Cineplexes closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent. But when COVID-19 brought the world of entertainment to a screeching halt, guess what was still there for us? Television. It’s time to pay homage to the best TV from the worst year ever.
Here are 10 picks, plus one for luck, because there’s been nothing uniform about 2020.
‘Never Have I Ever’ (Netflix)
Go ahead. Call it a teen comedy. But that doesn’t take away from the fact that “Never Have I Ever” is a masterwork of angst and alienation, a fresh perspective on immigrant culture, a moving profile in grief and a breakthrough in the relationship between women and anger onscreen. The half-hour series follows Indian American high school sophomore Devi (impressive newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she strives to lead a non-nerdy social life under the all-seeing eye of her strict Hindu mother. But the sudden death of her father has left a void in both their worlds, worlds already separated by culture and generation gaps. Set in the San Fernando Valley, high-schoolisms abound (“hot pockets” are groups of cute guys; “uggos” are the opposite of hot pockets), as do funny and bittersweet scenes that pit coming-of-age comedy against the reality of loss and longing. Cocreated by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, it also stars the multitalented Poorna Jagannathan (“The Night Of,” “Ramy” and “Big Little Lies”) as Devi’s mom and features John McEnroe — the king of the angry outburst — as narrator. 2020 blew, as Devi might say. But “Never Have I Ever,” which has been renewed for a second season, made it blow a little less. (Full review)
‘Little America’ (Apple TV +)
This eight-episode anthology drama is based on the true stories of immigrants across America, from the Indian motel owner’s son to the Nigerian wannabe cowboy professor. Each story is a separate vignette that together weaves a bigger story of what it takes to come here from somewhere else. Entrepreneurs, dreamers and doers populate “Little America,” and each episode is written and directed by folks who represent different paths to the American dream. Created by Lee Eisenberg (“The Office”), Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, “Little America” is slated for a second season. (Full review)
‘I May Destroy You’ (HBO)
This daring and inspired half-hour HBO series, written and produced by “Chewing Gum’s” Michaela Coel, follows the trials of young, eccentric writer Arabella (played by Coel) after she’s drugged and sexually assaulted during a night out with friends. Odd as it sounds, this London-set series is part comedy, part drama and part social reckoning. It boldly tackles questions of consent, admitting how fraught it is to determine boundaries beforehand and then accountability after the fact. We follow Arabella as she struggles to make sense of her own complicated reaction to the trauma and works to reclaim the freedom, confidence and spontaneity she embodied before the attack. The 12-part series is as clever and fresh as it is essential. (Full review)
Movie theaters closed. Broadway went dark. Concert venues fell silent.
Death doesn’t mean actually dying, at least not in Amazon’s half-hour comedy — set in the year 2033, when digitizing and uploading one’s soul is big business. The more money you or your loved ones pay, the swankier the afterlife. Nathan (Robbie Amell) learns this after he’s killed in a suspicious car accident and his surviving girlfriend sends his consciousness to the upscale Lakeview “resort.” Like the other dearly departed residents there, he’s able to IM and chat with the living via a celestial cell service (rates may vary) from a commodified afterlife. But is it a fabricated heaven or hell? The deceased are not flanked by angels, they’re instead followed by floating pop-up ads. Imagine Taco Bell merging with Verizon and Google, then tracking you from here to eternity with Great Promotional Offers! Oh, and eternity is also full of hidden minibar charges and bandwidth fees in this series from Greg Daniels (“The Office”). Apparently you can take it with you — and might have to, if Amazon and Facebook get any smart ideas from “Upload”. (Full review)
It was May, during the first round of stay-at-home orders, when Mahershala Ali touched down as a spiritual guide in Season 2 of Hulu’s Muslim American sitcom, “Ramy.” From his New Jersey Islamic Center, Sufi Sheikh Ali attempts to help the self-sabotaging millennial Ramy (played by series creator Ramy Youssef) become a better person and a better Muslim. Ali’s thankless task propels the second season of this daring half-hour comedy toward deeply funny and thoughtful commentaries on faith, identity, family loyalty and immigrant values. From the terribly uncomfortable scenes at a strip club, the masjid, an anti-Muslim protest and the family dinner table discussing the latest episode of “Shark Tank,” “Ramy’s” return was as profane and funny as it was insightful and revelatory. (Full review)
‘Dead to Me’ (Netflix)
Jen (Christina Applegate) is an angry, terse, grieving widow. Judy (Linda Cardellini) is the spacy, sweet flake who killed Jen’s husband in a hit-and-run accident. Steve (James Marsden) is Judy’s late fiance. He was killed by Jen. And that’s just where Season 2 begins, unspooling a wonderfully twisted plot compelling enough to keep you from thinking about the horribly twisted reality outside your door. Created by Liz Feldman, the polar-opposite characters that drive this series should go down in history as one of television’s best odd couples. The love-hate relationship between the two only grows as they try to work in tandem (ha!) to cover up their respective murders. Can’t wait to see whose body turns up crumpled under the wreckage of these women’s misdeeds in Season 3.
