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The Best TV Shows of 2020, So Far - Featuring Work from DP John Brawley and DP Rhet Bear
June 10, 2020
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by Richard Lawson and Sonia Saraiya

Our 10 favorites from the first half of the year, from heartwarming teen comedy to a chilling alternate history.

As V.F. highlighted in our June TV issue, episodic content was a great savior—or, at least, distraction—during the very rocky first half of 2020. A surfeit of fascinating series to both binge and savor were on hand to keep us engaged as the world spun into the unknown, from heartwarming teen comedy to a chilling alternate-history allegory for the political troubles of today. Here are the 10 best.

 

Cheer Best TV 2020

Cheer

In a year when Michael Jordan’s alienating, if fruitful, hetero-masc egomania dominated a lot of sports-television conversation, there was at least another show about athletes that found tense, moving narratives in the struggles, setbacks, and successes of women and a lot of queer men. Netflix’s documentary series about a Texas junior college most known for its elite cheerleading program has its heartbreak baked right in: There is little to no professional life available for student cheerleaders to aspire to post-college. So they get only a few years to grab glory in their intensely pursued field before it’s all over.

Director Greg Whiteley sensitively captures the lives of these fascinating kids, and their tenacious coach, to tell a surprisingly stirring story about Gen Z Americans on the grind knowing the future is dim but pushing along anyway. Cheer is as much a paean to their hard work as it is a lament for all those who toil and excel under impossible odds but whose achievements go largely unheralded. Until now, anyway. —Richard Lawson

Best in TV 2020 Devs

Devs

For those of you who saw Ex Machina and Annihilation and thought, I want to spend more time in that, Devs offers the series-length experience of wandering around creator Alex Garland’s mindscape. The trip is scary and appropriately thought-provoking. Devs is a darkly, darkly satirical look at Silicon Valley tech, the kind whose implications could, well, threaten the very nature of existence. It’s heady stuff, and not all of the science in Devs makes sense. But the overarching sentiment that Garland is getting at—an alarm bell ringing in a forlorn, perhaps too-late tone—is persuasively communicated.

As an aesthetic experience, Devs is a treat. It’s easily one of the most stylish series of the year, but nothing (or very little) is there just to look cool. What’s thrilling and ultimately horrifying about Garland’s vision is how total it is, how he’s thought out the mechanical anatomy of his show so that everything has a practical, believable weight. If Facebook and Twitter have you concerned about what tech is doing to our personal brains and to the broader civic one, Devs gives you a whole new thing to be freaked out about. Have fun! —R.L.

Best in TV 2020 The Eddy

The Eddy

This transporting, Paris-set jazz miniseries stars André Holland, Amandla Stenberg, and Joanna Kuligas musicians bound together by love and duty, set against the backdrop of a diverse cityscape that bustles along to its own tempo. The Eddy is the name of a jazz club and the band based there; it’s also the name of the song that Holland’s brusque, grieving bandleader, Elliott, writes throughout the entrancing eight-episode miniseries. Stenberg plays his daughter, Julie, in a textured performance that underscores her star power. Kulig is Elliott’s lead singer and sometime lover, Maja.

Around them coalesces a group of musicians from all over Paris, played by actual artists—many of whom had never acted professionally before The Eddy. They slip between French, English, Arabic, and Polish, tensely balancing their all-consuming art and the financial demands of life in the city. The series is shot and filmed with staggering intimacy; the first two episodes, directed by noted jazz lover and Oscar winner Damien Chazelle, turn Paris into a sensitively textured landscape for human dramas. Scored to executive producer Glen Ballard’s original music, The Eddy is cinema verité broken into TV-size chunks, offering a mood rarely seen on the small screen—and certainly one rare to Netflix, which tends to favor slicker fare. Even for those who don’t know much about jazz or modern Paris, The Eddy feels like an all-access pass to both—which is especially welcome during this year of being stuck indoors. —Sonia Saraiya

Best in TV 2020 The Great

The Great

Elle Fanning stars in and executive produces this lush, droll, boundary-pushing drama from Tony McNamara, the Oscar-nominated screenwriter of The Favourite. Adapted from a play of his, The Great tells the story of Catherine the Great—before the greatness, when she was a teenage bride new to Russia. Much like The Favourite, the royals in The Great are badly behaved overgrown children, swaggering in their divine right and reveling in their sexual affairs. The tone of the show veers from amused to horrified, as the modern-minded Catherine comes face-to-face with the customs and rituals of the vast and singular country she will one day rule.

