The 20 Best TV Shows of 2020
- Brian Donaldson
- 16 December 2020
Highlights include doses of Covid comedy, documentaries about war and single mums, and a profound look at a life cut short
In this year of years, the small screen became an even more important part of our cultural consumption. Thankfully, we're deep into the third golden era of television (or, depending on who you talk to, the second or fourth) so with us being spoiled for both quantity and quality, no one could ever claim that 'there's nothing on TV'. The past 12 months have featured everything from tiger kings to chess queens, idiosyncratic cops to happy ghosts, and here our TV Editor picks his top 20 of 2020.
20. Opera Mums With Bryony Kimmings
A satisfyingly moving documentary from performance artist and theatre innovator Bryony Kimmings as she gathered up some single mums to create a mini-opera about their own lives. For Kimmings, this was also a chance to give an elitist artform a shot in the arm given its propensity for violence against women in one production after another. Said it then and saying it again now: give this woman her own series.
19. Why Women Kill
The term 'guilty pleasure' is often viewed as a negative, but once you let yourself in to the unapologetically gaudy and exorbitantly camp world of this Alibi channel comedy drama, it was difficult to escape. Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry must have a had a ball creating this multi-pronged tale (set variously in the '60s, '80s and now) with a trio of fraught relationships ploughing towards a fatal finale. Lucy Liu, Jack Davenport, Ginnifer Goodwin and Reid Scott are among those clearly having as much fun as the audience.
18. Love Life
A deftly written and quietly addictive series from Sam Boyd about one woman's impossibly rubbish love life from high school days to her professional early 30s, this gave Anna Kendrick a chance to shine in a non-musical setting. Her Darby Carter is at turns irritating and loveable, and the men who stumble into her path are also far from perfect, with the acting and writing steering this clear at all times from being remotely saccharine.
Probably the best lockdown series of the summer, Michael Sheen and David Tennant played, we assume, accurate versions of themselves as jocular then warring acting buddies brought together over Zoom to rehearse the play that they will put on stage once life gets back to normal. Nothing, though, quite ever goes to plan. In short, snappy 15-minute instalments, this was a genuine treat amid the gloom.
16. Mrs America
A cast to die for was gathered up for this piercing look at the feminist movement in 1970s America from both sides of the divide. Cate Blanchett is likely to wind up on a few award shortlists for her portrayal of anti-choice, pro-kitchenwife Republican Phyllis Schlafly, while the 'libbers' are led by Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem (who was quoted widely as hating the drama), Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, and the formidable Margo Martindale as the equally forceful Bella Abzug.
15. Perry Mason
Welsh actor Matthew Rhys put in another exceptional performance with that adopted American twang of his in a highly stylish and visceral recomposition of the classic '50s / '60s TV hero. A prequel of sorts, Mason goes from shabby private eye to slightly less threadbare courtroom attorney turning the case of a dead infant upside down amid police and church corruption in 1930s LA.
14. I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel's 12-part darkly comic-ish exploration on consent had 'important' stamped all over it, with its messages being delivered by some largely unappealing characters. It does take this list's non-existent award for the year's finest final episode, a freewheeling, wrongfooting and blissfully exciting 34 minutes that left some of the lacklustre content from the previous 11 episodes in its wake.
13. Charlie Brooker's Antiviral Wipe
With a satirical look at the hellscape of 2020 being planned for Netflix, Charlie Brooker could be the man who has best bookended the most traumatic nine months many of us have ever lived through. The Black Mirror and Nathan Barley guy's comedic Covid critique provided a much-needed release of tension as we nervously acclimatised ourselves to Lockdown 1, with superb gags aimed squarely at the government, the media, his wife and at himself for being so gleefully childish.
The second series of Ramy Youssef's acclaimed comedy took the show to a new level with a collection of on-point storylines which sometimes didn't feature our guy at all. Meanwhile, the appearance of the supreme Mahershala Ali as an empathic and charismatic sheikh brought a new heft and dynamic to proceedings. It also features the most awkward small-screen portrayal of hotel room onanism in 2020. Probably.
The ITV announcer may have given Michael Sheen a new forename (resulting in the actor temporarily changing his Twitter handle to @martinsheen), but his performance as Chris Tarrant was yet another one of his trademark pinsharp portrayals of a real celebrity. Sian Clifford and Matthew Macfadyen were also superb as the Ingrams, a couple caught in the middle of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire's coughing scandal. Bringing his stageplay expertly to the small screen, James Graham made us all think again about the eventual verdict.
Spooks are meant to be, well, spooky right? Not in this Horrible Histories grown-up spin-off that was also perfectly suitable for the teenagers in your household. Series two of the show (plus the upcoming Yuletide special) cemented its reputation for the most fun you could have with your trousers on; unless, that is, you're the ensemble comedy's dead Tory backbencher Julian Fawcett whose half-dressed backstory we might soon be discovering.
