Matt Roush’s Top 10 TV Shows of 2020

Upload Robbie Amell Crown Emma Corrin Mrs America Cate Blanchett
Katie Yu/Amazon Studios; Des Willie/Netflix; Sabrina Lantos/FX

In a year when TV may never have been so important a lifeline, as a portal of information or an avenue of escape during months of sheltering in place to survive a pandemic, narrowing the field to a critic’s “Top 10” — it’s a yearly tradition, what can I say — was especially difficult.

These are the shows that most surprised and/or satisfied me during the challenging months of 2020. Any regrets? (Leaving out Apple’s adorable Ted Lasso is probably my biggest.) There’s always next year.

Mrs America Uzo Aduba Margo Martindale Rose Byrne Cate Blanchett
Sabrina Lantos/FX; Pari Dukovic/FX (2); Sabrina Lantos/FX

1. Mrs. America

The fight for equality has never been easy — or more fun to watch. In a year marking the centennial of women earning the right to vote, FX on Hulu assembled a look-who’s-playing-who dream team of top-shelf actresses for Dahvi Waller’s terrific limited-series docudrama depicting the cultural and political wars in the 1970s over ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment. Pitch-perfect performances included Rose Byrne as feminist icon Gloria Steinem, Emmy winner Uzo Aduba as pioneering presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm, a revelatory Cate Blanchett as well-connected conservative adversary Phyllis Schlafly and Margo Martindale as outspoken New York firebrand Bella Abzug. They helped make Mrs. America the most entertaining and relevant history lesson in ages. (Footnote: The final chapter has yet to be written, as the battle continues today.)


2.Schitt's Creek

They came away smelling like Roses. In one of the most satisfying underdog stories ever, Pop TV’s silly and transcendently sweet cult comedy from Canada made Emmy history in its final season by sweeping all the top awards, including for all four gifted actors playing the once-disgraced Rose family: Daniel Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Annie Murphy, and Eugene Levy. A happier ending is hard to imagine.

Diana The Crown Season 4 Dress Emma Corrin
Des Willie/Netflix

3. The Crown

In the fourth season of Netflix’s riveting royal drama, Olivia Colman’s nuanced take on the emotionally repressed Queen Elizabeth II was upstaged by the arrival of two 1980s dynamos: Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (played to a starchy T by Gillian Anderson), whose draconian methods didn’t set well with Her Majesty, and a tragic Princess Diana (Emma Corrin), whose popularity peeved the royals even as her isolation within the palace led to psychological trauma.

West Wing Special Trial of the Chicago 7
HBO Max / Eddy Chen; Niko Tavernise/Netflix

4. The West Wing/The Trial of the Chicago 7

On two consecutive October days, that nimble wordsmith Aaron Sorkin dazzled lucky streaming audiences: first in the HBO Max reunion of his West Wing cast for a deeply nostalgic staged reading of a classic episode, which by coincidence premiered just as the real-life presidential rivals held competing town halls in place of a standard debate. (The comparison with the idealized Bartlet administration couldn’t have more pronounced.) Then on Netflix, Sorkin wrote and directed a thrilling all-star drama of the infamous 1969 trial that put the counterculture — represented by Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne as Tom Hayden, and Succession‘s Jeremy Strong as Jerry Rubin! — in the cultural cross-hairs.


5. Perry Mason

As someone who still indulges in the occasional soothing late-night rerun of the original Raymond Burr series, I understand why some objected to HBO’s gritty revisionist origin story of Erle Stanley Gardner’s fabled fictional lawyer. Far from the crisply infallible legal eagle of yore, this Perry is a disheveled and boozy mess, imbued with a pugnacious film-noir fatalism by The Americans Matthew Rhys in a star turn more evocative of Humphrey Bogart. Though set in the 1930s, the new and more graphic Perry Mason has decidedly modern attitudes toward women — Della Street (Juliet Rylance) is a street-smart lesbian who’s nobody’s girl Friday — and race: Investigator Paul Drake (Chris Chalk) is a Black LAPD cop fed up with departmental prejudice. As Perry evolves into a green but impassioned advocate for justice, I can’t wait to witness his next case.

Robbie Amell Upload Kristen Bell Good Place
Katie Yu/Amazon Studios; Colleen Hayes/NBC

6. Upload/The Good Place

Heavenly entertainment abounded in two clever comedies set in the afterlife: Prime Video’s Upload, starring a charming Robbie Amell, brought fantastical whimsy to its depiction of a pay-as-you-go digital limbo, couched in a possible murder mystery and a love story bridging dimensions; while earlier in the year, NBC’s The Good Place ended its stellar four-season run with a soul-enriching glimmer of eternal mystery.

Fargo Season 4 Kelsey Asbille Chris Rock Karen Aldridge
Elizabeth Morris/FX

7. Fargo

TV’s most original crime anthology triumphed again in a wildly unpredictable fourth season that set two Kansas City dynasties — one Black (led by coolly ambitious Chris Rock), one Italian (ruled by a hapless Jason Schwartzman) — on a collision course in 1950. As always, FX’s Fargo infused its intrigue with dark humor, quirky characters (Jessie Buckley as an angel-of-death nurse) and bizarre detours: A black-and-white episode was equal parts The Wizard of Oz and David Lynch. There’s no show, or state of mind, quite like Fargo.

Jane Levy Peter Gallagher Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist Mitch Goodbye
James Dittiger/NBC

8. Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist

Nothing ordinary about NBC’s euphoric, and often moving, musical dramedy about an insecure young woman (the endearingly frazzled Jane Levy) whose brain becomes a Pandora’s jukebox of familiar pop tunes that expose the innermost feelings of her nearest and dearest. Gimmicky? Sure, but often affecting, especially when it helped her connect to her father (Peter Gallagher), trapped inside a failing body — except during heartbreaking fantasy numbers.

Lin-Manuel Miranda Leslie Odom Jr Hamilton Alexander Aaron Burr
Courtesy of Disney+

9. Hamilton

Broadway went dark in this year of the pandemic — which made the decision even more meaningful to bypass movie theaters and stream on Disney+ the electrifying film version of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster historical musical with the original cast captured live onstage. From the best seat in the house, we reveled in the stimulating words, music and movement. Bravo!

Michael Jordan of the Chicago Bulls
EFF HAYNES/AFP via Getty Images

10. The Last Dance

Similarly, during a dreary spring when most sports went into hibernation, ESPN had an ace up its sleeve: Michael Jordan, the candid centerpiece of an enthralling 10-part documentary series that aired when we needed it most. (It’s now streaming on Netflix.) Director Jason Hehir’s account of Jordan’s legendary dominance with the Chicago Bulls, and his final championship season in 1997–98, is sports history at its most dynamic, with rivalries, egos and big business making for a slam-dunk hit.