Perhaps you've heard: it's been a rough year. The pandemic ground the world to a halt in March, and it's been a shaky, frustrating, and at times terrifying ride ever since. With lockdown orders waxing and waning throughout the year, we were more dependent than ever on television to help ride things out, and so the year's most valuable people on TV loomed all the larger. With the year mercifully winding down, and some semblance of a light emerging at the end of the tunnel, here are the people, shows, and platforms that have helped us weather this storm:
The creator and star of HBO's I May Destroy You, Coel wins the prize for 2020's TV auteur of the year, serving as a beacon of excellence at a time when it seemed like everyone and everything thing else was totally fucked up. I May Destroy You was a bracing jolt of a show — honest, confrontational, and quirky — and in Michaela Coel, TV has a fresh new voice on the level of Phoebe Waller-Bridge.
Given all the clamoring we've heard over the years from West Wing partisans about a possible reunion for the former NBC prestige drama, it couldn't have been too much of a surprise that we got one in an election year. Still, amid the backdrop of COVID-19 and how many shows delivered "reunions" that amounted to Zoom Q&As, the West Wing reunion on HBO Max — a staged production of a full West Wing episode, with special guests and Sterling K. Brown stepping in for the late John Spencer — went the extra mile. This all pales in comparison to The Trial of the Chicago 7, Sorkin's second directorial feature which dropped on Netflix this fall and is currently poised to make a serious run at the Oscars.
As Election Night stretched into to Election Week, with every batch of newly reported votes making the nation's electoral picture incrementally clearer, we were fortunate to have MSNBC's Steve Kornacki there to guide. Armed with his seemingly indefatigable enthusiasm for number-crunching, Kornacki spun out electoral college scenarios, zeroed in on voting districts, explained again and again and again how we were able to reliably predict that Pennsylvania would eventually fall to Biden — hell, he even did math in his head on the fly. All this while sporting khaki pants that rode the border line exactly between hot and dorky. No wonder he became Election Week's media darling and ended up with a recurring gig on Sunday Night Football.
Let's give a shout out to the 2020 Primetime Emmy Awards for carrying off a fun and memorable broadcast almost entirely remotely. Host Jimmy Kimmel performed for an empty house with a small handful of live guests — including Jennifer Aniston, who helped save the Staples Center from going up in flames — and the awards themselves were big wins for shows like Succession, Watchmen, and, in an unprecedented clean sweep of the major comedy categories, the departing Schitt's Creek. But in the night's biggest and most exuberant surprise, Zendaya triumphed over a formidable field that included Jennifer Aniston, Olivia Colman, Laura Linney, and Killing Eve's Jodie Comer and Sandra Oh to take Outstanding Actress in a Drama Series for Euphoria. Surrounded by her family and friends, Zendaya's reaction was the kind of pure joyfulness we needed.
The dominant trend in high-end reality TV in 2020 was all-star seasons, as Survivor, Big Brother, and RuPaul's Drag Race all welcomed alumni back to compete for ultimate glory. But while those shows succeeded or failed to varying degrees, only one show's All-Star season delivered fully, and that was Top Chef. Much like its first All-Star season, Top Chef cast this one perfectly, packing the cast with fan favorites (Nini, Gregory, Lee Anne), redemption stories (Lisa Fernades, Jen Carroll), and even a villain (Brian Malarkey), creating a perfect mixture of flavors and spices. The storylines were compelling, and eventual champion Melissa King was so much fun to root for. But what put this season over the top were the circumstances, as the season aired while COVID was essentially shutting down the restaurant industry, giving the show's reverence for the industry it loves additional poignance.
Speaking of reality TV all-stars, the fifth season of RuPaul's Drag Race All-Stars may have been won by the deeply deserving Shea Coulee, but there is no doubt that the entertainment value was dominated by Season 2 queen Jujubee. While she ended up finishing as runner up, Juju landed some of the season's most memorable — and meme-able — moments, from her cat soliloquy in the voting booth, to her on-point Eartha Kitt impersonation in Snatch Game, to her perfect eyesore of a prom night ensemble. Jujubee is a stellar drag queen, but even better than that, for our purposes, she knows how to deliver great TV without resorting to shady machinations, which is better than we can say for some queens this season.
