The 39 TV shows that helped us get through 2020, from ‘Schitt’s Creek’ to ‘Devs’

The Legend of Korra Schitt's Creek The Sopranos Insider 2020 TV list

  • This year was difficult for just about everyone given the COVID-19 pandemic and mass economic uncertainty.
  • Many people, including the Insider editorial staff, turned to TV to help with social isolation and the stresses of day-to-day life.
  • Below, we've rounded up the TV shows, including older favorites like "Avatar: The Last Airbender" and newer hits like "Schitt's Creek," that helped us the most. 
  • Visit Insider's homepage for more stories.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a screeching halt this year, with stay-at-home orders and quarantines impacting people around the globe. With most social activities closed off, many people turned to TV as their primary means of distraction, entertainment, and catharsis. 

Here at Insider, some on our editorial team found themselves rewatching old favorites like "Phineas and Ferb" or "The O.C." as a means of nostalgic escape. Others finally caught up on critically acclaimed dramas for the first time, like HBO's "The Sopranos" or "The Leftovers," and found comfort in their explorations of trauma or grief.

In a wild year like 2020, there were no rules for what you should watch — only time for the television that helped transport us to a pandemic-free world, if only for 22 minutes at a time. 

Keep reading to see the 39 TV shows we loved the most in 2020. 

"BoJack Horseman" (Netflix, 2014)

Before 2020 became defined by tragedy, one of Netflix's greatest original series grappled with grief and loss in the most masterful episode of television I've ever seen. "BoJack Horseman" ended its six-season run in January, and the second-to-last episode, 'The View From Halfway Down,' is the perfect culmination of what made the cartoon show so special to its devoted fanbase. On the surface, 'BoJack' is a comedic gem that's raunchy, clever, observant, and full of animal puns. But in a show that's ultimately about its main character's depression, the concluding arc of a washed-up horse's acting career is one of the most poignant takes on life and death that you can find onscreen. — Kat Tenbarge, digital culture reporter

"Schitt's Creek" (PopTV, 2015)

I don't know if there's a more perfect TV comedy in existence. Sometimes I couldn't decide if I wanted to laugh or cry, and I think only the best humor can do that to you. Not to mention the fact that Dan Levy put such an important character on network TV that defied traditional gender boundaries without making it the center of the conversation. I would, and have, recommended 'Schitt's Creek' to everyone I know. — Fíona Clair, associate freelance editor

"The Baby-Sitters Club" (Netflix, 2020)

"The Baby-Sitters Club" was a wholesome treasure. It's a show I wished I had growing up, and watching it as an adult gave me such a peaceful feeling. Each episode was filled with comfort and plenty of nostalgia. — Paige DiFiore, freelance editor

"The Good Place" (NBC, 2016)

I missed the final season when it was airing, and when it finally hit streaming platforms this fall, I felt like I needed a refresh. I ended up rewatching the first three seasons, which felt more poignant in these uncertain times. But I still wasn't prepared for what I consider to be the most perfect series finale of all time. It sent me into a — perhaps much needed — existential crisis and seemed to give me a little bit of spiritual and mortal clarity. I already want to watch it again. — Fíona Clair, associate freelance editor

"The Leftovers" (HBO, 2014)

"The Leftovers" is a meditation on inexplicable catastrophe and the various ways we live with the aftermath. I started watching it in April, when the coronavirus was killing New Yorkers at a staggering rate, sirens were the only sounds outside, and the streets were empty save for dirty surgical masks. I didn't like it at first because I couldn't make sense of it: supernatural elements pop up out of nowhere; characters keep tripping over their own self-destructive tendencies; the second and third seasons switch settings with zero explanation. But eventually, it became a source of comfort. Nothing made sense because nothing could make sense in a world like theirs — or, it turned out, mine. Also, it made me feel better about my own pandemic vices. At least I didn't join a cult and develop a three-pack-a-day smoking habit. — Sophie Kleeman, essays and features editor

"Never Have I Ever" (Netflix, 2020)

I wish that there was a show like "Never Have I Ever" when I was growing up. As a brown woman, I'm often used to seeing actors who look like me sidelined as minor and often stereotypical characters. But with "Never Have I Ever," co-created by Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, we finally get a mainstream show with an Indian-American teen at the forefront of the narrative. Star Maitreyi Ramakrishnan (in her first-ever acting credit) nails her performance as high schooler Devi Vishwakumar, effortlessly juggling serious, heart-wrenching moments with humorous scenes. Hollywood, take note. — Olivia Singh, entertainment reporter

