The theme this year is that, due to the abundance of streaming services, there is simply too many good TV shows to keep up with. I don’t have time to watch shows that are merely “good”—they must be great. Perhaps it’s just me, and other people (especially during COVID lockdowns) have more free time to devote to television. I used to have lots of time to waste watching TV before I became a writer. These days, the vast majority of my time is spent writing and doing other writing-related business. The second-most amount of time is spent reading. Books, especially science fiction, are generally better than TV. Then there are the daily essentials like exercising, eating, and other errands, during which I listen to podcasts. That leaves me about two hours at night before bed to watch a TV show, movie, or documentary. I’ve cut down on my television watching this year, focusing more on movies and documentaries—again because I don’t have the time to watch multiple multi-season series. I can easily get through a mediocre movie when it’s only an hour or two, but watching a mediocre TV series can take dozens of hours, which is time I don’t have to spare. In the past, whenever I started watching a TV series I’d see it through to the end no matter what, but I’ve been cutting the cord early on TV shows more and more. My patience for mediocrity evaporates over time. Having said that, there were at least ten shows I saw in 2020 that were worth my time.
1. Devs (miniseries) (Hulu)
Devs is a masterpiece of a science fiction miniseries, exploring ideas of free will, determinism, simulation theory, and the many worlds of quantum physics—topics I love writing about myself. Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) is one of my favorite writer/directors working today (perhaps second only to Christopher Nolan), and I can’t wait to see what he does next. As I’ve said before, I prefer the miniseries format where you get a cathartic ending rather than a story dragging on for years, and Devs delivered in that respect.
2. Raised by Wolves (season 1) (HBO)
This is the most sophisticated and epic big-budget science fiction action/adventure television show I’ve ever seen. It’s like Star Wars for adults, exploring themes of religion, philosophy, artificial intelligence, and what it means to be human. I haven’t been so blown away by the execution of a TV show on every level (scope, special effects, acting, writing, storytelling, directing) since Game of Thrones. I was hoping this would be a miniseries and wrap up at the end, but they left some cliffhangers for the next season. Let’s just hope they land the eventual ending of this show more smoothly than GoT.
3. How to… with John Wilson (season 1) (HBO)
This is a unique show and difficult to describe. It’s a documentary series but also a comedy. Produced by Nathan Fielder, it’s similar in tone to his show, Nathan For You (one of my all-time favorites). Basically, John Wilson films his entire daily life living in New York City, then he edits the footage together into episodes around a certain theme (How to…). It doesn’t sound all that special, but the real-life characters he meets and the situations he finds himself in, plus the juxtaposition of his footage and his narration are often hysterical and sometimes profound.
4. Hellier (Seasons 1 & 2) (Youtube/Amazon)
This documentary series about paranormal investigators in search of “goblin”-like creatures in the caves of Appalachia may sound dumb—like those typical cheesy ghost hunter and bigfoot searcher-type shows on cable TV—but Hellier is like a smart arthouse version of those shows. The storytelling and editing of the footage elevates it to another level, plus the characters are actually intelligent and somewhat skeptical. They [spoiler alert] never find definitive proof of anything supernatural, but lots of weird things happen along the way, particularly in the form of synchronicity. In fact, while watching this show, I experienced some weird synchronicities myself, inspiring a new Hellier-like writing project I’m currently working on (stay tuned for that).
5. Tales From the Loop (season 1) (Amazon)
This is top notch science fiction set in a sort of alternative universe. It’s an odd hybrid of anthology and serialized storytelling. Most of the episodes are self-contained, focusing on a couple characters in the town, but those same characters make cameos in other episodes. It’s really well done, similar to the Twilight Zone, in that each episode explores a different sci-fi concept (time travel, parallel worlds, consciousness/body swapping, robots), but it’s different because of the serialized nature, allowing them to more fully develop the characters.
6. The Last Dance (miniseries) (ESPN)
This is one of the best sports documentaries ever. Growing up in the 90s, Michael Jordan was my favorite basketball player. Even though I was a Knicks fan (my local team), I still rooted for his Bulls during their two three-peats. I was too young at the time to fully appreciate Jordan’s basketball skill or to understand the larger scope of what was going on with the team behind the scenes, so it was fascinating to look back now as an adult and appreciate Jordan on a whole other level.
