It may be 2021 now, but many of us still find ourselves under lockdown, and with highly restricted access to social activities and public locations. Fortunately, amid the many quarantine-filled months of 2020 (and early 2021), television managed to deliver plenty of compelling small screen stories to help keep us engaged. 2020 also proved to be an incredibly noteworthy year for all-new methods of consuming television to boot, between fledgling streaming platforms, HBO Max, Peacock and Quibi making their big debuts last year (though Quibi has already been shut down at the time of writing, sadly), Disney+ and Apple TV+ both delivering their first proper years of content, CBS All-Access preparing a rebrand as Paramount+ in early 2021, and DC Universe confirming the rumours that it would be moving away from television production, in favour of becoming a comic book-specific streamer.
Clearly, a lot happened in the television industry throughout 2020, and that’s before considering the increased need for compelling television to enjoy at home last year, following lockdowns and stay-at-home orders catalyzed by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This, combined with the fact that there was just so much great television to choose from last year, has officially motivated us to make an exception to the usual Top Ten formula. This time, we’ll rather fittingly be counting down the top twenty TV shows of 2020! The rules are simple– Any show, streaming, cable or syndicated, that delivered new episodes in 2020 is eligible. Completed seasons with fully mapped-out story arcs will obviously get higher consideration however, now that some shows spread their seasons across more than one year. Despite that though, we will be aiming to avoid spoilers, and will keep story details surrounding each winning series/season to a minimum.
Without further ado then, here are the Top Twenty TV Shows of 2020. Oh, and as a special bonus for our native Canada and the U.S. at least, every single one of our TV award winners for 2020 is available to stream, in full (with one small exception for Canadians), via respective high-profile streaming platforms, even if they originated on syndicated or cable television!
Let’s count ’em down:
#20: DC’s Stargirl: Season One
Genre: Superhero coming-of-age dramedy
Platform(s): DC Universe (former)/The CW (U.S.), ??? (Canada)
WHY: Rounding out the bottom of our list is the aforementioned small exception to our ‘every winner is available to stream’ claim– Stargirl. Technically marketed as ‘DC’s Stargirl‘, to avoid confusion with the wholly unrelated Disney+ Original Film of the same name, and the novel series that inspired it, this wholesome superhero dramedy series served as the final original series offering from DC Universe, before its imminent rebrand as ‘DC Universe Infinite’, whereupon it will ditch television production in favour of exclusively focusing on DC’s comic books. Stargirl’s premiere season was also simulcast on syndicated television via The CW in the U.S., with its next-day CW airings being the only way for Canadians to legitimately watch the show at the time, assuming they had a cable package that could piggyback off of American CW stations.
Yes, in a head-scratching turn that persists even at the time of writing in 2021, DC’s Stargirl doesn’t appear to have a proper Canadian distribution plan yet, almost a year later. While Canadians could technically catch Season One’s episodes on The CW, if their cable package allows it, they remain unable to stream the show for now, unlike Americans, who can do so via the CW App, at the very least. Compounding the strangeness is that DC’s Stargirl appears to have stealth-released its first season on the iTunes Store for Canadians, priced at $29.99 CAN, but apparently nowhere else of note.
This is annoying for Canadian DC fans in particular, because DC’s Stargirl is exactly the kind of series that tired, stressed-out 2020 audiences could no doubt use. The show is a coming-of-age superhero series inspired by the DC Comics heroine of the same name, starring the eponymous Courtney Whitmore, after she moves to backwater Nebraska burg, Blue Valley, following the marriage between her mother and new stepfather, ex-superhero sidekick, Pat Dugan/Stripesy. After a super-villain faction called the Injustice Society surfaces in Blue Valley however, Courtney twists Pat’s arm to rally a new team of heroes against them, following the ‘Cosmic Staff’ owned by Pat’s former superhero ally, Sylvester Pemberton/Starman bonding to Courtney.
DC’s Stargirl isn’t a terribly complex show, but its charm and family values present a decidedly different spin on the previously dark, brooding original series lineup of DC Universe. The series is also undeniably inspired by Sony Pictures’ and Marvel Studios’ acclaimed Spider-Man movies starring Tom Holland, presenting a similar passing-of-the-torch narrative that bridges generations between the old guard and the new one. 2020’s first thirteen episodes for DC’s Stargirl are thus filled with humour, happiness and heart, along with some lovably vibrant special effects, and while the series did ultimately fall shy of the surprisingly inspired depth behind DC Universe’s other original series offerings, it nonetheless finds an entertaining way to remind viewers that better days are ahead.
#19: Bridgerton: Season One
Genre: Period romance drama
WHY: Bridgerton is a mostly good series with plenty of caveats. On the one hand, it’s a gorgeously-produced, sublimely-performed period costume drama that’s bound to tickle fans of old-fashioned love stories. On the other hand though, its questionable writing and almost intentionally asinine twists give it the feeling of dating the stereotypical head cheerleader; There’s a lot of upbeat beauty to savour, but you also feel a little dumber with every conversation. There’s something to be said about pageantry, but when Bridgerton indulges in its most juicy and controversial of gossip-friendly fantasies, it does ultimately leave a pretty sour taste in the mouth.
