Even without a pandemic, 2020 would have still felt like a strange year for television. While the second season of The Mandalorian tried to deliver event-level twists to Disney+ subscribers on a weekly basis, it was no comparison to the way Game of Thrones or Mad Men used to keep us hooked: The way we all talk about television is incredibly different than it was 10 or even five years ago, as audiences try to balance multiple streaming services and release strategies in the age-old pursuit of simply finding something fun to watch after a long day.
But that doesn’t mean some truly great TV wasn’t made and delivered over the last 12 months, and yes, I waited this long to compile this list to be sure there were no stragglers. Some housekeeping notes: This list is limited to scripted series which released the bulk or entirety of their episodes in 2020 (which is why some phenomenal shows like The Good Place and I’ll Be Gone In the Dark were omitted). And while, in the grand tradition of end-of-year lists, this is an official Top 10, there were 10 other shows I felt necessitated giving an honorable mention for various reasons, as described below.
The wonderful thing about television is that as an ecosystem, it’s constantly evolving to embrace new strategies and ideas across multiple platforms — but, at the end of the day, it’s always about telling the best stories, making us laugh or cry or scream or think. It’s also a deeply personal experience, because these are the stories we invite into our homes. These are the stories which live within us. So it will not at all shock me if you disagree with some of the below choices. But these were definitely some of the year’s best.
10. The Baby-Sitters Club Season 1 (Netflix)
This wasn’t just a great show for young women, but a great show about young women. Creator Rachel Shukert, in adapting Ann M. Martin‘s iconic book series for Netflix, found ways to make the premise feel modern despite some of its more dated trappings while packing the scripts with wit and relatability, and casting directors Danielle Aufiero and Amber Horn deserve a damn Emmy for finding Sophie Grace, Malia Baker, Momona Tamada, Shay Rudolph, and Xochitl Gomez, a lively and charming ensemble who felt real and grounded in every moment. Young people deserve more shows like The Baby-Sitter’s Club, that aren’t afraid to take on serious issues and also embrace the power of female friendship. Hell, we all do.
9. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
There were so many fascinating aspects of Mrs. America — the detailed production design, the bold choice to largely focus a story about trying to pass the Equal Rights Amendment on the women who thought it was a bad idea, the incredible performances from a packed ensemble including Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Kayli Carter, Ari Graynor, Melanie Lynskey, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Jeanne Tripplehorn, Tracey Ullman, and Sarah Paulson. But, eight months later, what really sticks in the mind is how creator Dahvi Waller managed to capture the rage felt by so many in the 1970s on so many levels, and remind us how said rage is the fuel we need to change the world. Never forget that decades later, there are still no legal protections for women’s rights written into the Constitution. There’s plenty else to be mad about right now, but that’s still not a bad reason to get angry.
8. Ted Lasso Season 1 (Apple TV+)
A warm hug of a show that seemed to have surprised many, Ted Lasso has slowly but surely become celebrated as The Show We Needed In 2020. And you know what? Yeah, we did need it. Star Jason Sudeikis and executive producer Bill Lawrence proved the theory that a show about a good guy can still be great TV, made Americans care about the other kind of football, and gave us all a massive craving for Ted’s special biscuits. Nice doesn’t have to be boring, and maybe it can even make the world a better place. Ted and his mustache proved that nimbly.
7. Legends of Tomorrow Season 5 (The CW)
I have a habit of referring to Legends of Tomorrow, while it’s airing new episodes on The CW, as The Only Good Show On Television. Because, well, sometimes it is — name another show that, in one season, can throw a Shakespearean bachelor party, fight zombies, mash together John Carpenter and John Hughes, go full John Woo for an episode, literally transport its characters into the worlds of Star Trek and Friends… and also deliver emotionally devastating character arcs like the departure of Ray (Brandon Routh) and the alternate reality hijinks that led to a tragic decision about the fate of two Zaris (Tala Ashe, whose dual performances in Season 5 were instrumental to the series). It takes a lot of hard work to make a show feel this fun, which is why Legends of Tomorrow isn’t just the best Arrow-verse show — it’s one of the best of the year. (Also, it has the best episode titles, pretty much ever.)
6. Normal People (Hulu)
To borrow an insight from Collider managing editor Adam Chitwood, few shows have ever captured what it’s like to be in love like Normal People does, and thanks to the incredibly sensitive and brave performances of stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, we got to see what true emotional intimacy looks like. Marianne and Connell’s love story is deep but complicated, and the direction by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald leans into every nuance possible, finding ways to break our hearts along the way.
5. Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC)
This might be the weirdest show in a Top 10 list featuring shows about football hooligans and animated superheroes (ooooh, spoiler alert for later down the list), and Dispatches From Elsewhere leaned hard into that weirdness. The small ensemble is staggering in its talent, from Sally Field to Richard E. Grant to Andre Benjamin to breakout star Eve Lindley, but if you didn’t connect with what proved to be a very personal series from creator/star Jason Segel about, ostensibly, a very strange game being played on the streets of Philadelphia, then that’s totally fine. However, for those who might have been craving a story about whimsy, and magic, and impossible friendships that bloom into so much more, Dispatches was a powerful and surprising escape of a series, one I genuinely hope people continue to discover.
4. Harley Quinn Seasons 1-2 (DC Universe/HBO Max)
In all the drama surrounding 2020’s new crop of streaming services, there was at least one happy ending: Warner Media transferred Harley Quinn from DC Universe to HBO Max, allowing millions more subscribers the opportunity to enjoy the pure chaotic energy of this incredibly funny and wild show. The most important thing about Harley Quinn, though, isn’t its irreverent takes on classic characters, the non-stop onslaught of meta jokes, or its brilliant voice casting. It’s that it’s a show that isn’t afraid to dig into every angle of its relationships — especially the bond between Harley and Poison Ivy, the sort of relationship which so many lesser shows would punt around actually addressing. Harley Quinn, though, said screw that, and took Harley and Ivy seriously as a couple, while also making sure that Harley’s relationships with others were grounded
3. I May Destroy You (HBO)
Most TV is a collaborative effort, but then every once in a while you get a series where one voice gets a chance to really speak. And that’s what I May Destroy You creator Michaela Coel was able to achieve with her 12-episode limited series, which took on trauma from a deeply personal POV and created something haunting and beautiful and sad and above all else, powerful. Whatever Coel does next, it feels very clear that it’ll once again change the way we think about how stories can be told on television.
2. BoJack Horseman Season 6 (Netflix)
In some ways, it’s hard to say that BoJack Horseman really stuck the landing with its final batch of episodes, but that’s because it made a choice which, the more I think about it, feels truly brave: It didn’t really try to end. The dark journey of BoJack Horseman, washed-up sitcom star turned prestige actor turned… well, a whole lot more things… concluded with a degree of emotional denouement for nearly all its characters, but it also left so much unsaid, left so many questions unanswered, and in doing so let this story breathe like something alive, something that’ll live on in our imaginations.
1. Better Call Saul Season 5 (AMC)
So many of us were completely flummoxed by the fact that Season 5 of Better Call Saul was almost entirely ignored by this year’s Emmys — mostly because this was, once again, the best season yet of the show. That’s what happens when a series is allowed to draw upon its past to grow even brighter and better, building on what came before to continually blow our minds with explosions both massive and subtle. (How, in a season which brought us a completely unleashed Lalo, did Kim become the most terrifying character on the show? Honestly still not sure, but will never stop thinking about it.) The calm deliberation that creators Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan bring to each episode is like watching a masterpiece being painted in front of you in real-time, and while it’s sad to know that Season 6 will be the last, the journey is one we’ll forever cherish.
The Boys Season 2 (Amazon)
President Obama and I agree, this was a really fun season.
The Great Season 1 (Hulu)
Nicholas Hoult didn’t get an Emmy nomination for his work here, and thus the Emmys are now canceled forever.
The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)
More a gothic romance than a ghost story, and the more haunting because of it. Especially that ending.
I Hate Suzie (HBO Max)
If you haven’t seen Billie Piper fall apart over the course of this brilliant season of television, then you haven’t seen one o the year’s best performances.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet Season 1 (Apple TV+)
Perhaps better on an episode-by-episode basis than it was as a whole, but delivered a brilliant ensemble cast that felt like they’d been working together for years, and some of those episodes were damn good.
Star Trek: Discovery Season 3 (CBS All Access)
By leaping forward hundreds of years in the timeline, Discovery freed itself from the burden of being a prequel and finally found its own voice within the Trek universe. Also, all hail Grudge.
A Teacher (FX on Hulu)
Quietly devastating and daring and uncompromising.
The biggest issue with Unorthodox is that unlike a lot of limited series, it really just feels like a long film cut up into installments. But as a whole, it’s a beautiful piece of work.
Upload Season 1 (Amazon)
Creator Greg Daniels let this story about digital life after death get surprisingly weird and existential, while building a world I’m glad will continue to be explored in Season 2.
What We Do in the Shadows Season 2 (FX)
Sometimes, great TV takes time to really find its voice, and this second season really found a way to let this ensemble speak, shout, and sometimes sing. Jackie Daytona forever.
What’s next for Wonder Woman?
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