"We Are Who We Are" (HBO, 2020)

Luca Guadagnino always stays on brand: attractive young Americans falling in love and finding themselves in Italy. And with "We Are Who We Are," Guadagnino provides his most adept version of this fairytale. The show's beautiful Italian scenery also provided great comfort (and a little envy) during the summer when we were sequestered in our homes and couldn't travel. — Zac Ntim, entertainment fellow

"Phineas and Ferb" (Disney Channel, 2007)

Disney Channel's "Phineas and Ferb" is predicated on the belief that you can imbue every single day with unique possibility, and I think that's what made it hit so hard for me in 2020. Sure, my attachment is partly due to nostalgia (the show aired during my middle- and high-school years), but watching "Phineas and Ferb" as a sometimes cynical, sometimes lonely young adult reminded me of what it feels like to be filled with earnest anticipation, genuinely good ideas, and the spirit of camaraderie. At a time when I was trying to feel anything other than rote exhaustion, "Phineas and Ferb" was a deeply empathic, and deeply funny, cartoon balm that helped me remember what it's like to just have fun. — Palmer Haasch, digital culture reporter

"Pose" (FX, 2018)

"Pose" means so much to me as a queer black person. Seeing people who are my direct reflection portrayed in a way that was fair, well-rounded, and relatable was equally as refreshing as it was validating. I'm also a member of the Ballroom Scene, and after years of misrepresentation (which also came from within queer communities), it was a great moment to see people that I personally know, and have looked up to, have their talents used in all aspects of the series. Also, my parents watched both seasons and enjoyed them. In a way, it's brought us closer together and allowed us to have a dialogue that we might not have ever had. — Melchi Anyinsah-Bondzie, lifestyle fellow

"The Sopranos" (HBO, 1999)

The HBO mob drama was on my to-watch list for so long, but six seasons of hour-long episodes felt like such an undertaking until the pandemic hit. After the first two episodes, I felt so absorbed in Tony Soprano's violent, deceitful, humorous, and tragic world that I forgot how horrible the real world was for a short (but oh so sweet!) time. I found character development and storylines so memorable, and the endearing New York and New Jersey accents and fashion aesthetics were just the icing on top for me. — Julia Naftulin, senior health, sex, & relationships reporter

"Julie and the Phantoms" (Netflix, 2020)

I've already watched "Julie and the Phantoms" three times since it was released in September. The show's exploration of grief and the importance of family (both chosen and biological) hit hard in a year like 2020. It's impossible to watch the show without bopping along to the unbelievably catchy songs. If you're looking for a dopamine boost, try spending nine episodes with Julie and her ghostly pals. — Gabbi Shaw, distributed content reporter

"Fleabag" (Amazon Prime Video, 2016)

The searing mixture of comedy and pain in "Fleabag" was the perfect backdrop for 2020 — and not just because Hot Priest was a much-needed distraction from reality. Pheobe Waller-Bridge's masterpiece intoxicated me because of the grief bubbling under the surface of every moment of the show. Her exploration of how people handle rock bottom turned her limited series into a source of both escapism and reflection, bringing me joy and forcing me to contemplate the struggles real people were facing each day. "Fleabag" is ultimately a show about finding hope after it seems all is lost; what better message could there be for this year? — Samantha Grindell, junior reporter

"Gilmore Girls" (The WB/CW, 2000)

In March, back living with parents for the first time in years, my sister and I started watching "Gilmore Girls." She'd watched them all before, but I somehow never had. I didn't really know what I was getting myself into, but it turned out to be the perfect comfort throughout this strange year — funny, wholesome, and silly without being stupid. I often find rewatching beloved films and programs from childhood offer the most comfort ("Friends," I'm looking at you), but "Gilmore Girls" is such a warm series that almost immediately feels familiar.  — Rachel Hosie, senior lifestyle reporter

"The O.C." (Fox, 2003)

In a year where the future seemed so uncertain, it made sense — in my brain, anyway — to retreat to the past. And so I went back to one of the first drama shows I fell in love with: "The O.C." It was like falling backwards into my early teenage years, only this time I was able to fully appreciate just how wild the plot twists are in the show and laugh harder at the meta-writing about socialite-rich-kid-problems. "The O.C." is nostalgic, escapist TV at its finest. Everyone should go get lost in it (and stare in awe at the very 2000s fashion trends). — Kim Renfro, entertainment correspondent

"Industry" (HBO, 2020)

