Best new show:
I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel creates a fictionalised account of the fall-out of a rape, of trying to make sense and find footing again without the luxury of being able to pause life altogether. Her character Arabella is trying to finish a draft, she is trying to be a friend, she is trying to continue her life, while the uncertainty of what happened to her haunts her. This show is exceptional, without easy answers.
I love Megan Abbott's novel that this show is based on. The story here goes differently, so that the reveal in the end for what is really happening between the two main characters hits you in a new way. This is about ambition, a cut-throat struggle for power within a cheerleading squad, but more than that, it's about betrayal and love. It's also a perfect - in every way - film noir set within a high school cheer squad (perhaps a better film noir than even Brick, because there are female characters with agency in this one). At the centre is a love (a lot of different versions of it, including romantic) triangle between Addy, Beth and Coach French - two teenagers, one young woman at the beginning of a career - that turns into a struggle for survival. The performances by all three leads are stunning.
Misha Green, creator of the dearly missed Underground, a show that would have been essential to have over the last few years, takes Matt Ruff's novel and turns it into a horrifyingly current horror show about being black and on the road in the 1950s. With a deep love for horror literature, the three heroes navigate the dangerous nowhere that is riddled with racists of all sorts bravely and resourcefully. The title and the monsters reference H.P. Lovecraft, but the true monsters, as per usual, are the people (which befits the reference as well, considering Lovecraft's vile and well-documented racism). This is a show about joy, rage, potential, violence. It shows racism as the monster that it is, but also explores horror as metaphor, and science fiction as potential. And what could be greater than listening to Nina Simone every week and watch Jurnee Smollett-Bell slay human and non-human monsters.
Star Trek: Picard
The thing about Star Trek: TNG, which I've never watched in full, is that it is hard to imagine making a transition into the 2020s. DS9 in many ways lighted the way into a future of television that isn't episodic, that relies on large narrative arcs and casts to tell a story that goes beyond the monster of the week. This is always why I've been sad throughout the last few years, through the new films and Discovery, that nobody has attempted to continue that version of the universe forward. I want to know what has happened to those characters, if Benjamin Sisko is still with the prophets in the wormhole, if Kira Nerys is badassing her way through the 24th century.
Picard is almost there - it presents a future that is new to us, a 24th century in which the Federation has banned synthetic lifeforms and even research into them after a catastrophe, and a future in which the Romulan homeworld has been destroyed, its refugees strewn about the galaxy, a rescue effort cut short through Starfleet politics. Impossibly, idealistic Picard has lost his faith in the organisation that he used to stand for. So when he discovers his old friend Data's daughter, who has existed without any knowledge of her own identity, and then watches her die, he has to act, and he does so by assembling a rogue-ish team of fellow outcasts, including an old friend with a substance abuse problem, a very unique pilot, a brilliant scientist with a dark secret (like Vulture said: Alison Pill really has cornered that market this year), and an honourable Romulan warrior raised by warrior women (with an Australian accent). It's a great, self-contained story about values and what it means when the organisation that you thought represented them fails you utterly, and it brings back so many beloved faces (especially Deanna Troi, especially Seven of Nine, whose arc finally completes itself - and how beautiful is it to watch Jeri Ryan finally getting so much great material to work with beyond what Voyager gave her). This was good, but in the back of my mind I'm thinking that maybe it should only be one season, and then give space to something else. We'll see I guess.
Devs is a slow meditation on the question of free will, and what it would mean if technology advanced fast enough for us to see the past and the future in perfect detail. It is, with the sole exception of the final episode, a downward spiral for all of its characters. Nick Offerman is the furthest he has ever been from Ron Swanson - a broken man after the loss of his daughter and wife, trying to match physics to his need for redemption. Sonoya Mizuno's Lily is a haunting protagonist, trapped in a conspiracy that turns out to have her at its centre. This worked, because of synchronicity, as a companion piece to Westworld's third season.
And a few one-offs: Trigonometry and Feel Good, about complicated relationships in 2020, Warrior Nun, which is exactly as stated on the title, something that bridged over the years-long gap in-between Wynonna Earp seasons, I Am Not Okay With This, with a fantastic lead by the haunting (maybe because of Sharp Objects, still) Sophia Lillis, Little Fires Everywhere is a worthy adaptation of Celeste Ng's novel that thrives on Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon's sparring, Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet, a workplace comedy that works and has heart, and Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation travels a United States to unexpected places, in a year where travel became an unattainable dreamscape of the past.
Better Call Saul
Sometimes I wish that there weren't that much time in-between seasons of this show, since the plot and the characters are so densely packed that it is hard to find a way back into a new season. We are spiralling towards something here, as Jimmy becomes Saul and makes worse and worse choices, remains driven by his past. The break-out character by far is Rhea Seehorn's Kim Wexler, whose fate the final season will decide: forever torn between doing good and being as good a con man as Jimmy is, but also incapable of pulling him back from the brink (and nobody does tense horror as good as Better Call Saul - it's not looking good for Nacho, that's for sure).
