Or, What I Did In Quarantine This Year
We’re venturing into new territory here- but then again, quarantine has forced us to do things that I’m sure none of us expected to do.
This is my first television list on this blog (if you don’t count the Black Mirror list I did a while back)- at least the first one that addresses multiple shows in one article.
As I’m sure all of us experienced, we were kept inside a lot this year. And so, what better way to entertain ourselves than by watching television all day. And for the first time, I watched enough TV this year that I finally have enough entries to put a list together!
These are the 10 best series of television (that I watched) from 2020. Entries need to have premiered this year, and presented as a season. So anything that has a 2020 release date, you’re in the running.
As a bonus, I also have included some TV shows that did not premiere this year, but I finally got around to finishing this year. Just so you can laugh at me for missing out on these shows the first time around.
Now, I’m not gonna lie, you’re probably going to see a lot of Netflix on this list. It’s the one streaming service I have access to that is fully funded by me, and I’m too afraid to ask the people who own the Hulu, Prime, and HBO Max accounts if I can watch a series on those sites. That, and Netflix is just better when it comes to TV, in my opinion. Those other sites might have one or two good shows, but there are PLENTY on Netflix.
By the way, MAJOR spoilers ahead, if you haven't seen any of these yet.
Here's some stuff I watched that didn't come out this year, but I certainly enjoyed myself watching this year:
The Assassination of Gianni Versace: American Crime Story
I have to admit, I enjoyed The People vs. OJ Simpson better than I enjoyed The Assassination of Gianni Versace. But that is not to say that the miniseries (another Ryan Murphy creation) is bad. Darren Criss’ role as Andrew Cunanan is a masterful portrayal of a man with nothing left to lose. It’s a sad, sad story.
Episode highlights include “A Random Killing,” where Cunanan encounters Lee Miglin, and we get an excellent performance from his wife, played by Judith Light; “House by the Lake,” where a prolonged road trip yields devastating results, and “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell,” where we get two very different coming out stories. By the end, whether they like it or not, Versace and Cunanan are inextricably linked.
Over the Garden Wall
How did I NOT know about this show prior to this year? I loved it so much, I even went as Wirt for Halloween. Cartoon Network’s 2015 miniseries follows Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Greg (Collin Dean) in their quest to get home. Along they way, they travel through a vast forest, encountering many odd creatures along the way, including a woodsman (voiced by Christopher Lloyd) and Beatrice, a bluebird (Melanie Lynskey) who helps them to find a woman called Adelaide who can help the boys find their way home.
What struck me first about Over the Garden Wall is the overall aesthetic, in particular the animation style and the score. Visually, it resembles shows like The Marvelous Misadventures of Flapjack and Adventure Time, while also evoking early 20th century Americana, especially with its title cards. In addition, the score and soundtrack (written by The Blasting Company) gives this world (known as, well, the Unknown) the same sort of feeling. The show, early on, for me, was bordering on this line of both whimsical and creepy.
And then, out of nowhere, you start to feel this connection to the characters, right before the show hits you with an incredible twist, revealing just why and how the boys ended up in the Unknown. All of this culminates in a satisfying ending of not only saving the ones you love, but also how perseverance and being helpful (albeit unwittingly in some cases), can positively affect the lives of others you encounter.
The episodes are 10 minutes long, and there are 10 of them. You’ll be done in an hour and a half. Do yourself a favor and watch this show.
Infinity Train (Seasons 1 & 2)
Speaking of a show whose episodes are 10 minutes long (and also an animated series), look no further than Infinity Train. I saw the pilot episode for this show back in 2017, and when I went back to look it up out of curiosity this year, the show had put out two seasons, with a third premiering this year on HBO Max.
Picture a girl on a train. Why is she there? Where is the train going and why is it so long? And why does she have this glowing green number on her hand? Infinity Train is an excellent mini-mystery series at the outset, but it also addresses issues in a way that is accessible to children. Main character Tulip (Ashley Johnson) wrestles with the effects of her parents’ divorce as she tries to figure out a way to get off the train. While on the train, she encounters a number of challenges which force her to think of ways to solve the puzzle, often forcing her to think introspectively.
