For the past ten days, Bleeding Cool TV's Top 10 of 2020 has been looking back at the best and brightest that broadcast, cable, streaming, and online television had to offer during what was a truly difficult, once-in-a-lifetime year. As we've repeated throughout, Television proved once again what it's always been. A reflection of what we've been, who we are, and who we have the potential to be in the toughest of times. Now, we've compiled the entire list below- with an added bonus. Before you get to our Top 10, take a moment to check out the shows that didn't quite make the cut but were still deemed worthy as "Honorable Mentions" by the BCTV team.
BCTV Top 10 of 2020: Honorable Mentions
Adult Material (Channel 4), Adventure Time: Distant Lands (HBO Max), Aggretsuko (Netflix), Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (Comedy Central), Better Call Saul (AMC), Big Mouth (Netflix), Binging with Babish (YouTube), BNA (Netflix), Bobs Burgers (FOX), Criminal (Netflix), Critical Role (Twitch/YouTube), Cursed (Netflix), Dave (FXX), Dead to Me (Netflix), Digimon Adventure 2020 (Fuji TV), His Dark Materials (BBC/HBO), I Hate Suzie (Sky), Jujutsu Kaisen (Crunchyroll), Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO), Late Night with Seth Myers (NBC), Locke & Key (Netflix), Motherland: Fort Salem (Freeform), My Hero Academia (Adult Swim/streaming), P-Valley (STARZ), Rick and Morty (Adult Swim), Star Trek: Picard (CBS All Access), Superstore (NBC), The Bachelor/Bachelorette (ABC), The Circle (Netflix), The Good Lord Bird (Showtime), The Great (Hulu), The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4), The Haunting of Bly Manor (Netflix), The Last Dance (ESPN), The Late Show with Stephen Colbert (CBS), The Masked Singer (FOX), The Midnight Gospel (Netflix), The Walking Dead: World Beyond (AMC), Truth Seekers (Amazon Prime), The Undoing (HBO, Unsolved Mysteries (Netflix), Westworld (HBO), YashaHime: Princess Half Demon (Viz), and Yellowstone (Paramount).
#10 – What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Based on the feature film from Clement and Taika Waititi, the series focuses on vampire roommates Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Nadja (Natasia Demetriou), Laszlo (Matt Berry), and Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) as they take on both the supernatural as well as the all-too-real horrors of Staten Island, with the help of their human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén)- who just so happens to come from a long line of vampire hunters. As for why the series deserved to "stake" out a spot on our year-end list, here's our resident WWDITS reviewer Alejandra Bodden with her personal thoughts;
"'What We Do in the Shadows' was the gem I found in the midst of quarantine-slash-lockdown-slash-became addicted to my television screen. It was a really tough time when the pandemic first started- thankfully, my roommate introduced me to the show they thought would be right up my alley- and damn right it was. I was introduced to it just before the second season and I could not stop myself from needing to get caught up as soon as was humanly possible. WWDITS quickly became my weekly companion for several months, helping me cope with the work/sleep monotony that so many of us found ourselves suffering from as we adjusted to 24/7 home life," Bodden explained.
Alejandra continued, "It really does say something about this show when I go to research the episode titles to make sure I was mixing them up and find myself unable to stop laughing just from remembering what happened. There was not a single episode that did not have me laughing like crazy, but the laughs always had meaning and purpose. Best of all, the season remained true to Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja, Colin, and Gullermo- allowing them to grow without ever giving us a second when they still were not true to themselves. I have a wide selection of favorite moments spread across the entire season, but if I had to choose? Matt Berry as 'Jackie Daytona' aka Laszlo, and the wonderful (but temporary) life he carved out for himself in the fourth episode. 'What We Do in the Shadows' is the perfect balance of horror and comedy- having fun with the genre without ever feeling the need to make fun of it."
#9 – Small Axe (BBC/Amazon Prime)
Created and directed by Steve McQueen (12 Years a Slave, Widows), the award-winning, critically-acclaimed British anthology film Small Axe tells five distinct, powerful, and thought-provoking stories highlighting what life was like for West Indian immigrants in London during the '60s and '70s. While the films "Mangrove," "Lovers Rock," "Red, White and Blue," "Alex Wheatle," and "Education" tell their own respective tales, the work of writers McQueen, Alastair Siddons, Courttia Newland, and Alastair Siddons never strayed from keeping the thematic focus front and center.
With a title based on the African proverb, "If you are the big tree, we are the small axe," the original films that make up Small Axe never fell into the trap of becoming too much of a documentary or a history lesson. Instead, the anthology takes the struggles of the West Indian community and makes them the viewers' struggles- exposing them to history as well as to the world around them that may never truly see.
