PICKS OF THE YEAR

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15 Favorite TV Shows from 2020

Published January 20, 2021

Here are our 15 top favorite TV or Web TV shows from the past year's releases. They were picked, mostly through streaming media access, then ranked, not so much according to the various works' demonstration of intricacy than to the overall emotional strength of their respective (resultant) concepts and the tenable politics, philosophy, or social theory behind those strengths.

Note: we have published a separate list under a "diskurso art magazine favorite documentary films and series from 2020" heading wherein our favorite TV documentary films and TV documentary series can be found. We also have separate lists for our favorite reality shows from 2020our favorite stand-up comedy specials from 2020, and our favorite films from 2020 [some entries of which are TV films]). And now to our fave TV shows list:

 

1

 

Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj Volume 6

(Released 17 May - 28 June 2020, Netflix and YouTube / Hasan Minhaj and Prashanth Venkataramanujam, creators; Richard A. Preuss, director / Art & Industry, Margolis Superstore, Minhaj Inc / Political satire, Talk show)

WE understand that satire is a part of comedy. But, really, it's been a part of almost any non-comic talk show out there, especially perhaps in our era of disgusting post-truth political behavior that we can't seem to police, so much so that all talk show hosts and pundits can do right now is satirize. So it seems that satire as satire can't be part of comedy anymore, even though stand-up comedy performances would still have a bunch of it.
    Fortunately, more than just being a political satire talk show, Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj has actually aimed for timelessness as an anthology of oral essays, much like Michael Moore has done it with the narrated documentary. And, boy, did the creators and director of this show pull it off.
    In the production team's pandemic lockdown version of the show in 2020, Volume 6, it looks like things went closer to that intended timelessness after the removal of the studio audience and its laughter. Go figure.
    [Anyway, here's our review of an episode in this volume, which we picked for our June 2020 picks of the month list...]

 

2

Away

(Streaming release: 4 September 2020, Netflix / Andrew Hinderaker, creator of series as inspired by Chris Jones' Esquire article titled "Away—The Launch" / Jason Katims, Matt Reeves, Jessica Goldberg, Edward Zwick, etc., producers / True Jack Productions, 6th & Idaho, Refuge Inc., Universal Television / Sci fi, Drama)

WE can now treat Away as a miniseries (limited series), or a long piece by playwright Andrew Hinderaker (with help from six other writers), a potential second season having been canceled in October. In his review of the film on WXIX-TV, critic TT Stern-Enzi said: "What provides most of the fascination and drama is just how deep the technology is, and what's there...." As for the characterization, Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe wrote: "Each of the actors gradually deepens his or her character, so that they aren’t simply the clichés of their respective countries as written. Emma faces sexism, particularly from Misha, and she faces disdain from the subdued Lu, who dislikes Emma’s willingness to display her emotions publicly. They all form a dynamic ensemble, especially as, in almost every episode, something goes wrong with the machinery or with the interpersonal strains on board. Again, they’re all ultimately good people, but, like so much in this positive, feel-good show, tolerably so."
    Now, after watching the series, we were convinced that the show most delivers on what Deadline Hollywood editor-in-chief Nellie Andreeva described as what the yet-to-be-launched project promised to be eloquent on: "hope, humanity and how, ultimately, we need one another if we are to achieve impossible things." It's a message that, in our time of geographic and cultural wall-making, must perhaps needs be seen both from a distance and within a confined space.
    As Esquire's own 35 best TV series of 2020 end-of-the-year listing's notes puts it right on the money: "Set in a not-so-distant, much more globalist future, Netflix’s Away follows the first (wo)manned mission to Mars, a massive international undertaking by five powerhouse nations . . . captained by Commander Emma Green (Hilary Swank), a tough, brave, and selfless NASA veteran, who is soon keelhauled by personal tragedy when her husband Matt (Josh Charles) is paralyzed by a stroke. . . . In a time when so many of us are so far from the people who feel like home, Away is a dazzling show about the final frontier, but also a welcome parable about the matters of the heart that matter most, even in the face of unprecedented human progress."
    Emma Green for President!

