2020 is probably the hardest year ever to make a top ten list for television. This year has been like three years in one. There was that brief pre-pandemic period full of ignorant bliss, there was the early pandemic period where most of us thought “this won’t go on that long” (famous last words), and then there was the rest of the year where we simply were (and still are) wondering if there is ever going to be a post-pandemic era. Because this year has been so fractured and has felt so incredibly long, shows that came out earlier in the year seem like a lifetime ago. But, soldier on we must. So, while I’m sure I’ve surely forgotten at least one show I loved that will haunt me later, I’ve done my best to rack my brain and scour over every series I took an interest in over this most horrible year.
Before we get started, just a few caveats about my top ten list:
1) Just because a show didn’t make my top ten doesn’t mean I didn’t like it (I’m looking at you, Fargo and The Outsider). A top ten has ten slots, not 18.
2) Any top ten list, for TV in particular, is going to be incomplete. One simply can’t see (or even sample) everything.
3) And if you don’t like my list, just remember, the only list that really matters is…YOUR OWN.
10. Mrs. America
I know some had mixed feelings over Cate Blanchett’s “sympathetic” portrayal of the anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly, but don’t count me among their number. It’s always more interesting to present the villain as an actual human being, and that’s exactly what Blanchett does here (with all her remarkable gifts). What I especially like about the series is that you don’t have to squint too hard to see how Schlafly’s charisma, drive, and organizational skills could have been put to better use to further equality for her gender. The fact that she chose to be a prop for condescending men of power made her life tragic, and, worse than that, she made the world a more difficult place for women.
I really didn’t want to watch Hillary. Not because I have an issue with the subject (I was a proud supporter), but because I didn’t want to relive the horror of the 2016 election. But, I drew an interview with the series fine composer, Will Yates, and dug in with no small amount of apprehension. And while the pain of going through the 2016 election was more than a little palpable, I’m so glad I took the show in. Hillary is a great primer (and reminder) of the full and extraordinary life she’s lived. Unlike Mrs. America, it’s a story about a woman who put her considerable skills and ability to good use for her gender. The pity of it all is how under appreciated those efforts have been, and how few people really know about them. Hillary stands as not only a corrective document that serves its subject well in the present, but even better as reminder of the legacy Hillary Clinton created that will live on well after she’s gone.
8. The Plot Against America
Homicide, The Corner, The Wire, Generation Kill, Treme, Show Me A Hero, The Deuce, and now The Plot Against America. With that string of TV, producer/writer David Simon is the pre-eminent creator of down-to-earth prestige television working today. Just like most of its predecessors, The Plot Against America received great reviews but fell short during awards season. I’d say that’s a shame, but for Simon it’s become so typical that it almost seems pointless to bring it up. What I will say is that The Plot Against America may have been his trickiest and most complicated undertaking yet. It’s no mean feat to create a period piece of alternative history, but when that alternative history involves Hitler winning WWII and anti-Semitic fascism spreading across the USA, well, like I said, that’s complicated. That Simon did it so cleanly and (by keeping the story centered around the Levin family) so humanely is a testament to his unique talents. I suppose the awards would be nice, but I’ve always felt that Simon cares far more about the work than the accolades. Which is good, because the work will stand long after we’ve all forgotten who won what statue in whatever category during “what year was that?”
7. High Fidelity
Nothing depressed me more about this television year than Hulu’s cancellation of High Fidelity. As a person who worried his way through college by running a record store, I was a huge fan of both Nick Hornby’s book and the John Cusack film that followed. Both products truly understood record store people and their culture (don’t even try to talk to me about Empire Records—it won’t end well). I wasn’t sure if a third iteration of High Fidelity (four if you count the off-Broadway production) was necessary, but then I watched it. To my surprise, I found this version of High Fidelity to be the best one. Offering sharp writing, distinctive supporting characters, and giving Zoe Kravitz a career-best role, the show was not only a delight to watch, but also a surprisingly moving experience. If the final moments of this terrific show have to be Da’Vine Joy Randolph strumming a guitar and singing a Stevie Wonder tune in the record store all by her lonesome, well, no ending could have been lovelier.
