With so many movies, festivals, shows, sports, and other events from around the world being canceled, it’s reassuring to know we can always rely on the small screen to keep us entertained.
Yes, folks, TV has been a blessing in providing some much-needed escapism. As a worldwide pandemic brought most productions to a halt this spring, the television landscape has continued to expand its borders at a pace that’s all but impossible for anyone to keep up with— so, in order to help, we’ve compiled our list of the best TV shows of 2020 so far. We hope with this list, you will discover something new that you’ll enjoy!
This list is in alphabetical order.
The Best Television Shows of 2020
Hunters (Amazon Prime Video)
If a Tarantino-esque exploitation period piece set in New York City about a gang of vigilantes who track down Nazi fugitives living in America sounds like your cup of tea, then look no further. Amazon Prime’s Hunters is just that and so much more. This fantasy revenge thriller contains all the things Tarantino fans will like— from hyper-stylized action sequences to a barrage of pop culture references— Hunters is anything short of boring.
All in all, Hunters is recommended whole-heartedly for those seeking a mix of pulp fantasy, genre play, and narrative tropes injected with fresh takes and surprising twists. (Ricky D)
I May Destroy You (HBO Max)
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You was a groundbreaking show for several reasons. It marked the emergence of an extremely unique filmmaking voice, both in front of and behind the camera. It told a story that was mostly about sexual assault, without being didactic or preachy. It was one of the year’s most visually inventive shows. It allowed its protagonist to be an imperfect victim, and its ending was a huge risk that managed to pay off.
The 12-episode series, which debuted on BBC One in Brittan and on HBO in the U.S. in June and ran through August, was a semi-autobiographical effort from Coel, who starred in and wrote all 12 episodes and co-directed nine of them.
Coel’s character, Arabella, is a young woman with some success as a writer and influencer. One night, she’s drugged and sexually assaulted at a club and spends much of the ensuing episodes both trying to figure out what happened and coming to terms with it. The series, though, also stretches into other corners, including the characters’ childhoods, Arabella’s struggles with her second book, and revenge against #MeToo abusers.
It’s been quite a year for the representation of Black immigrant communities in Britain, between Steve McQueen’s Small Axe movies and I May Destroy You. And I May Destroy You as well as the upcoming film Promising Young Woman, both found wonderfully creative and original ways to treat the subject of sexual assault.
There has been a lot of popular culture made about sexual assault and other trauma, but none of done it quite the way I May Destroy You did.
The show was not specifically marketed as a limited series, but it felt an awful lot like one, and it’s since been stated that another season is “unlikely.” The existing season can be streamed on HBO Max. (Stephen Silver)
The Last Dance (Netflix, ESPN)
Considering The Last Dance was released back in mid-April when most North Americans were knee-deep in lockdown— Jason Hehir’s ESPN documentary about Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls was a godsend— a totally riveting ten-part series about arguably the greatest athlete who has ever lived and the legacy and inner turmoil of one of the great basketball teams of all time.
The Last Dance is one of the most ambitious sports documentaries to air since the Oscar-winning O.J.: Made in America. Not only is it a great character study but it’s also bloody entertaining thanks to its movie-like structure which contains corporate villains, surprising plot twists, nail-biting cliffhangers, and a killer soundtrack that rarely lets viewers forget they are witnessing greatness.
Even if you’re not a sports fan— even if you’ve never watched a game—The Last Dance is the sort of film that will you hooked thanks to the level of storytelling. It is not often that one gets to see such an intimate and detailed portrait of a legendary sports team and a larger than life celebrity/athlete, both on and off the court. The Last Dance is an impressive achievement for any documentary, not to mention one for the sports genre. Hell, it’s easily one of the greatest sports documentaries ever made. (Ricky D)
The Mandalorian (Disney Plus)
The Mandalorian is the best version of Star Wars since The Empire Strikes Back, and it’s only gotten better in its second season.
