TV was not just a medium, but the medium this year—the year where the pandemic and the election drove us all indoors to huddle around screens, where the demands of sheltering in place turned us into figures in small digitized screens for other people to consume. Weirdly, a number of streaming platforms with thousands of hours of content launched months before the pandemic struck us, or shortly after, giving many of us a chance to drown ourselves in programming when the outside world was no longer an option.
The ability to combat the boredom of this awful, depressing year has been a godsend. But it���s also been disappointing to discover what economic incentives have done to television quality and, as a result, to the conversation around TV. I felt stubborn and intransigent putting this list together, because while there was no limit to the shows that had created dialogue or nabbed millions of viewers, trying to find 10 peerless shows was harder than it’s been in years. So, more than new debuts or flashes in the pan, I found myself returning to the weird, wonderful things TV is good at: the fourth and fifth seasons of reliable dramas; live athletics; bringing the stage to the screen; the odd intimacy of “reality” television. It’s a strange list for a strange year, but as always, the lovely and sometimes awful thing about TV is it gave us a chance to be in this mess together.
The half hour from creator, writer, and star Ramy Youssef ended its first season with a seemingly intractable problem: Ramy, on a trip to see family in Cairo, falls in love with Amani (Rosaline Elbay)—his cousin!—deepening the identity crisis he’s been trapped in since the first episode. The second season picks up just a few weeks later, with Ramy back in Jersey and mired in a depression, unable to make sense of his life. Youssef’s sensitive portrayal of a young Muslim American is at odds with how ridiculously obtuse and selfish his character can be. But as this season explores in greater depth, Ramy’s conflicts are just the most overt in his family of Egyptian-American immigrants, who are all attempting to live under the enveloping tradition of their deeply religious culture as modern Americans.
This season introduces Mahershala Ali as the Sufi Sheikh Malik, whose intimately personal approach to Islam appeals to Ramy. But as the season goes on, the sheikh proves to be another Band-Aid Ramy is using to patch a far bigger internal rupture. The second season also has more stand-alone episodes for the rest of Ramy’s family—most notably, the rapturous Hiam Abbass as his mother, Maysa. In the first season, her episode was mostly tragic. In the second season, Ramy lets her test her comedic skills, resulting in one of the most droll, embarrassing, yet heartwarming TV episodes of the year, where Maysa has to learn to accept and understand gender fluidity. Amr Waked as Ramy’s father, Farouk, has an incredible episode as well—and late in the season, a focus on Uncle Naseem (Laith Nakli) reveals a lot of substance under the gluttonous, cheesy jewelry salesman’s bluster. The show has an exceptional ability to package some of its most pointed and thorny topics in episodes that feel humorous, particularly in the finale—where Ramy, clad only in a sheet, has to face Sheikh Malik and own up to some remarkably shameful behavior. Youssef’s performance manages to go toe-to-toe with Ali’s—no easy feat. Uncomfortable, comical, and at times painful, Ramy’s second season has a way of staying with you.
Admittedly, this is an odd inclusion. The acclaimed animator Genndy Tartakovsky is behind a few beloved cartoons, like Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack, as well as the haunting Star Wars series of shorts packaged as Clone Wars. But Primal, which debuted five episodes last year and five more this year, is not child’s play. (Indeed, the first season ended on such a tragic note that Primal’s primary takeaway was unspeakable cruelty.) In a way Tartakovsky’s project has a kind of classic cartoon setup, centered around a man and his beast. Spear (Aaron LaPlante) and Fang are a caveman and a Tyrannosaurus, both nonverbal, who are from the get-go struggling for survival in a hostile world. Both of their families are massacred in the first episode by the same vicious dinosaurs. United in grief and the need to keep moving, the improbable pair form a bond through a beautifully depicted, horribly stark landscape.
What’s astonishing is how immediate and raw the story feels, even without any dialogue. Spear and Fang sometimes roar at each other���but they mostly communicate by look and sign, through the shared experience of moving through the world together. At times unspeakably gory, the animated series draws on deep, instinctual feelings of survival, dominance, and loss, pricking the viewer with difficult truths that resonate far beyond the show’s fantastical prehistory. At its core is Spear and Fang’s shared, desperate need to belong to another creature—to have something be on their side. The five episodes that debuted this year introduce far more human civilization than last year, bringing mythical creatures, a vast variety of dinosaurs, and ancient human behavior together in a fascinating and disturbing meditation on what it means to be alive.
I know how it is. You’re either on the Saul train, excitedly texting your fellow fans about what Kim Wexler’s ponytail is up to today, or you’re not watching, secretly fed up with people telling you how good it is. Still, I am here to bang the drum once more. Better Call Saul’s fifth season, slated to be its penultimate, is as gripping as ever—and has the added advantage of getting Bob Odenkirk’s Saul to drink his own pee.