More than in most years, TV in 2020 was a window to the outside world. For those of us lucky enough to stay home, very little has changed between the start of quarantine in March and the current wait for distribution of a vaccine. But TV has continued its relentless churn, offering equal parts distraction and catharsis. What follows are The Ringer’s best TV shows of 2020, from reality to action to drama—the best things we saw on our box within a box.
10. The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City
It’s been a banner year for Bravo’s flagship franchise. Potomac’s drama fended off the summer doldrums, while Atlanta and Orange County have become an early experiment in pandemic-era TV production; the former also took on the mass protests against police brutality that swept the nation earlier this year. But the biggest splash belongs to The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City, the first brand-new Housewives in four years, and by far the strangest.
Salt Lake City is such a counterintuitive fit for a show about conspicuous consumption that the final product must be seen to be believed. Bravo producers have done the lord’s, if not Joseph Smith’s, work in tracking down patented reality-TV types in the mountains. (How does Jen afford a fully staffed “Shah Squad” on an assistant college football coach’s salary?) But there are also fascinating, place-specific tensions that add a layer of pop sociology. Most of the cast are ex-Mormons, giving extra ammo to fights about a potential divorce or feeling judged; the ensemble is one of the more diverse in Housewives history, enabling remarkably trenchant discussions of race and religion amid dubiously themed parties. And because this is a late-stage reality season, there’s a snake-eating-its-tail quality to cast members who clearly know how this works—like any queer millennial worth his salt, son-of-a-castmember Brooks Marks has “Housewives scholar” written all over him. The season was filmed mere months before lockdown, lending an extra fall-of-Rome feel to already-uncanny fights over “smelling like hospital.” It is, to say the least, the perfect send-off to an equally deranged 2020. —Alison Herman
9. Gangs of London
If the name Gareth Evans rings a bell, then the British crime drama Gangs of London practically sells itself. For the uninitiated, Evans is arguably the best—if most underappreciated—action director of the century. (Any self-respecting action-movie buff who hasn’t seen The Raid: Redemption or The Raid 2 needs to fix that ASAP.) With Gangs of London, which Evans cocreated with frequent collaborator Matt Flannery, the filmmaker makes his first foray into television, and it’s a doozy.
While the show’s setup is fairly by-the-numbers for a gangster drama—the assassination of an Irish mobster creates a power vacuum that various London crime syndicates look to exploit—Evans brings his flair for kinetic and well-choreographed mayhem to the proceedings. Whether it’s staging a frenetic brawl in a crowded pub or elite assassins unloading an entire arsenal of assault weapons on a safe house in the countryside, Gangs of London delivers pulse-pounding action with a level of craftsmanship rarely seen on the small screen. So long as viewers can suspend their disbelief that the series’ myriad British goons boast skill sets more commonly found in Indonesian stuntmen, Gangs of London is an instant adrenaline rush, and one of the best new shows of the year. —Miles Surrey
If we were judging by physical prowess alone, P-Valley ranks among the most impressive TV series ever produced, a show so physically demanding each of its actors had two stunt doubles. So committed is Katori Hall’s stripping drama to its subject, and so grueling is the art form/sport/profession at hand, that real-life acrobatics are essential to the story. But so are the characters, from nonbinary club owner Uncle Cliff (Nicco Annan) to top dog Mercedes (Brandee Evans), who’s trying to negotiate a graceful exit from the Mississippi strip joint where she’s built a mass following. P-Valley is weighty and serious without ever sinking to emotional torture porn; funny and frivolous without making its protagonists the butt of the joke. Mostly, it’s a heartfelt tribute to the Mississippi Delta, capturing a distinctly American region with a native’s eye for dialect and local color. —Herman
7. Ted Lasso
For a show that’s essentially an underdog sports story, the journey of Ted Lasso as a word-of-mouth sensation feels like it came right out of its own writer’s room. On the surface, the Apple TV+ comedy doesn’t sound like anyone’s idea of a success: The character of Ted Lasso (played by Jason Sudeikis) was based on a couple of NBC videos promoting the network’s acquisition of the television rights to the Premier League. Remember when ABC tried to make a sitcom out of the Geico cavemen commercials? Exactly.
But against all odds, Ted Lasso doesn’t just work as full-fledged comedy: It’s legitimately great. The key is Lasso himself: Instead of playing the character like he did for the NBC promos—with a hint of arrogance to go along with dimwittedness—Sudeikis makes the newly appointed American football coach of a struggling Premier League club an unshakable beam of optimism. What Lasso lacks in soccer expertise he more than makes up for with empathy, kindness, and an ability to bring the best out of people. (I don’t want to admit how many times Ted Lasso made me cry, as if Jason Sudeikis with a southern accent was my own personal therapist.) If there’s a knock against the show, it’s rarely laugh-out-loud funny, but in an awfully bleak year when gloom and cynicism is quick to set in, the fact that Ted Lasso was wholesome counterprogramming is reason enough to celebrate it. —Surrey
6. Mrs. America
The Trump administration is nearly over, but what we now call Trumpism was here long before 2016 and will continue long after. That’s just one of the lessons of Mrs. America, the rare show to earn its grandiose title. Starring Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, who channeled opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment into a resurgent right-wing crusade, Mrs. America rolls through the 1970s with the tragic tide of history at its back. At first, it’s fun to gawk at Gloria Steinem’s aviators or learn about Shirley Chisholm’s forgotten primary campaign in 1972. But as the ERA goes from an inevitability to a losing cause, and as Schlafly goes from the lunatic fringe to the center of Ronald Reagan’s presidential run, the good vibes start to curdle. What never wavers is creator Dahvi Waller’s sense of all parties’ deep convictions—including and especially Schlafly’s, whose organizational acumen was as impressive as her cause was destructive. Know your enemy, the saying goes. But know your allies’ failure to see or stop your enemy, too. —Herman
I’m in no position to question Amazon’s strategy when it comes to their streaming empire, but they sure seem to know how to bury expensive-looking productions. A year after inexplicably giving Nicolas Winding Refn a blank check to create 13 hours of bleak, beautiful television and barely promoting it on the platform, the only reason I knew about the existence of the Amazon-coproduced crime series ZeroZeroZero was through the enthusiastic recommendation of my colleague Chris Ryan.
