Top 10 TV of 2020

2020 was kind of a strange year for TV because it’s been a strange fucking miserable year for everything. I didn’t get a chance to watch everything for various reasons – I just can’t get into Schitt’s Creek as much as I love Catherine O’Hara, I can’t get into The Crown now that Lithgow is gone, I don’t have the will power to blow through three seasons of Ozark, mostly because I heard it’s merely “ok”, and I’m ridiculously behind on Insecure (loved the first three episodes I saw) and Lovecraft Country (couldn’t get into the first two episodes I saw).

That being said, compared to the average binger, I watched a considerable amount of television this year. Most of it was shitty reality cooking shows like O.G. Top Chef and MasterChef or the occasional marathon of Ghost Adventures, because I was frequently depressed with the world on fire around me. Still, I saw some really good stuff and out of what I watched, here’s my top 10:

10. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Easily the pick on my list that has the most mainstream appeal, creators Allan Scott and Scott Frank make chess fun again with this fish out of water underdog story about an opiate addled orphan who rises her way through the world of Chess, despite being a woman, in the 1960s. The Witch and Split‘s Anya Taylor-Joy has really come into her own as a serious adult actor, she single handedly carries the series, which is not an easy thing to do for a veteran actress, much less someone who is 24 and has been acting professionally for less than a decade. The Queen’s Gambit never quite breaks the mold in terms of storytelling or asks us to consider any difficult/uncomfortable truths beyond a woman possessing the ability to beat men at chess (for some folks in this country, that might sadly be a leap), but it’s entertaining and accessible enough to make an impact. This is gorgeously produced mainstream television that’s the perfect escape from all this sedition in the news.

9. Harley Quinn (HBOMax)

My roommate is a huge superhero nerd and I don’t really love the genre. Sure, they’re dumb fun for the most part and a handful of them are even great films, but I hate the whole good vs. evil dichotomy. I often side with the villains over the the heroes (IN FICTION!) because nine times out of ten, they’re more fleshed out and complicated in their morality. I grew up on Scorsese and Tarantino, I don’t understand this word…hero? If they aren’t in a constant uphill battle to not to be a total piece of shit, I’m not interested, sister.

Anyway, he suggested we watch Harley Quinn and while I was rolling my eyes so far into the back of my head I almost had a brain aneurysm, I heard him prattle on this amazing cast list. Kaley Cuoco, Christopher Meloni, Wayne Knight, Lake Bell, Alfred Molina, Jim Rash, Alan Tudyk, Andy Daly, Tony Hale, Jason Alexander, Rachel Dratch, ect. I became slightly interested and after the first season was over, I was really on board for anywhere it would go. The second and most recent season, as is the case with most second seasons, was the show’s best. Balancing humor, fantasy and genuine character depth, almost organically, all framed within a post-#metoo female perspective. Harley Quinn is one of the freshest takes in a tired genre, and that’s more than enough to recommend it.

8. A Wilderness of Error (FX/HULU)

I watched several truly great true crime documentary series this year, from the acidicly comedic McMillions to the infuriatingly tragic The Vow. Standing head and shoulders above the pack, A Wilderness of Error doesn’t offer the cathartic resolutions those do, but it presents us with an almost unsolvable murder mystery (on an American military base) where somehow the most far-fetched theories make the most sense.

7. Search Party (HBOMax)

418030 Search Party – 306 11/07/18

Brought back to glorious life by newcomer streamer HBOMax, Search Party was able to not only meet the excellence came before it, but exceed it. Creators Sarah Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers package their biting commentary on millennials and package it into a hilarious and at times quite touching courtroom drama. It’s way better than The Trial of the Chicago 7 and there’s actual female characters.

6. Euphoria Christmas Special (HBO)

Oakland native Zendaya appears as Rue in a still from “Euphoria” special episode part one, titled “Rue.” The show is available to stream on HBO Max.

I liked but didn’t love Sam Levinson‘s first season of Euphoria, which was sort of this disturbing kaleidoscope of Gen Z teens banging and betraying each other, all under the influence of prescription drugs. It was filled with very interesting characters but it often seemed to sacrifice greater honesty for showing in detail the most fucked up thing you could ever imagine, like ever. That wasn’t the case with their Christmas Special (not officially called that, but this is my movie blog so piss off) which showed Rue (the marvelous Zendaya) having a desperate meeting with her sponsor, Ali (Colman Domingo, in a star-making performance) and that was it. Just a one hour conversation between two people in real time. Simple, honest, powerful and created out of necessity for the Covid-19 pandemic. I hope Levinson continues doing this small, single-scene one-offs for characters until we can safely go back to producing a 1000+ people drama series.

5. What We Do in the Shadows (FX/HULU)

The funniest scripted program I watched last year was the second season of the vampire mockumentary series What We Do in the Shadows, based on (and I’d wager even better than) the 2014 film by Taikia Waiti and Jermaine Clement. Everyone in its talented ensemble got more to do but nothing could have prepared us for Jackie Daytona.

4. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

Basically animated Mad Men, BoJack Horseman really broke down barriers in terms of animated television programs, managing to create something that was both goofily fun and uncomfortably honest. Its final set of 8 episodes might have been its best though, ending on one of the warmest yet heartbreaking exchanges between two old friends who were completely different people at the beginning of the series. Wouldn’t it be funny if we never saw each other again? I think everyone has had this conversation.

