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Our annual list of the year's most binge-worthy series
Seen anything good lately? The more relevant question, given the whole Stay Home, Do Nothing vibe of this year, is probably whether there’s anything left that you haven’t seen.
But of course there is: programming is spread out over so many streaming platforms, and in such quantity, that it’s hard to keep up with everything released in a given week, let alone a calendar year. Check out our list of the best 25 TV shows of 2020 to see if you missed anything – and if you have, don’t feel bad about it! You’re about to discover your new favourite show.
Michaela Coel’s latest TV series pushes the boundaries of TV storytelling in much the same way as its characters are examining boundaries in their lives and relationships. Coel created, stars in, wrote, co-directed and executive produced I May Destroy You, a wild and discursive ride through the psyche of London-based writer and social media star Arabella, who is sexually assaulted the night before a major professional deadline. Over 12 episodes, this event will send Arabella careening inwards and outwards, complicating prescribed narratives around class, race, consent, liberation, exploitation and victimhood. Coel seems averse to moralizing. She takes some of the most polarizing conversations of the past several years and probes them with unflinching honesty and manic stylistic flights into dark comedy that make the most of her wonderfully physical acting style. Everyone is a victim, everyone is a culprit and, often, their own worst enemy. Above all, I May Destroy You is a potent and brilliantly timed appeal for empathy and understanding.
When we got hooked: Episode 2, Someone Is Lying
Jason Sudeikis created the role of Ted Lasso – a cheerful but clueless American football coach hired to manage an English Premier League team, apparently by mistake – for an NBC Sports ad campaign back in 2013. And now, Sudeikis has expanded that blip of a concept into the year’s most purely pleasurable comedy: A fish-out-of-water show about a character so genuinely nice and compassionate that he ends up making everyone he meets into a better version of themselves. Think of Paddington, but with a guy from Kansas City instead of a bear – and a lot more swearing. In short, it’s the show I didn’t know I needed this year.
When we got hooked: Episode 3, Trent Crimm, The Independent
With only six episodes, each less than 25 minutes, Feel Good is an easy binge-watch. The semi-autobiographical series written by and starring Canadian comedian Mae Martin delivers you the laughs and chemistry of a solid (and queer!) romantic comedy with the added bonus of realistic character and story development. For a show dealing with drug addiction and sexuality-related shame, all intertwined with the pitfalls of the kind of new relationship we don’t often see on TV, it’s still delightfully warm and packed with tender moments of reflection.
When we got hooked: Episode 1
Michelle Latimer and Tony Elliott’s adaptation of the Eden Robinson novel Son Of A Trickster is proof that Canadian content that does right by representation doesn’t have to feel like a chore. Trickster is thrilling, comical and beautiful. Doing away with the fake politeness that persists on Canada’s primetime, this stab at the YA genre is an expletive-heavy and politically loaded series about a molly-peddling BC teen (Joel Oulette) who discovers the power and purpose of his ancestry. The ensemble cast is wonderful but it’s Crystle Lightning who leaves us awestruck. Her revealing performance as a tender but fierce Indigenous mother is bottled up history, trauma, love and strength.
When we got hooked: Episode 2
Central character Ramy (Ramy Youseff) continues his self-searching quest to be a better Muslim and a better person but never stops self-sabotaging. The addition of Mahershala Ali as the no-nonsense Sheikh Ali Malik, who Ramy thirstily chooses as his spirit guide, takes this sleeper comedy to another level in season two. Standalone detours for Ramy’s sister Dena, mother Maysa and blustery bigot Uncle Naseem never abandon the show’s mix of empathetic humanity and laugh-out-loud absurdity. Bonus points for casting Toronto comedian Dave Merheje as one of Ramy’s always-advising best friends.
When we got hooked: Episode 1, Bay’ah
High Fidelity – the novel, the movie and now this series – is about the solipsistic emotional damage that comes from filtering your deepest inner self through the same top-five filter you use to order your record collection. Yes, there’s a certain irony to ranking the show at number six. Unfortunately a one-season wonder after a surprise cancellation, High Fidelity is an adaptation of both the 2000 film and 1995 novel of the same name. With Zoe Kravitz in John Cusack’s old role as a charismatic sad-sack record store clerk, this version takes a sharper look at the self-centred assholery of her emotional quest. It’s also a perfect quarantine hangout show, with every role well-cast (including former MuchMusic VJ Rainbow Sun Francks!), good music and plenty of familiar banter.
