If 2020 was tragedy, then—as Karl Marx might have predicted, if they'd had television in his day (what would he have made of The Simpsons?)—2020 TV was farce. Sarah Palin in a bear costume rapping about big butts! Televised decapitation of a baseball fan! And in possibly the most emblematic moment of all television history, as the pandemic decimated new programming, Fox actually aired a program called Celebrity Watch Party that was nothing but desiccated revenants of the formerly famous sitting around on couches, gazing stuperously at TVs. They found it, for the most part, no more comprehensible than do the rest of us. Ozzy Osbourne, watching The Masked Singer, gaped in bewilderment as the mask was pulled from the face of 20-year-old pop star Jackie Evancho: "Who the fuck was that?" he wondered. Somewhere, no doubt, Evancho was returning the favor.
Television would no doubt have had a tumultuous 2020 even if nobody in America had caught anything worse than a cold. It was expected to be the Year of the Streaming Wars, with two big guns—WarnerMedia's HBO Max and NBCUniversal's Peacock—joining the fight for the first time, each with tens of thousands of movies and TV shows in their arsenals, as well as studios to churn out more. (HBO Max's rights to Friends, one of the most popular shows in TV history, would alone have made it a formidable contender.) And several others entered the fray as well, including Discovery+, Apple TV+, Disney+ and Quibi.
The new streaming services were bound to turn TV usage on its head, but nobody could be certain exactly how. Would they obliterate broadcast TV? Or cannibalize Netflix and other existing streamers? Or just cancel one another out? The industry waited nervously for an answer.
Twelve months later, it's still waiting. TV was certainly stood on its head in 2020, but it's hard to say exactly by what. During the first four months of the year, the Nielsen folks say, broadcast and cable TV viewership jumped 25 percent. Shows like Grey's Anatomy that were burning off new episodes completed before the COVID production lockdown began had their highest ratings in years.
But so did 30-year-old reruns of Golden Girls streaming on Hulu, where viewers watch 11 million hours of the show in April alone. Netflix added a record 28 mllion subscribers in the first nine months of the year, and the new Disney+ channel—aided no doubt by parents desperate to placate hordes of deranged children sent home from school by the virus—sold a booming 86.8 million subscribers in its first year.
By year's end, it was clear that the gains in streaming were holding, and those in broadcast and cable weren't. All five of the big broadcast networks lost at least 10 percent of the viewers, and one—the CW, which targets the 18-to-34 age demographic—dropped a whopping 25 percent. Cable didn't do much better; excluding the news channels—we'll get to them in a minute—average prime-time cable audiences fell 10 percent.
One of the factors in the broadcast decline was clearly the malign timing of the pandemic, which triggered production lockdowns precisely at the moment the broadcast networks were preparing the pilots of their new fall shows. The result was a fall schedule composed largely of cheapjack reality shows, reruns swiped from smaller and largely unseen cable networks, and lunkhead programming wrangled off the Canadian tundra.
Also, here's one last opportunity to blame stuff on Donald Trump. News coverage always siphons part of the broadcast audience to cable news, and 2020 was soooo not an exception. The most striking evidence was on Election Night, when cable news pulled in more than 30 million viewers, dwarfing the ratings of the broadcast networks. But cable news was raiding broadcast audiences all year long. Fox's Tucker Carlson Tonight averaged 5.4 million viewers a night during October, the highest average viewership in cable-news history. All those eyeballs had to come from somewhere.
So, the supposedly decisive Year of the Streaming Wars really didn't prove very much—particularly since we still don't know exactly when the pandemic will be over and everybody will go back to work or school. When that happens, will Netflix and Disney+ lose some of those subscribers? Or has the old one-episode-a-week TV model been broken down by cable binging?
About the only thing we learned for sure is that Gen Q is not nearly as stupid as Hollywood thinks it is. Quibi, a streaming service intended for the early-20s demo, delivered TV content in short 10-minute bursts, to people watching on their cell phones. (The name was short for "Quick Bites") It died in October, just six months after its launch, leaving thousands of the self-proclaimed best and brightest of the Hollywood intelligentsia wandering the streets, jobless. Who says there's no Santa Claus?
