Well, this year certainly happened. Months felt like years, weeks felt like seconds, and time generally stopped making sense sometimes around mid-March. Sometime it felt like the only way to mark time was knowing certain events would definitely happen on a certain date, like television show premiere dates.
As in every year, not every season of television in 2020 was a hit, but some of them were truly transcendent. For every forgettable steaming release there was another standout new show or returning season of excellent entertainment that kept their audience’s brains occupied and fascinated by their storytelling, characters, and all around ability to transport people from the reality of 2020 to literally anywhere else.
Here are Mashable’s picks for best TV shows of 2020, excluding miniseries and presented in the order they premiered this year.
1. Little America
It feels a little trite to say that an anthology about immigrants is the most imperative show in a world divided, but AppleTV’s series from Kumail Nanjiani, Alan Yang, and Emily V. Gordon showcases exceptional storytelling unlike anything else on TV. American culture in particular is in the middle of a sea change; too much of the media we previously sanctified is whitewashed, appropriative, and heteronormative. Too long have we when we could achieve so much more by telling the stories of those who are shut out, oppressed, and othered.
Television alone does not yield social change, but it creates conversation, and it has the power to humanize people and stories by bringing them into our homes. Little America does that with simple, powerful immigrant stories. Large swathes of Americans will never meet people like Ai (Angela Lin), Iwegbuna (Conphidance), or Marisol (Jearnest Corchado), but the first step to dismantling an irrational fear of those you don’t know is to get to know them, to see them as people. Only then can you care, and maybe even act on it.* -Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
2. Mythic Quest
Apple TV+ has quite a gem in Brought to us by the creative minds behind It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the comedy series explores life inside a video game development studio across nine half-hour episodes (plus a tenth ). What makes the series work is a mix of strong, well-drawn characters and writing that seems to understand the often-mysterious video game industry. There are top-notch performances from the likes of Rob McElhenney, Charlotte Nicdao, Jessie Ennis, and all the rest, as well as what may be the single-best half-hour of TV this year in , „Dark Quiet Death.“* –Adam Rosenberg, Senior Reporter/Weekend Editor
Picking up right after the devastating final moments of Season 1, returned to pull off, , a “magic trick.” No other show on television could bring its audience to a whimsical world of f-bomb dropping puppets, begin an episode with a flashback to one of the Dalai Lama’s past lives, and get Ariana Grande to cameo for a 30-minute musical episode about divorce while keeping its story on the rails, but Kidding makes it look effortless. Jim Carrey was nominated for a Golden Globe last year for his performance as Jeff, the repressed television host at the center of Kidding; Season 2 should absolutely net him a win.*
4. Better Call Saul
In Season 5, Better Call Saul somehow found ways to continue surprising us. It’s no secret where Jimmy ends up — we’ve all seen Breaking Bad — and still the show has managed to throw us curveballs we didn’t expect, wringing real tension from his ever-more-tangled dealings with the cartel and the consequences that ripple outward as a result. The biggest shock of all, however, came in the finale, and from a direction we never saw coming. With one unnerving conversation, the series reframed our entire understanding of one of its most beloved characters, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn). Where she goes from here, we couldn’t begin to guess — but we can’t wait to find out. –Angie Han, Deputy Entertainment Editor
5. Harley Quinn
Congrats to Harley Quinn for being one of the few Big Two superheroes — well, supervillains — to make it out of 2020 better off than she was at its start. On the big screen, she had the big-screen spectacular Birds of Prey. On the small one, she had the arguably even better Harley Quinn, which in its second season improved upon its already-pretty-great first season. Come for the uproarious sendups of fan-favorite characters and meta subversions of classic tropes; stay for the thoughtful character growth and a superpowered love story for the ages. (Sorry, Kite Man.) -A.H.
