Even as a worldwide pandemic brought most productions to a screeching halt this spring, TV land has continued to expand its borders at a pace that’s all but impossible for the average viewer to keep up with. But fear not, because Vulture TV critics Jen Chaney, Kathryn VanArendonk, and Angelica Jade Bastién are here to help guide the way, pointing out the brightest of the bright spots as we journey together through the labyrinthine landscape that is television in the year 2020.
A note about our selection methodology: Nonfiction and scripted series are both eligible, but because the focus is on this calendar year, seasons that debuted in 2019 were ruled out if more than half of the episodes debuted prior to January 1, with exceptions made for notable series finales. All shows are presented in alphabetical order.
Babylon Berlin (Netflix)
In its third season, the German-language series Babylon Berlin has shifted just a little closer to cultural collapse. It’s a show about the Weimar period in German history, and the looming awareness of economic catastrophe and the rise of the Nazi party inches closer and closer as the show progresses. But Babylon Berlin is somehow the strangest, most tense, most artful version of “eventually there will be Nazis” you can imagine. Part noir, part psychological examination, and part Cabaret-esque genderqueer musical performance (!), Babylon Berlin is hands down one of the best and most beautiful shows this year.
One of the best TV surprises this year, the Netflix adaptation of the much-loved middle-grade book series The Baby-Sitters Club is kind of a TV miracle. It manages to be sweet, funny, very sincere, and often special-topic driven in the way that kids’ TV tends to be — it is completely age-appropriate for its ideal preteen audience. At the same time, the show is absolutely charming and even poignant viewing for, say, a mid-30s TV critic who read and loved the original series and was very fearful that a new TV adaptation would ruin it. There are a lot of reasons The Baby-Sitters Club works. It has a fantastic cast, it smartly adapts the parent characters, and it has no fear of directness. But it also doesn’t mistake directness for simplicity, or pretend that it needs to water down the complexity of hard things for its young audience. It’s a beautiful show, and it deserves to be seen by a much wider audience than its original source material might suggest.
The fifth and penultimate season of the Breaking Bad prequel continued to operate at a high level in terms of writing, directing, and acting. But it also zippered together the storylines that have run on semi-separate tracks for much of the series, one involving Mike, Gus, the Salamancas, and drug cartel politics, the other involving Jimmy, Kim, and their professional and personal relationships. By the end of the season, not only was the stage set for a tense final act, but the antihero drama was given new life thanks to the arc involving the unpredictable Kim Wexler. (P.S. Please nominate Rhea Seehorn for an Emmy, for God’s sake.)
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
One of the best shows of the past decade came to a close by aggressively wrestling with its central issue: what it means to be a man who holds himself accountable for his actions and what it means to be a TV show attempting to address toxic masculinity. It did all of that in signature BoJack fashion: with sharp Hollywood satire; inventive storytelling that took its audience to unexpected places, including a near-death experience; animation that plants hilarious treasures in every frame; and an honest, semi-optimistic conclusion that sidesteps the instinct to tie up everything with a perfect bow.
It’s rare for a docuseries to become the show of the moment, especially one that doesn’t focus on already well-known, newsworthy topics. But at the beginning of 2020, Netflix’s show about the cheerleaders of Navarro College became a phenomenon. Like the creators’ previous show Last Chance U, Cheer follows several young college athletes as they prepare for their annual national championship, weaving together an arc that includes their life stories, their relationships, the mentorship of their coach, and the specific punishing details of being the absolute best at what they do. As a look at a highly specialized sport, it’s a great show. As a series of portraits, especially of Jerry Harris, La’Darius Marshall, and Lexi Brumback, Cheer is easily among the best of the year.
Dare Me (USA)
Dare Me, the USA show run by Gina Fattore and novelist Megan Abbott, whose novel provides the basis for the series, is a potent, trenchant exploration of spiky female friendship, the emotional complications of small-town America, and the glory and pitfalls of heeding desire above all else. Told through a distinctly noir lens, Dare Me concerns the overheated lives of a group of cheerleaders whose careful equilibrium is disrupted by the entrance of a new coach in the form of the slippery, accomplished Colette French (a beguiling Willa Fitzgerald). This is especially true for the controlling firecracker, head cheerleader Beth Cassidy (Marlo Kelly) and the yearning Addy Hanlon (Herizen Guardiola), whose story anchors the series. The show boasts fine-tuned writing and bold performances from Kelly and Guardiola that further illuminate the complex dynamics of race and sisterhood that undergird the series.
