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The Best of Television 2020 (12-7)

And now, for something completely different: My list of the top 12 TV shows I watched in 2020.

The pandemic wreaked havoc with a lot of things this year.

I found myself with more free time than I ever. My travel days dropped to 8 from 171 in 2020. The NHL eliminated most of their season, and watching hockey is about 80% of my television viewing.

So those changes resulted in a positive: I watched A LOT of television. And was pleasantly surprised: I can’t ever remember a time when there was so much good TV.

I have one rule when watching: don’t insult my intelligence. Good writing, acting and imaginative plot lines get me every time.

So, out of the 40-50 television series and shows I watched, here are Eric’s 2020 List of the Best in TV. Not all these shows first aired this year; I just watched them in 2020.

Let’s countdown with #12 through #7:

12. Ozark (Netflix)

I’m always prepared to watch anything with Laura Linney in it. She’s the best actress in the world not named Meryl Streep. But I had no idea how good an actor Jason Bateman is or how compelling a series “Ozark” would be.

Ozark follows Bateman (Marty Byrde) as he ‘breaks bad’ and becomes a money launderer. His family must relocate to the Ozarks. Once there, it doesn’t get any better. The Byrde’s become entangled with the Mexican mafia. They make enemies of the local heroin dealers and numerous law enforcement agencies. Soon it’s not just Marty who’s breaking bad.

Since “Breaking Bad” (which I saw for the first time this year), TV’s best characters are those who aren’t simply good, or merely bad. They’re a combination of both, and we find ourselves rooting for them one minute, and against them the next. It’s a fascinating dichotomy. In fact, many of the shows on my list feature similar characters.

Ozark’s writing and jaw-dropping plot twists keep you coming back for more. It’s addictive in the best possible way. You have to keep watching to see what happens next.

It goes without saying that Linney is an actor’s actor. She’s brilliant as Marty’s sneaky smart wife. But the breakout star is Julia Garner. Garner is a tour de force as Ruth Langmore, a street-smart 19-year-old who’s part of a local crime family. Garner has (deservedly) won two Emmys for the role.

I’ve been following this series since it dropped in 2017 and love it, but it’s not a show I’d recommend for everyone. There’s violence, language, incest and graphic sexual scenes. Then my 87-year-old mother told me she’s addicted to Ozark as well. So perhaps anyone can watch Ozark. It may also mean I need to check Mom’s TV watching a bit more carefully.

11. Somebody Feed Phil – Netflix

Could there be anything more wonderful than watching an uneducated foodie explore the world of food? Answer: No.

Phil Rosenthal is a nerd’s nerd. In a previous life, he was the showrunner for Everybody Loves Raymond. In this series, he’s taken a lifelong fascination with food and travel and done something about it.

He explores different cities nationally and internationally. Taking the concept of culture is based on food, he tries everything – from low brow to high end. He’s accompanied on the adventures with friends new and old to show him the ropes.

I’m not quite sure how I’ve come to identify with a 60-year-old Jewish entertainment executive who doesn’t shy from taking the camera into the depths of his travels and food explorations. But I do. He’s incredibly appealing. (It maybe he inspires this nerd). But his unadulterated enthusiasm and curiosity forms is contagious.

I also identify with Phil – he gets as much pleasure from a taco as a 20-course French tasting menu. (I’m also jealous – he gets to travel and eat on someone else’s dime).

And each episode ends with Phil recapping his adventure via Skype with his parents. Sadly, his Mother passed away; we’re now left with his father telling wonderful old jokes. This is a winner whether you love food or not.

10. The Social Dilemma – Netflix

I confess I watched The Social Dilemma under the influence of two martinis. After it ended, I decided to give up my social media accounts forever. But…was it the documentary, or was it the martinis?

I decided to wait until the morning. And then…I deleted all my personal social media accounts after all. It’s that powerful.

The takeaways are nothing new: the internet tracks every keystroke you make, which in turn influences (significantly) the information fed to us. But the messengers are what makes the documentary so powerful: here are the designers and coders telling us how serious the issue is. Instagram knows what you like based on how many seconds you look at a photo.

Social media makes money not on advertising, but the power of knowledge they accumulate by watching and memorizing (forever) every keystroke, every pause, every article you type, watch and read. They turn that over to advertisers who pay premium dollars because of the hyper-targeting such information provides.

Data mining and manipulative technology have paved the way for a truly dystopic future. I know I’m part of it, but I no longer have to worry about Big Brother knowing what I like or not.

9. ZeroZeroZero – Amazon Prime Video

A friend often recommends a show to watch. I pay attention because his recommendations are always great.

So upon his recommendation, I tuned into ZeroZeroZero. And after 15 minutes, I was re-evaluating my opinion of him. But after the first episode ended, all was right in the world.

The series follows every single step of a $60 million shipment of cocaine. It starts from harvest (Mexico), then transportation to Africa, and finally to destination. Along the journey, the series shows the life-or-death impact it makes on each person who touches it. From growers, ship captains, middle-men, traffickers, and dealers.

Filmed in Italy, Mexico, Senegal, Morocco and the U.S., it’s at times harrowing, cringe-inducing and disgusting – but never ever boring. There’s an international cast that – excluding Gabriel Byrne, is virtually unknown but uniformly excellent.

You’d think the drug crime drama genre has been beaten to death, but it hasn’t. ZeroZeroZero is theater on your television. Compelling, gorgeously photographed; it’s everything great television should be.

8. Billions – Showtime

Maggie Siff as Wendy Rhoades. Sigh.

A confession: For five years, I’ve had a major crush on Wendy Rhoades. Not the actress (Maggie Siff, whom I don’t know). I’m talking about Siff’s character, who is at times femme fatale, strategic advisor, cruel punisher and the greatest performance coach in the world.

Wendy is torn between her husband – an attorney general – and her boss, a hedge fund billionaire. (Mostly) loyal to both, she’s actually the pivotal character in a series full of great characters. In fact, there’s not a vanilla character on the show: virtually all of them could have a series on their own.

Much of the series’ acclaim focuses on the clash of the titans – Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) and Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti). Lewis and Giamatti are terrific actors who don’t leave anything on the table. But to me, it’s the secondary characters that are fascinating. David Costabile as Axe’s consigliere, Condola Rashad as an ambitious prosecutor, and Asia Kate Dillion as a well – a brilliant quant; the first non-binary character ever on TV.

Brian Koppelman cast his show with care – selecting a number of Broadway veterans who understand how to chew up scenery and hold their own on the small screen. I also love the emphasis on billionaire porn – the fabulous lifestyle that serious money begets.

And then there’s the writing. I generally have to watch an episode of Billions twice in order to pick up every subtle aside and obscure reference. Billions doesn’t just respect your intelligence; it forces you as a viewer to raise your game in order to appreciate every nuance.

Note: Billions has been my favorite show for 4 years, and my #1 or #2 best show during that time as well. But this is 2020, and Season #5 as of this writing stopped halfway through. I might revise my ranking up once I see the end of the season.

7. Inside Bill’s Brain: Decoding Bill Gates – Netflix

Spoiler alert: we don’t get to find out what’s in Bill Gates’ brain. But in this 3-part documentary we do find out what goes into his brain – a lot of books. Gates carries a tote bag full of books everywhere he goes, and reads 150 pages an hour.

It’s factoids like that which makes Inside Bill’s Brain an entertaining, insightful view of one of the richest (and smartest) people on the planet. It’s told through interviews with the man himself, plus family members and friends. When Melinda Gates found out the series title, she started laughing. Why? “Because it’s chaos! I wouldn’t want to be in that brain. There is so much going on all the time. It’s unbelievable.”

As a leadership strategist, I applaud his annual “think week,” where he goes off to a cabin for a week of solitude, reading and thinking. (Granted, not all of us can afford to do that, but it’s a great practice).

Because he absorbs so much and uses his CPU more effectively than anything else, the series ends up focusing more on what he’s doing now than how he got there. So we see meetings and discussions about the Gates Foundation, his obsessiveness with global sanitation and reinventing the toilet. Yes, it’s a bit graphic, but it’s compelling.

He reads and learns to help solve the world’s problems through his passion: technology. “Any problem, I will look at how technical innovation can help solve that problem,” Gates says. “It’s the one thing I know and the one thing I’m good at. That’s my hammer. And a lot of problems look like nails because I’ve got a hammer.”