With the end of the year coming, it’s time to try and rank the best TV of the year. And it’s maybe a harder task thank it’s been in the past. A lot of favorites didn’t get new seasons out this year, for one thing. For another, I’ve been struggling to process entertainment in the way I used to.
I know there are things that should be on this list that I couldn’t bring myself to watch. There were long stretches when I could only handle comforting entertainment. Things like The Plot Against America just didn’t get watched. So I know this list is more incomplete than usual, but all I can do is consider the things that I enjoyed and just know that there’s maybe different filter this year.
One of my rules is that a series needs six or more episodes in a calendar year to qualify, but there are two that fell short that I still think merit inclusion so I’m going to toss in some honorable mentions. Today I’ll get to those mentions and then the bottom ten of the top twenty.
Honorable Mention #1 The Good Place (NBC) – Due to the season straddling 2019 and 2020, this year it didn’t meet my six episode threshold, but it’s still worth noting. This is maybe not the best time to talk about it, since The Good Place was this wonderful and hilarious story about trying to live unselfishly and if this year has taught us nothing else, it’s that nobody is going to do that. But ultimately, we got our last few episodes about navigating moral complexity, friendship, and Timothy Olyphant just showing up to make sure everybody is paying attention. And I’ll admit it took me a little while to warm to the finale, partly because I was going to miss my friends and partly because I don’t think I quite got what it was saying, but a couple of rewatches and a discussion on The Good Place Podcast and it clicked with me. That’s when I really warmed to the quiet beauty of eternal beings deciding to move on. And it closed with an absolute killer callback. I’m gonna miss those trashbags.
Best Episode – “Whenever You’re Ready”
Honorable Mention #2 Genndy Tartakovsky’s Primal (Adult Swim) – The second season of this animated prehistoric adventure ran only five episodes, but that’s just how long the seasons are going to be so let’s make some room. This highly stylized series is (almost) wordless. As in, somebody said a word at the end of the second season. That’s how almost wordless it is. It’s mostly a caveman (identified as Spear in the credits) and his dinosaur friend trying to survive in an actively hostile environment. It’s kinetic and violent and so inventive – it doesn’t sound like a premise that could sustain more than a short but Primal keeps delivering new challenges to the unlikely friends. Where the first season was about them learning to work together, this year we saw them dealing with things that were jarringly out of place in the world they thought they understood. A fearsome brontosaurus-like creature infected with a madness plague, a coven of witches reproducing through human sacrifice, a woman one step higher on the evolutionary ladder than Spear. It’s a show where every moment of every episode is either beautiful or insane and it was one of the most compelling series I watched all year.
Best Episode – “Coven of the Damned”
- Westworld (HBO) – You know what? It’s possible this ranking is too low and it’s equally possible that it’s too high. Westworld came around at exactly the wrong time, when lockdown depression was just setting in, and I had a hard time meeting it on its own terms. So I don’t know whether my inability to connect with the themes this year was on me or on the show. But given my history with Westworld, I’m going to err on the side of credit and make it my fault. Because ultimately, this is a show completely reinventing itself – the titular Westworld was nowhere to be seen and only one small section of the theme park that made up the entire setting for two seasons appeared at all. Now it’s about those few surviving hosts out in the real world and finding their place. And while I had a hard time really interacting with Westworld this year, I absolutely loved the ongoing interplay between Evan Rachel Wood’s Dolores, Tessa Thompson’s aspect of Dolores posing as Charlotte, and Thandie Newton’s Maeve. I’ll revisit when things are more normal and see how I feel, but for now, I’m comfortable with this ranking.
Best Episode – “The Mother of Exiles”
- Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC) – This is another show that’s maybe taking a hit because of timing, but let’s be honest. A comedy about well-meaning cops who are occasionally derelict in their duties didn’t hit quite the same way this year, you know? But Peralta and the gang can’t be held responsible for real life monsters. (But really, how hard must it be to work in that writers’ room now?) Putting all that aside, this remains a rock solid comedy, maybe the last network sitcom remaining that I care about at all. And even after all this time, it’s still fresh and funny and they keep finding new angles even as they devote a certain number of episodes to annual traditions. You’re getting a Doug Judy episode every year and every time it’s going to be tweaked just enough that it doesn’t feel like a retread. It’s a good show.
