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30 Best TV Shows of 2020
HBO / HULU
Has there ever been a year when our relationship to television has been more important? Cramped and isolated in our homes, we formed a real friendship with these series we chose to spend our days and nights with. At one point, early this spring, it seemed like we may not even get new television thanks to a pandemic that halted production schedules, but the thing about television is that it’s steadfast. It’s reliable. It’s the friend that comes to your birthday party, even when your mom decided you were going to have it at Burger King. That is the kind of friend television is.
That’s not to say that 2020 hasn’t offered us some really bizarre offerings. There’s high-concept series like Lovecraft Country and then there’s low concept, totally bingeable series that are a bit less esteemed, like Selling Sunset. We’re not here to judge how you spend your time. In the more prestige series you can expect to see Al Pacino out here hunting Nazis, Cynthia Erivo solving murders, Cate Blanchett trying to reset American feminism, and a reality TV show that teaches viewers a bit about authenticity.
Television in 2020 has taken us through the best of times and the worst of times. Depending what you were watching, you might be able to blame a little bit of 2020’s chaos on the TV series themselves. In case you’re playing catch up, here’s our round up of some of the year’s best in television, the friend we didn’t know we needed so much.
David E. Kelley has found his new niche: popcorn TV about fancy white women in precarious positions. His newest installment is The Undoing: a psychological drama about a psychotherapist named Grace (Nicole Kidman) whose world is rocked when her oncologist husband Jonathan (Hugh Grant) is accused of a heinous murder. The series takes you through twists and turns, making you wonder exactly who is at fault for this crime. Even when it is unwieldy, the HBO series manages to draw you in with a charming turn from Hugh Grant, a woefully underused Lily Rabe and Donald Sutherland, a star-making turn for Noah Jupe, and of course—the queen of coats herself, Nicole Kidman.
Sophomore seasons can be hard, especially when you’re an offshoot of a deeply (sometimes toxic!) beloved franchise like Star Wars. But you know what they say about assuming? It makes an ass out of you, and you alone, because you’re probably the only person not watching Grogu (nee The Child, nee nee Baby Yoda) decimate cuteness standards. Let’s be frank: the plot is perfectly fine, but we’re all tuning in each week to see what Baby Yoda does. Never has such a precious creature made possible murder seem so adorable. (Point of clarification: we do not endorse genocide. We only endorse eating all the eggs if you’re a baby.)
The Great British Bake Off
Just in time for the back half of the year, The Great British Bake Off returned. This season, host Sandi Toksvig was replaced by Matt Lucas (who you might have seen from Bridesmaids), but the gist remains the same. Amateur bakers descend on the big white tent in pursuit of the title of being the U.K.’s best baker. There are no big cash prizes. No deception. Just an unbridled love of making pastry, profiteroles, and pasties. Even more endearing: they’re all quarantined together for the duration of filming, making those earnest goodbyes even more heartfelt.
The Queen’s Gambit
It’s been a while since we’ve been this into chess, but the Netflix adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel is catching a lot of people’s attention. The miniseries follows orphaned Beth Harmon’s incredible trajectory as she aims to become the world’s best chess player. Riddled with addiction issues, the series spans 14 years and no—before you ask—it’s not based on a true story. But that’s a testament to just how good the show is because its rare that a story this good isn’t based in some semblance of reality.
I Know This Much is True
Mark Ruffalo takes on serious double duty in this HBO drama. He plays identical twins, which might seem like two-times the same role, but these two characters could not be more different. Following Dominick and Thomas, Dominick has the impossible task of helping manage his brother’s paranoid schizophrenia. But as Thomas’ condition continues to be unmanageable, Dominick discovers secrets at Thomas’ hospital that puts him in a precarious position. The six-episode series is a difficult watch, filled with grief, sorrow, and a true trial on the human spirit, but it’s some of the best storytelling and acting in 2020.
Set in a not-so-distant, much more globalist future, Netflix’s Away follows the first (wo)manned mission to Mars, a massive international undertaking by five powerhouse nations, designed to span three long years. The Atlas Mission is captained by Commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank), a tough, brave, and selfless NASA veteran, who is soon keelhauled by personal tragedy when her husband Matt (Josh Charles) is paralyzed by a stroke. Their teenage daughter, Alexis (Talitha Bateman), already uncertain about being apart from her mother for three formative years, finds herself pushed to the emotional brink. In a time when so many of us are so far from the people who feel like home, Away is a dazzling show about the final frontier, but also a welcome parable about the matters of the heart that matter most, even in the face of unprecedented human progress.
