Like many of us living through the purgatory of a pandemic and ensuing lockdown, you probably spent more time on your streaming services than ever before. Suddenly, the most responsible thing you could do as a citizen of the world was stay home and binge-watch television. Fortunately, in the Golden Age of the small screen, 2020 was rife with incredible, groundbreaking shows.
In compiling this list of the best television shows of 2020, we noticed an accidental theme: every single one of them was female-fronted. It’s been a great year for women in television, as shows like The Queen’s Gambit and I May Destroy You broke streaming records and raked in awards. If you haven’t gotten a chance to see some of the shows on the list, now’s your chance. The holiday break is the perfect time to unwind with these thought-provoking, hilarious, and challenging concepts.
The charming and effervescent Elle Fanning might look like a fairytale princess in her role as Catherine the Great in Hulu’s The Great, but she certainly doesn’t act like one, especially after the realities of marrying the brutish Peter III (Nicholas Hoult) set in. Before you dismiss it for its surface appearance as another boring period drama, let us assure you that it’s not. In fact, it’s one of the funniest shows of 2020. What makes The Great so damn great? Maybe it’s the wildly inappropriate, anachronistic use of language, including modern slang and plenty of swearing, or the absurd situations that Catherine the Great creates in her bungling attempts to overthrow the Russian monarchy. The formula of extraordinarily dry humor, absurdity, and wit make this show as charming and delightful as its central character.
Pen15, the brainchild of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, has a brilliant conceit at its center: both women (who are in their 30s in real life) play 12-year-olds going through the ugly reality of puberty in middle school. This coming-of-age show isn’t glossy or sleek, but instead, reminds us of just how hard our tween years really were. The rest of the cast is played by actual pre-teens, which makes the situations Maya and Anna find themselves in even more real, more cringeworthy, and more hilarious. And yet, as funny as it is to wax nostalgic about AOL chat rooms and crushes on indifferent skater boys, Pen15 has real pathos to it, as Maya and Anna’s best-friend-forevership is tested by the pains of growing up: jealousy, hormones, and rocky parental relations.
The Queen's Gambit
How is a show centered on chess so damn good? A confluence of talent – from its incredible star Anya Taylor-Joy to its amazing director Scott Frank (who also adapted the show from the novel by Walter Tevis) – create a gravity force field around the tension of both the game of chess and the strategic survival of its central character. Young Beth Harmon is orphaned after her troubled mother takes her own life, and is placed in a girl’s home where her only form of relief is the drugs the home administers to her daily and her secret chess games with the janitor.
Eventually, Harmon is adopted, and her adopted mother realizes her talent for chess and supports her rise to the U.S. Open championship. However, what is central to the story is a deeply flawed heroine, who turns to substance abuse to mask the pain of her childhood. She is at once an awe-inspiring force of nature who turns the chess world upside down, and a broken woman whose alcoholism inhibits her from really getting close to anyone. If you haven’t seen The Queen’s Gambit yet, you’re in the minority. The show absolutely shattered Netflix records, becoming its biggest scripted limited series to date.
I May Destroy You
(Warning: not recommended for people under the age of 18).
One of the year’s most acclaimed shows by both critics and audiences alike is not for the faint of heart. Actor and writer Michaela Coel takes her real experience with sexual assault and transforms it into one of the most fearless shows that television has ever seen. In it, she plays Arabella, a talented young writer and minor celebrity who is partying her way between book deadlines, and living her best life.
After a hazy night out, Arabella realizes she has been the victim of an assault, and struggles with the mental, emotional, and spiritual aftermath of the attack. This absolutely riveting show is described by The New Yorker as a “prismatic study of trauma,” and its finale is a masterpiece in storytelling. There has never been a show like I Will Destroy You. Period. This fearless tale grapples with the subject of rape, trauma, and PTSD in an unrelentingly vulnerable and darkly humorous way that is impossible to forget.
Let’s be real, we were all watching season four of The Crown for the Princess Diana storyline, right? As one of the most anticipated elements of the new season, Diana Spencer was played with eerie accuracy by Emma Corrin, whose vulnerability and sweetness made her a tremendously sympathetic character. In turn, the storyline became a lightning rod for controversy as the real-life Prince Charles and Camilla Parker-Bowles were forced to turn their social media accounts private after they were brigaded by outraged fans.
The British government dismissed the season as speculative fiction, while Netflix defended the show saying, “We have always presented The Crown as a drama, and we have every confidence our members understand it’s a work of fiction that’s broadly based on historical events.” Regardless of the controversy, The Crown served another excellently acted and tightly told drama of the murder of Lord Mountbatten, the rise of Margaret Thatcher, the doomed marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana, and other events that took place in the United Kingdom between 1977 and 1990.
I Am Not Okay With This
I Am Not Okay With This joins the ranks of other truly excellent Netflix shows – like The OA and G.L.O.W. – that were prematurely canceled. Nonetheless, this coming-of-age dramedy deserves your viewership. What happens when you take a common tale of teenage angst, crushes, and navigating high school and inject it with uncommon and (possibly) out-of-this-world superpowers? It’s a pretty combustible situation.
Sophia Lillis (It, It: 2) plays Sydney Novak, a 17-year-old who discovers she has telekinetic powers, but from whence they came, no one knows. This short season can be binged in a single evening, but leaves you wanting more. Unfortunately for those who fell in love with the show and its dark humor, there will be no second season.
Emily in Paris
If you asked a French person if Emily in Paris is one of the best shows of the year, they would roll their eyes and say “mais, non!”
