Michaela Coel’s emotionally excruciating and often searingly funny drama — in which she plays Arabella, a London writer trying to recover her blackout memories of being raped — is excellent all on its own. But it also encompasses so much of what we say we value in 2020: stories from diverse creators who are willing to stare down the most uncomfortable aspects of modern manners (gender, race, privilege, sexuality, you name it) with enviable savvy and the sharpest wit. Masterfully envisioned and fully realized, the series gets better with each episode, ending on a note of triumph.
2. ‘Normal People’ (Hulu)
From the moment Connell and Marianne, two Irish high school seniors, first lock eyes and begin a secret love affair, it’s clear that this is no ordinary romp about puppy love. Amid a heap of streaming rom-coms, “Normal People” (faithfully adapted from Sally Rooney’s novel) feels close to actually falling in love and having your heart broken, thanks to the raw and revealing work of the show’s lead actors, Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. Not since Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunrise” film trilogy can I remember being so invested in the fate of a fictional couple.
3. The Democratic National Convention (Democratic National Committee)
They took all those “Hollywood liberal” digs and put them to great use in a flawlessly produced four-night virtual event that upgraded the concept of nominating conventions — and got their message out loud and clear. Celebrity hosts (Eva Longoria, Tracee Ellis Ross, Kerry Washington, Julia Louis-Dreyfus), pop stars (Billie Eilish, John Legend) and big-name politicos (the Obamas, the Clintons and senators Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren) gave a boost to the Biden/Harris ticket, but the real draw was a broad display of civic pride, from the state roll-call (“the calamari comeback state of Rhode Island”) to a speech from 13-year-old Brayden Harrington, who connected with then-candidate Joe Biden over their shared struggle with stuttering. Why ever go back to the crowded arenas, balloon drops and disruptive applause-a-thons?
4. ‘Unorthodox’ (Netflix)
This striking drama (adapted from Deborah Feldman’s memoir) offered a richly detailed depiction of Brooklyn’s ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Satmar sect, as seen through the eyes of Esther “Esty” Shapiro (Shira Haas), who flees her arranged, miserable marriage and hops a flight to Germany in search of her mother. Pursued by her husband and the rabbi’s overconfident heavy, Esty befriends a group of music students and dreams of getting admitted to their college. The series, which hinges on Haas’s performance, lingers long after its four episodes — not for what it says about strict faith, but for what it says about finding one’s own sense of freedom.
5. ‘The Crown’ (Netflix)
Peter Morgan’s sweeping story of Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) arrived at what some might consider the main attraction on her biographical timeline: the 1981 royal wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer (Josh O’Connor and Emma Corrin) that had the world in its thrall, yet quickly becoming a disastrously passive-aggressive marital nightmare. Those of us who lived through it the first time marvel as a new generation of viewers fixates on all the nitty-gritty, which is a good reason to praise everything else about Season 4, starting with Gillian Anderson’s resolute turn as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Helena Bonham Carter’s last spin as a fading Princess Margaret.
6. ‘The Vow’ (HBO)
Some viewers griped about the slow pace of Jehane Noujaim and Karim Amer’s nine-episode docuseries about a self-improvement group (NXIVM) that turned out to be a psychologically controlling and sexually abusive cult. But the layered quality is exactly why I was fascinated: the filmmakers’ access to a trove of phone calls, texts and in-house videos take the viewer deep inside the group’s prolonged unraveling. Plenty of lurid details are revealed along the way, but the series is more effective as a fitting and timely statement on the value of one’s own personal BS detector, especially in this era of disinformation.
7. ‘Mrs. America’ (FX on Hulu)
Gloria Steinem and others criticized this nine-part miniseries about the 1970s women’s liberation movement for futzing around with history and characterizations, but nobody was promised a documentary here. Ingeniously, “Mrs. America” framed its story around the opposition, personified by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (with a knockout performance from Cate Blanchett), as the effort to pass the Equal Rights Amendment began to resemble the culture wars American society is still waging some 50 years later. The result is a series that is compelling, stylish, eye-opening and right on target.
8. ‘Perry Mason’ (HBO)
My inbox filled with angry responses to my initial rave for HBO’s brilliant reimagining of Erle Stanley Gardner’s legendary defense attorney. Viewers didn’t like the idea of Perry (Matthew Rhys, always a delight to watch) as a boozy, unethical private investigator without a law degree — haven’t they ever heard of an origin story? Caught up in the case of a kidnapped and murdered baby boy in Depression-era Los Angeles, Perry eventually transforms into the legal wiz his fans expect, with a new emphasis on the role of his pals, Della Street (Juliet Rylance) and Paul Drake (Chris Chalk). Don’t forget the showstopping performance from John Lithgow as Perry’s mentor.
9. ‘PEN15’ (Hulu)
Pandemic life involves a lot of dwelling on the past, and nobody does that better than Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, the co-creators and stars of this moving and hilarious comedy, in which they play incredibly awkward middle school versions of themselves trying to navigate social pressures and adolescence, circa 2000. The real standouts in Season 2 are the actual teenagers who play Maya and Anna’s friends and frenemies — especially Dylan Gage as Gabe, who gets the starring role in an inappropriately adult-themed play written by the school’s drama teacher.
10. ‘This Is Us’ (NBC)
It seems every prime-time network show came back this fall trying to work in fresh angles about the coronavirus pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. But none of them were in a better position to do so than “This Is Us,” which returned stronger than ever for a fifth season in October. The show’s overall structure, spanning several timelines and decades, continues to keep viewers guessing, but it’s Sterling K. Brown’s performance as Randall (the adopted Black son of the White Pearson family) that gives the show added heft as it explores a fraught yet important notion: No matter how much the Pearsons loved and accepted their son, they also neglected part of his core identity. This show never stops reckoning with difficult truths.
Honorable mentions: “Cheer” (Netflix); “Fargo” (FX); “The Go-Go’s” (Showtime); “P-Valley” (Starz); “Love Is Blind” (Netflix); “I’ll Be Gone in the Dark” (HBO); “Hillary” (Hulu); “The Baby-Sitters Club” (Netflix); “Hightown” (Starz); “The Good Place” (NBC).