2020 was a year when many turned to television to distract and soothe.
And, against all odds, television — most of it made in the pre-COVID-19 era, only to debut in a landscape where the world had irreparably changed — delivered an opportunity to escape and relate. Long derided as the pedestrian sibling of the entertainment landscape, it was the medium’s very quality of immediate accessibility that allowed it to shine at a time when nothing was certain and nothing made sense.
Below, in alphabetical order, are the shows — not limited series, chill out chess freaks who are already scrolling for “The Queen’s Gambit” — that debuted in this brave new world. Below you’ll find stories that inspired, engaged — and don’t dismiss the importance of this last one — entertained. It’s not just Peak TV, It’s Peak Cataclysm TV.
Ray Mickshaw / FX
There’s something about Dave Burd’s straightforwardness that makes the show around him flourish. Facing plenty of the same TV autofiction challenges that others within the FX family and beyond have wrestled with, Burd makes the most of his on-screen persona sandwich. Convinced of his own artistic abilities, the on-screen Dave does his share of overanalyzing, trying not to preempt his own potential stardom. Whether the confidence he shows in his abilities to be an all-time great in the rap world and a sympathetic friend and partner is more him or his alter ego talking at times, it’s enough that when people around Dave say that they believe in him — including the always-reliable GaTa in one of the year’s most irresistible performances — you can’t help but agree with them. —SG
“Everything’s Gonna Be Okay”
In a year when everyone did their best to latch onto something besides grief, “Everything’s Gonna Be Okay” provided a helpful blueprint. The series, created by and starring Josh Thomas, starts off with an emotional journey through the loss of a family member. It’s not that the season that follows sets aside that pain completely — it’s a redirection. It’s amazing to watch the slow and steady evolution of Thomas, Kayla Cromer, and Maeve Press as an on-screen family, all rooted in an understanding of how different people respond to unexpected circumstances. Each part of this newly bonded trio faces their own daily divergent paths, constantly being asked to head in one direction or another. That they move forward without fully moving on ends up making for some beautifully delicate storytelling that thankfully will continue. —SG
For a show with a lineage built around characters who pride themselves on their cool sense of removal, this 2020 update of the “High Fidelity” story wasn’t afraid to get excited. With Zoe Kravitz stepping into the role of Championship Vinyl owner Rob, the parade of heartbreaks and small business exploits took on a different shape. The 10-episode season had the ability to step back and let Rob’s co-workers take the lead at times, making sure that this wasn’t just about one person’s quest to navigate a changing Crown Heights. Music was always going to be in this story’s DNA, and it delivered with a parade of needle drops ranging from time-honored classics to undersung gems from around the globe. What happens next for this group is now up to all of our imaginations, but the time we had in this fourth-wall-breaking, record-shelf-packing world was absolutely well-spent. —SG
“Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet”
The workplace comedy is alive and well, and Apple TV+ is home to two of the best in recent history (more on “Ted Lasso” below). In an entertainment landscape where the lines between film, television and video games are ever blurring, “Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” series creators Charlie Day, Megan Ganz, and Rob McElhenney chose a setting that was ripe for the picking. While packed with plenty of gaming jokes, the show isn’t so niche that it alienates viewers who haven’t picked up a controller since they were kids; instead, it predominantly relies upon the workplace relationships all viewers will be able to emphasize with: from McElhenney’s self-obsessed and perfectionist boss to Naomi Ekperigin’s overworked H.R.-cum-therapist Carol. It’s worth noting the pitch-perfect casting across the board, but especially the standout performances from Charlotte Nicdao’s lead engineer Poppy, Jessie Ennis’ rung-climbing sycophant Jo, and F. Murray Abraham, cashing in the gravitas he’s spent a career building as comedic chum in Nebula-winning author C.W. Longbottom (or in the parlance of workplace comedies of yesteryear, this show’s Creed Bratton). Bonus points to the “Mythic Quest” team for being the first show to deal with filming during the pandemic, utilizing all the iPad muscle Apple had at their disposal to create an entertaining 30 minutes that wasn’t just Zoom jokes. —LG
“Never Have I Ever”
The Mindy Kaling-co-produced series “Never Have I Ever” is more than just the coming-of-age story of a young woman. For Netflix, Kaling and co-creator Lang Fisher tell the story of every non-white girl growing up in high school. Devi (played superbly by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) isn’t just a teenage girl with dreams of getting out of her house and making out with the hottest boy in school; she’s forced to deal with being an Indian-American girl in a family that tries to keep their heritage alive, as well as tamping down the grief she feels over her father’s death. The title might imply Devi’s quest to finally be cool — and sexually intriguing — but it uses that enticement to slowly unfurl a heartbreaking story of loss. When Devi finally reconciles with her mother, both of them sobbing as they scatter Devi’s dad’s ashes, it’s a beautiful earned moment that showcases the series’ magic. —KL
