Like everything else, TV took a hit in this year of the pandemic, but networks felt the impact more so than streaming and premium. The latter categories put out several good short-form series or seasons, accelerating what had been a gradual shift to that format and making a tough year bearable. These were my 10 favorite TV series of 2020:
10. “The Flight Attendant” (Season 1, HBO Max) – “The Big Bang Theory’s” Kaley Cuoco breaks free of her sitcom roots by answering every acting challenge in this blend of globe-trotting romp and whodunit. Cassie is wrongly sought for the hotel-room murder of her lover (Michiel Huisman, who recurs in Cassie’s dream visions) even as she clashes with friends (Zosia Mamet’s lawyer Ani is particularly fun), re-examines her childhood, and fends off (totally fair) accusations of being an alcoholic. Cuoco’s competence guides us through a could-have-been cuckoo story like a calming flight attendant amid turbulence. (Full review.)
9. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (miniseries, Netflix) – Though not as consistent as “The Haunting of Hill House,” the best episodes of Mike Flanagan’s follow-up are among the most poetically crafted of 2020. Victoria Pedretti does standout work as Dani, an American nanny at the titular English manor who feels guilt over the death of her fiancé, falls in love with initially morose gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), and bonds with her charges, including 8-year-old Flora (Amelie Bea Smith), who believes everything is “perfectly splendid.” A horror yarn plays around them, yet I’m left with a sense of lump-in-your-throat beauty. (Full review.)
8. “Westworld” (Season 3, HBO) – This update of Michael Crichton’s movie started as an exploration of how robots are like humans, but it finds another level in Season 3 by showing how humans have become like robots. I suspect the series will culminate with the “singularity,” the point at which there’s no meaningful difference between organic and robotic humans. Giving the themes intimacy are Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores and newcomer Aaron Paul (“Breaking Bad”) as Caleb, who initially believes Dolores is a normal human woman. They, and we, see how misused high technology has made people into data points, something that makes their near-future real world more chilling than the twisted “delights” within Westworld.
7. “The Undoing” (miniseries, HBO) – Imagine a top-shelf arc from “The Practice” enhanced by wintry New York City and A-list actors, and you have David E. Kelley’s engrossing adaptation of the novel “You Should Have Known.” In addition to Hugh Grant’s and Nicole Kidman’s expected good work as a couple that fractures amid a murder accusation against the husband, Matilda De Angelis is a breakout star as the mysterious victim. “The Undoing” plays as a juicy whodunit and as court drama, but giving it an edge over other murder mysteries, it pauses now and then to meditate about the tragedy of a life lost. (Full review.)
6. “Evil” (Season 1, CBS) – The token network series on my list only aired a couple episodes in this calendar year, but I kept thinking about it during its extended hiatus. At its core, it’s an investigative procedural with – about half the time – touches of the supernatural, but there’s something intangible that makes “Evil” particularly engrossing. Kristen’s (Katja Herbers) family life with four daughters, David’s (Mike Colter) struggles with his faith, and Ben’s (Aasif Mandvi) dating life are so grounded in reality that the evil around them becomes more chilling. I can’t wait for the trio to return.
5. “The Last Dance” (miniseries, ESPN and Netflix) – A fun trip down memory lane for Chicago Bulls fans and an engrossing piece of history for those of us from the Michael Jordan generation who forgot the details, “The Last Dance” is an elite long-form sports documentary. It intersperses the backstories of key figures like Jordan, Phil Jackson, Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman with the Bulls’ six 1990s titles, particularly focusing on the bizarre final one. The recurring theme of an opponent’s trash talk ticking off Jordan, who then gets revenge in the next meeting, starts to become giggle-worthy, especially when seeing that present-day Jordan’s attitude (and memory of the supposed slight) has not changed.
4. “Joe Pera Talks with You” (Season 2, Adult Swim and HBO Max) – Even in this exciting transitional era of TV, there are few shows that so brazenly do their own thing while also managing to have a warm, universal appeal. Comedian Joe Pera delivers such a series in a delicious 15-minute increments, showing that mundanities such as a grocery-store trip can be hilarious when centered on Joe’s endearing love for the small things combined with absurd non-sequiturs. “Mennonite chic” girlfriend Sarah (Jo Firestone, also one of the writers) and Joe’s green-bean arch take turns as the best supporting characters.
3. “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (Season 10, HBO) – Larry David and company return with 10 more funny premises, from the way a MAGA cap can get you out of situations you don’t want to be in, to more timeless annoyances such as your football team sucking – frustration with the Jets leads one of Larry’s friends to commit suicide. Dating all the way back to 2000, “Curb” has slowed down its production schedule, but every time it comes back, we’re reminded that the absurdity of the human condition is timeless. (Full review.)
2. “The Boys” (Season 2, Amazon Prime) – In a relatively (compared to last year and next) slow year for glossy superhero fiction, leave it to “The Boys” and The Seven to come through for us. Season 2 accelerates the examinations of back-corridor power and reputation-via-optics and how they impact our titular heroes, led by Jack Quaid’s Everyman Hughie and, in cute moments to savor, his girlfriend Starlight (Erin Moriarty). This season, they take on not only the unstable Highlander (Antony Starr) but also his ageless enabler Stormfront (Aya Cash). If that’s not enough, Karl Urban is on hand as TV’s unchallenged master of curse-laden one-liners.
1. “The Queen’s Gambit” (miniseries, Netflix) – Anya Taylor-Joy clinches a spot as one of our best young actresses in this novel adaptation about a young woman who becomes a world-class chess player in the 1960s and ’70s. Interest in (or even knowledge of) chess is not a prerequisite for this series featuring settings and fashions that drip with nostalgia. Against that luscious backdrop, we’re caught up in immediate concerns over orphan Beth’s living situation, potential boyfriends (I’m still wondering if Beth-and-Townes can somehow happen) and tournament success. In such a weird year, it’s fitting that a series about chess, of all things, was among 2020’s most popular TV shows – and its best. (Full review.)
What were your top 10 TV shows of 2020? Share your list in the comment thread.