Year in Review: The 20 Best TV Shows of 2020 (2023)

TV & Movies

From teens to queens, first loves to worst loves, vampires to aliens and more, these series gave us characters and stories to escape into when the real world was too scary to bear

(Video) Top 10 Best TV Shows of 2020

Back in June, when we published our ranking of the best shows of the year so far, it felt wholly plausible that our end-of-year list wouldn’t look much different. This was a few months into the pandemic, when it was unclear how soon television would be able to go back into production, if at all, and how much material the networks and streamers had stockpiled pre-quarantine. If the answer to either of those questions was bad, we assumed the last three or four months of the year would be bereft of interesting programming.

Instead, the content firehose of the last few years merely slowed to a soothing shower, offering enough quality series to fill more than half of a revised top 10, and eight shows overall out of this beefed-up top 20(*).

(*) Several of the returning shows are ranked differently relative to one another than they were in June. That’s a reflection on how some of them lingered more strongly in the months since they aired, but also how fluid these kinds of lists are by their very nature. The top-ranked show was always going to be the top-ranked show, but at least half the series would move up or down a bit depending on the day this compilation was being published.

It’s a group that includes both reliable veterans at or near the end of their runs and remarkable debuts from untested creators; series about the strains of getting older and ones about the thrills and terrors of adolescence; shows about America’s difficult past and ones that imagine what our future might hold. In a strange and often maddening year, it was great to have TV like this to turn to.

  • ‘Better Call Saul’ (AMC)

    Year in Review: The 20 Best TV Shows of 2020 (1)

    Just as Breaking Bad‘s most iconic moments tended to involve explosions or gunshots, plenty of stuff blew up real good in the prequel’s fifth season too. But the parts that have lingered — and made clear that Saulnow rivals its parent show — were quieter ones, where the weapons of choice were words, or at times pointed fingers. In one of those moments, our beloved lawyer Jimmy McGill lets his inner shyster Saul Goodman metaphorically slip out, ranting that he’s grown so powerful, “lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!” In another, dogged Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn, a.k.a. TV’s best dramatic actor) reveals just how much her relationship with Jimmy has corrupted her: Right after she outlines a plan to ruin their ex-boss’s career and cash in, she mimes finger guns at her shocked boyfriend. No show on TV sweats the details more, which in turn make scenes like Jimmy or Kim’s speeches play just as big as anything Heisenberg ever did. Saulhas become a true classic in the making.

  • ‘Lovecraft Country’ (HBO)

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    Every other series on this list was far more consistent than this mashup of genres and history, about a black family in the 1950s battling horrors both supernatural and painfully real. But peak value matters more than ever in Peak TV. Lovecraftcould struggle to connect one story point, or one horror or sci-fi trope, to the next, and the main plot was never as compelling as its detours. Yet at its very best — a road trip through Jim Crow’s America scored to a James Baldwin speech; Leti (Jurnee Smollett) smashing up a row of cars owned by racist neighbors; Hippolyta (Aunjanue Ellis) leading a tribe of African warrior women into battle against a Confederate army — Lovecraft aimed higher and hit harder than almost anything else on television.

  • ‘Brockmire’ (IFC)

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    The pandemic shut down baseball only days before the final season premiere of this unheralded comedy about a loquacious play-by-play man (Hank Azaria, never better) slowly rebuilding his life and career after years of drinking, drugs, and sexual debauchery. (OK, so he never quite left the debauchery behind, and we are all the better for it.) Real-life baseball eventually resumed, but in the interim it was hard to ask for a better substitute than these hilarious and poignant concluding eight episodes, set in a dystopian near-futurewhere Jim Brockmire is tasked with saving not only the sport, but the whole American experiment. A gem that streaming viewers will hopefully discover for years to come on Hulu.

  • ‘I May Destroy You’ (HBO)

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    Sometimes, the show of the summer is something light and frothy, the better to consume after a long, hot day outdoors. This summer, it was a dark, tough, 12-episode tour de force about sexual assault. Writer/star/co-director Michaela Coel made the tale of young author Arabella coping with the aftermath of being drugged and raped into a spellbinding, audacious meditation on consent, trauma, and even writer’s block. Where too many modern dramas feel padded and inessential, Coel packed an extraordinary amount of information and ideas into each episode, exploring Arabella’s ordeal not only through the lens of her recovery, but through her friends’ parallel problems. And Coel proved just as arresting in front of the camera as she was inspired behind the scenes.

