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The Best TV Series of 2020: A Top 10 List by TV Critic Ben Travers — Year in Review

In a year like no other, great television helped to reestablish empathic connections in a daunting, disconnected world.

Best TV Shows of 2020 Normal People I May Destroy You Better Things

“Normal People,” “I May Destroy You,” and “Better Things” are among the best TV shows of 2020

Amid a time-bending stretch like the one we’re still living through, listing the best TV shows of 2020 feels counterproductive, if not downright preposterous. After all, who can definitively say what did or didn’t happen this year?

My calendar states the election was held just under a month ago, and yet certain manipulative powermongers insist it’s still playing out. I could also swear J. Lo ’s unjust renunciation by the Film Academy took place months before her dazzling Super Bowl Halftime show with Shakira, and yet the record books tell me her “Hustlers” snub in January and February’s concert were just 20 days apart. (Clearly, if the latter had come first, Ms. Lopez would be surviving 2020 with the help of a little gold man.) And despite what you may think, Quibi premiered and shuttered in 2020.

Still, TV did play a more substantial role this year than many others. In an age of isolation and social distancing, television was a lifeboat. The family room’s big screen functioned as a vital reprieve from an ocean of very real fears. Any show that helped you get through another socially distant day was a great series. But TV was also a cinderblock; a perilous weight dragging viewers so quickly through the water you could forget to vote, protest, or remember the world around you was drowning, too.

Taking both extremes into account, perhaps they balance out. Perhaps we can pretend 2020 was just another year, when TV consumption needed to be modulated. There was still too much TV for any one person to keep up with, and there was still a wide variance in quality from show to show. So why not focus on the best?

Below, you’ll find IndieWire’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2020, plus a handful of honorable mentions. As usual, the noteworthy shows in this great big mess of TV happen to be a cross-section of the industry at large. Some shows are from cable stalwarts, while others are new favorites in the streaming world. (Thanks to some recent strategic brand synergy partnerships, some just happen to be both!)

To keep comparisons as reasonable as possible, unscripted, reality, and documentary series were not considered here — so don’t expect to see “Tiger King” (not that you should anyway) or “City So Real” (though that would definitely be in the Top 5). There’s plenty to choose from in the scripted space, including faraway worlds and those as real as the noisy neighbors next door. Our list isn’t exhaustive, but in a time when people might just be looking for newer viewing options, these are the shows from 2020 that are worth a first (or second) look. For each entry, we’ve also included the places where you can watch these seasons right now.

TV offered us everything in 2020, and these shows offered the most.

10. “The Baby-Sitters Club” (Netflix)

THE BABY-SITTERS CLUB

Xochitl Gomez and Malia Baker in “The Baby-Sitters Club”

Kailey Schwerman / Netflix

Even for those who’ve never picked up one of Ann M. Martin’s books or who don’t find themselves particularly invested in family entertainment, Rachel Shukert’s Netflix adaptation hits a universal sweet spot. Updated for modern times yet fashioned to be timeless, “The Baby-Sitters Club” is winsome, compassionate, and incredibly efficient entertainment that should play perfectly to a wide variety of viewers. Tracking a group of middle-schoolers who start a babysitting business, the main cast of characters consists of sincere and loving teens who never come across as overly cutesy or too mature for their age. The strong ensemble deserves plenty of credit, but Shukert (whose time on “GLOW” shines through here) manages an aspirational yet grounded tone extremely well. She keeps things focused on the baby-sitting more than the business — these girls genuinely want to help kids — and such earnest but never treacly stories encourage a similar pride in one’s work and investment in one’s community. “The Baby-Sitters Club” works in large part because it feels like a throwback even though it speaks to our current lives. Topics like gender transition and inherited trauma are smoothly incorporated without making episodes feel politically charged or overly intimidating; everything in “The Baby-Sitters Club” is addressed on a human scale, and every human should find plenty to enjoy.

“The Baby-Sitters Club” Season 1 is available to watch on Netflix.