How appropriate, then, that ZeroZeroZero feels like the lovechild of Sicario and Refn’s Too Old to Die Young—turning an international cocaine shipment and various players of the criminal underworld into one of the most gorgeous, transportive television experiences you’ll find anywhere. With ZeroZeroZero tracking the buyers (an Italian mafia), the sellers (a Mexican cartel), and the brokers (Louisiana-based shipping magnates) of said shipment across the globe, the show actually filmed on location in New Orleans, Mexico, Senegal, Morocco, and Italy. Why a series whose production globe-trotted nearly as much as Christopher Nolan’s Tenet went under the radar is beyond me, but ZeroZeroZero is more than just a travel flex and hidden gem for crime drama enthusiasts. The series will make Ozark look like it’s using training wheels: This is an uncompromisingly brutal tale of greed, power, and those willing to maintain their status at any personal cost. All told, ZeroZeroZero is stunning and twisted enough that it might even give Refn some new ideas. —Surrey
4. Small Axe
Please don’t take this entry as a hard stance in the increasingly meaningless turf wars between film and TV. If you want to put Steve McQueen’s five-part anthology on a film list, put it on a film list; we’re including it in our best-of-TV roundup because Small Axe is one of the best things to come out of 2020, full stop. (Also, Amazon is submitting it for Emmys, so why not?) Every story is set within London’s West Indian diaspora, sometime between the late ’60s and mid-’80s. Other than that, each narrative is distinct, though there are certainly echoes throughout: the warm bustle of a restaurant in Mangrove recalls the vibrant, near-sentient house party of Lovers Rock; the tensions between parents and children raised an ocean apart are as present in adulthood (Red, White, & Blue) as they are in adolescence (Education). McQueen has a knack for drawing the life out of lesson-plan plots regarding police brutality and discrimination in schools. Dates and data points tend to fall out of the memory, but images like a mother embracing a child can stick with you forever. —Herman
3. The Crown
One way you know that The Crown made a leap in Season 4 is the fact that the British culture minister is trying to make Netflix add a disclaimer that the series is a work of fiction. (Sorry Prince Charles, fictionalized exchanges or otherwise, you’re deservedly back on everyone’s shit list!) In the fourth season, the passage of time is the show’s biggest ally, as The Crown has finally arrived at the point in history that viewers have eagerly been waiting for since the series was first announced.
With the ’80s comes the dual introduction of Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson) and a young Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin), both of whom bring much-needed intrigue to Buckingham Palace and the country beyond its walls. (The great Olivia Colman can only do so much with a solemn stare and Prince Philip becoming obsessed with the moon landing.) Series creator Peter Morgan has always shown a cloying reverence to the monarchy, usually to The Crown’s detriment—he seems to pen every script with hopes of a future knighthood in mind. But history, and the royals’ well-documented treatment of Princess Diana, has forced Morgan’s hand. As the full extent of the royals’ entitlement, dysfunction, and cruelty is laid bare, The Crown truly achieves greatness. —Surrey
2. Better Call Saul
It didn’t take long for Better Call Saul to justify its existence behind an admittedly risky proposition: making a prequel to a universally acclaimed drama, centered on a character that was initially introduced in Breaking Bad as a slimy form of comic relief. That Better Call Saul—a slow, nuanced, understated venture compared to its predecessor—has as legitimate a claim to greatness as Breaking Bad is a stunning accomplishment in and of itself. And yet the show’s penultimate season builds to an even more compelling case: Better Call Saul has surpassed its parent series, and belongs in the pantheon with all-timers like The Sopranos.
The key, as the series inches closer to its endgame, is the continued evolution of Kim Wexler, Jimmy McGill’s romantic partner and moral counterweight. As Jimmy has slowly given way to “friend of the cartel” Saul Goodman, we’ve seen the character’s slippery slope reflected by Kim, culminating in a season finale that suggests she might be the one to fully break bad before him. Such a tragic, engrossing journey wouldn’t be nearly as effective without Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn delivering career-defining work. That neither of them have been rewarded with Emmys—the revelatory Seehorn, inexplicably, can’t even get a nomination—feels like the kind of cruel con that even Saul Goodman couldn’t endorse. (Overall, heading into its final season, the show still hasn’t won a single Primetime Emmy.) But if Better Call Saul can’t get the industry recognition it so richly deserves, then let’s bring the case of its enduring excellence to the court of public opinion. This show is so good, man. —Surrey
1. I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s metafictional triumph ended up somewhere in the middle of our midyear list. But as the year went on, admiration only grew. I May Destroy You squeezes a dozen different shows into as many episodes. Coming a few years after the tidal wave of #MeToo, it’s most widely publicized as a meditation on consent. But it’s also a tale of artistic maturation, a comedy about unruly best friends, a sharp satire of the predatory publishing (and by implication, entertainment) industry, and simply a snapshot of life in London from the perspective of second-generation West African immigrants. The tone toggles from painfully earnest to bitingly arch, with the common denominator being Coel herself, who writes, codirects, and stars. Based on Coel’s own experience with sexual assault, it’s deeply personal but could never be mistaken for unfiltered confession. When something so specific—to Coel as a person, to the city she lives in—translates so powerfully across continents, it’s something very special indeed. —Herman