At this point, end-of-the-year “best of” lists are de rigueur. Whether it’s Vulture or Good Housekeeping, the best shows, podcasts or memes, there is a place and an audience for everything. As David Letterman discovered 35 years ago when he debuted his first Top Ten List, “Top Ten Words That Almost Rhyme with ‘Peas,’” we humans just love lists. They help us organize and manage reality.
But in a year where reality went completely off the rails, the standard “best of” tropes seem out of touch. When it comes to TV, “The Good Place” ended its story of four dead losers and a demon learning to become better people in January, and the ending was brilliant, but it might as well have happened in January 1820, it seems so long ago. “Modern Family” likewise finished its groundbreaking, 11-season run on April 8, but who was paying any attention? We were all too busy figuring out how to ensure we had enough toilet paper.
In 2020 the best TV was whatever got you through the night.
Meanwhile, in March, everyone was talking about Netflix’s “Tiger King” like it was the next “Making a Murderer.” In fact it was a rambling, often mean-spirited mess that went from trying to offer a glimpse into the strange and troubling world of private tiger ownership to taking delight in the breakdown of one subject and the persecution of another.
But it was March, everything was falling apart, and “The Jerry Springer Show” but with tigers was the escape we needed. In this time when we have been forced to isolate from one another, the shared experience of TV has taken on new significance. We were all watching “Tiger King” in March, “The Last Dance” in May, “The Queen’s Gambit” and “The Mandalorian” in November. Part of what made those experiences so satisfying was knowing everyone else was doing it too. To watch what everyone was talking about was to feel less alone.
In 2020 the best TV was whatever got you through the night. Sometimes that meant brilliant new series like HBO’s “I May Destroy You,” about a young British Black woman trying to put her life back together after she has been assaulted, or Hulu’s “Mrs. America,” which explores the stories of women on both sides of the battle over the Equal Rights Amendment.
In a year where you couldn’t go to the movies, theater or concerts, everything became TV.
Often, though, it wasn’t new shows but old ones that offered comfort. Some of the best TV for me in 2020 was “Halt and Catch Fire,” AMC’s “Early Days of Computers” series, which over the course of four seasons became an incredible story of forgiveness and enduring friendship in an industry built on breaking things and constant change. It was also rewatching NBC’s tremendous “Parks and Recreation,” which kept giving me reasons to laugh in this terrible year and helped me to remember how good human beings actually are, despite everything.
I also found solace in catching up on great shows that I had previously missed: “Gentleman Jack,” “The Deuce,” “The Outsider,” “Ozark,” “Doom Patrol,” “Steven Universe” and “What We Do in the Shadows.” And many nights I sat with a cup of tea and watched old British detective dramas like “Inspector Morse,” “George Gently” or “Prime Suspect.” They may not have the flash of detective shows today, but in a time when just leaving the house has required complex judgments, their slower pace and simplicity has been deeply reassuring.
To talk about “best TV” just in terms of TV series, though, misses so much of what happened in 2020. In a year where you couldn’t go to the movies, theater or concerts, everything became TV.
Television is a medium for the hungry and the curious, the exhausted and the lonely.
For me, some of the best TV moments of 2020 were the great films I watched on Amazon and Netflix—“37 Seconds,” “The Vast of Night” and “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom”—and productions put up on YouTube: “Take Me to the World: A Stephen Sondheim 90th Birthday Celebration,” which somehow managed to overcome all of the drawbacks of Zoom to offer something truly joyous and hopeful; the Emmy-nominated satirical music videos of Randy Rainbow, which helped us laugh amidst the final awful year of this awful administration; and “8:46,” Dave Chapelle’s fiery stand-up in the midst of the protests against police brutality and racism.
Some of the best TV experiences I have had this year have been the free productions the Metropolitan Opera in New York has been streaming every night since March and the live theater the Old Vic Theatre and Wise Children Touring Theatre Company have begun offering from London. A year ago the idea of streaming a play on your TV or iPad would have seemed terribly unattractive. But right now seeing a talented troupe of actors perform “A Christmas Carol” live on stage is absolute magic.
The best TV of 2020 has been a million smaller things, too—Broadway legend Liz Callaway singing show tunes as she drives around New York; Miley Cyrus, Lizzo, Andrea Bocelliandamillionothers doing concerts and fundraisers from quarantine; crowdsourcedchoirs; ballets like this wonderful at-home performance from Julliard students built around Ravel’s Bolero; film director David Lynch doing a daily weather report; actor John Krasinski’s “Some Good News” YouTube show; even just this husband and wife singing to encourage people to keep going.
In the last 10 years the world of television has become a frenzy of splashy, big-budget shows and streaming services clamoring for our attention. But at its roots television has always been just the latest version of paintings on a cave wall, or Homer wandering around the Mediterranean telling stories. It’s a medium for the hungry and the curious, the exhausted and the lonely. And in 2020 the best TV helped us find hope and one another once again.