9. “P-Valley” (Starz)

P-Valley

Brandee Evans and Elarica Johnson in “P-Valley”

Jessica Miglio

Typically, plays are built through language and performance, both of which help audiences evoke a setting not physically present on stage. The stage remains stagnant, even if props and sets change, so many TV adaptations of theatrical offerings struggle to create the compelling visuals needed to make the imagined world on stage spring to life on screen. Not “P-Valley.” Katori Hall’s lush Starz drama (built from her 2015 play, “Pussy Valley”) offers enough spellbinding atmospherics to hold anyone’s attention, yet remains entrenched in the rough-and-tumble reality of the Dirty South. Set at a strip club in the Mississippi Delta, “P-Valley” paints a vivid, often funny and always gripping portrait of the various employees. Gender-fluid owner Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) and his outgoing stage star Mercedes (Brandee Evans) are instant breakouts, and the excellent overall casting only adds to the authenticity of an immersive Southern noir story. Hall isn’t merely building a world; she’s drawing attention to legitimate work that’s been objectified and appropriated for too long. There’s no disputing the talent and work ethic of these women, and there’s no denying that “P-Valley” is focused on letting these Black dancers reclaim their power.

“P-Valley” Season 1 is available to watch on Starz.

8. “We Are Who We Are” (HBO)

"We Are Who We Are" Episode 8 finale HBO cast

Jordan Kristine Seamón and Jack Dylan Grazer in “We Are Who We Are”

Yannis Drakoulidis / HBO

It turns out Luca Guadagnino’s patient, empathetic storytelling translates extremely well to television, as the “Call Me By Your Name” director’s first small screen exhibition proves over and over again. Following a group of American teens living on an army base in Italy, “We Are Who We Are” embraces the messy relationships fueled by raging hormones and developing personalities while honoring the passion unique to these formative years. Mixing in excellent music and sumptuous visuals, Guadagnino – who directed every entry and co-wrote episodes with Paolo Giordano and Francesca Manieri — crafts an elegant love story specific to a generation that recognizes the fluidity of the world around them. Everything is changing along with them, and “We Are Who We Are” carries itself with an assertive shrug: Nothing is permanent, but that doesn’t mean nothing matters.

“We Are Who We Are” Season 1 is available to watch on HBO Max.

7. “Mrs. America” (FX on Hulu)

Cate Blanchett in "Mrs. America"

Cate Blanchett in “Mrs. America”

Sabrina Lantos/FX

The first series to star Cate Blanchett had to be great, right? There’s simply no chance an actor of her caliber and taste would sign on to anything less that exquisite, even when she’s just one part of a large ensemble and even in an age when TV is can land just about any talent. Though her second series of 2020 sure put some of those assumptions to the test, “Mrs. America” exceeded even the loftiest expectations. An acting showcase from frame one and a layered look at feminism throughout, Dahvi Waller’s limited series tracks the rise of the Equal Rights movement through a staggering array of sharply defined perspectives, while always including the gaze of its greatest enemy. As Phyllis Schlafly, Blanchett carries a plot in almost every episode, even when another historical figure takes centerstage — this focus sure riled up progressive viewers, who couldn’t stand seeing such an abhorrent conservative manipulate her way into the upper echelon of American politics, but that’s exactly the point. “Mrs. America” draws key parallels to today’s political landscape while honoring the women who’ve been fighting tooth and nail to move things forward — for women, for feminists, for anyone who believes all people are created equal. Some may find certain scenes and episodes hard to watch, but it’s even harder to leave the series without a touch of inspiration. The fight goes on, and Blanchett helps make “Mrs. America” a key weapon for good.

“Mrs. America” is available to watch via FX on Hulu.

6. “Better Call Saul” (AMC)

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Michael Mando as Nacho Varga - Better Call Saul _ Season 5 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Bob Odenkirk and Michael Mando in “Better Call Saul”

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

A beautiful tragedy and gripping character drama, Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan’s “Breaking Bad” prequel continues to defy the odds. It’s not just a worthy spinoff to one of TV’s all-time best dramas, but one of today’s best dramas full-stop. Long ago, Jimmy McGill’s saga came into its own, but Season 5 uncovers more about its stars (including fan-favorite Kim, played by the impeccable Rhea Seehorn) and still surprises us with its choices. (“Bagman” is both an outstanding distillation of the series’ sharply designed aesthetics and a complete narrative surprise.) With one season to go, “Better Call Saul” has already achieved the unimaginable: There’s no telling how it will end, but it’s all-but-certain to end perfectly.

Better Call Saul” Season 5 is available to watch on AMC.

