Our Annual Report continues as we reveal the Top 25 TV Shows of 2020. Stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles in the days and weeks to come about the best music, film, and TV of the year. If you’ve missed any part of our Annual Report, you can check out all the coverage here.
It feels strange to say, but television has never felt more important than it did in 2020. With the ensuing COVID-19 pandemic all but trapping us in our homes, the medium has served as an essential, if not comprehensive, escape for viewers worldwide.
This notion became clear with Tiger King, a show that nabbed record eyes (or so Netflix says) in the budding days of lockdown. The world became so scary, we looked to a bizarre tale of over-the-top zoo owners and assassination attempts for comfort.
With theaters closed and everything from blockbusters to indie fare getting snatched up by streaming services, lanes of content are becoming indistinguishable. Some of the best TV you watched were movies; some of the best movies were structured like TV.
Semantics aside, television as we traditionally know it — your weekly series, your binge-able docuseries, your sitcoms, and the list goes on — experienced an astounding year. We consorted with chess prodigies, clashed with spiritually-broken superheroes, and had a human alcohol beer or two with Jackie Daytona. We saw groundbreaking new science fiction shows back-to-back with probing docs about self-improvement cults and Michael Jordan’s rise and fall.
As tragic as it sounds, TV probably saved a lot of us this year: It kept us going in a time of unspeakable despair and loneliness. But in the strange alien worlds and lush period settings of the year’s best offerings, we found a dash of communion — even if it was just to live-tweet through that Mandalorian finale.
Hopefully, 2021 doesn’t have to shoulder as much of our emotional real estate as it did this year. But if the slate of shows remains as strong as it was this year, at least we’ll have some good friends to stay locked up with in the months to come.
25. 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 makes 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 after-show), 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: unpredictable, unreliable, and unbelievable, but never uninteresting. —Sam Mwakasisi
Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.
24. The Drew Barrymore Show
Who’s in It? Drew Barrymore and assorted celebrity guests
Best Outing: “Drew’s Halloween Show!” … In her first season, Drew Barrymore has thrown herself into everything she does, and Halloween was no exception, rebranding herself as “Drew Scarrymore.” Dressed as Glinda the Good Witch, complete with a wand and strange, affected accent, Drew interviewed a mystery “Wizard of Oz” who turned out to be her old pal/co-star Macaulay Culkin before tackling the removal of “spooky-looking” clothing stains and welcoming TV actress Emily Park, who sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in a literal rainbow dress. While most episodes of The Drew Barrymore Show feel like a trippy fever dream, this one really made me question my own sanity at nine in the morning.
Must-See TV: The happy-go-lucky actress turned lifestyle entrepreneur turned talk show host has become a sunny spot in an otherwise rather dreary daytime TV landscape this year with a show that is equal parts chaotic, surreal, hilarious, and uplifting. Whether it’s “interviewing” Courtney, the 1980s American Girl Doll, gushing over Sam’s Club Cheesecake and Kraft Mac n Cheese every other day, or hanging with famous friends like her Charlie’s Angels costars (Lucy Liu and Cameron Diaz) or ex-husband Tom Green, Drew Barrymore is creating a daffy daytime experience unlike any other. It’s a “talk show” in that I can’t wait to talk about Drew’s daily antics to whoever will listen. I seriously hope it lasts forever. Keep doing you, Drew! –Emmy Potter
23. Lovecraft Country
Who’s in It? Jurnee Smollett, Jonathan Majors, Wunmi Mosaku, Aunjanue Ellis, Abbey Lee, Jamie Chung, Jada Harris, Michael Kenneth Williams, Jordan Patrick Smith, Courtney B. Vance
Best Outing: “Sundown” … George (Courtney B. Vance), Atticus, and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) travel to the mysterious Ardham in search of Atticus’ missing father. Partly a scouting trip for the Safe Negro Travel Guide (inspired by the real Negro Motorist Green Book), they travel through dangerous white spaces, sleeping in the woods and hoping not to draw unwanted attention. Reviving awareness of sundown towns, the episode’s high point is a tense, but low-speed car chase to cross town lines where one mile over the speed limit could mean death. Green juxtaposes the threat from a racist police force with that of literal monsters with a moonlit chase through the forest as George, Atticus, and Letitia must evade both murderous officers and flesh-eating monsters, forcing them to decide which is the bigger threat.
