Top Ten TV of 2020
The value of art to get us through difficult times was on full display in 2020. To wit…
I did not expect to like Bridgerton, but it was very much my cup of tea. Witty, smart, progressive, subversive, sexy in all the ways folks have come to expect from Shondaland and that I had no idea to expect from Shondaland because I had never visited.
9. Perry Mason
Modern noir has a hard time getting over itself. It feels the need to somehow comment on the genre. But Perry Mason is content to just be a character-driven noir. The only “new” is the racial and sexual commentary (although social issues have never been far from the genre). What you see here is an excellent, albeit grim, execution of the form with compelling turns from Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany, Juliet Rylance, and Chris Chalk, just to name a few.
8. Killing Eve
A lot of folks didn’t like the latest season but I saw it as an excellent evolution of themes that have been brewing all along and a fantastic showcase for Jodie Comer to explore emotions we usually don’t get to see Villanelle display. What happens when a sociopath (thinks) she gets everything she wants? How does she define herself without an adversary? Season Three has a helluva time exploring those questions. Plus we get to see much more of Fiona Shaw’s transcendent performance as Carolyn Martens, and that’s always a good thing.
No show was a better snapshot of quarantine life (at least amongst the moderately well to do) than Staged, a show filmed during the pandemic that takes place during the pandemic, consisting essentially of Zoom calls between the cast, crew, and family of a would-be production of a play to be put on after the pandemic is over. The brilliant David Tennant and Michael Sheen preserve and build on their fantastic chemistry from Good Omens as the ostensible leads of said play, riffing off each other in a way that would probably be hilarious even without a plot to hang it on. But the real find is their amazing spouses played by their real life partners Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg respectively, who play an excellent counterpoint to the pair.
6. Harley Quinn
Season Two of Harley Quinn continued to give us raunchy versions of DC Comics characters that were somehow also far more inclusive and progressive, and this season took us out of Harley trying to define herself against the shadow of The Joker and into who is she when she gets to define herself on her own terms.
5. Create Together
Create Together was a project of the Hit Record series of collaborative creations founded by Joe Gordon Levitt and his brother, Daniel. This summer’s iteration took on COVID, specifically life during COVID and at once gave creators all over the world the opportunity to express what it was like to live during COVID and collaborate with other creators who were going through the same pandemic in different ways. The result is one of the most insightful yet beautiful documents of the pandemic in real time.
I’ve been a fan of all four seasons of Fargo but this most recent one addressed something that had been a limitation of the first three. Up until now, Fargo has been very, um, White. Like, exceedingly so. This season, however, was not only very Black, but very much interested in exploring not only the racism inherent in crime stories, but how that emerges from the racism inherent in America. And it does so, in part, through fantastic monologues that come at least one per episode that explore the frailties and hypocrisies that define us. Chris Rock ends up being a stellar choice in casting as one of the patriarchs of the crime families involved as he already excels at delivering monologues about racism. It also does a good job of something we rarely see in television, centering a young black girl in the narrative.
3. The Boys
Loved Season One but Season Two just knocked it out of the park. Rather than just settling for the premise of “what if superheroes were murderous assholes?” it adds “what if they were also, like, SUPER racist?” All the same brutality and hilarity are still there but the themes get a bit more complex and all-too-relevant as we throw characters like Stormfront (yes, literally Stormfront) into the mix.
2. Lovecraft Country
Speaking of centering women of color (see Fargo), almost no other show, horror or not, did a better job of telling the stories of Black women, albeit through an Afrofuturist/fantasy lens, than Lovecraft Country. Not only did it tell those stories, but it told multiple stories, giving us different Black women with different agendas, different needs, different identities, different skills, and just, you know, not all the same character. In particular it gave us more examples of something we rarely see in any genre which is Black women with scientific expertise. I can count on one hand characters in and out of genre that fit the bill (Shuri in Black Panther, the protagonists of Hidden Figures) and this thankfully adds to that all-too-short list in the form of Hyppolita Freeman, played by Aunjanue Ellis, who delivers one of the best speeches ever about what women are silently asked to give up in marriage.
Above and beyond that, the show does an excellent job of understanding that racism, if it were a genre, would be horror, and it exploits this to excellent effect throughout. Some of the scariest scenes in the show arise not from horrific creatures but from racist cops.
1. Ted Lasso
After many, many, recommendations I finally sat down and watched this, a show that otherwise would not interest me. And it absolutely hooked me. Within minutes I cared about everyone in the show and wanted good things for all of them and I was laughing. A lot. This is a show that combines many elements that are rare. One, heart. Not sentimentality. Actual, earned, heart. Two, relentlessly funny writing. Three, characters who go through genuine arcs. Four, a depiction of what actual apologies and actual forgiveness look like. Five, a depiction of what healthy leadership looks like. Six, a depiction of what healthy masculinity might look like. It’s difficult enough to find any one of those elements in a show, but to see them all together is a frickin’ unicorn.
Honorable mentions: Rick and Morty, Big Mouth, The Mandalorian, The Umbrella Academy, Stargirl