48 Showrunners Reveal the Series That Got Them Through 2020

6:45 AM 12/21/2020

by Lacey Rose

Damon Lindelof, Kenya Barris, Krista Vernoff and many more pick the comedies and dramas that helped make an otherwise treacherous year a bit more bearable.

Showrunner Survey
Courtesy of Netflix; HBO; HULU

“Impossible,” Ted Lasso showrunner Bill Lawrence replied when asked to pick the one show that helped make his 2020 a bit more bearable. “Too much great TV,” he continued. “I will say ALL the shows, new and old. They were a life preserver.”

In the end, Lawrence did select one – NBC’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine – and so did 47 other television creators, from Kenya Barris (his pick: Queen’s Gambit) to Lena Waithe (I May Destroy You). The picks, or life preservers, range from dystopian dramas to feel-good comedy, including Lawrence’s own Ted Lasso. Also included: unscripted hits like The Great British Bakeoff, international series including BBC’s Escape to the Country and a healthy collection of such past TV staples as Friends, The Big Bang Theory and Murder, She Wrote.

“Jessica Beatrice Fletcher [of Murder, She Wrote] has saved my life,” explained Courtney Kemp, the mastermind of Starz’ Power universe. “When I hear that theme music, I'm like Pavlov's dog — I immediately relax. Fascism, racism, remote schooling, a global pandemic, producing three shows simultaneously during said pandemic — OK, yeah, but Aunt Jess is here to make it all right. And she always does, in 48 minutes or less.”

  • Damon Lindelof, Watchmen

    2020 Pick: HBO’s How To With John Wilson

    “The perfect remedy for 2020 is How To With John Wilson. I have long feared I would never again experience the brilliance of Nathan for You, and while How To is very much its own thing, only a disciple of Nathan Fielder’s could understand the impossible tight rope that connects the profound and the idiotic. I have sat upon plastic-covered furniture and never inquired why someone would do such a thing. How To inquires. I have traveled to Cancun, and even though surrounded by thousands of people, I experienced an intense, scarring loneliness that I never shared for fear people would think something was wrong with me. How To says this is perfectly normal. The hardest I laughed this year was watching a middle-aged man, naked from the waist down, rave about the movie Parasite while his penis was tugged by a retractable cord attached to his bed frame. But why was I laughing? And how was this man’s stretched dong an extension (sorry) of the aforementioned covered furniture? How To is my favorite kind of television, and the only kind that makes sense in 2020 — a series of questions without clear answers. More importantly, it also provided healthy helpings of what I most desperately needed; absurdity, beauty and most of all, hope.”

  • Kenya Barris, Black-ish

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit 

    Queen’s Gambit was the show of 2020. It was nothing I expected, and everything I wanted in a show all at the same time. It felt like an action movie with chess and watching a porno with no sex.”

  • David Benioff, Game of Thrones

    2020 Pick: Hulu’s Pen15 

    “Pen15. It might be the only thing my 13-year-old daughter and I have agreed upon during the pandemic.”

  • Liz Tigelaar, Little Fires Everywhere

    2020 Pick: HBO’s Succession (plus Homeland, Normal People & Happiest Season)

    “My TV viewing had a distinct pandemic arc. I started with Succession and Homeland because at the beginning of the pandemic, I found it comforting to watch something more insane, tense, and epic than what we were experiencing in our day to day lives. Then when our world reached Homeland/Succession level insanity, the blanket comfort of Normal People where beautiful, heart-wrenching, normal people relationships felt reassuring -- like we could all get back to quiet and silence and longing and countrysides and amazing sex and an ending that was truthful. And now it's 8 months later and we're watching Happiest Season on a loop because fuck 2020 and cynicism. Biden won and we need happiness, Mary Holland's humor, and to relish in the simple joy of every Christmas/holiday movie trope -- down to the too-neat ending and debatable choice of Kristen Stewart not ending up with Aubrey Plaza -- while actually feeling seen, represented, and immersed in the delightful joy of Dan Levy's everything.”

  • Dan Levy, Schitt’s Creek

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s Sex Education 

    “This brilliant little TV gemstone managed to successfully tightrope walk the fine lines between hysterical and heartbreaking, utterly cringeworthy and completely life-affirming. It’s the show about growing up that I wish I had growing up.” 

