In 2020, TV became essential. With the closures of sports stadiums, concert halls, and movie theaters, the only stage fit for the pandemic turned out to be the small screen. And for those of us who could afford to spare time for such storytelling, TV took us to places where we could find some reprieve, whether in the form of a pulse-pounding mystery, a gut-wrenching romance, an endearing fish-out-of-water comedy, or a mind-boggling docuseries. We even found solace in following the ins and outs of a Los Angeles real-estate firm.
Like those of years past, this list attempts to highlight the shows—new and old, ongoing and canceled—that not only captivated us, but also impressed us by excelling in a specific arena. Some nailed tricky tones; others offered unforgettable performances or standout concepts. All of them went beyond mere entertainment, because in a year like this, TV had to do much more than just keep us tuned to the screen. The ones listed below enchanted us, excited us, and, most of all, helped us make it through.
ODE TO ADOLESCENT BFFS: PEN15, HULU
When Pen15 began, the 30-something creators and stars, Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, drew laughs by perfecting the physicality of tweenage best friendship. As their 13-year-old onscreen counterparts, they seemed inseparable, clinging to each other to survive the horrors of middle school. But in its second season, Pen15 transforms into a more insightful show, as Maya’s and Anna’s individual conflicts strain their friendship. Anna’s parents are separating, Maya suffers her first heartbreak, and though they get up to their usual antics to cope with the turmoil, something has changed between them. What if their interests no longer completely align? What if their insecurities don’t either? Pen15 mines much of its humor from observing how, at 13, adulthood appears to be the solution to all problems. But what raises the show from mere cringe comedy to heartfelt character study is its understanding that at 13, adulthood also starts to reveal itself to be much more complicated than it seems. — Shirley Li