It's been some year.
In 2020, a time of unprecedented upheaval between the coronavirus pandemic and protests against systemic racism, there have been few constants to cling to.
Television, in all its dramatic, comedic and sometimes trashy glory, has been one of the entertainment diversions relatively unencumbered by the pandemic, as many Americans stay home and watch.
Although Hollywood's production shutdown is catching up with TV networks (sorry, "The Bachelorette"), some remarkable series in the first half of the year have brought a little light to an increasingly dark time. From strong newcomers to departing favorites, here are the best of the best so far.
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10. "Jeopardy!: The Greatest of All Time" (ABC)
Simple, strategic and robustly entertaining, ABC’s January prime-time “Jeopardy!” competition pitting its top players (Ken Jennings, Brad Rutter and James Holzhauer) was nostalgic and thrilling. The event made the beloved game show more competitive than ever, captured America’s attention (just look at the monster ratings) and renewed our love of the trivia champs and host Alex Trebek. The event ended too quickly, thanks to Jennings’ domination, but it was a uniquely unifying TV experience, especially in an era when our viewing habits are increasingly diverging.
9. “High Fidelity” (Hulu)
A familiar story received a fresh twist in this rom-com starring Zoe Kravitz. Flipping the race and gender of the main character from the Nick Hornby novel (previously adapted into a 2000 film with John Cusack) allowed the series to be more than just another TV remake. Kravitz’s appealing and charismatic performance, helped by scripts that felt authentic to the current (well, pre-coronavirus) dating world, elevated the series even further.
8. "Ramy" (Hulu)
It’s been a great year for Ramy Youssef, the creator and star of Hulu’s excellent dramedy. He started in January with a surprise victory at the Golden Globes in January for the series’ first season, and followed up with a smart and darkly funny second season in May. “Ramy” deepened its exploration of its title character in the new episodes. Beyond just examining his Muslim faith and romantic biases, it delved into his own twisted self-righteousness. The addition of Oscar winner Mahershala Ali to the cast didn’t hurt things, either.
7. “Cheer” (Netflix)
Netflix’s documentary series about a cheerleading team at a small Texas junior college became a phenomenon early this year, but it’s more than just memes and “mat talk.” Intimate and affecting, the series is a detailed character portrait of the student athletes, many of whom are marginalized young people. The documentarians told the kids' stories with sensitivity, and viewers stood in awe of their physical prowess and emotional fortitude. The best documentaries are entertaining and revelatory at once, a feat “Cheer” achieves with a perfect 10.
6. “Quiz” (AMC)
This wonderfully ridiculous miniseries from AMC made the absolute most of a stranger-than-fiction tale of a married couple who allegedly cheated on the British version of hit game show “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire.” With a talented cast including “Fleabag” star Sian Clifford and Michael Sheen, the true crime saga is delightful, surprising and hilarious.
5. “Never Have I Ever” (Netflix)
A striking new talent (star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan), an authentic teen protagonist, and the voice of narrator John McEnroe, make this Netflix comedy stand far above the service’s mostly mediocre collection of young-adult series. Produced by Mindy Kaling, and loosely based on her adolescence, “Never” is one of the few shows about high schoolers of late that remembers how to have fun. It’s also one of the few with characters who sound and act like real teenagers.
4. “The Good Fight” (CBS All Access)
Those singing the praises of Delroy Lindo in Spike Lee’s new film “Da 5 Bloods” should check out his always exquisite work on CBS All Access’s bold “Fight,” which remains searing in its examination of The Way We Live Now, even in its fourth season. Many series will likely tackle the coronavirus pandemic and widespread protests against systemic racism and police brutality that have dominated headlines in 2020, but there are few that actually should. “Fight” is among them.
3. “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX)
The second season of FX’s devilishly funny vampire comedy managed to outdo its superb debut last year. The series is farce at its absolute best, putting its gothic vampires, a boring “energy vampire” and their belabored human “familiar” in a series of ever-escalating conundrums. That the series finds so much joy, silliness and hilarity in the mundane human world the vampires are forced to live in is one of its biggest achievements.
2. “BoJack Horseman” (Netflix)
An animated black comedy about a fading Hollywood horse proved to be one of the most insightful series of recent years. In the end, “BoJack” was less about the antics of its former sitcom star protagonist and more about interrogating his failings as a man (well, as a bipedal talking horse). With no artificial happy endings and no easy answers, “BoJack” said goodbye in grim glory. Anything else would have felt like cheating.
1. “Upload” (Amazon)
“Upload” is one of the rare shows so compelling and addictive, it made me desperately crave a second season after finishing the first. Starring Robbie Amell as a man who uploads his consciousness to a digital afterlife, “Upload” balances its humor with a sweet romance and an enticing mystery. “The Office” co-creator Greg Daniels has his next great project in this sci-fi sitcom (you can safely ignore his other new show, Netflix’s “Space Force”).