The saying “what a year this week has been” predates 2020, but the past 11 months seemed to give it new meaning. As COVID-19 confined tens of millions of Americans to our homes, many of us either fighting the virus ourselves or mourning those we’d lost, the news cycle—dominated by the pandemic, a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, unprecedented West Coast wildfires and a presidential election that some still falsely insist isn’t over—seemed to accelerate. While desperation multiplied, time as we experienced it dilated. What a century this year has been.
To pass the hours, along with all the baking and Zooming and puzzles, we watched TV. It was a big year for comfort fare, new and old. But the really memorable shows—the ones that will stick with me long after Donald Trump has left the White House and vaccines have circulated—are the ones that fused the personal and the political in ways that helped make sense of this long, lonely, devastating, terrifying, intense, boring and, once in a while, hopeful year. From revelatory docuseries that showed us our nation in all its contradictions to characters that personified the struggle between self and society to a talk show that used gallows humor to combat quotidian misery, each series on this list, in its own way, carved out a place for the individual human spirit within a suffering culture. TV could never replace real life, but these shows served as vital reminders that, although some of us are alone in our homes, no one is alone in the world.
10. Desus & Mero (Showtime)
For talk shows, the need to produce a vast quantity of television can outweigh the desire for quality control. Which explains why they so rarely end up on lists like this one. But in a year that presented endless challenges—political, social, logistical and, shall we say, psychological—as even the most seasoned late-night hosts struggled to adapt to DIY production values, Desus & Mero thrived. Pushed out of the studio by COVID, Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez, a.k.a. the Bodega Boys, convened from their respective homes, joined by “illustrious guests” of all stripes, for what amounted to the funniest recurring Zoom meeting on earth.
While they’ve always been hilariously scathing comedians, to whom little is sacred, the onslaught of bad news brought out another side of the Bronx-native duo. They drew attention to structural injustice and talked openly about mental health; their mere presence brought comfort to an audience suffering through (at best) months of isolation. In 2020, they’ve seen their show renewed for a third season, catalyzed the meteoric rise of Desus & Mero writer Ziwe Fumudoh and published the best-selling book God-Level Knowledge Darts. Wherever they go from here, the world is their chopped-cheese sandwich.
9. BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Few comedies survive for more than four seasons these days, and the ones that do tend to be bland, repetitive network dreck: Modern Family, The Big Bang Theory, Last Man Standing. BoJack Horseman emerged from Netflix’s early original programming efforts as a longshot—an animated dramedy about a horse who’d starred in a saccharine ’90s sitcom, then spent the next few decades drifting idly from one substance-fueled crisis to the next. Yet instead of recycling prestige-TV antihero clichés, creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg used BoJack’s Hollywood—er, “Hollywoo”—setting to deconstruct not just the latter archetype, but also troubled relationships, pop culture’s thirst for redemption narratives and the entertainment industry in general. Far from running out of ideas, the show used its generous run to experiment with form and access ever-deeper insights into cartoon-animal characters.
In its sixth and final season, Bob-Waksberg faced the daunting task of wrapping up a story that had turned out to be achingly circular tracking one (horse) man’s eternal cycle of relapse and recovery. He did so with humor, authenticity and grace. The final two episodes—a psychedelic visit to the ghosts who haunt BoJack, followed by a quieter, philosophical reunion with friends he might never see again—were masterpieces unto themselves, balancing hope for his future with the awareness that he’d done damage to people around him that could never be undone.
8. P-Valley (Starz)
Pop culture has a terrible record when it comes to depicting exotic dancers. When they’re not one-dimensional camp divas, they’re the silent, nameless strippers sexing up a bachelor party or circling the pole while men talk shop. But, in the wake of last year’s hit movie Hustlers and the rise of dancer-turned-rapper Cardi B, things are changing.
