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In a year when we needed more comfort, escapism and distraction more than ever before, TV really came through with the goods in 2020.
With millions of us stuck on their sofas, wearing the same old pair of sweatpants and wincing through their fifth Zoom quiz of the week, there was more appetite than ever as people sought out new fascinations to beat boredom and keep spirits high.
With cinemas shut around the world and Hollywood on the brink, TV proved its credentials as one of the premier art forms of the 21st century, filling the void with prestige dramas, fantastically trashy reality shows, gripping documentaries and all sorts besides.
And while most of the news this year was nothing short of harrowing, with the news of George Floyd’s death and the coverage of the pandemic dominating headlines in 2020, some of the most gripping viewing came during the US election – with CNN’s John King providing some of the best analysis we’ve ever seen as Joe Biden slowly edged his way ahead of Donald Trump.
TV, for the most of it though, did a fine job of blocking out reality when called upon.
Whittling our list of our favourite shows down to 20 in such a strong year proved difficult. Special mentions go to the likes of This Country, I Hate Suzie, Quiz, Des, Twenties, High Fidelity and some of the other great programmes you might have missed. In any other year, they would have been sure to make the cut.
All things considered, these are our picks for the best television shows of 2020.
20. Schitt’s Creek
The 14 perfectly formed episodes of Schitt’s Creek’s final season felt like little bundles of joy waiting to be unwrapped on Netflix back in May, bringing us back into the wonderfully dysfunctional world of the Rose family one last time – not to mention reuniting us with Dan and Eugene Levy’s spectacular eyebrows once again.
The finale, on which David is dismayed to see a downpour threaten his wedding day, distilled the series’ appeal into one satisfying package, seeing the Roses making the most of a bad situation, just like they had done since the very first episode back in 2015. It was the most perfectly pitched send off, and as the final credits rolled, we could only have waited 30 seconds before rewinding and starting again from the very beginning.
19. I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here!
It shouldn’t have worked. Plenty would have been sceptical when it was announced ITV’s flagship reality show was moving the action from the Aussie jungle to a windswept castle in rainy north Wales during the pandemic. But the new-look setting, combined with one of the chummiest, likeable casts yet, Ant and Dec on top form, Jordan North’s rise to national treasure status and a few wise editing decisions helped the show become one of the people-pleasing hits of the year, and it was rewarded with record viewing figures.
18. Selling Sunset
Property porn and scandalous office politics combined once again for not one but two seasons of Selling Sunset in 2020. The show brought us back in the sleek offices of the fiercely competitive Oppenheim Group real estate firm, and inside the doors of the mouth-wateringly luxurious millionaire mansions of LA. As ever, it combined the appeal of the Architectural Digest YouTube series with the best of Real Housewives to make for one of the most irresistible reality shows of the year. The description ‘binge-worthy’ was invented for this show.
17. What We Do In The Shadows
The 2014 film version of What We Do In The Shadows from Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement felt a little like an overlong SNL skit at times, but the vampire comedy really found its feet in a series format back in 2019. The show settled into its groove in series two, which aired in the UK over the summer, with Matt Berry delivering his funniest performance since Toast of London, and Kayvan Novak and Natasia Demetrio making every comedy beat land.
It’s not to everyone’s tastes, but if you get it, then you really get it.
16. The Great British Bake Off
Just like I’m A Celebrity, the Great British Bake Off was forced to jump through all sorts of Covid-19 secure hoops to get made this year. No-one would have blamed the makers of the show if they’d delayed until 2021. But we’re so glad they didn’t.
The series was the warm, virtual hug we needed every week. With new host Matt Lucas joining the ever-youthful Noel Fielding, the show managed to deliver one of the most satisfying and relaxing series yet. Essential viewing in troubled times.
15. Gangs of London
Incredibly, unrelentingly violent, and relentlessly good viewing, with Gangs of London marking the most ferocious crime series of 2020. Peaky Blinders star Joe Cole gave his best performance since the overlooked gem A Prayer Before Dawn, leading the cast as Sean, the head of a crime family who sets on a trail of revenge to find his father’s killer.
It packed more punch than 12 rounds with Anthony Joshua, and came with twice the brutality. Most importantly, for a British gangster story, it managed to steer well clear of the hammy cliches we’ve seen a thousands times before, and do something different to the kind of blokey Guy Ritchie knock-offs we’ve all grown so accustomed to.
14. The Boys
Superhero series have been 10 a penny for years now, but few have the gritty appeal and irreverence of the Boys, or half the imagination. The show’s makers managed to land a critical and popular hit, with some of the most impressive set pieces and inventive uses of world-creating CGI ever seen on a TV show.
