This was a year packed with great TV and it all couldn’t have come out during a better time than one in which almost everyone was stuck at home. From big franchise offerings to comedies and deeply personal dramas, this year provided so much memorable TV. This is a list of the 10 best shows of the year.
The Third Day (HBO)
10. Ted Lasso (Apple TV +)
Ted Lasso has no business being as good as it is. The comedy series is based on a character Jason Sudekis (SNL, Horrible Bosses) played to promote NBC’s coverage of The Premier League. What could have been just a forgettable show on a streaming service turned out to actually be a great comedy with a ridiculous amount of heart.
Ted Lasso is an American football coach who gets hired to coach the fictional AFC Richmond in England’s Premier League. He is an extremely positive person who is uncompromising in his gleeful and exuberant ways. He doesn’t know anything about soccer but that doesn’t matter because he will find a way. It’s such a silly idea for a show but it charms and wears on you just like Ted Lasso charms and wears on his new team eventually winning them over. Lasso isn’t some perfect ray of shining light, he has his own problems. He has a troubled marriage that he wants to save and a son he misses. The team’s cast of players all have their own hurdles to get over like the long in the tooth captain and the young hot shot who is “me-first.” Overall Ted Lasso is the most unlikely success story on TV.
9. The Boys (Amazon Prime)
The Boys is the perfect palette cleanser for the superhero genre. For the first time in a long time there have been no big tentpole superhero movies released in theaters. The Boys season two supplies a cynical and quite frankly realistic look at how superheroes would operate in our society. Karl Urban (Thor: Ragnarok, Star Trek), leads his ragtag group of regular guys against the morally bankrupt group of heroes “The Seven” led by Homelander – a superman-esque figure who is secretly a ruthless murderer who looks down on the rest of humanity.
The Boys is funny, violent and often surprisingly emotional for a show in which people’s heads explode randomly. While the first season was a critique of Bush-era foreign policy, the second season is a more present look at America’s dysfunctional political landscape with obvious parallels to major figures and movements of our present day. Even though it was filmed and written before 2020, The Boys is weirdly prescient.
8. The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
Based on Ethan Hawke’s (Training Day, First Reformed) performance alone, The Good Lord Bird is one of the most fascinating shows of the year. Hawke plays abolitionist John Brown and follows his crusade to stop slavery in the years leading up to the American Civil War. Hawke transforms into an obsessive and dogmatic outlaw who borders on insanity on a mission from God to end slavery. Hawkes performance is special but The Good Lord Bird offers so much more as a work of television. It doesn’t shy away or try to soften its subject matter nor does it go out of its way to shock its audience. The subject is serious but the show is OK with using humor and pulpy violence to make spending time watching entertaining as well as meditative. The show succeeds in being honest about slavery and how big of a stain it is on America’s past and present while being consistently entertaining. The Good Lord Bird is a story that needed to be told.
7. What We Do in The Shadows (FX/Hulu)
What We Do In The Shadows is pound for pound the funniest show of the year and also one of its best. Created from the 2014 movie of the same name that was by Jermaine Clement in collaboration with Taika Watiti, What We Do In The Shadows follows the lives and misadventures of a group of vampires that live in an old manor on Staten Island. It’s mockumentary style basically makes it akin to The Office with vampires but there’s so much more to the show, most importantly the cast.
Kayvan Novak plays Nandor the Relentless, former conqueror and leader of an ancient (made up) middle eastern empire that has finds himself dealing with mundane house tasks and general problems that come with having roommates. Natasha Demetriou plays Nadja, who is the sole woman of the group who is in a weird marriage with a man who she turned into a vampire and is now stuck with. Matt Berry plays Laslo Cravensworth, Nadja’s husband who is sex obsessed to obscene levels and very proud of it. Colin Robinson, played by Mark Proksch, is an energy vampire who feeds off the frustrations and boredom he creates in humans at his day job at an office by being overbearingly talkative about benign things or just plain annoying. What We Do In The Shadows Season 2 keeps what made the first season a hit while getting even bolder and weirder with its characters.
6. The Mandalorian (Disney +)
The Mandalorian delivers that big event storytelling that has been missing from theaters this year. It’s more than just the Baby Yoda hour every week and is starting to transcend what everyone expected it to be capable of. With recent announcements — a pivot to more shows and stories in the form of series like The Mandalorian instead of giant movies — its success has seemingly changed the way Star Wars as a brand will operate for years to come. The quality of the visual effects week in and week out didn’t seem possible to achieve on a television series until Mando, and they put some of the recent blockbuster Star Wars movies to shame.
One of its biggest successes is the wide net it casts for its audience. The Mandalorian brings hardcore Star Wars fans and casual viewers just happy to watch each week together and provides a thrill for both without making compromises. The Mandalorian is Star Wars at its best.
5. ZeroZeroZero (Amazon)
Amazon’s approach to some of its best shows is confusing. You would think that a globetrotting organized crime opera that spans multiple countries and continents would be something a company like Amazon would promote heavily. ZeroZeroZero for whatever reason went under the radar (probably because you had to dig through Amazon Prime’s interface to find it).
