TV has been omnipresent throughout my life. Generation X were the original latchkey kids, and television was our defacto babysitter. We would get up early for Saturday Morning cartoons, and race home after school for reruns of Batman ’66 and animated gems like Star Blazers and Voltron. We had the privilege of being witness to the rise of groundbreaking shows like All in the Family, Good Times, Saturday Night Live, Dallas, M*A*S*H, etc., as well as suffering through the advent of Reality Television and too many garbage sitcoms and night-time soaps to count.
Despite visionary shows like Twin Peaks, The X-Files, Quantum Leap, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, among many others, television was long considered to be the forgotten and unwanted cousin of Hollywood. Bad ideas were greenlit and then written off as losses after failed pilots, and no movie star with any self-respect would dare attach themselves to the boob tube without fear of ever working in film again.
That started to change when HBO got into the serialized story business with OZ, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under, but the 2000s brought another dearth of unintelligent, vapid programming and the Big Three networks almost exclusively turned to cheaply produced reality detritus for prime-time programming.
Fortunately, with the advent of streaming and a wealth of premier cable channels, we are living in another Golden Age of Television, where artists and auteurs can tell interesting, provocative, and creative stories. And in 2020, that was a life preserver to many of us living under quarantine.
This year, I watched 60 television shows (complete seasons), and here are my top 10 favorites, not limited to series aired in 2020.
10. The Outsider (2020)
To say that Stephen King adaptations are hit or miss would be an understatement, but this limited series inspired by his 2018 novel of the same name was a home run. The show, co-produced by Jason Bateman (who also directed two episodes), immersed the viewer in a world where supernatural and all too real threats may be lurking around every dark corner. With outstanding performances from Ben Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo, The Outsider completely captures the tone of one of King’s more spellbinding page-turners.
9. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (Season 7, 1998)
It took me until this year to give the most underrated Star Trek series a chance, and good things come to those who wait. Like most Star Trek series’, DS9 got off to a slow start, however, the seeds sowed in the first few seasons took root and blossomed into one of the most satisfying swan songs in Trek history. DS9 was the first series to have an overarching narrative that lasted the entire run, as well as making the viewer care about the fates of mostly non-federation characters on an alien space station. The cast was diverse and gifted, but the performance of Avery Brooks as Cpt. Benjamin Sisko gave new reasons to debate who is the greatest Star Trek Captain of all-time.
8. Yellowstone (Season 3, 2020)
Just when you thought Kevin Costner’s modern-day western couldn’t get any better, Yellowstone brands you with its indelible mark and leaves you wanting more. Beautifully shot and intelligently written, Yellowstone is serialized storytelling at its finest, and season 3 leaves the viewer hanging on the most precipitous of cliffs. Kevin Costner, seemingly born for the role of patriarch John Dutton, leads an amazing cast of actors inhabiting characters you can’t help but root for, but the gorgeous landscapes of Wyoming and Montana are the true stars of the show.
7. Fargo (Season 4, 2020)
I may be biased, but Noah Hawley, Fargo’s creator, writer, and sometime director is a genius. All four seasons of Fargo are some of the most creative, intelligent, and captivating television ever broadcast. The series (very loosely based, with no connective tissue, on the Cohen Brothers film Fargo from 1996) expertly weaves tales of crime, ineptitude, and sometimes reluctant heroism, while examining the depths of human nature. Season 4 tells the story of Loy Cannon, deftly played by Chris Rock, who tries to establish himself as a player in the Kansas City criminal underworld, while maintaining a tenuous relationship with the Italian mob.
6. Five Came Back (2017)
This docuseries tells the story of five of the most acclaimed, talented, and legendary directors in Hollywood history, and how they put their careers on hold to serve the country and document World War II. John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, and George Stevens were responsible for some of the most enduring and captivating images to be filmed during the second war. Their work helped shape the war effort at home and provided the American public first-hand knowledge of what our troops were experiencing in the theater of war, as well as the trauma they brought home with them. The docuseries provides context for the five men’s decisions, their insistence on telling the American people the truth, and how what they witnessed shaped their lives and films after their return.
