Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
From left: The Last Dance (Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA/ESPN), I May Destroy You (Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO), The Baby-Sitters Club (Photo: Liane Hentscher/Netflix), BoJack Horseman (Image: Netflix), Ted Lasso (Photo: Apple TV+), What We Do In The Shadows (Photos: Russ Martin/FX)

The 25 best TV shows of 2020

From left: The Last Dance (Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/NBA/ESPN), I May Destroy You (Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO), The Baby-Sitters Club (Photo: Liane Hentscher/Netflix), BoJack Horseman (Image: Netflix), Ted Lasso (Photo: Apple TV+), What We Do In The Shadows (Photos: Russ Martin/FX)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

In a year that saw many of us relegated to our homes for much of its duration, TV was an ever more powerful medium for connecting. There was no watercooler to gather around—well, there was, but the office had to be abandoned—yet each new premiere became a communal experience. The first weeks of quarantine produced Tiger King and a whole lot of rubber-necking at Joe Exotic as well as theorizing about murderous capabilities of one Carole Baskin. That gave way to the more intimate storytelling of series like Normal People and Ramy, which managed to heighten our isolation while also assuaging it. Amanda Peet gave us an unforgettable woman scorned in Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story, and Adventure Time returned from the brink to take us to Distant Lands in the middle of lockdown.

After years of prestige dramas pushing bleakness, the comfort watch became the order of the day. The Office and Friends were streamed endlessly (even as they made their way to new platforms), but soon, the comfort of these viewing experiences came from their unabashed earnestness rather than familiarity. Big-hearted series like Muppets Now, The Baby-Sitters Club, and Ted Lasso offered serious competition to reigning champs like The Great British Baking Show. Steven Universe Future, Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts, and She-Ra And The Princesses Of Power also made empathetic narratives as compelling as puzzle-box shows like Westworld. The Queen’s Gambit was well-appointed escapism, while the boundless sketch comedy of Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House Of Fun turned Netflix into a sandbox for adults (from Australia). Though less ambitious (not to mention well-executed), reunion specials and table reads brimmed with coziness, and, in the case of The West Wing, even offered an engrossing theatrical reimagining of a popular episode.

But, with all the time in the world to catch up on Peak TV—or, at least, considerably more—we also challenged ourselves to seek out bold new stories and storytellers, and even question what makes TV, TV. We found restoration and vital discussion in Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You, a profound exploration of abuse survivors, and let Steve James take us on a trip through the life-crushing bureaucracy and systemic racism of Chicago, a City So Real. Even though it premiered in January, BoJack Horseman’s swan song reverberated throughout the year, even as it excoriated how short the collective memory is when it comes to abusers. The fascination with true-crime documentaries remained, but I’ll Be Gone In The Dark and Seduced centered the victims instead of capitalizing on sensationalist headlines. And just as we were preparing for the holiday movie crush, Steve McQueen’s stunning Small Axe anthology, comprising five vibrant and varied films, stopped us in our tracks. Is it a TV series or a series of movies? Does drawing a line help our understanding of the two mediums, or does it merely elevate one above the other? And, when the series’ message resonates regardless, does it even matter?

The TV landscape in 2020 stood in stark contrast to our reality—expansive and intimate in ways we could only dream of in quarantine. But that didn’t prevent us from bonding over Beth Harmon’s wins or Joe Exotic’s takedown or the last hurrah of the Chicago Bulls. This year, more than any other in recent memory, it was difficult to distinguish between our favorite shows and the best shows. But The A.V. Club staff and contributors still took on the task, submitting ranked ballots of our top 15 shows to bring you the 25 best shows of 2020.