And yet, credit where it’s due, Bridgerton really is one of the most impressive shows of 2020, even if its tone can be a bit… Uncomfortable sometimes. It’s very well put-together, astonishingly so, presenting Hollywood-quality production values that continue to flex the mighty budget potential of Netflix’s Original Series catalogue. The show, inspired by a series of novels by Julia Quinn, revolves around a duo of British families in the early 19th Century, and features a romanticized take on the Regency era that aims to spotlight gender and racial politics, and their evolution from a time when women were deemed useful for little more than marriage and child-rearing.
Of course, it’s also difficult to argue that Bridgerton was no doubt pitched as, “Regency Gossip Girl“, especially when its first season’s premise is practically lifted wholesale from The CW’s fan-favourite teen soap series, which itself is soon set to be revived on HBO Max. All of the juicy affairs and Regency politics frequently get their pots stirred by the over-arching pen of Lady Whistledown, who hides among the lead cast, profiting from their respective tragedies and triumphs. It does admittedly verge a bit on being trashy at times, but we do have to nonetheless respect Bridgerton for its commitment to triple-A production values, along with its dreamy vision of history for women and people of colour. The series certainly won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you have a taste for costume dramas or surprisingly lustful storytelling, Bridgerton presents a nicely distinct new Netflix series that proves the streamer’s deep pockets are good for more than blockbuster genre shows.
#18: Central Park: Season One
Genre: Animated musical comedy
Platform(s): Apple TV+
WHY: Central Park is easily one of the strangest TV shows to debut in 2020, but its creative approach to an otherwise boilerplate premise presents another early favourite for the fledgling Apple TV+. Co-created by Loren Bouchard of Bob’s Burgers fame (Central Park even re-uses Bob’s Burgers’ distinct animation style!), and well-known actor, Josh Gad, who also portrays an in-universe busker narrator named Birdie, Central Park revolves around the multiracial Tillerman family, who live in New York City’s well-known Central Park. Tillerman patriarch, Owen serves as Central Park’s manager, dealing with the demanding professional duties of keeping this idyllic New York location beautiful and functional, all the while being targeted by Bitsy Brandenham, a wealthy entrepreneur that wants to buy the park, and turn it into a commercial development zone for businesses and condos.
The big hook in Central Park’s otherwise simple storytelling is that the series is presented as a musical! Every so often, characters will perform musical numbers, singing catchy songs about their current desires, conflicts and challenges, in an unusual combination of wholesome family fun, and New York-celebrating artistry. This could have very easily been forced, cheesy and awkward, but the sharp writing and attention to tongue-in-cheek details throughout Central Park easily make it stand out, on Apple TV+ and otherwise. The show’s sense of humour is obviously very similar to Bob’s Burgers, especially when antagonist, Bitsy and her female assistant, Helen are voiced by men (Stanley Tucci and Daveed Diggs, respectively), but Central Park still manages to stand apart with its clear love of Broadway-style music. If you heart NY especially, or just like clever, creative animated sitcoms, Central Park continues to flex the creative potential of Apple TV+, and its full-time commitment to original content.
#17: Star Trek: Lower Decks – Season One
Genre: Adult animation sci-fi comedy
Platform(s): CBS All-Access (U.S.), CTV Sci-Fi/Crave (Canada)
WHY: Speaking of bizarrely compelling animated surprises in 2020, Star Trek: Lower Decks debuted as easily the most offbeat, initially head-scratching Star Trek pitch to come from the folks at CBS. What was previously a franchise packed to the gills with decades’ worth of highly ambitious live-action dramas across television and movies was suddenly reinvented as an animated, adult-oriented sitcom set within the titular ‘lower decks’ of the U.S.S. Cerritos, supposedly one of the least celebrated starships out of Starfleet. Headlining the eccentric crew of the Cerritos’ least glamourous employees are the reckless Beckett Mariner, the undercover daughter of exasperated Cerritos captain, Carol Freeman, and ambitious, rule-oriented Brad Boimler, who naturally clash constantly, and frequently find themselves screwing up missions in their respective quests to prove the validity of their agendas, or simply prove that they know what they’re doing at all.
Longtime Star Trek fans will of course get the most out of Star Trek: Lower Decks’ Easter egg-packed humour, but even non-fans that are largely unfamiliar with Star Trek will find plenty to laugh at in the weirdest, yet easily most entertaining modern TV offering to come from the Star Trek franchise. Star Trek: Lower Decks succeeds as both a brilliant parody of Star Trek’s legacy and its pivotal effect on the sci-fi genre, and as a highly bizarre workplace comedy built on exaggerated gags that sublimely thrive in the medium of adult animation. As odd a pitch as this series is built on, it could prove to be the ideal excuse to check out a Star Trek series if you have yet to make the plunge. If nothing else, Star Trek: Lower Decks stands as another of 2020’s most lovable and memorable debuting TV comedies, one that’s possibly set to kickstart a trend of more comedic takes on fan-favourite genre properties, considering recent reports that both a very similar X-Files comedy series, as well as a Walking Dead comedy series, are now in the works.