I guess Alex Garland just can’t miss. After writing 28 Days Later, and then writing and helming Ex-Machina and Annihilation, Garland has become the pre-eminent onscreen creator of speculative fiction. There’s no way I could explain Devs in what amounts to the capsule review that this list-type deal I’m writing here requires, but I can tell you that this mind-bender about the very nature of reality is well worth your sit. I also hope it makes a star of its compelling lead, Sonoya Mizuno. She made quite an impression as a speechless AI robot in Ex-Machina (who can forget her disco boogie moves with Oscar Isaac?), but here she gets the chance to play a full character and carry the production, and for reasons far beyond her physical beauty, you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Perhaps the thing I’ve always loved about film and TV is the opportunity to go to places you’ve never been and learn about cultures you’ve never encountered—I think of it as traveling without moving. No show from 2020 addressed that perspective more than Unorthodox. Starting out in the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg in Brooklyn and ending in the artistic community in Berlin, the show uses that sweep to tell the story of a young woman suffocated by the traditions of her sect. Her escape to Germany is thrilling, and the tenuous, hopeful note the show lands on is delivered with considerable grace. As that young woman, Shira Haas delivers one of the finest performances of the year. She is pitch-perfect throughout in a show that rests almost entirely on her tiny shoulders. She is the discovery of 2020.
4. Better Call Saul
Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad spin-off has been so consistently excellent over its five seasons that you could almost take it for granted. But when you think of what this show has accomplished, which is to follow a classic series and be arguably as good (and some might say even better) than the one that birthed it is astounding. This fifth season raised the stakes even higher. Going deeper into Jimmy and Kim’s co-dependence, and with the expanded role of Tony Dalton as Lalo Salamanca, the show provided a great one-of-a-kind nemesis for both Jimmy and Gustavo Fring. The next season of Better Call Saul will be the last, promising to close out the Breaking Bad universe for good. While it feels like just the right time to finish the journey, I anticipate a full range of mixed emotions when it ends. Like Lalo, “I just like to hear the story.”
Through its first two seasons, Ozark developed a strong following while also taking some shots for being a little too similar to Breaking Bad. As a rabid fan of both shows, I can see the parallels and understand the criticism (even if I find it reductive). Even so, season three’s dive into utter darkness has likely muffled those comparisons. It’s not that the show changed its outline as much as it was filled in with deeper colors and more pain. Marty and Wendy’s frenemy marriage is rockier than ever, their relationship with their number one employee (Julia Garner’s incomparable Ruth Langmore) becomes increasingly perilous, but it’s the introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben (a spectacular Tom Pelphrey) that supplies the show with its sick, broken heart. Everything is elevated in Ozark’s season three—and that’s before you even get to the finale’s shocking conclusion.
2. The Queen’s Gambit
The absolutely, positively, most entertaining show of 2020 was about a girl who learns to play chess. However improbable that might sound, this Netflix-breaking, record-making series has both the reviews and the views to prove it. Beyond the sheer old school (in the best way) storytelling, there is so much depth and nuance of character that makes The Queen’s Gambit more than just a great watch. The term “prestige television” gets thrown around a lot these days—too much to my mind—but if you want to see what real prestige looks like, then The Queen’s Gambit is for you. The direction, screenwriting, and production design of the show are all A caliber, but it’s the performances that bring all those behind-the-camera elements to life. And, of course, no performance deserves more credit than that of The Queen’s extraordinary lead, Anya Taylor-Joy: an actor who’s been on a fast rise since making such a strong impression in The Witch five years ago. With The Queen’s Gambit, her ascent has turbo-charged her all the way to the A list.
1. Small Axe
What to make of Steve McQueen’s Small Axe? Is it a series? Are these movies? Is it a series of movies? Since Amazon is pushing it for the Emmys, I’m following their lead and calling it television. By telling five separate stories about the trials and travails of West-Indian immigrants in and around London during the ‘60s and ‘70s, McQueen seems to be doing more than telling compelling stories—he’s also correcting (or perhaps more to the point, creating) cinematic history by illuminating lives that have thus far been so poorly represented onscreen. Each film/episode stands on its own, but, taken as a collective, this anthology feels like a historical document shedding light on immigrant culture and racism through multiple, distinctive stories. Mangrove’s true story of a business owner’s struggle to survive under constant police harassment; Lover’s Rock’s (mostly) joyous house party; Red White and Blue’s exploration of a young black man’s effort to join (and change) the police force; Alex Wheaton’s tale of how childhood neglect can lead to a life of systemic poverty and incarceration; and, finally, Education, which shows how terribly unconcerned the British school system was with children with learning disabilities, and how, for a child of color, that dismissiveness cuts even deeper. Whether you want to call Small Axe film or television is honestly beside the point. More significantly, it’s a landmark of cinematic creativity married to history, social justice, and humanity. I believe what Steve McQueen has done will not only be studied by lovers of film and television, but quite possibly (and hopefully) academics at some of the finest institutions of higher learning in the UK and beyond.