Top 20 Things I Watched on TV in 2020

In the past I liked to blog about my favorite films of the year, or my favorite TV shows of the year, but 2020 has been a year like no other and I can’t even remember the last time I was in a movie theater. On the other hand, I have spent an inordinate amount of time watching television — older shows, new shows, documentaries, limited series, and everything in between. And yes, I’ve watched a ton of movies on TV, including some that never got to theaters because of the pandemic. So this year I’ve decided to blog about the top 20 things I watched on TV regardless of whether they are “TV” shows or “movies” since those lines are perhaps forever blurred.

For many of us, 2020 has been the year of the binge. Certain shows captured the attention of the whole nation and entered the pop culture that maybe would have been just a blip on the radar in the past. I’m thinking of Tiger King of course, which for the record I did not watch in its entirety rather I saw bits and pieces as my son and his girlfriend binged it, or The Mandalorian which I also didn’t watch. I think the most asked thing on Facebook this year was people asking friends and family for advice on what to binge.

That said, there was a ton of content to choose from in 2020. I definitely haven’t seen everything I want to yet, so I reserve the right to add to this list, but for now with a couple of week’s to go in the year this is where I am. So here we go:

  • Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. (Amazon) I make no excuses for this, but I absolutely loved Borat Subsequent MovieFilm. Yes, I loved the original. And yes, I think Sacha Baron Cohen is very funny. Very very funny. And while I didn’t think it was as pee-in-your-pants funny as the original, it still made me laugh.
  • Unorthodox. (Netflix) I’m a sucker for a good cult story and make no mistake, Hasidism is a cult. The story of Esther Shapiro was engaging, heartbreaking, terrifying, but ultimately redeeming. Inspired by a true story, this miniseries will have you on the edge of your seat. It also featured one of the most remarkable acting performances of the year in Shira Haas’ magnificent portrayal of Esther.
  • The Last Dance. (ESPN) It felt like everyone was watching The Last Dance over the summer. This documentary about the Chicago Bulls was compelling television for basketball fans, sports fans, and frankly fans of drama in general. The footage and the inside stories were remarkable and let’s face it, Michael Jordan is one of the most famous people on the planet and getting a peek into his world was fascinating.
  • My Octopus Teacher. (Netflix) This is one of those documentaries that you would never watch unless someone told you it was a don’t miss. It’s a don’t miss. It’s about a South African guy who becomes friends with an octopus. Really. I know, but he does.
  • David Attenborough: A Life on our Planet. (Netflix) This should really be higher on my list. If you’ve ever watched a nature show, you pretty much have David Attenborough to thank for bringing the genre to life. But this is much more than a nature show, it’s a clarion call to humanity to wake up before it’s too late — and it’s just about too late. If life on earth does go the way of the dodo, what’s left of humankind will look back at this particular documentary and mark the beginning of the end. If we listen to him, there is hope for humankind. If we don’t? Well, I think you know the answer to that. Thank you Sir Attenborough for this farewell message. I hope you don’t look down from above 30 years from now and say I Told You So.
  • Sex Education (Season 2). (Netflix) This show was one of the best surprises of 2019 and Season 2 did not disappoint. This British show is what a teen comedy should be. It’s funny as hell, but it’s also smart and the teens are real. It has a great cast led by Asa Butterfield as the awkward Otis who inadvertently becomes his school’s expert in sex thanks to all the knowledge he soaked up from his mom’s therapy practice. His fellow teens are desperate for his advice and so of course he launches an underground sex therapy practice at school. Ncuti Gatwa excels as Otis’ best friend Eric, a teen coming to terms with his homosexuality in fabulous ways.
  • The Good Place. (NBC, Hulu). I binged all four seasons of this silly show in 2020 and I really enjoyed it. I have to admit, I’m a Kristen Bell fan and her portrayal of Eleanor Shellstrop from Phoenix, Arizona was hysterical. But what makes this show so good is that the entire ensemble cast is wonderful. If you don’t fall in love with D’Arcy Carden’s encyclopedic “Good Janet” there’s something wrong with you and you should be sent to her void.
