Best New TV Shows of 2020

Due to COVID-19, you may have watched more TV than usual this year. Maybe you binged an old series you’ve had on your bucket list for years, or maybe you watched everything new on the many streaming platforms available to us these days.

I did both, starting the year with King of the Hill (finally), then kicked off the pandemic in March with an amazing first-time binge of Nip/Tuck, and ultimately, I watched over 70 new series that debuted in 2020. It would have been more if I weren’t eclipsing 5,000 films watched lifetime this summer.

What were the best new shows in my view?

This is something I always like to throw on Twitter in late December, picking out the 10-15 best new series of the year with the caveat that they had to debut that year.

This year I thought I would write a short summary of my selections, because I found it to be tougher than usual for finding high quality new shows. Obviously, the pandemic pushed back a lot of projects into 2021, so the fall felt especially lean compared to past years. But there were still other shows that fell flat for me, including HBO’s take on Perry Mason. It looked fantastic and the cast was solid, but something was just missing with the story for me. I also had no problem with Netflix making Away one-and-done as it was another dull show about going to Mars (but not as terrible as Sean Penn’s similar Hulu series).

Note: limited series are included; all documentary series (including The Last Dance) are excluded. Anime was eligible, though I frankly did not watch new ones outside of the unintentional comedy gold that was Japan Sinks 2020 (see my recap thread of it here). And before you come at me, I know I still need to see Ted Lasso despite my dislike of Jason Sudeikis.

I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but no promises…

12. The Outsider (HBO)

Adapting Stephen King has been very profitable for decades, but the viewers rarely get a rich, cinematic experience out of it. The Outsider had a great start in building up a supernatural mystery, but a slow pace and decision to film 10 episodes instead of a neater eight dragged things down for me. I was also not satisfied with the finale at all, so the decision to not go on with a second season at HBO does not bug me one bit. It is still worth watching for the early scenes with Jason Bateman and a breakout role for Cynthia Erivo.

11. We Are Who We Are (HBO)

I was not planning to watch this coming-of-age story about teenagers on a US army base in Italy, but then I saw Chloe Sevigny was in it as the main character’s mother, and I have this irrational love for her going on nearly two decades now. So I watched it weekly when it was on, and as a millennial, it was certainly a different vibe watching Gen Z teens explore their sexuality in a foreign country under the gaze of the military and the 2016 election (there is a hilarious MAGA hat scene).

However, this is not a series about politics, though conservatives would certainly appreciate it less as it is a very pro-queer story. It’s kind of like a lighter, arthouse version of Euphoria, but mostly carefree instead of serious. Something you would watch in the summer to take in the atmosphere and music. The ending is also really well done, and that could be the ending for good if they keep it as a limited series.

10. Your Honor (Showtime)

We are only two episodes into this one with eight more to air, but I am projecting good things here. How can it not be good with Bryan Cranston as the lead with a strong premise? He plays a judge and his son just did a hit-and-run to accidentally kill a big-time mobster’s son. That happens quickly in the pilot too. I would have liked to see another scene with the mobster’s son alive to see if I should even feel bad he’s dead, but oh well. I’m sure we’ll quickly learn this family is trash and we’ll be rooting for Cranston to get away with everything in a way Walter White couldn’t.

9. I Know This Much Is True (HBO)

Mark Ruffalo is excellent in this mini-series where he plays twins with the paranoid schizophrenic brother needing the other’s help. You know this was well done when Rosie O’Donnell was in it and I didn’t even hate her character. It is depressing material without any real replay value, so it was a perfect binge during the pandemic but may not be remembered fondly down the road.

8. Devs (FX on Hulu)

This was the year’s ambitious sci-fi drama. The plot and pacing are far from perfect, but there are absolutely multiple scenes you will never forget if you give this show a chance. Some are haunting, some are beautiful, and the finale will keep you thinking after it’s over. I watched it weekly so I’m not sure if it’d come together even better as a one or two-sitting binge, but if you’re really into sci-fi and tech, I’m not sure what better options you could find in 2020 than Devs. I thought the HBO Max offering Raised by Wolves was disappointing.

7. Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)

Here we have another timely limited series based on a novel looking at what happens when a Black woman (with a mysterious background) and her daughter get involved with a rich, white family in the late 1990s. Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon are both great in this. I actually would have picked Washington to win the Emmy for this over winner Regina King (Watchmen), but whatever. Watching this show also led to this tweet in April:

6. Lovecraft Country (HBO)

I promise there is only one more HBO series on the list, but no doubt the network’s wildest show of 2020 was Lovecraft Country. Just when you think this is True Blood meets 1950s segregated America, they switch things up after two episodes. Monsters in the woods turns into an episode right out of Indiana Jones, only to get even crazier with a woman changing races after taking a potion, a Korean sex monster, and time travel through the multiverse. Some episodes are much better than others, but you’ll be entertained throughout the whole season.

5. Upload (Amazon Prime)

Finally, a comedy. This one really surprised me because I thought the trailers looked awful, which was disappointing as a fan of Greg Daniels’ other work (King of the Hill, The Office, Parks and Recreation). But once I gave it a try, I was pleased to see this take on a virtual afterlife was very entertaining with plenty of dark humor and even a legitimate murder mystery surrounding the main character’s untimely demise to set this whole story up. I am looking forward to season two.

4. I Am Not Okay with This (Netflix)

Good job, Netflix. You cancelled the only non-limited or documentary series I really liked from you this year. Sure, it was originally renewed for a second season, but then they blamed the pandemic and reversed their decision. So we only get seven short episodes of this one, but I really enjoyed it. I am biased towards high school stories to begin with, but this was a good mix of comedy and sci-fi with a dark, explosive ending that we deserved to see the aftermath of.

3. I May Destroy You (HBO)

I had never heard of Michaela Coel before this show, but this is an outstanding breakout effort as she created, wrote, directed, and played the lead. From the very first episode you get hooked in by wanting to know who raped her. In the finale, I’ll just say I was initially disappointed, then after thinking about it some more, I liked how she went about it. In between you get some comedy from her friend Terry, but this is certainly a serious show that looks at sexual consent in the modern age of hook-up apps and MeToo. It seems unlikely this would get a second season, but the story they have already told can stand on its own.

2. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Before I watched:

The series has since fallen to #92 on IMDb, and while I would still say that may be too high on an all-time list, I must admit this was a damn fine limited series. Anya Taylor-Joy went from that interesting young actress in Split to someone who can carry a show as the lead. Her career should blow up from this performance as a fictional chess master prodigy with a history of trauma and substance abuse. While I still do not know much about chess after watching this, those match scenes are filmed so well to keep things interesting, and the show offers so much more than just her excelling at chess.

The Queen’s Gambit would be my No. 1 show if I wasn’t where I was emotionally this year. Hence…

1. Normal People (Hulu)

Binged over two nights in August, I just adored this series about two teens in Ireland who fall in love before falling out of touch, only to connect again in a series that spans years of their lives. If I was 50, married with kids, then maybe this wouldn’t have connected with me the way it did, but right now my heart is in a strange spot with such an uncertain future, and this series connected with me.

The acting feels so genuine and the two leads have great chemistry. If this were an American series, it would probably go full RomCom with silly montages and happy-go-lucky vibes, but there is a bleakness to this series and relationship that hits you hard. They did not go for a cheesy ending either.

The only complaint I would have is that the series does not pull off the sell of why Marianne is treated as practically a leper at school and why Connell has to keep her such a secret. I thought she was funny, smart, and beautiful, but maybe that’s the five-month mark of quarantine speaking for me.

It has been a long year.

Honorable Mentions

Quiz (AMC): Entertaining British mini-series starring Matthew Macfadyen (Tom on Succession) as a former army major who cheated on the British version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?

The Undoing (HBO): I had high expectations for this murder mystery because of the cast involved, but it ended up being too straightforward and practically pointless for me. Still, it is nice to see Hugh Grant shedding his RomCom skin and Nicole Kidman so content playing her “rich, white woman us common folk cannot possibly relate to” characters these days.

The Plot Against America (HBO): This was another HBO production with talented people involved (David Simon, Zoe Kazan, John Turturro) and a timely alternate history story of Charles Lindbergh becoming POTUS and the rise of fascism in America. However, it was too dull most of the time for me. I will say if you decide to stick it out, the finale is fantastic and an incredibly dark vision of what things could look like in this country if fascism took over. So in the era of Trump, that last episode definitely rated highly with me.

The Good Lord Bird (Showtime): Ethan Hawke is brilliant as abolitionist leader John Brown in this real-life story of events that led into the Civil War. I just wish they could have developed another character as interesting or just given Hawke more screen time.

Finally, here are some previous lists from past years. These would all change a little based on shows I was slow to get to or only discovered later.

Happy binging, and remember I am often bringing this stuff up on Twitter, so if you ever need a recommendation, just hit me up.