Hollywood Reporter TV Critics Pick the 10 Best Shows of 2020 So Far

9:00 AM 6/20/2020

by Daniel Fienberg and Inkoo Kang

Michaela Coel’s bracing HBO vehicle, a stunning miniseries about an anti-feminist crusader, a poignant food travelogue and new seasons of old faves (think shows that start with 'Better') are among highlights from the first half of the year.

Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America -I May Destroy You - Pamela Adlon in Better Things - Publicity stills - Split - H 2020
FX-Hulu; HBO; FX

The impact of the coronavirus on half-year Top 10 lists is surely the least important thing one could muse on, but here we are. Normally by mid-June, we know that even though we've seen some of the best the year has to offer — thanks to the closing of the Emmy window at the end of May — there's always hope for a better-than-average broadcast season in the fall, or a rush of good programming as the holiday/Golden Globes period approaches.

This year, though, there's the very real possibility that we've already seen most, if not all, of 2020’s TV highlights. Sure, the Netflixes and Amazons and Hulus and HBOs had some presumably worthy contenders in the can before the world went into lockdown in March. But where we once might have counted on fresh installments of Fargo or Atlanta or Succession, we're now going to have to cross our fingers that some surprises emerge. 

That doesn't mean, though, that this group of 10 series identifies all of the year's best so far. Among the shows we wish we could have found room for — shows that could still make our respective Top 10s at the end of the year — are Hulu’s Ramy and The Great, Netflix’s Cheer, Never Have I Ever, Feel Good and BoJack Horseman, ESPN's The Last Dance, HBO's The Plot Against America and Insecure, Apple TV+'s Central Park, FXX's Dave, Freeform’s Everything’s Gonna Be Okay or NBC’s Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist. That’s just the start of a tremendous honorable mention list. 

  • 'Better Call Saul'

    The penultimate season of AMC’s Breaking Bad prequel was probably its best season yet, boosted by continued top-notch work from Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seehorn and Jonathan Banks, plus a breakout turn from Tony Dalton. The second half of the season, distinguished by the spectacular Vince Gilligan-directed "Bagman" and the end-of-episode emotional explosions of "JMM" and "Bad Choice Road," was especially good. The  Better-Call-Saul - versus-Breaking-Bad debate has become truly heated, except any true fan is just grateful that we’ve had so many great hours of both shows. — DANIEL FIENBERG

  • 'Better Things'

    Pamela Adlon’s FX half-hour isn’t special for its grand mythology or serialized storytelling. It’s a show made up of small moments, and the fourth season, once again, delivered a steady string of the best bits of the year, including Hannah Alligood’s delightful and context-free evocation of Jerry Lewis’ invisible typewriter scene from Who’s Minding the Store and a hilarious and uncomfortable fight between Adlon’s Sam and Mikey Madison’s Max that surely set a basic-cable record for most uses of the c-word. How many times must we tell awards voters that Adlon has quietly become perhaps TV’s best director working in the half-hour format? — D.F.

  • 'Brockmire'

    It’s hard to adequately explain the high-wire act that Joel Church-Cooper performed in deciding to transform Brockmire, for its final season, from a rude and raunchy baseball comedy into a dystopic sci-fi rude and raunchy baseball comedy. If you were able to recover from the abrupt shift that took the show into a disturbing, but still-too-familiar, future, it was easy to get caught up in the emotion of Jim Brockmire’s adventures in single parenting, conveyed with inspired lunacy and surprising emotion in Hank Azaria’s career-best performance. — D.F.

  • 'The Good Fight'

    Even though it was curtailed by a pandemic production stoppage, the fourth season of The Good Fight secured a spot on this list for its brilliantly bonkers political commentary. Possibly the only show to out-weird the Trump years, the Good Wife spinoff kicked off its new season with a dream-like alternate-universe episode, then spun a totally believable conspiracy theory about judgeships across the nation, satirized racial satire and visited Jeffrey Epstein’s private island to theorize what the deceased pedophile would have wanted as his last deed on Earth. If The Good Wife was the legal procedural at its smartest, The Good Fight is social critique at its most boisterously sage. — INKOO KANG

  • 'I May Destroy You'

    Maybe, when the year has reached its end, I won’t look back at Michaela Coel’s semi-autobiographical, genre-defying exploration of sexual assault and identity as the “best” show of the year. It’s messy and uneven at times. But I doubt many shows will be as representative of the mood of the moment — the combination of anger, confusion, uncertainty and unexpected humor; the exploration of intersections of gender and race, sexuality and violence, youth and hard-earned experience. This half-hour HBO mystery-drama-comedy-confession-thing isn’t perfect, but it’s probably the most “2020” show of 2020. And if you don’t yet know Michaela Coel… get on that. — D.F.

  • 'Mrs. America'

    Cate Blanchett was always going to impress as Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative activist who helped derail the passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s. One of the chief pleasures of Mrs. America turned out to be how every other aspect of the production met Blanchett in her excellence, from her co-stars (Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale and Tracey Ullmann among them) to the kaleidoscoping perspective of the series to the achingly familiar yet unfamiliar rendering of the 1970s. Playing like a thriller and cresting as a tragedy, Mrs. America managed to humanize its villainous protagonist without ever losing sight of her dogged cruelty. — I.K.

  • 'My Brilliant Friend'

    To truly appreciate the majestic sophomore season of My Brilliant Friend, you’ve got to slog through its uneven inaugural year. But the investment will pay off handsomely — the Italian-language adaptation of the second of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels portrays postwar young-womanhood in all its victories, devastations and frailties. Focused on longtime best friends Lila (Gaia Girace) and Lenù’s (Margherita Mazzucco) late adolescence, this season’s story, told with seemingly no expense spared, is where the girls’ paths start to truly diverge, as one pursues dreams beyond their impoverished neighborhood and the other finds herself irretrievably chained to it. — I.K.

  • 'Ugly Delicious'

    Anthony Bourdain’s tragic suicide left a vacuum in the genre of travelogues showing how the best way to create a global community and bridge cultural divides is through food. David Chang isn’t Bourdain’s only successor, and this spring has also seen superb offerings from Phil Rosenthal (Netflix’s Somebody Feed Phil) and Padma Lakshmi (Hulu’s Taste the Nation with Padma Lakshmi). But it’s hard to beat the new season of Chang’s Ugly Delicious — especially a first episode in which the host grapples with the pressures and responsibilities of impending fatherhood. — D.F.

  • 'Visible'

    Spanning seven decades of television, this five-part documentary about LGBTQ progress on the small screen is an essential primer on queer representational milestones and how gay and trans acceptance has been achieved so quickly. TV has played an outsized role in the fight for LGBTQ advancement by bringing queer characters and stories into living rooms across the country — and Visible pays respect to the pioneers who sought to make the medium reflect more of our lived reality while detailing the shifts in representation needed to achieve full humanization. — I.K.

  • 'What We Do in the Shadows'

    The elevator pitch for the TV adaptation of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s 2014 film sure sounds like a hangover from a previous era: What if Edward Cullen and his fellow undead bloodsuckers actually kinda sucked at life? But What We Do in the Shadows revived the just-as-oldfangled mockumentary format to unexpectedly become TV’s best comedy, featuring one of sharpest small-screen ensembles working today. Especially compelling in this second season are the satire machine that is “energy vampire” Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) and the plight Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) faces as a familiar-turned-accidental vampire slayer. He may desperately want to be an immortal leech, but in one sense he’s already joined them — his existential nightmares are our comedy gold. — I.K.