Locked down with nothing to do except watch tv–reading and being productive were beyond my mental capacity for most of 2020–I, like most of us self-isolating at home, spent a lot of last year binging tv shows.
I definitely appreciated the distraction great tv provided me from my usual activities of panic-checking Covid-19 numbers and reading disinformation-filled, ignorant, and hate-laced comments on news publications (repeat after me: never read the comments).
I’m forever grateful for the ability to shelter in place for most of last year. And now, moving from one hard-lockdown to another (and yet a another– hello “mega” restrictions!) if the greatest thing I can contribute to stopping the spread of a global pandemic is to stay at home, I’m definitely your girl.
A few honorable mentions before I get into my top fives:
- For All Mankind (Apple TV+): I love alternative realities (I’m officially a Sliding Doors-stan) so I was intrigued by the plot of For All Mankind: What would have happened if the Soviets had reached the moon before the Americans? A friendly reminder that the space race was never about humanity or exploration, but “proving” the might of the United States over the Soviet Union. Worth a watch.
- Dave (Hulu): The Hulu series starring Lil Dicky is an unexpectedly damn good show. Of course there’s a ton of penis jokes, but a genuine plot and great character development–especially the friendship between Dave and GaTa–lies beyond the dick humor. Episode two (“Dave’s First”) has one of my favorite celebrity cameos of all time.
- The Good Place (Netflix, Season 4): The series finale of The Good Place–“Whenever You’re Ready”–is one of the most beautiful episodes of any tv show, ever. As Vulture noted:
“The final ten minutes or so of the final The Good Place really brings home one big thing this show has been about: how important it is to understand and appreciate each other’s stories, while trying to be a positive influence on how they go.”Murray, Noel. 2020. “The Good Place Series-Finale Recap: The Good-bye Place.” Vulture. Available here.
The characters choosing to leave the Good Place for the beyond had me sobbing alone on my couch. A perfect ending for the show and also a reminder to find joy in the small things.
Let’s get into it.
Here are my favorite TV shows (in order) of 2020:
Never Have I Ever (Netflix):
Never Have I Ever is an incredibly sweet and funny show centering on Devi Vishwakumar (played wonderfully by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) and her life as a nerdy high school sophomore attempting to have sex with the class hottie, “Jake Ryan vibes” Paxton. I loved the family aspects of the show the best, with so much sincerity between Devi, her mom, and her cousin. Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever was a lovely break from the world that gave me faith in humanity once again.
- Favorite Episode: “Never Have I Ever… Felt Super Indian.”
Dash + Lily (Netflix):
I am absolutely not a fan of the cheesy Hallmark holiday movies (alarming considering I adore the tacky-af Fast and the Furious franchise) so I was skeptical when Dash + Lily popped up on my Netflix homepage. Hooked ten minutes into the first episode, I adored this charming take on a holiday romantic comedy. Set around The Strand bookstore (🤍), the plot follows a love story between high schoolers Dash and Lily and is just delightful, lovely, and perfect for a weekend at home on the couch.
- Favorite Episode: “Dash”
High Fidelity (Unjustly the Only Season):
The remake we are HERE FOR, High Fidelity stars the incredible (and so fucking cool) Zoë Kravitz as Rob, the self-absorbed record store owner, as she struggles with overcoming the breakup with her ex-fiancé. Obsessing over her top-five lists (clearly a passion I can identify with), the show follows Rob’s romantic misadventures as she continues to self-destruct throughout the ten episodes. Kravitz is stunning in that you both empathize with her but at the same time annoyed at her egotistical and immature choices.
Cherise, played exquisitely by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, is such a highlight that I hope they give this character her own spinoff. The soundtrack–how can I not love a show that consistently plays Prince, David Bowie, and has a “Come On Eileen” dance party–is incredible; High Fidelity is worth a watch for the music choices alone. One of the best episodes stars Parker Posey–in a scene cut from the 2000 film–who sells her husband’s extensive record collections a revenge for his cheating ways (originally Beverly D’Angelo played this role in the movie; truly there is no justice in the world that we can’t watch the scene). This was one of my favorite episodes of any season this year.
- Favorite Episode: “Uptown”
The Great (Hulu):
This absolutely delightful and hilarious interpretation of Catherine the Great’s reign was (far and away) one of my favorite shows of 2020. A dark comedy, the series centers on the “occasionally true story” of Peter III (played magnificently by Nicholas Hoult) and his wife Catherine (the incomparable Elle Fanning) in 18th century Russia. The series builds around the idea that Peter is actually the fucking worst and Catherine, although Austrian, would be a much better leader for the country (no spoilers here, but in actual life, she was).
