“What a great year 2020 was for …” is one of those rare statements that leaves the Internet nearly silent. Greatness was less valued this year than adequacy, and 2-ply won out over 5 stars.
Nonetheless, it was a year when we were a captive audience for what Hollywood put on the small screen. And when you’re trying to escape reality, mediocrity doesn’t cut it. There was a lot thrown against the proverbial wall, and fortunately for us, much of it stuck. But as is often the case these days, it's easy to miss something great as it passes us by. With that in mind, here are 26 gems you may have missed in 2020.
68 Whiskey (CBS All Access)
CBS All Access, the streamer soon to be rebranded Paramount+, is the place to find this Paramount Network comedy about the war in Afghanistan that I enjoyed immensely: “From creator Roberto Benabib and based on the Israeli TV series Charlie Golf One, 68 Whiskey moves confidently into the small but mighty clique of military comedies that balance the absurdist tragedy of war with the intense emotional bonds and improvised code of ethics on the front lines.”
The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock)
This audience-free sketch show from the talented Late Night with Seth Meyers writer was the best new show in what we used to call “late night,” but is viewable anytime on the promising new Peacock streamer. With edgy topical jokes delivered by a host with personality that won’t quit, The Amber Ruffin Show “has embraced the awkward silence and is funnier for it,” I wrote. Peacock
The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix)
Many shows have taken a stab at Gen X/Y nostalgia, but few have met with such critical acclaim as The Baby-Sitters Club, based on the 1980s novels by Ann M. Martin. As Primetimer’s Joe Reid noted, the adaptation “doesn't screamingly announce itself as an edgy re-imagination, but instead harnesses the books’ most enduring appeal: its relatably humane and forthright characters,” making it a shining example of the Comfort TV that so many of us needed in 2020.
This early 2020 favorite of mine has finally arrived on Peacock; add it to your watch list now. Briarpatch “has a lot of things going for it, but let’s start with badass Rosario Dawson,” I wrote in my review. As Allegra Dill, with her stone-cold looks and stone-colder pantsuits, trying to solve a murder while dodging enough creepy men to fill a #metoo memoir,” Dawson embodies the spirit of this campy adaptation of a 1980s pulp fiction novel by former TV critic Andy Greenwald.
Central Park (Apple TV+)
Apple TV+ served up one of 2020’s few animated hits in Central Park, from Josh Gad and Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith of Bob’s Burgers. A musical comedy about a quirky family growing up in (not next to) New York City’s iconic sea of green, Central Park arrived as the first wave of the pandemic was peaking, and as Kayla Cobb put it, was “the Hamilton and Frozen mashup you didn’t know you needed.”
Unfortunately, George Floyd was murdered by police the next month, and in the racial reckoning that followed, viewers discovered all the cartoon characters of color that were actually voiced by white actors — including Kirsten Bell as the biracial Molly on Central Park. That’s all been settled now, and Bell was replaced by Emmy Raver-Lampman, so viewers can get back to enjoying this show on its merits.
Cheer offers viewers an engaging look into the little Texas college that dominates the world of competitive cheerleading. There’s nothing particularly dramatic or mind-blowing about the show, but it effectively immerses you in a world you likely know nothing about, and that is the purest mission of documentary that I know.
Defending Jacob (Apple TV+)
This eight-part series was an early standout in a year that saw streaming TV make the case for never going back into movie theaters. Based on the thriller by novelist William Landay, this story of a teenage boy accused of murder and his distraught parents, one of whom is a D.A., grabs and holds your attention hour after hour. With hints of Ordinary People and strong casting, Defending Jacob winningly prosecutes the case.
Desus & Mero (Showtime)
With HBO focusing its attention on HBO Max, Showtime dominated premium-cable in 2020 with a combination of original limited series, documentary, and late-night. The late-night show, Desus & Mero, came into its own in 2020 and was even better in lockdown. Desus Nice and The Kid fire off fast-paced and often hilarious banter on life and lunacy in America from a Black perspective. If you’d like a taste without buying Showtime, catch their brand-new interview with Barack Obama on YouTube.
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
I waited all year for this COVID-delayed adaptation of James McBride’s soul-stirring comic novel about John Brown and the abolition of slavery. Ethan Hawke, Daveed Diggs, and newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson give great performance and The Good Lord Bird gives an old history lesson new urgency. “And as the haunting final credits of The Good Lord Bird roll, faces appear on the screen, and they remind us that we are still living in sin,” I wrote. Many other critics agreed.
The Great Pottery Throw Down (HBO Max)
HBO Max acquired all three series of this thoroughly British and ridiculously fun competition from the makers of the Great British Bake-Off. Leaning fully into the idea that working on wet, fleshy clay is sensual, The Great Pottery Throw Down combines humor, education, and personality into a different kind of bake-off — at 1200 degrees Celsius, to be precise.
I May Destroy You (HBO)
HBO had another great year, led by this critics’ favorite about sexual assault and consent from Michaela Coel. “Over the 12 half-hour episodes, there were many times I wasn't enjoying the show,” wrote Dan Fienberg, “but my interest never wavered in the audacious and precarious thing that Coel is attempting.”
Lenox Hill (Netflix)
In the spirit of Terry Wrong’s hospital docuseries for ABC comes Lenox Hill, about “a seemingly well-funded, competently staffed hospital in which the best of times are still grindingly tough,” as Daniel D’Addario noted when the series dropped in June. Then came an utterly compelling COVID special episode showing what it was like to fight on the front lines at the heart of the pandemic’s first wave.
