Due to the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 was significantly different from the past few years for movies. Luckily, the the number of quality TV shows stayed roughly the same. In addition to playing more video games, the time I spent binging on TV series was also significantly higher than years past. I got caught up on It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and finally saw why everyone loved Community. I also watched a solid chunk of this year’s biggest hits as well, and these were the best of the bunch:
Honorable Mention: Primal (Season 1, second half)
The first half of Primal’s premiere season would’ve been near the top of my favorite series of 2019 if I had watched it as it was airing, so I’m giving a spot on my 2020 list to the season’s second half, which started airing in October 2020. As neither of its protagonists speak, Primal heavily relies on visual storytelling, and while that would be a definite problem for most showrunners, it isn’t for creator Genndy Tartakovsky or his team. Without using a single decipherable sentence throughout the season, Primal is still able to convey all kinds of emotions and tell deeply affecting stories. The show seamlessly blends elements of action, fantasy, and horror together, and is stunningly beautiful. That beauty is also brilliantly contrasted by the jaw-dropping fights that display the violence and brutality that is needed to survive in the prehistoric landscape. I’ve never seen anything like Primal before, and I can’t wait to explore its world and characters even more.
The Boys (Season 2)
The Boys‘ second season is darker, funnier and bloodier than the first. You may think that’s hyperbole, but trust me, it isn’t. The “diabolical” nonsense that the eponymous hero hunters get up to this time around is outright bonkers. However, the season’s most impressive moments are the ones centered around the villainous Homelander, who I’d say is one of the best bad guys on TV right now. Antony Starr really sells the ironically fragile psyche – and masculinity – of the show’s most powerful super being while also never making you question him as a legitimately threatening antagonist. The Boys season two also gives Dominque McElligott’s Queen Mave and Karen Fukuhara’s mute supe meatier, more meaningful roles that build off of their promising potential from season one. The new additions to the cast are all great as well, with the highlight’s being Aya Cash’s Stormfront, and an X-Men star who hilariously and bleakly contrasts his previous superhero persona.
Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season Seven)
While all of the officers working at the Nine-Nine have matured throughout the series – okay maybe not so much with Hitchcock or Scully – it’s particularly evident with Andy Samberg’s Jake and Melissa Fumero’s Amy. Their dynamic is a great barometer for how far they and the show have come, and that dynamic is in the spotlight quite a lot in season seven. Their relationship has always been one of the best parts of Brooklyn Nine-Nine, and it reached a point in the season finale that would’ve seemed pretty far fetched at the beginning of the show, but now seems only natural. And surrounding that strong emotional core is the same, brilliant, unmistakable sense of humor that drew fans to the series in the first place. Brooklyn Nine-Nine’s seventh season was its shortest by far, but it still offered tons of hilarious gags, memorable lines, and moments of palpable emotion.
Alex Garland has made quite an impact on the science fiction landscape in the past few years. Having already created two of the best movies the genre has seen this decade (according to Karl Urban, he actually made three) so it’s not all that shocking that Garland’s first TV show is also an outstanding example of sci-fi that features futuristic technology and explores some pretty heavy ideas. Devs takes its time to reveal what’s going on and why certain things are happening, intentionally keeping you in the dark until fairly late in the game, but it never loses your interest. The stunning cinematography, strong score, incredible visuals, and phenomenal cast (Nick Offerman delivers one of the most memorable performances of his career here) keep you as invested in the mystery as its protagonist while she searches for the truth behind a criminal conspiracy and the game-changing technology her company is working on.
Doom Patrol (Season 2)
If you read my write-up on the best TV shows of 2019, you might remember that season one of this wholly unique series was ranked fairly high on it. The way Doom Patrol seamlessly blended the dark mindsets of its protagonists and heavy themes with an equally confident and bizarre sense of humor made it all too easy to get invested in this super screw-up adventure. The second season keeps most of that momentum, and further solidifies the series’ spot as one of DC’s best live-action superhero experiences in the past ten years. Doom Patrol’s sophomore outing takes an even deeper dive into the trauma and baggage of its beloved cast of super weirdos while expanding their world and introducing a whole bunch of new, strange players. It also brings in a villain that lacks the charm of Alan Tudyk’s Mister Nobody, but is legitimately terrifying and an awesome antagonist in his own right.
The Haunting of Bly Manor (Miniseries)
The Haunting of Bly Manor is more of a gothic romance than the horror-drama I was expecting, but it’s still an outstanding ghost story that had me straight-up sobbing by the end. A sizable amount of The Haunting of Hill House’s cast returns, but Bly Manor’s story is completely separate, instead adapting Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw to miniseries format. I assume creator Mike Flanagan took a few liberties with the narrative, like adding sequences that jump between different points in time, but I have no problems with that as it allows for multiple jaw-dropping reveals. The acting is also fantastic across the board. New and returning cast members give nuanced, poignant performances that add so much depth to their characters, which distracts from the somewhat slow pacing in the first few episodes, and Bly Manor’s back half comes fairly close to recapturing the beautiful, frightening magic of Hill House.
