These lists get harder to make every year as TV grows ever more expansive. Yes, TV is an entertaining and pleasurable refuge from the increasingly hostile world outside, but there is just so much of it. That said, there was a lot of great TV this year, and it was damn welcome, too. Trying to narrow a list down to the ten best hours on TV this year, we've cast a wide net — seeking to recognize TV episodes that were ambitious, entertaining, surprising, and otherwise superlative.
In alphabetical order, here are our picks:
That Rachel Shukert's adaptation of Ann M. Martin's series of YA novels was brought into the 21st century so gently was one of the show's greatest achievements. But that didn't mean that the series turned a blind eye to the changing world. Kristy, Claudia, Stacey, and Mary Anne's adventures would never be mistaken for Euphoria, but with "Mary Anne Saves the Day," Shukert and company proved that the Baby-Sitters Club's values of responsibility and empathy are just as applicable today. In the episode, Mary Anne is taking care of Bailey, who ends up getting sick — a classic baby-sitter's dilemma, complicated by the fact that Mary Anne just figured out that Bailey is transgender. Watching Mary Anne advocate for Bailey at the hospital gives the audience reason to feel as heart-burstingly proud of her as her dad is, and it served as an early highlight of a wonderful season of TV.
Streaming on Netflix
Canada's Drag Race was every bit the scrappy Canadian cousin to its American flagship show, and we loved it for that. Instead of RuPaul presiding over the judging panel, it was Season 11 finalist queen Brooke Lynn Hytes. Instead of the polished American queens of RuPaul's Drag Race, the inaugural Canadian crew were a crunchy group of divas, as messy as they were entertaining. But one area where Canada's Drag Race triumphed over the original, at least this year, was that it featured the year's best Lip Sync for Your Life performance, as Priyanka and Kiara faced off with Celine Dion's cover of "I Drove All Night." From the opening seconds, with Priyanka's voluminous cape spread like wings, both queens danced, posed, crawled across the stage, and stared icy daggers through the judges and audience, neither one backing down, all while paying homage to Canada's most imperious chanteuse. It was exhilarating event programming in every sense of the word, and an example of drag at its finest.
Streaming on WOW Presents Plus
The audacity of The Good Fight has been well established over the years, growing ever more deranged as the Trump administration has further disintegrated our political reality. With the premiere of their fourth season, though, Robert and Michelle King's series delved into a tempting "what if" scenario that a lot of people must have indulged these last few years: "What if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016?" It's a question that must have occurred plenty to The Good Fight's producers, since the show's very first episode was originally meant to kick off with Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski) watching Hillary's inauguration. We got that scene this year, only this time with Diane burdened with the truth (or was it a bad dream) of a Trump win. The show doesn't just rest on Diane's feeling of relief, though, as it plays out the string and asks whether the Me Too movement ever happens if Hillary wins, and whether the resolve of many on the left to fight back against sexist injustices would have ever happened. It was a challenging episode that didn't present easy answers or comforting fantasy.
Streaming on CBS All Access
Grey's Anatomy earned our praise in the final quarter of the year for how it returned to TV with a COVID-focused season as harrowing onscreen as it was daunting to produce offscreen. But Grey's has been letting necessity be the mother of invention all year, never more so than in the March 5th episode that closed the loop on the Alex Karev (Justin Chambers) character who'd been part of the show's core ensemble since the series premiere. With Chambers' still unexplained exit from the show having gone unaddressed for weeks, this Debbie Allen-directed episode pulled an ace out of its deck with the reveal that an offscreen Alex had left Seattle — and his new wife Jo (Camilla Luddington) — for his long-since-exited love Izzie, who'd been played by the tempestuous Katherine Heigl. It was the kind of jaw-dropper that only a show like Grey's, with its long and iconic history, could have delivered.
Streaming on Hulu
Mike Flanagan's moody slow burn of a haunted house drama came together bit by bit, but most of the show's fans would likely agree that episode 5, "The Altar of the Dead," was a turning point. This installment centered on Bly Manor's housekeeper, Hannah Grose (T'Nia Miller), who to this point had been a buttoned-up but loving presence who was — along with nearly every other character — clearly haunted by something. This episode revealed what that something was, and it allowed Miller — the show's strongest and most surprising performer — to deliver a performance of deep longing and regret that would end up reverberating across the rest of the season.
