The Best Television in A Horrible Year, Part 2
The Top 5 Series of 2020
5. Perry Mason (HBO)
In an era of endless reboots, HBO’s reinvention of Perry Mason may be exactly what this era needs. What was one of the most clichéd series in the history of television got off to a great start by going back to Perry’s origins — a private investigator who believes everybody has secrets, a cynical man who agrees to represent a client even though he’s initially convinces of her guilt and becomes more and more convinced of her insanity. A man whose belief in justice shows him willing to bend and if necessary break the law to win.
Matthew Rhys goes to the head of Emmy contention with a stunning performance in the title role. But everybody in this series is just as good. By moving the series back to the early 1930s (when Mason’s stories started being published), we get a really good look at the level of corruption that is in every structure in Los Angeles; the police, the law, even the church. With Juliet Rylance going to a level of Della Street that far outweighs anything her character has been given to work with in nearly a century (as well the answer as to why she and Perry never hooked up), this series was backed with some of the greatest character actors working today: from Shea Whigham as Perry’s long suffering fellow investigator to Tatiana Maslany as an evangelist who believes her own gospel, this was a brilliant series. And the season finale demonstrated that the clichés that made the series won’t be in this show. When in the final credits we heard the unforgettable theme music, it wasn’t an Easter egg — the show had earned it. And I can’t wait for Season 2.
4. Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)
I’ve spent much of the past few years not giving Hulu the same consideration I gave Netflix and Amazon. But this year has launched me as one of their most fervent fans. Ramy is one of the great comedy series I’ve seen in many series, and this limited series more than demonstrated that they are truly among the great artists.
This may be the best single adaptation of the entire year, taking a fairly simple if well done novel and mining it for every ounce of drama they could find. If it were just for the astonishing lead performances of Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon as two very different mothers, this would’ve been enough for me to laud it. But Liz Tiglaar and her team of writers expanded on so many of the ideas only hinted at in Celeste Ng’s novel that I was actually expecting more when I read the book. From the complicated relationship each mother had with the daughters in their family, to the frequent clashes between Mia and Elena, to the revelations that we got in everybody’s backstories (especially the astonishing performances from everyone of the child actors in this cast), you could practically see the sparks coming with every scene. And unlike the alterations that were made in The Undoing, I think that all of the changes — especially the ending — benefited this extraordinary work. I was appalled that it got so shortchanged at the Emmy earlier this year, and given the level of the competition, it’ll probably be ignored by the Golden Globes as well. So all I can say is see this series, and find out what was one of the greatest triumphs of this year.
3. The Crown (Season 3) Netflix
I always seem to get to this series later than I should. I still haven’t gotten around to seeing all of the fourth season that dropped this November. But having seen the lion’s share of Season 3 this year, I’m not going to waste the opportunity to give this series its due.
As brilliant as Claire Foy and so many of the cast members of the first two seasons of Peter Morgan’s exceptional history of Elizabeth II, Season 3 demonstrated just how gifted a writer Morgan and his team are as the House of Windsor moves into the 1960s and 1970s trying to remain a symbol as England and the world change. I’ve already advocated how brilliant an actress Olivia Colman has been in so many other series over the past decade, and she was more than up to the challenge of taking on the role of an older more troubled Elizabeth. But by expanding the series beyond her to looking at her husband and sister — and most daringly, Prince Charles (an extraordinary Josh O’Connor), we get to see just how hard is to be both a family and rule at the same time. We see how Philip has chafed at the times. We see how Margaret (Helena Bonham Carter in one of her greatest roles) goes from one unhappy love to the next. And most shockingly we see the real possibility that Elizabeth is so focused on being queen that she’s probably failed as a mother — and her children know it.
I can’t wait to venture into the fourth season where Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher finally enter on stage. There’s been a lot of raves for Emma Corrin and Gillian Anderson already, and I know they earned it. Given all the tumult that’s come out of England the last few years, you almost wish Morgan would go beyond six seasons — I’d love to see how he thinks Brexit and Margaret Markle have affected the Crown. Ah well.
