If 2020 was a good year for anyone, it was television producers. With everyone stuck at home with nowhere to go, binge-watching levels reached an all-time high. And while that technically means the “best shows” of 2020 were The Office, Murder She Wrote, and learning how The Bachelor would work in quarantine, there was still an impressive amount of reality shows, animated programs, comedy, and drama to help audiences survive in quarantine. It was a year where my favorite show of all time came to an end, while several young shows came into their own, and we saw superheroes both good and bad, incisive looks inside our country’s past, boundary-pushing animation, and blue-jean wearing vampires. While there was no way anyone could have watched it all, I did my best, and am ready to bring to you the Best Television Moments of 2020 and the Best Television Episodes!
Before we go any further into these lists, your yearly reminder: while I, like many of you, watched a massive amount of TV to survive the pandemic, I was not able to watch everything. I was still an essential worker, and was still doing my best to write reviews and watch movies during a complicated, frightening year. Therefore, I was not able to watch hits or well-received shows like Insecure, Unorthodox, We Are Who We Are, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Bridgerton, Better Call Saul, or The Crown. I also never finished shows like Tiger King, I May Destroy You, The Reagans, Mrs. America, and The Last Dance. And to deal with the Small Axe controversy, I will be considering any entry below 70 minutes as television, and any episode over as a film. Sorry if any of these were amongst your favorites of 2020. But with these disclaimers now out of the way, we can finally turn our attention to our main goal here today: the best TV of 2020!
Best Television Moments
* As Always, Spoilers Below. Scroll To TV Episodes To Avoid *
One of my favorite lists to make every year is the Best TV Moments list. I love breaking down the moments every year that made viewers stop in their tracks and take notice. Whether it’s a stunning speech, a feat of direction, or a perfectly written joke, these are the types of moments that once were talked about around the water cooler and now are dissected on Twitter ad nauseum. Think of some of the great moments from the last decade: that tracking shot in True Detective, “I Am The One Who Knocks” from Breaking Bad,” David Pumpkins on Saturday Night Live, or any of the impeccable musical numbers on Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. They’re moments that become highly quoted in pop culture, mark friendships, and elicit shared gasps from the couple binge-watching on the couch every Friday night. 2020’s moments can best be summed up as “the life we miss.” Singing, partying, arguing, and beyond dazzled us throughout the year as we were trapped inside out of concern for our fellow man. But before we get there, let’s talk about some Honorable Mentions.
As one of the first shows of Covid to capture our attention, Killing Eve mixed comedy and drama with a hit performed at a child’s Clown Themed Birthday Party. Comedy made us laugh through our terror as two childhood friends decided to bulk up on PEN15, a group of aristocrats were tortured by a despot in The Great (much funnier than it sounds), and a young Muslim man tried to navigate life in Ramy (really any moment could have contended for this list). Liz Lemon returned to our TVs to yell at anti-maskers, Leslie Knope and Andy Dwyer sang “5000 Candles In The Wind” to soothe us in our terror, and Titus Andromedon belted out “Free Bird.” Even SNL stepped up their game, giving us the hysterical “Del Taco” sketch, the super-charged “LaGuardia Sushi” sing-along, and the hilarious mid-Covid anthem “Bottom of Your Face.”
Drama, of course, was no exception to the great TV Moments rule. The Mandalorian took us to amazing new worlds and made Boba Fett cool (for once), while The Boys could make us laugh at a funeral and shiver as a young superhero fan finds himself indoctrinated. Miniseries reached new heights of storytelling as The Plot Against America made lunch at a diner and a simple phone call downright terrifying, while I May Destroy You changed the game over and over again. And animation gave us a plethora of fantastic visual gags, whether it’s Animaniacs “catching us up” on the last twenty years of pop culture, Harley Quinn alternating between brutal fights, jokes about Infinite Jest, and entire musical parodies of “Under the Sea” about fish pooping in the ocean, or Rick and Morty creating jokes both brilliant (Morty’s alternate reality relationship) and tasteless (an extended bit about 9/11 and Pearl Harbor jokes). And of course, we can’t forget my special “Can’t Look Away” award for the strangest TV Moment of the year (like the Oscars slip-up in 2017, or the terrible Flounder Puppet from The Little MermaidLive). This year, that prize goes to Jessica from Love Is Blind, and her strange declaration that her dog “loves wine.” Never change, Jessica. I love you and your sociopathic ways and weird-ass baby voice. And now that we’ve gotten those out of the way, it’s time to move on to the Best TV Moments of 2020!
