Every year we see pretty similar lists pop up around the internet claiming the “Top 10 Best Great Shows Of All Time This Year.” But there’s a fundamental problem with that task: not everybody watches TV for the same reasons.
Did that stop me from ranking every single show I watched this year? Absolutely not!
There’s a lot to be said for ranking shows and trying to find out what makes TV “good.” But here’s the thing, outside of critic circles, people don’t turn to lists for a high-minded conversation about art, they’re here for recommendations!
Top 10 lists give readers a very narrow range of shows to watch, and if you’re not into overly serious dramas, well then you’re probably out of luck.
Some people watch TV to be transported, others to unwind, and still others just want background sounds for folding laundry. I want people to enjoy TV, so I broke down the year into 9 categories based on different kinds of TV-watchers, tailored specifically to this hellacious year:
- “I only have time for one show”
- “I’ve been on my ass all year, I need to feel ALIVE”
- “2020 has been really hard, I want my TV to hold me”
- “I’m just trying to laugh, man”
- “Sad? Happy? Sure.”
- “I’m looking for the most interesting art about our society”
- “I looooove bad TV”
- “Let me see something I’ve never ever seen before”
- “Give me a binge, boy, and free my soul”
Let’s get cracking.
“I only have time for one show”
You’re a busy person. You have things to do. You love TV, but you’re not really trying to add that much to your plate. You just have time to watch one, so let’s make it count.
- Better Call Saul (AMC)
- BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
- Normal People (Hulu)
- I May Destroy You (HBO)
- The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
- Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
In my mind, these six shows were a cut above the rest, but they each have a decently sized barrier to entry.
Better Call Saul and BoJack Horseman aired their fifth and sixth seasons in 2020 respectively, so if you haven’t watched them already, why start now? I May Destroy You is a beautifully messy show about survival, coping, and consent in all of its forms, but it also is prominently about sexual abuse, so that’s not exactly an easy hang. Normal People and The Queen’s Gambit are some excellent shows and are also extremely white.
Mrs. America can drag at times and is the least “entertaining” of the bunch. Plus nobody else watched it, so you probably won’t have anyone to talk about it with.
So what do you pick?
For my money, Better Call Saul was the best show on TV this year. While great for several seasons, this was the year the show finally achieved its full potential. 2020 saw Better Call Saul collide its two worlds—the cartel drama we followed through Mike Ehrmantraut, Nacho Varga, and Gus Fring with the legal and romantic drama of Jimmy McGill and Kim Wexler. No show matched Better Call Saul’s ability to create tension, a genuine terror as you were forced to wait anxiously for the next shoe to drop.
There’s a lot of talk about whether Better Call Saul has surpassed its predecessor, and I think that’s kind of a silly conversation. Better Call Saul would not exist if it weren’t for Breaking Bad, and it was certainly afforded a luxury of patience as it developed. That being said, Saul is much more nuanced in the way that it inspects its characters. Its bench of actors is far deeper than Breaking Bad’s ever was and perhaps deeper than any show on television (shoutout to Succession’s delayed third season).
Normal People, I May Destroy You, The Queen’s Gambit, and Mrs. America are all limited series, so there’s no worry about catching up or falling behind, making them perhaps the best picks for someone who doesn’t have time. Don’t worry, we’ll talk about all of them at some point on this list.
For those on the go, The Queen’s Gambit is probably the pick here. It is easily the most accessible: it lives on the most popular streaming service, requires no background knowledge, and is a mere 7 episodes. Even if you know nothing about chess (which is what the show is about), it’s an incredibly fluid show to follow. The way its matches are shot and edited makes it both easy and exciting to follow (my friend Thomas Flight has an excellent breakdown of how the show is able to do this).
