With so many TV shows to choose from on broadcast networks, cable channels and various streaming services, there is no shortage of dramas and comedies – and those that are a mixture of the two – which means that there’s also no shortage of great storytelling. Even in the midst of a pandemic, while production shut down for some time, there were still plenty of stories already lined up and ready to go.
As someone who watches a large portion of the TV shows that are available, I like to highlight the stand-outs each year, but keep in mind that just because something isn’t on this list, it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t deserve to be. It just means that with so many TV shows featuring so much talent, and with so many places to watch them, I can’t possibly watch all that there is, which means that I not only likely miss some good ones, but some great ones also slip through the cracks. Given all of that, here are my selections for the Best TV of 2020.
[Editor’s note: The following contains spoilers for the shows discussed.]
No show in 2020 made me laugh, cry and smile more than Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. From creator Austin Winsberg, it’s a show that brings a sense of magic to each episode, but also a fair sense of heartbreak to balance it out. And while I worried that it would be hard to watch a show where the lead character has a parent who’s dying, having lost a parent myself, what I found was a sense of appreciation for all of the good memories that I have.
The NBC series follows Zoey Clarke (Jane Levy), a computer coder who suddenly finds herself with the ability to hear the innermost thoughts and desires of those around her — whether family, co-workers or complete strangers — in the form of popular songs that are often accompanied by full-on performance numbers. Her world is populated by a variety of colorful and quirky characters, whether family, friends or co-workers, who all have their own heart song that needs to be sung, and I am grateful that we’ll get to continue to see their lives evolve in Season 2.
Best Comedy Series: Ted Lasso
Here’s something you should know about me: I don’t care about football, whether American or English. I don’t care about it, in any way, shape or form. That’s why the depth of my love for Ted Lasso is so crazy and so well-deserved. I have to say that I was admittedly reluctant to watch this new comedy series, but finally had enough folks whose taste I trust push me over the edge in deciding to give it a try, and I am so glad that I did.
The Apple TV+ original series, which had already been picked up for Seasons 2 and 3, follows small-time American college football coach Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis, who’s also a co-creator, writer and executive producer), as he’s hired to coach a professional soccer team in England. Despite having no experience coaching soccer, the perpetually glass half full Lasso manages to break through, not only with the team of cynical players, but also with the owner (Hannah Waddingham) who hired him with her own ulterior motives, the staff, the press, and the rather prickly fans. Everyone in the cast brings their own blend of humor and quirkiness, and while Sudeikis brings an undeniable charm and likability to the title role, the supporting ensemble is truly top-notch, with Juno Temple (who plays the famous for being almost famous Keeley Jones) as a true MVP.
Best Drama Series: The Flight Attendant
The eight-episode HBO Max streaming series The Flight Attendant follows Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco, who’s also an executive producer), a flight attendant whose life is such a mess that when she wakes up in a hotel with a dead man (Michiel Huisman), she has no idea what happened and has to start trying to put her life back together. Without all of the pieces to the puzzle, she turns to friends (Rosie Perez, Zosia Mamet) family (T.R. Knight), and a hitwoman (Michelle Gomez) who develops a soft spot for her, but also finds her life in danger, making the situation more than she ever could have imagined.
The Flight Attendant was a surprising delight, as it laid out the twisty-turny thriller that took its title character on quite the roller coaster ride back through a bad childhood, a history of alcoholism, and an inability to commit to much of anything. Its tightly spun mystery, surprising reveals along the way, and a love story that can’t ever actually go anywhere since one-half of the relationship is already dead, made for a fun ride of discovery, as Cassie learned that she wasn’t anywhere near the person that she hopes to be.
Best Lead Female Performance: Kaley Cuoco, The Flight Attendant
Kaley Cuoco is fantastic in The Flight Attendant. It really is as simple as that. Her character, Cassie Bowden, makes terrible decision after terrible decision, but you just can’t help continuing to root for her. She’s a mess that wakes up in a hotel room with a dead man that she originally met on one of her flights, and then finds her life in danger even though she has no idea what happened, and only has a mental manifestation of said dead guy to try to unravel what’s going on.
Cassie is the good time girl who’s blocking out some deep childhood trauma, the best friend who doesn’t really understand what it means to be there for someone else, and the sister who you don’t really want to leave in charge of your kids, but even with all of those faults, you still want her to figure it out and save herself, which is testament to the skills of Kaley Cuoco. And like any good thriller, the story gave answers will asking new questions, setting up very interesting possibilities for a second season that I have no doubt Cuoco will step up and deliver on.