Must-See TV: The highly anticipated adaptation of Matt Ruff’s book hit HBO with a bang. Boldly blending genre fiction, folklore, and historic events, it’s the story of Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and his family as they combat white magicians in the Jim Crow south. Creator Misha Green expertly uses real examples of racism such as the murder of Emmett Till and the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre as well the caricatures of Topsy and Bopsy from blackface minstrelsy and the practice of racial profiling to both terrify and unflinchingly show the experience of being Black in America. However, the careless treatment of queer, trans, and indigenous characters and dated opinions from characters that are never fully interrogated lead to an uneven and divisive series. While Lovecraft Country is an important step forward in representation both onscreen and behind the scenes, it will likely join Hamilton as an example of art that is simultaneously progressive and problematic. –Jenn Adams
Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.
22. 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? Chris Rock, Jessie Buckley, Jason Schwartzman, Ben Whishaw, Jack Huston, Salvatore Esposito, Glynn Turman, Timothy Olyphant, Andrew Bird and more.
Best Outing: “The Birthplace of Civilization” … By exploring the connection between civilians, criminals, and outlaws, Season 4 looks at who American society was built to serve and how those who live on the outside are forced to create societies of their own. With tensions riding high between the opposing crime families of Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) and Josto Fadda (Jason Schwartzman), Episode 5 brings the friction to a fever pitch when intentions are made clear during a plot-twisting meeting between Dr. Senator and Constant at Spud’s All-Time Diner. Stolen money, a raging turf war, and several instances of the lack of control towards difficult relatives, this episode serves as a testament to the shift in the dynamic of Fargo’s fourth season.
Must-See TV: Due to superb reviews of Fargo in years past, this season was met with high expectations. The show’s creator, Noah Hawley, decided to maintain the program’s dark and quirky comedic style while also focusing on family, loyalty, leadership, and pursuit of the American dream – by any means necessary. Hawley’s ability to humanize even the most menacing of characters remains on full display this season. Chris Rock is sensational as the leader of the African-American crime syndicate, Cannon Limited. Jenn Adams spoke of Rock’s performance as “strong, sobering, and menacingly funny as he juggles the competing responsibilities of leading a crime family while supporting his real family as a husband and father.” Godfather-esque in a sense, Fargo doesn’t force its intentions upon the viewer; instead, it gives them the space in order to draw their own conclusions and digest the underlying messages as they may. –Okla Jones
Extra! Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ full review here.
Who’s in It? Jason Bateman, Laura Linney, Julia Garner, Sofia Hublitz, Skylar Gaertner, Lisa Emery, Charlie Tahan, Jessica Frances Dukes Tom Pelphrey
Best Outing: “Fire Pink” … Season 3 saw the stakes raise across the board for all parties involved with the Byrde family and their laundering operation, but this season has been particularly big for Ruth and Wendy, as they grappled with each other and with themselves over the arrival of Ben, Wendy’s brother and Ruth’s lover. Though Ruth and Wendy have always had a precarious relationship (and Marty and Wendy’s role in Ruth’s life has come closer and closer to parallel with their actual daughter, Charlotte), things finally came to a boiling point in “Fire Pink”. Ben’s death, though seemingly inevitable considering his mental health issues, caused an irreparable split between the two most important women in Marty’s life – and the repercussions of his passing will no doubt be major heading into Season 4.
Must-See TV: While Ozark may share several outward similarities with Breaking Bad, in that it’s a gritty and darkly comedic drama about a man working for a drug cartel, the show has defied expectations by time and again pushing Wendy, not Marty, forward as the “Walter White” of the series. With Season 3, we saw Wendy taking a more active role than ever in her husband’s money laundering, but it hasn’t come without a cost – her personal demons quite literally come back to haunt her in the form of Ben.
Season 3 turned up the pressure on all sides for Marty: FBI Agent Maya Miller hot on his trail, his relationship with his wife and kids straining, Wendy and Ruth butting heads over Ben, and his own steely resolve beginning to show cracks. Julia Garner won her second (2/2!) much-deserved Emmy for her portrayal of Ruth, though Laura Linney turned in a stunning performance just as worthy of praise. In Season 3, Ozark is as razor-sharp and potent as ever. –Lauren J. Coates
Who’s in It? Anna Konkle, Maya Erskine
Best Outing: Pen15’s knack for threading the needle between absurdist mid-aughts humor and genuine emotion hits its peak with episode three, “Vendy Wiccany”, where Anna and Maya lose themselves in the affirming power of witchcraft in the woods and carry it into the emptiness of their personal lives. Like the best episodes of the show, it hones in on the cultural touchstones of the time to tell universal stories about girlhood and the liberating joys of friendship.
