The never-ceasing fire hose of new TV is a double-edged sword: It means that even in a pandemic year, when productions were delayed, we were never without new stuff to watch — but it also means it’s all but impossible to keep track of the hidden gems amid the nonstop deluge. Even when you do hear tell of an intriguing new series, chances are good another equally intriguing series will pop up to shove it out of your brain before you’re able to follow up on it.
This is our eternal struggle in Vulture TV Land, where we attempt to keep you apprised of the year’s best televisual offerings as they occur, but some inevitably slip through the cracks. So consider this our makeup exam, a last-ditch effort to illuminate some of the new (or newish) shows that made 2020 a little more bearable, the ones we wish we’d showered more praise on back when they first hit our radars. Thankfully, in the age of streaming, it’s never too late to catch up.
Teenage Bounty Hunters (Netflix)
There are two reasons I feel bad when I miss the boat on a really great TV show. One is the sadness of knowing I could’ve been loving this show this whole time! And I’d been missing out! The other reason is I really, really love throwing a little obsession party for fantastic stuff — I tweet about it too much, I write ridiculously thrilled reviews, I bug all my friends to watch it. That way, if the show gets canceled, at least I know I did my best.
So when it comes to Teenage Bounty Hunters, I am just a smoldering pile of love and admiration and deep, mournful regret. I knew it had been well received earlier this year, and I knew it was abruptly canceled and people were upset. What I did not appreciate until I sat down to watch the first episode a few weeks ago is that Teenage Bounty Hunters is a straight-down-the-line banger, an uncanny and ecstatic intersection of all the things I like best in a TV show. It’s a Georgia noir high-school drama with teen sisters at the helm, like Terriers and Veronica Mars, but passed through the filter of Mandy Moore’s role in the 2004 Evangelical satire movie Saved!
It’s snappy and smart, full of sharp twists and emotional revelations but always true to its primary duo, twin sisters Sterling (Maddie Phillips) and Blair (Anjelica Bette Fellini), and their long-suffering bounty-hunter mentor, Bowser (Kadeem Hardison). It has an immediately distinctive voice that supports rather than distracts from the twisty plotting, something mystery shows always aim for and so, so rarely achieve. It’s so funny, and so legitimately fantastic, and I am just furious at myself for not watching sooner. Yes, it ends with surprises that will make you just as mad as I am that Netflix canceled this show, but don’t use that as an excuse to deny yourself this delight. After all, it’s better to have loved and lost a show about brilliant Evangelical teens who crack jokes about JSTOR and stumble their way into a bounty-hunting side hustle than to have never loved at all. —Kathryn VanArendonk
Work in Progress (Showtime)
Technically half of Work in Progress, the semi-autobiographical Showtime dramedy co-created by, co-written by, and starring Abby McEnany, landed in 2019. But the last four episodes of its first season debuted in January, otherwise known as the month that 2020 forgot. So I say it counts as an overlooked series of the year that is currently, mercifully, ending. I also want to count it because it is a great show that I deeply enjoyed. A moving, generous portrait of Abby (McEnany), a self-described queer dyke with OCD who stumbles into a romantic relationship with Chris, a younger trans man played by Theo Germaine, Work in Progress is observant, moving, and hysterically, darkly funny. In the very first scene, Abby’s therapist dies in the middle of a session, a moment that is mentioned in a running callback joke that somehow gets more hilarious with each episode. Every scene that depicts Abby, Chris, and the members of their social circles is lively and lived in, hitting the kind of organic grace notes that maybe only Better Things is currently able to match. And the last scene in its finale is, to the show’s great credit, an absolute gut punch and one of the best TV endings I saw all year. Thankfully, it’s not the end. A second season of Work in Progress is in progress and will hopefully drop in 2021. — Jen Chaney
While in New York in lockdown, no show has made me long for pre-pandemic New York City like Betty, HBO’s TV-series expansion of the indie movie Skate Kitchen about teenage-girl skateboarders that, if a show could have a taste, tastes like cheap iced coffee on an 80 degree New York summer day. The show’s gaggle of charming heroes — sometimes friends, sometimes at odds, often united against the bros who take control of skate spots — zigzag between boroughs, high on being young and free and usually on several other drugs. The show is honest about the scrapes and sexism that come along the way, but it’s in love with the city, shooting New York as all corner parks and dappled sunlight. It’s a fantasy I’ve never lived but felt as if I missed it deeply. —Jackson McHenry
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
I’d like to put the blame on Apple TV for making me late to the Ted Lasso party. Well, okay, maybe 80 percent of the blame. How about 60 percent? I was led to believe this show was about a bumbling chap from the Midwest who fails upward to a coaching gig across the pond, where he says stuff like “I thought this was American football!” or “Where is the E in Premier League?” I was so stupidly wrong. My apologies to Jason Sudeikis.
