Ed. note – TV’s 2020 heroism comes second only to science, y’all. We watched A LOT of shows to keep our minds from spiraling, so we have some pretty solid opinions about which ones merit your attention – here’s one of our top TV fans at BYT, Tristan Lejeune, comin’ at you with his top ten picks:
1. She-Ra and the Princesses of Power
Animation makes up a whopping 50 percent of this list, a personal high, but the best of the bunch was also the only one that’s suitable for children: a vividly imagined, passionately executed pink-and-purple reboot of an ’80s property that squeegees away all memories of the cheesy Mattel cartoon franchise invented primarily to sell toys. On the distant world of Etheria, where there are many moons but the stars are kinda new, magical princesses and brave warriors face off against the Evil Horde in an endless parade of Halloween costume ideas. Kids get easily digestible lessons on individualism and diversity as the resistance, which comes in a variety of races, body types, sexualities and gender identities, takes on an army of Borg-esque fascists, while adults get sweeping romance, daring missions, and splashes of battle humor (“We don’t throw tanks at our friends!”) that would shine in even the brightest of Marvel movies. Tucked away in this underappreciated wonder’s concluding season were 2020 TV’s most hilarious song, most heartbreaking self-sacrifice, and, crucially, most surprising redemption arc. The universe of She-Ra may be candy-colored, but candy quickly melts away. Showrunner Noelle Stevenson’s Saturday morning cartoon that wasn’t has the staying power of an epic poem. Think Gilgamesh in wedges — only even cooler.
2. I May Destroy You
Even at its most traumatic, no show this year felt more alive than Michaela Coel’s anti-sitcom about striving and surviving after sexual assault. Like all victors, Coel gets to write her own ending, but she lays out a rich, bruising journey before we get there. A family dinner humming with subtext, a drug-fueled night in an Italian club — the set pieces here are expertly observed, which in lesser hands might make them predictable, but you never really know where this tale is going. It may destroy you. It also may put you back together. I can’t wait to see what Coel does next.
3. BoJack Horseman
It’s possible that the era’s sharpest examination of both celebrity and addiction could only have ended one way, but witnessing BoJack’s sordid past bring his life crashing down around his equine ears was blood-chilling: not just a slow-motion car crash, but a slow-motion full-on pileup on the 405. Fair warning to toxic men — your cancelation will be televised. Revisiting BoJack while working on this ranking, I was struck by how the punchline structure didn’t really change in the last season, it just took on new, mature shades of melancholy. So long, Hollywoo! You will be missed.
Every character on Insecure is interesting and charismatic enough to headline their own series, but oh how glad I am this one is about Issa Rae’s sunny-but-steely working woman Angeleno, also named Issa. Season four of HBO’s finest-ever comedy found our leading lady forging new career paths and potentially backsliding in matters of the heart. She also, crushingly, split from her BFF Molly (the endlessly invaluable Yvonne Orji). Dividing that particular duo is a crime against nature, but, like a well-pruned plant, it made things grow in such rewarding directions. People on Insecure sometimes make horrible, dangerous mistakes, just like everyone you know in real life, but the show itself has yet to seriously put a foot wrong.
5. The Good Place
Only the final four episodes of NBC’s last great Thursday night sitcom aired this calendar year — more than enough to earn it a spot here. The shockingly devastating finale, which confronted the mental paradox of “eternal” bliss, is the kind of Finish Strong moment that secures an artwork’s lasting legacy. And that only came after the equivalent of the most hilarious philosophy class ever completely redesigned the afterlife on the fly. What if mortal existence wasn’t the test of a soul’s worthiness, but the learning experience that precedes the test itself? No offense to the amiable Schitt’s Creek, but this is the one that should have swept the Emmys.
6. What We Do in the Shadows
At a certain point, the word “silly” came to strongly imply “not really funny,” a dichotomy that FX’s vampire mockumentary roundly rejects every week. It is unabashedly silly (on the docket in 2020 were an internet troll who is actually a troll, a vampire who thinks he wrote “Come On Eileen” years ago, and an ancient relic from a forgotten time: a chain email), but never less than funny and often side-splittingly so. The five-person ensemble looks like they’re having a blast, and it’s a feeling they’re happy to share. (menacing hiss!)
7. The Midnight Gospel
At the most distant edge of space, on “the Chromatic Ribbon,” Clancy, a humanoid creature who wears a witch’s hat and lives alone in a trailer, regularly shoves his head into the vaginal opening of a “universe simulator,” meeting and interviewing a rotating cast of freak-deaky creatures on acid trip planets, where they discuss death, creativity, magic, and enlightenment. The dialogue largely comes from comedian Duncan Trussell’s podcast, and the visuals, under the direction of Adventure Time‘s Pendleton Ward, are like a psychedelic adult coloring book brought to life. The goal is the same as one, too: instilling a profound sense of peace.
8. Rick & Morty
Adult Swim’s current crown jewel was never going to top its amazing third season, but round 4 gave us dragon parody, heist movie deconstructionism, an unstoppable storytelling train, and a Star Wars adventure better than most of The Mandalorian (“Pee on the floor,” Rick quipped, “it’s a Death Star.”). Best of all was “The Vat of Acid Episode,” a multilevel metaphor that reestablished the parameters of our genius-plus-sidekick’s adventures: boundless super science imagination, reined in by bleak nihilism.
9. The middle episodes of Little Fires Everywhere
It coulda been a contender. The final hours of Hulu’s limited series adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel unfortunately surrendered to an infuriating urge to divide everyone neatly into heroes and villains. But before the house burned down and took the story with it, this late ’90s melodrama built up a gripping suburban mess, full of complex motivations, arresting twists, and top-shelf performances from Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon.
Finally! After years of lollygagging in various genre sandboxes (noirs and adventure islands, private detectives and space exploration), Archer got back to what it does best: espionage for hire, staffed by jerks. This demented-workplace comedy took on as the grand theme of its 11th (!) season people’s ability to change and self-improve, but the show itself was never better than when it got back to basics — high wire act absurd situations combined with rat-a-tat wordplay.