The best and worst TV shows of 2020
Critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich pick their favorite television from their least favorite year. Plus: Bad television, and two essential Blursts.
This wretched year is almost in the rear-view mirror. Now we can take a moment to appreciate the television that got us through 2020 — and bid the execrable shows a hearty get-the-hell-out. This year also brought us a special viewing phenomenon: The Blurst shows of the year, a.k.a. the shows that other critics might dump on their "worst" lists, but that we at EW loved unapologetically.
Though it was shot in 2018, Search Party season 3 produced a tailor-made tale for this year of misinformation and flagged tweets: Facts are meaningless if you refuse to acknowledge them, and deception can be seductive, especially when it reinforces your worldview. Once an aimless, self-involved slacker, Dory Seif (Alia Shawkat) went on trial for murder and fought back by establishing a tyranny of truth — her version, and hers alone. In an era where fewer and fewer actor-producers seem willing to play someone truly unlikable, Shawkat went full, glorious psychopath, and this darkly comic curio was all the better for it.
Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s teen comedy has the heart and wicked humor of a John Hughes film, but a cast that looks a lot more like an actual American high school. Newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan is a marvel as Devi Vishwakumar, a 15-year-old girl beset by hormones and grief. The 10-episode series is anchored by a peerless ensemble of female actors — including Poorna Jagannathan as Devi’s exacting mom Nalini, Richa Moorjani as her beautiful cousin Kamala, and Niecy Nash as her nurturing therapist Dr. Ryan — and narrated by the angriest man alive, John McEnroe. Nothing about that juxtaposition makes sense, but just about everything in Never Have I Ever works.
This isn’t a wacky workplace comedy — it’s a show about love. Love of silly rhymes (see: Yarn Barn, “Pimento has Memento disease!”). Love of ludicrous wordplay (“Bullets Over Broadway was on TV. I came down with a big old Dianne Weist infection”). Love of finding creative ways to insult Kyra Sedgwick’s villainous (and now dead) Madeline Wuntch (thank you, writers, for the phrase “Korean toilet ghost”). And so much love for the fans that they’re still brainstorming new “title of your sex tape” jokes, seven years and 143 episodes later. (“I’m sorry, it just slipped out!”) Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a series created with and responsible for a lot of joy. Cop shows are at a crossroads, and however Brooklyn addresses the reckoning facing modern law enforcement, we can be sure they’ll handle it like everything else: With genuine care.
It’s the 2020 premiere, “The Gang Deals with an Alternate Reality,” that catapults this solid but not spectacular season into top-10 territory. Only showrunners Robert and Michelle King, television’s best zeitgeist philosophers, could conjure a liberal viewer's fairy tale — Hillary Clinton wins in 2016! — and turn it into a believable nightmare of Trump-esque proportions. Christine Baranski reaches new heights of regal confusion as Diane Lockhart, and that ending! What a heart-swelling return to a heart-sinking truth. By the way, The Good Fight also figured out what really happened to Jeffrey Epstein this season. What have your shows done for you lately?
Can a TV show feel like home? It can, and Pamela Adlon’s visionary portrait of middle-aged female personhood absolutely does. A lot happened to mom of three-slash-working actress Sam Fox (Adlon) in season 4 — most notably, she finally ditched the albatross known as her ex-husband (Matthew Glave) — but the many miracles of Better Things are not in the plot points but the moments. Sharing a pound of crawfish with a stranger in New Orleans; building an elaborate cage for the pet chinchilla her daughters brought home by surprise; and cooking — always cooking — in her cozy SoCal kitchen. Ribs, carbonara, eggs and bacon, asparagus doused with olive oil and garlic. Sam Fox is a sustainer and a survivor. Once again, Adlon has served us a feast for the eyes and the soul.
Dirty pics hacked out of a B-list celeb’s cell phone — from this tacky-tawdry premise comes a bloody brilliant exploration of modern womanhood. Blending narrative whimsy with painfully funny truths, co-creators Billie Piper (who also stars) and Lucy Prebble (Secret Diary of a Call Girl) tell a complex, conversational, and unique story without ever spelling things out for viewers. As Suzie Pickles, a child-star-turned-working actress, Piper all but vibrates with the strain of her character’s internal chaos. When she finally explodes, her anger is exquisite.