  • Hannah Gadsby: Douglas. (Netflix) In 2018, Aussie comedian Hannah Gadsby broke the internet with her standup special called Nanette. Seriously, people couldn’t decide if it was the best standup special they’d ever seen or it was a Ted Talk in disguise that had no business being called standup. I can tell you what it was for me — the most brave and vulnerable performance by a comedian I’d ever seen and the best 70 minutes you’ll ever spend if you have any humanity. Douglas was her follow up, if there can be a follow up to a revelation, and it was funny and smart and clever and darn good. I doubt very much Gadsby expected that first special to change her life so dramatically, but it did and we’re all better for her being in the spotlight. Nanette will change you. Douglas will make you laugh. Watch them both.
  • Little Fires Everywhere. (Hulu). I’m always skeptical when a film version is made from a book I love, and while the Hulu miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s wonderful novel is not perfect it’s very well done and worth the watch even you haven’t read the novel. Reese Witherspoon has a keen eye for good material and she is an avid reader so I wasn’t surprised when she grabbed up the rights to Ng’s book and I was thrilled when they cast the exceptional Kerry Washington in the co-lead role. Little Fires Everywhere is timely and important.
  • High Fidelity. (Hulu). I began this remake as a sort of “hate watch” but it wasn’t long before I forgot my complaints about why they even attempted to remake a perfect movie. It’s really not the same story. I mean, it’s about a love worn record store owner who shares details about past relationships. But Zoe Kravitz brings a whole new flavor to Rob, above and beyond the obvious gender flip. It is nice to see a story about a woman in charge of her relationships and taking ownership for her mistakes. So often films are stuck in the “boy fucks up relationship” mold that it was downright refreshing to watch Kravitz struggle through her issues. I really didn’t want to like this because the film is among my all-time favorites. But I liked it. A lot. And I’m rooting for a second season. Oh, and the fun little irony of Kravitz’ real-life mom Lisa Bonet having a key role in the original was cool.
  • The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix). Aaron Sorkin takes on the 1968 Chicago riots and a cast of 60s characters too crazy to be fiction…I was always going to love this film. When I was in college I read Tom Hayden’s autobiography so I knew a lot about the trial, but it was great to see it come to life on the screen. Sorkin did a tremendous job bringing these hippies to life, but the performances truly stole the show. Sacha Baron Cohen was unforgettable as Abbie Hoffman, Eddie Redmayne played a perfect laced up Hayden, and Frank Langella was a wicked Judge Julius Hoffman. Truthfully, Sacha Baron Cohen can really act.
  • The King of Staten Island. (Amazon). Judd Apatow has become one of my favorite directors and this semi-autobiographical film about Saturday Night Live regular Pete Davidson was funny, warm, touching, and well done all around. Davidson is one of the few SNL stars with real talent and he puts it all on display here and he may just have a future as a leading man. This film also includes fabulous supporting performances by Bill Burr, Marisa Tomei and especially young Brit Bel Powley as Pete’s girlfriend. It’s classic Apatow, complete with a cameo by his daughter Maude who has really grown up since her under-the-radar turn in This is 40. But this film is all about Davidson, whose real-life story of growing up without his dad who was killed on 911 is heartbreaking. This film is heartbreaking, but ultimately leaves the viewer feeling good about the young protagonist’s future. I suspect we’ll see the same in Pete’s real life…in fact we already are.
  • What We Do in the Shadows. (FX, Hulu). I haven’t seen the film version of What We Do in the Shadows, so I didn’t have any baggage coming into the television series. Frankly, if the film is half as funny as the TV show I should probably watch it sooner rather than later. I’ll admit, this kind of humor isn’t for everyone. It is very British, or in this case kiwi, since the creators are from New Zealand. Creator Jemaine Clement is a crazy nut with a devastating sense of humor and show runner Taika Waititi (of Jojo Rabbit fame) is a dark comedy genius. This show about modern day vampires living in Staten Island really made me laugh and I can’t wait for season three next year. The whole cast is fabulous, but English actor Matt Berry truly steals every scene. Bat!
  • Ozark (Season 3). (Netflix) The story of Marty Byrd and his family is what binge watching is all about. Ozark has been one of the top shows now for three seasons and season three did not disappoint. In fact, it may have been the best yet. The storyline with Wendy’s brother was intense, and every minute of screen time for Julia Garner was breathtaking. Dang that woman can act. She’s already won a pair of Emmys and I suspect it won’t be long before she brings home an Oscar. Her Ruth Langmore is one of the most memorable television characters of all time. I know not everyone liked season three, but that final episode? Come on.