Merrick Morton / HBO
Los Angeles is at its most beautiful when it’s at its worst, and HBO’s “Perry Mason” offers viewers a compelling look at both sides of that dichotomy. The tale of a mutilated and murdered baby is intertwined with the snake oil spiritual dealings of a charismatic church, a plotline that’s perfect for impoverished-P.I.-turned-slightly-less-impoverished defense attorney Perry Mason and his associates to untangle. The performances from Matthew Rhys as Mason, Juliet Rylance as his assistant and smartest-person-in-the-room Della Street, and Chris Chalk as former cop Paul Drake gleefully expand beyond the noir genre notes they are required to hit, while the production design and costumes make menace alluring. With a pitch-perfect set up in the final episode for the show’s already greenlit second season, it’s a pleasure to know we’ll have more of the antics of Mason & Street, Esqs. to enjoy. —AD
Based on her play “Pussy Valley,” Katori Hall’s “P-Valley” depicts the complex lives of the predominantly Black women who work in a Mississippi Delta strip club called The Pynk. Hall’s characters are richly crafted and it’s obvious she did her homework, talking to dozens of strippers over many years. Its characters are an eclectic group of both straight and out queer Black men and women, harmoniously coexisting in the deep south, where racism and homophobia can be intimidating obstacles. The Starz series carves out enough time for each of their stories, resulting in a web of plotlines, paced relentlessly — so it’s not a series to be watched passively. It demands the audience’s attention because of its local specificity, and the script doesn’t skimp on the harsh realities of the world in which it’s set. Boasting an all-woman directing team, the result is a series about strippers with a noticeably female gaze. These women are subjects, not objects. Ultimately, “P-Valley” knows exactly what it wants to be: an authentic, fast-paced drama that sets out to destigmatize the world of stripping and shatter misconceptions. —TO
“Tales From the Loop”
Jan Thijs / Amazon Prime Video
Inspired by the paintings of Simon Stålenhag, Nathaniel Halpern’s starkly beautiful Amazon Prime Video original series is a tough one to pin down using typical TV shorthand. Each hour follows a new character, but some characters pop up again and again. Each episode introduces a new mystery, but the mysteries aren’t meant to be solved. The show borrows elements from serialized and episodic storytelling to help build an imaginative new world in a small Ohio town, where a mysterious underground device helps “make the impossible possible.” In many ways, “Tales From the Loop” is the opposite of a mystery box show; it’s not concerned with the “Why?” and “How?” questions stemming from its impossible events. Instead, it focuses on what those events mean to its characters; how they react is far more important than how it happened, and — thanks to strong performances from Rebecca Hall, Jonathan Pryce, and Ato Essandoh, among others — it’s so very easy to invest in these complex, empathetic people over their town’s weird secret. “Tales From the Loop” may not be an easy show to describe, but it’s certainly an easy show to love — and that’s what matters most. —BT
It’s very difficult to dislike Apple TV+’s breakout comedy “Ted Lasso” — and believe me, I’ve tried. A starring vehicle for Jason Sudeikis, the show follows a successful mid-level college football coach after his unlikely recruitment to coach an English Premier League football (soccer, for us Yanks) team. “Ted Lasso” comes from the vein of TV comedy in which conflicts are shallow, but emotions are deep. It wears its heart on its sleeve, sharing DNA with other heartwarming shows, including “Parks and Recreation” and “Cougar Town” — the latter of which makes a lot of sense, as both come from executive producer Bill Lawrence. The show lives and dies on the performance of Sudeikis, who goes beyond what could be an overly-simplistic everyman and brings to the role a wealth of passion, empathy, and unimpeachable sincerity that in anyone else’s hands would coalesce into something far more saccharine. I’m tired of white, male protagonists who can’t help but fail upwards and dragged my feet before giving “Ted Lasso” a try. But despite my Grinchian reluctance, my heart grew three sizes watching Sudeikis and his merry band of players. It’s a rare bright spot in the year that was 2020. —LH
“We Are Who We Are”
Luca Guadagnino’s first foray into serialized storytelling stands as a towering success. Not only does the director of “Call Me By Your Name” and “A Bigger Splash” maintain the gorgeous scenic cinematography and intimate study of human behavior that helped make those movies so beautiful, but his penchant for patient storytelling lends itself well to weekly installments; Guadagnino doesn’t treat his eight-hour story (which will hopefully continue) like an extra-long movie, but instead like an evolving moment in time. Season 1 juxtaposes a pivotal historic period (the 2016 election) with a universal coming-of-age narrative, watching a small group of teens living on an Army base in Italy build friendships that help them discover who they are, who they were, and who they’re becoming. The fluidity of their development is matched by their unpredictable journey, but Guadagnino never lets it bleed into his seasonal structure. “We Are Who We Are” is precisely episodic, and a number of entries play out magnificently on their own. Watch the first season one episode at a time or devour it in two-, three-, or four-hour chunks — just watch it. There’s so much to admire, you’ll be hard-pressed to keep from watching it again. —BN