Making a “best of” anything related to 2020 feels fruitless. This has been a wild and depressing year with few blessings to count.
And yet, I feel for any creator who put art into the world that was made before COVID-19, which now feels forever ago. As such, I didn’t want to completely abandon Streamline’s annual “best shows of the year” list. But this is certainly an altered version.
I’ll say right off the bat I don’t feel like I can objectively rate “good” or “bad” in this altered state of 2020. I’ve found that I only felt like watching Anthony Bourdain travel shows for most of this year because those globe-trotting episodes offer the opportunity of going out into the world vicariously. I had no time for “challenging” shows, even if they were beautifully written and constructed. That disqualifies a ton of great art right off the bat.
But the most significant caveat of all is that COVID-19 kept many shows from even debuting. There was no “Atlanta” or “Watchmen” or “Fleabag” or “Russian Doll” this year. So any best of the year list is inherently more of a “best of what even aired this year” list.
That said, 2020 still gave us a few shows well worth checking out.
Before I jump into the recommendations, I have a few more caveats.
First, I refrained from recommending Netflix shows, since I’ll have a separate article focused exclusively on that streaming service. Second, I didn’t include docuseries ― which means wonderful series like “City So Real” and “The Last Dance” are not on the list, even though you should watch them. (As a Chicagoan, leaving off both of those was particularly hard.)
And last of the caveats, the “you might have missed” in the article title is doing a lot of work, as I decided not to include any shows that are many seasons deep. That means I didn’t include long-running shows like “Better Call Saul” and “High Maintenance” because I figure most viewers have already made up their minds to check them out or not.
Any of the shows that did make the list could have been the best of the year, but my 2020 brain is too fried to determine whether or not, say, “I May Destroy You” was better than “The Plot Against America.”
Check out the full list for a range of styles and stories to find your own best of the year.
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“Mrs. America” (FX/Hulu)
Premise: “Mrs. America” begins with the fantastic idea of spending an entire episode focused on the season’s villain. The show builds up the genius, the humanity and the self-centered evil of Phyllis Schlafly to kick off the season-long narrative about the 1970s fight over the Equal Rights Amendment.
The show rotates through the stories of different key figures in the fight over the ERA, including Schafly, Gloria Steinem and Bella Abzug, with each episode focusing on a different figure. This ultimately highlights the differing approaches to a universal desire for autonomy and the kinds of rights this country needs to recognize to get there.
Debut: April 15
Runtime: Nine episodes of roughly 50 minutes
Premise: The true heights of “Industry” remain unknown as the first season is still airing (the remaining episodes will debut on HBO Now on Nov. 27). So far, the season has felt like a mix between fellow HBO show “Succession” and the youthful soapiness of “Gossip Girl” ― a mixture after my own heart.
The show focuses on young bankers at a British bank. The bankers mix the grueling work of coming up with investment solutions for a complicated world with the pleasures of hooking up.
Debut: Nov. 9
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 50 minutes
“The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime)
Premise: Ethan Hawke can be said to be “on one” for his performance in this series as a shouty abolitionist religious zealot with his heart in the right place but a righteous mission that requires absolute madness. Hawke is a co-creator of this adaptation of the 2013 novel based loosely on real events, so he certainly had creative control in bringing this memorable character to screen.
The show centers around the story of Hawke’s John Brown, who assembles soldiers to begin a fight for the abolition of slavery in the mid-1800s. He meets other figures of the time, such as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, along the way.
Debut: Oct. 4
Runtime: Seven episodes of roughly 50 minutes
Premise: “The Plot Against America” had the unfortunate coincidence of debuting the same week that America became aware of the COVID-19 pandemic. While we all endlessly doom-scrolled for updates, a show with this name didn’t exactly feel like the right thing to check out. And that’s a shame, as the series is arguably the best crafted of anything all year and looks cinematic all the way through.
The show is based on a Philip Roth novel and focuses on an alternate history of America in which a fascist becomes president in 1940. The story centers on a Jewish family living in a Jewish community in the lead-up to this event and its eventual fallout.
Debut: March 16
Runtime: Six episodes of roughly 60 minutes
Premise: The return of this absurd show didn’t garner the same fanfare as the first season, perhaps because you can’t do a coronation twice. But that’s a shame because this deeply weird comedy felt right for this deeply weird year.
The show focuses on two adult actors playing their teenage selves in middle school, alongside child actors. The duo explores the awkwardness and heightened emotions of that age.
Second Season Debut: Sept. 18
Runtime (of episodes that debuted in 2020): Seven episodes of roughly 30 minutes
“I May Destroy You” (HBO)
Premise: “I May Destroy You” has become the critical consensus pick for best show of the year and has solidified Michaela Coel’s place as one of the most skilled storytellers in television. Each character’s fullness of ambition, sorrow, righteousness and guilt continuously jumps from the screen.
The show focuses on a witty writer who survives a sexual assault and must regain her sense of self amid fun-loving friends dealing with their own traumas.
Debut: June 7
Runtime: 12 episodes of roughly 30 minutes
“What We Do in the Shadows” (FX/Hulu)
Premise: This is basically just “The Office,” but with insecure vampires. That might seem derivative ― both of the ubiquitous mockumentary style and the ubiquitous stories about vampires ― but the show finds ways to push both tried-and-true elements forward. The result is an inventive show that still packs in jokes like the comedies of old.
The show focuses on a household of mediocre vampires wrestling with the romanticism of their past days while living through the boring day-to-day of contemporary life.
Second Season Debut: April 15
Runtime (of episodes that debuted in 2020): 10 episodes of roughly 30 minutes
“Search Party” (HBO Max)
Premise: “Search Party” first became a niche hit when TBS allowed viewers to watch the episodes for free online. But HBO Max took control of the series this year in the streaming service’s infancy days, meaning many people simply had no way to watch this. That’s a shame, since “Search Party” continues to be one of the best “hang out with the fun characters” shows ― a trait that theoretically should have made it perfect for this lonely year.
The show’s first couple seasons focused on a group of cliché millennial New Yorkers as they tried to solve a Nancy Drew-esque mystery and got extremely in over their heads. This season focuses on the friends going through a court trial and becoming famous in the process as their story becomes big news.
Third Season Debut: June 25
Runtime (of episodes that debuted in 2020): 10 episodes of roughly 25 minutes
“Little America” (Apple TV+)
Premise: Similar to “Search Party,” this anthology series debuted in the nascent days of its streaming home. In the case of “Little America,” this meant it was one of the first shows on Apple TV+, following the splashy debut of “The Morning Show” in late 2019.
The show focuses on different slice-of-life stories about immigrants in America as they blend their previous customs with the cultures they find in the U.S.
Debut: Jan. 17
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 30 minutes
Premise: “Devs” was yet another pandemic scheduling casualty that premiered right before the country went into lockdown. A slow-burn, existential show about life’s theoretical pointlessness perhaps wasn’t what we wanted in mid-March 2020. But looking back, the show is arguably the most creative series to come out this year and well worth a reexamination.
The show focuses on a mysterious tech company that has developed a quantum supercomputer. This computer has theoretically solved certain mysteries of life, leading those involved with the project to become unstuck from normal human existence.
Debut: March 5
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 50 minutes