TV

The Best TV Shows Of 2020

When in doubt, go to the math. That’s what we’ve done here with our list of best television shows of 2020. Five of our writers submitted their personal top ten lists, and then we assigned point values based on each entry (10 points for each person’s top choice, 1 point for their tenth, with the scores descending in between), and then we added it all up, and then we had our collective list of the 10 best shows of the year, which actually contains 12 shows because of ties. It’s kind of a mess, honestly, but at least the cold hard numbers give us an excuse for our inability to follow our own simple guidelines. And it should be a mess this year. Everything was a mess this year. All things considered, our top 10 shows of the year containing 12 shows might be one of the more normal things that happened in 2020. And it gave us the ability to add more good shows, which was nice, because there were so many good shows to watch and talk about this year. In a way, we’re doing all of you a favor, really.

So what we’re really saying here, if you get right down to it, is that you are welcome. Unless your favorite show didn’t make our list. In that case we are very sorry. It was out of our hands. Because of the math.

10. (tie) Betty (11 points)

HBO

Television shows can be funny, or thrilling, or sexy, or scary, but they’re rarely “cool,” the way your favorite indie band that no one has heard of is “cool.” HBO’s Betty is cool. It’s almost intimidating how cool it is (have I crossed the street to avoid loitering teens, because I don’t want them judging me, someone who is decidedly not cool? Yes). But the real-life skateboarders that Betty follows, whether it’s Kirt and her rat or Indigo and her Gucci coat, are so inviting and charismatic that they would welcome your dorky self into their cool-as-hell skateboarding troupe (no guys, though). Betty will make you long for sweltering summers spent with your friends, where the only item on your to-do list is “skateboard,” but mostly, it will make you feel cool. — Josh Kurp

10. (tie) Umbrella Academy (11 points)

Netflix

This show’s second season proved to be a twist-filled blast that improved upon its predecessor (RIP Pogo and Mary K. Blige’s hitwoman). Yet it’s surprising that it all worked so well, really, because the world truly did not need any more dysfunctional, superpowered protagonists (and especially not a family full of them); yet this show turned out to be much more than that framing device. Like Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba’s comic book series, it gave these siblings a lot of heart. They’re self-tortured and loathing, and simply want to stop feeling so much emotional pain while, yes, stopping the apocalypse. As much as the audience does love to see them get down with their energy-slinging selves, too, the show blossoms the most when the characters struggle and succeed at battling their emotional demons. And the Texas time-travel thing added an expansive historical backdrop that fueled a ton of socially relevant plot points without being heavy-handed. It’s no wonder the show’s so beloved, and thank god Elliot Page is still on board because Vanya kicks ass; and Robert Sheehan, boosting his drug-addled, sexually fluid character who communes with the dead into fan-favorite status, remains the coolest. — Kimberly Ricci

10. (tie) Harley Quinn (11 points)

HBO

One of the nicest developments of this year was Harley Quinn moving from the DC Universe streaming network to HBO Max. It was nice for a bunch of reasons, too, starting with the thing where it gave lots of people access to a show that had quietly been very good for two seasons. It’s funny and foul and sweet, filled with cussing and delightfully stupid jokes and surprisingly tender moments between its characters, who grow and change and learn in a way you probably wouldn’t expect from a cartoon spinoff series about a Batman villain. It is so good. This cannot be stressed enough. Harley and Poison Ivy develop one of the best relationships on television. Kite Man, a man whose quote-unquote superpower is “flying a kite well,” becomes an integral figure in the action. Bane is reimagined as an insecure doofus who spends large chunks of the show trying to angle for a nicer chair at the Legion of Doom. It’s a whole thing. You could do a lot worse in a show. Chill out and watch Harley Quinn if you haven’t. Come on. — Brian Grubb

9. The Boys (12 points)

Amazon Prime

You know what’s more fun than worshipping superheroes? Dumping on them, which is what The Boys continued to do in its second season. In fact, the show perfected its driving theme, giving us new villains that felt disturbingly relevant, over-the-top violence so visceral it made us nauseous, and Karl Urban driving a speed boat straight through a humpback whale. Eric Kripke and his writing team doubled-down on the best parts of the show’s first season – the destructive megalomania of Anthony Starr’s Homelander, the weird, beautiful friendships of characters like Frenchie and Kimiko – while adding antagonists powerful enough to shake up their world. Crude and crass, filled with nightmarish visuals of grown men slurping breast milk and human gills being voiced by Patton Oswalt, season two gave absolutely zero f*cks and that kind of brazen storytelling deserves to be celebrated. — Jessica Toomer

7. (tie) The Crown (14 points)

Netflix

Consider the challenge faced by The Crown as it runs toward the present with increasing speed, facing greater foreknowledge of the history and personalities that fill up the screen. Simply put, while some in the viewing audience may have had a passing understanding of who and how Churchill and the young Queen Elizabeth were thanks to history books, many have a crisp idea of Prince Charles and, specifically, Princess Diana and their doomed marriage. From news reports of the time to the mountain of books, documentaries, and interviews that have been generated since the ‘90s, a tabloid forest fire became an eternal flame that many still can’t look away from. Because of this, The Crown’s fourth season ran the risk of exhaustion or unoriginality. And yet it went down as a triumph, playing in the margins of a convenient but at times legitimately sweet courtship before turning sour largely thanks to Charles’ cruelty, sense of entitlement, and the dysfunctional suffocating burdens of his family and title. Is it all true? I don’t know, but it was captivating and felt true to the story as we know it now almost 30 years later. — Jason Tabrys

7. (tie) I May Destroy You (14 points)

