Picking a Top 10 list is never easy, particularly as more and more TV shows premiere each year on more and more TV outlets. Here are the 10 series that gave me the most pleasure in 2020, along with a “Second 10” — shows that easily could have been in my Top 10 on a different day. I’m certain you will let me know exactly what I got right, and, of course, wrong.
1. “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix)
At a time when miniseries are in vogue — they’re the perfect length for pandemic binge-watching — this seven-episode treat quickly became a hit. (Spoilers ahead.) There are two big reasons why: It’s an unusual, almost exotic story (when was the last time you saw a drama about chess?) told with strikingly inventive visuals and a pair of extraordinary performances by Anya-Taylor Joy and Marielle Heller. And it’s a stealth feel-good drama whose positivity emerges unexpectedly, as the “Patrick Melrose”-like tale of an addictive and depressive spiral downward evolves into one of well-earned triumph. At moments, “The Queen’s Gambit” made me think of Dickens gone modern, as our orphan, Beth Harmon, prevails after falling through the cracks of the system and getting support from the unlikely mentorship of the custodian at the Methuen Home for Girls. Impressively, writer Scott Frank manages to not romanticize Beth’s mental health struggles along the way to the happy ending. In another, non-pandemic year, I might have put a different show at the top, but this one feels like it meets the moment perfectly.
2. “I May Destroy You” (HBO)
I’ve learned that this powerful series is too intense for some viewers, which only inspires me to respect it more. Michaela Coel’s 12-episode drama is an uncompromising, groundbreaking model of how to honor the complexities of sexual trauma without resorting to glib Lifetime-like clichés. Coel wrote, co-directed, and stars in the show, which picks up with her hard-partying British writer, Arabella, suffering flashbacks from what turns out to have been a drugged rape. Across the season, we follow her and her friends through other more subtle questions of consent and assault. There is a good amount of humor here, in case I’m making it sound too grim; Coel is adept at tonal shifts, both as a writer and as an actress. But as a whole, “I May Destroy You” is a long-held breath finally let out, an exhale of exhaustion, rage, and, in a way, relief.
3. “Unorthodox” (Netflix)
There are many stories about people breaking the chains that hold them back from freedom and self-realization, but few are made with the intelligence and authenticity of this four-episode miniseries. It’s about a 19-year-old woman, Shira Haas’s Esty, who flees her Satmar Hasidic community in Brooklyn and the husband with whom she was matched, in order to study music in Berlin. Music, it turns out, is her true religion. Unforgettably played by Haas, Esty is more sturdy and resilient than you might expect from her innocence and her tiny frame, and it’s both moving and shocking to see her take in the modern world after being kept apart from it for most of her life. “Unorthodox” is fascinating, and non-judgmental, as it shows us some rituals of an insular religious subculture, and the sexism inherent in it, too; but mostly it is a stirring tale of bravery in the name of personal transformation.
4. “The Great” (Hulu)
After watching the first season of this witty period comedy, I was sure it would become a sensation. That was not the case, and it was largely ignored by the Emmys. Ah well, their loss, because it is a sparkling, cheeky satire set in the 18th century about the rise to power of Catherine the Great. The show is written by Tony McNamara, the co-writer of “The Favourite,” and it has that movie’s bawdy, profane disposition as it ridicules the excesses of the time. Elle Fanning as the ambitious Catherine and Nicholas Hoult as the ragingly narcissistic and sexist Peter both seem to be savoring the brilliant script, with its layering of intentions and its divine insults, and so do the rest of the strong cast. I’ve recommended “The Great” to a number of friends who hadn’t heard about it, and all of them loved it.
5. “The Plot Against America” (HBO)
This startlingly timely six-episode miniseries based on the 2004 Philip Roth novel shows exactly how fascism can creep into a seemingly immune country like the United States. Created by David Simon and Ed Burns of “The Wire,” it’s an alternate history that has FDR losing the 1940 election to the anti-Semitic Charles Lindbergh, triggering a nationwide turn against Jews. “They’ve always been here,” one character says about anti-Semites in the US, mirroring what many say about white supremacists in the Trump era. “Now they have permission to crawl out from under their rocks.” We watch the crisis through the lens of one family, well-played by Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Anthony Boyle, Winona Ryder, and John Turturro, as a Southern rabbi who becomes unwittingly complicit with Lindbergh. But it’s the concept that will take your breath away. Too bad the series doesn’t seem as far-fetched as it should.