25. The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)

The Good Lord Bird
The Good Lord Bird
Photo: William Gray/Showtime

This year’s other rambunctious (a)historical epic (alongside The Great) is also one of the most tonally complex series of 2020. Based on James McBride’s novel of the same name, The Good Lord Bird centers on the last charge and days of abolitionist John Brown, but it’s far from a self-important death march. With Ethan Hawke donning the long whiskers of God’s Angry Man, what could have been another flat white-savior tale is instead a lively, ruminant examination of what it means to put action (sometimes lethal) behind words in order to effect real change. Irreverence courses through the limited series, from the cheeky framing of Brown’s divine calling to the depiction of Frederick Douglass as a superstar orator and tomcat. It’s an incredible showcase for Hawke, but this darkly comedic drama never loses sight of the cause—the quest for Black personhood, which is reflected in the plight of Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson). For enslaved Black people like Onion, abolition was a matter of life and death, not a thought exercise to mull over cigars and brandy, nor a brick in a platform to launch a career. The Good Lord Bird offers this powerful history lesson in unimpeachably stylish form. [Danette Chavez]

24. Bad Education (HBO)

Bad Education
Bad Education
Photo: HBO

This year’s round of the “TV or film?” debate actually kicked off with Mike Makowsky’s and Cory Finley’s excellent Bad Education. The true-crime drama debuted to great reviews at the Toronto Film Festival, only to be picked up by HBO, and later, pick up an Emmy for Outstanding TV Movie. Hugh Jackman stars as Frank Tassone, a man who, in real life, embezzled millions of dollars from the Roslyn School District, a school district he’d help make one of the most competitive in the state of New York. Frank’s fall from grace is a steep one, and Jackman gives his all to the backsliding, internally gnashing his teeth at the entitled Long Islanders who expect him to lead even their most mediocre children to the Ivies. He’s just as incandescent when encouraging the source of his downfall, plucky teen reporter Rachel Bhargava (Geraldine Viswanathan), or contemplating a new life with Kyle Contreras (Rafael Casal). The wickedly funny Bad Education is a searing indictment of one man’s greed and hubris, as well as the encroachment of private interests on public institutions, and yet another surprisingly relevant entry on our list. [Danette Chavez]

23. P-Valley (Starz)

P-Valley
P-Valley
Photo: Starz

Katori Hall’s P-Valley moves like one of the dancers at The Pynk—assured in its skill, brimming with power, and daring you to look away for even a second. Adapted from one of Hall’s plays, the Starz drama is woman-led in front of and behind the camera, thanks to a marvelous cast (including standout Brandee Evans) and an all-female directing roster that includes Karena Evans and Kimberly Peirce. P-Valley is also distinct for its Mississippi Delta setting, fertile storytelling ground that nonetheless remains underexplored on TV. But the series homes in on an even more specific lived experience, that of Black women in the South, trying to forge a new path for themselves with nothing but lucite heels, tenacity, and sisterhood. As sensual as it is entertaining, P-Valley also takes a nuanced look at sex workers, highlighting their humanity in ways that eclipse even the profoundly moving Hustlers. Hall’s series entices viewers with a fantasy that it works just as quickly to shatter, only to reestablish it in the next episode—because there’s always someone new making their way into The Pynk. [Danette Chavez]

22. Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim)

Joe Pera Talks With You
Joe Pera Talks With You
Photo: Adult Swim

Summer suits Joe Pera. The second season of the comedian’s singular Adult Swim series is all about getting out: out into the great outdoors, out to the exotic locales of cosmopolitan Milwaukee, and out of its star’s head. Conner O’Malley rages, Alma Washington scowls, Gene Kelly makes a meal out of a gas-station fedora and accompanying sunglasses, and, in a moment that redefines “supporting performance,” Jo Firestone briefly takes over the show’s POV to give an impromptu primer on edible and non-edible plants. While working some impressive mid-season pivots involving marital strife and untimely death, Joe Pera Talks With You’s grasp on its senses of humor and wonder remains as rock-solid as Joe’s grip on the shopping cart as he traverses the grocery store freezer aisle’s gauntlet of temptations. Like a prized backyard bean arch, season two of Joe Pera Talks With You both blossomed in the sun and came together in several satisfying ways. [Erik Adams]

