If you live in an area that was locked down, watching TV was about all there was to do in 2020. Luckily, there were more TV shows than ever to watch, and at least a few dozen of them were pretty good. [And for the first time ever, this year’s list is compromised entirely from a shows that each have a different individual network.]
Documentary favorites: “McMillions” has nothing to do with the fate of the world or the suffering of mankind. It’s just a solid “I can’t believe this actually happened” true crime story with a hilarious cast of real life characters. Everyone who can’t shut up about “Tiger King” might want to check out this instead…Then there’s “Agents of Chaos” which compiled the tightest, most comprehensive case yet of how Russia has set up an international propaganda apparatus and what it’s used for in part one; then in part two they explain the full what, when, and how of why they used it to elect Donald Trump President. It’s a lot of stuff you might have seen here and there, but assembled into the most persuasive, clearest argument yet…And finally there’s “Hillary,” which just might change hearts and minds about one of the most unfairly villainized women in American history (which is saying something).
10. “Yellowstone” (Paramount Network)…Many critics would think I’m nuts for listing Taylor Sheridan’s Neo-Western melodrama anywhere near a top ten list. But this is one of the rare “red state entertainments” from people who actually know what they’re talking about, and this is the series’s best, least ridiculous season. There were a handful of great new characters (a female Native American “fixer,” a female cowboy who’s Texas accent is nearly indecipherable, and the great Will Patton as Jaime’s murderous biological father) and the year’s most surprising–and best–cliffhanger ending.
9. “Bosch” (Amazon Prime)…Similar to “Yellowstone,” this is one show that never quite gets the respect it deserves. Yes, it’s mainly just a procedural show, but an excellent one with an actual knack for real-life police work (you can feel the banality and fluorescent lights of the cramped interrogation rooms). This season dealt with rightwing extremists, crooked federal agents, and a biological attack that nearly shuts down Los Angeles. Needless to say, it’s more relevant than ever. And Titus Welliver may be giving TV’s most underrated lead performance.
8. “Ozark” (Netflix)…Season 3 actually benefitted from a dialed-down pace, lowered body count, deeper characterizations, and more realistic action. The grittier, escalating tension somehow made the sense of dread more palpable before a season that literally ended with a bang (to borrow the same pun every other TV critic did). Wendy and Marty Byrde are ending things next season, and I’m more eager than ever to see what happens.
7. “Perry Mason” (HBO)…I’ll be honest and admit that I didn’t have a lot of interest in watching this before I finally did (months after the season ended). And it does take a while to get going, but then I finally realized I was watching an origin story. “Mason” is full of the thrill of watching a great lawyer being born. A gritty, downbeat procedural that somehow manages to become downright inspiring before it’s over? It’s like we’re watching the subtlest of magic tricks, and some of the most beautiful production design of the year.
6. “Fargo” (FX)…It may not be the anthology drama’s best season, but it’s certainly the most ambitious. [A quick glance at the Wikipedia page shows the main cast for this is bigger than the other three seasons combined.] Combining a vivid cast of characters, handsome period detailing (it’s like Norman Rockwell drenched in blood), and storytelling that never stops searching for a new way to take a risk (love the black-and-white episode “East/West” that involves a bizarre hotel, quirky characters, and a shootout during a tornado), “Fargo” remains one of the very last great FX dramas (unquestionably the best basic cable network in terms of original content) now that Disney seems content to sabotage the network by letting Hulu devour most of its original content. This outside reality almost adds to the bittersweet appeal of the daring fourth season, and I’m glad creator Noah Hawley isn’t afraid to go bold all these years in.
5. “Raised by Wolves” (HBO Max)…Although Hollywood is often slammed for “disrespecting religion” it’s actually rare to see a big budget drama explicitly take on religious belief. “Wolves” is daring, nervy science-fiction not afraid of its own ideals and questions. [Too often, “science fiction” is just futuristic or space thrillers taking a poke at a topic or two before getting to the inevitable bodycount.] Amanda Collin gives a breakout performance as Mother, an apocalyptic war weapon reprogrammed into a robot that can raise children. And the surprising ending is both scary and mystifying, making you wonder “just what is that thing? And who put it there?”
4. “Homeland” (Showtime)…I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it one last time: a series that began as overrated has quietly finished as an overlooked gem. [That never happens, as shows either fizzle out completely, get cancelled, or dip in quality.] This season was like “The Maltese Falcon” geopolitical version as every spy and warlord in Afghanistan was on the hunt for a missing black box recorder. It was even more thrilling since the moment the world went to hell on “Homeland” overlapped with a world ravaged by CoVid. So long Carrie and Saul, I’ll miss you!
3. “Mrs. America” (Hulu)…The untold story of the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment is like the very best of character driven thrillers. Does Cate Blanchett’s antagonist actually believe in a thing she’s saying or is this just to launch herself into a bigger platform? [Her ultimate fate at Reagan’s hands is richly ironic and satisfying.] Is Gloria Steinham a celebrity-playing-activist or the most effective advocate the women’s movement could have? “Mrs.” uses a panoramic approach to its storytelling so we follow a different character each episode, a brilliant way to show the various archetypes women are forced into (“mouthy lesbian,” “chic feminist,” “meek housewife”) before exploding them. It’s an infinitely layered series that never stops finding ways to surprise you.
2. “Little America” (Apple Plus)…Each episode showcases a different immigrant’s “coming to America” story. Given the anthologized aspect, the episodes vary in quality from “good” to “excellent,” but part of the fun is in seeing exactly what each episode will bring. Moments of this series moved me to tears, and made me laugh out loud–sometimes only a scene part. Beautiful, humanizing work that even the biggest grinch could embrace.
Best TV of 2020: “The Good Place” (NBC)…The last four episodes aired in 2020 (and that’s all you need really). And yet in that brief amount of time, we see the entirety of human existence (the world and the afterlife) saved, a new system devised, the actual “good place,” and what happens when you go through that final door in the perfect final scene that illustrates how tiny acts of kindness power the universe in a way that doesn’t feel didactic at all.
Honestly, I don’t know what else I could’ve asked for than a tour through the final corners of the universe (we hadn’t seen some of the things until the very end) and the revelation that the series was not only saving the world (the macro story) but also a love story between Chidi and Eleanor (the interpersonal story) and a very intimate exploration of Eleanor herself (the inner story). The blending of one person’s decision whether or not to overcome their emotional baggage to save the universe blended the intimately psychological and the grandly philosophical in a way I don’t think I’ve ever seen a series do before. How could I pick anything else?