We’re almost halfway through 2020, and what a terrible, awful, no good year it has been. You’ve got eyes and a brain, you can see for yourself. But instead of focusing on the negative, we’re here to look at the positive. In spite of everything that is going on—and holy hell, is there a lot—television has still somehow managed to deliver some top notch entertainment that provided valuable social commentary or much-needed escapism. So if you’re looking for one or the other, here are the best new shows of 2020 so far.
Note: This is not a ranking, but a collection of superlatives.
Upload (Amazon Prime)
Best Totally Fake Take on Death
Forever, Russian Doll, After Life, The Good Place, Good Omens, Miracle Workers—the comedic entertainment space has become as infatuated with the notion of the Great Beyond in recent years as most organized religions. It’s understandable, it’s only the biggest question facing humanity throughout our existence. WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DIE (dun dun dunnn)?! But because of the enormity of this idea’s scope and the reality redefining implications, it’s actually refreshing to see Upload tackle the topic in such blasé fashion.
From creator Greg Daniels (The Office, Parks and Recreation), Upload is a sci-fi sitcom set in a technologically advanced future where humans can choose to be “uploaded” into a virtual afterlife when they find themselves near-death. Prior to his untimely demise, young app developer Nathan (Robbie Amell) is pressured by his shallow girlfriend to upload himself into her family’s luxurious after life simulation. But once there, Nathan meets his customer service “Angel” Nora Anthony (Andy Allo), who at first is his charismatic concierge and guide, but quickly becomes his friend and confidante, helping him navigate this new digital extension of life. Hmmm.
Upload is less about asking the big questions and more about humorously solving the mystery of our protagonist’s death as he slowly falls in love. It’s a conceptually clever sitcom with a fancy sci-fi paint job, which is all we really need right now. -Brandon Katz
Watch Upload on Amazon Prime Video.
The Midnight Gospel (Netflix)
Best Hauntingly Surreal Take on Life
There is truly no piece of television quite like The Midnight Gospel. It’s not really a show, but a confessional—built on conversations its creator Duncan Trussell had with real people, layered with breathtakingly trippy animation that skyrockets the reader “to distant corners of the multiverse,” to quote from Observer’s interview with Trussell. In the show, Trussell voices Clancy, a character who goes through what Trussell describes as “an ego death” over the course of the show and the conversations he has with people, which are pulled from the podcast The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.
Adapted by Trussell and Adventure Time creator Pen Ward, Midnight Gospel‘s barriers between truth and reality eventually break down to reveal deeper truths, equating the cosmic life and death of the universe with the intimate experiences of humans, coping with deaths of their own. You have to watch it. -Eric Vilas-Boas
Watch The Midnight Gospel on Netflix.
Mrs. America (FX on Hulu)
Best Faithful-ish Take on History
What happens when you put (deep breath): Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Margo Martindale, John Slattery, Sarah Paulson and Jeanne Tripplehorn in front of a camera? Only good things, my friend, only good things. Mrs. America always had more than enough talent to deliver a watchable final product, but creator and playwright Dahvi Waller (Halt and Catch Fire) adds sympathetic layers to a seemingly straightforward character to the point that you’re left questioning all of your original assumptions.
Mrs. America is loosely based on the female-led movement to ratify the Equal Lights Amendment in the 1970s. At its center is Phyllis Schlafly (Blanchett), who is opposed to the legislature that would put women on more equal legal footing as men, which brings her into conflict with second-wave feminists such as Gloria Steinem (Byrne). What unfurls is a more complicated moral battle than what you might first perceive brought to life by a ridiculously talented ensemble. It also helps that Mrs. America bounds along with an energetic verve that streamlines any potential policy pitfalls that threaten to turn the series into Law & Order. -BK
Watch Mrs. America on Hulu.
The Great (Hulu)
Best Unfaithful Take on History
Award-winning screenwriter and playwright Tony McNamara’s latest effort, The Great, is lavishly appointed with sets and costumes and impeccably researched as an exploration into the lives of Catherine the Great and Peter III of Russia, but that doesn’t mean it gives a flying wit about history. “It’s not a history lesson, it’s a show,” McNamara recently told Observer, and the show proves his point. Like his previous work on Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Favourite, The Great uses its setting to reveal the poignant, tragic, and darkly comic relationship between its central characters.
Whether you fancy 18th-century Russian rulers dropping F-bombs is a matter of taste, of course. But the attention to detail and ambition of The Great is undeniable and make it one of bright spots of this year’s TV. -EVB
Watch The Great on Hulu.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts (Netflix)
Best Kaiju in an Implausible Mutant Apocalypse
Post-apocalyptic futures and teams of friends coming together aren’t anything earth-shattering for animation. What does feel different, and what makes Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts so special, is the creativity and heart with which it created its world. From its setting to the easygoing way it reveals truths about its delightfully interesting characters, Kipo feels like a worthy successor to the long-running favorite Adventure Time—another show with a clean and deeply weird art style, as well as an emphasis on empathy in its storytelling.
