Because we were all stuck inside for most of last year, it feels easy to suggest that television took on new meaning for us—most simply, as something to actually do (inside). I don’t know, though, if this is especially different from how television normally functions for many of us; we have always looked forward to episodes, counted down until premieres, and we certainly have been binge-watching whole-series for years. But, yes, in 2020, television may have felt more soothing to many of us, for breaking the pervasive monotony or calming our nerves or distracting us. Or informing us!
This year, we watched strange-community-fostering shows like Tiger King, and streaming-service-Hail-Marys like the Hamilton drop, and considered hotly-debated twists, like a certain cameo in a certain episode of The Mandalorian. There were successful literary adaptations like Normal People, filmed zoom-readings of beloved pilots like The Nanny, outrageous and overhyped melodramas like The Undoing, and of course, the four-day live nailbiter that was the 2020 American presidential election.
We’ve assembled our picks for the best crime and mystery television shows of 2020, a list we weren’t even actually going to do in the first place (it’s mid-January, hello there) but decided to do anyway because we’re all still stuck indoors and therefore, we all still need things to watch.
Here are the rules for our selections: all series considered all had to have seasons that aired in 2020 in the US. We’re featuring brand-new shows alongside long-running shows with new seasons (though we’ll specify among them). We include miniseries alongside regular ones, and international as well as domestic programs. And, as usual, “crime” is defined rather broadly, to include all illegal activity from theft, to murder, to cons, to gangster shenanigans, to on-the-lam stories. Supernatural shows are included on a case-by-case basis, depending on how metaphorical the supernatural stuff is and whether or not there the story features some regular crimes, too.
As with all of our best-of-year content, this list is not ranked.
All of these shows are available to stream, and we’ve included those details with each listing so you can get to watching right away.
Teenage Bounty Hunters, Season 1 (Netflix)
It is a crime, the most heinous crime, that Netflix has chosen to cancel the delightful, dizzying, and incredibly sincere series Teenage Bounty Hunters after just one season. Created by Kathleen Jordan, this critically-beloved sleeper hit is the story of wealthy 16-year-old twin sisters Blair and Sterling (Anjelica Bette Fellini and Maddie Phillips) who wind up apprenticing for a gruff bounty hunter (Kadeem Hardison). Side-note, they’re really good at it. Set in the Atlanta suburbs, this is an earnest, eager show that is just as interested in compassionately rendering the objectively-footling misadventures and heartbreaks of (repressed) youth as it is invested in interrogating the legacy of the American south (particularly as it relates to religion, race, class, vigilantism). With some very exciting twists along the way, this show’s ten episodes will leave you gunning for more. And after you watch it, perhaps you’ll join me in calling for justice for Teenage Bounty Hunters! I’m thinking of starting a petition. I’m not even kidding.
I May Destroy You, Season 1 (HBO)
In the semi-autobiographical series that she wrote and co-directed, the supremely talented Michaela Coel (whom you might remember from Netflix’s Chewing Gum) plays a writer named Arabella, who attempts to discover the identity of the man who roofied and raped her one night at a bar. A heart-splitting, terrifying half-detective show, half-self-discovery-journey, it is (in my opinion) the best program of the year.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (HBO)
This six-part docuseries, narrated by Amy Ryan, about the late true crime writer Michelle McNamara’s comprehensive research into the real identity of the serial murderer known as the Golden State Killer. As much as it’s about her fastidious, impressive work, which culminated in a book of the same title, it is also about depression and anxiety—and the effects that immersing oneself in this kind of evil can have on the body and mind.
The Flight Attendant, Season 1 (HBO Max)
I quite enjoyed this big-budget espionage-y romp of a fish-out-of-water murder mystery (based on the novel by Chris Bohjalian), about a hard-partying flight attendant who wakes up in a swanky Bangkok hotel room next to a dead man that she definitely did not kill, and who attempts to clear her own name after all signs point to her guilt. Kaley Cuoco plays our Wrong Man protagonist Cassie with trenchant scrappiness, while Zosia Mamet (whose acting I always find incredibly believable) is pretty perfect as her sardonic, conflicted lawyer-best-friend Ani. This show gets major bonus points for featuring my favorite television character actress of all time, the fantastic and funny Michelle Gomez, whose face I have previously called “a carnival of sarcasm,” as an assassin hot on Cassie’s trail.