#16: Blood of Zeus: Season One
Genre: Adult fantasy anime
WHY: Every year, we tend to get surprised by at least one super cool dark horse Netflix series that unexpectedly makes its debut with minimal advertising, but nonetheless manages to make a huge splash with either a mainstream or cult audience. In 2020, Blood of Zeus was definitely that series. Despite minimal promotion from Netflix, the series, produced by Castlevania’s Powerhouse Animation, proved to be one of 2020’s coolest and most memorable surprises. Its first season presents an incredibly colourful, starkly violent new take on the classic tales of Greek mythology, as new hero, Heron must step up to battle against a race of corrupt superhumans spawned from the blood of a giant, an eldritch creature that’s part of a cursed race that the Olympian gods battled in ancient times.
Blood of Zeus marks the latest effort by Netflix to double down on their surprisingly great original anime catalogue. Sure, this particular series is ‘Americanime’, a la Castlevania, but its impeccable sense of style really can’t be understated. Blood of Zeus stands alongside Bridgerton as one of the most visually stunning original shows to debut on Netflix in 2020, albeit clearly for opposite reasons. Even beyond its incredibly vibrant, painstakingly detailed thrills however, Blood of Zeus is well-written, dramatic and full of both rewarding character arcs and surprisingly witty humour. It’s also positively loaded with imagination, taking the foundation of the well-known tales of Greek mythology, and accentuating them with an anime-flavoured spin that makes them both extra grotesque and beautifully modern in equal measure.
Like Bridgerton, Blood of Zeus won’t be to everyone’s tastes. It does however definitively prove that Castlevania is no fluke, and that Netflix does indeed appear to carry tons of untapped potential as an original anime distributor, whether it be native Japanese anime, or Americanime made in the West. If Blood of Zeus is a sign of things to come, then we’re immensely excited to see what’s next for Netflix’s original anime catalogue, especially with big licenses like Pacific Rim, Tomb Raider and Resident Evil apparently leading the next wave of it!
#15: The Umbrella Academy: Season Two
Genre: Period superhero dramedy
WHY: The Umbrella Academy finally gave Netflix its very own independent superhero series with the debut of its first season in 2019 (albeit one adapted from a pre-existing Dark Horse comic book series), a slightly flawed selection of ten episodes that nonetheless presented lots of offbeat promise for future seasons. In Season Two, which moved the series to 1960’s Texas, that promise started to become more earnestly fulfilled.
Season Two of The Umbrella Academy easily surpasses its predecessor, displacing the Hargreeves siblings across the early 1960’s, only to see them followed by another apocalypse that was never supposed to occur. As much as this is a bit of a repeat of the first season’s hook however, especially with Kate Walsh’s ‘Handler’ making an unexpected return, alongside her time-policing assassin ‘Commission’, Season Two of The Umbrella Academy still utilizes its period setting effectively, providing a compelling new angle on the Hargreeves family drama, and how it relates to their disparate races, sexualities and general living situations.
The show naturally also keeps building upon the most appealing elements of Season One in 2020’s newest ten episodes, including its eclectic soundtrack of licensed pop/rock favourites, as well as its sporadic, but surprisingly hard-hitting action scenes. The Umbrella Academy still keeps its superhero spectacle to a careful minimum, but its family drama continues to make up for this in spades, all layered around a juvenile, yet strangely appealing sense of humour that effectively spotlights a whole new level of family dysfunction. Basically, The Umbrella Academy was better able to find its voice in Season Two, as one of Netflix’s most offbeat, but clever original genre shows. Even though the series is so far continuing to shy away from the weirdest elements of its source comics, Season Two’s conclusion nonetheless teases that the show’s family challenges are only going to get stranger next season, hopefully continuing an upward trend in quality that further cements The Umbrella Academy as one of the most creative and memorable superhero shows to grace streaming television.
#14: Lovecraft Country: Season One
Genre: Period fantasy social drama
Platform(s): HBO (U.S.), Crave+HBO (Canada)
WHY: HBO’s adaptation of/sequel to DC Comics’ Watchmen swept the Emmy’s last year, and Lovecraft Country feels like 2020’s spiritual follow-up to that highly acclaimed limited series. Inspired by the 2016 novel of the same name (which it also essentially acts as a sequel to, complete with the source prose existing in-universe!), Lovecraft Country revolves around a largely African-American cast, as they aim to investigate and prevent an apocalyptic prophecy in 1950’s Jim Crow America. The series is often unpredictable, taking the leads through all manner of old-world style fantasy and sci-fi, most notably the eponymous works of H.P. Lovecraft, and his horror-fueled fantasy stories. It also culminates in a truly shocking, yet undeniably emotional finale, one that beautifully rounds off the show’s themes of essentially taking back the realm of acclaimed imagination from the old, often racist creators of the past, Lovecraft included.
Lovecraft Country’s excellent balance between surreal fantasy and starkly brutal reality can be hard to wrap your head around, but in a way, that feels like the entire point. We live in a world that’s equally capable of wondrous imagination as much as it is horrific atrocities, and Lovecraft Country, like HBO’s Watchmen sequel series before it, is a fine example of how to do a social justice-fueled series well, something that’s proving increasingly difficult for various TV platforms to pull off. Given that the source novel has been exhausted with Lovecraft Country’s first season however, some are wondering if this will be another one-and-done selection of episodes, a la HBO’s Watchmen, and HBO has so far been vague as to whether or not Lovecraft Country is meant to be a limited series, even in 2021. Either way though, this reality-bending trip through the best and worst of human creativity easily serves as one of 2020’s most innovative genre TV offerings, one that’s very much worth checking out if you’re in the mood for something a little different, but also something that clearly has something important to say about the world we live in now.