One of my favorite exchanges between the couple:
Peter III of Russia: I don’t want to kill you. You’re not a bad person.Episode Three: “‘You Sir, are No Peter the Great'”
Catherine the Great: I could kill you. You are a bad person.
The seventh episode takes on smallpox inoculation and alarmingly (albeit, not surprisingly) demonstrates just how politics can interfere with actual science. In a time where conspiracy theories surrounding a global pandemic and disinformation runs rampant through social media, Catherine’s choice to inoculate herself while Peter bans the practice hit way too close to home. Belinda Bromilow, who plays Peter’s batty Aunt Elizabeth, is an absolute highlight of the show (I put my favorite gifs of her at the end of the post). Just watch The Great.
- Favorite Episode: “Meatballs at the Dacha”
Schitt’s Creek: (CBC Television, Season 6):
Schitt’s Creek is perfect. The show is perfect. The season is perfect. The finale is perfect. I can’t be swayed otherwise. I actually put off watching the final three episodes because I knew how sad I’d be for the show to end. The entire cast, but especially Catherine O’Hara, Dan Levy, Eugene Levy, and Annie Murphy, (who all won Emmys for their roles) are just so engaging and wonderful that its hard to not root for this family–even if they can be insufferable at times–to win. Patrick and David’s relationship is central to the show and demonstrates that a queer couple can be positively represented and not end in a tragic way:
“Speaking at a cast roundtable, Levy said, ‘We learn by what we watch. And even if you’re presenting someone who puts out that energy, there is someone who will watch that and side with it’.Connolly, Kelly. 2020. “Schitt’s Creek Captures the Unexpected Joy of Being Seen.” TV Guide. Available here.
As long as homophobia persists, there will still be TV shows dismantling it, but too many shows don’t know any other way to find drama in LGBTQ stories. In relegating bigotry to the shadows, Schitt’s Creek leaves room to focus on the interior lives of all its characters, regardless of their sexuality, which does more to humanize those characters and make their experiences real. ‘If you take the hate out,’ Levy said, ‘if you take the rules that are dictating who you can love, how you can love them, what kind of people are good people, what kind of people are bad people, you’re only left with joy, which can only have an enlightening effect on whoever’s watching it.'”
How can you not absolutely adore a show that includes Catherine O’Hara in this season finale outfit:
- Favorite Episode: “Moira Rosé”
Lovecraft Country (HBO):
For me, the main argument of Lovecraft Country is that actual people are way more terrifying than any monster. A perfect combination of my and Chris’s favorite genres–sci-fi, social justice, historical drama–we started the HBO series when we moved but had to pause until all the episodes were released because we couldn’t wait a week for the next show. This absolutely gorgeous and at times, horrifying, series centers on the story of Atticus, a Korean War veteran, as he returns to the United States and discovers his familial connections to an area known as Lovecraft Country. Each plotline aligns with stories of real-life racial injustice including references to J. Marion Sims, the lynching of Emmitt Till, and the Tulsa race massacre; these horrific acts run parallel to the science fiction magic and monsters of the show. For me, the strength of the series falls on the actresses, particularly Wunmi Mosaku, Aunjanue Ellis, and Jurnee Smollett. Despite the nightmare fuel of many of the scenes (hi, race-switching Ruby) I genuinely enjoyed this interesting rendition of the book written by H.P. Lovecraft, himself a staunch white supremacist.
- Favorite Episode: “I Am.” ( Me: “GIVE ME HIPPOLYTA! PUT IT ON A T-SHIRT”)
Ozark (Netflix, Season 3):
I need a nap. That’s my main reaction after watching the season finale of Netflix’s Ozark. The tumultuous drama centering around Marty and Wendy Bryde (Laura Linney, always incredible, is IT in this season) as they attempt to continue to survive as money launders in a small town. Wendy is continuously pushing forward as Marty conservatively holds back, scared of becoming even more entangled with the drug cartel. The introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey, in a holy shit performance) as he immediately entangles himself into the family, community, and illegal operation is, for me, the best and most agonizing aspect of the season. Wendy and Ben’s diner scene is so incredibly brutal and heartbreaking that I don’t know if I’ve even emotionally recovered from it.