Through the eyes of a stellar collective cast that includes Letitia Wright, Shaun Parkes, Micheal Ward, Amarah-Jae St. Aubyn, Kenyah Sandy, Sheyi Cole, John Boyega, and many others, Small Axe highlights society's unsung heroes- people who fight against rampant racism and discrimination while trying to carve out a sense of identity and community. the series succeeds in large part because it shows us that while times may change, the same struggles seem to survive- but little by little, by "small axes" who've come before, who fight the hard fight now, and who will carry the fight into the future, that "big tree" moves. And as we've seen from the younger generation this year who've taken to the streets and social media, the number of "small axes" continues to grow.
#8 – Staged (BBC One)
Premiering on BBC One in June 2020, the series used video-conferencing technology to offer viewers "meta fictionalized" versions of Michael Sheen (Prodigal Son) and David Tennant (Doctor Who) as they attempt to rehearse a performance of Luigi Pirandello's Six Characters in Search of an Author– without driving director Simon Evans (playing themselves) totally off the rails in the process. Here's what Bleeding Cool writer Adi Tantimedh had to say as to why Staged was deserving of making the cut:
"'Staged' is arguably the most successful TV show conceived, shot, and broadcast in Lockdown. British TV has leaned in on addressing and portraying life in lockdown than anywhere else. They produced more dramas during and set in Lockdown than the US did, and without treating it as a gimmick. 'Staged' on the BBC is the only lockdown sitcom to not only be a bonafide hit but also get a second season," Tantimedh explained.
"With David Tennant and Martin Sheen playing exaggerated versions of themselves, the show is a spiritual sequel to Good Omens. It's not enough to just slap these actors on a zoom screen and expect them to deliver. There needs to be a script, plots, B plots, arcs, and comedy. Tennant and Sheen's chemistry and ability to bounce jokes off each other. It's a glorious satire of social faux pas, of actor insecurity, of the classic British fear of embarrassment and small acts of bad faith and dishonesty that blow up in people's faces," he continued. "It's the kind of comedy you get from 'The Larry Sanders Show' where the real and fictional blur and 'Curb Your Enthusiasm' where minor embarrassing situations escalate into social disasters. The supporting cast also becomes perfect foils for the stars: Sheen and Tennant's real-life spouses Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg, Nina Sosonya as an intimidating producer, series creator Simon Evans as a nervous, snivelly and disastrous version of himself all add to the mix as well as the unexpected celebrity cameos. 'Staged' is that rare lockdown comedy that leans into its lockdown gimmick and creates something unique and hilarious."
#7 – The Mandalorian (Disney+)
Created by Jon Favreau and serving as the first live-action "Star Wars" universe series for the streaming service, The Mandalorian recently wrapped its second season to praise from fans and critics alike. As work continues on the third season and the series readies itself for three spinoff series (The Book of Boba Fett, Ahsoka, and Rangers of the New Republic), Bleeding Cool's Tom Chang explains why the series doesn't just deserve the honor but also stands as a blueprint for the "Star Wars" universe moving forward.
"Some may call it 'franchise fatigue,' I call it the 'right place at the right time.' When playing with the sandbox that is 'Star Wars', there are so many elements that come into play, so much so, there's always seems to be a lingering loose end that is just left dangling or not addressed properly at least with the films. This is where the Disney+ series 'The Mandalorian' comes in, " Chang explained. "When you break down the series to the sum of its parts, a whole season easily eclipses all the films. The recent season's pacing and arcs, while they don't fit the same conventional length for episodes all work, because who knew the 'Star Wars' franchise works better for television?"
Chang continued, "Nevermind most viewers of the animated series have largely been favorable across the board from fans to critics alike. Jon Favreau's' 'The Mandalorian' is the live-action reflection of its animated counterparts providing a mix of serial and non-serial storytelling while keeping the formula simple with the adventures of Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal) and Grogu. The supporting characters never take away from the mains, the VFX and fan service never overwhelm, the franchise remains grounded with real dangers. The second season enhanced the series every which way remaining the crown jewel of Disney+, and 'Star Wars'."
#6 – I May Destroy You (HBO/BBC One) & Schitt's Creek (Pop TV)
Bleeding Cool's Adi Tantimedh explains why Michaela Coel's HBO and BBC One comedy-drama series I May Destroy You was more than deserving to make the list:
"Michaela Cole's 'I May Destroy You' is hands-down the best TV series of 2020. You won't find a more transparent, unflinching, difficult, complex, contradictory, funny, wincing, merciless yet kind show anywhere in any year. Cole writes, stars, and co-directs the series, the surest sign that this is entirely her vision and worldview. The story of a young woman named Arabella dealing with getting assaulted and having to rebuild her entire world while still trying to keep up appearances and live the cool life she feels entitled to is as timely as you're going to get," Tantimedh explained. "The series is inspired by Cole's own assault, but Arabella is not a fictionalized version of Cole. She's a specific character for Cole to explore not only her feelings of confusion, guilt, and rage while dealing with life in a 21st Century London where everything is digital, social media rules not only everyone's lives but also their psyche."
