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BEST OF 2020: TELEVISION
As the year draws to a close, my Best of 2020 series continues. Yesterday’s article looked back at the documentaries that shook my year, and now, with just a day left of this decade long year, it’s time for the best in television. In no order, here are my ten favorites you should take a look at. No time like the present.
In an extremely volatile year that finally began to see incremental movements towards tearing down the systemic racism and rampant abuse of minorities plaguing America, nothing else stood out as loud as LOVECRAFT COUNTRY, released early in the fall. Adapted from the episodic novel by Matt Ruff, showrunner Misha Green smartly elected to emphasize political elements through genre conventions, making COUNTRY feel both era-appropriate as well as immensely timely.
Led by a staggering cast of actors, namely Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, Michael K. Williams, Wunmi Mosaku, and Abbey Lee Kershaw, COUNTRY is a rarity in a post-GAME OF THRONES world. It brought people back to the water coolers, each weekly episode igniting fierce debate and conversation worldwide. Wild, brave, and entirely unbound by regular conventions, LOVECRAFT COUNTRY is a brilliant, poetic, and visually stunning revelation that television needed this year. It’s not perfect, but even its failures feel like achievements.
Strike this one up as the unexpected black sheep of the year. A remake of the 1950s show, itself based on even older books, MASON doesn’t on paper sound like a surefire bet. At worst, there was a risk of the series arriving dated before it even aired, especially into a tumultuous year like this one.
So how refreshing it is to find that PERRY MASON isn’t just smart and nuanced, but timely and astute as well. Maturely discussing the systemic corruption behind the thin blue line, MASON blends past and present together as it brings post-world war Los Angeles, to life in a riveting way. Even better is its ardent refusal to treat its protagonist as an infallible hero but to showcase just how easily broken individuals can set themselves on a path for good with the right friends around them.
THE EXPANSE SEASON 5
One of the few consistently good sci-fi shows out there, THE EXPANSE continues to impress with long-form storytelling that refuses to take the easy way out. With an immense cast of characters, dozens of important locations, and a complex, smartly drafted interplanetary political system in place, the Amazon series is the definition of grand space opera.
With Season 5, the series is finally gearing up for the finale next year, and the pieces are moving into place at a rapid pace. There are cataclysmic events with lasting consequences, epic space fights, and intense comeuppances of past wrongs, and each time, THE EXPANSE remains true to its characters. Not even BATTLESTAR GALACTICA managed to last this long before it began to implode, yet THE EXPANSE shows no signs of slowing. Here’s hoping the show sticks the landing in 2021.
THE GOOD PLACE SEASON 4
One of the unexpected treasures of modern-day comedies, THE GOOD PLACE concludes with a brilliant and heartfelt final that is as inevitable and bittersweet as life itself. Wrapping up the affairs of every major and minor character would seem like a daunting task. Still, the series has always loved every one of its players in a way that nothing feels forced, and everything comes full circle organically.
There are still many laughs to be had, but the final three episodes, each depicting the long-lasting consequences of eternity, are some of the finest hours on television. Saying more would spoil it, but I can’t wait to restart the whole series from the beginning, just to catch what I missed the first time. This just might be a perfect show.
THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA
PLOT AGAINST asks the impossible in the very first episode: What if the Nazis had won? Not through violence or war, though that is still happening overseas, but through negligence and blindness, where good people do nothing to stand against growing fascism. Based on Phillip Roth’s book, which ties together his childhood experiences of growing up as a Jew in the New York suburbs, PLOT AGAINST is an unexpectedly resonant depiction of what is happening right now.
Led by a stellar ensemble of character actors, PLOT AGAINST is a densely lyrical depiction of society collapsing from the top down, where each episode fills with even more profound despair than the last. This isn’t fun viewing by any means, but it’s the kind of richly rewarding storytelling that lingers in the mind for months afterward. Watching the current elections in the states and the rise of nationalist populism at home, one can’t feel that PLOT AGAINST just might not be about the past at all, but a very near future.
THE OUTSIDER started the year in the second week of January, yet the haunting and terrifying mini-series still lingers in the back of my head. From the horrific opening, depicting the brutal murder of a child, to the intense showdown against metaphysical evil, this Stephen King adaptation (mostly) doesn’t miss a single beat.
With a wealth of terrific characters and a dense, cliffhanger-heavy structure, THE OUTSIDER was one of the most compelling things to kick off the year. For those of us who hadn’t read the book, the mystery unraveled at just the right pace, unearthing new twists and turns almost every half hour. The opening episodes, directed by Jason Reitman, are the best in the season. As a bonus, the intense finale ranks high up there as a King rarity: A satisfying conclusion to an unsatisfying answer.
Like THE PLOT AGAINST AMERICA, this is a show about the past, but really talking about the present. Led by a terrifying Cate Blanchett in a steely, ice-cold part of Phyllis Schlafly, the conservative voice behind attempts to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment, MRS AMERICA explores the frightening clarity with which others try to dictate the lives of the many.
Another ensemble piece, MRS AMERICA is at its best allowing a robust cast of women to stretch their acting muscles like they rarely get to, and the results are mesmerizing. There isn’t a single lesser performance here, each bringing their A-game to brilliantly poignant writing and directing. Like PLOT AGAINST, it’s a show you might not want to revisit due to the subject matter immediately, but one you won’t easily forget.
Another unexpected surprise, but a wholly welcome one, BETTY is a superb coming-of-age docudrama from the streets of New York. Crafted in the image of its charming cast, every episode of the skateboarding slice of life show impresses with an authenticity you rarely find anymore.
The cast, all more or less first time actors, are particularly impressive, each playing variations of themselves in semi-fictional storylines. Unafraid to openly discuss the darker shades of growing up in modern society, BETTY is equally emotionally draining as it is rewarding. Without heavy-handedness or clumsy underlining, it effortlessly deals with sexual and racial inequality with the kind of voice depictions like these needed. And when the time comes to skateboard, director Crystal Moselle ascends the show into a dreamlike wonderland, where twilight hours stretch into forever, and nothing can touch our heroes – not traffic, nor time.
OZARK SEASON 3
Initially easily dismissed as a sub-BREAKING BAD or BETTER CALL SAUL, OZARK has carved its place as a high-quality prestige drama on Netflix. With classy directing from Jason Reitman, who has grown into one of the finest craftsmen behind the camera, to the best ever acting from Laura Linney, every single episode of OZARK leaves you breathless with talent.
The series is now winding up for its finale next year, and it’s not a minute too soon. Shows about people running from the inevitable eventually turn ludicrous as they invent more reasons for the story to go on. But OZARK has so far stood above all that, crafting smart and deliberate storylines each season that feels neither forced nor contrived. With the final episode of season 3 leaving a clear ending in sight, it’s going to be a blazing spectacle to see our leading duo finally reach a conclusion we’ve been dreading.
What We Do in the Shadows Season 2
How WHAT WE DO managed to pull off this feat, I will never know. It’s a spin-off from one of the funniest cult classics in recent memory that not only works but expands the material into a comedy spectacle that consistently delights and impresses. After a slightly slow beginning, the sophomore season piles on the stakes(!) into wonderfully surreal levels, introducing entirely new clans and bafflingly convoluted rituals into the fray.
The cast of Nandor, Lazlo, Njadja, Colin Robinson, and the put-upon Guillermo are still some of the most charming goofballs on TV, and each of their personal story arcs gets surprisingly engaging developments as the lunacy progresses. Robinson is a particular stand out, realizing his powers of telling dad-jokes cause more harm than merely boring people to death. With a third season on the way, WHAT WE DO has the potential to become an all-time great.