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The Top 50 Shows of 2020

That’s right. Fifty.

In a year that has been a nightmare of misery from dawn to dusk, we’ve actually had a cavalcade of great television. If you ever have a moment where you’re stuck about what to watch? Just start from the top and make your way through this list. Believe it or not, but there were many shows that didn’t make the top 50. Everything you’ll see below is, at the very least, good. Sometimes they’re great.

One note: I can’t do horror. I just have one of those brains where I can’t put that shit in my kitchen because I can never get it out. For that reason, you won’t see highly praised shows like Lovecraft Country, Kingdom, The Haunting of Bly Manor, and Evil on the list below. They’re supposedly very good, but I can’t personally vouch for them.

I’m not going to do the standard thing where we start from the bottom and build tension as we work our way to #1, Casey Kasem style. We’re going to start with the top shows and work our way to 50. Every single show is worth a look. If you need something to watch, scroll down until something piques your interest and then cue that bad boy up.

Without further ado, then:

#1: Ted Lasso, Comedy, UK, Apple TV+

A jaw-dropping show that should never have been this good. It was groundbreaking, rule-breaking and paradigm-breaking and still made you laugh and cry with ease. It shouldn’t have taken so long for a show to address modern masculinity, emotional maturity and turning “me” into “us,” especially in a sports setting, but this is the show that did it, and did it beautifully.

#2: Normal People, Drama, Ireland, Hulu

A sublimely beautiful and resoundingly honest show that charts the relationship between two captivating and broken people. Every episode was like a gift. It was messy and at times infuriating, but you felt every moment of the ride viscerally. The twelve episode season is so amazing. How do you capture the passion and intensity of young love? This show nails it at every turn. I’m sitting here considering whether or not it’s my favorite romance of all time. Probably not, if I cull my recency bias, but that’s the pantheon it’s in.

#3: My Brilliant Friend, Drama, Italy, HBOMax

I wrote about the slow-rolling loveliness of this show here, but suffice it to say that this a beautifully written, shot, directed and acted series. Based on the Neapolitan novels of Elena Ferrante, this show will move you.

#4: How To With John Wilson, Comedy, USA, HBOMax

How To With John Wilson is utterly unique. How many shows can you say that about? It’s one of those shows you have to sort of clear your expectations for and just open yourself up to the experience. It’s remarkable how people can see the world in such varied and magical ways. I enjoyed every second of this series.

#5: Upright, Comedy, Australia, Sundance Now

Everything Tim Minchin touches turns to gold. If you’re a fan of his, this is a must-watch. It’s one of those rare shows that, like Showtime’s Shameless, truly captures what it’s like to have no money. I binged the whole thing in an afternoon and it was a delight, especially the 19-year-old Milly Alcock, playing 13, who low-key stole the show. You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll go on a ride and come back changed.

#6: The Mandalorian, Action/Drama, USA, Disney +

I know there are people who can’t quite forgive Star Wars for selling out, and I certainly understand that. But if you love the Star Wars universe, chances are this might be closer to the type of gritty story you longed for. A Kung Fu style journey of exploration and redemption, featuring kick ass effects, beloved characters and a mournful, poetic score. This is not high art, but it’s a watch I looked forward to every week.

#7: The Queen’s Gambit, Drama, USA, Netflix

Scott Frank is one of the best storytellers working today and this show carries you away on a wave. Of the seven episodes, I binged five and a half the first night and the last one and a half the second, and for some reason, day two took a pronounced dip. Perhaps the ending wasn’t what I was hoping for but the quality of this show is unmistakable. It sounds like I’m complaining but it’s just a nitpick. The Queen’s Gambit came out of left field and was a magnificent show that’s basically on everyone’s top ten list for good reason.

#8: Brockmire, Comedy, USA, Hulu

Season 4 of Brockmire wasn’t the apex of the series, but it took a big swing on its way out and I really love shows that take a gander at a wild pitch, even if they strike out. Brockmire as a show had some of the tightest and most beautifully crafted jokes I’ve ever seen, and the cameos and performances were amazing. I love this show.

