December 3, 2020
The best TV shows of 2020

The best TV shows of 2020


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The Queen’s Gambit.


Netflix

While movies slipped away and vacated their summer release spots, it was TV that kept us entertained at home in 2020. Tiger King glued us to the small screen in the early going, with its unbelievable twists and larger-than-life characters. Then we rocketed through a fantastic range of shows, from The Last Dance, to I May Destroy You, Lovecraft Country and more.

We’ve devoured a lot of TV this year — and in a year like this we needed the distraction. Here’s what we’ve picked as the best TV shows that debuted in 2020.

Read more: The 30 best films of the decade, ranked

Betty

HBO

2020 sucked. You got up every morning and it all was all just a tiny bit worse. But every now and then a ray of sun would appear through the clouds. One of those bright spots was Betty, a fly-on-wall-style tale of skateboarding teens in a balmy New York. Utterly real and breathlessly dreamy at the same time, HBO’s TV follow-up to the indie hit Skate Kitchen painted a picture of young women facing the world head-on, pushing off and gaining speed and reducing obstacles into things waiting to be jumped over while looking cool. My baby daughter turned one while this show was on, and I can’t wait to plonk her on a skateboard. I hope she finds a Betty crew of her own.

— Richard Knightwell

I Hate Suzie

Sky Atlantic

If watching a former-child-pop-star-turned-actress’s life go off the rails sounds like your cup of tea, then I Hate Suzie delivers in the most astonishingly raw, creative and hilarious fashion. Suzie Pickles’ phone is hacked, and she must deal with the personal and career consequences of the compromising photos. Her fear and panic is palpably claustrophobic thanks to up-close camerawork and Suzie’s charmingly irresponsible and impulsive reactions. Co-creator and star Billie Piper doesn’t hold back, and fans will love the tongue-in-cheek parallels with her own career.

— Jennifer Bisset

Tiger King

Even if you’ve gleaned a lot of the details of Tiger King’s insanity from when it took over the internet, you still stand a good chance of being sucked into the documentary series that goes to seemingly unbelievable places. There really is nothing like watching Joe Exotic’s rise and fall as he builds his private tiger zoo in Oklahoma. Things get even more bizarre when his bitter feud with Carole Baskin, a cat rescuer in Florida, leads to harassment, threats and unsolved murder mysteries. You really do have to watch it to believe it.

— Jennifer Bisset

Unorthodox

Netflix

This miniseries is based on a memoir and told primarily in Yiddish with painstaking detail. Almost a thriller, Unorthodox follows 19-year-old Esty Shapiro, who escapes her arranged marriage in an ultra-Orthodox community in Brooklyn. She ends up in Berlin, exploring a new life outside the strict beliefs she grew up in, but her community doesn’t let go that easily. Featuring a stunning performance from Shira Haas, Unorthodox lets you take a step into a relentlessly compelling world.

— Jennifer Bisset

Normal People

Hulu

Sally Rooney’s novel turned miniseries is anything but normal. Normal People charts the romance between Marianne and Connell, from growing up on the Irish coast to starting university in Dublin. You see all their ups and downs, from breakups and depression, to the tough first steps at university. Eventually you’re so embedded in their lives, your heart breaks with theirs. It’s incredibly hard not to fall in love with this show and its soulful couple.

— Jennifer Bisset

Never Have I Ever

Netflix

Devi is your average high schooler who wants nothing more than to be cool and get a boyfriend. But it’s hard to stay chipper after your dad dies. Mindy Kaling’s coming-of-age story covers familiar territory and yet it stands out from the pack in multiple ways. Get this: Its narrator is John McEnroe. The sporting connection is just one layer of this surprising, charm-your-socks-off show, depicting an Indian family living in California. You’ve seen these stories before, but not with these unique characters.