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
Ethan Hawke is great, he’s just objectively great, and so is his new miniseries The Good Lord Bird, which is based on the 2013 National Book Award-winning novel by James McBride and which Hawke co-created and co-wrote. It tells the story of Henry “Onion” Shackleford (Joshua Caleb Johnson), a young enslaved Black man, who joins the band of rebels led by white Civil War-era abolitionist John Brown (played by Hawke), who you might remember from history class led the 1859 raid of the Army Depot at Harper’s Ferry. Now, this summary might make you go, “wait, Ethan Hawk, this plot, and your adapting it, sounds a little white-savior-y and we really don’t need to keep making movies like that, read the dang room, I’m really surprised by you…” BUT it turns out that this adaptation of The Good Lord Bird is itself a knowing criticism of white saviorism, while also being many other rich and wild things, including VERY FUNNY. It is also, more gravely, a searing portrait of mental illness. Its dark humor does not in any way distract from or undermine the pain and seriousness of the story; its many disparate tonal elements do not overcrowd the mood. And Hawke himself absolutely fantastic in his consuming role, never better and impossible to forget.
Dare Me, Season 1 (USA)
The great Megan Abbot is the showrunner of this melodramatic, noir-soaked television adaptation of her own novel, about murder, manipulation, and mayhem on a high school cheerleading squad under the wing of a mysterious new coach (Willa Fitzgerald).
This docuseries about a spectacular, convoluted con really knows how to spin a spellbinding story—it yanks the rug out from under you so often but so deftly that you might find yourself gasping out loud. It is the true account of the scam that made several people the millionaire winners of that McDonald’s Monopoly scratchoff game. It’s also the tale of the FBI investigation that attempted to put all the pieces together. But it’s not all fun and games—the series is clear about how this scam completely ruined many people’s lives. I can’t think of a better combination of entities than McDonald’s and Monopoly to tell a story of capitalistic scheming gone awry.
Better Call Saul, Season 5 (AMC)
Even though it was presented as a prequel to Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul is not dependent on its predecessor for merit, even when, as in Season 5, it begins to anticipate (or even resemble) it more. It is the tale of Jimmy McGill, a lawyer tying to distance himself from his former-con-artist ways, who slowly transforms into the corrupt, avaricious defense attorney Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) of Breaking Bad fame. Season 5, taking place four years before Saul meets Walter White, concentrates on this turning point, in which Jimmy embraces his new, greedy, shady persona. It’s the penultimate season planned in the show, and it’s full of Cinnabon.
Lovecraft Country, Season 1 (HBO)
Full disclosure, I’d pay to watch Jurnee Smollett read my French food processor instruction manual (and not just because I’d like someone to help me figure out how to use my French food processor), so I expected to enjoy Lovecraft Country no matter how it turned out. The show stars Smollett alongside Jonathan Majors, Michael K. Williams, and Courtney B. Vance as posse of working-class Black friends-and-family who end up confronting monstrous evil (sometimes in the form of racism, sometimes in the form of actual monsters) as they journey though 1950s America. The chemistry between Majors and Smollett is the most palpable and believable in all of 2020’s TV romances, save possibly the one between Normal People’s Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones. I will say, though, that the monsters in Lovecraft Country really did scare me. I scare easily, but I wanted to let you know, just in case.
The Plot Against America (HBO)
Based on the novel by Philip Roth, this six-episode limited series takes place in an alternate universe in which FDR was defeated in the presidential race by xenophobic demagogue/pop-culture figure/Nazi sympathizer Charles Lindbergh, who brings the United States to the brink of fascism. This might feel a little too CLOSE TO HOME to watch as entertainment right now (though doubtlessly the timing of this adaptation was intended to have this effect), but it is really worth your time. To paraphrase Karl Marx, history repeats itself, first as tragedy, second as farce, third as more farce but this time on television.
The Vow, Season 1 (HBO)
This chilling true crime docuseries is a close look at the sinister sex cult/”marketing firm” NXIVM, run by predatory madman Keith Raniere with help from an inner-circle of hench-women (including former Smallville actress Alyson Mack). Keep in mind, though, that despite (or perhaps due to its) being so well-crafted, this series is very hard to sit through, mostly because the cult dynamics are so incredibly bizarre, horrifying, and dehumanizing, and its policies and acts are told by people who were its victims.