From the jump, The Mandalorian presented a simple premise, well-executed. A lone bounty hunter must guide and protect his vulnerable (and adorable) charge. Hauling up a bucket of inspiration from old school westerns, each episode can swagger on its own while constructing bigger arcs and stories. The Mandalorian understands and executes on what makes Star Wars such an enduring property: it’s alluring and believable world.
The Mandalorian sculpts out what the modern films have missed – this world feels authentic and lived in. And each aspect of that world-building works in tandem, from sound design to an acute balance of practical and CGI. Season Two digs further into under-explored corners, characters, and cultures of the Star Wars universe, offering equal doses of fan service and good, straight-forward storytelling, and it works even better than its predecessor, also making room for some major revelations about the Star Wars universe, too.
This show has it all. There are cool monsters, there is well-executed action, there is fan service, and most important of all, Baby Yoda is in it. Whether you miss good Star Wars movies or are simply looking for a good time in a beautifully realized space western, The Mandalorian is the way. (Marty Allen)
Special Mention: The 2020 NBA Bubble
A whirlwind of circumstance from a global pandemic, urgency brought by a movement for equality and justice, and the condensation of the best two months of sports every year, the NBA’s summer bubble was a strange controlled experiment – and the home of some of the greatest basketball moments in recent memory, from Luka’s breakout performances to LeBron raising the trophy for the Lakers, a mere six months after Kobe Bryant’s tragic death.
In arenas without fans, marooned from their loved ones and society in general, 22 NBA teams, their personnel, and the media put the sports world on their shoulders and delivered a reminder of the grit, passion and beauty of the NBA game, delivering memorable moment after memorable moment, as theatrical and dramatic as anything TV had to offer in 2020.
More importantly, the players of the NBA accepted their roles as athletes, as entertainers, and as reflections of society’s values wholeheartedly, becoming a lightning rod of critical thought and reflection during their mid-bubble boycott in support of Black Lives Matter. Despite being separated from their families in a situation most have openly described as mentally exhausting, everyone in the NBA bubble gathered to deliver both an important message and wildly entertaining displays of athleticism, in a time when the culture desperately needed it. For that, the 2020 NBA bubble earns its spot on this list, and in the history books. (Randy Dankievitch)
Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Hilarious and heartfelt, Never Have I Ever is the latest comedic endeavor from The Office alum Mindy Kaling. Never Have I Ever centers on Indian-American highschooler Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she tries to reinvent herself after a particularly grueling freshman year.
In a world where there’s no shortage of television targeted towards teenagers, Never Have I Ever rises above the rest with nuanced portrayals of cultural expectations, grief, and mental health. Fresh and funny, the dramatic-comedy thrives when it leans into unique creative choices, like having tennis legend John McEnroe narrate Devi’s inner turmoil.
While the main character is flawed, and often gets herself into scraps because of her fiery personality, she also learns and grows as the series progresses. The specificity of Devi’s story makes her coming-of-age journey all the more relatable. With a well-written lead and transparent commentary on everything from identity, sexuality, and mental wellness, Never Have I Ever may prove itself to be the most emotionally intelligent show of 2020. (Meghan Cook)
Normal People (Hulu, RTÉ One)
Let’s just put the cards on the table up front: Normal People is one of the most affecting love stories I’ve ever seen in my life. Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel (co-written by Rooney, Alice Birch and Mark Rowe) is a whirlwind of visual panache and absolutely stunning performances, all wrapped in an engrossing examination of intimacy, love, and communication. Each of Normal People‘s twelve episodes examine specific moments of a relationship, beginning when teenagers Marianne and Connell meet and begin a secret relationship in high school.
In a story that spans over a decade, Normal People revolutionizes the television romance story, both in intelligence – and quite frankly, its hotness, offering up some of the most intimate, narratively poignant sex scenes ever seen on film (Ita O’Brien’s influence as intimacy director pays huge dividends in key moments, like the 10-minute love scene that opens episode two). Normal People achieves a balance between romantic sentimentality and cynical realism rarely seen in the genre of romance.
