During a pandemic, isn’t everything television?
First off, apologies to I May Destroy You, Normal People, The Good Lord Bird, Better Things, and Steve McQueen’s Small Axe anthology, which are said to be great, I just didn’t/couldn’t get to them. But check them out anyway!
Now, onto the Honorable Mentions:
- Three all-time series ended their runs this year with final seasons that were great, but not their best: The Good Place (which only aired four episodes in 2020), BoJack Horseman, and the Emmys-sweeping Schitt’s Creek. No shade on any of them, but they all landed just outside my Top 10.
- The Last Dance was a much-needed communal experience for four Sunday nights. It may not have been excellent documentary filmmaking (what could be, if its subject had that much say in the final product), but it was a mesmerizing, often hilarious time capsule.
- I really enjoyed Tales From the Loop on Amazon, a series of short stories set around a snowbound research facility that were always thoughtful, and often moving. Though it tread similar thematic ground to Black Mirror, it left a much better aftertaste.
- Finally, a couple of hearty recommendations for my fellow Daddingtons: Jim Henson Workshop’s Earth to Ned, a genuinely funny talk show on Disney+ hosted by a multi-armed, charmingly narcissistic alien, and the Netflix animated fantasy Hilda, which just dropped a second season even more winning and clever than the first. Heck, check them out even if you don’t have kids.
As for the Top 10:
10. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
From October: This was a breath of fresh air. The concept (based on a 2014 NBC Sports ad campaign, which evokes memories of the DOA Cavemen series) is too dumb to support a full-blown television series — or so I thought. Instead, as developed by Scrubs‘s Bill Lawrence and Detroiters‘s Joe Kelly, this warm hug of a show ingeniously justifies its existence with strong characterizations, quick and clever dialogue, and themes that redefine masculinity in the post-Bad Man era of television. Like Lasso himself (winningly played by co-creator Jason Sudeikis), you don’t have to know anything about the English Premier League — or soccer in general — to have a good time, but it might make you a fan anyway.
9. Connected (Netflix)
From August: I unequivocally recommend this nonfiction science series from veteran Radiolab producer Latif Nasser. Nasser recently gained national attention for his “The Other Latif” series on the podcast, where he spent months studying the case of a man in Guantanamo Bay who happened to bear his name. Now he brings all of his curiosity, enthusiasm, and dogged research skills to Connected, which he has described as “basically if Bill Nye and Anthony Bourdain had an awkward Muslim baby”; each of the series’s six episodes (too few!) blew my mind in different ways. It’s really heady stuff, but Nasser is so entertaining, and in complete control of the stories he tells as he trots around the world, that anyone can keep up with it. Check it out, and learn something new.
8. Survivor: Winners at War (CBS)
From March: Dammit, Survivor, you got your hooks in me again. Just a few months after the extremely icky and disastrous Island of the Idols, which had one contestant kicked off (several episodes too late) for unwanted touching, here came Winners at War to not only remind everyone why we watch, but to potentially be the best season in all of its twenty (20!) years. It was red-hot out of the gate, with this group of former champions — from bona fide legends like Boston Rob and Parvati, to “new-school” players looking to prove they could hang — jostling for power the second they hit the beach. Every single week was a banger. Past relationships mattered; if you were someone’s poker buddy, or ex-boyfriend(!), you were a threat. The island had actual currency now. Ethan nearly died carrying logs up a mountain. Blindsides galore. It was so, so much fun in a way I can only describe to fellow fans — and that the eventual winner, Tony “Spy Shack” Vlachos, deserved it 100% only made it all the sweeter.
7. How To with John Wilson (HBO)
From November: One of the strangest, most fascinating things I’ve ever watched. You can feel executive producer Nathan Fielder’s influence in the zig-zagging storytelling, but the consistently surprising juxtaposition of Wilson’s deadpan narration with his seemingly infinite supply of awkward New York b-roll is a truly unique and hilarious thing. Each episode began with a benign topic — small talk, scaffolding, or improving your memory — and rapidly descended into madness thanks to Wilson’s extraordinarily high tolerance for the bizarre. (Fellas, you cannot possibly be prepared for the fourth episode. Seriously, you’ve been warned.) The finale, “How to Cook a Perfect Risotto,” was the most remarkable 30 minutes of the year, building to a moving — and inevitable — conclusion that you should go into as spoiler-free as possible.
