20 TV Superlatives for 2020

Sometimes you just need to celebrate the best (and worst) there is. Subjective? Yes. Overlooking some shows? Perhaps. Ready to defend my choices? Always. Get ready for some nontraditional categories and winners.

Most Shameless Product Placement

Royal Pains (S6 E12 “A Bigger Boat”)

There’s nothing quite like taking a break from a show to have a shiny new product displayed and endorsed on your screen… and I’m not talking about a commercial break. When Emma pulled out her phone to demonstrate Auto Trader’s app, there was no use disguising it as anything plot based. I never thought I’d say this, but Royal Pains could learn a thing or two from Modern Family and Toyota.

Honorable mention: I don't know what it is about USA network and Auto Trader, but the short-lived Fairly Legal featured a slightly less egregious promotion when assistant Leo urges a car-less Kate to use the desktop version's "side-by-side comparison" in the penultimate episode, "Force Majeure." Maybe USA should change its slogan to "car actors welcome"?

Best character-who-wasn't-the-main-character-but-should-have-been

Patterson (Blindspot)

Ashley Johnson in Blindspot / NBC

Cocky but confident. Badass and nerdy. The brains and the heart of her team. And her dad is Bill Nye?! Patterson really does have it all. When she wasn’t single-handedly solving all the tattoo clues, exasperatedly quipping with her goofier counterpart Rich DotCom (fingers crossed for that spinoff), she was proving herself the MVP of the FBI, and making it look easy.

Most Endearing #CoupleGoals

Nomi and Amanita (Sense8)

Freema Agyeman and Jamie Clayton in Sense8 / Netflix

I don’t know what kind of relationship baggage you’ve had to overcome, but taking on transphobic in-laws and a secret global organization hell-bent on your psychic-hacker girlfriend’s destruction, all while committing continuous crimes for the benefit of psychically linked strangers, is, shall we agree, a lot. From starting a distraction fire in a hospital to fleeing from armed guards, Amanita showed unwavering loyalty from day one, and Nomi returned the favor. Your move, This is Us.

Honorable mentions: WayHaught (Wynonna Earp), and, twist my arm, Ben and Leslie (Parks and Recreation)

Most consistent full-series run


This show always delivered on what was promised—sci fi that wanted to have a good time. But beyond the fun of it, Killjoys took on the issues of classism, family, and identity through the lens of genre TV. There was never a dip in quality from one season to the next, and in fact, this show rose to the top of this category through its continuous world- and plot-building—a mysterious, powerful adversary would arise, only to be turned into an ally and set against a common enemy. This formula repeated with Khlyen, Aneela, and The Lady, each losing sight of their evil plan when matched with the perseverance and compassion of Team Awesome Force, contributing to the story of the Quad and Dutch’s own personal history, and above all, always building to something bigger.

Most morally upstanding character

Chief Boden (Chicago Fire)

Eamonn Walker in Chicago Fire / NBC

It might be “cool” to be an antihero nowadays, but that just makes the draw of Boden’s pure-hearted beneficence that much more powerful. Though doing the right thing somehow always seems to land him in hot water (or, more aptly, fire), if Boden can’t figure out a way to fight for the members of his firehouse, he will fall on the sword for them. He is tough, fair, and damn worthy of respect; whether building them up or dressing them down, he has a way of bringing out the best in each of his firefighters. In stark contrast to his Chicago PD counterpart, Sergeant Hank Voight, Chief Boden is the quintessential “good guy,” inspiring loyalty from his team and his community, day in and day out.

Honorable mentions: Judge Lola Carmichael (All Rise), Ted Lasso

Best (and worst) retcon

Dawn (Buffy the Vampire Slayer)

Michelle Trachtenberg in Buffy / The WB

Sometimes writers decide way too late that their lead is lacking in non-romantic emotional connections. So when the writers of Buffy were tasked with adding actress Michelle Trachtenberg as Buffy’s sister Dawn, five seasons in, they did so in the most meta way possible—they said a group of mystical monks transformed an all-powerful key into a human, placed that human under the protection of The Chosen One, and manipulated the memories of an entire town so that no one would question the sudden existence of said Chosen One’s sister. Dawn may have been accepted by her newfound family despite the truth of her origins, but fans of the show never really embraced her or all the inane trouble she caused.

Best “found family”

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

There are so, so many worthy series about misfits coming together. But if I have to choose (and I don’t), I can’t ignore the enduring heartstrings of the Daisy-Coulson father-daughter-like relationship that formed the core of the show and the S.H.I.E.L.D. team. Whether it was transforming Daisy from a loner to a leader, cracking May’s hard exterior, or finally giving Fitz and Simmons the happy ending they deserved, AoS became a team of heroes who chose to save one another and the world, through space and time and whatever other dimension or monster the monoliths could summon.

Worst use of a character’s superpower


Sarah Rafferty in Suits / USA

Remember that time you had perfect recall and you used that ability every day to your advantage? Neither does Mike, who in a most ironic fashion, seemed to forget about the “photographic memory” gimmick that landed him a job in the first place. Sure, the show became more about “getting one's name on the door” power plays and crossing moral lines in the quest for justice, but how does an unforgettable understanding of convoluted laws and loopholes not play an integral part in a courtroom?! I can’t believe this is a superhero category and I have to give it to an otherwise average white guy. Whatever. All that mattered on that show was Donna, anyway.

Best villain-turned-hero

Helena (Orphan Black)

Jordan Gavaris and Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black / BBC America
Tatiana Maslany and Kevin Hanchard in Orphan Black / BBC America

How many friends do you have that are equally down for brunch and murder? Now how many of those friends are pregnant? It’s hard to say how Helena went from creepy stalker and serial killer to a loving (but still deadly) mother and protector, but what’s important is that this weird, fierce, hungry, mercurial, Jesse-pining, sestra-supporting psycho is forever in our hearts. And maybe also our kitchens… You know what? She could be anywhere.

