The Best TV Shows of 2020

In many ways, 2020 was the year of TV. Even the best movies of the year weren’t seen by most of us in a theater (at least, we certainly hope). Whether on our big-screen TVs or on our phones and laptops, we consumed much of our media at home. And given the eternal work-from-home limbo many of us have been stuck in, TV series were the way to go.

This year saw the end of some incredible shows, whether due to design (The Good Place, Schitt’s Creek) or the cruel hand of COVID and struggling ratings (RIP, One Day at a Time). It also saw the rise of ever more experimental shows, from sprawling docuseries about a bevy of true crime and tabloid sensations to some of the weirdest, most complicated science fiction you could feast your eyes on. Reality TV spoke to us, whether contestants were vying for their one true love or Star Baker status. Women, people of color, and queer people of all stripes found themselves in scores of new stories. Even the theater, an industry more dormant than ever in an age where we’re all stuck inside, found new life in filmed adaptations of some intriguing Broadway classics.

As 2020 draws to a close, it’s important to remember that, through all the fear and misinformation and political division, we at least had some good distractions on the boob tube. Some of them may have even taught us a thing or two. So here they are, in no particular order (we don’t do rankings here, we love all our children equally) — the TV that got us through 2020, and which will hopefully resonate with you too.

(Sidenote: I also want to take this moment to thank each and every one of The Spool’s readers, writers, and editors, and everyone who makes the site possible. This is the end of our first full, actual year of operation, and in such tumultuous times, I’m immensely grateful for every single person who’s contributed to these pages and designed to read them. Hope to see you on the other side of 2020.) [Clint Worthington, editor-in-chief]

HONORABLE MENTIONS: The Plot Against America (HBO), The Good Fight (CBS All Access), The Expanse (Amazon Prime Video), Better Call Saul (AMC), The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock), The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), DC’s Legends of Tomorrow (CW), Ozark (Netflix), The Last Dance (ESPN), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO), The Mandalorian (Disney+), I Hate Suzie (HBO Max), Unorthodox (Netflix), High Fidelity (Hulu), One Day at a Time (Pop/CBS), The Third Day (HBO Max), Giri/Haji (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
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As TV’s best series about mental illness and addiction comes to an end, our hero BoJack doesn’t get closure, exactly (because there’s really no such thing), but is further down the road to self-awareness and real insight than he ever was. He may end up making yet another bad decision based both on self-loathing and selfishness, but there has to be some reason he keeps getting another chance, another hit at the reset button. If you’ve ever struggled with depression and/or addiction, then you know how both wonderful and absolutely terrifying that feels. Though the final season stumbles a bit with extended bits on cancel culture and open relationships, it ends on a subtle, melancholy note: “Life’s a bitch, and then you go on living.” [Gena Radcliffe]

City So Real (National Geographic)

City So Real (National Geographic)
City So Real (National Geographic)
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No one knows how to shoot Chicago quite like Steve James, and his five-part series for National Geographic, City So Real, is proof positive of his knack for capturing the complexities, cultures, and corruption of the Second City. Charting the 2019 mayoral race in all its absurd twists and turns (a packed primary, Kafkaesque petition procedures, the tragic murder of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police), James manages to weave the dozen-plus mayoral candidates into the broader fabric of a city still stinging from the death of Laquan McDonald, the election of Donald Trump, and the yawning chasm of segregation and gentrification. We see events through the lens of Black and white, rich and poor, North Side and South Side, all treated with the anthropological honesty you can expect from one of the city’s great documentarians. Its fifth episode, which tackles the city’s struggles with COVID and the George Floyd protests, is one of the most honest accounts of 2020 committed to screen. [Clint Worthington]

The Crown (Netflix)

The Crown Season 4 (Netflix)
The Crown Season 4 (Netflix)
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Peter Morgan’s elegaic time warp through the legacy of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, warts and all, continued this season with another batch of incredible episodes bringing Britain into the late ’80s and early ’90s. We saw Margaret Thatcher (a calculating Gillian Anderson), we met Princess Diana (a pitch-perfect, and uncannily matched, Emma Corrin), and watched in slow-moving horror as the royal machinery chewed up and spat out its privileged participants. Morgan has an incredible ability to peek behind the curtain at the most publicized events in British history and extrapolate a compelling (if so fictionalized they had to add a disclaimer) portrait of an Empire in its final days. Olivia Colman, Tobias Menzies, Josh O’Connor, and the rest all return with suitably piteous portrayals of well-known royals as we should likely see them: trapped by tradition, blinded by privilege, and hopelessly in over their heads as to how to run a country in the 21st century. [Clint Worthington]