  • Better Things. (FX, Hulu). Don’t you love it when you take a chance on a show and it turns out to be amazing? I binged 43 episodes of this Pamela Adlon-led gem this summer and it was remarkably bold and dangerous and heartwarming and funny all rolled into one mom trying to keep a family of all girls from exploding. I mean, it did sort of explode a few times, but Sam Fox always pulled it together in the end. The actresses who play her daughters are super, especially Hannah Alligood who plays middle daughter Frankie. Seriously, it’s hard to upstage Adlon, but 15-year-old Alligood did it time and time again on this show. I know some won’t watch this show because it was written and produced by Louis C.K., and I get that, but Pamela Adlon is not Louis C.K. nor is she an apologist for her longtime friend and collaborator and in fact she severed ties with him following the scandal. She is an American treasure is what she is. This show was brilliant.
  • Narcos: Mexico (Season 2). (Netflix). The Narcos franchise has been one of television’s most compelling series over the past few years and whether you watch the original series on the Columbian drug trade or the newer series about the Mexican cartels you’re in for a powerhouse of performances and drama. I think Narcos can easily be placed among the best crime dramas ever and for my money it’s right up there some of my other favorites like The Sopranos and The Wire.
  • Love on the Spectrum. (Netflix). This limited series from Australia was a delight to watch. The show follows several autistic adults as they attempt to navigate the trials and tribulations of dating, hard enough for people not on the spectrum but even more difficult if you have a disorder like autism. But everyone deserves love. This show is sweet, and pulls at the heartstrings, and makes you giggle. The “stars” of the show are a joy to get to know and you can’t help but root for them to make a love connection. I can’t wait for season two.
  • The Great. (Hulu). Maybe I’m a sick fucker, but no show made me laugh more in 2020 than this little series about Catherine the Great. Yes, it’s a dark comedy set in 18th century Russia. That in and of itself is strange, but it’s truly laugh out loud funny (if you don’t mind gallows humor). I plowed through both seasons of The Great in a few days and didn’t want it to end. Dakota Fanning is so good, but Nicholas Hoult is tremendous as the sex-crazed, solipsistic, idiot of a king. Hoult is one of those actors who you know you’ve seen before but who you don’t likely know by name. The chap from Wokingham was in Mad Max: Fury Road, About a Boy (he was the boy), X-Men, Deadpool 2, and on and on. He’s fantastic, but never better than in The Great. Huzzah!
  • The Queen’s Gambit. (Netflix). Sometimes there’s a good reason why a show gets so much attention — it is deserved. The Queen’s Gambit is such a wonderful series about a topic you probably care nothing about. But the mini-series is a period piece, and it was beautifully shot, but mostly it’s just a great story about a fascinating young woman.  Anya Taylor-Joy plays Beth Harmon, an orphan with a mind for chess. What’s great about the show is you don’t have to give two shakes about chess, it’s simply a fabulous story. The fact is, we all love a story about someone considered common who turns out to be extraordinary. It’s part of the American narrative isn’t it? Taylor-Joy is definitely one to watch as she is marvelous as Harmon.
  • Ramy. (Hulu). This underappreciated gem from Hulu is the perfect show for our times and the single best show I binged in 2020. Ramy stars comedian and actor Ramy Youseff as a first-generation Egyptian American living in New Jersey trying to both fit in with his American friends and neighbors while at the same time trying to figure out his relationship to his religion. And that ain’t easy when you’re Muslim in America these days. Youseff is torn between enjoying the freedoms life in America affords us all while still trying to be a good Muslim. It may be an impossible task, and it sure isn’t easy for Youseff. On the one hand, he’s a young American male who wants to have sex, do drugs, go to parties, and enjoy life. But he’s being called to a more religious life and that appeals to him as well. Truth is, you really can’t do both despite the hypocrisy he sees all around him in his Muslim community. Ramy is such an important show right now. It’s critical for Americans to see Muslim characters that are not always cast terrorists. It really is that simple. People fear what they don’t know. The more you watch Ramy, the more you relate to him, the more we start to get past all the hatred of the other. What is wonderful about Ramy is that he does this through comedy, but at times the drama is hard hitting so when you least expect it you get a sense of just how divided we are as a society. Bravo to Hulu for making this show, and bravo to Youseff for bringing it to us. Ramy is a great television show that everyone in America should watch. You’ll have a good laugh, but you’ll also understand more about our Muslim brothers and sisters. This is television at its most relevant and importance. I don’t know if TV can truly change America, but it sure can’t hurt.
A Black Spot on the Heart

