Daniel Fienberg: The 10 Best TV Shows of 2020

Daniel Fienberg Critics Piece Collage
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Among The Hollywood Reporter chief TV critic’s faves are a Southern strip-club noir, a pair of politically urgent docuseries and auteur knockouts from Lil Dicky and Michaela Coel.

Television, that reassuring presence in your family room or now on your phone, often became an antagonist in 2020 — at least if you found yourself sucked into the 24-hour news cycle. The pervasiveness of a never-ending election, a worsening pandemic and a summer of nationwide unrest meant that people also turned to TV for escape, from the gawking freak show in animal-rights clothing that was Tiger King to the comic sentimentality of Schitt's Creek to the appealing globalism of Somebody Feed Phil. As the film world fragmented, television kept churning along, adding one new streaming service after another and premiering shows that offered distractions, harsh reminders of the outside world and sometimes a dazzling combination of the two. Enjoy some quick bites — RIP, Quibi — on my 10 favorite shows of 2020.

1. I May Destroy You (HBO)
A serrated knife of a show, Michaela Coel's half-hour dramedy about sexual assault, memory and taking control of your own narrative rips and tears at the audience as it makes its way through its 12 episodes. With Coel ever at the center — working as writer, star and eventually director — I May Destroy You isn't the year's most consistent or polished show, but it's a show that captures the unease of 2020 on an almost cellular level. It's capable of shocking you, making you laugh and making you desperately want to escape our chaotic, social-mediated world at one moment and dive back into the urban hustle and bustle with friends the next. It’s a show with flaws, but nothing this year burrowed as deep or provoked as much response.

2. How To with John Wilson (HBO)
Even with laconic prankster Nathan Fielder among its executive producers, How To with John Wilson was the ultimate fall sleeper. It's hard to describe how inquisitive documentarian Wilson's snapshots of day-to-day life in New York City — focusing on those mundane and absurd things that most urban dwellers too often tune out — relate to his broader lessons about making small talk, improving your memory or cooking risotto. It's harder still to capture in words how a finale set on the cusp of the COVID-19 outbreak brings it all together in a shockingly beautiful meditation on the things that bind us to each other even when we're forced into isolation.

3. Better Call Saul (AMC)
In its penultimate run of episodes (season 5), AMC's Breaking Bad prequel — and it feels unnecessary to qualify it that way, because Better Call Saul has completely found its own tone and its own terrain — hit new highs, especially in an end-of-season stretch that included the searing "JMM" and the ultra-ambitious, Vince Gilligan-directed "Bagman," an hour spent predominantly wandering the New Mexico desert with Bob Odendirk's Jimmy and Jonathan Banks’ Mike. Rhea Seehorn thrived in another season of Kim Wexler's own worrisome slide into breaking bad, while Tony Dalton's Lalo settled in as a perfect cackling foil to Giancarlo Esposito's icy Gus. The end is in sight, but I don't want it to end.

4. Better Things (FX)
Find me three minutes of TV more joyful than Hannah Alligood reproducing, with no context at all, Jerry Lewis' invisible typewriter gag from Who's Minding the Store. Trick question; you cannot. The fourth season of Pamela Adlon's writing/directing/acting tour de force was, as ever, a structure-defying glimpse at single-parenting, navigating Hollywood as a woman of a certain age and the way the creative process can encompass everything from cooking to the joy of purchasing, at the spur of the moment, a refurbished El Camino. Highlights included Mikey Madison's "c-word" scene, a trip to New Orleans and every bit of Adlon's ever-growing confidence behind the camera.

5. City So Real (NatGeo)
Steve James' TV follow-up to Starz's America to Me — my top show of 2018 — was always going to be timely, with its neighborhood-spanning depiction of Chicago's 2019 mayoral election, capturing American democracy in all of its ungainly glory. Then, after four episodes of this nuanced treatment of James' favorite urban epicenter premiered at Sundance, the filmmaker started rolling again in the spring and summer, yielding an additional 80-minute installment. The result was a definitive portrait of a city struggling with COVID and gripped by protests against police brutality, as well as an illustration of that pearl of Hamilton wisdom, "Winning is easy, governing is harder."

6. Immigration Nation (Netflix)
The Immigration Customs Enforcement agency surely regrets the amount of access they gave filmmakers Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz, but this six-hour Netflix docuseries is more than just ICE operatives harshly regulating the status of various refugees and asylum seekers and justifying their behavior by insisting they're only following orders. It's an astonishingly in-depth, exhausting, heartbreaking look at all of the ways American immigration is failing, the human lives caught between borders and the myriad people struggling to do the right thing. Always political, only sometimes partisan, Immigration Nation isn't often fun, but it's essential viewing.

7. The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)
In a year of solid, literate prestige TV — see also The Plot Against America, My Brilliant Friend and The Crown — Scott Frank's adaptation of Walter Tevis' novel combined an underdog sports hook with a satisfying empowerment message and impeccable '60s period details. The drama, which made it easy to care about high-stakes chess even if you didn't know your rooks from your pawns, was held together by Anya Taylor-Joy's lead turn as a prodigy fighting a legacy of mental illness and a steady string of condescending male rivals.

8. Brockmire (IFC)
Who would have guessed that the most prescient depiction of our dystopian 2020 would come from the fourth and final season of Hank Azaria's unexpectedly rich expansion of his filter-free Funny or Die character? Leaping well into the future, Azaria's self-destructive announcer faced a pandemic-ravaged, economically depressed world in which Jim Brockmire might be baseball's only hope, and the result was dark, miserable and surprisingly emotional. Director Maurice Marable balanced precarious tones, creator Joel Church-Cooper supplied razor-sharp dialogue and Azaria gave the best performance of his career.

9. P-Valley (Starz)
Katori Hall's adaptation of her play Pussy Valley may have sanitized the title, but everything else in this soapy slice of Mississippi Delta strip-club noir remains pungent and distinctive, full of acrobatic bumping-and-grinding, pounding Dirty South soundtrack cuts and catchy, theatrical dialogue. Some of the twists and turns are genre-standard, but Hall's characters talk like nobody else on TV, and the performances from relative unknowns like Brandee Evans, Elarica Johnson and spectacular breakout Nicco Annan remove any guilt from this sheer pleasure.

10. Dave (FXX)
The year's greatest TV bait-and-switch came from David Burd's semi-autobiographical chronicle of his life as semi-parodic rapper Lil Dicky. For four episodes, Dave is proudly puerile and prurient, a hit-or-miss mixture of self-effacing penis jokes and… little else. From that fifth episode on, though, Dave turns its premise on its head, becoming a perceptive and cringe-y examination of appropriation, toxic masculinity and mental illness in the world of hip-hop. The six-episode run from "Hype Man" to "Jail" is astonishingly assured in its blend of gross-out gags and introspection; this is the rare show capable of shifting gears from explosive diarrhea to manic depression to a milking fetish to the cost of ambition in a relationship.

Honorable mentions: Betty (HBO), Desus & Mero (Showtime), Harley Quinn (DC Universe), Lovecraft Country (HBO), My Brilliant Friend (HBO), Pen15 (Hulu), Ramy (Hulu), Taste the Nation (Hulu), Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), What We Do in the Shadows (FX)