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best tv of 2020

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With the world sheltering at home in the midst of a pandemic, binge-watching is no longer for wiling away a lazy Sunday—it’s America’s pastime. Though 2020 has seen a few not-so-great offerings hit our laptop screens (Too Hot to Handle, anyone?), peak TV continues to deliver truly quality content. From standout seasons of The Good Fight and Ozark to stellar new shows like Never Have I Ever, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, and Normal People, here’s the best TV of 2020—so far.

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1

Everything’s Gonna Be Okay

Fans of Australian comedian Josh Thomas’s winning, melancholy series Please Like Me (featuring a pre-Nanette Hannah Gadsby) will be glad to find he’s got another irascible and tetchy lead character in his repertoire. In Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Thomas plays entomologist Nicholas, who becomes guardian for his two teenage half-sisters after their father’s death. As he did with Please Like Me, Thomas excels as zigging where other family comedies would zag, creating strikingly unique characters with lived-in details and glaring flaws who dare you to love them despite it all. —R. Eric Thomas

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2

Awkwafina is Nora From Queens

When it comes to typecasting, an actress could do worse than be pegged as a loving granddaughter. But while Awkwafina’s new role covers similar ground to her role in The Farewell (underemployed millennial New Yorker deals with family dynamics), the series is much more in line with her comedy roots. Nora lives with her grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) and father (BD Wong, hunkier than ever), while trying to find a job and hold her own against her precociously successful cousin (SNL’s Bowen Yang.) If you’re looking for a comedy with both whimsy and heart that hits many of the same notes as the late, great Broad City, this is your bet. —Adrienne Gaffney

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3

Sex Education

True to form, the second season of Sex Education delivered with a million plot points, unexpected friendships, and equal parts laugh-out-loud and “oh no” moments. But I’d be remiss not to point out the penultimate episode, which served as a resolution to Aimee’s sexual assault storyline. My partner and I both teared up at different scenes, and it reminded me why I’m already itching for a season 3. (Though to be fair, we also replayed the clip of Jackson tonguing a Rubik’s cube about 10 times.) —Madison Feller

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4

Cheer

It’s been almost five months since Cheer debuted on Netflix, and I still haven’t recovered from the very dramatic, very emotional finale. The docuseries follows Navarro College’s highly-competitive cheer team from Corsicana, Texas, as they train to defend their title at the National Cheerleading Championship. Here’s hoping Netflix announces a second season—I need more mat talk in my life! —Rose Minutaglio

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5

Normal People

Yes, the sex and the bangs and the chain are all worthy of your attention, but they don’t account for what makes Hulu’s take on Sally Rooney’s 2019 novel so great. Normal People is the rare adaptation that successfully expands its source material without much sacrifice; each element of the 12-part miniseries, from the camera’s unflinching gaze to the leads’ naked emotion, suggests a commitment to building a relationship without pretense. The result is a wrenching feat of storytelling. —Julie Kosin

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6

Money Heist

I’ve never had a show pull me in the way Money Heist (La Casa de Papel) has. A group of eight criminals band together to stage one of the greatest heists in history at Spain’s Royal Mint. Their audacious leader, The Professor, spent years researching and planning, but his hard work comes crashing down when he falls for the detective tasked with taking down his team of thieves. Each episode is a delicious slice of anxiety and suspense, narrated by the show’s wildest and most unpredictable character, Tokio. You’ll hate her at first—I won’t lie to you, you’ll hate a lot of them—but as the characters and plot develop, you start to realize these thieves aren’t the “villains” they’re portrayed as. In short, you’re in for a wild ride. —Nerisha Penrose

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7

The Great

This “occasionally true” tale of Catherine the Great’s (Elle Fanning) coup to overthrow the Russian government and oust her inept monarch husband (a delightful Nicholas Hoult) asks you to toss out your textbooks when it comes to 18th-century history. The Great quickly breaks free from its corseted formula, taking rollicking liberties with the doomed marriage between Catherine and Peter III. She’s a Pollyanna-turned-political force with no leadership experience and two allies in the whole country; he’s the Original Fuckboy™ with a host of mommy issues. Watching them spar through 10 vodka-soaked episodes is the most fun I’ve had in quarantine, and Catherine’s heartbreaking decision in the finale sets up the show perfectly for a delicious second season. Huzzah! —Savannah Walsh

