Best TV Of 2020: Great Shows Brought Us Together In A Difficult, Distanced Year

Dec 24, 2020
Originally published on December 24, 2020 3:33 pm

The pandemic redefined television in 2020 — and the evolution isn't over. Production of scripted TV series has stalled or been delayed and redesigned because of health and safety concerns, and major movies and small-scale independent films and documentaries are now premiering in our homes, on television. Streaming services have become so prominent they rival, and often dwarf, the broadcast networks with their offerings. And while at-home safety measures are keeping us apart, television, more and more, is keeping us together. And through it all — despite it all — there was some excellent television. Here's my top 10 for 2020.

1. Schitt's Creek (Pop TV/Netflix)

Moira Rose (Catherine O'Hara) and Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) in Schitt's Creek on Netflix
Pop TV

The perfect show to watch during a pandemic, Schitt's Creek is a comedy about a family and a community that came together when it counted, supported one another, and maintained their individuality while embracing others. The show grew and matured each season — a growth that applied to its characters as well as its humor. By the end, which came this year, every character was treated well — and shown as both human and decent.

Schitt's Creek won just about every Emmy award it could in 2020, and deservedly so. Eugene Levy from Second City TV and his son Daniel Levy co-created the series, and co-starred, along with another SCTV vet, Catherine O'Hara — all of them Emmy winners for Schitt's Creek, which also won Outstanding Comedy Series. If you haven't seen it, start now on Netflix, and be patient. It doesn't hit full stride until Season 2, but never flags after that.

2. Better Call Saul (AMC)

Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) in Better Call Saul on AMC
Greg Lewis / AMC/Sony Pictures Television

This Vince Gilligan-Peter Gould prequel/sequel to Breaking Bad didn't appear at all in 2019, but its 2020 season was spectacular — and got us even closer to the narrative that began so long ago with Breaking Bad. What made this season so tense, and fascinating, is the private life of Bob Odenkirk's Jimmy McGill, who this year officially adopted the persona of Saul Goodman. He also married Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler, and cares for her deeply — and since she never appears in Breaking Bad, when he worried for her safety in this season finale, so did we. Once again, a beautifully made series, and the best current drama on television.

3. Borat Subsequent Moviefilm (Amazon)

Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm on Amazon
Amazon Studios

This sequel to the Borat film showcased Sacha Baron Cohen to great effect, once again, as a visiting chronicler of America and Americans. Much of the film is improvised, and some of the "co-stars" are wholly ignorant that they're being put on and put into potentially awkward situations. But there's also a structural outline to this film, featuring Maria Bakalova as Tutar, Borat's long-estranged daughter, that is oddly but undeniably touching. And speaking of touching, the scene in which Tutar pretends to be a TV journalist, and gets an interview with the actual Rudy Giuliani, is almost as instantly infamous a piece of Giuliani 2020 footage as the hair-dye leakage. Or the Four Seasons Total Landscaping press conference. Or ... well, if I keep going, I'll have another top 10 list on my hands.

4. The Good Place (NBC)

Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) in The Good Place on NBC
Colleen Hayes / NBC

Creator Michael Schur pulled off several magic tricks with this sitcom about the afterlife — diving deeply into moral and philosophical questions in the process. At the end of one season, Schur pulled the rug out from his own series premise and changed the game, and The Good Place stayed surprising and giddily unreliable from then on. Ted Danson and Kristen Bell starred, and were just right throughout — and Schur, in a very satisfying finale in 2020, totally stuck the landing. The Good Place is another warm comedy series perfect to watch, and re-watch, during the pandemic.

5. Hamilton (Disney+)

Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) in Hamilton on Disney+
Disney+

Lin-Manuel Miranda and the original Hamilton company filmed this version of his hit musical in 2016, taking a few days to not only film performances in front of the theater audience, but acting with the cameras onstage, without an audience, to get more intimate angles. And intimacy is the key here: This version of Hamilton, intended for eventual theatrical release, is wonderful. And Disney's decision to drop it as a surprise treat on Disney+, on the 4th of July weekend this year, made that streaming service even more of a juggernaut success story. It also accelerated the trend of premiering major motion pictures on TV during the pandemic — an approach I believe will far outlive the current medical crisis.

