In a year as diseased as the Coronavirus itself, humans found light in their self imposed quarantines and lockdowns through television.
In no way, do I ever want to look back on the horrendous year behind us. However, in a year so full of dysfunction, many found comfort in the variety of golden series to premiere or return. Many of us spent time inside binging, binging, and more binging. 2020 was truly a year of revolutionary originality. So many shows displayed a genuine understanding of the modern viewing experience despite mass movie theater shutdowns. Whether it was with the induction of Netflix party or the usage of IMAX in the latest season of The Mandalorian. So, in honor of leaving behind a year full of so many woes, it’s time to look back on some of the amazing shows that got us through it.
10. THE QUEENS GAMBIT
I’d never thought a show revolving around the game of Chess would ensnare me the way The Queen’s Gambit did. In a lot of ways it didn’t, but Anya Taylor-Joy’s hypnotizing performance kept me invested for all 7 episodes. The miniseries doesn’t beg any complexity or nuance, but it basks in the simplicity of our protagonist’s pursuit for greatness. Beth Harmon, as a character, is interesting enough to keep your eyes on the screen. But Anya was magnetic. The way she navigated subtle emotions in silence, the way she conveys unhinged freedom with her enigmatic beauty. This series has made it to the top of everyone’s favorites lists for all good reasons.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s continuance of irreverent comedy with underlying adolescent philosophies shine through their expert eye for the painfully awkward nuances of middle school. Frankly, it blows my mind how easy these grown women inhabit their middle school alter egos. It’s not just in their mannerisms, their posture, etc. They navigate the complicated array of emotions that comes with adolescence with such realism. The way they approach young dilemmas is done with such urgency, they truly feel like the end of the world.
With a condensed episode list, I felt like the messages and philosophies presented felt more concentrated. It was just packed with relatable situations about divorce, friendship, young love, etc. There is something wise in showing the worst parts of adolescence with the distinct flair that Pen15 possesses. Erskine and Konkle are incredibly brave for turning in performances that are subtly humanitarian and outwardly hilarious. I can’t wait to see where the next season will take us.
8. THE MANDALORIAN
Revolutionary. The best recent Star Wars installment. Do I have to say anything else? It really annoys me when people say things like “When are we going to get to the plot?” Why do you need a plot? The Mandalorian is a truly unique marvel to behold. The show frees itself from any obligations to the usual narrative convention in favor of some amazing action sequences and building off of the futuristic aesthetic Star Wars is known for.
Most Star Wars installments box themselves in with familiar faces or gratuitously expanding on a story we already know. What makes the show a great change of pace is its effective world expansion, it’s focus on the craft over an oversaturated story, and most of all… Grogu. Favreau and Filoni should be proud of representing Star Wars with such a fresh addition to the franchise.
7. LOVECRAFT COUNTRY
Lovecraft Country captivated me from the beginning. I was engaged, I was hooked but most importantly, I was frightened. Grotesque monsters don’t scare me, but my investment in these characters was my viewing downfall. The combination of Lovecraftian homages and realist depictions of 1950’s white America gave heightened stakes to our protagonists. Anyone could go at any given moment. It didn’t help that the series’ ultra originality was accompanied by fantastic performances.
There was a particular flare to Jurnee Smollet’s performance that made watching her absolutely arresting. So full of charisma while also upholding an uncompromised cognizance of her character’s personality. There is a constant and unshakeable dread as the show progresses, it simmers and at many times, explodes in bloody glory. I appreciated the show’s ability to never compromise its timely themes on race and inequality for the supernatural and vice versa. In fact, the two worked perfectly together, building off of each other to create aligning messages that prove highly resonant. Though it tends to lose steam in its middle episodes, From start to end, I tuned in every Sunday.
6. SCHITT’S CREEK
The very fact that its sixth season is it’s final will bring a tear to the eye, but its poetic farewell contains more sweetness than bitterness. Easily one of the best sitcoms to come out of the past decade closes out its final season with the best performances from its cast and the continuance of witty and clever comedy tropes. Throughout Schitt’s Creek’s run, the creators have maintained an undeniable charisma in its main characters that effectively contributes to the characters’ personality arcs. Despite having a clear vision for what’s to come every season, a certain level of irreverent unpredictability was maintained. It had a freeform comedic style that flowed and even felt improvised.
