Floating down the endless stream of great TV…
I think it may have finally happened. TV has peaked. I’ve been writing this article for five years now, and the entries have become stronger and stronger. Last year, 2019, the year of Chernobyl, might just have been the high water mark. The moment where the wave crashed and began to subside. 2020 has been a great year for television, there is no doubt about that, but has it been as good as 2019? I’m not so sure…
To recap, this list only ever includes shows that debuted during the year in question, so don’t start talking to me about The Mandalorian.
Let’s get on with it:
10. Tiger King (Netflix)
Rotten Tomatoes: 86%
There is no such thing as a water cooler moment anymore. People consume their media in a way that is so disparate, and so unique to them, that there is never a time when we are all watching the same thing. Tiger King arrived at the start of a nationwide lockdown, a time when literally everyone was at home watching TV. And for a while there, it felt like we had our water cooler moment. It’s just that nobody was allowed to gather round a water cooler to actually discuss it. And what was it that united us? This wild tale of tigers, lost limbs and hideous soft rock.
9. Defending Jacob (Apple TV+)
Rotten Tomatoes: 73%
As with 2019’s wonderful The Morning Show, hardly anyone saw Defending Jacob because it was languishing on Apple TV+, a network that has still yet to capture the imagination of anyone. Those that did it watch it were rewarded with a twisty, unpredictable plot and a solid performance in the lead role from Chris Evans. We are currently in an era in which the mini series is king, Defending Jacob may have been slightly derivative, but it was captivating and an easy watch, and for that it deserves credit.
8. Des (ITV)
Rotten Tomatoes: 89%
David Tennant has had a renaissance by playing terrible people recently, and this process reached its zenith when Tennant portrayed the infamous Scottish serial killer Dennis Nilsen. ITV have form in this area, and so has Tennant, and together they produced a fascinating profile of one of Britain’s most troubled and notorious killers. The reliable Daniel Mays also impressed as the beleaguered police inspector Peter Jay, but this was Tennant’s show, and with this performance, he cemented his reputation as one of the UK’s top thesps.
7. Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (Apple TV+)
Rotten Tomatoes: 94%
With the possible exception of Peep Show, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia might just be the greatest comedy series ever created, so it was always gonna be a tough ask to follow that up. Created by It’s Always Sunny alumni Rob McElhenney and Charlie Day, along with writer/producer Megan Ganz, MQ:RB is a hard pivot away from the sleazy underworld of the Philly bar scene and toward the macho posturing of the gamer community – perfectly captured and satirised by McElhenney’s Ian Grimm – a character who is at once detestable and irresistible. An ensemble supporting cast headed up by Charlotte Nicdao – brilliant as lead game designer Poppy Li – ensures that Mythic Quest was able to step out of the long shadow cast by It’s Always Sunny. It’ll be fascinating to see where this show goes next.
6. Quiz (ITV)
Rotten Tomatoes: 95%
Eminently watchable, and featuring a hypnotic turn from Michael Sheen as Chris Tarrant, Quiz had it all. Nostalgia. A great cast. A so-weird-it-must-be-true story. All these elements combined to produce one of the year’s most purely entertaining TV moments. And this one did feel like a moment. As with Tiger King, everyone watched this show.
The great strength of Quiz was the editorial decision not to pick sides. This allowed the viewer to make their own mind up, adding a layer of mystery that saw a surge of interest in this unique moment of TV history.
5. I May Destroy You (BBC)
Rotten Tomatoes: 97%
Michaela Coel had already tasted critical success with 2015’s Chewing Gum, but 2020 will always be remembered as the year that made Coel a household name. The year’s most well reviewed TV shows was also one of the best, with this tough to classify commentary on consent and sexual culture asking plenty of difficult questions of both its characters and its audience. 12 episodes allowed the story to breathe and by the end, it was impossible not to be drawn in. A genuine work of art…
4. Little Fires Everywhere (Hulu)
Rotten Tomatoes: 78%
Aww man, I hated these characters so much. It’s rare that pop culture has the ability to make me flat out detest someone who is essentially a work of fiction but Little Fires Everywhere did that in spades. I utterly abhorred both Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) which made their full blown suburban war all the more captivating. Yes, it’s similar to Big Little Lies and the Undoing, but then I loved both of those shows too. A triumph!
3. Normal People (BBC)
Rotten Tomatoes: 90%
Let’s be honest, Normal People had the potential to be shit. Acclaimed Irish director Lenny Abrahamson used all of his experience to ensure that he captured the emotional resonance of Sally Rooney’s novel, and for that, he shares the plaudits with Paul Mescal as Connell Waldron and Daisy Edgar-Jones as Marianne Sheridan. Sure, the steamier elements of the story are perhaps what initially made the headlines, but Normal People became such a revelation because its audience invested in the story of Connell and Marianne. While the ending was frustratingly bittersweet, the journey was beautiful.
2. The Last Dance (Netflix)
Rotten Tomatoes: 96%
I have no real interest in Basketball. I hadn’t thought about the name Michael Jordan in years. And yet, The Last Dance was so wonderfully crafted, so beautifully put together, that it was easily one of the year’s most beloved TV offerings. That Chicago Bulls team of the ’90s was packed with characters, so much so that at times, Jordan was allowed to become a background player in his own story. Director Jason Hehir tied various narratives together to make everyone feel like a basketball expert. Even me. An utter triumph.
1. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
Rotten Tomatoes: 99%
It says something when the reemergence of chess wouldn’t even make a top 100 list of unlikely things to happen in 2020, but the best TV moment of the year taking place around various chess boards is still something that feels pretty unlikely. And yet, under the stewardship of writer/director Scott Frank, and featuring a career best performance from Anna Taylor-Joy, The Queen’s Gambit managed to make chess look sexy, dangerous even. A show that combined arty cinematography with a wistful and engaging main plot. A show that never succumbed to sentimentality, but still had it’s fair share of emotion. Ladies and gentlemen, your best show of this year of our lord, 2020. Drink it in.
The Salisbury Poisonings
White House Farm