Must-See TV: Hulu’s gut-busting teen comedy leans on a pretty inventive visual gag: Creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, both in their thirties, donning braces and low-cut jeans to play middle-school versions of themselves in the 2000s. But effortlessly woven beneath their charming, spot-on performances is a bittersweet insight into the adolescent experience, that alchemy of loneliness, jealousy, and fractured identity we all feel at one point or another as kids.
And yet, Maya and Anna’s charming bond keeps them grounded to each other, even as Season 2 brings their respective worlds crashing down upon them. A COVID-stunted production means we only got seven episodes this season, but damn if they’re not some of the best TV of the year. –Clint Worthington
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 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.
17. The Vow
Who’s in It? Sarah Edmondson, Bonnie Piesse, Mark Vicente, Catherine Oxenberg, Anthony Ames, Keith Raniere, Allison Mack
Best Outing: Episode 8, “The Wound” … The penultimate episode of the season laid bare the misogyny at the root of Raniere’s “teachings” with the man himself gleefully “struggling” while hurling a supposedly “fake” torrent of abusive, sexist language at his closest followers during special gender-based workshops. It’s difficult to watch people willingly subject themselves to these activities under the guise of empowerment — especially in contrast with shots of Sarah Edmondson’s scar from the brand Mack gave her — but the footage ultimately exposes and damns Raniere and his inner circle for their twisted, empty philosophies and horrific practices.
Must-See TV: HBO’s nine-part docuseries about NXIVM, the Albany, NY-based self-help MLM turned sex-trafficking cult, was equal parts riveting and maddening. Following the stories of several high-profile defectors as well as its hippy-dippy, volleyball-loving, charismatic leader, Keith Raniere, using a mixture of interviews and extensive, intimate archival footage, The Vow tells a harrowing story of manipulation and abuse sold as self-empowerment and how far we’ll go in search of the truth. Though the first season was more meandering at times, the series was still compelling enough to earn a second season, which will focus on Raniere’s legal battles. Frankly, after the last couple of years, I can’t think of anything I’d like to watch more right now than an abusive con man on trial. –Emmy Potter
16. Doom Patrol
Who’s in It? Timothy Dalton, Brendan Fraser, Matt Bomer, April Bowlby, Diane Guerrero, Joivan Wade
Best Outing: “Finger Patrol” … Season 2 really explores the idea of found family established in Season 1 and then expounds on it, daring to bring about this question: “Okay, you found each other, now what?” This episode drops right in the middle of the season, with writers Chris Dingess and Shoshana Sachi alongside director Glen Winter, who are able to spin three different stories by pairing different characters together and allowing them to explore similar but also very different story arcs. Pairing off the younger generation with the older is a smart move, and the dynamic between the characters is not only charming but heartfelt. Diane Guerrero shines as her Baby Doll persona while Matt Bomer and Brendan Fraser both hammer in deeply emotional performances.
Must-See TV: Doom Patrol is at its best when it takes this odd menagerie of pseudo-heroes and forces them into fantastical situations with deeply emotional stakes, and Season 2 delivers that on all fronts. In Season 1, the show was able to deliver nearly equal amounts of bizarre and sentimental, balancing human darkness with superhero levity, and its sophomore season taps into those same ideals and amps it up to eleven. While we do end up missing the scenery-chewing madness of Alan Tudyk, it’s made up for with the absurdity and surrealness of a season pretty much dedicated to bringing odd concepts to life; this includes a giant, ancient deity that grants wishes but wants to turn the world to wax; a teleporting gender queer sentient street; and a man who feeds on agony and transforms people into butterflies. While you may find human drama at a similar level elsewhere, you won’t find anything as bizarre as Doom Patrol, and it’s the amalgamation of the two that makes it binge worthy and must see. –Ryan Larson
Extra! Extra! Clint Worthington’s review here!
