Best TV series of 2020
“The Mandalorian” (Season 2, Disney+)
Full disclosure: At the time of publication, I am not fully caught up on both seasons of “The Mandalorian,” so it doesn’t seem ethical to include on my list. Instead, I’ll give it its own special slide for pop culture impact.
10. ‘Lovecraft Country’ (Season 1, HBO)
HBO’s horror drama delivered week-to-week frights that became fodder for social media reactions. Loosely based on the works of H.P. Lovecraft, the series stars Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors, who searches for his missing father during a supernatural trip through the segregated 1950s South. Creator Misha Green taps into a hungry modern audience craving diverse representation on screen, stirring a macabre cauldron of lush period visuals, anachronistic music and racial themes served with delicious schlock on a weekly basis. The disjointed episodes are better for week-to-week frights than a cohesive binge, but we’ll never forget the inspired moments of freaky images set to soundtrack poetry and lyrics like “Whitey on the Moon,” “Stop Dat Knocking” and “Where is Your Fire,” now forever burned into our brains and into TV horror history.
9. ‘Defending Jacob’ (Miniseries, Apple TV+)
After its first two episodes were available for free, countless viewers subscribed to Apple TV+ this year just to solve the gripping mystery of “Defending Jacob,” which unfolded over a twisting and turning eight episodes. Created by Mark Bomback from a novel by William Landay, the story follows an assistant district attorney (Chris Evans) and his wife (Michelle Dockery) who are ostracized from their community when their awkward teenage son Jacob (Jaeden Martell) is accused of murdering his 14-year-old classmate in suburban Massachusetts. Filmmaker Morten Tyldum (“The Imitation Game”) keeps us on edge with a muted color palette, somber tones and brooding music, building to a conclusive courtroom verdict that maintains a larger sense of artistic ambiguity.
8. ‘Ozark’ (Season 3, Netflix)
Except for the spinoff “Better Call Saul,” no show has more resembled “Breaking Bad” than Netflix’s binge-worthy “Ozark,” featuring the same type of shocking cliffhangers from a suburban family plunging deeper and deeper into drug-dealing trouble due to their own tragic hubris. Here, it’s the bickering Byrde family, led by Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, who flee Chicago to hide at the lakes of the Ozarks under the thumb of a Mexican drug cartel and the scrutiny of the FBI. “Ozark” was probably best in Season 1 and Season 2 thanks to Julia Garner as the tenacious Ruth Langmore, but Season 3 saw an expansion to a riverboat casino, as well as Linney’s relationship with bipolar brother Ben (Tom Pelphrey). The two delivered the strongest acting since “The Sopranos” forced its characters to make cold-blooded decisions that were strictly business.
7. ‘After Life’ (Season 2, Netflix)
It takes a special talent to turn the subject of death into something you look forward to watching. That’s why Ricky Gervais is doing next-level stuff in “After Life,” brilliantly balancing black comedy with melancholy emotion for a uniquely life-affirming experience. It follows British widower Tony, who grieves the death of his wife by sipping alcohol and watching videos she recorded during chemotherapy. Out in public, he trudges to work at a local gossip newspaper, adopts a cynical attitude toward the world, makes impulsive decisions and debates killing himself. However, he changes his mind after a series of humble conversations with a wise widow on a cemetery park bench: “Happiness is amazing. It’s so amazing it doesn’t matter if it’s yours or not. A society grows great when old men plant trees, the shade of which they know they will never sit in. Good people do things for other people. That’s it. The end.”
6. ‘Quiz’ (Miniseries, AMC)
The game show scandal may be a niche genre, but it has become a personal favorite, from Robert Redford’s “Quiz Show” (1994) to Danny Boyle’s “Slumdog Millionaire” (2008). Now, you can add another gem with the British miniseries “Quiz,” which aired on London’s ITV in April before hitting American television on AMC. Based on the eponymous play by James Graham and the book “Bad Show: The Quiz, The Cough, The Millionaire Major” by Bob Woffinden and James Plaskett, “Quiz” recounts the true story of Major Charles Ingram, who won £1 million on the 2001 British version of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” before standing trial accused of cheating with audience members coughing to signal the correct answers. The three episodes fly by as “Succession” star Matthew Macfadyen delivers a great tragic performance reminiscent of Ralph Fiennes’ Charles Van Doren.
5. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (Miniseries, Netflix)
After the success of Millie Bobby Brown in “Stranger Things” and “Enola Holmes,” Netflix delivered another Young Adult hero with “Split” alum Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Queen’s Gambit,” only this protagonist is hooked on tranquilizers after a rough childhood in a Kentucky orphanage. The hallucinations help her play mental chess on her ceiling in between actual lessons on an old chess board in the basement with janitor Mr. Shaibel (Bill Camp), becoming a child prodigy that travels the globe winning professional tournaments amid wine-drinking benders. Based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel, the project was in development for over 30 years until Netflix finally turned it into its most-watched miniseries ever. Checkmate.
4. ‘Small Axe’ (Miniseries, BBC / Amazon Prime)
Named after Bob Marley’s 1973 song from an old proverb (“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”) this unique British anthology series consists of five standalone stories about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s — similar to August Wilson’s Pittsburgh Cycle of plays. Creator Steve McQueen previously won Best Picture for his harrowing slave drama “12 Years a Slave” (2013). His directing prowess is on full display in Episode 2, “Lovers Rock,” where his dazzling camera floats around a reggae dance floor at a delirious house party. This episode won’t be for everyone, unfolding as an experimental experience more than a plot-driven story as McQueen contrasts Saturday night bump-and-grind and Sunday morning crucifixes. However, other episodes feature a more traditional narrative structure with blockbuster stars like Letitia Wright (“Black Panther”) in “Mangrove” and John Boyega (“The Force Awakens”) in “Red, White and Blue.” The fifth and final episode, “Education,” exposes flaws in the education system, inspired by McQueen’s own personal struggle with dyslexia as a kid. “Small Axe” is must-watch stuff as we head into award season.
3. ‘Watchmen’ (Miniseries, HBO)
Technically, “Watchmen” wrapped in Dec. 2019, but it was arguably the most buzzed about show of 2020 after landing 26 Emmy nominations in July and winning 11 of them in September, including Best Limited Series, Best Actress (Regina King) and Best Supporting Actor (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II). During a summer of Black Lives Matter protests, no show spoke to our time better than HBO’s dystopian superhero series, featuring themes of police brutality and white supremacy in the aftermath of the Tulsa Massacre of 1921. It might have taken a few episodes for Jeremy Irons’ subplot to fall into place, but the backstory of “Hooded Justice” fighting the underground cult “Cyclops” was shot in masterful long-takes in Episode 6. Between “Watchmen,” “Black Panther” and “Joker,” superhero content is finally being considered for awards — and it’s great to see the genre rising to the occasion.
2. ‘Succession’ (Season 2, HBO)
Like “Watchmen,” “Succession” technically came out in late 2019, but it dominated the Emmys in September 2020, including the top prize of Best TV Drama. The series deliciously weaves a family power struggle with echoes of “The Lion in Winter” (1968) and “The Godfather” (1972). Rather than Peter O’Toole or Marlon Brando, we have Brian Cox as patriarch Logan Roy scheming to hand over his media empire with obvious parallels to Donald Trump and Rupert Murdoch (ATN is basically Fox News). While Cox won the Golden Globe, Jeremy Strong won the Emmy as heir apparent Kendall Roy, transforming his performance between a splashy twist in Season 1 to a dynamite finale in Season 2 that left Logan with the slightest smile of fatherly pride.
1. ‘Schitt’s Creek’ (Season 6, Pop TV)
It took a while for Pop TV’s “Schitt’s Creek” to catch on here in the United States, but once reruns of the Canadian sitcom hit Netflix, Americans finally got to experience it just as it went out on top. Its sixth and final season brought things full circle for the “fish out of water” Rose family of bankrupt socialites learning to appreciate small-town life in a rundown motel. It made history as the first sitcom ever to sweep the Emmys in all four main acting categories: Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy and Dan Levy, who crafted an adorable relationship between David and Patrick that was handled with admirable matter-of-factness, building to a feel-good finale with a gay wedding for television history.
WTOP's Jason Fraley salutes the year's best TV series (Part 2)
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