In a year when everything changed, TV was one relative constant—and it delivered some brilliant episodes, from ‘Dave’ to ‘The Crown’ to ‘Better Call Saul’
Dec 14, 2020, 6:15am EST
In a year that’s changed everything, TV has been one relative constant. And as the expansion of streaming solidifies—though, RIP Quibi—there’s been more good TV, and more places to watch it, than ever. From the peerless drama of HBO and Hulu to the shockingly profound comedy of FX, these are the best episodes of 2020.
10. “Hypospadias,” Dave
“I have a fucked-up dick,” Dave Burd’s character says in “Hypospadias,” the third episode of Dave. The episode title refers to one of Burd’s (many) birth defects on his penis. Not only is it scarred, but it has a second hole. When he pees, his urine comes out “like a Super Soaker.”
This is not fiction. It’s based on Burd’s real penis. Burd built this episode—and the entire first season—around his real insecurities about his real dick. But “Hypospadias” is Burd at his most vulnerable point. He raps about “eating ass” during a studio session, but can’t talk dirty to his girlfriend during sex. He prefers the solitude of masturbation more than the vulnerability of making love. His girlfriend even realizes that Dave watches milking porn (look it up at your own peril) because he is so self-conscious of how his penis looks. The magic of “Hypospadias” is the way it interjects a story of wounded masculinity into all of this madness; milking porn suddenly, somehow, seems heartwarming.
Dave claims to be about Burd becoming a rapper, but it’s really about why a rapper would ever be insecure enough to call himself Lil Dicky. “Hypospadias” milks (I’m sorry) that story for all it’s worth. —Danny Heifetz
9. “Episode 10,” Normal People
Normal People is one of the year’s most acute, empathetic examinations of youth, love, masculinity, and mental health. It doesn’t truly become that until its 10th chapter.
For nine hours, the show follows the ups and downs, the ons and offs of Marianne and Connell’s relationship—from the quiet vastness of Sligo to the crowded sophistication of Dublin and warm escape of Tuscany—and for nine hours, it plays like a rather straightforward romance between a troubled, misunderstood girl and a quiet Irish boy. Then Connell, in Marianne’s absence, goes to therapy, and finally says what he’s thinking for once. What follows is one of the best performances of the year from Paul Mescal, and also one of the most heartbreaking moments of TV this year. So much of Normal People could be solved by its protagonists just saying how they feel; “Episode 10” does the hard work of explaining that pained repression, and the overwhelming devastation it has wrought. —Andrew Gruttadaro
8. “Episode 7,” The New Pope
The seventh episode of The New Pope brings about the eagerly anticipated return of one Young Pope (Jude Law), in an hour that perfectly encapsulates Paolo Sorrentino’s delightful (sacrilegious?) thematic cocktail of high-brow examinations of faith and low-brow humor. To wit: The series reintroduces Lenny Belardo from a comatose state to the land of the living by having our guy emerge from a beach in a white Speedo, surrounded by bikini-clad women, before winking at the camera. (After asking his doctor how long he’s been asleep, Lenny quips that he deserves a Cherry Coke Zero, at which point I briefly transcended this mortal plane.)
But the silliness of the episode’s introduction gives way to a somber and tear-jerking predicament—that of the pontiff’s cardiologist having a sickly boy, and the hope that Lenny can perform one of his miracles to heal him. “I do not perform miracles,” Lenny tells the doctor and his wife. “I simply find myself at the center of coincidences.” The character’s crisis of faith is a throughline from The Young Pope, and once again Sorrentino has Lenny grapple with the inevitability of his own apparent connection to the divine. In the end, Lenny isn’t able to cure the boy, but shows the parents his spirit serenely ascending to heaven. It sure feels like a miracle all the same, and is The New Pope at its most breathtaking. —Miles Surrey
7. “Shirley,” Mrs. America
The third episode of Dahvi Waller’s FX miniseries takes place at the 1972 Democratic convention, a conclave at which the party was determined not to make a rehash of the bloody chaos at Chicago ’68. The Miami summit became the launching pad for nominee George McGovern—and the final resting place of a spirited primary campaign by Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), the first Black woman to be elected to Congress.
Aduba rightly won an Emmy for her performance as a woman staring down the end of a very narrow road. But Mrs. America tells the story of a collective movement, and “Shirley” is the purest expression of its ethos—part tribute, part tragedy. While rigid zealot Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) marshals her troops against the Equal Rights Amendment, the well-meaning leaders of feminism’s second wave end up at odds. Chisholm’s fellow representative, Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), pushes Chisholm to drop out of the race, sacrificing her delegates in the name of preserving unity and avoiding a floor fight. Media darling Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) casts the deciding vote, only to find her cause betrayed over McGovern’s stance on abortion, an issue near and dear to Steinem’s heart. “Shirley” strikes a perfect balance between individual pathos and the broad sweep of history, a capsule of both Mrs. America and the country it dissects. —Alison Herman
6. “Right Here, Right Now #4,” We Are Who We Are
For a show uninterested in plot and convention, Luca Guadagnino’s We Are Who We Are is quite often strikingly literal. Set on a U.S. Army base in Italy, the essence of the show is summed up by its title—a small community of family and friends struggle to manage, support, hide, and discover themselves, either along with or in spite of those around them. That adventure of being one’s self, equal parts euphoric and terrifying, is never better represented than in the show’s best episode. On paper, it sounds predictable: Before his deployment, Craig and the ragtag group of teenagers that make up the central friend group have a reckless night of drinks and debauchery after he impulsively weds his Italian girlfriend Valentina.