The focus of Kipo, created by Radford Sechrist and developed by Bill Wolkoff, is on its eponymous main character (Karen Fukuhara) and her young friends who travel the post-apocalyptic wasteland in search of her father (Sterling K. Brown). Along the way they meet mutated creatures like Lumbercats (cats who wear lumberjack outfits) and the Mega Bunny (a bunny, but kaiju) and learn more about themselves. The best part about Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is that it’s not adult animation, but it isn’t really a kids show either. It’s something in between, and as Sechrist has pointed out, those shows are few and far between these days. -EVB
Watch Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts on Netflix.
The Plot Against America (HBO)
Best Villain in a Plausible Fascist Apocalypse
At this point, if creators David Simon and Ed Burns (The Wire, The Deuce) are involved, it’s a good bet that the series is worth watching. Such is the case for The Plot Against America, a revisionist history that sees Charles Lindbergh run for president in the 1940s. The six-episode limited series is a frighteningly prescient reminder about how easily dangerous rhetoric from authority can foster an environment of hostility and hate within a nation. It is the right series for the Trump era.
The show provides an alternate American history of the country’s turn to fascism told through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. Though they may share a background, these characters see the world in a very different way and strive to draw different results for themselves and their community from it. A talented cast starring Zoe Kazan, Morgan Spector, Winona Ryder and John Turturro delivers a tale of deep conflict and contradiction.
The Plot Against America may not be as immediately gripping as HBO’s last splashy miniseries, Chernobyl, but it is equally as important and challenging to accept. -BK
Watch The Plot Against America on HBO Max.
The Outsider (HBO)
Best Use of Casual Supernatural Criminals
The Outsider is about as tonally far away from some of these other shows as it gets. Based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, The Outsider launches with an unspeakable crime in which almost every piece of evidence is pointing detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) to Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman). The only problem? There is video evidence of Terry that puts him 60 miles away at the time of the crime. How can someone be in two places at once?
HBO and creator Richard Price (The Deuce) may have been reaching a bit when they adapted the 560-page novel into a full 10 episodes. There are noticeable lulls as the series slow-burns its more unbelievable elements, especially in the latter half. But a gripping mystery, fantastic performances from a talented cast (especially Mendelsohn and Cynthia Erivo), and a fully realized world of unexplained terror provides more than enough momentum to push The Outsider across the finish line in impressive fashion. Now, if we could only get an announcement about Season 2… -BK
Watch The Outsider on HBO Max.
Devs (FX on Hulu)
Best Use of Casual Silicon Valley Criminals
Writer/director Alex Garland (Annihilation, Ex Machina) is singular and specific in his artistic renderings. The worlds he creates are detailed and established and the power structures entrenched. That’s what makes the mental chaos Devs wrings so entertaining. Not all viewers may be completely on board with Garland’s slow and deliberate delivery that keeps the audience shrouded in a state of uncertainty; patience is indeed a virtue. But Devs’ fully realized vision that eventually emerges is well worth the wait.
Computer engineer Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) investigates the secretive development division in her company, which she believes is behind the disappearance of her boyfriend. Ostensibly, this paints Devs as a crime mystery. But the show is far more interested in grander ideas than the resolution to one question.
Devs is a sparkling essay on the nature of humanity and the forces beyond our understanding that may or may not shape all of our lives. Within that, Garland manages to tear down our worship of cutting edge tech CEOs that publicly proselytize the advancement of our race in exchange for permanent residence within our inner most lives. -BK
Watch Devs on Hulu.
Normal People (Hulu)
Best Use of Irish Accents That We Can’t 100% Understand
Joy is fleeting and pain leaves scars. There are rarely more joyous or painful experiences than matters of the heart. It takes more than just love to become our best selves and yet heartache and heartbreak can so quickly reveal the worst in us. At its center, Normal People is just a portrait of who most of us really are: flawed, vulnerable, and scared and yet willing to take a chance on something better. It’s in that honest representation that Hulu’s miniseries shines as an emotional journey marked by relatability.
Based on Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name, the series follows the relationship between Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) as they navigate their final days in secondary school to their undergraduate years in college. The pang of yearning that so often accompanies youth and the frustration of reconciling love with reality is ever prevalent. It’s difficult not to get swept up in the emotions as each benchmark of their relationship may remind you of another love lost or won. -BK
Watch Normal People on Hulu.
Best Use of Fast Rapping That We Can’t 100% Understand
Created by rapper and comedian Dave Burd, better known by his stage name Lil’ Dicky, Dave is the semi-autobiographical story of one hip hop artist’s rise to prominence. The rookie season became FX’s most-watched comedy of all time and has already been renewed for a second season. As something of a cross between Atlanta and Barry, it’s easy to see why.
While Dave is laugh out loud hilarious at times, it also has a propensity for darkness and prioritizing a genuine message over dropping a punchline. From exploring bipolar disorder in the African American community to touching on cultural appropriation and our deepest romantic insecurities, Dave has more on its mind than just dick jokes (though there is an endless supply of those). -BK
Watch Dave on Hulu.
Keeping Watch is a regular endorsement of TV and movies worth your time.
Correction: An earlier version of the intro mistakenly cited June 1 as the “midway point” of the year. We have corrected it and regret the error.