The Top TV Shows of 2020

I love reading critics’s end-of-year lists and, because I’m a nerd, I also enjoy making lists of things I should check out (at this point, my Things to Watch Google Doc is one of history’s greatest epics). It’s weird how other critics’ lists are correct and the lists I post annually are also perfectly correct.

But my lists are the most right!  

Before I get to the core of this post, I want to mention that I’m moderating a Better Off Ted reunion for charity on Dec. 27. Stop by if you care to — it should be fun! (Of course, for Veridian employees, this event is a mandatory training session.)

All right, as usual, you could make a pretty good Top 10 list of things I have only seen part of or have not seen at all. Not sure if you were aware of this fact, but there is a lot of #content out there. 

So this list, especially given how often quarantine brain derailed me this year, is not comprehensive. I’m sure, in the next week or two, I’ll watch more things I wish I’d included. Regardless, I’m glad for the existence of all these shows — and movies, documentaries, multi-part documentaries, films-that-are-probably-not-TV, TV-that-might-be-movies and documentary-scripted hybrids, plus unicorns that are also 10-hour films, etc.

Two omissions from these lists that were still important parts of my 2020 viewing experience: The Great British Baking Show (which goes by the nickname GBBO in its original habitat) and the Great Canadian Baking Show. I’d like to unburden myself a bit regarding both of those programs. A bit later in this post, I delve into how what’s good about them relates to key aspects of my favorite scripted programs of 2020. Skip ahead to the lists if you don’t want to wade through this part! 

Like a lot of other folks, we watched every Netflix season of GBBO this year and wow, that’s a lot of marzipan! Here’s one of the things I love about the show at its best: The regular delivery of refreshing and quietly optimistic depictions of how a person’s confidence, competence and feelings of validation can evolve in productive ways over time. 

GBBO is blessedly not about people who seek to dominate, destroy, bully and shit on other people. It’s about people who are frequently modest but who have a set of skills they may — or more likely may not — think are important. They get to hang out in a tent with other generally cool and/or eccentric baking fiends, and their confidence may waver week to week, but it tends to grow in the bakers who begin, ever so gradually and before our eyes, to come into their own.

There’s a competitive element woven through the proceedings — each week’s episode efficiently wrings drama from each baking challenge, which is a good thing (sidebar: The camera crews who film inside the tent and and the editors who edit this show are amazingly good at their jobs). But GBBO does not dwell on — or even really find much — behavior that is destructive, cruel, vindictive, harmful or corrosive. And I feel my battered heart grow three sizes whenever bakers in the tent help each other out — which is often. 

As I wrote in my end-of-year piece about Ted Lasso, for way too long, craven, cowardly, mean, terrible, selfish people have told the rest of us that cruelty, cowardice, thoughtless domination, corrosive shittiness, greed, vindictive agendas and insensitivity are necessary qualities for those who aspire to display “leadership,” “confidence” and “success.” Almost worse than the toxic jerks who embody these garbage qualities and promulgate these abusive ideas are the enablers who let these folks do what they want without putting up any real resistance. Here are a couple of pieces I wrote in 2020 that touch on these all-too-common dynamics; if you need more evidence, well… ::waves hands, gestures at world::

Those who are willing to do the worst — to be the worst — get much further than they should because there are so many weak, spineless, equivocating people who let these lies and these bullshit excuses persist and fester. Let me say — no — yell (again): All these people are wrong and they can eat shit forever. 

And that brings me to this observation: When it’s firing on all the right cylinders, GBBO (and its offshoots) can serve as quiet, tea-drinking rebukes to that kind of thinking. 

After watching the construction of thousands of cakes, pies and pastries, here are the images that are most firmly lodged in my memory: The moments in which people who didn’t have a lot of confidence in their skills and knowledge realized that they were good at this. I like to see generally overlooked people ponder the happiness, however fleeting, they’ve brought themselves and others with their care and creativity.

The best moments may be the ones in which people who are kind, humble, accountable and modest begin to realize that the way they move through the world is actually … good. Really good. To see them have those altruistic, responsible and artistic impulses validated on a national stage, while they’re also making friends with a varied range of welcoming, thoughtful people, well…. You could do worse than seeing that happen a whole bunch. 

