The Daily Californian’s Arts Awards: Television of 2020

Photo of Queen's Gambit
Netflix/Courtesy

Best Drama

Winner: “The Boys”

Courtesy: Amazon Studios

After a delightfully gory first season — seriously, the show opens with a superhero running through a woman and dislodging her hands from her torso — Eric Kripke’s superhero satire “The Boys” somehow pushes the envelope even further with its sophomore outing. Its critiques of corrupt, neoliberal, Marvel movie-obsessed America become more explicit. Its action sequences become more visceral. Its soundtrack continues to be awesome.

Season two follows the titular vigilante group’s struggle to bring justice to the Vought corporation’s well-funded, sociopathic band of superheroes, building on last season’s cliffhangers with more character-focused subplots. Antony Starr remains the show’s standout as Homelander, whose untethering from the quasi-maternal pull of Madelyn Stillwell (Elisabeth Shue) frees the character up to make some truly deranged choices and allows Starr to chew scenery. New “supe” Stormfront (Aya Cash) is a great addition to the ensemble; her past, slowly unearthed across the season, adds prescient thematic heft. 

Riffs on focus-grouped feminism, depictions of American racism and barely veiled mirrors of current political figures are abounding this season. (It is hilariously ironic, given the show’s unforgiving lens on mega-corporations, that it’s housed on Amazon’s streaming service). The episodes are as outlandish as they are uncomfortably searing. In the fictional world of “The Boys,” great power breeds great irresponsibility, and the show shines brightest when it points out that that world isn’t very fictional at all.

— Grace Orriss

Runner-up: “Ozark” 

Netflix’s aspiring prestige crime drama “Ozark” has come a long way in three seasons. The show’s earlier episodes set out with a compelling formula and were chock-full of potential. And with excellent leads in Jason Bateman and Laura Linney, a slick visual aesthetic and enough backwoods intrigue to rival the best of its counterparts, criticisms of its earlier installments’ soapy subplots and lack of direction were few and far between.

Though these issues were always sparse, “Ozark” shakes them off completely in its third season to become one of the year’s most gripping programs. Much of this improvement comes from the season’s tight thematic focus, which reorients around its twisted blend of domestic dysfunction and brutal drug warfare. With marital squabbles and petty town gossip deciding the fate of international heroin empires, “Ozark” season three seamlessly co-opts the stakes of the prestige crime genre to spin one unrelenting and unforgettable hell of a family drama. 

— Olive Grimes

Best Comedy

Winner: “Schitt’s Creek”

Photo of Schitt's Creek

Courtesy: Pop TV

The final scene of “Schitt’s Creek” is a case study in happily ever after. Once fallen business magnate Johnny Rose (Eugene Levy) and his wife Moira (Catherine O’Hara) drive off into the dawn of a new day. As they pass the town’s borders, they stop to look back at its now-infamous sign: Welcome to Schitt’s Creek, where everyone fits in. 

For all intents and purposes, those words should be satirical — after all, it’s a sitcom about the nouveau riche in a rural town. And yet, miraculously, the words feel well earned. What started off as a fish out of water story blossomed into a portrait of family and friends who fit in with and love each other, deeply and hilariously. Whether it’s a touching conversation between Johnny and his future son-in-law or an earth-shattering breakup, the sixth season of “Schitt’s Creek” treats its characters and its viewers with care, giving each storyline the emotional resolution it deserves. 

This sense of careful devotion sets “Schitt’s Creek” apart from other sitcoms, but the comedy is what elevates it. FascinatingIt’s easy for a line of dialogue to become iconic, but when the twitch of an eyebrow or the flip of a wrist reaches icon status as well, something is clearly working. But hey, don’t just take our word for it — go ask the Television Academy

— Lauren Sheehan-Clark

Runner-up: “The Good Place” 

The Good Place” premiered in 2016, captivating audiences with its blend of comedy and philosophy. Since then, it has spanned four seasons, all of which have debated the ethics of human life and the afterlife. Its fourth and final season expands on complex ethical dilemmas without forfeiting its compelling humor. Kristen Bell, Ted Danson and the rest of the series’ fantastic cast make up a hilarious ensemble that strengthens the show’s bittersweet end. 

