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The best TV shows of the year so far

Clockwise from top left: Better Call Saul (Photo: Greg Lewis, AMC/Sony Pictures Television), Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts (Screenshot), Better Things (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX), I May Destroy You (Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO), Visible: Out On Television (Photo: Apple TV+)
Clockwise from top left: Better Call Saul (Photo: Greg Lewis, AMC/Sony Pictures Television), Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts (Screenshot), Better Things (Photo: Suzanne Tenner/FX), I May Destroy You (Photo: Natalie Seery/HBO), Visible: Out On Television (Photo: Apple TV+)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples
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In any other year, a mid-year check-in on the status of TV programming would almost certainly elicit a chorus of “there’s just too much of it!” But as we wait out each new cycle of lockdowns and reopenings, the overflowing content coffers of networks and streamers suddenly seem downright manageable. There’s time enough at last to catch up on the reboot of a classic sci-fi series, the latest addition to The CW’s Arrowverse, or a reimagining of a Bong Joon Ho-created dystopia. By now, Netflix’s “are you still watching?” prompt has become rhetorical.

But though we may no longer be able to distinguish between the days and what counts as loungewear, we at the A.V. Club have never lost sight of our duty to wade through the latest surge of new and returning series to single out the inventive, the illuminating, and the great among them. This summer’s Best Of list is, more than ever, a chance to highlight shows that moved us, cheered us, and just flat-out impressed us. The eligibility guidelines were a tad more relaxed this time around: One of our picks—I May Destroy You, the latest from the brilliant Michaela Coel—is still in progress, but has already shown such masterful storytelling as to join incumbents like Better Call Saul and Better Things. But the vast majority of our selections are streaming online, ready to help you make it through at least another “week” (if that’s what we’re still calling it) of lockdown.

Better Things (FX; now streaming on Hulu)

Better Things
Better Things
Photo: Suzanne Tenner

As its recently concluded fourth season proves, Better Things just keeps getting better. Pamela Adlon’s candid look at the life of a working mother and a working actor has always brimmed with warmth, wit, and a subversive spirit. The dovetailing of this season’s arcs—coming to terms with menopause and defining yourself outside your family and work—was ingenious, and offered a way into the now-confirmed fifth season. The Better Things creator even challenged herself to offer a tiny bit of closure, something she avoids in storytelling as frequently as it eludes her (and all of us) in real life. [Danette Chavez]

Ramy (Hulu)

Ramy was already a standout comedy in its first season, which focused on creator Ramy Youssef playing a young Egyptian American (also named Ramy) juggling his desire to be a good Muslim with his desire to just do whatever he wants all the time. The second season—which is also very good—raises the stakes on Ramy’s difficulty finding direction in life by introducing a new spiritual mentor in the form of Sheikh Ali (played by Mahershala Ali, who is always very good). Thankfully, Ramy’s journey toward being a better person is as funny and engaging as ever. [Sam Barsanti]

Dirty John: The Betty Broderick Story (USA)

Amanda Peet pulls off the kind of performance that shifts career trajectories in the second season of Dirty John’s true crime drama. In the title role, Peet embodies Betty Broderick, the 1980s California socialite who lost everything when her husband, Dan (a perfectly smug Christian Slater), traded her in for a younger model, and ultimately kills them both. As Betty’s picture-perfect family, social standing, and ties to reality start to fall away, Peet goes all in, channeling Betty’s descent from community pillar to convicted killer, with not a shred of vanity or sanity left to cling to. [Gwen Ihnat]

The Plot Against America (HBO)

The Plot Against America
The Plot Against America
Photo: Michele K. Short/HBO

Picking up the difficult-but-necessary-watch torch from 2019’s When They See Us, The Plot Against America is a dystopian tale for these times. David Simon and Ed Burns’ adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel of the same name exposed the extent to which inequity is a feature, not a bug, of governance in this country. As the Penny Dreadful spin-off amply demonstrated, a story about fascism and demagogues needs to run on more than timeliness; thankfully, The Plot Against America dug into individual character motivations, exploring accountability at even the most seemingly insignificant level. The exceptional cast—including John Turturro, Morgan Spector, Zoe Kazan, and Winona Ryder—helped audiences make sense of a nightmare that is inching too close to reality. [Danette Chavez]

Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts (Netflix)