The Great is delightful, tweaking the viewer’s expectations of a period drama with shocking physicality—sex, torture, gluttony—that, more likely than not, is being performed in front of the entire court. Catherine’s husband, Peter, is caricatured with piercing parody by Nicholas Hoult, a daft tyrant who is the perfect foil to Fanning’s passionate, idealistic, and determined empress. Not quite enough happens over the course of the 10-episode first season; the aesthetic is prioritized over the story. But what an aesthetic! The grand luxuries of the tsar are intermingled with his careless disregard for human life; the rustling gowns and woolen wigs worn by the aristocrats at court are all just waiting to be tossed aside for a wild romp in a canopied bedchamber. Peter’s court feels like an imperial Russian Fyre Festival—all dysfunction and excess, run by a delusional narcissist with a seemingly unlimited budget. In the show’s midst, even when her husband is at his worst, Fanning’s Catherine is radiant with hope and possibility. —S.S.

 Director of Photography: John Brawley

Best in TV 2020 High Fidelity

High Fidelity

How many television shows are actually sexy? Like, genuinely have the casual sensuality of that word’s coolest implications—easy and atmospheric and thrillingly pulsing with possibility? It’s a rare thing, and yet High Fidelity manages it, despite being about a lovelorn sad sack who can’t get over her exes. That’s owed to a combination of Zoë Kravitz’s excellent lead performance (her best work to date) and the way that creators Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka have deftly transposed the story from the 1990s London of Nick Hornby’s novel to the here-and-now of a tenuous Brooklyn in flux. High Fidelity’s rich sense of place has a beguiling pull, illustrating a borough’s pleasures (the cozily shabby bars, the fluorescent glow of bodega lights on a summer night) next to its pains—particularly the looming realities of gentrification, and what that does to a neighborhood’s hard-won soul.

High Fidelity knows where it stands, which is deeply appealing. Its romantic entanglements are also sensitively realized, funny and a little mournful, keen to the way memory starts to ferment and sweeten in your brain as you stumble into your 30s. I didn’t think we needed another adaptation of this novel; the 20-year-old movie, with John Cusack (and Kravitz’s mother, Lisa Bonet), seemed good enough to me. But the series more than makes a case for itself. It entices like a potential fling, and endears like an old friend. —R.L.

Best in TV 2020 Homeland

 Homeland

Showtime’s one-time crown jewel had a justifiably conflicted reputation. Its early seasons trafficked in and stoked stereotypes about Muslim people and valorized the often murderous work of the CIA. But as the show aged—and the white-hot gaze of zeitgeist attention moved elsewhere—Homeland evolved into something else, a series that was as sharp as it was ambiguous, deliberately morally confused rather than certain about good guys and bad ones. The show’s final season brought it back to Afghanistan, trying to reconcile things there in its fictional version of geopolitics, but aware that its solutions had little to do with the problems of the real world.

The series also had to tend to its complicated hero, Cassandra-esque spy Carrie Mathison, who had done a lot of bad things all while pursuing what she was convinced to be the greater good. Homeland chose to settle those accounts with quiet huffs of resignation, realizing that concrete answers to any of its questions are more elusive than even Carrie herself. The series finale brilliantly (and rather poignantly) sent Carrie off into the unknown, atoning for her past sins but cautiously eager to anticipate the world’s next ones. Few shows end as well as Homeland did, and fewer still do so by insightfully reckoning with their own problematic legacies. —R.L.

Best in TV 2020 Mrs America

Mrs. America

This FX miniseries, from showrunner Dahvi Waller, provoked its own meta-commentary when it debuted in April: What good does it do to tell a history of the feminist movement from the perspective of its greatest villain? In this nine-part look at the history of the Equal Rights Amendment, screen siren Cate Blanchett plays Phyllis Schlafly, the Midwestern matron who put a stop to it—and ushered in an era of radical conservatism. Other real-life figures portrayed include Democratic congresswoman Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale), presidential candidate Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba), pro-ERA Republican Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), Feminine Mystique author Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman), and the face of the movement, Gloria Steinem (played by a dry, charming, peerless Rose Byrne).

