Inkoo Kang: The 10 Best TV Shows of 2020

Inkoo Kang Critics Piece Collage
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Among The Hollywood Reporter TV critic’s faves are a miniseries about modern feminism, an adults-only animated treat and the latest chapter in a lush Italian coming-of-age drama.

2020 was an alarmingly disruptive year for television — as it was for so many other industries and art forms — but it was also one that saw no shortage of remarkable storytelling and ambitious experiments. TV this year was marked by the heating up of the Streaming Wars (RIP Quibi); the continued blurring of the line between "television" and "film"; renewed reflections on art and entertainment's roles in the long fight for justice on so many fronts; and artists' and creatives' attempts to make sense of and provide escapism from today's raging crises. These were 2020's 10 most impressive efforts.

1. My Brilliant Friend (HBO)
The roads not taken start to diverge dramatically in the devastating sophomore season of My Brilliant Friend, subtitled The Story of a New Name. Set in postwar Naples and following the lives of two smart, ambitious, competitive girls — one of whom is allowed to continue her education after elementary school while the other is not — the Italian-language adaptation finally lives up to its source material of Elena Ferrante’s beloved novels, with aching performances, Hitchcock-suspenseful scenes, luscious production design and enough emotional complexity to fill the entire Mediterranean.

2. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
Part-history lesson, part-echo of 2016 (with a shaky center-left coalition submerged by a tidal wave of conservatism), Dahvi Waller’s miniseries is the rare fictional treatment that’s more illuminating than a documentary on the same subject matter would’ve been. That’s largely due to Mrs. America’s unique format, with each episode focusing on a different woman in the 1970s fight to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Waller boldly shakes up our understanding of certain figures, like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), while humanizing the many factions within the ever-striving but soon-to-end Second Wave. But the series is no less tense for its density, with anti-feminist activist Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), more dead-eyed than a White Walker, ready to exploit her enemies’ fracturing solidarity.

3. P-Valley (Starz)
Black strippers (played by Brandee Evans and Elarica Johnson) and their nonbinary Black boss (Nicco Annan) take center stage in Katori Hall’s superbly plotted, delectably dialogued neo-noir. Though it’s set in a fictional Mississippi town under threat of takeover by casino developers, P-Valley is as much about the daily lives of its dancer protagonists: their familial or romantic entanglements, their aspirations on and off the pole, their hard-fought self-sufficiency. Few other shows are as skilled in illustrating how places shape their residents — and how those residents sometimes need to protect themselves from those places.

4. I May Destroy You (HBO)
Michaela Coel’s semi-autobiographical series is the year’s number-one example of the fact that, sometimes, there’s no substitute for authenticity. A major departure from her earlier show, Chewing Gum, in both tone and ambition, I May Destroy You finds Coel mining her personal experiences to create and star in a dramedy that explores both the range of sexual assault and the many different responses survivors can have in the months (or years) that follow. Coel locates affirmation and even humor in her characters’ resilience — a natural complement to her loving portrait of the Black British community in which the writer-actress grew up.

5. The Crown (Netflix)
The British royal family became The Diana Show once again with the fourth season of The Crown — its best year yet. Peter Morgan’s series is built to regularly reinvent itself, with new actors taking on the principal roles every other season, but nothing on The Crown has felt as fresh as the ‘80s, when Emma Corrin’s future Princess of Wales roller-skated her way through the halls of Buckingham Palace, inadvertently demonstrating how frozen in tradition her new in-laws had become. The drama ratcheted up even more with the arrival of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), whose disastrous management of the U.K.’s ailing economy made even the queen (Olivia Colman) seriously question what her true responsibilities to her country should be.

6. The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
A period comedy about… slavery… that throws cold water on one of the most well-known abolitionists in U.S. history? Perhaps the most daring small-screen work of the year — and certainly one of the most eloquent — this miniseries adaptation of James McBride’s novel is a thing of wonder (it’ll certainly make you wonder how in the world it exists). When you get over that, marvel at Ethan Hawke’s gonzo turn as John Brown, who seeks to massacre 1850s America toward emancipation, and ends up accidentally enslaving a teenage boy he believes to be a girl named Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson). It’s unexpectedly resonant, and funny as hell.

7. Visible (Apple TV+)
An essential companion piece to the 1995 documentary The Celluloid Closet, Ryan White’s five-part overview of television’s role in LGBTQ progress is exactly what you want it to be: comprehensive, poignant, surprising and complex. Visible is both celebratory and honest about what kinds of progress can take place in which eras, while encompassing the full breadth of TV history and programming. Most impressively, it never sacrifices personal experience at the altar of longitudinal scope, understanding that nationwide shifts mean changing one person’s mind (and heart) at a time.

8. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Hands down the funniest show on TV right now, What We Do in the Shadows is blessed with one of the best comedy ensembles working today — as well as the irresistible post-Twilight premise of vampires as fossilized losers who have no idea how out-of-touch they’ve become in their Gothic Staten Island manor. Like the bloodsuckers themselves, Season 2 could’ve kept coasting forever, but instead gave us an intriguing role reversal in Guillermo’s (Harvey Guillén) vampire familiar reluctantly embracing his destiny as a slayer, upending the dynamic with those he seeks to serve. Also, two words that should send a giddy shiver down any fan’s spine: “Jackie Daytona.”

9. Harley Quinn (HBO Max)
Kaley Cuoco’s demented cheeriness and Lake Bell’s sardonic world-weariness anchor this hilarious adults-only antiheroic cartoon, in which the former stars as the post-Joker sidekick-no-more and the latter as eco-terrorist Poison Ivy. Harley Quinn’s bloody, girly and sophisticatedly feminist debut season had already offered a novel take on the Batman universe — no easy feat given Hollywood’s nonstop raids on Gotham in recent years. But this year’s sophomore season built beautifully on the show’s thorny characterizations, culminating in a sweet surprise of a romance that felt both predestined and deeply rooted in individual pathos.

10. On the Record (HBO Max)
Is Kirby Dick and Amy Ziering’s exposé of music mogul Russell Simmons’ history of alleged sexual assault — and group portrait of his survivors — TV or a movie? Who cares. The duo behind the similarly themed The Invisible War and The Hunting Ground have made an important (and apparently controversial) distillation of the #MeToo movement, particularly in its powerful illustration of how rape culture can crush the careers and confidence of young women, drive them out of influential industries and result in the distortions of art forms with outsized impact on society.

Honorable mentions: Big Mouth (Netflix), The Boys (Amazon), Cheer (Netflix), Dave (FXX), The Good Fight (CBS All Access), The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), Schitt’s Creek (Pop), Unorthodox (Netflix), We Are Who We Are (HBO), Work in Progress (Showtime)