Where to watch: HBO Max
Absence makes the TV fan’s heart grow fonder, but so does exceptional quality in every aspect of production. had both working in its favor, returning after a nearly two-year hiatus with arguably its strongest season yet. Issa (Issa Rae) hits a career milestone by finally throwing a legendary block party, but the success is punctured by a growing rift with her and Molly (Yvonne Orji) brought on by poor communication, old misconceptions, and simply being at different stages in every aspect of their lives.
Their separate paths draw out strong solo performances from Rae and Orji, as well as giving spotlight to Alexander Hodge as Molly’s new boyfriend and the ever-charismatic return of Jay Ellis as Lawrence. There are still doses of old-school nonsense, particularly with Kelli (Natasha Rothwell, who’s fake British accent bit should create an Emmy category for hyperspecific scene-stealing), but the season’s theme, hinted at in episode titles, is low-key grown-up.* –P.K.
7. What We Do In The Shadows
It’s a neat trick that What We Do in the Shadows pulls off: Somehow, this is both one of the most surprising shows on television, and one of the most consistent. We never know, tuning in week to week, where the episode might take us. It could be next door for a “Superb Owl” party, or into a Brooklyn beauty shop owned by witches, or all the way to small-town Pennsylvania to meet a mysterious human bartender named “Jackie Daytona.” But we know we can rely on the series to deliver each time on that same intoxicating mix of fish-out-of-water humor, petty roommate grievances, and bloody mythology, with just a dash of epic drama.
Season 2 saw the series really come into its own, expanding its universe and ramping up the tension with Guillermo’s ongoing journey of self-discovery, while doubling down on the same quirkiness that made Season 1 and the original movie so endearing. But really, this is a show where the best scene is whichever one you’re watching at the time, and the best character is whoever is onscreen at the moment.* –A.H.
8. My Brilliant Friend
In the time between Seasons 1 and 2 of HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novels, I’ll admit: I forgot that My Brilliant Friend existed. But from the moment it returned, my TV viewing suddenly coalesced around the hour I spent each week with this striking piece of television. My Brilliant Friend follows best friends Lila (Gaia Girace) and Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) and their neighborhood outside of Naples, a small but engrossing community that will envelope a viewer as much as any of its fictitious inhabitants. In the neighborhood, everyone knows the ins and outs of each other’s lives and nonconformity is anathema.
Yet nonconformity continues to follow Lila and Lenu in Season 2, even with the former married and the latter moving forward in her quest for higher education. Lila has to put her smarts to use in machinating for power in an abusive marriage, while Lenu fights to be taken seriously in academia — either with pretentious men who think they know better or with Lila herself, who resents her friend’s freedom. While the return of supreme fuckboy Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico) drives an unremarkable wedge between the young women, My Brilliant Friend is a show that makes watching real-life discomfort cathartic, if not healing, set against the breathtaking beaches of Ischia and Max Richter’s moving score. Rarely is a show so beautiful and captivating, so transporting that you’ll need a moment after each episode to shake it off and remember reality.* -P.K.
9. Never Have I Ever
Coming-of-age comedies are a dime a dozen, but we’ve never seen one quite like Never Have I Ever. For starters, it’s the rare high school show with an Indian-American girl as its protagonist (Devi, played by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan). For another, it’s narrated by tennis legend John McEnroe, of all freaking people. For yet another, underneath all the uproariously teen hijinks, it turns out to be a sensitive exploration of guilt and grief. We laughed, we cried, we came around on poor little rich boy Ben, we wondered if Devi was kind of a terrible person (she is!), and we loved her all the more for it.-A.H.
Where to watch:
10. The Great
Catherine the Great’s dramatic life story is already TV-ready. Add in Tony McNamara, the writer behind The Favourite, however, and you’ve got an arch, at the beginning of her life at court. Deliciously played by Elle Fanning and with an Emmy-worthy Nicholas Hoult as her angry, clueless new husband, this liberty-taking version of her life is so, so much fun.