  • Courtney Kemp, Power

    2020 Pick: Murder, She Wrote 

    “There have been multiple shows that have helped me through the pandemic -- Law & Order, Cheers, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, What We Do in the Shadows -- I've binged my way through all of them happily. The first two on that list were a big part of my childhood and the second two were recommended by my millennial cousin, who is a social media director and has great taste. But the MVP of my quarantine is definitely Murder, She Wrote and the ability to watch that entire series on Peacock. GOD BLESS PEACOCK -- I'm totally serious -- because Jessica Beatrice Fletcher has saved my life. When I hear that theme music, I'm like Pavlov's dog -- I immediately relax. Fascism, racism, remote schooling, a global pandemic, producing three shows simultaneously during said pandemic -- okay, yeah, but Aunt Jess is here to make it alright. And she always does, in 48 minutes or less.”

  • Jason Katims, Away

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s Bonus Family  

    Bonus Family, the Swedish show about blended families. I got sucked into it, fell in love with every flawed character and soon my wife and I felt as though our sparsely populated pandemic lives were suddenly imbued with a slew of new friends. It’s funny, unafraid to tread on uncomfortable terrain, and deeply emotional (especially in later seasons.) But to me its secret weapon is that while the show is born from divorce, ultimately the show is a collection of pretty wonderful love stories.”  

  • Ramy Youssef, Ramy

    2020 Pick: Nathan Fielder's Nathan for You (plus I May Destroy You) 

    “Rewatching the genius of Nathan Fielder's Nathan for You and getting introduced to Micaela Coel's I May Destroy You, were opposite ends of the human experience that helped me understand people, and 2020, at its fullest.”

  • Michelle King, The Good Fight

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s The Great British Bake Off

    The Great British Bake Off did more to bolster my mental health in 2020 than is strictly sensible.  I found myself looking forward to Friday nights when the only important thing was who could create the perfect Plum Pudding. There were neither politics nor pandemics in the tent. Just the occasional burnt shortbread and politely expressed regrets.” 

  • Loren Bouchard, Bob’s Burgers

    2020 Pick: HBO’s Lovecraft Country 

    “I don’t know if it ‘got me through’ 2020, but Lovecraft Country definitely feels like the most 2020 show that I watched this year. And I appreciated it more and more each week. It was like a scary dream that you start to want to have again because you know it means something. By the time you get to Dee standing on that subway platform and the demon girls are coming towards her — well, it made me appreciate supernatural horror all over again, while we were all living through a year of real-life supernatural horror.”

  • Misha Green, Lovecraft Country

    2020 pick: Black Sails 

    “I re-discovered Black Sails over the summer while quarantined and yearning for adventure. I watched the first season when it originally aired, and thought it was a splashy bit of pirate fun, and was thrilled to discover while binging the rest of it, a layered and subversive meditation on freedom from tyranny, friendship, and the cost of waging war for your ideals. It was the perfect thought-provoking escape.”

  • Tanya Saracho, Vida

    2020 Pick: Hulu’s Normal People (plus Lovesick & I May Destroy You)

    “I know I can only pick one TV series, but If I could have chosen three shows that got me through different cultural points of the pandemic, I'd have chosen Lovesick for being a soothing balm of Millenial love-fluff during those first dark couple of months of the quarantine where we were all working on high levels of anxiety. Or I'd say I May Destroy You, which arrived in the summer when we were experiencing the social uprising - it somehow buttressed that important moment for me. But because I can only choose one, I'll choose the ultimate love story that alleviated and softened that cynicism that the pandemic had acerbated: Normal People. I was shook by this simple yet profound story of first love. No big plot twists, just a simple yet beautifully-shot story that I've now watched three times in its entirety. I had forgotten what it was like to watch something without an agenda. I was so unprepared for how much I needed to feed off a true, earnest, angsty, uncynical story about pure love. But it was the exact medicine I needed while the world was falling apart outside my door.”

