Our Mid-Year Report comes to a captivating conclusion today as we reveal the Top 10 TV Shows of 2020 (So Far). In case you missed it, be sure to revisit our previous mid-year lists for top albums, songs, metal albums, and films.
Television’s always been there. There’s a reliability to the boob tube that gives us solace day in and day out. It’s the reliable notion that no matter how awful things get in real life, you can always eject, curl up on the couch, and escape into a story.
Well, rest assured, television has been working overtime in 2020. As billions of people across the world stay locked inside — we can only hope — the small screen has become less of a life line and more of a permanent member of the family.
Fortunately for all of us, we’ve been living in a time of Too Much Television, something we’ve complained about ad nauseam over the last couple of years. Of course, the joke was on us because now we’re at the risk of … Not Much Television.
Don’t have Hulu? You can sign up now for a free 30-day trial!
Not really, though. Because as we’ve learned over these last few months, television has a strange way of evolving, and as long as it’s there — and it’s even remotely entertaining (see: Tiger King) — it’s just enough of an escape to keep us sane.
And let’s be real, sanity is a high currency these days.
10. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness
Who’s In It? Joe Exotic, Carole Baskin, Bhagavan Antle, Jeff Lowe, John Finlay, Rick Kirkham, Howard Baskin, Kelci Saffery, John Reinke, Erik Cowie
Best Outing: “Make America Exotic Again” – Although it’s towards the back end of the show, a definitive turning point in the emotional audience commitment it beckons can be found in the fifth episode, the exact moment where the series’ marriage of whimsy and tragedy reaches an apex as bizarrely hilarious as it is genuinely devastating. Joe Exotic’s pining for a place in politics as his relationships pine away unfolds with almost-hyperreal juxtaposition, and make for some of the most sidesplitting and heartbreaking moments of the show.
Must-See TV: Tiger King is a window into a surreal industry as much as it is a mirror for the surreal world that made it a runaway hit. In around five hours (not counting the Joel McHale-helmed aftershow), the miniseries tells a tale surrounding the big cat business, capturing its deceit- and delusion-fueled underworld in a capsule of unabashed escalation through the central war between Joe Exotic and Carole Baskin, the individuals within the rivalry’s five-mile radius, and a select few outlandish corners of the Internet, from online junkets to news coverage. With a fine balance between the absurdist comedy of its characters’ personas and the tumultuous drama of the damaged people within them, the show retains and builds upon its momentum with storytelling equally indebted to the schadenfreude of reality television and the pathos of American folklore. If there ever was a cultural phenomenon no one had in mind by January, it’s Netflix’s Exotic excursion, a resonant emblem of 2020 thus far — unpredictable, unreliable, and unbelievable, but never uninteresting. —Sam Mwakasisi
Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.
09. BoJack Horseman
Season: 6, Part Two
Who’s In It? Voices of Will Arnett, Amy Sedaris, Aaron Paul, Alison Brie, Paul F. Tompkins, and many others
Best Outing: “The View From Halfway Down” – The penultimate episode of BoJack Horseman could have easily been the finale. After all the destructive choices BoJack has made, not just in the second half of the final season, but throughout the run of this brilliant Netflix show, he’s almost literally at death’s door. That, at least, is how his broken psyche treats his current situation. He’s hallucinating spending his final hours with all of the people in his life who have died, from his nasty mother (Wendie Malick) to his old writing partner (Stanley Tucci) to the child star (Kristen Schaal) whose life turned grim after the show on which she and BoJack appeared. The blend of humor, horror, and pathos persists through the very end, as BoJack tries to escape the blackness of death engulfing his mind. This is the best of a truly haunting season of TV.
Must-See TV: BoJack Horseman couldn’t end on the happy note it seemed like it was going to strike at the end of its final season’s first half. That much was clear. But the final eight installments were a lot darker and a lot more directly self-confrontational than past episodes might have implied. Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Lisa Hanawalt’s show, when it was first unveiled in the mid-2010s, seemed like a goofy lark, with lots of inside-baseball references for anyone moderately aware of the inner workings of Hollywood. But as the industry upends itself, so too did BoJack, never once flinching away from its title character’s flaws. With Will Arnett delivering the greatest performance of his career, BoJack ended perfectly. It’s not only Netflix’s best show to date, but one of the great animated shows of all time. –Josh Spiegel
Extra! Extra! Read Andrew Bloom’s full review here.
