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NPR Critics Pick Their Favorite TV From A Strange 2020

All four critics agreed that Michaela Coel's series <em>I May Destroy You</em> was "one of the most exciting of 2020."
Natalie Seery
All four critics agreed that Michaela Coel's series I May Destroy You was "one of the most exciting of 2020."

It has been a momentous year for everything we consider TV.

A pandemic, civil rights reckoning, streaming war and presidential election shook up the industry in a dozen different ways. It blurred lines between genres, platforms and story forms, while also encouraging us to develop our own, deep rabbit holes of favorite media. So when our team of four critics sat down to figure out what we liked most onscreen this year, we each had a lot of stuff on our lists no one else did.

That's why our list crosses a lot of boundaries, including projects technically released as feature films. It's a powerful example of how much quality entertainment was available this year, even after coronavirus lockdowns shut down productions and upended release schedules.

In alphabetical order, here's our best of 2020 — and we know it's a long list, so you can use these alphabetical links to skip around: B, C, D, F, G, H, I, J, L, M, N, O, P, Q, T, W.

Better Call Saul, Season 5 (AMC, Amazon Prime rental, earlier seasons on Netflix)

This outstanding AMC series long ago rendered pointless any comparisons to Breaking Bad, of which it is technically a prequel. The story it's telling is so very much its own — by turns gritty and funny, melancholic and viciously violent. In its penultimate season, the transformation of Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) into Saul Goodman — a criminal lawyer who's actually a criminal lawyer — is just about complete. We finally saw the series' two disparate plot threads — Jimmy's and Mike's (Jonathan Banks) — come together, a richly satisfying consummation for those viewers who've complained about the series' pacing, and who've longed for those two characters to share the screen. The fact that it's all set against the very real, and immensely worrying, potential downfall of the show's beating heart — Rhea Seehorn's astonishing performance as Jimmy's girlfriend Kim — invests us that much deeply in the show's dangerous and duplicitous world. — Glen Weldon, Aisha Harris, Eric Deggans

Black Is King (Disney+)/Between the World and Me (HBO and HBO Max)

In a year that saw lots of reflection on systemic racism and police brutality, these two films offered emotional, effective meditations on Black joy and pain in very different ways. Black Is King is Beyoncé's "visual album," loosely inspired by The Lion King story, using arresting images and banging tunes to portray the peoples of the African diaspora rediscovering their heritage as leaders and royalty. Between the World and Me is a different kind of tone poem, centered on passages read by performers like Oprah Winfrey from Ta-Nehisi Coates' book, which was written as a letter to his teen son. It explores the dangers Black people face from police brutality and the joy which comes from Black love and achievement, perfectly presenting the duality of African American life. — Eric Deggans

BoJack Horseman, Season 6, Part II (Netflix)

After five-plus seasons watching a washed-up sitcom horse wrestle with drug addiction, narcissism, childhood traumas and the traumas he inflicted upon others, BoJack Horseman's story came to an end that was as satisfying as one could hope. What the show did best (besides insanely clever animal puns and skewering Hollywood) was really question and challenge the arc of redemption for people (or horses) who have caused an immeasurable amount of pain to others. Right up to its final moments, the writers and animators didn't let up, remaining as inquisitive and creative as ever. — Aisha Harris

Boys State (Apple TV+)

Set at Boys State in Texas, a program where high school boys run for office and form a mock government, this is a documentary not for the faint of heart. It shows kids whose approach to politics is already hardened, already combative beyond the substance of it. Combative for its own sake. While there are moments that show the promise of young activists and idealists, there are also dark signs that a lot of kids who have grown up in our fractured and nasty political climate have learned plenty from the politicians who have endeavored at every turn to make it worse. — Linda Holmes

Class Action Park (HBO Max)

This documentary functions, at one level, as a document laying out the details of a very specific time and place: Action Park in New Jersey, famous for being the amusement park where kids got hurt. But with the help of excellent input from Class Action Park patrons and comedian Chris Gethard, it turns into a consideration of nostalgia more generally, and of what it means to know you had a great time doing something that was a very bad idea. — Linda Holmes

Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)