  • Greg Berlanti, The Flight Attendant, You

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s The Crown 

    The Crown because it's about steadfastness in the face of great change and prevailing as the sea of change and time ticks on. It reminded me that there's always tumult and that the best way to overcome that is to double down on what your own values are and the people close to you.”

  • Lena Waithe, The Chi

    2020 Pick: HBO’s I May Destroy You 

    I May Destroy You was a therapy session I never knew I needed. It forced me to be more fearless in my own work. It gave me something to look forward to. It gave me something to ponder. It gave me a sense of pride. It saved me.”

  • Liz Feldman, Dead to Me

    2020 Pick: HBO’s How To With John Wilson 

    “The show that has buoyed me through the last month of this pandemic is How To With John Wilson. I had no idea what I was getting into, and I’m so glad I didn’t. John created a truly unique half hour about the seemingly mundane but ultimately profound aspects of everyday life in New York City. I laughed, cried and fell in love with my hometown all over again.” 

  • Alena Smith, Dickinson

    2020 Pick: Ziwe's Instagram Live show "Baited" 

    “The show that helped me get through 2020 was Ziwe's Instagram Live show Baited, where she turns her mischievous gaze on her uncomfortable white guests and asks them important questions like ‘How many black friends do you have?’ (The perpetual answer: ‘4 or 5.’) I was so lucky to have Ziwe in my writers room for Dickinson Season 3 as she created this masterpiece online... and am so thrilled that she will now have her own variety show on Showtime next year.”

  • Krista Vernoff, Grey's Anatomy

    2020 Pick: Schitt’s Creek  

    “Without a doubt the show that helped us survive 2020 was Schitt’s Creek. The complex and ultimately beautiful humanity combined with the laugh out loud funny and the deeply romantic and the incredible character work was the most perfect distraction. We just started watching it again - which is a thing I very rarely do. I’m not a repeat watcher but this show is comfort food for my soul.”

  • Billy Ray, The Comey Rule

    2020 Pick: Amazon's Classic Albums 

    “The composers, bands, engineers, and producers behind the GREATS - Steely Dan's Aja, Fleetwood Mac's Rumours, Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon, Elton John's Goodbye Yellow Brick Road - taking us through the writing, recording, and mixing of song after song. Where else can you find out why Donald Fagen and Walter Becker needed a particular drummer for Deacon Blues? This was especially useful in the days surrounding the election when 100 people per day were calling me to say ‘ARE WE GOING TO FUCKING LOSE ARIZONA?’ Not a bad time to be doing a deep-dive on Candle In The Wind."

  • Katori Hall, P-Valley

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s Cheer

    “The show that got me through 2020 is Netflix's Cheer. It made me remember my former cheer days as a Brownsville Bronco and a Craigmont Chief. It brought back fond memories of the times when all I had to think about was being a part of a team. 2020 has felt like the basket toss to end all basket tosses -- a trick that's emblematic of the ups and downs that one has to survive in life. Cheer taught me that despite it all, you can fall and climb to the top of your own personal pyramid and win.”

  • D.B. Weiss, Game of Thrones

    2020 Pick: Hulu’s The Great  

    “I really enjoyed The Great. Great performances, great writing, great directing and camera and design... huzzah!”

  • John Wells, Shameless

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit

    “I don't have single answer. We find something we're watching, over a three- or four-day period. My friend Scott Frank's show The Queen's Gambit was fantastic. I've got friends on The Crown, and we just finished that. I'd put in a different context: being able to take ourselves and put ourselves in specific worlds for a time has been tremendously beneficial to everybody in midst of this crisis and emotional and mental toll it's taking. To throw yourself into something — I have friends who watched The SopranosBreaking BadParks and Recreation — we need to throw ourselves into other worlds. We have needed to step outside of ourselves. It looks different than it did in Great Depression and World War II — we need to step out of our physical space when we are experiencing so much tension and anxiety and dive into some other world and enjoy another world. This is self-serving, but I've heard some people rewatched all of Shameless, The West Wing and ER.”

  • Peter Moffat, Your Honor

    2020 Pick: The West Wing 

    “I always go back to The West Wing because we're sentimentalists. I like that feeling while watching TV. To watch a writer stuff that many words into 60 minutes with human beings speaking them is thrilling to me. It's a hymn to what it is to be a writer. God bless Aaron Sorkin.”