08. I Know This Much is True
Who’s In It? Mark Ruffalo (twice), Melissa Leo, Rob Huebel, Michael Greyeyes, Juliette Lewis, Rosie O’Donnell, Kathryn Hahn, Imogen Poots, Archie Panjabi, Aisling Francioisi, Philip Ettinger, Harris Yulin
Best Outing: “Episode 5” – Legacy and fate are a significant thematic underpinning for the show, and “Episode 5” highlights that the most. Here, Mark Ruffalo’s Dominick, a man crippled by anger and resentment toward the obligation his mentally-ill brother places on him, reads through the memoir of his grandfather, after whom he was named. Flashbacks float us through the two men’s stories, tales of toxicity and misfortune with enough parallels for Dominick to surmise that his family is “cursed.” The interweaving of past and present has always been present in the miniseries, but this hour is maybe the starkest reminder of that fact.
Must-See TV: Amid a global pandemic, social unrest, and the gradual breakdown of our trust in the public and each other, it’s understandable that you might not want to watch something super heavy. But if you can handle the unremitting trauma porn director Derek Cianfrance throws you in I Know This Much Is True, you’ll find one of the most bittersweet, rewarding miniseries on TV. Mark Ruffalo’s dual turn as two brothers shaking off the horrors of childhood trauma is bravura work that also elides the typical showiness of such a gimmick, and Cianfrance takes a suitably novelistic approach to the material. It’s a rough, but rewarding watch for those with the emotional fortitude. –Clint Worthington
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.
Who’s In It? Nick Offerman, Sonoya Mizuno, Alison Pill, Zach Grenier, Jin Ha, Stephen McKinley Henderson, Cailee Spaeny, and Karl Glusman
Best Outing: “Episode 6” – The sixth episode of Devs finds Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) and her ex-boyfriend Jamie (Jin Ha) demanding explanation from Forest (Nick Offerman) and Katie (Alison Pill) for the first time together. The men and women split off into respective private moments, with Katie disclosing to Lily what exactly what the Devs system is. It is also the first time we as the audience can fully understand exactly what the goal of Devs is, and to put it lightly, it’s troublesome. While Lily and Katie have their heavy, albeit enlightening, conversation, Jamie and Forest find a moment of brevity with a simple game of catch in the front yard. We learn quickly that this moment is bittersweet for the thoughtful, endearing Jamie — his end is near, and almost everyone seems to know it but him.
Must-See TV: Devs is technically a mini-series, but as an Alex Garland production, the eight episodes might as well translate into an eight-hour film. The FX limited series is densely packed with stellar, terrifying performances from Nick Offerman and Alison Pill, who play, respectively, a tech magnate obsessed with the death of his young daughter and his genius, emotionless chief designer and right-hand staffer. Garland delivers his signature dystopia-by-way-of-technology hellscape in Devs, where everything seems perfect on the exterior while riddled with deceit, selfishness, and pure horror on the inside. While slow-moving at times, you learn to embrace the deliberate pacing because when it’s not quiet, it’s almost impossible to keep up. –Annie Black
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s review here.
06. Curb Your Enthusiasm
Who’s In It? Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove, Ted Danson, Richard Lewis, Timothy Olyphant, Vince Vaughn, Clive Owen, Isla Fisher, Fred Armisen, Jon Hamm, Nick Kroll, and the list of celebs goes on
Best Outing: “You’re Not Going to Get Me to Say Anything Bad About Mickey” – Although Season 10 thrived from going back to basics, giving LD a good ol’ “fish-out-of-the-water” story was a brilliant idea. Like a late-era Seinfeld episode, this impromptu trip to Cabo San Lucas brings all the right tall-tale comedy to Curb‘s plate. There’s the whole weight thing with the yo-yo dieting, the toothbrush trouble, and, naturally, some busying with beans. And in a season chock full of celebrity cameos, Timothy Olyphant takes the scone as Mickey, a total passive-aggressive schmohawk who gives LD a run for the toiletries.