Julia Garner (Ruth) deserves more credit as she continuously plays this difficult role with such intensity, rawness, and strength. This was her best season in a series that she has consistently been one of the greatest aspects of.
- Favorite Episode: “Fire Pink”
The Plot Against America (HBO):
Who is “really” American? One of the first shows I watched in 2020, The Plot Against America was also one of my favorites of the year. Adapted from the 2004 novel by Philip Roth, the story tells the alternative reality of Charles Lindbergh winning the presidency over FDR in 1940. Based in New Jersey, the show focuses on the Levins, a Jewish family, as the Lindbergh presidency becomes increasingly xenophobic and fascism proliferates throughout the country. The rise of a dictator at the expense of marginalizing and demonizing people–specifically Jewish populations here–starts slowly, and hate casually grows and becomes more accepted; there is no “battle” among waring factions here, the actions stemming from that xenophobia is rationalized over dinner tables, in the streets, and in the legislation passed to “Americanize” Jewish children. The show builds slowly (The Handmaid’s Tale vibes) and ends with a brutally suspenseful finale. Zoe Kazan (Elizabeth), Morgan Spector (Herman), Winona Ryder (Evelyn) and especially Jon Turturro (Rabbi Lionel Bengelsdorf) are superb.
The podcast hosted by Peter Sagal and show creator David Simon is great and I highly recommend listening to the recaps following each episode.
- Favorite Episode: “Part 4”
Better Call Saul (Netflix, Season 5):
One of the best dramas on television, Better Call Saul has historically exceeded expectations each season, but oooooh season five is, I believe, absolutely iconic. Due to Breaking Bad, we know what happens to Saul Goodman and many of the other characters in the show, but the buildup to that is so magnificently well done in this season that you feel both shocked and uneasy at the end of every episode. Of course, Bob Odenkirk, Jonathan Banks, and Giancarlo Esposito are amazing–particularly Odenkirk, who just embodies Jimmy so well–but it is Rhea Seehorn (Kim Wexler) that steals this season. Kim, the one who always “pulls Jimmy back” when he goes too far, who built her career from nothing and is in this position because of her incredible work ethic, is potentially transitioning further to the legal-ish side of the law. While she’s demonstrated that her con-(wo)man skills are at times better and more conniving than even Jimmy throughout the seasons, here she stands up to the cartel and contemplates going further than she ever has as retribution for the resentment felt from years of men who easily received the same things that nearly killed her to achieve. The impeccable delivery by Seehorn in the season finale was one of my favorites of the year.
Jimmy: “We’re not talking about a bar trick here. We’re talking about scorched earth. We would have to hurt him. Hurt him bad. To get a bunch of lawyers to run for the exits Howard would have to have done something unforgivable. At the end of it he might never be able to practice law again… you would not be okay with it. Not in the cold light of day.”Episode 10: “Something Unforgivable”
Kim: “Wouldn’t I?”
- Favorite Episode: “Something Unforgivable”
Mrs. America (Hulu):
Phew, Mrs. America. I know there are some issues with the show, but for me, this was one of the best of the year. A friend halfway through the miniseries said to me: “wow its crazy how much shit the equal amendment had to go through before it was passed.” I didn’t have the heart to tell her that the ERA actually failed to ever be codified. The Hulu show featuring a number of wonderful actresses, centering around Phyllis Schlafly, the driving force behind the undoing of the ERA ratification in the 1970s. Played by the always flawless Cate Blanchett, Phyllis turns to undermining the second wave of feminism after she’s dismissed by political representatives in a meeting where she hoped to contribute to the conversation of dissuading Nixon from the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks. With a background in nuclear politics, Schlafly is told to take notes, largely ignored on the subject in which she is actually very knowledgeable in, and instead is only acknowledged as a (semi) part of the political conversation when talks turn to the ERA. For her, the only way to be taken seriously is to align herself with the same men who just seconds earlier dismissed her because she was a woman. Phyllis chooses to argue against the equal protection of women in the United States and notes that, “some women like to blame sexism for their failures instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough” much to the agreement of the men in the room.