6. Lovecraft Country (HBO)

Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) in Lovecraft Country on HBO
Eli Joshua Ade / HBO

Each episode of this miniseries uses a different film or genre as inspiration, and uses music so inventively it's breathtaking. The acting is strong — especially by Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors — and there's one episode, involving the haunting of a little girl, that still creeps me out beyond belief.

7. Fargo (FX)

Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) in Fargo on FX
Elizabeth Morris / FX

In carrying on the spirit of the Coen Brothers' classic 1996 movie, Noah Hawley hasn't made a false move yet. His Fargo anthology miniseries, which presenting a different cast, time frame and story each season, has been great. Great acting, great writing, great directing — and, since no character has to live to the end of the limited drama, great suspense. This year brought us Season 4, starring Chris Rock and Jessie Buckley, and maintained Hawley's amazing success streak.

8. Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO)

Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm on HBO
John P. Johnson / HBO

This partly improvised Larry David sitcom premiered 20 years ago, and is still as funny as ever. Funnier, actually, which is quite a compliment. This season, which is Season 10, had Larry opening a "spite store" to compete with a local coffee shop whose owner began clashing with him. Hence, Larry spent the new season planning and opening his own coffee shop, "Latte Larry's," with oversized mugs, tables that didn't wobble, and, pre-pandemic, hand sanitizer at every table.

9. The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)

Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Queen's Gambit on Netflix
Phil Bray / Netflix

One of the TV shows to pop up like a meerkat in 2020 and get noticed more than most was Tiger King, which was horrible. Another was The Queen's Gambit, which was delightful. Anya Taylor-Joy has a career-establishing role as Beth Harmon, an orphan with a sad backstory but with an uncanny proclivity for the game of chess. The series is written and directed by Scott Frank, who also created the impressive 2017 Western series Godless, and its imagery and editing are as captivating as its superb use of period music.

10. The Last Dance (ESPN)

Charles Barkley, left, laughs with Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan during a game in Chicago in January 1996.
Brian Bahr / AFP via Getty Images

At the start of the pandemic lockdown, when virtually no pro sports were being played, ESPN presented this in-depth, exciting, revelatory documentary about the Chicago Bulls, Michael Jordan and their final championship run. It's a brilliant documentary — and ESPN's timing was brilliant as well.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're going to talk about the year in TV and movies with our TV critic, David Bianculli, and our film critic, Justin Chang, who have each brought their 10 best lists. We do this year-end review just about every year, but no year has been like this one. COVID upended the movie and TV industries and forced them to change or cancel their production plans. And COVID changed how we watched, what we watch and how much time we spend watching. With most movie theaters closed by the pandemic and some movies being released instead on TV and streaming platforms, it's even hard to tell what to call a movie and what to call a TV show. So I'm not even sure which questions to ask David and which to ask Justin. And I might end up asking a few of the same questions to both of them. Let's start with David and hear his thoughts about television in this crazy year.

David, usually when we do this, we're in the studio together, and now we're each talking to each other by phone. I miss seeing you.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: Yeah, I miss you, too, more than just for this conversation. But here we are.

GROSS: Yes, absolutely. Here we are. So we're going to talk about TV. I don't even know what TV means anymore since there's...

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Well, that's two of us.

GROSS: ...Streaming and TV and movies. Yeah. Does that matter? Does it matter that the line is blurred so much between what's movies and television?

BIANCULLI: It will matter when this dust finally shakes in a couple of years. I think this is an absolute major change in the medium of television and how we define it. But we don't know yet. All I know is the old rules don't apply. When I was putting together this 10 list, I had to make my own decisions about, what was a movie? What was a TV show? What was - you know, we're all watching it differently. We're all reacting to it differently. Everything is different this year.

GROSS: Well, let's hear what's on your 10 best list and how you define what's television. What order do you want to take it in?

BIANCULLI: You know, I think it's such a different year. We're doing everything differently. I try to build suspense, usually, by going towards the top. I think we ought to start with the top and work down just to give some credence to what's been going on in television because it's so different. And I had a problem this year with the top 10 that I've never had before. I keep changing the very top two entries for reasons that I think have to do with COVID a little bit.