#13: Upload: Season One
Genre: Sci-Fi comedy
Platform(s): Amazon Prime Video
WHY: Upload was another of 2020’s best surprises. Coming to us from NBC’s The Office showrunner, Greg Daniels, who also delivered another debuting high-profile comedy series, Space Force to Netflix in 2020 (though that series’ first season was more of a mixed bag), Upload is an existential comedy about a young man, Nathan Brown, suffering a premature demise, and being ‘uploaded’ to a virtual afterlife. Naturally, this idyllic virtual paradise is far from perfect, especially when Nathan’s nosy, rich girlfriend, Ingrid Kannerman exerts an uncomfortable amount of control over his post-living experience. Nathan does at least find some comfort with his ‘angel’, Nora Antony though, who is supposed to be in charge of handling Nathan’s needs in the virtual afterlife. This is a TV comedy pitch that’s just as strange and charming as you would think, but even then, its themes of material lust and identifying what truly drives the human soul manage to go above and beyond, and deliver something that’s not just funny, but genuinely thought-provoking, right out of the gate!
In many respects, Upload feels like a spiritual successor to NBC’s fan-favourite afterlife sitcom, The Good Place, which aired its final episode just a few weeks into 2020. This makes even more sense when you consider that The Good Place was created by Michael Schur, another producer and writer alum for NBC’s The Office. Upload is obviously more of a sci-fi take on the afterlife sitcom than the fantasy-oriented The Good Place, but its sense of humour and love of philosophy is very similar. Most importantly though, Upload is just as brilliant, funny and heartwarming as The Good Place often was, finally delivering another standout comedy series for Amazon Prime Video, to follow The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel. Amazon still seems to prefer blockbuster dramas over comedies at this point, but Upload makes a strong case for Prime Video to start more frequently embracing funny shows. We can’t wait to see what crazy scenarios Upload’s virtual afterlife will concoct next in Season Two!
#12: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – Season One
Genre: Workplace comedy
Platform(s): Apple TV+
WHY: Apple TV+ broke from its prior tradition of weekly episode drips (at least, during its launch wave of programming in late 2019), to instead release the first season of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet all at once in early 2020. This made it easy to binge through this entire workplace sitcom in a day, and it’s a good thing too, because Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet is the first truly exceptional comedy series to hit Apple TV+!
Starring It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Rob McElhenney (who co-created the series as a whole, alongside fellow It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia lead, Charlie Day, and writer, Megan Ganz), Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet delivers yet another new spin on the well-worn foundation of a workplace comedy, namely by setting it within a video game development studio. Considering the tense, often difficult gauntlet of modern game development in the real world, especially for the type of online-driven games that the fictional Mythic Quest serves as, this scenario was absolutely ripe with hilarious comedy possibilities, and Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet delivers on every one of them, often with a surprisingly biting edge! Led by McElhenney’s comically conceited Ian Grimm, who’s preparing to launch a brand new expansion to his world-leading online role-playing game, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet delivers great laughs for the everyperson, but especially brilliant cringe for the gaming faithful, who will recognize all too well the eccentric personalities of greedy Head of Monetization, Brad Bakshi, self-important, washed-up game writer, C.W. Longbottom, and perpetually exhausted, undermined lead engineer, Poppy Li, among others.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet even rode off the COVID-19 pandemic by delivering a ‘Quarantine Special’ episode last May, bringing its nine-episode first season to a more even ten episodes, and one shot entirely remotely with Apple products like iPhones, without the comedy suffering at all. This show may not quite hit the high notes of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia yet, granted, but it does come surprisingly close! Not only that, but Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet serves as a show that’s finally not afraid to start spotlighting and examining both the best and worst practices of the modern video game industry. It’s hard to make workplace comedies stand out in this day and age, much less succeed, but Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet proves that the concept still has plenty of life in the right hands, especially when it continues to humourously tap into the unexpected challenges that the unsung heroes of an important industry face on a routine basis.
#11: Raised by Wolves: Season One
Genre: Post-apocalyptic sci-fi drama
Platform(s): HBO Max (U.S.), CTV Sci-Fi/Crave+HBO (Canada)
WHY: The post-apocalyptic genre is another genre that’s hard to make stand out in modern television. The wave of imitators inspired by hit shows like The Walking Dead have just more or less saturated it to the brim by this point. Fortunately, Raised by Wolves, HBO Max’s first blockbuster genre show, injects a surprising amount of imagination into the concept, unfolding within a ruined future for humanity, which sees Earth destroyed by a holy war. The concept behind this series stands out even more by centering around two androids, aptly named ‘Mother’ and ‘Father’ as well, who must raise human embryos into viable civilization on Kepler-22b, a faraway planet with a dark history, one that’s inevitably activated anew when Earth’s religious crusaders find their way to the androids, and their surviving children.