#9: Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, Comedy, USA, Apple TV+

This is a show that snuck up on me, but my god was it a blast. From Charlie Day, Rob McElhenney and Megan Ganz, you got much of the comedic wisdom from Always Sunny, but also a heart. Episode 5, a standalone episode called “A Dark Quiet Death” was astounding. Super fun and a blast to binge.

#10: High Fidelity, Comedy, USA, Hulu

I have to say that I don’t understand a world where High Fidelity gets cancelled. There are a few shows on this list that were axed, but this decision is truly confounding to me. Is it the dreaded music rights issue that has doomed so many shows? You can’t even watch Roadies on Showtime, the network that created it, because of rights issues. Hulu’s decision purportedly came after “much deliberation” but however they came to it, they completely screwed the pooch. Zoë Kravitz’s gender-flipped Rob was a delicious, dickish, nuanced character that Kravitz absolutely made her own. The diverse casting was a treat and helped the show to resonate with legions of black and brown women who have never seen characters like them geeking out about music. I found this show to be a rare gem, and somehow both nostalgic and resonant with regard to the current state of everything. The show is excellent and the decision to shelve it is a straight-up blunder that will echo through the annals of TV history along with the likes of Firefly and Deadwood as one of the most nearsighted, wrongheaded, myopic decisions of all time. #SaveHighFidelity

#11: The Crown, Drama, UK, Netflix

What can 50 million dollars an episode buy you? Top-tier talent and stunning sets, apparently. The Crown Season 4 picks up where it left off. I don’t give a rat’s ass about royals, and I’ve become so bored with shows like Succession and The Undoing that feature the woes of the ultra-wealthy, but I keep coming back to The Crown. It’s always excellent.

#12: Better Call Saul, Drama, USA, Netflix

If you were sort of burnt out on Breaking Bad and never got into its prequel, let me tell you: you’re missing out. The show has risen to the level where it’s vying for the title between the two. Everything about it is great, but Rhea Seehorn is transcendent.

#13: I May Destroy You, Drama, UK, HBOMax

I made the mistake of starting this show with the simple expectation of being entertained and left it feeling like I needed to curl up in the fetal position and suck my thumb in a corner. Created by, written by, directed by and starring Michaela Coel. It’s a show that stays with you long after you’ve finished it. But be warned, it’s not some airy comedy. I May Destroy You demands its pound of flesh.

#14: Dispatches From Elsewhere, Comedy, USA, AMC +

I was madly in love with this show right up to the very end. I’m not going to say that the last episode was Game-of-Thrones-esque in how much it ruined the series for me because at least there was thought behind it, in this case. Surreal and bizarre, to me it felt like a bastard child of David Fincher’s The Game meets the art and wonder of BioShock. Well worth a look.

#15: The Great, Comedy, Russia, Hulu

From the very first shot of The Great, you know you’re in good hands. In some ways, The Great should be higher on this list. Many people will point to the excellent performance of Nicholas Hoult as the self-aggrandizing Czar, and he was almost note perfect in his performance. That said, I found this to be a show where all the pieces were there, but I couldn’t fall in love the way I truly wanted to. I was captivated by Elle Fanning’s wonderful portrayal and there are so many things to love about this series, but something still prevented me from completely committing. I think it was possibly tied to the exhaustion of watching a buffoon care nothing for the lives of his people or watching a capable woman with great ideas be routinely silenced, but I couldn’t binge this show in the way I could with some others. Still, it was lovely and winning and solid as a rock and if you told me it was your favorite show of the year, I could certainly see that.

#16: Gangs of London, Action/Drama, UK, AMC+

My friend recommended this show to me asking “does violence bother you?” And I was like “no, but now that you say that I’ll prepare myself.” I was still not ready for the type of violence in Gangs of London. But here’s the thing: it was…beautiful? Can violence ever be beautiful? Co-created by Gareth Evans, this is a ballet of blood and pain, but the choreography was so mind blowing and creative and stylized that I found myself far more enamored than appalled.

#17: The Good Lord Bird, Drama, USA, Showtime

Once upon a time I remember loathing Ethan Hawke circa Reality Bites. But these days I’ve come full circle on him. Just home run after home run for this actor. One after the other. When’s the last time Hawke was bad (and it was his fault)? I tuned into Fargo season 4 hoping to get a Coen Brothers fix and that show didn’t even make it into my top 50. But The Good Lord Bird gave me the closest thing to a Coen Brothers hit this year.

