Well, 2020… we’ve had better years as a species, right? However, that’s not television’s fault, and the last several months have featured some very welcome episodic distractions, courtesy of Netflix.
The best shows we saw since the ball dropped on New Year’s Eve featured sexy vampires, sexy reality show strangers, and some very sexy food. They also, though, offered up moving portraits of humanity, raised important issues about race, class, and religion, and did their best to answer some of life’s most important existential questions.
Into the Night kept us on the edge of our seats. Tiger King made our jaws drop. The Chef Show made us hungry. And BoJack Horseman made us cry. Whether you’re optimistic or pessimistic about the future, at least we know there’s plenty to watch while staying safe at home.
24) Middleditch and Schwartz
Look, do you like improv comedy? Do you like Thomas Middleditch? Do you like Ben Schwartz? The answer to at least one of those questions had better be yes, in which case you can hardly go wrong in sitting down with these three specials, featuring the two friends doing long-form improv together. At the very least, it’s a nostalgic reminder of a time when we weren’t afraid to get in a big room and laugh with strangers, and at its best Middleditch and Schwartz does a fine job of showcasing the talents of two top-tier comedy stars, working in a format that truly lets them stretch. – Liz Shannon Miller
23) Dead to Me
You will not find a pair of actors better suited to be together on TV than Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini on Netflix’s Dead to Me. (Ok fine, there’s a strong argument to be made for Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn on Better Call Saul.) Point is, Applegate and Cardellini are one of the most compelling and impeccably performed duos on television, and even when Dead to Me’s second season treads familiar water with less confident footing, they are never less than riveting to watch together. And, cherry on top, they’re often accompanied by the inexhaustibly delightful James Marsden. Season 2 feels more indulgently soapy and less intentional with the shades of grey in its morality, but it’s also often funnier, with the actors fully settled into their ever-uneasy characters. – Haleigh Foutch
Kenya Barris‘ Netflix series comes off as a Black version of Curb Your Enthusiasm crossed with a traditional family sitcom, but presented in documentary form a la The Office. That’s a good thing, because guess what? It really works. The award-winning creator of ABC’s black-ish plays a fictional version of himself in #blackAF and wisely surrounds himself with a talented ensemble led by Rashida Jones, who plays his wife Joya. They may not be the best parents, but they’re a lot of fun together as a couple. Jones in particular delivers an Emmy-worthy performance in this series, and newcomer Iman Benson establishes herself as a young actress to watch as Kenya and Joya’s second-eldest daughter, Drea. Gil Ozeri is another frequent scene-stealer as Kenya’s schlubby white assistant.
However, it’s Barris’ writers’ room where #blackAF truly shines, as it allows him to explore uncomfortable truths about Hollywood and introduce several ideas about today’s racial climate, of which the show has no shortage of thoughts, as evidenced by episode titles such as “Because of Slavery,” “Because of Slavery Too,” and “Hard to Believe, but Still Because of Slavery.” There may be some heavy-handed elements of #blackAF that don’t work for some people, but I thought it did a great job walking a very fine line as a “family” show. Barris has never shied away from tough subjects, and this series allows everyone to both laugh and learn about race in an entertaining way. Don’t sleep on #blackAF, because it just may surprise you. – Jeff Sneider
21) Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous
If you want to have a rawr-ing good time with the whole family, Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous delivers the goods. Set during the events of the first Jurassic World film, Camp Cretaceous follows a group of teens visiting a youth-oriented camp on the other side of the park who have to fend for themselves after the Indominous Rex starts wreaking havoc. The animated series strikes an impressive balance between its family-friendly elements and creature feature set-pieces that get your blood pumping, regardless of age. If you’ve ever imagined what you might have done had you been there for one of the Jurassic movies, Camp Cretaceous the perfect “what if” story to scratch that itch, grounded in characters you actually care about, with hints of that classic Spielbergian awe around every corner. – Haleigh Foutch
20) Ugly Delicious