Dead to Me (Netflix)
If you thought the first season of this dramedy about suburban mom Jen (Christina Applegate) and her unusual friendship with Judy (Linda Cardellini) was cliffhanger heavy, well, get a load of season two. The death of a major character at the end of season one sets the stage for more suspense, mystery, and yes, comedy that gets progressively over-the-top in a very bingeable way, but miraculously remains grounded thanks to the performances of its excellent leads.
A political convention is not normally must-see television. In a year when conventions can’t be held under traditional circumstances and the Democrats took theirs entirely online, it seemed like that would be even more true than usual. But the DNC upended that notion by presenting a well-produced event filled with speeches that, via their direct deliveries to camera, often in tight one-shots, seemed more urgent and intimate. These were calls to action directed not just to America writ large, but to you, the specific American watching the convention. The format may have been forced upon the production by the pandemic, but it also matched the gravity of the moment. This election season is bound to keep getting uglier with every day that passes, so when you need a quick shot of optimism, consider rewatching some of the DNC, streaming on Hulu and on YouTube, for a reminder of what democracy looks like.
The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
Is there anything better than TV that feels ludicrously unafraid? In the case of The Good Fight, that fearlessness had already taken on political dimensions in its first three seasons. A whole episode about the Trump pee tape? Poking the corporate overlords on Chinese censorship? In addition to its politics, though, The Good Fight has always been simultaneously unafraid about itself. It’ll try plots that seem impossible and strange metafictional twists that should be just silly. It’s a show that throws itself off a cliff every other episode, and that’s a really hard kind of storytelling to sustain. Yet somehow, it’s just as daring and weird and thrilling in its fourth season, and if anything, has only grown smarter and more tightly wound with time. Sadly the production of this fourth season was interrupted by the coronavirus, but going by what was produced so far, the series is as good as it’s ever been.
The Good Place came to a close with a triumphant, moving episode of television that houses what the show does best: gentle, absurd humor; moments predicated on emotional openness; arguments about the possibility of goodness in human beings. “Whenever You’re Ready” boasts particularly moving dynamics between Chidi (William Jackson Harper) and Eleanor (Kristen Bell) as he decides to walk through the door that ends his existence, having felt a sense of peace and completion long before Eleanor is ready to. Even if their relationship occasionally sidetracked the series during its run, the finale, written and directed by Michael Schur, burnishes it with feeling and demonstrates just how far these characters have come. But it’s not just Eleanor and Chidi — every character gets a moment that highlights their growth, their voice, and their humor without pandering to the audience, giving us a bittersweet, teary-eyed send-off that beautifully encapsulates why this was one of the best shows on television.
Harley Quinn: The Animated Series (DC Universe)
Harley Quinn: The Animated Series — which follows its titular figure of mayhem and colorful mischief in the wake of her breakup with the Joker, as she charts a new path in life as her own villain — is the perfect blend of pathos and raucous humor. Its recently wrapped second season cements it as one of TV’s most uproarious and engaging superhero adaptations, one with a distinct voice, an assured handling of tonalities, and a willingness to play viciously with the canon. Harley Quinn has many pleasures: Its voice acting perfectly captures the distinctive characters, with Giancarlo Esposito as Lex Luthor and Diedrich Bader as Batman being particular highlights; the character design is eye-catching; the narrative is bawdy and heartfelt in equal measure; characters curse and inflict violence with abandon. The show also isn’t afraid to lovingly make fun of Batman while carving its own bloody path, which includes exploring with panache the dynamic between Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and Poison Ivy (Lake Bell). It’s easy to be overcome by the show’s aesthetic, sonic, and narrative swagger — I mean, there’s a cursing plant named Frank, and beloved Batman rogues sometimes die! (This show has real stakes, unlike so many superhero adaptations.) But what’s most special about Harley Quinn is its sneaky way of finding profound things to say about trauma, healing, and the nature of what it means to be a good person in a chaotic world.
