I’ve decided to shamelessly steal from the great LA Times film critic Justin Chang and present my best TV shows of the year as a series of 15 pairs. I love finding connections between things and thinking of films in terms of double-bills, so thought I’d try it with TV. These are the shows I’ve been watching this year that I would recommend checking out, if you’re stuck for what to watch on Netflix and beyond…
Umbrella Academy S2 (July, Netflix) // Lovecraft Country (Aug, HBO/Sky)
Two supernatural shows set in 50s/60s US that are worth watching, despite being uneven and flawed.
Umbrella Academy S1 was a refreshing take on the superhero genre, with a misfit family with various unfortunate superpowers, most of which caused massive inconvenience to the person wielding them (or, you know, caused the end of the world). Robert Sheehan’s Klaus, who can see and communicate with the dead and Aidan Gallagher’s Five, who can time-travel, were real highlights. Another strength was the production design, which made the show a visual treat. Unfortunately two of the best characters of S1 did not transport over to S2 – Hazel (Cameron Britton) and Cha Cha (Mary J. Blige). You would think that a 60s-set plot that involves the JFK assassination would directly appeal to me (and you’d be right), and although I liked S2, it wasn’t quite as good as S1. Making Klaus a hippy cult-leader was a stroke of genius, however. And giving Elliot Page’s Vanya a MUCH better love interest than S1 was definitely an improvement. Definitely still worth watching.
Excitement levels for Lovecraft Country before watching were through the roof but unfortunately, the finished product ended up being a real rollercoaster. Almost as if it were planned, bad episode tended to follow good episode, with episodes One, Three, Six and Eight being the best. The strengths of the show – the real-life history which was interwoven, the use of spoken-voice instead of soundtrack at key moments, the costume/production design etc – make the lows so frustrating. On balance, still worth watching, but could have been so much better.
The Pale Horse (Mar, BBC/Amazon) // Lambs of God (May, Topic)
Two Gothic-inspired (in very different ways) mysteries that involve strange rituals and dark magic.
Sarah Phelps’ Agatha Christie adaptations, which are usually shown in the post-Christmas period are always something to look forward to, including And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016), Ordeal by Innocence (2018) and The ABC Murders (2019). The Pale Horse is reportedly her last, which is a real shame – who doesn’t love a starry cast doing a murder mystery? The Pale Horse stars Rufus Sewell, it’s set in the late 50s/early 60s and the plot involves witches – all good things, in my book.
Lambs of God is an Australian mini-series starring three fantastic actresses – Essie Davis, Ann Dowd and Jessica Barden as a trio of nuns who live in an isolated convent and two of Australia’s best actors – Daniel Henshall and Damon Herriman in supporting roles. Sam Reid plays an unwitting priest who stumbles upon the women, who proceed to kidnap him and perform various ‘rituals’ upon him. The whole thing is deliciously OTT and Gothic and there’s a great contrast between the convent and the ‘real’ world outside.
Run (April, HBO/Sky) // The Flight Attendant S1 (Nov/Dec, HBO/Sky)
A story that starts on a train and a story that starts on a plane, both with a frisson of excitement that involves criminality.
‘Imperfect Women’ are very much a theme of this list, with some fantastic leading roles that are flawed and complicated women. The brilliant Merritt Weaver plays a wife and mother who has abandoned her life to reignite an old flame and Kaley Cuoco plays an alcoholic who panics when she wakes up next to a dead body. Run was not well received, with many people of the opinion it jumped the shark after 2-3 episodes. It’s true that it would’ve worked better as a film, but I kinda loved how it got increasingly batshit. Domhnall Gleeson (Run) and Michiel Huisman (The Flight Attendant) are both funny and sexy in their roles. Both are fun shows! Run has unsurprisingly been cancelled after one season, The Flight Attendant is getting a Season 2.
