Is the year halfway over already? Just kidding, 2020 will never be over. Fortunately, the TV industry managed to produce dozens of excellent shows before the coronavirus caused a wide-spread (and ongoing) production shutdown. Here, EW TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich each name their 10 favorite series from 2020’s first half — and that includes some nostalgic comfort viewing.
10. Little House on the Prairie/Comfort TV
LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE
Credit: Everett Collection
It’s been a rough year — and for many of us, TV served as the easiest, and most comforting, escape route. This could be why my DVR is currently filled with episodes of Little House on the Prairie, which reruns weekdays on UPtv (8 a.m.–2 p.m.) and Hallmark Drama (4 p.m.–9 p.m.). There is no setting more soothing in all of TV-dom than quaint Walnut Grove, Minn., where little Laura “Half-Pint” Ingalls (Melissa Gilbert) and her family settle after moving from their farm in Kansas in the series premiere. Sure, the Ingalls clan faces some hardships — Laura and her sister Mary (Melissa Sue Anderson) are constantly teased by the town rich girl, Nellie Oleson (Alison Arngrim) for being “poor” — but they also have wonderfully thrilling, low-stakes adventures. Laura befriends the scary town “hermit” and realizes he’s actually a kind old man (season 2, episode 3)! Mary gives Laura a baby raccoon after accidentally breaking her doll — but “Jasper” contracts rabies (season 1, episode 10)! Johnny and June Carter Cash guest star as a charismatic conman and his wife (season 3, episode 1)! Even when Laura or and her family face heartache — gah, don’t even get me started on the blind school fire in season 6! — they always have their loving patriarch, Charles “Pa” Ingalls (the incomparable Michael Landon), to pull them through with a warm hug and words of wisdom. We could all use a little more Pa in our lives, especially now.
Motherhood, race, class, conformity, getting your mopey teen to wear ugly plaid Keds for the family Christmas card — Hulu’s adaptation of the Celeste Ng’s best-seller tackles all the big issues. Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington face off as two very different moms in the well-to-do suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio — which is either a bucolic utopia or a community thrumming with subtextual misery and repressed bias, depending on who you ask. Though the series opens with a mystery — who set fire to Elena’s big, beautiful house? — by the end, the only question is why someone didn’t burn her world to the ground sooner.
What is the nature of human existence? I sure as hell don’t know, but this philosophical suspense thriller from Alex Garland pulled me in with a much simpler question: How far would a bereaved father and husband (Nick Offerman) go to be reunited with his family? Devs — whose excellent cast includes Sonoya Mizuno, Alison Pill, Zach Grenier, and Jin Ha — is a dreamy murder-mystery, a wrenching tale of romance on the run, a twisty spy saga, a chilling sci-fi cautionary tale about AI. The limited series is almost impossible to explain, but it’s electrifying to experience.
Don’t let the recent casting change dissuade you from checking out this enchanting animated series from Josh Gad (Frozen) and Bob’s Burgers impresarios Loren Bouchard and Nora Smith. Ostensibly a comedy about park manager Owen Tillerman (Leslie Odom Jr.) and his family of loving weirdos, each episode of Central Park is really a mini-Broadway musical, as the Tillermans face challenges both municipal and emotional, while belting out remarkably catchy, plotline-advancing tunes. The show premiered in May, but I still find myself humming “Garbage Ballet,” a pining ballad about trash collection penned by Cyndi Lauper and William Whitman. And you’ll never walk the dog again without thinking of Tituss Burgess, as Owen’s animal-loving son Cole, rapping his heart out on “Poops I’ll Pick it Up.”
One of the many wonderful things about this crackerjack coming-of-age comedy from Mindy Kaling is how frankly it explores the concept of female anger. Fifteen-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan, in a star-making turn) is pretty much always pissed off — and with good reason. Her dad Mohan (Sendhil Ramamurthy) died unexpectedly, her mom Nalini (Poorna Jagannathan) is always pushing her to be a better Hindu, and her gorgeous cousin Kamala (Richa Moorjani) is irritatingly perfect. Of course, underneath all of Devi’s anger (voiced brilliantly by narrator/hothead extraordinaire John McEnroe) is a lot of sadness, insecurity, and hormonal adolescent anxiety. Fortunately, another thing Never Have I Ever does exceptionally well is depict the palliative power of female friendships: Eleanor (Ramona Young) and Fabiola (Lee Rodriguez) support Devi through her grief — and remind her that good BFFs think about each other, not just themselves.
Comedy is hard, and broadcast TV comedy is even harder — yet seven seasons in, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is still the most consistently funny situation comedy around. This year Brooklyn brought us a new baby, a major death, and one very daring doggie rescue. Did we mention Captain Holt (Andre Braugher, bringing new life to the art of deadpan every damn day) did an entire hip-hop dance routine? Silly and aspirational, ridiculous and thoroughly humane, Brooklyn Nine-Nine is Parks and Recreation by way of Police Squad!.