  • ‘The Good Lord Bird’ (Showtime)

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    Even those who knew that Ethan Hawke had grown into one of our finest actors may not have been ready for the thunderous volume of his turn as violent abolitionist John Brown. And even those who suspected he had an enormous performance like this in him were surely startled by just how funny Hawke made the thing, as both actor and co-adapter of James McBride’s novel. Bird looked at the national blight of slavery through the lens of dark comedy, as Brown and freed slave Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson) tried to lead an uprising against Onion’s oppressors, only for Brown’s many faults to get in the way. A miniseries about slavery shouldn’t be as delightful as it is poignant, yet Hawke made it so.

  • ‘Normal People’ (Hulu)

    Year in Review: The 20 Best TV Shows of 2020 (6)

    Anintensely private tale of romance between a girl and boy who grow up in the same small Irish town, wind up at the same college, and keep drifting in and out of each other’s lives for reasons neither ever quite understands. Directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald worked with Sally Rooney to translate her book in ways that made us just as privy to its young lovers’ conflicted, tormented thoughts as if we were reading them on the page. And stars Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal were never less than riveting, allowing the story to take its sweet, uncomfortable time figuring out if these two should stay together.

  • ‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (FX)

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    The vampires at the heart of this mockumentary — housemates on present-day Staten Island — have lived for centuries without learning much about themselves or the world around them. Season Two was even smarter at depicting just how dumb the undead can be. Highlights included energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) getting a promotion at work and reveling in the ability to bore coworkers at mandatory meetings; Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) befriending a doll inhabited by the soul she lost when she got bitten; and, especially, Laszlo, on the run from a rival vamp, posing as a “regular human bartender” named Jackie Daytona. A blessedly silly respite from a world on fire.

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  • ‘We Are Who We Are’ (HBO)

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    Between this and the the 13th-ranked show on this list, it was a hell of a year for HBO coming-of-age stories set in Italy. Call Me By Your Namedirector Luca Guadagnino made agorgeous transition to television with this tale of two teenagers (Jack Dylan Grazer and dazzling newcomer Jordan Kristine Seamón) becoming friends — and possibly more — while growing up on an overseas U.S. Army base. Blurring boundaries of gender, sexuality, and age — the parents, led by Chloë Sevigny’s base commander, could be more immature than the kids — We Are Who We Arecontrasted its messy story with some of the year’s most stunning images and musical choices.

  • ‘How to With John Wilson’ (HBO)

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    Each episode of this docu-comedy series purports to follow filmmaker Wilson as he explains aspects of everyday life, like making small talk or splitting a restaurant check. Mostly, though,it’s about the digressions, which can be ridiculous, or tragic, or both. Wilson’s quest to get his favorite chair fitted with a protective cover somehow leads him to discuss the movie Parasite with a middle-aged man who’s naked from the waist down and demonstrating a machine he built to restore foreskin. His attempt in the season finale to make his immigrant landlady some risotto instead turns into a heartbreaking portrait of the moment when Covid first hit New York. A hard show to explain, it’s a joy to experience.

  • ‘Pen15’ (Hulu)

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    The inescapable gimmick in this comedy’s first season was that thirtysomething co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle were playing themselves as 13-year-olds, opposite actual middle-schoolers. In the second, the illusion became so convincingthat it was easy to watch whole episodes without being reminded of the age gap between Erskine, Konkle, and their co-stars. Some of Pen15’s fundamental humor went away as a result, but the show became an even more emotionally rich and satisfying study of adolescent turmoil, as the “girls” coped with unrequited crushes, parents divorcing, and other threats to their friendship. An amusing show that’s matured into an excellent one.

  • ‘Bluey’ (Disney Jr.)

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    This animated Australian import about a family of Blue Heeler dogs — dad Bandit, mom Chilli, and daughters Bluey and Bingo — is clearly targeted at preschoolers. But Blueyturned out to be an incredible all-ages pandemic balm. Stories seem simple — say, the girls and Bandit find ways to repurpose an old box of felt pens — yet have profound messages to impart about kindness, maturity, and the emotional benefits of imaginary play, both for kids like Bluey and kids at heart like Bandit. (Bandit’s willingness to suffer for his daughters’ entertainment is also a bottomless source of humor.) The Season Two episode “Sleepytime,” where Chilli helps Bingo find the courage to make it through a whole night of sleeping in her own bed, is a four-hankie dazzler about the challenges, rewards, and costs of growing up.

  • ‘Better Things’ (FX)

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    It was midlife crisis time for Sam Fox in the fourth season of Pamela Adlon’ssuperb fictionalized memoir, which meant trading the family SUV for a muscle car, exploring a move to New Orleans, and even taking out an inadvisable loan so she could pay off her useless ex-husband’s alimony all at once. Sam’s reckless behavior was in direct contrast to her daughters finally demonstrating signs of maturity, and the balance between the two emotional states worked perfectly for the intimate, largely plotless vibe that has made this one of the most special shows of the last few years.