15. Normal People
Who’s in it? Daisy Edgar-Jones, Paul Mescal, Sarah Greene, Aislín McGuckin, a silver chain
Best Outing: Episode 7, Episode 7 … Unlike many other shows before it that have had copious amounts of graphic sex scenes, Normal People earns it through both character development and excruciating sexual tension. Episode 7 shows on- and off-again partners, Marianne and Connell, reconnect for the first time in a while. The sexual tension is so strong that you will feel it in your bones. Before you know it, you’ll be begging your television to let them kiss (and more). And once it happens, you’ll still want more, like Kylo Ren in The Last Jedi.
Must-See TV: Normal People is a very horny show that will make you very horny. But, most importantly, the show is about how people and relationships change over time. Even if you don’t have a secret on-and-off over many years who wears a silver chain and looks exactly like Paul Mescal, the series is, at its core, about something deeply human that connects us all, regardless of our differences and backgrounds. There are a lot of TV shows about young (and hot) people, but Normal People gets the specificity of the growth that happens in your late teens and into your 20s better than any of them, through moments like when you realize a relationship is over, mundane sex, your first “adult” dinner party, or simply driving while very emotional and all set to a blend of ’80s music and early 2000s indie pop. –Carrie Wittmer
14. Raised by Wolves
Who’s in It? Amanda Collin, Abubakar Salim, Winta McGrath, Niamh Algar, Travis Fimmel
Best Outing: While the season as a whole functions as one long narrative, the pilot, “Raised by Wolves”, fires on all cylinders as the kind of high-concept short story you’d expect out of Frederick Pohl or Alfred Bester. Watching androids Mother and Father try (and fail) to raise human children, only for Mother’s unholy destructive power to be unleashed in its final minutes, is an introductory hour compelling in its big-budget shagginess.
Must-See TV: Science fiction on TV doesn’t get any weirder, stranger, or more religiously transcendent than the Ridley Scott-produced Raised by Wolves, a Silver-Age sci-fable about a pair of androids who travel to a new planet to respawn the human race in the wake of a holy war that wiped out the Earth. It doesn’t take long, however, for the show to transform into a tale of the challenges of parenthood, the ineffable nature of faith, and what it means to be human, even when you’re not. If the Michael Fassbender bits of Prometheus and Alien: Covenant appealed to you (and they should), Raised by Wolves is the clear antecedent to Scott’s messy, fascinating preoccupation with synthetic life. –Clint Worthington
Extra! Extra! Read full review here.
13. 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.
12. The Haunting of Bly Manor
Season: 2 (technically)
Who’s in It? Victoria Pedretti, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Amelie Eve, T’Nia MIller, Tahul Kohli, Tahirah Sharif, Henry Thomas
Best Outing: If the high point of Hill House was its one-shot funeral episode, Bly Manor takes that energy and runs with it in episode five, “The Altar of the Dead”. A resplendent hour that gives T’Nia Miller’s Hannah Grose the spotlight she deserves, it’s a meditation on memory, loss, and the cycles of pain and violence we’re often left to wrestle with. In Flanagan’s worlds of horror, ghosts are memories that fade with time, and to see that through the perspective of one of those fading memories is the greatest haunt of all.
Must-See TV: “It’s not a ghost story, it’s a love story.” Those words might have put a too-neat bow on the ultimate message of Mike Flanagan’s follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House, but it’s hard to argue with the power of the series itself. More Gothic romance than outright scare-fest, this adaptation of several Henry James stories finds terror not in the things that go bump in the night, but in the silence of things left unsaid, and the horrible things we do to one another. –Clint Worthington
Extra! Extra! Read full review here.
11. The Mandalorian
Who’s in It? Pedro Pascal, Giancarlo Esposito, Gina Carano, Katee Sackhoff, Timothy Olyphant, Temuera Morrison, Rosario Dawson, Ming-Na Wen
Best Outing: “Chapter 15: The Believer” … Star Wars is nothing without its bedrock of influences. Flash Gordon. Lawrence of Arabia. Kurosawa. The list is both sprawling and eclectic. Like the original trilogy, The Mandalorian is often at its strongest when it’s mindful of these roots, all of which showrunners Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have been echoing from the get-go. For “The Believer”, writer and director Rick Famuyiwa tossed in a curious title to the mix: William Friedkin’s Sorcerer. The result is a modern Western wagon adventure with an Imperial spin and a smuggler’s run of vicious stakes. Beyond the action, though, Famuyiwa actually turns up the heat on Mando — gasp! — who’s not only forced to remove his helmet, but reckon with his code. The way this discourse is channeled through Bill Burr’s Migs Mayfield makes for some truly Greatest Hits content.