ZeroZeroZero follows a drug deal from the perspectives of the Buyers, an organized crime family based in Italy; the sellers, a brutal Mexican cartel; and the brokers, a Louisiana based family shipping company. In what probably the most expensive show of the year, ZeroZeroZero shot on location in New Orleans, Mexico, Senegal, Morocco and Italy. The style and scope of the series is overwhelming, and after the first two episodes it opens up and becomes a non-stop thrill to experience to the end. With a star-turning performance from Harold Torress who plays Manuel Contreras a Mexican marine who secretly works for the Leyra cartel, ZeroZeroZero is an transporting epic and brutal crime drama that is probably underwatched but one of the year’s best series.
4. Industry (HBO)
In the first episode of Industry we see the interview process of all the new graduates hoping to land a position at a prestigious international bank in London. Harper Steren (played by Myha’la Herrold) says in her interview that Pierpoint is a place based on meritocracy, if you work hard and are productive you will go far. In a sense that is true but the meritocracy promised is tangled with a toxic culture and hierarchy.
Created by two former bankers and based on their experience in the field, Industry highlights the world of high finance from the perspective of a group of graduates taking their first steps into their dream job. What they are met with is varying levels of stress and abuse by their superiors in an effort to make a big enough wave to earn one of the coveted permanent positions at the firm. We see their work and personal lives bleed into one another’s through alcohol and drug fueled nights out trying to get away from their unique troubles at Pierpoint.
To some the show may just seem like it’s just surface level drama that’s overindulging in its depictions of these young professionals but there is so much more to the series. The characters are searching for why they are pursuing this job even though it might not be healthy either mentally or physically. Some find their motivations, some are forced to reckon with who they are. The show succeeds in highlighting the problems with the modern workplace and the toxic cultures that can root itself in a place and what the eventual backlash of that culture means. With its young cast of hopefully soon to be stars, Industry is one of the best surprises of 2020.
3. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Few series have spread through our collective culture like The Queen’s Gambit did. It seemed one day no one knew about it, then suddenly everyone was crazy about it. From the social media love and getting a themed segment on NFL primetime, The Queen’s Gambit became the cultural phenomenon of the moment. Beyond how popular and engaging in a communal way it became, the show is simply great.
The limited series is an adaption of the 1983 Walter Tevis novel of the same name starring Anna Joy-Taylor (Split, The Witch) in which an orphan, Beth Harmon, is discovered to be a chess prodigy. We see Harmon navigate the world of chess and grow up in a traditionally male dominated sport while trying to reckon with her past and form her identity as a young woman while trying to kick her addictions. Taylor-Joy drives the show with her captivating performance supported by a great supporting cast. The show looks beautiful, the detail that is put into every facet of the show is genuinely amazing. From the outfits Beth wears to the way furniture and background pieces are arranged and the chess imagery scattered throughout it all, the series feels so cohesive and purposeful. The Queen’s Gambit is a seven-hour sports movie and a true bright spot in a year packed with great TV.
2. How To with John Wilson (HBO)
The most unique show of 2020 is How To with John Wilson. In it, Wilson shows the audience how to do something and delves into something deeper than initially promised. In the first episode “How to make small talk,” Wilson attempts to explain and demonstrate to the audience what small talk is and how to execute it. What follows is a hilarious meditation on human interaction and the need to communicate in genuine ways with others in which Wilson ends up in Cancun during MTV spring break. He emphasizes how small talk should not include information that is upsetting or too personal, but people engaged in it continually show their true selves and what they’re dealing with.
He meets a spring breaker who travelled alone seemingly just to party — the typical aspiring rapper you would picture going solo to spring break. He ends up grieving with Wilson about his friend who died by suicide not too long before this spring break trip. We see his facade break down and reassemble in real time and realize that this trip whether he knows it or not is a coping mechanism and he needs to deal with his grief.
The awkward narration and empathy Wilson gives off over the clips of his insane first person adventures in New York City seems truly genuine. We get to see people who say and do ridiculous and hilarious things, things that could be made fun of liberally, but Wilson either knowingly or unknowingly puts an empathetic lens on the would-be butts of the joke. He basically just lends an attentive ear to whatever he’s capturing on his camera. How To With John Wilson is the year’s best documentary.
1. I May Destroy You (HBO)
Michaela Coel’s HBO series I May Destroy You was born out of the actor and writer’s own horrifying experience of being drugged and sexually assaulted. The series follows Arabella who is played by Coel. She is a young writer in London trying to finish her first novel who has to now deal with the fallout of her assault and reckon with what has happened and changed as a result. There aren’t many things on TV that are revolutionary, but I May Destroy You is. Its a show about sexual assault which is not commonly the subject of a 12 part HBO series. It explores the complexity of consent in revealing and important ways. The show is uncompromising in its subject matter but not afraid to be entertaining and funny.
The series was created by a Black woman, has a predominantly a Black cast and focuses on Black British culture in a way that is familiar but transporting. One of the best parts of the series is the attention that the characters outside of Arabella get and how their relationships change and the journey they go through together. They show how complex and fragile we all are everyday. The idea that everyone is going through something to various degrees becomes a point of conflict and growth for Arabella and her friends. The show is unlike any drama on TV breaking the norms and conventions of prestige television with its singular personnel and artistic vision. I May Destroy You is the best show of the year.
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