  • Josh Schwartz, Gossip Girl

    2020 Pick: ESPN/Netflix’s The Last Dance 

    “It came early in the pandemic when everything was especially locked down and a distraction was profoundly needed. It was expertly told. The music choices were spot on. And it made me miss and appreciate the 90s, sports, my youth and Jordan’s impact on all of those things. Every Sunday, it was the fastest two hours of some very long weeks.” 

  • Bruce Miller, The Handmaid’s Tale

    2020 Pick: BBC’s Escape to the Country 

    Escape to the Country on the BBC has helped me survive 2020. The stories of Brits searching for painfully quaint village homes has the perfect level of stakes for me these days. I’m up for a tense discussion of paddocks and garden walls — anything edgier than that? No thanks. Life is way too edgy already.” 

  • Julie Plec, The Girls on the Bus

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit 

    The Queen’s Gambit. Gorgeous to look at, emotional and inspirational. Someone check on the Production Designer to see if they survived the job.”

  • Mike Royce, One Day At A Time

    2020 Pick: Marvel movies

    “I started rewatching all the Marvel films in timeline order, starting with the first Captain America. To be honest, the first time around, I considered the MCU like homework. I saw some of the movies, didn’t see others, and generally felt they were well-made but not my jam. This time however, trapped in my house, hiding from an unseen enemy that lurked around every corner while our country was being torn apart by an empathy-devoid supervillain… well, I got it. These movies just hit the spot. I admired the skillful storytelling, but beyond that I simply loved seeing a bad person who did a bad thing get punched by a good person. Life isn’t always like that but comic books are, so thank you Marvel!”

  • David Mandel, Veep

    2020 Pick: Cobra Kai 

    "It was a combo of Cobra Kai into the Queen's GambitCobra Kai was great because we could watch as a whole family. The kids learned a lot of new words from Johnny (William Zabka), and it was a fun nostalgia shot. Plus, they had a lot of episodes ready to go. I have also been showing my daughter Seinfeld for the first time, which has been really fun. It's the first thing I ever worked on that she has watched. She loves sitcoms, so it's fun watching what she laughs at."

  • Jeff Schaffer, Curb Your Enthusiasm

    2020 Pick: Syfy’s Magicians 

    “The Great COVID Quarantine of 2020 had many silver linings: no more ‘meeting for coffee to catch up.’ No more attending the workshop of an acquaintance’s play. Also, shorts. And day drinking. And I finally got to catch up on one of my favorite shows, The Magicians. This show makes me so happy. It fuses genres together until it makes its own unique alloy of entertainment. When you create a show, you want it to be able to scratch all the itches you have. But inevitably you always bump into stories that just ‘aren’t the show.’ That’s why I find it an incredible treat to watch The Magicians, where literally anything can happen in the next minute. And it does. And it works. It manages to flit between world-jumping, pop-culture inside jokes, ever-changing character dynamics, action and sometimes musical numbers with such a casual proficiency that I give it my highest honor. When I watch, I don’t just enjoy… I’m jealous. If I had to write one spec script to get on a show, this is the one I would write. And I am quite sure I wouldn’t get the job. It would be easier to get admitted to Brakebills.”  

  • Sera Gamble, The Magicians

    2020 Pick: Apple’s Home 

    “The show that brought me the most optimism was one I stumbled on once I ran out of episodes of I May Destroy YouHome on Apple. It’s kinda like Chef’s Table for houses — it details how certain unusual homes were dreamed up, including a house in India made entirely out of local artisanal materials like clay pots, and a series of artistically renovated spaces in Chicago that feed the spirit of the local Black community. I needed to be reminded that there are future-minded creators all over the place who channel their dissatisfaction in the world as it is into building beautiful, useful things that are gentle on the planet. Not gonna lie, I’m pretty obsessed now with the idea of building a home inside a greenhouse.”

  • Robert King, The Good Fight

    2020 Pick: ESPN/Netflix’s The Last Dance  

    The Last Dance, a spectacular documentary -- with a complicated structure, but all handled with great style and ease. Everything looked brand new and the interview device of having players watch earlier interviews on an iPad and then respond was particularly clever. One of the only highlights of 2020.”

