End of year lists ring a little different in 2020, with more time spent at home looking for entertainment to shift attention away from real-world horror. The global pandemic undoubtedly impacted how television was made and consumed, but there is still more on offer than any person could feasibly watch even at a time like this.
Standards across drama, comedy, science-fiction, documentary and reality continue to deliver an exceptional line-up to curate to your tastes. Limited-series draw big names across multiple platforms including Steve McQueen bringing ‘Small Axe’ to the small screen. The director has classified his anthology as a collection of films, and as such it gets an honorary mention here.
Below you’ll find plenty of TV to binge watch over the festive period, but let us know what your favourites of this year have been @LWLies.
Swapping Paddy’s Pub for a successful video game venture, Rob McElhenney co-created and stars in the workplace comedy as narcissistic Mythic Quest boss Ian (pronounced Iron) Grimm. The impressive ensemble includes F Murray Abraham, Community’s Danny Pudi, and Charlotte Nicdao as the often frustrated lead engineer. One standout episode is a self-contained love story starring Cristin Milioti and Jake Johnson as developers in the ’90s that explores success versus creative integrity. Another is the uplifting ‘Quarantine’ special – it was the first comedy to release an episode filmed in lockdown – effectively utilising technology to tell a relatable, funny and tear-inducing instalment.
In a year without Stranger Things, Netflix has another teen adventure drawing on nostalgia. Rather than an ’80s period piece paying homage to science-fiction movies, Rachel Shukert has updated Ann M Martin’s beloved ‘Baby-Sitters Club’ novels for a contemporary audience. With a diverse cast and creative team at the helm, the bond between the four entrepreneurial young women is central to Shukert’s charming portrayal of Dawn, Kristy, Claudia and Mary Anne. Casting Alicia Silverstone as Kristy’s mother in the same year as the 25th anniversary of Clueless is a stroke of ’90s nostalgia genius, but Baby-Sitters Club is much more than a pop-culture wink tapestry.
Based on a character Jason Sudeikis first played in an NBC sports promo in 2013, the story of an American Football Coach moving to England to manage a Premier League team is a classic fish-out-of-water narrative. On paper, the optimistic coach taking on a sport he knows little about sounds incredibly familiar and Ted Lasso’s strength is the mix of hapless charm with cynical Brits. But there are a few big surprises up its sentimental sleeve including Juno Temple as WAG Keeley Jones and Hannah Waddingham’s embittered AFC Richmond owner Rebecca Welton who both challenge women in football stereotypes.
The 2001 Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? episode featuring convicted coughing cheat Major Charles Ingram never aired but it is hard to forget the image of Chris Tarrant and the rugby shirt-wearing contestant. Shown over consecutive nights, the three-part drama captured the feverish reaction when this quiz series debuted, as well as the shocking scandal that threatened to derail it. BAFTA winner Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen nail the couple at the heart of the conspiracy, while Michael Sheen delivers an unnervingly good take on Tarrant in one of the must-see TV dramas of early lockdown.
A US presidential election provides plenty of fodder for late-night talk shows, but the challenges of 2020 saw a major change in how nightly episodes were produced. Switching from a studio to his home, Late Night With Seth Meyers leaned into the makeshift element with recurring off-kilter bits. Staple segment ‘A Closer Look’ continued to draw on the intersection of comedy, rage, and exasperation to reflect the fraught political landscape. Furthermore, during the Black Lives Matter protests, the opening monologue was turned over to writer Amber Ruffin, in which she recounted experiences with racist police officers in a sobering but vital response to the news.
Multiple projects about the same figure is a common Hollywood occurrence, which saw two very different takes on Catherine the Great in 2020. Helen Mirren’s lavish Sky Atlantic/HBO went the traditional route, whereas the Elle Fanning-starring romp on the rise of Russia’s empress promised “an occasionally true story.” The anti-historical satire from The Favourite co-writer Tony McNamara boasts anachronistic music and language in its portrayal of the 18th-century Russian court. Nicholas Hoult is a riot as the petulant Peter III and Fanning deftly walks the line between the comedy and horror of this opulent setting.
The year kicked off with Paolo Sorrentino’s follow-up to the audacious 2016 series The Young Pope. Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII has been in a coma for nine months and the pontiff’s dire prognosis requires a replacement choice. Debonair Pope John Paul III (John Malkovich) takes the titular role as the clandestine Vatican City antics continue with Cardinal Voiello (series MVP Silvio Orlando) working every possible angle. No other show hits the aesthetic highs of Sorrentino’s depiction of the Catholic church – often blurring the line between fantasy and reality – and this ambitious series is one of the year’s overlooked gems.