Spike Lee's usage of Marvin Gaye's What's Going On? album is divine; his nods and references to everything from The Treasure of the Sierra Madre to Rambo are thoughtful and layered; Chadwick Boseman, in one of his final roles, is a powerful and spiritual presence. But this movie belongs to Delroy Lindo, who cuts an imposing and indelible figure as Paul, a Vietnam War vet worn down by unresolved guilt, wrecked by bitterness, sadness and fear. He finds shades to play with in every feeling and thought, giving one of the great performances in recent memory. — Aisha Harris

David Byrne's American Utopia (HBO and HBO Max)

It was a year when we were starved for good feelings, a year when mere happiness felt like ecstatic joy, and real ecstatic joy — like that on glorious display on a Broadway stage by a barefoot David Byrne and a cadre of musicians in matching gray suits — could leave you breathless, swooning and profoundly grateful. Directed by Spike Lee, the theatrical concert film spans Byrne's musical career but — as with any production associated with Byrne — it leaves plenty of room to get enthusiastically weird. Wireless technology allows the musicians to roam the stage, and they do so in lock-step choreography, like the hippest high school marching band imaginable. A special treat for longtime Talking Heads fans: We finally get the live version of "Born Under Punches (The Heat Goes On)" that we didn't know we've been aching for, all this time. — Glen Weldon

First Cow (Showtime, DIRECTTV, and numerous rental sites)

It's astounding how much suspense director Kelly Reichardt is able to derive from the act of milking a cow. In early 19th-century Oregon Territory, skillful cook Otis "Cookie" Figowitz (John Magaro) befriends King-Lu, an enterprising Chinese immigrant (Orion Lee) and outlaw. Together, they conjure up a successful business at a market outpost selling oily cakes to hungry traders; the recipe requires a very scarce commodity around those parts: cow's milk. It's one-part heist film and another part buddy adventure, with a tender — and often humorous — friendship at its center. — Aisha Harris

The Flight Attendant (HBO Max)

Based on the novel by Chris Bohjalian, this smart, taut HBO Max thriller stars Kaley Cuoco as, well, a flight attendant who wakes up after a night of partying and realizes something very, very bad happened while she was asleep. Part mystery, part drama about the aftereffects of a traumatic childhood, and part dark comedy, it was one of the most pleasant surprises of the year, impressing with its razor-sharp tone, supporting performances (Zosia Mamet is tremendous as Cuoco's best friend), and heartfelt work from Cuoco. — Linda Holmes

The Forty-Year-Old Version (Netflix)

Radha Blank's debut as a feature film director, writer and star is an engaging portrait of an artist at an existential crossroad, professional and personal. This is a refreshingly specific mid-life crisis, one borrowing from Blank's own life as a born-and-bred New York writer and rapper known as RhadaMUS Prime. It's funny and poignant, and the banter and characters feel real and alive. Radha the character may lack confidence at times, but real-life Radha the filmmaker is very self-assured. — Aisha Harris, Linda Holmes

The Good Place, Season 4 (NBC, Netflix, Amazon Prime)

The road to this perfectly poignant finale wasn't smooth. Much of seasons 3 and 4 lacked the bite of the earlier seasons, and as the gang fought to prove that there was a fundamental glitch in the sorting of heaven and hell, it felt almost like Mike Schur and his team were spinning wheels. But they stuck the landing anyway, bringing back some of that subversiveness by daring to suggest there can come a point when you feel as though you've done all you wanted to do in the (after)life and it's time to move on. It's a dark thing to contemplate, but it's also honest. — Aisha Harris

The Great (Hulu)

Billed as "An Occasionally True Story," this series about young Catherine (Elle Fanning) and her ill-fated marriage to Emperor Peter of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) is stuffed with gleefully ahistorical elements that'll send students of Russian history into aneurysms. Fanning is terrific as an idealistic (and self-satisfied) would-be social reformer, while Hoult's Peter is a nightmare — a sociopathic boor poured into a pair of tight leather pants. The Great was created by Tony McNamara, based on his 2008 play. McNamara went on to co-write 2018's The Favourite, and if you've seen that film, you know what to expect here — yes, bustles and corsets, wigs and snuffboxes, but also crisp ripostes, lacerating insults and dialogue that sizzles with withering wit. — Glen Weldon