  • Nick Antosca, The Act

    2020 Pick: Netflix’s Night on Earth 

    Night on Earth, a nature documentary series on Netflix, got me in the first quarantine weeks of the pandemic. Gorgeous, transporting, and fun. There's this hypnotic footage of leopards in Mumbai at night. Runners-up: I also got sucked into ZeroZeroZero and Dave early on.”

  • Alex Kurtzman, Star Trek: Discovery

    2020 Pick: AMC’s Lodge 49

    Lodge 49. I just couldn’t predict its next move in any way. And by its abruptly canceled end (take it back, AMC!!!), I knew and loved every character for their flaws (especially for their flaws), their dashed dreams, and for their allegiance to each other and the community they fought to hold together with such desperation and grace. Which, I think, pretty much all of us were reaching for in 2020. Thank you, Jim Gavin, for some warm comfort food in a very cold year.”​​

  • Dan Goor, Brooklyn Nine-Nine

    2020 Pick: History’s Alone 

    “No doubt about it, the show that helped me survive 2020 was Alone, specifically the last two seasons. Why? Because it is the greatest show ever made. The stakes are life and death, the characters are compelling, the editing is hilarious, and there are wolverines, real fucking wolverines!” 

  • Bill Lawrence, Ted Lasso

    2020 pick: Brooklyn Nine-Nine 

    “What ‘one’ show?  Impossible. Too much great TV. I will say ALL the shows, new and old. They were a life preserver. If I have to get specific, watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine with my boys (which they had never seen), and laughing together like a gang of idiots has been pretty fun.”

  • David Hudgins, FBI: Most Wanted

    2020 Pick: Apple’s Ted Lasso 

    Ted Lasso. Goofy, clever and heartfelt, and exactly what we needed in our house on a Friday night after a long week of quarantine.”

  • Warren Leight, Law & Order: SVU

    2020 Pick: The Big Bang Theory 

    “At the start of the pandemic, I turned to Money Heist, which was so intense it seemed to distract me from the pressure of the pandemic. As the pandemic wore on, our family turned to The Big Bang Theory, which is brilliantly written and acted and in no way anxiety-provoking.”

  • Stephanie Savage, Gossip Girl

    2020 Pick: Amazon’s Arvingerne (The Legacy) 

    “I feel like I should know Danish after consuming Borgen and the original version of The Bridge while stuck at home. But my favorite Danish show of the lockdown wasn’t Nordic noir, it was the engrossing family drama Arvingerne (Legacy). Set in the art world on a country estate, it is beautifully acted, surprisingly plotted and the ultimate in escapism (great architecture! wooly sweaters! backstabbing siblings!).” 

  • Dee Harris-Lawrence, David Makes Man

    2020 Pick: HBO’s Insecure 

    "Stranger Things helped me survive 2020 with my daughter. The Mandalorian helped me survive 2020 with my husband. And Insecure helped me survive 2020 as it fed my soul.”

  • Shawn Ryan, S.W.A.T.

    2020 Pick: FX on Hulu’s What We Do in the Shadows 

    “At the beginning of the pandemic I was checking out the new FX on Hulu channel, as (shameless plug) The Shield and Terriers had just started running on the site. While scrolling down the menu, I passed a show I had heard great things about, but had never seen — something I felt probably wasn’t going to be to my kind of thing — What We Do In The Shadows. One night, though I decided to give it a shot and I was floored by how original, funny and incisive it was. Over the next couple months, one episode turned into the next and the next, turned into me convincing my wife and son to check it out as well (spoiler alert: they loved it too). I tried not to watch too many episodes in a row — one every three or four days. I didn’t want to say goodbye too quickly. It always felt good to know there was a 'new' one for me to watch later that week. Unfortunately, the pandemic lasted longer than the 'next episode' queue, but I’ll always have those twenty episodes and the smiles they gave me during a traumatic time. And if nothing else, unable to go into my own office anymore, at least I knew I wouldn’t be encountering any energy vampires like Colin Robinson.”