  • ‘My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name’ (HBO)

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    Chapter two of the TV adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels followed Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Gaia Girace) into young-adulthood, while still being acutely aware that they were barely older than the girls we met in the first season. In this next phase of life, Lila found herself trapped in an abusive marriage, while Lenu devoted too much of her heart to a man not worthy of her genius. Few recent series have been as beautifully photographed as this one, and even fewer are as uncompromising at depicting the difficult realities of their characters’ lives.

  • ‘Dave’ (FXX)

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    Dave Burd, a.k.a. rapper Lil Dicky, opens his TV series with a mortifyingly detailed description of his misshapen, malfunctioning penis. Later episodes feature a graphic depiction of how Dave can experience sexual pleasure, and Dave suffering an on-camera bout of diarrhea (a TV first?). Yet Davesomehow juggled all the dick jokes and toilet humor with nuanced, smart, and even poignant stories — Dave’s hype man GaTa struggling with bipolar disorder, or the creative choices and compromises Dave has to make to achieve his dreams of hip-hop stardom. This is a show whose genius, like Dave’s flair for rhymes, will sneak up on you.

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  • ‘The Great’ (Hulu)

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    As young, romantic, and perplexed new Russian empress Catherine, Elle Fanning very muchlived up to this historical satire’s title. And she was matched every step of the way by Nicholas Hoult as Catherine’s cruel, stupid, ne’er-do-well of a husband, Emperor Peter. Created by The Favouriteco-writer Tony McNamara,The Greatgenerated some of the year’s biggest laughs from the horrific conditions under which Catherine and her subjects had to live, which only made the moments where she got the upper hand on Peter feel all the more satisfying. Huzzah!

  • ‘BoJack Horseman’ (Netflix)

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    Theanimated dramedy ended on an appropriately muted note, with the title character (Will Arnett) skirting near the edge of death before being confronted with a more challenging fate: having to go on living as BoJack Horseman. If the final half-season wasn’t BoJackoperating at the peak of its powers, especially on the comedy side, the dramatic beats still resonated as strongly as they ever did. A fitting bow for what remains the best series ever made for a streaming service.

  • ‘High Fidelity’ (Hulu)

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    Hulu’s decision to make this gender-flipped adaptation of Nick Hornby’s classic novel (and the classic John Cusack movie that followed it) into a one-and-done stings. As romantically self-destructive record shop owner Rob, Zoë Kravitz has simply never been more magnetic, vulnerable, or funny. And the scenes pairing her with David H. Holmes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph as Rob’s employees were a joy to watch. The one season tells a complete enough story to make it a worthy binge, but it felt like this new High Fidelityhad so much more to explore.

  • ‘Ramy’ (Hulu)

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    For the second season of his thoughtful and lovely series about the Muslim-American experience, Ramy Youssef brought in a ringer: two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali as the sheikh who tries and mostly fails to assist in the fictional Ramy’s quest to be a better Muslim. It’s a terrific, understated turn, but also a sneakily funny one. Meanwhile, the series once again built some of its most potent episodes around the other members of Ramy’s family, exploring the interior lives of his sister, father, and hypermasculine uncle. A show that deftly straddles the absurd and the sincere, and never falls flat.

  • ‘The Plot Against America’ (HBO)

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    The Wirecreators David Simon and Ed Burns found the most terrifyingly perfect moment to adapt Philip Roth’s alternate-history novel, in which Charles Lindbergh wins the presidency in 1940 and begins turning America into an isolationist, white supremacist nation. Simon and Burns’ Plot didn’t hit too hard on the obvious parallels between their show and what was happening with our current presidential administration, because it didn’t need to. Zoe Kazan anchored a strong cast, and the show’s biggest departure from the book, in its depiction of the next presidential election, wound up bringing the story closer than ever to our strange, real-life present.

  • ‘Grand Army’ (Netflix)

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    This teen drama following five students at an elite New York public school was simultaneouslyprovocative and restrained, tackling hot-button issues — sexual assault, racism, poverty, and coming out of the closet — in ways that felt empathetic, grounded, and real, rather than exploitative. (Well, mostly. The less said about the revelation of who made the bomb threat to the school, and why, the better.) And the performances by the young and mostly unknown actors, particularly Odessa A’zion and Odley Jean, were fantastic. In a year when school, like much of life, was mostly virtual, seeing messy IRL teen angst, played by these superb young discoveries, felt like a scary thrill.

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