Harley Quinn (DC Universe and HBO Max)

Given the sheer tonnage of live action superhero shows on TV, it's notable that the most gonzo, subversive, hilarious, action packed, explicit and entertaining take on the DC comics universe is actually this animated series. Originally created for the streaming service DC Universe, it now lives on HBO Max, where Big Bang Theory alum Kaley Cuoco voices the Joker's former girlfriend as an unpredictable, profanity-slinging romantic who resists the ex who exploited her. It's a comedy of sorts where even Batman is a bit of a doofus, featuring Harley leading a team of misfit baddies who struggle for recognition as Gotham City's leading villains, redefining adult-oriented superhero stories in the process. — Eric Deggans

The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix)

The first installment of this Netflix series, The Haunting of Hill House, was packed with plenty of good, ghostly scares — but it lagged in the middle, and whiffed the ending. With The Haunting of Bly Manor creator and showrunner Mike Flanagan hasn't simply found a new author to riff on (Henry James, instead of Shirley Jackson) he has seriously course-corrected. Though it parcels out the scares more thinly than Hill House did, Bly Manor's story is tighter, and it nails the all-important dismount in a sincere, humane and bittersweet way that directly addresses the nature, and the purpose, of grief. It's not overtly tidy or dully expositional — yet it feels, in the best way, inevitable. — Glen Weldon

I Hate Suzie (HBO Max)

This British series — just eight episodes, as is their wont — stars the great Billie Piper as an actress whose nudes end up on the Internet after her phone gets hacked. She then proceeds to make a series of wildly terrible decisions to deal with it — or not deal with it, as the case may be. It won't be for everyone. Think of it as the anti-Ted Lasso — there's little here that's comforting or warm. Try it on for size: Watch the first episode, in which a huge crowd comes tromping through her home for a photo shoot just as she's first finding out about the leaked nudes. She keeps trying to find some privacy — and keep her husband from finding out — in a long stretch of tense, claustrophobic, downright nightmarish scenes, many of which take place entirely in a tight close-up of Piper's face as she attempts to keep from panicking. If it grabs you, you'll watch the rest of the episodes through your fingers — but you will watch them, compulsively. — Glen Weldon

I May Destroy You (HBO and HBO Max)

Michaela Coel's series about a woman exploring the aftermath of a sexual assault shone a spotlight on Coel's own acting, writing, and in some cases directing. It also became a broader examination of ethics in sex and relationships, from the traumatic to the questionable to the unkind. The supporting cast and dizzying structural turns made the HBO show one of the most exciting of 2020. — Linda Holmes, Aisha Harris, Eric Deggans, Glen Weldon

The Invisible Man (HBO, HBO Max and numerous rental sites)

Elisabeth Moss stars as a woman who begins to fear she's crazy when she keeps sensing her dead abusive husband everywhere. From there, the film becomes a consideration of paranoia, trauma and ultimately the desire to reclaim a connection to reality that's come undone as a result of repeated, relentless gaslighting. — Linda Holmes

John Mulaney and the Sack Lunch Bunch (Netflix)

Point of order: This comedy special debuted on Dec. 25, 2019 — after we made our annual list — so it slides in here on a technicality. But it certainly belongs — no comedy special has won me over so hard, so completely. Mulaney's idiosyncratic sensibility might seem an odd fit for what is essentially an extended riff on old children's television programming, but it works seamlessly here. That's a product of the writing, which is wry but never cynical, but it's also an outgrowth of the casting. These kid actors aren't pushing it — they easily find Mulaney's particular comedic frequency, and stick to it. — Glen Weldon

The Last Dance (Netflix)

Basketball legend Michael Jordan looms over every frame of this revealing documentary series first shown on ESPN, and not just because it expertly documents his final championship season with the Chicago Bulls in 1997-98. It's an incisive look at how that team became a world-crushing, pop-culture-dominating force, with special detail on how Jordan built his legend. Other stories also resonate: How Dennis Rodman nearly committed suicide before he joined the Bulls; how teammate Scottie Pippen was continually underpaid; how Jordan was merciless about pushing his teammates and cultivating grudges to boost his performance. Jordan was involved as a producer and had to approve use of the Bulls' behind-the-scenes footage, giving him even more control. But despite his influence, this miniseries offers a never-before-seen look at a once in a generation team. — Eric Deggans

