There was so much content in 2020, and there are so many voices on the site that it became impossible this year to wrangle it all down into a single top ten list, or even a top 20 list. Instead, this year, the folks here responsible for most of the TV coverage have written their own top ten lists, so there’s a breadth of coverage, and yet, we still left off a number of great TV shows. Here they are, however, for your scrolling pleasure.
2. How to with John Wilson: A beautiful, humanistic portrait of the world around us, in all its quirks and bizarreness. I think I’ve cried during every single goddamn episode, even the one with the guy trying to grow his foreskin back. Yeah, you read that right!
3. Betty: An expansion of the gloriously lived-in world filmmaker Crystal Moselle created with Skate Kitchen, Betty is a love letter to New York City and a middle finger to every misogynist these girls skate by.
4. The Last Dance: Who knew Michael Jordan would gift us so many gifs and memes in this sprawling, engrossingly, profoundly megalomaniacal portrait of the Chicago Bulls’ years of success? My thanks to him for this brief moment of joy in 2020!
5. I May Destroy You: Michaela Coel didn’t leave anything unsaid in this comedy-drama series inspired by her own sexual assault. I’m not sure I have a nuanced-enough vocabulary to discuss the questions this show is asking about sexual agency, desire, and abuse, but I will say each episode had me nodding vigorously in recognition of the messy power dynamics that can creep into sexual encounters while also nursing a stomachache at the discomfort of it all. Brutally honest storytelling that doesn’t let you relax, and is better for it.
6. I Know This Much is True: Melodramatic in typical Derek Cianfrance fashion, but Mark Ruffalo is doing career-best work here in twin performances that broke my heart. I’m a sucker for Cianfrance’s specific talent for making absolute misery look aesthetically beautiful, and all the details of this miniseries — the gauzy filmstock, Harold Budd’s evocative score — gripped me even harder. No, not for everyone, but very thoroughly my shit.
7. Dead to Me: Few comedies have ever, I think, built the interior lives of women better than Liz Feldman’s Dead to Me. In its second season, Dead to Me ramped up the soap opera pacing of its episodes, layering cliffhangers and twisty plot turns and a goddamn twin character played by a returning James Marsden. But this show belongs to Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini, whose pitch-perfect performances really capture how women’s friendships can cycle from obsession and codependency to support and love, and back and forth and back again. Deeply cathartic and often low-key brilliant.
8. A Teacher: The rare case of a miniseries that improves upon its source material. Hannah Fidell adapts her 2013 drama film for a 10-episode series that benefits from the performances of Kate Mara and Nick Robinson and pulls a sly bait and switch, with the first half of the season almost making you believe the affair between teacher and student is a love story. The back half of the season, which slams down the insidious effects of this abuse, is a devastating watch that makes clear Robinson’s talent.
9. P-Valley: Stripping as a performance, one that requires intentionality and thoughtfulness, should be familiar to anyone who has seen either the Magic Mike films or Hustlers (for which Jennifer Lopez was wrongfully denied an Oscar!). This Starz series takes that same approach, giving its cast of mostly Black women the chance to explore the relationship between what they get out of dancing as performers vs. what the audience gets out of watching them perform — what is the balance there? What do they give, and what do we take? It’s a question that P-Valley keeps flipping on its axis, and it’s one of the best shows this year about why and how we work.
10. Shaun the Sheep: Adventures from Mossy Bottom: Charming, glorious, amusing, perfect. Shaun and the crew make pizza. Shaun and the crew hold a dance competition. Shaun and the crew help clean up a polluted pond. Shaun and the crew are out here doing the most in the best animated series of the year; if your heart doesn’t swell at any of this, you might be a bad person? Just saying!
2. I May Destroy You: Brilliant and brutal. I don’t know if I’ll ever feel emotionally prepared to watch it again, but I guarantee I won’t stop thinking about the show, or Michaela Coel, for a long time.
3. Ted Lasso: This was probably my favorite show of the year, and along with Mythic Quest, the one I’ll return to the most. It’s already in my comfort TV rotation with shows like Brooklyn 99, Parks & Recreation, and Scrubs.
4. Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet: With Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney, and Megan Ganz behind the show, it was obvious Mythic Quest would be very, very funny. What was unexpected was the level of heart they’d find in a game developer’s office.
5. The Mandalorian: - I mean, obviously.
6. Survivor Season 40: I actually didn’t watch Survivor after the first season until I was convinced to try this year’s all-winners iteration. I have now gone back and watched many, many seasons of the show, which proves (to me, anyway) just how good this season was.
