The Best Television of 2020: Binge-Watching Our Way Through Quarantine
Shut in at home, many of us had more time then ever to watch great TV - and there was more than enough of it, from 'May Destroy you' to 'The Queens Gambit.'
By John Anderson
Dec. 12, 2020 12:00 PM
The first show I reviewed in 2020 was the Netflix miniseries “Dracula,” which now seems like a foreshadowing too obvious even for a 19th-century potboiler. As in any adaptation of the 1897 Bram Stoker novel, vampirism was a kind of contagion; intimacy could be lethal; evil was poised to go viral; death lay in the story’s DNA. It’s probably fortunate, for both the series and the critic, that this “Dracula” preceded the explosions of the pandemic, because Covid-19 would have been perceived as lurking around every Transylvanian corner.
Almost everything on the small screen this year was made well before the disease was public and raging, and yet coronavirus intruded on the consciousness nonetheless. How could it not? One of the best shows of the year, the eight-part documentary epic “Lenox Hill,” portrayed the medical maelstrom inside the New York hospital of the title—before the virus hit. All one could think was “What kind of hell is it now?” (Wisely, a ninth episode, called “Pandemic,” was added by Netflix a little later.)
“Transplant,” the NBC series imported from Canada, was also hospital-themed and inadvertently raised all kinds of issues in the mind of the viewer—among them, “Where’s your mask?” But even during the buoyant comedy series “Never Have I Ever,” I was thinking: Oh yeah, remember when teenagers crowded into high-school corridors and worried about crushes, first kisses, what clothes they wore and who was cool? And, BTW, when they actually went to school?
Divorcing oneself from current events wasn’t really possible. There just seemed to be more current events this year. And more television. Lots more. Even with a lockdown to help you out, there was no way to watch it all, or even to get one’s head around what was happening here and there among the multifarious platforms and services, from video-on-demand to the oh-so-quaint world of network television. Or with an outfit like Netflix, just for instance, delivering half-a-dozen new shows a week.
Presumably—and it seems a safe presumption—people were watching more television: Self-preservation required more time at home, and there often wasn’t much of an entertainment choice, given that museums, concert halls, movie theaters and clubs were shuttered. The critic’s curatorial responsibility, in turn, seemed to grow, and grow a bit confusing: If readers were watching more, what were they watching more of? And why? Was it purely to escape? Were they catching up on series they’d missed? Were they just happy to binge their way through a health-crisis tunnel with no discernible light at the end?
In the limited number of social situations I found myself in this year, talk invariably gravitated to television, and not just because I monopolized the conversation. People were enthusiastic about things they’d been able to discover, or rediscover, during their time at home. Knowing this, my critical calculation was to try to steer readers in the direction of shows that they’d be kicking themselves later for having missed the first time around. Shows like “The Queen’s Gambit,” which is my personal favorite drama of the year, or other first-rate fictional series that made their debuts throughout 2020—“I May Destroy You,” “The Great,” “I Know This Much Is True,” “Normal People” and the gripping “Baghdad Central.” One of the upsides of our time is that most everything can be viewed at one’s leisure, through an array of providers.
The downside is those multiple platforms, which cost multiple dollars. How many TV services can a viewer afford? This year saw the accelerated promotion or launch of CBS All Access, NBC’s Peacock, HBO Max, AMC+ and Disney+, which offered the year’s pre-eminent TV “event,” this summer’s airing of “Hamilton.” (That the shorts platform Quibi never penetrated my critical consciousness may help explain why it went belly up after six months.) More than one reader has queried whether, in effect, one’s cable bill should be the equal of one’s cost of food and shelter. It’s a legitimate complaint and one I’ve tried to address, in a roundabout way: If I had to make a choice between two shows to review, I gravitated toward PBS, because more people have access to it. (There have been several good mystery series on public television this year, some terrific nature programs like “The Age of Nature,” and the classical-music series “Now Hear This” is a gift.) Likewise, I’ve tried to show some love to other networks’ programming, but it’s tougher, because there’s often so little to say about it. When content is intentionally formulaic, criticism seems a waste of time.
It strikes me as significant that among the network shows I did review this year, several seem to have been programmed out of necessity. The aforementioned “Transplant,” for instance. Or “Notre-Dame: Our Lady of Paris,” a French documentary about the catastrophic 2019 cathedral fire, a show dubbed into English and shown during prime time on ABC. One doesn’t want to discourage this kind of programming, but the motivation seemed less about enlightenment than desperation. And with television production curtailed by Covid-19 and likely to be further constrained this winter, the impact on television content has only just begun. This year, there was enough of a backlog to maintain a steady stream of fresh programs and a captive audience to exploit. What a prolonged winter lockdown portends is anyone’s guess. A hint is how much imported content has been making its way onto, again, Netflix, which has offered a relative wealth of Bollywood and German programs (because they have large Indian and German market shares) but which this year also offered African and Asian series to an extent previously unseen, among them “Blood & Water” and “Queen Sono.” The attempts to use the pandemic, or address it directly, have been mixed. I certainly liked the Jamie Oliver show “Keep Cooking and Carry On,” which was inspired by Covid-19 and instructed people at home how to do more with less (especially useful when shops were short on certain ingredients). Elsewhere, shows that tried to use the lockdown as a conceit—“Coastal Elites,” for instance, which was a series of character sketches delivered directly into the camera, and “Connecting…,” which was about friends staying friends through their computers—produced mixed emotions: Did I want to watch a show that reminded me of my daily routine? No. Like anyone else, I wanted more than a busman’s holiday when I turned on my TV.