7. Rick and Morty (season 4) (Adult Swim)
Not quite as brilliant as the first couple of seasons, but as long as Dan Harmon continues making episodes, Rick and Morty will likely make this list.
8. The Midnight Gospel (season 1) (Netflix)
This is a unique animated show starring comedian Duncan Trussell, based on some of his podcast episodes. The conversations tend to be about mind-blowing concepts and the animation is equally mind-blowing.
9. Fleabag (seasons 1 & 2) (Amazon)
A British dark comedy with great characters, led by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, the creator and writer of the show.
10. The Outsider (miniseries) (HBO)
Based on a Stephen King novel, this is a dark horror detective mystery with a supernatural twist.
Others worth mentioning:
Curb Your Enthusiasm (season 10) (HBO)
Larry David is still firing on all cylinders.
The Haunting of Bly Manor (miniseries) (Netflix)
A solid follow-up to The Haunting of Hill House. I like the “Haunting of…” miniseries format where they have completely different stories and characters from season to season.
Watchmen (miniseries) (HBO)
I’m a big fan of Damon Lindeloff’s previous work (LOST, Prometheus, and The Leftovers), and this was a nice new spin on the Watchmen lore, though I would prefer to see him do something completely original again (like LOST).
Altered Carbon (season 2) (Netflix)
I loved the first book, but thought the second two books in Richard K. Morgan’s series were mediocre, and the TV adaptation has followed the same route. As I said, I don’t have time to waste on merely mediocre television so I gave up on season 2 midway through. Maybe it’s only because I already read the books, but the show felt boring, drawn-out, meandering, and confusing. Then again, considering the show got cancelled and there won’t be a season 3, perhaps it was not just me. It’s a shame because the premise and world (a future with mind-uploading) are so interesting and ripe for story potential.
Lovecraft Country (season 1) (HBO)
I did not realize this show had nothing to do with H.P. Lovecraft or his mythology, but that’s okay—I still really wanted to like it. There were some good moments but too many more moments that were cringe-inducing (in a bad way) causing me to drop out mid-season. I may continue watching the show at some point, but again, it’s a matter of finding the time.
Locke & Key (season 1) (Netflix)
I actually haven’t seen one second of this show; I’m just including it on this list to prove my point about free time. Locke & Key is one of my favorite graphic novels of all time, so I should be dying to see this show, yet I have little desire to do so. The comics were great as is, so I don’t need to see a televised version of the story again, especially when there are so many other great options to watch. It’d be one thing if it was a prose novel I’d read (like Altered Carbon), and this would be a chance to finally see the visuals come to life, but all the great visuals were already in the comic book.
Westworld (season 3) (HBO)
The first season of Westworld was amazing, the second season less so though still good, but the third season was flat-out bad. I thought leaving the park would make the show more interesting, but it was the opposite. I almost gave up mid-season, but stuck through to the end, hoping it would get better—but it did not. I’d use the same words from Altered Carbon to describe it: boring, drawn-out, meandering, and confusing. I doubt I’ll continue watching if there’s a season 4.
Avenue 5 (season 1) (HBO)
Could be re-titled dumb assholes in space. Hard to find a comedy with more unlikeable characters than these.
The Terror (season 1) (AMC/Hulu)
I loved the pilot and premise of this show, about a real life lost expedition to the North Pole in the 1800s (with a supernatural horror twist). This was a miniseries, but at ten episodes it felt too long and dragged midway through. It would have been better if condensed to six episodes max.
Upload (season 1) (Amazon)
This show is emblematic of what I dislike about much of modern television. It’s set in the near-future when people can upload to a virtual afterlife, plus there’s an intriguing murder mystery on top of that. It’s more of a light-hearted comedy than a serious portrayal of those ideas (think Black Mirror meets The Office), but it was still somewhat enjoyable and I wanted to see how the mystery resolved. But they ended the season with a cliffhanger, so now I need to wait a year or more then devote another five hours or more of my life to (possibly) find out what happens. I would have preferred it to be a miniseries, but even if they wanted to continue with more seasons, they could have at least resolved the mystery in season one then started a new mystery in season two. After this letdown, I don’t think I’ll watch season two in which the mystery might again not be resolved and further delayed to season three.
A story is not a story without an ending, therefore TV shows that push off an ending for years can be endlessly frustrating.
Updated post to add two more shows (Avenue 5 and The Terror) that I forgot about. The fact I forgot I watched them this year says all you need to know.