The Best TV Shows of 2020 So Far - Rolling Stone
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The Best TV Shows of 2020 So Far

Conphidance in “Little America; Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler; Ramy Youssef as Ramy

Conphidance in 'Little America,' Rhea Seehorn in 'Better Call Saul,' and Ramy Youssef in 'Ramy.'

Apple+; AMC Networks; Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

So many of the constants of American entertainment went away over the course of this very strange and frequently tragic spring. No movies (at least, not in theaters). No plays or concerts or opera. No sports. The one reassuring constant of quarantine has been television, as binges old and new replace the many activities we used to do when it was safe to go outside.

But with the COVID-19 shutdown of Hollywood soon entering its fifth month, the “new” side of that equation is about to change. While the big streamers like Netflix have some shows stockpiled, it could be lean times for broadcast and cable networks for a bit. (Don’t expect planned new seasons of Succession and Fargo, among many others, anytime soon.) If Peak TV becomes a barren valley for the rest of 2020, this list of the year’s best to date might be just as valid in December — but these shows are so damn good, it might not matter.

DAVE “Hype Man” Episode 5 (Airs Wednesday, March 25) -- Pictured: (l-r) Dave Burd as Dave, GaTa as "GaTa". CR: Ray Mickshaw/FX

Ray Mickshaw/FX

15

‘Dave’ (FXX)

What started out seeming like an elaborate joke about the male anatomy of co-creator/star Dave Burd, a.k.a. rapper Lil Dicky, soon turned out to be something much richer and more compelling in its examination of celebrity and appropriation — while still having plenty of room for dick jokes, roadkill jokes, and, of course, onscreen diarrhea. Few shows are built to go so low and so high, but Dave somehow is. Watch with free trial to Hulu.

DEVS "Episode 5” (Airs Thursday, March 26) -- Pictured: Nick Offerman as Forest. CR: Miya Mizuno/FX

Miya Mizuno/FX

14

‘Devs’ (FX on Hulu)

FX’s expansion into the streaming world via the new FX on Hulu imprint got off to a hell of a start with this creepy — and, as its writer/director Alex Garland freely admits, weird — thriller about a tech mogul (Nick Offerman) killing anyone who stands between him and his latest creation. The characterization at times felt thin (particularly regarding the confused heroine, played by Sonoya Mizuno), but the production design, the score, and all of the other creative choices made by Garland and his collaborators rendered Devs a nightmare few who watched will forget anytime soon. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.

The Great -- "The Beaver’s Nose" - Episode 110 -- Catherine’s decides to move forward with the coup on her birthday. Peter isn’t so easily overcome and holds Leo hostage as collateral. In exchange for a return to her status, Marial betrays Catherine to Peter and tells him that she is pregnant. Catherine realizes that the only chance for a greater Russia is to fight, without Leo. The battle begins. Catherine (Elle Fanning), shown. (Photo by: Andrea Pirrello/Hulu)

Andrea Pirrello/Hulu

13

‘The Great’ (Hulu)

Having already succeeded in the transition from child actor to teen (go stream 20th Century Women on Netflix, please), Elle Fanning announced her adult presence with authority in this black-comic tale of a young Catherine the Great realizing that her husband, the sadistic loser of an emperor, Peter (Nicholas Hoult, wickedly funny), needs to be deposed in order to save Russia. Fanning is asked — often within seconds of one another — to play Catherine as ludicrous, horrified, giddy, and inspiring, among other notes, and she hits them all beautifully. Without her, The Great would be perpetually on the verge of being too heavy to be funny, or too silly to be taken seriously; with her, the show very much lives up to its name. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.

Michele K. Short/HBO

12

‘The Plot Against America’ (HBO)

Art imitates life tragically imitating art. The Wire co-creators David Simon and Ed Burns adapt Philip Roth’s 2004 alternate-history novel where anti-Semitic aviator Charles Lindbergh is elected president in 1940, which now unfortunately has greater resonance in the America of our current presidential administration. Starring Zoe Kazan and Morgan Spector as Jewish spouses slowly coming to grips with being unwanted in their own country, and Winona Ryder and John Turturro as willing Lindbergh collaborators, Plot has the look of a classic film from the period, only one where nothing feels quite right, as the American dream gets perverted into something very wrong. A difficult watch in these times, but a tremendous one. Watch with a free trial to HBO.

BoJack Horseman

Netflix

11

‘BoJack Horseman’ (Netflix)

The spectacular animated tragicomedy split its final season in two, meaning we only got a few episodes in 2020, and they were for the most part not on the funnier end of BoJack‘s impressive range. But it was the sad parts that tended to make BoJack special, and the story’s concluding chapters forced our horse hero to confront his many flaws without granting him an easy way out of them. BoJack ended its run as easily the best show Netflix has given us, and that’s a title it may hold for a while, as the streaming giant moves more and more towards high-concept, short-run series that aspire to just be good enough — a habit that BoJack Horseman himself hopefully grew out of by the end of the show that bore his name.

WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS -- "The Curse" -- Season 1, Episode 4 (Airs April 29) Pictured: Kayvan Novak as Nandor, Natasia Demetriou as Nadja, Matt Berry as Laszlo.  CR: Russ Martin/FX

Russ Martin/FX

10

‘What We Do in the Shadows’ (FX)

This mockumentary about a trio of vampires (Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Kayvan Novak) living on Staten Island — along with a superhumanly dull “energy vampire” (Mark Proksch) and a human familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) — remains the exact kind of stupidity we need in these scary times. Season Two hit absurd new highs (or lows, depending on your point of view), including Guillermo grappling with the discovery that he was literally born to kill the undead, the vamps mistaking their neighbor’s Super Bowl party for a “superb owl party,” and, especially, Berry’s Laszlo turning fugitive and adopting a new identity as small-town bartender and high-school girls’ volleyball enthusiast Jackie Daytona. (Even better: His “disguise” is a toothpick… and it actually works!) As explosively funny a half-hour as you can find.

High Fidelity -- "Top Five Heartbreaks" - Episode 101 -- After a first date gone wrong with Clyde, a “nice guy,” record store owner Rob Brooks recounts her Top Five Heartbreaks and a recent emotional run in with her past. Robyn (Zoë Kravitz) and Mac (Kingsley Ben-Adir), shown. (Photo by: Phillip Caruso/Hulu)

Phillip Caruso/Hulu

9

‘High Fidelity’ (Hulu)

A very high bar was set for the Zoë Kravitz vehicle, which is based on a beloved book (by Nick Hornby) that was already translated into a beloved film (with John Cusack). But as a record-store owner navigating various romantic failures, Kravitz was just so charismatic, and the chemistry between her and shop employees played by David H. Holmes and Da’Vine Joy Randolph so joyous, that it felt like the best kind of cover song: one that only increases your appreciation of the original, even as you hear new things in it for the first time in years. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.

THE GOOD PLACE -- "Patty" Episode 412 -- Pictured: (l-r) Jameela Jamil as Tahani, Manny Jacinto as Jason, D'Arcy Carden as Janet, Kristen Bell as Eleanor, William Jackson Harper as Chidi -- (Photo by: Colleen Hayes/NBC)

Colleen Hayes/NBC

8

‘The Good Place’ (NBC)

Like BoJackThe Good Place only aired a handful of episodes this year while concluding its run. They just happened to be among this great series’ most wonderful, kind, ridiculous, and hopeful installments, as Team Cockroach figured out how to fix the afterlife and make all of reality a whole lot more fair and happy. (If only our own world were that easy to fix!) If you need a minute to compose yourself after thinking about the lovely final sequence — which somehow summed up the meaning of life with the phrase “Take it sleazy” — we can wait till whenever you’re ready.

Apple +

7

‘Little America’ (AppleTV+)

Easily the best of Apple’s early entries into the streaming wars, this anthology series tells real-life stories of American immigrants that in any given moment can be heartwarming or heartbreaking, and often both at the same time. There’s the spelling-bee champ forced to run his family’s Utah motel while his parents are sent to India to re-petition for asylum. The Nigerian-born college student who styles himself as a cowboy to make friends in Oklahoma. The gay Syrian refugee who finds a new home in Idaho. With each episode, the series finds lovely new ways to illustrate the American dream, even as its heroes and heroines have to make do with the more complex reality they found when they got here.

Ramy -- "can you hear me now?" - Episode 202 -- i’m starting to think those guys at Verizon had a point. Sheikh Ali Malik (Mahershala Ali) and Ramy (Ramy Youssef), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

6

‘Ramy’ (Hulu)

Ramy Hassan the character has a vague idea about what he wants out of life — to be a better Muslim, and thus a better person — and very little idea of how to accomplish that goal. Ramy Youssef — who plays the fictional Ramy and helps write and direct his misadventures — has a crystal-clear idea how he and his collaborators should tell Ramy’s story in one of TV’s most consistently remarkable half-hours. Season Two added the great Mahershala Ali as Ramy’s new spiritual guru, who didn’t realize until it was far too late that he had taken on an enormous fixer-upper. The series remains just as potent, if not more so, when its title character takes a back seat to his family and friends, so that Ramy never feels like one narrow snapshot of being Muslim American, but a much wider and more complicated tapestry. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.

