I guess it shouldn’t come as a surprise that I watched a lot more TV in 2020 than most years (and I was already someone who watched a lot of TV). It’s not even that we all had more time to spend at home and more need of distractions this year. It’s that the ever-increasing proliferation of streaming platforms has become a firehose of new shows. (Though something tells me that between onerous COVID safety restrictions on TV production, and the subsequent cancellation of a lot of promising new shows, that tide will turn a little in 2021.) What’s truly surprising is how many of those shows ended up being remarkable. We’ve gotten used to complaining that the era of streaming delivers a lot of content that is good-but-not-great, but this year there were a lot of exceptions. Or maybe I was just that desperate for an escape from reality.
(To forestall the obvious question: The Good Place is not on this list because it aired all of two episodes in 2020. Also, I was pretty ambivalent about the series finale.)
Best Show of the Year (TIE): I May Destroy You & Ted Lasso
Whatever rules there were for stories depicting rape and its aftermath, Michaela Coel overturns and reinvents them in I May Destroy You, a brilliant, harrowing, strange, at times unexpectedly funny journey through the first year of its heroine, Arabella’s, halting recovery from rape. At every turn, the show does something unexpected that ends up revealing not only its characters, but our society’s limitations when we try to talk about rape and sexual ethics. No sooner has she begun to process having been drugged and raped, for example, than Arabella experiences another sexual violation, when a man she takes to bed surreptitiously removes the condom she’d asked him to use, then gaslights her about it. What are we supposed to do with that? What is she? That messiness, a refusal to commit to a straightforward narrative of healing and comeuppance, is what makes I May Destroy You unusual, but what makes it brilliant is Coel’s expert control of every component in her multifaceted, freewheeling narrative—Arabella becoming an online crusader against rape culture, nearly burning herself up in righteous fury; her best friend experiencing his own violation, discovering that the police have few tools to help male victims, and struggling to find ways to cope; a schoolfriend who now runs a support group for abuse victims, and has a complicated history that intersects sexual violence and race. Rape, in fact, is only one manifestation of I May Destroy You‘s real topic, consent—which is, as its heroine realizes, at once impossibly complicated, and horrifyingly simple.
Ted Lasso is, of course, about as complete an opposite to I May Destroy You as you might imagine. And yet at their core they might be about the same things: the breadth and weirdness of human experience; the damage that toxic masculinity leaves in its wake; the necessity of empathy and compassion; the importance of forgiveness. As I wrote when I reviewed Ted Lasso here a few months ago, I initially balked at watching the series, about a folksy American football coach who is recruited to train an English football team. Then, once I started watching, I fell just as hard and as quickly as everyone else who has discovered the show’s charms. Even then, though, I don’t think I realized how much the show would stay with me. It’s not just that this is an impeccably written comedy, full of indelible characters and brilliant performances. And it’s not just that it is yet another show about kindness at a time when that is the prevailing fashion. It’s that Ted, and his world, feel so fully formed, so real even in their unreality, that one instantly feels as if you’ve always known them. So sure, it’s a bit corny that everyone is putting up “BELIEVE” signs in their workplace, but it also feels true in the way that only the best fiction can.
Rest of the Best:
Better Call Saul
I took a bit of flack here in 2018 when I left Better Call Saul‘s fourth season off my year’s best list entirely. My reason at the time was that the Breaking Bad prequel, though still brilliantly crafted and effortlessly watchable, felt as if it had reached the natural end of its story with the death of Saul’s brother Chuck. Everything afterwards felt like coloring in a picture whose lines were well-known. Along came the fifth season and blew that assumption out of the water by radically reimagining what the show was about. Though Saul, and of course Gus and Mike and Nacho, remain important movers of the story, the season belongs to Kim, who reaches a breaking point no less well-seeded, and no less horrifying, than Saul’s own transformation. Rhea Seehorn’s magnificent (and criminally under-recognized) performance delivers something we don’t often get to see in female characters, as Kim is torn between respectability and a profound anger at the institutions that define what “respectable” even means. At the end of the season, I found myself desperate to find out what comes next for Kim (and Saul), but also terrified to watch it unfold. (Longer review at my blog.)