— Jennifer Bisset

Mrs. America

Hulu

Was I expecting to like a mini-series about Phyllis Schlafly, Gloria Steinem and the fight to pass the Equal Rights Amendment? No. Was I utterly riveted by the performances of Cate Blanchett and Rose Byrne and the brisk, sharp storytelling? Yes, indeed. Mrs. America not only provided a thoughtful look at a lesser-known chapter in American history, but also accomplished something rare: Fully balanced insight into both sides of the story. You come away understanding why the two groups felt the way they did, and why they fought so fiercely. It may sound like homework, but it’s the smartest and most entertaining homework I watched all year.

— Rick Broida

Ted Lasso

Apple TV Plus

Don’t you hate it when they make terrible shows and movies out of SNL alumni characters? Well, this is definitely not one of those. This show may be based on a series of Jason Sudeikis’ ads for the Premier League, but you don’t have to like football (or soccer) to appreciate this show. Ted Lasso is a classic “useful idiot” but his enthusiasm is infectious. The show is funny, nuanced and whole-hearted. Alongside Mythic Quest, Ted Lasso is the best reason to get an Apple TV Plus subscription.

— Ty Pendlebury

Lovecraft Country

HBO

HBO’s Lovecraft Country is an incredibly ambitious show that directly connects horror as a genre to the Black experience in America — exactly what you’d expect with Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw Productions involved. The show kicks off in 1950s Chicago, with a young man traveling across the segregated US in search of his missing father, uncovering family secrets, ghosts and monsters both literal and figurative. Each episode explores a different element of horror, race and family trauma, with interludes ranging from 1800s Massachusetts to 1921 Tulsa to far-future planets and dimensions. It doesn’t always land, but the stellar performances and beautiful cinematography make it a big swing worth your time. 

— Alison DeNisco Rayome

I May Destroy You

HBO

The HBO and BBC One series I May Destroy You is an absolute tour-de-force from showrunner Michaela Coel. It follows Arabella, a Twitter-famous millennial author who is on a deadline for her second book when she takes a break to meet up with friends at a London bar. The next morning, only fragments of memories of the evening and what happened to her remain. Based on Coel’s own experiences, I May Destroy you is an exploration of sexual assault, consent and all of its murky corners, along with friendships, family and other relationships. But all of the heaviness is cut through with sardonic humor, and Coel’s performance as lead actress/writer/sometimes director will leave you in awe.

— Alison DeNisco Rayome

American Murder: The Family Next Door

Netflix

American Murder: The Family Next Door is a Netflix true crime documentary that tells the tragic story of the Watts family murders in 2018. With unflinching courage, director Jenny Popplewell compiled social media live streams, texts, police interviews and body cam footage to present the profile of a family annihilator. Chris Watts, who confessed to murdering his pregnant wife and two daughters, is currently serving five life sentences in Colorado. While learning the family’s fate is enough to break your heart, Popplewell doesn’t stop there. Perhaps the most harrowing part is the final moments of the documentary where she chooses to go back to the beginning and remind viewers of Watts’ carefully constructed performance of a concerned husband upon learning that his wife was “missing.” American Murder: The Family Next Door isn’t an easy show to watch but it deftly addresses the epidemic of domestic violence. 

— Shelby Brown

Challenger: The Final Flight

Netflix

Like many Gen Xers, the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger on Jan. 28, 1986, was the first news event that I can remember exactly where I was when I learned it had happened. This four-part Netflix documentary takes a broad but also sharply focused look at one of defining moments of the 1980s, that feels absolutely necessary even 34 years later. Though some reviewers complained that the doc doesn’t tell us anything new, I think that misses its point. Instead, we’re reminded that disasters like this never come from one thing that went wrong. In Challenger’s case, it included an enormously complicated reusable machine, a bureaucratic and budget-conscious NASA culture that pushed an overly ambitious launch schedule, and the solid rocket boosters that ultimately failed on the launch day, just as so many people expected they could. It’s shocking and saddening to see the entire story told in the span of a few hours and to be reminded that the search for teacher in space Christa McAullife was basically a PR exercise. And I appreciated that the interviews with the fallen astronauts’ families — particularly June Scobee Rodgers, the widow of Mission Commander Dick Scobee — are candid and reflective, giving the story a necessary human element.