It’s true that the show depicts an idyllic version of Paris, relies heavily on French stereotypes (baguettes! berets! croissants!), and has a central character who is irksomely American about all things not-American, but nonetheless, it became one of the most watched shows of 2020. Brought to you by the creator of Sex and the City, the highly anticipated show features wide-eyed Emily (Lily Collins) who stumbles into a job in Paris at Savoir, a French marketing company. She comes with brash new social media marketing ideas, and an out-of-her-depth naivety that makes her charming in the eyes of the many French men who begin to pursue her. Is it accurate? Mais, non. Is it endlessly entertaining and endearing? Mais, oui.
Insecure, now in its fourth season, continues to ratchet up the dramedy accolades. The latest season sees Issa (Issa Rae) coming into her own as an independent woman in Los Angeles, who wants to realize her dream of bringing together her community with a block party that showcases the talent of the city’s musicians, retail vendors, and talents. But old habits and difficult friendships threaten to keep her focused on her past, rather than her promising future. At the heart of Insecure is Issa’s friendship with her best friend Molly (Yvonne Orji), which becomes more unstable the more Issa starts to live her dreams. And, as always, the will-they-won’t-they relationship between Issa and Lawrence takes a shocking twist at the finale that had fans flooding social media to speculate about season five.
The original High Fidelity movie, starring John Cusack, came out 20 years ago and became an instant cult classic. The film, adapted from a novel by Nick Hornby, sees Rob, an aging slacker/record store owner, pick apart his past relationships trying to figure out where each went wrong. When we heard it was being reimagined for television starring none other than Zoe Kravitz as Robyn “Rob” Brooks in a gender-bending take on the role, we were beyond thrilled.
The show is high on cool-factor, and has an incredible soundtrack, but what makes it superlatively good is that the unreliable narrator at its center is both charmingly lovable and frustratingly obtuse when it comes to matters of the heart. Giving Kravitz a complicated character to bite into brought out the best in her as an actor, and also defied the typical tropes assigned to women on television – making for a refreshing, honest, and not always beautiful version of a modern NYC 20-something.
For the Fraser family, life is perfect. Two wealthy parents with high-profile jobs and a precocious young son are enjoying the good life in Manhattan when the horrific murder of a mother at the son’s school threatens to destabilize their idyllic existence. That’s the elevator pitch for The Undoing, but what it doesn’t tell you is how riveting the “whodunit” aspect of this show was.
Nicole Kidman, in an incredible turn as the main character Grace Fraser, has to put together the pieces of the murder while everything around her falls into chaos. The show also sees Hugh Grant‘s return to the screen, starring as Grace Fraser’s husband Dr. Jonathan Fraser, and (perfectly) casts Noma Dumezweni as defense lawyer Haley Fitzgerald.
The show’s well-paced suspense crescendos to an unbelievable, breathtaking finale. If you live for crime dramas and psychological thrillers, this show is the best of both genres.
Never Have I Ever
This Mindy Kaling-created Netflix series became an instant hit with Gen-Z, but even older generations can connect to its central themes. As an Indian-American teenager, Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) is the kind of buoyant and determined personality that can single-handedly carry a storyline, but the incredible supporting cast of her high school peers deepens the pathos of this coming-of-age comedy.
Never Have I Ever lays the groundwork early for a triumph of the will, as narrator John McEnroe (yes, tennis pro John McEnroe narrated this show, hilariously we might add), relays, “Can she shed her identity as the paralyzed Indian girl whose dad dropped dead at a school function?” As a good student and a typical “nerd”, Devi wants to change her social status and turn her high school experience around, but everyone gets in the way.
Even though it’s out-and-out funny, this show also touches on deeper issues like grief, multicultural experiences in America, peer pressure, love, and identity.
Shrill, a Hulu show – adapted from author (and hilarious Jezebel writer) Lindy West’s best-selling memoir – stars Aidy Bryant and is, in a word, perfect. Bryant takes from West’s own experiences to create a character that is both funny and sympathetic, generous and selfish, broken and healing. It’s a beautiful character arc, carried into a second season that sees Bryant’s starring role as Annie deepen and grow.
As a curvy – actually let’s just say the word “fat” because the show unashamedly does – girl, Annie’s whole life has been spent either covering up or making excuses for her size, which she plays off in public with a sense of humor, but deep down she is tortured by her weight. What Annie fails to realize in focusing so much on how she looks is how many people truly love and appreciate her as a person, and see her for her incredible writing talents. This show, more than anything, is about self-acceptance, but it’s also about community, and creating a family out of the people who have your back no matter what. It also helps that it’s a screamingly witty show with a high rewatchability factor.
Dead to Me
There are so many layers to the brilliance of Netflix’s Dead to Me, but to peel them back is to give too much of the plot away. Simply put, Christina Applegate stars as Jen, a bitter, exhausted suburban housewife who is trying to navigate life after the sudden death of her husband. When a kooky stranger named Judy (Linda Cardellini) appears and forcefully befriends her, Jen is reluctant to accept the help. However, Jen and Judy are entangled in ways that no one can predict, and soon the two need each other more than they could ever have imagined. This wry, dark comedy centers on female friendship, with a BIG twist, and grapples with grief, but keeps you guessing as to who really caused all of the grief to begin with.
Better Things is a blessing. It’s a show so achingly beautiful, honest, raw, and down-and-out hilarious that after every episode you’re apt to say, “we don’t deserve Pamela Adlon”. In the show, Adlon sort of plays herself – a celebrity mom raising three daughters on her own. But Adlon, both in real life and onscreen, is so infectiously charming, so relentlessly real and wonderful, that a community gathers around her pure magnetism. She makes family out of everyone she meets.
Her equally charming and free-spirited daughters tend to take mom for granted, but the trials and tribulations of mother-daughter relationships are portrayed unflinchingly in the show, which is so deep in its pathos that you’ll find yourself either drowning in tears of joy or tears of sorrow. Is Better Things the best show on this list? We’re going out on a limb and saying a hearty “yes!”