Like all of the TV shows on this list, The Queen’s Gambit can be watched on multiple levels. It’s an entertaining sports movie on the surface, an intricate character study a little deeper, and at its core an investigation into the cost of genius. You can’t go wrong with any of the shows on this list, but if you only have time to watch one show…
Verdict: The Queen’s Gambit
“I’ve been on my ass all year, I need to feel ALIVE”
2020 has been a year of solitude. With social distancing, your world has shrunk. You used to do new things, but this year “shaking it up” meant moving from your bed to your couch. All you want from a TV show is to feel alive.
- The Boys (Amazon)
- ZeroZeroZero (Amazon)
- Ozark (Netflix)
I’ve written a few times about The Boys on the blog this year, an anti-superhero show that lashes out at everything around it: corporate America, virtue signaling in all of its forms, and the dark histories we cloak in patriotism. It is an incredible season of television that has been growing on me as I continue to think about it months after the show ended.
Ozark’s third season was its best yet, its intensity fueled by the introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben (played by Tom Pelphrey in one of the best performances of the year). Ben has a heart of gold but he’s bipolar and off his meds, a dangerous dose of volatility in an already unstable field: heroin dealing. Wendy’s increased involvement in the family business this season raised the stakes considerably by itself, and Ben is a force multiplier, taking what was already a pressure cooker and turning it into a bomb.
But the pick here is ZeroZeroZero, the best show of the year you’ve never heard of, a globe-spanning exploration of the drug trade from all angles. We follow the Mexican cartels that sell, the American businesses that broker, the Italian cartels that buy, and the trans-continental transportation of cocaine that keeps a global market afloat.
The show follows characters in each faction, and whenever they meet another main character, the show traces back their actions to see the road that led them to this meeting. It’s intricate, it’s intense, and it features one of the most, dare I say badass, villains on TV this year—Manuel Conteras, codenamed Vampire.
The action is intense and beautifully shot across multiple continents. It’s one of the most transportative experiences of 2020, more than enough to make you forget you’ve been sitting on your couch for the last 8 months.
“2020 has been really hard, I want my TV to hold me”
In my mind there are two rational responses to the year of isolation we all just sat through. We just covered the first—boredom—but what about crippling depression?! You’re listless, you’re lonely, and all you want is for someone to hold you, and since you’re social distancing like a responsible adult, TV’s going to have to fill that void!
- The Good Place (NBC)
- Sex Education (Netflix)
- Normal People (Hulu)
- Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)
Let’s start with Sex Eucation, one of two Netflix shows aimed at teaching adolescent audiences about sex. Unlike its counterpart Big Mouth, Sex Education is less interested in the physical acts of love and more about the underlying interpersonal dynamics that govern it. It certainly shines light on less conventional relationships, which can be comforting in its radical acceptance. It can also trade sex jokes with the best of them, peaking in the musical that ends the show’s second season.
Only four episodes of The Good Place are eligible for 2020 consideration, but they are the four most emotionally satisfying of the series. At its core, The Good Place was always about how we lead fulfilling lives. That is, what we owe each other. In the series finale, you finally get the answers, and while closure can be painful and emotional, The Good Place does its absolute best to walk through it together, hand-in-hand, whenever you’re ready.
Normal People is the most intimate show I’ve ever seen, pulling you physically close to its main characters with soft lighting, shallow depth of field, and some seriously cozy sweaters. But it can also be a major bummer (more on this later), and we’re trying to escape our depression here.
So that leaves us with the king of feel-good TV: Schitt’s Creek, a show so crowd-pleasing and inoffensive that it became the first television show to sweep the Emmy Awards. The stakes on Schitt’s Creek, especially by its sixth and final season, are low. Nobody is in danger, everybody is settled into a new life, and in that balance, the show becomes the perfect comfort food. It’s sweet, but not so high in sugar that you’ll come out of quarantine 25 pounds heavier.
Verdict: Schitt’s Creek
“I’m just trying to laugh, man”
TV runs comedy. There are funny movies (I think?) but this is TV’s wheelhouse. Sitcoms are some of the best joke machines ever invented, but which one was best in 2020?
