Call 2020 the year of the small screen.
Sure, you could say that about most years in recent memory—ever since the invention of the smart phone, perhaps. But with coronavirus shutdowns forcing so many to stay home for so long, society has collectively turned to its screens—its televisions, computers and phones—to pass the time.
Some would find it serendipitous that we all have so much to watch. More than 500 scripted television shows were released in 2019. And with the launch of several high-profile streaming services (HBO Max, Peacock and the already defunct Quibi, not to mention the November 2019 debuts of Disney+ and Apple TV+), the demand for new content just keeps growing.
Alas, when it comes to clean, family-friendly viewing, the outlook isn’t all that rosy. But thankfully, our staff found plenty of shows that just might be navigable for you and yours. In fact, plenty of good shows—kids’ shows, especially—just didn’t quite make the cut.
So, without any more preamble, let’s dive into Plugged In’s highly subjective list of the top five TV shows that we reviewed in 2020.
Bluey (ABC Kids/Disney+): This 6-year-old blue heeler dog (and her little sister, Bingo) dive into all sorts of adventures powered by their own imaginations—climbing mountains, battling monsters and teaching valuable lessons along the way. Writes our television reviewer Emily Clark, “Other than an occasional eyeroll or some mild toilet humor, Bluey is light and clean. The two sisters sometimes get into little tiffs over the rules of their made-up games, but they always apologize in the end and find a way to make the game fun for everyone. And they can inspire young viewers and their own mums and dads to play those same games, too.” She notes that the latter makes the show a particularly good pick during these stay-at-home days, since Bluey’s games “don’t require a lot of toys, people or even time to play.” A TV show that encourages you and your kids to engage in the real world? Sounds like a winner.
The Chosen (VidAngel, The Chosen app): The Chosen was something of a revelation to me: an explicitly Christian television show that has the narrative and production moxie to play with the big boys. The series’ first season focuses on Jesus’ earliest days in ministry, when He was just beginning to gather his disciples and perform a few low-profile miracles. But the series doesn’t focus on Jesus as much as it does on the people drawn to Him, be they fishermen or Pharisees. And that gives this 2,000-year-old story a feeling of freshness. Much of the content is “extrabiblical,” which might bother some viewers. But as creator Dallas Jenkins told me, the show is meant to drive people to the Bible, not serve as a substitute. And honestly, it makes for a pretty compelling watch for non-Christians, too. As I wrote in my review, The Chosen offers a template of how Christian entertainment can be done.
InBESTigators (Netflix): This tween-centric show centers on four amateur detectives tasked with solving all manner of neighborhood mysteries, from “The Case of the Turtle Thief” to “The Case of the Sad Little Sister.” Light, clever and fun, The InBESTigators is an Australian import (originally airing on the country’s ABC Me network). You can’t put much over on these kids from Down Under: They might be the best juvenile detectives since Encyclopedia Brown first grabbed a magnifying glass. And they learn—and teach—some good lessons in the process, from nuts-and-bolts problem-solving skills to the importance of being responsible. Our reviewer Kristin Smith wrote, “Sure, some kids might lie or say mildly hurtful things, but each error is resolved, and every feeling mended by the show’s end.”
Jurassic World: Camp Cretaceous (Netflix): Who doesn’t like dinosaurs? No one! Well, unless they’re chasing you, that is. That’s the unenviable position that a handful of animated high school students find themselves in when they visit Isla Nublar, home to dinosaurs aplenty (which, admittedly, get loose way more often than visitors would like). Smith writes that this show isn’t made for the youngest of viewers: It’s too scary and sometimes too violent for that. But for older kids, this adventure series feels fun and exciting without ever getting overly crass or gross.
Voices of Fire (Netflix): We don’t often include reality shows in our “best of” list, but this one warrants an exception. Boasting Pharrell Williams as an executive producer, Voices of Fire chronicles the building of what Bishop Ezekiel Williams (Pharrell’s uncle) hopes will be the best gospel choir in the world. Fire follows the beats of many a competitive singing show: Prospective choralists unveil their vocal gifts before a panel of experts as they give us viewers a bit of their own story. But it’s the underlying message behind the music that earns this show a spot on our list: “You have individuals who would not sit down and listen to me preach a sermon,” Williams says. “But they will listen to gospel music, and then they will hear the same message delivered through music that they would not listen to if I just had a conversation with them.” Rarely has a secular reality show worn faith so obviously on its sleeve.