When we got hooked: Episode 5, Uptown
Moordale High’s collection of loveable oddball characters are back, fumbling through their teenage anxieties. Otis (Asa Butterfield) continues his stint as a pseudo sex therapist but has some competition from his mother (Gillian Anderson), the actual sex therapist who unknowingly steals his clients. Sex Education has the candour of late-aughts British teen shows The Inbetweeners and Skins, but with a dream-world effect from its warm kitschiness and callbacks to the 80s. Season two does a lot in eight episodes, tackling sexual assault, sexual exploration and orientation and asexuality. Sex ed isn’t just for the kids – the adults need all the help they can get, too.
When we got hooked: Episode 6
Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s Netflix teen series about a hormonal and insecure Indian-American teen named Devi is earnest and corny at first. But then the show that made Maitreyi Ramakrishnan a star eventually hits unexpected comic, emotional and cultural notes with gags involving spirit coyotes, sarees and the debate team. Never Have I Ever’s heart and generosity shows in episode six’s completely unexpected flip, taking on the perspective of Devi’s nemesis: a rich white boy named Ben (Jaren Lewison). We step into Devi’s home in Ben’s shoes, seeing her family anew. The scene is hilarious, layered and bracingly empathetic in ways we almost never see.
When we got hooked: Episode 6, …been the loneliest boy in the world
Just when we were getting RuPaul’s Drag Race fatigue Canada’s Drag Race came along and reminded us of the reality franchise’s scrappy roots (Hello, all those design challenges). Were there blips and backlash? Yes. But the well-cast series delivered breakout stars, surprising twists, shady watercooler moments and one of the best Snatch Games in Drag Race herstory. The series had a nice mix of punk and polish, with many non-Toronto queens often leaving the biggest high-heeled impressions. Overall, queer CanCon excellence.
When we got hooked: Episode 3, Not Sorry Aboot It
The Disney+ Star Wars spinoff – a ridiculously satisfying riff on the Westerns and samurai movies that inspired George Lucas’s beloved space opera – achieved pop-culture domination in its first season with the whole Baby Yoda thing, and become a Canadian media sensation this year when Kim’s Convenience star (and veteran Star Wars cosplayer) Paul Sun-Hyung Lee turned up as kind-hearted New Republic pilot Carson Teva. And the show around them continues to be a remarkably elastic combination of deep-dive fan service and delightful space adventure. Wait, was that Timothy Olyphant as a space marshal wearing Boba Fett’s armour? Of course it was. And this is one of the best TV shows of 2020.
When we got hooked: Chapter 1: The Mandalorian
If, at the beginning of Vince Gilligan’s Breaking Bad prequel, you didn’t know how the flawed but likeable Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) could morph into the soulless huckster Saul Goodman, this season – the penultimate one – added lots of revealing and tragic layers. It also made us understand what Jimmy’s girlfriend, Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), gets out of the bargain. With the drug cartel plotline now in full swing and a terrifying antagonist in Lalo Salamanca (Tony Dalton), the final season, whenever it comes, will be explosive. Glenn Sumi
The TV version of Crystal Moselle’s excellent 2018 movie Skate Kitchen lightly reboots the story of New York City skateboarders by smartly leaning into the natural charm and charisma of its non-professional cast. There’s more traditional dramatic arc this time, but Betty maintain’s the movie’s smart observations on communication and emotional vulnerability among friends, as well as the rich atmosphere that will make you seriously wistful for pre-COVID summer in the city. KR
Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s brilliant satire ended with its anthropomorphic horse hero (voiced with cranky melancholy by Will Arnett) grappling with decades of self-destructive and generally destructive behaviour – and the damage he’s done to his friends and his career – for a conclusion that felt entirely appropriate while offering genuine surprises. And of course this season brought back a number of the show’s dead characters; BoJack has been haunted by them all along. NW
David Simon’s six-part HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 novel trades the author’s Bush II metaphor for a clear Trump allegory, spinning a disturbingly convincing alternate history where Charles Lindbergh defeats FDR in 1940, starting America on the path to fascism. Homeland’s Morgan Spector and The Deuce’s Zoe Kazan are well-matched as Herman and Elizabeth Levin, a Newark couple trying to ride out the slow-motion crisis, and the show ends on exactly the same note of desperate hope we’re all experiencing right now. NW
The beloved, endlessly gif-able sitcom ended its run in a shower of glory, with happy endings for everyone both on- and off-screen. And not only did everything work out just fine for the squabbling Rose family, but the people who play them – Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Dan Levy and Annie Murphy – all won Emmys for their performances in an unprecedented sweep that also included wins for outstanding writing, direction and comedy series. NW