Best Lead Male Performance: Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso
As a co-creator, writer and executive producer for Ted Lasso, actor Jason Sudeikis won over this non-sports fan with his performance as a good guy who just wants to help make people better. Heartwarming, funny and laced with hope, Lasso finds himself smack dab in a cynical world that threatens to stamp out his undying positivity, every chance it gets, and yet he still doesn’t let that get him down.
From the bond between the Diamond Dogs, the biscuits he brings the boss lady on a daily basis, his own family issues, and the myriad of strong personalities that make up the AFC Richmond UK football club, Lasso manages to survive it all. And even though I had a good cry more than once while watching the season, I always had a smile on my face and a heart filled with joy, thanks to the life that Sudeikis breathes into the role.
Best New Series: Upload and P-Valley
From creator Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Rec), Amazon’s futuristic comedy series Upload is set in a technologically advanced world where humans can be uploaded into a virtual afterlife when they are clearly on the path to their departure. When Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) is forced to make a quick decision about his fate, after a self-driving car accident, he makes the choice to be uploaded into the highly sought after Lakeview, where he meets his customer service guide (Andy Allo) and the two form an unlikely friendship in this new digital realm. While its sad that this series will not continue, as its cancellation has already been announced, we do have one beautifully crafted season that we can rewatch, anytime we’d like to be reminded that there is some good in the world.
Katori Hall is an exciting voice in storytelling, which was highly evident in the first season of the Starz series P-Valley. Tearing down the “stripper with a heart of gold” trope and instead giving them purpose, agency and full lives, she reclaimed the power of the pole for women whose personalities are as big as their platform heels are tall. Set deep in the Mississippi Delta at The Pynk, the series also gifted viewers with one of the most fabulous characters of the year, with genderfluid club owner Uncle Clifford, gloriously played by Nicco Annan, who is constantly trying to work enough magic to keep the doors open and the club family together.
Best Breakout Performance: Jordan Kristine Seamón, We Are Who We Are
From showrunner Luca Guadagnino (Call Me By Your Name), the eight-episode HBO series We Are Who We Are tells the story of two American teenagers who live on a U.S. military base in Italy, exploring all of the messy emotions that come with being 14 years old. When the shy and introverted Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) meets the bold and confident Caitlin (Jordan Kristine Seamón), he finds someone that he can connect with, in a way unlike anyone else in his life.
The support system that the two characters find in each other and their mutual desire not to be boxed in or defined in any one way has such a deep sense of honesty to it. As these two teenagers explore their sexuality and identity on the road of self-discovery, it’s remarkable to keep in mind that the actress behind Caitlin is a 17-year-old making a debut that excites me about what she could do in a wide variety of projects.
Best Revival: Perry Mason
From showrunners Ron Fitzgerald & Rolin Jones, and executive produced by Robert Downey Jr. & Susan Downey, the HBO series Perry Mason, which has already been renewed for Season 2, is set in 1931 Los Angeles with Perry Mason (Matthew Rhys) as a private investigator struggling to make ends meet. When the case of a kidnapped infant with a $100,000 ransom comes his way, Mason turns to his right-hand man Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), attorney E.B. Jonathan (John Lithgow) and E.B.’s legal secretary, Della Street (Juliet Rylance), for help in answering the growing list of questions surrounding the crime.
Thankfully more Chinatown than Law & Order, the series is absolutely gorgeous to look at and has nearly 90 novels to pull from for future seasons. One of the things I’m most looking forward to with Season 2 is a deeper dive into Officer Paul Drake (Chris Chalk), a beat cop with a gift for investigative work which upsets the racist and corrupt police department where he works, primarily for the simple reason of being both Black and good at his job.
Best Genre-Busting Series: Lovecraft Country
From showrunner Misha Green (Underground) and based on the novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, the 10-episode season of the HBO series Lovecraft Country was one heck of a genre-bending roller coaster ride of wild character journeys, important historical moments, white privilege, and monsters that were both literal and metaphorical. Taking a bold and provocative look at racism and the Black experience in America, the season followed Atticus (Jonathan Majors), as he traveled with his childhood friend Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) and his uncle George (Courtney B. Vance) across 1950s Jim Crow America in search of his missing father Montrose (Michael Kenneth Williams). And while the pulp fiction aficionado found dangers lurking at every turn, he also learned that when tested, he would meet the moment.