 

3

Gangs of London

(Sky Atlantic release: 23 April 2020; AMC+ and streaming release: 1 October 2020 / Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery, creators; Evans, Corin Hardy and Xavier Gens, directors / Pulse Films, Sister Pictures, Sky Studios / Action drama, Crime drama)

IN your TV guilty pleasure, do you like your fare having evil and violence crossing that boundary between Succession's latent subtlety and Game of Thrones' laid-out-there cunning? Gangs of London is here to satisfy that. Kat Hughes of thehollywoodnews.com: "Action fans will find plenty to unpack in this no-holds-barred violent juggernaut assault to the senses."
    Just remember, though: this need not be just entertainment, for many of today's plutocrats (and their pet political parties) have long been in the inter-ethnic world of gangsterist existence. That's where Gangs of London's takeoffs from mafia-flick traditionalism has still to fully allude to, beyond simply having a character like Lale and an influential legal real estate corporation like the Wallaces'. That (unintended) timidity aside, its depiction of gangsterism's capabilities is not for the faint-hearted, just as voicing things about today's politics is not. Functionally as an allegory of our time's societies and as another mafia-film comment on influential citizenship, it already sublimely works, looking very much like Scorsese just updated himself and made a 9-plus-hour gangster movie.

the 2018 trailer for the anime series

 

4

Cells at Work! on Netflix

(Original 2018 release: 8 July 2018 on Tokyo MX, BS11 [Nippon BS Broadcasting], Tochigi TV, Gunma TV, Mainichi Broadcasting System, TV Aichi, RKB Mainichi Broadcasting, Hokkaido Broadcasting, Animax Asia, Crunchyroll, and AnimeLab; 2020 release: 13 March 2020, Netflix / Yūko Kakihara and Kenichi Suzuki, writers; Kenichi Suzuki, director / David Production / Anime comedy)

HOW thankful we were that this 2018 anime series found its way to Netflix in Q1 2020! As Polygon's Maya Phillips put it, that was a moment in 2020 when a rarity like Cells at Work! contributed in its modest way "the perfect balm in an era where coronavirus has made bodies so frightening and unpredictable." [Read our own long-winded review of it in our March 2020 picks list...]

funny moments from Curb Your Enthusiasm season 10

 

5

Curb Your Enthusiasm season 10

(Released 19 January - 22 March 2020, HBO / Larry David, creator and chief writer; Jeff Schaffer, director; Cheryl Hines, guest director on episode 3; Erin O'Malley, guest director on episode 6 / HBO Entertainment / Cringe comedy, Improvisational comedy, Dark comedy)

ROTTEN Tomatoes: "Still ticked off, but with more timely themes, Curb Your Enthusiasm's tenth season feels fresher than ever."
    David Sims in The Atlantic: "The transgressive joy of watching Curb Your Enthusiasm, of course, is that David is far ruder and blunter than anyone would dare be in real life -- even David himself."
    Charles Bramesco in The Guardian: "David successfully threads the needle between over-earnest 'very special episode' commentary and defensive wrongheadedness by detaching entirely."
    Steven Hyden in Uproxx: "Larry might react to life's indignities with hostility, but the show itself doesn't feel hostile, especially compared with recent seasons. It feels more like venting with an old friend, again."
    [Read our own review of Curb Your Enthusiasm season 10's episode 5 titled "Insufficient Praise"...]

 

6

Good Girls season 3

(Released 16 February - 3 May 2020, NBC; 28 July 2020, Netflix Philippines / Jenna Bans, creator / Minnesota Logging Company, Universal Television / Comedy-drama, Crime drama)

[READ our mini-review of the season in our August 2020 picks of the month list...]

a scene from The Good Place season 4 episode 12, January 2020

 

7

The Good Place season 4

(Released 26 September 2019 - 30 January 2020, NBC; 17 January 2021, Netflix Philippines / Michael Schur, creator / Fremulon, 3 Arts Entertainment, Universal Television / Comedy, Philosophical fiction, Fantasy, Dystopian fiction)

ROTTEN Tomatoes: "A wild philosophical ride to the very end, The Good Place brings it home with a forking good final season."
    Joshua Rivera in Slate: "The Good Place went out on its own terms, with a finale that argued that choosing your own ending is both a reward you earn and a gift you give."
    [Read our review of The Good Place season 4's finale episode titled "Whenever You're Ready"...]

