2020 has been a year full of turmoil due to the COVID-19 pandemic and production for upcoming and on-going television series have witnessed stoppages as a result. However, the television world continued to evolve in the past calendar year despite these barriers and networks and streaming platforms continued to produce and release new seasons of television fans’ favorites.
From the wild twists and turns of Netflix’s Tiger King to the Comedy Central and HBO Max’s South Park “The Pandemic Special,” 2020 has offered numerous opportunities for filmmakers to express their ideas in the small screen format. Streaming platforms such as HBO Max were launched in the last year and witnessed an influx of new subscribers for its original content on top of the extensive library of content it possessed. Yet, streaming platforms like Quibi launched in the last year and unfortunately closed their doors before the ball got rolling.
In the critical world, the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards became the first major award show to conduct their ceremony virtually in accordance with the on-going pandemic and social distancing guidelines. At the ceremony, actress Zendaya became the youngest recipient for the Best Actress in a Drama Series award for HBO’s Euphoria while actor Jeremy Strong pulled off an upset winning Best Actor in a Drama Series for his role on HBO’s Succession.
The 2020 television calendar saw the introduction to new installments of fan-favorite and critically acclaimed series as well as newcomers that filled our hearts and minds with provocative storytelling. Without further ado, here is mxdwn TV’s top 10 television shows of 2020.
Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! (Crunchyroll)
For as long as there has been art, there has been art about the artistic process. A popular metafictional tack is a “magic of creation” narrative, where a bold thinker battles impossible odds to get an uncompromised vision to their audience and achieve validation for their efforts. It’s a popular story for its fairytale logic and its aspirational attributes. Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! refreshes the “magic of creation” story by demanding more from it, and in doing so, digs into a profound, hideous truth: Artistic integrity is a privilege.
Science Saru’s comedic anime series is the only show I saw in 2020 that did not shy away from the realities of making art under late capitalism. Moreover, the art style bolsters and even intensifies the show’s fixation on low budgets and high-stakes deadlines. Director Masaaki Yuasa (Kaiba, Devilman Crybaby) trades in figural exactness for a consistent kinetic charge. Characters have faces all but devoid of finer detail, which leaves the Science Saru team ample time to literally animate them. Scenes where the characters share their works in progress are accordingly rendered with partial coloration and feature the use of childlike mouth-made sound effects. I guarantee you won’t find a better marriage of script and visual presentation out there.
As she concludes a story about the value of marketing (art is essentially worthless without an art market), the show’s gangly realist Kanamori reminds her idealistic compatriots, “No one will come to a store that nobody knows about.” Well, consider this an invitation to the Eizouken store, the television equivalent of an open-kitchen restaurant. Learn how the sausage is made as you savor your meal.
This series is available for streaming on Crunchyroll and HBO Max.
– Jordan Ogihara
Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
Loosely inspired by the real-life awkward adolescence of Mindy Kaling (The Office, The Mindy Project), Never Have I Ever puts a creative spin on the familiar and well-worn tropes of coming-of-age romantic comedies. The Netflix series cast Canadian newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (Never Have I Ever) in the role of Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian-American teenager dealing with romance, friendship and the loss of her father. Tennis champion John McEnroe narrates the series, framing Devi’s trials as a teenage girl in a comedically removed manner.
The series opens with Devi’s intention to turn her social standing around and lose her virginity to Paxton Hall-Yoshida, a popular upper-classman played by Darren Barnet (Never Have I Ever). However, Devi’s plan has unforeseen consequences that jeopardize her friendships and, already temperamental, relationship with her mother, played by Poorna Jagannathan (The Night Of). Ramakrishnan’s character likewise gets embroiled in a love-triangle with class-rival Ben Gross, played by Jaren Lewis (Never Have I Ever). Both Paxon and Ben unfurl into well-rounded love interests full of depth and heart, which will likely complicate Devi’s life in the show’s upcoming second season.
A season two announcement came quickly after Never Have I Ever dropped on Netflix, and the series started its socially distanced production in November of this year. This is not only good news for the fans, but for the cast of the show who became incredibly close after filming the first season together. Prior to the onset of the pandemic, Ramakrishnan would post frequent photos and videos of her and the Never Have I Ever cast bonding together off-set on Instagram. This chemistry of friendship fostered on and off set translates into engaging on-screen dynamics between all the characters in the series.