Focusing on the superheroes that abuse their powers instead of using them for good, the second season managed to introduced viewers to dozens of multi-dimensional new superhero characters seamlessly, without any of the cliche or blandness that’s tended to dominate recent anti-hero efforts like DC’s Suicide Squad.
It could be the show to really bring Amazon Prime Video into the big leagues as it steps up the quality of its original content.
13. Queer Eye
As the Metro’s critic Jack Slater wrote: ‘If dopamine was a TV show, it would probably be Queer Eye.’
We’ll take any excuse to spend more time with the Fab Five, and the fifth season of the Netflix hit was one of the most life-affirming and fun to date. There were 10 new subjects welcoming the boys into their lives. And while there were the usual breathtaking transformations, as always, their most important work was in helping people rediscover their confidence, overcome obstacles and generally live their best lives all over again – making for some of the feel-good viewing of the summer.
Crucially, season five it was an excuse to spend more time with Antoni, Tan, Karamo, Bobby and Jonathan and revel in their company a while longer, which is never a bad thing.
12. The Last Dance
Sporting giant Michael Jordan looks back at his peerless career in this epic Netflix documentary series. The show boasted fascinating insight into the most singularly driven mind in the history of basketball, showing how the icon’s demands for perfection put strains on his relationships with family and teammates.
It was also the perfect introduction for non-fans into the history of the imperious Chicago Bulls side in the late 90s, offering incredible access behind the scenes. But like the very best sports documentaries, from Asif Kapadia’s Senna to heartstopping rock climbing film Free Solo, The Last Dance managed to transcend sport and appeal far more than just established fans.
11. Sex Education
Gillian Anderson had a very strong year, even by her standards, starring in not one but two of the biggest shows of the year. As well as The Crown (see more later), she brought her typically demure presence to the second season of Sex Education.
Season two put more focus on the romance between Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Ola (Patricia Allison), as exterior forces (and an untimely chlamydia outbreak in Moordale High) threaten to come between them. As ever, there were laughs and lusts in equal measure, and it wasn’t one for the prudish – filthy and f****** funny, in other words.
10. The Good Place
If you’d read the slightly surreal synopsis of The Good Place ahead of its first season (a woman wrongly finds herself in the Good Place after she passes away, learns she has been mistaken for somebody else and must learn what it means to be good) and you might have been forgiven for thinking it wouldn’t have the legs to reach a fourth season.
But the strength of the cast and the easy chemistry between the likes of Kristen Bell, Jameela Jamil, Ted Dansen and the inspired William Jackson Harper has been more than enough to keep it hitting home after all this time, going from strength to strength. The most recent season was more twisty and mind-boggling than ever before, pushing the constraints of sitcom writing and performance more than most shows could ever dream of.
9. The Crown
The Crown’s fourth season p***** off a lot of people, not least the culture secretary Oliver Dowden, who took time out from tackling Covid to suggest that Netflix should add disclaimers at the beginning of every episode to avoid depictions on the show being mistaken for real life events – something star Helena Bonham Carter agreed with.
The series has come under fire from a number of high-profile detractors over its depictions of Royal Family members between 1977 and 1990, namely the show’s portrayal of Diana’s eating disorder as well as Charles’ affair with Camilla. But the controversy arguably only helped to make The Crown one of the essential shows of 2020.
While Diana (Emma Corrin) and Charles (Josh O’Connor) stole the limelight, the most impressive performances came elsewhere. Olivia Colman bid farewell to the role of the Queen with her usual grace and decorum – even though she was happy to be saying goodbye – and Gillian Anderson delivered an uncanny performance as Margaret Thatcher.
Fact or fiction? Season four was so compelling we couldn’t care less.
A group of ambitious young professionals embark on a demanding graduate scheme at an investment bank in this whip-smart series from BBC and HBO. Lena Dunham was on board to direct the first episode and act as executive producer, which was billed by some as a blend between Skins, Wall Street and Succession.
The series never played down to its audience, and was happy for finance jargon and discombobulating numbers to show on screen and go unexplained. US newcomer Myha’la Herrold was the heart of the show Harper Stern, with viewers following the young New Yorker as she attempted to infiltrate the intimidating world of UK finance, with the grad scheme dominated by Eton and Oxbridge graduates.
One of the most compelling new series of the year – thank goodness season two was recently confirmed.
7. The Mandalorian
The Star Wars series was back for its second season in 2020, and when we felt like escaping to a galaxy far, far away more than ever, it didn’t fail to build on the successes of season one. There was everything that Star Wars fans wanted to see – the return of franchise icons, more adorable Baby Yoda than we could deal with, and endless awe-inspiring cinematography from director Jon Favreau.
