best of 2020

The Best TV of the Year (So Far)

Clockwise from left:Netflix’s Never Have I Ever, Netflix’s Cheer, Hulu’s Normal People, FX on Hulu’s Mrs. America, and Netflix’s Unorthodox. Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Netflix, Hulu and FX

It’s an extraordinarily busy time in TV land, which continues 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’s critics 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 chronologically by premiere date.

Dare Me (USA)

Dare Me proves cheerleaders plus noir is the perfect combo you didn’t know you needed. Photo: Courtesy of USA Network

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. —AJB

Cheer (Netflix)

Who-who let the dogs out, Navarro with their paws out! Photo: Courtesy of Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix

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. —KVA

Little America (Apple TV+)

Little America, the rare anthology series that gets it right. Photo: 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. —KVA

The Good Place Series Finale (NBC)

The Good Place walked out that final door on its own terms. Photo: Colleen Hayes/NBC

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. — AJB

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

What does a happy ending look like for BoJack Horseman? We’ll never know, and that feels right. Photo: Courtesy of 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. —JC

McMillions (HBO)

We’re lovin’ it, you’re lovin’ it, everybody but the Monopoly scammers are lovin’ McMillions! Photo: HBO

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. —JC

High Fidelity (Hulu)

Hulu’s High Fidelity both changes nothing and changes everything about the familiar romantic dramedy. Photo: Phillip Caruso/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. —JC

Better Call Saul

Photo: Warrick Page/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

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.) —JC

Babylon Berlin (Netflix)

Photo: 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. — KV

The Plot Against America (HBO)

Photo: Michele K. Short/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. —JC

Unorthodox (Netflix)

Photo: Anika Molnar/Netflix

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. —JC

The Good Fight 

Photo: Patrick Harbron/CBS

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. —KVA

Run

Photo: HBO

The action in this HBO rom-com/thriller begins as soon as Ruby (Merritt Wever) receives a text from her college boyfriend Billy (Domhnall Gleeson) that simply says, “RUN.” Honoring a pact between the two, Ruby flies to New York, heads to Grand Central station, and embarks on a cross-country train ride with Billy where various kinds of chaos ensue. As the premise indicates, this show is all forward momentum, plus a lot of sexy tension between its two exceptional leads. Created by frequent Phoebe Waller-Bridge collaborator Vicky Jones, and also produced by Waller-Bridge, it’s the kind of series that makes quarantine melt away and makes it seem, briefly, that a life of motion, travel, and wild adventure is possible again.—JC

Mrs. America 

Photo: Sabrina Lantos/FX

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. —KVA

Never Have I Ever 

Photo: LARA SOLANKI/NETFLIX/LARA SOLANKI/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. —KVA

Normal People

Photo: Enda Bowe/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. — JC

The Best TV of the Year (So Far)