My Favorite Television of 2020

Tales From the Loop

From my review of Episode 8: Tales From the Loop is a show that demands your patience, and if you aren’t willing to offer that up, it’s okay. Not all media is for all audiences. Shane Carruth makes a significant appearance in “Homes,” and I think that signals to savvy viewers who know his work as a director what Tales From the Loop is. You don’t binge-watch the series; you savor each episode and meditate on it. What you get out of one story might not be the same as someone else. That’s mostly how life is, we all go through the same primary path, but the beauty and tragedy we experience is going to vary wildly. Tales From the Loop, despite its 1980s, aesthetics is not a mimic of Stranger Things or Dark, and that is a good thing. It exists as its own unique creature

Saved by the Bell 2020

From my review: The new Saved by the Bell is a highly self-aware show in all the best ways. If you were a fan of the series growing up or watched it in reruns, there are copious references throughout. I was impressed with even how this was a single-camera series versus the original three-camera production; they have meticulously recreated Bayside High School. The original characters also reference their glory days and the original series’s silliness, even a couple nods to that summer season as the beach club. 

While the original series was told from the perspective of affluent, privileged Gen Xers who were aloof to the adults’ struggles in their school and lives, this series has Zoomers. They understand the complexities of public education funding and the inequities between classes of people in American society. That sounds very didactic, but I promise the show delivers all of this with that snappy 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt style of absurdist comedy. We certainly aren’t observing the real world, but these kids and adults face the same challenges we do. The writers are able to present this both as incredibly humorous but never losing the edge of the issues involved.

Pen15 Season 2 Part 1

From my review: One of the most prevalent plot elements in these seven episodes is the systematic slut-shaming of Anna & Maya. The girls spend the first episode at a pool party where they share some details of what happened with Brandt while gauging where he stands with them. They are confronted by kids at school who start to label them as sluts and whores. Maya’s obsession with Brandt feels proto-stalker-ish, so we do have sympathy with him in that regard, but how he chooses to push her away reminds us of how messy these very adult relationships become in the hands of children. She joins the wrestling team to try and impress him, but it ends in a humiliating fashion as expected.

How the girls try and cope with their public shaming at their peers’ hands and the divorce of Anna’s parents takes on several different faces. They spend an episode inventing their own wacky version of Wicca, complete with a homemade spellbook. The intensity that they embrace these imaginary ideas justifiably frightens some classmates, and we find ourselves somewhere in the middle, wishing young people had the sort of communication skills, so many adults lack.

Raised By Wolves Season 1

From my review: The initial premise and first few episodes of Raised by Wolves are full of excellent worldbuilding. We get a lengthy flashback to the lives of Marcus & Sue, two Mithraic who, with their son Paul, have journeyed in the ark to find a new home. Their relationship is remarkably complex and acts as a parallel to the dynamic we see between Mother, Father, and their son Campion. Thematically the show embraces the ideas about parents believing they know best for the children, trying to shape their ideology, and seeing the cracks in everything with the child doesn’t wholeheartedly accept what they are told. […]

The highlights for me are Amanda Collin as Mother and Abubakar Salim as Father. They are pitch-perfect in these roles, balancing the artificial stiffness of a robot with a simmering undercurrent of human emotion. These androids have individual personalities that aren’t entirely programmed, more intelligent A.I. that can grow and develop. Mother is the character who probably has the wildest arc, becoming overwhelmed with emotions that we can infer were programmed into her as part of the maternal protocols. This meshes and clashes with the lingering necromancer directives that cause her to become gruesomely violent.

Search Party Season 3

Dory (Alia Shawkat) faces the music (and the viewer) in the third season of Search Party on HBO Max.

