By Ryan C. Showers
Now that Emmy voting is officially over, we can look back and see that this year in television was epic. Nothing proves that statement more correct than the sprawling, painful competition at the Emmys. In categories such as Drama Series, Drama Actress, Drama Supporting Actress, and Limited Actress, to name a few highlights, highly competent, very much worthy shows and performances are going to be left off the eventful final list in a few days. One could fill each category twice over and still have excess.
As much as I love film and the movie awards season, the abundance of quality coming from television’s output could rival the film side. In the future, there’s no doubt television will be granted more credibility than it ever has in the past. The best is yet to come, as talent and money flock to telling longer-form stories – whether it be in season-long arcs or limited series. For me, I love both mediums, each at their own time and place.
During the initial COVID-19 stay-at-home period, I took those first few weeks to catch up on shows I had missed during the fall awards season. In total, I have watched the majority, if not the entirety, of more than 60 television shows and films during the 2019-2020 eligibility window for the Emmys. Below represents the best of the year in television.
Big Little Lies
For me, “Big Little Lies” is the ultimate. It’s crazy to think that this time last year, the second season of the groundbreaking series was airing, and at the time, before the Andrea Arnold scandal, the buzz for the continued story was flying high. Sunday night and Monday morning were sacrosanct for me; a time which the Monterey Five owned exclusively. Though many have turned on the show, I remain one of the staunchest supporters of season two, especially after rewatching season one with season two in mind. This show is something of the highest class and order. “Big Little Lies” combined technical and aesthetic gravitas with rich, fully-realized character development in ways other showrunners could only dream. For my money, the second season made itself necessary in the way it unfolded the internal damage of the five main characters. Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep are two of my favorite actresses in the business, and here, their work together is something that only comes around once in a lifetime. For all the accolades Kidman won for the first season, I’m resolute in my view that the performance she gives in the last two episodes of season two easily exceeds her triumphs of season one. Also, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, and Zoe Kravitz earn the spotlight for their performances this season. As HBO navigates its post-COVID plan, they would be smart to pull whatever strings necessary to advance season three forward.
The Morning Show
Placing “The Morning Show” so high on my roster of the best of the year will surely make some wince, as this is perhaps the show that most encapsulates a love/hate type of reaction, and further to that, most people don’t take it seriously. I went in expecting it to be a high soap opera tone (after that critique from many in the business whom I respect); however, beginning the show with that expectation allowed me to be surprised at what the show produced in terms of tone, and really sink my teeth into the show which I almost immediately loved. Not since the fifth season of “The Good Wife” has a television show done a better job at using its characters to scheme against each other than “The Morning Show.” Jennifer Aniston, Reese Witherspoon, and Billy Crudup deliver terrific portrayals that elevate the lively, topical writing, creating a show that made me want more and more.
If any show deserves a gold star for being the most improved, it would be “Ozark” for its thrilling third season. It took me a while to warm up to “Ozark”; in fact, I flat out didn’t like its first season and mildly approved of its second. However, the storyline fashioned for its third season around Laura Linney, Tom Pelphrey, and Janet McTeer could not have been written or executed in a more exhilarating, thriving way. “Ozark” became the highbrow crime show it set out to be in its mission statement, providing a real sense of thorough and complete character development. The final arc provides a suspenseful, surprising, and sorrowful punch that left me eager for season four.
The Handmaid’s Tale
I have a complicated past with “The Handmaid’s Tale.” After loving the faithful – in substance and spirit – adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel in the killer first season, I struggled with the second season when it aired two years ago. The first half of season two left me so uninspired and unimpressed with the show’s efforts across the board. However, I do think the second season rebuilt itself with vigor in the second half of that season. In season three, they diverge away from the previously molded storyline and aim for a rebranding of the show, while delivering on past arcs, which I found to be entirely effective and earned back my trust that wavered before. There are certain episodes of “The Handmaid’s Tale” season three that left me speechless. It also continues to impress in its character development and execution of June. The June presented here is lightyears away from the woman we met in season one, as are her relationships. Nothing gets me more invested in a television show than character arcs that stick the landing. Props to Elisabeth Moss, Alexis Bledel, Yvonne Strahovski, and Ann Dowd for their incredible efforts this season.
