By Sarah Osman
We were driven indoors and told to stay there, so we turned to our screens for entertainment.
2020, otherwise known as the year frozen in time, forced us turn to television in a new way: as a means to maintain our sanity. We were driven indoors and told to stay there, so we turned to our screens for entertainment. And television stepped up. We were treated to an impressive variety of shows — ranging from the weird and wonderful to the more somber and moving. Maybe excellence was not always to be found, but the offerings were solid enough, and thank God for that. Here are my picks for the best TV shows of the year (in no particular order).
The Queen’s Gambit Leave it to Anya Taylor-Joy to make chess sexy. Based on the 1983 novel by Walter Tevis, The Queen’s Gambit managed to make millions anxious to watch chess matches. Taylor-Joy stars as orphaned Beth Harmon, who during the ’60s, aims to become the world’s best chess player. The series isn’t just about the attack and counterattack on the board — addiction, isolation, and sexuality are respites from the cerebral clashes. A vision of life as a game of wits.
Ted Lasso On the surface, Ted Lasso appears to be about a clueless American attempting to coach a British soccer team. But the series is about more than just football. Jason Sudeikis stars as Ted Lasso (the character began as an advertisement for the Premier League coming to NBC). He arrives in England and has no idea what he’s doing, much to the chagrin of his players and the local soccer hooligans. Yet Lasso is so darn wholesome and sweet that he manages to charm nearly every person he encounters. It’s a series that is surprisingly warm and fuzzy. Between the endearing friendship of Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham), the club’s owner, and Keeley Jones (Juno Temple), a social media maven, and the bond between the club’s coaches (who counsel each other when it comes to matters of love), you can’t help but root for these characters. It’s a warm cup of tea that is desperately needed during these perilous times.
Pen15 Season one of Pen15 was brilliant — it was a hilarious look at the trials and tribulations of puberty and the greatest horror of all: 7th grade. The second season was even better than the first, as Maya (Maya Erksine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) encounter a new “friend,” fight with their mothers, and get their hearts broken. It’s all too relatable, which is what makes the show so funny. Arts Fuse review
The Midnight Gospel (Trailer NSFW) Created by Adventure Time creator Pendleton Ward and comedian Duncan Trussell, The Midnight Gospel is one of the weirder shows to make this list. Set in another dimension, spacecaster Clancy Gilroy travels through various universes, interviewing some of the residents that live there. The interviews are pulled from Trussell’s podcast and include such guests as Stephen Root, Drew Pinsky, Damien Echols, Maria Bamford, and Caitlin Doughty. The surrealist animation is reminiscent of Adventure Time (but far more psychedelic and vibrant); the topics the episodes touch on are death, spiritualism, and rebirth. The series doesn’t have much of a narrative arc; it’s essentially a slow journey that builds to the final moving episode. Considering the existential crisis presented by COVID, The Midnight Gospel provides endearing philosophical musing (and amusement).
How to with John Wilson It’s a bit difficult to explain How to with John Wilson, which is part documentary and part video essay. Filmmaker John Wilson roams the streets of New York, videotaping what he sees, interviewing strangers about life’s conundrums, such as how to split a check or how to make small talk. The tone of the series oscillates between hilarious (at one point Wilson discusses Parasite with a naked man who is showing Wilson the technology he built to restore his foreskin) to tragic (the season finale gives us New York just when COVID hits it). The docuseries may also be the most personal show on television. Wilson gives us a look at his apartment, cat, and even his ex-girlfriend. Arts Fuse review and interview
I May Destroy You Created by (and starring) Michaela Coel, this dramedy revolves around Arabella (Coel), a writer who is sexually assaulted after her drink is spiked one night. She tries to piece together what exactly happened to her while also dealing with her trauma. Coel’s mix of dark humor and drama presents sexual assault victims with more vunerability and care than most series do.
Mrs. America Led by an all-star cast, Mrs. America was both infuriating and inspiring. Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative pundit who successfully fought back against the Equal Rights Amendment in the ’70s (it still has not gone through). Each episode focused on a different figure in Feminism’s Second Wave, with Uzo Aduba’s turn as Shirley Chisholm a standout. This may have been the most timely series of the year: a staunch reminder that women are still far from being treated equally. Arts Fuse review
Ramy Like Pen15, the second season of Ramy surpassed its first. Starring and created by Ramy Youssef, the show expanded the Egyptian-American’s universe as he tried to make it right with Allah. Mahershala Ali joined the cast as Sheikh Ali Malik, who guides Ramy on his spiritual journey (despite the fact that Ramy keeps messing up). Most of the series is told from Ramy’s point of view, but there are episodes focused on his family — the two best focused on his sister Dena (May Calamawy) and mother Maysa (Hiam Abbass). While the second season still had plenty of comedy (Ali is given some hilarious moments), Ramy took a more serious look at what it means to be MENA (Middle Eastern North African) in America. Considering that MENA folks like myself are represented in only two percent of all media, Ramy added some much needed diversity while focusing on a group whose stories are rarely told (and need to be). Arts Fuse review
What We Do in the Shadows While the tone of What We Do in the Shadows differs from the film it’s based on, it’s still just as absurd. The second season of the series took the vampires on more ridiculous adventures, including Laszlo’s (Matt Berry) stint as a small-town bartender named Jackie Daytona and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) discovering a Bloody Mary email scare. Guillermo’s (Harvey Guillen) discovery that he has the talents of a vampire hunter gave his character more depth, but Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch)’s promotion (and his revelation that he has no idea what his company does) was one of the highlights of the season.