Book 2 two revealed that the show was an anthology series, picking up the character of Mirror Tulip (a mirror version of Tulip introduced in an episode of season one also voiced by Johnson), and her adventures aboard the train. She meets Jesse (Robbie Draymond), a boy from the real world who’s been brought onto the train to endure the same trials Tulip did. MT grapples with wanting to leave the train with Jesse, but since she is a denizen of the train, it may be impossible for her to leave.
I love a good anthology series where all the parts and characters connect to each other, especially if it’s a larger “why am I here/what is this place?” narrative. Similarly, when a children’s cartoon introduces subjects about personal growth, it’s always a win. I haven’t gotten around to it yet, but I’m very excited to see what season three holds.
Community (Seasons 1-6)
What can I say? Community is one the best shows of all time. Quick-witted. Meta. Absurd. Heartfelt. And believe it or not, though I’d seen the ending before, I found there were gaps in my viewing, so I’m counting this as finishing a full season of television in 2020.
Plus, it gives me a chance to talk about the show.
First, the cast. Joel McHale. Gillian Jacobs. Allison Brie. Danny Pudi. Donald Glover. Yvette Nicole Brown. Chevy Chase. Ken Jeong. Jim Rash. And even though half of them were gone by the end (namely Glover, Chase, and Brown), the show made it work. Maybe not in season four once Dan Harmon left, but definitely in seasons five and six, as cast members like Paget Brewster, Jonathan Banks, John Oliver and Keith David filled in nicely and served their purposes by the end of the show.
Some favorites episodes of mine:
And now, a look at the best TV I consumed this year.
10. Space Force (Season 1)
Space Force is an interesting show- and though it’s been renewed for season two, I’m not entirely sure what the future holds. For one thing, we’re going to have a new President come January, and I’m not entirely sure how the dynamic will change in regards to the shadow of the Trump-like POTUS that oversees the action of (in this case, the semi-fictional world of) Space Force, a department that he created. So will the show address this? At this point, we’re not sure.
For another, the show has its moments of both humor and poignancy, and we’ve been left with a lot of questions that need answering. How did Maggie Naird (Lisa Kudrow) end up in prison? What will Gen. Mark Naird’s (Steve Carell) do in response to the Chinese astronauts trashing the American astronauts’ moon base? And, in an interesting twist I did not anticipate caring about, what will be the status of the relationship between Angela (Tawny Newsome) and Chan (Jimmy O. Yang)? And will we see more parodies of currently congresspeople, namely Representative Pitosi, Senator Schugler, and Anabela Ysidro-Campos (plays on Nancy Pelosi, Chuck Schumer, and AOC, respectively)?
Speaking of parodies of government people- Ben Schwartz’s character, F. Tony Scarapiducci, is a play on Anthony Scaramucci (Trump’s Director of Communication for all of 12 days). He is referred to (even by himself) throughout the series as “Fuck Tony”. So there’s that little nugget for ya.
Questions aside, the series isn’t terrible, and the actors do a fine job for some of the material they’ve been given. The dialogue (which I think could be construed as boring otherwise) is elevated by the performances of the likes of Carell and John Malkovich, the latter of the two is the SOLE reason you should watch the show.
Malkovich’s character, Dr. Adrian Mallory, is the only competent person working in Space Force. That much is clear from the outset. Mallory takes orders from no one, least of all Naird, and plays by his own ambiguous rules, but always acting for the good in the name of science, exploration, and, I’m sure on a deeper level, the people. But both his eloquence and his outbursts are quintessentially Malkovich-ian, seen mostly in the various ways he destroys the idiots around him trying to tell him what to do, ranging from Sorkin-levels of monologuing to Scorsese-levels of cursing, all of which are enough to rival an enigmatic figure like Nicolas Cage. It’s all there, and it’s all brilliant.
Overall, I think Space Force leaves a lot to be desired, but, like space, we still have much to explore. And I hope it only gets more exciting from here.
9. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
This one came in the early days of quarantine, when no one was sure exactly what to do with themselves. Enter: Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem, and Madness, which took over Netflix when it premiered back in late March.
