Perhaps even more than usual, television was comfort food in 2020. As one of the few entertainment options whose availability was unaffected by Covid-19, it was a place — unlike the movies or the ball game or a concert — that was still up and running.
Accordingly, I found myself looking at TV shows through a slightly different prism this year. To be more specific, I was valuing intense profound content and artistic excellence perhaps a bit less and sheer entertainment perhaps a bit more.
Even if a show had some problems, if it was fun, I was there. I’m sure that’s how a lot of people explain watching The Bachelorette, and while I haven’t entered that realm yet, I get the thought.
With that in mind, here are my top 10 shows from 2020. The good news with any yearend best-of list these days, of course, is that unlike in the olden days, reading these lists no longer means being told what you missed. In the streaming world, almost all shows keep being available.
In no particular order:
- The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix). Who’d have thought a show about chess could be so engaging to millions of people who think a rook is a breeding colony for penguins? Anna Taylor-Joy, who was also very good in Emma, makes a challenged chess prodigy into an indelible character whose journey through a man’s world leads us to a half-dozen memorable portraits. Her Beth anchors it all, as surely and endearingly as Sylvester Stallone anchored Rocky.
2. Perry Mason (HBO). This prequel to an iconic early television series starts a little slow, then becomes riveting as Matthew Rhys’s young, flawed Mason finds his footing in a classic L.A. noir murder case. A reimagined Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) make the whole thing even tastier. Final bonus: It’s been renewed for a second season.
3. The Good Place (NBC). This wasn’t a lot of television, just a very short wrapup to the best network sitcom in some time. Kristen Bell, Ted Danson and a great core cast gave our afterlife adventurers a fitting sendoff into eternity.
4. Penny Dreadful: City of Angels (Showtime). Alas, this one didn’t get the ratings traction of the original Penny Dreadful series, and Showtime cancelled it right in the middle of a complicated and fascinating story. Set in L.A. in the ’30s, it had evangelists, Nazis, racists, sleazy politicians and everyone in between, with a handful of good guys led by Nathan Lane’s Lewis and Daniel Zovatto’s Tiago. Did we mention the spectral Magda, several different women played by Natalie Dormer? City of Angels may have tried to tackle too much, but it did so much of it well that its cancellation made the list of bad things that happened in 2020, a list with a high bar to membership.
5. Power (Starz). This show never got the recognition it deserved, and its finale early this year was as strong as the stories that preceded it. It also segued beautifully into the first of four spinoffs and sequels: Ghost II: Powerbook. Most sequels squeeze the last few drops from spent fruit, but Power’s tale of a shady family’s rise to success — and the price of that ascent — still has plenty of juice left.
6. The Great (Hulu). Dramedies have become quite chic the past couple of seasons, and none has taken more sheer delight in that notion than this retelling of Catherine the Great’s rise to power in Russia. Elle Fanning’s Catherine and Nicholas Hoult’s Peter have their own chess match of a relationship, and while Peter in particular flirts with slapstick, their maneuverings through Russia’s upper crust are smart as well as amusing.
7. Better Call Saul (AMC). The fifth season of Saul matched those that came before, continuing the march of attorney Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) from small-time screwup to the amoral Machiavellian of Breaking Bad. It’s as good as TV gets for blending dark with light, and Odenkirk conveys just how Jimmy gets from Point A to Point B, which is both a shorter and longer journey than it might seem. Equally riveting as we count down toward the sixth and final season: What happens with his partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), who wasn’t part of Breaking Bad, but who’s just as crucial in Saul as Jimmy himself?
8. Avenue 5 (HBO). Hugh Laurie was fine in the BBC/PBS miniseries Roadkill, but he was better in Avenue 5, a comedy about a bunch of dopey people who find they may be stuck with each other for years on a malfunctioning spaceship. Laurie plays the ship’s nominal captain, who must play nice while dripping with contempt for the lot of them. It sounds like silly Brit comedy and sometimes it is. But mostly it’s funny, and almost as good an escape as zipping off into space.
9. Bridgerton (Netflix). Shonda Rhimes, who always runs in overdrive, tackles Regency romance and works out a compromise that flatters both sides. Shonda gets some extra sex scenes and slips in 2020 music by playing it in 1813 style. But the quaint, suffocating customs of 1813 British royal society remain intact, and so does a whole sprawling canvas of glorious eye candy. Right in the middle we get an endearing roller-coast romance between two characters, Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) and Simon (Rege-Jean Page), that we really like. Go. Watch. It warms up this year’s disoriented holidays.
10. Homeland (Showtime). This former critical darling faded out rather quietly, perhaps because it had down moments over the years as well as triumphs. It ended in a sturdy way, not with a false burst of total victory, but with a realistic, somewhat encouraging life for the two people it made us care about, Carrie Mathisen (Claire Danes) and Saul Berenson (Mandy Patinkin).