- PEN15 (Hulu)
- Dave (FXX)
- What We Do In The Shadows (FX)
- Corporate (Comedy Central)
PEN15’s second season, while shorter in length, was by no means short on laughs. The show follows writer/creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, 33-year-old actresses playing middle school versions of themselves opposite actual 13-year-olds. It is quite possibly the greatest cringe comedy show ever created, following our heroes to a pool party, a weirdly serious play, a sleepover, and an ill-fated attempt to join the boy’s wrestling team.
Dave the series from writer/creator/rapper/star Dave Burd (better known by his stage name Lil Dicky) is shockingly good. It has absolutely no right being as thoughtful or smart as it is, considering its main character’s rapper name is a joke about his own penis and the show’s entire third episode revolves around detailing all of the ways it’s deformed.
Even as the show delves into a number of interesting topics (mental illness, balancing career ambition with personal growth, and the nature of cultural appropriation), it maintains its silly sense of humor. I went in fully expecting to roll my eyes, but I’ll be damned if I wasn’t won over.
What We Do In The Shadows (based on the Taika Watiti film of the same name) is equally silly, but without any of that weighty subject matter. It’s just a bunch of weirdo vampires running around Staten Island, shouting “Bat!” and “Human form!” as they transform back and forth. As a show about blissfully unaware superhumans with nothing to do with their lives than have petty squabbles, it is hilarious.
But if you’ve been following my channel or the blog, you have to know that I’m picking the final season of Corporate as my number one joke machine of 2020. In a year in which the crushing failures of late-stage capitalism and the gigantic wealth inequality it breeds became apparent in such depressing ways, Corporate punched back. It took aim at our corporate overlords and the small ways we try to create meaning in their hellscape.
“Pickles 4 Breakfast” laughed at commercially successful TV shows produced entirely by algorithms. “The Importance of Talking Shit by Oscar Wilde” explored the coping mechanisms of gossip and passive aggressiveness in the workplace. And the series finale “The Wind of God” showed us how screwed we all are. Might as well laugh.
“Sad? Happy? Sure.”
You want the richest emotional experience there is. You want to laugh, you want to cry, you want to feel all warm and fuzzy, you want to feel empty and gutted. You want to feel everything there is to feel.
- BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
- Normal People (Hulu)
There are only two shows in 2020 that fully hit every emotional high and low imaginable. BoJack Horseman’s finale season gave us everything the show has become famous for, exploring the depths of depression, imposter syndrome, the trauma we wreak on others, and how to deal with our past and grow. I’ve written a lot about my feelings about BoJack Horseman here and here.
But the pick is Normal People. The plot and larger ideas don’t compare, but it is a deeply personal show, about intimacy in all of its forms. It would be impossible for me to separate Normal People (a show about finding deep connection and intimacy) from the experience of watching it (alone, in an endless lockdown).
The show is as delicate as it is brutal, showing the equal-but-opposite devastation of losing that connection. At a time when I most needed to feel the strength and intensity of human connection, I watched Normal People, and I haven’t really ever stopped thinking about it since.
Verdict: Normal People
“I’m looking for the most interesting art about our society”
Television is a mirror to our society, a snapshot of culture frozen in time. If you go back and watch Cheers or The Andy Griffith Show, you see a very different landscape. So what show best captures the times we’re living in?
- Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
- I May Destroy You (HBO)
Ironically, one of the most politically relevant shows to 2020 is the one set in the 1970s, Mrs. America. The show plots the course of the failed Equal Rights Amendment, a constitutional amendment designed to guarantee equal rights for everyone regardless of sex.
The show isn’t just about the headliners of the movement, like Gloria Steinem, but about the more forgotten political actors whose contributions have been pushed out of the history books, either by the center left, or by the ultraconservative. Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) stands out in the best episode of the series, the first black candidate for a major party’s nomination for President, silenced by the liberal establishment.
