With lockdowns and travel restrictions throughout 2020, we’ve all probably watched more content than ever before. Fortunately, the industry has been in fine form and delivered an array of fantastic programming across the genres. Here are our favourite shows, as picked by TBI’s team.
Top show: Better Call Saul S5 (AMC, Netflix)
There’s been much made of Netflix’s increasing tendency to end shows after only a couple of seasons but fortunately, while Better Call Saul might be on the world’s biggest streamer in various countries outside of the US, commissioner AMC has had the foresight to let this epic run to 50 episodes and counting. The result is a spin-off that’s become better than the original.
The rich, layered character profiles taken from Breaking Bad continue to be transformed, painted and perfected in minute detail to provide a depth and intricacy that few other shows can compete with, while the overarching story whistles along in this fifth season. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy McGill evolves into titular Saul Goodman, while Kim Wexler – played by the utterly fantastic Rhea Seehorn – faces her own existential crises, ably supported by fixer Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks) and Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). A sixth and final season is in the works, which I only hope can maintain the standard. This is shocking, funny, sad and utterly engaging drama at its very best.
Top show: The Mandalorian, S2 (Disney+)
I enjoy intricate narratives and eye-opening factual content as much as the next person, but sometimes I just want to unwind with a sci-fi western about an intergalactic bounty hunter fighting space monsters and stormtroopers.
As well as the obvious lure for a Star Wars fan like myself of travelling to live-action corners of a galaxy far, far away without having to take a trip to the cinema, The Mandalorian manages to pull off a tricky balance – marrying a satisfying seasonal narrative with largely episodic stories that feel very much like the kind of adventure shows I grew up on.
Pedro Pascal (and his stunt double, one assumes) does a terrific job as the titular ‘Mando’, a man of few words who almost never takes off his helmet, instead managing to speak volumes with a tilt of the head.
This is not the grandiose fate-of-the-galaxy stakes that you’ll find in most of the big-screen Star Wars offerings, but a smaller ‘Lone Wolf and Cub’ tale of a wandering warrior and the child/small green alien he decides to adopt. This second season has pulled in fan-favourite characters and delved a little more into the familiar mystical side of the franchise, but showrunner Jon Favreau has stayed on target and shown that when it comes to telling self-contained, original small-screen Star Wars tales, he is the force to be reckoned with.
Top show: Schitt’s Creek (CBC, Pop TV)
Initially on the list of things I have been meaning to check out but put off by a questionable name (see also Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and the band Car Seat Headrest), Schitt’s Creek has been a wonderful ray of sunshine and positivity in what has been a tough and challenging year for everyone.
Built from a simple sitcom premise of a rich family who lose everything and have to start over again in a rural town, over six seasons the show has grown to be one of my all-time favorites – with a winning mix of heart and humour permeating the whole show. I binged every episode this summer on Netflix (well… what else was there to do?), with the final series rightfully earning plaudits from critics and awards judging panels alike, including a win at TBI’s very own Content Innovation Awards.
Top show: Mrs America (Hulu)
In a year that’s offered more TV watching opportunities than any before, I’ve been escaping lockdown by catching up on some darkly comic shows from recent years, that for one reason or another passed me by, with the outstanding Succession and the outrageous Sally4Ever to name but two.
2020 delivered some notable treats with the compelling The Queen’s Gambit, the evocative Normal People and the scandalous The Trial Of Christine Keeler. However, my favourite show this year was Mrs America, the fascinating story of Phyllis Schlafly and her band of conservative ‘housewives’ determinedly battling the 1970s US feminist elite in an attempt to prevent the equal rights amendment from being passed in the US.
A fantastic ensemble cast led by Cate Blanchett, played a roll call of names from the American feminist struggle. Each episode focused on a particular character, allowing the story to be told from both sides of the argument without overly-vilifying potentially polarising figures. Combined with great topicality – when eyes were turning Westwards to the US elections – Mrs America shone a light on the many struggles for equality that continue to beset us.
Top show: Normal People (BBC)
I associate this show with the beginning of lockdown and it offered the perfect way to escape all the news about the virus. So beautifully shot and we got right into the intimacy of the two main actors, to a point where we almost felt like we were intruding at times. Raw and beautiful. There were two other stand-outs for me this year as well. The Last Dance (Netflix) was a great series to dive into at the beginning of lockdown, albeit in a very different style. It was riveting and I loved it from beginning to end. Then there was Escape At Dannemora (Sky) – it is my most recent favourite show, almost purely based on the fascinating character of Joyce, played so magnificently by Patricia Arquette. Totally mesmerising and I always like a series based on true events.
Top show: I May Destroy You (BBC)
What can I say, where do I start… this show was incredibly raw, vivid, well written and well produced. Another Michaela Coel masterpiece, it follows the story of Londoner Arabella as she experiences a traumatic event on a night off while trying to escape the pressure of writing a novel to deadline. What follows is her journey and the journey of her friends. It touches on themes of sexual assault, racism, being a millennial and dual nationality. It was truly an unforgettable series – never have I seen a depiction of London so authentic on British television as a black British woman (of Ghanaian descent much like the main character). 10 out of 10 for me.
Top show: The Marvelous Mrs Maisel (Amazon Prime Video)
The Marvelous Mrs Maisel proved to be perfect Covid-19 lockdown viewing. We watched all three seasons over the autumn. Season three, which I count as this year’s offering, wasn’t always the strongest – the world could have done without Abe Weissman’s dalliance with the Beatniks – but the effect of the series as a whole was to transport you to an entirely fictional but perfectly realised poster-bright fantasy of late ‘50s Americana. Driven by a charismatic lead performance and – despite occasional missteps and anachronisms – a generally top-notch script, Mrs Maisel delivered a high-spirited escapist treat in a generally depressing year.
Deputy editor, DTVE
Top show: Devs (Hulu, FX, BBC)
In a similar way to how Twin Peaks: The Return blurred the lines between television and cinema in 2017, Devs is the holistic and unified vision of filmmaker Alex Garland and neatly sits alongside his theatrical work in 2014’s Ex Machina and 2018’s Annihilation. Garland is one of the leading writers and directors working in Hollywood when it comes to exploring sci-fi’s capacity for diving into human emotion and philosophy against the backdrop of future-gazing technologies, and Devs shows him as a master of the craft. The room afforded to him by this eight-part series makes for a perfectly-paced watch, which never once feels like it is wasting time.
You may have noticed that, so far, I haven’t really talked about Devs itself – and that is by design. Dissecting the show’s mystery box of a narrative (literally, the key existential action of Devs takes place inside of a magnetically levitating cuboid computer lab in the middle of the Silicon Valley woodlands) is part of the fun, so excuse me if I don’t talk too much about plot. What I will say however is that Devs is visually and audibly stunning – thanks in large part to the cinematography of frequent Garland collaborator Rob Hardy and an excellent score from Ben Salisbury, The Insects and Geoff Barrow – and utterly engrossing at all times.
This is all without even praising the cast, who pull off some of the best performances of the year. A long-haired Nick Offerman is about as far removed from Ron Swanson as possible with his portrayal of a messianic tech developer who is equal parts pathetic as he is terrifying, while there is a star-making turn for the English actor, model and ballet Sonoya Mizuno as the show’s lead Lily Chan. Even Alison Pill portrays a richly complex character in Katie, the chief designer of the titular computer system.
The best part about Devs though (at least for UK-based readers)? This FX on Hulu original is all available for free right now on the BBC iPlayer.