The Best TV Shows of 2020, From 'The Queen's Gambit' to 'Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist'
By Philiana Ng, Stacy Lambe, Meredith B. Kile and Jennifer Drysdale
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From left: Netflix/Netflix/HBO
If 2020 taught us anything, it's that even in a year where it seemed like everything that could go wrong did, there was one bright spot in the form of top-notch TV that served as a salve, however temporary or brief, that kept audiences at home entertained and captivated amid the pandemic.
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Tiger King, Schitt’s Creek, Hamilton: Top TV Moments of 2020
While movie studios shuttered, delayed release dates for its tentpoles (with some even going straight to streaming), networks and streaming services picked up the slack for the majority of the year, providing a wealth of programs for us to obsess over. Of course, there was the headline-grabbing Tiger Kingand, with the benefit of hindsight, the now prescient tech-based, isolation-heavy dating series, The Circle. There was also the stellar Michael Jordan docuseries, The Last Dance, and the tear-filled final season of Schitt's Creek.
As we all say sayonara to the year that was and look ahead to 2021, we've rounded up the 14 best scripted TV shows (and one honorable mention!) we think are the cream of the crop and the standout episode that put them above the rest. From network favorites (Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist) to streaming standouts (The Queen's Gambit, Ted Lasso), here are ET's picks for TV's best of 2020, listed in alphabetical order.
CBS' courtroom drama doesn't reinvent the wheel with its cases of the week or its verbose legal banter. Where it shines is the airspace it gives its passionate, fearless, inherently hopeful justice seekers to stumble in their personal lives, make mistakes and stand for what they believe in. Led by Simone Missick's morally incorruptible Judge Lola Carmichael and Wilson Bethel's ambitious D.A. Mark Callan, the perfectly cast ensemble adds life and complex layers to what otherwise would be another standard legal procedural. (Plus, it doesn't fall into the trap of having Lola and Mark cross that friend line. Thank goodness.) It was also one of the first scripted series to roll out a virtual episode during the early months of the pandemic for its makeshift freshman finale. And somehow, All Rise made it feel like we weren't missing a beat. - Philiana Ng
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While the first three seasons of Peter Morgan’s historical drama have captivated audiences with its depiction of Queen Elizabeth II (currently portrayed by Elizabeth Colman) and life inside the royal family, it’s the latest season that really has everyone talking. Thanks to the introduction of two characters, Lady Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), audiences see how the monarchy’s traditions are completely upended by outsiders. While they both end up getting the cold shoulder of the Queen, “The Balmoral Test” shows how first impressions determine everything. It’s also the only time both women are put through the same experiences as they each visit the Scotland estate where the Queen takes her holiday. Although the episode doesn’t feature each character’s best scenes, it captures exactly what the entire season is about: Diana and Margaret versus the Queen. - Stacy Lambe
Adapted from the 1995 Nick Hornby novel, the new take on High Fidelity showcased just why Zoe Kravitz is a bona fide star. As Rob, a music-obsessed record store owner who's all about top 5 lists, Kravitz adds soul, heartbreak and depth to a character who's deeply flawed and revisiting past relationships and hookups as she tries to get over her ex, Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir). While there are many standout performances from the short-lived series to call out, from Cherise's (Da'Vine Joy Randolph) spotlight to Rob's trip to the Upper West Side seeking an expansive record collection, the final episode offers hope that Rob is turning a new leaf after unexpectedly finding the love she's been looking for -- in the buttoned-up, nice guy Clyde (Jake Lacy). Though the question of whether Rob and Clyde end up together will remain unanswered -- as Rob says, a nine percent chance of happiness is better than nothing -- there will forever be 10 perfectly glorious episodes to watch over and over again. - P.N.