10. Jail – Dave (“Jail”)
Oh man, I deeply wanted to find a replacement for “Jail” on this list. I tried as hard as I could. I even considered other moments from Dave’s funny first season, including the scene where girlfriend Ally finds a giant rubber butt in the bathtub, or when hype man Ga-Ta emotionally reveals he has bipolar disorder. But I had to do it. Few moments in all of 2020 were as memorable as “Jail,” a seventeen-minute opus created by Dave Burd’s Lil Dicky. The song is the ultimate act of having its cake and eating it too: criticizing out-of-touch white artists trying to offensively satirize serious issues, while simultaneously taking pleasure in the many inappropriate references it could come up with. The song, originally presented without context, is sort of a “Trapped In The Closet” stream-of-consciousness, where Burd is arrested and convicted for pulling a prank at a concert that leads to a Public Exposure charge. Labeled a “predator” in prison, Dicky is subjected to beatings, and fails to connect with his jail mates, but establishes himself as a top dog by offering up favors and then biting of…and that’s where the producers stop him, and the entire room condemns him for the sheer offensiveness of the previous sequence, much to Burd’s chagrin. It’s hard to properly convey moments where the protagonist is supposed to be a complete assh*le work, and even harder to make jokes about the subjects found in this song. But “Jail” somehow works, and I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to explain why. You can watch the song below, I suppose. But please note that it’s incredibly, incredibly NSFW.
9. Silly Games – Lovers Rock
Yes, yes, let’s get the controversy started right now. Due to its length, I am counting Lovers Rock as a TV episode. Sue me. I’m not sure I would have put it on my Top Ten Movies list, so this way I can have my cake and eat it too. Who cares, it’s good. Anyway, whether we’re talking film or television, few moments bore a sense of catharsis and joy quite like the “Silly Games” sequence in Lovers Rock. A 70-minute house party in 1980s London, Steve McQueen broke up his story of Black history and pain with a delightful party flick, where the horrors of the real world (racism, misogyny, and beyond all exist beyond the party’s walls) all melt away thanks to the power of music. And few musical moments are as compelling as “Silly Games.” A favorite of the partygoers – we can hear it long before the eventual sequence – “Silly Games” soon becomes the most popular song at the dance, with everyone stopping the action to sway and sing along. It’s a beautiful moment, but it becomes all the more poignant when the song ends and the crowd keeps singing. The message is clear: no matter our background, no matter our lot in life, and no matter our suffering, the right song can bring us all together and offer an escape from the horrors of reality. This is a powerful message in the year of Covid, and a perfectly executed scene all around.
8. Let It Go – Ted Lasso (“Make Rebecca Great Again”)
Ted Lasso was the little show that could all year long. It consistently surprised and delighted with its feel-good tale of a dorky American football coach moving to England to coach soccer. Part of the reason the show worked is that it did not believe in “bad people” – just a bunch of good people trying their best, occasionally screwing up, and learning to grow from it. And few moments – or characters – sum this philosophy up quite like Hannah Wadddingham’s Rebecca singing Frozen’s “Let It Go,” as well as the subsequent aftermath. Rebecca is, objectively, the antagonist of the show – her mission is to get Ted fired. But whereas most shows would make her the stereotypical “uptight b*tch,” Waddingham’s Rebecca is a woman pressured by society to act a certain way and who has been dealt terrible blows by her ex-husband and the press. When given the chance to let loose in a karaoke bar, she quite literally does – and reveals to unknowing audiences that Waddingham is actually a West End star. But it’s what happens next that makes the scene great. During this performance, the eponymous Ted, fresh off the end of his marriage, suffers a panic attack, and flees the club to cry in the alley. Dazed and disoriented, he notices that someone noticed his absence and came to his aid – Rebecca, the woman seemingly hellbent on ruining his life and career. It is in this moment of warmth and humanity that Ted Lasso defines itself as a wholesome, spiritual show, and easily one of the best of the year.