P-Valley, a noir drama set at a Black-owned strip club in the Mississippi Delta, is very much a part of this new wave. Adapted from a play by creator Katori Hall, the show enters the struggling Pynk alongside a femme-fatale newcomer who’s clearly running from a dangerous past. But that mystery is only a way into the club’s world, where stripping is a sport, an art form and a ticket to survival for characters disenfranchised by white, male power structures (including genderqueer Pynk proprietor Uncle Clifford). In an approach that subverts the male gaze without sacrificing the show’s immersive, glitter-and-grit, sequins-and-trap-beats sex appeal, Hall finds meaning in tensed quad muscles more than bare breasts. Along with bodies that are the tools of their trade, these women have personalities and backstories and character arcs that feel true. The result is a finely wrought foray into sex-work revisionism that’s pure pleasure to watch.
7. Betty (HBO)
The world of Crystal Moselle’s Skate Kitchen, a fiction film starring young women from the real, eponymous New York skateboard crew, was always too rich and fluid to be confined to a single feature. So the director became a TV creator, casting many of the same skaters in a series of half-hour vignettes that made plot subordinate to portraiture. These characters are the show’s masterpiece: Honeybear is an artist stumbling on her path to romance. Stylish Indigo is ashamed of her rich family. Self-possessed Janay sees her confidence in her own judgment tested when a male friend is accused of sexual assault. By turns silly, flirty and fiery, Kirt hides insecurity beneath an armor of extroversion. And before finding these new pals, Camille is desperate to prove herself in a scene dominated by skater boys. You’ll find no typical girls here—not because typical girls are boring, but because there’s no such thing as a typical girl.
The structure of Betty—which HBO has, happily, renewed for a second season—evokes nothing so much as a skate park, crowded with young people in motion, littered with obstacles, set against a concrete-jungle backdrop, punctuated by emotional peaks and valleys. In the context of a year defined by confinement, each poetic episode offered a rare taste of freedom.
6. City So Real (Nat Geo)
Chicago politics are notorious for their nastiness, corruption and labyrinthine bureaucracy. For that reason, maybe any docuseries on a local mayoral race would’ve been riveting. But Steve James, of Hoop Dreams and America to Me renown, isn’t just any filmmaker, and his take on the city’s 2019 election to replace Rahm Emanuel packs in plenty of insight along with so much behind-the-scenes intrigue. We meet the candidates, who each embody different aspects of Chicago; there are political insiders and outsiders, business bigwigs and public servants, a white former police superintendent and a few young community activists of color.
What really makes the five-part series, though, are the observations and ideas James culls from months’ worth of interviews with regular Chicagoans. Whether they’re longtime bar owners cursing gentrification or a sweet rideshare driver breaking down over the anti-Black racism she must absorb, their experiences are evidence of a city—and, in many cases, a country—coming apart at the seams. A final episode that revisits the characters in the midst of COVID lockdown illustrates what may well be this year’s most salient lesson: a society immersed in crises of its own making will always be at a perilous disadvantage when a truly unforeseen tragedy strikes.
5. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
It didn’t take long for this miniseries about an orphan chess prodigy, which debuted in October, to become a sensation. And it’s not hard to see why a nation of homebound viewers desperate for a mental vacation would want to live vicariously through Beth Harmon, a teenage force of nature played by an incandescent Anya Taylor-Joy, who upends the sport’s mid-century establishment. Fans crowned her a fashion icon, praised one of her love interests as a “sexy stringbean” and, perhaps in preparation for the long winter ahead, purchased chess sets of their own. (I plead guilty on that last count.) Not since the heyday of another ’60s-set drama, Mad Men, has a TV show been so effectively translated into a lifestyle.
Like that predecessor, The Queen’s Gambit is far more than pretty surfaces. Adapted from a novel by Walter Tevis, who repurposed substantial chunks of his own biography to create Beth, it interrogates the price of genius, the psychology of addiction and whether a person who grew up without a family will always feel isolated from the people around her. What begins as a story of pain sublimated into obsession evolves, beautifully, into a vindication of community.
4. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
In the early 1970s, as feminism enjoyed a measure of bipartisan support and its adherents celebrated such major victories as Roe v. Wade and Title IX, the movement seemed poised to make gender equity the law of the land with the Equal Rights Amendment. By 1980, however, the ERA had stalled out, Ronald Reagan had been elected President and the feminist consensus had been riven by disagreements over the politics of sex. So, what happened?
