To read the rest of The Ringer’s Best of 2020 (So Far) lists, click here.
In a year when every part of our lives has been shaped by a global pandemic, it took a while before COVID-19 got in the way of television. Most series that premiered in the first half of 2020 had already wrapped production—the pandemic’s effects are instead seen a bit further down the road, in the shows forced to take a midseason hiatus (Billions) or delayed until an uncertain date (see you when we see you, Succession Season 3). As for the TV that hasn’t been disrupted, there have been exciting newcomers and established favorites turning in their best seasons. It’s a testament to this strong year in television that it was still difficult to whittle our picks down to a top 10. These are the highlights from a strange but excellent year so far on the small screen.
Writer-director Alex Garland might be a little high on his own psychedelic supply—when it comes to his eight-part FX miniseries, however, that’s not really a bad thing. Devs could be divisive in its questionably scientific discussions of quantum computing, the multiverse, and determinism. But combined with Garland’s gorgeous imagery, a convincing heel turn from Nick Offerman, and some spirited dunking on the modern tech industry, Devs’ philosophizing was part of another look into the same imagination that brought us Ex Machina and Annihilation. The “corporate thriller” setup, in which a programmer goes missing and his girlfriend starts to investigate their mutual employer, is a red herring. Garland just wants to talk about whether we ultimately choose the lives we live, man, and a Google-like company named Amaya is simply how he decided to do it. —Alison Herman
9. Love Is Blind
You never know which unheralded Netflix show is going to come out of the woodwork and become a monster hit. And hit Love Is Blind did, hijacking our brains for a three-week stretch in late winter like so many hormones. The show has a needlessly complicated premise that must be seen to be believed, but the end result is an exquisite rendering of the chaos that underlies all long-term commitment. Who among us hasn’t ignored massive red flags like our girlfriend slipping wine to her dog or fessing up to massive student debt? Who hasn’t been pleasantly surprised by a train wreck couple that’s somehow made it work? Love Is Blind found a way to out-Bachelor the actual Bachelor, if not explain what Nick and Vanessa Lachey were doing there. For that, it deserves the hype it got on social. —Herman
8. The Last Dance
When the sports calendar as we knew it vanished in the wake of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Jason Hehir’s The Last Dance was a balm for content-starved fans. It’s within that context that the ESPN docuseries became perhaps the closest thing we’ve had to Game of Thrones–style appointment viewing, chronicling Michael Jordan’s chaotic-yet-legendary career with the Chicago Bulls and pulling out all the stops in terms of interview subjects—from MJ himself to Dennis Rodman wearing sunglasses indoors to “former Chicago resident” Barack Obama.
The Last Dance might not have the same journalistic integrity as other sports docs—MJ’s own production company was one of the coproducers—but it succeeded in spite of those limitations. That’s in part because Jordan’s career carried such mythic qualities—regardless of how, exactly, he got sick from eating pizza in Utah—and that he’ll apparently hold every petty grievance to his grave. I can honestly say there has been nothing more exhilarating than The Last Dance’s off-screen interviewer handing MJ an iPad as one of the greatest basketball players of all time watches a clip, lets out a cackle, and proceeds to tell you why Isiah Thomas actually sucks. —Miles Surrey
7. The New Pope
How does Paolo Sorrentino follow up The Young Pope, in which Jude Law’s titular, chain-smoking, sexy, Cherry Coke Zero–loving pontiff appeared to die while delivering an address to the faithful? Well, the Italian auteur found himself a new pope. For all the Lynchian qualities of Sorrentino’s papal universe, it’s only fitting that his sequel series The New Pope takes a page out of Twin Peaks: The Return. (Twin Popes? Forgive me, Father.) Delaying the inevitable reemergence of Law’s Lenny Belardo from a yearlong coma for much of the series like a divine Dougie Jones, The New Pope instead focuses much of its time on the Vatican powers appointing another unfit pontiff: John Malkovich’s depressive, insular John Paul III.