7. Larry Wears The Hat – Curb Your Enthusiasm (“Happy New Year”)
We all knew this was coming. Curb Your Enthusiasm’s tenth season was on top of its game throughout, whether it was through Jon Hamm slowly turning into the curmudgeonly David, a series of faux-pas that take on the #MeToo era while keeping the focus properly on douchey men, and a season-long payoff with a life-ruining fire. But if there’s one moment people remember from the season, it’s the one that was mistaken for support and tweeted out by the former President. In an effort to find new ways to avoid talking to people, Larry comes to a shocking realization: that no one in Liberal Hollywood wants to associate with people who supported the former President. So Larry, always willing to push the envelope, commits to the bit. He starts showing up to meetings wearing a MAGA hat, wears it in restaurants so no one sits next to him, and to avoiding getting beaten up by an overly-aggressive biker (who switches his abusive tune once seeing that David is “on his side”). The sequence itself is funny enough, but the payoff – where it gets him in trouble when he’s wearing the hat and a W*instein bathrobe shouting “Grab ‘em by the p*ssy” after accidentally inappropriately touching a waitress and his assistant while dining with Jeff Garlin – a W*instein look-alike. It all adds up to some of the funniest material of the year, poking fun at everyone while keeping its focus clear and decisive. What’s not to love?
6. Hormone Blockers – Big Mouth (“The New Me”)
No matter the overall quality of the season, you can always count on Big Mouth to make a list or two at the end of the year. Season 4 of the raunchy show about puberty wasn’t the home run the past few seasons were (although it’s hard to top the incredible Season 2), but the new entry did have some solid moments, including the new Missy, the “Code Switching” song, and any moment with either Hormone Monstress (voiced by the impeccable Maya Rudolph and Thandie Newton). But if there’s one thing the show did right, in terms of comedy and its overall message, it’s the story of Natalie and her hormone blockers. Voiced by the incredible trans actress Josie Totah (who could have taken all ten of these slots with her work on Saved By The Bell), the show branched out to tackle puberty from a trans perspective, to great effect. Using the idea of Hormone Monsters to show Natalie’s discomfort with her male body, and exploring whether she was “just gay” with the Ghost of Freddie Mercury,” Natalie finally got the help she needed thanks to hormone blockers – which created a shield from the abusive, uncomfortable presence of her original Hormone Monster Gavin (Bobby Cannavale), who was gonna make him a “writer for Bill Maher.” The clip is honest, original, and helps explain the trans experience to others, and shows what Big Mouth, at its very best, does so well. (Also, an important note, despite the label, the below clip is perfectly SFW outside of a few sporadic curse words. It is very clearly flagged because of its relation to trans material, which YouTube and Google can f*ck right off with)
5. Beth’s Meltdown – The Queen’s Gambit (“Adjournment”)
If you’d told me at the beginning of 2020, there’d be a show about chess making my Best TV Moments list, I probably would have laughed. But never doubt Scott Frank, an old-school filmmaker of the highest order. He wowed the world with a classic, straightforward story about tragedy and melodrama and humor and general kick-assery, and it worked because of great writing, great direction, and especially great acting. The obvious choices for great TV Moments include the exciting chess games on display, like Anya Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon winning 12 games of chess in a row or beating the overly cocky Harry Beltik. But the moments that stood out to me were the more human moments, like Beth’s cheering section coming together to support her against the Soviet Borgov, or the reveal of Mr. Shaibel’s shrine to Beth’s success. However, the best moment on the show has to be Beth’s breakdown. After losing a second match to the Russian Borgov, and feeling isolated from her closest friends, Beth spirals once again into a drug-and-alcohol-induced meltdown. But this one is her worst yet. Set to the classic song “Venus,” we watch as Beth breaks down mentally, dancing in her underwear, cigarette in hand, and casually downing a bottle of vodka. It’s a tragic sequence, shot perfectly by Frank and performed expertly by Taylor-Joy, an actress on the rise since her 2015 debut. A great show needs a great moment, and this is undoubtedly The Queen’s Gambit’s.
4. The View From Halfway Down – BoJack Horseman (“The View From Halfway Down”)
It’s still so surreal that BoJack Horseman, a show that changed TV and emerged as my favorite show of all time, has come to its inevitable conclusion. BoJack’s arc is complete, and it ends as happily as we could hope for a depressed horse who allowed his bitterness to lead him to some dark, horrific places. But it’s darkest place yet comes in “The View From Halfway Down.” While the optimist in me certainly prefers the heartwarming sequences of hope and forgiveness found with Todd and Diane in the final episode, it’s hard to deny that Will Arnett deserves his due for what he accomplished in the show’s penultimate episode. BoJack finds himself at a dinner with all his acquaintances who have passed, who both loved and hated him during his life. There’s his mother, his former best friend, the child who idolized him, and Zach Braff, forced to work as a waiter for more talented stars. However, instead of his drunk, abusive father, BoJack meets his hero, Secretariat, who also possesses his father’s voice. Since the first season, it’s been insinuated that BoJack will follow in Secretariat’s footsteps towards suicide – and the episode slowly makes it clear that we are in the middle of witnessing this action. Which cues Secretariat’s poem. As the ghosts all say goodbye with a talent show that infers their prior deaths, Secretariat reads a poem he wrote that clearly represents his final thoughts as he leaped from that bridge in the first season – from hopelessness, to regret, to trying to escape the coming end, to silene. It’s a speech that’s hauntingly delivered by Arnett, and the realization to BoJack is quite clear – that despite his regrets and hope to make amends for his actions, he’s chosen a way out with no escape, and his end is coming. Even if the following episode grants him an escape and maybe even forgiveness, it’s hard to deny the perfectly executed terror found in this episode, during this scene.