21. City So Real (Nat Geo)

City So Real
City So Real
Photo: Chicago Story Film, LLC

The brilliance of City So Real, the five-episode docuseries from Hoop Dreams director Steve James, has nothing to do with intensity of focus. Like Chicago, the city on which it centers, this is a sprawling thing, ever-changing but always familiar. James anchors his series in the historic, chaotic 2019 Chicago Mayoral Race, a story he inextricably links with the murder of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald by then-Chicago cop Jason Van Dyke, and the Lincoln Yards development; all three make plain the interconnected nature of Chicago’s most pressing problems, so many of which have roots in systemic racism. Those big storylines make for riveting and vital television, but it’s the flashes of everyday life in its marvelous central city that push City So Real into the territory of the unforgettable. A dog walker smiles at his charges. A man looks at a horse and his whole face softens. A couple marries at city hall. The world shakes, but life continues. For all its many heartbreaks, this is a documentary overflowing with affection for humanity, ugly as we can be; if the old “city is a character” chestnut ever was true, it’s true here. [Allison Shoemaker]

20. How To With John Wilson

How To With John Wilson
How To With John Wilson
Photo: HBO

One of the year’s sweetest and strangest shows combines the esoteric beauty of an avant-garde documentary with the comic whimsy of a late-night TV “man on the street” sketch. Host and narrator John Wilson has apparently spent years obsessively recording and annotating his daily life in and around New York City. For How To, Wilson and his co-writers Michael Koman and Alice Gregory have assembled some of those video clips and observations into remarkable autobiographical journalism, presented in the form of self-help tips, delivered in a halting voice. Wilson has a knack for visual gags, drawing on his archive of images to find the perfect images of urban absurdity to illustrate—and sometimes undermine—his points. Whether he’s contemplating the deeper meaning of scaffolding, wondering why it gets harder for people to make friends as they age, questioning the reliability of his own memories, or documenting a city transformed by a pandemic, Wilson ultimately looks at life on a touchingly human scale, trying his best to put a hopeful spin on whatever horrors and wonders he captures within his camera’s frame. [Noel Murray]

19. The Last Dance (ESPN)

The Last Dance
The Last Dance
Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/ESPN

Jason Hehir’s 10-part docuseries filled a void for sports fans in this pandemic-stricken year, but it also made for some of the most engrossing television of the year. Cut from never-before-seen footage from the Chicago Bulls’ 1997–98 season, The Last Dance is situated in the gloaming of the dream team’s (no, not that one) NBA dominance, but it remains buoyant throughout, spiriting viewers away to the ’80s, when we got our first glimpse at the player who would redefine the game of basketball: Michael Jordan. Hehir’s series is structured like a sports drama, one rife with rivalry and talent, complete with a (sort of) in medias res opening and characters both off-color (Dennis Rodman), stoic (Scottie Pippen), and villainous (the Detroit Pistons). It’s also a true event series, probably one of the last, which, in a nice bit of symmetry, captures the final moments of the monoculture. The Last Dance’s dynamic storytelling doesn’t just make you nostalgic for “Repeat The Three-Peat” or Michael Jordan’s wizardry in the paint; it makes you yearn for community, for the sense that, for two hours at a time, we were all sharing an experience (though Chicagoans lay claim to all bragging rights). [Danette Chavez]

18. Big Mouth (Netflix)

Big Mouth
Big Mouth
Image: Netflix

It takes a lot to set new standards for animated comedy maximalism during the same calendar year when Rick And Morty met Jesus Christ aboard a space-time Snowpiercer that represents Dan Harmon’s cherished Story Circle. That would require something like, oh, adding anxiety mosquitos and The Gratitoad to your menagerie of fantastic hormonal beasts while also telling stories in a dystopian future timeline and staging a one-off crossover with the other painfully funny streaming show where the creators reenact their own adolescence. Frankness is Big Mouth’s primary gear, and in 2020 it was especially unembarrassed about letting its ambition show, whether it was eschewing the familiar confines and sign gags of Bridgeton Middle School for the season-opening sleepaway camp arc or running all its fraying relationship threads through a half-hour unambiguously titled “A Very Special 9/11 Episode.” And that’s all without mentioning Jenny Slate passing Missy Foreman-Greenwald’s mic to Ayo Edebiri, a storyline that proves nothing says “maturity” like a changing voice. Big Mouth has always been about the inevitability of change; in its fourth season, it showed that growth only accompanies change through earnest commitment—whether that’s to the graceful redressing of a casting gone wrong or a character’s constipation-induced delirium. [Erik Adams]

