Best TV shows of 2020
From the trials of being a female celebrity in I Hate Suzie to Michaela Coel's revolutionary comedy-drama I May Destroy You, 2020 has been awash with incredible TV
It’s always hard to think of celebrities having it tough, their fame and privilege often being a model for aspiration. But this anxiety-fuelled drama from Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble reveals a side of female celebrity that's rarely seen.
When Suzie Pickles (Piper), who became famous as a teenager, is the victim of a leaking scandal everything jumbles into a psychological mess. It opens a world of strict moral and gender-related expectations that are impossible to follow completely. She’s alienated both personally and professionally, but tries to find a way through.Read more ...
A perfect entrance into second-wave feminism, Mrs America examines the fight for the Equal Rights Amendment to be passed in 70s America. This law would allow gender equality throughout the US, removing all societal distinction. Predictably, a lot of men were opposed to the ERA, but many women were also against it. That’s where Phyllis Schlafly comes in, as head of the anti-ERA movement.
Boasting an all-star cast – Cate Blanchett as Schlafly, Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan – this rock 'n' roll, political drama is apt for our times.Read more ...
Since Interrailing isn’t really on the cards during this pandemic period, Us provides a much-needed, continental escape.
Based on the excellent novel by David Nicholls, the story follows the middle-aged, middle-class husband-and-father Douglas (Tom Hollander) whose wife Connie (Saskia Reeves) tells him, politely, that their marriage is over. In a final effort to save his family, Douglas pursues plans to take a trip around Europe with Connie and their apathetic son Albie (Tom Taylor). Mixing wonderful humour with delicate drama, Us is an understated treasure.Read more ...
One of the most controversial series of the year, many found the embellishments in The Crown too much. It even prompted the culture secretary Oliver Dowden, with the backing of the Mail on Sunday, to request for disclaimers to indicate that the series is a work of fiction. He clearly misunderstands the definition of ‘drama’.
In any case, wherever your political loyalties lie, Peter Morgan’s lavish historical drama continues to be addictive television – this time covering Charles and Diana’s uneasy relationship and Margaret Thatcher’s rise to power.Read more ...
ITV has enjoyed an unparalleled streak of excellent true-crime dramas in recent months, but it reached its zenith this year with Des.
Set around the murders by serial killer Dennis Nilsen, the three-part series examines his arrest, his conviction, and his manipulation tactics in between. David Tennant portrays him with a chilling blandness as he describes the murders – strangling them, drowning them, before lying with their corpses in bed. And yet, pass him on the street and you wouldn’t guess. Best to watch with the lights on.Read more ...
The best documentaries change your mind on supposedly clear-cut subjects. Or, at the very least, you sympathise with those involved. The Vow takes a detailed look at one of the most damaging cults in America, NXIVM ('neks-i-um'), which had the façade of a self-improvement centre. But for many members, that’s exactly what they were going in for: to improve their lives.
Nine hours is a long stretch, but it’s necessary to comprehend the nuances of these people and how they were psychologically influenced by the NXIVM masters. The documentary follows the escapees trying to bring the cult down, and expose the violent and sexual practices happening behind closed doors. It’s easy to call these former members deluded or stupid, but the scary realisation is that this could happen to anyone.Read more ...
When Sex Education first dropped on Netflix in 2019, there was instant demand for a second season. With that in mind, it’s probably the most anticipated returning series of 2020 – and it didn’t disappoint. Bringing together a fantastically colourful atmosphere with genuine issues facing modern teenagers, writer/creator Laurie Nunn creates another ebullient, hilarious and poignant season.
Season two retains the usual, attractive dynamic between 16-year-old sex-therapist Otis (Asa Butterfield) and the punky, pessimistic Maeve (Emma Mackey), but also branches out to more hard-hitting storylines. Aimee (Aimée Lou Wood) endures her own trauma with a non-violent sexual assault, which leads to an aggressive and beautiful demonstration of female solidarity. Otis, too, has much to learn about being a good man in modern times – teaching that even the nicest of males can fall prey to toxic masculinity.Read more ...
When this cold and bleak series dropped on Netflix in 2017, it was constantly compared with Breaking Bad. It’s obvious why: a family wrapped in the business of a Mexican drug cartel. But Ozark chisels its own distinct brilliance. It’s more subdued than Breaking Bad, more cautious – capturing the banality of evil.
Previous seasons have followed the money launderer Marty (Jason Bateman) as he escapes danger after danger, via meticulous solutions. Now, the attention pans to his wife Wendy (Laura Linney), who emerges in full swing here – even defying her husband. After the dramatic turns in season two, season three takes on a different tone. It’s a risky shift, but one that ultimately pays off.
Despite having a well-known acting ensemble – Stephen Graham, Suranne Jones, and now Lesley Manville – Save Me found a gritty and horrific realism while maintaining genre appeal.