– Tara McCauley
10. Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
Betty Freidan, Gloria Steinem. These second-wave feminists are well known and well taught. Phyllis Schlafly is a different story, and the FX on Hulu miniseries, Mrs. America, aims to correct that. A conservative activist and mother of six, she successfully led the fight to stop the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, forever changing America’s landscape when it comes to women’s rights.
Cate Blanchett (Blue Jasmine) gave an electrifying, yet frustrating performance as the contradicting Schlafly. Strongly opposed to the ERA, she advocated that a woman’s palace is at home, raising children. The irony is not lost on the show, as Schlafly is very much a working woman. Another stellar performance was Uzo Aduba (Orange is the New Black) as Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for President representing the Democratic Party.
Mrs. America is a beautiful tour de force that follows the madness and mayhem of the women who fought for and against equal rights during the 1970s. Delving into a criminally under-taught section of American history, Mrs. America peels back the curtains and offers a history lesson not taught in classrooms. It brings women’s stories to the forefront, no matter if they’re good or evil.
– Rebecca Schriesheim
9. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)
Aw jeez, Rick! mxdwn Television puts us in their Top Ten!
Season four of Rick and Morty first premiered in 2019, but saved its latter half of episodes for a 2020 release. Despite the entire season not airing entirely within the 2020 calendar year, the adult-animated series latest installment earns its spot on this list by focusing on the quality, not the quantity of its episodes.
The sci-fi animated series on Adult Swim has followed the adventures of the alcoholic, sociopathic scientist Rick Sanchez and his empathetic and clueless grandson Morty for a number of years since its premiere in 2013. Created by Justin Roiland and Community’s Dan Harmon, Rick and Morty has garnered critical acclaim across its four seasons of zany and unpredictable adventures across the universe, or multi-universes.
The second half of season four consisted of five episodes that premiered in the spring of 2020 and incorporated the usual pop culture references on top of biting commentary and nihilistic philosophies. Utilizing a two-part season for the first time, the premiere of the second half of the season, “Never Ricking Morty,” saw the series writers exercise frustration in a meta with the introduction of the “story train” and the anthology plotlines the episode provided. This episode gave some meta insight from the creative team for the demands of the show.
Another season highlight was the inclusion of its eighth episode in “The Vat of Acid Episode.” In typical Rick and Morty fashion, Morty pesters Rick to create a gadget with the ability to create save points in life following Rick’s antiquated and rudimentary escape plan of a fake vat of acid. While the new gadget provides tons of laughs and ultimately an existential look on the foundations of everyday life, it is further used as another tool for Rick to explain his superiority to his innocent grandson. This particular episode garnered critical acclaim by capturing the 2020 Emmy Award for Outstanding Animated Program.
The entirety of the Adult Swim original series, including all ten episodes of its fourth season, is currently available to be streamed on Hulu.
– Adam Lewis
8. The Mandalorian (Disney+)
As 2019’s The Rise of Skywalker was met with mixed reviews from critics and fans alike, the galaxy far, far away felt farther than ever before. Star Wars, one of the most celebrated franchises across multiple media, needed a fresh start. Luckily, it received new life with Disney+’s The Mandalorian. Created by Jon Favreau, the series took familiar lore of the Star Wars universe and injected it with a Western-styled adventure laced with action, suspense, and lightsabers.
Set after the events of Return of the Jedi, the series stars Pedro Pascal as a dutiful Mandalorian, a sect of warriors who were essentially wiped out by the Empire. Season one followed the lone bounty hunter as he acquired a unique piece of cargo, the cute alien affectionately called Baby Yoda. When the Mandalorian prevents the killing of said Baby Yoda, he races time and enemies across the universe to reunite the child with an ancient group of sorcerers. The show has a colorful cast including Carl Weathers, Gina Carano, and Giancarlo Esposito with cameos from Amy Sedaris, Bill Burr, John Leguizamo, Paul Sun-Hyung Lee, and Ming-Na Wen.
Two things make the second season a must-watch in 2020: the storytelling and centering of new characters. In the era of peak entertainment, with ad-free subscription tiers and binge-able content, the show has found success as a weekly episodic fare. When hour-long dramas suffer from exposition and filler episodes, The Mandalorian delivers a taut and enjoyable arc in 30 minutes. And viewers return each week for the next chapter. It’s refreshing to see the fundamentals of good storytelling work in a time of innovative hits and misses.
Additionally, the series uplifted new voices and characters, cementing a unification of the fandom. They accomplished this by delivering the long-rumored arrival of Rosario Dawson as The Clone Wars’ Ahsoka Tano and another cameo from Katee Sackhoff’s Bo Katan. The series even found a way to include the films’ legendary Mandalorian, Boba Fett, played by Temuera Morrison. The inclusion of underrepresented characters from various works has returned the lore to prime form.
The Mandalorian first two seasons are available for viewing on Disney+.
– Lorin Williams
7. Westworld (HBO)
HBO’s third season of Westworld forged the series into a new, ambitious direction, even by its own large concept standards. After season two ended with mixed reviews, the science-fiction thriller left behind the A.I.-controlled confines of the violent theme park to explore a rather mundane depiction of present-day Earth. The shortened season managed to introduce new characters and a bigger threat while maintaining its structural themes of individual agency among the greater good.
Based on the novel by Michael Crichton, Westworld stars Evan Rachel Wood as Dolores, a human-like android who discovers the ugly truth behind her being created. Now free of her constraints, she aims to enact revenge on the human race with a goal of elevating her fellow hosts as superior beings. Season three centered her mission with a human named Caleb, played by Aaron Paul. A war veteran with PTSD, Caleb becomes the nucleus of Dolores’ plan as she seeks to uncover a massive conspiracy involving citizen surveillance and control.
Looking to prevent Dolores’ violent revolution are hosts Bernard played by Jeffery Wright and Thandie Newton as Maeve. The supporting cast includes Tessa Thompson, Luke Hemsworth, and Ed Harris. The season also added Scott “Kid Cudi” Mescudi and Vincent Cassel.
While many will maintain that season one is its best, season three of Westworld delivered a unique narrative that refreshed the series. The production introduced a world full of Blade Runner-styled technology including self-driving vehicles and wearable assault mechs. And the finale’s cliffhanger set the foundation for an inevitable conflict to finally erupt in future seasons.
– Lorin Williams
6. Brockmire (IFC)
The Funny or Die skit turned IFC original comedy series Brockmire officially concluded its four-season run in 2020. Totally a 32 episode count over the course of its run, its latest eight-episode installment gave its audience a complicated conclusion for the emotionally complex titular character Jim Brockmire.
Brockmire centers on the trials and tribulations of Jim Brockmire, a former MLB broadcaster who was fired years prior due to an on-air outburst after learning of his wife’s infidelity. After a decade, the infamous broadcaster makes a return to the mic starting in the minor leagues for the Morristown Frackers. The series cast includes Hank Azaria (The Simpsons) as the brash broadcaster alongside Amanda Peet (The Way, Way Back) and Tyrel Jackson Williams (Lab Rats). The series follows Brockmire on his ascension and self-destruction on his redemption tour with the fourth season fast-forwarding the story to the dystopian setting of the year 2030, ironically including a global pandemic and civil unrest in its season-opening montage.
While the show advertises itself as foul-mouthed and sports-centric, it utilizes the baseball setting as a veil to analyze the character that is the destructive path of Jim Brockmire, whether from the influence of substances or his own biting, confrontational and often cynical personality. The fourth season casts the titular character in a new light as the newly minted commissioner of baseball during its dying days of relevance. While he has found a new space as a caring and overbearing father, Brockmire deals with rising influences from the past as well as confronting the ever-changing global landscape in a satirical fashion. Despite baseball being used as a thin veil for conversation and setting, the IFC comedy tackles character crises head-on in a profane and introspective manner.
Brockmire’s four seasons are all available for streaming on Hulu.
– Adam Lewis
5. The Last Dance (ESPN)
When March brought mass production halts to the sets of many beloved television shows, it likewise impacted one of the longest-running non-scripted franchises broadcast on television – the National Basketball Association. Fortunately for quarantined basketball fans, Netflix and ESPN had already teamed up for the perfect remedy in Chicago Bulls’ docuseries The Last Dance. Originally set to air in June, the ten-part basketball epic was moved to April to fill the vacuum left behind by live sports.