Tantimedh continued: "Not everyone is good or bad all the time. Everyone has an angel and a devil in them. Arabella, Terry, and Kwami are best friends but don't always treat each other very well. Arabella, as a millennial celebrity and public figure with a big social media following, can be massively self-obsessed and outright narcissistic. Cole is especially clear-eyed about the way Arabella uses social media to self-soothe and validate her identity, feeding off the adoration of her fans to shore up her self-image as she fights to keep herself from falling apart after her assault. She also writes some of the funniest and most inventive dialogue of anyone writing now. It's easy to see how Cole explores the bad decisions, the bad sex, bad dates, bad calls that Arabella and her friends make because they have 20something privilege that makes them think they're invulnerable until they actually get hurt. The entire series explores issues of consent, neglect, complicity, and self-care in a way that no one has done before. Cole knows that life is not a neatly structured crime or revenge thriller. There's no easy resolution or ending. Nothing really ends because life just goes on. The best thing to do is to be kind, to yourself and the ones you love."
Created by the father-son comedy duo of Eugene Levy and Dan Levy, CBC Television sitcom Schitt's Creek (which also aired on Pop TV) is exactly the right combination of old-school sitcom and modern sensitivities that Bleeding Cool's Brittney Bender believes earned it a spot on the list.
"There's rarely a show that can find its way into your soul, but 'Schitt's Creek' has done so. In a time where laughter and the comfort of everyday life have been needed, this series gave that and so much more. The combining forces of fantastic dialogue work and set up of the world of the show are only parts of why it found popularity," Bender explained. "The accessibility present with Netflix (and now also on Comedy Central) putting out all seasons to stream, including a table conversation special with the cast, helped those in 2020 who needed the chaotic but loving Rose family."
Bender continued: "The love between Moira and Johnny that focuses on the importance of growth and change in a relationship is a small piece of what connects me to the show. Expressing the fluidity and general spectrum of sexuality through characters like David and Patrick is a fantastic way to expand the way we write LGBTQIA+ characters on television. Giving an audience such comfort in seeing themselves on screen is powerful in itself. You find yourself witnessing truthful moments of mental health, such as David experiencing panic attacks and acknowledging his anxiety. Growth outside of the people they used to be, the Rose family surpassed my initial expectations from the pilot experience. Although I wished the series would have never ended, I'm beyond grateful that such a show was made in the first place."
#4 – The Queen's Gambit (Netflix)
Created for the streaming service by Scott Frank and Allan Scott and based on the Walter Tevis 1983 novel of the same name, Netflix's The Queen's Gambit would checkmate viewers around the globe- in large part due to Anya Taylor-Joy's performance as Beth Harmon as well as the cinematic look and feel to the limited series. Let Bleeding Cool's Eden Arnold explain how the series made the right moves to earn a spot on our list:
"If you haven't heard of 'The Queen's Gambit,' then there's a good chance you've completely forsaken 2020 to live in complete and total isolation in the middle of the woods with zero contact with society or any other people. Not that we could blame you. Though it was released in late October with little to no initial fanfair, the Netflix original limited series drama steadily grew to become "The Next Big Thing" – with sales of chess sets and instruction books soaring in the wake of the show's critical and viewer success," Arnold explained. "Focusing on the rise of chess genius Beth Harmon, who struggles with addiction, family, and mastering the world of competitive chess, 'The Queen's Gambit' is able to take the world of 1960's competitive chess and turn it into something super fascinating for the masses. And when discussing the series, I would be remiss to not mention just how mesmerizing the show's production design was and how the series took the time to develop well-rounded supporting characters."
#3 – The Boys (Amazon Prime)
Developed by Eric Kripke (Supernatural, Timeless), Amazon Prime's adaptation of The Boys found a way to effectively wrap up a number of tough, sobering social issues in the visuals of exploding whales, ten-foot penises, supes porn, and exploding heads and feed them to a viewing audience that was the better for it. And watch out Netflix, because shows like The Boys and The Mandalorian have viewers re-appreciating the fine art of the "slow rollout." So here's why Bleeding Cool's own Andy Wilson believes Butcher (Karl Urban) and his crew are more than deserving of a little end-of-year love.
"'The Boys' perhaps better than any other show captured the political zeitgeist of 2020. Its critique of our superhero worship, corporatism, and politics has been there always, but what Season 2 brought this year was maybe a bit too on the nose," Wilson explained. "Stormfront, a literal Nazi, reinvented with a side-shave and Instagram following, took institutional racism to the alt-right next level. But at the end of the day, she was still the same old racism, same old fascism. But the show doesn't take the easy dodge and just indict one side: everyone is some sort of c**t or another, as Butcher would say, including Congresswoman Neuman, who is easy to read as being molded after Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez."
