12 Dec The Atlantic’s 15 Best TV Shows of 2020
Also noteworthy: Jeffrey Epstein: Filthy Rich (Netflix)
TIMELY POLITICAL DRAMA: MRS. AMERICA, FX ON HULU
The success of Mrs. America is partly a matter of its prepositions: The show’s examination of the failed passage of the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s takes place both within the women’s movement and beyond it, looking by turns inward and outward. It is the story, most directly, of Phyllis Schlafly and Shirley Chisholm and Gloria Steinem (and Flo Kennedy and Bella Abzug and Betty Friedan and many others) cooperating—and often competing—to realize their own varied visions of the future. But it is also a parable about history’s untidiness. Selectively fictionalized in its dialogue and epic in its sweep, Mrs. America could have read as historical iconography: big, broad, just a little bit cartoonish. Instead, the show shines in its smallness. It cares above all about the banalities—quirks of personality, accidents of circumstance—that shape human events just as readily as the glossier stuff does. As it plays with its own perspectives, the series considers what it means to live in the difference between inside and outside, inclusion and exclusion, intimacy and surveillance. The effect is aptly destabilizing—an exploration of progress and backlash that understands how the one can become the other. — M. G.
FISH-OUT-OF-WATER SHOW: TED LASSO, APPLE TV+
Ted Lasso is the happiest of mediums: The sitcom about an American football coach brought on to lead a British soccer team is charming but not smarmy, smart but not pedantic, heartfelt but clear-eyed too. I find myself describing the show to those who haven’t watched it as “humane”—which I realize is a weird quality to associate with a sitcom, but which I think might also be, at this particular moment, the best one there is. In a time when “toxic masculinity” is the stuff of daily headlines, the show is incisive, and insightful, about manliness. In an era of poisonous partisanship, it offers a nuanced celebration of teamwork. Ted Lasso’s 10 perfectly paced episodes are studies, like Ted himself, in the art of under-promising and over-delivering: They seem to be about soccer, but they’re about more than sports. They center on an American, but care deeply about everyone on the team. The exceptions, here, are the rule: Silly but witty, wacky but wise, brilliant in a way that is almost stealthy, Ted Lasso is a sitcom that delivers much more than comedy. — M. G.
Also noteworthy: Emily in Paris (Netflix)
DOMESTIC COMFORT: SELLING SUNSET, NETFLIX
This year, I’ve thought a lot about the spaces we’re all occupying, about how “small elements of home design can have significant consequences,” as my colleague Megan Garber wrote way back in March. My obsessive interest in what home (and neighborhood) design can mean for different people’s experiences of the pandemic led me to a certain television phenomenon: the deliciously messy real-estate reality series Selling Sunset.
Like many shows about the vapidness of the über-wealthy, Selling Sunset is best at its most ridiculous moments. In one memorable sequence, the show’s most ostentatious agent, Christine, suggests staging a themed open house for one of her clients. The client cautiously agrees, noting that she’d like something low-key, only for Christine to suggest that they throw a “Burgers & Botox” party. The thrill of Selling Sunset isn’t just in hearing Christine say such ridiculous words aloud, though; it’s in knowing—and then seeing—that most of the firm’s Hollywood clientele will eat them up. — H. G.