My No. 1 show in the top 10 is the No. 1 show simply because it's such a wonderful program to watch right now, that even though the other one was my favorite show for years and I want to call it No. 1, I can't. So we're talking about two shows. We're talking about the drama of "Better Call Saul" on AMC, and we're talking about the comedy "Schitt's Creek," which is the CBC production out of Canada that showed up on Pop TV and then became noticed once it showed up on Netflix. I love both of these shows, but I think that "Schitt's Creek," because of what a good and nice and warm-hearted program it is, really deserves the top spot in a really bottoming-out year. Does that make any sense?

GROSS: Yes, it does. But spell the title just because we're on public radio, and I don't want people to get the wrong idea of what we're talking about.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter) Yeah. When I reviewed this when it first came out, I made a big deal of spelling it. It's S-C-H-I-T-T-apostrophe-S. And Schitt's Creek is a small place. And this formerly wealthy family sort of bought the town as a gag gift one year. And then when they lost all their money, turns out that's where they had to go in order to survive. And it becomes a really warm story where every character in it - no matter how funny they may be or how buffoonish they may initially have seemed, they're all warm. They're all sweet. And several episodes, including the ending that they ran in 2020, which I will not spoil anything about, turned out to be just lovely and treated everybody well. And it was such goodness that I think it's almost a tonic for our times. I can't recommend highly enough that anybody who has Netflix to go seek out "Schitt's Creek."

GROSS: God, a tonic for our time sounds so good.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: So what else is on your 10 best list?

BIANCULLI: Well, No. 1 is "Schitt's Creek." No. 2 is "Better Call Saul" on AMC, which is getting worse each year in terms of what's happening to the characters but better each year in terms of it being a show. It's the prequel to "Breaking Bad." It's brilliant. And if not for "Schitt's Creek," it would be my No. 1 show again.

And then to burn through the rest of the top 10 - and there's a couple here that may be movies and not TV. I'm not sure - but there's the "Borat Subsequent Moviefilm" on Amazon. But that's where it premiered - on Amazon. It had an awful lot of heart while still having the same sort of "Borat" humor. No. 4 - "The Good Place" on NBC stuck its landing, a wonderful comedy about the afterlife. And Michael Schur did a great job writing the last episode of that. And then No. 5, "Hamilton," which was filmed a couple of years ago with the original cast - it was intended to be rolled out as a big deal in theaters. But then halfway through the pandemic, Disney+ did it as a Fourth of July special and basically proved how big streaming services are and will be from now on. So "Hamilton" sort of changed things.

Then the last half - "Lovecraft Country" on HBO, a really good, spooky, weird miniseries. "Fargo" - every year that Noah Hawley does a miniseries version of "Fargo," he does it great. And this one had Chris Rock, and it was wonderful. No. 8, "Curb Your Enthusiasm" - you either like Larry David, or you don't - on HBO. I love Larry David, and his coffee shop had hand sanitizers on every table before COVID. So he was ahead of that curve. No. 9 is "The Queen's Gambit" on Netflix, which, even though it was a little bit predictable, it was also wonderful. And then No. 10, a documentary on ESPN, "The Last Dance," about the Chicago Bulls and Michael Jordan, was so much better than I expected and gave us sports during COVID when nobody else was. That's my top 10.

GROSS: So let's take a look at this year in streaming. What were the biggest changes you saw in terms of old or - old, (laughter) relatively old or brand-new (laughter)?

BIANCULLI: Yeah, like Disney+ from the end of 2019, the oldie goldies.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: It is amazing. What it's proving is what I think, ultimately, television always proves - is that content is king and is the most important. And it doesn't surprise me that Disney+ is the streaming service that has really come along recently and said, we know how to do this because it's made its classic inventory available. It's got things to show that people already want to see. And then it makes new, good stuff. I mean, "Star Wars" fans are crazy about "The Mandalorian," and that helped it succeed. And when it showed "Hamilton," millions of people got Disney+ that hadn't gotten it before.

GROSS: What's your point of view about how the Warner deal is going to affect what we think of as television? And this is a deal that other movies are going to go straight to streaming, to release movies through streaming with HBO Max. I'm assuming that's going to be a really good thing for HBO Max because I think HBO Max - people were confused, like, what is it? Do I have to pay for it? If I have HBO, can I get it? Everyone seems confused.