Streaming on Netflix
Trying to pick out one highlight from PEN15's miracle of a second season is like an exercise in choosing one's favorite children. What about the Maura arc, where a newly ingratiated friend came between Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle)? Perhaps the episode where Maya and Anna get into witchcraft? For us, the season-closing two-parter that covers the school play was the show at its highest levels, as it saw both Maya and Anna grow into new and exciting roles: Anna getting really into theater tech was a blend of hilarity, cringe, and pride (the perfect PEN15 blend), and Maya taking her first timid steps into acting did the same for her. It was a fantastic showcase for the two best friends as they began to organically grow just a little bit apart.
Streaming on Hulu
2020 was a banner year for Red Table Talk, the Facebook Watch talk show starring Jada Pinkett Smith, her daughter Willow Smith, and her mother, Adrienne Banfield-Norris. The show has been going for two and a half years now, but by far its most publicized episode came in January, amid a flurry of rumors and social media accusations about Jada and Will Smith's marriage, infidelities, and possible arrangements. The episode features just Jada and Will and was remarkable for being so far from what we traditionally recognize as celebrity damage control, while at the same time absolutely being damage control. Watching Will and Jada navigate just how much of their relationship they were going to reveal to the world, while still being bracingly honest about their feelings about marriage and each other was easily the most fascinating celebrity content of the year.
Streaming on Facebook Watch
The final season of Schitt's Creek will go down as one of the most successful swan songs in TV history. With plenty of great episodes to choose from, we're going with "The Presidential Suite." The title refers to Moira and Johnny Rose (Catherine O'Hara and Eugene Levy) wrangling with Roland and Jocelyn (Chris Elliott and Jennifer Robertson) over who gets to spend a night in the titular suite at the new motel. But what makes this episode best-of-2020-worthy is the subplot with Alexis (Annie Murphy) and Ted (Dustin Milligan), whose adoring and improbable romance is ultimately ended by Alexis because they were both going in different directions in their lives. For the usually flighty Alexis, it's an act of stunning maturity, as well as a chance for the audience to take a breath and realize how deeply we've come to care for her. Annie Murphy won a well-deserved Emmy, and may well end up being Schitt's Creek's greatest legacy.
Streaming on Netflix
For as much as The Vow ended up frustrating its audience for taking a fascinating story like NXIVM and presenting it in a miasma of muddled timelines and untrustworthy agendas, it's worth remembering that the series started off like gangbusters. The pilot episode, "The Science of Joy," brings the audience into the story of NXIVM gradually, mixing up first-person accounts by the likes of Sarah Edmondson describing how they got pulled into the cult with footage of people like Keith Ranerie and Nancy Saltzman in action. It's the show's one episode where the disorientation of who's feeding you which information really works, disarming its audience, only to bring the hammer down by the end, ultimately promising more than the rest of the series can deliver. Still, there was a chunk of 2020 where The Vow was at the forefront of the cultural conversation, and this episode is a big reason why.
Streaming on HBO Max
For what was possibly the funniest comedy of the year, FX's What We Do in the Shadows ought to have had a lot of competition for its best episode. But there really wasn't much of a choice here, was there? There's every other episode this year, and then there's the Jackie Daytona episode. It's hard to imagine how one half-hour episode of TV packs this many hilarious, tiny little details into Laszlo's sojourn to Pennsylvania under the persona of "Jackie Daytona," a regular human bartender who's fond of blue jeans, toothpicks, and women's volleyball. The montage set to "Simply Irresistible" that establishes Jackie's new Pennsylvania life may be the best two minutes of TV all year. All that and Mark Hamill, too? Truly, we were blessed.
Streaming on Hulu
Finally, alhough they couldn't ultimately crack the top ten, we'd like to throw some honorable mentions to: The Queen's Gambit Mexico City episode, the Real Housewives of Potomac episode that dealt with Monique and Candiace's fight, and the sublime series finale of The Good Place.
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, The Baby-Sitters Club, Canada's Drag Race, The Good Fight, Grey's Anatomy, The Haunting of Bly Manor , PEN15, Red Table Talk, Schitt's Creek, The Vow, What We Do in the Shadows