High Fidelity (Hulu)
A story we’ve read before and seen on film before is infused with fresh oxygen thanks to the decision to cast Zoë Kravitz, also an executive producer, in the role of Rob, the record-store-owning, music-obsessed, commitment-phobic protagonist of this laid-back character study. Instead of being a dude’s story, suddenly High Fidelity, which borrows the same structure, plot, and even some of the same dialogue from Nick Hornby’s original novel, is about a woman with both male and female exes in her past. That fact both changes nothing — in this Hulu iteration, as in previous ones, High Fidelity remains immensely entertaining — and it changes everything by making this romantic dramedy more universal and contemporary.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO)
This account of late author Michelle McNamara’s investigation of the serial rapist and murderer she dubbed the Golden State Killer is so much more than a true-crime series. Yes, it delves deeply into the string of heinous acts committed in the 1970s and ’80s across California by a man who evaded detection for decades. But it also chronicles McNamara’s obsession with the case while forcing those watching to consider the roots of their own fixation on true crime. Under the supervision of director Liz Garbus, there are moments in I’ll Be Gone in the Dark of shiver-inducing, David Lynchian horror. But just as McNamara did, the series always treats the victims of the Golden State Killer as multidimensional human beings deserving of sensitivity and respect.
I May Destroy You (HBO)
I May Destroy You is, simply put, a revelation. The 30-minute series defies conventions and limitations of the form, moving from the sardonic to the piercingly dramatic with ease. It follows Arabella (writer/director/star of the highest magnitude Michaela Coel), a writer working on her second book, whose drink is spiked and is subsequently raped by a stranger, whom she later tries to investigate by piecing together her fractured memories. This synopsis underscores the heaviness of the series, but it’s much more than a story about consent and sexual assault. It’s a bold, ambitious, visually daring and sonically sharp piece of television that cements Coel as a genius. As the show charts Arabella’s journey alongside those of her close friends, who also deal with issues of consent and desire, it forms a bold treatise on the stories we tell ourselves in the aftermath of great trauma.
This coming-of-age series, picked up by Hulu from the BBC, focuses on a teenage girl living the most heartbreaking of lies. Bethan, portrayed by Gabrielle Creevy in a winning breakout performance, carries the burden of being the grown-up in her dysfunctional household, where her father is perpetually drunk and her mother struggles with bipolar disorder. But she hides that reality from her peers by constantly telling stories about her normal, loving family life. The dissonance between Bethan’s pretend world and her harsh reality, based on the adolescence of series creator Kayleigh Llewellyn, provides the fodder for a series that veers from amusing to wrenching and back again.
The Last Dance (ESPN)
Some, including Ken Burns, may feel that this ESPN documentary wasn’t as objective as it could have been, given the involvement of Michael Jordan’s production company, Jump 23, in producing it. But Jordan doesn’t completely come off smelling like a rose in this widely watched, ten-part docuseries. His cutthroat, competitive nature is on full, not necessarily flattering display in this portrait of the Chicago Bulls and No. 23 in their heyday. But what a lot of viewers, especially in this era without professional sports, may value more is the enormously entertaining footage of all those old playoff games, not to mention some quality flashbacks to the 1990s.
Lenox Hill (Netflix)
There’s something immediately, undeniably magnetic about a really great docuseries. So much of it comes down to access, that sense of being inside a world you wouldn’t normally be able to see and inside the minds of people who are being unusually, insightfully forthcoming. Lenox Hill’s access inside a Manhattan hospital transforms it from a rote, superficial, familiar look at medical drama and into something much more compelling. The docuseries focuses on a few great neurosurgeons and follows some truly lovely, heartbreaking cases. The most moving element, though, is the attention it gives to a Black ob-gyn, herself pregnant, who speaks candidly about the wild injustice of Black maternal mortality rates and what she sees as her role in the medical system. You’ll cry, you’ll smile, you’ll ignore other obligations so you can watch it all as fast as possible.
Little America (Apple TV+)
As with any episodic anthology series, some installments of the Apple TV+ show about American immigration stories are stronger than others. But many of the individual stories are moving, lovely, and carefully observed. It’s easy for this kind of show to feel saccharine or blunt, especially when yoked to a theme that feels so fraught in this political moment. Little America succeeds because, for the most part, it refuses to simplify itself for the sake of an easy, feel-good story. Instead, its stories often land with sharp, bittersweet notes. It’s a show that reaches toward hope, but it also makes room for hope and trauma to exist at the same time.
