The Saboscrivner’s Top 20 TV Shows of 2020
These are the shows I would rank 11-20, in no specific order. They were perfectly fine and entertaining. I enjoyed most of these shows most of the time, but I watched too much good TV this year, and they didn’t crack my Top Ten.
Upload s1 (Amazon Prime)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Doom Patrol s2 (HBO Max)
Bosch s6 (Amazon Prime)
Dead to Me s2 (Netflix)
Umbrella Academy s2 (Netflix)
DC’s Legends of Tomorrow s5 (CW)
Hunters s1 (Amazon Prime)
Fargo s4 (FX; now on Hulu)
Medical Police s1 (Netflix)
Now for my Top Ten, ranked in order:
10. Lovecraft Country s1 (HBO) – Probably the most ambitious and audacious show I watched all year, a 1950s period piece with a majority Black cast that contrasts fictional horrors (eldritch horror, body horror, cosmic horror) with real social horrors that continue to perpetuate today. Each episode had a very different feel, all harkening back to weird tales from pulp fiction – a creepy cabin in the woods, a cult of wealthy white wizards, a haunted house, an Indiana Jones-style adventure full of deadly booby traps, body swapping, a sex demon, a tour of the multiverse, malevolent spirits tormenting an innocent, and time travel back to one of the darkest hours in our history – and all while highlighting issues of racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, police brutality, and systemic inequality. If it sounds heavy, it sometimes is. There were uneven points and some aspects I didn’t love, but the show hits more than it misses. It deserves all the credit in the world for trying, and for being unafraid to shock audiences and make them uncomfortable. And it seemed to make Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett into stars, which they deserve to become. It was definitely one of the shows that captured the zeitgeist of 2020, this hell year.
9. Snowpiercer s1 (TNT) – Another show that captured the zeitgeist, this was a bleak and grim postapocalyptic adventure, where survivors of a frozen planet live on a titanic train that hurtles around the dead Earth, trapped in strict social strata, with the first class passengers continuing lives of luxury while the tail section subsists in squalor. Of course there are class struggles, which lead to a murder mystery and a violent uprising. I think this show comes closest to the feeling of Game of Thrones, with its social order of dangerous, depraved haves and rebellious have-nots with nothing to lose, where life is cheap and justice and equality are unheard of. And I’m always thrilled to see my ‘90s crush Jennifer Connelly and the multitalented Daveed Diggs in anything.
8. The Good Place s4 (NBC) – We got the final four episodes of this triumphant show way back in January, which feels like a lifetime ago. A rare show that cracked us up, kept us guessing, and stealthily gave us ideas for how to be better people, The Good Place offered us humor, hope, and love over the last four years when we really needed all of the above. It culminated in a finale that was both beautiful and sad. I will never forget this show, and I’ll never stop recommending it.
7. Perry Mason s1 (HBO) – A wonderful neo-noir with a fantastic cast headlined by Matthew Rhys, Tatiana Maslany, Shea Whigham, and John Lithgow. Here, Perry Mason is a rumpled, low-rent detective in 1930s L.A., but the season is his origin story for becoming a legendary trial attorney. It’s another bleak and grim show, but we don’t watch noir for moral uplift or happy endings, do we? It’s gorgeous to look at and remarkably well made in every aspect. I hope HBO makes more.
6. Schitt’s Creek s6 (Netflix) – Now here’s a show we watch for moral uplift and happy endings. My wife and I had never seen this show or even heard much about it until it won all of the Emmys earlier this year, so we binged all six seasons and fell in love with it, after a slow start. This is the epitome of a feel-good show, detailing a rich, spoiled family’s fall from grace, and how they had to lose everything to learn how to be good people. The admittedly lousy town of Schitt’s Creek changed the Roses for the better, but they changed the town and its inhabitants for the better as well. Everyone made the most of their opportunities to grow and change, learned humility, and found success, friendship, love, and happiness they never dreamed would be possible. Who couldn’t use some of that right now? The last three episodes of the sixth and final season are just one scene of pure joy after another, and I guarantee you’ll cry happy tears when you aren’t laughing.
5. Ted Lasso s1 (Apple TV+) – Maybe the most pleasant surprise of 2020, an Apple TV+ show from Bill Lawrence, the creator of the great sitcom Scrubs, starring the affable Saturday Night Live alumnus Jason Sudeikis in the role he was born to play. Ted Lasso is a genial Midwestern college football coach hired to come to England to manage a struggling soccer team. He takes the gig, despite knowing next to nothing about soccer. But the show is first and foremost a character piece about one of the biggest mensches in fiction, right up there with Superman, Captain America, and Special Agent Dale Cooper. He’s a kind, empathetic, patient, loyal, and surprisingly wise mentor, friend, and boss. He helps, uplifts, and improves the lives of everyone he encounters. There is no cynicism here, but don’t get me wrong – it’s not a saccharine-sweet, glurgy, preachy show either. I hate that stuff, so don’t worry. Also, it is often hilarious. While I harbored concerns about a show in 2020 about a clearly mediocre and undeserving white dude who gets rewarded with a good job he doesn’t belong in, I was proven wrong. Coach Lasso’s empathy and humanity make him the right man for the job, and it’s about damn time for that.