The Last Dance, helmed by 30 for 30 alumni Jason Hehir and Mike Tollin, featured exclusive behind-the-scenes footage of the Bulls 1997-1998 championship season. Superstar Michael Jordan served as the focal point of the docuseries, particularly the manner in which his celebrity status impacted his life, his team and basketball’s ability to reach a global audience. Coach Phil Jackson, who led Jordan and the Bulls to six championships, played a major part in the series alongside former Bulls Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, and Steve Kerr. The Last Dance provides more than a lively account of one of the greatest dynasties in sports history, it’s an intimate exploration into the lives of its athletes.
Although steeped in 90s nostalgia, The Last Dance strikes upon many relevant themes in 2020. The episode about Kobe Bryant’s early days in the league particularly hit home with basketball fans still reeling from the sudden and unexpected loss of the Black Mamba at the beginning of the year. Additionally, conversations about Michael Jordan’s often-criticized hesitance to use his platform to discuss racial and political issues paired uniquely with a year in which the NBA and WNBA went on strike due to racial injustice and Sports Illustrated nominated five “activist athletes” Sportsperson of the Year.
Tiger King’s March success was an indication that an enthralling docuseries full of larger-than-life personalities was a recipe for television success during the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic and The Last Dance followed suit. The series even emerged with its own popular meme of Michael Jordan saying “and I took that personally.”
– Tara McCauley
4. The Last Kingdom (Netflix)
With an incredible season from start to finish and an introduction to a complex and compelling villain, Netflix’s The Last Kingdom‘s fourth season grabs our fourth spot for top 10 shows of 2020. The season starts off with a mission to retake Uhtred’s (Alexander Dreymon, Christopher and His Kind) promised fortress of Bebbanburg. Fans have long awaited this moment as this fortress was taken over by his malicious uncle in the first season of the show. Uhtred stages a plan to retake the stronghold with help from the inside, his son (Finn Elliot, The Mercy) plays the part of dropping a signal torch from the walls so thatUhtred knows when to begin his siege.
Unfortunately, there were some unforeseen elements waiting for Uhtred and his men. Uhtred is soundly defeated after he watches his longtime friend Father Beocca (Ian Hart, Harry Potter and The Sorcerers Stone) die in front of him. His men retreat as Uhtred tries to push on, his best friend Finan (Mark Rowley, Guns Akimbo) eventually gets through to him and they call off their siege.
The Last Kingdom also introduced a new villain who seems different from the ones fans have seen before. Sigtryggr (Eysteinn Sigurðarson, Devs) is a man of patience and intelligence. Sigtryggr isn’t motivated by lust or greed, instead, he seems to have moral principles that keep him from behaving like a typical Viking. The very first thing Sigtryggr does when he has Uhtred alone is testing him, most scenes make the audience feel like Sigtryggr is the one in control of the room and it really helps fans get a picture of how clever this character is going to be. Unlike other villains that fans have seen before.
The series finale kicks off with the retaking of Winchester, Sigtryggr has occupied the stronghold and has kidnapped Edward’s sons. As Uhtred again offers his life for the English monarchy, he is able to convince Sigtryggr to negotiate a deal. Once the fighting breaks out both Uhtred and Sigtryggr help quell the fighting to start the negotiations with King Edward, Queen Atheflaed, (Millie Brady, Roadkill) and Sigtryggr. The last surprise we get from the season is Uhtred’s daughter leaving with Sigtryggr to Eoferwic. This leaves the future of The Last Kingdom with some ambiguity, ripe with new possibilities for season five.
– Mike McLaughlin
3. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Considering the in-depth character development and intellectual challenges that Netflix’s The Queen’s Gambit presents, it has earned out number three spot for a reason. Catching like wildfire all around the world, The Queen’s Gambit has reinvigorated the game of chess. Chess sets are selling at an alarming rate and it’s all thanks to Anya Taylor-Joy’s (Split) character and the protagonist of the show, Beth Harmon.
