I know it’s late, but I’m finally ready to wrap up 2020 with the Ten Best TV Shows of the Year. You know how lists work. Let’s get to it!
10. Dicktown (FXX) – This animated series aired as part of the Cake anthology, but it has its own listing on Hulu, so that’s good enough for me to make it a separate show. In this animated series, John Hodgman plays what is basically the grown-up Encyclopedia Brown while David Rees plays adult Bugs Meaney. And the premise is that John Hunchman peaked in middle school and now he’s a sad middle-aged man still solving mysteries for children. So, I spent years working on a script about grown-up boy detectives and it went through so many iterations and I couldn’t crack it until I based the leads on Hodgman and Paul F. Tompkins and two days after I finished it, they started promoting Dicktown. I should be bitter, but this is much better than my dumb script. It’s an irresistible premise and the execution is perfect. It’s silly and sad and weird in the best ways. I’m such a huge fan of Hodgman and I connect so hard with these themes of small town also-rans. This is one of the shows I looked most forward to from week to week. I mean, if you need something more than animated John Hodgman being a total dick at a croquet tournament, we will never understand one another.
Best Episode – “The Mystery of the Croquet Meltdown”
9. How To with John Wilson (HBO) – The best way to think of this comedy docuseries is as a combination of Joe Pera Talks With You and Nathan For You (Nathan Fielder is an executive producer). Shot in first person so Wilson never really appears on camera, each episode is ostensibly about how to do something (make the perfect risotto, make small talk, split the check). But Wilson is charmingly neurotic and his second person narration brings you along for the ride and makes these very specific moments into something communal. Between the almost found footage shooting style that catches these strange and sometimes beautiful moments of New York life and Wilson’s willingness to follow a thread so far that an episode about covering furniture leads to a lengthy meeting with a man desperate to undo his childhood circumcision (You are going to hear his songs on the topic and see him use his… invention), every episode takes you on a journey you couldn’t possibly have expected at the beginning. The season finale, ostensibly about making risotto, really stands out in this respect. One would think that it would be enough that Wilson thought he could make better risotto if he went to Colorado to quit vaping, but he returns to New York just as lockdown is beginning and suddenly it’s a real-time episode about trying to figure out how to just live in the middle of a pandemic but it’s still through the lens of making risotto and it’s brilliant.
Best Episode – “How to Cook the Perfect Risotto”
8. Fargo (FX) – Noah Hawley’s Fargo returned after three and a half years for an ambitious story set in 1950 Kansas City. Ostensibly it was the story of an Irish mob fighting a Black mob for territory and various slights, both real and imagined. It opened with a loopy history of warring crime families trading sons and I don’t know if that’s a thing that actually used to happen or if Hawley read New Gods recently. (Dude wants to make a Doctor Doom movie. He’s definitely read New Gods.) From there it widened out to include a family running a funeral parlor (including E’myri Crutchfield as Ethelrida, the only person you can really call a protagonist this year), a Mormon US Marshal with strong opinions on cursing and the relative merits of different races (Timothy Olyphant as Bizarro Raylan Givens), a couple of prison escapees with a flair for violence, a disgraced minesweeper with OCD, a murder nurse, and Chris Rock as gangster Loy Cannon.
It was a sprawling cast this year and difficult to keep track of the secondary and tertiary characters, but once you got a handle on who was who and who’d been switched to other families, it was a season full of the delights you expect from Fargo. Genuinely funny moments sit next to horrific imagery. Even when Hawley gets a little too cute, it still works. An episode set in Kansas that involved a tornado was shot in black and white and my first reaction was “Yeah, I get it”, but darned if it didn’t win me over. Fargo is one of those shows that sits with me for a while and I’m looking forward to watching it again with my crew of Fargo Friends once things are back to normal.