Best Limited Series: Devs
From creator/writer/director/executive producer Alex Garland, the FX on Hulu limited series Devs follows software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno), as she tries to investigate the ultra-secretive development division of the cutting-edge tech company that employers her, following the murder of her boyfriend (Karl Glusman). As Lily gets in deeper and the extent of Amaya CEO Forest’s (Nick Offerman) commitment to the Devs project is pushed to the limit, the success of the company’s covert work is threatened, which could result in dire consequences for everyone.
What I liked best about Devs is that it’s a thought-provoking exploration of life and death, mortality and morality. There are no clear answers and no happy ending, tied up with a big red bow, but there is a lot to ponder, which in this case does seem like the best ending.
Best Musical Series: Julie and the Phantoms
Whether it’s the teenage girl looking to rediscover her love for music after the death of her mother, the adorable boys who are really ghosts that died 25 years prior, the incredibly supportive relationship between best friends, the adorable family dynamic, or just the undeniably addictive original songs, any one of those things would have gotten me to tune into the Netflix original series Julie and the Phantoms, but this new series has it all. It’s also left me anxiously awaiting a second season (which has not yet been ordered), to not only learn about where the story would go next, but to hear how things would evolve musically.
From showrunners Dan Cross and David Hoge and director/executive producer Kenny Ortega (High School Musical), the nine-episode, half-hour show follows high schooler Julie (ultra-talented 16-year-old newcomer Madison Reyes is definitely a powerhouse to watch) who’s still reeling from the loss of her mom when the ghosts of three musicians from 1995 — Luke (Charlie Gillespie), Reggie (Jeremy Shada) and Alex (Owen Joyner) — suddenly appear. Their passion for music reignites her own and as they start to write songs together, they quickly realize that while they’re performing, they’re a little less ghostly and can be seen and heard.
Best YA Series: Never Have I Ever
From co-creators Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher (The Mindy Project), the Netflix original comedy series Never Have I Ever is a charming coming of age story about the complications that come with being a modern-day first-generation Indian American teenage girl, and figuring out where you fit in when it comes to the drama of high school. Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is an academic overachiever who falls short when it comes to romance, but who has two best friends, Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) and Eleanor (Ramona Young), by her side through everything.
With characters that are easy to fall in love with, a family story at its core, all the fun drama you’d want from teenage romance, and John McEnroe as a narrator, there is no shortage of things to relate to and identify with, no matter your age and background. And while Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is a newcomer, actually being a teenager and an obvious sense of confidence and comfort in her own skin make her compelling to watch.
Best Nostalgia Series: Fraggle Rock: Rock On!
Available to stream at Apple TV+, the beloved stars of the classic ‘80s TV series Fraggle Rock – Gobo, Red, Boober, Mokey, Wembley and Uncle Traveling Matt – braved the new COVID guidelines and got back together for some new mini-episodes. Doing their own social distancing from different caves, the Fraggles were able to show their audience that even though you may have to be apart, you can still be connected through friendship and have fun together, through music and interactions with silly creatures (aka humans), all with the help of Doozertubes created by the tech savvy Doozers.
Even though the six episodes were each only a few minutes in length, which is not nearly enough when you’re a longtime Fraggle Rock fan, I was grateful to see that the energy and spirit was recaptured with ease. That fact has moved the reboot of the classic series up to the top of my most highly anticipated list and I will always welcome more of these uniquely fabulous characters.
Best Docu-Series: Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom
Produced by National Geographic and narrated by Josh Gad, the eight-episode docu-series Magic of Disney’s Animal Kingdom provides a backstage glimpse into the animals that live at Disney’s Animal Kingdom Theme Park in Florida, as well as those living in The Seas with Nemo & Friends at EPCOT. Throughout the season, viewers get unprecedented access and a peek behind the magical curtain to see how the more than 5,000 animals from more than 300 species co-exist with the animal care experts and Imagineers to create a one-of-a-kind experience for guests. With a spotlight on the animal doctors, experts and care specialists, as well as Disney Imagineering visionary Joe Rohde, who recently announced his retirement, the real stars of this docu-series are the animals who each clearly have their own personalities.
Best Podcast Turned Series: Song Exploder
Based on the acclaimed podcast of the same name, and from host Hrishikesh Hirway and Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville, the Netflix original series Song Exploder features some of the world’s greatest musicians, as they talk about their songwriting process and how they brought one of their hit songs to life. With interviews, archival footage, and raw recordings, the viewer is allowed an intimate and personal look behind the ideas, music and lyrics that come together to make a memorable song.