The thing I find most striking about Mathew Baynton’s BBC comedy is how much of a throwback it is. It feels like the shows I used to watch as a kid—a young couple move into a dilapidated manor house, and discover that it is haunted by a troupe of ghosts, whom only the wife can see. What distinguishes Ghosts, then, is the excellence and specificity of its execution. Every one of the ghosts—who include a slimy 80s politician, an easygoing scout master, a failed Romantic poet, and a surprisingly on-the-ball neanderthal—feel like a fully-formed character almost from the first episode, and all are believable as people who have spent decades, centuries, and even millennia in each other’s company, developing obsessions and quirks with which they now feel free to impose on their new living friend. The stories—a multi-perspective exploration of how one of the ghosts died; a wedding at the manor which the ghosts nearly ruin—are similarly, familiar but expertly crafted. Watching Ghosts is thus always a surprise—you think you know exactly what you’re getting, and are then delighted by how well it’s been done.
If Harley Quinn, a violent, irreverent cartoon about everyone’s favorite psychiatrist turned supervillain’s moll were simply funny and exciting and gorgeously animated, that might be enough. If it were merely a well-crafted story about Harley breaking away from her toxic relationship with Joker and learning to stand on her own two feet as a supervillain, that would also be enough. If it were no more than a story about how Harley learns to be a better leader to her minions, a better friend to her bestie Poison Ivy, and finally, a better partner in both crime and romance, we would be content. If it did no more than to craft the most distinctive, multifaceted version of Gotham City since Batman: The Animated Series, we couldn’t possibly ask for more. That it does all of those things while somehow roping Harley’s story into even the most cosmic elements of the DC universe is, well, at that point, no more than we’ve come to expect from this magnificent show.
There’s a bit of an uncanny valley quality to this series, which on the one hand reinvents the story of Nick Hornby’s 1995 novel and the 2000 movie based on it—most notably, by casting Zoë Kravitz as a gender-swapped version of Rob, the lovelorn record shop owner who walks us through her top five breakups and the songs that remind her of them—and on the other hand, recreates moments from the book and the film so perfectly that it’s almost disorienting. And yet in both of those aspects—when it reminds us how much we loved the book and the movie, and when it does new things with them—High Fidelity is almost effortlessly winning. Kravitz finds new notes in Rob while preserving the original character’s not entirely admirable qualities, and the new characters breathe new life into the familiar story—chiefly Rob’s bashful employee Simon, who gets his own episode to explain how his top five breakups were all with the same man. And floating over it all, of course, is the music, and Rob’s infectious, lifelong love for it, resulting in a perfect, bittersweet romantic comedy.
Another throwback to my childhood here, Infinity Train is an animated series about a train that picks up passengers who are at an emotional crossroad, and encourages them to work through their issues as they proceed along the train’s cars. Almost from the first moment, though, Infinity Train takes its story in dark directions, asking the questions that stories of its type never ask, like: why should you do something just because a magical train wants you to? Are the creatures on the train real, or do they exist only for the benefit of the passengers? What if you don’t want to leave? The 2020 season follows two teenagers who have decided that the train belongs to them, going to psychotic extremes to ensure they can’t be deemed psychologically stable enough to leave, until one of them encounters a situation that makes her want to change. The result is a compelling children’s story, but also an intriguing SFnal setting.
A lot of people, myself included, turned up their noses at the idea of Mrs. America. A biopic—possibly a humanizing one—of far-right conservative, anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly? Who needs that? And yet despite its outrage-courting premise (and eye-catching star turn by Cate Blanchett as Schalfly), Mrs. America is more a political drama than a biopic, capturing the moment when the US women’s movement seemed to be at the height of its political power, and how it all went wrong. Following feminist activists such as Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and Bela Abzug, it charts their mistakes, but also the tectonic shifts occurring within the American political system, as the right allies itself with culture warriors and conservative Christians and puts an end to women’s issues as a bipartisan cause. It’s the kind of political storytelling we don’t see very often, and though the story it tells is deeply depressing, the very fact that it is being told—that serious attention is being payed to these women as activists and politicians—feels like a step in the right direction. (Longer review here.)
My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name
The second season of this luxurious adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Quartet seemed to garner less attention than its first, perhaps because its story is no longer as easy to distill into an underdog tale. Heroines Lenù and Lila are no longer plucky little girls facing off against a misogynistic system that sees them only as future wives and mothers, but young women whose lives are taking them in very different directions. As Lila fruitlessly rebels against a loveless, violent marriage, and Lenù progresses in an academic career that she is deeply ambivalent about, the two friends drift apart, unable to understand each other, and often acting in extremely hurtful ways. But this transformation gives My Brilliant Friend further scope to do the thing it does best—take its heroines seriously as people with intellectual, professional, and romantic ambitions, which often leave them unable to understand the choices that other women make.
