Since mid-March, when the frightening specter of a lockdown first spurred us to create a slew of streaming guides for our readers, the COVID-19 pandemic, nationwide protests against police killings of Black people, an unprecedentedly dire presidential election, a struggling economy, wildfires and much more have made escapist pop culture more essential than ever — most especially TV, which remained omnipresent throughout the spring, summer and fall as other art forms pressed pause.
Here, for our final recommendations of a brutal year, The Times TV team reflects on the series that saw us through 2020 (if only barely). Once it’s safe, you may no longer need them, as all that time spent in front of your TV is matched by time spent out and about, together. But until then, we hope this list brings you as much enjoyment, and distraction, as it has us.
We polled more than 40 TV critics and journalists, inside and outside The Times, on the best TV show to binge while stuck at home.
‘Below Deck: Mediterranean’
I could not be more grateful to Bravo for this particular reality show, which follows the motley crew of a massive yacht for a charter season at a time, as they deal with outrageous demands from obscenely rich guests and powder-keg drama between each other. It’s the perfect pandemic show for anyone who canceled all their travel plans and now works from home: These “yachties” must also live and work in a very small space and, understandably, sometimes hit their limits in doing so. And there are enough teases of what it’s like to vacation off the coasts of France, Italy and Croatia to (visually) satisfy your wanderlust. (Available on: Bravo, Peacock) — Ashley Lee
‘The Good Wife'/'The Good Fight’
I began rewatching “The Good Wife” in the closing stretch of 2019, and I see now that I must have had a premonition: As it turns out, 156 episodes of Robert and Michelle King’s instant-classic Obama-era legal procedural, plus 40 episodes of its even better streaming successor, “The Good Fight,” were just what the J.D. ordered. By the time I reached the conclusion of the latter’s note-perfect, pandemic-shortened fourth season, its absurdist fables of modern American political life — the premiere is set in a dispiriting alternate universe where Hillary Clinton won the 2016 election; the finale is called “The Gang Discovers Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein” — seemed to be the only thing on TV that remained in touch with reality. Cock-eyed, wildly funny, almost avant-garde in its sensibilities, no piece of pop culture — no film, no TV show, no book, no album, no nothing — captured the Trump years more precisely than “The Good Fight,” and I’m grateful to the Kings for sustaining me through the final leg. (Available on: CBS All Access) — Matt Brennan
‘I May Destroy You’
This HBO series was the most unexpected show of 2020, bringing heaps of praise for its creator and star Michaela Coel while providing a whole new perspective on the damage wrought by sexual assault. A vibrant mix of dark humor and drama, the show featured Coel as Arabella, a writer and influencer whose life unravels when she is attacked after her drink is spiked during a night out. The series spotlighted the spirited nightlife of modern London and the experiences of African and Caribbean immigrants in the U.K. A terrific supporting cast, especially Weruche Opia and Pappa Essiedu as Arabella’s best friends, made the series even more irresistible. (Available on: HBO, HBO Max) — Greg Braxton
‘Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts’
I’ve watched and rewatched a lot of cartoons that punched me in the feelings (in a good way) this year, but it was the post-apocalyptic wonderland of “Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts” that I found myself revisiting the most. Set 200 years after the rise of giant, intelligent mutants has driven most humans underground, the series follows Kipo Oak after she’s suddenly thrust into the dangerous surface world. Kipo’s earnest positivity is magnetic, and the teen’s ability to see the humanity in everyone — human and “mute” alike — is a balm at a time when real-world politics have emboldened some to be more open in their hate toward those they consider “different.” Plus, all the dangerous mutes Kipo encounters, from lumberjack cats to K-pop singing narwhals, are adorable. And the soundtrack is fantastic. (Available on: Netflix) — Tracy Brown
From “Vanderpump Rules” and “Real Housewives” to “Love Is Blind” on Netflix, our guide to the reality TV to stream in quarantine has something for everyone.
‘Last Week Tonight With John Oliver’
There wasn’t much to laugh about in 2020, but somehow John Oliver — and other late-night satirists like Samantha Bee and Trevor Noah — managed to milk this godforsaken year for all it was worth. In their hands, the botched government response to COVID-19, Trump’s hate speech, Kanye West’s bid for the White House and the new reality of Zooming from home became comedic gold. They deserve medals for making everything a little less scary ... and for staying on air without a studio, let alone a studio audience. “Let tomorrow be about solutions,” Oliver said, standing in front of a giant 2020 sign, during last month’s Season 7 finale. “Today is about vengeance. F— you, 2020. Get f—.” He then pressed a button and blew 2020 to smithereens. Thank you. (Available on: HBO, HBO Max) — Lorraine Ali
If you’re going to commit to a binge it’s good to choose a show with multiple seasons to keep you busy and characters real enough to become family. This British series, which ran six nonconsecutive years in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and starred Ian McShane as a roguish antique dealer in and out of trouble and love in semi-pastoral East Anglia, is just the sort of thing to take one far away from present-day troubles and, indeed, the present day itself. A cast of lovable and sometimes exasperating characters — none more lovable and exasperating than Lovejoy himself, liable to do the wrong thing on the way to the right result (not quite the same as doing the right thing) — makes for a reliably lively visit. (Available on: Acorn TV) —Robert Lloyd
Mandy Patinkin’s Twitter feed
While Mandy Patinkin’s Twitter account is not technically a TV show, I watched it on a screen, and throughout this hellish year it was a constant source of joy, amusement and emotional insight — possibly more than any actual TV series I watched. Like a real-life sitcom filmed in two-minute bursts, “The Patinkin Show” — sorry, that’s what it’s called now — followed the “Homeland” star, his wife Kathryn Grody and their son Gideon (always off-camera, asking questions) as they isolated at their woodsy upstate home. Over the course of the “season,” the Patinkin-Grody family vented their election anxieties, nibbled buttered matzo and were generally befuddled by technology. Whether and how the show will continue once the pandemic is over remains to be seen, but it’s already helped Patinkin — already an Emmy and Tony winner — cement his status as a national treasure and reveal to the world who he really is: a man still crazy about his wife after 42 years. — Meredith Blake
‘The Real Housewives’
It sounds like the making of a novelty T-shirt plastered in ads all over Instagram: I got through the pandemic by watching a whole lot of “Real Housewives.” If you know, you know. It’s the TV comfort food that never expires because it’s full of preservatives like sky tops and hair tinsel. I casually rewatched “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (even the Lucy Lucy Apple Juice season!) and “The Real Housewives of New York City” (Alex McCord and her head-turning coats walked so Nicole Kidman and her body warmers could run). It was like doing an anthropological study on the How It Started vs. How It’s Going meme. Of the new seasons that aired this year, “The Real Housewives of Potomac” delivered the most must-see season. But newbie “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City” might be one of the best comedies on television. Nothing else has delivered such an exquisite distillation of the sacrifices one is unwilling to make for a friend caught up in some pointless drama: “If I make eye contact with her, I’m gonna go over — but if not, I’m gonna wait for my lollipop chicken drumsticks,” a statement delivered by the great modern philosopher, Heather Gay. — Yvonne Villarreal