David Chang was already a juggernaut chef and restauranteur before he became a Netflix star with his cooking shows Ugly Delicious and Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner. But he really leveled up with the second season of Ugly Delicious, which became both more intimate and universal while still being one of the most educational and inclusive food shows on TV. Chang hosts the series, investigating a new culture of food with each episode, merging travel and cooking TV in the fashion of Anthony Bourdain and delivering emotionally-fueled, story-driven insight to the history of the foods we love most. – Haleigh Foutch
19) Julie & the Phantoms
You don’t get many shows meant for a younger audience that take on the idea of life after death so literally, but thanks to some bad hot dogs, the ill-fated boys of a ’90s rock band became central to this surprisingly charming and fun musical romp. Featuring a true breakout star in Madison Reyes, the titular Julie of Julie and the Phantoms‘ passion for music underlies nearly every aspect of the series, thanks to cunning direction by the legendary Kenny Ortega — and the songs are good, especially as performed by cast members Charlie Gillespie, Owen Patrick Joyner, and Jeremy Shada. Throw in Cheyenne Jackson as a demonic figure (who also knows how to softshoe) and you come up with a pretty addictive series that even adults should check out. – Liz Shannon Miller
18) Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
First and foremost, yes there are significant ethical concerns with the Netflix docuseries Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. The entire concept of private zoos is backwards, I feel, and Joe Exotic is less a kooky character and more a genuinely dangerous and bad person. But it cannot be denied that Tiger King took the nation by storm, and there’s something tremendously watchable about how this series was put together. Each episode offers a new twist in the saga of Joe Exotic, and each twist is more insane than the last. It’s up to you to decide how you feel about it when all is said and done, but in terms of pop-culture markers in 2020, Tiger King’s impact is undeniable. – Adam Chitwood
17) Big Mouth (Season 4)
With each season, the characters of Big Mouth get a little older, and like them it feels like the show itself is growing up, maturing and deepening its storytelling. Season 4 found the core group of tweens confronting not just their ongoing development into adults but the psychological issues that haunt us all, especially anxiety as embodied by the tremulous tones of always-brilliant Maria Bamford. From continuing to explore complicated questions of sexuality and family through a number of prisms, to gracefully handling the recasting of Missy, to giving us a peek into a terrifying future apocalypse that didn’t feel totally impossible, this was another great season of a show that feels like it could last forever. – Liz Shannon Miller
16) Too Hot to Handle
Look, are there more sophisticated programming options available on Netflix? Absolutely. But there was something glorious about Netflix taking 10 drunk hot horndogs, dumping them in an exotic location, and then telling them they were not allowed to hook up. While Too Hot to Handle‘s justification for this twist — that all of these nice attractive young people have relationship issues they should explore before leaping to pleasures of the flesh — is well-meaning, the wry commentary from unseen narrator Desiree Burch makes it clear to viewers that the show knows exactly what kind of show it is. Whether or not people are actually able to find “true love” in such an artificial setting is an unanswerable question. But we sure enjoyed watching them struggle with that, as well as their own hormones. – Liz Shannon Miller
15) Never Have I Ever
I, frankly, simply was not prepared for Never Have I Ever. Netflix makes a lot of teen content, some of it excellent (see: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before and The Half of It) and much of it not-so-excellent (see: well, there’s no need to be nasty, but a lot of it,) so I wasn’t expecting to swoon, laugh, and cry – often all at once – over Mindy Kalin and Lang Fisher’s Never Have I Ever. But that’s exactly what I did in a collective swoon/laugh/cry with the rest of the internet as we fell for Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), her family, friends, and Netflix’s boyfriend of the year, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). Bouncing between laugh-out-loud funny ensemble comedy, cringe-worthy and way too relatable coming-of-age awkwardness, and genuinely touching family drama, Never Have I Ever is a special one and if you missed the first wave of buzz, be sure you add it to your watchlist ASAP. – Haleigh Foutch
14) The Queen’s Gambit
Part character study, part sports epic, and all fascinating, The Queen’s Gambit had its ups and downs but there was no denying that star Anya Taylor-Joy proved her ability to captivate us as a troubled orphan chess prodigy whose unapologetic talents for the game become the stuff of legend. Debate has waged amongst the Collider staff as to whether or not writer/director Scott Frank‘s take on Walter Tevis‘s original novel goes off the rails in its final few episodes, but (brace for bad chess metaphors) there’s no denying that we were all pawns trapped by this fascinating tale. According to Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit is the platform’s most-watched miniseries to date, and having seen it — yeah, we get why. – Liz Shannon Miller