Dark (Netflix)

Dark Season 3 (Netflix)
Dark Season 3 (Netflix)
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If you like the kind of science fiction that requires reams of diagrams and rigorous note-taking to keep track of, Netflix’s Dark is the show for you. A twisty, labyrinthine time travel story about two warring factions vying for control of the past, present and future amid a small German town, Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese’s three-season epic is as mesmerizing as it is confounding. But even as you gawk at the screen in utter bafflement, trying to figure out which character is secretly an older version of which other character from a different century/dimension, you’re still drawn in by their committed performances, chilling cinematography, and haunting musical choices. It’s the kind of narrative complexity that could only run for three seasons, and the fact that the show stuck its landing so well in its final season this year is a testament to the strength of its storytelling. [Clint Worthington]

Devs (FX on Hulu)

Devs (FX on Hulu)
Devs (FX on Hulu)
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With Ex Machina and Annihilation, Alex Garland proved himself one of the most intriguing, original sci-fi filmmakers working today. But with Devs, he makes the transition to TV, helming all eight hours of his sprawling, meditative limited series about a mysterious software company that may have solved the mystery of causality. (Yes, we at The Spool love head-scratching series about time travel, we’re sensing a pattern.) But Garland’s sophisticated storytelling and big, heady ideas translate well to the television format, especially when FX gives him the budget for such arresting images as a giant cube-shaped workstation suspended in mid-air, or an emornous statue of an enigmatic young girl in the middle of a California forest. The true purpose of the series is hidden until the very end, but it’s an intellectually and aesthetically-stimulating ride to get there. [Clint Worthington]

Doom Patrol (DC Universe/HBO Max)

Doom Patrol (HBO Max)
Doom Patrol (HBO Max)
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We love us some TV shows about misfit superhero families, but Doom Patrol (formerly of DC Universe) nails the formula better than just about any other comic book media right now. Where season 1 was a meta-fictional introduction to our group of issue-laden metahumans, season 2 forces them to grow up a bit in the presence of spurned mentor Niles Caulder’s innocent daughter Dorothy. Suddenly, our fucked-up family of capes has to set aside their own personal issues and play surrogate parents to a young girl as sweet as she is capable of apocalyptic mayhem. It’s as mad and downright silly as ever (the gang spends an entire episode the size of action figures!), but also gives us more insight into its beartbreakingly bizarre characters, from Brendan Fraser’s angry-at-the-world Robotman to April Bowlby’s vulnerable Elasti-Woman. [Clint Worthington]

The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)

The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)
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Kaley Cuoco might have found fame on the formulaic Big Bang Theory, but she’s setting out to prove she won’t be constrained by her sitcom success. In her series The Flight Attendant (Cuoco is both star and executive producer) she gets a chance to stretch her theatrical legs, giving a solid performance as mostly-functioning alcoholic Cassie, the titular flight attendant. After a whirlwind romance with a handsome stranger (Michiel Huisman) Cassie finds herself embroiled in a world of conspiracy, espionage, gangs, and murder. Trying to navigate her way out of danger would be hard enough if she didn’t need so many drinks to dull the pain of her past, of a childhood misremembered through a haze of alcohol. It’s harrowing, funny, tender, heartbreaking, and thrilling all at once, and so inventive that each new twist comes as a totally unforeseen surprise. [Beau North]

The Good Place (NBC)

The Good Place (NBC)
The Good Place (NBC)
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As with logically explaining the concept of life after death in general, bringing The Good Place into a satisfying conclusion seems like a near impossible proposition. How do your honor the characters, the reality the show has built for four years, and not end up an absolute bummer or a sugary trifle? Well, to say would be telling, but Place swings it. As absurd and human as ever, it remains a love letter to our rough edges–our egotism, our impetuousness, our anger, our cynicism—and finding the good both from and despite those edges. It ends up being the television equivalent of that good cry: bittersweet and refreshing. [Tim Stevens]

The Great (Hulu)

