If you’ve already watched Cheer, recent headlines may make it tough to revisit, but the fact remains that the bracing docuseries about competitive Texas cheerleading is one of reality television’s all-time triumphs. With Last Chance U director Greg Whiteley at the helm, Cheer taps a similarly deep vein of Friday Night Lights-inspired Americana. That doesn’t mean it isn’t wholly original, though; the series expertly captures the brutality, camaraderie, and legacy of a rarely-respected sport. At Navarro Community College, a cast of diverse, compelling, sometimes tragic characters emerge, led by the stern but supportive Coach Monica Aldama. Cheer delivers engrossing drama, gorgeous visuals, and heart-pounding editing, hitting a perfect ten in nearly every category.
Betty might be the best show you’ve never heard of. Crystal Moselle’s HBO series takes a group of non-professional actors — girl skaters the filmmaker met in New York City — and puts them in their natural habitat to create a freewheeling, hyper-realistic coming-of-age story. This band of girl skaters is confident, tight-knit, and passionate, but they’re also young adults in achingly real and often hilarious ways. Nina Moran’s raucous lesbian Kirt is a major scene-stealer, but each cast member brings something of substance to the table across the series’ first six episodes. Rarely has a subculture ever come to life so vividly on screen.
3. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark
True-crime writer Michelle McNamara’s book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark would’ve been a milestone in its genre even if the author’s dogged research hadn’t helped lead to the Golden State Killer’s arrest after her death. But it did, so the author’s kaleidoscopic look at the sprawling Golden State Killer case — along with the very nature of crime, trauma, and investigation — would be tough for anyone to top. Yet somehow, this ambitious documentary series by Liz Garbus manages to do just that. Garbus layers McNamara’s own story over the stories of the men and women who survived brutal attacks by Joseph DiAngelo, and while the experiences initially seem completely different, she expertly weaves a taut narrative web that connects every piece. The Golden State Killer case clearly haunts every person it touches, and now it’ll haunt us too. If we must stay awake at night thinking of something, though, we’re lucky it’s this expansive and deeply compassionate story.
2. Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso is the perfect underdog story. What could’ve been a corny farce became a much-needed ray of small-screen sunshine thanks to a heartfelt performance by Jason Sudeikis and the sweet comedic style of Scrubs and Cougar Town’s Bill Lawrence. Sudeikis plays the titular Coach Lasso, who goes from heading up an American football team to a British football (a.k.a. soccer) team despite having no experience with the sport or country. Lasso is the exact opposite of the toxic masculine figure often portrayed in sports stories, the rare male character who is casually progressive and deeply kind. He’s like a mix between Friday Night Lights’ Coach Taylor and Mister Rogers, and his team’s dynamic is greatly improved by his earnest, unflagging support. We’re improved too, as every minute spent with Ted Lasso is a genuine bright spot during an undeniably dark year.
1. Better Things
Better Things is the truest work of art currently airing on TV. Pamela Adlon’s semi-autobiographical series about motherhood manages to find truth in every inch of life, from mundane conversations with strangers to significant rites of passage to dreamlike, impressionistic moments. Adlon’s Sam is a firecracker of a mom, brutally honest and deeply caring and, like any parent, an occasional fuck-up. Her three kids are equally vibrant in a season that sees Max (Mikey Madison) out in the working world, Frankie (Hannah Alligood) experimenting with sex, and Duke (Olivia Edward) feeling the first pangs of teen rage. When it comes to Better Things, though, the plot is almost irrelevant; the series is all about the vibes, with which no other series can compete. Beautiful, funny, vibrant, and life-affirming, Better Things simultaneously tells us through every masterful frame that A. everything sucks and that B. everything will be okay. In a testament to Adlon and her excellent cast and crew, we actually believe it.
Related Topics: 2020 Rewind