 

8

The Midnight Gospel

(Released 20 April 2020, Netflix / Pendleton Ward and Duncan Trussell, creators; Ward, Trussell and Mike L. Mayfield, writers; Pendleton Ward, director / Oatmeal Maiden; Titmouse, Inc. / Adult animation, Science fantasy, Surreal humor, Dark comedy, Adventure fiction, Interview)

CAN you combine the interview vodcast with animation and keep it interesting and pleasing? The Midnight Gospel was able to.
    Wei-Huan Chen of Houston Chronicle: "Filled with insight and otherworldly imagery, it's as close a TV show can get to emulating a good psychedelic trip."
    Brian Tallerico of RogerEbert.com: "We often say that a show is 'like nothing else on television' and it's usually an act of critical hyperbole. Trust me. It's true here."

 

9

The Baby-Sitters Club season 1

(Released 3 July 2020, Netflix / Rachel Shukert, creator of series based on the children's novel series of the same name by Ann M. Martin / Terrible Baby Productions, Paulilu, Michael De Luca Productions, Walden Media / Comedy-drama)

STEVE Murray of artsatl.org: "Go ahead and laugh, but for me the nicest new surprise on Netflix is the reboot of that old tween standard, The Baby-Sitters Club."
    Angie Han of Mashable: "To the characters, the club may be about entrepreneurship and childcare, but to viewers, its true purpose is to serve as a space where these girls get to just be girls, figuring out their place in the world in their own time and on their own terms."
    Vivian Kane of The Mary Sue: "The most substantial way in which the series pays homage to the original is the ways in which it celebrates kindness."
    Kathryn Reklis of The Christian Century: "The future needs something more than a new set of leaders repeating the same mistakes. This reboot suggests that if the 12-year-old girls are alright, we might get a chance at a better future."

 

10

The New Pope

(Released 13 January - 9 March 2020, HBO / Paolo Sorrentino, creator; Sorrentino, Umberto Contarello and Stefano Bises, writers; Paolo Sorrentino, director / The Apartment, Wildside, Haut et Court TV, Mediapro, Sky Studios / Drama)

BEN Travers of IndieWire: "'The New Pope' has a lot to say about the church's role in the modern world, its significance to socio-political events, and what's expected of its leaders - and it says it with a sharpened edge."
    Bridget McManus of The Sydney Morning Herald: "An orgy of power, lust and poetic justice, Paolo Sorrentino's theatrical masterpiece is Madonna's 'Like a Prayer' times a thousand."
    Erin Schwartz of The Nation: "Sorrentino's shows are about the limits to our perceived freedoms and the hindrances to understanding life's baffling mysteries."
    Kylie Klein-Nixon of Stuff.co.nz: "Beyond the neon and nudity, there's an interesting examination of the Vatican's spiritual, moral and ethical shortcomings waiting for you."
    Tori Preston of Pajiba.com: "Without Lenny at its center, The New Pope can dig deeper into the workplace politics of the Church, and mine the conundrums not of the boss but of the entire organization."