I have to balance all that out by saying that GBBO has an enormous array of problems when it comes to race, class, gender and the treatment of various cultures, traditions and foodways. The show is generally quite good when it comes to incorporating disabled contestants into the mix, but it’s also continually tin-eared and problematic on any number of other fronts. There is behavior in the tent that has walked up to the line of inappropriateness and/or harassment (and a few times, that behavior has crossed a line, not that the show appears to be even remotely aware of it).

I’m certainly far from the first person to point this out, but the fact that every judge and every presenter in the mothership’s history has been white is not just notable but quite illuminating. I mean, the 2020 episode centered on Japanese cuisine was, from start to finish, unbelievably oblivious and cringe-worthy. They had a decade to get better on that front, and after that decade of opportunities to improve, GBBO came up with that utter disaster. Sigh.

A secondary complaint I have differs a bit from that whole bucket of problems, but, like most other sentient adults, I spend most of the technical challenges complaining about them. All these critiques contain my roundabout way of saying that, yes, we watched the 2020 edition of the show, but a number of things went awry with it, and the finale was limp and disappointing for a whole bunch of reasons, and I generally agree with Salon critic Melanie McFarland about why that was so.

All things considered, GBBO has real value but it also has deep-seated issues — and, like many established institutions, it displays no real willingness to reckon with the complicated problems and biases at its core in a serious, concerted way. The show is a massive hit, a situation that has caused it to lean into some of its worst tendencies rather than attempt to evolve away from them. (And all that said, did I adore the GBBO Derry Girls holiday special? I absolutely did! What can I say? Shit’s complicated!)

One program the pastry mothership could learn from is the Great Canadian Baking Show, which is not just incredibly Canadian but as sweet and entertaining as you’d want it to be. Dan Levy from Schitt’s Creek was the co-host for the first two seasons, and the hosts in Season 3 — Carolyn Taylor and Aurora Browne — are delightful and bring a lot of terrific, much-missed Mel-and-Sue vibes to the Canadian tent.

Especially in the second and third seasons of GCBS, the bakers are among the best I’ve ever seen on any food-related show. A few of them would have handily won on GBBO, in my humble opinion. So if you’re a GBBO fan, get this show into your eyeballs. In the US, the show is available on a site called DailyMotion (I think legally? Maybe? Who knows?!) To pre-emptively address kind feedback from other GBBO-heads — yes, we’re planning on watching other countries’ editions soon!

Anyway, these shows — like many of my favorite scripted programs — consciously and sometimes inadvertently explored important and highly relevant questions: Who gets to feel confident about their beliefs, their presence, their history, their actions? Whose memories and traditions matter, and why? What does real competence and compassion look like? Who gets their worldview and their plans validated, and who doesn’t? 

What do we owe each other — and ourselves — in a world that sometimes feels like a chaotic collision of many unreliable narrators? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but neither do many of the year’s best programs. That vulnerable, searching humility was kind of beautiful in a year in which many of us desperately needed things to believe in and care about — while having our doubts, anxieties and fears validated in some way.

Other much-glorified modes of TV (which, to be clear, I have frequently glorified!) just hit different this year. Not for nothing, but most of my Top 10 is composed of half-hour shows. Shows that are comfortable with ambiguity, doubt and the vulnerability of connections (with oneself, with others, with reality itself) can be challenging to sit with; longer running times just would not have worked for many of these stories.

Also, if I’m honest, as the year wore on, it got harder for me to get excited about sampling one-hour shows. I’ll just admit it: In this quarantine year, there was a lot of stress for all of us, and my brain was just tired. The whole “it gets good in the sixth episode” phenomenon was just a non-starter for me. In recent years, in the world of TV, one-hours have tended to struggle with structure, pacing and tone more than half-hours have (the widespread phenomenon of streaming drift remains an issue). Not that there aren’t one-hours I love (there are!), but half-hours, which have been rewardingly frisky and inventive for a while now, really shone in a special and unexpectedly necessary way this year.

Speaking of tone, mood and intention, in 2020, what I needed was, well… not certain kinds of trite, predictable violence, not anti-heroes, not rigid or arrogant definitions of catharsis or loud, braying declarations of Meaning. Your mileage may vary, as always, but for me, this year, just… no, thank you. Not so much with the chest-thumping and show-boating and the “bravura” turns.

The shows I loved most were well-crafted and smartly executed, but also intimate; they were willing to be a bit messy and quiet and very artfully picked the moments in which they were in your face (wasn’t the world and its problem in our faces enough?). The shows on my lists threaded the needle of the right incidents + the right characters = awesome but left room for emotions that were hard or even impossible to express.  Don’t know about you, but this year I was often like Connell and Marianne on Normal People — unsure of what to say and whether I should be the one to say it, and yet feeling so much.

