That didn’t necessarily yield only the best shows and specials — although several fit that description — but a few that particularly captured a year defined by Covid-19 (and the related hunt for distractions), the Black Lives Matter movement and election-year partisanship, including what many see as a rise of authoritarian impulses that undermine American ideals.
Some titles earmarked for the capsule are presented in pairs, either because they obviously go together or for brevity’s sake. Here, then, are the programs that best spoke to 2020, a year as unlikely to be missed as it is easily forgotten.
HBO’s World War II era alternate history (based on Philip Roth’s novel) and the second season of Amazon’s superhero satire both zeroed in on fascism coming to America — the first in the form of Nazi-sympathizing hero Charles Lindbergh, the latter embodied by superheroes serving a corporate agenda as well as their own. Each offered a kind of escapism, but woven through with provocative ideas and themes.
‘The Last Dance’ and the NBA Playoffs
Pro basketball’s “bubble” turned out to be godsend during the pandemic, allowing the playoffs to unfold without the stoppages experienced by other major sports.
ESPN combined that with “The Last Dance,” a brilliant look at the NBA’s past through the championship-winning Chicago Bulls and its larger-than-life personalities, foremost among them Michael Jordan. The network wisely moved up the airdate amid stay-at-home orders, providing the distraction sports fans desperately needed.
‘The Mandalorian’ (Disney+)
The future of “Star Wars,” it turns out, runs straight through the streaming universe established by this first live-action series, which served up intoxicating levels of nostalgia while charting its own adventurous course.
Perhaps foremost, with theaters closed the show’s second season provided the sensation of a blockbuster opening with each new episode, while planting seeds for many more visits to this quadrant of the streaming galaxy.
‘Tiger King’ (Netflix)
Nothing quite captured the stir-crazy insanity that characterized the spring as this bizarre Netflix docuseries about the strange menagerie of people who collect and display big cats. The series struck at exactly the right time, and will surely birth countless imitators attempting to scratch the same tabloid itch. There were other big docuseries this year — see HBO’s “The Vow,” about the Nxivm cult — but nothing embedded itself with quite this level of nuttiness.
‘Between the World and Me’ and ‘Coastal Elites’
Both of these HBO specials were shot under quarantine conditions, illustrating (along with several other efforts) of how producers found ways to produce fresh content as the pandemic took hold.
The first adapted Ta-Nehisi Coates book, as he addressed the Black experience in thoughts conveyed to his son. The latter featuring stars like Bette Midler, Issa Rae and Sarah Paulson offering glimpses of life during Covid-19 quarantine and the stark divide within the US, and the simmering anger the Trump administration birthed in progressive circles.
‘The Queen’s Gambit’ (Netflix) and ‘Mrs. America’ (FX/Hulu)
These limited series shed light on the women’s-rights movement through the prism of the past, the first about a fictional chess prodigy, the latter chronicling the real-life women pushing for (and against) the Equal Rights Amendment. It didn’t hurt that both shows were perfectly cast, including a regal breakout performance from Anya-Taylor Joy.
‘Lovecraft Country’ (HBO) and ‘Raised by Wolves’ (HBO Max)
These sci-fi dramas were imperfect, but in the best spirit of the genre dealt with real-world issues through the lens of the fantastic. The HBO Max show represented perhaps the year’s most original concept, with humans forced to escape Earth thanks to secular-religious conflict, while the former filtered America’s racist history through horror — conjuring a pulpier, more uneven version of what producer Jordan Peele did in the movie “Get Out.”
‘Little America’ (Apple TV+) and ‘Small Axe’ (Amazon)
Indicative of the current state of streaming, 2020 produced a pair of outstanding anthology series devoted to different aspects of the immigrant experience set in the US and the UK, respectively, serving as a response to the rise in xenophobia.
Award shows are seldom memorable, but this telecast was, symbolizing the challenge of celebrating the year’s best in TV while creatively acknowledging the strangeness and limits associated with doing so during a pandemic. The poor ratings didn’t reflect it, which was for once a bit of a shame. The Emmys aren’t actually eligible for an Emmy, but looking ahead to other award presentations, that’s a tough act to follow.