I didn’t watch nearly as much TV as I expected to in 2020; sure, I watched enough to fill 40+ hours of podcast material, and write a little bit here and there, but my capacity to consume new television in 2020 definitely took a hit. Part of it was the pandemic, of course (and part of it was the wonderful decision to rewatch Oz), but most of it was a feeling of the industry hitting a creative nadir, a parade of forgettable, overextended dramas, unfunny comedies, and the relentless attempts by fanbases and executives alike to resuscitate, reboot, retread, and remake shit we’ve seen before. (also Ratched. Ratched was fucking awful.)
All things considered, it was a pretty shitty year for television as a whole, one filled with regular disappointment, rampant mediocrity – and occasionally, glimpses of absolute brilliance that filled my heart with hope for the future of the format. And I want to hold onto that hope, the feeling of television’s true potential to tell universal stories in dynamic ways, sparking inquisitive thought, heartfelt discussion – and making everyone just a little bit hornier, of course. So I’m not preceding this list with my usual “worst of” – this year’s been a fucking pile of shit and our time on this rock together is limited, so let’s end the year on a high note and skip to the best TV of the year. Here’s a dozen (or so) things I truly loved in 2020:
The last ten seconds of Brockmire
Brockmire‘s thoroughly underrated four-season run reached its conclusion in 2020, in one of television’s more ambitious final-season experiments. And while it is debatable whether the final season pulls off its left-turn into dystopian comedy, there’s no possible way anyone could question how “The Long Offseason” ends, with Jim Brockmire receiving an important bit of news while surrounded by his family. In a series so skilled at being loud, the quiet, reflective properties of that final moment have stuck with me through 2020, ending one of television’s more openly cynical comedies on a decidedly hopeful note.
The alternate Flash moments in Crisis on Infinite Earths
Crisis on Infinite Earths is the biggest television event I’ve ever witnessed, a five-hour love letter to DC television’s bumpy 60-year legacy (and the culmination of nearly 100 hours of storytelling, if you combine the two years of plotting built up on all the CW’s DC series). I think it’s even safe to say it was too ambitious, an event with as many plot holes and laughable CGI fight scenes as it had meaningful character moments or actual plot development.
Within it all, however, were two of the coolest moments the Geoff Johns-iverse have ever produced: the touching farewell to John Wesley Shipp’s Earth-90 Flash (complete with grainy 90’s The Flash-back), and the unexpected DCTV/DCEU crossover, where Grant Gustin and Ezra Miller briefly shared a hole in the space-time continuum together. Crisis on Infinite Earths was many things: a disappointing farewell to Oliver Queen, a muddled mess of plot and superficially-satisfying cameos, an underwhelming showcase for Ruby Rose’s (equally disappointing, and brief) run as Batwoman – but when it came to honoring the legacy of the DC universe before and after The Flash‘s current reign on TV, Crisis on Infinite Earths definitely stuck the landing. (oh yeah, and angry old Batman… that was pretty solid, too.)
Dare Me “Parallel Trenches”
Unfortunately, not a lot of people watched Dare Me before it was unceremoniously canceled by USA Network this summer; but Megan Abbott’s co-adaptation (along with Gina Fattore) of her own novel hit like a fucking thunderbolt for those of us who watched it, a series that managed to weave a strange thread between Shakespearian high school drama, intense character study, and Hannibal-esque surrealism, qualities that all came into complete harmony in “Parallel Trenches”, one of the best hours of TV in 2020.
Opening on the disturbing image of a tooth floating in a sink, Dare Me‘s fifth hour embraces abstract filmmaking in a way completely unexpected of a high school series about cheerleaders and murder, anchoring three different stories by a catastrophic (and might I say, pretty gross) climatic event. “Parallel Trenches” builds to its ‘big moment’ from numerous angles, building a Jenga tower of narrative gunpowder that predictably explodes midway through, a cascade of chaos that reverberates through the rest of the episode (and season) in fascinating ways.
Without giving too much away, it is a phenomenal hour of TV; and now that it’s on Netflix there’s no excuse for anyone to not give Dare Me, 2020’s most underappreciated series, a fair chance. Go watch Dare Me, damnit!
Happy Endings “And the Pandemmy Goes To…”
The trend of “cast reunion episodes” was perhaps the most annoying of 2020; after all, what did we gain from that awful 30 Rock episode, except that it was a really bad attempt at promoting Peacock? From Parks and Recreation to Father of the Bride, it seemed all executives thought we wanted was to see famous people talk about or embody the famous characters we’d already seen more than enough of.
