It’s not time to flush 2020 just yet: Entertainment critics (aka inessential workers, or last responders) must weigh in with their picks for the “best” of the year. You’ve suffered through slightly worse over the 68 months of 2020; the least you can do is indulge us.
As for me, I’m focusing on TV series that debuted—and, in some cases, ended—in 2020. We’re all aware that AMC’s Better Call Saul continued to be damned fantastic, and I won’t bore you with the details of how Showtime’s Shameless is currently killing in its 11th and final season (or maybe I will … next time). This is all about the first-seasoners.
Here are 10 new series that made splashes in 2020—some larger than others.
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+): American college-football coach Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis) is recruited to train a dysfunctional British soccer team. Besides being a subtle symbol of American un-exceptionalism, Sudeikis’ Ted is also a big-hearted optimist who transforms a one-joke show into the absurdist 10,000-watt beacon of “It’s gonna be OK” that 2020 needed. You don’t even have to care about sports to be sucked into Ted Lasso: It’s about people, not points. (There’s your pull quote, Apple TV+.)
High Fidelity (Hulu): This smart-but-breezy update of the 1995 book and 2000 movie premiered in February and was canceled sometime later in the ’20 Co-void—it all blends together. Brooklyn record-store owner Rob (Zoe Kravitz) is a music-and-pop-culture-devoted “cool chick” with several complicated twists; her friends/employees are just as messy and three-dimensional. Besides a great soundtrack, High Fidelity delivered an authentic take on millennial blues. WTF, Hulu?
Woke (Hulu): Sadly, comedies about racism may always be timely. Woke is based on the life of cartoonist Keith Knight (The K Chronicles, which runs in the Independent), starring Lamorne Morris (New Girl) as Keef, a Black artist who sidesteps politics and social issues in his work … that is, until he’s beaten up by cops for EWB (Existing While Black), and his cartoons come to life and hilariously force him to finally take a stand. Unlike with High Fidelity, Hulu made the right call here and gave Woke a second season.
Dave (FXX, Hulu): A white, Jewish rapper pushing 30 believes himself to be the future of hip hop, straight outta the suburbs. Minor YouTube star Lil Dicky (Dave Burd) plays Dave like Curb Your Enthusiasm in the shallow end of the music biz, taking a seemingly thin premise deeper with each episode while hinting at legit mic skills. (Spoiler: He has legit mic skills.) Burd is simultaneously arrogant and sympathetic, and Dave’s hilarious first season will easily lead into more. Watch out, Kanye.
The Midnight Gospel (Netflix): The Midnight Gospel is uniquely enlightening, meshing the deep-brain interviews of The Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast with psychedelic animation (by Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time). Trussell voices Clancy, a “spacecaster” who visits nigh-apocalypse worlds through the multiverse for enlightenment, kicks and content. The mashup of intellectual dialogue and acid-trip visuals should be overwhelming, but The Midnight Gospel is surprisingly soothing.
Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access): Where recent Star Trek movies are stuck on cosplaying the Trek of the past, shows like Star Trek: Discovery and Picard (and even cartoon Lower Decks) are reinventing the franchise. Star Trek: Picard is particularly subversive in playing former Starfleet Admiral Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart) as a disillusioned rogue with nothing left to lose on a mission (but still charming, of course). Star Trek: Picard is the most “adult” of the Trek series—and all the better for it.
Briarpatch (USA): Private detective Allegra Dill (Rosario Dawson) returns to her small Texas hometown to investigate the murder of her sister, who was apparently dealing with some shady locals. Since the entire town is populated with shady locals straight out of Twin Peaks/Tarantino/Fargo central casting, the hunt gets weird. Dawson is cooler than the other side of 10 pillows here, but it’s Jay R. Ferguson (Mad Men) who almost steals Briarpatch as a coked-up cowboy from hell. Alas, USA cancelled the series after just one season.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+): Like Veep set at a video-game company, Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (co-created by and starring Rob McElhenney of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) exposes the chaos behind the slick public image. McElhenney leads, or attempts to lead, a volatile team of creatives (Charlotte Nicdao, Danny Pudi, David Hornsby and F. Murray Abraham) through the launch of a new multiplayer game expansion, which is a war in itself. MQ:RB is smart, sarcastic and even sweet.
The Flight Attendant (HBO Max): Kaley Cuoco blows away her Big Bang Theory sitcom image as Cassie, a hard-partying flight attendant who wakes up from a one-night stand next to a bloody corpse, and she has no idea what happened. The Flight Attendant is part-murder mystery, part-dark comedy, and all terrible decisions—Cassie goes through ill-advised clue chases like vodka sodas. (Half the show’s budget must be mini-bottles.) It’s funnier and more tense than your last family holiday gathering.
The Amber Ruffin Show (Peacock): Amber Ruffin is a writer and performer on NBC’s Late Night With Seth Meyers; The Amber Ruffin Show is made up of jokes, sketches, songs and anti-racist monologues too weird and pointed to ever fly on a white guy’s network talker. In the unchecked universe of Peacock, Ruffin and sidekick Tarik Davis do whatever the hell they want in a late-night talk show studio with no audience, whether it works or not. (It usually does.) Bonus: Every episode ends with margaritas.
The Best of the Rest: A.P. Bio (Peacock), Avenue 5 (HBO), Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens (Comedy Central, HBO Max), Breeders (FX, Hulu), Devs (Hulu), The Dress Up Gang (TBS), The Great (Hulu), Hunters (Prime Video), I May Destroy You (HBO), I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO), Lovecraft Country (HBO), Mrs. America (Hulu), Never Have I Ever (Netflix), Perry Mason (HBO), The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), Stargirl (The CW), Three Busy Debras (Adult Swim), Upload (Prime Video).