3. Ruby’s White Body Disintegrates – Lovecraft Country (“Strange Case”)
Lovecraft Country was an insane, beautiful ride from start to finish. Every episode gave us a litany of earth-shaking great moments from a different genre of horror, from the Lovecraftian origins of the Shoggoths in the pilot, great uses of music in the second and third episodes (specifically “Whitey On The Moon,” “Movin’ On Up,” and “Take It Back”), and a Ghost Hand in the haunted house episode. But few sequences are as memorable as the Cronenberg-esque body horror of “Strange Case.” Now, my favorite moment from the episode cannot be written about here, because even describing the sequences on display feels far too NSFW for my PG-13 aimed site – you should definitely watch it, though. It’s the one that involves a handsy boss and a Black woman in a White woman’s body. But I’ll stick to the more disturbing first entry. The thrust of the episode involves Ruby discovering that if she drinks a special potion, she transform into a White woman for the day. This means she can get a job, walk down the street without being harassed, and beyond. The only downside? When the potion wears off, she sheds the white skin in graphic, painful fashion. And few moments from 2020 are as iconic as when we first see this dissolution in all its gory detail, in an elevator in the back of a restaurant. It’s the type of horror David Cronenberg first excelled at, and thanks to the added subtext of the sequence, it easily makes for one of the best scenes of the year. Please note: while better, this clip is still NSFW.
2. Schitt’s Creek Tourism Video – Schitt’s Creek (“Rebound”)
God, I love Schitt’s Creek. While it rarely boasts the most “laugh out loud” moments of all time (maybe one per season, like “Simply The Best” or “A Little Bit Alexis”), what makes it great is the way it consists of little, touching asides that blend family and comedy so perfectly. Still, when it comes to the best moments of 2020, Schitt’s Creek still gave us a handful of worthy entries. On the comical side of things, there’s everything surrounding David and Patrick’s wedding, or the premiere of Moira Rose’s The Crows Have Eyes. And on the sweet side of things, there’s David and Stevie’s moving heart-to-heart in the penultimate episode. But for my money, the best summation of what this show does well can be found in the Schitt’s Creek Tourism Video Moira is forced to produce after bad-mouthing the town online. Not only does it capture the leading duo’s Christopher Guest heritage to a T, it captures everyone’s personalities so perfectly. From Moira’s reluctance to say the town’s name – or even smile, to Stevie’s aversion to the camera, to Patrick and David’s annoyance that Moira keeps accidentally insulting their store, every actor captures their personalities perfectly. I’m always a fan for in-universe bad productions in my media (one of my favorite moments from Spider-Man: Far From Home is that opening children’s slideshow recap of Avengers: Endgame). Schitt’s Creek’s version not only ticked all my boxes – it did so in a near-perfect manner.
1. Jackie Daytona – What We Do In The Shadows (“On The Run”)
What We Do In The Shadows had that kind of comedy season most shows only dream of. Almost every episode had a killer bit, whether it was the reveal of Vampire Elvis, a concert where it’s revealed the vampire couple Laszlo and Nadja were the geniuses behind “Kokomo,” or Guillermo’s dramatic vampire murder spree. But honestly, were any moments in all of 2020 as giddily entertaining as “Jackie Daytona, Regular Human Bartender?” Having run away from his friends after being found by a bloodthirsty former landlord, Laszlo flees town and changes his name and identity. Armed with a pair of blue jeans and a toothpick, Laszlo dons a new persona: Jackie Daytona, a Regular Human Guy. No one can see past this obvious disguise or his over-the-top accent, and he “perfectly” blends in with the townsfolk of a small Pennsylvania village, where he runs a bar and becomes way too invested in the high school girls’ volleyball team. My favorite part comes when the documentary crew changes his chyron from Laszlo to “Jackie Daytona: Regular Human Bartender” to reflect the change. It’s all purely simple, purely stupid, and yet somehow the smartest thing on television I saw all year. It cannot be bested. Watch below. The moment speaks for itself.
