20 for 2020: The Top TV/Video Content of the Year (Part 2)

By Ed Martin Report Archives
Cover image for  article: 20 for 2020: The Top TV/Video Content of the Year (Part 2)

Given the hardships of 2020, it seems almost unfair to indulge in the annual ritual of identifying the year's best, because for much of the past 12 months television and video success were all about which company or individual had the most content in the can when life as we knew it unexpectedly and abruptly slammed to a stop. As a result, in most situations our viewing patterns and preferences were not the usual. Still, in the interest of maintaining a degree of normalcy wherever possible, I'm going to stick with tradition and identify my favorites. The first part of this two-part column listed my picks for the No. 11-No. 20 shows. Here, in reverse order, are my Top 10.

No. 10 – The Crown (Netflix) Netflix's signature prestige drama didn't need a boost, but it received one anyway with the season four addition to its mighty canvas of Emma Corrin as Princess Diana and Gillian Anderson as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. It may seem a bit melodramatic or over-stuffed at times, but not really, given that Diana commanded the world stage (and global media) from the time of her storybook wedding to Charles, Prince of Wales in 1981 to her horrifying sudden death in 1997, one year after her marriage ended. Thatcher was never out of the news during the Eighties, either. No scripted program could fully deliver the daily real-life drama of the royal family during that era -- I mean, you had to be there -- but even for those of us who remember it The Crown came close enough to engage and enthrall all over again.

No. 9 – Schitt's Creek (Pop) Like Breaking Bad before it, this lively little original -- a series unlike any that had come before -- went largely unknown during its early seasons and then (thanks to Netflix) became a pop-culture sensation toward the end. Also, like Bad, it couldn't happen to a more deserving group of people, especially star and co-creator Eugene Levy, who has been entertaining us for decades, his son and co-star Dan (who created the show) and his timelessly cool longtime partner in comedy Catherine O'Hara. And talk about going out on top: Schitt's this year made history by sweeping every major comedy category at the Emmy Awards, something no other sitcom has ever done.

    

No. 8 – Emily in Paris (Netflix) Of course it wasn't planned this way, but this rom-com from Darren Starr, the co-creator of Sex and the City, in October provided a sparkling diversion from the miseries of 2020 with the story of a spunky young social media whiz (Lily Collins, above left) sent to Paris (where the series is filmed) to further build her company's brand. Come for the comedy and light drama, stay for the gorgeous scenery in glorious high definition. (It's almost like being there.) Emily is a little tame when compared to Sex, but that restraint is part of its disarming charm.

No. 7 – The Dodo (Instagram) In happier times, the Instagram feed for Group Nine Media's The Dodo made my days. During the pandemic it has given me life. If taking brief breaks throughout your day to watch short videos in which compassionate people interrupt their busy lives to help all kinds of animals and other creatures large and small that are in trouble doesn't make you feel better about everything, move along … and call your doctor … in that order.

No. 6 – Better Things (FX) Pamela Adlon's searing, insightful FX comedy about a sufficiently successful actress and single mom raising three daughters just gets better with age. She is the co-creator, head writer, director and star of the show, making Better Things the best example I can come up with right now of someone being allowed to translate their vision to the small screen without a lot of network or studio interference. The results have been extraordinary. The real strength of this show is in its deeply personal (and sometimes painful) details. That just doesn't happen unless an artist is left alone to do her thing.

No. 5 – Ozark (Netflix) If I had to name the best performance of the year by an actor in an ongoing drama series it would probably be that of the frightfully talented Tom Pelphrey (pictured above) as Wendy Byrne's bi-polar brother Ben in season three of the increasingly gripping Ozark. He was so convincing that his storyline was almost documentary-like. Oddly, he was not nominated for an Emmy Award for capturing Ben's crippling complexities, and (spoiler alert) given what happened to his character he won't get the opportunity again. At least we still have Laura Linney's ferocious portrayal of Wendy -- a woman torn asunder by her own dark drive--to power us through the next two seasons. What a dynamic pair they were. Their scenes together, especially toward the end of the season, had the same pulse-pounding power that James Gandolfini and Edie Falco brought to their more combustible scenes on The Sopranos.

No. 4 – The Queen's Gambit (Netflix) Count me among the many people who have never played chess and know nothing about the game and therefore assumed that a limited series about a young chess prodigy would redefine the concept of tedium TV. Just the opposite; The Queen's Gambit was arguably the most compelling character drama of 2020 and the coolest Cold War-era period piece since Mad Men. It made chess thrilling (for those of us on the outside), advanced the career of a marvelous young actress (hypnotic Anya Taylor-Joy, above right) and told a smashingly good story that was consistently satisfying from its turbulent beginning to its thoughtful conclusion and at all points in between (an accomplishment that isn't as common as one might think). Engage with it as you watch, or simply sit back and enjoy. Gambit works either way.

No. 3 – Mrs. America (FX on Hulu) As I thought at the time, the series featured during the best panel at the Winter 2020 Television Critics Association tour turned out to be the best scripted program of the year, and certainly one of the most timely and topical. The ‘70s-era history lesson that informs the narrative -- about the struggles of early feminists and activists to get the Equal Rights Amendment ratified in 38 states and the efforts of combative conservative Phyliss Schlafly and her supporters to stop them -- remains relevant to this day. At the TCA press conference I was stunned by how many of the younger reporters around me knew nothing about Schlafly, Bella Abzug, Shirley Chisolm, Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem, nor the history of the movement behind the ERA. I mean, it wasn’t that long ago when these women dominated the social and political landscape. Brava to the exceptional women in the cast, including Cate Blanchette (pictured above) as Schlafly, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba, Tracey Ullman, Rose Byrne, Sarah Paulson, Elizabeth Banks and Jeanne Tripplehorn.

No. 2 – Real Time with Bill Maher (HBO, pictured at top) For the first time in its 19 seasons Bill Maher's Friday-night HBO talk show became an essential watch. I don't know about you, but during the first few months of our collective quarantine I spent entirely too much time watching coverage of COVID, BLM, the presidential campaign and other horrors on the cable news networks. I was seeking balanced reporting and clear information, but all I got was a series of headaches. What the hell was I thinking? It fell to Maher to deliver what I was looking for, especially where COVID was concerned. Week after week he did remote interviews with medical experts who explained what I needed to know and put me at relative ease. (Information will do that.) Nobody else on television so boldly challenges the behavior of both sides (or should I say "all sides") of the issues that are increasingly weighing us all down. I would name Real Time the Program of the Year, but as you will see below, I am going a different route this time.

No. 1 – Every program that remained in or quickly resumed production in safe and responsible ways after the abrupt lockdown back in March.I don't think it's right to single out a Program of the Year for 2020, because under these extreme circumstances they should all be recognized in some way. No matter what a certain magazine might tell us, I truly believe that Essential Workers -- from doctors and nurses to grocery clerks and trash collectors -- deserve collective recognition as Persons of the Year. Along those lines, and with respect, let's take a moment to thank our own little subset of heroes. I'm using this space to honor all the critically important workers in our industry – from the crews to the creative staffs to the on-camera hosts, actors, anchors and other participants who kept things going, allowed us cherished moments of something resembling normalcy, provided important information safely away from internet distortion and entertained us when we really needed it, all the while dealing with the hazards of COVID themselves. (That includes the people who work on news programs, sports, soaps, daytime and late-night talk shows, game shows, reality shows and all forms of scripted home entertainment on broadcast, cable and streaming.) They may not have saved our minds, but they surely saved our sanity. Thank you!

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