8

Insecure

The agonizing year-and-a-half wait for Insecure’s fourth season was immediately jolted by the words opening the season premiere: “Honestly, I don’t fuck with Molly anymore.” After setting in place the season’s overarching mystery—what could possibly sever one of TV’s most relatable relationships?—we jump back four months. With the fate of the friendship that has been at the core of Issa’s life for three seasons in question, each episode shimmers with tension. This is the Rashomon we truly need. —AG

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9

Never Have I Ever

The Mindy Project‘s Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher do teen coming-of-age in a way we haven’t seen before, and it’s an enormous breath of fresh air. Fifteen-year-old Devi Vishwakumar has some of the things you’d come to expect of a TV teen—an academic rival, a rocky relationship with her mom, a crush on the hottest guy in school, and two equally uncool best friends—and some things you wouldn’t expect: a deceased father, a rage problem, and an inner monologue narrated by John McEnroe. The genius of Never Have I Ever is that all of the aspects of Devi’s life, including her Indian-American cultural heritage, are treated as unique to her and given equal weight. The result is a genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, deeply empathetic show that feels simultaneously brand new and as familiar as a page ripped out of an old diary. —RET

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10

Unorthodox

Author Deborah Feldman’s memoir Unorthodox: My Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots yields an adaptation that depicts a young woman’s liberation with beauty and grace. Star Shira Haas is a revelation and the gripping story, which moves from an ultra-insular religious community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn to the creative wilds of Berlin, offers a new look at faith, autonomy and self-discovery. —AG

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11

Dead to Me

Season 2 of this delightfully absurd show from Netflix picks up right where the cliffhanger in Season 1 left off, only this time, it’s Jen (Christina Applegate) who has a secret to hide from Judy (Linda Cardellini). It might seem wrong to binge a comedy about grief during a pandemic, but in addition to the many laughs, watching Jen and Judy’s friendship deepen, against all odds, makes this show more heartwarming than depressing. And its many twists will keep you guessing and blissfully distracted from reality. —Kayla Webley Adler

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12

The Plot Against America

If you’re looking for a period piece that feels eerily modern, HBO’s Philip Roth adaptation takes place a generation ago, but its depiction of how American values can easily collapse in the face of bigotry and fascism is incredibly resonant. Ed Burns and David Simon, the team behind The Wire, revisit the 1940 presidential election and imagine the reality if anti-Semite Charles Lindbergh were to claim victory over President Roosevelt. With an unbeatable cast tethered by Zoe Kazan, Winona Ryder, and John Turturro and a focus on one family’s survival through darkness, the miniseries has the surprising ability to uplift rather than depress. —AG

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13

High Fidelity

It’s to Zoë Kravitz’s credit that High Fidelity feels much less like a retread of a popular book and movie than a fully formed work of its own. Like John Cusack in the 2000 film, Kravitz’s Rob is a neurotic record store owner who obsessively recounts her failed relationships as she struggles to deal with the aftermath of a breakup. Fully leading a project for the first time, Kravitz’s humor and charm carry the show, while cast members like the brilliant Da’Vine Joy Randolph, whose performance is career-making, and a glorious soundtrack curated by Questlove make it a must watch. —AG

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14

Schitt’s Creek

The final season of Schitt’s Creek started at the top of the year and carried us all the way into quarantine, just when we needed it most. The last 14 episodes were a sweet send-off for the characters we’ve come to love so dearly, and it all culminated in a wedding that featured Moira dressed as the Pope and Patrick singing Mariah Carey. What else could you even ask for? —MF