And then there’s the Happy Endings virtual episode, far and away the greatest contribution to the burgeoning genre of “virtual” episodes, a welcome counterexample to my cynicism around the pandemic-enhanced genre. Maybe it is because three seasons just wasn’t enough, or maybe it was just in the right window between ‘initial chaos’ and ‘settling into depression’ period of quarantine, but “And the Pandemmy Goes To…” is simply a fantastic episode of Happy Endings, proving that there’s still plenty of stories to tell about that group of lovable idiots (my favorite: Alex becoming a conspiracy theorist, followed closely by Dave’s cluelessness at everything going on). Are you listening, ABC? In this age of bringing back shit nobody cares about, can we please have some more Happy Endings?
Joe Pera Talks with You and How to with John Wilson
Nathan Fielder’s grown quite a brand of TV since the debut of Nathan For You with his Blow Out Productions; with Joe Pera Talks with You‘s second season, and the debut of the phenomenal docu-series How To with John Wilson, 2020 was the definitely the year of Joe & John’s soothing overtones. I couldn’t think of two more perfect series to enjoy in 2020, shows that embrace the surrealism of the comedic form (in Joe Pera) and in real life (with John Wilson) to observe just how much we should appreciate the little things. Joe Pera’s budding relationship with Sarah (or Mike’s regular meltdowns) was something to look forward in the early days of the pandemic – and as the pandemic wore on, the John Wilson season finale “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto” broke my fucking heart into pieces, and put it back together again (yes, it’s that good).
Whether John pontificating about the abundance of scaffolding in urban areas, or “Joe Pera Gives You Piano Lessons,” both series take unexpected approaches to heartwarming conclusions, offering a heart that too much of television’s forgot about – one that isn’t saccharine, or ironic in any way, and welcomely basks in the glowing warmth of discovery and connection. Sometimes, we need to be reminded just how much we don’t appreciate life; both these series find ways to explore that idea in extraordinary ways, two shows unlike anything else on TV.
The Last Dance and the NBA Playoff Bubble
Though ostensibly two very different events, The Last Dance and the NBA Playoff bubble both provided the same comfort in 2020; a sense of community, long missing in the empty streets and canceled social events of the summer. Across ten hours of MJ’s self-flagellating (though extremely entertaining) documentary and two months of nonstop basketball, I was able to connect, and in some cases reconnect, with my colleagues and friends who equally share my love of the NBA. It’s hard to say what was the best part: The Last Dance memes, Dennis Rodman interview clips, Luka’s early playoff run, the Bubble Finals… in a time where we needed it most, basketball stepped up and delivered – both this generation’s stars and the last, offering an unexpected celebration of one of the world’s most popular sports.
Streaming networks back away from ‘the Netflix model’
In a year where outside forces turned binge-watching into the default mode of TV consumption, there’s been signs of hope from networks like Hulu and Amazon Prime that the ‘Netflix model’ has reached its absolute limits. For those of us who write about TV, we’ve all noticed the cyclical nature of a Netflix release – in that the internet exploded with opinions and memes for the first week after release, only to be immediately forgotten by the public at large immediately after (these trends have also exposed Netflix’s algorithm-driven decision to kill 95% of its shows after 2-3 seasons).
With release schedules like those of The Expanse, HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant, and most famously Disney+’s The Mandalorian, it appears network executives are beginning to notice these trends themselves – and thankfully, are beginning to reject it in favor of a more traditional release model. In most cases, it benefits a network to stretch out its window of cultural cache beyond the first few days of release – and while Netflix will still have a few The Queen’s Gambits or Tiger Kings every year, the short-term memory it induces on consumers is antithetical to the lasting success of most series.
Normal People‘s sex scenes
It’s turned into a Twitter meme this week, but I’ve been banging this drum for awhile; sex in cinema is at an absolute nadir, a disturbing lack of horniness that only grew more obvious once Hulu and Channel 4 dropped Normal People, easily the hottest TV show I’ve seen in years (and, if you’re putting this particular TV critic on the spot, the best show of 2020 period). Led by Lenny Abrahamson’s work behind the camera, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal offer some of the most intimate, revealing interactions TV’s ever seen, while still remembering to be extremely hot along the way (and for those who say sex should always drive the plot – please go fuck yourself, so you can remember how good something pointless can feel). Edgar-Jones and Mescal, whose chemistry elevates the series’ material from the first time they lock eyes, breathe so much meaning and color into their sex scenes, making each moment feel meaningful, unique – and did I say super hot?
I apologize for being so horny on main, but good sex on TV is something we should celebrate more, especially in this puritanical era we’ve entered, post-Game of Thrones and their many lifeless, gratuitous moments of nudity. Normal People is a phenomenal series about love, maturity, and identity, one that also just happens to be a masterclass on how to integrate sexuality into character and plot development, in a way that feels neither exploitative, or performative. Fair warning: the finale hits like a fucking train, so have your (crying) tissues ready.