The series’ conclusion earlier this year gained much attention for providing an incredibly emotional, profound finale to its beloved narrative. Though the series has come to a close, “The Good Place” leaves behind an impressive legacy, as it has encouraged audiences to explore the morality of human behavior and the ways in which one can be a better person — a feat that, for a comedy show, should not be overlooked. 

— Sarah Runyan

Best Limited Series 

Winner: “The Queen’s Gambit”

Courtesy: Netflix

A binge-worthy and addictive miniseries, director Scott Frank succeeds in crafting the story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), an orphan chess prodigy. Later adopted at 15 years old, she takes chess into her new home, where her passion blossoms. Simultaneously battling alcohol and drug dependency, as well as opponents across chess boards, “The Queen’s Gambit” shares Beth’s remarkable rise to world-class fame.

What makes the drama so alluring is its connection with viewers, specifically through its presentation of Beth — Taylor-Joy paints her as someone the audience wants to root for. Beth’s audacious commitment to a game stereotyped as nerdy, strange or unwelcoming to women is commendable, but the show avoids falling into a cliche by surrounding Beth’s journey with an unforgiving reality of deterrents and dejection. 

In seven episodes that feel like seven minutes, Frank stunningly captures the tense atmosphere of the game, whether it be a grand tournament or a small, coffee table round of speed chess. Even for an individual who isn’t familiar with the differences between a rook or a knight, Frank makes it easy to follow: Every move echoes like a bellowing step. With Taylor-Joy’s gazing eyes and sharp wits pounding through the screen, the audience is transported to the front row of her countless intense chess matches.

If you ever thought chess was boring, “The Queen’s Gambit” will surely convince you otherwise. 

Ashley Tsai

Runner-up: “Normal People”

The premise and presentation of “Normal People” are true to its title — it’s a simple story about two ordinary people. Yet, it’s in their banalities — their flaws, loneliness, beauty and magnificence — that we discover just how moving the ordinary can be. Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal) and Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) are both interesting characters on their own, but together, they form a bond so delicate and potent that every scene feels like a gift. 

The show’s writing and pacing are key in creating its incisive impact, but it’s all held together by their unmatched chemistry. Whether they’re laughing, fighting or crying, their relationship is always consistent; it grows organically as the characters themselves change. “Normal People” broke our hearts one last time by confirming that it won’t return for a second season, but the memories it leaves with us will be like Connell’s chain — never far from our hearts.

Matthew DuMont

Best Actor in a Drama Series

Winner: Jason Bateman, “Ozark”

Courtesy: Netflix

Jason Bateman’s signature dry wit is so consistent and recognizable that it’s often difficult to ignore the elements of Michael Bluth that surface in any role he assumes. In “Ozark,” however, his sardonic presence is one of the show’s greatest assets. In this newest season, Marty Byrde’s life collapses around him as he endures closer scrutiny from the cartel, his criminal casino operation is audited by the FBI and his marriage to Wendy (Laura Linney) grows increasingly frayed. 

Through everything the show throws at him, Bateman never loses sight of what makes Marty tick. He’s petty, controlling and vindictive; he’s the guy who bribes his couples’ therapist to take his side in disputes and yet still finds a path to the moral high ground when it’s revealed Wendy was doing exactly the same thing. Bateman captures Marty’s qualities with ease, often turning bleak scenes into some of the show’s funnier moments.

It’s in these moments that Bateman draws the sharp, impressive distinction between Marty Byrde and Michael Bluth. Though they see the world the same way, Marty shows us shades of Bateman’s range that we haven’t previously seen: there’s an intense rage, a resounding dread on display when Bateman confronts the mortal danger that is always surrounding Marty and his family. Each of the individual parts of Bateman’s performance may appear at first to be self-derivative, but when totaled together, they represent something new: a career high.