I won’t go into all of the political arguments for both sides, but the show does a great job depicting the competing agendas of women at the time: ardent feminists who still trivialize their Black counterparts’ experiences and Schlafly’s absolutely ironic position of activist among her army of housewives. When Jill Ruckleshaus, a conservative pro-ERA activist, tells Schlafly, “You want to get ahead climbing on the shoulders of men, Phyllis, fine. Just know, they are looking up your skirt” she is essentially summarizing the entire fight by Phyllis to be taken seriously by her male counterparts. After Phyllis helps Reagan win the election, she is expecting some kind of appointment or at least a consulting role in her field, but is left in the same position as she was in the original first scene of the series: at her kitchen table, desiring for a place at the table. Even after all she did to extend the arm of the patriarchy, she was dismissed as easily as Shirley Chisholm and the other women she viewed as the enemy by those in power fighting to maintain the hierarchy and their position at the top.
The finale left me sobbing for just how far we still have to go for gender equality in the United States.
“What we’re trying to say with the series is that when you are complicit in the oppression of women, it doesn’t ultimately help you when you align yourself with the patriarchy. [If you’re] protecting white male patriarchy and you’re a woman, ultimately you also lose.”Bentley, Jean. 2020. “The ‘Mrs. America’ Finale was Always Going to be a Tragedy.” The Hollywood Reporter. Available here.
Uzo Aduba is absolutely brilliant as Shirley Chisholm and in a cast of amazing women, my favorite role of the show.
- Favorite Episode: “Shirley”
Non-Fiction / Documentary Series:
The Netflix documentary series on the cheerleaders of Navarro College is both intense and heartbreaking. Following a number of cheerleaders focusing on making the team and also bringing home a national championship, one thing I love about the show is that it–at times brutally–shows the amount of work and pain that these athletes suffer for their sport. I found myself cringing and hiding my face at a number of the horrific injuries; form is a huge issue in cheerleading and most athletes are merely chucking their skills because they can, not because they can well. Landing in deep squats, suffering concussions, twisting into the ground, falling face-first, arm-first, chest-first onto the floor (let’s be real a mat on top of a basketball court offers little support) proves how tough these athletes are, although I was constantly wondering why it needed to be that way. The percentage of injuries on the Navarro squad are alarming. Don’t forget that cheerleading falls under the National Cheerleaders Association, not the NCAA, and therefore an alarmingly lack of safety rules and procedures.
One of the storylines of the series follows the increasingly yikes relationship between the athletes and their coach, Monica Aldama. For many of these students, she is the first positive influence in their lives, a person who demands the best out of them, and gives her all in return. However, this blind dedication is mostly cringe-worthy. When a number of girls continually suffer concussions, they are told to sit at home in the dark. Rather than question the number of injuries and the impact this is having on her athletes’ mental and physical well-being, Aldama merely replaces the injured girl with the next one. The desperation to not disappoint their “mom” leaves many athletes willing to sacrifice anything, and rather than discourage that behavior, Aldama embraces it. I found myself more relieved at the end of each episode that everyone survived, rather than hoping for them to win. Cheer is a series that should have you thinking about athlete safety and despotic coaching. Oh, and also that argument made by a history professor on how Tex-Mex is “a way better version of Mexican food” among other terrible ideas.
- Favorite Episode: “God Blessed Texas”
Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered: The Last Children (HBO):
While there are issues with HBO’s Atlanta’s Missing & Murdered: The Lost Children, I thought the miniseries did a great job conveying the absolutely horrifying two year experience of the Black community in Atlanta and how the work of grassroots organizers pushed the police to take the murders of 29 children and adults seriously. The series takes on whether Wayne Williams, who was convicted of one murder and therefore the rest of the cases were closed, is actually the perpetrator of all of the deaths during that time period. Camille Bell, whose son was nine years old when he was murdered, does not believe Williams committed all of the crimes. The footage used in the series shows her dignity and dedication to finding justice; the organization she formed, the Committee to Stop Children’s Murders, struggled to be taken seriously by local police but she continued to persevere even in the face of both sexism and racism. The show also introduces the very real possibility that many of the crimes could have been committed–and at least were in fact praised by–the Ku Klux Klan.
Similarly to OJ: Made in America, context is everything, And this series does a decent job describing the cultural and political setting of the city leading up to the first murder in 1979. This show depicts, again, how Black women are not taken seriously. While Williams was convicted, most of the evidence is circumstantial; the police believe he was responsible for the other murders, including the deaths of 13 children. However, for many in the Black community-including Bell– this was not justice served.