Lovecraft Country (HBO and HBO Max)

Packed to bursting with symbolism, special effects, allegory, social messages, reinvented horror tropes and enough plot to require a YouTube explainer for every episode, this audacious take on Matt Ruff's 2016 novel is a lot. But its story, placing a Black family at the heart of a pitched battle with a white family of witches in the Jim Crow-era 1950s, is a marvel of ambition and craft. Comparing the horrors of racism to the supernatural horrors found in novels by H.P. Lovecraft — himself an infamous xenophobe and racist — reinvents the genre in unexpected ways. And the work of executive producer/writer/director Misha Green to showcase the power of Black love and family in a series dropping during the summer's reckoning over systemic racism and police brutality, was exquisitely perfect timing. — Eric Deggans, Glen Weldon

Lovers Rock (Amazon Prime)

This entry in Steve McQueen's excellent Small Axe anthology series will surely make you want to seek out its soundtrack, which is bubbling with classics of the reggae subgenre from which it gets its title. But as you follow these young West Indian Londoners mingling, dancing, flirting and rebuffing aggressive strangers at a lively house party on one evening in 1980, it will also transport you to a realm of beauty and intimacy. It's a musical reverie that manages to capture the exultation of the arrival of the weekend, and the sanctity of Black community. — Aisha Harris

Mucho Mucho Amor (Netflix)

Netflix presented this documentary about legendary astrologer Walter Mercado to an audience that included both people who grew up watching him on television every day and people who knew him hardly at all. It told a story that was alternatively sad and stirring, but it ultimately gave the man his due as a legend who was part of the lives of many families and who found himself poorly treated by some of those close to him. — Linda Holmes

The New Pope (HBO and HBO Max)

The New Pope, like The Young Pope before it, is all about jockeying for a very earthly kind of power behind the scenes of the Vatican. The vaguely odd, singular tone of that first series persists, as does the many Italian actors' tendencies to emphasize words that native English speakers wouldn't necessarily emphasize, and insert long, meaningful pauses (creator Paolo Sorrentino loves his pauses) where native English speakers wouldn't. It all adds to the sense that you're watching the show from across a vague, yet palpable cultural divide — the ecclesiastical drama as Mentos commercial. Despite the title change and the swapping out of Jude Law's Pius XIII for John Malkovich's Sir John Brannox, Sorrentino's camera still tracks slowly and languidly through immense arched hallways, vaulted rooms and lush gardens, pausing to alight upon small, telling details. Malkovich revels in his portrayal of Brannox as a louche, mascara-wearing British fop who flounces through life — a man who can be counted upon to find the nearest chaise in any room and recline upon it as if he has just been roughly flung there. — Glen Weldon

Normal People (Hulu)

The Sally Rooney novel about two young students who fall in love and watch their lives intersect over many years was a hit, and adapting it into a limited series was a challenge since it's so reliant on the interiority of the lead characters. But leads Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal brought their scenes together an intimacy and grace that kept the wide-ranging story in focus. — Linda Holmes

On The Record (HBO Max)

Making a documentary about the reckoning over sexual harassment in music would have been too broad an assignment for any filmmaker. So it makes sense that this one is narrower: It is primarily about allegations against hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons, and even more specifically about Drew Dixon, an A&R executive who says she saw her career founder after being assaulted by Simmons. — Linda Holmes

Ozark, Season 3 (Netflix)

Critics who dismiss this drama about a family juggling internal drama and FBI scrutiny while laundering money for a Mexican drug cartel in the Ozarks (some have dubbed it "Breaking Bad: The Family Edition") have missed the point. Especially in this year's powerhouse third season, Ozark raised its game, adding Janet McTeer as a domineering cartel lawyer and Tom Pelphrey in a shamefully under-recognized turn as the bipolar brother of matriarch Wendy Byrde, played by Laura Linney. Pelphrey was heart-rending as the only person who saw how terrible the Byrdes' activities were, despite his mental illness. And the show's ability to keep viewers invested in Jason Bateman's numbers whiz, patriarch Marty Byrde — no matter who he gets killed or rips off — is nothing short of amazing. — Eric Deggans