Pen15 has always been a show about girlhood and the bittersweetness of becoming, with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle bringing heart and hilarity to the indignities of adolescence. In its sophomore outing, the show is darker, weirder, and more ambitious than ever, taking the girls through familiar adolescent beats of warring with their mothers, growing toward and away from a malevolent frenemy, and exploring new passions through joining forces with new cliques. Come for the hyper-specific evocation of adolescent life in the early 2000s, but stay for the tender portrait of friendship, family, and becoming.
Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi
If there is one person who you should trust to guide you across America, revealing the nuance of how your favorite foods are the result of the greatest melting pot in the world, look no further than Padma Lakshmi. Her Hulu series takes viewers inside the subtleties of even the most basic foods (the hot dog! of all things!) and makes you appreciate how even in these tumultuous times, America is this giant experiment whose roots represent all of us. Yes, even your damn hot dog.
When Mythic Quest premiered, Apple TV+ knew it had a very decent offering from Rob McElhenney. Solid enough with a fresh concept and promise for future seasons. The initial release of episodes was smart and fun, but the series went from good to great when it took a risk with a quarantine episode filmed remotely. By the time the episode dropped, the premise already seemed tired, but that’s only because no one managed to do what Mythic Quest did. The comedy series ended up offering one of the most heartfelt looks at loneliness, distance, and the fear of living in a really scary time.
Dead to Me
Netflix’s Dead to Me seemed like one of those shows that might be looking luck in the eyes if it created a second season. Fortunately, the follow up to Season One was just as charming and complex as the first season. Now navigating a second murder, Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini anchor the dark comedy with an expertise that has only strengthened since Season One. Even better, there is something slightly elevated to the series. The ominous humor that comes along with death is obviously the main draw, but beyond that, the series manages to create a world where humor, fear, sadness, and anger can all exist in one perfectly messy package.
I May Destroy You
This BBC One and HBO creation from Michaela Coel is one of the frontrunners for best new series of 2020. Coel stars as Arabella, a woman whose drink was spiked one night, leading to her sexual assault. The dramedy series follows Arabella as she tries to piece together the memories of her assault while also processing her status as a survivor of sexual assault. The series seems a bit severe on the surface, but the writing and execution takes the brutality of a heinous crime and wraps it in a mix of vulnerability, strength, and dark humor, creating something so far-removed from survivor stories you’ve seen in the past.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark
The story of the Golden State Killer is a daunting one. Over the course of more than a decade, an unnamed monster raped 50 women and killed 13 more across the state of California. Years later, one woman named Michelle McNamara became obsessed with the case, breaking it wide open with previously undiscussed evidence and leads. Her work, chronicled in the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, inspires the HBO documentary of the same name. The six-part series dissects McNamara’s extensive investigative work, her untimely passing, the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo, and most importantly: how the survivors of DeAngelo’s rampage have managed to cope all these years later.
The modern Perry Mason has gotten quite a reboot. This HBO miniseries, starring Matthew Rhys, provides a stunning and stylish update to the mid-century CBS courtroom drama. What the miniseries sometimes lacks in coherent narrative is made up for with the incredible talents of Rhys, John Lithgow, and Tatiana Maslany. Pair that with the series’ noir-style approach, and the relatively light-hearted franchise is all set for the dark angle it needs to be relevant in 2020.
Catherine the Great is having a moment. Late last year, the Russian ruler came to HBO in Catherine, a four-part miniseries starring Helen Mirren as the legendary empress in the twilight of her life. On the opposite end of the spectrum is this year’s Catherine offering: Hulu’s The Great, a 10-episode historical comedy starring Elle Fanning as the young German princess shipped off to Russia to become a bride for the depraved and dangerous Emperor Peter III. Fanning is sensational as the naive and idealistic Catherine, whose illusions about love and marriage are quickly dispelled by the dawning reality that Peter is a violent, capricious, small-minded man—and a danger to Russia. Catherine vows to dethrone him and take over as the visionary ruler of a more progressive Russia, but unseating a despot is never easy. Nicholas Hoult is sensational as Peter, bringing a thousand shades of whimsical cruelty to the violent delights of the Russian court. But as we know from history, even in this “occasionally true” story, it’s Catherine who gets the last “huzzah!”