#18: La Revolution, Drama, France, Netflix

This show was about as close to horror as I can stomach, and it only featured mild horror elements. But my goodness was it beautiful. Just watch the opening five minutes or so and if you dig that kind of gorgeous, hyper-stylized cinematography, you’re going to love this reimagined history of the French Revolution.

#19: Tehran, Drama, Israel/Iran, Apple TV+

Homeland’s final season didn’t crack my top 50 this year. I watched every season because I’m a junkie for international spy genre stuff, but the final season just went so far around the bend I felt like I watched it out of loyalty and completionism more than anything. One of the big concerns with shows like Homeland and Jack Ryan is the white savior element. Tehran escapes that pitfall entirely because all of the characters are from Israel or Iran. It was a refreshing take on the genre and one of those shows where the tension is strung so tightly that you catch yourself holding your breath and hearing your heartbeat in your ears. Lots of beautiful faces on this show, too.

#20: The Last Dance, Documentary, USA, Netflix

You don’t have to be a hoops person or a sports person at all to appreciate the quality of Netflix’s The Last Dance, but it certainly helps. Following the rise of the Chicago Bulls basketball team in the 90s, the story focuses on Michael Jordan, considered one of–if not the–best players of all time. He’s just lucky they didn’t have cell phones in the 90s or his legacy would have played out very differently than it has. Still, ten hours and you’ll be surprised how engrossed you’ll be.

#21: Dark, Sci-Fi, Germany, Netflix

Sprawling, vast and wonderous, the Dark series on Netflix is crack for people who can keep up with it. Some of us actually have to refer to a diagram to keep everyone straight, but it doesn’t diminish the spectacle and imagination of this amazing show, or how they pulled off a minor miracle to tie everything up in season 3.

#22: Stumptown, Comedy, USA, ABC

What’s this? A network show on the list? Perish the thought! Seriously, though, I’m a snob and I’m usually not going to waste my time with dumbed-down, watered-down material that trades depth for mass appeal. This decidedly isn’t that. Stumptown had one of the most fun pilots I’ve seen in a long time and managed to be interesting while still being on a major network. Yes, it had problems, and the tone weirdly shifted mid-season, but this show had promise. Despite being renewed for season two it was a Covid-cancellation, which was a huge mistake. #SaveStumptown

#23: Pen15, Comedy, USA, Hulu

So many shows try to capture nostalgia and fail, but Pen15 is laser sharp at bringing you back to a moment in time and not modernizing it. God, so many moments made me relive cringey shit from my own past, but in the best way. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play themselves as middle schoolers and I don’t know why it works so well but somehow they’ve struck gold. I enjoyed every miserable, inane moment.

#24: Feel Good, Comedy, USA, Netflix

Another show I wasn’t expecting to adore. It reminded me of Amazon’s Catastrophe because there were only six half-hour episodes, but they all packed a punch. Featuring two of the most likeable characters, at least initially, that you’ll ever see, Feel Good is like a breath of fresh air. More hors d’oeuvres than entree, but still manages to fill you up.

#25: Better Things, Comedy, USA, Hulu

Better Things is so good and honest and real that sometimes I can’t watch it. I sit down with a smile, excited to see Pamela Adlon and her great cast and then I turn it off like five minutes in because oftentimes the emotions and feelings and observations are just too close to home. (I also felt this way about TruTV’s Andrea Savage vehicle I’m Sorry, which was another solid show cancelled in 2020 due to Covid.) Better Things is a face without makeup. A whispered confession that’s sometimes unintentionally shouted in public and an amalgam of all of your fears and doubts that make you laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.

#26: Survivor Season 40, Reality, Fiji, NBC

Whaaaaat? Reality TV? Did this list just jump the shark? If we’re calling out the best TV, we have to be honest. Season 40 of Survivor was like the highest evolution of the species. I’m not a reality person at all, but they nailed it this season, using the structure of the game to ramp up the tension. Also, Boston Rob lost. Sorry, spoiler, I know. I’m from Boston and I’m not a fan of Boston Rob, who is a resident of Florida. Survivor pulled out all the stops and is still going strong after 40(!) seasons. That’s a notable accomplishment, regardless of genre.