However crazy 2020 may have been for television, it still had plenty of high points. The very best thing on you TV screen this year was Mr. Jones, an unheralded Polish-Ukrainian-British film that couldn't get any kind of a look in the United States until Hulu streamed it this summer. A chilling account of how Moscow's foreign press corps, led by The New York Times, covered up Joseph Stalin's deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainians in 1932, Mr. Jones is excellent filmmaking. Calling it a TV show, however, may be a stretch. So I'll just say, watch it you haven't already, and then start setting your VCR for the rest of the year's best.
10 (tie). I Know This Much Is True (HBO). Mark Ruffalo was just brilliant playing twins, a savagely unhinged schizophrenic and his literal brother's keeper. A painfully difficult but extremely rewarding viewing experience.
10 (tie). Big Sky (ABC). An unadorned crime thriller that goes straight for the throat.
9. The Queen's Gambit (Netflix). I'd love to have been in the pitch meeting for this show: "So, Max, it's a thriller about an emotionally fractured orphan facing the terrifying emotional stress of big-time chess." But damned if it doesn't work. I watched seven episodes in two nights and was desperate for more.
8. The Conners (ABC). To my continuing amazement, Roseanne without Roseanne continues to be funny, poignant and TV's only real banner-carrier for working class America.
7. Killing Eve (BBC America). It turns out that even sociopathic intelligence-agency assassins have issues with their bosses. The ongoing homicidal chess match between Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer make this TV's best good-guy/bad-guy dual, though don't ask me which of them is the good one.
6. Stateless (Netflix). A de-glamorized Yvonne Strahovski plays a young Australian woman who has blundered into the twisted maze of Australian immigration law in this de-politicized drama about the Kafkaesque world of political refugees. Its Down-Under setting is a reminder that immigration law is a torturous mess whether Donald Trump is involved or not.
5. The Chi (Showtime). This inner-city slice-of-life drama faced a difficult task in 2020 when one of its most appealing characters—a hard-working food-truck operator who resisted the temptations and the pressure of street life—abruptly disappeared after allegations of misconduct by the actor who played him, Jason Mitchell. Fortunately series creator Lena Waithe and her writing staff were more than up for the challenge.
4. Better Call Saul (AMC). About to start its sixth season, this prequel to Breaking Badhas outlasted the show that spun it off, and for good reason. Unlike Breaking Bad, in which literally every character was a murderous sleazebag, Better Call Saul's leads, Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn, play lawyers who are funny and essentially sweet, if not always exactly lawful.
3. Laurel Canyon (Epix). A documentary about the explosively talented folk-rock scene that evolved in the hills just above Sunset Boulevard, Laurel Canyonis a warm remembrance of things past for anybody who was part of the 1960s, and an instructive text about why we loved it so much for anybody who wasn't.
2. Homeland (Showtime). Homeland, the tale of a paranoid CIA counterintelligence officer, started off in 2011 as Executive Producer Howard's sort-of mea culpa for the belligerent national-security-state glorification in his counterterrorism drama 24. Over the years, it morphed into a tirade against fascist treason. And by the time it wrapped up its eighth season last spring, it turned full-circle again with CIA operative Carrie Mathison (played with exquisite imbalance by Claire Danes) working against her ancient enemies in Moscow. Through every twist and turn, you could never be certain if Carrie was a visionary or, literally, crazy. Television has never had a better spy drama.
1.The Flight Attendant (HBO Max). Kaley Cuoco bursts out of the dippy-comedy chrysalis of The Big Bang Theory into a multi-dimensional role in which she's not only funny, but frightened, frenetic and unflagging as a drunken and promiscuous flight attendant who finds herself suspected of murder by both the cops and the criminals. She may be guilty. You'll love her anyway.