Shrill S2 (Jan, Hulu) // I Hate Suzie (Nov, HBO/Sky)
Top-and-tailing the year with two complex portrayals of imperfect women.
The first season of Shrill, loosely based on Lindy West’s memoir “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” felt pretty groundbreaking in its depiction of women onscreen, with Episode 4 – Pool garnering the most attention. While season 2 doesn’t have one memorable stand-out moment like the pool party, it still provided plenty of emotion, particularly in Annie’s (Aidy Bryant) relationship with her roommate Fran (the brilliant Lolly Adefope) and her mother (Julia Sweeney).
I Hate Suzie sees Billie Piper playing (and creating) a character who has many parallels to her own life – a former pop star, who is best known for acting on a sci-fi show and is now trying to keep her career going with Nazi zombies, Disney Princesses and a musical about Monica Lewinsky. The first episode features photos being leaked of her in a compromising position with her showrunner and the rest of the season follows her trying to hold her life together in the fallout. Daniel Ings (LUKE FROM LOVESICK!) plays her husband Cob and Leila Farzad plays her best friend and manager Naomi. The best episode is 4:Shame which features Suzie’s surreal fantasies. 6:Guilt is another strong episode, featuring Phil Daniels as Suzie’s Dad. Piper is an extremely talented actress and it’s great that she’s created such a layered role for herself.
The English Game (Mar, Netflix) // Ted Lasso S1 (Aug, Apple)
If you’d said to me at the start of this year “two of your favourite shows will be about football” I would have been very surprised, but that could also be said about a lot of things that happened in 2020.
The English Game is a Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) show set during the earliest days of association football in the UK (1870s), when the notion of it being an amateur or professional game was still in dispute. On the upper-class, Old Etonian toff side, we have the magnificently-bearded Daniel Ings (LUKE FROM LOVESICK!) and Edward Holcroft and on the working-class Northerners-and-Scottish side, we have the magnificently mustachioed Kevin Guthrie. One of the best things about this show is that the women get to be actual characters, with their own concerns and aren’t entirely relegated to just being WAGs.
The same can very much be said of Ted Lasso, which has excellent characters across the board – men and women. Jason Sudeikis plays perpetually upbeat-and-optimistic Ted coming to coach a premier league team filled with cynical Brits such as Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein, who also writes on the show) and also owned by another cynical Brit – Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), who can only be softened by shortbread. Juno Temple is one of the best characters – Keeley the WAG. It is refreshing to see such a nice, upbeat show with such a positive outlook and obviously it was very much needed this year. Glad to hear that we’ll be getting more seasons.
Peaky Blinders S5 (BBC/Netflix)* // Perry Mason S1 (June HBO/Sky)
With Season 1 set in 1919 as The Shelby Brothers return from war, Season 5 now finds us in 1929, with Tommy Shelby dealing from the fallout of the Stock Market Crash and also contending with a new hot politician, Oswald Moseley. Season 5 has been livened up with two high-profile additions – Sam Claflin as Moseley and Anya Taylor-Joy (The Queen’s Gambit herself) as Michael’s new bride Gina. Another actor to look out for is Kingsley Ben-Adir (also in other 2020 shows High Fidelity and Soulmates) as Ben Younger, one of Ada’s love interests. Ben-Adir could well be in the running for a Best Actor nomination for his role as Malcolm X in One Night in Miami. Apparently creator Steven Knight has confirmed his “ambition of making Peaky Blinders a story of a family between two wars, and by ending it with the first air raid siren in Birmingham” which was 25 June 1940.
*I’ve just realised that PB S5 came to Netflix in October 2019, so I’ve slightly messed up by including it, but let’s move on.