Vol. 1 of the series features Alicia Keys, Lin-Manuel Miranda, R.E.M., and Ty Dolla $ign, while Vol. 2 features Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, The Killers, Dua Lipa, and Natalia Lafourcade. No matter how familiar you are with the artists and their music, and whether you know ever word to the songs or you’ve never heard them before, Song Exploder excels at giving you a glimpse into the magic and a peak behind the curtain, and you will never listen to the songs the same again.
Character I Most Want to Have Their Own Show: Haley Fitzgerald, The Undoing
If I were ever in need of a high-powered lawyer who expertly gets things done, I would absolutely want to hire Haley Fitzgerald from the HBO series The Undoing. This powerhouse was brought to life by the fantastic Noma Dumezweni, who just doesn’t take any shit from anyone, no matter who they are. As an actress, the Harry Potter and the Cursed Child star undeniably held her own, going toe-to-toe with Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant, as they played Grace and Jonathan Fraser, a couple with a seemingly perfect life until revelation after revelation brings life-changing secrets out into the light upon a brutal murder that leaves Grace to question everything. Dumezweni was on fire in each and every scene she was in, which not only made me want to see her cross-over with other characters who could use her help on other shows, but it also made me very curious what a night off might look like for Haley Fitzgerald.
Best Ensemble Cast: Warrior
From showrunner Jonathan Tropper and executive producers Shannon Lee (the daughter of Bruce Lee, who wrote the original treatment that inspired the series) and Justin Lin, the Cinemax drama series Warrior is an action-packed story set during the Tong Wars of San Francisco’s Chinatown in the late 19th century. The show follows martial arts prodigy Ah Sahm (Andrew Koji), who emigrated from China and is trying to find his place in a new country while making a name for himself, but quickly finds the bonds of family, both blood and chosen, pushed to the limits in this new world.
One of Warrior’s greatest strengths, apart from its exhilarating fight scenes, is its ensemble cast. With no weak links, and comprised of actors that range from veterans to newcomers, each character has a full life that it feels we’ve only just begun to learn about with two seasons. And while it’s sad that the fate of this series is up in the air, I hope people continue to discover and take a chance on this world and the characters that populate it and give it life.
Best Final Season: Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Seven seasons is a long run for any TV series, but during the age of Peak TV, it’s something to be truly proud of. Marvel’s Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. started out as a seemingly straightforward show about human S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in a world where superheroes exist, until it threw in space, time travel, Chronicoms, Life Model Decoys and any number of other unexplainable things, and forced the team to step up and save each other and the world, multiple times over.
The final season of this series managed to remind fans why they fell in love with these characters in the first place, push them all to the limits, and still give a sense of closure by showing what life beyond these last episodes looks like for each of them. And while it’s bittersweet to say goodbye, the feeling that life will continue to go on for these characters does give a satisfaction that few shows get to have anymore.
Best Comic Book Series: The Umbrella Academy Season 2
When it comes to The Umbrella Academy, just because you’ve stopped the apocalypse, it doesn’t mean that you’ve actually saved the world. Jumping time and finding themselves scattered in and around Dallas, Texas, over a three-year period starting in 1960, has disrupted the timeline and started a doomsday clock. As this motley crew works to reunite with each other, figure out what caused the nuclear destruction, find a way to put a stop to it, and return to their present timeline, they must survive assassins, romantic relationships, and a number of other oddities, if they’re going to rebuild their family and make it out alive.
The world of The Umbrella Academy is a strange and unusual one made up of odd characters who are bound together by the father that took them all in. But when the end of the season throws even that into complete upheaval, it certainly made me glad to already know that we have a third season to look forward to, in order to see how it plays out.
Best Villain: Homelander (Antony Starr), The Boys
Homelander in the Amazon original series The Boys is an interesting character. He’s a famous superhero with all-American charm and a cape that is literally the American flag, but he’s also a deeply narcissistic sociopath that may be fun to watch on TV, even though in reality the depth of his depravity would be truly frightening.
It really says something that a certain portion of the U.S. population has taken to dressing up like this sadistic racist at their rallies, but it also shows the timeliness of the story being told and the character at its core. And thank god for how all-in Antony Starr has gone with the role and for bringing Homelander to life in all of his depraved glory.
What’s next for Wonder Woman?
About The Author