13) The Haunting of Bly Manor
I have not been shy in my praise for The Haunting of Bly Manor, which I consider to be one of the best ghost stories told in my lifetime. Sure, it’s techinically an adaptation of Henry James’ seminal “Turn of the Screw”, but Bly Manor weaves together a beautiful tapestry of overlapping ghost stories, to create one grand, gorgeous overarching original tale of hauntings. Reuniting with much of his Hill House cast, series creator Mike Flanagan shares a lot of the writing and directing duties this time around, and yet Bly Manor somehow feels even more cohesive than the first run. Though it’s not nearly as downright scary as its predecessor, Bly Manor is a stunner in its own right, comprised of overlapping love stories, loss, and heartbreak, all culminating in the lush grounds of the Manor. Washed through with shades of purple and blue throughout, tender and emotional in surprisingly gentle ways, Bly Manor isn’t just spooky, it’s lovely – nay, it’s perfectly splendid. – Haleigh Foutch
The first season of Shondaland’s first big Netflix series was a delightful reversal on what we’ve previously seen from period dramas of its like, packed as it was with intimacy of all kinds as well as a few major mysteries. Bridgerton delivered so much sexy drama that it’s almost impossible to talk about other aspects of the show, even though they’re worth talking about — from the incredible production design and costumes, to the engaging young cast, to Julie Andrews embracing the role of Gossip Girl narrator with delicious wit. This was a delightful Christmas gift to us all, and one that will hopefully become a holiday tradition for Netflix. – Liz Shannon Miller
11) Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts
Over the course of 2020, 30 brilliant and beautiful episodes of Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts were rolled out, and frankly we didn’t know how good we had it. There was stunning animation! Original songs! A wildly imaginative post-apocalyptic landscape! Mutated animals! An incredible voice cast that included Karen Fukuhara, Sydney Mikayla, Coy Stewart, Deon Cole, Dee Bradley Baker, Sterling K. Brown, Dan Stevens, Jee Young Han, Lea Delaria, and Amy Landecker! Original songs! It’s sad its run was so short, but I can’t wait to see what that creative team gets up to next. – Liz Shannon Miller
10) Queer Eye
Did you know that human beings have a tremendous capacity for kindness, change, and positive growth? I know these all may seem like foreign concepts these days, but it’s true. And any time I need a reminder of that, I pop on a Netflix episode of Queer Eye, watch that incredible Fab Five work their magic on another human being, cry my damn eyes out, and feel a ton better.
If you’ve not watched the show before, first of all, welcome! Second of all, the show features five gay men on a mission to change people’s lives across the world. We’ve got Antoni Porowski on food and wine, Bobby Berk on interior design, Jonathan Van Ness on grooming, Karamo Brown on culture, and Tan France on fashion (my favorite!). They’re not just focusing on the surface — they get to the core of people’s issues and work on them with gentle, accepting acuity. And in Season 5, they head to Philadelphia for a smattering of utterly human stories, including the makeover of a progressive pastor trying to re-find himself, a dog groomer featuring one of the best bait-and-switches I’ve ever seen on television, and many more. Have plenty of Kleenex nearby and binge until your heart overfloweth. – Gregory Lawrence
9) Into the Night
Netflix’s Into the Night isn’t particularly original in its concept (a mismatched group of strangers have no choice but to band together to survive the apocalypse,) but hey, all the good stories have been taken. At this point, it’s about how you tell them. Into the Night tells its story with efficiency, restraint, and an often surprising amount of soul, taking the familiar set-up and turning it into the hyper-tense base from which it builds a nuanced character drama. Set across six 40-minute-or-less episodes, the series from Narcos producer Jason George spins a tight tale of the strangers trapped aboard a flight together, with no choice but to fly into the… well… night as everything the sun touches is destroyed behind them. Refreshingly to-the-point, Into the Night would rather spend the time confused and trapped in a tube with its ensemble of international everyfolk, each with their own set of biases to overcome, than holed up with the politicians and power players who might have a clue about what’s coming their way. It makes for darn good drama, tightly-crafted thrills, and occasionally, a rather welcome story about having empathy for your fellow humans even when you don’t like them. –Haleigh Foutch