Best Episode – “The Nadir”
7. Doom Patrol (DC Universe / HBO Max) – I mean, come on. This could not be any more up my alley. A kinda janky superhero show about the jankiest superheroes. I’ve talked at length about why I love the Doom Patrol as characters and I don’t need to do that again. I recapped the first season and dropped the ball this year because it aired at exactly the wrong time for me to focus, so I feel like I let the Doom Patrol down. This year, the show had to shift its focus after main antagonist (and narrator) Mr. Nobody was trapped in a painting and effectively taken off the board and they effectively pivoted to the Chief’s estranged eternal child with the power to bring imaginary friends to life, Dorothy Spinner. Oh, she also has a monkey face. Dorothy has a lot going on. But so many of the themes and character arcs that powered the first season resolved in such a way that virtually everybody needed a new game. And so we got to see Larry trying to reconcile with his children, Cliff dealing with his anger toward the Chief, Rita getting into local theater and adapting a ridiculous superhero identity, Vic starting a new and complicated relationship, and Jane literally rebooting.
It’s such fun for me to see the way this show pulls from different eras of the Doom Patrol. When an episode featuring minor Silver Age villain Dr. Tyme is followed by one with Grant Morrison’s Red Jack, that just hits my buttons. After a heavy reliance on the Morrison run last season and this season’s Red Jack episodes (plus the ongoing Dorothy/Candlemaker arc), they’ve pretty much tapped his Doom Patrol material. That meant pulling some ideas from Rachel Pollack and Gerard Way but also just coming up with new stuff, and I think that worked out really well. The thing is, literally everything with Vic is entirely new (Cyborg having never been a member of the team), as is anything about Larry’s sexuality and relationships or Rita’s mother or Jane’s personality uprising. The first season felt like such a love letter to Grant Morrison that I never really thought about how much the show had to create from whole cloth and is kind of creating the definitive versions of the characters along the way. And luckily it’s been renewed – not only do I want more Doom Patrol, but the season was shortened by Coronavirus and so the season ended with (SPOILEE WARNING) the entire team turned to wax, except for Cliff who was destroyed and then the shattered pieces were turned to wax. Also, Jane is trapped by one of her own hostile personalities who may actually be an outside agent. It’s a wild cliffhanger and I very much need this to be resolved.
Best Episode – “Dad Patrol”
6. Perry Mason (HBO) – I swear, I’m almost done talking about how depression affected my rankings. But this one in particular is unavoidable. When this hit, I was at my low point and literally the only thing I could handle was watching Perry Mason. I was also going through a protracted stretch of insomnia, so I just watched it every night instead of sleeping. Or, on a good night, the muted color palette and the dialogue-heavy episodes that only rarely erupted into startling gunfire, would soothe me into an hour or two of sleep. But mostly, I just put on Perry Mason every night, to the extent that I’ve seen the first episode more than 40 times and the entire season 25-30 times. There is maybe one actual human person with whom I was more emotionally involved than I was with Perry Mason this year.
All that aside, it was a good show. It wasn’t especially innovative or groundbreaking. Just a solid period drama buoyed by excellent performances (Matthew Rhys! Tatiana Maslany! John Lithgow!) and some clever touches. Starting out with a sad sack Mason who’s snapping pictures of celebrities for blackmail money was a great idea because my previous involvement with the character was non-existent. I knew he was a defense attorney and I knew some character names, but beyond that, Perry Mason was a non-entity for me. But when Rhys took the bar exam so he could represent a client, holy smokes, I reacted the way I did when Tony Stark built his first Iron Man suit. It’s like I had been a hardcore Perry Mason fan all my life. I’m thrilled it was upgraded from a miniseries to ongoing, because I think there’s a real lack of prestige non-genre adult drama right now. Hopefully life takes a better turn and I can watch Season Two a normal, non-insane number of times. But if not, I feel like Perry Mason is up to the case.
Best Episode – “Chapter 1”
5. The Boys (Amazon) – So, I have plans to co-host a Boys rewatch podcast at some point in the future. I’m just noting this because I think it’ll be super fun. The first season did a great job of breaking from the original comic book which, upon reflection, was not a good comic. The TV show figured out what worked early on and changed what didn’t to make something that was just as over-the-top but smarter and more resonant. (The Deep? That guy never even has dialogue in the comic!) And they did it again here, picking out the interesting ideas (a Nazi superhero) and then built better material around those ideas and gave us a better take on the characters. (Every woman on The Boys is a thousand times more developed than they are in the comic. Some of them weren’t even women in the comic!)