It truly does not get more imaginative than Kipo And The Age Of Wonderbeasts, an animated DreamWorks adventure that imbues a sense of genuine fun and ingenuity in an apocalyptic story set against the backdrop of a wasteland. Kipo’s search for community has rendered a litany of inventive interactions with creatures that convey the creative team’s sharp sense of humor (axe-swinging, flannel-donning cats will never fail to elicit joy), all while emphasizing the healing that comes with choosing and solidifying your own family. It’s not exactly hyperbole to say that there isn’t anything like it on television today. [Shannon Miller]

The Great (Hulu)

The rare comedy of cruelty willing to earn its acts of wanton brutality, Tony McNamara’s semi-historical take on the squabbles of the Russian monarchy blends humor and horror with a shocking glibness that somehow never loses sight of the human cost, buoyed by a pair of exceptional lead performances. Nicholas Hoult has been rightly praised, both for his comic chops, and for his ability to infuse his Tsar Peter with a vulnerability that only serves to make him all the more dangerous. But The Great really is Elle Fanning’s show, as she invests the eventual Catherine The Great with a mixture of ambition, naiveté, and deadpan wit that serves to make her quixotic rise to power feel not just inspiring, but inevitable. [William Hughes]

Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)

The Equal Rights Amendment was only a few states away from ratification when conservative eagle Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett) entered the grassroots game, enlisting housewives and evangelicals to help her take on women’s lib legends like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman). Mrs. America dives into the contentious trenches of the 1970s feminism battle, allowing for long-overdue close looks at political figures like Shirley Chisholm (Uzo Aduba) and Bella Abzug (Margo Martindale). But Blanchett’s Schlafly is the undisputed star of this pitch-perfect history lesson, proving the power of charisma, determination, and an influential mailing list. [Gwen Ihnat]

I May Destroy You (HBO)

With her latest hard-hitting series, Michaela Coel confirms that there really isn’t anything that she can’t do. From high comedy to the dark, deeply vulnerable drama of HBO’s I May Destroy You, the multi-hyphenate has a flair for telling stories that are already exceedingly difficult, and adding even greater depth. This series doesn’t just tell a story about sexual assault—it delves into the highly pervasive culture of sexual exploitation in a way that other creators have tried and failed, which Coel does while maintaining her distinct, brazen voice. [Shannon Miller]

Joe Pera Talks With You (Adult Swim)

On January 3, Joe Pera took us to the grocery store—and in that episode and those that followed, proved his soft-spoken, handsomely photographed comedy’s emotional mettle. Joe Pera Talks With You’s second season colors its Upper Peninsula world with honest depictions of grief while remaining the type of show where the creator and host sincerely apologizes for that time he microwaved a bullet. It’s transcendent TV, with a one-off epilogue that forges B-roll, plaintive piano, and voiceover jokes into an electronic balm for months of psychic abrasions. It might not cure your pandemic anxiety, but it’ll definitely change the way you look at the 2001 ensemble caper Rat Race. [Erik Adams]

Never Have I Ever (Netflix)

Mindy Kaling proves that her distinctive brand of comedy translates even better to high school than it did to rom-coms with Never Have I Ever. Her Netflix series is as immediately relatable as it is culturally groundbreaking, as newcomer Maitreyi Ramakrishnan charmingly depicts Devi, a first-generation South Asian teenager attempting to fit into her California high school, while her mother tries to get her to adhere to traditional Indian norms. As Devi struggles with trauma, Ramakrishnan’s appealing performance makes for a flawed but winning heroine, as her travails are steered by surprisingly effective voice-over by legendary tennis bad boy John McEnroe. [Gwen Ihnat]

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+)

Creativity is a difficult process to show on screen, a problem Rob McElhenney’s new Apple TV+ series solves by recasting the entire process as a battle of raging, uncompromising egos. McElhenney is great, as usual, shading in just enough humanity in the part of maverick game designer Ian Grimm to stop him from feeling like Mac 2.0. But Mythic Quest’s real standouts operate further down the chain of command—Charlotte Nicdao as put-upon engineer Poppy, Jessie Ennis as deranged assistant Jo, and especially Caitlin McGee, transforming a bit part as the company’s harried community manager into a top-notch comic performance, in a series that wasn’t lacking for them in the first place. [William Hughes]

Little America (Apple TV+)

Apple TV+ dropped onto the streaming landscape with some big names, but one of its quieter originals is also one of its best: Little America, which comes from Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani, and Emily V. Gordon. An anthology series about immigrants and their stories of coming to the United States (either because they’re in search of a better life or because they literally have no choice but to flee their homes), Little America emphasizes heartwarming and uplifting stories about families and friends and communities, without ignoring the hardships and pain that can come from being in a completely new place. [Sam Barsanti]