Doesn’t hurt, of course, that Normal People offers up the two most dynamic lead performances in all of television in 2020; though some might effuse Paul Mescal’s innate hotness as the reason for the show’s success, there’s so much more to what Mescal (in his on-camera debut) and Daisy Edgar-Jones offer to the roles of Connell and Marianne. Mescal is astonishing in how he captures Connell’s insecurities, and Edgar-Jones meets that commitment with one of the most dynamic performances by a female romantic lead I’ve ever seen. Together, they are absolute powerhouses of vulnerability and emotional honesty; there’s no way these two aren’t massive, award-baiting stars by the end of this decade.
Normal People is deserving of the repetitive superlatives being laid on it in this synopsis; it is a remarkable piece of work, the closest television’s ever gotten to Linklater’s Before trilogy. It’s so good, it was a bit disappointing to hear recently Hulu had ordered two additional “bonus” episodes; Normal People delivers all the way to the end, its final minutes leaving me sobbing on the floor in the way only the very best of TV can. (Randy Dankievitch)
The Outsider (HBO)
Stephen King’s imagination has contributed much to popular culture over the last 5 decades, and The Outsider is just one more successful adaptation of his work. Based around the concept of a gruesome child murder and a man with undeniable proof that he both committed the murder and couldn’t possibly have done it. As a detective and a psychic begin the process of unravelling the mystery, they find themselves up against an evil force that has been operating in perpetuity for years.
Anchored by strong performances from Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo and Jason Bateman, HBO’s spooky murder mystery series emerged as one of the earliest must-watches of 2020, and halfway through it’s still one of the best pieces of television of the year. (Mike Worby)
Far and away one of the most unique shows on the air, PEN15 manages to top itself in nearly every episode of its second season. Main characters Anna and Maya (played by real-life adult besties and show creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine), have a penchant for getting into circumstances that feel both everyday and extraordinary. This year, they have a lot on their plates. Everything from first kisses to first periods are on the table, and it’s just as hilarious and heartbreaking as ever. Watching the creators act as tween versions of themselves while surrounded by actual youths is still an absurd and surreal experience, and the show mines the premise for both comedy and tragedy. Though the season is only seven episodes, each one is densely packed with great writing and characterization for adults and children alike.
Part of what makes PEN15 feel so special is its specificity. Maya cussing out her mother during a thrift store shopping trip is the kind of awkward moment that will instantly make the viewer remember every horrible thing they said to their parents. This show invites viewers to do more than simply laugh at the awkwardness of its main characters; it asks them to empathize, too. Watching the adults embody younger versions of themselves makes for undeniably compelling television. For viewers of a certain age, the struggle of learning to articulate over AOL or how to behave during a lengthy phone call (on a landline!) will instantly ring true. PEN15’s characters are wonderfully drawn, and almost every actor has a chance to shine. Even if the viewer was never a part of their middle school drama club or watched their parents go through a painful divorce, the writing and acting is strong enough to make these highly personal experiences deeply felt. It’s a show about growing up and the triumphs and failures that go along with it. PEN15 is the experimental coming-of-age tragicomedy that we need. It transcends any framework put upon it, and the second season lays the groundwork for even greater things to come. (Cameron Daxon)
The Plot Against America (HBO)
David Simon and Edward Burns have been the minds behind some of the most well-respected television in the history of the medium. With shows like The Wire and Treme and miniseries like Show Me A Hero and Generation Kill, the team have proven their chops time and time again.
Their latest work, The Plot Against America, keeps this legacy well intact. An adaptation of the Philip Roth novel of the same name, The Plot Against America sees a 1930s alternate history where famed pilot Charles Lindbergh becomes the President of the United States and turns the country toward xenophobia and fascism. As minorities face discrimination and the threat of violence around every corner, it seems that the America we know may become an even darker reflection of itself.
With a shocking resonance to much in regard to modern politics and the current social climate, The Plot Against America has been adapted for new audiences at the absolute perfect time for them to appreciate it. (Mike Worby)
Primal (Adult Swim)
Genndy Tartakovsky’s ambitious prehistoric cartoon series returned for the second half of its first season in 2020, and boy was it welcome. Though its generally heavy tone may be a bit much for some viewers this year, Primal’s impeccable style and wordless storytelling are like nothing on television, never mind traditional animation.