HBO's "Industry" — a show about young graduates working at a cutthroat London-based bank — is a weird mix between a teen drama like "Skins," a contemporary adult drama like "Mad Men," and vapid reality TV like "Love Island." On paper, it shouldn't work, but the result is an odd and thrilling eight-hour ride that provides the perfect weekend escapism." — Zac Ntim, entertainment fellow

"New Girl" (Fox, 2011)

Similar to other sitcoms, "New Girl" was a great show to watch if you were seeking a feel-good series to take your mind of real-world stress. Yes, it's a series about 30-somethings navigating relationships, but more than that, it's a show grounded in a group of friends who are always there for each other in the happy moments and the curve-balls that life often throws. And in 2020, that message of the importance of friendship deeply resonated with me. — Olivia Singh, entertainment reporter

"Black-ish" (ABC, 2014)

My favorite show of 2020 was "Black-ish." It's definitely not a new show, having premiered back in 2014, but it's absolutely delightful. The cast is all phenomenal, but Tracee Ellis Ross is a standout as Dr. Rainbow Johnson and so is Marcus Scribner as the family's eldest son, Junior. It's a true family-centric comedy with not only your standard life lessons about parenting and growing up, but important conversations on race, gender, and intersectionality. — Megan Willett, executive editor

"Devs" (FX on Hulu, 2020)

"Devs" was my first quarantine binge, and it makes for perfect end-of-the-world TV. The story is wholly engrossing, unraveling in shocking, but consistent doses, and serves as a great distraction from our own fraying reality. It also has a wonderful sci-fi narrative that expounds on the growing power of Big Tech, which gives you something else to worry about momentarily. — Benjamin Goggin, digital culture editor 

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" (Nickelodeon, 2005)

This was the first time I did a full watch of "Avatar" and I absolutely loved it. Against the backdrop of such a horrible year, it was so satisfying to see Aang and his friends overcome the odds and save the world from the Fire Nation — it honestly made me forget about everything going on in the real world. Additionally, the soundtrack goes unnecessarily hard and I loved how the show subtly gave viewers lessons on issues like inclusivity and environmentalism. It was a serene world to escape to each night and I only wish there were more episodes. — Max Kalnitz, editorial fellow

"The Good Lord Bird" (Showtime, 2020)

Two months after the release of the trailer for "Good Lord Bird," I visited Harpers Ferry with my boyfriend. It's a gorgeous area — but the show's portrayal brings the old town to life. Ethan Hawke's performance as the "radical" John Brown is shocking and attention-holding. By the end of the first episode, I found myself rooting for him, and in the end heartbroken by his demise. This portrayal of American history has fictitious elements, with Henry being a character that wasn't actually there, but it is interesting and even comedic at times. The constant banter allowed me to laugh after watching serious and suspenseful scenes — a moment of relief because I don't like suspense. The show is about Brown's plan to push Americans into recognizing the inhumane practices of chattel slavery, as well as justice and allyship. And considering this year's racial reckoning, as so many call it, the writing and performance left me thinking about how far we've come but should remind us all of how far we have to go. — Bria Overs, special projects associate editor

"Cable Girls" (Netflix, 2017)

When I started "Cable Girls" back in 2017, I watched the entire first season in one day, and it has not let me down ever since. By the time the second half of the final season was released in July, I had already forgotten most of the ridiculous dramatic plot points from early on because there was always something new, shocking, and gripping to dive into. I have truly never gasped so much watching a TV show in my life. If you're looking for extravagant escapism and beautiful actors to fawn over, this is the one. — Fiona Clair, associate freelance editor

"Glee" (Fox, 2009)

I haven't watched "Glee" since it came out years ago, and it's been really interesting to appreciate it in retrospect as the campy milestone in pop culture it is. It's so light and, at times, it's genuinely funny (although a few moments are still very cringe-worthy). Also, wow, some of the outfits on this show will surely take anyone's mind off what's going on in the world. — Paige DiFiore, freelance editor

"Warrior" (Cinemax/HBO Max, 2019)

The pandemic gave me some time to catch up on shows I may have missed or wasn't familiar with. Cinemax's "Warrior," which just wrapped up a spectacular second season, is one of the best under-watched shows you can seek out right now. The series, from Jonathan Tropper and executive produced by Lee's daughter, Shannon Lee, has some of the best choreographed scenes you'll see on TV.  Chen Tang, who joined the series on season two, told Insider he and the cast perform most of their own stunts. A huge continuous fight scene late in season two rivals some of the work you'd see in a big-budget "Game of Thrones" battle. Kirsten Acuna, entertainment correspondent

