Movie studios had to shelve nearly all their would-be 2020 blockbusters when the pandemic hit, but their partners in the television industry had plenty of product in the pipeline in 2020, ready to deliver to a captive audience of people stuck at home and looking for escapism.
The result was a TV year like no other, filled with offbeat experiments and surprise hits. Some of the shows below were pop-culture sensations. Others were popular on a cult level. Some seemed to slip through the cracks altogether, but are ready to be discovered now, during the holiday downtime). Collectively, they represent the wide range of what television had to offer in 2020, from fascinating history lessons to gripping games to pure, fantastical silliness.
20. Tales from the Loop (Amazon)
Perhaps the year’s most haunting science-fiction series, Tales from the Loop is based on the whimsically surreal work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, and is set in a quaint small town that looks simultaneously stuck in the 1970s and more technologically advanced than the present. The stories bounce between the town’s residents, focusing mainly on the young people who’ve grown up in the shadows of giant robots and mysterious orbs. Some plot elements carry over from episode to episode, but for the most part, this show is like a thoughtful short-story collection, exploring the intersection between advanced tech and human need.
19. Dirty John (USA)
The second season of this true-crime anthology series dredged up the ripped-from-the-tabloids saga of Betty Broderick, convicted in the 1990s of murdering both her ex-husband Dan and the younger woman he’d married. Amanda Peet plays Betty, while Christian Slater plays Dan. They give two of the year’s best performances — her playing a woman who becomes creepily obsessive after she’s jilted by the man she dedicated her life to, and him playing a man who arrogantly punishes and gaslights his ex, just because he can. Series creator Alexandra Cunningham retains all the entertainingly pulpy elements of this sordid tale, but her main focus is on how gender and social status skews the power balance of some relationships.
18. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (Freeform)
Australian comedian Josh Thomas is both the creator and star of this family sitcom, in which he plays a free-spirited gay man named Nicholas who gets stuck taking care of his teenage half-sisters in Los Angeles when their father suddenly dies. The show is partly about how ill-suited Nicholas is to be anyone’s guardian, but it’s really more about the girls, the autistic savant Matilda and the persistently anxious Genevieve (played magnificently by newcomers Kayla Cromer and Maeve Press), and how their vulnerabilities make them more amazing as people, but difficult as wards.
17. Women Make Film (TCM)
In a great year for docu-series, not enough people talked about this outstanding Mark Cousins project, which aired weekly across three months on TCM, always accompanied by dozens of rarely televised vintage and foreign films. In each episode, Cousins breaks down the elements of cinema itself, examining common themes and techniques, while using only examples taken from movies directed by women. It’s a bold, thrillingly successful exercise in canon-busting, proving there’s no reason for scholars to keep referring to the same handful of films when the world is filled with so many varied visions.
16. The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
This miniseries adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning historical novel was a passion project for Ethan Hawke, who co-produced and co-wrote it, and plays a pivotal on-screen role. Based very loosely on the 1850s insurrections of the radical abolitionist preacher John Brown (played by Hawke), the story follows a fugitive named Henry who dons a dress and passes as a girl, joining Brown as he tries to enlist the likes of Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to help his cause. Imaginative, earnest, and at times surprisingly comic, The Good Lord Bird is a wild trip back into the old, weird America.
15. Perry Mason (HBO)
On paper, this reimagining of Erle Stanley Gardner’s crusading defense attorney does everything wrong. It’s an origin story, set in a dark Depression-era Los Angeles, and it tells one story across eight lengthy, very TV-MA episodes — all of which means it has very little in common with the popular ’50s/’60s television show that popularized Perry Mason as a character. But a great cast (led by the soulful, sympathetic Matthew Rhys as Perry, a private detective angling to become an attorney) and some punchy dialogue make this show more fun to watch than the typical prestige cable drama. And it does get one thing right about both Gardner’s books and the earlier adaptations: the use of L.A. as a character, with its diverse population of dreamers and schemers.
14. Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Mindy Kaling’s latest sitcom is her most personal, telling the semi-autobiographical story of a gifted Indian-American high schooler who yearns to be more of a typical teenager, even as her family keeps pushing her to be more conservative and studious. Though based on Kaling’s own experiences, Never Have I Ever has smartly been set in the present, and populated with young characters who think and act a lot like modern kids. The show feels fresh, even when it’s dealing with familiar situations like adolescent rebellion and parental disappointment.
13. Ted Lasso (Apple TV Plus)
Based on a TV commercial — rarely a promising beginning — this amiable fish-out-of-water sitcom was one of 2020’s most pleasant surprises. Ted Lasso’s star and co-creator Jason Sudeikis took the character of a can-do American football coach and gave him depth and heart, while telling the story of how this overmatched guy takes on the unlikely assignment of turning around a struggling English Premier League soccer club. Ted is surrounded by folks who’ve been underestimated for one reason or another. What makes this show such a joy is that it illustrates what happens when these people find a way to value each other.
12. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Each season so far of this legal drama has commented on the absurdity of American life in its particular moment. But season 4 was the show’s most pointed yet, with an extended plot involving a secret government memo that allows the rich and powerful to do whatever they want. Though cut short by the pandemic, this season nevertheless included two classic one-off episodes — a thoughtful “what if” fantasy imagining what would’ve happened if Hillary Clinton had become president, and an investigation into the various Jeffrey Epstein conspiracies. At the same time, the series still underscores the usual The Good Fight message about how social order breaks down when people ignore the law.