6. Mrs. America (Hulu)
From May: There has never been a better time for ensemble, historically-rooted miniseries. FX (via Hulu) now adds Mrs. America to that list of excellence, and at what feels like exactly the right moment. Not just because the struggle to enshrine the Equal Rights Amendment still continues thirty years later (with the 38th state, Virginia, finally ratifying it this year), but because stories of advocacy for and struggles within marginalized groups are timeless. Also, Cate Blanchett is on TV — but her Phillis Schlafly is only half the story. As written by series creator Dahvi Waller (Mad Men) and her talented team, the characterizations of the feminists fighting for equality — played by Rose Byrne, Elizabeth Banks, Uzo Aduba, and many others — are just as sharp and compelling.
5. The Mandalorian (Disney+)
From earlier this month: Season 1 was great. Season 2 has been even better. What more is there to say? The storytelling fired on all cylinders as Din Djarin hopscotched from one backwater planet to the next trying to reunite Grogu(!!) with his force-wielding kind. The action was rocking every single week, with thrillingly efficient direction from Favreau, Robert Rodriguez, Bryce Dallas Howard, Carl Weathers, and more. And then there’s the Ahsoka of it all, showcased in the Filoni-helmed “The Jedi,” an exhilarating installment where Rosario Dawson proved that sometimes fan casting really can work. It was just great, great television, primarily because The Mandalorian knows exactly what it is and what it is not. Will the new series following in its wake live up to expectations? Can Mandalorian even live up to its own in Season 3? I don’t know, and right now, I don’t care.
4. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
From June: At the risk of sounding hyperbolic, Jemaine Clement’s oddball vampire sitcom delivered a perfect season. What We Do in the Shadows doesn’t aspire to be “of the moment”; it’s not a half-hour drama masquerading as a sitcom; it doesn’t lean on cruelty or cringes; it’s just funny. Effortlessly, sublimely funny, a sorely needed weekly tonic in a broken world. Shadows is extraordinarily good at weaving entire plots out of the most nonsensical ideas (see: Jackie Daytona), and it did it week after week this season, zigging and zagging and springing new trap doors on its characters like they were marks in a Nathan For You scheme. And it did it while also building inexorably to a genuinely thrilling cliffhanger.
3. The Crown (Netflix)
From November: Peter Morgan’s lavish and riveting drama may not be winning him many friends among the royal family, but make no mistake: Season 4 of The Crown was the series’s best to date. The performances are pitch-perfect; the writing is thematically rich; and the production design — my God — is so stunning it shouldn’t even be allowed. This season brought us from the late 70s through the 80s, focusing primarily on the two important women who entered the world of Buckingham Palace and, to differing degrees, failed to escape it with their dignity: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson, astonishing), and Princess Diana (Emma Corrin, astonishing). The Crown captures the thing that made Diana special: How she made others feel special just for being around her. Whereas most in the royal family are resigned to their own brokenness, Diana is determined to rise above it. It won’t work, but we admire her all the more for trying.
2. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
From November: The series succeeds not just as a compelling sports drama, but as a feminist character study, scintillating period piece, and showcase for Anya Taylor-Joy (of The VVitch, and this year’s Emma) in the performance of her young career. Beth is outwardly aloof but inwardly curious, pushing herself harder and farther to become the best in the world, while simultaneously fully aware of her own vices and often powerless against them. For her, it’s not about proving that a girl can hang. It just happens that that’s what she’s destined to do, and Taylor-Joy brings us inside her mind every step of the way with each glance and micro-movement so that we she falls off the wagon, we feel it. When she claims a victory, that’s ours as well.
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
From April: The penultimate season of the best show on television reached rarified air, a gobsmacking run of excellence produced by a team of creators who really, really know what they’re doing (the cinematography and editing remains superlative), and performed by a team of actors doing the best work of their careers. Bob Odenkirk is perennially underrated; Tony Dalton is nothing short of mesmerizing. But it’s Rhea Seehorn’s Kim Wexler who has proven to be the heart of the show, commanding the screen in the show-stopping, hall-of-fame final scene of “Bad Choice Road.” Kim’s not here to be a wet blanket or even Jimmy’s flickering conscience, but an accomplice, tapping into her secret heart of darkness with finger guns a’blazing. Forget whether Kim is still living at the end of next season — will she be able to live with herself?