In this strange year of quarantine and missed experiences, I have felt wholly unqualified to judge the merits of art made in a pre-COVID time. All I’ve really wanted to do is watch travel shows to vicariously explore the world and break up the monotony of being trapped in a 500-square-foot studio apartment not intended for 24/7 use.
With that caveat, I still fell in love with a few Netflix Original series in 2020, all listed below in no particular order. In different ways, I was grateful for shows like “The Crown” that brought a truly transportive A+ storytelling experience, as well as the turn-off-your-brain-and-look-at-pretty-flowers joy of “The Big Flower Fight.”
I had little patience for shows with slow starts or demanding plot lines, but I also recognize that my fuse was extra short this year. The only Netflix show that I truly think was terrible was “The Floor Is Lava” ― and that’s mostly because I was so excited by the premise and so let down by the execution.
To simplify things, I didn’t include documentaries or teen/kid shows on this list. Netflix had many wonderful shows in those categories, but I think both are their own separate things.
I also tried to strike a balance between picking shows I personally liked and judging these projects based on their merits. For example, I had a lot of time for the latest season of “The Politician,” but I seem to be alone there and I recognized enough flaws to exclude it from the list. On the other hand, I also just don’t really get “Ozark,” sorry.
Note that the runtimes listed below only include the new episodes that debuted this year, rather than the runtimes of entire seasons.
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Premise: This drama is based on a 1983 novel of the same name and focuses on a young orphan in mid-20th century Kentucky as she masters the game of chess. She struggles with various addictions and overcomes the familial heartbreaks in her life while trying to become one of the best chess players in the world.
“The Queen’s Gambit” became the consensus favorite of the year among critics and subscribers alike, as the show earned high praise and was one of the most popular things on Netflix in all of 2020. I think the storytelling can get pretty cliché (the show opens with the character knocking over empty alcohol bottles, for example), but “The Queen’s Gambit” still has many flourishes of originality to make it worth the hype.
Runtime: Seven episodes of roughly 60 minutes
Premise: This live improv series filmed in a New York theater stars comedians Thomas Middleditch and Ben Schwartz. The episodes center around the two as they take suggested scenarios from a live audience and then create and act out an entire hilarious story off the top of their heads. The duo’s chemistry and charisma anchor the show, but the stories they invent also have rewarding narrative arcs.
This may be more of a comedy special than a “show,” but I’m including it because the improv is centered around storytelling. As one of those people who took a couple of improv classes and realized they were way too hard to continue, I’m in awe of the talent on display here in creating not just rewarding stories on the fly but ones that are funny all the way through.
Runtime: Three episodes of roughly 50 minutes
Premise: Chef David Chang hosts this unique take on the food travel genre as he spends each episode highlighting an underappreciated facet of the culinary world. This doesn’t just mean featuring some restaurant off the beaten path. Chang makes the case for the elevation of whole cuisines, with the ultimate goal of convincing viewers to be more curious and understanding diners.
Chang has had quite the year with the release of his memoir, “Eat a Peach,” becoming a leading advocate for stimulus for struggling restaurants during COVID-19, and being the first person to win the celebrity edition of “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?” (the prize money went to helping restaurants in need of cash). I’m a weekly listener of his podcast, “The Dave Chang Show,” and I recommend that, too.
Runtime: Four episodes of roughly 50 minutes
Premise: This competition show features teams of two with varying abilities attempting to make elaborate flower sculptures. While teams with prior experience excel the whole way through, the competition allows amateurs to win points through grit and inventiveness. The flower garden setting makes the whole show a joy to watch.
While “The Big Flower Fight” does little to create something new out of the competition show format, watching a nice series about nice people making nice flower sculptures really helped in the earlier days of the pandemic. I think it might help you, too.
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 40 minutes
Premise: This animated existential comedy was created by Pendleton Ward, the person behind “Adventure Time,” and is based off of interviews from a podcast called “The Duncan Trussell Family Hour.” The plot is wild: A futuristic journalist of sorts interviews the “people” of simulated worlds before they experience an apocalypse. This simulator allows the protagonist to create a hybrid between journalism and research while exploring what it means to be alive for different forms of life.
More than any other Netflix show this year, “The Midnight Gospel” brought something entirely different to the show format. I’d argue that Netflix has taken fewer chances on inventive storytelling lately as it’s “optimized” its decision-making to respond to what the algorithm says viewers want. This show broke that mold, though, while still bringing inviting animation and humor.
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 30 minutes
Premise: This drama is loosely based on a 2012 autobiography about a woman who flees her Hasidic community in Brooklyn to try and start a new life in Berlin. Her arranged husband comes looking for her, and she must decide to either keep running, return or actively disavow her former family.
“Unorthodox” became a word-of-mouth hit this year. It had the unfortunate circumstance of debuting right as COVID-19 was shutting down the country, but the quality of the show helped it slowly gain attention. It eventually earned three Emmy nominations and a win for directing.
Runtime: Four episodes of roughly 55 minutes
Premise: The final season of “BoJack Horseman” debuted in two parts over late 2019 and early 2020. These episodes concluded the story with BoJack having to confront his terrible behavior from the previous seasons and try to find some personal growth. The show is still an animated comedy first and foremost, but these final episodes find a way to couple colorful animation and silly puns with the pursuit of answers to a few of life’s most existential questions.
“BoJack Horseman” is maybe my favorite show of the 2010s, and I like that it technically kicked off the 2020s as well with a January rollout of the final episodes. This show was endlessly inventive and unafraid to tackle third-rail topics, a combination that more often than not ends in disaster. Somehow, the show stuck the landing on its high ambitions, and I imagine I’ll be returning to this series for years to come.
Runtime: Eight episodes of roughly 25 minutes
Premise: This biographical drama focuses on the personal lives of the English monarchy. This fourth season, which is by far the best of the series thus far, follows Queen Elizabeth II as she deals with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power and the introduction of Lady Diana Spencer into the family. The traditions and expectations of the family prevent everybody from finding happiness, even as their lives take place in palaces.
I didn’t like “The Crown” when it first debuted in 2016, as I found it too slow and too reliant on its wondrous sets while not having the storytelling highs to fill those palatial rooms. In my defense, that season debuted two days before the 2016 presidential election and my brain was a bit warped. In any case, I do believe the show has gotten narratively stronger over time, and this season in particular took a leap to true greatness. The plots have always had the weight of immense macro power, but the show finally had a lot to say about the small, daily challenges of the human condition. This balance of extreme high and low makes this one of the richest storytelling texts out there.
Runtime: 10 episodes of roughly 55 minutes