But what makes the episode so special is how Guadagnino and Co. recognize the party for what it is. When the teens let themselves loose, drinking, singing, playing games, fucking—it’s not for their own sake. Craig is leaving, and if he returns, things will never be the same. And so the characters try—and some of them fail—to be the best versions of themselves, etching indelible self-portraits into his memory. It’s thrilling, and it’s heartbreaking, to see them be so vulnerable, all operating so smoothly under the facade of youthful confidence. But we know, and Craig knows: They are who they are. —Mose Bergmann
5. “On the Run,” What We Do in the Shadows
The episode begins normally enough. A vampire turns up at the Shadows manse in Staten Island and—peeved that Laszlo stiffed him on a security deposit in San Diego some 167 years ago (typical Laszlo)—assents to a duel. But at the moment of truth, Laszlo “BAT!”s and flees the scene, kicking off one of the wilder pseudo-bottle episodes in recent television history.
Now on the run, Laszlo rechristens himself Jackie Daytona and resettles somewhere in Pennsylvania—“because it sounded like Transylvania,” naturally. He takes over a bar and quickly becomes an oddball pillar of his new community, dedicating himself to the success of the local high school’s girls’ volleyball team and battling “motor-bicycle criminals” in the name of his beloved township.
“I am just a regular human guy,” he says.
It’s all the small-town kicks of Roadhouse in the space of a single, bizarre half hour. It doesn’t end well, because of course it doesn’t, but Jackie Daytona is a TV creation that will live on forever. —Claire McNear
4. “The Balmoral Test,” The Crown
“The Balmoral Test” is not just about the contrast between Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher—the two women whose emergence came to define the 1980s in the U.K., for good or ill. It’s explicitly about how layers of protocol and artifice separate the royal family from its subjects, not just physically, socially, or economically, but almost anthropologically. It’s also about a giant CGI deer stalking around the highlands like a humongous mooing metaphor.
Even after three seasons’ worth of attempts to humanize the royal family, it all boils down to this: Diana fits in, while Thatcher does not. That reality is so brutally stark it almost makes Thatcher seem like a sympathetic figure in a Meet the Parents–style farce, rather than illustrating that for all her wanton cruelty toward working people, she’s more like the people she spent 11 years pureeing into Soylent Green than she is different. —Michael Baumann
3. “Pandemic,” Lenox Hill
There’s been a lot of TV made about, or even just around, COVID-19. Shows like Grey’s Anatomy and Superstore have engineered entire season arcs around the pandemic’s effect on their characters’ lives. Countless series do an awkward dance in and out of masks, with and without social distancing on-screen. Even period pieces like Fargo had to delay and belatedly finish their seasons after spring lockdowns shut down production for months on end.
But there’s nothing like “Pandemic,” the surprise finale to the Netflix docuseries Lenox Hill. Set at the famed Manhattan hospital, Lenox Hill is a handsomely produced, smartly conceived deep dive into an insular world, like a Fred Wiseman film crossed with Cheer. Filmed last fall, the show also gave creators Ruthie Shatz and Adi Barash a personal connection to the deadly chaos that would engulf the New York hospital system just a few months later. So the married couple plunged back in, following the same doctors we’d already watched on their regular rounds suit up and report to the front lines. “Pandemic” is short, direct, and deliberately chaotic, reflecting both its short turnaround and the overwhelming emotion of the Northeast’s harrowing first wave. It’s powerful stuff, splicing the intimacy of storytelling with the urgency of the news. —Herman
2. “Ego Death,” I May Destroy You
How do you close a story that’s about how closure is a myth? Such is the dilemma facing both Michaela Coel, the creator and star of I May Destroy You, and Arabella, its protagonist. The show rarely feels like it, but the premise is dizzyingly meta; Coel is fictionalizing her own sexual assault and gradual recovery, and so is Arabella, a Russian nesting doll of working through one’s trauma.
Their mutual solution is “Ego Death,” a series of fakeouts that feel like falling through a trapdoor. Arabella has located her assailant at the portentously named bar where they first met, and cycles through several ways to approach before the audience realizes we’re watching a fiction inside a fiction. Our heroine tries retribution, forgiveness, reversal, and finally, acceptance. But the impact of “Ego Death” is cumulative; the weighing of options is itself a form of healing. The novel-memoir-essay thing Arabella composes can’t be reduced to any one genre or form. Neither can the story of its creation, an embrace of ambiguity that makes for a perfectly definitive end. —Herman
1. “Bagman,” Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul prides itself on not being a retread of Breaking Bad’s greatest hits, but the show’s finest episode to date amounts to a throwback. Directed by none other than Vince Gilligan, “Bagman” presents a point of no return for Jimmy McGill and fan favorite Kim Wexler, who makes the ill-fated choice to introduce herself to a sociopathic cartel boss. As for Jimmy, it’s his willingness to be a “friend of the cartel” and pick up Lalo Salamanca’s bail money in the middle of the desert—for a commission, of course—that quickly goes awry when unknown assailants attempt to kill him and take the millions for themselves.
Thankfully, Mike Ehrmantraut saves Jimmy—not that anyone was concerned about the fate of a character who’s still alive in Breaking Bad—but with no car to bring the duo back to civilization, they spend the rest of the journey on foot. In the desert, Jimmy can’t rely on his usual bag of tricks, a grueling physical ordeal layered with extra meaning. Jimmy loses his beat-up Suzuki Esteem, a quirky extension of his personality; he drinks his own piss out of a Davis & Main water bottle, the law firm that represented his last shot at legitimacy; and he refuses to wrap himself in a space blanket on a chilly night, a reminder of his late brother Chuck. If Jimmy McGill entered the desert in “Bagman,” someone much closer to Saul Goodman returned from it. —Surrey