Best Episode – “Pimemento”
- Bob’s Burgers – (FOX) – Oh, Bob’s Burgers. My one constant. I could make the argument that his could be higher but it’s been on my list for ten years and I’m running out of things to say. And, in fact, after 200 or so episodes, it’s hard to remember which ones even came out this year. But I enjoyed all of them and I laughed out loud at every single one. This is not a show that’s reinventing itself or finding new approaches. It’s a show that’s very good at what it does and it does it consistently. Any other show that hits the 200s is going to have some crummy stretches in there, but you can pretty much randomly pick a Bob’s Burgers episode to watch every night and it’ll be a good time. This year, that stability meant a lot.
Best Episode – “Dream a Little Bob of Bob”
- Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV) – This was a nice surprise. A workplace comedy about a videogame developer from the people who brought you It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. For anybody who even casually follows the industry, the toxic environment portrayed here rings true and Rob McElhenney’s Ian is kind of how I picture every name developer except for maybe Hideo Kojima who’s a weird guy in a totally different way. It’s a smart take on an industry that hasn’t really been depicted on TV before and the way they incorporate the game that, of necessity, we can’t see all that much is a lot of fun. From smug YouTubers to the white supremacists who ruin everything, it’s all the terrible things about video gaming only funny. The cast is fantastic – McElhenney is the perfect self-important douche, Danny Pudi as the money guy, and David Hornsby as a harried middle manager all play to their strengths. I’m not familiar with Charlotte Nicdao and Jessie Ennis, but they’re terrific as lead developer Poppy (the emotional center of the show) and force of nature assistant Jo. Quest even did a good quarantine episode – coming early enough into the pandemic that it feels genuine rather than a cynical attempt to get back to work. When you can get the emotional payoff of the season into an episode shot on Zoom, you’re doing it right.
Best Episode – “Quarantine”
- Avenue 5 (HBO) – After satirizing politics for years on The Thick of It and Veep, Armando Iannucci switched to sci-fi comedy, which doesn’t seem like the natural progression, but it’s great. Avenue is set aboard a cruise ship in space that goes slightly off course and strands them in space for longer than expected. And every attempt to fix it results in an even longer return trip. The hero captain (Hugh Laurie) is a fraud who’s just there to make the passengers feel safe. The engineering crew are models hired to pose with instruments, and they are totally unprepared for any of this. It’s very much in line with Iannucci’s past work, focusing on power structures and the inability of petty, selfish people to accomplish much of anything. It’s very funny, from the goofy relationship comedy to the clever sci-fi stuff (dead bodies ejected into space are still caught up in the artificial gravity so they just orbit the ship, passing by the windows every few hours) and boasts an excellent cast. Spunkybuddy Jessica St. Clair, Andy Buckley from The Office, Zach Woods, Kyle Bornheimer, Suzy Nakamura – they’re all hitting it out of the park. I even like Josh Gad as the petulant CEO, and I never like Josh Gad. I don’t know if the premise is sustainable of if this is going to turn into Gilligan’s Island, but for now I’m enjoying the ride.
Best Episode – “This is Physically Hurting Me”
- Archer (FXX) – Another show I’ve had on my list for years and years, Archer nicely weathered creator Adam Reed stepping back and brought Archer out of his coma to return to spy work. But it turns out that everybody was happier and more competent without him and he has to deal with a world that’s moved on. Except he’s Sterling Archer and he is going to bring everybody back down to his level. It was a lot of fun to have Archer physically impaired for most of the season, thanks to his coma-atrophied muscles and to see who everybody could be without Archer sucking all the oxygen out of the room. The annual Barry episode was an absolute treat this year – Archer’s relationship with his cyborg archenemy has been evolving for a while and I don’t know how they’re going to top this one. Archer has been going for so long and the seasons are just short enough that I have time to start to take it for granted, but every darn year I’m reminded just how much joy this show has brought me.