Best TV Episodes
And now we’ve come to today’s big award: the Best TV Episodes of 2020! As per usual, I have two rules to remind you of: first, only one episode per show. I don’t care how worthy it is, it’s not fair to make this list all Lovecraft Country or Schitt’s Creek. And second, series finales are ineligible. Let me repeat that: series finales are ineligible. So sorry to Schitt’s Creek’s “Happy Ending,” the excellent Kimmy vs. The Reverend for Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, BoJack Horseman’s “Nice While It Lasted,” and the all-time great “Whenever You’re Ready” for The Good Place (which already felt like a cheat since it was like the only episode from that show this year). A few Honorable Mentions before getting into the deeper into the list include the pilot for the Saved By The Bell reboot, “Eyes Eyes Eyes Eyes” for I May Destroy You (I’m still only a few episodes in, though, so sorry if your favorite isn’t listed), the final match fromJeopardy: The Greatest Of All Time, which saw a showdown between James Holtzhauer and Alex Jennings, and all of the Saturday Night Live At Home episodes – they were a great quarantine distraction, and some of the most innovative material the show’s done in decades.
And finally, we have the episodes that made up this list at one point or another, and ended up getting slashed when limiting myself to ten episodes. It was incredibly difficult this year. Killing Eve gave us the dazzling backstory of the mysterious Villanelle in “Are You From Pinner?” The Queen’s Gambit’s introduction to Anya Taylor-Joy in “Exchanges.” Superstore executed a spot-on assessment of both the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests in “Esential.” Joe Pera took us on a hysterical outing to the supermarket in “Joe Pera Takes You To The Grocery Store.” Animaniacs and The Great gave us two of the year’s best pilots with “Episode 1” and “The Great,” respectively. Dave explored raunchy relationship humor in “Hypospadias.” And Harley Quinn revitalized supervillain origin stories with “All The Best Inmates Have Daddy Issues.” And with that all settled, let’s dive into the Top Ten Television Episodes of 2020!
10. “Part 6” – The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America really didn’t adapt the way I’d hoped it would. While Phillip Roth’s book is a stunning piece of historical fiction that has…striking real-life parallels, the series really didn’t capture the novel’s haunting text, asking what would have happened if Nazi-sympathizer Charles Limbergh had become President instead of Roosevelt, properly. Except, of course, for the series’ final episode. While Roth only devotes a chapter to the eventual climax, where a series of high-profile assassinations launches a chaotic, horrific American Kristellnacht, David Simon and Thomas Schlamme dedicate an entire episode. And thank God they did, because it breathes horrific, immediate life into the text. Simon and Schlamme explore each character’s terrifying reality as the world falls to hell, from father Herman’s attempts to protect his family as armed Klansman and Nazis roam the streets, son Sandy’s realization that his hero may have inspired a hatred that cannot be undone, and John Turturro and Winona Ryder’s realizations that their Jewish heritage will always outweight their support for the former President in the eyes of his supporters. In the episode’s most harrowing sequence, we watch a heartbreaking, tense phone call between Zoe Kazan’s Bess and Jacob Laval’s Seldon, as Bess quickly realizes from the unaware Seldon that his mother has been lynched and he is all alone in the middle of Klan-occupied Kentucky. The entire episode was brilliant and timely even before the events at the Capitol, and the episode stands tall as some of the best filmmaking of 2020.
9. “Little Omar” – Ramy
Ramy had about as great a second season as one could hope for. An exploration of millennial malaise and an attempt to balance that lifestyle with both cultural identity and a deep yearning for faith, Ramy Youssef crafted a hilarious, heartwarming story that’s as honest as it is cringeworthy. The season boasted a series of terrific episodes, including the generational divide of “They,” the exploration of sexuality in “Uncle Naseem,” and the outright hysterical “miakhalifa.mov.” But for my money, the season’s best episode was “Little Omar.” There’s not much humor to “Little Omar” – it takes place in the aftermath of Ramy’s well-intentioned fib to his new Sheikh inspiring a much-publicized assault. However, when tasked with rescuing the assaulter’s dog from a locked car in an unknown location, the episode takes a more philosophical, religious turn, as the rest of the episode follows Ramy asking a series of moral and religious questions from his new teacher. And from there, the episode becomes a master class in acting, from Youssef’s eagerness to learn and grow to Mahershala Ali’s sage wisdom and lessons in how to live a good life within the confines of the Qu’ran. Not many shows could find humor inside hate crimes and spiritual wisdom. But that’s what makes Ramy such a unique show: its ability to blend humor, heart, and faith into one special concoction.
