The best TV shows of 2020 that made staying at home bearable

The worst year still gave us some incredible TV. Salon's TV critic shares her top 10 favorites

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 27, 2020 3:45PM (EST)

I May Destroy You | Better Call Saul | What We Do in the Shadows (Photo illustration by Salon/Warner Media Group/AMC/FX)
I May Destroy You | Better Call Saul | What We Do in the Shadows (Photo illustration by Salon/Warner Media Group/AMC/FX)

Remember when everybody worried that we were going to run out of TV in 2020? Yeah . . . that didn't happen. Yet. One of the very few benefits of spending most of our time at home is that this became the year that we collectively realized how much television content is out that we haven't seen yet. That goes for old shows that passed us by in the busier before-times and this year, when production schedules may have slowed down, delayed or ceased altogether. TV still yielded enough excellence to make it very difficult to narrow a year-end list of Best TV Shows down to 10.

"So why not expand it to 20?" you may ask? To that I answer, "Have you not lived through this year? Dammit, I'm exhausted."

The usual caveats apply here, starting with the admission that no single critic can watch or review every show that's on, including a few great ones. (I hear "How to With John Wilson" is superior. Haven't seen it yet, but I'll get to it. Promise!) If you don't see your favorite show on this list, it doesn't mean it's not fabulous. It probably means I haven't seen it – but hey, we can disagree too. That's fine!

Second, this is one person's take on the best TV of the year, and while it includes a number of shows that made other critics' year-end lists I also selected a couple that I watched for pleasure and not for work. As always, other worthy series aren't mentioned here because you're going to watch them with or without any critic's thumbs up. "The Mandalorian" is an example: love it; does not need anyone's help!

Lastly, there are many, many more shows that are well worth your time, the best of which (in my opinion) I included in my list of runners-up.

  1. "I May Destroy You," HBO

    None of us entered 2020 expecting to negotiate trauma in its various definitions. Michaela Coel guided us through her version when she invited us inside of her heroine's mind, making her confusion our own with humor and tenderness while challenging common questions about consent and responsibility as she navigates the aftermath of a sexual assault. Coel's series defied expectations for summertime viewing, resolving its complicated story in a manner than can only be described as revolutionary.

  2. "Better Call Saul," AMC 

    Jimmy McGill died in a desert this year. Saul Goodman came out of that parched marathon, corrupting everyone around him . . . including the otherwise upstanding Kim Wexler. The penultimate season of the AMC hit drama sets up many inevitable crashes and plummets and what will likely be a stunning conflagration between Tony Dalton's mercurial Lalo and Giancarlo Esposito's Gus Fring. We know which one makes it to the "Breaking Bad" era, but the superior storytelling left us excited to see the how of it, which is even more important.

  3. "Better Things," FX

    Every season of Pamela Adlon's series improves upon the previous, which was already one of the best things on TV. The show's 2020 episodes lent a hominess to an anxiety-ridden year defined by quarantine and reminded us in the joy in the littlest moments spent with Sam Fox and her girls. But then, the big sweeps like Sam's boozy trip to New Orleans and coincidental meeting with an old hookup were pretty damn satisfying too. In all, this show reminds us that for all its flaws the world is still a wonderful place – and that includes the part of it that's right there in our living rooms.

  4. "Ted Lasso," Apple TV+

    In a year that set new definitions for awfulness this comedy arrived relatively quietly and offered 10 episodes of pure, unfiltered good feeling. Jason Sudeikis' football coach is an ebulliently upbeat inspirational person, but he's also wise, thoughtful, caring and clever. Joining him on his journey to build a sorry soccer team into happier people, if not winners, gives us the latitude to forgive ourselves, dare to happy and above all, be curious.

  5. "P-Valley," Starz

    In a medium where strippers typically show up as background dressing Katori Hall's electrifying drama makes her exotic dancers the centerpiece, exposing the extent of their toil, determination and intelligence in as much detail as the parts of their bodies that make dollars rain down. An extraordinary cast and crisp writing makes this series one of the year's best surprises – and the gutsiness of Uncle Clifford's wardrobe alone is worth the price of admission.

  6. "What We Do in the Shadows," FX

    As Americans struggled with the realities of quarantine, vampire trio Lazlo, Nadja and Nandor, and their familiar Guillermo demonstrated the flying highs and grave pitfalls of sequestering oneself with family and frenemies over long periods of time. Fortunately for us they were equally skilled at it, and terrible, but at their best when they interacted with the outside world (at a Superb Owl party, or as regular human bartender Jackie Daytona) and realized their lair is where the heart is. However, this season's MVP award goes to their other roommate Colin Robinson, an energy vampire who gave us life in an episode where his power surged and he drained an entire office dry. Working from home isn't so bad after all,  is it?

  7. "PEN15," Hulu

    Middle school life only gets harder the further in that awkward best friends Maya and Anna venture. But as they feel their way through that cave they allow us to vicariously relive the worst of puberty right along with them, and that made us feel better somehow. The second half of the season is coming in 2021 but it has already achieved a few stunning artistic triumphs, the most memorable being a quiet and magical choreographed sequence created to capture the wonder of a school play. This series still knows how to break our hearts, but it is even better at patching them up afterward.

  8. "Mrs. America," FX

    Dahvi Waller takes us back to the rise of second wave feminism and the woman-led backlash that surged to meet it in the form of Phyllis Schlafly, whose supporters took issue with how Cate Blanchett portrays her. Nevertheless, Blanchett's nuanced and humane performance is undeniably riveting, as is Uzo Aduba's portrayal of Shirley Chisholm (who, it must be said, deserved more screen time). One measure of this limited series' effectiveness is that it commanded attention in a year dominated by a mountain of competing stories in the media, reminding us of the cyclical nature of social justice movements and political change.

  9. "The Good Lord Bird," Showtime

    If Ethan Hawke's wild-eyed abolitionist didn't grab you from the first episode, Daveed Diggs' glorious portrayal of Frederick Douglass as a ladies' man and a pragmatic politician surely should have. Together with the rest of the cast and buoyed by a witty, energetic script, Hawke's fire-and-brimstone performance takes us inside the determination of man who knows that certain evils cannot be undone with polite rebuke – which coincidentally supports one of the main arguments about the validity of civil rights protest tactics we witnessed this year.

  10. "Insecure," HBO

    As surely as we missed our real life friends, fans of this show missed Issa and Molly fiercely – but that also made watching their breakup all the more compelling. As Rae and the series' writers persuasively progress their friendship's deterioration, the story also establishes this development as a natural part of moving forward in life, something every adult faces at some point or another. Tough as it was to watch, and heartening as it was to see the possibility that the two could mend their bond, this development kept me on edge and waiting for each new episode.

Hey, Watch These: "Lovecraft Country," "Normal People," "Devs," "Never Have I Ever," "Brockmire," "City So Real," "Little America," "Cherish the Day," "Warrior," "Star Trek: Picard."

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland