Even with the hypothetical “more time” we had to watch TV this year – given that we were confined to our homes and many new shows halted production – it still never felt like “catching up” was possible. So here are my 10 favorite shows from this wretched year.
10. Briarpatch (USA)
I’ve listened to Andy Greenwald share his (sometimes questionable) opinions on podcasts for years now, but his first foray as a showrunner (and EP, writer and director) proves the man knows how to make quality television. His adaptation of Ross Thomas’ scorching Texas-set crime novel expands the scope, with surreal touches (like a menagerie of zoo animals on the loose) and alterations to the plot handled perfectly. Hats off to his casting director, too, who found a murderer’s row of character actors to inhabit the opaque townspeople.
Standout episodes: “Breadknife Weather,” “The Most Sinful MF’er Alive,” “Most Likely to Succeed”
9. Search Party (HBO MAX)
Its first two seasons debuted on TBS what seems like a lifetime ago, and its fourth season will arrive later in January. But WarnerMedia held onto this completed season for the (bungled) launch of HBO MAX. This ended up being the perfect decision for viewers, as those who had never seen the show (like me) or those who hadn’t seen it since 2017 the chance to catch up and go straight into this wild third season, which becomes a courtroom drama that takes the off-beat show into full-blown farce.
Standout episodes: “In God We Trust,” “A Dangerous Union,” “Irrefutable Evidence”
8. The Crown (Netflix)
One of Netflix’s highest-rated shows finally broke into my top 10. It’s not that past seasons were bad, but this season jumped up a level. How did it pull that off? By focusing on the most human (Diana Spencer) and inhuman (Margaret Thatcher) figures in Queen Elizabeth’s orbit. Emma Corrin, who had very little acting experience, absolutely nailed the magic and horror of getting sucked into the Windsors’ lives. Gillian Anderson, an absolute pro, got the inflexibility and callousness of one of the worst women of the 20th Century.
Standout episodes: “Fairytale,” “Fagan,” “48:1”
7. The Great (Hulu)
Unlike a certain other show about palace intrigue, backroom deals and copious amounts of sex, The Great did more than stand there and look pretty. Elle Fanning cements her status as one of the absolute best young actors, playing the naively optimistic Catherine, whisked away to a world of cruelty and endless parties. Nicholas Hoult perfectly walks the tightrope between evil and doofus as her husband Peter, who rules Russia with an iron fist and an erect dick. But its magnificent supporting cast steals every scene, secretly revealing their true motives, emotions and kinks when the royals aren’t present.
Standout episodes: Pilot episode, “Moscow Mule,” “A Pox on Hope”
6. Mrs. America (Hulu)
Taking a fragmented approach to documenting the fight to certify the Equal Rights Amendment, Mrs. America gives us portraits of the women who risked their reputations, jobs and political capital for the causes they believed in. On opposite sides stood Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), who had to battle not only each other but also divisive factions in their own groups. It’s almost like we’ve learned nothing in 50 years.
Standout episodes: “Shirley,” “Bella,” “Houston”
5. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
My first real quarantine discovery. Multiple friends had recommended this, and I finally binged both seasons in the early part of the summer, when the weather was already hot and cases were surging again. What a gift. The first season was solid and hilarious, but its second outing was even better. The actors now knew their characters inside and out, delivering new absurdity every week. The back-to-back of “Colin’s Promotion” (featuring standout Mark Prosch going power-mad at his office job) and “On the Run” (with Laszlo hiding out at a Pennsylvania dive bar) were the hardest I’d laughed all year. And boy, did I need those laughs.
Standout episodes: “Colin’s Promotion,” “On the Run,” “Nouveau Théâtre des Vampires”
4. The Boys (Prime)
The only show this year that even attempted to grapple with Our Current Troubled Times, the second season was a little too much at times, but its impact felt in every single episode. It certainly wasn’t a mistake to make its new villain a white feminist from Portland named Stormfront(!) who turned out to be a literal Nazi. When so many months felt helpless this year, it was almost inspiring (if naive) to see a group of people resisting fascism, knowing the cost. Of course it wouldn’t be The Boys if it didn’t feel like Whack-a-Mole, introducing a new evil on the horizon in the last few minutes of the finale.
Standout episodes: “Nothing Like It in the World,” “We Gotta Go Now,” “What I Know”
3. Ted Lasso (AppleTV+)
The most pleasant surprise of 2020, there’s no reason this should have worked. But thanks to Jason Sudeikis’ boundless optimism and enthusiasm, there was victory in defeat. Even if it didn’t produce the most belly laughs, no show produced more smiles per episode.
Standout episodes: “For the Children,” “Diamond Dogs,” “The Hope That Kills You”
2. Schitt’s Creek (Pop)
The final season of the Rose family’s saga was the first one I watched live. Since it stopped airing in April, it’s almost been memory-holed already. But the show clearly went out on top, delivering a finale on its own terms, giving each character a proper send-off and a destination that made since for each of them. (Well, Twyla being a lottery winner is still kind of weird.)
Standout episodes: “The Incident,” “The Presidential Suite,” “Happy Ending”
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
The fifth season of this show went up yet another level, a seemingly impossible task. But for 10 straight weeks, this was the absolute best thing on television. Jimmy goes full Saul Goodman, launching his business with ill-gotten mobile phones and a long list of cheap clients. But it attracts the attention of Lalo (a magnificent Tony Dalton), putting him and Kim in a world of danger. A scary trip to the desert seems to set him straight, only for Kim to save his ass yet again. But instead of it being the last straw, it’s the final enticement for her to join him in the world of revenge and easy money.
Standout episodes: “The Guy for This,” “Bagman,” “Something Unforgivable”
VICTIMS OF PEAK TV
A.P. Bio (Season 3)
Fargo (Season 4)
Westworld (Season 3)
DIDN’T WATCH BUT PROBABLY WOULD HAVE LOVED
Dispatches from Elsewhere (AMC)
The Eddy (Netflix)
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
High Fidelity (Hulu)
I Know This Much Is True (HBO)
I May Destroy You (HBO)
The Last Dance (ESPN)
Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)
Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Moonbase 8 (Showtime)
Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Normal People (Hulu)
The Plot Against America (HBO)
Raised by Wolves (HBO MAX)
Small Axe (Prime)
The Undoing (HBO)
Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (NBC)