Perry Mason is set just a couple of years after Season 5 of Peaky Blinders, in early 30s Los Angeles. Like Tommy Shelby, Mason is still haunted by WWI. Starring Matthew Rhys as Mason and co-starring John Lithgow, Shea Wigham, Stephen Root, Robert Patrick, Tatiana Maslany, Lili Taylor and Gayle Rankin (GLOW), this season followed a child murder and a cult-like church and we see how Mason makes the transition from PI to a ‘respectable’ attorney. One of the highlights is Mason’s fiery Latinx pilot girlfriend. The setting (and therefore the costume and production design) are like nip to me, but Mason had the compelling story to back up the visuals (unlike I Am the Night for example). There are also parallels with Strange Angel, starring Jack Reynor, which is set in 40s LA and is also about a cult-leader (Aleister Crowley).
High Fidelity (Feb, Hulu) // POSE S2 (June, FX/Netflix)
Two New York-set shows that demonstrate how music and dance can form the heart of a community.
When we heard that the 90s book and film with a male protagonist using music to revisit his “girlfriends past” was getting a reboot, skepticism was fairly high. However, High Fidelity, now with Zoe Kravitz in the central role, was a true treat of a show that crushingly, has been a Covid-casualty and cancelled after one season. Apparently, the wonderful Da’Vine Joy Randolph was set to have a much bigger role in the second season, which makes the cancellation sting all the more. With Jake Lacy, David H. Holmes and Kingsley Ben-Adir in supporting roles and cameos from Debbie! Harry! and Parker! Posey! (in probably the best episode – Uptown), High Fidelity was funny, had great music (obvs) and perfectly translated the original premise to 2020 NYC.
POSE is probably the most problem-free thing Ryan Murphy has ever done. Season 2 saw us back with our faves – Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) battling both AIDs and an evil landlord – played by none other than Patti LuPone, Pray Tell (Billy Porter) having his own battles with the disease but finding comfort with one of the younger cast members along the way, Angel (Indya Moore) finding modelling success and happiness in love with Papi and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) having a brilliant storyline based on real-life history. Episodes 4 to 6 centred around the ripples caused by a main character’s death and Episode 9 took the girls to the Hamptons for a luxury weekend. POSE keeps going from strength to strength and I can’t wait for season 3.
I’ll Be Gone in the Dark (Jul, HBO/Sky) // The Ripper (Dec, Netflix)
Two documentary mini-series which follow serial killers who were prevalent at around the same time – one in California and one in Yorkshire.
I’m not that into true crime and don’t watch TV documentaries that often, especially if they are sensational in nature (you’ll find no Tiger King here). But a couple have come along this year that couldn’t be ignored. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark is a masterpiece – meeting an extremely complex case with a complex documentary. One woman, the writer/journalist Michelle McNamara made it her mission to help connect and identify the burglar known as the Visalia Ransacker (1973-76), the East Area Rapist (1976-79) and the serial killer known as the Original Night Stalker (1979-1986) and realise they were the same man, operating in different places in California. McNamara named him the Golden State Killer to raise awareness of the fact that he’d operated all over the state and was still not caught. The documentary focuses on McNamara, during the writing of her book about the case and is equally about how and why people (particularly women) become obsessed with true crime, as much as it is about the case itself.
The Ripper is a 4-part Netflix documentary about Peter Sutcliffe, which focuses on the police operation to catch him and how they made false assumptions about both the victims and the killer. Women are a huge feature of the documentary – with journalists, forensic scientists and surviving victims from the time giving their points-of-view. Wish it had been given a less sensational title, but it’s worth watching, none-the-less.
Sanditon (Jan/Feb, ITV/PBS) // Bridgerton (Dec, Netflix)
The year was topped-and-tailed with Regency Romances – just drop me inside them and soak them up like the warm baths they are.
Sanditon is an Andrew Davies show based on an unfinished Jane Austen book. It stars Rose Williams, Theo James, Crystal Clarke, Alexandra Roach and Leo Suter (with Kevin Eldon and Adrian Scarborough in minor roles). With a surprisingly racy incest sub-plot and one of the main characters being a Black woman, this is Austen as we’ve never seen her before. The ending caused outrage and it’s crying out for another season.
