toatali’s Best TV Shows of 2020 (and fifth anniversary)

I’m sure every critic and their mums will be struggling to write a suitable introduction for any 2020 list. How does one properly address one of the greatest tragedies to hit on a global scale in something as trivial as a list of some good TV you can use to distract yourself? The truth is, of course, you can’t, so why bother? Well, because for those of us stuck inside for the majority of our year, television, cinema and video games have become important escapes from the daily climb in illness and death. So for this list, I’ve changed how I do it slightly. The shows here aren’t all from this year – they stretch back from the late 80s to shows that are still currently airing. But they’re all shows that have in some way informed and influenced my year in TV watching. 

Despite its illustrious pedigree, I was fully expecting Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, an Apple TV show made with the help of game company Ubisoft, to be terrible. Rob McEllenhy, creator of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is clearly someone who has a history with video games, but to tread into the waters of video game discourse is a dangerous move. Luckily, the show pulls it off with a focus on characters over any real in depth analysis of the gaming industry. When it does occasionally make jokes based more squarely on its gaming premise, the love the creators have for the medium mostly shines through. 

This is mainly just a workplace comedy though, and while it’s a good one, you can still tell that this is the first season of a show with potential. Even by the end of the series, you can feel the writers and actors trying to figure out what makes their characters tick. It’s a promising start, but still just a start. That is, of course, until the pandemic special. While lots of workplace sitcoms returned for a pandemic special in order to lift the spirits of fans (Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock etc), the only show that I feel really nailed it was Mythic Quest. 

While the quarantine special does relive many of the tired zoom call jokes that were already rote by March, there’s an underlying exploration of loneliness that manages to hit in a way that it might not have before. In both the characters of the egotistical Ian and the more neurotic Poppy, the quarantine special finds common ground in their sense of complete displacement during the pandemic. Finally, in this episode shot on a slapdash timescale, the show’s creators prove that they not only have a handle on their characters, but on the global situation that so many other writers have struggled to come to terms with. 

Curb Your Enthusiasm was filmed too early to address the pandemic, or even to address the tragic death of Bob Einstein, who played Marty Funkhauser. But one need only imagine Larry David’s perspective on the whole thing, his righteous indignation on the already constructed niceties and social conventions of living under the pandemic.

Curb returned early this year for a 10th season, following hot on the heels of the incredibly disappointing 9th season. David, Garlin, Essman and Smoove all slip straight back into top form as this season has a much simpler and more Curb through-line than the 9th, with Larry opening up a “spite store” after getting what he sees as bad service from a local coffee shop (cold coffee, wobbly tables and moist scones).

Most notably, however, Curb this year made the most of David’s ability to get good guest stars, from Jon Hamm playing himself playing Larry David, to Abbi Jacobson as a problematic waiter or Jonah Hill as the owner of his own ‘spite deli’. In recent years, Curb Your Enthusiasm has slipped further away from reality and become even more detached from crafting relatable problems. But in this 10th season Larry David embraces his privilege more than ever and shows he’s able to craft great comedy even out of that.

Curb Your Enthusiasm may be his more acclaimed project, but there would be no Curb without Seinfeld, which I watched again this year as the show slowly becomes more comforting to me than a show like Friends or Parks and Recreation

I think the comparison to Friends is the most interesting, as Seinfeld will replace that show on Netflix next year, and likely be subject to the same scrutiny that Friends was. As a show that started around 5 years before Friends, Seinfeld feels like it should probably have aged far worse. But the trick to Seinfeld’s longevity is how it treats its cast of four main characters. 

Much like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the true successor to Seinfeld’s crown, the show is about four unlikeable people. We aren’t supposed to root for Jerry, George, Elaine or Kramer, but rather laugh at them and their close-mindedness. Friends tries to make us like and support its six protagonists, but Seinfeld at most strikes a balance between making them completely detestable and regrettably relatable. George Costanza’s pettiness is never rewarded by writers who force him to a life of eternal misery, but it’s impossible to escape the feeling that maybe sometimes you’d do the same in his situation, creating a unique form of cringe comedy that has yet to be fully replicated.

When I talk about comedy, it’s mainly about scripted comedy, because it’s far easier to talk about how something with a structure like that works or doesn’t work. But I don’t think I can honestly talk about the TV I watched this year without mentioning Taskmaster, the British game show that pits five comedians against each other in a battle to win points by doing stupid tasks the best. The international Taskmaster youtube channel started uploading full episodes this year while I was living in Japan, and the weekly dose of Taskmaster was simultaneously a fond reminder of the occasional great TV to come out of my home country as well as something to look forward to each week of the pandemic. To me, Taskmaster became something of an event that defined each of my weeks, and to find an upcoming 10th season was airing on my return to London was a brief blessing amongst all the other shit. It’s difficult to describe the appeal of an unscripted comedy like this, so instead I’ll just link to a clip from the show’s first episode that describes it better than I think I ever could: who can eat more watermelon in a minute?