Home Movie: The Princess Bride
Jason Reitman’s recreation of the 1987 fantasy is a hilarious homage with almost as much charm as the classic film. Every episode features an abundance of love and respect for the movie, along with eccentric ingenuity from its cast and crew. Bigger set pieces are often recreated with toys or legos, and there’s a plethora of lightsabers and fake swords. The cast is the particular highlight though, as Buttercup, Westley, the grandson, the grandfather, and almost every other character is played by a large number of different actors, many of who don’t play the roles you’d expect of them. That revolving door of talent is easily Home Movie: The Princess Bride’s biggest strength, as you’re constantly surprised by a new face in a new costume that often looks like it was improvised from whatever was lying around at home, which is almost certainly the case most of the time.
The Mandalorian (Season 2)
The Mandalorian is one of the top three or four pieces of Star Wars media released since the original trilogy and should be mandatory watching for franchise fans. It’s a space western set in that same beloved galaxy from far, far away, but focuses on new characters and a plot that isn’t directly tied to any of the films. Like the damn-near perfect Rogue One, The Mandalorian introduces us to great new heroes, despicable villains, and tons of new locales at the corners of the Star Wars universe that all feel fresh and exciting. Season two of The Mandalorian improves upon the first in almost every aspect, and also takes some big steps to incorporate elements of Star Wars’ expanded universe as well. I won’t reveal those steps, but I will say that there were multiple moments that had me, a fan of all forms of Star Wars entertainment, shouting at my TV in excitement.
Ozark (Season 3)
I thought that the first two seasons of Ozark were great. They had an unique setting, a talented main cast, and an engaging story that kept you invested and concerned about the Byrde family despite their slipping morals as they began making shadier and shadier deals with multiple ruthless criminals. However, the third season is far superior thanks to a noticeable improvement in the already strong writing, which raised the tension and anxiety much higher than ever before, and the powerhouse performances from Laura Linney and Julia Garner. They were already among the standouts in seasons one and two, but there were multiple scenes in season three that these leading ladies firmly established themselves as the most complex, badass, and best characters in Ozark. They were also able to reduce me to tears in their most vulnerable moments as well.
The Queen’s Gambit (Miniseries)
I’ve been a pretty big fan of Anya Taylor-Joy since her feature film debut, The Witch, my all-time favorite horror film. She’s an incredibly talented actor who is often the best part of anything she’s in, and Netflix’s limited series, The Queen’s Gambit only succeeds so brilliantly because of her. Taylor-Joy makes the story of the miniseries’ obsessive chess prodigy protagonist, Beth Harmon, completely engrossing, all too easy to binge straight through, and got me, someone who has very little interest in chess, totally invested in the games she played. The supporting cast is great too (particularly Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, and Harry Melling) and the overall filmmaking is solid throughout, but there’s no doubt in my mind that it’s Taylor-Joy who elevates The Queen’s Gambit from what probably would have been a good show to one of this year’s best.
Sex Education (Season 2)
This Netflix series continues to mix coming-of-age drama with awkward teenage raunchiness, and often gets the best of both. The awesome young cast members – especially Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, and Aimee Lou Wood – make the most out of the funny, heartfelt, incredibly sharp dialogue, and deliver some of the most memorable moments in TV this year. Sex Education ups the drama this time around by conveying top-notch character development through a certain supporting teen and delving into some subjects that are pretty dark, and quite frankly, uncomfortable to watch. Although I think that those tough moments lead to a few of the series’ best and most surprising scenes. This show isn’t for everyone (you’ll know by the end of the series premiere if it’s your cup of tea or not) but if you enjoyed the first season, there’s no reason you won’t like the second.
What We Do in the Shadows (Season 2)
FX’s darkly humorous spin-off of Jemaine Clement and Taikai Waititi’s wonderfully wacky vampire mockumentary film was a hoot in season one, but it only managed to really sink its teeth into me with its sophomore effort. Watching these undead hooligans get into all kinds of supernatural shenanigans is always funny, but the “secret” subplot surrounding the hysterically unfortunate familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) is by far my favorite multi-episode story arc of the series thus far. Season two also does more with the psychic vampire Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), allowing him to become one of the show’s funniest and most memorable characters. That’s not to say the rest of the crew is lacking though. Almost every vampire or monster, both in main and guest roles, gets more than a few moments to shine, and most of them made me laugh out loud multiple times throughout the season.
And that’s it for my favorite TV shows of 2020. If you liked what you read here you can check out my favorite video games of 2020 and follow me on Twitter, Letterboxd, and bookmark my author page to see my future posts. Until then, remember: the best seats are in the Middle of the Row!