Rather than a courtroom procedural in line with the original Perry Mason, the Robert Downey Jr produced PI-to-lawyer origin story leans into the darkness favoured by prestige television. Thankfully, it is far from a stale anti-hero narrative. Matthew Rhys in the titular role imbues pathos in his performance as the PTSD-suffering war veteran, doubling down on the world-weary credentials that won him an Emmy for The Americans. A strong ensemble including Chris Chalk as a Black police officer struggling against a racist and corrupt LAPD draws parallels to the 2020 landscape highlighting how little has sadly changed.
Standup comic Mae Martin writes and stars in the striking semi-autobiographical portrayal of intoxicating love and addiction. Falling for someone while attempting to manage drug dependency is already complicated but new girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie) is also grappling with her sexuality. In the bubble of Mae and George, the relationship thrives and director Ally Pankew captures the heady early days in transcendent tight close-up intimacy. Outside forces threaten this bubble, which puts pressure on both George and Mae as they struggle with personal baggage. Lisa Kudrow guest stars as Mae’s mother in a scene-stealing turn that adds nuance to the meddling matriarch archetype.
Bold and brash, The Boys is at its most potent when it is lambasting capitalism (yes, it is ironic it streams on Amazon). From the terrifying rise in alt-right online activity to performative feminism promotional ‘Girls Get It Done’ campaigns, the Supes at the heart of the battle in The Boys face threats both existential and personal to conquer. Anthony Starr as American poster boy Homelander turns chiselled good looks and a beaming smile into a terrifying image that threatens to flip on a dime. While Season 2 newcomer Stormfront (Aya Cash) suggests a new feminist queen has joined the team, but her name is a clue to the insidious cause close to her heart.
Ru Paul’s Drag Race has introduced a global audience to an incredible array of drag performers and has helped boost many careers. Former Drag Race contestants Shangela, Bob the Drag Queen and Eureka O’Hara travel to small towns across America and makeover three different residents who then perform in a one-night-only drag show. Building a community and a safe space for LGBT+ people is part of the fabric of We’re Here, which offers visibility where previously there might have been none. While the pandemic-impacted finale wasn’t the episode this team envisioned, it captures how shared experiences can occur even when we are physically apart.
The best season of Insecure to date still features plenty of romantic drama, but it is the breakdown of best friends Issa (Issa Rae) and Molly (Yvonne Orji) that sets the storyline aflame. Female friendships are a television cornerstone, but the depths Rae explores on both sides of this fight is transformative. A shifting dynamic that begins with a drift into miscommunication before a public row threatens to permanently sever this bond. Past love is explored in ‘Lowkey Happy’, a standout episode in a strong line-up (written by co-star Natasha Rothwell) that offers a mesmerising one perfect night escape.
Cate Blanchett leads a star-packed cast in Dahvi Waller’s 1970s-set miniseries detailing the vocal Equal Rights Amendment champions and detractors. The two-time Oscar-winning actress takes on the role of ERA opponent Phyllis Schlafly who challenged second-wave feminist icons, including household names Betty Friedan (Tracey Ullman) and Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne). It was Uzo Aduba who took home the Emmy for her incredible turn as Shirley Chisholm, the first Black woman elected to Congress and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination for president. Reflecting the culture war that still rages, Mrs America is the foundation this conflict is built on.
Free will and determinism are at the heart of Alex Garland’s first TV endeavour, doubling down on themes he previously explored in Ex Machina. Sonoya Mizuno plays software engineer Lily Chan who becomes embroiled in enigmatic tech CEO Forest’s (Nick Offerman) secret quantum project that could change the very nature of existence. Garland has constructed an existential mystery in an awe-inspiring setting that includes tree halos, a disquieting gigantic statue of a little girl, and gold lit cube lab. Production designer Mark Digby’s Silicon Valley visuals allow the viewer to fall headfirst into this unsettling not-too-distant future.
Ambitious German sci-fi series Dark never shies away from brain wrinkling plot twists, and the combination of family tree bombshells straight out of a melodrama with philosophy and physics could implode. However, even when an alternate world is introduced in the final season, creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar keep a firm grip on the emotional stakes. Time travel has a way of complicating a story that can leave characters unmoored and threads left dangling, but Dark defies those conventions by keeping all the major players on the board — no matter the decade (or century).
Far from a Little Britain spinoff that some readers might expect from this title, the eight-part anthology series developed by Lee Eisenberg, Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon explores personal immigrant stories that are both uplifting and heartbreaking. From the Chinese single mother impacted by a painful past who is disconnected from her teenage kids to the Nigerian student who finds joy and identity in cowboy attire, each perspective is unique. Based on true events, the struggles and triumphs depict an American Dream that cannot be defined by one experience or through one lens.
Creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle have proved that playing themselves as 13-year-olds is neither gimmick nor a one-trick pony. Season 2 digs further into the awkward, painful, and eye-opening adolescent moments that would be impossible to portray with actual teenagers. Drawing on personal experiences covering the gamut of periods, sexual experiences, and parental discord, the seven-episode run (production was cut short) is a breath of fresh air in a crowded TV landscape. The mid-season finale pays homage to Goodfellas’ long take, dials up the drama, and leaves the audience clamouring for more from the middle school BFFs.