Must-See TV: If you hadn’t noticed over the past two or three years, things haven’t been so great for the Star Wars franchise. Fans have been split, the mythology has become as mercurial as it is twisted, and the lack of ingenuity has been pedantic, to say the least. The Mandalorian has felt like an elixir, a sign that Favreau and Filoni may be restoring order to this galaxy, and Season 2 certainly builds on that theory. This is the Star Wars content we’ve all been looking for: chewy, pulpy adventures that feel culled from newer sections of the sandbox. Hell, think about everything that went down in this wildly ambitious run. We witnessed live-action debuts of fan-favorite heroes, we crash-landed on inspiring new planets, we saw familiar faces under new lights, and we even got Timothy Olyphant. Each week came with a new surprise, and the anticipation online was palpable. Finally, after five goddamn movies in less than five years, there’s a balance forming. Now, whether or not that balance is maintained remains to be seen — Disney’s recent promise of 10+ shows says no — but the Force is at least strong again. –Michael Roffman
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s many, many recaps.
10. The Crown
Who’s in it? Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Helena Bonham Carter, Josh O’Connor, Emma Corrin, Charles Dance
Best Outing: Episode 3, “Fairytale” … The Crown loves to hit all your senses with its symbolism and metaphors. “Fairytale” opens with the soon-to-be Princess Diana of Wales celebrating her engagement to Prince Charles, Stevie Nicks’ “Edge of Seventeen” (“just like the white wing dove”) blaring. The episode also closes with “Edge of Seventeen”. This focused episode shows Diana slowly realizing royal life is not going to be the, ahem, fairytale she imagined: her prince is not a gentleman, and her life at Buckingham Palace is incredibly lonely. The Crown Season Four is careful with Diana but not too careful, allowing her to be a human being and not just the Princess the public saw.
Must-See TV: The Crown is gorgeous. Its intricate sets, props, star-studded cast, and costumes so close to the real thing you can barely tell the difference make it one of the most expensive shows ever made. But The Crown was never groundbreaking television: it’s a reliable cleanse in between the shows that makes you do a lot more work. It is, after all, Wikipedia-able. But with Season Four, The Crown unexpectedly became groundbreaking television as it caught up to its most significant figure and one of the most challenging real people to portray on a screen of any size: Diana, Princess of Wales. While Season Four of The Crown is still up to its old, ham-fisted symbolism tricks (it literally compares Diana to a stag the royal family is hunting), its performances from the entire ensemble — Emma Corrin as Diana, Josh O’Connor as Charles, Helena Bonham Carter as Margaret, and Gillian Andersen as Margaret Thatcher, specifically — make it more culturally and historically relevant than any other season. The Crown is, quite ironically, at its best when it’s about the people who serve Queen Elizabeth, not about Queen Elizabeth herself. –Carrie Wittmer
Extra, Extra! Read Jenn Adams’ review here.
09. I May Destroy You
Who’s in It? Michaela Coel, Weruche Opia, Paapa Essiedu, Stephen Wight, Marouane Zotti, Harriet Webb
Best Outing: “Ego Death” … While the upward trajectory of the series made for standout moments along the way, they paled in comparison to the finale’s realization of the myriad variables at play. With the truth behind the identity of the man who sexually assaulted Arabella (Michaela Coel) seemingly revealed, the storytelling goes fully internal, illustrating her mind with sequences of looped scenarios and surreal imagery. With similarly unexpected pitch-black humor and staggering heaviness, the episode’s presentation shows the audience just how long and winding Arabella’s road to inner reconciliation is and just how fulfilling it feels once she begins to find it, offering her world both a satisfying send-off and a remarkable payoff in tune with the show’s heart for finding answers in the unanswerable.