The series’ greatest flaw is that it doesn’t center Schlafly’s racism, which is repeatedly alluded to but never takes center stage. But I confess that despite my reservations about the show, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it: the brilliant, determined feminists; the incredible efforts they poured into forging the ties of solidarity; and the cynical fear-mongering of conservative discourse, which far too easily put a stop to the promise of women’s liberation. Mrs. America makes the debate around the ERA flare to life again—reminding the viewer, at the end, that the ERA could still be ratified today. —S.S.

Best in TV 2020 My Brilliant Friend

My Brilliant Friend: The Story of a New Name

The second season of My Brilliant Friend has a major advantage over the first: Because the characters stay roughly the same age for the whole season, there’s no huge transition between casts partway though. That consistency helps the second season of My Brilliant Friend transcend the first’s hiccups, for a sun-dappled, heartrending eight episodes about sexual awakening—and sexual victimization—in and around Naples in the ’60s.

With showrunner Saverio Costanzo’s faithful eye to detail in recreating the second Elena Ferrante novel, the complex world of Lila (Gaia Girace) and Lenú (Margherita Mazzucco) comes to life in detailed, illustrative ways that are especially helpful to a reader unfamiliar with Naples. Mazzucco is adept at playing Lenú’s maturation into a chic university student, while Girace’s ever-so-slightly mannered performance places Lila as a woman trying to narrate her own life, which stubbornly, and cruelly, will not yield to her wishes. Francesco Serpico, as heartthrob Nino Sarratore, is the consummate fuckboy, winsome and unreliable and always just out of reach. The entire cast is marvelously dedicated to recreating the mood and the moment, and—dare I say it?—some elements, like the episodes in Ischia, surpass the chapters of the novel. Sumptuous and sweeping, it’s drama worth sinking into. —S.S.

Best In TV 2020 Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever

Perhaps the smartest thing that Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher’s pert, witty teen comedy did was employ first-time screen actor Maitreyi Ramakrishnan. Ramakrishnan postponed drama school to do her first TV gig, one which required her to essentially carry an entire series on her affable, relatable, sometimes irksome moxie (her character is a teenager, after all). She more than succeeds, giving palpable credibility to the center of Never Have I Ever—about Devi, an Indian American high schooler trying to soldier on after the death of her father. (It’s funny, I swear.)

Never Have I Ever is a show about having all the feels, from horniness to loneliness to mortal embarrassment to erratic anger. Yet it’s rarely cloying or overly sentimental. The writing has a nicely barbed prickliness, and the first season features one of the more satisfying slow-build teen romances in recent TV memory. (I won’t spoil with whom.) Though Ramakrishnan has invaluable help from the likes of Poorna Jagannathan as Devi’s mother and Jaren Lewison as a similarly apple-polishing academic rival, she’s often got to sell the series on her own. She flourishes, even when Devi fumbles. —R.L.

Director of Photography: Rhet Bear

Best in TV 2020 Plot Against America

Plot Against America

David Simon and Ed Burns’s adaptation of Philip Roth’s 2004 alt-history novel is the kind of miniseries that makes every other show on TV look under-researched. At this point, rich detail and a wide cast of characters are practically Simon’s hallmarks, and this series delivers his signature stunning complexity. But Plot Against America is more than an homage to the book; it adapts its themes in order to specifically address our present moment of political upheaval.

Roth’s novel centers on six-year-old Phillip, played by Azhy Robertson. The miniseries belongs to his parents, Herman (Morgan Spector) and Bess (Zoe Kazan). As working-class Jews in 1940s New Jersey, an anti-Semite’s rise to the White House is their worst fear realized. President Charles Lindbergh won’t enter World War II, instead promoting a domestic agenda of rehoming Jewish children across America to “acculturate” them to the Heartland way of life. Families are divided, both literally and politically: Bess’s sister, Evelyn (Winona Ryder), is swayed by Lindbergh’s rhetoric, which permanently damages the sisters’ relationship. The series is a compassionate, personal view of a nation at a crisis point—as evinced by the incredible performances from Spector and Kazan, who listen to the news, mend pajamas, and try to shield their two sons from a country they increasingly don’t understand. By the end, Simon and Burns leave the viewer with a sense of personal urgency—and, somehow, more faith in the American experiment than ever. —S.S.

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