Best Episode – “Robot Factory”
- The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix) – You know what? I’m not sure why I liked this so much. I’ve been sitting here trying to come up with a way to describe it in a way that sounds appealing, but “chess-based drama with a lot of repetition” isn’t selling anybody. I know I was totally absorbed once I got past the first half of the first episode. (I had to call a friend who’d watched it to ask if they were going to stop with the scenes of Elizabeth imagining chess pieces on the ceiling.) Why was I riveted? I don’t know. There were so many chess games and I don’t know why I cared about things I either didn’t understand or that they kept off screen anyway. Do I maybe like unrepentant self-destruction? Maybe. Elizabeth Harmon could totally hang with BoJack Horeseman and Don Draper. But I’d rather not really audit that part of myself. Why was I asking people if they’ve seen The Queen’s Gambit yet? It’s inarguably well made and I have no idea why it resonated with me. But here we are.
Best Episode – “End Game”
- A.P. Bio (Peacock) – In its third season, Bio moved from NBC to streaming service Peacock and thus added another monthly bill for me. Having left network television, this series abandoned all pretense of being anything approaching a normal sitcom and just went weird. An episode that was mostly a fever dream. A sad-looking pothole that people tried to appease with canned goods. Multiple colonoscopies. An episode where the entire first act was made up of (new) “Previously on A.P. Bio” segments and the entire third act was all “Next week on A.P. Bio“. Amateur wrestling. Jake and the Fatman. An episode based entirely on the fact that Katie Holmes was born in Toledo. It’s almost like a Tim and Eric parody of sitcoms and I love it. Built around the ridiculous premise that a high school principal thinks it’s a prestige move to hire a disgraced Harvard philosophy professor to teach biology, it’s really just about the weird ecosystem of this school. It’s a show that’s evolving (which I didn’t mean as a biology joke) but it also isn’t missing a step. It’s great.
Best Episode – “That That That”
- What We Do in the Shadows (FX) – The faux documentary about vampire roommates (based on a movie of the same name) got even more conceptual this year. After last year’s finale, they leads have been marked for death by the vampire council, only they don’t know it because Nandor’s put-upon familiar Guillermo has been slaughtering all the vampiric assassins who come after them. And he’s doing this in secret because he doesn’t want his master to know that he’s become an expert vampire slayer. Over the course of the season, our favorite vampires tried to channel their own ghosts from when they used to be alive (and Nadja’s spirit possessed a creepy doll that looks like it’s going to be sticking around and freaking me out. They mistook a chain email for an ancient curse, they hit the open mike scene, and energy vampire Colin got a promotion at work that made him immensely powerful (both as middle management and as a vampire). And in one of the weirdest episodes of anything this year, Laszlo went on the run from an old nemesis. Fleeing to Pennsylvania, he took the name “Jackie Daytona”, found work as a bartender, and became a big supporter of local high school volleyball. Jackie Daytona, a human man. It’s so good. And then Mark Hamill (as that nemesis) turns up in his bar but can’t recognize Laszlo if he has a toothpick in his mouth. I mean, just check it out. Come on.
Best Episode – “On the Run”
- DuckTales (Disney XD) – I’m a big fan of this reboot. I’ve talked before about how it’s maybe the best adventure show on TV and how it’s fearless about mixing up the status quo even when it bumps up against Disney canon (Paget Brewster’s Della Duck is a fantastic addition to the cast and has no precedent in any past Duck continuity). This year’s episodes focused mainly on F.O.W.L., an organization made up of Scrooge’s greatest enemies, and their quest to recover the Missing Mysteries. And when that organization boasts voice actors like Jason Mantzoukas, Marc Evan Jackson, John Hodgman, and Giancarlo Esposito, man, you know I’m sold. There’s also been a lot of space this season for Huey (Danny Pudi), the buttoned-up overly logical duckling, to great effect. This is a show that I watched because David Tennant was the voice of Scrooge McDuck and it instantly became one of my favorites. I love these characters so much. Launchpad and Webby and the newly-introduced Daisy Duck who has a personality beyond “Donald’s girlfriend” for the first time ever. It’s full of fun nods for Disney obsessives (Esposito voices the Phantom Blot, a character from the Mickey Mouse newspaper strips in the Thirties.) They did an episode devoted to Darkwing Duck, a character well after my time, and I loved every minute of it. It’s a perfect mix of continuity episodes and “adventure of the week” stuff, and sometimes those adventures turn out to be continuity and it’s always so satisfying. There are only a handful of episodes left because nothing gold can stay, and I’m going to treasure them.
Best Episode – “Louie’s Eleven”
That’s it for this one. Top Ten coming up later this week!