#27: Tales from the Loop, Sci-Fi, USA, Amazon Prime

You have to be in the right mood for this impressive series from Amazon, but if you are, it delivers. The artistry. The performances. Getting to watch actors like Jonathan Pryce just kill it. The pace will make you feel like you’re in a European art house, but it’s the striking visual imagery that will knock your socks off. That’s to be expected from a show that was based on a series of paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag. I enjoyed every episode, but there were certain events, certain choices that hit me so hard that I still find myself rocked by them, weeks after I first watched them.

#28: Betty, Comedy/Drama, USA, HBOMax

How do you approach a show? Do you want someone to relate to as an anchor? Do you crave understanding and familiarity, or do you look to visit new worlds, new subcultures and new experiences? The rules, ambitions, dreams and cultural phenomena of New York skate culture are an alien world to me, but the world is presented with experience and affection in Betty. I dropped in on a lark and got hooked by the messaging of empowerment of a girl group of skaters in what is predominantly a male-dominated subculture.

#29: The Plot Against America, Drama, USA, HBOMax

Another show on this list that you have to really be prepared for, The Plot Against America is helmed by The Wire creators David Simon and Ed Burns, and based on Philip Roth’s 2004 novel of the same name. In it, we re-imagine if famous aviator and populist Charles Lindbergh had won the presidency in 1940 and begun to turn America into a white nationalist state. You’re in good hands from the opening shot through the end, but it can be a real slog. I mean that in the best way. It’s powerful, and you might have to catch your breath and take a walk.

#30: Ramy, Comedy/Drama, USA, Hulu

Season one of Ramy Youssef’s series on Hulu pulled me in so many different directions, but I was always left with a sense of wonder and accomplishment. He explores what it means to be Muslim in general and Egyptian-American in specific in the modern era, but it’s kind of staggering how well he shows how alike we all are. Families are families the world across, and while the specifics of our traditions may vary, we all can relate to certain truisms. So take a fun, intelligent series and then bring the lead character to his knees like never before? That’s Season 2. There’s not a show ever made that doesn’t get better by adding Mahershala Ali to it. Also, if you don’t come out of this series with a crush on May Calamawy, I just don’t understand you.

#31: Dead to Me, Comedy, USA, Netflix

I look at 31 next to this show and think I’m insulting the universe by rating Dead to Me this low. I adored this show and thought season two was shockingly good. As a relative troglodyte of the male gender, every frame of this show gives me a peek behind the curtain at the lives of women, and takes me on a trip every time. The performances by Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are crazy fun. Their chemistry is magnetic and they leave you wanting more every time. I laughed so hard so many times. Sometimes, when characters swear, you can almost hear the script. But in this show they drop F-bombs like a goddamn masterpiece. Delicious twists and gut-wrenching cliffhangers will keep you coming back. This show is a treat.

#32: Sex Education, Comedy, UK, Netflix

I can’t think of a single thing I didn’t enjoy about Sex Education season two. How often can you say that? We pick up largely where we left off, except we have a brunette Maeve and a newly…er…functioning Otis. Gillian Anderson’s gorgeous Jean is even more involved in season two, to the delight of all, and Ncuti Gatwa continues to do his best to steal the show. This is such a winning series.

#33: What We Do In The Shadows, Comedy, USA, Hulu

Another one that, if you love the type of humor, may be a top ten show for you. You can’t argue with the excellent writing, acting and directing. Even if it’s not a perfect overlay for your sense of humor, the commentary and character building is impressive. While I was a bit lukewarm on season one, I gobbled up season two in two sittings. More audacious, funnier and more irreverent, if you liked season one you’ll love season two.

#34: Itaewon Class, Drama, South Korea, Netflix

I’m new to South Korean television but this show just caught me right. Centered around the story of Park Saeroyi, played by Park Seo-jun (Parasite) the plot is a whirling dervish of revenge and the competing forces of two battling food establishments. Sort of. Very much a good vs. evil story, I can promise you one thing for sure. The main bad guy’s kid, played by Ahn Bo-hyun (who is super likeable in real life) has dyed blonde hair and one of the most punchable faces you’ll ever see.

#35: We Are Who We Are, Drama, Italy, HBOMax

There are few shows that fully capture the fever dream of adolescence better than this one. I think whatever show appears in this genre, there will be natural comparisons to HBO’s Euphoria, but I actually preferred this more. In We Are Who We Are, we follow American military brats on a base in Italy and, in short, it works. There’s something about the locale and the age and the collision of innocence and experience that makes you keep watching. In some ways it feels like the melting pot that America is always promised to be, and in other ways it feels as far from America as possible, in the most hormonal and sun-kissed ways.

#36: The Boys, Comedy/Action, USA, Amazon Prime

Probably the most bro-ish show on the list, The Boys is more polarizing than most shows. Either you like it or you don’t. I always battle with some of the casting decisions, though I’ll leave it up to you to figure out which ones, but despite some of my better instincts, I generally found myself pretty well entertained. It was tough to say goodbye to Season one’s Elisabeth Shue, but Aya Cash’s Stormfront really filled the void. There’s another(?!) scene of superhero murder that’s so disturbing that I still get angry while thinking about it. The show can be bloody, with a “hero” named Butcher, but it has some powerful commentary when it’s clicking on all cylinders.

#37: Bojack Horseman, Comedy, USA, Netflix

The final season of Bojack wasn’t as funny as past seasons, but the heart was still there for what felt like a fitting end to the series. It’s tough to quantify what Bojack did to television, almost singlehandedly creating and validating the MA-level adult animation comedy. There’s no blurb of this length that can capture the importance, the courage or the creativity of this show, so we’ll just say thank you and let the final season speak for itself.

#38: Belgravia, Drama, UK, Epix

I fear that the most consistent and–frankly, most accurate, criticism of Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia is that it’s not quite as good as Downton Abbey. Still, if this is your thing, it’s a fine watch. This version of the world is six episodes and feels like less of a meal, in general, than Downton. There’s some nuanced commentary on class and gender, but the series refuses to be particularly ambitious on either count. Most enthralling was the performance of Harriet Walter as Countess of Brockenhurst. Such a bauce.

#39: Briarpatch, Drama, USA, USA

Andy Greenwald’s series was much anticipated and then sort of faded away, and was eventually cancelled after only one season. I think I enjoyed it more than most people, even though there was a bit of a throw everything at the wall and see what sticks quality to it. There was a ton of acting talent on this show, though. Alan Cumming, Ed Asner, David Paymer and Kim Dickens all were great in their respective roles. Rosario Dawson’s Allegra Dill is layered, but for me the hit of the show was Jay R. Ferguson. I could watch him snort coke and dance all day.

#40: The Expanse, Sci-Fi, USA, Amazon Prime

I’m going out on a limb here because as of this writing only five episodes of this season have aired, but I already like it more than season 4 and it feels like we’re getting back to the stakes and scope of conflict that made The Expanse great. Perhaps, when all is said and done, this show will deserve to be much higher, but for now I’m putting it at 40 and anticipating a fun ride for the most realistically conceived sci-fi space show.

#41: Never Have I Ever, Comedy/Drama, USA, Netflix

Light, fun, hilarious, whip-smart. Never Have I Ever is a blast. And holy shit is Maitreyi Ramakrishnan amazing. This is 10 episodes of pure fun.

#42: Pennyworth, Drama, UK, EPIX

Season two of Pennyworth just dropped about two weeks ago and so almost no one has seen it yet. I covered season one here, where I related how underappreciated of a show it was. Epix actually has some good shit. While many a Batman enthusiast will tell you that Pennyworth isn’t canon, (and they may be right – I have no idea), I viewed it for what I saw on the screen, which to me was very entertaining. I love the period, the look and the vibe of the show, and while I have some concern about the fridging of certain women characters, for the most part the writing is otherwise sound. Jack Bannon is surprisingly compelling as a young Alfie. Start with season one and then roll into season two, where we find England all but in the grasp of the loathsome Raven Society. Warning: there’s some graphic violence/gore that may turn away casual viewers.

#43: It’s Okay Not to Be Okay, Drama, South Korea, Netflix

Creative. Inventive. Rule-breaking. Intuitive. So many ways to describe this series that is a huge bite of dinner. I got hooked right away from the amazing opening and then fell into the characters. There were clever, interesting choices throughout, and even though the subject matter is heavy AF, there’s a lightness and beauty that permeates the whole show.