The team behind Last Chance U brought their visionary documentary-making style to the world of competitive collegiate cheerleading with Cheer, Netflix’s six-part docuseries about the Navarro College Bulldogs Cheer Team from Corsicana, Texas. Shot over the course of one academic year, leading up to the nail-biting national competition in Daytona Beach, the series spotlights the breathtaking athleticism of a sport too often viewed as window dressing. Each episode is a master class in educating viewers about the fundamentals of cheerleading—by episode two, even the previously uninitiated will be critiquing form as cheerleaders pinwheel through the air. Cheer also excels at situating personal stories amid the team story, with each episode profiling a different cheerleader’s long, winding, and often painful path to discovering kinship and belonging in the world of cheerleading.
The Last Dance
Sometimes, you can measure your own greatness by how much you’re pissing other people off. If we’re going by that metric, then The Last Dance, ESPN’s documentary about the Michael Jordan-era Chicago Bulls dynasty, was a hell of a success. Scottie Pippen… Horace Grant… even Ken Burns lobbed hater bombs at the 10-part docuseries. Regardless, director Jason Hehir can rest easy knowing that he made a documentary almost as great as its subject. At first, he had MJ cackling, burning through a glass of whiskey, and talking shit like it was ’98 again—but later, had him tearing up, realizing on camera what exactly he lost at the cost of greatness.
Even though it might be remembered for delivering the great sexual reawakening of the coronavirus pandemic (via a tiny silver chain and Connell’s how-short-are-your-short-shorts IRL counterpart, Paul Mescal), Normal People has plenty of other accomplishments. Really, it did the impossible, turning Sally Rooney’s uber-interior novel of the same name into a beautiful, visually striking depiction of young love. Normal People nailed the chemistry between Irish teenagers Connell Waldron and Marianne Sheridan—a relationship that includes so few words that a mumbled What you mean? ends up sounding like dirty talk.
What We Do in the Shadows
The first season of the TV adaptation of Taika Waititi’s beloved vampire comedy was a great example of how this story can work in an episodic format. But the second season has brought the show to new heights, finding the heart and hilarity in a group of incompetent vampires in Staten Island.
Queer Eye was rebooted about three years ago and stole the heart of America, but a couple years later, it’s actually an HBO series that really gets the format correct. Led by three drag queens, the series bounces around rural America, taking three subjects each episode and working with them to put on a drag show in their small towns. If that sounds campy or flippant, watch the series. The masterfully shot six episodes dive into complex narratives of life in rural America, the conflicting politics that divide liberal big cities from smaller communities, and the fragile threads of humanity that hold us together. Beneath the makeup and choreography exists a universal story of humans who simply wish to be understood.
Amazon’s Upload follows the trend (one that Amazon has particularly come to admire) of televisions series that explore the intersection of humanity and technology. In this one in particular, a man is uploaded to the cloud after his premature death in a suspicious car accident. His “upload” is sponsored by his rich girlfriend—a painfully narcissistic woman who seems to lack the humanity that fuels the project. What the series, and their relationship, evolves into though is a complex look at how humans view mortality and the desire to be gods of our own design. With equal parts humor, romance, and sci-fi, Upload is one of the easiest watches on television this year.
The Cate Blanchett-led series about the tumultuous fight for equal rights in the ’70s is just as good as its stacked cast suggests it might be. Following some of the most notable figures of Second Wave Feminism, Mrs. America takes a look at the women who fueled the movement (and one, in particular, who really tried to hold it back). The series’s approach to storytelling is addictive, managing to create mini-vignettes of each lead character that also advance the plot of the series. If there’s a single series in serious contention for best of 2020 so far, it’s Mrs. America.
Tiger King swept popular culture at a time when the world really needed a distraction, and if one story has the power to draw attention, it’s the strange tale of Joseph Maldonado-Passage (better known as Joe Exotic). The seven-episode docuseries looks into the bizarre world of big cat owners Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, and Doc Antle. Not sold? By the time you’ve finished the series, there’s an assassination plot, a three-way marriage, an alligator explosion, and an unsolved murder mystery.