The Great (Hulu)
The Great (Hulu)
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The Favourite scribe Tony McNamara sure does like to make Nicholas Hoult say foul, very funny things. And queens—he likes queens, too. In a terrific year for Hulu shows (much more to come from this streamer), The Great was perhaps the most original of the bunch, a heady comedic historical drama with plenty to say about love, sex, power, gender politics, and who writes our histories. Yet it also made room for many huzzahs, some truly wicked jokes, loads of clever costuming, and the year’s best storyline about whether or not someone fucked a horse. Add in terrific performances from Hoult, Elle Fanning, Phoebe Fox, Sacha Dhawan, and Adam Godley, among others, and you’ve got the makings of an addictive genre-bending historical fantasia, and one which (Huzzah!) is already getting a second season. [Allison Shoemaker]

DC’s Harley Quinn (DC Universe/HBO Max)

Harley Quinn (HBO Max)
Harley Quinn (HBO Max)
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Bright, loud, and unabashed, Harley Quinn Season 2 takes the foundation of Season 1 and runs with it. By going gloriously cartoonish, the show lets Harley (Kaley Cuoco) and Company go places both silly and serious that more straight-ahead superhero fare would seem ill-equipped to portray. It pulls a neat trick. On the surface, it’s a spit-take-gag of a tale of a Gotham where Batgirl is an influencer, Gordon is a tragicomic broken shell of himself, Batman is nowhere to be found, and the biggest threat to supervillains is their own ridiculous egos. Buried under all that, though, is the story of two women so used to making bad choices, they’re deathly afraid of the obvious good one: being together. [Tim Stevens]

The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)

The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)
The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)
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Mike Flanagan’s follow up to 2018’s Haunting of Hill House puts its own modern spin on Henry James’ Turn of the Screw. Less straightforward horror and more gothic romance, Bly Manor is a beautiful take on love, guilt, truth, and grieving. Victoria Pedretti gives a terrific performance as nanny Dani Clayton—who seems to exist in a state of near-permanent shellshock—but the truly memorable (and heart-rending) performance comes from T’Nia Miller’s Hannah Grose.  As with Hill House, the fifth episode is the standout, focusing on Hannah’s ordeals in a way that leaves viewers breathless and utterly heartbroken. That it should come along in 2020, as we grapple with our own losses and incomprehensible change, makes the final grace note that much sweeter. That which we have loved never truly leaves us. [Beau North]

How To With John Wilson (HBO)

How To With John Wilson (HBO)
How To With John Wilson (HBO)
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In a year in which a lot of things might have made a person cry, was anything more unexpectedly tear-jerking and weirdly funny than the sight of Kyle MacLachlan patiently running his Metro card through a turnstile over and over again? Such is the magic of How To With John Wilson, filmmaker John Wilson’s… televisual collage? Documentary sketch show? However you categorize it, this HBO oddity (executive produced by Nathan Fielder, among others) came as close as anything else on television at capturing the surreality of just being alive, with hands and furniture and a digestive system and a landlady. The finale, “How To Cook The Perfect Risotto,” is an absolute stunner. How To won’t be for everyone, but if it’s for you, then oh boy, is it ever. [Allison Shoemaker]

I Know This Much Is True (HBO)

I Know This Much Is True (HBO)
I Know This Much Is True (HBO)
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On paper, I Know This Much Is True reads like a series of red flags. Twins. Mental illness. Dead children. Secret parents. Sexual abuse. Suicidality. So many ways to go wrong, to be insensitive, to sacrifice genuineness for melodrama. Yet, somehow, True makes it all work without feeling sweaty or strained. A non-insignificant portion of the praise lies with Mark Ruffalo’s thoughtful dual performances of twins Dominick and Thomas. He’s well assisted by a strong supporting class as well, including an especially noteworthy Rosie O’Donnell, who brings impressive authenticity to her role as a mental health worker handling Thomas’ case. Still, the lion’s share of credit has to go to Derek Cianfrance, who directed the series in its entirety and collaborated with Anya Epstein on the scripting. [Tim Stevens]

I May Destroy You (HBO)

I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You (HBO)
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Michela Coel’s introspective autofiction series explores the dark waters of trauma, identity, and catharsis. Millennial It-Girl Arabella’s (Coel) search within herself is reflected in her winding, ever-growing manuscript as she tries to make sense of her assault, an event she has few memories of. You can feel the horror of having to assemble a picture out of a series of half-remembered moments while every bit of normalcy that anchors Arabella begins to slip through her fingers. Coel’s writing is fresh and raw, her performance nothing short of devastating. The pain may not fade, but it does make room for growth, love, and hope.  [Beau North]

