TV was a constant companion in 2020. With most cultural institutions closed, the small screen still managed to bring us a deluge of new things to enjoy and talk about – far more than anyone could ever watch . In fact, this year I sometimes found it difficult to look at something new – or at least something new.
My habits were often erratic, and I danced past shows old and new; I started many and I finished a few on my journey to get lost in them something. And so, even in this extraordinary year, the usual caveats apply. I am only one person and I cannot watch all of them television. Here, in no particular order, are the shows that stayed with me long after I turned off the set.
While the show premiered in 2019, the rest of it was Challenge me‘s 10 episodes were broadcast in 2020, and each of them was among the best dramas of the year. Based on Megan Abbott’s novel of the same name, Challenge me followed the friendship between cheerleaders Beth and Addy in high school – and what happened when their ambitious new coach Colette French became a little too involved in their lives. A high school noir thriller with tremendous pace and performances, Challenge me was Brave, Bold Television that, although canceled, works incredibly well as a standalone TV season.
How with John Wilson
The strangest show of 2020, How is part documentary, part video essay and part cringe comedy. Each of How with John WilsonThe six episodes start with a simple question – like how to split a check – and then move on not answer it in the most incredible of ways.
How is also a guide to loving the city you live in: it embraces the inherent strangeness of being close to so many others and responds to this strangeness with affection. No other show I’ve ever seen is so concerned about the significance of scaffolding, or about a man obsessed with the health benefits of the foreskin. Watching How with John Wilson will make you care more about the weirdos in your life.
The Good Lord Bird
Americans’ collective understanding of history is straightforward and unfair and must be reversed. Fortunately, there is in the meantime The Good Lord Bird, a show based on the James McBride novel of the same name. The show presents itself as a largely truthful account of abolitionist John Brown’s last days, as seen through the eyes of a young man he “saves” and makes constant mistakes for a girl. It’s a funny and blunt take on the messy work of the revolution, a story interested in breaking down the myth that progress is seen as a beautiful and noble activity in its time.
If Friday night lights was a comedy, it would probably look a lot like it Ted Lasso. The sleeper hit series shapes the eponymous character – best known from commercials – and builds a comedy of fish from the water around him. The premise: Ted Lasso, a folksy American football coach, is inexplicably hired to lead a troubled football team in England. It’s a ridiculous idea and everyone knows it, but what no one knows is that Lasso is being set up to catch the trap by a cynical team owner.
In this tension, Ted Lasso Sings: It’s a show about what it means to work relentlessly to be a good, positive person in a hostile environment. It’s about picking yourself up over and over in the hope that your belief in others becomes contagious.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet
The first good show about video games is here, and surprisingly, it’s also great fun for people who don’t know about it. A devastating workplace comedy about the pleasures (little) and toxicity (abundant) of game development from the creators of It’s always sunny in Philadelphia, Mythical Quest follows the studio workers behind a popular online game. The show succeeds because it refuses to pull punches: Mythical Quest makes no bones about it being a show about a sexist industry trying to calm down online trolls and Nazis, and with that clarity comes a pretty damn good comedy.
Superheroes are blunt tools, primary color metaphors for very simple ideas. This is no obstacle. I think it is what makes them good, a vehicle for stories that translate across decades and media. The boys is a show about the people handling those tools now that they have become extremely valuable corporate IP controlled by a handful of people. Youthful, on-the-nose and incredibly edible, The boys grew into its sophomore season, turning his gaze to fandom, and what happens when you cheer for a country like a rock star.
I can destroy you
Arabella has a deadline. She’s a viral success story, a blogger with a successful debut book working on her follow-up – mostly to no avail. Because, meanwhile, Arabella is also struggling to rebuild her life after being drugged and raped on a night out. I can destroy you shows that Arabella takes on these twin efforts; The result is a scorching work of introspective television about what happens to a person who works in a world interested in the exploitation of trauma, and how the stories we tell ourselves to survive can also destroy us.
I can destroy you is a messy, complicated story about equally messy and complicated people. It’s one of the best things to see this year.
Few shows deal with portraying complicated religious struggles; even fewer are interested in exploring these stories in non-Christian contexts. Ramy is different. In the second season, comedian Ramy Youssef’s Hulu comedy becomes a show about a young man who is bad at being a Muslim but desperately wants to be good at it. Ramy promises a new Sheikh, but learns the depths of his all-consuming selfishness. It slowly alienates him from everyone he cares about, despite their trust in him. In Ramy, makes you think about your own shortcomings, and asks: what now?
You better call Saul
Anyone who watched Breaking Bad knows that five seasons later Saul Goodman is going to do something irretrievably terrible. You better call SaulThe 2020 episodes brought us closer to heartbreak as well-meaning guy Jimmy McGill fully embraces his Saul Goodman alter ego and plays dangerous games with Kim Wexler, one of the few people who still cares about him. Come on now – because although it is much less popular than its predecessor Breaking Bad, You better call Saul has become a much better show.
The second season of Doom Patrol closed the more nasty aspects of his first season – namely, an annoying, all-knowing villain who also told – and doubles what worked: stories of broken people going through it. In Doom Patrolaccepting who you are is dangerous, frightening work, especially if you are a mighty cyborg, host to a deadly cosmic creature or a system of alternate personalities, each of which has devastating power. Irreverent, weird and affectionate, Doom Patrol is the best new DC Comics adaptation to watch right now.
The last dance
Was Michael Jordan the GOAT? We could argue all day long. Was that really he? popular? No doubt. The last dance is less about Michael Jordan the man than about Michael Jordan the phenomenon. Framed with in-depth, never-before-seen footage that followed Jordan’s senior year with the Chicago Bulls, the superstar’s career is recounted in 10 episodes featuring interviews with former teammates, rivals and His Airness himself. Filmed with Jordan’s involvement, it’s less of an argument about the man and more of a document of how he sees his time as the biggest name in basketball – which, like the best documentary topics, is a bit more revealing than he might be thinks.
What we do in the shade
What we do in the shade got great in the second season by leaning on the things that made it different from the movie it was based on. Namely Colin Robinson, an ‘energy vampire’ who looks like a normal guy – only he feeds on the misery that victims get from the extreme boring conversations he has. And then, Guillermo de la Cruz, an acquaintance who desperately wants to become a vampire, but has also learned that he is destined to become a vampire hunter.
These two are What we do in the shadows’ secret weapons, comic haymen deployed when the already good premise of a mockumentary about vampires living together on Staten Island needs to be shaken up a bit. Which, frankly, doesn’t really have to happen. Which What we do in the shade does it anyway, which is why it’s one of the best comedies on TV.