Welcome to our Mid-Year Report, a series of lists in which we break down the best movies and shows we’ve watched so far in this astronomically strange year, 2020. This list is all about the best TV shows we’ve seen.
What can we say about TV in a year like 2020? For one thing, it’s been there for us no matter how bad the world gets, even as some regular seasons were cut short due to unprecedented events. Some of us are watching more television than ever while stuck at home during this global pandemic, while others find ourselves unable to focus on pop culture at all, especially when so many stories already feel outdated (it’s hard not to scream at the screen when people share drinks). If you’re at a loss for what to watch to get you through, we’re here to help.
At this strange midpoint of a strange year, I polled the staff of Film School Rejects to get our take on the best TV 2020 has to offer so far. The results, as one may predict, include plenty of levity, along with series that ask us big questions about our lives and worlds. Animated series, comedies that’ll make you cry, and speculative fiction that hews close to reality all captured our attention in the first half of the year, while the top spot — which has rarely if ever gone to a nonfiction series before — belongs to a deserving, powerful dose of reality delivered in a riveting package. Read on for our picks for the best shows of 2020 so far, presented in alphabetical order.
Better Call Saul
We just wrapped up the penultimate season of Better Call Saul, or as it should rightly be called, The Kim Wexler Show. Season four ended with Jimmy making his biggest leap yet into the role of Saul Goodman and Kim shaken to her core by it. And while this season could have seen them drift further apart to an ultimate, already-known conclusion (Kim is never so much as mentioned in Breaking Bad, of which BCS is a prequel), this new batch of episodes has seen Kim take several unexpected and glorious turns, ending with the two of them in a tenuous but supportive balance. It’s unclear how exactly the show is going to deliver its characters to their Breaking Bad positions, and this tension has been the constant, unseen source of unspeakable stress throughout this superbly crafted season. I have genuinely no idea where the show is going or how it’s going to end. I’m petrified but so excited. (Liz Baessler)
Better Things is, hands down, one of TV’s best things. Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical series about parenting three daughters as a single mom and actor in LA is a testament to the small-screen form and to the empathetic powers of storytelling. In the latest season, Sam Fox (Adlon) begins to recognize the full extent of the anger she’s been left with after divorce while her middle child, Frankie (Hannah Alligood), begins to explore gender and sexuality and forge a path independent of Sam. Describing the series’ plot, even in these broad terms, feels like a betrayal to the series’ loose artistic style, which presents a poetic and powerful flow of feelings and experiences, often in the form of seemingly unconnected vignettes or stories with pieces omitted. Yes, Better Things is a comedy about a woman and her kids, complete with temper tantrums and rites of passage, but it’s also one of the most transcendent and bold storytelling experiences on TV, and you shouldn’t miss it. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
Skating equals freedom in Crystal Moselle’s freewheeling and fantastic small-screen follow-up to the 2018 indie film Skate Kitchen. The HBO series uses several of the same non-professional actors from the film, a group of vibrant and talented girl skateboarders whom Moselle discovered in New York. Betty’s presumably bigger budget and slightly more focused feminist narrative make for an incredible viewing experience, as the six-episode first season takes a stoner’s-eye view to the everyday experiences of young women who choose to build their own subculture of acceptance and individuality. Whether they’re taking shady modeling gigs to pay off their drug debts, tripping on mushrooms in a public park with a pet rat, or stuck in a cramped jail cell after popping off at a club, the ladies of Betty have confidence, curiosity, and beyond-their-years wisdom that’s impossible not to love. Watch out for breakout star Nina Moran, who, despite only three credits to her name (all by Moselle), already has the presence of a comedy legend. (Valerie Ettenhofer)
Even after ten years, the Belchers’ endearing dysfunction is still as fresh and funny as ever. Bob’s Burgers continues to find the balance between hilarious and heartfelt, with episodes featuring Gene learning how to fight his own battles, Louise overcoming her fear of pooping in public, and Linda teaching Tina to love their humble seaside town. Already renewed for an eleventh season (not to mention an upcoming movie), we can look forward to even more punny burgers-of-the-day like “If It’s Yellow Let It Portobello” and the “In Ricotta da Vida Burger.” No matter what comes in this ever-struggling restaurant family’s way, Bob’s Burgers always manages to remind us that with a loving support system and a good sense of humor, no problem is too big to face. (Kristen Reid)
BoJack Horseman came to a close this year in a way that only it could: artfully, uniquely, and grappling with its own existence to the very end. Beginning as a clever and sardonic sendup of Hollywood, the show gradually morphed into an unflinching mirror of everything from the broadest sweeps of society to the deepest, most private struggles of the self. Oh, and it threw in several storytelling game-changers along the way. Always driven by an “antihero” protagonist, BoJack walked an ever-narrowing tightrope between his slow march toward personal growth, and the world’s (and audience’s) need to see him own his mistakes. It’s a tightrope any show could easily tangle itself up in, but BoJack Horseman did it masterfully, marrying forgiveness and reckoning in an ending that offered no hard answers, but a real promise of something good to come. We never deserved BoJack Horseman, but we’re so lucky to have had it. (Liz Baessler)