Michaela Coel's semi-autobiographical series has made it onto many "Best Of" lists this year, and rightly so. The multi-talented writer-director drew on her own experience with viral fame and sexual assault to script the inciting incidents of I May Destroy You, and it's her gift with words, authentic world-building and infinitely expressive face that shepherd the series through chaos to a satisfying conclusion. Watching Arabella ping-pong from grief to cruelty, from flighty to fragile, from devastated to determined is a thrill in itself. Coel plays her protagonist as a fully-realized human being, far from just a victim to one lost night. The finale returns to the scene of the crime, and then again, and then again, as Arabella and her loyal friends (standouts Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu) pick up the remaining pieces of the trauma they've known and only just discovered, and move forward toward happiness and success. - Meredith B. Kile
In its fourth season, Insecure focused on the demise of its most important love story -- the platonic one between Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) -- but fans didn't know how bad it really was until "Lowkey Movin' On." After two seasons of talking about it, Issa finally organized the Block Party she had always dreamed of, but it turned into the setting for her and Molly's blowout fight. Amid a season that also saw major romantic developments for the characters (we're still thinking about that Lawrence bombshell from the finale), plus explorations of topics like racism, mental health and postpartum depression within the Black community, this episode stood out. It exposed the truth of a failing relationship and set the stage for the rest of the season. Though written and filmed before the pandemic and racial reckoning across the globe, Insecure always seems to meet the moment, providing both much-needed escape and support for the Black community. In a crowded TV landscape, Insecure remains one to watch. - Jennifer Drysdale
Lovecraft Country, HBO’s ambitious horror series confronting institutionalized racism in America created by Misha Green, had the rare experience where each new episode of season 1 topped the last. But for me, the most stunning and provocative hour yet came halfway through its run, when the H.P. Lovecraft-inspired series evokes author Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic horror creation, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, as several key characters explored dual identities while the episode also tackled issues of misogyny and homophobia. “I think this episode is about internal demons that we harbor,” director Cheryl Dunye told ET about the way it played on all the nuances of “what's in our mind, what's in our skin and what’s in our hearts.” - S.L.
After a standout first season, which broke the internet with the introduction of the Child, aka Baby Yoda, the Disney+ series returned with even more mind-boggling, captivating episodes that further expanded what audiences know and love about the Star Warsuniverse. Picking up shortly after the events of season 1, the titular bounty hunter (Pedro Pascal) and his newfound companion continued their journey through an ever-dangerous galaxy as they faced enemies and tried to rally allies. Among the new faces were crossovers from the animated series, Bo-Katan Kryze (Katee Sackhoff) and Ahsoka Tano (Rosario Dawson), who both delivered much more than fan service cameos. The latter was introduced in episode 5 -- easily one of the best written and directed of the series so far -- before it was announced that she was getting a live-action spinoff of her own. What remains to be seen of the former Jedi warrior is a mystery, but Ahsoka left audiences with a lasting impression and a new name for Baby Yoda, Grogu. - S.L.
Leading lady Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was discovered by Mindy Kaling from an international casting call and Never Have I Ever, one of the funniest and most illuminating teen comedies of the year, benefited in spades. Now 18 years old, the Canadian newcomer captured the world's attention as Devi Vishwakumar, an Indian American high schooler from suburban Los Angeles who -- following the sudden death of her father, Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) -- attempts to deal with her grief in unhealthy ways and by zeroing in on her crush, Paxton Hall-Yoshida (Darren Barnet). Devi's complicated relationship with her mother, Dr. Nalini Vishwakumar (Poorna Jagannathan), comes to a head at the end of the first season, and it's the emotional final episode where Devi finally lets go of her dad -- just a little, because you can never fully forget -- by scattering his ashes into the ocean, a literal and metaphorical release of her unimaginable grief. "It's a real part of growing up. If you're unlucky enough to be young and have a real tragedy like that happened to you, it's important to face it," co-creator Lang Fisher said. And who knew former tennis pro John McEnroe would be the perfect manifestation of a teenage girl's innermost thoughts? - P.N.
If there were two actors who made the most out of a surreal 2020, it's easily Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. The rising stars shot off like a rocket after transforming best-selling author Sally Rooney's beloved literary characters, Marianne and Connell, into living beings in search of love -- and all the internal, external obstacles that come with it. The Hulu series is as perfect as TV gets, thanks to the sizzling chemistry between Edgar-Jones and Mescal, the latter rewarded with his first Emmy nomination for his raw performance. But episodes 9 and 10 are the bellwether by which future character studies may be compared to. A two-part of sorts, each episode focuses on Marianne and Connell's inner turmoil; an abusive relationship for her, a depressive spiral after a friend's suicide for him. Though their romance is briefly rekindled afterward, their eventual breakup in the finale is an even tougher pill to swallow. - P.N.
Rarely are pilots the best episode to judge any series on, but P-Valley launches with such a distinct style and point of view, it’s hard not to find yourself sucked in. Set in the Mississippi Delta, the series created by Katori Hall follows a kaleidoscope of lives inside and out of a struggling local strip club -- Mercedes (Brandee Evans), Uncle Clifford (Nicco Annan), Miss Mississippi (Shannon Thornton), Autumn Night (Elarica Johnson) and Andre (Parker Sawyers) -- where beauty meets broken dreams and trap music reigns supreme. The show is like no other, which is probably why the audience grew massively from week to week, found fans in the likes of Cardi B and was quickly renewed for a season 2. - S.L.