BETTER THINGS "Listen to the Roosters” Episode 10 (Airs Thursday, April 30) -- Pictured: Pamela Adlon as Sam Fox. CR: Suzanne Tenner/FX

Suzanne Tenner/FX

5

‘Better Things’ (FX)

The first three years of Pamela Adlon’s autobiographical dramedy portrayed her alter ego Sam as a saintly single mother whose daughters had turned out to be insufferable despite her best efforts. Season Four finally saw Sam’s heroic efforts paying off with all three girls; as they matured, they found their concern turning toward their mom as she grappled with a midlife crisis that seemed more suited to her useless ex-husband. (She even replaced her minivan with a muscle car!) An absolute gem that continues to make the smallest moments overflow with big emotion.

Eduardo Castaldo/HBO

4

‘My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name’ (HBO)

Few shows in television history offer scenery quite as beautiful, let alone as lushly photographed, as this continuing adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels. But those gorgeous seascapes and piazzas are harshly contrasted by the ugliness in the foreground, both between former childhood best friends Lenu (Margherita Mazzucco) and Lila (Gaia Girace) and between each young woman and the many horrible men in their lives. Where the adventurous Lila finds herself trapped in a bad marriage to a temperamental gangster she does not love, Lenu willfully blinds herself to her friend’s suffering and to how useless and small all these guys are. Each episode is sad, angry, wistful, and poetic. Consider this series one of the great treasures of the more-international model of television that’s developed over the past few years.

Normal People -- Episode 8 - Episode 108 -- It’s the summer holidays and Connell (Paul Mescal) and Niall (Desmond Eastwood) arrive at Marianne’s (Daisy Edgar-Jones) family house in Italy. The obvious chemistry between Connell and Marianne causes friction with Jamie (Fionn O’Shea), despite Connell’s evident happiness with his girlfriend Helen (Aoife Hinds), who he clearly misses.   Peggy (India Mullen) cooks the group a lavish meal but tensions run high. During dinner, Jamie drinks too much and picks a fight with Marianne. Connell breaks it up and attempts to soothe Marianne. Marianne stays in Connell’s room that night to get away from Jamie. They talk and almost kiss, but Marianne puts a stop to it before it goes any further. , shown. (Photo by Enda Bowe/Hulu)

Enda Bowe/Hulu

3

‘Normal People’ (Hulu)

Boy meets girl. Boy loves girl but messes everything up. Boy and girl keep reconnecting, as friends and/or lovers, as they grow into adulthood. No, the broad strokes of this miniseries version of Sally Rooney’s bestseller — where the boy is small-town Irish jock-turned-writer Connell (Paul Mescal) and the girl is his classmate, nerd-turned-queen-bee Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) — aren’t anything new. But the execution by Rooney and her collaborators (including directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald) makes Normal People feel achingly specific to this couple, their profound connection — never has the sound of two people breathing been a more crucial part of a television show — and the reasons why Happily Ever After keeps proving so elusive. Intimate and unforgettable. Watch with a free trial to Hulu here.

Hank Azaria as Jim Brockmire - Brockmire _ Season 4, Episode 2 - Photo Credit: Jace Downs/IFC

Jace Downs/IFC

2

‘Brockmire’ (IFC)

It’s the end of the world as we know it, and I feel . . . amused? The Hank Azaria baseball comedy jumped ahead to 2030 for its final season, presenting a pre-apocalyptic future that was simultaneously horrifying and reassuring. On the one hand, it’s a period when the planet has been ravaged by climate change, and economic inequality has grown so severe that professional baseball telecasts feature ads offering to euthanize people so their organs can be harvested to pay off their crippling debt from predatory loans. On the other, baseball is at least still being played, sort of, with Jim Brockmire made commissioner in a last-ditch bid to save the sport — and, by extension, America. Tragic and hilarious (see this description of the iconic Law & Order actor Jerry Orbach: “Imagine if a loaf of rye bread came to life and started arresting everybody”) in equal measure.

Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy McGill, Rhea Seehorn as Kim Wexler - Better Call Saul _ Season 5, Episode 7 - Photo Credit: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures Television

1

‘Better Call Saul’ (AMC)

The Breaking Bad prequel had long been two shows running on parallel tracks: amiable shyster Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) building a legal career while romancing unflappable lawyer Kim (Rhea Seehorn), and ex-cop Mike (Jonathan Banks) slowly immersing himself in the local drug game run by Gus Fring (Gian-carlo Esposito). In Season Five, the two storylines finally started intersecting, and eventually merged, including a couple of gripping encounters between Kim and charismatic cartel boss Lalo (Tony Dalton, a fantastic late addition to the franchise). Suddenly, no corner of the show is safe. And the notion that Kim could be the one to break bad — maybe even worse than when sketchy-but-decent scam artist Jimmy turns into heartless consigliere Saul Goodman full-time — is an idea as exciting as it is terrifying. The tale of Walter White going from teacher to kingpin may be more inherently thrilling than Jimmy’s transformation, but after spending nearly 15 years in this world, the Saul creative team has only gotten better at telling its stories — meaning Saul now rivals, and at times surpasses, its legendary parent.

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