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The Best Of Television In 2020


From the election of a new president that wasn't accepted by the old president to an international civil rights reckoning and a global pandemic, it is hard to put into words just how difficult 2020 has been. Art helps in a crisis. Stories help. And the material coming out on TV this past year has helped a whole lot of us. It seems we've been soothed, provoked, changed and challenged more than ever before by what we've been streaming and seeing on TV.

What better person to look back at what has moved us than NPR TV critic Eric Deggans? He is here with us now. Hey, Eric. Thanks for being here.

ERIC DEGGANS, BYLINE: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So before we talk about the shows that kind of were our emotional salve through this very difficult...

DEGGANS: (Laughter).

MARTIN: ...Year, let's just talk about the nuts and bolts of how the pandemic really has changed the industry. Right? I mean, all of us have been trapped inside. Movie theaters closed. And we're all streaming this stuff as our primary source of entertainment. Has that permanently changed the game?

DEGGANS: Yeah, without a doubt. And the biggest trend is the way that all entertainment media - and I'm talking music, talk radio, television shows, movies - it's increasingly funneled to us through our personal devices. And the pandemic just accelerated that by shutting down new TV production in mid-March, which kept - especially broadcast network TV from finishing the current season or developing any new shows.

We had streaming services like Netflix and premium cable channels like HBO that had already worked in advance. They had a lot of stuff ready to go, like "Lovecraft Country" and "The Crown's" fourth season. And we had this explosion of streaming services like WarnerMedia's HBO Max and NBCUniversal's Peacock and AMC+ and Quibi, which lasted for about two minutes (laughter).

MARTIN: Right.

DEGGANS: And now WarnerMedia is telling people they're going to release all of their films on HBO Max the same day that they hit whatever theaters are open.

MARTIN: So let's talk about your tally of the best TV shows of 2020 - top of your list, HBO's "Lovecraft Country." How come?

DEGGANS: This show was a perfect metaphor for this year that we've just been through and this year in media. It was ambitious. It was socially conscious. It was overstuffed with themes and material. It was crackling with all this action and well-done special effects. And it was just filled with all these different messages about social issues and race and society.

It was based on a 2016 novel. And it's centered on this Black family in the 1950s that were kind of plunged into this struggle against a white family of witches that put them in the middle of these kinds of horror stories that we've normally seen white characters in the middle of, except the dangers that this Black family faced were built around these allegories, comparing the horrors of a traditional horror story with the horrors of racism.

Three of the people from this family kind of stumble into this castle that's located in this weird community. And they wind up talking to this crazy white groundskeeper who has these vicious dogs that she's taking care of. Let's check it out.


COURTNEY B VANCE: (As George) Heard about the grizzlies in the surrounding areas.


JAMIE NEUMANN: (As Dell) No. No grizzlies, just black bears. But the blacks are bad enough. They're smart. I mean, they're not smart-smart. They're beasts.

DEGGANS: So typical horror movie moment - right? - to meet the weird groundskeeper in the spooky castle.


DEGGANS: But it was made way more interesting because they added this layer of horror and race. The plot of the show is just - it's way too much to try and explain here. But it touches on so many bases. You know, it's reinventing horror tropes. It's referencing Afrofuturism. The storyline's on the legacy of Black families.

You know, these great performances by Jonathan Majors and Michael K. Williams, and you heard Courtney B. Vance. It's just...


DEGGANS: ...This great example of how expanding whose stories are told can reinvent how those stories get told in really fresh and innovative ways.

MARTIN: Your second choice, "The Queen's Gambit" from Netflix - this is the story about a young woman, a chess prodigy - takes place in the 1950s and '60s. What caught your eye about this show?

DEGGANS: Yeah. So I thought about giving it an award for the best revival of a board game...


DEGGANS: ...Because (laughter)...

MARTIN: It's selling out - chess. Who knew?

DEGGANS: (Laughter). I know. I know. Well, according to Netflix, this show has generated, like, a record number of Google searches about chess. And it was seen by 62 million households in its first month out. But kind of beyond being this compelling tale about an orphaned girl who becomes a world chess champion, this is a superhero origin story. I mean, she overcomes substance abuse issues...


DEGGANS: ...And the influence of a suicidal parent and a horrific childhood, in some ways, to ultimately harness her talent. And she's helped along the way by several men who train her after she beats them in tournaments. So here's a conversation that she has with one of them. Let's check out the clip.


ANYA TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth Harmon) I see players at tournaments after their games have finished, sitting there studying opening variation or middle game strategy - like it would have made a difference.

HARRY MELLING: (As Harry Beltik) You don't ever study?

TAYLOR-JOY: (As Beth Harmon) I analyze games - what actually happened, not what could have happened. And I play it by ear. You think I'm a prima donna, don't you?

MELLING: (As Harry Beltik) It's chess. We're all prima donnas.


DEGGANS: You know, I'm not in love with how this series took the only major Black character and kind of turned her into a self-sacrificing trope.


DEGGANS: But the lead actress, Anya Taylor-Joy, she is so good in this. And writer/director/co-creator Scott Frank, he just does this amazing job of making really authentic chess matches also look really compelling.

MARTIN: Those are pretty heavy dramas. Did any comedies manage to make the cut?

DEGGANS: Apple TV's "Ted Lasso" was one of my favorite comedies of the year.

MARTIN: Was it really? I've been meaning to watch this.

DEGGANS: I highly recommend it. Jason Sudeikis from "Saturday Night Live" plays a super optimistic, small-time American college football coach who was hired to lead this Premier League soccer team in England. Now, Ted admits he doesn't know anything about soccer...

MARTIN: (Laughter).

DEGGANS: ...Or football, as they call it over there. But he was hired by the team owner because she got ownership of the club in a divorce. She knows her ex-husband loves that club, and so she was secretly trying to destroy it. But Ted, his secret weapon is niceness. He's so nice. He's so optimistic. He wins over the team. And he gets the owner to admit what she was planning. Let's listen to that clip.


HANNAH WADDINGHAM: (As Rebecca Welton) Ted, I lied to you. I hired you because I wanted this team to lose. This club is all that Rupert has ever cared about. And I wanted to destroy it. Ted, I'm so sorry.

JASON SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) I forgive you.

WADDINGHAM: (As Rebecca Welton) You what? Why?

SUDEIKIS: (As Ted Lasso) Divorce is hard. It makes folks do crazy things. This job you gave me has changed my life. Yeah, but you and me, we're OK.



DEGGANS: You see? You love Ted even hearing that little bit, you know (laughter)? So...

MARTIN: Totally.


MARTIN: I'm sold.

DEGGANS: And I got to say, you know, given all the craziness we've endured this year, all this tragedy and destructive anger that's out there, it is really nice to watch a really well-done comedy about the power of bringing people together and just believing in their essential goodness.

MARTIN: Yeah, I'm into that. NPR TV critic Eric Deggans on the best TV shows of 2020. Thanks, Eric.

DEGGANS: Thank you.


MARCUS MUMFORD, TOM HOWE AND JACKSON TAYLOR: (Singing) ...Might well be it. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Deggans is NPR's first full-time TV critic.