3. I May Destroy You (HBO)

The most strikingly unique and relevant scripted series of 2020, Michaela Cole‘s I May Destroy You defies genre classification at every turn. Featuring three of the most complex and well-rounded characters of 2020, that really hammer home the message that you don’t have to be a saint or even a good person for that measure to be a victim. Comparisons to Fleabag are inevitable (mostly because it’s starring, written and directed by a twenty-something genius) but unwarranted because they set out to do two completely different things.

2. Better Call Saul (AMC)

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler, Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill – Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 10 – Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

The spin-off nobody could have guessed would come close to eclipsing the series it was shat from, Better Call Saul entered its fifth and best season in 2020. This was due in large part to an unexpected perspective shift from Bob Oedenkirk‘s Jimmy to Rhea Seehorn‘s Kim, and her grapple with morality. I honestly don’t know what I can write about this show that me or other critics haven’t already. It’s always unpredictable, it’s always intelligent, it’s always somehow funny and nerve-wracking, often within moments of each other, and it managed to completely separate itself from the shadow of Breaking Bad.

1. How To With John Wilson (HBO)

If I May Destroy You was the most unique scripted series I’ve seen all year, How to With John Wilson is the most unique anything I’ve seen all year. Much like many shows on this list, it’s unpredictable, relevant and goes from fall over hilarious to heart-wrenching poignancy in a matter of seconds. However, in it’s final beautiful episode, it manages to be the best pop culture documentation of the Covid-19 shift. Hard to imagine tearing up at the end of a series that just two episodes prior featured a middle-aged insane man hooking up the tip of his penis to a suspended rod on his bed frame in an attempt to make himself a foreskin. Can’t wait for Season 2.

BEST ACTRESS

Rhea Seehorn – Better Call Saul (AMC)

Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler – Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 9 – Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

This was the best performance of 2020 in television or film, period. The fact it got snubbed for an Emmy nomination was outrageous and seemed like definitive proof voters simply aren’t watching Better Call Saul.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Michaela ColeI May Destroy You (HBO)

Anya Taylor-JoyThe Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

ZendayaEuphoria Christmas Special (HBO)

BEST ACTOR

Colman Domingo – Euphoria Christmas Special (HBO)

A minor but considerable presence in the original series, Colman Domingo‘s weathered AA sponsor to Zendaya‘s Rue, Ali, takes center stage in this one hour Christmas Special. He’s the gentle, understanding but brutally honest guiding light all of us wish we had.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Will Arnett BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

Matt BerryWhat We Do in the Shadows (FX/HULU)

Ben MendolsohnThe Outsider (HBO)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Cynthia Erivo – The Outsider (HBO)

The Outsider wasn’t a great show, but like many HBO original series it featured a dynamite cast. The standout was British actress Cynthia Erivo as a psychic private detective with Aspergers. Week after week, her and series lead Ben Mendolsohn did so much heavy lifting, overcoming B-level material to turn in truly A-level character work.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

Sharlita GrantSearch Party (HBOMax)

Weruche OpiaI May Destroy You (HBO)

Maya RudolphBig Mouth (Netflix)

BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Paapa Essiedu – I May Destroy You (HBO)

Out of the three central performances of Michaela Cole‘s I May Destroy You, none hit harder than Paapa Essiedu‘s Kwame, a gay black man whose experience with sexual assault is handled way differently than a straight woman’s. Which is not to say the handling of Kwame’s sexual assault defines the entire character, but it serves as a powerful metaphor for the kind of bullshit gay people still have to go through. Acting mostly with his eyes, Essiedu breaks your heart with little more than a glance. It’s such a dialed in and nuanced performance that flies so under the radar it has absolutely zero chance of ever getting an Emmy nomination. What a crock.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

John EarlySearch Party (HBOMax)

Hugh GrantThe Undoing (HBO)

Harvey GuillenWhat We Do in the Shadows (FX/HULU)

BEST WRITING

“Ego Death” by Michaela Cole – I May Destroy You (HBO)

Powerful, Rashomon style finale that refuses to tell you what really happened because it realizes what the viewer takes away from it is more important than that.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

“Trouble Don’t Always Last – Part 1: Rue” by Sam LevinsonEuphoria Christmas Special (HBO)

“On the Run” by Stefani RobinsonWhat We Do in the Shadows (FX/HULU)

“Bad Choice Road” by Thomas SchnauzBetter Call Saul (AMC)

“The View from Halfway Down” by Alison TafelBoJack Horseman (Netflix)

BEST DIRECTING

“Bagman” by Vince Gilligan – Better Call Saul (AMC)

The most thrilling Better Call Saul episode ever demonstrates everything Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan has learned about directing over the years.

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

“Openings” by Scott FrankThe Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

“Trouble Don’t Always Last – Part 1: Rue” by Sam LevinsonEuphoria Christmas Special (HBO)

“Line Spectrum Border” by Sam Miller and Michaela ColeI May Destroy You (HBO)

“Bad Choice Road” by Thomas SchnauzBetter Call Saul (AMC)

SCENE OF THE YEAR

“Referee Party” – How To With John Wilson (HBO)

Don’t think I laughed harder this year than watching this real life catastrophe unfold. A shitty referee party where a Plasma screen TV raffle is rigged in favor of an organizer’s friend and a condescending asshole gets his retirement present stolen. #wheresthewhistle

HONORABLE MENTIONS:

“Wouldn’t it be funny if this was the last time we saw each other?” – BoJack Horseman (NETFLIX)

“Circumcision Warrior” – How To With John Wilson (HBO)

“Arabella Surprises Biagio” – I May Destroy You (HBO)

“Introduction of Jackie Daytona” – What We Do in the Shadows (FX/HULU)

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