Does anyone remember what this show was even about? Or are we all still obsessed with Carole Baskin supposedly feeding her ex-husband to the tigers she keeps at her wildlife rescue preserve? Don’t forget, the real story revolves around Joe Exotic, the eccentric owner of the G.W. Zoo in Wynnewood, Oklahoma, and his feud with Ms. Baskin, which culminates in a murder-for-hire plot that landed Mr. Exotic in prison (where he is currently serving a 22 year sentence). Like, remember all the crazy shit that happens in this series? Remember Doc Antle? The guy who also runs a wildlife sanctuary… that was also some weird personality cult full of women who had to, like, worship the guy? And what about poor Rick Kirkham, who ends up running Joe Exotic TV, only to have Joe (or one of his associates) literally burn all of his footage because Joe found out he wasn’t in control of it? And then Jeff Lowe, a seedy Las Vegas playboy that Joe turns his zoo over to for legal reasons? Pretty sure this is the part where we got the legendary line: “I’m never going to financially recover from this,” wherein one of the tigers attacks a G.W. Zoo employee. And Joe’s three-way same-sex relationship with Travis and John? Oh! And Joe ran for President (of all things) in 2016, and Governor of Oklahoma in 2018- where it’s revealed that a cameraman of his actually became his campaign manager! ALL of this happened in a seven-episode docuseries.
And then there was the whole murder-for-hire thing. Right. And it also goes without mentioning that the series implies that the animals are not treated well, and that it boils down to politics between two humans that only want to ruin each other, without any consideration for the other living beings they have come to be in charge of.
I’m scratching just the tip of the iceberg about Tiger King, but this series is a microcosm of the insanity that is this quarantine. It’s a trip, and with each turn, you don’t know how you ended up where you are, or where or when you started, but you’re here now, and this is reality. Cheers to Tiger King for holding up the mirror to society, in a weird, sleazy, furry kind of way.
8. Big Mouth (Season 4)
Big Mouth returned for its fourth season better than ever, packed with some cringey, gross-out moments we haven’t seen the likes of since the first season, and picking up where it left off in terms of its powerful statements about growing older and trying to figure yourself out.
The theme of this season is very much “anxiety, fuck yeah!,” where just about every character deals with some sort of stress. First is Nick (Nick Kroll), who fears that he will be replaced by both Seth (Seth Rogen- his camp best friend) and Andrew (John Mulaney- his school best friend), as the latter two hit it off during the summer. Elsewhere, the show deals with identity, particularly with Missy (Jenny Slate, and later, Ayo Edebiri), as she wrestles with embracing her Black identity and “growing up white”- the show is so meta about it that it nods to Missy being voiced by a white actor multiple times throughout the season, until Slate gives way to Edebiri in the penultimate episode, where Missy meets “Mosaic Missy,” with Edebiri permanently becoming the voice of the character. The focus of the series shifts back to Nick, as we get a glimpse into his future, where he eventually turns into Nick Starr, a successful but pompous and isolated gameshow host, whose entire life has been shaped by Nick pushing away his friends. We get this GREAT narrative of how just because you’re the way you are now, doesn’t mean you can’t change, especially when you’re only in eighth grade.
Jessi (Jessi Klein), in addition to learning more about menstrual cycles and becoming a woman, also deals with the stress of going to a new school and managing her depression- eventually, we meet the Gratitoad (Zach Galifianakis), who teaches Jessi about being grateful for things in her life, and teaches me about who my new favorite character is. Andrew, meanwhile, is his typical cringey self, dealing with issues from constipation to masturbation. Matthew (Andrew Rannells) struggles with coming out to both of his parents, all while Jay (Jason Mantzoukas) and Lola (Kroll) have… the best relationship the series has ever seen? We also get some interesting miniature arcs throughout the season, notably Natalie, a camper who has transitioned at the start of the season, and even Coach Steve, who shares his birthday with a particularly sad day.
Not that Big Mouth was ever bad, but I’m happy it’s done a return-to-form for season 4. I haven’t had to cover my face when a prolonged and gross sequence occurred since the first or second season (the main one I speak of is in episode 3. Let’s call it the “giving birth” sequence for ambiguity purposes), and I… missed that, if that’s not weird to say. Furthermore, I have been so impressed with the show’s ability to reflect the obstacles that teenagers face when growing up. Anxiety, depression, sexuality, identity, and even things like divorce, are all things real kids face. Props to the show for facing the issues head on and making the kids relatable to even adults.