#44: Devs, Sci-Fi, USA, Hulu

So what is Devs? That’s basically what this show asks. Sci-fi director Alex Garland of Ex Machina and Annihilation fame, brings this eight episode series to the small screen. I know critics were tough on it, but Garland’s vision really sucked me in. While the reviews that call out the casting and the character development and the not-as-complex-as-you-thought plot have some real validity to them, if you’re a lover of sci-fi, you can almost get lost in all of the worldbuilding. That and Allison Pill, who will make your skin crawl with her true-believer coldness.

#45: Dave, Comedy, USA, Hulu

This may be the toughest show on the list to recommend, because this show 100% isn’t for everyone. I’d cite the rather juvenile premise or the brand of lowball comedy that is interspersed throughout, but if it does work for you, this is a snort-laugh show. Your mileage will vary. Not may. Will. But if it’s for you, it may be the show that pulls a comedy rabbit out of a hat.

#46: P-Valley, Drama, USA, Starz

I was certain, I mean certain, that I wouldn’t like P-Valley, but I was wrong. Creator Katori Hall built a resonant and compelling show about women on the very edge who don’t have a social safety net to catch them if they can’t work. Every episode is directed by women and the net result is powerful. Gone is the male gaze that has dominated decades of stripper-adjacent content. Instead we get powerful performances and an insight into the work, really the actual work, of the stripping industry, and how it affects the people who collect their pay one dollar at a time.

#47: I Know This Much Is True, Drama, USA, HBOMax

I think I aged five years watching the roughly six episodes of I Know This Much Is True. Please just make sure you’re grounded, safe, healthy and in a happy place before you peel the onion on this series. It was so good. Dear god. So powerful and moving. It honestly has no business being this low on the list, but I was hoping that if you started from the top that you’d have watched enough comedy to be emotionally girded by now. I’ve written about how much I hate when one actor plays two characters, how it can feel self aggrandizing to me and jazz-handsy. This is the opposite of that. Mark Ruffalo is a master in our time. And the rest of the cast? I mean, Kathryn Hahn, Archie Panjabi, Bruce Greenwood, Melissa Leo, Rosie O’Donnell, Rob Huebel, um…Imogen Poots, Juliette Lewis. That’s just who I can remember off the top of my head. This show slayed me. I may have exceeded my annual ration of tears watching it.

#48: Barbarians, Drama/Action, Germany, Netflix

This German series is a fictionalized account of the battle for Germania. It’s kind of funny, when you look at television, how many shows take the perspective of the Romans, casting all others by the original Greek meaning of Barbarians, or “barbaros,” which meant, generally, those who didn’t follow accepted customs. If ancient history is your jam, and it very much is for me, it’s worth a look. Yes, it’s not historically accurate in places, and hurled spears, for example, don’t lift 250lb men off of their feet and throw them ten yards. I binged most of this in a day and came away thinking “super fun, bloody fights and this was much more engrossing than I had anticipated.” They must be doing something right as it’s already been renewed for a second season.

#49: Norsemen, Comedy, Norway, Netflix

The third season of this show aired in 2020 and it always cracks me up, even though it’s a bit of an acquired taste. Did you like the scene in Monty Python’s The Holy Grail where the peasant Dennis says “You can’t expect to wield supreme power just ’cause some watery tart threw a sword at you! Strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is no basis for a system of government. Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony?” If so, then you’ll probably dig Norsemen. At six episodes per season it’s bingeable and easy watching.

#50: Bridgerton, Drama, UK, Netflix

There were other shows I could have put here, and admittedly this is a bit of a hate-watch entry, but if you like costume dramas, this show may work for you. Within the first minutes of the show, the narrator voice of Lady Whistledown proclaims “As we know, the brighter a lady shines, the faster she may burn” which, I mean, oof. Still, beautiful sets, beautiful people and Polly Walker, whom I would watch in anything, though she’ll always be Attia of the Julii to me.

Written By

Thor is the Editor-in-Chief of The Gist and a father of four. He's a lover of ancient history, Greek food and sports. He misses traveling and thinks that if libraries were the center of American society, many things would improve overnight. You can hit him up at [email protected]

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