Ramy — “A Black Spot on the Heart” – Episode 103 – So let me get this straight, you don’t do drugs, but you’ll have sex with women you’re not married to? That’s not nuanced, its hypocritical. Ramy (Ramy Youssef), Ahmed (Dave Merheje), and Mo (Mohammed Amer), shown. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)

 

 

 

 

 

My Favorite TV Shows of the Decade

It’s been said that we’re in the midst of a new golden age of television and it’s hard to argue with that premise. These past 10 years have brought us some of the most imaginative and creative TV shows of all time and even as the decade comes to a close, new shows are making their way into the global zeitgeist.

There are many reasons for this explosion of great television. One is that traditional content creators have found new license to innovate due in part to the ascension of streaming networks like Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon. At the same time, this has caused traditional cable networks to keep up, so networks like HBO, Showtime, and even FX and BBC have stepped up their quality. In turn, actors and actresses who have mostly stuck to big Hollywood movies have jumped into television. There are so many award winners on TV now it’s hard to keep up. And as we entered the final few years of the decade, we’ve seen an even more surprising shift — films like The Irishman and Marriage Story are being released on streaming services at the same time (or in lieu of) premiering on the big screen. It’s a wonderful time to stay home and watch television!

Before I get into my 10 favorites of the decade, here are some honorable mentions (in alphabetical order):