8. “Start Spreading The News” – Schitt’s Creek
Like its best moments, Schitt’s Creek is not necessarily a show made up of “bests.” The episodes aren’t individually perfect; it’s the way they work together to tell their story and warm our hearts that makes it so fun. But in the show’s sixth and final season, there are a few episodes that stood out. I was tempted to choose “The Incident,” which gives great moments to two of its best characters (Moira and David, obviously), but at the end of the day, I couldn’t choose anything other than “Start Spreading The News,” the penultimate episode that captured the pathos and laughter that made us tune into the Roses for “six years” (let’s not kid ourselves, you binged it in a month during quarantine just like me, you assh*les). As the Roses prepare to leave the town they’ve come to call home, we witness their goodbyes in exactly the way we’ve come to expect from both the Roses and the residents. Moira’s goodbye to the Jazzagals is as humorous as it is heartwarming, while Alexis and Twyla will tug at your heartstrings while simultaneously making us laugh through Alexis’ pettiness and Twyla’s apparent millionaire status. However, the soul of this episode is absolutely David, who is crushed to learn that, despite his plans to move to New York, his fiancé was willing to buy his dream house for him. The show can best be summed up through David’s tearful exchange with best friend Stevie, where they realize that this town has made them better people, that David deserves to be happy here, and that they need each other – only for David to then ask her, during their hug, if she remembered to wear deodorant. The episode is sweet, sad, funny, and romantic, all at the same time. And it’s why we fell in love with a show with as silly a name as Schitt’s Creek.
7. Lovers Rock
OK OK, STOP YELLING! I GET IT! I promise, this is the last time you’ll see a Small Axe property on my Television lists. I know it’s shocking to see, considering so many critics listed Lovers Rock as the Best Movie of 2020. But based on its hour-long runtime, I felt Steve McQueen’s ode to joy and love was more fitting of the TV side of things. After all, that is where it aired. Lovers Rock is an incredible experience, filled with music and magic and happiness. It follows the events of a house party in 1980s London, from the early setup involving cooking and removing the furniture, to the early arrivals, to the dancing, to the morning after. Technically speaking, there is a romance at the heart of it all featuring Michael Ward’s Franklyn Cooper and Amareh-Jae St. Aubyn’s Martha Trenton. But honestly? They’re just a part of the overall experience; two faces in the crowd as the house party rages on. The partygoers all let loose as they dance to everything from “Kung Fu Fighting” to “Money In My Pocket;” and when Janet Kay’s “Silly Games” plays, the entire cast stops and sings along, swaying to the music a full ten minutes beyond the song’s runtime. I’m not sure I loved a character all year as much as I loved Kadeem Ramsay’s Samson, the DJ and orchestrator of the party. He has an incredibly joyful, reflective face. Outside the walls of the house, the world is a cold, unfeeling place. There is racism, sexism, and violence. But inside? There’s music, joy, love, and hope. It’s where Steve McQueen wants to live, and it’s where I want to stay, whether on TV or in Film.
6. “The Vat of Acid Episode” – Rick and Morty
Rick and Morty has a way of taking slightly smart ideas and blending it with a healthy dose of stupidity and pettiness. The show has never proven this more than its fourth season, which began with an exploration of narrative tropes that also served as a f*ck you to its fans for thinking they could demand things, Snyder Cut style. But as good as “Never Ricking Morty” was, I actually prefer “The Vat Of Acid Episode.” The setup is simple enough – after losing a bet with Morty over the success of one of Rick’s plans (namely, that they have a fake vat of acid to fake their deaths in, with elaborate lengths to make it work), Rick gives Morty a “save button,” allowing him to control a Groundhog Day scenario where he gets a do-over in all his adventures. Morty immediately takes to pranks, but the show never forgets its inherent cynicism – after using the remote to seduce a series of girls, he falls in love with a girl without the help of a save point, forms a years-long relationship with her, goes through a traumatic plain crash, and the two end up surviving and becoming more committed than ever…only for Morty’s father to immediately rewind to right before the relationship, with no way of Morty ever reuniting with the love of his life. Of course, that’s exactly the way Rick intended it, as he reveals to Morty that every terrible thing he’s done has not been erased, just transferred to a new reality, and Morty has irreparably destroyed millions of people’s lives. And why has Morty been put through all this? Because he didn’t like Rick’s vat of acid scenario. It’s a bleak episode about reality, love, second chances, and pettiness – and I wouldn’t have my Rick and Morty any other way.