17. The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix)

The Baby-Sitters Club
The Baby-Sitters Club
Photo: Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

Ann M. Martin’s The Baby-Sitters’ Club book series created an enduring universe for middle-school readers who couldn’t get enough of the friendship between headstrong Kristy, shy Mary Anne, artistic Claudia, and fashionista Stacey. In Netflix’s delightful adaptation, not only are the girls perfectly cast—with Alicia Silverstone and Marc Evan Jackson making compelling appearances in parental roles—but series creator Rachel Shukert wisely adds modern issues to the show’s retro feel, making it more relevant than ever. Many of the classic plotlines are familiar: Stacey’s diabetes, for example, as well as her crush on an older guy in “Boy-Crazy Stacey.” But while Claudia still fights with her sister in “Claudia And Mean Janine,” their grandmother’s past in an internment camp brings to mind the cruel immigration policies of the Trump administration. In “Mary Anne Saves The Day,” when the young sitter has to take her charge to the hospital, she finds the strength to insist that the doctors and nurses use the proper pronouns for the trans little girl. These vital updates made The Babysitters’ Club an enjoyable must-watch for middle-school family viewing; fortunately, a second season is on the way. [Gwen Ihnat]

16. Harley Quinn (DC Universe)

Harley Quinn
Harley Quinn
Image: Warner Bros.

What was obvious from the moment Harley Quinn premiered was that the DC Universe-turned-HBO-Max series, which follows the off-kilter Miss Harleen Frances Quinzel (Kaley Cuoco, successfully shedding any residual Big Bang gloss), was the most graphic offering in the Batman-related animated oeuvre. Season one focused solely on Harley’s revenge against Joker (Alan Tudyk) and established the former sidekick as a supervillain in her own right. 2020’s season two picked up with Harley living her dream—Joker, the Justice League, the Legion Of Doom, and Gotham as a whole destroyed. “This is what I’ve always wanted,” a content Harley tells pal Poison Ivy (Lake Bell), “anarchy and sushi.” But even as Harley rested on her laurels without a Big Bad, Harley Quinn did not. Instead, the series examined the surprising reverberations of a Gotham power vacuum and entered into an impressively nuanced exploration of the Harley-Ivy relationship. Instead of playing up a potential Ivy-Harley romance for headlines just to have Ivy go through with her wedding to Kite Man (Matt Oberg), Harley Quinn allowed for heart to shine through its mile-a-minute joking and lightyear-a-minute cursing. [Patrick Gomez]

15. Betty (HBO)

Betty
Betty
Photo: Alison Rosa/HBO

To simply describe Betty as an expansion of Crystal Moselle’s 2018 film Skate Kitchen is to radically undervalue just how creatively transformative the series became in growing beyond its source material. While the film’s Altman-meets-Linklater sensibility is undeniably compelling, Betty takes everything that worked there and deepens it, mining rich veins of pathos, weighty social drama, and penetrating character study in equal measure. The young women navigating New York City’s male-dominated skateboarding subculture feel both idiosyncratically authentic and instantly relatable, which is testament both to the bond of their collective relationship and the inspired performances of the core group: Dede Lovelace’s Janay, Nina Moran’s Kirt, Ajani Russell’s Indigo, Racehlle Vinberg’s Camille, and Moonbear as the perpetually camera-wielding Honeybear. The intimacy of the storytelling and the relaxed hangout vibes suffusing the narrative belie the often heightened tensions lying just below the surface of these soulful skaters; there may not be any one central plotline (save for the steadily growing bond between five people who didn’t really know each other at the start, Kirt and Janay’s friendship notwithstanding), but there’s never a sense that the daily tribulations endured by our charismatic protagonists, no matter how fleeting, are anything less than riveting. [Alex McLevy]