In the beginning of this still young century, a complicated scam enabled numerous people to fraudulently win millions of dollars from the McDonald’s Monopoly promotion. How that happened, and how an FBI investigation determined who was responsible, is a big part of this fascinating HBO docuseries filled with “you’ve gotta be kidding me” details. But McMillions goes deeper than that, revealing the long-term pain and guilt that affected those involved in the scheme as well as their families, all because of what may sound, at first, like a relatively harmless con job.
Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
It’d be more than enough to recommend Mrs. America for the performances alone. Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly is the headliner, but the series is brimming with unbelievably great work from Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and a stunning turn from Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan. That lineup, and the organization of that lineup, has also been the source of some concern about the show — there’s an idea that perhaps Mrs. America unfairly centers Schlafly instead of the more progressive women of her era, or that in telling a story about her, it seeks to excuse her behavior. It’s not true. Over its full season, Mrs. America instead situates Schlafly inside the wider web of her enemies and allies, focusing on other women to illustrate exactly how damaging and heartless Schlafly’s politics became. She’s the villain, and the series makes no excuses for her. But while it sketches a portrait of Schlafly, Mrs. America also manages to pull off an adept demonstration of the power and limitations of second-wave feminism.
The Muppets have been cast and recast in TV shows ever since the success of The Muppet Show in the 1970s, but the new Disney+ series is one of the better attempts to reboot the Jim Henson franchise. With a premise that casts Kermit & Co. in a series of segments that are uploaded for streaming purposes by Scooter, Muppets Now places our familiar felt friends in a modern context. But the sensibility of those segments, which include beauty advice from Miss Piggy, a cooking show with the Swedish chef, and lab experiments by Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Beaker, is reminiscent of The Muppet Show’s spirit.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+)
When Apple TV+’s Mythic Quest came out in February 2020, it felt like a solid first season with the potential to become something even stronger in the future. Comedies often work that way, and as a workplace sitcom about the partnerships and creative tensions inside a video game company, Mythic Quest seemed primed to become a great, fascinating show at some point in the near future. The near future, it turns out, was only a few months later, when Mythic Quest released a special one-off quarantine episode. It is far and away the best TV-in-the-time-of-coronavirus episode so far, and it excels not just because it speaks so warmly and thoughtfully about the moment, but because it also feels like a lovely, fun, well-made episode of Mythic Quest.
Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Maybe the most joyful, lighthearted, and yet unmistakably fulfilling shows of the 2020 TV season, Never Have I Ever could so easily have been a half-baked teen drama that hit a bunch of familiar beats and then tapped out. And it’s true that there’s a familiar framework here: a teen protagonist who grapples with grief, two very different love interests who pull her into imagining alternate versions of herself, parents who just don’t understand. But Never Have I Ever does more than just tell a particularly well-made version of that story. It has a real sense of self stylistically and thematically, and it blends those well-worn beats with the deft inclusion of an Indian-American perspective. Never Have I Ever is also a glorious introduction for Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, who plays the show’s protagonist Devi. In that way and many others, it’s reminiscent of Jane the Virgin, which was an important early role for Gina Rodriguez, and which was so effective at combining emotional realism with delightful wish fulfillment.
Normal People (Hulu)
Sally Rooney’s novel gets a limited-series interpretation on Hulu that is intimate, honest, and, yeah, filled with tons of sex. But the sex, while explicit, isn’t gratuitous. It’s a window into the natural bond that develops between Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) and, as the show follows them from secondary school and into adulthood, the psychological damage that finds its way into the bedroom. What stands out most about Normal People isn’t the sex, though; it’s the tenderness and empathy it shows for its characters and for the indelible imprint that first love makes upon the soul.
The first two seasons of Ozark were well-acted, but often felt derivative of other shows about seemingly nice white people who broke bad. In season three, Ozark finally came into its own with Marty and Wendy Byrd (Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, always excellent) walking an even more dangerous line in their relationship to the cartel, and a fascinating story line involving Wendy’s brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey in an astounding performance). For the first time, Ozark didn’t just aim to occasionally put viewers on the edge of their seats — it was genuinely heartbreaking as well.