5. Briarpatch (Limited series, 2020)
Rosario Dawson stars as Allegra Dill in this modern-day noir, adapted from a 1984 novel by Ross Thomas. Briarpatch is a quirky, suspenseful mystery, populated by oddball characters in a dusty Texas border town. The show leaves you guessing as to who is behind the murder of Dill’s sister and intrigues you with the inner workings of the town Dill never wanted to return to. Wholly original and not for everyone, Briarpatch is for the viewer who doesn’t need every bit of information spoon-fed to them.
4. Better Call Saul (Season 5, 2020)
Fans of the unassailable Breaking Bad who aren’t watching Better Call Saul, are doing themselves a disservice. The show tells the origin story of Saul Goodman, the almost as crooked as the gangsters he represents lawyer from Breaking Bad, played marvelously by Bob Odenkirk. The show is as layered and expertly crafted as the show that inspired it, and season 5 may be its best. From reuniting the viewers with characters we know, to introducing us to characters we don’t, each episode shows the devolution of the man born as Jimmy McGill, to the wanted man in hiding Saul Goodman. McGill’s reverse Midas touch affects everyone in his wake, and viewers simultaneously delight and dread his inevitable transformation.
3. The Last Dance (2020)
Michael Jordan has always been an enigma off the court. We all got to know him through his amazing athletic ability and his will to win that carried lesser teammates and the Chicago Bulls franchise to six NBA Championships in six tries. The Last Dance gives insight to Jordan as a person off the court, and the player behind the scenes with never-before-seen footage, interviews with peers, experts, and frank, candid conversation from the man himself. The docuseries, clocking in at 10 hours, is a commitment, but for fans of the NBA, there isn’t a better time capsule of the late ’80s and ’90s and a chronicling of dominance over an entire sport by one man that may never happen again.
2. Cobra Kai (Seasons 1 & 2, 2018-2019)
I included both seasons of Cobra Kai because that’s how I consumed the show. I couldn’t get enough of the continuing tale of Daniel LaRusso and Johnny Lawrence. The way the show flipped the narrative and made Johnny a sympathetic character was brilliant. Billy Zabka’s performance is excellent, and the writing enables the viewer to see things from his point of view and invites you to wonder if LaRusso was the real jerk. The show is great at subverting expectations and embraces the ages of Daniel and Johnny and the struggles they have relating to their kids while carrying a grudge they’ve both held for 35 years. The new cast of characters is beautifully written and acted, and you quickly become invested in their fates, and the writers are adept at servicing long-time fans of the franchise without seeming like it’s forced. Each episode ends with a cliffhanger that begs you to hit play on the next one, and who can resist. The power of nostalgia is sweet indeed, and fans my age have always known, “Cobra Kai is a badass name for a dojo!”.
1. The Mandalorian (Season 2, 2020)
What can I say about The Mandalorian that hasn’t already been said? Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni have joined forces to create a show that captures the feel of the original trilogy while also paying homage to the movies and filmmakers that originally influenced George Lucas. Season 2 features episodes that honor Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, John Ford’s Stagecoach, and Sergio Leone’s The Man With No Name trilogy, all while breathing new life in a franchise that had been divisive among fans in the last two decades, to say the least. Pedro Pascal’s season 2 performance as Mando is award-worthy, perfectly conveying a range of emotions from a character whose face is never seen. His attachment to Grogu is obvious through the choices that Mando is forced to make, and the inflections in Pascal’s vocal delivery. The magic trick the show pulls off is remarkable, considering that in only one of season 2’s 8 episodes, the production was filmed on an actual location and that the character everyone is in love with is an animatronic puppet. But that’s the wonder of Star Wars, something I have been amazed by since 1977. This show is exactly what I, and scores of other people around the world, needed to end this awful year and look to the next, with a new hope.
Honorable Mentions: The Alienist (Season 2, 2020), Dead to Me (Season 2, 2020), Euphoria (2019), Killing Eve (Season 3, 2020), Lovecraft Country (2020), Mindhunter (Season 2, 2019), Murder on Middle Beach (2020), Project Blue Book (Season 2, 2020), Ozark (Season 3, 2020), The Ripper (2020)
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