The sweeping overview of Dave reads like a perfectly bizarre mad-lib situation: a comedic, Jewish rapper leads the series, while he’s supported by his bipolar hype man, his Wall Street-focused roommate, and his kindergarten teacher girlfriend. He goes by the name “Lil Dicky,” and yes, that’s a penis pun. The overview sounds painfully juvenile, but the execution—the execution—is some of the most thoughtful television on the air. The FX-Hulu series offers thoughtful, sincere looks into friendship, mental illness, and following your dreams… no matter how incredibly daunting they may be.
Alex Garland’s new mini-series centers on Sonoya Mizuno’s Lily Chan who is an engineer for a fictional quantum computing tech giant called Amaya. When her boyfriend Sergei goes missing, she’s caught up in a plot of corporate espionage and a technology that fundamentally changes the existential notions of human existence. It’s a challenging plot, which should not come as a surprise for fans of Garland’s other works like Annihilation and Ex Machina. But if you can put in the mental effort, it’s absolutely worth it.
The Good Place
With its final four episodes, The Good Place managed to produce a series finale that was both satisfying and believable, nailing a concept that has been attempted by a whole slew of prestige dramas, to no avail. The Good Place bowed out earlier this year after four seasons, and while it was steeped in lessons about philosophy and ethics, the series settled on a message that transcends time or academic teachings—people matter most. Michael Schur’s sitcom-that-could took nods from The Leftovers and Lost and managed to create a comedy as smart as it was touching. With so many series moving to premium cable and streaming platforms, The Good Place is proof that network can still serve an incredible series.
Throughout Schitt’s Creek’s six seasons, Dan Levy’s comedy series managed to consistently outdo itself when it comes to storytelling. Now, with only a few episodes of story left, Levy and his father have been tasked with wrapping up their series this year. Sure, Schitt’s Creek could have gone in the way of fan-service, but instead, it has spent 2020 crafting thoughtful, realistic finales for each of its characters. Even the best comedies have a way of tapping into something emotional, and the series is bowing out on a note that is equal parts hilarious and poignant. Yes, it was always expected that Catherine O’Hara and Eugene Levy would ground the sitcom, but the talents of Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, and Noah Reid have only driven the show’s level of talent through the roof.
Amazon Prime’s Hunters is a bit of a mixed bag because on one hand, it’s an incredible series with a pretty cool premise: in 1970s America, Nazi hunters discover that there’s a Fourth Reich being built in the United States; it’s their mission to stop it. Great, right? But also, it repurposes and tries to exaggerate past tactics the Nazis used, which… isn’t great. Even still, Hunters has a Quentin Tarantino-vibe, stars Logan Lerman and Al Pacino, and was produced in part by Jordan Peele. And it highlights a dark period on the record of the Allies, who really did bring Nazis to the U.S. for specialized work with NASA. But more than anything, it drives home a two-word mantra that I think we can all get behind: fuck Nazis.
The adaptation of Stephen King’s 2018 novel The Outsider is one of the year’s first doses of “prestige drama.” Starring Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo, the HBO miniseries starts out like a standard investigation into a particularly grisly murder of a young boy. But this is Stephen King we’re talking about. The series introduces supernatural elements that upend the investigation and make those closest to the crime more confused than ever. Beyond a scary plot, Mendelsohn and Erivo’s performances are next level, setting quite a high bar for this upcoming awards season.
Is it weird to include Netflix’s big reality show of 2020 on the “Best TV” list? On paper, yes. But for anyone who watched The Circle, it reads less like a reality competition show and more like a commentary on internet behavior. The premise: a group of competitors are housed in an apartment complex. They can’t see one another, and they can only interact through a social media platform called “The Circle.” You can be yourself or a catfish, but the objective remains the same: stay liked and don’t get eliminated. What blossomed from the big Netflix experiment was that (at least in this season) authenticity reigned supreme, and hey, that’s something worth believing in.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
Matt is the Culture Editor at Esquire where he covers music, movies, books, and TV—with an emphasis on all things Star Wars, Marvel, and Game of Thrones.
Adrienne Westenfeld is a writer and editor at Esquire, where she covers books and culture.
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