An outsider (Emma Corrin’s Diana) joins the family and is promptly tossed into the royal threshing machine by Queen Elizabeth II (the flawless Olivia Colman) and the system she lives to uphold. Creator Peter Morgan uses Diana’s bittersweet evolution from teenager to the People’s Princess as a springboard to delve deep into the Windsor clan’s true birthright: Generational trauma. Whether it’s her sidelined sister (raise a toast to Helena Bonham Carter’s final turn as the broody, outspoken Princess Margaret) or the queen’s own children, almost everyone in Elizabeth’s orbit is dreadfully unhappy — none moreso than the mercurially miserable Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor, excellently hangdog). Throw in a virtuosic performance by Gillian Anderson as the Iron Lady, and this is The Crown’s most humane, poignant, and impeccably-rendered season yet.
A piercingly intimate look at the inner workings of the NXIVM organization, The Vow is all the more powerful because it doesn’t skip right to the sensational “sex cult” headlines. The world first heard about this “self-help” group run by Keith Raniere when he and Smallville star Allison Mack were arrested on sex trafficking charges in the spring of 2018, but the indoctrination of their many victims was an insidious, years-long process. “If they had said, ‘Hey, do you want to get Keith and Allison’s initials branded on your vagina?’ I definitely would have said no,’” notes NXIVM survivor and whistleblower Sarah Edmondson, who shares her story in The Vow along with fellow defectors Mark Vicente, Bonnie Piesse, and others. Combining archival footage with in-the-moment recordings, the 10-part docuseries plays like a real-time mindf---, as Raniere leads his followers from seduction to servitude.
Jason Sudeikis’ titular coach — an American optimist in London — arrived just when we needed him most. Expanded from an NBC Sports promo into a lively and complete comedic universe, Ted Lasso delivered 10 hilarious episodes about team building, emotional intelligence, modern masculinity, and the unrelenting power of human decency. And premier league football? Sure. But only as it relates to integrity, stage musicals, and the beauty of effortless gratitude. (Danny Rojas!) Anchored by a stellar ensemble — special shout-outs to Brett Goldstein as AFC Richmond’s aging star Roy Kent, and Juno Temple as the team’s unofficial publicist, Keeley Jones — Ted Lasso provided copious laugh-and-cry comfort in a fraught year of anxiety. To quote the Coach himself: “Ain’t nobody in this room alone.”
All along, we’ve been asking the wrong question. How did Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) become Saul Goodman? We’re way past that now. The real mystery at the heart of Better Call Saul is this: Where does Kim Wexler go from here? The brilliant, perfectly-ponytailed lawyer (Rhea Seehorn, criminally Emmy-less) is now in the midst of her own transformation, from Jimmy’s moral compass to his invaluable, life-saving accomplice. Jimmy and Kim are the rarest of TV couples: They are pragmatic soulmates, realists in love and partners in life. As Better Call Saul heads into its final season, the fate of Kim Wexler — dazzling legal mind, thrill seeker, drug-lord silencer — brings new urgency to a saga that already ended, way back in 2013, with Breaking Bad. Whatever turn Kim takes in the end, she’ll always be Saul’s better half.
A cannonball of glorious bad taste fired by a dying streaming service, this nasty-sweet animated adventure ravishes the overexposed Gotham City mythology, reinvigorating the campy excess of bygone Bat-ages with gory dark comedy and an exuberant central gay will-they-or-won't-they. The first two seasons live on HBO Max now; greenlighting season 3 was the best thing HBO Max did in its first year.
What was the entertainment that got you through the early months of the pandemic? For awhile there, my household lived for our twice-a-week check-in with Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez. Their ascendant tangent-prone chatfest became the outraged (and outrageously funny) masterpiece of the At-Home era. Icons took note. In 2020, David Letterman, Jon Stewart, Seth Meyers, and Eric Andre swung by to give the Bodega Boys their collective Late Night blessing — and Desus & Mero finished collecting democratic-candidate interviews just in time to snag our next President.
The vampire mockumentary expanded its chamber of hilarious horrors in season 2, with witches, zombies, ghosts, a necromancer, a social media troll who’s also a literal troll, and — brrrr — a Staten Island Super Bowl party. I refuse to choose any undead favorites, since Kayvan Novak’s emotionally fragile Nandor, Natasia Demetriou’s daffily exhausted Nadja, Mark Proksch’s Dilbert-ish Colin Robinson, and Matt Berry’s ever-bloviating Laszlo would individually be the funniest characters on any other show. Special shoutout to Harvey Guillén, who’s transforming Guillermo into the best vampire slayer since Buffy.