Like its predecessor, The New Pope sees John Paul III handle the papacy like a global stage for some long overdue therapy, reckoning with his faith (or lack thereof), loneliness, and childhood trauma—all while the Vatican deals with a terrorist group targeting the Church and its followers. It’s heavy stuff, but Sorrentino packs his show with enough opulent imagery and memeable moments—John Paul III can’t help but notice he looks just like the actor John Malkovich when he isn’t complaining about Meghan Markle soliciting him for fashion advice—that the barrier to entry isn’t as restrictive as other series with arthouse sensibilities. The New Pope is equally divine and sacrilegious; a feast for the eyes and the rare sequel to an HBO miniseries that lives up to the hype. And if nothing else, the show can lay claim to the best title sequences of the year. —Surrey
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/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
5. I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel is a true multihyphenate, able to craft a vision as a writer, then execute it as an actor (and occasional codirector). That skill set comes in handy with I May Destroy You, a 12-part HBO series rooted in Coel’s horrifying personal experience with drugging and sexual assault by a stranger. Only Coel could channel that experience into a story about a hip London writer navigating trauma alongside her struggling career; only Coel could dramatize that story with a performance that combines her comic chops from Chewing Gum with a more dramatic grasp on the nuances of recovery. I May Destroy You has no problem toggling between joyous hangout scenes and near-total breakdowns; as in life, the two coexist, with no telling if a day will end in one or the other. —Herman
4. What We Do in the Shadows
We have a tendency to inject greater meaning into a show and what it might say about the world we live in—sometimes accurately, see: Mrs. America—but the enduring appeal of What We Do in the Shadows is that it’s 22-odd minutes a week of hilarious nonsense. A sequel of sorts to the 2014 mockumentary film of the same name from Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi, the FX series revels in all the kinds of stupid shit its vampires get up to in their futile attempt to lay dominion over Staten Island.
Any concerns the show’s formula might grow stale while making the pivot from feature film to multiple seasons of television were quickly washed away in a Season 2 premiere that saw Benedict Wong cameo as a necromancer fiddling on his phone while turning Haley Joel Osment into a zombie. What We Do in the Shadows only got better (and more ridiculous) from there, peaking when Matt Berry’s Laszlo moves to Pennsylvania—to avoid paying off a debt from a vampire played by Mark Hamill—and creates a new life for himself as Jackie Daytona, a “regular human bartender” who gets super invested in the local high school’s girl’s volleyball team. The tale of Jackie Daytona might not have much to say about life in 2020, but it’s further proof What We Do in the Shadows excels at comedy as escapism—and as a perfectly silly slice of eternal life. —Surrey
3. Normal People
Connell and Marianne are two teenagers in love, a tale as old as time. They’re also two people on opposite sides of a class divide negotiating the transition from small-town West Ireland to university in Dublin in the late 2010s. Hulu’s 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit 2018 novel, written in part by Rooney herself, excels at this combination of the universal and the specific. Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones are twin revelations as the two halves of a formative relationship; they’re responsible for communicating their characters’ complex psychologies, a counterintuitive mix of the precocious and the immature. Not only do they succeed—along with directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, they add white-hot sexual chemistry to boot. Watch with your partner at your own risk. —Herman
2. Mrs. America
The last thing you may want to do in 2020 is learn more about the conservative movement that controls so much of our daily lives. But Mrs. America makes its portrait of Phyllis Schlafly as magnetic yet cutting as a portrait of Schlafly would need to be to command our attention. Cate Blanchett is ferocious as the Cold War hawk turned Equal Rights Amendment opponent, but to counter her reactionary point of view, creator Dhavi Waller also weaves in the full tapestry of the feminist movement’s second wave. It’s a true delight to see the likes of Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisholm get the prestige-miniseries treatment, even as the FX show is a fitting antidote to the format’s historically masculine slant. There are no antiheroes here—only deeply flawed heroines, and villains all the more terrifying for how human they are from the start. —Herman
1. Better Call Saul
For some viewers, the knock against Better Call Saul is that it’s a really slow burn—quiet and understated in ways that its predecessor, Breaking Bad, wasn’t by virtue of all its Heisenberg-induced violence. But with the fifth and penultimate season finally merging the legal and gangland sides of the series, and with Jimmy McGill becoming “criminal” lawyer Saul Goodman in earnest, Better Call Saul leveled up from the rare prequel that works into a show that belongs in the pantheon.
Season 5 was a masterclass in every respect: of writing, direction, performance, the minutiae of real estate ordinances and carrying millions of dollars across the border for a drug kingpin’s bail. Watching Jimmy’s transformation from a two-bit scam artist into a “friend of the cartel” was wrenching enough; to see it reflected within Kim Wexler’s own moral descent was some of the most enthralling and tragic television I’ve ever seen. A throwaway line of dialogue in Breaking Bad turned into Lalo Salamanca, a villain played with such insidious charm by Tony Dalton that he’s running circles around Prequel Gus Fring. One season still remains but, to keep the legal thread going, you can already make a strong case to the judge that Better Call Saul has surpassed its parent series. That’s how superlative Better Call Saul’s penultimate season was. But if that’s too bold of a claim, there’s at least one thing the Breaking Bad universe’s fandom can agree on: GIVE RHEA SEEHORN HER EMMY ALREADY. —Surrey