In a year in which we couldn’t be around each other, having so much emotion vibrating in the quiet spaces between people who found it hard to connect — that somehow just felt right.

Normal People, like How To With John Wilson, like Ted Lasso, like the devastatingly brilliant I May Destroy You, like Better Things, sat with doubt. These shows are all so different from each other, but they all skillfully and intelligently lived within the spaces that hurt and pain and love and frustration and hope can sloppily occupy together. My favorite shows were so often distillations of the ideas that I tried to explore in this essay, which is still my favorite thing I’ve ever written. As I wrote of The Leftovers, “this show makes me feel seen. Because it doesn’t try to solve these core problems. It is a dramatic recognition of the fact that contradiction and collision define us, and may break us (or not).”

This year, I found a bunch of people to explore with, to sit with, to care about, to feel with. In a year that was brutal, they often gave me the antithesis of brutality (while exploring what brutality can do to human beings and why it’s important to find strategies and communities that can help us resist it).

The ways the best shows found to explore these impossible questions… well, they felt right for 2020. There was redemptive, cumulative power in their willingness to let the unspoken linger — to pose questions and embroider ideas, but not necessarily answer heartbreaking, beautiful, terrible questions about risotto and assault and amends and community and success and failure and the breathtaking simplicity of generosity. 

In a year in which my brain and my soul were so tired so much of the time, I’m glad so many shows came at me sideways, subversively or playfully undermining what television “should” be, could be, can be. The kernels of intelligence, love, tolerance and wisdom embedded in these creators’ works — and in all that well-laminated pastry — made 2020 just about tolerable. I’m grateful.

Here are the usual rules about why some shows are not on these lists. It is possible that: 

  • I didn’t have time to get to it.
  • I sampled it and didn’t like it as much as you did.
  • I tried it and strongly disliked it. What were they thinking?
  • I’m a cruel hellbeast determined to bring pain and suffering to the world. (This is probably the reason.)

Without further ado, here is my 2020 TV Top 10 in alphabetical order (and if I’ve written about a show recently, I’ve linked to it below): 

My 2020 TV Top 10

Better Call Saul, AMC

Better Things, FX

BoJack Horseman, Netflix 

Harley Quinn, DC Universe/HBO Max

How To With John Wilson, HBO 

I May Destroy You, HBO 

Normal People, Hulu 

Schitt’s Creek, PopTV

Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

What We Do in the Shadows, FX

There were even more things I loved! Below is a list of very good entities that came across my eyeballs in 2020. What is a movie? What is TV? What is time? Are we alive? I’d puzzle all of that out if I had the mental energy to do so, but I don’t, and you’re probably too brain-fried to do anything but be dazzled by this list of movies, films, documentaries, sandwiches and unicorns that I enjoyed this year. (A note on why the Great Canadian Baking Show is not on either list: None of the episodes we watched this year was made or aired in 2020.)

My Overall Top 40 Things on 2020 Screens 

(* denotes a 2020 Top 10 TV Show)

Beastie Boys Story, Apple TV+

Bee Gees: How Can You Mend a Broken Heart, HBO

*Better Call Saul, AMC 

*Better Things, FX

*BoJack Horseman, Netflix

The Crown, Netflix   

Dave, FX

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow, CW 

Devs, FX

Emma 

Enola Holmes, Netflix 

The Expanse, Amazon 

The 40-Year-Old Version, Netflix 

The GoGos, Showtime 

The Good Place, NBC 

The Good Lord Bird, Showtime 

*Harley Quinn, DC Universe/HBO Max

Hamilton, Disney+

*How To With John Wilson, HBO 

*I May Destroy You, HBO 

The Last Dance, ESPN 

Last Week Tonight With John Oliver, HBO 

Laurel Canyon, Starz

Lucifer, Netflix (and this story too!)

The Magicians, Syfy

The Mandalorian, Disney+

**Mr. Robot

*Normal People, Hulu 

The Old Guard, Netflix 

One Day at a Time, PopTV

Palm Springs, Hulu  

The Plot Against America, HBO 

The Queen’s Gambit, Netflix 

*Schitt’s Creek, PopTV

*Ted Lasso, Apple TV+

Visible: Out on Television, Apple TV+

The Vow, HBO

Warrior, Cinemax

*What We Do in the Shadows, FX  

Wynonna Earp, Syfy

**Yes, Mr Robot, which ended in 2019, is a ringer! I didn’t watch the final season of this show until 2020 (and that is absolutely fine, because linear time doesn’t exist). Anyway, I thought it was really good, with some truly impressive standout episodes. Overall, I thought the show finished strong. Good job, everyone! 