Raised by Wolves can be a bit slow sometimes, presenting very heavy sci-fi material that’s drenched in politics and philosophy. Despite that however, it’s packed to the gills with stunning visuals and imagination, showcasing the early potential of ‘Max Original’ shows, and their ambitious production values. Often shockingly violent and unapologetically grim, Raised by Wolves defies being a bit of a difficult watch with its incredible depth and polish, giving us a wholly original sci-fi series that feels incredibly fresh and relevant after 2020. The fact that the series is executive produced by Alien and Blade Runner director, Ridley Scott (who also excellently directs the first two episodes, while his son, Luke Scott directs three more) is icing on the cake, ensuring that Raised by Wolves is poised to become the next big thing in sci-fi. With a Season Two renewal already being secured less than a month out from its premiere, Raised by Wolves will no doubt keep raising the bar for the sci-fi genre in 2021 as well, building off of a first season finale that promises an even more dangerous threat to come for its morally-challenged protagonists!
#10: What We Do in the Shadows: Season Two
Genre: Supernatural mockumentary comedy
WHY: What We Do in the Shadows delivered such a clever, hilarious first season that it legitimately managed to rival the cult classic 2014 Kiwi movie that inspired it. The series’ sophomore season only got better in 2020 as well, taking its coven of comical vampires to new heights of comedic brilliance. Now ostracized by the vampire community, right as familiar, Guillermo discovers that he’s descended from a legendary family of vampire hunters, Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja and Colin Robinson find themselves getting into new misadventures involving chain letters, Super Bowl parties and fronts for witchcraft, among other issues. From here, Staten Island’s worst vampires continue to bring the laughs, as everything in their increasingly tedious undead lives keeps going wrong, while a documentary crew captures it all.
Mockumentary comedies are yet another form of television that’s largely been done to death at this point, with The Office, Parks & Recreation and Modern Family seemingly exhausting the format, but What We Do in the Shadows is so creatively bonkers that the concept feels like it’s rich with new life, which is a bit ironic for a show about vampires, another TV fad that was dead for a while before this show came along. Despite the fact that it should be doubly doomed from the outset however, What We Do in the Shadows is so comedically sharp and so excellently written and performed, even more so in Season Two, that it nonetheless continues to stand as one of the best sitcoms on television at this point!
It’s a bummer that What We Do in the Shadows won’t be part of Canada’s Disney+ Star lineup when that launches later this month, though you can stream both ten-episode seasons on FXNow (and its upcoming third season, whenever that premieres), with cable packages that support it. Hopefully it arrives on Canada’s Disney+ Star catalogue eventually though, because What We Do in the Shadows is far and away one of the most entertaining comedies in FX’s history, taking a great movie, and continuing to build upon it as an even better TV show!
#9: Harley Quinn: Season One & Season Two
Genre: Adult animation superhero comedy
Platform(s): DC Universe (former)/HBO Max (U.S.), Adult Swim (Canada)
WHY: DC Universe’s life as a television streaming platform may have been incredibly short (not as short as Quibi’s, but still), but at least it managed to maximize its programming potential in that short time, and few shows stand as evidence of that as well as Harley Quinn does. Delivering both the second portion of its first season, along with its entire second season, in 2020, Harley Quinn’s combined initial batch of 26 episodes soar as a sardonic, violent, girl power-fueled delight. Promoting inclusion, self-respect and independence, Harley Quinn is not only a series jam-packed with standout laughs, but also one with a genuinely huge heart, delivering both an inspiring and irreverent animated take on its eponymous anti-heroine, after she breaks up with former beau, The Joker for good, and tries to make it as her own woman among Gotham City’s super-villains.
Fortunately, Harley’s not alone, and the supporting cast proves just as excellent here! Whether it’s brutally honest best friend, Poison Ivy, disgraced misogynist midget, Doctor Psycho, irritatingly self-absorbed failed actor, Clayface, or put-upon tech support/ocean prince, King Shark, Harley’s crew of lovable losers has plenty of admiration to spare, at least, for each other, mostly. As much as Harley and her friends are plenty dysfunctional though, attempting to succeed in a comically challenging rendition of Gotham City, overseen by an aggressively anti-social Batman and a thoroughly broken Commissioner Gordon, what’s most fantastic about Harley Quinn is how much it succeeds as an empowering, feel-good show, for people of all genders, sexualities and races!
Like Star Trek: Lower Decks, Harley Quinn is an offbeat, highly experimental project that seems destined for a modest cult audience, but its go-for-broke anthem to the most downtrodden members of its highly beloved fictional universe spectacularly manages to ring true, for an audience willing to appreciate it. We can’t stress enough how charming and well-written this show is too, succeeding both as a new examination of Harley’s character, as well as a wickedly funny, shockingly R-rated DC comedy in general. The series will be moving to HBO Max for its upcoming third season, likely meaning a sharp cut in episode count, but hopefully that doesn’t mark any reduction in laughs or heart, especially when Harley Quinn’s highly satisfying Season Two finale could have easily doubled as a series finale, if Harley Quinn hadn’t survived the transition out of DC Universe’s shuttered TV arm.
#8: The Queen’s Gambit: Miniseries
Genre: Period coming-of-age drama
WHY: The Queen’s Gambit took the world by storm for months after it premiered on Netflix during October of 2020, and for good reason! This is another especially fantastic surprise for the Netflix catalogue, taking decades to come to fruition, following an optioning of the original 1983 source novel’s rights during the early 90’s. Apparently, any studio executive that was pitched on an adaptation of The Queen’s Gambit had the same response every time– “No one cares about chess.” Well, you could have fooled us, because chess seems to be all anyone is talking about lately, after Netflix agreed to take a chance on the idea, resulting in a fantastic miniseries that does its source prose very proud!