7. The Last Dance: You may not think you need a ten-hour documentary about Michael Jordan and the rise (and eventual breakup) of the ’90s-era Chicago Bulls. You would be wrong.
8. Gangs of London: It’s a crime drama co-created by Gareth Evans (The Raid movies), and after that sentence you’re either completely in or completely out. (Note: unsurprisingly, it’s very, very violent.)
9. Dispatches From Elsewhere: The show came and went quietly and I still think I didn’t love the finale, but it was a wildly inventive show, and the emotional highs it hit were reminiscent of other AMC shows I loved that went largely ignored at the time, like Lodge 49 or Halt And Catch Fire.
10. The Good Place/Schitt’s Creek (tie) - Is it cheating to have a tie? Whatever. These two are here on my list as a celebration of both shows, which ended their runs early this year.
2. How To with John Wilson: Going into this show knowing almost nothing about it was a perfect experience. What a weird, delightful, and surprisingly poignant little gem of a thing this is.
3. The Queen’s Gambit: Sure, we all know that a show about a female chess champion in the ’50s/’60s would be this good, right?
4. Better Call Saul: Somehow, this show gets better and more surprising every season, and if you think it hasn’t surpassed the excellent show it’s a prequel to, you’re wrong. I’m already feeling the gut punches of the final season and am equal parts excited and devastated.
5. The Good Lord Bird: As Dustin noted back in October, this show is more Coen Brothers than (sadly) the most recent season of Fargo, and in the best possible way. It’s a dark and serious show that also manages to be wildly weird and funny, with Ethan Hawke giving a bananas perfect performance.
6. Normal People: When I say that this show made me feel every exact beat of discomfort, heartbreak, and joy that the book did, I mean that in the best possible way. This is a flawlessly rare adaptation that holds up to those who love the source material and those coming to it fresh. Just a perfect, beautiful show.
7. I May Destroy You: Speaking of a beautiful show, this was one of the hardest shows of the year to watch because there are so many painful moments of utter devastation. But holy hell does it reward the journey and touch on so many important issues of the moment.
8. Upright: I literally do not know a single person who watched Tim Minchin’s road trip show, because it’s an Australian show that you can only watch on Sundance Now in the States. And that’s a true travesty because Upright was sad and funny and quietly perfect.
9. High Fidelity: All I can say is, it’s complete bullshit that we’re not getting a second season of this show. That’s all 5 entries on my list of top 5 bullshit things right now.
10. Dave: There are a lot of things I would never have predicted about this year, but one of them for sure is that a show from Lil Dickey that prominently advertised itself with him popping out of underwear like a little dick would be one of the funniest shows of the year. But that’s 2020 for you!
2. Ted Lasso: Turns out “emotional maturity” was the biggest surprise of the year.
3. Dark: It improbably pulled a conclusion out of its own quagmire, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
4. I May Destroy You: Hits so close to home, I still haven’t finished it. And I mean that as a compliment.
5. DuckTales: Watch the Launchpad-as-James Bond episode and tell me it wasn’t one of the most perfect pieces of entertainment this year. I’ll wait.
6. What We Do In The Shadows: Two words — Jackie. Daytona.
7. The Boys: Bombastic yet exhilarating, it was the perfect distraction this summer.
8. Kingdom: This historical Korean zombie drama was the unexpected COVID documentary of the year.
9: Brooklyn Nine-Nine: This show manages to repeat the same gimmicks each season, but in fresh ways that never feel like a rut. Though, honestly, Andre Braugher would be reason enough to rank this show in the top.
10: The Mandalorian: It’s been a rough year, just let me have my Baby Yoda space show, please.
2. Haunting of Bly Manor: The Haunting of Bly Manor is less spooky than it probably should be, but what it lacks in scares it makes up for in heart. It evocatively explores the human memory, the comfort it brings, the sadness it causes, and the dangers of living in the past. The series is bolstered by exceptional performances by Victoria Pedretti, T’Nia Miller, and Rahul Kohli.
3. Ramy — Ramy Youssef takes his character (also Ramy) to painful lows in Season 2. Seriously, it’s astounding the levels of terrible Ramy achieves as a person, but that is perhaps why the show is still so good and compelling. It isn’t afraid to explore the selfish abyss that Ramy seems to exist in, and of course, I love the way the series is very specific in its exploration of the character as an Egyptian-American.
