To read the rest of The Ringer’s Best of 2020 (So Far) lists, click here.
When my colleague Miles Surrey and I convened to assemble our list of the best television series of 2020 thus far, our choices were evenly distributed over the first six months of the year—surprisingly so, given how prone networks are to overstuffing the pre-Emmy-deadline months of spring. The New Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to the strange, surreal, and sensational The Young Pope, kicked things off in January with a return trip to Vatican City. I May Destroy You, Michaela Coel’s darkly funny take on her own experience with sexual assault, premiered just a few weeks ago.
Between these two bookends—coincidentally, both European coproductions aired stateside on HBO—lay an array of highlights: sports documentaries and reality shows, novel adaptations and crime dramas, silly sitcoms and prestige prequels. I’ve been covering TV professionally for more than half a decade, and the last few years—particularly the last one—have been marked by a collective uncertainty over what exceptional quality in the streaming era would look like, or if it would even exist with any kind of consistency. The Golden Age of early-aughts antiheroes was long past, but so was its second wave, a cluster of creatively diverse shows that nonetheless earned a consensus of critical acclaim. What came after The Sopranos was exciting. But what would come after Broad City, and Jane the Virgin, and The Leftovers, and Catastrophe?
The past few years in TV have been largely reactive, tying up stories that started years before and navigating new platforms whose proliferation outpaced audiences’ understanding. This year felt different, or at least like it could be. It was all going so well. Then, everything changed.
Under normal circumstances, I might call The New Pope a fitting start to the year because its predecessor, too, signaled an unusually strong 12 months to come. Now, the continued saga of Pius XIII reads like a different kind of omen. It’s a story about a world in crisis, left to deal with terror and uncertainty without a guiding light who looks and talks like Jude Law. In its place, the Catholic Church is left with an incompetent leader both unsuited and unwilling to rise to the occasion. And you thought the first Sorrentino series was full of uncomfortable parallels to real life!
There’s not much that connects The New Pope and Love Is Blind, a masterful riff on the social experiment as schadenfreude. But in retrospect, Love Is Blind, too, feels oddly clairvoyant—the best and most memorable of an entire class of Netflix reality shows that trade on limited interpersonal contact. Never mind that Love Is Blind improves immeasurably when its stars emerge from the “pods” where they first got engaged, sight unseen. One of the show’s takeaways is that the relationships it documents are forever imprinted by their strange beginnings, no matter how hard the couples try to fast-forward to a more normal life. Whenever the rest of us emerge from pandemic-induced lockdown, we may find the same to be true of our own bonds.
Love Is Blind would be one of the last premieres not to be wholly overshadowed by, or at least inextricable from, the current pandemic. Suddenly, Michael Jordan’s self-produced docuseries wasn’t a counterpoint to sports. For a five-week span, the basketball saga simply was sports, consuming all the energy and attention that would otherwise have gone to contests more contemporary than the late-’90s Bulls. The Last Dance became an early example of the same phenomenon that sent Netflix stock surging: the entire world as captive audience, with fewer alternatives than ever to a night on the couch. (See also the Tiger King phenomenon, in which the need for entertainment—and the power of Carole Baskin memes—outweighed ethical reservations.) It may be a terrible time to launch a streaming service designed for “on the go” idle moments, but Quibi’s competitors find themselves in a paradoxical place—a fortunate present, right before an uncertain future.
The coronavirus has, of course, put film and TV productions on hiatus for the time being. Some technically have permission to restart, in states like California, while others have announced their intention to resume in countries like the U.K. But studios and unions have yet to work out the specifics; when filming does start back up, it’ll likely be missing once-standard tropes like the crowd scene. In this context, looking back on the recent past can be easier than trying to grasp what’s to come. But it’s also an uneasy reminder of all that’s happened in the gap between a show being filmed and ending up on our screens.
Which doesn’t mean TV still can’t make for an effective distraction. What We Do in the Shadows had a superlative sophomore season, not because the vampire mockumentary altered its MO but because it doubled down on transcendently stupid jokes. (Full disclosure: I have a close friend who wrote on Season 2.) Amazon Prime drama ZeroZeroZero is a different kind of genre exercise, but it’s as faithful in its execution of an international crime yarn as Shadows is of a high-fantasy spoof. Irish adaptation Normal People is so precise in its psychological portraiture it’s as easy to get lost in the tale of Connell and Marianne as they are in each other. The best TV shows of 2020 took on added significance as one of our few sources of temporary relief.
TV these days is as much about structure as it is about substance; as much as the shows themselves, the platforms they air on dictate the conversation. Much of FX has now migrated to Hulu, the network’s new-ish corporate sibling, allowing wider audiences for shows like Shadows, Alex Garland’s Devs, and the superlative Mrs. America, a show eerily in tune with a slightly different set of societal ills. HBO Max is not the laughingstock that Quibi rapidly became, but the WarnerMedia service has run into its own telling set of obstacles in going toe-to-toe with the likes of Netflix and Disney+. Max’s original series haven’t made much of an impression, but with everything from Spirited Away to Drop Dead Gorgeous in its archive, the hub’s debut is as notable as any individual show.
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for TV in 2020 is the many excellent shows that didn’t make our subjective list: Cheer, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, Dare Me, Never Have I Ever. Our top pick, Better Call Saul, is as classical as they come—a gorgeously crafted exercise in dramatic irony that keeps finding new corners of a world now well past the decade mark. But the crowd it heads up is raucous, entertaining, and above all, promising. For reasons outside of any individual’s control, TV’s momentum has been stalled. Hopefully, on the other side, creators can find a way to pick up where they left off.