6. “The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime)
Showtime postponed this boisterous seven-episode adaptation of James McBride’s celebrated novel a few times, and I began to wonder if that was because it was a dud. Nope, far from the case. This is a spirited, dramatic, and comic romp about the uphill battle of abolitionist John Brown, whose 1859 raid of the Harpers Ferry armory helped trigger the Civil War. Played with much theatricality by Ethan Hawke as a social irritant of the first order, he holds onto his love of this country and his commitment to equality even as he faces the gallows. Hawke is impressive, and so is Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays a 9-year-old Black boy nicknamed Onion who is the show’s other, quieter hero. Brown thinks Onion, whom he has brought into his crew, is a girl, and Onion doesn’t argue with him, wearing dresses throughout and coping with all kinds of funny, and not so funny, code-switching. “The Good Lord Bird” is a treat, a wonderfully askew story about a loyal ally and his obsessive optimism.
7. “The Crown” (Netflix)
As Peter Morgan’s series reaches its fourth season, its distinctiveness is becoming more pronounced and more notable. I can’t think of another show that set out to deliver a historical portrait (Queen Elizabeth II) incrementally across six seasons, changing the cast every other season to match the characters’ ages. The central subject may be staid, but the concept is inventive, and indigenous to the medium of TV. So the show is on my list (where it has been in past years) with renewed enthusiasm, as its sweep becomes ever more remarkable. It’s also on my list because this particular season was beautifully done, as it incorporated the stories of Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher into the mix. It’s not easy to do recent history so well, and Morgan pulled it off — even if his tendency to fictionalize bugged some viewers. Gillian Anderson was particularly sharp as Thatcher, and Olivia Colman was better than ever in her last turn as Elizabeth. Next season, Imelda Staunton takes over the role.
8. “Little America” (Apple TV+)
I’m betting you haven’t seen this scripted anthology series, which somewhat quietly slipped onto Apple TV+ in January. It’s a lovely show, as each of the eight half-hours zeroes in on one immigrant to tell an entirely discrete story about his or her experiences in America, in coming to America, or in having to adjust to America. Many of the episodes — some joyful, others less so — seem to have the reach of full-length movies, and their themes resonate and contrast with one another. It’s not a political series, even if the subject of immigration is politically charged; the goal is to make each ordinary immigrant character fully human and to portray their experiences with intimacy. In some episodes, America is a savior, in others it is a tangle of red tape, and in others it is a new cultural universe to be learned and understood.
9. “Normal People” (Hulu)
This 12-episode adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Ireland-set novel is beautifully done. It’s a simple story, as we follow the romance between Marianne and Connell from its secret origins in high school to its messier iterations afterward. But it is told with the kind of heightened intimacy and interiority that is rare on TV. It’s love under a microscope. As the power balance shifts between the couple, portrayed with remarkable precision by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, issues of sexism and gender expectations waft in and out. Is romantic love (illustrated with the help of many narratively confident sex scenes) enough to conquer all the social constructs working against it? The show is particularly smart when it comes to Connell’s depression, as he struggles with his gender-conforming male suit of armor.
10. “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX)
No show this year made me smile more than this gothic vampire comedy, as it finds subversive humor in the banal days (by which I mean nights) of its three undead Staten Island housemates. Season two was far from a letdown, as the perfectly cast Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, and Kayvan Novak continued to make me laugh out loud. Their blood suckers are a little bitter, a little bored, and, for such ancient beings, very, very stupid. Berry was particularly good in the episode about his character Laszlo’s alter ego, Jackie Daytona, a half-hour featuring Mark Hamill that’s destined to become a classic. Mark Proksch also entertained as the energy vampire living in the basement of the mansion, who feeds from people by boring them into a stupor — something this show could never be guilty of.
THE SECOND 10
“Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+): An unexpected treat with Jason Sudeikis as an optimistic soccer coach in England.
“P-Valley” (Starz): It takes a stunningly humane look at the characters who run a Mississippi Delta strip club.
“In My Skin” (Hulu): Set in Wales, it follows a resilient and inspiring high schooler (powerfully played by Gabrielle Creevy) whose mother is bipolar.
“Feel Good” (Netflix): In this bittersweet charmer, Mae keeps falling for women who don’t consider themselves lesbian.
“Betty” (HBO): A raw, sweet portrait of ordinary life in NYC for a group of female skateboarders.
“Ozark” (Netflix): The third season held together nicely, with a handful of knockout performances.
“Work in Progress” (Showtime): Gender non-conformity takes center stage as we follow a new relationship in the life of Abby, a self-described “fat, queer dyke.”
“Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet” (Apple TV+): It’s a little bit “Silicon Valley,” a little bit “The Office,” as we get to know the tricky personalities who create a popular video game.
“Mrs. America” (Hulu): An ambitious and entertaining dramatization of the movement to pass the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s, with Cate Blanchett outstanding as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly.
“Insecure” (HBO): In its strong fourth season, the comedy about love took on friendship and the longstanding tensions between Issa and Molly.