14. Small Axe (Prime Video)

Small Axe: Mangrove
Small Axe: Mangrove
Photo: Will Robson-Scott/Amazon Studios

The resilient and vibrant history of London’s robust West Indian community finally got the overdue artistic treatment that it deserved with Steve McQueen’s lovingly crafted anthology, Small Axe. Through the series’ five installments, the Oscar-winning filmmaker crystallized elements of the Black immigrant experience in stories that range in tone and timing, balancing sobering looks at the long fight for justice in installments like the 1960s-set Mangrove with moments of unfettered joy at an ’80s house party, courtesy of the light and lovely Lovers Rock. While Small Axe’s abiding beauty can be attributed to many things—like McQueen’s clever camera work in each turn or stellar performances from the likes of John Boyega and Shaun Parkes—the factors that render this series a masterpiece are ultimately patience and a storyteller’s lived experience. By allowing his collection of works room to properly breathe and flourish, McQueen not only confirmed that these deeply human tales are worth telling, but that he has some of the best creative instincts in the business. [Shannon Miller]

13. Better Things (FX)

Better Things
Better Things
Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Like Sam and her girls, Pamela Adlon’s Better Things continues to deepen with age. Each of the women at the heart of the show faced new, emotional challenges in season four, growing, exploring, and contending with precisely what that means for a 50-year-old actress, a nearly 20-year-old hostess, a high schooler, and a now middle schooler. Insecurity, anger, and forgiveness took center stage this season, with Sam in particular meditating on the cost and comfort of resentment. There are big moments in the show, punch-the-air comebacks and dressings down that episodes like the fantastic “Batceañera” revel in, but it’s the quiet, reflective shots that linger and give Better Things its weight: Duke’s words of comfort to Rich in “Steady Rain,” Frankie and Sam’s peppermint ice cream in “High Man. Bye Man.” and the season’s closing shot of the girls, happy together at the beach. It’s easy to overlook a quietly confident series like this one, but watching these characters—and especially the young actors playing Max, Frankie, and Duke (Mikey Madison, Hannah Alligood, and Olivia Edward)—continue to come into their own provided some of 2020’s most compelling and rewarding TV. [Kate Kulzick]

12. Pen15 (Hulu)

Pen15
Pen15
Photo: Hulu

It’s easy to poke fun at the exceedingly awkward pubescent experience, an era that delivers the kind of uncertainty and suffering that middle-school pariahs Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) endure by the pound. Finding ways to balance said suffering—an accessible and bottomless well of comedy—with moments of growth, emotional depth, and the occasional social triumph in ways that don’t signal a total overhaul is significantly harder. While new friendships, love, and divorce caused invariable shifts in the duo’s close-knit bond, Maya and Anna continue to show up for each other during the milestones that mattered most, like when your new boyfriend (who is going through his own metamorphosis) dumps you after your big theater debut. With season two, Pen15 co-stars and co-creators Erskine and Konkle synthesized the complicated business of growing up without sacrificing the cringeworthy synergy that makes these two best friends work. For a coming-of-age comedy that was already rather brilliant, Pen15 continues to deliver all-too-relatable growing pains, with a side of amateur witchcraft, in the sharpest and most recognizable ways possible. [Shannon Miller]

11. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

Ted Lasso
Ted Lasso
Photo: Apple TV+

Before it premiered, Ted Lasso was a punchline of Peak TV: Had the race for content gone so far that Apple would green-light an adaptation of an (entertaining) Jason Sudeikis NBC Sports commercial? But when it premiered in August, well into the COVID-19 pandemic, Ted Lasso was rightly hailed as the perfect show for a difficult moment. Transformed into a deep ensemble with the help of Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence, the series combined the wit and wordplay of Sudeikis’ ad with the thrill and camaraderie of a sports drama, and redefined Coach Lasso as a beacon of positivity and belief. And yet, it’s important to recognize that Ted Lasso’s hype is not solely the result of “pandemic goggles.” It stands as one of the year’s finest comedies regardless, as each character is allowed to grow and show vulnerability without ever losing their ability to be funny. With a concept that could be played for satire, Ted Lasso took the riskier path of grounding itself in the belief that good people doing good things can drive a comedy series. And while that choice undoubtedly struck a nerve, Ted Lasso will resonate just as well when we catch up with AFC Richmond again under (hopefully) better circumstances. [Myles McNutt]