Brought together by a superb lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy as young female chess prodigy, Beth Harmon, The Queen’s Gambit details the highs and lows of Beth’s formative years during the 1960’s, as she becomes deeply immersed in the world of chess, and subsequently develops a substance abuse problem while trying to keep her mind sharp. This is certainly an unorthodox approach to a coming-of-age story, and not every dramatic sequence in this fictional tale is a winner, but taken as a whole, The Queen’s Gambit is a master stroke, showcasing the challenges of being an exceptional person in a world that demands you be anything but exceptional.
There’s a reason that everyone is talking about The Queen’s Gambit; It really is that good. With the miniseries format growing in popularity for North American audiences lately, The Queen’s Gambit presents one of the best testaments to its potential on streaming platforms yet, delivering a tightly-executed, satisfying and heartfelt story in just seven hour-long episodes, without overstaying its welcome, and bringing everything together perfectly with its conclusion. Existing somewhere between conventional television and movies, an embracing of the miniseries could lead to more live-action adaptations being achievable, if they’re too in-depth for a two-hour movie, but also don’t naturally lend themselves to ongoing TV season arcs. Either way, The Queen’s Gambit is easily one of 2020’s most impressive TV dramas, on streaming platforms and otherwise, and it finally allows this standout story to reach a new audience in the modern era.
#7: Ted Lasso: Season One
Genre: Sports comedy
Platform(s): Apple TV+
WHY: There were quite a few surprise hit comedies to come out of 2020, both in animation and live-action. Among those comedies though, few felt as well-timed, appropriate and uplifting as Ted Lasso, another excellent comedy to fill out the early catalogue of Apple TV+. Even more amazing is that this comedy is inspired by a short-lived NBC Sports sketch character, who’s put into a dedicated streaming series, as a well-meaning, resolutely optimistic American soccer coach that’s struggling to make a new gig work in England. Ted doesn’t really know anything about soccer, but he’s determined to make a good impression, even though, unbeknownst to him, his new boss has hired him as a stooge, and a pawn to ruin the beloved soccer club of her lecherous ex-husband that’s recently divorced her.
Ted Lasso’s wholesome brand of comedy doesn’t go for the jugular like Harley Quinn, What We Do in the Shadows or Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet would be wont to do, but the series is nonetheless excellent in its own right. Every one of Ted Lasso’s first ten episodes presents a whip-smart, unapologetically likable yarn about a good man that’s been dealt a series of bad hands in life, and yet still refuses to compromise his can-do attitude. It’s a bit of an old-school approach to comedy, but in 2020 especially, Ted Lasso’s arrival is very fortuitous. Modern comedies could use a character like this, badly, and between Jason Sudeikis’ great lead performance, the frequently excellent writing, and the surprisingly novel concept, Ted Lasso shines as perhaps 2020’s most underrated TV comedy, and Apple Original. Like Harley Quinn, this is a brilliant feel-good series that will put a smile on your face, and restore much of your lost faith in the world. If only we could all be a little more like Ted Lasso, but at least his standout TV series makes for a good way to start!
#6: Doom Patrol: Season Two
Genre: Superhero tragicomedy
Platform(s): DC Universe (former)/HBO Max (U.S.), CTV Sci-Fi/Crave (Canada)
WHY: The weird, wonderful brilliance of DC’s Doom Patrol is one of the most frustrating victims of the COVID-19 pandemic, which ultimately cut its sophomore season short by several episodes. Fortunately, the nine episodes we did get still managed to shine as some of the most strange, empowering television that we got all year. The series has become so acclaimed by critics and fans in fact that it served as the guinea pig for DC Universe’s eventual programming migration to HBO Max (save for Stargirl, which instead moved to The CW), with Doom Patrol’s second season simultaneously hosted on DC Universe and HBO Max in the U.S., while it was airing in 2020. Obviously, its upcoming third season will be exclusively hosted on HBO Max as a Max Original series.
Despite having far less episodes to work with than the impressive fifteen-episode length of Season One, Doom Patrol delivered many of its craziest obstacles yet in Season Two, while continuing to elevate the tragic tales and challenges of its highly eccentric anti-heroes. With the team’s leader, The Chief having returned to Doom Manor as well, and subsequently being revealed as the architect behind their extraordinary ‘accidents’ that have left them undying, and unable to interact with society, Doom Patrol continued to push its drama to heart-wrenching new highs in Season Two. Fortunately, an all-new addition to the cast, The Chief’s imagination-empowered daughter, Dorothy Spinner kept the humour going as strong as the tragedy, as did some especially ridiculous new villains, including the ‘Terrible’ Dr. Tyme, and the intelligence-sucking Scants.
Doom Patrol stayed strong in Season Two, as one of the most distinct, creative and heartfelt superhero shows currently on television. The ‘only bad ideas’ approach to the show’s writing continues to shine against all odds, creating a DC series that’s just as wonderfully twisted as its source comics, but also one that comes from a very real place of trauma and healing. There’s something strangely fulfilling about watching Doom Patrol’s immortal leads try and fumble their way to functionality and self-acceptance, all while knowing that their leader is the one that cursed them to such a difficult existence, for his own selfish ends. The character work on Doom Patrol thus remains rich, clever and darkly funny all at once, and it just keeps getting better. Even without the advantage of Alan Tudyk’s omnipotent antagonist, Mr. Nobody in Season Two, Doom Patrol didn’t lose a single step, and will no doubt keep raising the bar for superhero television well into its upcoming third season, and beyond.