5. “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix)

"BoJack Horseman" Season 6 Netflix

“BoJack Horseman”

Netflix

Believe it or not, the final (half-)season of “BoJack Horseman” debuted way back in January of this year. And while there’s never a bad time to re-watch one of television’s most re-watchable programs — you could mute the whole series and, thanks to a cornucopia of visual puns, still laugh harder than when most modern sitcoms are set at full volume — this year was an especially good time to revisit “BoJack.” An impossible balance of heartbreak and hilarity, Raphael Bob-Waksberg maintained his confident stride to the end, pushing his central antihero to the brink and forcing him to keep confronting his demons, instead of putting them aside once and for all. That’s what life is, isn’t it? Death may be the ultimate end, but it’s what we do with our life that matters, and there’s no magic switch that suddenly makes living easy. You have to confront reality every day. Sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s hard, and in 2020, we’ve felt those extremes more than ever. Even in its finale, “BoJack” offers genuine lessons to help us keep going. There’s joy, there’s pain, there’s everything in between — “BoJack” conveys it all with a burning intensity, so if you’re looking for escape, help, or a little bit of both, pull up “BoJack” one more time. I promise you’ll find something new to appreciate.

“BoJack Horseman” Season 6 is available to watch on Netflix.

4. “Normal People” (Hulu)

Normal People -- Episode 3 - Episode 103 -- The night of the Debs is approaching and the girls at school have organised a fundraising event. Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) has been asked to help and is out of her comfort zone. At the club, one of Connell’s friends Karen (Niamh Lynch) does her best to show Marianne some kindness but Rachel (Leah McNamara) behaves coldly towards her. The evening turns sour, when one of the boys’ older friends gropes Marianne. She leaves the club, upset by the incident and Connell (Paul Mescal) offers her a lift home. Marianne stays over at Connell’s house and bumps into Lorraine as she leaves the next day. Connell becomes anxious when his friends tease him about Marianne, suspecting they’ve guessed about their relationship. Fuelled by anxiety, Connell makes an unexpected decision that hurts Marianne and causes a rift between him and his mother, Lorraine (Sarah Greene). Marianne withdraws from school, causing Connell intense guilt. Connell (Paul Mescal) and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones), shown. (Photo by: Enda Bowe/Hulu)

Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal in “Normal People

Enda Bowe / Hulu

Any 2020 series that can sincerely utilize Imogen Heap’s “Hide and Seek” without eliciting an eye roll (or worse) must be doing a lot of things right, and Sally Rooney’s adaptation of her own 2018 novel serves as an ideal adaptation in every way. Aided immensely by Lenny Abrahamson and Hattie Macdonald’s intimate direction, as well as strong co-writers in Alice Birch and Mark O’Rowe, “Normal People” follows a popular working class boy named Connell (played by Emmy nominee Paul Mescal) as he falls for a wealthy social outcast named Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). Drawn together by fierce intellect and innate attraction, their relationship shifts along with their positions in the world, and Rooney’s deeply felt limited series tackles issues of gender, class, and toxic behavior over the couple’s most formative decade. Broken into half-hour chunks but still spanning 12 episodes, “Normal People” is addictive and lean without sacrificing the epic nature of its love story. From the rolling hillsides of Ireland to its subjects’ unflinching humanity, Hulu’s first adaptation of Rooney’s work sets a high bar for what’s next — the key creatives are now adapting “Conversations With Friends” — and we can’t wait to see it.

“Normal People” is available to watch on Hulu.

3. “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX)

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "City Council" -- Season 1, Episode 2 (Airs April 3, 10:00 pm e/p) Pictured (l-r): Harvey Guillen as Guillermo, Kayvan Novak as Nandor, Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Matt Berry as Laszlo, Mark Proksch as Colin Robinson. CR: Russ Martin/FX

Harvey Guillen, Kayvan Novak, Natasia, Demetriou, Matt Berry, and Mark Proksch in “What We Do in the Shadows”

FX

In the virtual offices of IndieWire, a war has been raging. For months, one faction (rightly) believes that the sixth episode of “What We Do in the Shadows” Season 2, “On the Run” is an instant classic, worthy of every ounce of hubbub it’s stirred up. This, of course, is the Jackie Daytona episode, where cult favorite comedian Matt Berry takes his cowardly vampire on the lamb and establishes a new identity as a bartender and girl’s volleyball coach. So invested in its blind pivot to Laszlo’s new life yet easily recognizable as a parody of small town “on the run” movies, Episode 6 is certainly the best entry in an inventive sophomore season filled with many, many delights. Plus, it has Mark Hamill. He’s great. So great. And still, a stubborn number of my foolish colleagues [Editor’s note: We’re actually right.] contend Episode 5, the preceding entry, is the year’s pinnacle; that “Colin’s Promotion,” where energy vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) discovers that absolute power can corrupt absolutely, is somehow more enjoyable, more creative, and more re-watchable than a toothpick-disguised Berry dancing to “Simply Irresistible.” Thankfully, the olive branch needed to quell this sitewide brouhaha exists within and outside of both episodes: Season 2 is the funniest comedy of the year, offering enduring laughs everyone wants to revisit — after all, the only way to settle our skirmish is by screening each entry again, and in doing so, we all become winners.