  • Big Little Lies (HBO, 2018). Perhaps the best example of Hollywood’s impact on TV. HBO’s take on life, love and murder among the wealthy of Monterey stars Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Reece Witherspoon, Laura Dern and other major movie stars. And if that wasn’t enough, season two brought us Meryl Streep as one nasty mother-in-law.
  • Broad City (Comedy Central, 2014). Definitely not for the faint of heart, no other show made me laugh out loud more over the past decade. Long live the adventures of Abbi and Ilana!
  • Drunk History (Comedy Central, 2013). I wish I could have been there when creator Derek Waters pitched the premise of getting celebrities blitzed and having them tell historical stories which are then acted out by famous actors and celebs. So much silliness.
  • Finding Your Roots with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (PBS, 2012). I’m addicted to ancestry shows and it caused me to sign up for Ancestry.com and build my own family tree. Finding Your Roots is like taking a personal tour of history. I learn so much in each episode and it constantly reminds me just how lucky it is that any of us were actually born.
  • Homeland (Showtime, 2011). The first couple of seasons of Homeland were as good as anything on TV this decade. Carrie Mathison is easily one of the most compelling characters ever created.
  • House of Cards (Netflix, 2013). It’s too bad Kevin Spacey ruined this show by being a fuck wad in real life because for a time this was the best show on television. House of Cards is like bizzaro world West Wing!
  • Key and Peele (Comedy Central, 2012). I never watched this show during its run on Comedy Central but going back and binging it made me realize what I’d missed. It’s no coincidence that both Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele are such big stars now because this was sketch comedy at its best.
  • Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO, 2014). John Oliver is the true king of late night. Week in and week out Oliver and his team unmask the worst of America and the world using unparalleled humor and darn good investigative journalism. The mainstream media should take a look at how news is really done.
  • Louie (FX, 2010). I know, he’s so icky. But during its run, Louie was one of the most unique shows in history. Oftentimes at the end of an episode I’d stare at the television in disbelief, thinking to myself now that was dark and satisfying.
  • Master of None (Netflix, 2015). I don’t know what to think about Aziz Ansari’s “Me Too” issues, but without question Master of None gave us a brilliant look into the lives of non-white America in a way that made us think and made us understand. And I’d argue the Thanksgiving coming out episode with Lena Waithe was the best 34 minutes of television of the decade.
  • Nathan for You (Comedy Central, 2013). I used to think nobody could make me feel more uncomfortable than Sasha Baron Cohen, but then I discovered Nathan Fielder and I realized there was a new master of awkward comedy. Nathan For You is fearless comedy that is so hard to watch you can’t help but look — and laugh.
  • One Mississippi (Amazon, 2015). Speaking of fearless, Tig Notaro defines the word when it comes to television. She literally bares her soul (and her surgical scars) to give us a glimpse of what her life was like during the time she lost her mother and recovered from cancer and a terrible bout of clostridium difficile. I only wish there were more than two short seasons of this wonderful comedy-drama.
  • Ozark (Netflix, 2017). Television can be good at making you cheer for bad people (see The Sopranos) and such is the case with money launderer Marty Byrde. Nobody in the Lake of the Ozarks of this show is a law-abiding citizen but each main character has a backstory that makes you at least feel for them. Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore is a particularly compelling “villain” who at times you can’t decide whether to love or fear.
  • Rick and Morty (Warner Brothers, 2013). Justin Roiland is a mad genius. I don’t know how he voices so many characters in one show, but without a doubt Rick Sanchez is arguably the most unique characters in animation history. This show is smart, hilarious, and out of this world.
  • Silicon Valley (HBO, 2014). Mike Judge is the king of corporate parody and Silicon Valley lampooned the hell out of the world of tech. But it’s the cast that steals this series, most notably for me Martin Starr’s menacing Gilfoyle and Kumail Nanjiani’s hapless Dinesh. One sign of a great show though is that even the bit players are memorable, and I’ll never forget Lorie Bream, Jian Yang, Erlich Bachman, Gavin Belson, and Richard Hendricks. But for my money the unsung star of the show was Jared Dunn, played by a deadpan Zach Woods, who supposedly ad-libbed many of his lines and always seemed to steal the show.
  • The Americans (FX, 2013). We joined the party late on this show, but eventually caught up after binging the first bunch of seasons. It’s crazy how a show could get you to root for Russian spies but that’s exactly what The Americans delivers. Matthew Rhys was particularly good in this show, which always has me on the edge of my seat.

10. Narcos (Netflix, 2015). It was only three seasons, but Narcos was a wild ride through the Colombian and Mexican drug cartels told from the point of view of DEA agents trying to stop the illegal flow of narcotics into the U.S. The acting was superb in this series, led by the Golden Globe nominated portrayal of Pablo Escobar by Brazilian actor Wagner Moura. You couldn’t take your eyes off Moura’s Escobar for two seasons, and just when you thought the show couldn’t get any better Diego Luna joined the cast as Mexican drug lord Miguel Gallardo and took the show to another level.

9. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu, 2015). No show was more dark and disturbing this decade than the Hulu series based on Margaret Atwood’s award-winning novel. More than once over the first three seasons I wanted to quit watching because the possibilities were too real but the great acting and convincing plot kept me coming back. This, my friends, is what religion looks like when taken literally. Under his eye.

8. Killing Eve (BBC America, 2018). The biggest surprise for me this decade was Killing Eve, a British show that gave us an edge of your seat plot and perhaps the best female breakout performance of the decade by Jodie Comer as the killer you can’t help but love, Villanelle. With so many police dramas out there it was refreshing to watch this cat and mouse game.

7. Boardwalk Empire (HBO, 2010). Plenty of other HBO shows got more recognition, but Boardwalk Empire sneaked under the radar and was so good. Yes, Steve Buscemi can carry a show. But it helps that he had arguably the best ensemble cast of the decade that included Michael Shannon, Shea Wigham, Michael Kenneth “Omar Coming” Williams, Jeffrey Wright, Michael Stuhlbarg, Jack Huston, Kelly Macdonald, Patricia Arquette, and scene-stealer Bobby Canavale. You gotta love a show that’s not afraid to kill major characters. Nobody was safe on Boardwalk Empire.