Is it a TV series? Is it a series of movies? Other people will no doubt debate this question, but what isn’t up for debate is the depth and richness of Steve McQueen’s project, a multifaceted exploration of the lives and misadventures of the British Afro-Caribbean community in the middle of the 20th century. From courtroom dramas to biopics to plotless explorations of the joy of love and music, McQueen is never less than stellar in his work, as writer and director, on each of these five stories. Running through them all is an awareness of the struggle that the community has endured (and is still enduring) as it strives to make a space for itself—a space to dance, to meet others, to learn, and to give back to the community. (Longer review here.)
The Great – The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara returns with yet another irreverent, knowingly-anachronistic historical dramedy, this time about the early marriage of Catherine the Great, and her eventual coup against her husband. Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult are both brilliantly dry as the warring monarchs, who come to realize how much they both want power, and how little they’re willing to share it.
Normal People – My one problem with this pitch-perfect adaptation of Sally Rooney’s mega-bestseller is that it doesn’t address some of my issues with the novel, but this is arguably a point in favor of the miniseries, which captures the original’s rhythms and high points, and most of all its complicated, self-contradictory young lovers, quite perfectly. For better and worse, watching Normal People feels just like reading the book—a lot of fondness, a bit of exasperation, and finally, deeply satisfying heartbreak.
Tales From the Loop – This strange, meditative SF series about the odd happenings in a town built on top of a particle accelerator, eschews at every turn the conventional form of its premise. There are no mysteries to be solved here, no villains to fight. Just human beings whose lives are altered in strange and unexpected ways, and who then have to live with the consequences.
We Are Who We Are – Luca Guadagnino’s follow-up to Call Me By Your Name follows a group of teenagers on an American military base in Italy around the time of the 2016 election. It discusses politics, music, gender and sexuality, and most of all the coming of age of young people who are too young to be so unsupervised. It’s a gorgeous character drama that feels rooted in its very particular time and place, and is all the more gripping for it.
Show That Everyone Loved But I’m Not Quite Sure How to Feel About: Lovecraft Country
There’s a hell of a lot of great stuff in Lovecraft Country. Which eventually starts to feel like a problem. The show seems determined to do everything all at once. To depict the touchstones of the African-American struggle from slavery to sundown towns to the Green Book to the Tulsa Massacre to the murder of Emmett Till. To tell stories in a myriad different registers, from cosmic science fiction to ghost story to romantic melodrama to Indiana Jones-esque adventure. To visit closeted gay black men and their subculture, Korean civilians during the war and their ambivalent relationship with American GIs, and a black woman who discovers a potion that makes her white. And sometimes, just to watch Jurnee Smollett as she bashes in some racists’ windshields. It’s all a bit much in the end, especially since the story tying it all together never quite emerges as something greater than the sum of its parts. It feels as if Lovecraft Country was in a hurry to achieve everything, to talk about everything, all at once, and if that’s an understandable impulse given how rarely black stories are permitted on our screens, the result is nevertheless a hodgepodge, more impressive than successful.
Show That Shouldn’t Work But Somehow Does But Also Doesn’t: Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist
The premise of Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist sounds cringeworthy: a comely technology worker in a candy-colored, implausibly clean and unthreateningly diverse fantasy version of San Francisco has an accident, after which she begins hearing the people around her express their deepest emotions through song. Eyeroll, right? Except that, completely unexpectedly, Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist ends up crafting deeper, more complicated material out of every one of its character arcs, whether it’s Zoey coming to terms with her father’s looming death, or her workplace crush’s crumbling relationship with his fiancée, or her genderqueer neighbor’s inability to come out at the church where he discovered his love of music. The only problem? The songs. Not their existence, but the specific ones the show chooses, which are always the most basic, Top 40 cuts. When you’ve got Lauren Graham playing a tech entrepreneur who is having trouble finding her stride as an older woman in a young man’s world, and the only song you can think of to express her determination to win out is “Roar”, maybe it’s better to just stick to dialogue.
