other things…so, the murderer just walked home through the streets of NYC carrying the murder weapon? Then went home with it, then drove it miles away to hide it on their own property because…why? And another person found it and didn’t say anything? For months? Knowing the murderer was a murderer but not acting like they knew that until the very, very end because…why? And the murderer revealed very deeply incriminating information about a deep, dark secret from their past at dinner one night because…why? If said murderer was as calculating as they’re supposed to be, then why would they have revealed the info? Or if they admitted the secret because of long-simmering guilt or emotion…then how does that track with them supposedly having no guilt or emotion? Plus, the plot also required two highly respected professionals to suddenly turn out to be INCREDIBLY BAD AT THEIR JOBS for the finale to work. (And, as a friend pointed out, the prosecutor who was fine showing a kid pictures of his dead mother’s bashed-in skull got all morally outraged by the defense putting the boy on the stand and talking gently to him?) Feh. I say feh.
By Andrew Osborne