4. Sex Education: It’s hard to believe that Season 2 of Sex Education came out just this year, but it did. This gem of a show continues its deep dive into sex, emotional entanglements, trauma, queer identity, and addiction. It’s astute and witty, funny and smart. Also, Gillian Anderson plays a sex therapist, which adds 50 bonus points to a show that is already a standout.
5. Little Fires Everywhere: Putting Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon together onscreen was a brilliant idea. Little Fires Everywhere was very comfortable challenging the ideas of motherhood — what it means to be a good mother, generational trauma, the idea of mothering as a sacrificial act, and the perceptions that often uphold white motherhood when compared with the treatment of mothers of color. The building intensity alone was phenomenal.
6. Schitt’s Creek: Schitt’s Creek had such a heartwarming final season and it ended perfectly. This show was (and still is) the quintessential comedy that genuinely cared for each of its characters and their growth. It’s the kind of show that never let me down or lost its charm, and that’s a triumph all on its own. Schitt’s Creek may be over now, but we’ll always have the gifs.
7. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist: This musical dramedy surprised the hell out of me. I was prepared to dislike it and wound up crying and smiling through the episodes instead. An MRI gone wrong leads Zoey (Jane Clark) to hear people sing their feelings, but the series’ strength is in its handling of grief in a thoughtful, intimate way.
8. The Boys: There is such a thing as too much blood and violence and The Boys very often toes that line. If Season 1 hinged on the idea that superheroes are evil, Season 2 doubled down on it by including white supremacy by way of Aya Cash’s Stormfront. When it strikes the right balance between its darkness and sociopolitical commentary, it’s pretty great.
9. Never Have I Ever — Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is a damn star and she brings so much life to Devi, a teen whose father’s death drives her to push her feelings aside to focus on having sex instead. This is another show that focuses a lot on grief (I’m starting to sense a pattern here for me), but its balance of humor, heart, and the intriguing relationship between Devi and her mother (Poorna Jagannathan) ground the show. It premiered about a month after COVID lockdowns too, so it helped to ease some anxiety.
10. Harley Quinn — Season 1 of the show was good, but Season 2 finally gave us a relationship between Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy. It was glorious and everything I’d hoped it would be. While the first season focused a lot on Harley’s separation from the Joker, the second season brought her into her own. The animated series is genuinely funny and wild, offering a fun twist on beloved characters, and remains one of the best of what DC has to offer.
2. Normal People: It’s an achy, messy, sexy-as-hell will-they, won’t-they Ross-and-Rachel on steroids love story, but every moment feels true and after 12 episodes, I wanted another 12 immediately.
3. Mythic Quest — This series would make my top ten if only for the quarantine episode — the best one from any show taped during the early part of the pandemic — but the first season actually aired before the pandemic, which is hard to believe. I don’t give a damn about video games, but Mythic Quest merged It’s Always Sunny with the one thing it’s always been missing: A big heart.
4. The Great: I love Russian history, and while I don’t love stuffy costume dramas, this one was fun, and funny, and sexy, and Nicholas Hoult plays a terrific doofus villain. It’s every bit as good as The Favourite, from the same creator, Tony McNamara.
5. What We Do in the Shadows: I don’t know why it always takes me a while to get to a season of What We Do on the Shadows — you need to be in the right mood, I guess — but as with the first season, I binged the entire second season in one sitting and it’s one of the best nights I had in 2020.
6. I May Destroy You: The Michaela Coel series is the most cited show among our lists, and there’s a good reason for it. It’s honest, unflinching, and difficult to watch, but the most necessary series of 2020.
7. Better Call Saul: Aside from Watchmen and The Leftovers, Saul is my favorite drama of the last decade. It’s so good that I often take for granted how good it is. So, clearly, do the Emmy voters, who criminally overlooked Rhea Seehorn again (and failed to award Bob Odenkirk even after five nominations for the role).
8. Good Lord Bird: There were a few shows that I couldn’t bring myself to watch in 2020 because everything was already so bleak (The Plot Against America, Mrs. America), and I expected that Good Lord Bird — about the abolitionist John Brown — would fit into that category, as well. But Ethan Hawke, working from James McBride’s brilliant novel — turned Good Lord Bird into the second most entertaining history lesson of 2020 (behind The Great).
9. Sex Education: Sex Education is my shit: A coming-of-age comedy/love story with lots of awkward sexual encounters and amazing music from Ezra Furman, who is my favorite musical discovery of the last 5 years.
10. Better Things — Better Things is consistently one of my favorite shows on TV, but one I infrequently write about because I don’t know what to say. It’s funny and sad, and emotionally affecting, and maybe the most transportive show on television.
Header Image Source: Apple TV+