This article is part of our 2020 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more released in this very strange year. In this entry, we explore the best TV shows of 2020.
Maybe it’s time to accept that TV might never be the most-beloved visual medium. Since the early days of product-selling game shows and variety programs, the format has always played second fiddle to film, and it’s never really gotten over its little sibling syndrome in the eyes of the public. Even now, after several golden ages and eras of excellence, you can tell television still isn’t the coolest place to be, primarily because countless film directors and their superfans say they ‘really think of this show as a several-hour-long movie.’
But you know what TV is? There for us. It’s there for us when theaters are closed. It’s there for us when movie studios are dissolving and combining and squabbling and making pandemic-era decisions that will always leave someone unhappy. It’s there for us through arguments about films’ financial and physical accessibility. It’s there for us when we can’t leave our homes and our television sets become a familiar friend during a period of immense anxiety.
And you know what else? TV is really, really good. It might even be better than movies. Don’t tell all those directors that I said that, though. On that note, here are the twenty best TV shows of 2020:
Ramy Youssef’s groundbreaking series about a Muslim-American family explores the crooked path to spiritual purity with nuance and depth in its second season. Stylish, subjective, and unpredictable, Ramy’s sophomore season expands beyond its chronically misguided central character to explore the hidden depths of the friends and family members on his periphery. From sister Dena’s (May Calamawy) social-media-related fear of the evil eye to mom Maysa’s (Hiam Abbass) experiences as a Lyft driver to disabled friend Steve’s (Steve Way) quest to get laid, Ramy isn’t afraid to dive into the fears, desires, and discomforts of its myriad characters. Throw Mahershala Ali into the mix as a Sheikh who takes Ramy under his wing, and you’ve got a story with a strong artistic voice and an utterly original point-of-view.
19. The Queen’s Gambit
Much like the game at its heart, Netflix’s surprise smash hit includes several key pieces, each with a completely different function. There’s the story of Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy) the orphan, trying to fill the hole in her heart with pills and booze and impermanent mentor figures. There’s the saga of Beth the genius, pristine in her competence, perpetually improving as a chess player in a near-fantastical narrative arc. Then there’s perhaps the most interesting piece, the one that runs as an undercurrent through the series: the tale of Beth the woman.
For a long stretch of The Queen’s Gambit, chess stands in as a metaphor for sex, a breath-taking power exchange that leaves both parties sated or, at the height of Beth’s dominance, craving more. Even when they’re platonic, the chess games on screen are still clearly tied to womanhood and gendered power. All these disparate pieces shouldn’t go together, but they manage to add up to something great thanks to Taylor-Joy’s pitch-perfect performance and a narrative that hooks you early on and never lets you go.
18. Normal People
As painfully intimate as the Sally Rooney novel on which it’s based, Normal People captures a romance with a pounding heart that spans years and countries. Daisy Edgar-Jones plays Marianne, while Paul Mescal is Connell. The pair are pushed together and pulled apart again and again, like waves to the shore, as each struggles to pin down the other’s ever-shifting self-image. Every aspect of the Ireland-set series is shot through with loneliness, from the acting to the cinematography, but the yearning for connection is palpable, too. While the pair’s star-crossed schtick is slightly more exhausting on screen than in the book, defining moments still come alive with vivid clarity in a series that often feels like visual poetry.
17. The Umbrella Academy
Few other shows have pulled off a hard reboot as spectacularly as The Umbrella Academy. The series’ first season was dull and dreary, but its second is a pure, 1960-set delight. After narrowly avoiding the apocalypse, the Hargreeves siblings are yeeted across space and time, with each one landing in Dallas, Texas, a few months or years from the next. This is a super-clever conceit, made even better by individual storylines that slough off the first season’s dead weight and suit each character to a T. The Umbrella Academy’s second season doesn’t just deliver adventurous writing, but also choreography, music, direction, and pacing to match. Compared to some of the more introspective titles on this list, this superhero period piece delivers a simple type of joy, but that joy is addictive and absolute, so what’s not to love?
16. Schitt’s Creek
This sitcom’s Emmy-winning final season is a joyous culmination of years of compassionate storytelling and decidedly Canadian comedy. Schitt’s Creek’s sixth season is a bit of a narrative victory lap, with much of the season devoted to David (Dan Levy) and Patrick (Noah Reid) planning their wedding and the Rose family deciding whether or not to move on from the town they’ve finally learned to call home. Catherine O’Hara’s Moira Rose especially is given a chance to grow in the final episodes, coming to terms with the nature of and limitations to her celebrity after years spent as the family’s most static (if uproarious) character. Schitt’s Creek’s final season is the icing on the cake of the series, the delicious taste of comfort food we didn’t realize we’d need so much in 2020.