For a season that featured more exploding heads than any television show ever (I’m assuming), The Boys could be remarkably subtle. I didn’t notice that The Homelander uses the body language and specific wording of a domestic abuser until it was pointed out to me and now I can’t unsee it. It presented one of the best “Me Too” (I hate calling it that) storylines I’ve seen by asking whether an abuser can be rehabilitated but also keeping the victim squarely in our sights and letting her reclaim her life. That they’re doing this while also having the Aquaman stand-in get high and take advice from his own gills (voiced by Patton Oswalt) is astonishing. Kimiko’s character developed so far beyond the “mute Asian” trope she was originally assigned in the comic. (Her name in the comic was literally “The Female of the Species”.) Whether it was the Boys exploding a whale that got in their way or Kimiko, Maeve, and Starlight beating the hell out of super-Nazi Stormfront, this season was just fantastic.
I’d also like to note that President Obama mentioned The Boys as one of his favorite TV shows, and I wonder if it’s weird for the guy who plays Homelander to know that a two-term President watched him stand on top of a skyscraper and masturbate over the edge.
Best Episode – “What I Know”
4. Ted Lasso (Apple TV) – This comedy is surprisingly delightful. I say “surprisingly” because star Jason Sudeikis tends to play characters whose geniality masks some degree of sociopathy. But his Ted Lasso, a football coach who went viral for doing a funny dance in the locker room and ends up recruited to coach an English soccer/football team in a Producers-style ploy, is genuinely the nicest and most positive man in the world. And? It’s very funny. Sudeikis originated the character in some pieces for NBC’s sports coverage. Not being a sporto, I didn’t see any of these pieces so I don’t know how they line up and I assume they are not in Ted Lasso continuity. This doesn’t matter to anybody but me.
You can see the influence of Scrubs creator Bill Lawrence – it doesn’t have that kind of wackiness, but like Scrubs, Lasso instantly establishes a cast of great, defined supporting characters and even a few episodes in, it’s exciting to see when they’re grouped in new ways. You want to see these people interact because they’re all funny and authentic and it’s fun when people who haven’t been in a scene together before bring in their individual games.
Ted is a big sweetie with undeniable enthusiasm for life and his longshot team. He’s the lovable doof who will put a handwritten “BELIEVE” sign over the door to the locker room but will take a couple of tries to hang it correctly. Ted is trying to make the best of an impossible situation (fans hate him for not knowing anything about soccer, the team is struggling, the owner is hoping he fails because she won the team in a divorce) and he’s going to make you believe he’s going to pull it off. It’s similar to the positive energy of the Sudeikis-produced Detroiters and maybe that’s his whole thing.
A million people have written about how the unrelenting joy of Ted Lasso is exactly what we need right now, and I can’t possibly have anything to that. It’s funny and wonderful and it will make you feel good.
Best Episode – “The Diamond Dogs
3. BoJack Horseman (Netflix) – I know I’ve talked a lot about my top shows in relation to the pandemic and it’s kind of unavoidable. In this case, the final episodes of BoJack hit at the end of January when things were still normal. Which is good because I don’t know if I could have handled them any later. This is a show about depression. Earlier in its run, it helped me understand a lot of things about my personal deal, including helping me identify that depression. I haven’t revisited BoJack since it ended and I can’t decide if that would be valuable or an enormous setback. As a result, I didn’t do a rewatch like I did with some of the other shows on the list and I can’t speak in as much detail.