Save Me Too follows the anti-climax of season one as flawed father Nelly (Lennie James) tries to find his missing daughter Jodie (Indeyarna Donaldson-Holness), who was groomed by sex traffickers. Seventeen months later, Nelly’s still looking for her while trying to look after the trafficking survivor Grace (Olive Gray) whom he found chained up. The series is grey and hurtful, but it’s a riveting and beautifully written drama.
This delectably slow Breaking Bad spin-off traces the gradual transformation of Jimmy McGill into Saul Goodman, and season five sees the name-change (finally). But Saul (Bob Odenkirk) is still learning the ropes of the criminal underworld, and his home life is threatened.
Meanwhile, the antagonism between drug lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) and the Salamancas continues to increase. The tension in this season is among the most frightening of the whole series, especially between characters who don’t appear in Breaking Bad. Despite being a prequel, there’s still a wealth of enticing uncertainty.
It’s hard to think of a series that’s been as experimental and ambitious as The Third Day. Not only in 2020, but in the entirety of TV history. The premise is quite simple, wedged in the folk-horror genre, as Sam (Jude Law) ventures onto a secluded island off the Essex coast. The community there practices a Pagan religion, based around the god Hesus, and they enrapture Sam – preventing him from leaving.
The series was created by the weird mind of Dennis Kelly (Utopia) and the immersive talents of Punchdrunk director Felix Barrett, so the overbearing surrealism is unsurprising but still remarkable.
The middle of the series was one of the most fascinating experiences of the year, with a 12-hour live broadcast – achieved in one continuous shot – that moves through the entirety of Osea island. Its slowness lends a greater eeriness to the inescapable setting, and gives a better idea of its geography. By the end, you feel you know it: making the next three episodes even more absorbing and terrifying. What an achievement.Read more ...
The debate still rages about whether Steve McQueen’s unflinching Small Axe anthology is a TV series or a collection of films. On the one hand, they’re all standalone movies in their own right – especially Mangrove, which reaches over two hours. However, all five were broadcast on BBC One and even replaced the News in some cases. Isn’t this just another example of the increasingly fuzzy lines between TV and cinema? Can’t Small Axe be both?
In any case, Small Axe easily functioned as a series – airing a new film/episode every week that tackled racial issues in London’s West Indian community. It’d be clichéd to call it timely, as these problems have existed long before George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement. But it comes as the zeitgeist is moving and improving to a more educated direction.
McQueen brutally tells the stories of the Mangrove Nine, of Leroy Logan, of Alex Wheatle – names that should be better known – while also moving away from tragedy and seeing people of colour have raving fun, like in Lovers Rock. The films can be tough, but it’s necessary to confront the racism that slithers through our society.Read more ...
Who could’ve predicted the popularity of a seven-part series about chess? In its first 28 days, The Queen’s Gambit gathered 62 million viewers on Netflix – making it one of their most popular shows of the year (just under Tiger King at 64 million). Not only that, but sales of chess sets have exploded. It’s not exaggerating to say that the show made chess cool.
Penned and created by Scott Frank, the 60s drama follows the chess genius Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy). Growing up in an orphanage, she learns chess with the custodian – developing into an astute player by age nine. She also gets hooked on state-sponsored tranquilisers, which turn her into an addict. In her teenage years, she advances in paid competitions and wants to become the best in the world. She’s also stuck in a male-dominated game, misogyny common among the players.
It’s enough to watch a young girl prove her worth beyond the antiquated expectations of her gender, but Frank approaches the story with such glamour and thrill. You don’t even have to understand the game to enjoy the stakes. The series depicts chess as being like a spectator sport, worthy of celebrity. This may have been silly once, but considering its resurgence, that could well be a future reality.Read more ...
On the face of it, The Haunting of Bly Manor is a ghost story. But really, it’s a touching, existential love story wrapped in a horror genre package.
Writer/showrunner Mike Flanagan has tackled emotional horror before in The Haunting of Hill House, which many prefer, but Bly Manor pulls at those heartstrings and stabs the pulsing muscle accordingly. The characters, living and dead, are caught in unrequited stares or seductive romances or abusive relationships.
Loosely based on Henry James’s The Turn of the Screw, Flanagan moves the classic story to the 1980s. A blonde American au pair, Dani (Victoria Pedretti) accepts a job to look after a couple of kids in an ominous country house. She makes friends with the rest of the staff, especially with the misanthropic gardener Jamie (Amelia Eve), but is unsettled by the dark heart of Bly Manor.Read more ...
‘Nothing is stranger than reality. Nothing.’ The reality of Alex Garland's mind-bending series DEVS is a bizarre and brilliant blur of thick philosophy, quantum physics, and shady big tech companies.