Must-See TV: After going big in Season 9 to lesser results, Larry David and Jeff Schaffer kept things simple for Season 10. By stripping away the stakes, the show lost any insistence on gravitas and simply allowed Larry to treat Los Angeles like his playground — just like he’s done since the “The Pants Tent” in Season 1. Sure, the whole spite store arc with Mocha Joe was a tad heightened, but it never reached the cartoonish level of tomfoolery that the prior season’s fatwa shenanigans did with Lin-Manuel Miranda. No, seeing Larry deal with everyday grievances again was a relief, particularly at a time when our own day-to-days were fading away amidst quarantine. –Michael Roffman
Extra! Extra! Read Michael Roffman’s full review here.
05. Schitt’s Creek
Who’s In It? Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Levy, Annie Murphy, Emily Hampshire, Noah Reid, Chris Elliott
Best Outing: Sitcom endings are often a hit-or-miss proposition, but “Happy Ending” is just about as satisfying a closer as you can expect for the Rose family. David and Patrick’s wedding has the usual Rose family hiccups, of course, including some accidental infidelity courtesy of a day-of-wedding massage with full release. And yet, in the generous mode of the show, everything moves forward as scheduled, giving us one final glorious Moira Rose outfit (her space-age priest getup as officiant) and a tearful sendoff for TV’s most unexpectedly sweet family.
Must-See TV: It’s wild to think of the long, circuitous road Schitt’s Creek took from shaky, overlooked Canadian sitcom to the beating heart of pop culture comedy. Over six seasons, Eugene and Dan Levy’s humble series about a wealthy family forced to start over in a small town overcame the low expectations of its title and early episodes to turn into one of the most aspirational shows on television. Season 6 felt like a victory lap, the show (and the Roses) having finally arrived, and going out on top before they wore out their welcome. More series could stand to have that kind of restraint. We’ll miss the Roses, to be sure, but they left an indelible mark on the TV landscape. –Clint Worthington
04. Mrs. America
Who’s In It? Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Sarah Paulson, Elizabeth Banks, Margo Martindale, Tracy Ullman, Melanie Lynskey
Best Outing: “Houston” – The penultimate episode of the miniseries, which takes place at the 1977 National Women’s Conference, puts Sarah Paulson’s fictional conservative housewife, Alice, in the spotlight both literally and figuratively as she attempts to play spokeswoman in Phyllis’ absence and questions her own commitment to the Stop ERA cause. While it may seem like Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole of feminism after a few too many drinks (and some kind of drug) is a kind of liberal wish-fulfillment about “good” conservative white women, it’s more of a breakdown of the dividing lines between these two groups to show how women—even those diametrically opposed to one another—still find moments of solidarity and support in a world where men hurt and hinder us. Paulson’s empathetic performance anchors the trippy episode.
Must-See TV: I initially bristled at the thought of Cate Blanchett playing Phyllis Schlafly—a woman who went out of her way to champion deeply oppressive views—but the star-studded Mrs. America is neither an attempt to valorize the conservative lightning rod nor her famous feminist counterparts like Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug. Instead, the equally enthralling and frustrating FX miniseries is something else entirely—a story of complex, flawed women fighting an uphill battle for power and legitimacy on every side in a system designed against them. Blanchett (who is also an exec-producer) is no doubt a force onscreen, but Mrs. America is truly an ensemble series packed with Emmy-worthy performances and solid writing and direction. By its end, neither side has achieved true power, because men still overwhelmingly make all the rules, and decades after the events depicted in the miniseries, that’s still infuriatingly true. –Emmy Potter
Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.
03. The Last Dance
The Starting Lineup: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Phil Jackson, Steve Kerr, B.J. Armstrong, Horace Grant, Magic Johnson, Larry Bird, Jerry Krause, Jerry Reinsdorf, Carmen Electra, Reggie Miller, Isiah Thomas, Gary Payton, Barack Obama, Jerry Seinfeld, Leonardo DiCaprio, Pat Riley, Kobe Bryant, every other big baller from 1990’s basketball.
The Highlight Reel: “Episode 8″ – In a series replete with electrifying Top 10 moments, the show’s gentler occasions are its sweetest and most unexpected takeaways. Jordan’s softer downtime, such as low-stakes gambling with his security detail and walking alone through Barcelona’s Olympic Stadium, show a meditative person striving to live in the moment, even while winning percolates beneath his surface. This embrace of the present tense is most powerfully displayed in episode eight, which closes on an emotionally, physically, and spiritually drained Jordan writhing around the trainer’s room floor, sobbing while he squeezes the game winning ball from the 1996 NBA Championship. The voyeuristic moment is both invasive and captivating, leaving viewers to ponder the extreme costs of ultimate success.