"The Legend of Korra" (Nickelodeon, 2012)

"The Legend of Korra" was the perfect, albeit messy sequel to "Avatar."  Similar to how its predecessor promoted themes of inclusivity and activism, the same-sex relationship between Korra and Asami was groundbreaking for a cartoon and paved the way for more obvious queer characters in subsequent cartoons. Arguably the show's strongest offering is its star-studded lineup of characters (and voice actors) who I found myself falling in love with even more than the original Team Avatar. — Max Kalnitz, editorial fellow

"The Boys" (Amazon Prime Video, 2019)

"The Boys" was one of the buzziest shows when it premiered in 2019, but garnered even more attention when season two was released this year. Perhaps in a year completely devoid of new Marvel movies, people needed superhero content to fill that void. Based on a comic-book series of the same name, it's an unapologetic, gory, and flat-out diabolical look at a fictional world in which superheroes are far from the admirable people they appear to be. It's refreshing, shocking, and, oftentimes, scarily similar to real-world events. — Olivia Singh, entertainment reporter

"Catastrophe" (Amazon Prime Video, 2015)

"Catastrophe" was so amazing that I wish I could keep experiencing it for the first time all over again. Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney's characters were so perfectly matched, and their absurd chemistry made me excited to find romance in a post-pandemic world. The show made me laugh and cry in equal parts, and demonstrated a complex marriage, full of fights and drama and love and passion and boredom. It somehow made this 20-something look forward to a future with a screaming husband and screaming baby. — Rachel Greenspan, digital culture reporter

"Family Reunion" (Netflix, 2019)

One evening after work I was looking for something I could watch with my 10-year-old brother, and came across "Family Reunion." We had already been watching "Sister Sister" together, so my brother instantly recognized Tia Mowry. I've always wanted my little brother to connect with his Blackness in a way that was comfortable to him. Watching "Family Reunion" has been an amazing way for my brother to ask questions about Black history and understanding various topics like racism and colorism. I remember crying a little after he said how much he loved watching the episodes and going on to read about different figures they would discuss in the show. — Melchi Anyinsah-Bondzie, lifestyle fellow

"Love Island" (ITV, 2015)

When the lockdown first hit New York, I was in the middle of season six of "Love Island UK" — one of my favorite shows. And it was weirdly soothing to watch these beautiful British people falling in love while having no contact with the outside world. Their three-story villa in South Africa wasn't exactly the same as the tiny East Village apartment I was quarantining in, but at least I didn't have to feel jealous about them being at a bar or restaurant. Plus, the romances, love stories, and daily drama kept me entertained for hours and hours. — Anneta Konstantinides, senior lifestyle reporter

"What We Do in the Shadows" (FX, 2019)

I have told everyone in my life to watch this show. It's somehow better than the movie, which was brilliant enough on its own. I love a moody show about the human condition — see my entry for "The Leftovers" — but laughing like a maniac was also a necessary activity this year. "What We Do In The Shadows" made that happen and then some. From an episode in which the main characters take a thousand-year-old super vampire out for a night in Staten Island to a stellar cameo from Mark Hamill to a weirdly endearing relationship between a vampire and his familiar, I cannot recommend this show highly enough. Go watch it. — Sophie Kleeman, essays and features editor

"The Boulet Brothers' Dragula" (Netflix, 2016)

This alternative drag competition is a delightful mix of horror chic and campy fun. The contestants are incredibly talented, and episode themes like "Old West Ghost Town" or "80s Slasher Movie" allow for scary-sexy aesthetics straight from your most glamorous nightmares. There's also a hefty dose of fun, catty drama and an even bigger theme of queer community and personal growth. I don't know how a show with leather daddy werewolves and burlesque Cenobites manages to be heartwarming, but it worked for me. — Gabbby Landsverk, health, nutrition and fitness reporter

"The Real Housewives of Potomac" (Bravo, 2016)

Admittedly, I love most shows in the "Real Housewives" franchise, but one that stood above the rest during this dreadful year was "The Real Housewives of Potomac." And I'm not sure if it's because I'm a native of Maryland, where they film the hit Bravo reality show centered on seven women living in the suburbs, or because of this season's salacious plot points — from the winery fight to the receipt book at the reunion — but every Sunday night, it was a much needed escape from the real world. Thank you, Bravo! — Joi-Marie McKenzie, deputy entertainment editor

"Younger" (TV Land, 2015)