Matthew DuMont

Runner-up: Antony Starr, “The Boys”

If you’ve ever wanted to see a megalomaniacal psycho Superman chug breast milk and threaten to laser innocent civilians, “The Boys” is the show for you. Antony Starr perfectly portrays the all-powerful Homelander as a homicidal man-child, lending the show some of its most darkly hilarious moments — and also some its most gut-wrenching ones. 

Though it approaches the genre through a lens of refreshing satire, “The Boys” also understands one of the most important tenets of comic book adaptations: You’re only as good as your villain. And thanks to Starr’s excellent performance as Homelander, “The Boys” has one of the best villains on television right now.

— Neil Haeems

Best Actress in a Drama Series

Winner: Rhea Seehorn, “Better Call Saul”

Courtesy: Sony Pictures Television

Awards seasons have historically not been kind to Rhea Seehorn. Though “Better Call Saul” has been showered with acting nominations since its first season, Seehorn has been snubbed season after season for her portrayal of Kim Wexler — the straight-laced, eternally optimistic foil to Bob Odenkirk’s “criminal” lawyer Jimmy McGill.

Fortunately, The Daily Californian recognizes talent when we see it, and Seehorn has delivered a career-defining performance in season five of “Better Call Saul.” It’s impeccable timing, too, as this year’s season was a pivotal one for her character. Disillusioned by her dream job and dragged further into Jimmy’s ever-growing web of dangerous lies, Kim is buckling under the pressure of her sense for justice and her own legal integrity. And Seehorn is immensely convincing throughout all of it.

Episode after episode of season five, Seehorn proves she has the widest emotional range of anyone in the show. Her temperament is fiercely determined and devoutly loyal, but she carries with her a dwindling faith in everything that she values — Jimmy, the legal system, even her own abilities. It’s clear that, even in the most insignificant moments, Seehorn has a limitless understanding of her character’s complexity. In any given scene — whether she’s bursting at the seams of her lawyerly composure, distraught by Jimmy’s latest wrongdoings or both — Seehorn brings her absolute all to this season of “Better Call Saul.”

— Olive Grimes

Runner-up: Michaela Coel, “I May Destroy You”

As if writing and co-directing one of the landmark drama series of the year wasn’t enough, multihyphenate Michaela Coel also brings its central character to life with searing focus. At the beginning of the series, Arabella Essiedu (Coel) experiences a trauma that sends her into a downward spiral, manifesting itself in her psyche as a chaotic confluence of obsession and despondence, ecstasy and grief and everything in between. Coel captures it all.

She doesn’t try to untangle Arabella’s complex, often contradictory feelings, but instead presents them in their unvarnished form. It becomes the viewer’s responsibility to sit with these emotions to try finding a neat way to connect them. But in truth, there’s no way to make sense of what Arabella feels, because there’s no way to make sense of what she’s been through. By asking Arabella to communicate this tension, Coel gives herself an immense acting challenge — one she pulls off with stunning grace. 

— Matthew DuMont

Best Actor in a Comedy Series 

Winner: Dan Levy, “Schitt’s Creek”

Photo of Schitt's Creek

Courtesy: Pop TV

In a year belied by stress, Dan Levy’s delightfully persnickety David Rose has proven a welcome tonic. As David, Levy — who also serves as an executive producer, writer and co-creator for “Schitt’s Creek” — consistently brings a snooty superiority that leads to some of the show’s funniest exchanges. It’s easy to see, through Levy’s mannerisms and the character’s general aesthetic, that David is meant to be Moira’s (Catherine O’Hara) spitting image. “Moira Rosé,” one of the season’s stronger episodes, underscores this parallel: As David and Moira slowly get drunk on fruit wine, Levy manages to match O’Hara’s singular comedic energy and play off it beautifully.

But it isn’t just campiness that makes Levy’s character so endearing. David, more than any other character, is the frontman for the show’s earnest mission statement about finding a way to let go of old privileges and love who you’re with. It’s in these quieter, emblematic moments that Levy makes the biggest impact this season. The series finale contains his sweetest moments of the entire show’s run; as David weds Noah Reid’s ever-dreamy Patrick, Levy’s eyes shine with tangible affection and awe. By the end of “Schitt’s Creek,” David is still invariably and hilariously finicky, but he’s also gone through a journey that has softened him into someone more accepting and kind. Through his performance — which, excuse the pun, is “simply the best” — Levy makes the trip believable.

