It’s been a wild year, and with it, some wilder television. But still, in the middle of utter disarray, television focused in and delivered some amazing storytelling against the odds. Hell, this year, we even sent Hilary Swank to space. The back half of 2020 was characterized by high-end series like Lovecraft Country and insightful reality television like Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the World … Or maybe the less respected Sale Sunset. We’re not here to judge how you spend your time with us.
We’re in a time where TV is more important than ever — whether it’s to communicate with the universe or to escape with a little imagination. And luckily, this is also a moment in human culture that we have more access to media than ever before.
1. The Great
Having already succeeded in the transformation from a child star to teen (go watch 20th Century Women on Netflix, please), Elle Fanning revealed her adult presence with authority in this black-comic story of young Catherine the Great, discovering that her husband, the sadistic loser of the emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult, wickedly funny), must be deposed in order to save Russia. Fanning is asked — often within seconds of each other — to play Catherine as ridiculous, horrified, giddy, and motivating, among other notes, and she hits them all wonderfully. Without it, The Great will be forever on the brink of being too strong to be funny, or too dumb to be taken seriously; with it, the show lives up to its reputation.
2. Schitt’s Creek Season 6
Even Netflix may not have expected that the final season of Schitt’s Creek will win the Emmy Awards for comedy in 2020. But this little Canadian sitcom has become a TV giant, due in part to Netflix himself. Eugene and Dan Levy’s father-and-son duo formed and starred in Schitt’s Creek for six seasons. The show follows the Rose family after they lose their fortune and conditions compel them to relocate to a small town they once owned as a joke. It can sound shallow on the surface. Yet this is a sitcom that has a lot of heart to do with its side-splitting scenes and special characters. The final episode even nailed the landing to the series, which is always a rarity. This month, Netflix is adding the sixth season to complete the show’s run. But now she’s ready to be discovered by a new audience.
3. The Umbrella Academy Season 2
Based on Gerard Way’s comic book series of the same name, this superhero series follows the lives of seven out of 43 children born to mothers who mysteriously never learned they were pregnant before they got to work. It points out that they are superheroes, and when these seven children are rescued by an insane billionaire, he points the siblings into a superhero squad named The Umbrella Academy. Later, however, the children and their father became distant from each other. But when they discover that he’s dead, they’re going to reconnect for his funeral. Warnings of the pending apocalypse lead them to work together again to combat it, even though it’s not without clashing identities and a lot of family dysfunction.
FX’s extension into the streaming universe with the new Hulu imprint FX got off to a hell of a start with this creepy — and, as its writer/director Alex Garland openly acknowledges, strange — a thriller about a tech billionaire (Nick Offerman) murdering everyone who stands between him and his newest project. At times, the characterization seemed thin (especially with regard to the confused heroine played by Sonoya Mizuno), but the design of the production, the soundtrack, and all the other artistic choices made by Garland and his collaborators made Devs a nightmare that few who watched would ever forget.
5. Ozark Season 3
In Ozark, the Byrde family has a knack for getting into overwhelming trouble. Marty Byrde (Jason Bateman) has a plan to launder money from a Mexican drug cartel. And when that goes bad, Marty packs up his wife, Wendy (Laura Linney), and their children for a sudden escape to the Ozarks — where he’s trying to set up an even more risky money laundering operation. Besides starring in the film, Bateman made a name for himself behind the camera as an Emmy-winning producer. There’s only one more season to come, so now is the right time to catch up with Ozark’s twists and turns.
6. The Haunting of Bly Manor
First things first: The Haunting of Bly Manor isn’t The Haunting of Hill House’s second season, despite both being Mike Flanagan’s creations. Flanagan imagined Bly Manor as his own distinct plot, influenced by Henry James’ classic novel, The Turn of the Screw, instead of a sequel to Hill House. The series is headlined by Victoria Pedretti as Dani, a teenage governess hired to watch over “two very odd girls.” Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Henry Thomas, and Kate Siegel, Pedretti’s fellow Hill House veterans, will all be back in new roles unrelated to the previous series. The only thing we can promise is that there are fresh scares on the way. And watching this new program with the lights on may be a smart idea.
7. I Know This Much Is True
Mark Ruffalo is taking on HBO’s extreme double duty. He plays identical twins, who would appear to play the same part twice, but these two roles can’t be more distinct. Dominick has the impossible job of helping control the delusional schizophrenia of his brother, after Dominick and Thomas. But as Thomas ‘illness appears to be unmanageable, at Thomas’ hospital, Dominick learns secrets that place him in a vulnerable situation. The six-episode series is a rough watch, full of loss, remorse, and a real human spirit trial, but it’s one of 2020 ‘s finest writing and acting.
8. Never Have I Ever
Never Have I Ever is a coming-of-age drama about a young woman who believes she needs to change her life and raise her social standing following her father’s death. However, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an Indian girl raised in America, finds that her family and friends aren’t fully on board with this renaissance. Never Have I Ever delightfully balances the typical risks of high school like teenage romance and fame with the struggles of sadness, becoming a first-generation American, and finding yourself in a crowd of loved ones, called a star in a packed field of coming-of-age dramedies on Netflix.
