We watched a lot more TV than we'd care to admit in 2020. What else was there to do? With the pandemic shutting down normal life and thus movie theaters, concert halls, bars, restaurants, and other great things that involve public gathering, the easiest way to spend free time that wasn't with a sourdough starter was sitting slack-jawed on the couch and watching television. It wasn't glamorous or particularly productive but in between reruns of The Sopranos, King of the Hill, and Frasier, there were some incredible and refreshing series that made our miserable year slightly better. From the surprisingly charming slice-of-life docu-comedy How to With John Wilson to the "is it TV or is it film" debates Small Axe the breathtaking anthology from Steve McQueen inspired, here are the shows that stuck with the VICE culture staff over the past 12 months.
2020 was the first year since 2010 without a Marvel blockbuster. During this brief reprieve, The Boys offered a refreshing view of the superhero industrial complex: cynical, morbid, and violent to an almost comic extreme. The Amazon series, which premiered in 2019, flips Marvel's corporatization on its head by introducing a cast of "supes," who've become image-obsessed brand ambassador-vigilantes for an ironically Amazon-esque corporation. With its second season, which aired in September, The Boys went even more political, with white supremacists and false prophets promising themselves as America's salvation. A welcome break from Marvel's slick fantasy, The Boys' gory reflection of megalomania is as entertaining as it is bleak. —Bettina Makalintal
The Boys is streaming now on Prime Video.
City So Real
No filmmaker has best captured what it's like to live in Chicago—a beautiful, resilient, and horrifically unequal city—than Steve James. As the director of Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Ebert documentary Life Itself, James is primarily concerned with inequities that come with socio-economic segregation and the stories of people who capture the scrappy ethos of the Midwest's biggest metropolis. On the five-part docu-series City So Real, which follows the city during the 2019 mayoral election, James is less concerned with who will win and instead focuses on the day-to-day of several distinct Chicagoans. In a year where urban life was limited, these vignettes are a necessary balm. —Josh Terry
City So Real is streaming now on Hulu.
Dash & Lily
Like its spiritual predecessor, Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Netflix's holiday-themed Dash & Lily is based on a book by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan—and it also features two teens who find love as they follow clues around New York City. This time, their connection centers books instead of music, as Dash and Lily spark their romance in the iconic (if not controversial) Strand Bookstore. The series' wholesome fantasy of teenage love would feel like a spiritual balm in any year, but amid the pandemic, there's something even more magical about the idea of traipsing around the city, surrounded by bustling nightlife and twinkling lights. —Bettina Makalintal
Dash & Lily is streaming now on Netflix.
Emily in Paris
Listen. This show was terrible for many reasons—from its lack of understanding of what social media editors do, to its overwhelming white girl gaze, to its goofy-ass costuming—but it brought us together to hate watch and clown on it mercilessly online. And in a year like 2020, that's something to appreciate. It's so bad. I can't wait for season 2. — Alex Zaragoza
Watch if you dare on Netflix.
Euphoria, Part One: Rue
Euphoria throws some of the best parties on television, but how do you deliver the chaotic, jam-packed scenes during a pandemic that calls for social distancing? You don't. Part One: Rue is a stark departure from director Sam Levinson's trippy and distorted scenes. For the first time, Euphoria is stripped down to bare bones, and for an hour, we gladly watch Rue (Zendaya) and her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo) eat pancakes at a deserted diner on Christmas Eve. Together, the two discuss the power of sobriety while Rue contemplates whether a sober life is something she wants for herself. "To tell you the truth, drugs are probably the only reason I haven't killed myself," she says. Learning about these characters without all of the distractions was the palette cleanser we needed before we jump head first into what is sure to be an intense season 2. —Kristin Corry
Euphoria is streaming now on HBO and HBOMax.
Grand Army, which follows the stories of five Brooklyn high schoolers, is not Saved By the Bell, but not quite Euphoria either. To start, we meet the kids after a suicide bombing near their campus puts the student body on lockdown. As the show later explores cultural identity, sexual assault, and potential arranged marriages, the bomb attack isn't even the most alarming storyline that this group of teens is dealing with. The best part of Katie Cappiello's writing is what she doesn't explicitly say. Much of what you take away from Grand Army is found in the racial and gendered subtleties of how the school handles the kids, and also the world around them. Cappiello uses these characters to show that the way children are reared in school often mimics society at large. —Kristin Corry
Grand Army is streaming now on Netflix.
How To With John Wilson
How To With John Wilson is a show that's better experienced than described. After all, the elevator pitch of an awkward New Yorker filming everything around him and trying to teach his audience a life lesson sounds like something that would automatically go to the back of the streaming queue. But Wilson's idiosyncratic series is something entirely special: a funny, deeply human, and totally out there exploration of life in New York City. Wilson films people as he observes them and allows them to be fully themselves when he interviews them on camera. While it's full of outrageous visual gags and unbelievable footage of New Yorkers are their most unguarded, the strength in this show comes from its obviously kind heart. —Josh Terry
How To With John Wilson is streaming now on HBO Max.