As has become the norm for the big red streaming giant, Netflix released a lot of television in 2020. Some were winners (The Queen's Gambit, for one), some dominated social media chatter even if it wasn't clear whether people actually liked it or not (Emily in Paris), some were inexplicably addictive reality shows (The Circle), but if I were asked to name the Netflix series that most delighted me in 2020, they'd all be teen comedies. There was Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher's series about an Indian-American teen looking to raise her social status during sophomore year, which turned out to be sharp, funny, and satisfyingly emotional (with a standout supporting performance from Poorna Jagannathan). There was The Baby-Sitters Club, which adapted the beloved series of books in a way that felt smart while keeping the stories' essential sweetness. And there was Dash & Lily, a romantic YA adaptation full of enough Christmas-in-New-York longing to last me until next December. Each show was an oasis of calm, good humor, and deeply lovable characters in a year when all were in short supply.
It's been a long journey for The Real Housewives of Atlanta's Porsha, whose tenure on the show has been a volatile one, with as many frustrating lows (the reunion fight with Kenya; her false accusations towards Kandi) as there have been delightful highs. But with this summer's protests over the murder of George Floyd, and the ensuing dialogue across all media about we can better serve BIPOC communities, Porsha stepped to the fore as not only one of Bravo's most visible personalities but as a leader. She made numerous appearances on Watch What Happens Live to discuss the often uncomfortable issues of racial representation — made all the more pointed given that Bravo was dealing with having to fire cast members from Vanderpump Rules for racist actions — and she was a major voice involved in the Race in America: A Movement Not a Moment special. And in recent weeks, with the new season of RHOA airing, we're following along with her at the Kentucky protests demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, protests at which Williams was thrown in jail. Her response in her talking-head interview when asked what she learned from getting thrown in jail for protesting for racial justice? "That I'm gonna do it again."
We wrote about this earlier in the year, advocating for very specific TV binge strategies to help deal with all this time spent in lockdown. Watch all the Friends Thanksgiving episodes! Watch all the Top Chef Restaurant Wars! Truly, the one thing that kept us sane in this pandemic year was that fact that via streaming platforms and VOD, we have access to so much television. Streaming libraries became our most trusted companions this year, and thank goodness for them.
Last but not least, we would be remiss if we failed to recognize the year's two MVPs emeritus: broadcasting legends Regis Philbin and Alex Trebek. It was both poignant and heartbreaking that we lost the two greatest game-show hosts of this era in the same year. Regis presided exquisitely over the last great primetime game-show phenomenon in Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, while Alex Trebek was the steady hand and audacious French pronunciation expert behind TV's most consistent great game show of all time, Jeopardy!. Together, they were two of the most consummate pros in the business, and TV will be lesser for having lost them, but greater for having had them.
They didn't make the list, but Honorable Mention designation also goes to the following: Zoom, for making it possible for us to do everything from say hi to our parents on Thanksgiving to enjoying reunions from the casts of Happy Endings and Father of the Bride; the True Crime genre for giving us a window into sex cults and the lunatic lives of big cat enthusiasts; Netflix's Selling Sunset for existing in a planet far removed from our own; and the Stephen Sondheim birthday concert on YouTube for enduring hilarious production delays to ultimately give us a series of iconic, remotely filmed performances of some of the greatest musical theater songs of all time, in what was one of the year's great communal experiences.
See you in 2021!
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.
TOPICS: 2020 in Review, MSNBC, Netflix, The Baby-Sitters Club, Dash & Lily, I May Destroy You, Jeopardy!, Never Have I Ever, The Real Housewives of Atlanta, RuPaul’s Drag Race, Top Chef, The Trial of the Chicago 7, The West Wing, Aaron Sorkin, Alex Trebek, Michaela Coel, Regis Philbin, Steve Kornacki, Zendaya