2. Better Call Saul (AMC)
It has taken a lot of debate for me to decide between the first and second best series of the year, considering that on every level — writing, directing, acting — they’re a tie. Ultimately, I decided to give the edge to one series because it’s probably the last installment of it I’ll get. Better Call Saul has at least one more season (and given how Vince Gilligan and co broke up the last season of Breaking Bad, they may well do the same here)
What I do know is that this series gets better and better the closer it gets to the end. As Jimmy finally embraced his alter ego of Saul (and by extension, got closer to being in a crisis in Omaha that will no doubt be the end stage for the final episodes), we saw that Jimmy was begin to fall away from his roots. As he finally got involved with the cartel that will bring him into contact with the world in Heisenberg, we saw some of the greatest episodes in the show’s history that rival some of the best from the original series. We saw Jimmy finally doublecross his soul mate Kim, a battle that ended up with them getting married. We saw him go on a trek south to get bail money for Lalo Salmanaca, a trip that nearly got him killed so many times, you almost forgot he was going to survive. We saw him reach the ultimate level of stress, and be angered that the only one he could confide it was Mike — and than have a confrontation with Lalo so full of tension, I was sure that Kim was going to die here. And we ended with another revelation — that just by being near him, Kim may have been as corrupt as her soulmate (Explain to me why Rhea Seehorn wasn’t nominated for an Emmy this year?)
And around all this, we saw the other characters struggle. Mike dealt with the repercussions of his murder at the end of Season 4 in a way I didn’t think he could. We saw Gus go into battle against his first worthy opponent, and continue to reveal how ruthless his character was. We saw Nacho trying to negotiate between two psychotic drug lords, with his escape getting narrower and narrower. And there were so many brilliant moments that when Hank and Gomez finally entered the scene, it didn’t seem like an Easter egg.
We knew going in who was going to survive this series. Its impressive that Gilligan has now created a group of characters that we care about even more, and knowing that they don’t have a place in Breaking Bad, breaks our heart every time we see them. The Emmys had better start recognizing Saul soon — like Jimmy and so many others, they’re running out of time.
1. Fargo (FX)
There have been great shows the past decade. Then there’s Fargo, the series that bares no resemblance at all to the movie, and yet is exactly like it. As it moved through its final season (though has been no word from creator Noah Hawley, I feel certain this is it), we found ourselves in the 1950s in a world that we couldn’t help but recognize.
Hawley said he started each series with an inspiration. I’m guessing this year’s was: “What if two crime families decided to negotiate a truce by the boss exchanging their children?” And even though we knew that this failed twice before, it happened this season: The Fadda family and The Cannon family, headed by the extraordinary Chris Rock did so, and yet, in traditional Fargo fashion were unable to stop the war and violence.
Every season of Fargo has its share of unforgettable characters. This year had some of the best: a corrupt Kansas detective with OCD (Jack Houston), a psychotic nurse who was the model for every Karen out there (Jessie Buckley was astonishing), a Mormon U.S. Marshal determined to find prisoners in a city determined to hide them (Timothy Olyphant) and the sole survivor of the last feud, ‘Rabbi’ Milligan, the only person on either side who was willing to put his life before a child’s. Ben Whishaw was practically unrecognizable from his work in A Very English Scandal and moved ahead once again, to consider for Best Supporting Actor.)
“You know why America loves a crime story?” one character asked during the series. “Because America is a crime story.” And as anybody who knows our history, there’s a lot of truth to that. The main narrator for this story said she was giving a history report, and in the last minute of the season, we realized whose history we’d learned, and how it tied the show together so neatly that we really don’t need another season. This series may have been the most relevant one in the entire series, and it reveals that there has never been equality anywhere, even among the criminals.
This may well be the end for Fargo (it depends on Hawley’s mind), and though I hope it isn’t, this has been a hell of a ride. You betcha.
Tune in later this week when I do my jury prize.