— Grace Orriss

Runner-up: Ted Danson, “The Good Place”

Throughout its four seasons, “The Good Place” faced the unique challenge of putting emphasis on character development. Whereas most sitcoms choose to keep characters within a defined framework, “The Good Place” had to flip its entire set of morals by the end of the show’s run. There was no one more up to the task than veteran sitcom actor Ted Danson, whose portrayal of the demon Michael ranged from encompassing all evil to embodying the attributes of a toddler. 

Danson’s versatility was a boon for the show, allowing it to properly explore its distinctive mix of comedy and philosophy. Going forward, television will surely miss Michael’s iconic bow tie and smile.

Jake Lilian

Best Actress in a Comedy Series

Winner: Catherine O’Hara, “Schitt’s Creek”

Photo of Schitt's Creek

Courtesy: Pop TV

That it’s nearly impossible to imagine Moira Rose played by anyone other than Catherine O’Hara is a testament to the extravagant dynamism she brings to the role. The ridiculous wigs, daringly chic wardrobe and cultivated vocabulary such as “encumbered” or “pettifogging” are mere supplements to the persona O’Hara brings to life. 

The premise of “Schitt’s Creek” is that the former soap opera star, along with her husband Johnny (Eugene Levy) and spoiled adult-children Alexis (Annie Murphy) and David (Dan Levy), leave their high-class life behind for a new beginning in Schitt’s Creek — the town is their only asset now that the family’s video store empire has gone broke. 

The character arc of Moira is far from simple and O’Hara leaves nothing to be desired. Initially beside herself and taking to the closet for breakdowns, Moira emerges as a matriarch to be reckoned with as the six seasons unfold. This feat is borne of O’Hara’s ability to craft a certain delusionality that unwittingly exudes magnificence. She consistently delivers the most classic of lines as she plays the painfully aloof mother and tad-too-blunt friend.

It’s questionable whether Moira simply rejects or makes the most of her new circumstances, but admirable nonetheless is her utter versatility. O’Hara does supreme justice to this trait, and for this reason, her performance is exemplary. As she takes part in the town council, the a cappella group “Jazzagals” and even a film in Bosnia, viewers cannot help themselves but love and root for the intrinsically important Moira Rose. 

Kathryn Kemp

Runner-up: D’Arcy Carden, “The Good Place”

D’Arcy Carden’s role in “The Good Place” is undoubtedly a unique one: an all-knowing celestial known as Janet, who assists four humans with their zany quest to change the afterlife for the better and improve themselves in the process. 

Carden’s portrayal of Janet throughout the series remains fresh as it livens up every scene, even taking on the roles of Disco Janet, Bad Janet and Neutral Janet in the show’s final episodes. Carden’s nuanced humor and heartwarming delivery make “The Good Place” feel like more than the average comedy, and her performance is the icing on the cake of the show’s final season.

Caitlin Keller

Best Actor in a Limited Series

Winner: Paul Mescal, “Normal People”

Courtesy: Hulu

Putting on one of the strongest breakout performances of the year, Paul Mescal is devastating as Connell Waldron in “Normal People.” Though both Mescal and his co-star Daisy Edgar-Jones bring unique strengths to the series, Mescal comes away as the standout. With little more than a wry smile or a furrowed brow, he brings the audience into Connell’s psyche, sharing with us his inner turmoil, his agony and his ecstasy. 

It’s a delight to accompany Connell on all stages of his self-discovery, but Mescal truly stuns in “Episode 10,” which follows Connell’s struggle with depression after one of his friends takes his own life. The episode oscillates between Connell’s day-to-day life in the aftermath of the tragedy and his first session with a grief counselor, the latter of which provides Mescal with the opportunity to deliver a complex, heart-rending portrait of a young man torn apart by trauma and insecurity.