No, I’m not done yet! I will leave you with a few final thoughts:  

Killjoys and Lost Girl: I rewatched both these shows in full in 2020 and not only do I have zero regrets, I may do the whole thing again! If you are looking for truly enjoyable, well-made, quippy and surprisingly deep found-family narratives, get yourself into these shows. You could do a lot worse than losing yourself in the Michelle Lovretta-verse. 

Still here? Want to read more of my work? Do that here! Still love lists? Last year, I published my 101 favorite shows of 2010-2019, which is infallibly correct. Here is my 2018 Best TV List and my 2019 Best TV List.

Be well and thanks for reading! 

‘Slings & Arrows’ Arrives on Acorn: Why You Should Watch

“Slings & Arrows” arrives on Acorn’s streaming service on Monday, Nov. 4, which should be a national holiday in North America, probably.

I wrote about “Slings,” the great Canadian series, twice about a decade ago. The first piece I’m republishing below is from 2008 and is an overview written on the occasion of the show’s DVD box-set release. The second story, from 2007, focuses on the third and final season. Each season is only six episodes long, which may well be a selling point for many folks overwhelmed by #content.

If you’ve never seen the show, you can read the first few paragraphs of the first piece safely. There are a few mild spoilers in these pieces but 1. They shouldn’t interfere with your enjoyment of “Slings” in any way, if the show ends up being your kind of thing and 2. I’ve marked where to stop reading the first piece if you’d rather go in knowing nothing.

You should definitely go in knowing that I love “Slings & Arrows” and that I consider it one of the great unheralded gems of the last couple of decades. It’s lovingly knowing about how hard (and how joyous) it can be to create good art, it’s often quite funny, it’s genuinely moving at times, and it features fine performances from Paul Gross, Rachel McAdams, Luke Kirby, Mark McKinney, Sarah Polley, Colm Feore, Stephen Ouimette, William Hutt, Don McKellar and many others.

A note about its arrival on Acorn: Season 1 arrives Nov. 4, Season 2 shows up Nov. 25 and Season 3 hits the service Dec. 16. And I know there are now approximately eight million streaming services vying for your money, but if you like U.K. TV, consider signing up for Acorn. It’s particularly strong on British TV and, in general, shows in which people wear sweaters while drinking tea or solving crimes (or both).

Acorn’s press release reminds me that New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum called “Slings” “the single best TV show about theater ever made,” and she is correct. That said, it’s about more than just theater; it’s really about why people choose to pursue creative endeavors, despite how hard those paths usually are. “Slings” blends smart satire and humane insight in equal measures, and that is a genuinely hard thing to do. A couple of weeks ago, I tweeted about this Acorn release and the love for the show remains strong.

The below was first published Feb. 5, 2007:

The strike by Hollywood writers may be over soon — and hooray for that. But there’s been one benefit to this otherwise frustrating TV drought — it’s given us a chance to catch up on some worthy programs via DVD. And “Slings & Arrows” may be the ideal viewing choice for these waning days of the strike.

Each season of the Canadian series, which concerns the backstage drama at a Shakespeare theater festival, is only six episodes long, and all three seasons were released in one boxed set by Acorn Media on Feb. 5. The handsome and handy set includes a brand-new disc of extras, but never mind them (the extras aren’t great, though the extended versions of some episodes are a nice plus).

The play’s the thing, or rather the New Burbage Festival’s often-hapless attempts to stage the Bard’s classics — that’s the main attraction. (There’s more on the show here.)

“Slings,” which has given showcases to actors such as Rachel McAdams (“The Notebook”), Sarah Polley (the writer/director of “Away From Her”) and Canadian stage legend William Hutt, is set in New Burbage’s rehearsal spaces, offices and pubs. And no TV show has ever done a better job of demonstrating why otherwise sane people are willing to risk their relationships, their financial health and their sanity, all for the love of the theater.

Those who wrote and performed “Slings” show a palpable love for language and the magic of the stage. And there are fascinating insights into what goes into creating a terrific performance. 

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