5. “Nothing Like It In The World” – The Boys
It’s hard to imagine where The Boys could go from here. The second season of the superhero satire was so brilliant on every level, it might not be toppable. Several episodes stand out from the bleakly funny show, including “Over The Hill With The Swords Of A Thousand Men.” But it’s hard to imagine the show ever topping the trippy, disturbing events of “Nothing Like It In The World.” There are two stories at work in “Nothing Like It;” there’s a plot that focuses on the power of love in the face of evil, and there’s the main story about an all-powerful demigod descending into madness. That demigod plot is the real kicker here, as Antony Starr gives an unbelievable performance as a Superman losing his mind; having lost everything and embracing his own narcissism, Starr’s Homelander spends the episode slowly becoming unhinged. He watches Taxi Driver while viewing Travis Bickle as the hero, becomes off-put when questioned on his own racism when interviewed by Maria Menounos, and has kidnapped a body-swapping superhero to force him to roleplay his dead romantic/mother figure – whom he eventually kills upon learning his darkest secret of all: that he’ll never love anything as much as he loves himself (shown in disturbing fashion). This story of unloved narcissism is counteracted by the heroic Boys sharing stories and moments of love and camaraderie, underscoring Homelander’s own emptiness. The group tells stories of parental bonding, sing along to Billy Joel lyrics, and become closer. Oh, and did I mention that there’s a partnership that serves as a metaphor for America’s current struggle with the alt-right and a When Harry Met Sally… style montage of romantic interviews that turn out to be a Scientology-based fake marriage audition? THIS. EPISODE. HAS. EVERYTHING. If you need one episode to prove to someone why The Boys is the best show currently on TV, then look no further than “Nothing Like It In The World.”
4. “Elizabeth, Margaret, and Larry” – Curb Your Enthusiasm
I cannot overstate how much I loved Season 10 of Curb Your Enthusiasm. Not only is the show still fresh all these years later, it somehow works better in 2020, a year where people have finally become totally sick of each other, and Larry’s criticism about modern-day society can become all the more pointed. I have so many favorite episodes from this past year, it’s hard to pick, from “Happy New Year” to “Side Sitting” to “Insufficient Praise.” But if there’s one episode that captures what Curb Your Enthusiasm does best, it’s “Elizabeth, Margaret, and Larry.” Every character is at the top of their game here. Larry takes advantage of the “Queen Elizabeth and Princess Margaret”-esque relationship between his ex-wife and her sister by forming a relationship with her. The sister, played by the great Kaitlin Olson, is a perfect match for Larry, and it could be a dream come true…if Larry didn’t ruin it by choosing to wait a few days before coming to see her in the hospital after breaking her leg. However, while this is a funny enough plot on its own, what sets this episode apart is the guest turn by Jon Hamm. Hamm, playing himself, enters the picture to shadow Larry in order to play a similar character in an upcoming movie. The result, however, is catastrophic – Hamm goes too method, and the lovable actor slowly turns into a curmudgeon, getting thrown out of restaurants, pissing off dinner parties, and inexplicably winning over Larry’s ex-wife, before she realizes the comparison. Every actor plays their part to perfection, but it is the presence of Jon Hamm doing a Larry David impression that makes this one of the best TV episodes of 2020.