I want to particularly point out Dan Levy’s talent. It’s Levy’s layered approach to telling the Rose family’s story. There was a charm to David Rose that was gravitational. It was so fun and so entertaining to watch David because Dan conveyed this everlasting confidence and a sense of humor that looked instinctual. The creators couldn’t have conjured up a more perfect send-off for the Rose family, with an especially touching end to David’s story. Schitt’s Creek will go down (if it already hasn’t) as one of the most charismatic and one of the wisest comedies to come out of the 21st century.
5. THE BOYS
The Boys delivered on a masterful second season while continuing to expand on their complex characters and refusing to pick fruit from “The Expectation Tree”. The creators have amped up the blood and stakes to bring a second season that’s as entertaining as it is intensely engaging. More timely than ever, the self-aware superhero series tackles a myriad of modern societal issues. The more obvious ones led by newcomer “Stormfront”. With the induction of the virulent racist “heroine”, expertly brought to life by Aya Cash, many themes and concepts have been put under a satirical magnifying glass. Social injustice, discrimination, capitalistic corruption, differing news agendas, etc.
The Boys upholds its dark sense of humor while balancing it’s savvy for character development and complex story narratives. I can go on and on about how some of the action is some of the best put on television, and how it’s meta satire is as poignant as ever, yadda, yadda, yadda….but there is one performance that NEEDS to be talked about. The way Anthony Starr navigates emotion in this series is something that’s truly impressive.
You see blinding rage, you see deeply rooted depression, you see true love, all in Starr’s facial expressions and eyes. This ability is what made Gandolfini’s performance so revolutionary, it’s what made Walter White a force to behold. Starr understands the depth of his character and navigates it *chef’s kiss* perfectly. What’s in store for season 3 remains in mystery, but season 2 has proven that The Boys is more than able to one-up its previous season.
4. WE ARE WHO WE ARE
Silent and nuanced, We Are Who We Are paints a perfect portrait of the complexities and anxieties of being young in the modern age. Luca Guadagnino’s uniquely intimate lens is turned on American teenagers, Fraser and Caitlin, as they explore their personalities and sexualities on a military base in Chioggia, Italy. Too often are today’s portrayals of the youth over-inflated with vulgarities and debauchery. It’s not all sex, drugs, and rock and roll… all the time. We Are Who We Are pulls back the melodrama in the coming of age genre, and doesn’t even give us a constantly flowing narrative.
Luca sits us down and tells us to watch these people live. The show is poetic and humanitarian in a way that hasn’t been presented on television before. Forgoing dialogue to explain someone’s feelings, the miniseries utilizes silent actions and reactions to display emotion. Every shot, every action, every conversation holds meaning and contributes to the complex symphony that is youth. Jack Dylan Grazer and Jordan Kristine Seamón turn in some promising performances that hold so much beauty and nuance.
It’s the small details that are telling in their character’s personalities. It’s the way Grazer chews on something when he’s deeply in love, it’s the way Seamón walks and interacts with her Father. We Are Who We Are is a masterclass of character development and intimacy, it has cemented itself as a time capsule that’s representative of the youth in a doomsday era.
*It was unbelievably painful to see Kid Cudi don a MAGA hat.
After a criminally overlooked and underrated first season, Ramy continues to hilariously depict Muslim life in a constantly changing world. Insightful and poignant, the subversive comedy has the unique ability to make you laugh when it doesn’t feel appropriate. Ramy Youssef plays a meta version of himself that weirdly makes you love him at times and hate him in others. Youssef doesn’t care if you love or hate his alter ego, his main intention is for you to try to understand him. This is a man searching for identity and reassurance that he is on the right path.