Wilson continued, "But politics aside, this show made me do something I never thought I would do: enjoy 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. . . and made me realize I somehow know all the words to 'We Didn't Start the Fire'. . . and sing 'We Didn't Start the Fire' for the next week. Thanks, 'The Boys.' Thanks."
#2 – The Umbrella Academy (Netflix)
Created for the streaming service by Steve Blackman, developed by Jeremy Slater, and based on the comic book series from Gerard Way and Gabriel Ba, Netflix's The Umbrella Academy proved to be exactly the kind of perfectly-dysfunctional-yet-somehow-still-functioning family we needed this year. Bleeding Cool's Jeremy Konrad explains why the Hargreeves siblings were deserving of the honor of being oh-so-close to the top spot:
"I really don't like 'The Umbrella Academy' comic. The art by Gabriel Bá is fantastic, but Gerard Way's writing is too all over the place for my liking. I went into the show thinking that there was no possible way they could take the chaos in those pages and make it coherent enough to make it an enjoyable viewing experience. Season 1 proved me wrong, and thankfully Season 2 from this past summer built on that- turning it into one of the finer shows on television," he explained.
For Konrad, what makes the series work the most are the folks serving as the Hargreeces' real-life counterparts. "All of this show's success is dependent upon its wonderful cast. Each offers layered and nuanced performances that simultaneously have you fist-pumping with delight and sobbing at the sadness of it all," he explained. "For me, the standout this season was David Castañeda as Diego. I didn't really care at all about him in the first season, but his story about saving the President and the confidence in his portrayal made his performance stand out in an ensemble of great ones. The kinetic energy of this story translates better to the screen off the page than I ever thought possible, and has me salivating at the prospect of a third season, especially with where 'The Umbrella Academy' leaves us by the end of the season finale."
#1 – Lovecraft Country (HBO)
Developed by series showrunner and executive producer Misha Green and starring Jonathan Majors, Jurnee Smollett, and Courtney B. Vance, no other series this year best exemplified all three aspects as HBO's Lovecraft Country.
It seems pretty fitting that Green's take on Matt Ruff's 2016 novel would follow last year's winner of the top spot, HBO and Damon Lindelof's Watchmen. Both series took existing works and expanded upon them in ways that made each respective source that much more relevant. Both series offered brutally truthful takes on societal issues that still plague this country, offering voices to those who've been kept silent for too long. And both series sewed their thematic threads within the tapestry of their respective genres, creating art that was both beautiful yet painful- but impossible to turn away from.
But there's one important difference between the two that makes Green's masterpiece the distinctive voice that it is. The very moment that Atticus (Majors), Leti (Smollett), and Uncle George (Vance) begin their journey, viewers are being locked into the kind of history lesson you won't find in school. By peeling back the layers of America's past, Green and her creative team expose viewers to the all-too-real horrors that serve as the foundation of this nation. And no matter how "woke" a viewer may think they are, there's always another real, gut-punching dose of reality waiting to shake up any sort of comfort you might feel.
It's one thing to know the "surface history" of this country's foundation of racism, but when it's put in terms of seeing characters we've come to connect with using The Safe Negro Travel Guide and learning it's based on the sadly real The Negro Motorist Green Book? The series takes that fact, personalizes it, and forces viewers to deal with it. Lovecraft Country isn't an easy watch- nor should it be. Because what it gives us is worth the work. But it is necessary viewing- and repeated viewing (especially for the effects and cinematography)- to truly appreciate how genres can still be used to create the kind of change in minds we need. Even if they think they're watching "just another horror show."
But perhaps it's best we leave the last word to Green, who explained her perspective on that very approach when sharing her first meeting with executive producer Jordan Peele (Get Out, Us):
"My agents said, 'We think you would get along really well.' And I was like, 'Why? I don't like to laugh.' (Laughs) 'No, no, he's a huge horror fan and he's working on a movie right now.' And we vibed right away. Then Jordan said, 'I want you to watch 'Get Out." I saw it and went, 'Phew!' We'd gotten along so well that I didn't want to watch it and be like, 'Oh, man.' But it was amazing. Then when we were working on 'Lovecraft' – he was doing the film 'Us' at the time – we talked a lot about our shared belief regarding horror, which is: You need the metaphor. I'd played with that on 'Underground'; that it was a heist movie but set in slavery times. That the people pursuing the heist happened to be enslaved people trying to steal back their most precious possession: their lives. I used the heist genre to appeal to people who thought, 'Ugh, I don't want to watch a slavery show.' But you did want to watch this one because we used genre as a doorway into something deeper."