Must-See TV: “Everything and nothing is normal.” It’s a one-off quote from the ninth episode, but it captures the ethos of fluid stability and comforting chaos running throughout Michaela Coel’s second series. This thematic weight is focused in Coel’s career-defining lead performance as a Twitter star-turned-author reassembling a life upended by sexual assault, alongside a London backdrop textured with supporting characters built too intimately to ever forget about. Considering the real and raw trauma this deceptively simple logline stems from on Coel’s behalf, it’s all the more awe-striking how her writing and co-directing orbits around a living, breathing cosmos of harsh realities and seductive images molded by corners of contemporary culture from social media to race, with a wicked undercurrent of wit to boot. I May Destroy You incinerates, invigorates, and invokes harder questions of the modern age than it currently seems equipped to answer, and that makes for an urgent, singular addition to its dramatic canon. –Sam Mwakasisi
08. 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.
07. 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.
06. 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 send-off 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
05. 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.
04. What We Do in the Shadows
Who’s in It? Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, and Mark Proksch.
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.
03. The Boys
Who’s in It? Karl Urban, Jack Quaid, Antony Star, Erin Moriarty, Dominique McElligott, Jessie T. Usher, Laz Alonso, Chace Crawford, Timer Capon, Karen Fukuhara, Giancarlo Esposito, Aya Cash
Best Outing: Episode 8, “What I Know” (season finale) … Like any episode of The Boys, the Season 2 finale could have gone in any direction. But instead of taking the predictable, safe route, it challenges itself and its characters without taking itself too seriously. After wrapping up almost every thread the season had hanging, it reveals a twist that will make your head explode (sorry). It also has Billy Butcher brooding against fall foliage, women screaming “eat my shit you Nazi bitch” while kicking a literal Nazi, and Homelander jerking off on top of the Chrysler building.
Must-See TV: The Boys is both a satire of the superhero concept and capitalism in the United States. Its examination of morality is kind of deep, but not so deep that it isn’t fun. It is, after all, very aware that its platform is . . . Amazon Prime. Season 2 of The Boys proved that the longer this show lasts, the better it gets. With its intricate, completely fucked-up world already established and its characters where they should and need to be, The Boys Season 2 transformed itself from fun peak TV you watch over one weekend and kind of forget about into a must-watch TV show you think about as much as you think about Succession. And while I’m here: an Emmy nomination (at least) for Antony Starr as Homelander, please. And an Oscar for Aya Cash. –Carrie Wittmer
Extra! Extra! Read Clint Worthington’s 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, and 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. The Queen’s Gambit
Season: Limited Series via Netflix
Who’s in It? Anya Taylor-Joy, Moses Ingram, Thomas Brodie-Sangster, Harry Melling, Bill Camp, Isla Johnston, Marcin Dorocinski, Marielle Heller, Chloe Pirrie, Patrick Kennedy, Jacob Fortune-Lloyd
Best Outing: Episode 6 – “Adjournment” … Beth begins training with Benny (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) in New York for the Paris Invitational Tournament. Once there, she wins her way to the finals only to be derailed by a night of partying before the championship match with Russian Grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorocinski). Defeated and devastated, she returns to her empty house in Kentucky where she spirals into a haze of alcohol, cigarettes, and tranquilizers. Her reckless binge feels achingly authentic, highlighting the realities of addiction in the aftermath of trauma. Her friends attempt to intervene with varying results, setting up Beth’s inevitable confrontation with her past in order to move forward.
Must-See TV: Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) is a chess prodigy in 1950s America. Orphaned as a child, she becomes addicted to the green tranquilizers handed out at the orphanage, then begins abusing alcohol in her adopted home. As Beth’s star begins to rise in the chess world, she desperately searches for love and acceptance while telling herself that she needs neither. Adapted from the novel by Walter Tevis, Netflix’s limited series quickly became the most-watched, scripted limited series in Netflix history. Anya Taylor-Joy is mesmerizing in her portrayal of a confident, young woman, which feels revelatory in its complex humanity.
It’s a refreshing change to see a female character embrace her brilliance rather than try to disguise it with a caricature of feminine helplessness. And the killer retro wardrobe she rocks while doing so is icing on the psychedelic cake. Also refreshing is the way male characters respond to her. As she wins match after match, they are challenged by her skill and attempt to defeat her, but grow to respect her in a way that never veers into vilification or fetishization.
Though the reappearance of her childhood friend, Jolene (Moses Ingram) falls uncomfortably close to the trope of the Magical Negro, the support system Beth finally accepts is a moving example of what it takes to overcome trauma and addiction. It’s a gripping and ultimately empowering story centered around a complex female character navigating an arc normally reserved for men. –Jenn Adams
Extra! Extra! Read Carrie Wittmer’s essay here.