There was also more of the show’s signature deadpan humour and intricately choreographed combat sequences – some of which make the action in the recent Star Wars films look like playground scuffles by comparison. Pedro Pascal alsp furthered his claim as one of the finest TV actors of the decade, following excellent turns in Game of Thrones and Narcos.
If you enjoyed it too, there’s good news, with three more Star Wars spin-offs on the way very soon. If they’re half as enticing as The Mandalorian, we’re in for a treat.
6. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
When the first lockdown hit, who would have thought that we’d need a documentary series about an eccentric big game keeper to keep up all sane? But it was indeed this truly bonkers and surprisingly harrowing look at Joe Exotic and rival zoo owner Carole Baskin which captivated millions of us in the early weeks of the pandemic.
Each episode upped the stakes as it looked further into the strange world of the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park, featuring the kind of plot twists that M Night Shyamalan would have been proud of. It was a show absolutely made for social media meme culture, with cool cats and kittens having their Instagram feeds flooded with content from the series.
None of us could look away as the car-crash unfolded before our eyes, and it was perfectly timed when we were desperately looking for a distraction.
5. Small Axe
Small Axe, the timeliest of projects from modern master Steve McQueen, felt more appropriate than ever in 2020 following the death of George Floyd and the anti-racism protests it sparked around the world.
The anthology of civil rights stories blurred the lines between TV and film, telling the story of West Indian immigrants in London during the 1960s and 1970s. The stories stand-up alongside his staggering films Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave, and McQueen put together some of the most impressive ensemble casts of the year.
John Boyega delivered his strongest performance yet as former superintendent in the London Metropolitan Police, Leroy Logan, while Letitia Wright was also superb as Altheia Jones-LeCointe, the leader of the former British Black Panther Movement.
4. The Queen’s Gambit
It was a strange series in many ways, The Queen’s Gambit. The story of an orphaned prodigy, who comes of age and conquers the world of chess, felt like an odd biopic for an icon that never existed.
The show took a look at addiction, dejection and obsession, and its success hung squarely on the strength of Anya Taylor-Joy’s flawless performance as protagonist Beth Harmon, managing to bring out the hidden flaws behind her character’s genius.
For such an esoteric series, it was a surprise to see it become Netflix’s most popular limited scripted-series ever with 62 million member accounts tuning in, but the success is entirely justified. A real achievement.
3. I May Destroy You
Viewers were left blindsided by Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You earlier this year, provoking important discussions over consent and sexual assault. The series focuses on a writer whose life is altered forever after a night out where she was spiked and date-raped by someone in a bar, and the impact was felt far beyond the realms of TV.
One of the most important looks at sexual assault ever put to screen in the UK, it’s vital, powerful work and one of the finest achievements of the year. It also announced Michaela as one of the most indelible dramatic voices of her generation. Whatever she does next, we’re on board.
2. Normal People
The beautiful, maddening relationship between Marianne and Connell in Normal People became our TV obsession of the summer, making overnight stars of Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. The tender adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel followed Irish teenagers from a small town as their paths cross and splinter in the years following their graduation from college.
It captured all the yearnings and frustrations of the central relationship from the novel and after spending hours vying for them to get things together, by the end you might have just wondered if they were more attracted to unhappiness than they are to one another. It left us with a specific kind of bittersweet joy, still wondering what happened to them long after the final credits rolled.
1. The Undoing
While most shows in 2020 were consumed and forgotten in a malaise of lockdown bingeing, the Undoing became a weekly event in the autumn, with millions of viewers waiting for the result of one of the most oddly unpredictable whodunnits of recent times.
The plush drama brought us the finest performances of the past 12 months, too. The Hugh Grant renaissance continues, with the star offering crumpled charm by the bucketload and Nicole Kidman’s serene presence amid life-shattering turmoil proving two of the best turns of the year. Noma Dumezweni as the bullish defence attorney Haley Fitzgerald also threatened to steal the show across the show’s six excellent episodes.
New York never looked so beautiful, even as the setting to brutal murder, and the twisty, riveting series made a bigger impact than most in 2020, distracting us in the grips of crisis. With the show released over six weeks, we were drip fed the best TV series of the year in a time when we’ve needed more than ever, and the only question we were left wondering at the end of it was – what on earth are we supposed to do now?
We’re all hoping for a brighter 2021, but TV is going to struggle to top the past 12 months, which has brought us the perfect foil for extraordinary times.
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