An epic portrait of Gen Z fluidity amidst the ruins of America’s war against itself? Or a crazy-beautiful kids’-hookin-up romance with a great soundtrack and ludicrous clothes? I still don’t know if Luca Guadagnino’s eight-part series about an army base in Italy lived up to lofty political ambitions, but the director sure throws a hell of a party. Credit young stars Jordan Kristine Seamón and Jack Dylan Grazer for pouring out their hearts onscreen — and their climactic traincar Blood Orange karaoke was the year’s swooniest TV setpiece.
In its fourth season, the hysterical Trump Derangement satire re-piloted itself toward trickier explorations of secret laws and class warfare. The serialized mystery was messy, and cut short by COVID. But I’ll always remember the restrained horror of Delroy Lindo’s final series-regular performance, when his noble egomaniac Adrian realizes how little his new corporate overlords care about his firm. “They don’t value our work, our employees, our history, or our culture,” he says. “They want us for our Black faces on their diversity reports.” Another savvy observation, from a show about brilliant people trapped in chaotic times.
Part consent noir, part millennial satire, part let’s-fly-to-Italy good hang, all inquisition into contemporary sexual politics: Creator Michaela Coel turned her own assault horror into the apotheosis and antithesis of every young-cool-metropolitan sitcom. Coel’s a skyrocketing writer-actor destined to win all the awards — and don’t forget Weruche Opia’s secretly devastating performance as Terry, a devoted bestie balancing repressed shame and loving support with fear of what her best friend is becoming. The boldly surreal finale requires (and rewards) a dozen rewatches.
A Jersey family who happens to be Jewish faces a president who happens to be fascist. Philip Roth’s alterna-'40s novel became a very 2020 tale of state-sponsored street violence and hatred gone viral. Co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns previously collaborated on Generation Kill and The freaking Wire, and they turned this humane miniseries into another quietly essential drama of communal unrest. It ends on a tense election night. For America — and America — that night never ends.
The best teen series ever? This Y2K throwback makes a convincing case. Co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play 13-year-olds, a casting quirk that layers surreal absurdity and sweet sorrow onto familiar middle school antics. The seven episodes released in 2020 cover so much ground, with a greater focus on the supporting cast and a more complicated set of emotional problems troubling the lead duo. “Let’s be together forever, please?” young Maya begs Anna. Seventh grade is awful; their friendship is magic.
This soul-expanding cartoon odyssey from Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward blends stun-a-second visual WTFery (clown planet, zombie singalong, cat-operated spaceships, octopus sheriff!) with far-out philosophy. Co-creator Duncan Trussell voices Clancy, an interviewer in a spaced-out mega-future, who seeks answers to life’s biggest questions in the digital cosmos within his Universe Simulator. The impossible-to-explain premise wins for inadvertent topicality — Clancy’s a shut-in with nothing to do except existentially binge entertainment — and the conversational dialogue mostly remixes Trussell’s meandering podcast. The finale features the voice of his late mother, a resurrection worthy of the original Gospel. Netflix: Order season 2, please!
When does a very good show become a great show? When does a very good actor become a great actor? Better Call Saul, season 5, episode 7, last scene: Saul Goodman announces himself. “I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine!” the crooked lawyer yells, rasp echoing through the Bernalillo County courthouse. “I’m like a god in human clothing! Lightning bolts shoot from my fingertips!” The joke is he’s never looked worse: A tiny man loudly explaining what a somebody he is. There’s so much to love about Saul — your critics agree! Take a moment, though, to marvel at Bob Odenkirk. Breaking Bad’s preening comic relief has become our national nightmare incarnate, an all-too-human monster drowning his soul (and his world) in a moral swamp of resentful egomania.
The eeeeevil Frenchman. Computer god-spheres (plural). Constant re-deaths. And Aaron Paul as a terminally bland new hero? Everything went wrong when the quirky robo-Western rebooted itself into a bland tech-noir cheesefest. —DF
The most cynical kind of TV-making: Start with a title; prop it up with big stars and buckets of money; hope that everything else — like a fully realized premise — falls into place. It didn’t. —KB
The Blurst: No apologies!
A silly Jersey Shore offshoot about boozy sex buffoons flirting around various Vegas pools. Filmed in 2019, it arrived on television like some unearthed relic from a lost world; indeed, a veritable Satyricon for the socially un-distant hedonism of the pre-pandemic world. For real, though: The romances — farewell, critical dignity — were extremely compelling. (Dear Vinny and Maria: You’re in love, you dopes!) —DF
For more on our Entertainers of the Year and Best & Worst of 2020, order the January issue of Entertainment Weekly or find it on newsstands beginning Dec. 18. Don’t forget to subscribe for more exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.