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

(Clockwise from upper left) Eugene Levy in <em>Schitt's Creek,</em> Leslie Odom Jr. in <em>Hamilton,</em> Anya Taylor-Joy in <em>The Queen's Gambit,</em> Jurnee Smollett in <em>Lovecraft Country,</em> Sacha Baron Cohen in <em>Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, </em>and Kristen Bell in <em>The Good Place.</em>
Pop TV, Disney , Phil Bray/Netflix, Eli Joshua Ade /HBO, Amazon Studios, Colleen Hayes/NBC
(Clockwise from upper left) Eugene Levy in Schitt's Creek, Leslie Odom Jr. in Hamilton, Anya Taylor-Joy in The Queen's Gambit, Jurnee Smollett in Lovecraft Country, Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm, and Kristen Bell in The Good Place.

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

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 everyEmmy award it could in 2020, and deservedly so. Eugene Levy from Second City TV and his son Daniel Levyco-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  <em>Better Call Saul</em> on AMC
Greg Lewis / AMC/Sony Pictures Television
AMC/Sony Pictures Television
Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) and Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) in Better Call Saul on AMC

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 <em>Borat Subsequent Moviefilm </em>on Amazon
/ Amazon Studios
Amazon Studios
Borat (Sacha Baron Cohen) in Borat Subsequent Moviefilm on Amazon

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 <em>The Good Place </em>on <em>NBC</em>
Colleen Hayes / NBC
Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) in The Good Place on 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 <em>Hamilton</em> on Disney+
/ Disney+
Aaron Burr (Leslie Odom Jr.) in Hamilton on 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 <em>Lovecraft Country </em>on HBO
Eli Joshua Ade / HBO
Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), Atticus (Jonathan Majors) and Letitia (Jurnee Smollett) in Lovecraft Country on 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 <em>Fargo </em>on FX
Elizabeth Morris / FX
Loy Cannon (Chris Rock) in Fargo on 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 <em>Curb Your Enthusiasm </em>on HBO
John P. Johnson / HBO
Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm on 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 <em>The Queen's Gambit</em> on Netflix
Phil Bray / Netflix
Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) in The Queen's Gambit on 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
AFP via Getty Images
Charles Barkley, left, laughs with Chicago Bulls guard Michael Jordan during a game in Chicago in January 1996.

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 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.
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