I'm a proud fan of rom-coms and of Darren Star — known for creating "Sex and the City" and "Emily in Paris" — but somehow had never gotten into "Younger" before this year. When I started it sometime in the fall, it didn't take long for me to get hooked. The narrative and setting transported me right back to pre-pandemic life in Brooklyn's Williamsburg neighborhood, where I first lived in New York City. I also instantly found myself wrapped up in the characters' fun wardrobes, sticky situations, and far-fetched-but-hilarious office drama. I haven't watched Hilary Duff onscreen since "The Lizzie McGuire Movie," so it was also delightful and somewhat nostalgic to watch a show starring her. — Darcy Schild, junior lifestyle reporter

"The Great British Baking Show" (Channel 4, 2010)

As a Brit myself (who moved to the US when I was six) there is truly no show more comforting than "Bake Off." Noel Fielding and new host Matt Lucas are hilarious and the baking mishaps never fail to make me laugh or gasp. The over-saturation and cheery nature of the show are just what I needed in the dark abyss that was 2020. — Erin McDowell, junior distributed content reporter

"Dark" (Netflix, 2017)

The German sci-fi show "Dark" consumed me in a way few things could this year, all because of its haunting central theme: time. As I watched the cast of Jantje Friese‎ and Ronny Schalk's series try to escape their inevitable futures, their desperation to warn their past selves about the dangers ahead felt achingly familiar. But unlike in real life, "Dark" manages to find a happy ending, giving me a much-needed dose of hope in an unimaginably tough year. — Samantha Grindell, junior reporter

"Fuller House" (Netflix, 2016)

The final episodes of "Fuller House" were extremely cathartic for me at the start of the pandemic. I didn't care how corny or cheesy it was. I grew up watching the original series and, when lockdown started in March and I was 3,000 miles away from family, the Netflix series provided me with a dose of something light-hearted and familiar that could cheer me up. After bingeing the screeners, series star Candace Cameron Bure told me she considered canceling interviews before speaking with me. She didn't know if her show mattered in light of what was going on in the world. I told her the show's positive outlook and pertinent life lessons on unity, self-identity, and blended families may be a great comfort right now to other fans who may be returning home now to fuller homes. Kirsten Acuna, entertainment correspondent

"Buffy the Vampire Slayer" (The WB, 1997)

Season five of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" ends with Sarah Michelle Gellar's character saying, "The hardest thing in this world is to live in it," and I found that to be especially true in 2020. Thankfully, the '90s classic gave me a much-needed reprieve from the world this year. The first few seasons made me laugh when reality felt grim, and episodes like "Hush" gave me hope when I was most worried about the pandemic. Even on the darkest days, Buffy was there — the entirety of season six, for example, helped me understand my depression. I've watched BTVS before, and I'll probably watch it countless times again, but there was something special, calm, and comforting about watching the show in 2020. — Amanda Krause, lifestyle reporter

"Parks and Recreation" (NBC, 2009)

In the unspoken competition between "The Office" and "Parks and Recreation," I almost always pick the former. However, in the months leading up to the election, that changed. I went back to "Parks and Rec" for my third watch and the show brought me a strange sense of comfort — something I hadn't felt before. Watching a hopelessly optimistic government employee was oddly comforting. Enveloped by my general angst and anxiety, I always found Leslie's perkiness annoying. But her attitude and outlook towards her extremely menial job (at first!) felt like the weighted blanket I needed to rescue me from 2020 for 21 or so odd minutes. — Debanjali Bose, associate lifestyle editor

"Queer Eye" (Netflix, 2018)

This show has been a light in the darkness during quarantine. As someone who last watched the show way back when it was called "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," it's really nice to see how the Fab Five have completely diversified who gets on the show. I also love how the show has reimagined the concept of a makeover by honoring each contestant's unique personality — not trying to change who they are, but rather just encouraging them to improve their most intimate relationships, both with themselves, and their closest family and friends. Yes! Something to cheer for in 2020. — Hilary Brueck, senior science and health reporter

"Insecure" (HBO, 2016)

By nature of my job, I get a lot of TV screeners, and I can never manage to watch all of them. But as soon as new episodes of "Insecure" arrived in my inbox this summer, my husband and I binged them all. "Insecure" always manages to sink me right into stories of friendship, and love, and the pain that comes with moving into a new phase of life. It's also beautifully shot, with gorgeous costumes I wish I could own. Few other shows this year felt as easy and enjoyable to binge through this year — I just wish there was more of it. — Kim Renfro, entertainment correspondent

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