#5: Ozark: Season Three
Genre: Crime drama
WHY: Ozark has done pretty well as one of Netflix’s selection of standout crime dramas, but 2020’s third season is officially where the series started to soar. The Jason Bateman-led money laundering crime opera started to move towards a natural, violent climax in Season Three, pitting the Byrde family against threats from all sides, including one of their own, after matriarch, Wendy’s mentally-struggling, oblivious brother moves in with the family. At the same time, Marty and his associate, Ruth attempt to dodge the watchful eyes of the FBI, who are nosing in to Marty’s recently-opened casino, consistently closing in ever further, as the truth of the Byrde family’s allegiances keeps being unraveled.
It’s difficult to say much more without significant spoilers, but this is a real testament to Ozark’s thrill-a-minute third season. The Byrde’s face a true reckoning by the end as well, being locked into a devastating new set of circumstances that will hopefully lend themselves to a comparably excellent fourth and final season to come, which is planned to be split into two halves. By the end of its latest ten episodes, Ozark takes its place as the smartest, most intense crime drama currently on Netflix, sinking the Byrde’s into an inescapable world of violence and dread, not to mention emotionally destructive compromises. If you don’t mind the pitch dark storytelling, this is one of the best offerings that Netflix delivered overall in 2020, and if you have yet to catch up on it, now is the ideal time to see the tragic fall of the Byrde family, and where it may soon leave them.
#4: Castlevania: Season Three
Genre: Adult fantasy anime
WHY: It was very close between Ozark and Castlevania for Netflix’s best new TV season of 2020, but ultimately, Castlevania’s especially standout imagination and seedy creativity helped it inch out. Amazingly, this ‘Americanime’ video game-to-TV adaptation still keeps getting better every season, increasing both its episode count and its overall scope with outstanding new enemies and conflicts for protagonist, Trevor Belmont and his allies. Even as Season Three more or less fully breaks away from its source game, 1990’s NES gem, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the show continues to improve all the more, bringing its heroes and villains to uncharted territory with astonishing aplomb, as they attempt to find their way in a post-Dracula world.
Even with Dracula being defeated however (for now), the overpowering evil engulfing the world of Netflix’s Castlevania remains thick, and intoxicating. This series remains very much cut from the Game of Thrones cloth, presenting shockingly brutal violence, even against innocents, surrounded by yet another excellently tragic story about lust, greed and overall selfishness. Despite such a dark tone however, Castlevania still manages to display an unexpectedly sharp sense of humour in Season Three, as Trevor and Sypha meet an eccentric new cast of characters after stopping in a town plagued by mad, devil-worshipping monks, while Alucard struggles to adjust to an existence of solitude, guarding the remains of both Dracula’s castle and the Belmont Hold.
Needless to say, Castlevania continues to thoroughly embarrass any other video game adaptation that one could care to name. This series is easily leading the charge when it comes to justifying the potential of video game-adapted movies and TV shows alike, to the point where Castlevania will be just as impressive a show to anyone who’s never touched a video game in their lives, let alone a Castlevania game! This show’s animation remains spectacularly squeamish, its writing remains excellent, and its performances still manage to find humanity and charm within a world that’s otherwise hopelessly lost to darkness, Dracula or no. We still find this series’ world one of the most gripping in the Netflix catalogue, and as horrible as it often is, you also won’t truly want to leave, not when Castlevania’s incredible storytelling just keeps getting better every season.
#3: The Flight Attendant: Season One
Genre: Dark comedy thriller
Platform(s): HBO Max (U.S.), Crave+HBO/CTV Drama (Canada)
WHY: The Flight Attendant is already securing plenty of buzz as a Golden Globe nominee, and it’s not difficult to see why. This thoroughly bizarre, yet effortlessly compelling dark comic thriller stands as one of the first must-watch offerings for HBO Max. It’s another especially weird series to debut in 2020 as well, one that aims to further elevate the weirdness behind the novel that inspired it, with a cringe comedy flavouring that manages to blend perfectly with a legitimately engaging, thought-provoking TV thriller. Sure, this will certainly be an acquired taste for some, but once you get into The Flight Attendant and its many bizarre mysteries, you’re hooked!
The series begins with an immediately intriguing premise, as semi-functional alcoholic flight attendant, Cassie Bowden wakes up after a night of debauchery in a Bangkok hotel, next to the dead body of her blatantly-murdered one-night stand. Hung over and terrified, Cassie hastily conceals the crime scene and flees, and from there, finds herself wrapped up in a conspiracy of epic proportions, one that she awkwardly tries to make right, only to keep spiraling deeper into her personal issues and traumas. It sounds horrifically bleak, but you’d be surprised at how uncomfortably funny it can be, once you approach with the understanding that The Flight Attendant is an intentionally eccentric case study on human self-destruction.