Joe Pera Talks With You
The second season of Adult Swim's Joe Pera Talks With You premiered last December, but the best episodes of the entire series and of the whole year aired in January and February. Pera, the New York comedian who plays a fictionalized version himself as a kindhearted elementary school music teacher in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, adds darker storylines to the wholesome humor he perfected in season 1. While episodes devoted to growing a bean arch, the magic of everyday grocery store shopping, and his trip to Milwaukee with his middle-aged friend Gene provided heartwarming entertainment, the real revelation was how Pera put his character into emotionally raw situations where he has to confront his own grief, loss, and depression. —Josh Terry
Joe Pera Talks With You is streaming now on HBO Max.
The Last Dance
There's no way a 10-episode documentary about Michael Jordan's final season with the Chicago Bulls that was also executive produced by Michael Jordan wouldn't be a gratuitous exercise in hagiography and myth-making. But when this marquee sports event aired, it didn't really matter, because people were so deprived of both sports and communal viewing experiences. Although it couldn't have come at a more necessary time, The Last Dance is a ton of fun: it's an in-depth and slickly told story of the rise and ultimate fall of basketball's best dynasty with its best episodes focusing on supporting players like Dennis Rodman and Scottie Pippen. While it's a fascinating look into how teams are built and crumble, most importantly, it's a character study on Jordan the player, the pop culture icon, and the cantankerous competitive asshole. It rules. —Josh Terry
The Last Dance is streaming now on Netflix.
I'll Be Gone in the Dark
The story behind I'll Be Gone in the Dark has taken on mythic proportions within the true crime community. A talented true crime blogger (Michelle McNamara) who is married to a famous comedian (Patton Oswalt) gains major notoriety for her work trying to find an infamous serial killer and rapist, the Golden State Killer. In pursuit of finding the man who terrorized at least 50 men and women in the 70s and 80s, and while writing a book about her search, the writer dies suddenly, leaving her work to be completed by her husband, editors, and a fellow researcher. And then, after the book is published, the killer is discovered. The story has all the markings of a true crime classic, and in HBO's docuseries, it's told in dark, often horrifying, and ultimately rousing detail. The survivors of Joseph DeAngelo, the man we now know to be the murderer that evaded arrest for decades, are a beacon of strength and McNamara's persistence and attention to honoring them in her work is a lesson to carry with us always. —Alex Zaragoza
I'll Be Gone in the Dark is streaming on HBO.
I May Destroy You
No show stuck with me more this year than HBO's I May Destroy You. The series was equal parts devastating, endearing, and even funny as it unpacked one woman's history of assault and trauma. As the show's creator, director, writer, producer, as well as its lead actress, Michaela Coel was a powerhouse as she fictionalized a sexual assault she experienced in 2016. The show packed in nuanced interrogations of sex, power, and consent; sharp commentary on social media and the creation of art; and explorations of what it means to own our narratives—echoing Coel's real-life fight for ownership over her story—for a watch that was painful, but also essential. —Bettina Makalintal
I May Destroy You is available on HBO Max.
If The Pynk were a real club, we'd want to be there all the time. Can you blame us? The dancers display an immense amount of strength on and off the pole, and Uncle Clifford is currently the most welcoming figure on television. Not only that, but the music is some of the best made-for-tv rap we've ever heard. Lil Murda's "Fallin'" and "Mississippi Pride" are already fixtures in our playlists and could easily top the Billboard charts if he were a real recording artist. P-Valley is what Hustlers wished it was. Writer Katori Hall's magic does not just stop at creating a lively club atmosphere in the fictional town of Chucalissa, but it humanizes sex workers and explores Black masculinity as told through queer love stories. We could cry at the thought that the best strip club we frequented this year was seen from our living rooms, but that breaks Uncle Clifford's cardinal rule: No crying at The Pynk. —Kristin Corry
P-Valley is streaming now on STARZ and Hulu.
The Queen’s Gambit
The show that got everyone buying chess boards and hitting up vintage stores was a mesmerizing depiction of trauma, mental health, addiction, and genius. (And the fashion was absolutely stellar!) The mid-century-set drama about an orphaned chess prodigy who battles an addiction to prescription pills, and goes on to become a world champion in the game, has its blindspots, for sure. It's doesn't do much to upend the magical negro trope via its lone Black character, and it seems to give a polite glaze over racism and sexism in the era. Even so, its sumptuousness and deep dive into the mind of a young woman teetering on the line of greatness and downfall was compelling and beautifully shot, and gave us all plenty to think about. —Alex Zaragoza
The Queen's Gambit is streaming now on Netflix.