Credit: Suzanne Tenner/FX
For Pete’s sake, people, if you still haven’t checked out Pamela Adlon’s richly observed, episodic, slice-of-life series, what are you waiting for — a global pandemic? There are four full seasons of almost indescribable brilliance — about motherhood, work-life, middle age, driving, cooking, letting go — sitting in the cloud, just waiting to be experienced. For those who’ve been following Sam Fox (Adlon) and her family since Things premiered in 2016, season four delivered a long-awaited reckoning for Xander (Matthew Glave), Sam’s ex and her daughters’ absentee father. Watching Sam’s best friend Rich (Diedrich Bader) tear into Xander for years of casual neglect was supremely, gloriously satisfying.
Can a lie become the truth through repetition and sheer force of will? That’s the question at the center of the dark (really dark) comedy’s third season. No longer just an aimless millennial, Dory Seiferth (Alia Shawkat) is now an accused murderer — but the scariest thing about Dory is how deeply and completely she believes in her innocence despite knowing for a fact that she’s guilty. No one does flashy, solipsistic entitlement like John Early (as Elliott Goss, not his real name), and NCIS: New Orleans’ Shalita Grant gives one of the best physical-comedy performances of the year as Dory’s lawyer – and expert gesticulator – Cassidy Diamond. Catch up if you haven’t — Search Party is a timely, ruthlessly hilarious satire of hate-bait culture and our society’s continued abdication of personal responsibility.
What really happened to Jeffrey Epstein? We’ll probably never know — but at least we know what The Good Fight writers think happened to the notorious, obscenely wealthy, convicted pedophile. From its mind-bending season premiere (an alternate reality where Hillary Clinton won in 2016) to its cuckoo-banana-pants finale (you’ll never think of the name “Bud” the same way again), season 4 produced some truly disorienting entertainment. While the ongoing “Memo 618” thread — about a top-secret document granting all-purpose immunity to the rich and powerful — felt a bit overwrought, creators Robert and Michelle King conjured a vivid, terrifying depiction of an America where the rule of law simply… doesn’t.
This season, Saul Goodman walked into the desert a small-time lawyer looking for a big score, and walked out a severely sunburned, irreparably soul-shattered “friend of the cartel.” In its penultimate season, Better Call Saul remained a storytelling miracle, with star Bob Odenkirk rendering Saul’s inner transformation through outward bombast (“I travel in worlds you can’t even imagine!”) and silent, almost palpable dread. I’ve already raved at length about the absolute majesty of Rhea Seehorn’s performance as Kim Wexler, and man, how delightfully terrifying was Tony Dalton as Saul’s drug-lord client Lalo Salamanca? (No one can make a simple greeting — “Hey, guys!” — sound more ominous.) Argue all you want about whether Better Call Saul is better than Breaking Bad (it is). In 2020, this show is the best game in town.
10. Columbo/Comfort TV
Imagine a cop show where the policeman never carries a gun. Now imagine that all the villains are terrible, rich people, their fabulous crimes against luxurious humanity carefully investigated by a muttering oddball who drives a crappy car. I’m a recent convert to the impossible charms of Peter Falk’s long-running procedural, which has become a new kind of escapist thrill these days. The Los Angeles locations are inevitably glorious, so many twisty murders in fancy houses and cool locations full of characters who don’t have to worry about surges in positive testing. I want to go to there! Columbo himself is a demilitarized dream of trustworthy law enforcement, played by the ever-sparkly Falk with wry charm and rueful moral purpose. Reruns air on MeTV, or you can find it streaming on IMDb TV and available for purchase on Amazon.
Batman has been parodied, exalted, deconstructed, darkened, lightened, romanticized, demonized, LEGO-ified, versus Superman-ified. Yet there’s an ecstatic feeling of new discovery running throughout Harley Quinn, a snarly upending of the Caped Crusader mythos that blends gory parody with brainy satire and a surprisingly sweet depiction of crazy love. All the vocal performances are great, but I’m especially partial to Lake Bell’s sardonic Poison Ivy and Ron Funches’ impossibly likable King Shark. Worth the subscription to a less-heralded streaming service, and pray to Darkseid for a third season.
8. The Trip to Greece (Sky One/On Demand)
One final road odyssey with Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan, comedians playing themselves as friend-adjacent travelers pondering middle age over lavish meals and frantic impressions. Greece finds the pair facing mortality among the ruins, re-enacting Socrates’ suicide when they aren’t facing off with dueling Pacino impressions. The whole Trip series is a gem of entertainment, simultaneously modest and lavish in its depiction of two cheerfully flawed guys engaging with faraway places while they talk around how much they love (and hate) each other. All four Trips make a lovely watch now, whether in the international feature releases or the original UK episodic cuts (which I prefer).
