A mix of prestige and pleasure helped us weather 2020
| Special to The Detroit News
The best TV shows of 2020 may not have been the best TV shows to watch in 2020.
In fact this awful year invited all sorts of questions about the function of entertainment, the definition of television (streaming? Broadcast? Cable? Movies? Big screen? Phone? Computer?) and — as we all became Zoom stars — the future of the medium itself.
Change has been afoot for some time, but as a result of COVID the melding of TV and movies seems to have been accelerated. Is this a good thing? Who knows?
Mix these in with more dire questions about political division, mass misinformation efforts and a pandemic that’s killed hundreds of thousands of people and you’ve got one messy, ugly year.
So perhaps existential, dark dramas with flawed heroes and grim resolutions weren’t quite as needed. They still surely held value, but the worth of feel-good comfort TV shows becomes a bit more apparent in a chaotic, desperate world.
Thus a list of the year’s best TV shows should mix prestige with simple pleasure. To put it another way, many of us would have been up a creek without “Schitt’s Creek.”
“I May Destroy You” (HBO) — This series, which follows a Black woman in London’s response to being raped, would likely be atop this list in any year. Yes, it’s dark, but it’s also a funny, incisive, challenging and self-critical look at modern life. Writer-director-star Michaela Coel is a firestorm of talent.
“The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix) — Scott Frank somehow made chess exciting and erotic while avoiding all sorts of potentially dark turns, focusing on the utterly unique Anya Taylor-Joy as prodigy Beth Harmon and Marielle Heller as her boozy delight of a mother, and landing on the up note we all needed.
“Schitt’s Creek” (Netflix) — Always teetering on the right side of amateurish, this comedy from Eugene and Dan Levy about a once-rich family forced to live in a run-down small town motel was the mental vaccine a lot of people needed early on. All four leads — the Levys, Annie Murphy and the transcendent Catherine O’Hara — earned Emmys.
“The Boys” (Amazon) — This dark “superheroes are actually evil” series was painfully spot-on in its second season, contending with a rise of fascism, the manipulation of the masses and grim corporate deceptions. Its ugly world — superpowers aside — seemed all too relevant to the current American experience.
“I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (HBO) — Liz Garbus’s six-episode adaptation of the late Michell McNamara’s true crime story of the hunt for the Golden State Killer is as much about McNamara’s obsession as the killer’s, an impressive expansion of the book and a bright light in a year of shoddy documentary series.
“The Great” (Hulu) — This wonderfully kooky, uh, reinterpretation of the story of Russia’s Catherine the Great saw star Elle Fanning mature into an “I can do anything” actor. With Nicholas Hoult as her wonderfully empty-headed king. Huzzah!
“The Plot Against America” (HBO) — This adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel about a fictional America that turned toward fascism in the 1930s, seen through the lens of a Jewish family, was too close for comfort but still excellent. A great cast with Zoe Kazan standing out.
“The Crown” (Netflix) —The questionable value of royal traditions collided with the modern world as this always-solid series took on the tragedy of Charles and Diana. Apparently fairy tales don’t always come true, in case we needed reminding.
“What We Do in the Shadows” (FX) — Three pretentious and generally clueless vampires live on Staten Island. Hijinks ensue. This year hijinks had high value.
“Wheel of Fortune” (Syndicated) — Or that British baking show. Or “Jeopardy.” Or something about troublesome cats on Animal Planet. Chances are a lot of folks had a favorite mind-calming TV favorite this year. In prior years it’s been too easy to condescend to such fare. As 2020 ends, let us sing their praises for helping us tune out the noise.
Tom Long is a longtime contributor to The Detroit News.