The Bureau, Season 5 (Sundance)
If you’re not watching the French espionage series The Bureau, you should fix this immediately. Mathieu Kassovitz (the boyfriend from Amélie!) is Guillaume “Malotru” Debailly, an undercover operative called back to the Paris office after six years on a job in Syria. He has what the French call le syndrome du clandestin (post-mission disorder), which makes it hard to adjust to his new life as a handler, a father, and, hardest of all, his regular self (as opposed to his long-maintained alias). Season 5 begins when covert information is leaked in the Ukrainian press, but if you’re starting over, I suggest beginning at Season 1, in which an operative goes missing in Algeria and Mathieu, stuck at a desk, has to figure out how to investigate. Mon dieu!
Mystery Road, Season 2 (Acorn TV)
Mystery Road, a neo-Western police-procedural set in the Australian outback, was a pleasant surprise: a steady, bracing story powered by a compelling whodunit, crisp performances, and gorgeous, sun-drenched landscapes that would have made John Ford call VistaVision and ask for his money back. This setting is strangely serene, almost magical. But that doesn’t mean the show isn’t hardcore! In fact, season 2 begins with a decapitated body washing up in some mangroves, so there you have it.
Stumptown, Season 1 (ABC)
We liked Stumptown, the bleary adaptation of Greg Rucka and Matthew Southworth’s comic book series of the same name. Our protagonist Dex Perios (Cobie Smulders) is a tough-as-nails, recovering-alcoholic ex-marine who winds up becoming a Private Investigator in foggy Portland. Additionally notable for its productive representation of disabled characters as well as Native characters (plus several excellent wool dusters), Stumptown was slated for a second season, but ABC later reversed its call after production delays caused by COVID-19 meant it would be released too late. Still, this is a decision that, frankly, stumps me.
The Mandalorian, Season 2 (Disney+)
Is The Mandalorian, a daddy-and-baby-road trip space Western, also a crime show? Is it? There’s crime! And, okay, our Mandalorian protagonist (Pedro Pascal) is a bounty hunter, and bounty hunters are elsewhere on this list so, let’s just do it. If you’re not watching The Mandalorian, why? Are you frozen in carbonite, because that is the only reason I can think of that might make sense. The newly-released Season 2 of this very fun and very sentimental show does a few amazing things, including letting Baby Yoda be a baby, and having his dad demonstrate his love in several very emotional ways, and featuring some fun new(ISH) characters who may or may not be very nostalgic. Plus Pascal’s paternal chemistry with that puppet is just unreal.
We threw in a few more shows, just for kicks. These couldn’t be included in the regular ranking, lest I not violate the rules I made up, so we’re listing them down here.
You, Season 2 (Lifetime/Netflix)
Season 2 of You came out on December 26th, 2019, which means it’s technically ineligible for this list. But since we all watched it in 2020, here’s our endorsement, from CrimeReads senior editor Molly Odintz, who liked this chapter better than I did:
Season 2 of You has everything that made the first season great—twists, turns, and sardonic takes on rom com tropes. Plus it’s got a New Yorker’s healthy disdain for all things California, as Joe maneuvers his way into the heart of a hippie heiress to a grocery fortune while making fun of every aspect of her organic lifestyle. We can all relate, Joe, both to your disdain, and to your eventual embrace, of the SoCal spirit. Not that I’m too bummed out, but really, this whole plotline could have taken place in Austin. I bet John Mackey’s kids are just as good candidates to end up dating jaded sociopaths.
Year of the Rabbit, Season 1
The raucous, innovative series Year of the Rabbit was technically released in 2019 in the UK, but it hit American screens in February 2020, so I’m including it here in the Bonus Content. Starring comic genius Matt Berry, it’s the very fun story of an inebriated Victorian detective (Berry) and his two assistants: a daffy junior partner (Freddie Fox) and a genius Black female detective (Susan Wokoma) with countless odds stacked against her, despite being the Chief’s adopted daughter.
Tiger King (Netflix)
I didn’t watch Tiger King because I hate seeing wild animals in captivity, so I asked one of my colleagues who did see it (and who asked to remain anonymous, lest they seem weird for endorsing only this show on such an illustrious list) to sum it up for me:
The docuseries that gripped the world’s attention for a few weeks this past summer has a legacy which keeps on rolling along, generating startling new revelations, crimes, and appearances on Dancing with the Stars. Americana just doesn’t get much stranger than this. The creators of the series, whatever their ultimate conclusions, managed to capture the larger than life personalities of ‘the big cat world’ with truly unsettling verve.