7. The Politician (Season 2)
This season of The Politician spread its wings in the only way a Ryan Murphy sitcom could, by taking, quite literally, the entire country, in its scope. Also, Bette Midler’s in it. This show is a version of Glee where the only difference is that it’s slightly more rooted in reality. But only slightly. Notice how I didn’t say there’s no singing in The Politician.
Moving away from the small-town student leadership role of season 1, season 2 lands us in the middle of New York City, where Payton Hobart (Ben Platt) has just declared his candidacy for New York State Senate, a position held by longtime incumbent, Dede Standish (Judith Light). Meanwhile, his mother, Georgina (Gwyneth Paltrow) is headlong into a campaign to be Governor of California.
This season of the show really felt like it was starting to become something other than a rich-kid teen drama. The bright colors, lit by the backdrop of a bright, sunny California, are replaced by a colder, steelier atmosphere of New York City. And despite the triviality of some of the feuds between members of Payton’s campaign team, the goal remains the same: get their boy in the room.
What I really enjoyed about this season was the seamless shift of character focus that makes total sense. Out goes Jessica Lange and in comes Bette Midler as Hadassah Gold, Dede’s Chief of Staff. Bette is right at home in the role, and plays the mousy Chief of Staff role to perfection, while also showing us vulnerability after getting caught up in Dede’s three-way-marital affairs… I mean, “throuple.” (This show is one Matthew Morrison or Lea Michele appearance away from being Glee, I swear to you.)
Naturally, as Infinity Jackson (Zoey Deutch) is free from her grandmother’s clutches (remember that whole “playing off of The Act” from Hulu thing from last season), she goes off to pursue her career as a writer and later environmental activist, and naturally we see her less frequently. Of course, Infinity ends up helping Payton once again… before becoming a thorn in his side (see: throwing a ballot box into the East River) once again.
Even the members of Payton’s inner circle, McAfee (Laura Dreyfuss), James (Theo Germaine), Skye (Rahne Jones), Astrid (Lucy Boynton) and Alice (Julia Schlaepfer) have their moments too. Take, for example, Astrid and Alice fleeing to a hippy farm and supporting each other at a camp for expectant mothers (shoutout my former roommate Lizzy Jutila), or the little “what are YOU doing here” moment that was film at the theatre I used to work at.
And finally, we get (although the moments are fewer this season, they’re definitely earned) some brief but meaningful moments between Payton and his visions of River, who died at the start of season one.
Overall, the show feels more grown up in season two, and has a more lighthearted take on a grueling political campaign. The Politician shows us the relationship between both younger and older votes (see: “The Voters”), and how even though they may come from different backgrounds and grew up with different rules, they’re not so different when it boils right down to it. I’m not sure if there’s a season three in the works yet (and truthfully, I’d be fine if it didn’t- the ending to season two was a solid enough ending for me), but it will certainly be interesting to see where the show goes from here, should they decide to move up in the world. This is what House of Cards was missing. You have to start small and work your way up an enormous ladder to get all the way to the top. Perhaps Beau Willimon should have thought of putting his characters in a high school class president race first. Oh well. This show is ridiculous. And I absolutely love it.
6. Ted Lasso (Season 1)
And now for something completely different- a series from… Apple TV+? I remember all the NBC Sports vignettes from 2013 about a college football coach helming an English Premier League team, played by Jason Sudeikis. And since I got my new iPhone (shoutout to iPhone), with it came a free year of Apple TV+. And that, kids, is how I met your soccer coach. I mean Ted Lasso.
But seriously. I was expecting a comedy about a guy who was out of his element and didn’t know the first thing about soccer, and finding his way in England. That’s essentially what Ted Lasso is about, but I didn’t expect everything else that came with it.
In the NBC vignettes, the team in question is Tottenham Hotspur. In the series, it’s AFC Richmond, who are a bottom-feeding team in the EPL, seemingly destined for relegation. But, why a college football coach? The answer is revealed very early on, as the team’s owner, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Waddingham) is left in charge of the team after her divorce from her husband (Anthony Head). In order to get back at her cheating ex-spouse by destroying the one thing she cares about, she hires Lasso in an attempt to ruin the team. Lasso’s folksy Americanism makes him come off as a rube in the first few episodes, but he eventually wins over both the owner and the team, not to mention its players, including the wily but blunt veteran Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein).