 

11

Industry season 1

(Released 9 November - 21 December 2020, HBO and BBC Two / Mickey Down and Konrad Kay, creators-writers; Sam H. Freeman, writer of episode 3; Kate Verghese, co-writer on episode 6; Lena Dunham, Tinge Krishnan, Ed Lilly and Mary Nighy, directors / Bad Wolf, BBC Studios, Good Thing Going / Drama)

BEN Dowell of The Times: "One sensed that this was an anthology of all the worst stories harvested during the writers' banking years rolled into one horror show, and it was this relentless inhumanity that felt slightly inauthentic and jarring... Still, I'm gonna stick with it."
    Marlow Stern of The Daily Beast: "While the show is set in the cutthroat world of London forex trading, involving a bunch of aspiring bankers, it provides a fascinating little peek inside the halls of power..."
    Charlotte Harrison of charlottesometimesgoestothemovies.com: "It's mad, ludicrous, mostly unbelievable and yet I find myself already looking forward to season 2."
    Barbara Ellen of The Observer: "Industry looks promising, with a stellar supporting cast, and enough sulphurous puffs of cynicism to remind the rest of us that, hey, maybe selling your soul to the highest bidder ain't so groovy after all."

 

12

Homemade

(Released 30 June 2020, Netflix / Pablo Larrain, Juan de Dios Larrain and Lorenzo Mieli, producers; Ladj Ly, Paolo Sorrentino, Rachel Morrison, Pablo Larraín, Rungano Nyoni, Natalia Beristáin, Sebastian Schipper, Naomi Kawase, David Mackenzie, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Nadine Labaki, Khaled Mouzanar, Antonio Campos, Johnny Ma, Kristen Stewart, Gurinder Chadha, Sebastián Lelio and Ana Lily Amirpour, directors / Fabula, The Apartment Pictures / Anthology television series)

ERIC Kohn of IndieWire: "We don't know how history will look back on the pandemic and the way humanity chose to respond to an unprecedented existential threat, but when it does, 'Homemade' may offer some direction."
    Danny Leigh of Financial Times: "Individually, a creative parlour game. For movies at large, a chance to capture the collective psyche, turning out time capsules of what 2020 looked and felt like."
    Demetrios Matheou of The Arts Desk: "The isolation, dislocation and alienation that we've all been experiencing are stock ingredients of science fiction and horror."
    Pallabi Dey Purkayastha of The Times of India: "True, these movies are a reflection of the collective genius of the highly talented directors' creativity but, going strictly by the theme it originally promises to showcase, ' Homemade' is, by all means, a rich person's version of the global lockdown..."
    Stephen Porzio of headstuff.org: "[Homemade] shows that even in the darkest and direst of times, artists will find ways to create works of beauty."
    [Read our own review of the anthology in our July 2020 picks of the month list...]

 

13

The Queen's Gambit

(Released 23 October 2020, Netflix / Scott Frank and Allan Scott, creators; Scott Frank, writer of the miniseries teleplay based on Walter Tevis' novel of the same name; Scott Frank, director / Flitcraft Ltd, Wonderful Films / Coming-of-age story, Historical drama)

BEN Travers of IndieWire on Anya Taylor-Joy's performance: "It's so natural it's easy to overlook, but growing up onscreen is hard, precise work, and this young talent makes it look easy."
    Matthew Gilbert of The Boston Globe: "It is a transporting tale of an extraordinary life and a window onto a world of addiction and empowerment, pawns and queens."
    Kavya Christopher of The Times of India: "Yes, this is a series about a chess player, but it is more about her journey there and the heavy and deep emotions that take you through the path is what makes this a must-watch."
    Rahul Desai of Film Companion: "It's a terrific, emotionally intelligent hour of television - one that refuses to distinguish between the cost of sporting immortality and the price of human history."

 

14

Money Heist Part 4

(Released 3 April 2020, Netflix / Álex Pina, creator / Altresmedia, Vancouver Media / Crime drama, Heist film)

PART 4 of Álex Pina's Money Heist continues the suspense of its erstwhile Post-Keynesian-like pro-endogenous money demonstration that evolved into a chaotic quasi-socialist revolt, all via the heist genre. Pina recuses himself from the writing this time, allowing writing partners Esther Morales, Ana Boyero, Jaun Salvador López, Emilio Díez, Luis Moya and Esther Martínez Lobato to further the series' arguments on behalf of the people and the truth. Directors Koldo Serra, Álex Rodrigo and Jesús Colmenar resume their posts from Part 3, joined by Javier Quintas for episode 2 and 6 (who adds himself to the team after his one-episode gig in the series' Part 2).
    To make a sense of what we're saying in that first sentence of ours, read our text for Money Heist Part 3 in our July 2019 picks-of-the-month notes here.