From my review: Search Party feels like a tv series than an indie film franchise with each season’s supporting cast changing to fit the direction of our four millennial mains’ lives. The stakes of the series have ratcheted up with each iteration. Season one was a reasonably light, missing person mystery that ended on a surprisingly dark note. Season two was a study in PTSD and guilt, veering the series into some bleak territory while still finding humor in the situation. Now season three gives us courtroom drama and such a massive development in our protagonist’s persona that it is downright chilling in moments[…]

Search Party always seems to find a sharp new angle to take with each season, and it looks like the fourth will drop us into another genre mix. What was most shocking to me this season was the beautifully subtle way Dory transformed. She is verging on the edge of sociopathy at this point but also tormented by specters of her now two victims. However, it’s not guilt Dory feels as seen clearly in the last couple of episodes. Instead, she afraid of being caught, of having to face the consequences of the things she’s done to stay out of trouble. A new character dropped into this season who will have a tremendous impact in the fourth for sure. I am very curious if this person will become another victim to Dory’s relentless ability to kill to survive, or we will see a new wrinkle in the story. I highly recommend all three seasons of this series, it’s unlike any other comedy out there at the moment.

Devs

From my review: There’s a delicate balance when telling a story like this. How much to tilt in favor of ideas over character. I think Garland pulls off quite a tightrope act, characters are painted with precise detail so that we don’t need to get their entire life story to understand their motivations, their personal losses, their philosophies. Characters often feel representative of archetypes or metaphors. There is a programming trio in the Devs facility that are essentially the mythological Fates, a trinity of an elderly man, a woman in her 30s, and a young boy. They are past, present, and future, in conflict with each other. The old man is wistful and is closer to the boy than the woman. The woman sees them both as disassociated from the bigger picture, while she is very present with what is happening at the moment.

Garland is masterful at imbuing his work with a particular atmosphere and mood. I would compare this to very meditative and intellectual science fiction work like Denis’ Villeneuve’s Arrival, the German series Dark, the Cary Fukunaga series Maniac, the woefully underrated, and canceled The OA, and the writing of Ted Chiang. If you want something fast-paced and action-oriented, Devs is not that. The show takes its time in the first half, slowly unfolding just what it wants you to know and giving you pieces of a larger puzzle that don’t become clear until the last few chapters. There can be a level of cold distance in the presentation, but that is intentional. The characters are all working at a level of computing the typical person couldn’t really get a grasp on, and so to a degree, they exhibit a sense of social awkwardness. The most human, ironically, is Fenton; Amaya’s head of security, who could also be argued, is the central antagonist for most of the series.

Kidding Season 2

From my review: The most moving flashback makes up the majority of the final episode where we get to see how Jeff and his now ex-wife Jill met. The journey of their relationship doesn’t go the way we expect and involves Jeff seeing past the persona he created to be a human. We know from seeing his present state that Jeff eventually falls back into this monk-like state of being, and that was a crucial part of the dissolution of his marriage. The last scene pulls together all the emotional beats from the entire series, and we get a silent moment where one critical sound dominates. It is one of the most beautifully moving scenes of the whole series.

Kidding isn’t a show for every person. If you enjoy the work of Michel Gondry (one of the executive producers) and his aesthetic then you will love this show. Jim Carrey is playing the role with oozing pathos, reminiscent of his performances in films like The Truman Show or Man in the Moon. I personally found these ten episodes to be some of the most human, emotional television put on the air in a long time. There’s a sense of magic and hope shining out of this series without ever going saccharine or feeling dishonest.

The Mandalorian Season 2

From my review: I also appreciate how the show builds on storylines from other series like The Clone Wars and Rebels. It makes those shows feel more critical, making the world feel more extensive and more populated. I may not understand all the Bo-Katan details, but I appreciate her arc is crossing over with Djarin’s here. I was never a prequels fan and just couldn’t get into The Clone Wars, but I loved getting to see a significant character from those stories pop up in live-action for the first time. I definitely know my appreciation for that episode pales compared to the hardcore fans, but I love when you get a feel for these larger shared universes. I think it comes from my lifelong love of comic books and how characters weave in and out of each other’s stories.

Of all the episodes this season, I think my favorite was The Believer, which saw the return of Migs Mayfield (Bill Burr), who was one of my least favorite guest-stars from the first season. This episode had the perfect amount of special effects/action set pieces and vibrant character development. There are other characters around, but the narrative focuses on Migs and Djarin with an understanding developing between the two former allies & foes. The episode also contains some wonderful world-building about the Empire in the wake of The Return of the Jedi. They are such a vast network that they would linger for a decade or more to come, with command slowly crumbling away. The episode touches on PTSD and trauma from soldiers participating in atrocities, and I was quite surprised by Burr’s dramatic performance.

The Third Day

From my review: It’s hard to talk about The Third Day without spoiling, but I will try to do my best because, if you haven’t seen it, and anything you hear intrigues you, I want you to sit down and binge it right away. The six episodes are clearly divided into two distinct halves, each with its own protagonist and seemingly disconnected until a crucial moment in the second half. If the story feels familiar, it is definitely referencing the British horror subgenre of folk horror, mainly The Wicker Man. Osea is a place that holds itself as essential and separate from the world. Sam learns about the long-held religious beliefs, traditional melded with transplanted Christianity, never devolving into supernatural events always grounded in reality.

The Third Day is a story that hinges on a mystery. There will be events you can see coming far in advance, but others will throw you for a loop. I believe the writers do a fantastic job of dispense information at the right pace so that the audience can sit with each new revelation and understand how it fits into the whole. I felt sure that something sinister was happening on Osea but could not nail down who was on what side in an entertaining way. This is helped by Katherine Waterston, John Dagleish, Emily Watson, and Paddy Considine, who play the four people Sam spends the most time with while on Osea. They are repeatedly lying and deceiving, but what are lies and trues and for what purpose is cleverly hidden until the end.

Homecoming Seasons 1 & 2

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From my season one review: I was immediately struck by the music of Homecoming. It will likely sound familiar, and that’s because almost every track is from a film made in the 1960s or 70s. The series uses scores written by Bernard Hermann, Vangelis, and others. I was particularly happy to hear a piece from Francis Ford Coppola’s conspiracy paranoia picture The Conversation used in a later episode, the music written by David Shire. For film fans, the creators are signaling their appreciation of a particular genre of movies, things like Hitchcock movies and the conspiracy pictures of the post-Watergate era. The music even leans into giallo territory at moments and makes the show feel both classic and a fresh take on science fiction/thrillers.

There is also meticulous attention paid to the cinematography. The shot composition is absolutely gorgeous and strongly evoked Kubrick, David Fincher, and De Palma. A decision is made to shoot the 2018 segments in full 16:9, the aspect ratio used for your typical large-screen television. However, 2022 portions are shot in 1:1 so that they resemble a vertical smartphone shot. This may seem like an arbitrary way to visually distinguish the two periods, but there is an explanation for why we see these in different ways near the end of the series. In the final episode, we’re thrown for a loop when we get a couple of scenes shot in 4:3 that also signal another point in time and have a reason for existing. This is such a dedication to craft to not just shoot a script but spending time creating an atmosphere and potent tone. (Season two review here)

The Outsider

From my review: The Outsider is a dark show, taking those bits of horror Stephen King puts in his work and allowing them to flourish and grow like rot across the screen. A pallor of grief hangs over everyone, which, as we learn, is exactly what the killer wants to happen. Ralph and his wife, Jeannie (Mare Winningham), are still dealing with the death of their own son a year prior. Their home is haunted by that grief, though both people try to act as though they are okay and are moving on. As Ralph delves deeper into the impossible aspects of this case, his mind wanders to questions about his son, if his spirit is still here, if he can ever see him again.