The best part about the show is that it’s funny without being low-brow. And for that reason, it is a genuinely heartwarming series. You could go so many ways with both the premise and the character of Ted Lasso, but his character just cares so deeply about people that you just can’t help but root for him. Lasso goes through a divorce during the course of the show- an unexpected twist- and he struggles with having to keep a brave face in front of his son from across the pond, despite the fact that he very much still loves his wife and having to end their marriage is tearing him up inside. His relationship with other characters in the show is always serious, but always with the most positive intentions, and it ends up being infectious toward the others around him- whether it be a reporter who is incredibly skeptical of Lasso’s presence in the EPL and is fully prepared to ruin him in the press, to Kent, who deals with relationship issues involving another Richmond ex-player, to even Welton herself, who is coming to terms with her divorce and how it’s affecting her. Lasso has this happy-go-lucky energy about him, but despite being a fish out of water, he knows what he’s about and is much smarter than he looks.
This show is, in my mind, the most underrated show on this list. The comedy is incredibly witty and the themes are relatable. The story has its twists and turns that leaves you wanting more (and more we shall have- the show was renewed for two more seasons already). The music is amazing- which was put together by Marcus Mumford of all people. If you take the plunge on Apple TV+, make this the first show you check out. Take a few hours out of your day and root for the little guy. Trust me, it’s worth it.
5. Sex Education (Series 2)
It doesn’t matter who gets introduced in Sex Education, I just want the best for every single one of them, because they all deserve it. The British sitcom returned for series two, and it picks up on the single lingering question from series one- just what will Otis do now that he can finally masturbate?
Do it literally everywhere, is the answer to that one, much to the horror of his mother Jean (Gillian Anderson).
But more than that, season two delves deeper into the relationships between the characters at Moordale High, and reaches new emotional (and relevant) depths than ever before. But, before all that can even happen, naturally a chlamydia outbreak sets us back on the path of Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) back on the sex clinic trail.
As is a common theme throughout this list, Sex Education features more amazing character development and story arcs, with a number of them being some of the most indelible images of television from this year.
I can’t talk to anyone about the show without first bringing up the Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) story arc, which begins with a man ejaculating on her on a bus. While her reaction to the sexual assault (a shrug-off and downplaying Maeve’s intent on reporting it) feels initially set up to be a one-time thing, we find that it has more of an effect on Aimee than she anticipated. Instead, we get this amazing four-to-five episode arc of the impact it has on her life, from distancing herself from her boyfriend, to a detention session with Maeve and five other female characters from the show, wherein they discuss their separate experience with unwanted sexual harassment (later on, they destroy a car!), leading to a powerful and emotional scene where Aimee’s friends ride the bus with her, telling her that they have her back.
There is SO much to unpack in this season. Maeve’s struggle with her drug-using mother and her newfound friendship (friendship?) with neighbor Isaac; The saga of Jean as the school’s sex educator, which draws the ire of Headmaster Groff; Jackson struggling with the pressure his mothers force on him to excel in the swimming pool; and, of course, Romeo and Juliet: the musical.
Relationships fall out and new ones bloom. We get more of Ola and Lily, and Jackson and Viv, as well as a complicated love triangle between Eric, Rahim and Adam. It’s all so good. And we watch these characters grow up as they come into themselves (and sometimes, each other!)
Finally, there’s Otis, who gets into a lot of trouble (see: the episode with the party), but we see him grow up so much throughout the season, particularly in the aftermath of said party episode, where he has a mini pregnancy-scare arc with popular girl Ruby. He realizes the error of his father’s ways and how much of an asshole he can be, and also finally confesses his love to Maeve… via voicemail, which is, I’m sure, where season three will pick up.
Again, a show featuring the horniest teenagers on Netflix may not be everyone’s cup of tea. But what the show does best is make us realize that sex can sometimes seem like the most serious thing and the silliest thing at the same time. It’s often the physical comedy paired with the reactions of certain characters that make Sex Education truly funny (see: the S2 premiere where Jean catches Otis masturbating in the car while she’s returning from an errand) without being overly gross. It’s awkward but doesn’t induce second-hand embarrassment- it’s just all a part of growing up.
