This year may have been a down year at the theater, but the same can’t be said about the world of television. With the world shut down and everyone stuck at home, there was no shortage of time available to dive into all the newest shows and series.
From the early quarantine essentials like “Too Hot To Handle” and “Tiger King,” to the more recent hits like “The Queen’s Gambit” and Season 2 of “The Mandalorian,” there’s been no shortage of new content to binge this year. For me, I balanced my viewing by using this time to catch up on the biggest shows I’ve missed over the last year or so – like finishing up “Veep” (Incredible!) or finally committing to “Succession” (Also incredible!) – but I’ve also rewatched some old favorites like “Community” and a few seasons of “Survivor,” and still managed to squeeze in 15 new series from 2020.
Some of the shows that are likely to top others’ lists won’t be found on mine, and that’s simply because I haven’t gotten around to watching them yet. So, all you “Queen’s Gambit” and “Schitt’s Creek” fans, don’t fret. Your time will come. Others, like “The Flight Attendant” and “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” are still a work in progress, and thus ineligible.
So, enough rambling. Let’s get down to the five best television shows of 2020.
These shows were almost there, but not quite. I still enjoyed them immensely, whether they were a genuine delight or a guilty pleasure, but they just couldn’t crack the Top 5. Shame not to mention them, though.
“The Last Dance,” “#blackAF,” “Outer Banks”
5. “The Haunting of Bly Manor” (Netflix)
In 2018, “The Haunting of Hill House” came in as one of my favorite TV shows of the year, and now Mike Flanagan has done it again. With “Bly Manor,” Flanagan and Co. traded in the sheer terror and jump scares for a more toned down sense of despair, and went heavier on the romance. At its core, “Bly Manor” is a love story, and it’s told through a number of relationships – both delightful and toxic. The show features stellar performances across the board, but Victoria Pedretti, Amelia Eve and T’Nia Miller stand out above the rest as true stars. After another solid entry in the “Haunting” franchise, excitement for where they go next is at an all-time high.
Best Episode: “The Beast in the Jungle”
4. “Survivor: Winners at War” (CBS)
Anyone who knows me knows of my undying love for “Survivor.” While most folks are just now rediscovering the beloved reality competition thanks to a two-season experiment on Netflix, I’ve been here from Day One. With that dedication comes a long list of ideas for potential season themes, and at the top has always been a “Hunger Games”-style Quarter Quell pitting former victors against each other. Well, it looks like my yearly tweets to Jeff Probst paid off, because that’s exactly what “Winners at War” did for the historic 40th season, and boy, did it pay off. The world was once again reminded why “Survivor” is appointment viewing, and fans new and old were treated to a season filled with masterful gameplay. It may not be the best season ever, but it’s pretty darn close, and a lock for Top 5.
Best Episode: “This Is Extortion” and “Friendly Fire” – The greatest two-episode stretch by a single player in the show’s 20-year history.
3. “The Mandalorian” Season 2 (Disney+)
Season 1 of “The Mandalorian” set the bar high, delivering some of the best “Star Wars” content ever, regardless of medium. Season 2 took everywhere that the show succeeded and expanded – and even corrected the nitpicks, too. This time around, the serial western style was still present, but creator Jon Favreau and executive producer Dave Filoni also leaned heavily into the ever-expanding “Star Wars” universe by bringing in characters, locations and plot points from the films, animated shows and even expanded universe books. While simultaneously growing the series on a massive scale, at its core, the show stayed true to itself, focusing on a bounty hunter and his little green companion.
But that finale though?! Bring on Season 3 and “The Book of Boba Fett.”
Best Episode: “Chapter 16: The Rescue”
2. “Normal People” (Hulu)
While I may not have been completely enamored by Sally Rooney’s novel, that was not the case with its TV adaptation – and the main reason was its two breakout stars. While the series is extremely true to its source material, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones’s ability to bring the emotion and nuance to life on screen is just devastating. On top of the sheer power behind its leading actors, “Normal People” is easily the most beautifully shot show created this year. Each episode series cinematographers Suzie Lavelle and Kate McCullough deliver stunning shot after stunning shot, whether it’s a sweeping countryside or an intimate closeup that says more than any words ever could. It’s simple, it’s stylish, it’s melancholy, it’s honest, and above all else, it just feels so real.
Best Episode: “Episode 6” and “Episode 10”
1. “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+)
In the midst of the darkest year of our lives, we all could use a little dose of optimism from the folksiest, merriest coach to ever exist. Enter, Jason Sudeikis’s “Ted Lasso.” Born of an NBC Sports sketch, the show focuses on the former Wichita State college football coach flown halfway across the world to take the reins of a fictional English Premier League team, despite not even knowing the rules of soccer. That can’t stop Ted Lasso, though, with a never-say-die attitude and a list of encouraging proverbs longer than a CVS receipt, the head coach is bound and determined to get AFC Richmond to the top of the league. Sudeikis provides some of the year’s most hilarious moments onscreen, but in between the jokes, he also shares some of its most tender and touching scenes, too. The best way to describe “Ted Lasso,” is that each episode feels like a warm hug, and in 2020, that’s more than enough to earn the top spot.
Best Episode: “Tan Lines” and “The Hope That Kills You”
Zach Goins is a member of the North Carolina Film Critics Association based in Raleigh, N.C. Zach co-founded Inside The Film Room in 2018 and serves as Editor-in-Chief of the website and co-host of the podcast. Zach also serves as a film critic for CLTure.org.