Nick Offerman (Parks and Recreation) stars as the Silicon Valley entrepreneur Forrest, who's working on a secret project in the ‘DEVS’ department of his company, Amaya. Amaya’s built deep in the forest, indicated by a giant statue of a little girl that rises above the trees – and this is the least surreal image of the series. It’s as if David Lynch swallowed a book on determinism.
DEVS can be slow at times, wandering in dark visuals and dense silences across eight hour-long episodes, but the reward ignites a more thoughtful televisual experience. After finishing, the world doesn’t quite look the same.
Given the world outside, melting with disease and injustice, it’s perhaps not the best time for a Jobian journey of a man enduring the worst that life can throw up. Dominick Birdsey (Mark Ruffalo) drowns in stories of child abuse, self-mutilation, murder and rape – all while resisting any sort of therapeutic help, especially from women. His twin brother, Thomas (also Ruffalo), is schizophrenic and can barely cope on his own.
The six-part limited series is dark and unbingeable, but proves an absorbing struggle. Every episode is directed and co-written by filmmaker Derek Cianfrance, who's made other depressing but immersive gems like Blue Valentine and The Place Beyond the Pines. And Mark Ruffalo’s dual performance as both Dominick and Thomas joins the best ‘twinning’ performances in film/TV history.
Although I Know This Much Is True entangles you and slices you to pieces, it’s still an emotional distraction that can’t be missed.Read more ...
Filmmakers’ embrace of television is a revolution in the medium, providing a new cinematic language to the small screen. The extended time allows them to flourish in their vision.
In We Are Who We Are, the Call Me By Your Name director Luca Guadagnino approaches with delectable patience. He follows a diverse range of characters – gay, straight, trans, Black, white, liberal, Trumpian – in a US military base in northern Italy. The plot isn’t all that important, the series proceeding through emotion and behaviour: the structure less artificial and more human.
The series starts as the fashionable and introverted 14-year-old Fraser (Jack Dylan Grazer) enters the base with his lesbian parents, one half of whom is taking over the base. He meets Caitlin, an American girl of Nigerian descent who starts to question her gender.Read more ...
The overwhelming global response to I May Destroy You tramples on every other series on this list. It speaks honest truths and brutal lessons about sexual consent, assault and rape, perfectly suiting this more enlightened post-Weinstein period.
But it’s not all about that; that's not how life works. Along the way, writer/creator Michaela Coel writes breathtaking stories of race, gender and sexuality as experienced in the present day. And incredibly, she doesn’t shy away from the funny in the dark. These 12 half-hours unfurl with a fascinating, experimental structure – pushing back and forth in time – and proceed with a level of realism rarely (if ever) seen.
Based around Coel’s own experience of sexual assault, the series follows Arabella (Coel) as she pieces together the night before. Starting as a brief flash that grows into realised trauma, she confronts it – in good ways and bad – before finally accepting and letting go.Read more ...
Each generation attempts to understand the kids that come after them, as seen in the teen movies and TV shows of every decade. The millennial and Gen-Z groups have enjoyed a lot of attention in the last few years: ranging from the enlightening, John Hughes-y hilarity of Sex Education to the dark, depressed and smartphone-obsessed existence of Euphoria.
Normal People sits in a soft and gooey centre, capturing the warmth of a teenage love hindered by anxiety, depression, communication struggles, and silly perceptions of popularity. It’s a lighter, more natural and more beautiful touch to the genre.
Based on the novel by Sally Rooney (‘the first great millennial novelist’), this 12-part BBC Three series tracks the relationship between the popular Connell (Paul Mescal) and the introverted Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones). They cross uncomfortably into adulthood, leaving their relationship behind as they enter university – yet still always managing to drift into each other’s lives.Read more ...
It’s quite a feat to be both the best series of the year and the most underrated. Scour the other end-of-year TV lists, and the beautiful, superior second season of My Brilliant Friend doesn’t appear. How can such a cinematic work of art be so unrecognised? Well, it’s safely and securely here in first place.
My Brilliant Friend blends together dreams and reality, the visuals overlapping each other in a scenic stream-of-consciousness – elevated by the heroine’s poetic voiceover. All within the years leading up to the global revolution of the 60s, in which patriarchy is chipped away and free liberal ideas are embraced. You never know where the next episode will take you, or in what form.
Continuing Elena Ferrante’s renowned quartet of novels, The Story of a New Name picks up after Lila (Gaia Girace) is married off to Stefano (Giovanni Amura). But the latter isn’t the comforting presence he pretended to be, changing into an abusive picture of monstrous masculinity. Despite the physical harm, though, Lila continues to be her true stern and vitriolic self: fighting against the patriarchal systems in her small Neapolitan community. Her best friend Elena (Margherita Mazzucco) continues with her own introverted ways, still quietly pursuing the arrogantly irritating writer Nino (Francesco Serpico).Read more ...
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