10. Never Have I Ever (Netflix)

Never Have I Ever
Never Have I Ever
Photo: Lara Solanki/Netflix

Never Have I Ever stands out in a TV landscape brimming with successful teen shows, thanks to its protagonist, a 15-year-old Indian American girl. On paper, it appears to be a regular dramedy, wherein Devi’s biggest concerns are fitting at school and hooking up with the hot jock she has a crush on. But the show, co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, has several surprises in store, starting with tennis player John McEnroe as the narrator of Devi’s story. It reels audiences in with a fun coming-of-age narrative, only to tug at heartstrings with a moving premise about grief and loss. The Netflix series offers a smorgasbord of amusing and nerdy teens with their own personal, relatable challenges. Underneath a cool, Gen Z vibe, the show’s strength lies in its portrayal of the Indian American Vishwakumar family, a perspective still rarely shown on-screen. It explores the community’s culture, rituals, festivals, food without being explicitly loud about it. Newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan delivers a breakout performance as Devi, especially in scenes with her strict mother, Dr. Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan). Their intense, fraught relationship heightens the emotions without losing the charm and comedic joys of Never Have I Ever.[Saloni Gajjar]

9. The Great (Hulu)

Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning star in The Great
Nicholas Hoult and Elle Fanning star in The Great
Photo: Hulu

Call it the long-simmering revenge of Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette, but the latest exhilarating trend in historical fiction is to depict history not as it literally happened but as it might have felt to those living through it. On the heels of Apple TV+’s inventive Emily Dickinson series, Hulu’s The Great centers on another teenage girl who would go on to have a major impact on history: the Prussian-born 19-year-old princess Catherine the Great (Elle Fanning). Shipped off to Russia to marry the boorishly cruel Emperor Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), Catherine starts toying around with the idea of throwing a coup. And while The Great plays fast and loose with historical truth, creator Tony McNamara deploys the irreverent, darkly comedic tone he honed while co-writing The Favourite to pointedly illuminate the terrifying realities of 18th-century Russian life. (When a maid notes that she spent her evening avoiding rape, Catherine casually replies, “Same.”) Hilarious, demented, and sometimes surprisingly moving, The Great carved out its own unique place amongst this year’s historical series. All anchored by a captivating turn from Fanning and some absolutely bonkers, career-best work from Hoult. Huzzah! [Caroline Siede]

8. Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)

Schitt’s Creek
Schitt’s Creek
Photo: Pop TV

In typical Canadian fashion, Schitt’s Creek didn’t arrive with a bang but rather a polite, quiet hello in 2015, gradually building its fanbase to include enough Emmy voters that it swept the comedy category at the 2020 ceremony for its sixth and final season. The series itself followed a similar trajectory, taking its time to evolve the formerly wealthy Roses—dad Johnny (Eugene Levy), mom Moira (Catherine O’Hara), son David (Dan Levy), and daughter Alexis (Annie Murphy)—beyond their self-centered ways and expanding their family to fully include much of the show’s titular town. Most of the character growth occurred during the series’ middle seasons, but that allowed co-creator and mastermind Dan Levy to spend most of season six simply playing in the world they’d created. The result is more traditionally sitcom-y than prior seasons, but Schitt’s Creek never lost its signature heart, particularly when dealing with Alexis’ long-distance relationship with Ted (Dustin Milligan). And even when it culminated in a “the whole town pitches in to throw a wedding” finale trope, the series continued to subvert sitcom norms in a way that left sentimental fans and cynical critics alike praising the happy ending. [Patrick Gomez]

7. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

The Queen’s Gambit
The Queen’s Gambit
Photo: Phil Bray/Netflix

The Queen’s Gambit is a biographical portrait so detailed, it’s hard to believe that it wasn’t about an actual person. But Anya Taylor-Joy’s portrayal of chess champion Beth Harmon is both completely fictional (based on Walter Tevis’ novel of the same name) and entirely believable. Beth is a taciturn young orphan with addiction issues who also happens to be a chess wunderkind, and these two elements of her life vie for control throughout the series, as writer/director Scott Frank and editor Michelle Tesoro skillfully make the chess matches riveting even for viewers who wouldn’t know a King’s Gambit from a Sicilian Defense. Beth’s brave and often lonesome climb is gripping to witness, aided by meticulously detailed mid-century décor, from her modest Kentucky home to period-perfect opulent hotel rooms in Las Vegas, Mexico City, and Russia. Her ensembles also get more glamorous the higher she rises in the chess ranks, often in stunning black-and-white outfits that echo the game that rules her life. Though surrounded by compelling supporting performances from Marielle Heller, Moses Ingram, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Taylor-Joy commands every single scene as Beth, so that we can’t help but cheer her on as she learns to control her demons as well as the chess board. [Gwen Ihnat]

6. Better Call Saul (AMC)

Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul
Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Better Call Saul has been so consistently excellent, and for so long, that it’s easy to forget just what a miraculous balancing act the show pulls off, season after season. The series has always foregrounded the volatile push-pull of the relationship between Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), but season five managed to reshape that relationship yet again. Tony Dalton’s superb turn as the charismatic Lalo Salamanca sparked enjoyably fraught storytelling that has pulled every character into his orbit (culminating in the finale’s show-stopping nightime assassination attempt on his compound) and the ongoing power struggles involving Nacho (Michael Mando) and Gus (Giancarlo Esposito)—the former’s seemingly doomed efforts to escape this criminal underworld, the latter’s Machiavellian manipulations intent on conquering it—remain as magnetic as ever. But Kim and Jimmy’s respective plunges into very different high-stakes gambles are where this penultimate year shined, and set up a riveting dichotomy between his inevitable transformation into Saul Goodman and her self-determined demolition of her successful and stable career. Their parallel arcs have become the two sides of the show’s febrile narrative coin: one tragically foretold, and the other thrillingly, unpredictably unknown. [Alex McLevy]

5. The Good Place (NBC)

Jameela Jamila, Manny Jacinto, D’Arcy Carden, Kristen Bell, and William Jackson Harper
Jameela Jamila, Manny Jacinto, D’Arcy Carden, Kristen Bell, and William Jackson Harper
Photo: NBC

The Good Place was in a constant uphill battle to outdo itself. Following its stunner of a season-one finale, it was unclear if the show would be able to top or even match the level of surprise and originality it harnesses early on. But again and again, The Good Place surprised. It helps that it has one of the best comedic ensembles in recent television. Part Philosophy For Dummies and part hangout comedy in Hell, the show finishes its run with a bang, sticking the landing on big romantic moments, big dramatic ones, and running gags all at once. Its very human characters—Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), Chidi Anagonye (Jackson Harper), Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil), Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto)—are deeply flawed real people even in their most heightened moments. Its nonhuman characters are every bit as complicated, including not-quite-a-robot, not-quite-a-girl Janet (D’Arcy Carden) and reformed demon Michael (Ted Danson), who similarly undergo transformations over the course of the series that have huge payoffs in the final episodes. The Good Place believes in and allows room for growth, and its final season is full of hope, a rare and hard-to-pull-off feat for what’s technically dystopian television. [Kayla Kumari Upadhyaya]

4. What We Do In The Shadows (FX)

Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, and Matt Berry star in What We Do In The Shadows
Kayvan Novak, Natasia Demetriou, and Matt Berry star in What We Do In The Shadows
Photo: Russ Martin/FX