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15

Belgravia

The latest offering from Downton Abbey creator and Gosford Park Oscar winner Julian Fellowes is exactly what you’d expect: an utterly delightful romp through the upstairs-downstairs dynamics of England’s not-so-distant past. This time, Fellowes swaps Hampshire’s Highclere Castle for the imposing stucco terraces of London’s Belgravia neighborhood, a tony new outpost harboring society-shattering secrets in the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign. Come for the always delicious Harriet Walter as the cunning Countess of Brockenhurst, stay for Tamsin Greig, whose standout performance as a grieving mother uncomfortable in her newfound wealth begs the question, why hasn’t she been the lead in everything? —JK

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16

Curb Your Enthusiasm

Still sharp after all these years, Curb Your Enthusiasm just completed its tenth season but remains a must watch. This season, which featured Larry on a quest to open a coffee shop motivated by spite and wearing a MAGA hat to avoid social interactions, was sharp, irreverent and filled with perfectly cast guest stars like Laverne Cox, Isla Fisher, and Jon Hamm. While the world endures lockdown, Larry’s brand—neurotic, germ-obsessed, and hater of physical touch—is comforting. There are people who chose to live this way! —AG

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17

Run

I’ll watch anything Phoebe Waller-Bridge touches, so I was thrilled to learn she executive produced Run, a new HBO series written and created by frequent collaborator Vicky Jones (who directed the original stage production of Fleabag). The dark comedy centers on Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), former lovers who made a promise to reunite on a cross-country train if one ever texted “RUN” and the other replied the same. What ensues is a smart, suspenseful, sexual tension-filled escapist fantasy. —KWA

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18

Mrs. America

If the cast list of this FX on Hulu series doesn’t knock you over (Cate Blanchett! Sarah Paulson! Niecy Nash! Rose Byrne! Tracey Ullman!), the performances surely will: Blanchett is awe-inspiring as a starkly human iteration of conservative bed bug Phyllis Schlafly, the woman who brought down the Equal Rights Amendment, while Margo Martindale was born to play feminist firecracker Bella Abzug. But it’s Uzo Aduba who will almost certainly land her third Emmy; rarely does a performance beg for a spinoff series like her take on Shirley Chisholm, the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency for a major party. —JK

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19

The Good Fight

With episodes featuring the infamous pee tape and a shadowy meeting with Melania, The Good Fight‘s latest season addresses American rage at the administration more directly than anything else on TV. While predecessor The Good Wife explored NSA phone tapping and the evils of tech, the majority black law firm at the center of The Good Fight gives the show a better footing from which to examine society, like in the season 4 opener, which explores corporate feminism and white women’s culpability in destructive power structures. —AG

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20

My Brilliant Friend

The best book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet gets a worthy onscreen adaptation, tracing the loves, losses, and expectations of early adulthood in midcentury Naples through the eyes of bright Lenù (Margherita Mazzucco) and her scrappy best friend Lila (a haunting Gaia Girace). It’s a treat to watch Mazzucco and Girace grow into the precise emotional demands of these roles, and the Alice Rohrwacher-directed Ischia episodes mark standout performances for both. —JK

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21

One Day at a Time

PopTV made the dreams of devoted ODAAT fans come true last year, when it rescued the show from a premature death following Netflix’s cancellation. The fourth season of this warm, delightful sitcom starring Justina Machado may be airing on a new network, but it is otherwise unchanged, continuing to follow the ups and down of the daily life of a Cuban-American family living in L.A. One Day at a Time deals with tough stuff—mental illness, homophobia, racism, etc.—but somehow always leaves me with a smile. —KWA

22

Ozark

Ozark‘s riveting plot is centered around a boring ol’ financial advisor (Jason Bateman) whose life is upended when he agrees to launder money for a Mexican drug cartel. Marty tries his best to keep his business and personal life separate when he moves his family to the suburbs to continue his money-laundering scheme, but the residents aren’t that welcoming. Marty must make deals with devils, protect his children, fight for his dying marriage, and stay out of the FBI’s way—all while proving his loyalty to his very impatient boss. And poor Marty can’t ever seem to catch a break. —NP

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