Over the last few years, I’ve added an increasing number of TV shows to my review schedule as streaming platforms such as Netflix, Hulu, Disney+ and Amazon Prime and the good old-fashioned broadcast networks churn out massive amounts of content — some of it on a par with the very best of cinema. This is the Platinum Age of Television, and while it would be impossible to keep up with every new series, I sifted through more than 100 titles that debuted in 2020, and these were my absolute favorites.
Kaley Cuoco (“The Big Bang Theory”) has the role of a lifetime as Cassie Bowden, a hot-mess of a flight attendant who wakes up in a luxury hotel suite in Bangkok and discovers the dashing stranger she hooked up with the night before is now a dashing, blood-spattered corpse. How that happened is a genuine mystery to Cassie, who remembers very little of the night before. For the remainder of this limited series from HBO Max, Cassie tries to stay one step ahead of investigators while doing her own sleuthing with the help of the dead guy (Michiel Huisman), who lives inside her head as a sounding board and confidant.
“The Flight Attendant” is wickedly funny throughout and becomes surprisingly deep and poignant in later episodes. See it: On HBO Max.
David E. Kelley (“The Practice,” “Ally McBeal,” “Big Little Lies”) delivered an addictively lurid 10-part series to ABC, which means you have to wait A WHOLE ENTIRE WEEK for the next episode, can you believe that!
It’s been worth the wait every week. This is a beautifully filmed, well-acted modern Western noir, with Katheryn Winnick and Kylie Bunbury killing it as frenemies who must put aside their differences as they investigate a possible kidnapping ring. The veteran character actor John Carroll Lynch gives one of the finest performances of his career as a Montana state trooper who has some, shall we say, unusual views on law and order. See it: On abc.com, on Hulu and on demand. New episodes resume Jan. 26.
John Slattery is one of those actors who elevates everything he’s in, and in the Fox sci-fi thriller procedural “NeXt,” Slattery has his best role since Roger Sterling in “Mad Men.” There’s nothing particularly original in the premise of this Chicago-made show (artificial intelligence entity grows exponentially and wants to take over the world), but the writing is superb, and Slattery is commanding as a Steve Jobs-esque, socially awkward tech genius named Paul LeBlanc, who has a rare condition that causes excruciating headaches, hallucinations and deep paranoia — which makes it a tough sell when he’s trying to persuade an FBI Cybercrime Unit there’s an A.I. running amok out there and trying to destroy the world as we know it. “NeXt” is that rare thriller that handles the evolving human relationships at least as well as the action-driven main story. See it: On Hulu.
This year brought about a bounty of fantastic docuseries, from “McMillions” to “Trial by Media” to “The Vow” to “Tiger King” to “Be Water” to “Atlanta’s Missing and Murdered: The Lost Children.” If I were doing a Top 25 list, all of those titles would be on the list.
As it is, we have three documentaries in my Top 10, starting with this three-part series from Netflix about the five crime families that ruled nearly every inch of New York City business in the 1970s and 1980s — and the local and federal government officials who worked tirelessly for years and implemented some wildly creative tactics worthy of a Scorsese movie in the biggest investigation of the Mafia in U.S. history. Fascinating stuff. See it: On Netflix.
The terrific and prolific Shonda Rhimes (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal,” “How to Get Away With Murder”) hits a glossy home run in her first series for Netflix, which plays like an early 19th century ancestor of “Downton Abbey,” but with a lot more diversity and a LOT more sex. Completely preposterous and wonderfully anachronistic, “Bridgerton” features gorgeous people in gorgeous settings doing mostly ugly things to one another, much to our shock and delight. See it: On Netflix.
Two decades after Lisa Bonet had a supporting role in the Chicago-set, John Cusack-starring feature film “High Fidelity,” Bonet’s daughter Zoe Kravitz added another A+ performance to her already impressive resume in this gender-switching, modern reboot limited series, which moved the story to New York. Kravitz is an electric presence as Rob, who owns a record store in Brooklyn and is absolutely sure of her taste in music — but on wobbly ground when it comes to making decisions about lifestyle and relationships. “High Fidelity” was one of those series that improved with nearly every episode, but alas, Hulu has pulled the plug after one season. See it: On Hulu.
Arguably the biggest surprise of 2020 TV. On the surface, Amazon’s “The Wilds” sounds like a Young Adult version of “Lost” meets “The Truman Show,” as a diverse group of teenage girls is stranded on a desert island after the plane crashes, and they must resolve their differences and work together — or perish. But show creator Sarah Streicher, the stellar team of writers and the stunningly good ensemble cast have delivered a smart, bold and poignant drama with more than a half-dozen complex and authentic characters. “The Wilds” works as an island-set mystery drama and as an empathetic portrayal of the myriad of challenges faced by teenage girls in today’s world. See it: On Amazon Prime Video.
The late Michelle McNamara’s “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark,” the story of the author’s obsession with unmasking the Golden State Killer, was a critical and commercial sensation, and just maybe the best true crime book since Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood. Thanks to the efforts of the great documentary director Liz Garbus (“Ghosts of Abu Ghraib,” “The Fourth Estate”), McNamara’s widower Patton Oswalt and a group of professional and amateur sleuths, the limited series of the same name was just as compelling. See it: On HBO Max.
2. ‘The Queen’s Gambit’
Raise your hand if you anticipated a coming-of-age, period-piece drama about a female chess prodigy in the 1950s and 1960s becoming perhaps the most addictive and binge-worthy series of 2020. (No, my hand isn’t up. Hard to type like that anyway.) Showrunners Scott Frank and Allan Scott captivated millions of instant fans with this limited series starring Anya Taylor-Joy in an Emmy-worthy performance as one Beth Harmon, a troubled chess genius who becomes a global sensation and overcomes sexism at every turn — creating havoc and engaging in self-destructive behavior nearly every step of the way. From the exquisitely perfect sets to the fantastic use of nearly forgotten pop hits such as “Along Comes Mary” by the Association to the cool use of CGI to demonstrate the Beautiful Mind of Beth, “The Queen’s Gambit” was must-see TV. See it: On Netflix.
From the moment promos started airing in 2018 for EPSN’s 10-part docuseries about Michael Jordan and the 1990s Bulls dynasty, Chicago and the basketball world were jumping out of their collective sneakers in anticipation. Originally slated to debut in the summer of 2020 to coincide with the scheduled NBA Finals, “The Last Dance” was moved up to the spring to fill the void left by the pandemic-postponed season, with the first two episodes airing on April 19, followed by two-episode runs for the next four Sundays.
To say we were hooked is like saying Dennis Rodman was slightly unconventional. Even though we knew so well how this story would turn out, “The Last Dance” was a great sports film, a celebration of basketball brilliance and a tantalizingly effective drama, with Michael Jordan as the larger-than-life, deeply flawed but undisputed king of the court (and the locker room and the bus, and the present-day record of how things went down). Decades after the fact, Jordan was more competitive dredging up old rivalries, real and self-created, than many pro athletes are on game day.
“The Last Dance” was the perfect series for those early, uncertain, harrowing early weeks of the pandemic, when we weren’t sure of what was around the corner. For two hours on five consecutive Sundays, we could take great comfort in escaping into a world of basketball heroes and villains, who were sometimes one and the same. See it: On Netflix.