9. PEN15 Season 2
With Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle adding heart and hilarity to the indignities of puberty, Pen15 was still a show about girlhood and the bittersweetness of being. The show is stranger, weirder, and more adventurous than ever in its sophomore outing, taking the girls through common teenage battle beats with their families, rising towards and away from a malevolent frenemy, and pursuing new interests by joining forces with new cliques. Come in the early 2000s for the hyper-specific evocation of teenage life, but linger for the delicate portrait of friendship, family, and being.
10. Better Call Saul Season 5
The Breaking Bad prequel’s fifth and penultimate season continued to work at a high degree in terms of scripting, directing, and acting. But the storylines that have been running on semi-separate tracks for much of the series have also been zipped together, one involving Mike, Gus, the Salamancas, and drug cartel politics, the other involving Jimmy, Kim, and their professional and personal relationships. Not only was the stage set for a tense final act by the end of the season, but thanks to the arc involving the unpredictable Kim Wexler, the antihero drama was given new life.
11. Harley Quinn: The Animated Series
Harley Quinn: The Animated Series — which follows her titular figure of majesty and colorful mischief in the aftermath of her break-up with the Joker as she charts a new course in life as her own villain — is the perfect mix of pathos and raucous comedy. It’s recently wrapped in the second season, cementing it as one of the most exhilarating and entertaining TV adaptations of the character, one with a distinct voice, sure handling of tonalities, and an ability to play viciously with the canon. Harley Quinn has many pleasures: her voice perfectly captures identifiable personalities, with Giancarlo Esposito as Lex Luthor and Diedrich Bader as Batman as particular highlights; the style of the character is eye-catching; the plot is flattering and heartfelt in equal measure; the personalities swear and commit abuse with abandonment. The show still has no fear of lovingly making fun of Batman while sculpting his own bloody direction.
12. The Midnight Gospel
Comedian Duncan Trussell and Pendleton Ward, producer of Adventure Time, paired up for one of Netflix’s most surreal animated shows. The Midnight Gospel is partly influenced by Trussell’s podcast, and stars in the series as a spacecaster named Clancy Gilroy, who interviews guests as their worlds experience a dystopian occurrence using a universal simulation machine. There are some out of reach themes, and the humor goes to some very odd and dark locations. It’s the same with a series it concludes almost every episode of an extinction-level event. And yet it’s always a lot of fun. The show is set in a magical and puter dimensional universe called The Chromatic Ribbon, a caster called Clancy, which has a multi-faceted simulator of its own and flies around to interview numerous inhabitants of different realms and worlds. The show is based on a series named The Duncan Trussell Family Hour and draws extensively from this series.
13. Transformers: War for Cybertron Trilogy
The original Transformers animated series was, admittedly, a cool way to sell children toy robots that could turn into vehicles. There have been several following Transformers animated series, but Transformers: Battle for Cybertron Trilogy is the first to fully accept the pathos behind the fight between the Autobots and the Decepticons. The magnificent CGI animation preserves the look and feel of the Generation 1 Transformers, and also adds moments of genuine awe to Cybertron and the return of some unexpected heroes and villains. But the most amazing aspect of this series is the way it encourages all Autobots and Decepticons to doubt their role in the battle, as well as the morality of their leaders, Optimus Prime and Megatron. The distinction between good robots and bad robots is no longer sliced and dry.
14. Altered Carbon Season 2
The adaptation of Richard K. Morgan’s popular cyberpunk book, Altered Carbon, is set for a few hundred years in the future, at which point mankind has created the ability to download a person’s consciousness to machines. People will now shift into new bodies, called “sleeves,” basically rendering themselves immortal — provided they have the capital. Takeshi Kovacs (Joel Kinnaman) is a retired soldier who has lived the last 250 years in cold storage. He’s back in a new sleeve, courtesy of Laurens Bancroft (James Purefoy), a rich man who needs Takeshi to locate the man who murdered Bancroft’s former body. Altered Carbon draws on classic black elements, as Takeshi explores a gloomy city where everyone seems to have a hidden agenda.
15. Dark Season 3
Although he drew a lot of comparisons to Stranger Things (due to a small-town setting and teenage protagonists), the German Netflix series Dark is his own thing, a strange, high-concept story set in a town where everyone has their secrets. Dark starts in Winden, a remote, wooded town near a nuclear plant. Teenager Jonas (Louis Hoffman) returns to school, having spent time on therapy after his father’s suicide, only to find the city in a state of shock over a new tragedy: the disappearance of his fellow student, Erik Obendorf. Erik is not the first boy to be absent in Winden ‘s history, nor will he be the last, and Jonas and his friends will soon find themselves on the verge of a mystery spanning centuries. Dark is an unusual drama, dense with mysteries and complex characters.
16. I May Destroy You
Even though it’s only in the midst of its first season, this BBC One and HBO production by Michaela Coel is one of the frontrunners of the 2020 best new shows. Coel stares like Arabella, a woman whose drink was spiked one night, leading to her sexual assault. The heartbreaking series follows Arabella as she attempts to unravel the memories of her abuse while simultaneously handling her status as a victim of sexual assault. The series seems a bit serious on the surface, but scripting and production take the violence of a violent crime and covers it in a combination of vulnerability, power, and grim comedy, making something so far away from the survivor’s stories you’ve seen in the past.