Islam seems to be the pathway to both of those notions. Season 2 saw the induction of Mahershala Ali into the acting credits. Ali does what he does best, giving realistic performances that deserve awards to be thrown at him. Ramy also has the ability to trap you in unbearable tension. I don’t want to spoil anything, but season two is filled with moments that just hold you in uncomfortable situations and somehow manages to get a laugh out of you.
The show also drifts away from its title character and gives the spotlight to a lot of supporting characters, resulting in some realistic depictions of Mulsim life aside from Ramy’s hijinks. The standout episode had to be “Uncle Naseem”. A character that isn’t given much time of day but the writers have expanded on his character exponentially. In an episode with themes of masculinity and love, Ramy forgoes it’s title character to tell a heartbreaking story rooted in reality. All in all, Ramy continues to be the best show you are not watching and deserves every eye on it.
2. BETTER CALL SAUL
A show is just as good as its principal figure. Just ask The Sopranos. Just ask Chappelle’s Show. In a world where plot twists and cliffhangers devalue a show’s quality, Better Call Saul prevails with an explosive 5th season full of masterful performances and action to keep audiences engaged. The Breaking Bad prequel is, without a doubt, the best drama on television.
The previous seasons have given us a perfectly balanced duality in narratives. On one side we’ve followed an introspective narrative arc with a sharp focus on character and personality in Saul. While on the other we follow a gritty crime drama with Mike Ehrmantraut descending deeper and deeper into Gus Fring’s empire.
Everything we’ve seen and learned about every character has finally come to a peak in season 5. As we near the 6th and final season, we start to bridge the gap between Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. Bob Odenkirk loses no steam as the morally fluid lawyer. His performance is truly an evolutionary effort that will go down in television history as one of the best performances. We went, yet, another year with a flawless performance from Rhea Seahorn as Kim Wexler, ignored by the Television Academy. Newcomer, Tony Dalton, was a joy to watch as he fills our screens with his undeniable charisma and charm as the villainous Lalo Salamanca.
Season 5 saw the return of the genius behind it all, Vince Gilligan, return to direct the best episode of the season, “Bagman”. Better Call Saul continues to subvert every expectation held by viewers as the end nears and becomes more cloudy. Where is Kim in BB? What is Lalo going to do after the betrayal? What will be Gene’s fate?
We are coming up on our number one pick, and what’s a top ten list without a few honorable mentions? One show that didn’t rank but grabbed me for its constant intensity was Ozark. A fantastic performance from Laura Linney coupled with an increasingly unpredictable episode list results in the best season Ozark has had yet. Normal People proved to be an unlikely phenomenon. A show that isn’t focused on a constant flowing narrative doesn’t grab people anymore. Normal People succeeds in displaying vulnerable intimacy that feels intrusive, along with glowing and layered performances from Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones.
1. I MAY DESTROY YOU
It’s been a very, very, long time since a series has displayed such vulnerability and unfiltered emotion like I May Destroy You has. What are we without our experiences? Our fond memories along with our traumas? Star, Michaela Coel, puts her own vulnerabilities onto our screens to ask these very questions. The result is a brave and thought-provoking dramedy that explores the complexities of relationships and the trauma brought on by sexual assault. If you ask me what this show is about, I wouldn’t be able to tell you.
The show’s themes are so expansive that every episode focuses on one thought-provoking idea after another. What made this show so special was its ability to capture reality, despite following a script and utilizing actors. Based on Coel’s own experiences and trauma, we follow Arabella as she reassesses every aspect of her life in the aftermath of her assault. The show drifts from character to character, providing deep elaborations on the overall topic of consent.
As a writer, it’s extremely daunting to expose your vulnerabilities the way Coel has. Coel gives THE best performance of the year that’s nuanced and full of so much heart. The topics and subject matters presented are far from “easy to swallow”, especially in a year so full of dysfunction.
Where many dramas will fill empty spaces with fluff or fake character development, Coel’s writing boomed with various ideas, and personal insights, making every episode an opportunity to teach. There wasn’t a single scene that’s wasted. The authenticity and honesty in its writing make I May Destroy You an odyssey of self-love that will break your heart but get several laughs out of you before it does.
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