For many, if not most people, 2020 was a year marked by a forced confrontation with stasis and decay. So, of course, the most comforting, funniest sitcom of 2020 is about generally comfortable, already-dead people who barely leave their house and have to occupy themselves with an endless string of inane bullshit. What We Do In The Shadows fully leveled up from its first season, largely because the cast has such a fine grasp on the characters. (In particular, Harvey Guillen’s Guillermo.) The show has settled into an ensemble and world strong enough to produce a bunch of instant classic episodes with simple premises, including “the one where Colin Robinson gets a promotion,” “the one where they go to a Super Bowl party,” or, of course, “the one where Laszlo runs away to become a bartender and high school volleyball coach in New Jersey.” Perhaps most remarkably, one of the funniest episodes of the season is built entirely on a spam chain email, something that sounds idiotic and paper-thin at first but that manages to escalate into a truly hilarious climax. Somehow, What We Do In The Shadows dove so deep into the mundane it came out feeling fantastical again. [Eric Thurm]

3. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman
Image: Netflix

During its six-season run, Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated tragicomedy BoJack Horseman put its characters —and, let’s face it, viewers—through quite the emotional wringer. The second half of the final season was no different. BoJack (Will Arnett) settled into his new life as an acting coach just as his past came back to haunt him with much-needed but dark consequences, leading to a phenomenal penultimate episode that battles season five’s “Free Churro” for the best outing ever, while Diane Nguyen’s (Alison Brie) struggles with depression and self-identity made for a deeply moving storyline. BoJack never shied away from witty social commentary and poking fun at Hollywood—er, Hollywoo—sorry, Hollywoob—setting. Yet, these final eight episodes were more reflective, allowing the characters to grow, including lovable goofs Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul) and Mr. Peanutbutter (Paul F. Tompkins), as well as Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), who finally got the happy ending she deserved. The last scene between BoJack and Diane on the rooftop is an accurate culmination of their friendship and the show’s poignancy, one that has engulfed BoJack Horseman not only in season six but throughout its existence, making it one of the most remarkable television shows of the decade. [Saloni Gajjar]

2. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)

Mrs. America
Mrs. America
Photo: Sabrina Lantos/FX

As disheartening as it can be to watch, Dahvi Waller’s Mrs. America finds poignancy, truth, and a warning in a political defeat. The star-studded limited series is a spirited retelling of the second-wave feminist push in the 1970s for the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, which is still languishing in state legislatures nearly 100 years since it was first introduced to Congress (albeit in a different form). Cate Blanchett leads the series as the onerous reactionary Phyllis Schlafly, who changed the face of modern politics from inside her kitchen. Blanchett’s performance borders on unnerving embodiment—she channels Schlafly’s zeal at the podium and in the parlor, where she commands an army of volunteers, making the quieter moments that much more dissonant. But with directors like Captain Marvel’s Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck, the series just as frequently casts a spotlight on the members of the National Women’s Political Caucus, including Gloria Steinem (a pitch-perfect Rose Byrne), Betty Friedan (Tracy Ullman, who finds the vulnerability in The Feminine Mystique author’s brashness), and Shirley Chisholm (the always inspiring Uzo Aduba). Mrs. America is an accomplished account of a seismic shift in the culture wars, told with style and pathos in equal measure. [Danette Chavez]

1. I May Destroy You (HBO)

I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You
Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO

Where some series add a new chapter to TV’s ongoing exploration of abuse and reform, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You hosts a singular conversation on sexual violence and the path to healing. The HBO series is a deeply personal work for the multi-hyphenate, which lends it a great deal of power, but Coel isn’t interested in monologuing. In its important and nuanced discussion on victimhood (imperfect and otherwise), trauma, and recovery, I May Destroy You makes room for all manner of survivors, including male victims who are too often stigmatized. Even more impressively, the series gives interiority and vibrancy to all of its characters, refusing to define them solely by what happened to them. And Coel establishes herself as one of the most consummate storytellers out there, building the series from the inside out—she gives a bravura performances as Arabella, moving effortlessly from impishnness to devastation to rage, taking from a scene just as much as she brings to it. I May Destroy You even provides its own compelling look at Black British life, from navigating adolescence in predominantly white schools to the house parties that can break out into colonizer discourse. Despite the tacit promise of its title, I May Destroy You is one of the most life-affirming series of the year. [Danette Chavez]

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