Real Housewives of Potomac
In a long-running franchise filled with huge personalities and countless moments and catchphrases that have become part of the pop culture lexicon—from "Mention it all! to "Close ya legs to married men"—it's hard to get noticed. For four seasons, Real Housewives of Potomac was the silent killer in the Real Housewives canon, an underrated masterpiece of reality TV that only true Housewives heads knew was quite possibly the best of all the series. And then 2020 gave us season 5, which aired about a year after taping, and it seems like everyone has caught on to the majestic mess and ice cold shade that these Maryland ladies bring to a winery barn. Karen Huger, the Grand Dame of the series, is definitely in the running for best Housewife of all time based on her samurai-like shade alone. This season included a brawl between two Housewives in said winery barn, and the fall out of that fight became a hot topic both on the show and online, bringing about real discussions on violence, Black women, respectability politics, and if someone ever deserves an ass kicking, even if they constantly run their mouth in nasty ways. Regardless of whether you're Team Candiace or Team Monique, the series has been one of the most compelling (and entertaining!) in reality TV this year. —Alex Zaragoza
There have been plenty of shows about horny teenagers navigating adolescence and all that comes with it: that funny feeling in their pants, dealing with a debilitating crush, and the painful awkwardness of trying to understand your weird, ever-shifting body while in high school, the most hellish place on earth. Netflix's Sex Education does it with such honesty, humor, and lack of salaciousnes that often plagues teen sex shows, and it's 10 times better because of it. It follows best friends Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) who team up with the school's bad girl Maeve (Emma Mackey) to provide sex and relationship therapy to their classmates, as Otis has been primed for the position by his hot, sex therapist mom (Gillian Anderson). The series does more than play with these young people's sex lives, however, delving into cultural pressures, sexual assault, and trauma as well, giving viewers some education of their own. —Alex Zaragoza
Sex Education is available for streaming on Netflix.
Tales From the Loop
Based on the work of Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag, Amazon's Tales From the Loop was arguably this year's most gorgeous-looking TV. With its combination of vintage, small-town Americana and sci-fi signifiers, the visuals are striking: A skulking robot lurks in an idyllic Midwestern cul-de-sac; a house disintegrates and floats into the sky; a forest houses a mysterious underground research facility that explores the universe's unknowns. But more than its cinematography and special effects, the show thrives on its short story-like narrative; instead of a Black Mirror-like critique of technology, it focuses on deep human and philosophical questions about life, love, and family. It's underrated and totally stunning television. —Josh Terry
Tales From the Loop is streaming now on Prime Video.
Trial 4 and How to Fix a Drug Scandal
Trial 4 and How to Fix a Drug Scandal are two completely different Netflix originals, but they tell the story of the damaging effects of systemic racism in the same Massachusetts court system, decades apart. In 1993, Sean Ellis was convicted for killing a Boston police officer and served 22 years in prison for a crime he didn't commit. In a fight to prove his innocence, Trial 4 exposes the inner workings of one precinct's police corruption that cost Ellis years of his freedom. If there were any naysayers—and there are naysayers—about the validity of whether Ellis could be so unlucky to be framed by state officials, How to Fix a Drug Scandal shows viewers exactly how that happens. The docuseries follows the story of former drug chemist Sonja Farak, who for eight years doctored her lab work resulting in wrongful convictions for thousands of Boston residents. She also admitted to using the drugs, like methamphetamines and cocaine, and eventually even cooked crack at her work station. Farak was arrested in 2013 and over 24,000 convictions were dismissed after her story was made public. Trial 4 and How to Fix a Drug Scandal are two ugly truths that are two sides of the same coin. —Kristin Corry
Based on Gerard Way's comic book series, Netflix's The Umbrella Academy makes time-tested tropes like superpowers, time travel, and the apocalypse feel fresh. There are assassins—but they wear giant, cartoonish masks. There is a nefarious, time-traveling cabal—but its leader is a robot with a fish tank for a head. There is a cult leader—but his messages are just regurgitated 90s pop lyrics. After the show's doomsday first season, the second, released in July, finds the superpowered Hargreeves siblings stuck in the 60s. The Umbrella Academy's stylish, pulpy approach—tonally chaotic in the best way—makes the end of the world feel like a romp. —Bettina Makalintal
The Umbrella Academy is streaming now on Netflix.
Some viewers may have passed over Woke this year based on the title alone. "If we had some serious, preachy show, it would have flopped terribly, especially with the name 'Woke,'" said cartoonist and co-creator Keith Knight in an interview with VICE. The show follows a Black illustrator named Keef Knight (played by Lamorne Morris) who faces an awakening after he is brutalized by the San Francisco Police Department. The incident bestows Keef with an ability to speak with inanimate objects about racism, and the show splices together real-world actors and animation in a way that feels entertaining without being kitschy. —Ashwin Rodrigues
Woke is streaming now on Hulu.