No show had a bigger chance of whiffing than this revival for Hulu. But the new writers and returning voice talent made it just as funny and subversive as the original run. They jettisoned all the other segments that didn’t work, keeping just the Warner Brothers and Sister, and Pinky and the Brain. The result was 13 hilarious, if occasionally uneven episodes. The most outstanding segments of each: the NRA-skewering “Bun Control” and “No Brainer,” in which Pinky and Brain meet Edward Snowden. My only note for Season 2? Bring back Good Idea, Bad Idea.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine – “Valloweaster”
There’s no telling when this will return, given COVID-related production delays and grappling with what role a cop show has in a world that’s woken up to the senseless violence the police inflict on their communities every day. But 2020 at least gave us this joyous episode, which ups the craziness of their annual Halloween heist outings.
Curb Your Enthusiasm – “Insufficient Praise”
This season walked a tightrope as Larry fends of accusations of sexual harassment in a post-#MeToo world and opens a coffee shop solely to spite an enemy. The season was mostly solid, but a little too self-indulgent, especially in episodes that pushed the 45-minute mark. But this episode, in which Larry offends Clive Owen by giving him a merely positive review of his new play, hit all the Curb sweet spots.
The Good Place – “Whenever You’re Ready”
It felt a little unfair to put this in my top 10 when only four episodes aired in 2020. But I had to take time to mention its stellar finale, which fills every inch of its extended runtime with proper send-offs for all its characters and one of the most genuinely moving explorations of death ever to grace the small screen.
How To with John Wilson – “How to Make the Perfect Risotto”
I arrived late to this HBO experiment but fell in love quickly with its oddball charms. John Wilson has a disarmingly sweet and curious nature, but he’s also an obsessive documentarian, which gave him an impressive library of B-roll to use to punctuate his jokes and observations. His finale was the best, as he arrived from his latest expedition just as the pandemic began, and his quest to make a risotto for his sweet old landlord became a beacon of kindness in a country that revealed it only had selfishness on its mind.
Killing Eve – “Are You from Pinner?”
While the show certainly isn’t as good as Season 2, which wasn’t as good as Season 1, any claims that Killing Eve has jumped the shark are overblown. While Season 3’s finale would have served as a perfect series finale, I’m confident there will be more delight to be had in the fourth season. But the highlight this year came from Villanelle’s would-be homecoming, reuniting with her mother and brother and the new people they’ve decided to call their family. It’s mostly hilarious, until a late night when many of Villanelle’s issues are laid bare in a contentious conversation with the mom who abandoned her. Multiple murders ensue.
The Outsider – “Roanoke”
The premiere was standard, if spooky, procedural stuff. But this second episode – which aired the same night – completely threw me for a loop. Without giving too much away, a main character shockingly exits the show, setting up the more surreal investigation to follow. It let viewers know that they were in for a show that wouldn’t play by the rules or feel like other cop shows.
Ozark – “Fire Pink”
The third season took plotting and overacting to ridiculous new heights, but it still managed to be highly watchable. Introducing a heretofore unseen character (Tom Pelphrey, as Wendy’s bipolar brother Ben) upped the ante again and brought it some honest-to-God emotional stakes. In the penultimate episode, Ben has revealed some long-buried to secrets to way too many people, and in the criminal world there’s only one sentence for blabbing. Wendy tries to delay the inevitable by getting him out of dodge, but he’s not someone who can fend for himself, even if he had plenty of cash and a place to stay. Their final scene, reminiscing at a restaurant, gives way to offscreen devastation.
The Queen’s Gambit – “Doubled Pawns”
I wasn’t quite as enamored with this Walter Tevis adaptation as everyone else, but did think it was quite good. It hits its peak in its third episode, where Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) quickly moves up the ranks of her school’s social structure and the world’s chess players. She’s also reached a tentative relationship with her adoptive mother (a radiant Marielle Heller), who lets her cut class to enter competitions, but indulges Beth’s budding addictions. It was the perfect blend of melancholy and triumph.
One of the few pieces of monoculture in 2020, this Netflix documentary/disaster was what seemingly everyone was watching right as lockdowns began in late March. While it’s already gone through every conceivable praise/takedown/backlash/backlash-to-the-backlash cycle by now, what was so striking about it was how like many of the biggest reality shows, all its characters are monsters. Joe Exotic was a charismatic entrepreneur, but undoubtedly abused his animals, staff and lovers, but was put in jail under dubious-at-best pretenses. Carole Baskin built her own cat-friendly empire, but almost certainly killed her first husband. And then there’s Doc Antle, whose exotic animal park is pretty much just a front for a sex cult. And don’t forget swindler Jeff Lowe. All of them have had their own legal entanglements, and hearing first-hand about their sinister behavior belied their cheerful appearances. It was a messed up story with no winners, only losers.