BIANCULLI: Yeah, and I'm confused. And I am the TV critic. There are too many things out there, and some things that are on HBO Max are also on HBO or are on HBO Max the very next day, and others are exclusives. This will all sort itself out, but we will not see entertainment quite the way we did before the pandemic. It's just not going to be the same.

GROSS: Well, David, let's take a break, and then we'll talk some more about the year in television. If you're just joining us, my guest is our TV critic, David Bianculli. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF GEEK MUSIC SONG, "SCHITT'S CREEK - MAIN AND END TITLE MEDLEY - MAIN THEME")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to our interview with David Bianculli looking back at the year in television.

So much of my TV viewing this year was cable news or late-night comedy about the news because there are stories constantly breaking about the Trump administration, the election, COVID. How have the news networks changed this year because of so many people's obsession with what's happening in the news?

BIANCULLI: You know, I think it's crystallized by the fact that MSNBC, for example, and Steve Kornacki, who is the guy that did the big board stuff leading up to the elections - you know, he became sort of a star through this, and that, in terms of TV humor, I'm with you. I watch as much humor about politics as I do politics, and I watch a lot of politics - is that I couldn't believe that Leslie Jones popped out from "SNL" just by yelling at her TV set and talking about MSNBC and how much she loved Steve Kornacki. And the other thing is, she actually was taking her phone and filming it, so filming television live and screaming at her set. And I thought, this should be my job.

GROSS: She made the videos and put them on social media.

BIANCULLI: Yes. Yeah. But, I mean, the idea is, look; all I'm doing is - I'm not filming myself, but that's my job. I'm watching a lot of TV and yelling at the set all the time. But it works. But then, if there's a week when, you know, Trevor Noah isn't on with original episodes, or, you know, you've got John Oliver off or something like that, it's a bad week. I really need somebody to make me laugh about this, to get me through it week by week.

So I think that it's been really great to have those shows, and they worked so hard to work through the pandemic. I think it's been a really good year for "Saturday Night Live." I don't think the writing has been super-crisp, but I just think the presence of "Saturday Night Live" has been important.

And then with news, you know, I've always tried to stay totally objective. But I can say as a TV critic that especially during election night, the Nicolle Wallace, Joy Reid, Rachel Maddow triumvirate on MSNBC, I thought, was wonderfully handled in terms of news information, entertainment and honesty.

GROSS: One of the interesting things this year about late-night comedy was the hosts started off during COVID hosting from their homes, and then eventually most went back to their studios, or, in Stephen Colbert's case, his office...

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Yeah.

GROSS: ...His office at the Ed Sullivan Theater. And it was interesting to see how they worked without an audience. And, you know, Colbert still does not have an audience, and I'm actually enjoying that. There's a certain intimacy.

BIANCULLI: Me, too.

GROSS: Yeah. And I like - I think it's his wife who's often, like, laughing in the background. I just...

BIANCULLI: Or not laughing, which sometimes was even funnier.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, that's right. That's right. And so I'm enjoying - there's an intimacy about - a directness about it that I'm really enjoying. I'm not sure if Colbert is enjoying it.

BIANCULLI: It is incredibly intimate. And you realize - Colbert is a perfect example, so we'll stay with him, that - which of these hosts are really quick-witted themselves and not reliant mostly on writers or on format. And you can just tell that he shines here one on one as a person just talking to us as people.

GROSS: So this is the time of the conversation where I typically ask you, what should we be looking forward to next year in television? Is there anything to look forward to? I mean, has anything been produced that we will be able to see next year? Or has everything been on hold and who knows what we'll be able to see?

BIANCULLI: There's something coming up in the first couple of weeks of January. I haven't seen it yet, but it's from, you know, the "30 Rock" people, and it stars Ted Danson. And so that's a network television show that I'm looking forward to seeing if it's any good. But most of it, I don't know. Nobody knows. I'm just - I cannot tell you how pleased I will be to turn the calendar to 2021, except I feel like everybody listening feels exactly the same way.