4. The Mandalorian s2 (Disney+) – We binged both seasons back to back late this year, and I enjoyed it more than anything Star Wars-related since the original trilogy of my youth. After eight movies in between that ranged from good (Episode VII) to unnecessary (Solo) to terrible (take a guess!), The Mandalorian distilled everything I have always loved about Star Wars and made it into a galaxy-spanning western and a homage to Lone Wolf and Cub. By now, I’m sure you’re familiar with the Beskar-armored bounty hunter who doesn’t remove his helmet for anyone, and the adorable and gifted child under his protection. Season 2 improved on Season 1 in almost every way by introducing new and old allies, raising the stakes, and tying the show into the larger Star Wars continuity. The finale was pure fan-service in the best possible way, but I had plenty of mark-out moments throughout the season, including when one of my favorite actors, associated with other modern badass westerns, showed up as an ally, and when a beloved Star Wars character reappeared for a redemption arc. This show is clearly a labor of love for everyone involved, and it showed.
3. Black Monday s2 (Showtime) – Another show we binged during the pandemic, and very possibly the least-known show in my Top Ten. A Showtime series about Wall Street iconoclasts and schemers set in the late ‘80s, it will bring to mind Scorsese’s excellent Wolf of Wall Street (the funniest movie he ever made) and John Landis’ 1983 classic Trading Places. Yes, it’s a sitcom, but an intricately plotted sitcom about some really smart, really awful people double- and triple-crossing each other as they claw their way to the top, like crabs in a barrel. Full of hilarious ‘80s references, terrible fashions, and ridiculously clever wordplay (from David Caspe, the creator of Happy Endings), this is the best and funniest show you’ve very likely never heard of. And on top of that, it will shock you with some major plot twists along the way. Plus, it stars Don Cheadle, Regina Hall, Andrew Rannells, and Casey Wilson, who elevate almost everything they’re in.
2. AEW Dynamite (TNT) – The hell year 2020 made me a pro wrestling fan again, after I drifted away from WWE 15 years ago, when the great Eddie Guerrero died tragicially. This brand-new wrestling federation owned by billionaire Tony Khan started airing on TNT last fall, but watching Dynamite on Wednesday nights became a pleasant routine for me during the pandemic, and something I would look forward to all week. I thrilled to the in-ring action, learned everything I could about the characters on the screen and their real-life personalities, and became a “mark” for several of the incredibly talented and charismatic performers, who regularly risk their health and safety to tell stories, take bumps, defy gravity, and sometimes bleed for our entertainment. As usual, I gravitated toward underdogs like Orange Cassidy, Sonny Kiss, John Silver, and “The Librarian” Leva Bates, mostly good guys and goofballs. But on AEW, even the main-eventers are all hard workers and generous performers who share the spotlight and don’t make everything all about them.
AEW Dynamite aired my favorite TV moment of 2020: “Le Dinner Debonair,” a taped segment where two pompous heel (bad guy) wrestlers tried to psych each other out over a steak dinner, only to transition into an old-timey Hollywood musical number with full choreography, where they both sang and danced. It was entrancing. This past week, a wrestler who went by the character name Brodie Lee died suddenly. He was a year younger than me, but in peak physical condition, unlike me. He was a giant man who played a convincing heel (bad guy) who I never appreciated enough on screen, but was apparently the nicest guy ever, with a wife and two young sons. Last night I watched the most beautiful episode of Dynamite, a fitting tribute to the man’s career and life, both cut far too short. I cried when they showed a montage of his best moments, set to my musical hero Tom Waits’ song “Ol’ 55.” It was a wrestling show made with care, pride, and love, from people who seem to love their jobs, their craft, and their co-workers. AEW doesn’t seem to suffer from the massive egos and backstage politics of the WCW and WWE, that I used to watch and get frustrated by. The veterans constantly “put over” (elevate) the young talent of tomorrow, and everyone collaborates and supports each other, even while pretending to cause each other grievous bodily harm.
1. Better Call Saul s5 (AMC) – The best-acted, best-written, best show on TV. It fills me with tension and dread the way its predecessor Breaking Bad did, but I argue this prequel/spinoff series has surpassed the original show. I always say comedians make excellent dramatic actors because they have so much inner darkness to draw from, and I think everyone realized that about series lead Bob Odenkirk a long time ago. But this season belonged to the best and most underrated actress on television, Rhea Seehorn, whose character Kim Wexler is the heart and soul of the show. She consistently amazes and astonishes. I’m still hoping for a flash-forward to a happy ending for Jimmy McGill, aka Saul Goodman, but the fact that Kim’s fate remains completely unknown makes her scenes that much more riveting. This might have been the best season yet, and that’s the highest possible praise.
For anyone who cares, here are my lists from 2019 and 2018: