In these (final?) days of Peak TV, shows reach far and wide, from streaming to on demand. Here, I offer the best shows — or at least the ones that I thought were tops — of the very bad 2020 year.
Let the countdown (and conversation) begin!
Almost made it: 15. The Third Day (HBO), 14. What We Do In The Shadows (FX), 13. Devs (FX/Hulu), 12. Ramy (Hulu), 11. I May Destroy You (HBO)
The worst thing about the plethora of television is that there are always exceptional shows that get overlooked. Kidding, though mostly hailed by critics, didn’t catch on as strongly as Showtime would’ve liked. And sadly it will end with this, its second season. The good news is that if the final episode remains the official end, then it works as a satisfying conclusion of the Jim Carey character of Mr. Pickles and his family.
Kidding revolves around Jeff “Pickles” Piccirillo and a personal calamity which no parent should face, which leads to the divorce of Mr. Pickles and his wife, played by Judy Greer.
Everyone in this quirky black comedy matured in ways that were surprising yet heartfelt and real. Carey’s version of a Mr. Rogers character was warm without being annoyingly saccharine; his family — a wonderful cast from sister Catherine Kenner to ex-wife Judy Greer, from father Frank Langella to son Cole Allen — were both melancholy and hilarious often in the same breath. It’s too bad that the show has come to an end, but everyone’s arc landed nicely. And there’s nothing wrong with nice.
Where the hell did Dave come from? Had you told me that I’d not just deeply enjoy but also be moved by the antics of a white rapper Dave, a.k.a Lil’ Dicky, and his attempts to break into the music industry in Los Angeles, I would’ve scoffed loudly. But Dave went above and beyond the usual hijinks, first by examining how recklessly focusing on work can lead to abandonment and second by being downright funny. That’s not to mention how it deftly handled such topics as mental health, friendship, and self awareness.
Dave was reportedly FX Network’s most successful comedy and deservedly so. Dave Burd’s dry and straightforward delivery paired with hype man GaTa’s generous and tempered-yet-effervescent personality made the show a great hang; the writing propelled it into a touching, albeit goofy, portrait of an artist deep in his craft, dick jokes and all. And none of it would’ve worked had Dave not had the bars. The end of first episode establishes that and more.
How To With John Wilson
If a filmmaker or artist can take the mundane, hold it in a different sort of light, and uncover the true depth of — dare I say — the human experience, then I’m all in. John Wilson did just that with the inane, funny, and occasionally somber HBO docuseries How To With John Wilson.
Ostensibly never leaving his camera behind in his New York apartment, Wilson focuses its lens and his eye towards the banal with each episode beginning with a simple premise: making small talk, covering furniture, making risotto, or constructing scaffolds. The end result each time has Wilson enraptured by the citizens of the world, allowing for a perfect and engaging intersection of the normal and the spiritual without forcing the result. If it sounds ridiculous or hyperbolic, give it a try. You tell me. With his irregular cadence that screams of doubt in an unpredictable world, Wilson still confidently guides viewers through life and the beauty of the every day where images matter either for jest or for solemnity or, as often is the case, both.
In a year where damn near anything could’ve happened (and usually did), no one should be surprised that a series based on an NBC advertisement for the Premier League became one of the best pieces of television of the year. And on Apple TV+, no less!
Instead, Jason Sudeikis’s former college football coach Ted Lasso helped make it happen. Within the opening minutes of the first episode, Ted, with friend Coach Beard, up and moves to England to coach a struggling (and fictional) Premier League club which has as many troubles off the pitch as it does on it.
Sudeikis, and co-stars Hannah Waddingham, Jeremy Swift, Phil Dunster, and Brett Goldstein bring to life funny, believable, lovable, and hurt characters who comforted all of us during some of the darker days of the year. Each time the show could’ve gone cynical, it didn’t, and those swerves felt more surprising than anything else on television in 2020. Heart warming? Yes, but always satisfying and never irritating. Ted Lasso the show and Ted Lasso the character were a perfectly cozy blanket, fresh out of the dryer, wrapping us all a cold, wintery world. No one who watched Ted Lasso complained. Perhaps we all needed this level of sincerity. Or perhaps we’ve all grown too pessimistic ourselves. Either way, Ted Lasso was there for you.
Better Call Saul
The feat of Better Call Saul never gets old. Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan take characters whose fates have been mostly sealed in Breaking Bad and continue to keep viewers on the edge of their seats on what happens next.
At this point, Bob Odenkirk has gone from earnest lawyer to full-on scoundrel. The bigger twists come from the wonderful Rhea Seahorn as girlfriend Kim Wexler and the surprise appearance of the excellent Tony Dalton, who plays Lalo, mentioned in passing in the parent series.
This fifth and penultimate season of Better Call Saul cast no doubt that it is now better than its predecessor. If that’s blasphemy, then so be it, but tying together storylines of present-day Saul/Gene, Mike and his devolution into the life of crime, Kim Wexler and her surprising involvement, and pre-Breaking Bad Jimmy/Saul and drug lord Gus amazes in every episode. The quality never dips. Though it can feel like separate shows wrapped into the same hour, Better Call Saul also never confuses or bores. Plus, its pathos runs deep; though we know the outcome, every beat hits. No television fan should miss it.
The New Pope
The picturesque beauty of The New Pope could help it crack a best-of list, but the performing, writing, directing, scoring, and editing come together to make this sequel-series explore its weighty themes with a vernacular that feels all new and funny as hell.
Sure, Jude Law returned as the “young pope” from HBO’s first season, uniquely titled The Young Pope, but it is John Malkovich doing the heavy lifting in the early episodes of The New Pope. As John Brannox, Malkovich quietly ached while still garnering adulations of both the Church and Catholics alike. Crucial, too, was the elevation of Silvio Orlando’s scheming Cardinal Voiello and Cécile de France’s pained Sophia Dubois. The overall idea was simple enough: as Pope Pius (Jude Law) is stuck in a coman, the Church needs a new pope. Who is amenable enough for Voiello? It seems like Malkovich’s oppulent Brannox is until he isn’t.
Director and creator Paolo Sorrentino deftly and weirdly managed to mold a modest idea into themes of insecurity, loss, love, human connection, and betrayal. It is a marvel that’s so well paced that you forget that you’re several episodes deep before Law’s Pope Pius awakes from his coma. The New Pope is eye opening in more ways than one.
Easily one of the best Stephen King adaptations for any screen, The Outsider was propelled to excellence by both the writing from the renown mystery author Richard Price and the acting from the stellar cast of Ben Mendelsohn, Cynthia Erivo, and Bill Camp. Based around the murder of a small town child, Mendelsohn helmed the case as a detective with his own set of trials as Erivo comes in to help. It doesn’t hurt that Erivo’s Holly Gibney is one of King’s more famous character who has a definite perceptiveness on what lies beneath facades.
The right blend of horror, supernatural, crime thriller, and mystery made the show addictive. The gentle handling of loss and trauma put it at the top of the best shows of the year. This was easily one of the most entertaining shows of the year.
Perhaps outside of the hands of Price, Medelsohn, and Erivo, The Outsider would’ve been kitschy or just another in a long line of semi-affective frights; however, Medelsohn and Mare Winningham, who plays the gruff investigator’s accessible wife, made the unbelievable too real and portrayed palpable emotion behind the notions of monsters in our midst.
The Good Lord Bird
History tells a slightly different version of the famous abolitionist John Brown, but James McBride’s novel The Good Lord Bird, which Ethan Hawke adapts for this Showtime miniseries, sticks to truthful outline: Brown (played by Hawke), sick of the slow-moving progress to end slavery once and for all, incites violence in order to exacerbate a civil war in the United States. Tangled up in his plan are his sons, various gunmen, and a curious (and Shakespearean) case of a young slave who is mistaken for a girl whom Brown insists on calling “Onion” after he helps set the young man free.
It’s through the Onion’s eyes in which viewers see all the action, both a bold and hilarious move straight from McBride’s narrative. Onion has been almost nowhere, so the pre-Civil War America is inviting and terrorizing. In his breakthrough, actor Joshua Caleb Johnson shines bright — not an easy task when Ethan Hawke is giving the performance of a lifetime as the deranged John Brown. Just how deranged is Brown? That will be up to viewers. What’s not up for debate is the power Hawke brings from the sparkle in Brown’s eyes to the gravelly voice he employs to let on years of anger and hardship in the sake of a just cause.
Frederick Douglass (Daveed Diggs) makes an appearance as does Harriet Tubman (Zainab Jah) and J.E.B. Stuart (Wyatt Russell), all of whom played a role in the real life of John Brown. However, it’s the unknown and mostly fictional characters who paint the picture of the absurdity and horror of slavery. Amazingly, the show never zipping at light speed and elevating the painful into entertaining while still reminding us that we all have a lot of work to do that John Brown was unable to finish.
I Know This Much Is True
Based on the novel by Wally Lamb, I Know This Much Is True features a powerhouse performance from Mark Ruffalo — it is a devastatingly mind-blowing work as he plays both of the troubled twins, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey.
This is one of those shows that has to come with the disclaimer that it is not for the faint of heart. For viewers who don’t know from Lamb’s novel, the story involves Thomas, who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia and who has to lean heavily on his brother Dominick, who is not without his own problems. Dominick must reckon with a recent divorce and a struggle with life as a house painter. Without spoiling too much, know that things go from bad to worse, but they do so in a way that teeters on the precipice of unwatchable agony to revelatory sadness on humanity where all of us have to deal with loss and failure.
I Know This Much Is True will vary with viewers, but for me, its tragedies stuck. That’s in part to the acting of Ruffalo, but also a credit to how it was filmed. Its distinct look puts it right in the setting of the early 90s and creates a grainy and hyper-real memory.
No other show tapped into familial heartbreak as this one. Grab some Kleenex and prepare for the worst.
From the 2018 book by Sally Rooney with same name, there’s nothing extraordinary about Normal People save that it is note perfect in every way.
The story is as old as time: a couple meet, a couple fall in love, and a couple come and go from one another’s lives. That’s it.
But the way in which the series is shot, intimate and vast simultaneously, feels lived in and bone-deep with melancholy and joy; no highs felt higher and no lows sunk nearly as low from television this year.
Not to mention the perfect casting: the young man Connell is played by Paul Mescal and his sometimes friend, sometimes love interest Daisy is brought to life by Daisy Edgar-Jones. Neither of these actors miss a beat.
The show does ambiguity and certainty in the right moments, much of which is a credit to Rooney’s novel; however, where the novel feels plain but interesting on the page, the miniseries soars by hitting every nerve of an array of emotions. If you’ve felt it, it’s here on the screen.
It’s amazing and enthralling to feel love and hate for Connell and Daisy, often all at once. It’s part of being human and few shows captured the simplicity and complexity of that as much as Normal People.
Check back at The Alabama Take soon for the worst of television in 2020.