15

BoJack Horseman season 6

(Part 1 released 25 October 2019, Part 2 released 31 January 2020, Netflix / Raphael Bob-Waksberg, creator / The Tornante Company, Boxer vs. Raptor, ShadowMachine / Adult animation, Animated sitcom, Tragicomedy, Black comedy, Surreal humor, Comedy-drama, Satire)

BEN Travers of IndieWire: "Season 6 has a steady, startling throughline: BoJack is trying."
    Hannah Black of 4columns.org: "I binged BoJack during a lossy time in my life. I watched to absorb a truism in digestible cartoon form: the more we flail around trying to avoid the pain of loss, the more we lose."
    Donnie Lopez of Black Girl Nerds: "This 2014-2020 anamorphic animated comedy/drama manages to touch on so many real-life examples of social, cultural, political, and philosophical events that infuse the human condition."
    Eve Tushnet of Patheos: "If it disappoints, well, that is 'classic BoJack': the show, like its antihero, will make you love it even as it lets you down."
    Joshua Rivera of The Verge: "This result - a finale that asks 'How does BoJack go on with his life now?' without really giving a solid answer - is a fitting one for a show that wanted to explore the life of an awful person with unexamined mental health issues and addiction."
    [Here's our review of an episode in the show's final season, which we picked for our February 2020 picks of the month list...]

Honorable mention:

16

Giri/Haji

(Streaming release: 10 January 2020, Netflix / Joe Barton, creator-writer; Julian Farino and Ben Chessell, directors / Sister Pictures / Crime thriller)

NICK Schager of The Daily Beast: "Everything's intertwined, and the fact that the series never becomes overly messy―and manages to keep a rigid focus on its well-drawn characters... is a testament to its craftsmanship."
    David Fear of Rolling Stone: "Despite being filled with tangents and B-plot loop-the-loops, Barton has an incredible facility for keeping it all together. Any feeling of being momentarily lost is eventually rewarded with patience."
    Jonathan Wilson of readysteadycut.com: "There is simply nothing else like this anywhere on television."
    Brian Phillips of The Ringer: "...there's something fascinating, and to me kind of heartening, about the idea of old-fashioned character studies starting to demand avant-garde formal complexity from shows that might otherwise have been just some more by-the-numbers genre fare..."
    John Powers on NPR's Fresh Air: "[It] cross-pollinates genres - mixing cop show, yakuza thriller, love story, anime and hokey family melodrama, all spiked with bits of offbeat comedy. Giri/Haji is unlike anything else on TV."

17

Elite season 3

(Streaming release: 26 March 2020, Netflix / Carlos Montero and Darío Madrona, creators / Zeta Producciones / Thriller; teen drama)

THIS thriller of a teen drama now continues its usual melodrama set amongst the social classes but embedded inside and outside classrooms. It resumes its connotations about a country's political future through these sons and daughters of libertine albeit mostly political conservatives.

18

Death to 2020

(Streaming release: 27 December 2020, Netflix / Charlie Booker, writer-producer; Al Campbell and Alice Mathias, directors / Broke and Bones / Mockumentary)

BEING a mockumentary, it should be clear that this special mixes true information with satire, okay? Incidentally, that sentence should lead us to realize that satire is often about ridiculous truths, is it not? Especially truths like, say, someone's chronically lying face and pouting mouth or someone else's pretty pathological re-sharing of statements from Fox News or, god help you, 4chan. Well, okay, not everything here is satire. Some are simple jokes, like that one about Joe Biden's age, which we're sure Mr. Biden has the contrasting humility to laugh at and shrug off. Contrasting, we said.
    Netflix should have one like this each month, considering that Fox News has been flaunting its own kind of mockumentaries on a daily basis, and those from the alternative right's "version" of truths.