— Kent German

Tehran

Apple TV Plus

I was pretty skeptical about signing up for yet another streaming service when AppleTV Plus arrived on the scene. But like Ty Pendlebury, I was drawn in by Ted Lasso and when I finished binge-watching and laughing through Season 1 of that show, I clicked on Tehran, a spy thriller. I was on the edge of my seat from the first episode. The lead is Tamar Rabinyan, a Jewish woman born in Iran but raised in Israel who’s a brilliant hacker and spy for Mossad, the Israeli intelligence service. She’s sent undercover to Iran to help destory a nuclear reactor. But the whole mission goes sideways right at the start, leaving Tamar to find her way in a city where her cover is blown and she’s being chased by the smart and ruthless Revolutionary Guards. Her new friends and old family members get drawn in, with the suspense level set to “high” in each episode. I haven’t finished Season 1 yet, but I can tell you it’s hard to say who the good guys and bad guys are — or if anybody really “wins” when you tally up the innocent casualties along the way.

— Connie Guglielmo

The Queen’s Gambit

Netflix

My favourite show last year was Dark season 3, but in terms of new shows, I’m gonna go with The Queen’s Gambit. A period drama about an orphaned chess prodigy, The Queen’s Gambit had all the potential in the world to be painfully morose and pretentious, but it somehow avoids all those traps. Anchored by some fantastic performances, Anya Taylor-Joy is charismatic and hypnotic, The Queen’s Gambit is also… surprisingly funny? Above all it’s compelling. Watch it.

— Mark Serrels

Awkwafina is Nora from Queens

Comedy Central

Nora from Queens stars Awkwafina as a “fictionalized version of herself.” Nora is 27, living at home in Queens with her father and grandmother. Nora is a giant woman-child who blows through life like a chaotic, impulsive hurricane. Awkwafina is a brilliant performer with buckets of charisma and talent, and every episode is genuinely so funny and charming. Nora’s grandmother, played by Lori Tan Chinn, is a total scene-stealer, and I wish she was my grandmother. Season 2 WHEN? (It’s OK — it’s already been renewed. But I want it right now.)

— Nicole Archer 

Helstrom

Hulu

Marvel’s most interesting characters aren’t always morally sound superheroes. Helstrom is a standalone story within the Marvel Cinematic Universe that follows the lives of siblings Daimon (Tom Austen) and Ana Helstrom (Sydney Lemmon), who happen to be the children of a powerful serial killer and Satanic cult leader. The siblings are estranged, but they share a common goal — track down the worst of humanity and erase them from existence. Both Daimon and Ana have their own “powers,” but they aren’t exactly typical heroes. They each have dark sides they battle with constantly. Helstrom explores both family trauma and demonic possession in a stylistic way, making the show feel more like a ’70s artistic horror film rather than a run-of-the-mill comic book adaptation. The new series — currently streaming on Hulu — is violent, bloody and downright creepy. So if you plan to binge-watch Helstrom, you might want to do so with the lights on.

— Bonnie Burton

Emily In Paris

Netflix

This show was definitely not the best plotted story ever, but it was such an entertaining watch. And as someone who works in social media, it was insane how much she was doing and how much she misrepresented the profession. It really made me laugh. Even my parents got hooked on it and binged it just two days. 

— Alexandra Able

Love is Blind

Netflix

The reunion special alone makes this show the best of 2020. The entire concept is insane, and all the love triangles that were somehow created was such an insane concept. Now, Mark from the show has a child on the way, with someone else! It was the twists and turns of this show that really got me hooked.

— Alexandra Able

Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist

NBC

The concept of this show didn’t sell me, but I love the way the show managed to seamlessly and flawlessly integrate the songs. I was sobbing at the end of the first episode, and I’m counting down the days to season 2. #TeamMax

— Alexandra Able

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet

Apple TV Plus

The entire show is hilarious, but the best episode of the first season was A Dark Quiet Death. This episode is heartbreaking, beautiful and just so amazing to watch.