Lovecraft Country (HBO)

Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Lovecraft Country (HBO)
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It wasn’t a perfect TV show, by far. Its pacing was baffling, with either too much or not enough happening from episode to episode. Male rape and the murder of a trans character were handled gracelessly. On the upside, it was a chilling merge of the historical and fantastical, a cosmic balancing of the scales where the oppressed use magic and the unknown to gain power over their oppressors. It also brought more attention to the extraordinary Jurnee Smollett as heroine Leti Lewis, who never gives in to damsel in distress tropes, swallows down her fear, and turns it into an incandescent rage. [Gena Radcliffe]

Mrs. America (FX)

Mrs. America
Mrs. America (FX)
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The year’s most sharp-toothed bit of dramatic political commentary came not from Sorkin or Baron Cohen but from an ice-cold Cate Blanchett. As the anchor of Mrs. America, Dahvi Waller’s nuanced look at the rise of Phyllis Schlafly and the push to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, Blanchett manages the nifty trick of making it clear that this is a story with two villains: Schlafly herself, and the world that created her. Blanchett’s oppressed oppressor is merely one of the standouts in a remarkable ensemble—when Cate Thee Blanchett is just one among many, you know the casting department’s shooting nothing but 3s. Waller’s is a timely look at one of the many figures and movements who shaped the Republican Party into its current, repellent state, but it’s also a terrific character drama, with Uzo Aduba rightly nabbing an Emmy for her work as Shirley Chisholm and Sarah Paulson turning in yet another god-tier TV performance. [Allison Shoemaker]

The Outsider (HBO)

The Outsider (HBO)
The Outsider (HBO)
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Like Lovecraft Country, The Outsider had its problems. It seemed to peak about mid-season, before slowing down to a pace that could be politely described as “glacial” (there are more driving scenes than in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood). When it turned up the creepiness factor, though, like in episode four, it was the television equivalent of a chilly finger running up your spine. Part horror movie/part police procedural, it’s a character actor lover’s dream, with standout performances by Ben Mendelsohn as a grieving detective who refuses to believe what his own eyes are telling him about this otherworldly case, and Mare Winningham as his wife, who knows he must, or more people will die. [Gena Radcliffe]

Pen15 (Hulu)

Pen15 (Hulu)
Pen15 (Hulu)
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No sophomore slump for Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s fiendishly funny Hulu series, which stars the show’s creators as middle-school-aged versions of themselves, a choice which could have been catastrophic (they’re surrounded by actors who are actually 13 and 14, after all) but which somehow makes Pen15 both funnier and all the more vivid. The second half of this second season has yet to arrive, but this gem would almost certainly have made our list based on the strength of “Vendy Wiccany,” a Konkle-penned outing that’s not just a highlight of the series, but one of the best episodes of TV of the year. Have a gel pen and your Trapper Keeper at the ready, because you might need to journal afterward. [Allison Shoemaker]

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
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Chess is often referred to in metaphor. “This isn’t checkers, this is chess,” if you will. But rarely does the game feel cinematic enough to be the center of a film or TV series. This Scott Frank-written and directed adaptation of the 1983 novel The Queen’s Gambit proves the exception. Visually compelling and wonderfully costumed and decorated, it’s the sort of series that one can happily just lose oneself to the imagery. But to do so would risk missing out on Anya Taylor-Joy in her most fully realized performance to date. She makes chess prodigy Beth Harmon’s self-destruction so compelling, you can understand how everyone around her would be swept up in her wake as well. [Tim Stevens]

Raised by Wolves (HBO Max)

Raised by Wolves (HBO Max)
Raised by Wolves (HBO Max)
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Right away, you can tell Raised by Wolves is produced by Ridley Scott — it’s filled with androids who have milk for blood and desperately try to ape human behavior, and blends the futuristic with the sacred and the profane. But as messy as Aaron Guzikowski’s ambitious sci-fi fable can be (especially in its season finale), it’s the kind you can’t rip your eyes from. It’s a truly alien show, filled with pseudoreligious mythology (including a group of human religious fanatics called Mithraics) and bizarre parenting parables from our two lead androids, who thread the needle between horrifying and human. With its smoothed-out Silver Age science fiction aesthetic and career-best cinematography from Dariusz Wolski, it’s also one of the most desolately gorgeous series on the airwaves. [Clint Worthington]