Schitt’s Creek (Pop TV)

Schitt’s Creek
Schitt’s Creek
Photo: Pop TV

We didn’t want to say goodbye yet, but if Schitt’s Creek had to end, no one could’ve asked for a better final season. The warm, wonderfully weird series stayed true to each member of the Rose family right up to the end, even as we got one last chance to watch them evolve into better versions of themselves. From the opening moments of Moira in the motel closet to the last tear-jerking goodbyes, the sixth season continued to grow its heart along with the humor, proving that this little town was as good for viewers as it was for the Roses. [Alex McLevy]

Better Call Saul (AMC)

Better Call Saul
Better Call Saul
Photo: Greg Lewis/AMC/Sony Pictures

In Vince Gilligan’s Albuquerque, one’s trajectory is the sum of their choices, and the choice to foreground Rhea Seehorn’s stirring portrayal of Kim Wexler continued to make all the difference in 2020. In a penultimate season with a cliffhanger assassination attempt, a lengthy desert trek, and the irreversible forging of Jimmy, Mike, and Gus’ storylines, the fireworks didn’t come fierier than Kim’s rebuttal to former boss Howard Hamlin in an empty courtroom: “I make my own decisions.” What becomes of Kim is Better Call Saul’s itchiest mystery; in that scene Seehorn makes for damn sure we know that wherever she’s headed, she’s going there of her own volition. [Erik Adams]

BoJack Horseman, season 6B (Netflix)

BoJack Horseman
BoJack Horseman
Image: Netflix

Though it feels like 40 years have passed since since January 31, BoJack Horseman’s final eight episodes still stand out as some of the best TV of the year. The first half of the season, which debuted in October 2019, set us up for tragedy and placed BoJack (Will Arnett) on the track for his comeuppance, but what the back half actually delivered was even gutsier. Series creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg stuck with the show’s ethos of defying tidy half-hour TV stories—“Nice While It Lasted” offered peace and happiness to some, but for its main character, it could only muster the prospect of a future. That might be more than BoJack deserves, but it’s still a fitting end to a show that proved to be as compassionate as it was caustic. [Danette Chavez]

What We Do In The Shadows (FX)

Yes, What We Do In The Shadows is a weekly sitcom about a hapless crew of vampire housemates who often come across like doddering old fools. But although they’re terrified of “mailer-daemons” and think the Super Bowl is a pagan ritual involving owls, you underestimate the bloodlust—and the regular old lust-lust—of these immortal creatures at your own peril. That’s typical of the show’s cheeky, clever riffs on vampire mythology, which only grew smarter and funnier as the show expanded in its second season to include necromancers, zombies, witches, and a regular old human bartender who has no secrets whatsoever, no sir. As well as being one of the best written comedies on TV, it’s also one of the best acted, a testament both to its collaborative creative process and commitment to its silly, sinister, oddly lovable characters. [Katie Rife]

Hannah Gadsby: Douglas (Netflix)

We should all be grateful that Hannah Gadsby didn’t stick to her word on quitting comedy after her 2018 hurricane Nanette. Co-opting the words used by her critics, Douglas is an unapologetic “lecture” about misogyny, being a foreigner in the U.S., and autism—with just a sprinkle of digs at Louis CK. Gadsby knows her “haters” say what she does “isn’t comedy”—and maybe it’s not in the tense moments when she calls out the anti-vaxxers in the audience—but whatever it is, Douglas is a thrilling and thought-provoking way to spend an hour and fifteen minutes. Trust us, you’ll laugh. [Patrick Gomez]

Bad Education (HBO)

HBO’s darkly funny Bad Education does for the TV movie what Big Little Lies did for the limited series (while it was categorized as such), dispelling any lingering doubts about these small-screen productions as well as one of the most pervasive American myths—the notion that education levels the playing field. Screenwriter Mike Makowsky was inspired by the embezzling scandal at his former Long Island school district, in which Frank Tassone (Hugh Jackman) funneled school funds into his own lavish lifestyle. Jackman’s bravura performance powers the film, but Cory Finley’s direction leaves room for Frank’s insecurities, the upwardly mobile Long Islanders who embody them, and the inquisitive teen (Geraldine Viswanathan) who brings it all tumbling down. [Danette Chavez]

We’re Here (HBO)

Like its influences did before it, We’re Here takes the best aspects of other reality shows and combines them in smart, innovative ways that point the way forward for the genre. It does so purse-first, as RuPaul’s Drag Race alums Bob The Drag Queen, Eureka, and Shangela cruise the state routes of America searching for small towns in need of a metamorphosis from the inside out. That mission conjures up a certain five-piece whose makeover empire is ensconced over at Netflix, and like Queer Eye, We’re Here can be merciless when it comes to tearjerker material. But focusing these transformations around the art of drag—and, specifically, affirming rural queer identities through drag—not only provides a unique opportunity for vulnerability and personal connection between these drag “mothers” and “daughters,” but brings the fight for LGBTQ+ equality and acceptance to where it’s needed the most. [Katie Rife]

Betty (HBO)

Summer is postponed indefinitely. But over on Betty, the skate park is open, kids are gathering outside their favorite neighborhood spots, and there’s plenty of golden-hour sunlight to bask in. The series widens the scope of Crystal Moselle’s 2018 film Skate Kitchen while preserving its relaxed, hangout vibes—conflict, consequence, and torn-from-the-feed relevancy abound, but the connections that bind Betty’s core, all-girl skate crew are the real focus. It’s a true ensemble piece, Dede Lovelace, Moonbear, Nina Moran, Ajani Russell, and Rachelle Vinberg each doing their part to shake coming-of-age narrative and extreme sports stories out of their straight white dude defaults, within the last known footage of summer in the American city. [Erik Adams]

Visible: Out On Television (Apple TV+)

Talking-head documentaries are always a gamble, but the history Visible: Out On Television lays out is so rich and compelling, each hour of the five-episode docuseries feels like a vital cultural conversation come to life in the very medium it’s exploring. Tracing the history of LGBTQ+ representation on the small screen, the value of the incremental victories achieved (and the harrowing anti-gay ideologies often confronted—episode three’s look at the AIDS epidemic is especially tough to watch at times) slowly accrues, building to an ending that serves as both catharsis for progress made and inspiration for work yet to be done. [Alex McLevy]

Vida (Starz)

The third and final season of Vida was a triumph of substance over form: Creator Tanya Saracho navigated narrower constraints (down to six episodes from season two’s 10) to bring to a close the ever-expanding story of sisters Emma (Mishel Prada) and Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and their relationships to each other and their family home. The rush to the end may have left a few loose threads, but that’s life, or rather, Vida: unpredictable, giving, yearning, and impossible to get through alone. And we can take some comfort in knowing that the series was a launching pad for Barrera, Prada, and the rest of the cast. [Danette Chavez]

Insecure (HBO)

Photo: Merie W. Wallace/HBO

After years of digging into the saga of Issa and Molly, Insecure gives us its best, most uncomfortable season to date. The platonic break-up is a subject that poses a risk to the dynamics that drive many buddy comedies. Rather than shy away from it, Issa Rae and company took the opportunity to explore a very real aspect of relationships between people who are still growing, making it one of the most authentic depictions of friendship in the current landscape. Insecure isn’t afraid to journey forward, even if the trip is a little painful. [Shannon Miller]

Dispatches From Elsewhere (AMC)

More shows should swing for the fences with as much go-for-broke abandon as Dispatches From Elsewhere. Jason Segel’s 10-episode depiction of four lost and lonely souls whose lives become intertwined for the better while playing an immersive alternate-reality game across the streets of Philadelphia was ultimately a way to convey a message of humanity and hope, using mystery and misdirection to make a case for each of us being true to ourselves—and doing the best we can to care for others at the same time. Sure, it got a little messy; but then, so does life itself, and that’s the whole point. [Alex McLevy]

The Last Dance (ESPN)

The Last Dance
The Last Dance
Photo: Andrew D. Bernstein/ESPN

Who needs sourdough or any human contact whatsoever when there’s ’90s nostalgia and the chilling sounds of “Sirius”? Released two months early to satisfy a sheltering-in-place public, ESPN’s 10-part The Last Dance became appointment viewing for Chicago Bulls fans looking to relive the team’s heyday. Those hoping for a more critical eye on Michael Jordan and his ultra-competitiveness may have left disappointed, but as pure entertainment, the series delivered, laying up a veritable highlight reel of trash talk, big suits, and some very tall men feeling some very big emotions. [Laura Adamczyk]