GROSS: Yes. But the secret is that 2021 could possibly be worse than 2020.

(LAUGHTER)

BIANCULLI: Terry, I love you.

GROSS: I'd hate to be the voice of gloom, but...

BIANCULLI: Yeah, no, no, no.

GROSS: ...We all think, 2021, let's put 2020 behind us because the New Year is going to be so much better. But we don't know that.

BIANCULLI: See, see, I consider myself a worst-case scenario person. And I almost...

GROSS: Not while I'm around (laughter).

BIANCULLI: I am almost never outdone there, but you just lapped me like the Road Runner. I heard beep-beep as you went by.

GROSS: (Laughter) Yeah, you're welcome.

BIANCULLI: (Laughter).

GROSS: So what was your favorite TV moment of the year? Do you have one?

BIANCULLI: I do. And this is - came early in the pandemic, and it was sort of an experimental use of maybe how we can do TV through this. And I know we both love Stephen Sondheim, so I'm guessing you saw this. It was the "Take Me To The World: Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration" (ph). And when they couldn't do it in person anymore, they decided to do it as an early fundraiser, streaming with everybody either presenting pre-taped pieces that were put together or doing - you know, it was just a beautiful thing.

And it started off rocky - technical difficulties. But once it got going, it was absolutely everything I wanted and more. It was not only artistic and beautifully done, but it was so uplifting. And this is, like, early on. You know, this is just a month into the pandemic, and I already felt such a relief from it.

So I brought a clip. This is "The Ladies Who Lunch" from "Company." On Broadway originally, Elaine Stritch did it solo and sort of made it her own. But it's a great song. And here for this 90th birthday fundraiser, you get three divas, all in different locations, in bathrobes and holding drinks, singing separately and then together. And it's Meryl Streep, Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald. And it was exhilarating.

GROSS: And each of them have sung in Sondheim shows or, in Meryl Streep's case, in the movie of "Into The Woods."

BIANCULLI: That's right.

GROSS: So David, I wish you a good new year. I wish you a healthy new year and a better year than 2020.

BIANCULLI: OK. Thank you very much. It was good visiting with you, even like this.

GROSS: And David Bianculli is our TV critic, and he's the editor of the website TV Worth Watching and a professor of TV studies at Rowan University. You can find his 10-best list on our website, freshair.npr.org.

After we take a short break, our film critic Justin Chang will talk about the year in film and tell us what's on his 10-best list. And podcast critic Nick Quah, who writes for New York Magazine and Vulture, will tell us what he thinks are the best podcasts of the year. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR. And here is "Ladies Who Lunch" (ph).

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHRISTINE BARANSKI: I'd like to propose a toast.

(Singing) Here's to the ladies who lunch. Everybody laugh - lounging in their caftans and planning a brunch on their own behalf. Off to the gym, then to a fitting, claiming they're fat, then looking grim 'cause they've been sitting, choosing a hat. Does anyone still wear a hat? I'll drink to that.

MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Here's to the girls who stay smart. Aren't they a gas? Rushing to their classes in optical art, wishing it would pass. Another long, exhausting day, another thousand dollars, a matinee, a Pinter play, perhaps a piece of Mahler's. I'll drink to that - and one for Mahler.

AUDRA MCDONALD: (Singing) Here's to the girls who play wife. Aren't they too much?

STREEP: (Laughter) Yeah.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Keeping house but clutching a copy of life just to keep in touch. Ones who follow the rules and meet themselves at the schools...

STREEP: Fools.

MCDONALD: (Singing) ...Too busy to know that they're fools. Aren't they a gem? I'll drink to them. Let's all drink to them.

STREEP: I'm already drinking, dear.

(LAUGHTER)

BARANSKI: (Singing) And here's to the girls who just watch. Aren't they the best?

STREEP: (Singing) When they get depressed, it's a bottle of scotch plus a little jest.

MCDONALD: (Singing) Another chance to disapprove, another brilliant zinger.

AUDRA MCDONALD, CHRISTINE BARANKSI AND MERYL STREEP: (Singing) Another reason not to move, another vodka stinger. I'll drink to that.

MCDONALD: (Singing) So here's to the girls on the go. Everybody... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.