Sharing the spotlight with Mendelsohn is Cynthia Erivo as private investigator Holly Gibney. Gibney is neurodivergent, which allows her to observe details in a manner that neurotypical, non-autistic people like Ralph Anderson would. She’s never told about the Terry Maitland murder (a funny detail which we are reminded of in the final episode) but is instead hired to retrace the steps of a van stolen in Dayton, Ohio, and interview Terry’s geriatric father in a nursing home. This sends Gibney down a rabbit hole that provides the bulk of the explanation for what has happened, providing an answer so fantastic she’s met with resistance from the people who hired her.

Dark Season 3

From my review: Dark will go down as one of the most mind-melting complex series most people have ever seen. Its creators Baran bo Odar and Jantje Friese, have been uncompromising in their vision for all three seasons, challenging viewers to follow the convoluted family trees and crisscrossing timelines. This is made even more challenging to comprehend in the third season’s introduction of multiple realities. Yet it all works and makes sense in the end. Dark is not a series you can play in the background and drift in and out of, it demands the viewer’s full attention or you will most certainly become as lost as Jonas does at times […]

Dark delivers one of the best final moments I’ve seen on television in a long time. The characters arranged around a dinner table in that last scene have great emotional weight when you sit back and contemplate the journeys their stories took. It’s no coincidence the episode is titled The Paradise, a reference Noah tells Elisabeth, about a world where all of their pain is gone but can only be gained if they follow through with Adam’s plans. In this last episode, we see that that was always the wrong way to get to paradise. We also must note that not everyone we have grown to love has a way to exist in this place. And that beautiful tragedy and sacrifice are what make a warm place in my heart for this show. Dark is one of the most wonderfully humanist stories, charting the course of how powerful this species is, how destructive we are, and the promise of how noble we can be.

We Are Who We Are

From my review: Filmmaker Luca Guadagnino has a talent for making small, everyday moments bubble over with emotion and energy. In his mini-series, We Are Who We Are, the daily travails of American teenagers living on a military base in Italy will be going along as expected, and then the right music cue and change in camera speed elevate the outing into something mythic, poetic, beautiful. Just as he’s done in I Am Love and Call Me By Your Name, Guadagnino is once again exploring ideas of love and of being an uncomfortable outsider in a new place. The result is the best television program of 2020, a work of art that reminds us why HBO is a powerhouse for quality television that allows artists to manifest their vision […]

As always, Guadagnino uses his camera to its fullest, letting the viewer go everywhere, floating above the heads of his characters, diving into the pool with them, being in the moment as they glance into the mirror trying to discern who it is they see in there. The camera, much like the characters, is often intuitive, knowing who to follow and focus on, when to stay back, and give room to their emotions. This, paired with Guadagnino’s masterful choices in music cues, leads to exhilarating moments of joy and poignant scenes of failure, loneliness, and rejection.

Succession Season 2

From my review: Season two of Succession starts with a feeling numbing cold. Kendall Roy (Jeremy Armstrong) is at a European spa when he’s summoned by his father, Logan (Brian Cox), to make a statement on the strength of his dad’s position in a pending buyout. Kendall complies, broken from what transpired in the final moments of season one and now forever kneeling before his father, who bailed him out. That is the arc of this character throughout these ten episodes, exploring if he can ever have his own voice or will forever bend the knee and allow his privilege to protect him. Some viewers may see Kendall as the one “good guy” in the Roy family, but Kendall is not. He actively participates in the cruel and criminal acts; his family perpetuates, and he benefits from the outcomes.

Succession does an excellent job of making the show into a real ensemble effort. In the first season, it felt like Kendall disproportionately get the spotlight, but this time around, we get lots of moments with Roman, Shiv, and Tom. Even Greg’s role is increased. Shiv (Sarah Snook) is another character I suspect audiences might “sympathize” with. She’s more liberal than her father and slightly more concerned about the editorial stances of her family’s news network. However, when the dam breaks and the cruises division’s crimes come to light in the media, Shiv is one of the first to use her prowess as a political strategist to create narratives that diminish the suffering of victims & empowers the corrupt institution of Waystar/RoyCo. She is woke to the extent that it doesn’t interfere in her family’s wealth and power.

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