So I just want to focus on the last couple of episodes, which are going to sit with me for a long time. The penultimate episode, a dream sequence that we have every reason to believe is BoJack’s final thoughts as he dies is terrifying even when it’s funny. It’s just this perfect encapsulation of all of BoJack’s mental chaff all coming together in a way that would have made an amazing series finale. But the show doesn’t let him off that easily. He survives his near death experience and has to go on living with himself. And here it’s clear that there’s not going to be a clean ending where BoJack either cleans up or dies. His life is going to be these attempts to get better and then catastrophic collapses. He’s never going to be OK and maybe the best that can happen is he’ll keep trying.
The final episode, set at a wedding, brings the cast together so we can see BoJack interact with everybody one last time. And the image that’s going to stick with me forever is BoJack and Diane sitting on the roof and talking like they used to, but she knows it’s the last time they’ll ever do this and he has no idea. It’s heartbreaking even though it’s absolutely the right thing for her. I can’t stop thinking about goodbyes that don’t get to be acknowledged as goodbyes and it is such a gut punch to end on.
I could say more, but this is the seventh time I’ve put it on my best of list and my love of BoJack Horseman is a matter of record by now. I’m going to miss this show.
Best Episode – “The View from Halfway Down”
2. Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim) – I love this show. It’s so out of step with the usual Adult Swim fare and is easily the most soothing show on television. It’s still so funny and heartbreaking but there are two episodes ostensibly devoted to helping people get to sleep and they released a special episode during the pandemic titled “Joe Pera Shows You Comforting Old Footage”. It’s the story of an awkward man in Michigan talking you through a trip to the grocery store or the first day of school and it’s a source of real beauty. Whether it’s the shots of Michigan forests or the genuine feelings on display, it’s a singular television experience.
Without anybody really noticing, the first season of Joe Pera built out an interesting supporting cast and their stories continue in the background of Joe’s narration. We watched his relationship with Sarah grow as Joe both tried to keep the intimate details to himself and showed us these incredibly personal conversations. Mike Melsky became more than the neighbor who’s kind of mean to Joe as we saw his marriage fall apart and the saddest, dumbest (and seemingly effective) attempt to reconcile. He took a trip with a friend Gene and we got to learn about his family, including twin son fashion designers.
There are two episodes that stand out – “Joe Pera Takes You to the Grocery Store” is the one that showed up in promos all season, and it’s peak Pera. It’s a wealth of sweet and clever details with Joe’s approach to shopping, observations about produce and the haunting: “It is kind of messed up, though, how a fully cooked chicken is $5.99, but a raw one is $9.85. I try not to think about why.” He samples new ham and it’s funny. It’s hard to get across just how much humor there is in the mundane. But there’s also an aside where he runs into his neighbor, Sue Melsky, and learns about the problems in their marriage. It could just be a weird detail but from there on we see more and more of Mike’s erratic behavior and it’s this really satisfying side story in the way it plays out. It’s a nearly perfect episode and the only reason it isn’t the best comedy episode of the year is because “Joe Pera Helps You Write an Obituary” also happened.
In that episode, Joe deals with the loss of his beloved grandmother. I wrote about it at length when it aired, but it nails what I think is a very particular Midwestern approach to grief. You try not to talk too much and food is a big part of it and everybody just kind of gives you your space whether or not that’s what you need. It’s gorgeous and perfect and one of the most relatable things I’ve ever seen on TV. You can read my original article for the specifics, but this episode and this whole season was one of the best TV experiences of the year.
Best Episode – “Joe Pera Helps You Write an Obituary”
1. Better Call Saul (AMC) – I mean, it’s the best show. What are we even doing here? I can’t possibly bring anything new to the discussion at this point. Like, did you see that season finale? Are you going to rest easy until the show comes back? And, to be clear, I do not want them to start shooting until everybody involved has been vaccinated and it can be shot safely without putting the cast and crew at risk (they are national treasures!) and they don’t have to make any weird concessions like having Bob Odenkirk shoot a scene where a mannequin is standing in for the back of Rhea Seehorn’s head. We’ll wait.
This isn’t a bit – I really don’t know what else I can say. It’s my favorite show. It’s the best show. We all know it. That’s it for 2020, you know?
Best Episode – “Bagman”