Here’s to a good old-fashioned American scam that had nothing to do with Donald Trump. This six-part HBO docuseries chronicles the elaborate scheme of Jerry Colombo, a former police officer who rigged the results of McDonald’s popular Monopoly game for more than a decade. He scammed $24 million between 1989 and 2011 in a con job that included mob connections, strip bar owners, smuggled golden tickets and even a suspicious death. The cast of characters here is so colorful and bizarre they look as if they were cooked up in a scripted writers room (think “The Sopranos” meets “Barry”). An eccentric FBI agent, fraudulent winners from upscale suburbs and sleepy towns, fast-food chain execs doubling as undercover agents, vengeful family members (biological and otherwise): They all appear in this stranger-than-fiction tale, where greed and hubris come with a side of fries. (Full review)
‘The Vow’ (HBO)
Why does someone join a cult? They don’t. They buy into an idea to make them and the world better, according to HBO’s nine-part docuseries “The Vow,” and that’s where the brainwashing begins. Hundreds of hours of video footage and recorded conversations from former high-ranking members of the NXIVM self-improvement group provides the material for this disturbing yet riveting docuseries about the anatomy of blind worship. It follows a group of successful, smart, high-functioning people before, during and after they’ve extricated themselves from NXIVM and the group’s creepy, now-incarcerated leader, Keith Raniere. Former followers grapple in real time with their unquestioning loyalty to a man who ended up taking all their money as well as seducing female followers who were then branded with his initials below their bikini line. True, this nine-hour journey is too long and has pacing issues, but it reflects the lost time, shame and gaslighting felt by those who broke free from Raniere. Next season? His former supporters devote themselves to another cause: putting him in prison.
‘The Boys’ (Amazon)
It only makes sense to follow villains with superheroes, though in Amazon’s “The Boys,” they’re one and the same. An irreverent take on comic book avenger culture, the second season of this excellent, biting series from creator Eric Kripke doubled down on themes of corporate corruption and public gullibility when it returned in September. The crime fighting team of supes known as the Seven are worshiped by America, but in reality they’re a self-centered, vain bunch of Compound V junkies who are being used to sell military contracts, promote political divisions and stoke white supremacy. A vigilante group of misfits are out to destroy them, if only they could stay sober, stop infighting and avoid driving their speed boat into the center of a beached whale (long story). A warped superhero tale made for imperfect times. (Full review)
‘The Good Place’ (NBC)
The death theme apparently resonated with me in 2020. The year had just begun when this metaphysical comedy ended its four-season run. But what did we expect? Creator Mike Schur and company couldn’t keep turning weighty questions about mortality and the human condition into rippingly funny television forever. Unless forever doesn’t really exist, we’re all part of a philosophical experiment and existential questions about our own mortality are pointless? Fork it. Let’s move on. The series celebrated its own departure with the hour-long finale, “Take It Sleazy,” when Arizona “dirtbag” Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell), dim “hottie” Jason Mendoza (Manny Jacinto), name-dropping socialite Tahani Al-Jamil (Jameela Jamil) and tortured philosopher Chidi Anagonye (William Jackson Harper) finally decided to leave the Good Place for the great unknown. It was hard to say goodbye, especially to the celestial equivalent of Alexa, Janet (D’Arcy Carden), and her fumbling boss, Michael (Ted Danson). Son of a bench joke goes here. (Full review)
If the pandemic gave us anything worth savoring, it’s Sarah Cooper. The comedian made a name on TikTok lip-syncing to President Trump’s misguided COVID-19 comments, helping us laugh over his dangerous and inane suggestions that the “Chinese virus” was no big deal and that perhaps we should consider injecting bleach as a cure. As Cooper’s work proliferated on social media, her hilarious performances became a life raft in a sea of doomscrolling. Even her bizarre and scattershot Netflix special, “Sarah Cooper: Everything’s Fine,” funneled 2020 angst through a madcap filter, turning pandemic grief and panic into performance art. Her book “How to Be Successful Without Hurting Men’s Feelings” is reportedly being turned into a CBS series. Dare we look forward to 2021?