I don’t think I’ve ever met a show that has exuded quite as much genuine warmth as Ted Lasso, and, no, I’m not inflating it for a 2020 pandemic scale. Ted is a good, honorable man who always wants to do the good, honorable thing, a concept that I realize has become quite foreign to television in recent years, as shows try to one-up each other with narrative trickery and flights of fancy. Simply, this is a balm for your heart. Because who wouldn’t want to sit down and watch Sudeikis’s mustachioed coach enjoy a nightly shortbread-baking ritual? Or handpick works of literature for all of his players to read? Or come up with a bizarre free kick that’s destined to be re-created by one of the Manchester teams next season? There’s a quote that I quite like from the show’s season finale: “It’s the hope that kills you.” For me, that now means the idea of more shows embracing Ted Lasso’s spirit in the future. —Devon Ivie
Haikyuu!! is a shōnen series, which means, quite literally, that it’s a teenage-boy show about high-school volleyball. The fourth season began airing earlier this year (the first two seasons are on Netflix, and all of it is on Crunchyroll) and fills the void left by an Olympic-less year. The protagonist, Hinata Shōyō, is pure motivation — a borderline-annoying freshman who makes up for his height with enthusiasm and a killer vertical. True to the genre, Haikyuu!! is extremely nerdy when it comes to explaining the mechanics of the game: A single match can stretch out over multiple episodes. Every point becomes a battle, every position crucial. This is volleyball as a crucible that reveals both character and mettle, life philosophy and social theory. Haikyuu!! just loves volleyball so much, and now I do, too. —E. Alex Jung
Travel-based television took on a new tenor in a year when most people weren’t traveling, as did food-based television in a year when more and more people found themselves cooking in their homes instead of going to restaurants. For those reasons, Taste the Nation feels both out of time and incredibly of the moment, as the ever-charismatic Padma Lakshmi travels a pre-pandemic U.S.A. to explore its different cultural culinary centers. The series is predicated on the idea that America’s food traditions have been shaped by the different immigrant populations who’ve made their way to this country over the centuries (and, in one notable outlier episode, the Native populations whose traditions were all but obliterated by colonizers), with one central Americanized dish — burritos, chop suey, pad Thai, kebab, etc. — providing the basis for an exploration of immigrant experiences past and present in a country that routinely neglects to consider the deeper cultural and historical context of the food on its plates. —Genevieve Koski
Ultimate Tag (Fox)
Like the bastard love child of American Gladiators and a local laser-tag competition, Fox’s Ultimate Tag was the epitome of summer reality programming. Cheap, gimmicky competition shows are nothing new for the Big Four broadcast networks. But while those are either enjoyable because of goofy stunts (ABC’s Wipeout and Holey Moley) or impressive feats of athleticism (NBC’s American Ninja Warrior), Ultimate Tag blends the two, with goofy stunts performed by impressive athletes.
Hosted by football brothers J.J., T.J., and Derek Watt (whom I still could not pick out of a lineup if you held a gun to my head), Ultimate Tag tasks contestants with navigating obstacle courses while being chased by “professional taggers.” Those taggers, mostly parkour athletes and/or stunt performers, are identified by WWE-heel-meets-Saturday-morning-cartoon personas like Atomic Ant (who’s very small), the Geek (who wears glasses), or the Flow (who’s just, like, really fast, I guess). Half of the appeal of Ultimate Tag is in choosing a favorite tagger (mine is Banshee, played by Black Panther stuntwoman Carrie Bernans) and watching them dominate. The other half is that the contestants and the taggers genuinely look like they’re having a blast — and that shit’s infectious. When I watch American Ninja Warrior, as cool as it is to watch people fling themselves across uneven monkey bars, I don’t think, I’d sure like to try climbing the warped wall. But watching Ultimate Tag did make me want to play tag in a giant neon maze. —Emily Heller
Year of the Rabbit (IFC)
Set in a surreal version of Victorian London where street urchins sell fog in jars, this crime comedy stars Vulture’s beloved Matt Berry. But this is one of the few Berry projects so rich with great performances that he’s oftentimes the show’s most grounded force. His hardened, drunken Inspector Rabbit has a working-class sensibility that suffers no fools, least of all his fancy college-boy partner, Strauss — played adorably by Freddie Fox — who seems to hope this will all turn into a Pride & Prejudice remake soon. Rounding out their trio is Susan Wokoma, who absolutely steals the show as Mabel Wisbech, London’s wannabe first female police officer (or “lady filth.”) There doesn’t need to be more, but somehow there is: David Dawson offers us a proudly theatrical Elephant Man that deserves his own series, Paul Kaye saunters around this thing like the villain he was clearly born to play, and Keeley Hawes is officially allowed to murder me. And just when you think it can’t get any better, Sally Phillips shows up with an accent. It’s not a standard police procedural, leaning more into noir territory as the bigger mystery, and a reckoning with Rabbit’s past, comes together over the course of a riveting but short six-episode season. Overall, it’s an embarrassment of riches that makes a perfect escapist comedy for your winter quarantine blues. It arrived in America on IFC in February but seems to now be available only through Amazon. —Anne Clark
Selling Sunset (Netflix)
This was the perfect year to add another reality show (or three) to your rotation, and few are as built for bingeing as Netflix’s Selling Sunset. Sure, it technically premiered in March 2019, but the show took off running on cue with our empty summer, with dual seasons in May and August of this year. Once you had your opinions set on the Oppenheim Group’s cast of high-dollar realtors, you could sit back, watch the drama unfold, and take sides on everything from workplace backstabbing to snubbed wedding invites. And with a cast as easy to love (and love to hate) as the Oppenheim Group, you’ll find yourself developing opinions on every little exchange. But the fights, of course, are only part of the appeal of Selling Sunset. What really makes it such a digestible show is blending that with walk-throughs of wildly luxurious homes, classy L.A. parties, and even the occasional D-list-celebrity cameo. Selling Sunset packs more of a dramatic punch than most other real-estate shows, too — even if you’ve never flipped to Bravo or TLC, the second half of season three could turn you into a reality-head, with story lines that outdo most writers’ rooms. (We won’t spoil you, but a little “Chrishell Stause Justin Hartley” Google search could.) Leave it to the Oppenheim Group girls to make the sale. —Justin Curto