Still one of the most beautifully shot TV shows in recent memory, the fourth season of Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore’s comedy got a jolt of new energy by (mostly) shifting from boyfriend drama to focus on growing estrangement between BFFs Issa (Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji). Undercurrents of class anxiety and social status deepened the character relationships while the dialogue remained as biting and crisply funny as ever. S4 didn’t quite nail the season finale but we’re hoping for more curveballs in S5. KR
Adapted from Deborah Feldman’s 2012 memoir, this miniseries follows Esty, a 19-year-old Hasidic Jew as she escapes from her marriage and conservative community in Williamsburg and starts anew in Berlin. Beautiful and heartbreaking in turn, you’ll find yourself rooting for Esty as she experiences her own coming-of-age story and discovers who she is outside of the traditions and expectations of her old life – even as remnants of it find their way back to her along the way. JM
At a time when it seemed like sports might never return, and there were no offices for us to small-talk in, this 10-episode docuseries exploration of Michael Jordan’s final run with the 1997-98 Chicago Bulls became the ultimate watercooler show. Under all the 90s rap soundtracked dunk montages and Dennis Rodman Vegas trips was the revelation that Jordan (and maybe all truly great athletes) was fuelled by some profound pettiness. RT
Puberty is weird, and no television show has captured just how weird than this gleefully bizarre Netflix animated series. It casts Nick Kroll (who co-created the show), John Mulaney, Jessi Klein, Jason Mantzoukas, Jenny Slate and Andrew Rannells as tweens whose collective awkward stage is further complicated by Hormone Monsters, Depression Kitties, Shame Wizards and – in the just-dropped fourth season – Anxiety Mosquitoes. At least they have each other. And their urges. NW
While not quite as artfully done as that California-set soap featuring a gaggle of women, a school and a juicy murder, this David E. Kelly miniseries features a series of East Coast characters all harbouring their own big little lies. When we weren’t distracted by Nicole Kidman’s fabulous full-length coats and the fact that she spent more time walking the streets of New York City than being a psychologist, it was clear that this shamelessly entertaining series said a ton about privileged white guilt. The red herrings were delicious, and the performances ambiguous enough to make you speculate about whodunnit. But the real revelation was watching Donald Sutherland’s patrician one-percenter repeatedly call himself a “cocksucker.” GS
Set in Toronto’s fictional York Memorial Hospital, this nimble CTV medical procedural stars Hamza Haq as Bashir “Bash” Hamed, a Syrian refugee and accomplished meatball surgeon invited to join the hospital’s ER team after saving the life of its department chief (John Hannah). Juggling case-of-the-week mysteries with a season-long arc addressing Bash’s PTSD and survivor guilt – and never dumbing down the basic challenges of starting a new life in a new country – it’s solid network entertainment. NW
Jemaine Clement’s goofy FX comedy – spun out of the 2014 movie about vampire roommates he made with his pal Taika Waititi – got even sillier and stranger in its second season. Hapless familiar Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) was revealed to be part of the Van Helsing bloodline and a gifted vampire killer… which understandably complicates his relationship with his master Nandor (Kayvan Novak). Also, Laszlo (Matt Berry) flees Staten Island and reinvents himself as “regular human bartender” Jackie Daytona. NW
There’s such an awkward gangly authenticity to how PEN15 depicts life in your early teens that you can almost forget the two main characters are played by women in their 30s. Season 2 finds Maya (Maya Erskine) and Anna (Anna Konkle) working through issues like periods, plays and parents’ divorces without skimping on the laugh-out-loud strangeness of the performances: two grown women and everyone else real teens. RT
There have been so many adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Gothic novel about the undead Transylvanian that we’d like to hammer a wooden stake into any future ones. But this three-part series injected new, um, blood into the story, imaginatively playing with the story’s tropes. In star Claes Bang the show finds a charismatic, witty and sexually non-discriminatory Count, and in Dolly Wells a tenacious, fearless female take on the Van Helsing character. GS
There were duelling documentary series about the NXIVM cult this year, but this four-episode miniseries cuts to the chase, portraying the so-called self-help organization in plain terms and largely through the eyes of ex-member India Oxenberg, who was privy to the cult’s most abusive inner workings. Director/co-writer/producer Cecilia Peck manages to concisely reconcile wider existential concerns brought up through subjective accounts (what happens with low self-esteem, class privilege, predatory capitalism collide?) with more traditional reportage of the story’s horrific details. KR
NOW writers Norman Wilner, Radheyan Simonpillai and Richard Trapunski break down this year’s list, and discuss what didn’t make the cut, in the latest episode of the NOW What podcast, available on Apple Podcasts or Spotify or playable directly below:
NOW What is a twice-weekly podcast that explores the ways Torontonians are coping with life in the time of coronavirus. New episodes are available Tuesdays and Fridays.