Once upon a time, I felt at least somewhat comfortable compiling a year-end list of TV best shows — because it used to be possible for a TV critic to see at least some of everything that aired.
But, c’mon, nobody has time to watch all of the approximately 500 scripted series that aired in 2020, let alone documentaries and news and sports and reality shows. So what follows is a list of the 13 best shows I saw this year.
[Related story: The top 10 movies of 2020: Big thoughts when we were stuck at home]
1. “Better Call Saul” (AMC) • There’s not another show on TV that grips me the way this one does. And that’s all but astonishing because anyone who’s watched “Breaking Bad” knows how this prequel is going to end — what happens to Jimmy/Saul (Bob Odenkirk).
But the journey is fascinating. Both the new characters and a few we knew from “Breaking Bad” are indelible. The penultimate season made a big leap along Jimmy’s path to becoming Saul, and left viewers anxious to see what happens in the upcoming sixth and final season.
(We don’t know when it will air yet, what with production being interrupted and delayed by the pandemic.)
2. “Never Have I Ever” (Hulu) • This comedy/drama about a first-generation Indian American teenager — which was inspired by creator/producer Mindy Kaling’s childhood — was not only the best high school show to come along in a long while but a heartfelt story of culture clash and loss. And it was hilarious!
3. “The Good Place” (NBC) • Beginning with the first episode, this show about life and death and humanity seemed to write itself into a corner regularly. Like — where could it possibly go from here? But defying all the odds, the final season brought viewers a satisfying, unexpected ending — and this show will go down in TV history as a marvel.
4. “The Crown” (Netflix) • Sure, this is one huge soap opera about a remarkably rich family filled with troubled souls struggling with internal demons — and against each other. But this fictionalized account of Queen Elizabeth II and her family is compelling viewing. Just one example — the story of the failed marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana could easily have become cartoonish gossip, but it was portrayed with nuance and humanity.
5. “The Queen’s Gambit” (Netflix) • If this had just been about a chess competition, it would have been fine. But the series is as much, if not more, about a young woman battling her own demons and seeking to rise above her troubled circumstances, and gave viewers a feel-good story — eventually.
6. (tie) “Star Trek: Discovery” and “Star Trek: Picard” (CBS All Access) • These are not traditional “Trek” series — they are, essentially, season-long movies with each episode being a chapter in one continuous story arc. They’re a lot darker and have gone off the beaten track, compared to other “Trek” series. But the stories are compelling, and the characters — even that of Jean-Luc Picard, who’s been part of the “Trek” universe for a third of a century — continue to change and grow.
7. “Perry Mason” (HBO) • My initial reaction to this was negative, in large part because of the dead infant in the pilot. But I stuck with it and soon became obsessed with this reboot, which gave us a younger Perry Mason caught up in a horrific case that launched his legal career.
8. “The Mandalorian” (Disney+) • Yes, I had some issues with Season 2 — mostly arising from the fact that this is a series that should be savored one episode at a time, not binged. But there’s no denying that as an action/adventure/thriller, there’s nothing better on TV.
9. “Julie and the Phantoms” (Netflix) • This musical series gave us a young, talented singer mourning the death of her mother who finds her voice again when the ghosts of three teenage rockers who died years earlier suddenly appear — and, as crazy as that sounds, it works. The show is funny, heartfelt and extremely entertaining. And it’s not just for kids, but for their parents — even grandparents — as well.
10. “Schitt’s Creek” (Pop TV) • I was not a fan of this show when it premiered, and only came to appreciate it later. The final season brought us a satisfying (if not unexpected) conclusion — and this Canadian import deserves credit for what turned into an exceptional 79-episode run.
11. “Lovecraft Country” (HBO) • Somehow, this mix of magic and 1950s Jim Crow racism worked. It wasn’t perfect (Episode 7 was a major miss) but, for the most part, it was can’t-look-away viewing. And there was no beating around the bush — it made its points about race relations boldly.
12. “Mom” (CBS) • This network sitcom has never gotten the credit it deserves. It’s the most improved show on TV, morphing wildly from what it was when it began to what it is now. It deals with tough subjects, including alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addiction, fractured families and death — two prominent characters have been killed off — and it’s consistently hilarious. And in 2020, it has not just survived but thrived after one of its two primary stars, Anna Faris, left after seven seasons. Fortunately, the incomparable Allison Janney remains and the show hasn’t missed a beat.
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order) • “Bob Hearts Abishola” (CBS); “The Conners” (ABC); “Evil” (CBS); “The Expanse” (Amazon); “Fargo” (FX); “The Flight Attendant” (HBO Max); “Full Frontal with Samantha Bee” (TBS); “The Good Lord Bird” (Showtime); “The Great” (Hulu); “His Dark Materials” (HBO); “I May Destroy You” (HBO); “Jimmy Kimmel Live” (ABC); “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” (CBS); “Love Fraud” (Showtime); “Love Life” (HBO Max); “Mrs. America” (FX on Hulu); “New Amsterdam” (NBC); “One Day at a Time” (POP TV); “The Pack” (Amazon); “The Plot Against America” (HBO); “Ramy” (Hulu); “Ratched” (HBO); “Superstore” (NBC); “This is Us” (NBC); “Visible: Out on Television” (Apple TV+); “A West Wing Special to Benefit When We All Vote” (HBO Max); “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX); “Young Sheldon” (CBS).