11. Young Sheldon (CBS)
For three full seasons now (plus part of a fourth), The Big Bang Theory’s low-key prequel spinoff has been TV’s most undervalued sitcom. The title character — a preteen genius enduring life in a small Texas town circa 1990 — drives a lot of the plot. But the show is just as much about his football-coach dad, his deeply religious mother, his teen lothario older brother, his tomboy twin sister, and his perpetually tipsy grandmother. The accomplished cast keeps the tone from tilting too far into exaggerated caricature. Instead, Young Sheldon is gently funny and frequently moving.
10. Jeopardy! The Greatest of All Time (ABC)
A terrible year actually got off to a pretty great start, thanks to the four days in January when ABC turned over an hour each night in primetime to three of the best Jeopardy! players of all time: James Holzhauer, Ken Jennings, and Brad Rutter. The champs didn’t disappoint, playing the game with a keenness and aggressiveness rarely seen. They made big bets. They playfully taunted each other. And they clearly delighted host Alex Trebek, in what would turn out to be his last year on the show before he died of cancer in November. For a week, these smart and likable folks were the biggest stars on television… just as they always should’ve been.
9. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Often, the Netflix series that become popular enough to be called phenomena are trashy affairs, filled with sex, scandal, and murder. Not so The Queen’s Gambit, the rare Netflix smash hit that’s actually artful, graced with excellent performances, sparkling writing, and a striking look. Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel about a troubled chess prodigy (Anya Taylor-Joy) who rises through the ranks in the swinging ’60s is snappy and stylish, with its addicting underdog-makes-good story dressed up with retro fashions and a rock ’n’ roll beat.
8. The Mandalorian (Disney Plus)
Any worries that The Mandalorian’s second season wouldn’t live up to the high standard set by its first were quickly dispelled by the first episode, which returns to last year’s winning formula: a little Star Wars mythology, some cute Baby Yoda antics, an awesome guest star, and a single mission featuring several masterfully staged and shot action sequences. As the season rolled on, creator Jon Favreau answers some of the fans’ biggest questions, introduces plot elements that touched off spirited arguments, and sends our heroes to some of the galaxy’s most picturesque planets and moons. In short: The Mandalorian remained essential viewing.
7. Better Call Saul (AMC)
In the penultimate season of Better Call Saul, the shady but well-meaning Albuquerque attorney Jimmy McGill takes dramatic steps toward becoming the conscience-free drug-cartel super-lawyer Saul Goodman, who TV fans first met on Breaking Bad. But what really made this the show’s best season was how it began the process of connecting the supporting characters, like Jimmy’s scarily capable colleague Kim Wexler, the scrupulous “fixer” Mike Ehrmantraut, and the gangster frenemies Nacho Varga, Gus Fring, and Lalo Salamanca. The drama’s carefully drawn plotting keeps pushing these broken people into each other’s paths, no matter how much they try to steer clear.
6. The Plot Against America
In Philip Roth’s eerily prescient 2004 alternate-history novel, an anti-Semitic populist becomes the U.S president in 1940, keeping the United States out of World War II and making daily life more difficult for a middle-class Jewish family in New Jersey. David Simon and Ed Burns’ miniseries adaptation follows Roth’s text pretty closely at first, but takes a more cynical and bitter turn toward the end, chillingly echoing a modern America where some people apparently see the rights of racial and ethnic minorities as revocable.
5. I May Destroy You (HBO)
Michaela Coel accomplished something impressively daring with this 12-part dramedy, which she created, wrote, co-directed and stars in: She used the trauma of sexual assault as a jumping-off point for a larger examination of contemporary values. While playing a celebrity writer renowned for a libertine lifestyle, Coel conveyed the complexities of a heinous crime’s aftermath, considering how an incident so jarring might affect people who share nearly everything about their lives online. I May Destroy You is equal parts mystery and character study, filled with life both at its harshest and its most stimulating.
4. The Last Dance (ESPN/Netflix)
The programming execs at ESPN released this docu-series about the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls earlier than originally intended, at a point in the COVID lockdown when the absence of live sports was taxing diehard fans. The addicting The Last Dance became a welcome reminder of the headier and more carefree days of the 1990s, when mega-rich basketball stars generated enough drama on and off the court to fill hours of TV — at a time when the nightly news was less stressful by comparison.
3. How To with John Wilson (HBO)
In each episode of this oddball docu-comedy, the kindly but awkward videographer and narrator John Wilson endeavors to make sense of how the world works. He explains what he’s learned about everyday life in New York City, delivering useful tips illustrated by the goofy footage he and his crew have shot around town. Between Wilson’s endearingly halting voice and his sincere attempts to understand basic human concepts like “memory” and “safety,” How To becomes unexpectedly poignant. It’s sweetly philosophical, but amusing at the same time.
2. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
This show’s first season cleverly retro-fit a little-seen cult movie for the small screen, adding new characters and a new setting to the original’s premise of ancient vampires rooming together in the modern world. The second season, airing in 2020, turned an already-enjoyable series into a must-see, by establishing a richer history for its arrogant band of bloodsuckers, who’ve spent several lifetimes plagued by boredom and bickering. (And witches.) The characters’ relatable feelings of existential ennui are balanced by some absolutely brilliant visual comedy, using state-of-the-art horror-movie effects.
1. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
It isn’t hard to hire top-shelf actors like Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, and Tracey Ullman, or to ask them to do impressions of some of the real women who fought publicly over feminism in the 1970s. The trick is to do justice to those performances, by fitting them into a TV show where each episode is like a finely crafted short film, with its own beginning, middle, and end. Mrs. America creator Dahvi Waller kept all nine parts of her miniseries sharply focused, bringing wit, energy and insight to the story of how some of the modern culture wars between progressives and reactionaries were born in the battles between the forces of Phyllis Schlafly and the disciples of Gloria Steinem.