Creator Dahvi Waller offered one compelling explanation in Mrs. America, a miniseries that cast Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly and followed the conservative bête noire as she waged war on the ERA. Along with assembling a remarkable lineup of actors to play second-wave feminist heroes—Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem! Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm! Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug! Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan! Niecy Nash as Flo Kennedy!—this intelligent, elegantly scripted show interrogated why the tide so often turns on voices that are clearly on the right side of history.
3. Immigration Nation (Netflix)
Immigration is a huge, complicated, emotional yet urgent issue in American politics. From the global refugee crisis and DACA to ICE and Trump’s wall, many of us approach the subject with more questions than answers. Why are the conditions in immigration detention facilities so squalid? Though the past four years have represented a nadir in our country’s treatment of immigrants, how much blame do past leaders, Democratic and Republican alike, deserve for the current mess? How did we get from “Give me your tired, your poor/Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free” to kids in cages? What can we do to fix it?
It would be impossible for one documentary series to address these queries to every viewer’s satisfaction, but Immigration Nation comes closer to providing a current, comprehensive look at the topic than any other single work in recent memory. Granted astonishing access to the ICE apparatus—access the government apparently came to regret—directors Christina Clusiau and Shaul Schwarz documented prejudice, deception, confusion, cruelty and in some cases flagrant defiance of regulations within the agency. The series is even more powerful when it crafts profiles that give policy debates a human face: a toddler torn from his father’s embrace, a group of migrants organizing to demand pay from a politician’s shady construction company, a woman who’s deported after bringing her granddaughter to the U.S. to escape a forced marriage to an MS-13 gang member. As the turmoil at our borders persists, and a President-elect known for his empathy weighs his priorities, Immigration Nation remains essential viewing for all Americans.
2. Better Call Saul (AMC)
At the end of its third season, Better Call Saul—a Breaking Bad prequel that quickly surpassed its predecessor—stood at a crossroads. With the abrupt demise of a central character, the show had to move past its original obsession with hashing out what it means to be a good or bad person. Creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould stumbled a bit at first, but by the time season 4 wrapped up, they’d channeled the aforementioned debate into a crushing indictment of a justice system that, from antihero Jimmy McGill’s perspective, only pretends to believe in rehabilitation.
Jimmy emerged in this year’s fifth and, against all odds, best season liberated from his compulsion to court the approval of that system—a transformation solidified by his adoption of the jokey pseudonym Saul Goodman. He took the new persona out for a spin in a harrowing, allegorical trudge through the desert, the culmination of an arc that brought him closer to future partner-in-crime Mike Ehrmantraut even as it tested his fragile relationship with Kim Wexler. Every gorgeously shot, perfectly paced episode delivered startling performances and wrenching character development on top of the suspense. When the show returns for its final season, in 2021, all eyes will be trained on fan-favorite Kim, as viewers who’ve nervously noted her absence from Breaking Bad finally learn her fate.
1. I May Destroy You (HBO)
A young woman goes out drinking, wakes up with a brutal hangover and, sometime later, comes to the realization that she was raped. Three years after the height of the Me Too movement, you think you’ve heard this one before, but I guarantee it: you haven’t. For Michaela Coel—the 33-year-old British writer, director and actor who created and starred in this masterpiece of semi-autobiographical storytelling—the assault opens up a path to the core of her character’s psyche, forcing her to address formative traumas she’s spent decades shutting out. Consent gets a complete deconstruction, with the experiences of her closest friends adding shades of nuance to her own. In the same breath, Coel gives fresh consideration to race, gender, sexuality, loneliness, family, the psychological ravages of social media and, on a meta level, the difficulty of making art that feels true. She even allows for the possibility that, in a world hurtling toward environmental collapse, fixating on our personal problems makes us all narcissists.
That the show ultimately came down on the side of compassion in the face of catastrophe, for each other but most of all for ourselves, made it a beacon in dark times. Equal parts physical and cerebral, Coel’s singular sense of humor rendered her painful themes digestible for an audience exhausted by everyday life in a pandemic. You could say that in 2020, we all confronted annihilation. “I may destroy you,” the year taunted us. If you’re reading this, it failed.