Pitting a caveman and a dinosaur, both the only survivors of their slaughtered families, against a staggering world of predators, monsters and humanoids with no mercy to spare for the tragic duo, Primal never lacks for tension or danger.
Brutal, bloody, and nasty, Primal is one of the boldest, most imaginative cartoons to hit television in years. If you have even a passing interest in animation, you owe it to yourself to check this one out. (Mike Worby)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
There’s a very good reason why The Queen’s Gambit has been a frequent topic of praise and discussion over the past few months. Netflix’s highest rated limited scripted series isn’t just one of the biggest surprises of the year (TV, or otherwise), it’s one of the best shows of 2020— period. Here’s a show that somehow reignited so much interest in the game, that the demand for chess boards, accessories and timers has skyrocketed 1000 per cent ever since its release, with inventory selling out world-wide.
The story of a chess prodigy who masterfully defeats her opponents as the only woman in the a-male-dominated world of chess isn’t even really about chess— nor is it about an actual person. Instead, this work of fiction, based on Walter Tevis’s novel, is best described as a coming-of-age story that explores the true cost of genius. It’s about the dangers of obsession and finding your calling. It’s also an intelligent, well-crafted, beautifully acted sports drama anchored with a magnetic lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy as the prodigy Beth Harmon.
There were very few shows that I felt the urge to binge-watch this year, but The Queen’s Gambit was one of them. Creators Scott Frank and Allan Scott somehow succeeded in skillfully making chess matches riveting and turning a story about one of the most docile and unglamorous sports into something truly exciting. The Queen’s Gambit is far from perfect (what is?) but it’s simply spellbinding— and like Beth, it succeeds through its love of the game. (Ricky D)
Easily the most convincing, confident, and ambitious auteur-driven half-hour shows to come out of the very specific school popularized by Girls and Louie, Ramy is still somewhat of a hidden gem shipwrecked on Hulu. No other series has such a grasp on how to execute the character-specific episode that has become a wonderful (and, now, somewhat overdone) trope. Nowhere is this more impressive than in the second season’s penultimate episode, “Uncle Naseem”, which is a frontrunner for best episode of television in 2020. While Ramy anchors the cast of incredibly well-drawn characters (with the few exceptions being Ramy’s closest friends), episodes like “Uncle Naseem” give the creator a chance to explore Ramy’s world through a different set of eyes and surprise the viewer by inviting them to change their mind about even the toughest of characters to love. Season two also hugely benefits from Mahershala Ali’s turn as Ramy’s new Sheikh and spiritual guide. Ostensibly a comedy, season two gets nail-bitingly serious when it needs to be, such as looking at a veteran’s PTSD and religious bigotry. Ramy is often awkward and uncomfortable, but for those who can find peace with its style of writing, there is a depth of humanity and empathy in the series that is beyond worthwhile. (Sean Colletti)
Schitt’s Creek (Pop, CBC Television)
It’s rare for a show’s endpoint to feel completely natural. Too often, shows either run for far too long, or are cut short before they have the chance to fully realize their potential. Schitt’s Creek is the rare exception, with its sixth and final season striking the perfect balance between keeping up the laughs and saying goodbye.
As with the final season of How I Met Your Mother, Schitt’s Creek creators (and stars) Eugene and Dan Levy chose to center their final outing around a wedding. Unlike How I Met Your Mother, Schitt’s Creek manages to stick the landing. The relationship between David and Patrick has been a source of both comedy and tenderness for the show since they met in season three, and getting to see the culmination of their relationship is the emotional linchpin that ties the final episodes together. The show expertly balances the wedding as both a romantic affair and a chance to showcase the bonds between David and his family: his mother, Moira, officiates in a typically extravagant outfit that must be seen to be believed, and his sister Alexis walks him down the aisle. It will be the rare viewer who manages not to cry. (Ellie Burridge)
Tales from the Loop (Amazon Prime Video)
Amazon’s recent anthology series adapted from a book of visual art is, perhaps not surprisingly, the premier aesthetic achievement of television in 2020. When someone talks about the enjoyment of being sucked into a world, they’re getting at what Tales from the Loop pulls off so thoroughly. A more science-fiction-leaning kind of The Twilight Zone (though, Tales does occasionally dip into horror) for modern audiences, each of its eight episodes can stand alone or be viewed out of order or be seen sequentially and as one unit—it doesn’t really matter. Very little about Tales conforms to televisual narrative conventions. And what little can be said without spoiling some of the wonderful premises for each episode is that the debut season’s middle and endpoints provide one of the most emotionally-driven explorations of death and the meanings we yearn to ascribe to it that have aired. A relatively star-studded cast (Jonathan Pryce, Rebecca Hall, Paul Schneider) kind of just fade into the background behind Tales’ atmosphere, which is dominant and pushed along by a score composed by Philip Glass and Paul Leonard-Morgan. “Haunting” may be an overused or hyperbolic word when describing works of art, but Tales earns the distinction and the views from every single person who has an Amazon Prime account. (Sean Colletti)
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
The first year of Apple TV’s been underwhelming, to say the least – but they might just have a chance if they can bring more shows like Ted Lasso into the already-bloated streaming landscape. One of the few great new comedies of 2020, the Bill Lawrence and Jason Sudeikis comedy (created alongside Joe Kelly and Brendan Hunt) was the very definition of a “breath of fresh air”, a sports series delivered with a sincere earnestness rarely seen on television – and, I might add, one of the better understandings of sport as a foundation for a series about self-discovery.
Ted Lasso also benefits from some fantastic chemistry, thanks to strong supporting turns from Jeremy Swift, Hunt, Juno Temple, and Hanna Waddingham. If you can open your heart a little bit for a silly, heartfelt comedy that embraces the inherent cheesiness of its genre, Ted Lasso is amongst the most emotionally rewarding experiences of the year (and by far the best Apple’s fledgling service has offered to date). (Randy Dankievitch)
Tiger King (Netflix)
If you asked anyone at the end of 2019 what they thought the TV sensation of 2020 was going to be, we guarantee everyone would have gotten it wrong. In no way, shape, or form was anyone expecting this Netflix limited series about big cat conservation and exploitation to do so well. But with the pandemic lockdown seemingly happening unilaterally across the world at the end of March, and few new shows having been released at the time, Tiger King really had a chance to shine.
And boy, did it ever.
The docuseries follows the absolute madness that is the big cat industry. Throughout the show, we meet a wild range of characters and hear their unbelievable stories. We’re introduced to Joe Allen Schreibvogel (aka. Joe Exotic, aka. the Tiger King), who ran the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park and was convicted on 17 counts of animal abuse and two for attempted murder for hire in 2019. We meet Carole Baskin, who runs the Big Cat Rescue in Tampa, and who seems to be at the heart of her ex-husband’s disappearance (with plenty of viewers claiming on social media that she orchestrated his death). We’re introduced to Kevin Antle (aka. Doc Antle) who runs a zoo and, according to former members of his team, a sex cult. (Since the documentary he’s been indicted on several felony and misdemeanour charges, including animal abuse and animal trafficking.) And this is just a taste of the characters the show introduces us to, not to mention the tip of the iceberg when it comes to wild allegations and events that are said to have transpired. Honestly, this show is a ride, and for a while it was the glue that held the world together when things started to go bad. It made us all think, “wow, big cat people sure are weird” and “I guess things could always be worse!” The joke’s on us, though. Who knew by the end of 2020 we’d be looking back at the Tiger King days with fondness and longing? (Caitlin Marceau)
The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
The second season of Netflix’s genre-bending superhero series saw the cast scattered into their own separate storylines and forced to find new meaning in their lives. This made The Umbrella Academy’s latest offering even more compelling than the first season, even if certain storylines floundered in the process.