4. The Mandalorian (Season 2)
I don’t remember if I said it on this blog or not, but I have previously stated somewhere in my life that Disney was perhaps the best thing to ever happen to the Star Wars franchise. After seeing The Rise of Skywalker, and watching it tear down everything they had built in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in exchange for woefully obvious fan service, I had to rethink my stance. Maybe Disney’s involvement in the saga wasn’t the best thing, after all. In the age of social media, nothing can ever be what it is anymore- it has to serve or relate to someone or something. Did Disney… ruin Star Wars for me? For the better part of 10 months, I wasn’t sure of anything anymore.
But then the second season of The Mandalorian came out. Everyone’s favorite space dad and the brilliant, caring creative minds that crafted his story reminded me once again why I love this story- and this franchise- so much. Tasked with bringing The Child (or, as we now know him, Grogu) back to his kind, the second season picks up right where the first season left off. While the first half of the season sticks very much to its “space errands” formula, the major plot lines are never forgotten about, and carefully crafted to make sure that super important things, like the re-introduction of some familiar faces (Rosario Dawson and Temeura Morrison, for example), have their place in contributing to the main goal of the series. In what might be perceived as an ambitious move for the series, creator Jon Favreau has also masterfully weaved in characters and subplots from other places in the Star Wars catalogue (even including things thought to not be canon in the first place) and officially making them part of the “canon” of the series. He does it without it ever feeling forced. It feels earned. And because Mando is able to shift away from each of these things he encounters with every passing episode, the series doesn’t dwell on them for too long- leaving us always wanting to know what’s next.
Stepping away from plot devices, let’s talk about the TEAM behind this. Favreau has once again gathered a crack team of directors to tell each episodic story, and each one encapsulates both their particular directing style- and the mood of the franchise- perfectly. Dave Filoni (of Clone Wars notoriety), gives us “The Jedi,” which is set up like a suspense thriller in a desolate forest. Robert Rodriguez gives us one of the best action sequences in the series with “The Tragedy.” Bryce Dallas Howard with “The Heiress” proves she has more of a grasp on this series than her father ever could- and delivers some of the juiciest plot points of the series in her 36-minute episode. Peyton Reed brings us “The Passenger,” which lands us on desolate ice planet Maldo Kries, not to mention some giant spiders and tons of despair.
This series is breathtaking, both in its artistic and plot development, as well the sheer gravitas of the names attached to it. There are guest roles from Timothy Olymphant, Katee Sackhoff (reprising her role as Bo-Katan from Clone Wars and Rebels), WWE wrestler Sasha Banks (!!!), and Bill Burr, among others. Directors like Peyton Reed, Carl Weathers, and Rick Famuyiwa add their specific tastes to the series as well. Season two is even more evidence that The Mandalorian is put together by people who deeply care about Star Wars. They want the best for it; they want it to be reminiscent of the series they grew up with, while also keeping in mind what has been established already, while giving us a fresh storyline that is a breath of fresh air. I’m not sure about what’s going to happen in the future with all these new Disney+ shows that are coming out, but I can only hope they’ll be as good as this one, which is, in my opinion, the next great TV space western series. I hope you enjoyed this literal essay on what makes Star Wars great.
3. Bojack Horseman (Season 6, Part 2)
How do I top The Mandalorian? With a cartoon horse and TONS of despair, that’s how!
Everyone’s favorite washed-up, trainwreck anthropomorphic horse returns for the second half of his final season on Netflix. When we left Bojack in October of 2019, we were left with the episode “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” where, just as it appears Bojack is beginning to reconnect with loved ones and potentially turn his life around, we see an episode featuring none of the five main characters- as we see the ripple effect Bojack’s actions have had on everyone around him, ending with his half-sister, Hollyhock, discovering Bojack’s near-encounter with Penny and Charlotte back in New Mexico, as well as reporters nearing the verge of the truth about Sarah Lynn’s death (as well as Bojack’s involvement).
And we were left with THAT cliffhanger for almost four months.
Part 2 sees Bojack begin a professorship at Wesleyan, where, although he tries his best, ends up watching his relationship with Hollyhock dissipate. This is in no small part to the issues we were reminded of in “A Quick One, While He’s Away,” closing in around him. As his past catches up to him, we see him making an attempt at reconciliation with his actions, but, in true Bojack form, sometimes you can’t get out of your own way enough. After a softball interview about the instance in New Mexico and his involvement in Sarah Lynn’s death, Bojack gives into his own hubris for a second interview, and botches it, becoming the most reviled celebrity in all of Hollywoo. One thing leads to another, and without his support system (we’ll get to why that might not be the worst thing), we (nearly) see Bojack tumbling down a hole we can’t follow him into.