Schitt’s Creek (Pop)

Schitt's Creek Season 6 (Pop)
Schitt’s Creek Season 6 (Pop)
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The gangbusters Pop comedy finished its final season on an emotional high note, with the Rose family regaining the glory they lost in the pilot as well as a newer, more gracious perspective. Fish out of water stories are always good grounds for comedy, but creators Dan and Eugene Levy knew that there is only so far you can take them. A fish can only survive so long out of the water, it either has to adapt or die. And while the Rose family will always be standouts in the little town with a funny name, they did adapt over the course of six seasons. David learned how to let himself be loved, Alexis learned to expect more of herself, Johnny learned to value the gift of time he’d been given with his family, and Moira…well, nevermind Moira. In the end, the place they considered to be purgatory saved them, enriched them, and gave them all new purpose, and that kind of self-aware emotional growth is as rare as it is rewarding. [Beau North]

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
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I’ve watched Ted Lasso three times: once to review it in August and twice since then. Bizarrely, this “adaptation”/expansion of a NBC Sports commercial character turned out to be the perfect antidote for what has been a brutal year on so many levels. Anchored by a Jason Sudeikis performance that just gets better with every episode, the show is rapid-fire funny and heartfelt. I challenge anyone to find a series that tackled family dissolution, panic attacks, the betrayal of one’s own aging body, and the regret of doing terrible things to others while still finding time to (rightly) dunk on how bad tea is at every turn. The brightest light on TV in the world’s darkest year of my lifetime. [Tim Stevens]

Tiger King (Netflix)

Tiger King (Netflix)
Tiger King (Netflix)
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Yes, the instant memeification and siding with #teamjoeexotic or #teamcarole was tacky (and inevitable), but Tiger King deserves recognition as one of the first things to distract us from the creeping unknown of the pandemic. Most of us had no idea what was going on, only that it was bad, bad enough that suddenly everything was shut down and we couldn’t see our loved ones anymore, so we instead briefly, inexplicably bonded over a true “you can’t make this shit up” story about the complicated business and love lives of a bunch of white trash with bad hair who somehow manage to own hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of endangered animals. If we weren’t sheltering in place at the time Tiger King would have made the briefest of blips on social media and then disappeared with the other original programming Netflix buries — instead it blew up, and “That bitch, Carole Baskin” will be as memorable a phrase of 2020 as “Mask up.” [Gena Radcliffe]

The Vow (HBO)

The Vow (HBO)
The Vow (HBO)
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It’s fitting, really, that 2020’s COVID quarantine would start with one docuseries about a dangerously oddball cult of personality (Tiger King) and end with another. But as bloated as HBO’s nine-part series about Keith Raniere’s NXIVM self-improvement group-turned-sex-cult could be at times — there’s an awful lot of airtime dedicated to people catching up on the phone — it remained grotesquely compeling all the same. Intimate and sprawling in equal measure, The Vow looks at a cult through the gaze of those who got sucked into it, and their Sisyphean efforts to get out. And in the middle of it all is Keith Raniere, the volleyball-loving sociopath who promised a way for men to overcome their misogyny by crafting an even more chauvinistic society to welcome them in. Season 2 has been promised, and one wonders if it’ll end up as irrelevant as Making a Murderer‘s sophomore season given that Raniere’s already in jail. But the pop culture of 2020 wouldn’t be what it was without The Vow gluing us to our screens every week. [Clint Worthington]

What We Do in the Shadows (FX)

What We Do in the Shadows Season 2 (FX)
What We Do in the Shadows Season 2 (FX)
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If this year unified us in any way, perhaps it did so through our collective love for Jackie Daytona. The first season of What We Do In The Shadows was as funny and clever as you’d expect of a series from Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement, but its second season vaulted it, like a man yelling bat, into the TV comedy stratosphere. “On The Run,” the episode in which our darling Jackie Daytona (Matt Berry’s Laszlo) hides out from a ruthless vamp/former landlord (Mark Hamill), was the season’s highlight—who doesn’t dream of leaving it all behind and running a dive bar that serves normal human alcohol?—but there were no strikes for Shadows this year. That’s due in no small part to the cast, who were already uniformly excellent and somehow all got better, particularly Harvey Guillén’s Guillermo, who managed to add the odd note of pathos to this absurd symphony. [Allison Shoemaker]

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