P-Valley (STARZ)

In lesser hands, Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan) — the towering, flamboyant non-binary strip club owner whose drawl kind of sounds like Katt Williams –could have easily turned out to be little more than sassy caricature. But Katori Hall's soapy melodrama about a rural Mississippi town and its colorful inhabitants takes its characters seriously, and over the course of this crackling first season they emerge more unique and interesting than their "types" might initially suggest. The show also brings a new level of respect to the artistry and precision of pole dancing — among the highlights are those extensive routines backed by dirty, thumping Southern hip-hop. — Aisha Harris

The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)

Before I saw one scene of chess play, I was all in for a miniseries showing a talented, self-possessed woman mastering a game dominated by men in the 1950s and '60s, knocking them off like clay pigeons on her way to the world championship. But this series, crafted by Scott Frank based on a 1983 novel, also plays like a superhero origin story. In a magnetic performance, Anya Taylor-Joy brings liquid eyes and an inscrutable manner to chess prodigy Beth Harmon, who must overcome substance abuse, the influence of her suicidal mom and a sexist world to reach her goals. Toss in a period-specific, lavish production and direction that actually makes chess look interesting, and you have the ingredients of a modern TV masterpiece. — Eric Deggans

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

Saturday Night Live alum Jason Sudeikis is funny, bumbling and occasionally heartbreaking as Ted Lasso, a stupendously optimistic American college football coach hired to lead a Premiere League soccer team in England. The owner is actually trying to sabotage the team by hiring Lasso, who knows nothing about soccer — or "football," as they call it in Britain. But she doesn't realize his true superpower is that he's so gosh darned nice. It may sound a little hokey, but Ted Lasso somehow builds a wonderful comedy around the healing power of niceness — deflating any hokum with a well-timed joke or two. And considering how tough 2020 has been, we all could use a lot of that message right about now. — Eric Deggans, Linda Holmes

Tiger King (Netflix)

The subjects of this docuseries became the butt of a thousand punchlines, as viewers dug into the tawdry tale of Joe Exotic — a publicity-seeking, pistol-packing character running a private zoo in Oklahoma who was convicted of paying a hitman to murder his longtime nemesis, self-styled animal conservationist Carol Baskin. Still, the series itself is an amazing achievement, exploring the eccentric and often exploitive underworld of exotic animal collectors and conservationists. Joe Exotic was the show's unstable center, given to stunts like running for president and participating in an unofficial, three-way same sex marriage. But the show also featured footage filmed over years, as directors caught crucial moments on film and climbed inside the heart of a devastatingly dysfunctional subculture. — Eric Deggans

Time (Amazon Prime)

There's a profound sadness at the core of Garrett Bradley's arresting documentary about Fox Rich, a Louisiana woman who spent decades tirelessly contesting her husband Robert's 60-year prison sentence for a crime they both committed out of economic desperation. But there's also a sense of optimism humming beneath it all, particularly in how Rich's story unfolds on screen: via footage from approximately 100 hours of daily video diaries she made of herself and their children over the years, in the hopes of eventually having the opportunity to show it all to Robert. Bradley and editor Gabriel Rhodes take this treasure of a time capsule and turn out an absorbing masterpiece. — Aisha Harris

What We Do In The Shadows, Season 2 (FX and FX on Hulu)

As great as the first season of this modern-day-vampire mockumentary series was, it had trouble stepping out of the long ... well, shadow of the 2014 film on which it was based. That's not to say there weren't plenty of creative additions — Mark Proksch's cardigan-clad "energy vampire" Colin Robinson, for example, the embodiment of all things evil ... and beige. But in the second season, a stronger, more linear plot involving the show's secret weapon (Harvey Guillén as Guillermo, the Staten-Island-based vampires' long-suffering thrall/assistant who discovers as dark, hilarious truth about himself) leaves the viewer with the impression that the show has clicked into its groove. And speaking of groove: If the show did nothing but grace us with the presence of the marvelous Matt Barry at his bombastic best here playing the preternaturally self-impressed vampire Lazlo, it would be enough. — Glen Weldon

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Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.
Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.
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