The Netflix standout that had everyone ordering chess sets on Amazon, The Queen's Gambit is a brilliant bit of drama, both as a character study -- utilizing the dynamically expressive face of star Anya Taylor-Joy to showcase each of Beth Harmon's moods and moves -- and as a sports epic. The series follows a familiar format: our protagonist first fails to defeat her opponent, in this case the Russian grandmaster Vasily Borgov (Marcin Dorociński), and must return to training with her charismatic mentor (Thomas Brodie-Sangster, whose Benny Watts expertly tiptoes up to the line of caricature without stepping over). In the finale, the anticipated rematch between Beth and Borgov is both a thrilling conclusion of their epic rivalry and a deeply satisfying denouement, bringing back many of the series' best supporting players for a joyful encore and leaving Beth on a hopeful note for the future. - M.K.
Truly the feel-good new show of the year, Ted Lasso is so much more than the sum of its parts. A fish-out-of-water soccer comedy with a good ol' boy head coach pulled from a series of Premier League promos Jason Sudeikis did for NBC back in his Saturday Night Live days, the show -- like Parks and Recreation before it -- found its stride not by leaning on its ample comedic setups, but by showcasing its heart. The season's seventh episode finds Ted and the team traveling to Liverpool, where they're faced with a 60-year dry spell and personal tipping points for what are by now some of your favorite characters. Ultimately, the match itself turns out to be little more than an afterthought, and you barely miss it in the rush of the unexpected psych-up speech from kit man Nate the Great (Nick Mohammed) and the team's joyful post-game revelry. (Bonus: This is also the episode where West End legend Hannah Waddingham gets to flex her musical chops, as her ice queen character fittingly belts "Let It Go" in a karaoke bar.) - M.K.
Unless you've read the novel The Undoing is based on (You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz), your theory of who killed Elena Alves probably changed week to week -- and it was thrilling. New twists were constantly introduced in this six-episode mystery miniseries by David E. Kelley, which uproots the marriage of successful therapist Grace Faser (Nicole Kidman) and oncologist Jonathan Fraser (Hugh Grant) after he becomes the No. 1 suspect in a murder. Kidman and Grant give compelling performances throughout the series (turns out Grant is the perfect shade of charming to play a probable sociopath), as does the supporting cast made up of Édgar Ramírez, Lily Rabe, Donald Sutherland and more. The stakes are raised when The Undoing's second-to-last episode, "Trial by Fury," takes things to the courtroom. There, Jonathan's high-powered attorney's (Noma Dumezweni) ruthless-but-elegant presentation of reasonable doubt cracks the story open in new ways. The fact that even the finale introduces new developments is reason enough to watch. That, plus Kidman's fabulous coats. - J.D.
Jane Levy is a ray of sunshine in NBC's delightfully endearing musical dramedy, where she plays the eponymous heroine who is able to hear people's truest thoughts through song. Inspired by creator Austin Winsberg's real-life experiences and an ode to his late father, the series became an unexpected vessel for catharsis amid the pandemic. As Zoey grappled with the different stages of grief as her dad, Mitch's (brilliantly played by Peter Gallagher), final days neared, so did the audience. Unique in concept and ambitious in its execution, Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist offered so many unforgettable moments in its strong rookie season, from the seven-minute closing number of "American Pie" to Joan (Lauren Graham) and Ava's (Hamilton's Renee Elise Goldsberry) epic "The Boy Is Mine" dance-off. If there was one that stands out from the rest, it's Zoey and Mitch's final father-daughter dance to Cyndi Lauper's "True Colors" right before he dies, a scene Levy still gets choked up over. “Instead of watching her father take his final breath, she gets to dance with him one last time and have him hold her and tell her she’s going to be OK. It was very, very emotional but I’m very proud of it.” - P.N.
On paper,Julie and the Phantoms is a family-friendly, feel-good paranormal musical series about finding your voice and learning how -- to quote one of its stellar songs -- to "stand tall," with the help of some cute ghosts of course. But by the time the penultimate episode rolls around, there's a surprising amount of substance behind the catchy original tunes and ghostly shenanigans. Driven by Luke's guilt over how things ended with his parents prior to his death by shady street dogs, the episode captures the universal feeling of loss, grief and regret we've all experienced at one point or another. Beautiful, gut-wrenching performances by breakout stars Charlie Gillespie (Luke) and Madison Reyes (Julie) make the reveal of Luke's simple ballad, the weepy "Unsaid Emily" (a song strong enough to live on its own), an emotional catharsis for the characters and the audience that would make even the iciest of hearts melt. - P.N.
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