The Crown, Better Call Saul & Succession
For my last spot here, I have thought for weeks which of the three shows above should join the previous four in honor. The truth is, I can’t narrow it down between “The Crown,” “Better Call Saul,” and “Succession.” All of these seasons in this cycle were first-rate and share successes in different ways. “The Crown” continued its reign of popularity, snob appeal, and historical depictions in a third season with even greater actors and more focused, standalone episodes. “Better Call Saul” had its greatest season ever where Bob Odenkirk delivered his greatest performance ever, and Vince Gilligan brought the show to its apex with several key plot points finally reaching their fullest potential. “Succession” has captured the critical zeitgeist, and while I’m not the throbbing fan of the show that some are, the second season improved upon the first and has produced the most fascinating male character on television right now in Kendall Roy. (Name me a better male performance this year than what Jeremy Strong delivers in season two, episode seven, “Return.” I’m waiting.)
I would be remiss to not mention “The Good Fight.” In eleven years, this is the first time I will leave a “Good” season off my list of the best shows of the year. It’s surreal. I found the fourth season of CBS’s All Access spinoff to be off-point narratively, incomplete beyond the bounds of COVID, and tonally inconsistent with the series before. However, it wasn’t an entire failure; I have to applaud the season premiere, “The Gang Deals with an Alternate Reality.” It was the single best episode of television this entire Emmy cycle. “The Gang Deals with an Alternate Reality” was classic “The Good Wife” perfection in its writing, directing, and acting. It’s one of the best hours of acting Christine Baranski has ever delivered in her decades-long career.
When I began the fourth season of “Insecure,” in no way did I expect that it would flock above the likes of the Emmy frontrunners to be my favorite comedy series of the year. But alas, here we are. “Insecure” transcended to the next level this season, and produced its best season since the first. At the core of this season is the breakup of a best-friendship between Issa and Molly, and “Insecure” proved to be a dramatic and comedic force. But aside from that central plot, the characters’ search for happiness and struggle through their relationships with others and themselves were all too real. The plot broke my heart, and the execution of it was so full and three-dimensional that it struck painful cords with me.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
“The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” took a step back from its season two ambitions of juggling too much, and as it reigned in its ambitions, it showed why the first season became such a massive hit two years ago. The third season is concisely written and directed with the utmost control. Unlike its effort in the second season, there was hardly any wandering this time around. Amy Sherman-Palladino makes a choice at the end of the season that rocked me, proving she knows how to structure and execute her comedy in just the right way as to bring a tragic overtone to its conclusion.
Of any comedy series this year, none made me laugh out loud as much as the glorious final season of “Schitt’s Creek.” This season is the feel-good, hilarious story we need in 2020; without villains and suffering, but with dollops of comedy and amusing character interaction. Catherine O’Hara’s Moira Rose will go down in television history as one of its most iconic, original inventions. Every word, every expression is something highly inventive and true to the character. Dan Levy’s key portrayal as David Rose is a performance that unavoidably deserves recognition as well.
Many may look here and see “Veronica Mars” and question the category placement. Along with the likes of “Gilmore Girls,” it’s the dramedy of all dramedies, and I choose to honor it here as I always go back to its original seasons on the CW. I grew up with Kristen Bell’s fierce performance as Veronica Mars and the intense and refreshingly fun storylines created by Rob Thomas. I was on board for the film’s continuation and conclusion that the show never had the opportunity to fulfill. It was the perfect entity to be brought back, as every show under the sun is getting a reboot. It took me an episode or two to get back into the groove of the show, but once this season takes off, “Veronica Mars” recreates the magic of the original show and doesn’t look back. It’s dramatically potent, clever as hell, and truly shocking.
AJ and the Queen
Of the series so far on this list, I haven’t had to stick my neck out for one that may have been subject to poor reviews. And that being said, the initial reviews of “AJ and the Queen” didn’t capture what the rest of the season had in store, which proved to be carefully written character development and plot structure. I wholly admire RuPaul Charles for stepping away from his on-screen “Self” persona and into the shoes of a fictionalized character. Charles may have been the initial draw to “AJ and the Queen,” and he delivers, but there’s so much to celebrate in the fabric of the show: the other wonderful actors, the classic buddy road trip gimmick with a twist, and a balance between heart and camp that’s very worthy of your time.
For anyone who knows my taste of character-driven, female-centric dramas and thrillers, you may be surprised to find included in the topic of my taste is a real love for technical masterpieces. “Watchmen” is a technical masterpiece. It strikes me similarly as “Blade Runner 2049” did in its universe creation, ambition, and beauty. This season is practically perfect – which makes the fact that they’re choosing to opt-out of continuing the story in season two all the more upsetting. While the filmmaking accomplishments may not be necessarily surprising, the story and plot of specific episodes diving into the history of racism and a celebration of black women within such a genre culture is radical and groundbreaking. I can’t wait to revisit this through the years.
Little Fires Everywhere
Mind. Blowing. That’s how I would describe what “Little Fires Everywhere” was able to achieve. When the first three episodes rolled out in a package for its premiere, most shrugged off the show as a guilty pleasure, and something very watchable but only above average. Even I wasn’t prepared for what the show would turn into, which proved to be something really special. The thing about “Little Fires Everywhere” that shoots it into the galaxy is the way the show captures the deep, specific, and unique perspectives of each of its characters. They capture who each of these characters are, what they believe in, what motivates them, and then simply, allow these profoundly flawed and complicated individuals to interact with each other over very simple plot points. Episodes four, five, and seven, nearly perfect hours of television, excelled in this regard. One could have hours-long discussions about the topics and events presented in “Little Fires Everywhere”. All season long, I had those discussions internally and externally with others, and there was always something uncomfortable to come to the forefront. That’s the hallmark of great art.
Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton means the world to me. Her 2016 campaign to become the first woman president means the world to me. The barriers she broke and the representation she provided for the past thirty years in public service has meant the world to me. All of that was captured in this ambitious, technically skilled limited series documentary which begins as a study of one woman but ends up being a cultural document of feminism. As captivated as I was by the emotion, topic, and substance of the documentary, the conceptualization and technical skill involved in compiling decades upon decades of footage into four hours is a daunting task, one in which director Nanette Burstein carried out with aplomb.
We have seen so many crime shows and movies follow a familiar pattern when it comes to the topic that “Unbelievable” undertakes. Yet, what makes “Unbelievable” something to be marveled at is the fact that it doesn’t go in aiming to repeat what we are used to seeing in this genre. The way it unfolds, with both parallel storylines of the victim and the cops investigating, is something unique. Due to the masterful way the plot is crafted, “Unbelievable” is something extraordinary. Even down to the acting styles of Merritt Wever and Kaitlyn Dever, the show always takes the inspired route. Additionally, Toni Collette’s portrayal is one of the most refreshing and addictive performances of the year.
As a women’s studies major from my undergraduate education, “Mrs. America” is like catnip for me. Additionally, as someone whose movie/television addiction is seeing complicated, morally questionable women explained and developed, “Mrs. America” is always interesting and challenging. I’m so happy this moment in time was captured for a wider audience to see as a complete story, and it was conducted in such a sensational way, with top of the line production values and superlative performances from a cast of endless talent, including Cate Blanchett in one of her career-best roles.
As a side note that truly needs to be stated: Hugh Jackman and Allison Janney deliver two of the best performances of the year in the terrific, tension-filled TV Movie “Bad Education.”
Be on the lookout for our final Emmy predictions on the podcast in the coming days. What were some of your favorite shows from the 2019-2020 television season? Let us know in the comments section below or on our Twitter account.
You can follow Ryan and hear more of his thoughts on the Emmys and TV on Twitter at @rcs818