I’m surprised this is my first time writing about Mad Men on this website. In fact, looking through my notes of ideas for posts, one of the first I ever had was a retrospective of the show, going through each of the seven seasons. I may still do that one day, but in case I never do, I’ll say my piece on Mad Men now. 

Mad Men is perhaps one of the greatest television shows I’ve ever seen; a sweeping examination of the rise of American capitalism from the 1950s to the 1970s, centring on an advertising firm which provides a link between corporations and people. In SCDP (as it is known for some of the show’s run), Mad Men finds the perfect lens through which to view the changing world of America; both an office which encapsulates a wide spectrum of American lives but also a view of the people right at the top of the American food chain. Don Draper, the show’s protagonist, is the ultimate vision of the emptiness of the American dream. His ‘perfect’ life by American standards, as portrayed in many of the advertising campaigns he himself envisions, is in fact nothing more than a shallow fraud, a facade he increasingly struggles to keep up. 

Although I recommend this show to most of the people I know, it’s actually quite a hard sell. Nothing in Mad Men is particularly entertaining to watch, and the show’s pace can put people off. But there’s a feeling when you finish the show that speaks to its genius; that Mad Men has presented the viewer with not only deep character drama, but also a depressing view of how the world we live in now has come to be, and why without significant change, it may always be stuck there.

I’ve been recommended Twin Peaks a number of times in my life, by a variety of people, but only ever got round to watching it this year. In a way, I feel that I have short changed myself by not getting to it earlier. If Mad Men uses metaphor to portray a sweeping vision of 20th century America’s changes, Twin Peaks uses it for something equally, if not more worthy – Lynch uses the language of soap operas, detective procedurals and dreams in order to tell a more personal vision of tragedy and community in small town America. 

At least, that’s part of what I got out of Twin Peaks. In truth, what really impresses me about the show is that I can’t really pin down what it’s doing at all. Ask me to define Twin Peaks and I probably couldn’t even give you a genre. It’s a murder mystery where the mystery doesn’t really matter; a soap opera that transcends anything about that genre, an absurdist comedy that is incredibly dark. It really shouldn’t work – and occasionally doesn’t – but when it does Twin Peaks constructs a vision of a town that is absolutely hypnotic and an atmosphere that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen on screen.

Twin Peaks has famously inspired everything from The X-Files to The Legend of Zelda, but it’s only by watching the original series that you can tell that although it has been inspirational, nothing else can capture the same spirit as the original. Twin Peaks sets itself out immediately as one of my favourite kinds of shows – something I’d love to write about, if only it didn’t make me feel so powerless to say anything about it.

On a personal note, today marks the fifth anniversary of toatali reviews. I started this blog by writing my reviews in a notepad, and on the front of that pad is a memo I wrote to myself that said ‘don’t give up on this one’. After five years, with two longer reviews currently in the draft process and a 60k series on Ace Attorney completed, I think I can safely say to my 17 year old self that I didn’t give up on this blog.

I started writing these kinds of analytical reviews when I was much younger than that, mainly about anime, which I was far more into at the time (I think telling a 15 year old me that I wouldn’t have any anime on my list of the best TV would have disappointed him to no end), but in starting this blog I aimed to branch out and cover more topics, specifically at the time wanting to cover video games. I write mainly about films on here now, but I hope the spirit of writing about anything interesting has continued throughout the blog, and it’s my hope that people who read it have discovered something new in any medium that has delighted or surprised them. It’s really the main reason I still do year end lists like this, despite my busier schedule making their contents ever thinner.

Anyway, what I mainly want to say is thank you. Blogs like this are a dying medium, with even the largest companies publishing daily articles about pop culture slowly fading out of existence. So to see my readership creep up, however slowly, every year is a real treat. I don’t normally like to ask this, but if anyone has enjoyed reading this blog, then I would love it if you told people about it or supported me on my patreon.

I don’t do this for money, though and I will continue to offer what I write for free for as long as I can. This is a labour of love for me – I enjoy writing like this, and I enjoy using this blog as a record of my thoughts and writing. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoy writing it.

To my long time readers, anyone who’s ever helped on this blog (especially my long-suffering editor) and to anyone who has even just glanced at a single article,
Thank you – here’s to five more years!

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