7. My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name (HBO)
My Brilliant Friend
Credit: Eduardo Castaldo/HBO
Saverio Costanzo’s lush, scathing adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan epic continues, as best friends Lila (Gaia Girace) and Lenù (Margherita Mazzucco) experience the horrors of teen life in the working-class ‘60s. Bad marriage and tormented love affairs play out alongside an expanding view of society changing around the young women. My Brilliant Friend can look like a vacation — a quarter of the season took place on an island getaway! — which makes its deep sorrow and palpable rage even more invigorating.
I struggled a bit with the closing half-season of this great showbiz cartoon. Bojack (Will Arnett) saw old mistakes come back to destroy him. His new lows marked new highs, as the series dramatized #MeToo ethics in ways that were surprising, inevitable, and predictive. Meanwhile, the supporting cast scattered, moving on to new phases of their life as if their time with Bojack was already a bad memory. And then the last couple episodes pulled back from the void, with an ending that really emphasized the “sweet” in “bittersweet.” Could the final act have been a bit sharper? I’ll always wonder, but Bojack’s on this list for a reason. We will never see its like again, this impossible hybrid concoction of animated farce and American tragedy, right down to the ultimate Camus-goes-to-SoCal suggestion that imprisonment sets you free (and is great for your career).
5. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)
I see Kristen’s skepticism about Memo 618 and raise her my confusion with the corporate takeover of Good Fight‘s central law firm. Both of those arcs only really started coming to fruition right when COVID-19 forced season 4 to wrap three episodes early. Let’s mark them as “wait and see” — and let’s appreciate how, episode-to-episode, Good Fight is the best-oiled machine for whipsmart explorations of our American breakdown, balancing bold investigations into legal gray areas with smart inquisitions into our surreal new normal. Even if you’ve never seen a single episode of this wonder show, check out that inadvertent season finale, “The Gang Discovers Who Killed Jeffrey Epstein,” which is even crazier (and sadder) than the title suggests.
Desus & Mero (screen grab)Desus and MeroCR: Showtime
Do I seem a little down on the things that I love, finding reasons to criticize shows that are literally on my Ten Best list? It’s been that kind of year, frankly: A bad time for everything, television included. Thank goodness for Daniel “Desus Nice” Baker and Joel “The Kid Mero” Martinez, whose chatty riffs became Appointment Sanity as our species entered the quarantine phase of our existence. Desus & Mero owned the At Home format better than anyone in Late Night by welcoming us into their twice-weekly Zoom sessions, Desus checking in from his sneaker trophy room, Mero hiding from his flock of kids. The laughs kept coming — and when the hosts officiated a raucous Rona Wedding, all three of my eyes were crying.
3. The Plot Against America (HBO)
A white supremacist gets elected President and starts palling around with dictators while making life harder on repressed minorities. The Trump parallels were inevitable in this blistering miniseries, even if Philip Roth wrote his novel before The Apprentice even added celebrities. But the power of this six-part saga was its intimate focus, with Zoe Kazan and Morgan Spector as a everyday Jersey mom and pop shepherding their Jewish American family through the bleak Lindbergh administration. Creators David Simon and Ed Burns have earned the right to burn slowly — they made The Wire, for f—’s sake — and their graceful pacing pays off in the final hour, a stunning portrait of America on fire with fear. We’ve been living in that hour all year.
2. The Midnight Gospel (Netflix)
And now for something completely different: An eye-poppingly gorgeous far-out cartoon about life, the universe, and everything. Co-creator Pendleton Ward previously launched the ever-delightful Adventure Time into the kid cosmos. Midnight Gospel is all that plus a philosophy degree. Co-creator Duncan Trussell voices Clancy, a hermetic simulation farmer in an impossibly lysergic future who spends his days interviewing people on dying worlds. Ward was inspired by Trussell’s podcast, which is where much of the dialogue actually comes from. Yet the series has a magic that goes beyond those Frankenstein-ish origins. Every second brings a new funny-freaky visual, while the woozy conversations make big ideas feel positively cozy.
1. Better Call Saul (AMC)
Kristen has already perfectly praised our mutual #1, so I only have one thing to add. We’re living through a miserable period for TV drama, defined by budgetary excess, go-nowhere storytelling, the not-always-healthy influx of star personalities, and a general feeling that everything has to be bigger, crazier, more. Whereas: In the best season yet for the best prequel ever, a minor dispute over a construction project in Tucumcari spiraled patiently into a miniature epic of lies and betrayal. Mesa Verde forever!