I Love This Game! Jordan’s well earned reputation as the most dominant, cutthroat, and perhaps even tyrannical athlete in the history of sports preceded viewers’ expectations going into the docu-series’ five weeks of programming. But director Jason Hehir (The ‘85 Bears, Andre The Giant) proved that His Airness transcended these superlatives, arriving at a profound new level of competition. Sure, Jordan’s expectations from teammates pushed some to the breaking point. But as The Last Dance demonstrates, MJ made it a point of never asking others for more than he would demand from himself. –Dan Pfleegor
Extra! Extra! Read Robert Daniels’ full review here.
02. Better Call Saul
Who’s In It? Bob Odenkirk, Rhea Seahorn, Jonathan Banks, Giancarlo Esposito, Tony Dalton, Michael Mando
Best Outing: “Bagman” – The eighth episode of the season, directed by co-creator Vince Gilligan, is the closest Better Call Saul has looked like an episode of Breaking Bad yet. And yet, despite its narrative, structural, and aesthetic parallels to its predecessor, “Bagman” never feels derivative. Sure, the sprawling desert setting screams Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, but Bob Odenkirk’s charm (and his sparkling chemistry with on-screen frenemy Jonathan Banks) keeps the tone unique. More than anything, though, “Bagman” solidifies where the series is going: Jimmy McGill, tempted by financial security and the loopholes of the law, is getting closer and closer to fully assuming the Saul Goodman persona, only one thing is holding him back — Kim Wexler .
Must-See TV: Leading up to Season 5, Better Call Saul fans were (fairly) worried about Jimmy’s partner Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), namely because she never appears in Breaking Bad. And in this — the Breaking Bad Television Universe (BRTVU), if you will — chances are that Kim’s fate is not driving off into the sunset, eating a cupcake, on to a better, safer life far away with a fresh start. But, the best thing about Season 5 is its ability to convince the audience that Kim is about to die — or about to get herself into a situation that could lead to such a fate — without feeling tired or repetitive. Of course, in the season finale, Better Call Saul delivers the best, most well-earned twist in the entire BRTVU: Kim is actually down with this Saul Goodman thing. –Carrie Wittmer
Extra! Extra! Read Andrew Bloom’s full review here.
01. What We Do in the Shadows
Best Outing: “On The Run” – After having gotten us familiar with the world of vampire aristocrats hiding out in a Staten Island mansion, Season 2 started to peer beyond the surface of each character to see what makes them tick. The best example of this is when an old foe named Jim The Vampire (Mark Hamill, unstoppably funny) stops by to sew up a vendetta against voluptuous coward Laszlo Cravensworth (Matt Berry, one of the best comic actors alive). Rather than face his old opponent, Laszlo flees town and starts a new life as a bartender in a depressed Pennsylvania mining town. Every reveal is funnier than the last (the episode has the “Yes, and…”-ing absurd highs of the best Nathan For You segments) as Laszlo first sponsors a girl’s volleyball team, then decides to throw a talent show to raise money to send them to the semi-finals. It’s just one delicious ’80s movie-inspired non-sequitur after another and yet the best gag may be it’s simplest: the lynchpin of Laszlo’s disguise is just a toothpick in his mouth and no one recognizes him while he’s got it.
Must-See TV: What We Do In The Shadows had a lot to do to make people forget the movie and it looked at first like it would simply coast on the not inconsiderable charm of its leading performers. Berry, Mark Proksch, Natasia Demetriou, Kayvan Novak, and especially Harvey Guillén as moral center Guillermo the Familiar were amiable enough company in the first season but the writers have stepped up their game to give them show-stopping showcases for their delightfully warped comedic personas. From Proksch’s energy vampire getting mad with power to Demetriou forming a bond with a haunted doll that looks like her, to Guillén and Novak having their version of a lover’s quarrel throughout the season, everyone’s being utilized perfectly and the show just gets funnier and more involving with every episode. –Scout Tafoya
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s full review here.