The Good Fight
How unlikely that The Good Wife's successor would ever have a chance to get so unapologetic ally weird, so essentially about the horrible farce that is 2020. The first episode of the short-cut season, Diane wakes up in a reality in which Hillary won, but because the issues are structural, that reality looks horrible too - a world in which the reckoning of Me Too never happened. In its ultimate episode - an unlikely final, an early one - the gang investigates the death of Jeffrey Epstein in a way in which reality will never truly investigate his life, and those who shared it.
I love competitive cooking shows, and this one is my favourite. It is the opposite of mean-spirited, a genuine celebration but also a striving (an attempt, at least) to encapsulate the diversity of Australian food - and the new team of judges, but especially Melissa Leong and her passionate opinions and profound knowledge, made 2020 a better year (also in its Junior edition).
It's not even over. A soft place in my heart for these people.
The Good Place
A perfect way to end a great show, and I'm endlessly glad that it managed to stick its landing on its own terms - and this will maybe join other series finales, like Friday Night Light's Always and Six Feet Under's Everyone's Waiting, which were both endings about endings.
I'm not sure why I didn't watch this show last year, when it was released originally and would have fallen right into a phase of my reading in which I was catching up with all things Stephen King. Based on Joe Hill's novel, NOS4A2's plot doesn't sound like much - a guy (Zachary Quinto, variable un- and recognisable) who hates women, mothers specifically, arrests his own development and that of children to create a creepy version of Neverland called Christmasland (for someone already not that much into Christmas, a true horror), in which kidnapped children turn into creepy little murderous vampires. He drives around in an old car and constantly rejuvenates himself. The reason why this show works is the friendship between the two women chasing this evil, trying to save the children - Vic McQueen (Ashleigh Cummins) and Maggie Leigh (Jahkara Smith), who each have their own superpowers which occasionally are burdens more than gifts. The show is really just about the classic-horror horror of a monstrous man obsessed with childhood on the surface - beneath that, it's much more about attempting to escape the poisonous errors of parents, trying to create your own life out of what you inherited from your childhood, and forging healthy relationships by unlearning toxic patterns. Plus the second season comes with the added bonus of Lou Carmody (Jonathan Langdon), best side-kick partner and Mattea Conforti's Millie Manx (the villain's daughter), who in one of the best scenes of the second season debates with Vic's young son the value of having a genuine childhood and growing up into an unhappy, bill-paying and constantly tired adult vs. being a monster that slays in the dark.
I caught up with this so late in the game - a tale of two sisters, returning home after the death of their mother, to discover her secret life, to confront their own wounds, to explore what gentrification has done to their neighbourhood and what it means to return to a place that is no longer the place they left years ago. Mishel Prada's Emma is a singular character, someone who will stay with me for a long time.
2020 has been such a weird year in every sense of the word - a year of staying home, of being confined in a world that is burning in both the literal and the figurative sense - and Vagrant Queen somehow fits into that feeling so perfectly (also, it has a Wynonna-Earp-stuck-in-production-hell vagrant Tim Rozon). It's a camp queer space opera, a found-family show, an over-the-top tale somewhere between Farscape, Defiance and Killjoys, and somehow still entirely its own. I'm sad that it only got one season, because I wanted to see what it could have done with more time on its hands.
The L Word: Generation Q
This show is exactly what it is meant to be, which is a more inclusive version of the mid-2000s soap opera - and I would ascribe the things that are less infuriating now, and more interesting, entirely to the responsible show-runnership of not-Ilene Chaiken (also, nobody's died yet - on screen that it, the off-screen death of Kit Porter is a slap in the face for everyone). I watched this for the great potential of literally everyone hooking up (which is much in the spirit of the original), but then sometimes, they get stuff right, and I thought I should mention it here. Like Olivia Thirlby's Rebecca having a genuine, honest conversation with Finley about needing an equal partner in a relationship, and drawing exactly the kind of healthy boundary that nobody else in the history of both iterations of this show has ever drawn.
Motherland: Fort Salem
I wouldn't put this show into "Best New Show" but it deserves a shout-out just based on how freaking insane it is (a first season like watching The 100, the previous contender in this category, for the first time). And alternative history in which witches made a deal with the American settlers to provide military support, in which a mysterious terrorist cell (although there are many questions here about who is the terrorist, and who can be trusted - it's rarely the militaristic society) called the Spree causes terror through balloons, against which the witches fight by... singing. A lot in this show watches as if were based on an unadaptable book, except it's not (so... drugs maybe?). It is also (not unlike The 100) a true wealth of problematic ships, and when have I ever said no to those.