The Plot Against America (HBO)
The adaptation of the Philip Roth novel from David Simon and Ed Burns is a bracing, increasingly intense alternative history that imagines an America in the World War II era completely uninvolved in World War II, with Charles Lindbergh as president. The HBO limited series features an exceptional cast and raises relevant questions about how much family members are willing to forgive when political divisions turn into matters of life and death.
An under-watched reminder that there’s still plenty of energy and excitement happening in the world of hourlong TV dramas, P-Valley is a show about pole dancers in the Mississippi Delta who work at a club called the Pynk. The show’s razor sharp cinematography would be enough to earn it a spot on this list. It’s hard to imagine how a show about exotic dancing could somehow avoid feeling exploitative while also fully owning how visually impressive and appealing pole dancing can be. P-Valley manages it handily, though. And if that weren’t enough, there’s also the Pynk’s owner Uncle Clifford, a genderqueer Black business owner and one of the most charismatic and complicated characters to appear on TV this year.
On its surface, Padma Lakshmi’s new Hulu series treads a path similar to that of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and other docuseries that explore the intersection of food and geography. But Lakshmi herself helps make Taste the Nation something bigger than the sum of its parts, reminding viewers in the introduction of every episode that she herself is an immigrant and this show is her love letter to the myriad ways “American” cuisine has been shaped by immigrants who came to this country — whether by choice, by force, or by a murky combination of both. This approach also serves to provide sharp commentary on both assimilation and appropriation, albeit one frequently softened by heartwarming stories of perseverance and regular segments of Lakshmi charming her interview subjects with her deep knowledge of food and eagerness to get her hands dirty (and then rewash them) in the kitchen.
The snappily paced comedy, which technically ended last year in its fourth season, returned to Netflix with an interactive movie that has much more fun with the platform’s choose-your-own-adventure-style functionality than Black Mirror: Bandersnatch did. The loose plot follows Kimmy (Ellie Kemper), shortly before her wedding to a British prince played by Daniel Radcliffe, attempting to determine whether the Reverend (Jon Hamm) who kidnapped her years ago has other victims still hidden in some other bunker. But the real joy is found in the bottomless well of great jokes uncovered with every choice viewers make, and remake, during the movie.
This beautiful four-episode series follows a young woman in a Hasidic Jewish community in Brooklyn who escapes to Berlin in an attempt to build a new existence. The Netflix drama takes its time to reveal, via flashbacks and present-day storytelling, all the factors that made Esty (an extraordinary Shira Haas) want to flee the life she has known. In the process, Unorthodox shows us what it’s like to strive for rebirth, at a time when Americans crave rejuvenation.
The Vow (HBO)
HBO’s nine-part docuseries doesn’t merely explain the workings of NXIVM, an organization ostensibly focused on self and global improvement that actually turned out to be a cult. Directors Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer take us inside NXIVM and put us right beside its leader, Keith Raniere, who goes by the name Vanguard, courtesy of hours of video footage shot by Mark Vicente, a higher-up in the organization who got out. We also become witnesses to the escape of not only Vicente, but other women who were victimized by attempts to brand their skin and turn them into slaves. Once you start watching The Vow, you get sucked in and can’t stop, an appeal that aptly mirrors what happens when people fall under the sway of powerful forces.
What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Few series have been a more consistent, delightful source of silliness and joy in 2020 than What We Do in the Shadows, a show that was strong in its first season and has shifted into a new gear of excellence in its second. It’s a show about goofy, often inept vampires who live together in a house in Staten Island, and its baseline tone is pure, uncomplicated farce. (A particular highlight of season two is an episode where Matt Berry’s Laszlo abandons his vampire life to go into hiding as a “regular human bartender” in a small town in Pennsylvania.) The key to the show, though, is the tragedy and dignity of the vampires’ human familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who has a long-simmering second season storyline that’s helped raise the show to new heights.
Update 6/1: An earlier version of this article included an entry for HBO’s Run, which was based on the first half of the season provided for critics. After watching the rest of the season, in particular the finale, we have opted to remove it from this list.