Another testament to how excellently this series is written however is how the viewer is never effectively motivated to write off Cassie as a lost cause. This is also a testament to lead star, Kaley Cuoco’s fantastic lead performance for sure, but the script and direction proves equally sublime in this case. This ultimately adds up to a bizarre, but taut thriller that doubles as a journey of self-examination and better living for a habitual alcoholic and partier, one whose horrible experiences ironically push her on the path to becoming a better person. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that The Flight Attendant can be a very weird show, but it’s certainly never boring! Better still is that the series teases another bonkers premise for its upcoming second season, right as the first one ends. The Flight Attendant’s first season will no doubt be a tough act to follow, but Cassie’s unfortunate life still drips with darkly comic possibility after the first eight episodes. Hopefully they aren’t a fluke, since HBO Max appears to have an early, award-worthy gem on their hands here!
#2: The Mandalorian: Season Two
Genre: Sci-Fi adventure Western
WHY: Star Wars fans are notoriously difficult to please, and the dire state of much of the franchise’s movies post-Disney acquisition certainly isn’t helping matters. Fortunately though, despite having much of its planned 2020 original programming slate derailed on account of the COVID-19 pandemic, Disney+ continued to soar off the back of The Mandalorian’s second season alone in 2020. The first season was already an effective way to merge the production styles of movies and television, but Season Two only gets better for this fan-favourite space Western, bringing Din Djarin and his mysterious companion, The Child to new and exciting worlds, in search of what remains of the Jedi Order.
The Mandalorian’s sophomore season remains a wonderfully-produced, genuinely magical space odyssey, finally achieving the potential of a Disney-fronted Star Wars property. Its newest eight episodes continue to elevate the production values, while bringing in more connections to both the live-action and animated arms of Disney’s revised Star Wars canon, all tied together by two wonderfully mysterious characters that constantly lend themselves to new, intriguing revelations. The remnants of the Empire also upped their game in Season Two to boot, bringing back a deadly force of Star Wars video game opponents, even though some beloved old faces also popped up during The Mandalorian’s newest batch of episodes, some of which were genuinely unexpected!
The Mandalorian’s ambitions and imagination remain unmatched among most modern Disney properties short of the highlight offerings from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and this flagship Disney+ Original series continues to push the medium of television to exciting new heights, to the point where it’s virtually indistinguishable from movies. Even then, The Mandalorian tells a better, more gratifying story than most any Star Wars movie since the 80’s, and it’s a story that only became more entertaining, more fun and more emotional in Season Two. For the first time in potentially decades, Star Wars truly feels relevant and exciting for the mainstream again, and that’s a very difficult feat to achieve, much less in a streaming series! Hopefully, Disney greenlighting a slew of Disney+ Star Wars spin-offs off the back of The Mandalorian’s success doesn’t ruin the magic, but with The Mandalorian itself set to continue with a third season around Christmas 2021, the future is looking especially bright for what was previously one of the most habitually disappointing sci-fi institutions of modern pop culture. One thing’s for sure, it feels great to finally care about Star Wars again!
#1: The Boys: Season Two
Genre: Dark superhero dramedy
Platform(s): Amazon Prime Video
WHY: When it comes to ultra-violent thrills, gut-busting laughs, impeccable shocks, and pitch black satire of the worst-case scenario for Western culture, no single TV show brought quite as many of all of it as Amazon’s The Boys. Even during 2019’s premiere season, The Boys quickly claimed its throne as the most exciting, novel and memorable original series to currently grace Amazon Prime Video, and in 2020, The Boys just kept getting better throughout its sophomore season. Shifting to a weekly format, an effort soon followed by The Expanse and the upcoming Invincible, The Boys continued to set the bar for Amazon’s streaming platform overall throughout Season Two, driving its eponymous anti-heroes on the run, while evil corporation, Vought International did even more damage with their manufactured superheroes.
The Boys’ second season became all the more unpredictable when it veered further away from the Dynamite-published comic books that inspired it, presenting new fates for various characters, new personality additions overall, and all-new twisted, terrifying lows for Vought’s superhero thug squad. The Boys remains a spectacular orgy of unhinged violence, but even as it effortlessly succeeds as a superhero series with a wicked bite, it also proves to be just as smart as it is maniacally depraved. The world of The Boys may be comically exaggerated, but it nonetheless represents a cautionary tale of what the world may become if it’s all about the money and the fame, and everything that society’s greatest paragons definitely should not be fighting for!
The Boys has already secured a Season Three order, as well as an upcoming spin-off, and it’s small wonder why. Even the end of Season Two only appears to ramp up the excitement more. The Boys’ sophomore season rounds off on a truly mind-blowing twist, as well as yet another unexpected status quo for its non-powered anti-heroes and super-powered villains, bringing together an insane selection of violence, comedy, drama, and truly disgusting decadence with masterful panache. As with Season One, Season Two of The Boys just needs to be seen to be believed. Believe us though when we say that this excellent series stands as the crown jewel of 2020’s TV selection, and is primed to only get better from here!
There’s no shortage of quality TV to help keep us engaged during this difficult, isolating time, even beyond these twenty selections for last year’s best shows. Did we miss anything? Your comments are certainly welcome below, as there’s always standout TV shows that seem to slip through the cracks, no matter how diligent we are at trying to keep up with them. For now however, stay strong, stay healthy, and stay safe. The COVID-19 pandemic isn’t over yet, but better times are ahead, and don’t forget to stay home and check out some good TV in the meantime!