TV in 2020, more than ever before, was an escape.
It took our minds off the coronavirus pandemic, an election that felt like it lasted a decade, and reality.
Not all shows chose escapism, though. With production shut down for most of the spring and summer, projects like “Love in the Time of Corona,” “Social Distance” and “Coastal Elites” were filmed virtually. And many of the fall shows that made it to air incorporated the pandemic in some way — by using masks, mostly, until showrunners decided seeing faces was too important.
But the best shows of the year were the ones that rose above current events and showed something new, different or better. Here are the best shows of this crazy year.
2020′s top 10 TV shows, from ‘I May Destroy You’ to ‘Normal People’
1. 'I May Destroy You'
Through grief comes strength, but also beauty. “I May Destroy You” wants viewers to believe that.
The HBO series explores the trauma, avoidance, anger and resistance of Arabella, who suffers through a drug-induced rape, against a backdrop of the best friendships on television. What creator and star Michaela Coel does with rage and reconciliation is at once messy and beautiful, an experiment in the complexities of sexual trauma. As “I May Destroy You” quietly whispers and shouts at full volume, surviving and living are not the same.
2. 'The Baby-Sitters Club'
Where “Grand Army” portrayed today’s youth as more damaged than most of us, “The Baby-Sitters Club” aimed to show they’re also better than adults too. A modern version of Ann M. Martin’s beloved 1980s-launched children’s books, the Netflix series paints a beautiful, rose-colored-glasses version of a world where people care.
The sitters care about labor issues and trans rights. They deal with crushes and Stacey’s diabetes, but they also want to make the world a better place and are more suited to do it than the adults around them. “The Baby-Sitters Club” was adorable nostalgia, but it was also hope in the worst year of many people’s lives.
3. 'What We Do in the Shadows'
FX’s Staten Island-set vampire mockumentary “What We Do in the Shadows” is at its best when it’s at its weirdest. That’s never more obvious than the second season’s Jackie Daytona episode, in which Laszlo (Matthew Berry) flees town and goes undercover as a human bartender, with only a toothpick as a disguise.
It’s the show’s best episode and maybe the best of any show this year, but it’s also simply a heightened version of what the show does best: let its fully formed, brilliant characters create chaos.
4. 'The Queen’s Gambit'
It’s not just that “The Queen’s Gambit” managed to make chess sexy that made it stand out, though that alone is impressive. But what gave it an edge is the way it created characters who were not altogether likable, but deserving of success nonetheless.
The limited Netflix series is carried by a magnetic performance by Anya-Taylor Joy as young prodigy Beth Harmon and floats on a dizzying array of death, devastation and addiction. For a girl whose life suffers one calamity after another, Beth is understandably damaged, but Joy plays her with such caution and care that you find yourself not just caring about chess, but rooting for her, along with her messy band of friends.
5. 'Schitt’s Creek'
You can count on two hands the number of shows that have ended well, with a finale that honors its characters and storytelling. Two did so this year — “Schitt’s Creek” and “The Good Place” — but the former was a transcendent ending to a show that quietly built a fan base around what should go down as one of the best comedies in TV history.
Across six seasons, “Schitt’s Creek,” which streams on Netflix, proved that people can change, an underlying theme of almost all character-driven art but one rarely handled so beautifully. The wealthy Rose family started as detestable, self-involved and self-indulgent, and ended not as good people, but as better people. Theirs was a world in which racism and homophobia did not exist simply because it didn’t need to. It was hilarious, sure, and the Halloween costumes and novelty gifts it spurred will never get old. But above all, “Schitt’s Creek” was a blessing because it believed in the goodness of humanity.
6. 'Grand Army'
The Netflix drama about a group of high school kids in Brooklyn handles teenagers better than almost any show before it. It’s “Freaks and Geeks” but bigger and darker and more traumatizing. “Grand Army” doesn’t infantilize its characters or mock them. It respects them.
It’s an unflinching look at a generation of teens, surviving on a diet of TikTok, 3 a.m. presidential tweets and protests against police brutality, and how they deal with that.
7. 'Little America'
“Little America” premiered in January — which feels like a decade ago — but while it may have long ago slipped from the public conscience (if it ever held it, as most Apple TV+ shows have struggled to do), the eight-episode Apple TV+ anthology series showed the beauty of this country before it began to crumble.
Each immigration tale told a different story — some of acceptance, some of perseverance — but each was hopeful and inspirational. “Little America” believed not only in the American dream, but that it still exists. It also believed in joy.
8. 'Lovecraft Country'
Misha Green’s terrifying HBO thriller was at times confusing, but it was ambitious. “Lovecraft Country” experimented with every turn. It took on racism in the Jim Crow South, aliens and sexism.
Jurnee Smollett’s Leti bashed cars with a baseball bat in a scene that seemed out of a musical. Jonathan Majors’ Tic dated a Korean nurse who was actually a nine-tailed fox spirit tasked with killing 100 men during sex. Aunjanue Ellis’ Hippolyta traverses time and space. In an era of reboots, remakes and revivals, “Lovecraft Country” was original, and for that, it deserves praise.
9. 'The Good Fight'
No show has handled the Trump presidency better than “The Good Fight” on CBS All Access.
It’s a silly show, with pee tapes and hallucinogenic drugs, but it navigates this political climate with reckless abandon and no interest in pretending that any of this is normal. It’s also a brave show, with #MeToo alternate realities and Chinese censorship. But above all, it was unafraid of telling the truth, no matter how bonkers it got.
The harried, abridged fourth season, cut short by coronavirus shutdowns, scrambled to round out a storyline about a mysterious memo. And its finale — in which Diane (Christine Baranski), Marissa (Sarah Steele) and Jay (Nyambi Nyambi) try to figure out if Jeffrey Epstein actually committed suicide — is unspeakably bizarre, but the show somehow pulled it off.
10. 'Normal People'
Several shows reevaluated how we view sex this year: “P-Valley,” “I Hate Suzie,” “Sex Education,” “Euphoria.” But “Normal People” did it through the heaviest breathing you can get this side of Skinemax. The beauty of the Irish characters’ teenage (then college, then post-grad) romance is in its messiness. Viewers know everything would go smoothly if lovers Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) would just get over themselves.
Hulu’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel of the same name is carried entirely by its two leads, comfortable in their uneasiness, relishing in the quiet, melancholy of young love. “Normal People” may not be Shakespeare, but like “Romeo and Juliet,” it understands the self-inflicted torment of feelings and the refreshing joy of a good cry.