The feminists who fought for the ERA have become cultural icons since, but Mrs. America points to the fact that they lost the legal battle, forging a path of conservative backlash that has persisted in American politics up until today. After all, the last thing the real-life Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett in the series) wrote was The Conservative Case for Trump. The show is all about examining our modern polarized political landscape through a historical lens, with an absolute banger of an opening title sequence.
The world of Mrs. America might help us understand how we got here, but I May Destroy You is fully present. It tackles complicated contemporary social issues like sexual assault, consent, living online, and how we are all performing for someone on social media. It is one of the first shows to really understand how attached we all are to our phones, how they are woven into the fabric of our day-to-day existence. It shares Michaela Coel’s semi-autobiographical experience with assault, an authentically fresh perspective, set apart from the standard ways we see these stories.
I find myself comparing it a bit in my mind to Unbelievable, the Netflix miniseries from 2019 about catching a serial raper. That show also dealt with social awareness around assault, but it tried to do so from arm’s length. I May Destroy You is fully immersive, it’s about seeing the world through the eyes of someone whose story is so often overlooked in our media, both fictional and nonfictional. Whether it’s the news or entertainment, certain voices are marginalized for the sake of others. But if the Black Lives Matter protests have taught us anything, it’s that maybe we (white people) should shut the fuck up and listen for once.
Verdict: I May Destroy You
“I looooove bad TV”
You understand that there are few things in this world better than the guilty pleasure of watching bad TV. You might be ashamed to ask your friends for Bad TV™ recommendations, but I got you.
- The Undoing (HBO)
- Westworld (HBO)
- A Million Little Things (ABC)
- Trinkets (Netflix)
Wait, what’s HBO doing here? Aren’t they known for prestige television? NOT THIS YEAR!
The Undoing and Westworld are big budget shows, starring wildly famous people and actively flaunting their wealth. All that does is make them some truly shiny golden turds.
While I was initially optimistic that Westworld would be better off outside the park. Things quickly reverted to the show’s normal convoluted plot, with characters whose motivations are actively removed from the equation by some combination of fate and computer mumbo jumbo. My favorite line from this season was Aaron Paul gruffly saying in voiceover, “We were deployed to Crimea. Russian civil war. Nothing civil about it.” Give him the Emmy now.
The Undoing is equally ludicrous, despite an even more grabbing start. In those first few episodes, anything seems possible, with classic TV cliffhangers capping each week. But then you realize that the show is quickly spinning out of control, becoming more and more ridiculous at every turn, dropping from a cliff to fall endlessly, Spy Kids style. The Undoing peaks in its final scene, featuring a helicopter, some brain dead police officers, a bridge, and an unreasonably long Nicole Kidman running sequence.
Trinkets is a classic pulpy teen drama, following three high school kleptomaniacs and their friendship. It’s hard to understand why they’re friends, considering how different all of these characters are and how tenuous their supposedly intense bond is.
But, and you’re not gonna to believe this, there’s only room for one Bad TV™ show in my heart, and it’s A Million Little Things. It’s hard to believe that we’re already in the third season of this show—that people far richer than you or I have decided not once, not twice, but three times to make more episodes of a television show based solely on the idea that the Office Space guy jumped off a building in 2018 because he was sad about 9/11 (yes, that’s real).
More recently, we’ve seen Eddie almost take up drinking again, only to be hit by a car and put into a wheelchair. Maggie moved into a London apartment with the simp version of Jimmy Shive-Overly. Gary remains a walking billboard for the Boston Bruins (who is the Emerson alum that works on this show???). Rome is making a movie about the show up to this point, which usually isn’t a *great* sign for the narrative well of ideas. Theo has gone from best man to worst boy. Delilah remains charmingly (and confusingly) French.