Most Redemptive Episode in an Otherwise Sucky Show: “They”, Ramy
The second season of Ramy Youssef’s semi-autobiographical series about a young Muslim-American man took its hero in some strange directions. It’s not that you can’t love a show whose hero is a self-absorbed prick, but in this season, Ramy caused his father to lose his job, cheated on his fiancée with his first cousin, informed his now-wife that he wanted an open marriage immediately after deflowering her, and caused the deaths of two separate people in two separate incidents, all while insisting that he is a righteous man because he doesn’t drink and prays five times a day. It was a lot. But what continues to save Ramy are the episodes focused on Ramy’s family, and the best of the bunch was “They”, in which Ramy’s motor-mouthed, well-intended but opinionated mother Maysa (Hiam Abbass) worries that her citizenship application will be denied after a complaint from a misgendered passenger causes her Uber account to be suspended. When she tracks down the passenger to apologize, Maysa explains her reasoning: she needs her citizenship so she can vote out Trump, so really, she and they are on the same side! It’s a strangely sweet half hour that doesn’t shy away from Maysa’s shortcomings, while still putting us firmly on her side as she takes the citizenship oath with her eyes locked on Trump’s photo, promising to fuck him up.
Most Viscerally Satisfying Show of the Year: The Queen’s Gambit
There’s a lot of criticisms that you can make of The Queen’s Gambit: the way it sands down the novel’s sharp edges into a story that is almost implausibly pleasant and reassuring; the way it avoids even the faintest whiff of politics, while telling a story that is firmly rooted in the Cold War; the way it so brazenly instrumentalizes its one major black character, it gives her a speech in which she denies being exactly the sort of magical black person she clearly is. And nevertheless, this was easily the most fun thing on our TV screens this year, a story that managed to be at once slick and cerebral, stylish and gritty, exotic and homey. It was a perfectly crafted sports story that could appeal to people who have no interest in sports, and it made chess seem exciting to people who barely have any idea how the pieces move. It let you root for Anya Taylor-Joy’s underdog heroine while also giving her a heartwarming bevy of supportive male friends. It takes a lot of effort to deliver something as effective as The Queen’s Gambit, so while I can’t quite rank it among the year’s best shows, it certainly deserves a special mention.
Special 2020 Award for Theater on TV: The Third Day: Autumn
When theaters all over the world closed in the spring, those of us who don’t live in London or New York discovered that we were in for a special treat. Companies all over the world opened their archives and started offering recordings of plays to all comers. Which means I’ve probably had the most prolific theatrical year of my life in a year where no one was allowed to leave the house. After hearing it talked up for ten years, I was finally able to watch Danny Boyle’s production of Frankenstein at the National Theater (it was OK). The Bridge Theater’s 2017 take on A Midsummer Night’s Dream finally got me over my reticence towards the play, by making changes such as swapping Oberon and Titania’s storylines, and incorporating moving platforms and trapeze acts. And there was no shortage of political-themed theater, from Hamilton to Heidi Schreck’s What the Constitution Means to Me to James Graham’s This House, which lovingly explores the quirks and traditions of the British parliament.
But the theatrical highlight of the year, as it turns out, wasn’t filmed in a theater. HBO’s folk horror series The Third Day was presented as two mirrored, three-part stories, Summer and Winter. In between, the show’s producers, in cooperation with Sleep No More creators Punchdrunk, planned to stage a day-long immersive theater performance on Osea Island, where the show was filmed, starring the actors from the show as well as locals. When COVID restrictions made that impossible, the producers instead decided to film the event and stream it online as a twelve-hour Facebook Live event, in which the islanders act out a coming of age ritual that mirrors the Stations of the Cross, culminating in a symbolic crucifixion and resurrection. Which sounds horrible, I know, but was actually quite hypnotic, pushing at the boundaries between television and theater, narrative and documentary. The whole thing proceeded so slowly and methodically—one sequence involves the camera circling around Jude Law’s anguished face as he digs a hole for nearly an hour—that it was possible to have it on in the background, looking up occasionally to catch the gorgeous scenery, elaborate rituals, and even a bit of plot-relevant dialogue. The effect was simultaneously relaxing and pleasantly mystifying. By the time the whole thing concluded, with a rave, a chanting procession, and a bonfire, you almost felt as if you were there—the perfect distraction for a year in which none of us could go anywhere.