“I don’t think that people like me that much,” he says, packing so much loneliness into so few words that the frank statement lands like a gut punch. His lip quivers, and the audience starts to sob even before he does. It’s a breathtakingly honest performance, a tender one, that adds even more depth to Alice Birch’s powerful script. We might not see any more of Connell on screen, but we’ll be waiting eagerly for whatever Mescal does next. 

Matthew DuMont

Runner-up: Thomas Brodie-Sangster, “The Queen’s Gambit”

In her many chess escapades throughout the course of “The Queen’s Gambit,” Anya Taylor-Joy never finds a worthier scene partner than Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Brodie-Sangster is positively magnetic as Benny Watts, the rival, mentor and sometimes lover to Taylor-Joy’s Beth Harmon. The show’s texture is rich but never stodgy, and Brodie-Sangster plays a crucial role in helping it thread this needle. 

His swagger cuts through every scene, serving as a perfect foil to Taylor-Joy’s cerebral, hyperfocused portrayal of Elizabeth. Despite his contribution of such a critical element to the show’s success, however, his most impressive quality is that he never gets in the way of Taylor-Joy’s lead performance, even in Benny’s most egocentric moments. Every great hero needs a sidekick, and the best sidekicks know how to stay in their lane — in this area, Brodie-Sangster is a grandmaster.

Matthew DuMont

Best Actress in a Limited Series

Winner: Anya Taylor-Joy, “The Queen’s Gambit”

Photo of Queen's Gambit

Courtesy: Netflix

“The Queen’s Gambit” has broken records as Netflix’s most-watched scripted limited series, and actress Anya Taylor-Joy takes center stage. Taylor-Joy, known for her breakout role in “The Witch,” plays chess prodigy Beth Harmon. In this role, Taylor-Joy has to navigate the intersection of childhood trauma, genius and madness. 

Even while daunted with the task of portraying such a multidimensional character, Taylor-Joy manages to keep the performance balanced. Beth comes off as neither insanely egotistical about her accolades nor perpetually agonized by her upbringing as an orphan. Taylor-Joy brings a mysterious and fascinating persona to her character, and because of this, Beth remains an enigma even though the audience sees her in private moments. It’s clear that Taylor-Joy put a great deal of thought into her portrayal of Beth. With every breath and move, Taylor-Joy exudes an energy that makes everything feel incredibly high-stakes, especially when Beth competes with world-renowned chess masters. 

In only seven episodes, “The Queen’s Gambit” shows viewers a progression of success, failure and the mess in between. As Beth conquers the male-dominated world of competitive chess, the audience can’t help but root for her every step of the way, even when she succumbs to self-destructive habits. With Taylor-Joy’s performance being the ultimate checkmate, it’s no surprise that “The Queen’s Gambit” has permeated the minds of millions. 

Daniella Lake

Runner-up: Cate Blanchett, “Mrs. America” 

The main character of “Mrs. America,” conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, is easy to hate. The miniseries depicts Schlafly’s fight against the Equal Rights Amendment in the 1970s and accurately portrays her as a sinister threat to progress. 

Yet despite how backward and evil her actions may seem, Schlafly is not a simple antagonist. She is a nuanced character with an engaging story — a story that comes to life through the talent of lead actress Cate Blanchett. Blanchett manages to portray Schlafly as multifaceted, giving viewers insight into how she came to be such a powerful conservative voice and why she seemed to fight so frequently against her own interests. 

Blanchett’s depiction of Schlafly is just one of many attention-getting performances in “Mrs. America,” but it shines through nonetheless as one of the most complex and engaging performances in television this year.

Salem Sulaiman

Best Variety Talk Show

Winner: “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver”

Courtesy: HBO

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the most recent season of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” was remotely produced and took place in what Oliver termed a “blank white void full of sad facts.” 2020 has indeed been a year full of “sad facts.” Some of these, Oliver covered with his typically incredulous comedic persona; other installments, such as the excellent episode on the nationwide protests after the death of George Floyd, called for a more sobering approach. The season’s segments, such as this one on the future of the Supreme Court after the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett, advanced well-researched political analysis that spoke smartly and sometimes fatalistically about the country’s current moment.