8) I Am Not Okay with This
I Am Not Okay With This isn’t like any other story you’ve seen before about superheroes. Instead, it’s a queer coming-of-age journey that features a beautifully nuanced performance from Sophia Lillis as Sydney, whose frustrations with the world, from school to family to the dreary small Pennsylvania town she’s stick in seem to manifest in bursts of rage that can cause serious psionic damage. Told with a delicate nuance one might expect from an indie darling like Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird (Jonathan Entwistle, who previously directed The End of the F*cking World, directed all seven episodes), I Am Not Okay With This was a low-key charmer that put character first, helping it stand out from both other coming-of-age series as well as the Marvel/DC realm. – Liz Shannon Miller
Yes, yet another it’s yet another Dracula. But this version of Bram Stoker’s classic bloodsucking tale has some delicious, thoroughly modern twists that make it a unique, very new thrill. A BBC/Netflix co-production created and written by Sherlock and Jekyll masterminds Stephen Moffat and Mark Gatiss and structured, like those previous projects, as three feature-length installments, Dracula starts out familiar, becomes slightly stranger, and winds up in a wholly unexpected place, as it chronicles Dracula (an enchanting Claes Bang) and his arrival in the new world. (We’re using broad strokes to avoid spoilers, people!) Some of the big swings don’t necessarily work (the third installment is arguably the weakest), but Dracula succeeds in drawing you into its spell and feeling totally modern and refreshing. Part of it is the performances — in addition to a peerless Bang, Dolly Wells as a gender-flipped Van Helsing and John Hefferman as Jonathan Harker are both unbelievable. Their commitment to the material, no matter how outlandish, roots the project in an emotional truth that acts to ground the oversized, supernatural elements (and some of the more self-referential filmmaking, by slick directors like Sherlock collaborator Paul McGuigan). Compact and easily binge-able, Dracula is spooky, sophisticated fun. If you haven’t watched it now, you might want to save it for Halloween. It’s scary good. – Drew Taylor
6) The Umbrella Academy (Season 2)
Season 1 of The Umbrella Academy was a fun ride, to be sure — but it was Season 2 where the show really embraced the madcap mayhem of its potential, bringing time travel and alternate realities into the superpowered mix. More importantly, the season was able to get much deeper when it came to its characters, allowing new relationships to bloom even while the team was caught up in some epic apocalyptic action. Plus, Season 2 continued the show’s brilliant tradition of great needle drops alongside some stunning fight sequences — there was so much packed into this season, and yet we were still left wanting more (especially after that wild cliffhanger ending). – Liz Shannon Miller
A four-episode miniseries whose short length belies its startling complexity, Unorthodox feels like nothing else you’ll ever watch on Netflix. Based on an autobiography from writer Deborah Feldman, the tale follows 19-year-old Esty (Shira Haas, unreal good), a young woman living in an orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, feeling trapped in an arranged marriage with a young man named Yanky (Amit Rahav, like, also unreal good). Fed up with the stringent demands of such a life, she escapes everything she knows, hopping a plane and heading to Berlin to reconnect with her estranged mother and figure out what a new life can mean in a non-faith-based world. But Yanky, accompanied by his rabbi Moishe Lefkovitch (Jeff Wilbusch, scarily good), isn’t about to let what he believes to be the love of his life and the order of the world go without a fight.
Unorthodox walks such a fine tightrope of exploring universal, impassioned emotions within a highly specific set of life circumstances. If you’re unfamiliar with this culture and community, you will become educated as to how the inner workings of orthodox Judaism can work. But you’ll never feel lost; instead, you’ll feel like your eyes are open, and you’ll immediately identify not just with Esty, but even with Yanky and Moishe. Yes, it’s clear to us from the POV of the show that Esty needs to escape the burdensome clutches of this community and rediscover herself. But it’s also clear, and a testament to the phenomenally empathetic writing of Anna Winger, Alexa Karolinski, and Daniel Hendler, why Yanky needs this community, and why it can help certain people with certain needs. Unorthodox earns its title and then some, representing a shift in the type of stories we can and should be seeing more and more on Netflix. – Gregory Lawrence
Greengrass also talks about why he’s always wanted to make an adaption of George Orwell’s ‘1984’ and why it’s such a challenging project to make.
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