Oh, and Eddie also realized that he didn’t kill someone when he was a teenager, and that made him so depressed he relapsed and started taking painkillers. Look, I didn’t say this show made sense, I’d hate it if it did.
Verdict: A Million Little Things
“Let me see something I’ve never ever seen before”
TV is getting really weird and diverse, and you’re looking for the cutting edge.
- Tiger King (Netflix)
- Unorthodox (Netflix)
- Primal (Cartoon Network)
- Devs (FX on Hulu)
- How To with John Wilson (HBO)
Yeah, Tiger King was this year. It was the first show we all watched together in quarantine. It made us all think, “well hey, maybe this won’t be so bad.” Ron Howard voice: it was.
So much has happened since then that it’s hard to remember how mind-blowing the world of big cats was at first. Carole Baskin and Joe Exotic have become so ingrained in our social consciousness since then that it’s easy to forget that you probably heard about this show because your friend texted you something along the lines of: “You have to see Tiger King, it’s fucking crazy.”
Unorthodox does what TV does so well, opening a window into a completely foreign world, this time about a young woman escaping an oppressive life in the Orthodox Jewish neighborhoods of Brooklyn to forge her own path. How To with John Wilson did it even better, literally observing New York City and making a show that was equally funny, dumb, and profound.
Devs and Primal present the cutting edge of visuals on the small screen, one a science fiction contemplation about determinism shot through the eyes of Alex Garland, the other a cartoon rendition of r/natureismetal from one of the best living animators. Seriously, take an edible and watch either of these shows.
But How To with John Wilson is unlike any other show on this list. It is one of the most difficult shows to describe, but ultimately, it’s a show about listening. John Wilson is not the subject of his show (we rarely ever see him), and when he talks to people on the street, it’s rarely conversational. Instead he opts to ask a question and then patiently waits for his subject to tell him whatever they want to. Some might see it as cringe comedy, seeing people dig themselves deeper and deeper, but it never feels like Wilson feels that way. He’s just a deeply socially awkward man trying to understand other people.
Verdict: How To with John Wilson
“Give me a binge, boy, and free my soul”
You’re not looking for anything new, you’re looking for a binge, because you’re hip and that’s how hip people watch TV, I guess.
- Better Call Saul (AMC/Netflix)
- The Shield (FX/Hulu)
If you’ve been following my Patreon, you know that I’ve become borderline obsessed with The Shield. It is a deeply flawed show, but it is exciting and happy to be television in a way that I find deeply satisfying. Where so many TV creators would clearly rather be making films, trying their absolute hardest to push back on everything about the TV medium, from strict episode lengths to commercial breaks, The Shield absolutely revels in it.
As creator Shawn Ryan told Brett Martin for his book Difficult Men, “There are people who don’t want to believe they’re making television. It’s easier for them to believe their film auteurs than to embrace that this is a different genre and that there are ways to take advantage of that genre,” [Shawn Ryan] said. “ I wasn’t going to Scorsese film festivals in Greenwich Village as a kid. I was watching Brady Bunch repeats. I didn’t walk into this business with an attitude toward television.”
I also find its flaws deeply interesting, something I will be covering in Episode 5 of Copaganda.
Even though I spent much of my year watching The Shield—a show that has become unexpectedly relevant in 2020—this is ultimately a list about TV shows that came out in 2020.
I said it before and I’ll say it again, Better Call Saul was the best show on TV this year, and to fully appreciate its greatness, you have to watch the whole thing. Season 5 was a culmination of years of collaboration between script and actor to create the richest cast of characters on television.
Better Call Saul has always been about a foreboding endpoint, a sword of Damocles that hangs over everything. It adds a tinge of tragedy to even the happiest moments as we see these worlds slowly build up and crash into each other. I’ve made multiple videos about the series this year, and it’s been remarkable to see how the characters have grown and changed, without ever losing their central essence. Character exploration is TV’s core strength, and Better Call Saul is the best in the game right now.
Verdict: Better Call Saul