Based on Sally Rooney’s novel of the same name, the highly-anticipated series lived up to the hype. Star turns from Daisy Edgar-Jones and newcomer Paul Mescal as on-again-off-again couple Marianne and Connell made this one of the most talked-about shows of the year (accessories and haircuts have their own Instagram accounts). Mescal’s raw vulnerability as Connell discusses his fraying mental health in Episode 10 is an unforgettable moment that points to why his profile has exploded. Intimacy coordinator Ita O’Brien helped guide the intense sex scenes, creating a safe set while capturing the lust and love-driven physicality that is central to this story.
Long before Amazon’s All or Nothing sports docuseries, a film crew bedded-in with the Chicago Bulls team during the now-legendary 1997-98 season. The 10-part series debuted in the early stages of lockdown when no live sport was being played. Even if you don’t regularly watch basketball, it is easy to become gripped by the on-court athleticism and locker room antics. Personal tragedy, triumphs, and old grudges make this a must-watch, which also spawned countless memes. Michael Jordan is a producer calling into question the bias of the series, but as a form of exhilarating entertainment, it is sublime.
The belle of the Emmy Awards ball, the final season of Dan and Eugene Levy’s Canadian sitcom broke all records with a comedy clean sweep. Wrapping things up at the height of its popularity is a bold choice and while we would happily spend more time with the Rose family in their adjoining Rosebud motel rooms, the resolution is heartwarming, hilarious, and satisfying. Love radiates from characters who previously found it hard to open up, and a groundbreaking three-storey billboard of David Rose (Dan Levy) kissing fiancé Patrick Brewer (Noah Reid) is part of the lasting LGBT+ legacy.
Ethan Hawke is another movie star finally making the leap to TV in a project he developed alongside ‘The Good Lord Bird’ author James McBride. Playing abolitionist John Brown, this is a lesser-known pre-Civil War story that tells a fictionalised version of a pivotal moment. A flawed and fiery hero, Brown’s cause to free all slaves arrives in a year when George Floyd’s murder at the hands of police led to global BLM protests. The wounds of that period are still raw and this mini-series does not shy away from reality while deftly injecting some (often absurd) humour into the historical drama.
The surprise breakout hit comes courtesy of Scott Frank’s chess limited-series adapted from Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name. At the centre is a transfixing Anya Taylor-Joy as orphan Beth Harmon who becomes addicted to tranquillisers at a young age. Marielle Heller delivers a nuanced performance in a stunning turn as Beth’s adoptive mother highlighting her talent in front of the camera. Chessboard aesthetics weave their way into Uli Hanisch’s production design and costumes by Gabriele Binder, which adds to the allure. A story of triumph over adversity, Beth’s mid-century journey avoids the cliched pitfalls of a troubled genius.
True crime documentaries often centre the killer turning horrifying acts into a gruesome spectacle. Writer Michelle McNamara didn’t approach these stories in a sensational manner and the work detailing the crimes of the Golden State Killer – a name she coined in 2013 – gave a voice to the traumatised. McNamara sadly died before her book was finished, and the infamous serial rapist-murderer was caught, but the six-part docuseries gets to the heart of the writer’s obsession and fight for justice. This is less about a convicted serial killer, rather it is a meditation on the victims, McNamara and the people she left behind.
Considering the dizzying scale of the production, it is not surprising the German historical drama is the most expensive non-English language series. Set in the German capital in 1929, Detective Gereon Rath (Volker Bruch) and assistant Charlotte Ritter (Liv Lisa Fries) are caught in the turbulent crossfires. Murder on a film set takes the audience into the world of Expressionism adding a surreal aesthetic to the genre-bending series. Babylon Berlin’s strength is that it doesn’t knowingly wink at the terrible future to come, instead, the horror, beauty, and political plots are part of daily life that is about to get so much worse.
Over 12 episodes, Michaela Coel explores the trauma of a sexual assault in a way that breaks boundaries and demonstrates why television is a powerful and challenging medium. Flashback episodes to Arabella in Italy before the attack and as a teenager add depth to the narrative that goes beyond this horrifying event in the first episode. Covering questions of consent, racial micro-aggressions in the workplace, the impact of social media, and the writing process, Coel’s comedy-drama is one that refuses to give easy answers. A cathartic finale lingers long after its summer debut, I May Destroy You will be celebrated for years to come.
Published 15 Dec 2020
By Emma Fraser
A young women’s life is derailed by sexual assault in this painfully honest yet humorous 12-part drama.
By Emma Fraser
He stars as the controversial abolitionist John Brown in Showtime’s Civil War-era historical drama.
By Emma Fraser
This complex tale of first love and friendship is brought to life on screen by two terrific young leads.