6. Orange is the New Black (Netflix, 2013). For seven seasons I loved tuning in to the goings-on at Litchfield Prison and watching the lives of some of the most inventive and classic television characters ever created. How could you not love Piper, Red, Crazy Eyes, Tastee, Sophia, Alex, Lorna, Pennsatucky, Flaca, Nicky, Big Boo, Poussey, Fig, Caputo, Luschek, and on and on. OITNB was funny, dramatic and sad all at once. It was also female-led and female-driven and that in and of itself made it historic.

5. The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (Amazon, 2017). This very funny and creative period piece made a late decade charge and after three seasons is poised to be the first mega hit of the next decade. Rachel Brosnahan came out of nowhere to bring us Midge Maisel, who is as bitingly funny as she is charming and beautiful. But like most great shows, the ensemble cast really kills on this show. Alex Borstein’s Susie Myerson has already brought home an Emmy, and Tony Shaloub is surely going to win one as well for his portrayal of Midge’s dad Abe. And Luke Kirby literally transforms into Lenny Bruce and makes the viewer wish the world didn’t lose the real Lenny so soon. Tits Up!

4. The Man in the High Castle (Amazon, 2015). If there is a recurring theme to my favorite shows of the decade than surely it’s dystopia. Five of my top 10 and all four of my top shows feature a world where the future (or past) looks very different than we’d bargained for. What if the Axis won World War II and Germany and Japan divided up the United States and brought their world view to America? And what if the Nazis could use technology to bring their vile views to all worlds even those in parallel universes? Amazon did a tremendous job bringing Philip K. Dick’s horrific world to life and this show kept me enthralled for four glorious seasons. I was happy to learn series creators burned all the Nazi paraphernalia after the show came to an end.

3. Mr. Robot (USA Network, 2015). Big props to show runner Sam Esmail for never thinking inside the box with this show about a group of hackers trying to overthrow the world’s largest company and restore democracy to the people. Esmail’s vision and Rami Malek’s performance as Elliot Alderson brought us a dark, explosive look at what happens when evil corporations have too much power, something all too close to reality as we approach 2020. This series brought us some of the most suspenseful shows of the decade, playing tricks on our ears and eyes along the way. And about that episode shot in one take? I have no idea how Esmail choreographed it but it was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen on television.

2. Westworld (HBO, 2016). Of course a show about a theme park filled with realistic androids who begin to gain self-awareness is going to be the hit of the decade. HBO delivers a stunning version of the 1973 Yul Brenner classic with special effects that look so real you never doubt for a moment this world exists and a plot with so many twists and turns you need to watch a YouTube video to explain each episode afterward. Westworld features a world-class ensemble cast that includes Oscar winners Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright, Tessa Thompson, Thandie Newton, James Marsden and at least one Hemsworth. Westworld is a roller coaster ride through a maze and I never want it to end.

1. Black Mirror (Channel 4, Netflix, 2011). It wasn’t easy to choose, but when push came to shove the show I enjoyed most over the past decade was the British anthology series Black Mirror. Every single episode made me rethink what I know about technology and gave me pause about where it could lead us as a species. Technology can make life better, and it has, but if we don’t keep a noose around it, it can and will take us to very dark places. Black Mirror preys on the hope of technology and strikes a warning blow for humankind. Because it’s an anthology show, each episode brings us new actors and actresses, most of whom are at the top of their game, with plots that leave you stunned and terrified that your Google Home device is going to kill you in the dark of knight. I used to be a big proponent of the singularity theory, the one that predicts man and machine will soon merge. Who wouldn’t want their brain downloaded into the cloud where you can live on forever? Not me anymore. Thanks Charlie Brooker for ruining the future for me. Black Mirror takes the viewer down rabbit hole after rabbit hole and deftly explores the consequences of unregulated technology. I loved every minute of it and want more.