As such, the penultimate episode, “The View from Halfway Down” might be one of the best episodes of television from this year. I can’t even bring myself to describe that acid trip of an episode, but it packs quite possibly the largest emotional punch of the entire series.
And, there’s the finale, “Fun While It Lasted.” Even though it was the “ending” that Netflix wanted for the series, is poignant and stripped down, with only the five main characters speaking during the episode. Pair it with the former episode, and we get not one, but TWO endings fitting of this roller-coaster of a series.
Just like the previous five and a half seasons, the character development remains stellar. We see those close to Bojack realize that maybe it’s high time they stopped putting their lives on hold for him. We see this particularly in Diane- who fittingly ends the series in a scene with Bojack- as she finally breaks through on writing her novel, though it’s nowhere near the topic she thought it would be - “Good Damage” is an excellent and accurate depiction of the writing process, by the way. We feel so happy for her that her writer’s block has ended, but also that she’s found the right guy (jokes) for her, who is a new, more positive support system. She makes peace with the fact that our damage doesn’t make us special- sometimes it just is something that exists, and that no good will come of it, and that’s okay.
Moving onto Princess Carolyn, Todd and Mr. Peanut Butter: all three find their own way even without Bojack in their lives. Despite breakups, miscarriages and bankruptcies, Princess Carolyn always lands on her feet. And we see her finally get everything she deserves- a baby (her adorable adopted hedgehog, Ruthie), a revival of her flailing career, and her dream wedding to Judah, the perfect partner in terms of both personal and professional life. We see Todd struggle with his relationship with with estranged mother, and we learn that what Todd lacks in IQ, he makes up for in EQ, or Emotional Quotient. His point about “turning yourself around” being really what the Hokey Pokey is all about is both dumb and incredibly poignant at the same time. And finally, there’s Mr. Peanut Butter, who finally realizes that being on your own isn’t the worst thing in the world. He embraces this change with the same optimism he’s known for. Also, he’s responsible for turning Hollywoo into Hollywoob. So there’s that.
You want to talk about criminally underrated shows? Look no further than Bojack Horseman. And I’m not even horsing around here (more bad jokes). Those rough first six episodes were worth something. Creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg doesn’t get enough credit for how carefully crafted this show is, with each moment perfectly encapsulating the feelings we feel every day, and perfectly illustrating the human experience. Thank you for six wonderful seasons, Bojack.
2. The Queen's Gambit
I love Anya Taylor-Joy so goddamn much.
I also love chess now?
This brilliant adaptation of Walter Tevis’s 1983 novel of the same name features Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, a chess prodigy who rises to the top of the chess world while dealing with emotional problems and substance abuse.
The series title definitely sounds British. Try it with your best English accent. The Queen’s Gambit. It does, right?
It’s not, the show takes place mainly in Kentucky. But, just about everyone in it is British, which is hilarious to me. Look! There’s Dudley from Harry Potter! And look over there! It’s the little boy from Love Actually dressed up as Indiana Jones playing chess!
For real though, this show is a masterwork of storytelling. We’re introduced to Beth Harmon waking up hungover and late for a match with Vasily Borgov in Paris. The rest of the story is entirely in flashback (and eventually catches up to the present). We find, in the early episodes, a newly orphaned Beth arrives at Methuen Home, meets Mr. Shaibel, learns how to play chess, and is introduced to tranquilizing pills. As the series progresses, we learn just how hungry Beth is to win at chess, and is clearly striving to be the best chess player in the world.
One of the best things about the series is the turnabout each character makes from foe to ally in Beth’s life. The first example of this is Alma Wheatley (Marielle Heller), who, despite having a rocky relationship with her husband- and seems into Beth’s chess success only for the financial benefits- ends up being a strong maternal figure for her, even if she essentially passed on her alcohol addition in the process. It also comes in the form of Beth’s various opponents, including Harry Beltik (Harry Melling), Townes (Jacob Fortune-Lloyd), and Benny Watts (Thomas Brodie-Sangster), as each one teaches her the finer points of the game, and how sometimes it takes a team to win a single player game. They recognize that Beth will hang herself out to dry if she tries to go at this game (not even chess, but life) alone. A moment toward the end of the series where Beth, Harry, and Benny are working through a chess problem together is truly heartwarming.