Of course, this cast could carry almost any show, and with stylish direction and clever writing, The Umbrella Academy always finds ways to surprise viewers, even if they’re old hat at predicting the twists of standard superhero fare.
A reminder that even the most overdone genres of television still have fresh new ideas to offer, The Umbrella Academy is the comics-based show to beat, and its title remains intact in its second offering. (Mike Worby)
Upload (Amazon Prime Video)
Greg Daniels’ name is synonymous with The Office, The Simpsons, and King of the Hill, but his latest television series falls more in line with an episode of Black Mirror than the situational comedies he’s known for. Set in the near future, Upload follows computer engineer Nathan Brown (Robbie Amell) into a virtual afterlife after his conscience is digitally uploaded in the aftermath of a car crash.
With meager life savings, Nathan mainly relies on his wealthy girlfriend Ingrid (Allegra Edwards) to unlock facets of his computer generated heaven. But when he is left to his own devices, Nathan starts to fall for Nora (Andy Allo), the human agent helping him to adjust to life after death.
While it definitely tackles heavy subjects, like the meaning of life and the existential fear of Upload has an undeniable wit and sense of humor that keeps the darker aspects of the narrative at bay. And although fear of technology and the evils of greed come into play, Upload thrives when it sticks to what Daniels does best: crafting a believable love story. And Amell and Allo’s effortless chemistry doesn’t hurt either. (Meghan Cook)
The third and—sadly—final season of Vida recently wrapped up in about as satisfying a series of ways as was possible, given its premature cancellation. While Vida did some genuine heavy-lifting when it came to Latinx representation both on and off the screen, it goes down as possibly the third best Starz series of all time (behind Spartacus and The Girlfriend Experience) because of its incredible balance of characterization shared between its central cast of women. Exploring themes of grief, familial obligation, socioeconomic clashes and sexuality, Vida was as sharp in its writing and gorgeous in its presentation as just about anything else that aired during its run. At the very least, this will be a series championed in retrospect by future viewers looking for meditative, character-driven work in the almost impossibly easy-to-consume half-hour drama format. Starz has fumbled a bit in recent years by letting smart series like this and Survivor’s Remorse go, but with Vida on the CV, it’s hard to believe more networks won’t be jumping at the opportunity to work with Tanya Saracho. (Sean Colletti)
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
It’s been six years now since Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement first lovingly spoofed the vampire fiction genre in 2014’s What We Do in the Shadows film. Since then, the vampire craze has died down somewhat—Twilight is now a fond memory rather than a lived reality, and deals to adapt Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles into a TV show keep falling through—but Clement and his team of writers are still finding new ways to flesh out their parody.
Season 2 of What We Do in the Shadows shines a light on vampire familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who discovers he has a talent for killing the very creatures he’s pledged to serve. Overlooked by his master Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and the other vampires he lives with, Guillermo starts to discover his own value and independence over the course of the season, until finally, it seems as though he might have earned the respect he deserves.
Guillermo’s character journey is fascinating to watch, and it’s balanced by the ineptitude of the vampires he serves: Nandor, Laszlo (Matt Berry), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), and ‘energy vampire’ Colin (Mark Proksch). One episode features the three older vampires coming up against their greatest foe yet: a chain email curse, which they must forward to ten people. Another focuses on their first ‘Superb Owl’ (Superbowl) party.
The standout episode of the season is “On the Run”, in which Laszlo must go into hiding to avoid Jim the Vampire (Mark Hamill). Laszlo’s transformation into his disguise of ‘Jackie Daytona’ has to be seen to be believed, but needless to say Matt Berry is hilarious and Hamill’s work as a guest star is superb.
What We Do in the Shadows is the kind of show that makes you laugh aloud even when you’re by yourself, but I’d recommend watching it with friends (if it’s safe to do so). The episodes fly by and you’ll probably find yourself saying, “Just one more,” a fair few times. (Ellie Burridge)
Click below for part one of this list!