The best TV episodes of 2020

Jackie Daytona. Dave Chappelle’s monologue. John Wilson’s risotto lesson. These are the episodes that cut through the clutter this year.

Even deep into the binge-watching era — and in a year when most of us binged more than ever before — individual episodes still matter. Here, the television critics of The New York Times recall which, of the thousands they watched this year, cut through the clutter and stuck with them in 2020.

James Poniewozik

BoJack Horseman – The View From Halfway Down

Hanging between death and life, streaming TV’s favourite substance-abusing celebrity horse meets the ghosts of his past — his mother, his former producer, Zach Braff — at a revelatory and haunting dream dinner party in the Great Beyond.

Dave – Hype Man

It would have been enough for Dave to be a filthily sweet hip-hop industry comedy with an inordinate amount of penile hypospadias jokes. But Dave hit a higher gear with this episode, highlighting the struggle with bipolar disorder of GaTa (the real-life stage partner of the star, Dave Burd, who is better known as the rapper Lil Dicky). It captured the soul of a series that is, below-the-belt jokes aside, about how people can be more than what they seem.

How To With John Wilson – How to Cook the Perfect Risotto

This oddball-flaneur video essay of a series about the quirks of New York City life unfolded like a sneak attack. It laid out one thoughtful shaggy-dog story after another, then ended in this haymaker of a final episode that brought us sidelong to the arrival of the pandemic, which brought the season’s threads together even as, one by one, it snipped our threads of connection.

The Midnight Gospel – Mouse of Silver

Comedian Duncan Trussell (working with animator Pendleton Ward of Adventure Time) adapted his philosophical podcast into a surreal animated series, which closed with him interviewing his mother, psychologist Deneen Fendig, shortly before her death from cancer. This episode, framing their goodbye within an endless cosmic cycle of death and rebirth, is as close to a religious experience as a TV cartoon can offer.

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet – Quarantine

The best of TV’s fitful attempts to capture pandemic life through fiction came from this video game development satire, whose characters — professional creators of digital worlds — had an edge at capturing the banality and disorienting weirdness of a life lived virtually.

Never Have I Ever -… Said I’m Sorry

The first season of this charmer wrapped a coming-of-age tale in a story of family grief in a teen-triangle rom-com. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan gave a star-making performance in the laugh-while-you-cry finale, which earned bonus points for flawlessly paying off the series’ running joke of having the story of a high school girl narrated by tennis star John McEnroe. It served an ace at match point.

Ramy – Uncle Naseem

One strength of Ramy Youssef’s Muslim American family dramedy is that it can be just as compelling, or more, when focusing on the characters it’s not named after. The Season 2 highlight is a stunning character portrait of Ramy’s uncle (Laith Nakli), whose abrasiveness is rooted in a lifetime as a closeted gay man.

Sherman’s Showcase – Black History Month Spectacular

Following up the first season of this laser-targeted Black pop culture spoof, the special — arriving not in February but for Juneteenth — both expanded the show’s scope (with John Legend holding court in a Harlem Renaissance sketch) and delivered welcome, smart laughs in the summer of Black Lives Matter.

Mike Hale

Adventure Time: Distant Lands – Obsidian

Amid all the punditry and sniping surrounding HBO Max’s launch, not much was said about this new series set in the universe of Pendleton Ward’s magical animated epic, Adventure Time, which ended in 2018. But it’s been the best excuse for the service’s existence. In Obsidian, Marceline and Princess Bubblegum take on a dragon who’s threatening the Glass Kingdom, offering a lesson in the virtues of breakability and, in the process, reaffirming their love.

Better Call Saul – Bad Choice Road

In a season dominated by Rhea Seehorn’s steely performance as Kim Wexler — the corporate lawyer who’s both mystified and enthralled by the dime-novel nihilism of her husband, Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) — this episode contained Seehorn’s tour de force: Kim’s disingenuous, spur-of-the-moment rant to a drug dealer who’s deciding whether to let her and Saul live.

The Conners – Live From Lanford

It is a wonder of American TV that John Goodman and Laurie Metcalf, two of our finest actors, are still playing Dan Conner and his sister-in-law, Jackie Harris, 32 years after the premiere of Roseanne. This touching episode, performed live (twice) on the night of the New Hampshire Democratic primary, offered fine work from Goodman as the widower Dan struggled to move on with his life, and it gave Metcalf a chance to show off the Hillary Clinton voice she perfected for Hillary and Clinton on Broadway.

Dave – Jail

The show’s first-season finale was a risky and hilarious high-wire act, as generally clueless white rapper Lil Dicky gradually absorbed why his new track, with its jokes about prison rape, might be found offensive.

Saturday Night Live – November 7, 2020

Not the whole episode — never the whole episode — but Dave Chappelle’s contrarian, essential, fearless monologue in the wake of Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election. “Don’t even want to wear your mask because it’s oppressive — try wearing the mask I been wearing all these years. I can’t even tell something true unless it has a punchline behind it,” he told the studio audience and the millions who had tuned in. “You guys aren’t ready. You’re not ready for this. You don’t know how to survive yourselves. Black people, we’re the only ones that know how to survive this.”

Margaret Lyons

The History of the Seattle Mariners, a Dorktown Special – Episode 1, This Is Not an Endorsement of Arson

Sports documentaries tend to follow a formula, but this six-part web series about the Seattle Mariners is among the most imaginative, ambitious and distinctive shows I’ve ever seen; it was hands down my favorite show this spring. The first episode established the combination of serious data crunching, faux-serious marvel and the capacity to derive meaning from arcana’s arcana. There’s not enough talk about Jell-O-filled toilets these days, but what really makes this episode special is the language it set for the rest of the series. It was a different form of fan analysis; like a song so special just hearing it feels like you’re singing it, too.

What We Do in the Shadows – On the Run

I don’t know if this episode is an instant classic, but just the name Jackie Daytona is one of the highlights of the year. I don’t mean TV-wise — I mean everything. Laszlo (Matt Berry) flees from a duel and heads from Staten Island, New York, to Pennsylvania, because it sounds like Transylvania, where he becomes a bartender and high school volleyball enthusiast. What We Do in the Shadows took two tired genres — vampires and mockumentary comedies — and turned them into one of the freshest, funniest shows going.

Bluey – Sleepytime

Plenty of little-kid bedtimes require delicate choreography. In just seven minutes, this Bluey segment captures the gorgeous vastness of childhood imagination, a dreamy outer-space ballet (step aside, “WALL-E”), the frustrations of “Can I have a drink of water?” in the middle of the night and the ineffable grief within the mortality of parenthood. But cute! Really cute! What a great show.

Quiz – Episode 1

All three parts of this twisty miniseries are terrific, but the first episode serves as a surprisingly emotional origin story for Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, capturing just how exciting that show felt when it was new — and how exciting a lot of things felt in the late ’90s. Sometimes shows set in the recent past force a naivete on their characters or make their settings seem vaguely goofy. But Quiz has a real clarity about its timing and context, which brings the messiness of the cheating scandal at the story’s centre into starker relief.

Written by: James Poniewozik, Mike Hale and Margaret Lyons

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