Alexandra Able

Taste the Nation

Hulu

In Taste the Nation, host Padma Lakshmi explores our identity as Americans through the food we eat. She travels across the country to dig into the origins of everything from burritos in El Paso, Texas, to Chinese food in San Francisco. Each episode is a window into a particular culture — from Native Americans in the Southwest and a de-colonized Thanksgiving dinner with indigenous ingredients to the Gullah Geechee people of South Carolina and red rice. At the center of the show are mostly immigrants, largely women. Lakshmi is an empathetic interviewer who draws out her subjects to talk about colonialism, immigration and racism, but also their joy in making connections and keeping their culture alive through food. The show is ultimately a celebration, and Lakshmi brings her curiosity and enthusiasm to it all. (Yes, she touches all the food with her bare hands and we are here for it.) She eats everything without hesitation — except for maybe the glazed pack rat. In Taste the Nation, Lakshmi shows us all how to live.  

— Anne Dujmovic

Locke & Key

Netflix

Back before the pandemic really hit, Netflix original series Locke & Key had us binge-watching every night until we finished it despite the lack of a quarantine or lockdown keeping us housebound. It’s a great mix of murder mystery, creepy-cool manor house and the fantastic. The characters can get a little annoying and frustrating at times, but so does everyone inhabiting a suspense movie or series — if they didn’t do stupid things, there wouldn’t be much of a storyline. The ending had a great twist, and I’m counting down to season 2. It’s based on a comic book series, so they’ve got plenty of source material to continue the story.

— Corinne Reichert

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

HBO

As a true crime junkie, I’ll watch just about any docuseries on serial killers. But I’ve been particularly obsessed with the Golden State Killer case for years. Having listened to podcasts on the case and having already read Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, I wasn’t positive what else I was going to get out of this series. And yet I found myself moved to tears by this immensely powerful show. Not only are the victims finally put front and center, but the show beautifully weaves together how this case impacted the late McNamara, one of their greatest advocates for justice. 

— Rebecca Fleenor

The Vow

HBO

The Vow focuses on the cult NXIVM and their leader Keith Raniere. On the one hand, this first season felt like a very surface level look at the cult and everything that went on in NXIVM. And it’s clearly coming from the point of view of a select few who left not long before things went south and worked to take Raniere down. However, the video footage and phone recordings are excellent and gives you a very intimate look at the cult that you might not find anywhere else. I’ll definitely be tuning in for the second season.

— Rebecca Fleenor

Feel Good

Netflix

This delightful British dramedy flew quite under the radar this year. As queer representation continues to grow on screen, it’s fantastic that we continue to see more complex and dynamic characters and relationships. Especially when the series was created by the very talented and gender fluid Mae Martin. It’s an added cherry on top.

— Rebecca Fleenor

I Know This Much Is True

HBO

This is a highly depressing, yet breathtakingly beautiful portrait of two identical twin brothers both played by Mark Ruffalo. One brother struggles with a severe mental illness while the other gives everything to save him from himself. Mark Ruffalo is outstanding in this story of sacrifice, love and forgiveness.

— Kirsten Nicolaiasen

The Great

Hulu

The Great — as in Catherine, empress of Russia — is a delight. This Hulu Original is a bit light on historical accuracy, but it tells the juicy and oddly saucy story of a mad king, his mad court and his mismatched, arranged marriage to a foreign aristocrat in the 1700s. The dialogue is crisp, the costumes are gorgeous, the emperor is a monster and the empress keeps learning and growing and plotting. We all generally know how the story ends, but it’s captivating to watch the wild ride — from afar. Elle Fanning doesn’t just play the role of a starry-eyed, determined Catherine. She embodies it.

— Natalie Weinstein

The Last Dance

Me reading other people’s picks for TV show of the year.

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Netflix

Jackson Ryan



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