The other best thing about the series is the clarity of it. Chess is a complicated game at the outset. And once you understand how all the pieces work and how they move around, there are different strategies and angles to look at the game through. There are seemingly endless possibilities and routes to success in this game. The Queen’s Gambit makes chess accessible to people who don’t know much about it. This is evident in the resurgence of public interest in the game, with chess sets at an all-time high in the wake of the series premiere. Because the show makes you understand what’s happening on a fundamental and technical standpoint, it allows the drama to establish itself within the game. You feel the weight of each decision to move each particular piece- for me, it was the little nugget early on in the series where Beth learns that if you touch a piece, you have to move it- and how each move could potentially be life or death.
From the opening moves, to the mid-game, all the way to the end game, The Queen’s Gambit is riveting. Ride the wave while you can and immerse yourself in that world, and fast.
1. The Last Dance
Early on, the pandemic took away my sports.
And I took that personally.
And then, The Last Dance came to save us all. ESPN and Netflix’s joint venture to tell the story of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls teams of the 1990s was downright epic, both in scope and in storytelling.
The backstory here is that the Bulls hired a camera crew to document their 1997-98 season, which would eventually lead to the team’s sixth NBA championship in eight years. All the while, the footage from the season is intercut with the backstories of what is a who’s who of names and faces from that era of the franchise. Phil Jackson, Jerry Krause, Dennis Rodman, Scottie Pippin, Steve Kerr- the list goes on. But everyone knows from the outset that the story is really about Michael Jordan, his history and his legacy- from his days at North Carolina, to the early years of carrying the Bulls through the playoffs of the late 80s and early 90s, to cementing his status as a cultural icon, to the death of his father and his subsequent first retirement- The Last Dance manages to capture so much history in just 10 episodes.
Still, The Last Dance gives the spotlight to each member of the organization and lends their story as parts to an overall whole. From the early days of the Jordan-Pippen dominance, and how an injury to Michael led the Bulls to hire Phil Jackson, who has his own unique philosophy about the game of basketball; which in turn lends itself to letting Dennis Rodman go out and miss four days of practices to hang out in Vegas, all while GM Jerry Krause continues to drive wedges between them all- for what seems like no apparent reason- it is a brilliant setup.
And on an even more fundamental level than that, it’s about a basketball team overcoming obstacles on the court. Jordan’s battles with Larry Bird and the Celtics, to some brutal fights with the “Bad Boys” Detroit Pistons, which leads into the selection of the dream team and the snubbing of Pistons point guard Isiah Thomas- for reasons Thomas still disputes to this day- and then the ultimate goal of winning as many championships as possible; The Last Dance connects the personal stories happening off the court to the story the people are more familiar with on the court. The whole time, no matter what, you’re left with the feeling that you know what happens in the end, but you’re still looking forward to what comes next; holding your breath in suspense at the game presented to you, or being left in awe of the athletic magic you just witnessed from a particular highlight of Jordan’s illustrious career.
It’s hard for me to critique a documentary series, at least from a filmmaking standpoint, outside of, maybe, editing. How do I argue with what actually happened in history? In the case of a sports documentary- sports being a subject I am fairly well-versed in- you simply can look at the bigger picture and ask yourself, why? Why did this team simply stop existing after this series ends? And will we ever see anything like it ever again?
In regards to the series, I doubt we’ll see anything quite like this again (sorry, Tom Brady- I’m not sure how your upcoming series will compare). The fact that the footage shot by the camera crew was kept unseen for over 20 years, especially when we sports fans clamor for any and every piece of media we can get, is astounding. The scope of it all is magnificent, and it culminates with this celebration of joy and greatness. This was the television we needed for this pandemic. A sports soap opera the likes of which we may never have the pleasure of seeing again.
What TV did you enjoy this year? What were you bingeing? Leave a comment down below.
And don't forget to check out the rest of my "Best of 2020" spread by clicking HERE.