What were the best 10 shows to watch in 2020?

If there was a silver lining to the pandemic, for many of us it was the quality of the television we suddenly had more time to enjoy.

(photo credit: DES WILLIE/NETFLIX)
Whatever was on TV this year, we were watching it. And if there was a silver lining to the pandemic, for many of us it was the quality of the television we suddenly had more time to enjoy.
There were some terrific new shows as well as wonderful seasons of older programs, on both streaming services and traditional satellite networks, which is the current term for what people used to call cable TV.
The best shows presented an incredibly varied picture of the world: war, comedy, history, mysteries and psychological thrillers.
So here’s a look back at the best of 2020, and the good news as we go into this third lockdown is that much of it is still streaming or available on VOD.
1. Valley of Tears. This Israeli dramatic series took a long, hard look at the Yom Kippur War and won hearts and minds around the world. It was a hit both on KAN here and HBO Max in the US, and struck a chord with two groups: young people who did not live through the war and veterans who did and were inspired by the show to open up about their trauma for the first time. If TV can change the world, Valley of Tears did.
2. The Crown. Just when you thought this Netflix series about the British royal family was going to run out of material, it found something entertaining and thought-provoking to dramatize, whether it was Princess Di or the queen’s first cousins who were hidden in an institution for the developmentally disabled for decades. No show was binged faster than The Crown.
3. Homeland. The story of bipolar CIA agent Carrie Mathison came to a fitting close after eight seasons with a welcome return to form – and to Afghanistan – after a wobbly couple of years trying to mine American politics for drama. Claire Danes as Carrie and Mandy Patinkin as her mentor, Saul, went out on a high note.
4. The Plot Against America. This show was an effective adaptation of Philip Roth’s chilling novel about fascism and antisemitism in the US. As a bonus, it featured John Turturro as a smarmy populist preacher and Winona Ryder as his Jewish girlfriend.
5. Tehran. Critics have said this Israeli thriller (available here from KAN and on Apple+ abroad) about a young, female Mossad agent (Niv Sultan) in Iran was too soft on the regime. Many have also pointed out its plot holes. But that didn’t change the fact that it was gripping television that showed a side of Iran – the young dissidents, who include students and drug dealers – that we had never seen on-screen before.
6. The Queen’s Gambit. A dazzling Netflix series about a woman chess champion struggling with mental illness that starred British-Argentine actress Anya Taylor-Joy in a star-making performance.
7. Mrs. America. This series focused on a seemingly unpleasant character, ERA amendment foe Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), and found her humanity, as it also looked at the feminists who opposed her.
8. Fauda. The third season of this Israeli drama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict took two unexpected turns, one to the world of West Bank boxing and one into Gaza, and was a nail-biting success.
9. Call My Agent! When you need something light – but not stupid – this French Netflix series set at a Parisian actors agency fits the bill, and the fourth season was released this fall.
This witty and fast-paced comedy said so much more about Paris than the leaden Emily in Paris, and it was also a treat for French film fans, with Gallic stars playing themselves, including Sandrine Kiberlain and Charlotte Gainsbourg, who were joined this season by an American actress, Sigourney Weaver.
10. Shtisel. The third season of this unlikely worldwide hit about a haredi artist and his family just began streaming in Israel on Yes, and will find its way to Netflix in 2021.
Based on the two episodes released to the press, it’s a worthy continuation of the show that ended its second season nearly five years ago. It was good to see its wonderful cast, including Michael Aloni, Shira Haas (who has gone on to worldwide success since season two ended), Hadas Yaron, Neta Riskin and Doval’e Glickman again.