Bridgerton took Austen as a jumping-off point, but mixed in a dollop of Shondaland and a dash of Gossip Girl, meaning that sex and scandal is key and a diverse cast is a huge selling-point. Just the Christmas treat that many of us needed.
The Virtues (Apr, C4/Topic) // Normal People (Apr, BBC/Hulu)
Two brilliantly-acted Irish mini-series showed two very different sides of contemporary Irish life (click above for full reviews of both).
The combination of Shane Meadows and Stephen Graham is always going to sell me on a show and The Virtues did not disappoint. With the brilliant Niamh Algar (who has had a great year, with the film Calm with Horses) in a supporting role, this was always going to be a showcase of some the best acting on offer.
Normal People had its flaws, but was an extremely compelling teen romance, centred around two astonishing performances. I’ve got to mention the wonderful Sarah Greene as Connell’s Mum as well (Niamh Algar and Sarah Greene are two of the most exciting Irish actors working at the moment). With some gorgeous cinematography and use of music, Lennie Abrahamson’s direction elevated the show to something special.
The Great (May, Hulu/C4) // The Crown S4 (Nov, Netflix)
Two historical shows following the Royals of Russia and England with two vastly different approaches.
Tony McNamara, writer of The Favourite (2018), takes on another irreverent and anachronistic approach to historical characters – this time Catherine (Elle Fanning) and Peter (Nicholas Hoult) The Great of Russia. Hoult’s performance as the petty Peter is particularly perfect (yes I am pleased with that sentence) and like The Favourite, you can expect plenty of sex and swearing. It’s coming to Channel 4 in the UK in Jan 2021 and is recommended for being a fun and entertaining watch.
Thankfully, season 4 of The Crown bounced back from the extremely disappointing season 3, hugely helped by the fresh injection of Diana (Emma Corrin) and Thatcher (Gillian Anderson). Charles and Di are the main focus of the season and with the brilliant acting of Josh O’Connor and Corrin, it makes for compulsive TV.
Dash & Lily (Nov, Netflix) // Love & Anarchy (Nov, Netflix)
Two short shows with eight 30-min episodes brightened up November no end, with two couples finding romance via setting each other a series of dares – one in New York and one in Stockholm.
With Dash & Lily, Christmas came early, as this delightful show took us on a tour of NYC with literary influences, a klezmer punk night and a Jonas Brothers cameo. Better than 99% of the Christmas romance movies out there.
Love & Anarchy is a Swedish show from creator Lisa Langseth about Sofie (Ida Engvoll) – a 40 year old consultant to a publishing house who starts a flirtatious daring game with the much younger IT guy – Max (Bjorn Mosten). Although it’s ostensibly a comedy, the show is also about mental health and Sofie’s worries about her father and her own mental stability. Sexy, funny and surprisingly emotional at times – highly recommended.
Babylon Berlin S3 (Jan, Netflix) // The Queen’s Gambit (Oct, Netflix)
Two shows connected by their production designer Uli Hanisch (The Queen’s Gambit was largely filmed in Berlin to accommodate him) – one set in the Weimar Republic and one in mid-century US.
You’d have thought it would make more sense to pair Babylon Berlin with Peaky Blinders, but this is my list and it makes sense to me! I binged all three seasons of Tom Tykwer’s big-budget epic Babylon Berlin in March, when the full impact of what 2020 would become really started and almost every week since I’ve thought about watching it all over again from the beginning. This is the Berlin of Cabaret (my favourite musical) and occasionally the mostly dour and depressing proceedings will be livened up by a visit to a club, where Brian Ferry is inexplicably holding court and our hero – the restrained detective Gareon (Volker Bruch) busts out some spectacular moves. The other central character – Lotte (the brilliant Liv Lisa Fries) is no stranger to the dancefloor either. Season 3 is based around a film set and dabbles in the occult. Ronald Zehrfeld makes a welcome addition to the cast and Lars Eidinger continues from the previous seasons. Lotte and Gareon’s chemistry is the central reason for how compelling Babylon Berlin is and I’m on tenter-hooks wondering where this can go in Season 4.