Tatiana Maslany in Orphan Black / BBC America

Because Helena is just one of a few terrifically diverse clone sestras. (Plus Felix.) And they can all totally pass for one another with no hilarious inconsistencies.

Honorable mentions: Fleabag, Wynonna Earp, Grace and Frankie, The Bold Type, Derry Girls

Most entertaining “previously on” segment


Not nearly enough people seem to have seen this entry into Michelle and Robert King’s oeuvre, a political satire/horror/comedy that lasted for one glorious season. Much like the alien ants that ultra-partisanized the brains of prominent politicians, the unique and self-aware “previously on” rhyming songs by frequent King collaborator Jonathan Coulton are hard to get out of your head.

Funniest coming-of-age series

Derry Girls

Louisa Harland, Nicola Coughlan, Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Dylan Llewellyn, and Jamie-Lee O'Donnell in Derry Girls / Netflix

Orla. Michelle. Sister Michael. Six-episode seasons honed to perfection. Either you agree that this is the funniest coming-of-age series created to date, or you need to go watch it (again).

Most blatant copycat series

Take Two

I see what you did there, ABC. A fun-loving civilian and a hardened law enforcement agent team up to catch criminals in a large coastal city, neither expecting to fall in love… Castle did it better, and that’s why it lasted more than one season. That, and Nathan Fillion.

Most annoying villain demand

“Do [hours-long medical procedure] in 20 minutes in the back of this van or you die” (Every medical drama ever)

To say nothing of the benefits of a sterile operating environment, if a doctor says a surgery takes two hours, it takes two hours. Blood doesn’t transfuse any faster in response to intimidation tactics. And if you want the doctor’s hands holding your buddy’s guts together not to shake, stop pointing a gun at her! (Unless the procedure in question is a tracheotomy, which TV doctors have proven they can perform anywhere, anytime, with only some alcohol, a knife, and a pen.)

Most needless death

Lee Sizemore (Westworld)

Why hide behind a tree and lay down cover fire for several minutes when you can walk straight at your armed opponents and be gunned down in, like, two seconds? Didn’t buy his friends time to escape, didn’t do his final speech justice, didn’t even stay dead. Oh well; at least he didn’t get crushed under a collapsing edifice when he could have just moved 10 or so yards to his left… Jaime Lannister.

Honorable mention: Speaking of Game of Thrones... good on ya, Rickon "can't serpentine to save my life" Stark

Most compelling villain

Kilgrave (Jessica Jones)

Daniel Tennant in Jessica Jones / Netflix

Sticks and stones may break your bones, but Kilgrave’s words are sure to hurt you worse. He is as big a threat psychologically as he is physically. Not only does he check the “warped by tragic childhood” and “just wants to be loved” boxes for creating a sympathetic villain, Kilgrave walks the bone-chilling line between charismatic and cruel, tormenting super-strong Jessica from beyond the (supposed) grave. Truly worthy of our—and more importantly, Jessica’s—fear and respect, Kilgrave’s reign of terror naturally lent itself to a most satisfying takedown, giving viewers something to smile about.

Most prolific sitcom creator

Michael Schur

Parks and Recreation? The Office? Brooklyn Nine-Nine? The Good Place? Mike Schur knows how to unite well-intentioned weirdos, and place them in seemingly mundane yet hilarious situations. Thank you, oh bringer of Galentine’s Day, lanch parties, Halloween heists, and an infinity of Florida insults. Can I choose between them?

Steve Carell in The Office / NBC

Honorable mention: Victor Fresco, witty banter aficionado and arguing-over-minutiae extraordinaire, creator of Better Off Ted and Santa Clarita Diet

Most swearing per capita

Doom Patrol

It’s close, but I think Jane and Cliff manage to edge out Selena Meyer’s team when it comes to letting the cuss words fly. And they are at least facing the end of the world or some really weird shit when their language turns foul.

Most specific story arc for the same actor to repeat in different shows

Katie McGrath (Merlin, Supergirl)

Sorry, Sean Bean, simply dying won’t win you this category. First as Morgana, then as Lena Luthor, McGrath played a privileged but emotionally baggaged character who, after discovering a close acquaintance had been lying to her about their identity, used that “betrayal” to fuel a villainous turn, vowing to dethrone her former friend(s) and refusing to soften her heart. Self-isolated and enthralled by her overreaction (that’s right, I’m editorializing), Luthor’s sister at least had a better ending than Uther’s daughter, when Supergirl stopped pandering with the all-too-familiar “I lied to protect you” line and swayed her friend back to the side of good with a harsher but effective “Forgive me or not; that’s your choice… From now on, you’re accountable for your own actions.” Kind of hard to keep visualizing yourself as the people’s savior when someone who stands only for empathy and hope tells you to cut the shit, huh?

Best musical number that’s not from Buffy’s “Once More with Feeling”

“Take On Me” and “Here We Go Again” (The Magicians)

That’s right; I declare a tie. The imagination-imbued, “no reason not to” mentality that seemed to drive many a Magician’s plot, also saw quite a few musical numbers thrown in. In this case, the Margo-sass-infused and fist-pumping “Here We Go Again” ties with the genuinely moving, elegiac “Take On Me,” re-imagined as a requiem for just-found-a-pair-of-hairclippers-and-now-I'm-dead Quentin… who apparently was a fan favorite or something. You know who I’ll miss? Fen!

Brittany Curran in The Magicians "Live from Fillory" / Syfy

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