Harmon delivers on all fronts as far as being a compelling character. Breaking into a world of a male-dominated board game, Harmon must fight constantly to prove her worth to herself and the world. At a young age, she is introduced to an addictive tranquilizer at her orphanage that fostered her dependence on substances as seen throughout the show’s course. Being a bit of a loner, Harmon stumbles upon a curious board game that the orphanage’s custodian Mr. Shaibel, portrayed by Bill Camp (12 Years A Slave), reluctantly shows her the game at first. He begins to teach her how to play and the prodigy inside of her comes out.
As far as childhood prodigy stories are concerned this one in particular stands out because of how it handles its characters. Harmon is able to push boundaries and stand up to the public as a true image of intelligence and strength. In private, the viewers get to see her battle addiction to both drugs and alcohol. This Netflix original is a shining example of dynamic storytelling because of how it handles Harmon’s vulnerabilities. The viewers are witness to her most private moments and in a way become her confidants. Combine all of these elements with an engaging way to watch chess and you have something truly special. The Queen’s Gambit is exclusively streaming on Netflix and if you haven’t watched it yet, clear your weekend schedule.
– Mike McLaughlin
2. I May Destroy You (HBO/BBC)
British actress and writer Michaela Coel became a rising star overnight with her semi-autobiographical dramedy, Chewing Gum, in 2015. After two seasons, the world anticipated her next project. But it didn’t come. What had forced the refreshingly talented creative to vanish for three years? An answer was provided in this year’s searing drama, I May Destroy You.
Created and written by Coel, I May Destroy You was another series loosely based on Coel’s own life experiences. Unfortunately, this story derived as a result of Coel’s 2016 sexual assault. The joint HBO/BBC series starred Coel as Arrabella, a struggling writer on the cusp of her big break when she falls victim to date rape. The show follows Coel’s character’s journey to healing, with all the problematic missteps and pitfalls along the way. The series cast also included Paapa Essiedu, Aml Ameen, and Weruche Opia.
In the time since Coel’s Tracey Gordon so desperately wanted to lose her virginity, the real world experienced the justice of the #MeToo movement. This reckoning turned survivors’ quiet whispers into loud declarations, forcing a collective dialogue with the goal to divest from behavior and ideals that perpetuated rape culture. I May Destroy You feels like every bit of that dialogue put into motion. Its characters are humanly flawed, being victims of rape culture in one episode, and upholding the illogical beliefs in the next. It is the post-MeToo’s Law & Order SVU, a cultural reset in how we discuss the interconnections of sex, relationships, and power for years to come.
– Lorin Williams
1. Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)
PopTV’s most renowned sitcom, Schitt’s Creek, truly showcased its excellence this year. The series earned nine Emmy nominations and five total Emmy wins, including one for Outstanding Comedy Series, Supporting Actor to Daniel Levy (Happiest Season), and Supporting Actress to Annie Murphy (Story of Jen). Alongside their domination at the Emmys, Schitt’s Creek also released their sixth and final season earlier this year, perfectly wrapping up a successful run.
Starring father and son duo Eugene (American Pie) and Daniel Levy as Johnny and Davis Rose, alongside Murphy and Catherine O’Hara (Home Alone) as Alexis and Moira Rose, respectively, Schitt’s Creek follows a wealthy family who suddenly finds themselves completely broke after being cheated by their business manager. Following the loss of their house and belongings, the family finds that they only have one remaining asset – a small town they bought years earlier as a joke entitled Schitt’s Creek. In an attempt to get back on their feet, the pampered family is forced to live in what they would describe as poverty in their very own town.
The final season deals with David and Patrick, played by Noah Nicholas Reid (Franklin), as they plan for their upcoming wedding. Meanwhile, Alexis finds her footing within her new career choice in PR while learning how to become more independent. In the concluding season, Johnny begins to expand on his newfound job within the motel business while Moira rejoins the entertainment industry. Mixing comedy with the importance of family, this series examines the significance of diversity in a society that values exclusion. In their Emmy acceptance speech for Outstanding Comedy Series, Daniel Levy said it best when he exclaimed that this show, “is about the transformational effects of love and acceptance, and that is something we need now than ever before.”
The show ended by tying up all loose ends, having all characters grow together and alone throughout their time spent away from luxury. Schitt’s Creek perfectly exposed the evolution of the Rose family, with their audience only growing with each season and even more when the show was released to Netflix.
– Tara Mobasher