Lovecraft Country Based on the book by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country may be the most distinctive show to air this year. The series fused H.P. Lovecraft’s creations with the horrors of white supremacy and racism. Each episode became increasingly complex and the mythos of this world grew wilder and wilder, but that made the proceedings all the more entertaining. Mixing real life monsters with the monsters of prejudice inspired a thought-provoking anthology series unlike any other. Arts Fuse review
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark The tale of the Golden State Killer is a bleak one, but it didn’t stop the late Michelle McNamara from trying to solve the mystery. In order to write her book, I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, she obsessively studied evidence and interviewed leads. This six-part documentary series was a fascinating look at her journey as well as how survivors have coped, psychologically, with their attack years later. It’s a moving documentary that handles its subject(s) with compassion and dignity. Arts Fuse review
Joe Pera Talks with You: What may be the most earnest show to air in years, Joe Pera Talks ith You became even more endearing with its second season. Pera continued to advise viewers on simple matters, such as how to pack a lunch. But he also dealt with heavier topics, such as the death of his beloved “nana.”
Sarah Mina Osman is a writer living in Los Angeles. She has written for Young Hollywood and High Voltage Magazine. She will be featured in the upcoming anthology Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences under the Trump Era.
2020’s Best TV
Please note, I haven’t seen everything! And my Watch Closely column languished somewhat this year as work obligations took their toll. But I have a number of reviews coming in the next few days and more as we enter the new year. It’s a golden age for television, oddly enough, and consuming entertainment is certainly helping many of us pass the time and distract ourselves during this endless pandemic.
- The Crown, Season 4 ~ Opulent, nuanced, thrilling, clever, this series just seems to get better with each season. The cast is sublime in every way. Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin as Charles and Diana are frightfully good. I’m all about Princess Margaret, and have enjoyed Vanessa Kirby and Helena Bonham Carter equally, but the coming seasons with Lesley Manville playing the dissatisfied, fiery-tempered princess just may provide some of my most highly anticipated television moments ever.
- Dark, Season 3 ~ The final season becomes even more intricate than the first two, but this elegiac, fascinating time travel odyssey is grounded in deeply human drama.
- I May Destroy You ~ Based on her own traumatic experience of being drugged and assaulted by an unknown assailant in London, creator Michaela Cole’s limited autobiographical series is mind-blowing, heart-shattering, and compelling television served up in tight, exquisite, thirty minute episodes.
- The Third Day ~ This folk horror-tinged British series is about a remote island only accessible at low tide, and the cult-like community that abides there. Jude Law plays a business man at a crossroads who finds himself lured to the location and unable to leave. Plenty of trippy and intriguing doings.
- Pen15, Season 2 ~ This one just gets better and better. Beautifully written and acted, and fully embracing its own weird conceit of thirty-something actresses playing their teenage selves, this balances humor and pathos with precision. The “witchcraft” episode was one of my favorite television episodes of the year.
- Lovecraft Country ~ An impressive debut from Misha Green, this thrilling series is a tender, artfully-made homage to the art, music, and literature of the Jim Crow era, generated put of anger, fear and righteous indignation. And there is a slice of Lovecraftian tentacled horror on the side.
- The Great ~ From the writer of The Favourite comes this witty, irreverent, outlandish story that follows the meteoric rise of Catherine the Great, as played by Elle Fanning. Pure hedonistic delight.
- Industry ~ This series follows a group of young financiers fighting to make a name for themselves as stock traders in London, navigating sexual tension, exhaustion, and ethical dilemmas along the way. It’s naturalistic yet glamorous, with well-drawn and well-acted characters.
- The Queen’s Gambit ~ Stylish, suspenseful, often implausible, and compellingly watchable, this one may turn out to be 2020’s most popular series. Anya Taylor-Joy plays an orphaned girl who learns to play chess from a lonely janitor. She becomes a prodigy, besting and then befriending the male champions left in her wake. Yet all the time she is struggling with fame and maintaining a human focus.
- Luna Nera ~ This drama about medieval Italian witches features lush cinematography and anachronistic music, a combination that enhances its suspenseful story of a young witch who is on the run from mercenary witch hunters who have vowed to sweep her village clean of evil.
Peg Aloi is a former film critic for the Boston Phoenix and member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. She taught film studies in Boston for over a decade. She writes on film, TV, and culture for web publications like Vice, Polygon, Bustle, Mic, Orlando Weekly, Crooked Marquee, and Bloody Disgusting. Her blog “The Witching Hour” can be found at themediawitch.com.