The lack of a live audience, though uncanny, lent itself well to this season’s graver tone. Oliver’s lighthearted asides continued to be delightful, but they seemed necessarily fewer and further between. His energy this season was more stayed, except, of course, when he was begging Adam Driver to “chokeslam (him) to h—,” a horny running joke that truly merits the descriptor “iconic.” 

After Donald Trump was elected, Oliver ended his 2016 season by exploding a giant sign that read “2016.” This year, he gave 2020 the same treatment in a grandiose repetition that nonetheless carried with it the exhaustion inherent in this season’s writing. It was a funny, sad segment that epitomized the show’s outlook this season, which was shared by many of its viewers: stubbornly hoping that future years will be better, but setting aside some dynamite for next time, just in case. 

Grace Orriss

Runner-up: “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj”

When the most recent season of “Patriot Act with Hasan Minhaj” aired, we didn’t know it would be the series’ last. Knowing that now, however, only makes us appreciate its final bow even more. Unlike many of its competitors, “Patriot Act” found a way to navigate the pandemic-necessitated audience-free filming environment by using agile editing and a snappy pace to distract from the lack of studio laughter. Its coverage of pandemic-related issues was spot on, but even more impressive was its focus on more esoteric but equally pressing topics, such as online tax services and ranked choice voting. 

It’s difficult to say goodbye to “Patriot Act.” Minhaj’s show was a real breath of fresh air in a genre that’s grown stale with such little diversity and so few new perspectives. The show may be gone, but in its absence, surviving talk shows would be well served to steal some of its strengths. 

Matthew DuMont

Best Animated Series

Winner: “BoJack Horseman”

Courtesy: Netflix

Nearly two years before its finale, “BoJack Horseman” touched on a familiar paradox: “You can’t have happy endings in sitcoms,” BoJack (Will Arnett) laments. “If everyone’s happy, the show would be over.” The show’s final eight episodes mostly proved this maxim true. Nearly every character is treated to a happy ending that they earned over six seasons of excruciating growth and introspection, and the show promptly ends. The one exception, though, is the horse himself. 

In the penultimate episode, “The View From Halfway Down,” BoJack nearly dies after overdosing and falling into a pool. His flat line over the end credits could very well have ended the show; after all, BoJack has always teetered on the brink of total self-destruction, and his tragic death would be the most logical conclusion.

But BoJack wakes up. He goes to prison for trespassing. He hopes to reconnect with his friends but finds that their lives are better without him in them. We realize that this is the fate he deserves — death is scary, but it’s far crueler to keep living in a grotesque shell of his former life. 

To wrap up such a complex, often chaotic tapestry of plotlines was no small task, but showrunner Raphael Bob-Waksberg pulled it off magnificently. He gave us the finale he knew BoJack deserved, not the one we thought most obvious. In doing so, the “BoJack Horseman” finale ascends into the pantheon of series finales that devastated us, confused us and, yet, left us completely satisfied.

Matthew DuMont

Runner-up: “The Midnight Gospel”

Anything that “Adventure Time” showrunner Pendleton Ward attaches his name to has the potential to become a cultural phenomenon. But though it boasts his signature art style and world building, “The Midnight Gospel” is a different beast altogether.

Comedian and series co-creator Duncan Trussell portrays slacker “spacecast” host Clancy, who travels to dying computer-simulated universes to find guests for his show. The catch is that the show’s audio mostly consists of interviews ripped from Trussell’s modern-spiritual “Family Hour” podcast. The result is as surreally funny as it is transcendent: Clancy’s zany visual adventures take on the role of extended metaphor for the concepts Trussell and guests explore.

Bouncing effortlessly between darkly comedic and incomparably intimate and inspiring, “The Midnight Gospel” is a show unlike any other — and is wholly deserving of its spot on this list.

Olive Grimes

Contact The Daily Californian’s arts & entertainment staff at [email protected].