TV was a constant companion in 2020. With most cultural institutions shut down, the small screen still managed to provide us with a deluge of new things to enjoy and talk about — far more than any one person could ever watch. In fact, at times this year, I found it difficult to watch anything — or at least, anything new.
My habits were often fickle, and I danced across shows new and old; I started many and finished few on my journey to get lost in something. And so even in this extraordinary year, the usual caveats apply. I am but one person, and I cannot watch all television. Here, in no particular order, are the shows that stayed with me, long after I turned off the set.
While the show premiered in 2019, the rest of Dare Me’s 10 episodes aired in 2020, and each of them was among the best dramas of the year. Based on Megan Abbott’s novel of the same name, Dare Me followed the friendship between high school cheerleaders Beth and Addy — and what happened when their ambitious new coach Colette French got a little too involved in their lives. A high school noir thriller with tremendous pacing and performances, Dare Me was brave, bold television that, while canceled, works incredibly well as a standalone season of TV.
The strangest show of 2020, How To is part documentary, part video essay, and part cringe comedy. Each of How To With John Wilson’s six episodes starts with a simple question — how to split a check, for example — and then proceeds to not answer it in the most incredible ways.
How To is also an instruction manual for loving the city you live in: it embraces the inherent strangeness of being in close proximity to so many others and responds to this weirdness with affection. No other show I’ve ever seen is so concerned with the meaning of scaffolding, or with a man who’s obsessed with the health benefits of foreskin. Watching How To With John Wilson will make you care more about the weirdos in your life.
Americans’ collective understanding of history is uncomplicated and dishonest and needs upending. Fortunately, in the meantime, there’s The Good Lord Bird, a show based on the James McBride novel of the same name. The show presents itself as a mostly-true account of abolitionist John Brown’s final days, as seen through the eyes of a young man he “rescues” and continually mistakes for a girl. It’s a funny and blunt look at the messy work of revolution, a story interested in tearing down the myth that progress is seen as a clean and noble pursuit in its time.
If Friday Night Lights were a comedy, it’d probably look a lot like Ted Lasso. The sleeper-hit series fleshes out the eponymous character — who’s mostly known from commercials — and builds a fish-out-of-water comedy around him. The premise: Ted Lasso, a folksy American football coach, is inexplicably hired to lead a troubled soccer team in England. It’s a ridiculous idea and everyone knows it — but what no one knows is that Lasso is being set up to take the fall by a cynical team owner.
In this tension, Ted Lasso sings: it’s a show about what it means to relentlessly work to be a good, positive person in a hostile environment. It’s about picking yourself up over and over again in the hopes that your faith in others becomes contagious.
The first good show about video games is here, and, surprisingly, it’s also terrific fun for people who don’t know the first thing about them. A scathing workplace comedy about the pleasures (few) and toxicity (plentiful) of game development from the creators of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Mythic Quest follows the employees at a studio behind a popular online game. The show succeeds because it refuses to pull punches: Mythic Quest makes no bones about the fact that it’s a show about a sexist industry that seeks to pacify online trolls and Nazis, and with that clarity comes some pretty damn good comedy.
Superheroes are blunt instruments, primary-color metaphors for very simple ideas. This isn’t a drag. I think it’s what makes them good, a vehicle for stories that translate across decades and media. The Boys is a show about the people wielding those instruments, now that they’ve become extremely valuable corporate IP, controlled by a handful of people. Juvenile, on-the-nose, and incredibly bingeable, The Boys grew in its second season and turned its eye toward fandom, and what happens when you cheer for a country like you do a rock star.
Arabella is on a deadline. She’s a viral success story, a blogger with a successful debut book working on her follow-up — mostly futilely. Because in the meantime Arabella is also struggling to rebuild her life after being drugged and raped on a night out. I May Destroy You shows Arabella taking on these twin endeavors; the result is a searing work of introspective television about what happens to a person who works in a world interested in the exploitation of trauma, and how the stories we tell ourselves to survive can also break us down.
I May Destroy You is a messy, complicated story about equally messy and complicated people. It’s one of the best things you can watch this year.
Few shows are concerned with portraying complicated struggles of religious faith; even fewer are interested in exploring these stories in non-Christian contexts. Ramy is different. In its second season, the Hulu comedy from comedian Ramy Youssef becomes a show about a young man who is bad at being Muslim but desperately wants to be good at it. Ramy pledges himself to a new sheikh, only to learn the depths of his all-consuming selfishness. It slowly alienates him from everyone he cares about, despite their faith in him. In Ramy, faith makes you consider your own failings, and asks: what next?
Anyone who’s watched Breaking Bad knows that, five seasons in, Saul Goodman is going to do something irredeemably awful. Better Call Saul’s 2020 episodes brought us closer to heartbreak as well-meaning huckster Jimmy McGill fully embraces his Saul Goodman alter ego and plays dangerous games with Kim Wexler, one of the only people who still cares about him. Catch up now — because while it’s far less popular than its predecessor Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul has become a much better show.
The second season of Doom Patrol ditches the more annoying aspects of its first season — namely, an annoying, omniscient villain who also narrated — and doubles down on what worked: stories about broken people Going Through It. In Doom Patrol, accepting who you are is dangerous, frightening work, especially when you might be a powerful cyborg, host to a deadly cosmic being, or a system of alternate personalities that each possess a devastating power. Irreverent, weird, and affectionate, Doom Patrol is the best new DC Comics adaptation you can watch right now.
Was Michael Jordan the GOAT? We could argue all day. Was he really that popular? Without question. The Last Dance is less about Michael Jordan the man than it is about Michael Jordan the phenomenon. Framed against in-depth, never-before-seen footage that followed Jordan’s final year with the Chicago Bulls, the superstar’s career is recounted across 10 episodes that feature interviews with former teammates, rivals, and His Airness himself. Filmed with Jordan’s involvement, it’s less an argument about the man and more a document of how he sees his time as the biggest name in basketball — which, like the best documentary subjects, is a bit more revealing than he might think.
What We Do In the Shadows became great in its second season by leaning into the things that made it different from the film it was based on. Namely, Colin Robinson, an “energy vampire” who looks like a normal dude — only he feeds off the misery victims get from the extremely dull conversations he holds. And then, Guillermo de la Cruz, a familiar who desperately wants to be a vampire but has also learned he is destined to be a vampire hunter.
These two are What We Do In The Shadows’ secret weapons, comedic haymakers deployed when the already-good premise of a mockumentary about vampires living together in Staten Island needs a little bit of shaking up. Which, honestly, doesn’t really need to happen. That What We Do in the Shadows does it anyway is why it’s one of the best comedies on TV.