9. I Hate Suzie
2020 was a particularly strong year for female leads, and Billie Piper excelled as Suzie Pickles, a former child star and chart-topper turned sci-fi blockbuster actress (any of this sound at all familiar?), whose life goes quite literally tits-up when some lascivious images appear online. With her family life decimated and a career on the verge of imploding, Suzie goes through eight episodes of beautifully-acted and brilliantly-written trauma, guilt and acceptance. Created by Piper herself and Lucy Prebble (Succession), more than able support came from Leila Farzad as Suzie's friend and agent, and Daniel Ings as her betrayed and furious partner.
Serial killers were, once again, never too far away from our screens, and this three-parter took the disturbing story of Dennis Nilsen ('Des' to his pals) and flipped the psycho-chills up a few notches. Being careful not to trample on the grief of those who lost family members and friends, this drama avoids portraying murder, focussing instead on the man behind the crimes (played with career-peaking brilliance from David Tennant) as he aims to 'assist' the police (led by Daniel Mays' chain-smoking DCI Peter Jay) in their investigations. Jason Watkins is also on top form as Brian Masters, the journalist who penned Nilsen's biography.
7. The Third Day
By some distance the most innovative drama of the year, as Dennis Kelly (Utopia) joined forces with ground-breaking theatre company Punchdrunk to create a mesmerising, dark and deeply immersive televisual experience. Separated into three segments, including a 12-hour, Covid-friendly, single-camera adventure in the autumn rain, it drove starry names like Jude Law, Naomie Harris, Emily Watson and Paddy Considine to the limits, and kept audiences on the edge of their seats with its tale of eerie happenings on Osea Island.
6. Normal People
Expected to be a slowburning success, this adaptation of Sally Rooney's 2018 novel became an instant sensation, making front-cover stars of its two leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. Frank and emotional, the story of two lovelorn Irish youngsters who became unlikely sexual partners at school before splitting up, reuniting at college, breaking up again, and sort-of getting back together (it wasn't easy keeping up), this was a bingeable and moody rollercoaster directed with panache and sensitivity by both Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald.
After critical and Emmy success for a blisteringly vibrant first season, creator Sam Levinson dialled the mayhem down several notches with the first of two specials shot during the times of Covid. Zendaya (who became the youngest ever winner of Best Actress), mainly sat in a diner across from Colman Domingo who played Rue's sponsor Ali, with both in breath-taking form, mouthing lines that felt simultaneously very real and carved with care. We await the next standalone edition (which focuses on Rue's lover Jules) in late January with eager anticipation.
4. I Know This Much Is True
This six-part early 1990s-set series based on the Wally Lamb novel was simply too downbeat for many tastes, but there was no doubting the commitment showed by Mark Ruffalo to his craft in the role of twin brothers, Dominick and Thomas Birdsey. It starts off grimly, with the severely mentally ill Thomas disfiguring himself in protest at the first Gulf War, before plummeting even further into difficult territory. As well as a brilliant turn from Ruffalo, there are eye-catching performances from Kathryn Hahn, Rosie O'Donnell, Archie Panjabi and Juliette Lewis in a devastating story that etches itself onto your mind.
3. Once Upon A Time In Iraq
Five hour-long episodes about the 2003 war in Iraq and its long, bitter aftermath might be too much to even contemplate. But this documentary series, while containing much content that will stay in the head against your will, does feature enough positive aspects of humanity (love, compassion, resilience and even, incredibly, humour) that the benefits ultimately outweigh the horrors. With narration from Andy Serkis, this series from James Bluemel (a deserved recent winner of a Rose d'Or) leaves very few corners untouched, featuring interviews from journalists on the frontline, soldiers on both sides, and Iraqi citizens both pro- and anti-Saddam. With astonishing footage and interview material that is both revelatory and moving, this is vital and heart-rending work.
2. Adult Material
A drama about the British porn industry could very easily have gone off the rails into cheap and nasty territory. But with Lucy Kirkwood (Chimerica) at the writing helm and music promo-maker Dawn Shadforth directing all four episodes, the story of fading adult entertainer Jolene Dollar (the superb Haley Squires) was a serious and brutal look at a world that is all-too accessible in the digital age. Also excellent were Rupert Everett as a porn baron with a sort-of heart, Kerry Godliman who plays a campaigning MP and Siena Kelly as the next big thing.
There was always going to be various ways to make a TV drama about the murder of Anthony Walker, a promising 18-year-old from Liverpool who was cut down in his prime by racist killers. With the full backing of the Walker family, Jimmy McGovern set out to pay an appropriate tribute and create powerful, lasting television. He achieved both through a simple but devastating technique. Instead of working up to the fatal night in July 2005, McGovern went the other way, as he imagined how Anthony's life might have turned out, the clock ticking back towards his senseless death. The ultimate effect is profound and sad, with a sensitive performance from Toheeb Jimoh in the title role. There were many great TV shows in 2020, but few have left such an indelible mark as Anthony.
Honourable mentions go to… Stateless, Ted Lasso, What We Do In The Shadows, The Undoing, Crip Tales, Feel Good, Little Fires Everywhere, The Salisbury Poisonings, The Crown, The Kemps: All True.