3. “The View From Halfway Down” – BoJack Horseman
Of course “The View From Halfway Down” had to make this list. Almost every penultimate episode of BoJack has made this list, and the series’ penultimate episode is no exception. However, instead of using genre-bending storytelling to explore depression, dementia, or drug addiction, “The View From Halfway Down” explores the final exit: death. From the jump, viewers know something is amiss – even moreso than normal BoJack episodes – as BoJack has lost everything due to his bad behavior, relapsed in his addiction, and begun a spiral with only one possible conclusion. That conclusion slowly becomes more and more clear as he attends a dinner party he can’t escape from, featuring the people who have died during the show. There’s his mother, no longer (as) abusive; the best friend he betrayed for fame; the fellow actor he accidentally got killed; the child star and mentee whose death he caused; the ghost of Zach Braff, forced to serve as a butler; and an amalgamation of his father and his childhood hero Secretariat. Throughout the troubling dinner, BoJack starts to realize things are going wrong – the characters are devastatingly bleak, he fails to wake up from this recurring dream, and there’s s creeping blackness always out of frame. As the characters step through a one-way doorway after performing a farewell act in a talent show (including the eponymous poem about suicide), BoJack comes from a sobering realization: this is his final eight minutes, as he has fallen into his pool in a drunken stupor and will soon drown. And his only hope, his best friend Diane, is in Chicago, and never picked up the phone. This is it. The end. Even without virtuoso acting performances from stars as varied as Will Arnett, Wendie Malick, Stanley Tucci, Kristen Schaal, and Lin-Manuel Miranda, this is a bleak, brilliant episode about death, suicide, and grappling with our legacies. It’s the type of story only the staff of BoJack Horseman could tell (especially Amy Winfrey and Alison Tafel, and it’s one of the best TV episodes of the last year.
2. “Holy Ghost” – Lovecraft Country
Every episode of Lovecraft Country is a tiny masterpiece, because every episode is a sendup to a different genre of horror, while still feeling like a fluid, interconnected story. There are a lot of episodes of this show I wanted to pick – it would have been #2 even if I’d picked the Lovecraftian adventure “Whitey’s On The Moon” or the Jekyll-and-Hyde body horror “Strange Case.” But I went with “Holy Ghost,” not only because it had some of my favorite visuals of 2020, but because I love me a haunted house story. Like all of Lovecraft Country, “Holy Ghost” explores the meaning of horror in two different ways: supernatural and human. After using inheritance money to buy a new house, star Leti soon finds herself facing a litany of forces out to destroy her. This, of course, means her racist neighbors, who place bricks on their horns to consistently honk at their new Black neighbor, harassment from the local cops, and even burning crosses on the lawn. But it also means supernatural forces, as the ghosts of tortured Black children lurk in the hallways. There are ghost hands pulling away sheets, decaying bodies lurking behind beds, and monsters lurking behind people in mirrors. It’s a clever use of horror and tension, and by itself is a great use of thrills, like Get Out. The only thing better than the scares are the comeuppance, be it Leti armed with a bat bashing racists’ car windows in, the ghost of a little Black girl decapitating Klansmen with an elevator, or the ghosts of the lynched rising up to exorcise a eugenicist poltergeist. When coupled with great music, like “Take It Back,” cinematography, and costuming, “Holy Ghost” stands tall as a cinematic achievement, and one of the best TV episodes of last year.
1. “On The Run” – What We Do In The Shadows
We may be on our way to a rare Sacred Wall Sweep, folks. I don’t believe I’ve ever had the same episode of a television show as my #1 TV Moment and Episode before. But such is the power of “On The Run,” easily the funniest episode of television this year – and likely of this upcoming decade. The episode combines a series of classic sitcom tropes – a character running away from their problems, trying to raise money for the local sports team, characters falling for obvious disguises – and combines them all with the added twist of “these are supernatural, undead vampires,” and anchored by the one-two comedic punch of Matt Berry and Mark Hamill. The opening to the episode is funny enough – Berry’s Laszlo is being hunted by a former vampiric landlord (named “Jim”), and thus has to change his identity. That identity? A jeans-wearing, toothpick-chewing average Joe named “Jackie Daytona, Regular Human Bartender.” From there, the humor only rises, as Laszlo becomes obsessed with the middle school girls’ volleyball team, and puts all his effort into a talent show to fund their trip to the state championship. The episode has a series of terrific lines, delivered impeccably by trained comedic professionals – my favorite comes when Laszlo removes the toothpick after being caught, and Jim the Vampire gasps and yells “It was you the whole time?!?” And the B-plot is hilarious as well, with energy vampire Colin Robinson trying to awkwardly kiss Laszlo’s wife in order to feed on her embarrassment. I could have picked almost any episode from Shadows’ second season for this list, and deeply considered “Colin’s Promotion” and “Collaboration.” But honestly? I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy an episode of television again as much as I did “On The Run.” It ruined me. It’s that good.
Well, that wraps up our look back on the Best Episodic Television of 2020. I’ll be back sometime soon with my picks for the Best TV Shows of 2020, and I can’t wait to share my choices – there are some big surprises and feel-good hits coming your way. In the meantime, please let me know in the comments what you think of this list, and if there’s anything you think I missed. See you all soon!