Way back in April, I was banging my drum about how Superstore should be the only series making a pandemic-related episode. So you’re goddamn right I’m going to bang my own drum here, because “Essential” lives up to the hype, and its title, depicting the absolute shit show of retail management during the opening months of the COVID-19 pandemic. Taking place between March and July 2020, the episode (in a script credited to Bridget Kyle and Vicky Luu) captures everything from the panic and depression that took hold of general society, to the chaos and dangerous uncertainty faced by the retail workers suddenly deemed “essential” by the same executives who would, you know, deny them healthcare or lobbied against full-time benefits for their employees.
The result is a half-hour of comedy that captures the inherent chaos of the situation, but also lifts a middle finger to the people in charge of companies like Wal-Mart and Target, like how empty the phrase “essential heroes” are to people being exposed to a deadly virus for profits, or how dangerous it became for minimum-wage workers during the Great Toilet Paper Debacle of 2020. In so many ways, “Essential” was the most important half-hour of original television produced about the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
T’Nia Miller in The Haunting of Bly Manor “The Atlar of the Dead”
Though I mostly enjoyed The Haunting of Bly Manor, it was certainly a more uneven journey than The Haunting of Hill House – that is, save for the season’s standout fifth episode, “The Altar of the Dead”. Told from the point of view of Hannah Grose (T’Nia Miller), the titular home’s strangely distant housekeeper, “The Altar of the Dead” is an existential horror story for the ages, a harrowing tale about one woman coming to terms with her life’s regrets (there’s some stuff with the ghost robbers and creepy kids of Bly Manor in the background, but this is Hannah’s hour).
Its power is anchored by Miller’s mesmerizing performance as Hannah, tapping into a specific type of dread inherent to the human condition: our fear of missed opportunities, of having to look back at life and wonder what might have been. As Hannah slowly opens her eyes to the reality of her situation (or in some moments, the un-reality), T’Nia Miller delivers on Bly Manor‘s promise to blend romance, drama, and horror together into one truly uncomforting, heartbreaking hour of television.
Tales from the Loop “Echo Sphere”
Arriving quietly to Amazon Prime early in 2020, Tales from the Loop was one of the year’s more ambitious, thoughtful series, a in year desperately needing it. An anthology series based on a series of Swedish paintings, it took me a few episodes to buy into Tales‘ time and character-hopping format; with “Echo Sphere,” that all crystallized, in one of the more touching stories about life and death I’ve ever experienced.
The show’s fifth episode (boy, was there a trend this year with fantastic fifth episodes) centers on Russ, the founder of “The Loop”, the foundation of the show’s strange, subdued science fiction. After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, Russ (played beautifully by Jonathan Pryce) takes stock of his life, pausing to teach his grandson Cole a few lessons along the way.
The episode’s title comes from a seemingly magical object near The Loop: yell into it, and the echo that returns reflects the sound of your own voice as you’ll get older through the life – giving you both the knowledge of your vocal development, and a rough estimate of your life span. What does one do with that knowledge, with that burden of knowing your deadline on life? These questions weigh heavy on young Cole, giving some much-needed scope to what Tales from the Loop was trying to say as a series… and it is a goddamn beautiful episode of TV, a perfectly depressing pairing to view alongside “The Altar of the Dead” (if you really want to end 2020 sobbing into a pillow, that is).
Goddamn you, Ted Lasso; goddamn you for your bright smiles, upbeat music, and suffocating optimism that warmed my fucking heart for 10 glorious episodes in 2020. I’ve gushed plenty about already about Ted Lasso‘s s greatness, so I’ll just say this: Ted Lasso is by far and away the best thing Apple TV+ 360 Pro (or whatever the hell it’s called) has to offer, because it offers something truly unique on TV: a heart that’s truly open, willing to bask in the cheesy glow of its effervescent protagonist, and intoxicating sense of hope. It’s not a genre-defining series, or even a particularly efficient sports show (though I will argue to death with anyone who tries to say Ted Lasso doesn’t understand sport); but it’s commitment to its ideals is downright infectious, a feeling I can’t get out of my head since enjoying its first season run this fall. It’s a perfect end to this list – if you really want to head into 2021 with your head high, there’s no better show to watch than Ted Lasso.
In conclusion: fuck off 2020, I love you all, and here’s to a much safer 2021 (with better TV, I hope).
Honorable Mentions: The Expanse‘s return to form; Antony Starr as Homelander, The Boys; Ethan Hawke’s dialogue delivery on The Good Lord Bird; Vida; Zoe Kravitz as Rob, High Fidelity; Feel Good; Sex Education; The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air Reunion; the cast of Stumptown
… And Shows That Would Probably Be on This List If I Had Time to Watch Enough of Them: I May Destroy You, The Wilds, Better Call Saul, What We Do in the Shadows