Little America (Apple TV+)
Based on true-life stories of immigrants, I called Little America “Apple TV+’s best show so far.” That was back in January, but it still stands. This beautifully crafted new anthology takes the emotion and noise out of one of our most contentious political topics — immigration — and replaces it with poetry, humor, and the compelling stories of ordinary people seeking a better life in these United States.
Love Fraud (Showtime)
From the creators of the indie classic Jesus Camp comes another peculiar tale, about a guy who kept convincing women to marry him. “In case this wasn’t obvious, Love Fraud definitely fits into the WTF genre of docuseries,” said Jen Chaney, who astutely observed that this would’ve gotten Tiger King levels of attention had it dropped on Netflix instead of Showtime.
“Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool” on American Masters (PBS)
“Miles Davis had a tremendous impact on both American music and the struggle for racial equality,” I wrote in my review. Stanley Nelson’s beautifully scored documentary explores both and tries to get inside the enigmatical mind of a genius through the recollections of people who played with him and loved him despite his many flaws.
The Most Dangerous Animal (FX)
“Producers Ross Dinerstein and Kief Davidson take a New York Times true-crime bestseller and bring it to life, only to fling it against a wall and smash it into a million little pieces,” I wrote in my rave about this four-part docuseries with more than its share of twists and turns. With the recent news that experts have cracked one of the Zodiac Killer’s notorious ciphers, now is a great time to watch this story about a man’s earnest search for his link to a storied psychopath.
My Octopus Teacher (Netflix)
The much-deserving winner of a CCA Documentary Award for best cinematography, this remarkable film about a marine photographer and the octopus who captures his heart — and his lens — is one of the most incredible things I watched all year.
Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
FX had a banner year as usual, led by this kicky docudrama about the women’s lib and anti-feminist movements of the 1970s. Though Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisholm, and many other feminist icons have starring roles here, it's Cate Blanchett as conservative Phyllis Schlafly who takes center stage. “In Cate Blanchett’s deft performance, we understand better how a tradition-minded but fiercely ambitious woman was able to resist a seemingly irresistible force of her fellow females,” I wrote in my review.
Normal People (Hulu)
Although it's still best known for its deep catalog of legacy TV, Hulu continued to acquire first-rate originals like this quietly powerful adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel about young people exploring love and sex in Ireland. “It seems funny to say about a TV series where so much is unspoken,” I wrote in my review, “but this adaptation definitely has its own voice… It is a story about getting older, wiser, and more articulate.”
“Now Hear This” on Great Performances (PBS)
You already know Ken Burns, so allow me to introduce you to Scott Yoo. This violinist and conductor effortlessly channels Anthony Bourdain in “Now Hear This,” a travelogue and exploration of the history of musical ideas that is as accessible as an episode of The Voice and about ten times more interesting. Series two, which dropped in 2020 with a COVID-shortened episode count, is even better than the first.
Party of Five (Freeform)
This early-2020 relaunch of the Gen X favorite from the Nineties was reimagined by the show’s creators with Latinx actors and storylines. “Party of Five has just raised the bar on TV reboots,” I wrote in my review. “This is a timely and smart retelling of a unique story about children coming of age in a modern, mixed-up world without their parents to rely on.” Season 1 lives on in Hululand, but Freeform declined to pick up the show for a second season.
The Plot Against America (HBO)
David Simon’s latest gritty urban jeremiad takes place on the mean streets of pre-World War II New Jersey. But don’t let the crisply-done nostalgia fool you: This adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel imagining a Charles Lindbergh presidency is fine-tuned to our current moment. And I mean our current post-election moment. It feels even more urgent today than when I raved about it earlier this year.
Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness (HBO Max)
What a darling surprise from the star of the indie documentary Meet the Patels. I think it was my favorite HBO Max show this year, which is funny because it was originally developed for CNN. Ravi Patel, the son of Indian immigrants, tells us a lot about our country and our culture through his unique, quirky, insider-outsider lens. It’s only four episodes; give it a whirl.
Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access)
When 80-year-old Sir Patrick Stewart wasn’t starring in TV ads for takeout, he was reviving his character in a reimagining of the still-beloved TNG. “With his gravitas and avuncular wit, Sir Patrick is a great ambassador for the Trek values we could use more of these days,” I wrote in January.
“Netflix’s Unorthodox Will Make Your Quarantine Seem Like Club Med,” read the headline of my thumbs-up review, which dropped two weeks into the lockdown in March. Though very loosely based on the memoir by Deborah Feldman, who left her Orthodox Jewish community under some duress, I wrote that Unorthodox “feels like an immersive documentary about a woman who comes of age while escaping the oppressive religious community that has defined her entire life.”
Visible: Out on Television (Apple TV+)
As I wrote at the time, this five-part docuseries about LGBTQ TV is “a lovingly crafted and comprehensive history of American television, told from the perspective of people who, for much of that history, were thought to be out of the picture. … Visible doubles as an outstanding documentary on how TV developed in the second half of the 20th century.”
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: 2020 in Review, Apple TV+, CBS All Access, FX, FX on Hulu, HBO Max, Hulu, Netflix, PBS, PBS Passport, Peacock, Showtime, 68 Whiskey, The Amber Ruffin Show, American Masters, The Baby-Sitters Club, Briarpatch, Central Park, Cheer, Defending Jacob, Desus & Mero, The Good Lord Bird, Great Performances , The Great Pottery Throw Down, I May Destroy You, Lenox Hill, Little America, Love Fraud, The Most Dangerous Animal of All, Mrs. America, Normal People, Party of Five (2020 series), The Plot Against America, Ravi Patel’s Pursuit of Happiness, Star Trek: Picard, Unorthodox, Visible: Out on Television, Miles Davis