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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.

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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