HBO

Michaela Coel, man. She created, wrote, and starred in a fearless show and wasn’t afraid to take risks by spiking a very serious subject — sexual consent in many, layered contexts — with pitch-black humor, and she pulled off the gutsiest finale of the year (fight me). Watching her character whip through a nightclub, limbs flying everywhere, announcing herself as a “twisted Firestarter” to her rapist (before serving him comeuppance) was astounding. What I appreciate most are the wonderfully imperfect characters drawn by Coel as she built toward the end. Arabella is fully-dimensional, rather than defined by her trauma; she’s flawed and damn proud of that fact. And as twisted as this sounds, I do re-watch the finale episode every now and then because it’s electrifying to relive all of those alternate endings building toward vengeance and, eventually, a cathartic and meditative resolution. — Kimberly Ricci

5. (tie) The Queen’s Gambit (15 points)

Netflix

Well, guess what: There’s a show about chess on this list. Can you believe it? Can you believe a show about chess was riveting and compelling enough to beat hundreds of flashier options, many with pedigrees that look better on paper? It’s a little startling, really, unless you watched The Queen’s Gambit, in which case it makes perfect sense. What a terrific show this was, largely thanks to its star, Anya Taylor-Joy, and the lasers she stared through a rotating crew of overconfident chess dopes. She took the character on a twisting ride from adolescence to adulthood and from troubled youth, uh, slightly less troubled adult, and made the whole thing fascinating even as she pushed the… horsies across the… chess table. That was the other nice thing about the show: it worked even if you had no idea what was going on in the very intense matches she was winning against those dopes. Almost a magic trick, really. — Brian Grubb

5. (tie) How to With John Wilson (15 points)

HBO

So much of How To With John Wilson’s goodness is amplified by the timing of its release (when we most needed a reminder of humanity’s endearing quirks). But it’s more than an anthropologically valuable snapshot of life before the pandemic. The layers that Wilson explores when it comes to the mundanity of life and the lessons we can learn if we examine that behavior is the kind of thing that’s built for all seasons, making this not just one of the best shows of 2020 but one that should be reexplored (and hopefully continued) in 2021. — Jason Tabrys

3. (tie) Lovecraft Country (20 points)

HBO

No one knew what to expect when J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele got together to executive produce with Misha Green in the series creator seat, but damn if this show didn’t come through at exactly the right time. Audacious and astounding and full of gleeful genre-bends, this year’s season culminated by killing the hero and taking out the ultimate Karen. The show also proved itself to be a worthy (if probably similarly a one-season pony) successor to Watchmen and even performed its own retelling of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. Across the board, the ensemble cast — including Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Michael K. Williams, Abbey Lee, and Wunmi Mosaku — crushed their roles, all to reinforce how Black history and horror are often interchangeable terms. And we got a lot of pulpy lit and Jackie Robinson metaphors, along with a freaking pet monster after monsters ate bad guys. We got space-and-time travel and exorcisms and a bionic arm. It was simply nuts, and I loved all of it. — Kimberly Ricci

3. (tie) Better Call Saul (20 points)

AMC

The most recent season of Better Call Saul premiered in February, continued through March, and ended in April. I remember almost nothing from the early days of quarantine because time is meaningless now, but I do remember how much I loved Saul. This is true of every season, but especially this season, the show’s finest to date. The desert episode, the room service burger, the glass bottle tossing, the return (debut?) of Hank and Gomez, the least romantic wedding ever, the pee chugging (I would like to forget this one), the ants and the ice cream (this one, too), the finger guns, the Lalo jump, the failed assassination attempt on Lalo (poor Nacho), basically everything Lalo did. It was an unforgettable season for one of TV’s best shows, and the rare spinoff that might be better than the original series. If only the Emmys were paying attention… — Josh Kurp

2. Ted Lasso (28 points)

Apple TV+

Ted Lasso shouldn’t be as good as it is. Its plot isn’t particularly inventive; its main character is derived from a commercial skit that mined laughs from mocking stereotypical culture clashes. And yet, in 2020, it became the show we all needed. Most of that has to do with Jason Sudeikis, who gives a pitch-perfect performance as a fish-out-of-water football coach crossing the pond to try his hand at helming a new team for an entirely different kind of sport. Full of puns and dad-jokes and surprisingly philosophical nuggets of wisdom, his Ted Lasso is basically a teddy bear in human form. But the half-hour comedy also benefits from an impressive supporting cast and a team of writers who know what to do with them. More than that, there’s an unapologetic optimism to the humor here – you’ll see slapstick spit-takes and snappy one-liners, but you’ll never see characters punching down for the sake of laughs – something we didn’t realize we were lacking in our workplace comedies until now. And if Sudeikis’ reaction to that “Caesar you later” pun didn’t leave you literally lol-ing, you’re just lying to yourself. — Jessica Toomer

1. What We Do In The Shadows (32 points)

FX

Jackie Daytona. That name alone, the one used by Matt Berry’s character, Laszlo, in the episode titled “On the Run,” in which he flees a threat from guest star Mark Hamill and starts a life as a toothpick-chawing, volleyball-loving Pennsylvania bartender, might have been enough to get this show into the top 10. It was, and is, that good. And if that had been the entire legacy of this season, it would have been a fine one. Thankfully, however, the episode also shined a big bright spotlight — no sunlight, please — on what was quickly becoming the most reliably funny show on television. And it convinced more people to double back and check it out. And those people were in for a treat. The show’s second season was absolutely littered with great gags and great performances — Mark Proksch is a genius as “energy vampire” Colin Robinson, who feeds on boring and annoying people and has his own standout episode where he goes to work in an office — and a lovely little arc that tied it all together. When 2020 started, you probably didn’t expect a show about bumbling vampires in Staten Island to top this list. But a lot of stuff happened this year that you probably didn’t expect. This is one of the good ones. One of the best ones, some might say, whether they’re television critics or viewers at home or regular human bartenders. — Brian Grubb

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