- Favorite Episode: “Part Four”
The Ripper (Netflix):
The Ripper is less about the man who committed the brutal murders of 13 women in the 1970s and more about the victims themselves. Too often true crime centers around the killer, elevating them to a level of celebrity–John Wayne Gacy, Ted Bundy, etc. etc.–rather than truly understanding the lives of the people murdered. This Netflix series doesn’t even introduce Peter William Coonan until the final episode and instead focuses on the gender bias of police officers and investigators in the deaths of his victims. Framing each murder as due to a “hatred of prostitution”. police are only mildly driven to find the now serial killer only when he takes the life of an “innocent”. As if sex workers don’t deserve justice too? Even the first victim, Wilma McCann, who was bludgeoned to death, was seen as merely a “divorcee prostitute”; after leaving her alcoholic and abusive husband, McCann was struggling in an economy with few jobs available to earn enough money for her and her children to survive.
The hell that unfolds is not only the unchecked string of murders committed by Coonan, but the response by law enforcement. Officers failed to listen to victims or even include attacks that met his MO into the case if the women weren’t seen as sex workers. Unable to end his killing spree, police implement a curfew for women rather than the men in Yorkshire, leading to a number of Reclaim the Night marches where women asserted their right to walking alone at night, same as any man. The focus here on the women–not just the victims, but the journalists too–are what set this documentary series apart from other true crime series.
“This idea of the prostitute killer was absolutely at the heart of the police theory. They are imposing this identity on the victims because it fits their idea of the case. I thought: ‘how can a police force, which is so full of horrible judgements about dead women, possibly understand this kind of killer and identify him?'”Joan Smith, Episode Three
Favorite Episode: “Reclaim the Night”
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO):
Michelle McNamara’s haunting and tragic I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is one of my favorite books of all time. The HBO series on McNamara’s pursuit of the Golden State Killer, along with her struggle with finishing the book, is absolutely one of the best miniseries of 2020. Spending years as an “amateur investigator”, it was McNamara who first coined the name for one of California’s most prolific serial rapists and killers– the Golden State Killer. This obsession with discovering his identity ultimately led to her own death as she passed away due to a lethal combination of prescription drugs used to help her sleep, stay awake, and stay focused.
Michelle herself took a great deal of time and effort in speaking to and understanding the victims of the Golden State Killer. Many survivors and family members of the deceased only spoke to her. She also successfully predicted how the former police officer would be caught–through at-home family member DNA tests–although she didn’t live to see the arrest of Joseph James DeAngelo. The miniseries touches on a number of aspects of her life including the struggle with her mother, her own insecurities, and the death of her father, along with ways victims of sexual assault are treated and continue to struggle.
- Favorite Episode: “Rat in a Maze”
Taste the Nation (Hulu):
I absolutely love Padma Lakshmi’s Taste the Nation. Asking the question “what is American food anyway?” she explores a number of different regions in the United States searching for the stories behind the dishes. An immigrant herself, her exhaustive search to understand the idea of “American food” leads Padma to deconstruct the notion of what it means to eat in America.
Thai women who married American soldiers, German immigrants in Milwaukee, her own mother’s decision to bring Indian cuisine to the United States, are just a few examples of how the idea of “American food” is not merely based in “America”. The line between assimilation and survival is thin; the episode on tacos at the American / Mexican border shows how tricky and delicate the issue between who (and what) defines not just our food, but people, as “American” matters. War, colonization, and legislation have shaped the food we eat and the people who plant / pick / process / cook it. There are politics in every plate, regardless if we want to acknowledge that or not when we pick up our fork.
For me, the heart of the series is in the the episodes on communities that did not willingly immigrate to the United States or were here prior to colonization: the Gullah Geechee and the Navajo. Cooking with chefs Michael Twitty and BJ Dennis in the heart of South Carolina was amazing to see; the descendants of enslaved people forcibly brought to America, the cuisine of the Gullah Geechee has survived due to the sheer strength and fortitude of their people. Similarly to the Gullah Geechee episode, which not only connects the historical and cultural context of place to current issues of climate change and environmental racism, the Navajo episode echoes similar struggles with an added twist: as indigenous to the United States, shouldn’t Navajo food be “American food”? And yet, how many of us know, understand, or even appreciate their dishes? Food sovereignty, decolonization, and fighting for the survival of culture are at the heart of the series.
“When you scratch the surface, everybody’s story is compelling. All you have to do is listen.”— Padma Lakshmi
- Favorite Episode(s): “The Gullah Way” and “The Original Americans”
If you made it this far, please enjoy this gem of a character:
Reading: How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy (Jenny Odell)
Watching: WandaVision (Disney+)
Eating: Meryl’s Baked Banana Bread Oatmeal (here)