  • Patrick Macmanus, Dr. Death

    2020 Pick: Friends  

    “In those early, debilitating days trying to ‘make it’ in Hollywood, I always turned to my Friends - usually late at night after a shift at whatever bar was kind enough to support me. I returned to them - now with my wife and our two sons - in those early days of the pandemic. It worked like a charm and, as of Sunday, December 6, 2020, our sons beat us in a landslide at Friends trivia. I suppose that's a minor parenting victory.”

  • Jen Flanz, The Daily Show with Trevor Noah

    2020 pick: CNN 

    "I don’t know if it helped me survive or nearly killed me, but mostly I watched CNN. All of it: Anderson, Cuomo, Lemon, Bash, Wolf, Gupta… all. of. it. With brief oases of every version of Drag Race (I even made it to Canada’s) because when I was too anxious to feel any alternate feelings on my own, I turned to the queens to make me smile. And of course, all of the cult documentaries, because because." 

  • Eric Newman, Narcos

    2020 pick: Netflix’s Kingdom 

    “I’ve been watching and loving Kingdom, a phenomenally well-directed (by Kim Seong-hun) and well-written (by Kim Eun-hee) Korean medieval zombie show. It’s got a succession crisis, a virus spreading among an unsuspecting population, and a corrupt political machine denying its existence in order to hold on to power. The rightful ruler partners with a local healthcare professional and they lead a popular uprising to contain the virus, solve the succession crisis, and restore peace in the kingdom. Relax, it’s a tv show.”  

  • Charles Rogers, Search Party

    2020 pick: HBO’s How To With John Wilson 

    “I've really enjoyed How To With John Wilson. It's melancholy in a way that somehow feels existentially exactly where we are at in our collectively optimistic but exhausted covid timeline. And his little out-and-about observations remind me that life is always absurd, masks or no masks - and something about that feels like a relief.”

  • David Weil, Hunters

    2020 pick: HBO’s I'll Be Gone in the Dark  

    “Michelle McNamara's life, legacy and dogged pursuit of light and justice during a plague of darkness hit especially hard this year. Michelle’s words and heroism will stay with me forever, as will the most powerful line — real or scripted — I've heard in years: ‘Tell her in the sunshine.’”

  • Chris Mundy, Ozark

    2020 pick: Hulu’s Normal People 

    "Normal People was a show that knew itself incredibly well. I'd read the book and wondered how it could possibly translate -- because so much takes place inside the characters' heads -- and yet it managed to be emotional and moving because of how much it trusted the actors and how much it trusted its own pace. Watching people pull off that magic trick definitely helped make 2020 more bearable.” 

  • Leslye Headland, Russian Doll

    2020 pick: Netflix’s Dark 

    “The show brilliantly unfolds and unfolds itself again. It is a deep dive into so many of my favorite themes: duality, light vs. shadow, the cyclical nature of the universe, the ends we go to for love. From its exploration of the paradox of time, to its precise and rich production design and its gorgeous score, it had me hooked through all three seasons.”

  • Steven Canals, Pose

    2020 pick: Netflix’s The Great British Bakeoff 

    “With 6 months spent in quarantine I had time to consume some of the best 2020 had to offer -- I May Destroy You, Normal People, P-Valley, and I'll Be Gone In The Dark all left lasting impressions. But none provided the respite from the turmoil quite like The Great British Bake Off. Aside from the show stopping morsels that had this foodie wishing he was a guest judge, the camaraderie of the contestants (lovely to see in the midst of this summer's civil unrest) made this delectable series exactly what I needed to remind me of our shared humanity.”

  • Sarah-Violet Bliss, Search Party

    2020 pick: Sex and the City 

    “I've been leaning on Sex and the City, as I often do in times of crisis, which provides me the soothing nostalgia for a New York scene I have never even participated in. I'm from New York and go back frequently, but this is not exactly the in-crowd with which I co-mingle. Nevertheless, this show and these women are dear to me and now that I've caught up to their age box I can identify with Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha more than ever and even feel I have some sage advice to pass on to them, if only they could hear me scream ‘Know your worth!’ through the flat screen. But even if they could, they wouldn't listen - it's a lesson they have to learn on their own.”