2. “I May Destroy You” (HBO)

Programme Name: I May Destroy You - TX: 08/06/2020 - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Arabella (MICHAELA COEL) - (C) Val Productions - Photographer: Natalie Seery

Michaela Coel in “I May Destroy You

BBC/Val Productions/Natalie Seery

Michaela Coel’s fiery HBO limited series defies simple explanations. Each of the 10 half-hour episodes can be bitingly funny, yet they’re a far cry from traditional comedy. On the flip side, the series centers itself around a rape and its aftermath — with jarring, confrontational, and twisted results — but to call this a drama about sexual assault, consent, or any of the other heavy topics it takes on, does a disservice to the friendly relationships at its core. In many ways, “I May Destroy You” defines itself onscreen, not just by enacting its creator’s exacting vision, but by mapping that vision out through her character, Arabella, whose writing process and shifting perspective on her own experience lead us through her life as it’s happening. Created by a Brit and featuring frank conversations about sex, “I May Destroy You” reminded many of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Emmy-winning “Fleabag,” but even comparing it to one of television’s top-tier programs isn’t quite right for Coel’s standalone gem. The best TV may remind us of other greats, but eventually, it becomes the point of comparison. And “I May Destroy You” is already there.

“I May Destroy You” is available to watch on HBO Max.

1. “Better Things” (FX)

Better Things Season 4 Finale Pamela Adlon

Pamela Adlon and Olivia Edward in “Better Things

Suzanne Tenner / FX

In a year dominated by abnormality, it’s only fitting that a show celebrating life’s everyday adventures comes out on top. Honest, absorbing, and empathetic, Pamela Adlon’s elite FX series continues to find surprising and relatable new avenues for its family of women. Season 4 sees Sam Fox dance in the streets of New Orleans, stride through a midlife crisis, and host an unexpected batceañera for her middle child — with her rarely seen ex-husband on the guest list. Untangling minor mysteries like Xander serve as rewarding developments for long-term viewers, but seeing Sam confront a past she’s kept at arm’s length is rich, deeply textured terrain for new and old fans alike. Adlon, who’s directed every episode since the start of Season 2, excels at conveying emotional logic through nuanced character portraits, and she’s also gotten braver each season, pushing “Better Things” to creative highs without ever losing its tether to reality. As beautiful in spirit as it looks in every frame, “Better Things” forges a unique connection with its audience that only grows stronger with time. It’s simply the best television has to offer and very well could remain that way for years to come.

Better Things” is available to watch on Hulu.

Honorable Mentions

Typically, cutting a best-of list down to 10 entries is an agonizing process, and this year was no different. “Pen15” debuted seven glorious new episodes on Hulu, offering a rich, hysterical, and aptly agonizing encapsulation of eighth grade awkwardness. “Ted Lasso” became the word-of-mouth original that convinced people to try out Apple TV+, thanks in no small part to the titular character’s giant heart. “Ramy” found insight and laughs by pushing more boundaries, often by watching creator/director/star Ramy Youssef push Mahershala Ali’s buttons. “Never Have I Ever” served up a star-making turn from Maitreyi Ramakrishnan to go along with its addictive freshman run on Netflix, while HBO’s ultimate aging curmudgeon Larry David became a sensation all over again in “Curb Your Enthusiasm’s” stellar 10th season. And hey, there were even a few more hourlong dramas that nearly cracked the Top 10: Alex Garland’s FX on Hulu limited series “Devs” made for a striking long-form debut, highlighted by an eerie new side of Nick Offerman, and “The New Pope” proved Paolo Sorrentino was far more than a one-hit (TV) wonder by elevating John Malkovich to the holy ranks once dominated by Jude Law (who, uh, also left quite a mark on the new season). Finally, Showtime’s “The Good Lord Bird” channeled Ethan Hawke’s furious energy into a thrilling historical story about uncompromising righteousness that every elected Democrat should take to heart. Now more than ever, the world demands our best — so let’s give it to them.

If you’re looking for more 2020 series that might catch your eye, you can sift through a complete compendium of our TV reviews for the year here

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