In an age with tons of TV, things get repetitive; congrats and huzzah to Hulu for trying something so memorably original. A near-perfect 10 episode extravaganza that we hope sees a Season 2. The adventure has really just begun, after all.* -Erin Strecker, Entertainment Editor
11. The Baby-Sitters Club
Can you invite a show over for a sleepover? Because that’s all we wanted to do while watching the deeply charming, sweet, and smart Baby-Sitters Club, based on the beloved book series and thoughtfully updated for today’s 12 year olds — and their parents. It’s a feminist dream, and just plain fun.
Season 1 follows the storylines in the first handful of books — starting their club, dealing with parent drama, figuring out who you are — and the cast of newcomers all shine (parents played by Alicia Silverstone and Marc Evan Jackson are equally delightful). The Baby-Sitters Club is honestly just a wonderful example that demonstrates how really stellar shows can be enjoyed by everyone, regardless of whether you’re the target demographic or not. Long live ingenuity, girl power, and the BSC. -E.S.
Where to watch: Netflix
12. Ted Lasso
In a year where cheer and goodwill often seemed in short supply, Ted Lasso was more than happy to offer both. Jason Sudeikis put aside his usual snarky charm to star as Ted, an American football coach who tackles his new gig coaching British soccer with the same unflappable optimism he brings to everything else, leading to all the goofy fish-out-of-water gags you’d expect — and a layer of thoughtful empathy that you might not. Channeling the coziness of Schitt’s Creek and the generosity of Friday Night Lights, Ted Lasso served as a reminder that the world really can be a better place when we try to be kind. –A.H.
Where to watch: Apple TV+
13. Lovecraft Country
The Mashable review of Lovecraft Country described the first five episodes as “wild.” There was no way to know how wild the show was going to get. Lovecraft was ambitious and attempted to rewrite the white supremacist legacy of H.P. Lovecraft by using his concepts to examine the eldritch horrors of racism by anchoring tales of adventure, science fiction, and magic in Black American experiences. It was messy, perhaps not earning its ending but taking the audience on a ride so unpredictable Season 1 could almost be watched as an anthology. At its best, Lovecraft Country was brilliant and thought-provoking, and even its worst gave the audience enough material to tease out meanings and subtleties for themselves.
Where to watch: HBO
14. The Boys
What’s most impressive about The Boys Season 2 is how it weaves its way carefully through a laundry list of issues and ideas that are both current and deeply relatable. The result is a story that feels even more possible and grounded in a plausible reality than Season 1 managed. As one character says, so relatably, part of the way through the second season: „If you jump ship and you let the assholes steer, then you’re part of the problem.“
In Season 2, the real heroes are the ones who voluntarily choose to not be part of the problem. They don’t jump ship. They don’t run away. They stand their ground and own their place in the world, for better and for worse. In that way, this is a story of resistance. It’s a showcase of how the shadowy powers-that-be can operate behind the scenes to pull the wool over society’s eyes. It’s also about how easily such illusions crumble when regular people wake up and pay attention. –A.R.
Where to watch: Amazon Prime Video
15. The Crown
It was the season many Crown fans were waiting for since the moment the epic, sprawling series was first announced, and Season 4, with the arrival of Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), did not disappoint.
Pick your thrill: viewers got to luxuriate watching Anderson’s Thatcher and Olivia Colman’s Queen go toe to toe while also keeping a phone or laptop at the ready to Google the real story behind every terrible thing Charles (the excellent Josh O’Connor) did in the ’80s. The show reminded us why so many people remain deeply fascinated by this troubled, privileged family. Episodes zeroed in on dramatized moments (like standout „Terra Nullius,“ when Charles and Diana go to Australia) that perfectly encapsulated larger relationship themes. If a feeling of doom overtakes you as the series goes, well, it’s a sad, lonely world inside Buckingham Palace. We’ll enjoy Corrin rollerskating down its stunning hallways while we can. –E.S.
Where to watch: Netflix
*This show writeup also appeared on Mashable’s The 15 best TV shows of 2020 (so far) list published on June 24, 2020.