When I reviewed The Queen’s Gambit before it was released on Netflix, I did not predict that it would be their most-watched show of the year. Maybe it shows just how much people are missing Mad Men. It is good to see how popular it’s been, as it’s a very well-made show. MVP = Marielle Heller.
Quiz (Apr, ITV) // Staged (Sep, BBC/Hulu)
Two short mini-series connected by Welsh treasure Michael Sheen.
Quiz is a 3-episode mini-series directed by the great Stephen Frears. It stars Matthew Macfadyen (who has had quite the couple of years, between Succession and The Assistant) as Charles Ingram and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) as Diana Ingram – who were accused of cheating on the massively popular quiz show Who Wants to Be A Millionaire? Michael Sheen continues his run of uncanny portrayals of famous figures by playing Chris Tarrant. The 2001-period details, in the costuming particularly, is a real highlight. Both Macfadyen and Clifford are inscrutably brilliant and the writing is deft in not coming down solidly on one side or another re: their guilt or innocence.
Staged is a 6-part mini-series, with episodes only 15 mins each, meaning you can rattle through it in no time. I’ve been wary of watching things filmed since the pandemic started, which use Zoom as format, but Staged ended up being a highlight of the whole year. My favourite play – Six Characters in Search of an Author – gets mercilessly ripped apart by Michael Sheen and David Tennant, who attempt to rehearse via Zoom. The whole thing descends into chaos, with the pair bickering, Tennant’s five! children! having to be wrangled and starry cameos occasionally popping up to derail things. Simon Evans as the insecure director, furiously trying to keep things going and Nina Sosanya as the deeply unimpressed producer, Jo are also great ‘characters.’ Loved every minute of it.
Euphoria (Dec, HBO/Sky) // I May Destroy You (Jun, BBC/HBO)
I have used the loophole that the special Trouble Don’t Last Always came out in 2020 in order to include Euphoria. But really it’s just an excuse to wax lyrical about the first season of the show (which came onto HBO last year, but I watched this year). Zendaya’s central performance (which deservedly won her an Emmy) as drug-addict Rue has had most of the attention. But the supporting cast of characters are just as much of a draw – from Hunter Schafer’s Jules, to Barbie Ferreira’s Kat, Angus Cloud’s Fez and the villainous Nate (Jacob Elordi). The opening of episode 3 (Kat’s One Direction fanfic) and episode 4 (Jules’ backstory, set to the Labrinth track Forever) are highlights of the season. I’ve been listening to the soundtrack all year. With season 2 indefinitely delayed due to the pandemic, HBO has treated us to a one-off special centred on Rue and her sponsor Ali (Colman Domingo). A simple two-hander set at a diner, it’s still beautifully shot and thoughtfully scripted and acted.
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is hands down, the best show of the year and nothing comes close. Coel creates one of the most complex depictions of …well, a human being ever. After being given Rohypnol in the first episode, much of the rest of the season involves Arabella (Coel) trying to piece together the events of that night, with the support of her best friends Terry (Weruche Opie) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu). This show never, ever presents people or events as clear-cut or black and white though, the notion of the ‘innocent’ victim is blown out of the water, with everyone involved making mistakes and living messy lives. The common occurrence of victim-blaming is also unpicked and pulled apart. Coel never once takes the easy route as a way out for any of her characters or plot-threads, nothing is tied up neatly and wrapped up in a bow by the end, layers of trauma infect one another and the characters just have to try to find a way to live with it. Oh and the show manages to be really funny, too, on top of all of that. Coel is a genius, I don’t care how hyperbolic I sound and she deserves every plaudit going.
Links to full reviews/interviews for some of the shows above: