A few years ago, I could probably count the amount of television shows I watched on one hand. There were a handful that I followed closely and occasionally I would dip into the odd limited series, but the majority of entertainment I watched comprised of films. However, one of my goals at the start of 2019 was to delve into more TV, as I became aware of how many streaming services were about to emerge boasting exciting content, and how many storytellers and filmmakers I admire greatly were developing projects in this medium. I chose a good year to do so, as 2019 featured an array of terrific television productions, from outstanding miniseries like Chernobyl and When They See Us to excellent new instalments of multi-season shows such as Fleabag and Succession. At the start of 2020, I was doubtful as to whether the standard of the shows I watched could match the heights of those I had viewed the previous year. As it transpires, this year in television is likely to be reflected upon as an incredibly significant one for the medium, since so many people, myself included, relied on it to cope throughout the coronavirus pandemic. With numerous films being delayed until next year, cinemas temporarily/permanently closing, and outdoor entertainment in general not available for the majority of 2020, I was reliant on a high quality of television content to help pass the time at home. Thankfully, there was not a shortage of gripping TV over the past 12 months, so I decided to pay tribute to a few of the many shows that impressed me immensely. Rather than doing a traditional list ranking, I decided to pinpoint ten series which resonated with me for various reasons; some of them struck a chord with me personally, while others generated lively discussions with friends and family. To narrow down the list, I only included shows which aired new content this calendar year, whether it be a few episodes or full seasons. Hence, here are my top 10 TV highlights of 2020:
- The Good Place
It feels an eternity ago that one of my favourite series wrapped up in January, but the concluding episodes of Mike Schur’s ambitious, thought-provoking, and consistently hysterical show served as a reminder of how much can be accomplished in a 22-minute comedic episode. I watched the first three seasons of The Good Place early last year, and I was slightly taken aback when it announced that the fourth season would be its last. What elevates certain comedy series above others is the ability of their showrunners realise that they have maximised the potential from the premise, and with this particular show, as difficult as it was to say goodbye to a very endearing cast of characters, Schur delivered a wonderful finale which, like every preceding entry, managed to delicately combine intriguing philosophical questions, sincerity, and priceless one-liners.
2. Schitt’s Creek
From one recently completed comedy series to another. After hearing many positive things about the CBC show created by Dan and Eugene Levy, I finally embarked on a journey to the titular town where the wealthy Rose family are forced to reside. I viewed all six seasons over the summer, and what impressed me most about this series was how it went from strength-to-strength with every season. While it takes some time to warm to the Roses, their gradual awareness of the privilege they have been afforded for most of their lives and increased deference for the inhabitants of Schitt’s Creek won me over, and by its sixth and concluding instalment I was totally invested in their relationships and career ambitions. The character of Alexis in particular, wonderfully performed by Emmy-winning Annie Murphy (it feels awesome to type that), transforms from an initially irritating, spoiled socialite to a charming, enterprising young woman capable of making selfless decisions. The show’s concluding episodes wisely kept things simple, purely focusing on tying up loose ends regarding key relationships, both romantic and platonic, in a poignant and often uproariously funny fashion. During the summer of 2020, Schitt’s Creek was the show I could count on to make me laugh and smile.
3. The Last Dance
The most invested I had ever been in basketball prior to 2020 was watching Coach Carter in secondary school the day after I received my Junior Cert results with only 12 other students in my class. Being a sports fan in general, however, it was impossible for me not to have known about the achievements of a certain figure who goes by the name of Michael Jordan, so when the promotional material emerged in the spring of this year for a documentary titled The Last Dance circulated online, I recognised that it was a prime opportunity to learn more about his career. The series’ ten riveting episodes remarkably encapsulated the success of one of the great sport teams and players of all-time, but also offered a fascinating commentary on competitive spirit. Listening to Jordan provide insights into what drove him to win successive NBA Championships is a pleasure to behold, because his reasons vary from gaining the respect of key figures within his personal and professional life to responding to an off-hand remark from a competitor that other athletes could have easily brushed off. The manner in which his ambition and ‘win at all costs’ mentality has differing effects on other members of the team is a compelling issue at the heart of the documentary, something that carries a particular resonance nowadays when one of the many accusations levelled against elite level sportspeople is that they’re “soft”, “spineless”, “weak”, etc. Lesser basketball players could have moaned about the 1990 Detroit Pistons’ tactics and how they didn’t play with some sort of aesthetically pleasing style. Jordan, along with his teammates, showed the maturity to stand up to them and eventually get their number. THAT is the kind of attitude that defines champions.
4. Ted Lasso
When The Last Dance was airing, I was encouraged to watch other pieces of entertainment revolved around basketball, from the Ben Affleck-led 2020 release The Way Back to older films such as Hoop Dreams (1994) and Love and Basketball (2000). It made me realise that, in comparison to basketball, football a.k.a. soccer has generated very few absorbing film and TV productions, mainly fictional. I have been perplexed by this, since many of the issues faced by individual players, teams, and organisations in the football industry have the potential to be vigorously explored on the big and small screen. As it turned out, I only had to wait a few months after The Last Dance ended for a series revolved around football to emerge on Apple TV+. During the final rounds of matches of the 2019-20 Premier League campaign, I saw advertisements on BT Sport for a show called Ted Lasso, with the premise being that its titular character, an American college football coach played by Jason Sudeikis, is offered the chance to coach a fictitious English side named AFC Richmond who are struggling in the top tier of English football. Despite being a fan of Sudeikis, I was already resigned to this series being another example of a lacklustre piece of entertainment content based around the “beautiful game”.
Ted Lasso was undoubtedly the biggest surprise I had watching a show this year. It smartly plays upon a casual viewer’s scepticism towards its premise by having the characters around the main protagonist channel that pessimism towards Lasso’s capabilities. In fact, the reason Sudeikis’s endearing character is hired in the first place is disingenuous and vindictive. However, Lasso’s coaching staff, teammates, and boss slowly develop an affinity towards him, mainly due to his staggering but inspiring level of optimism and generosity. Likewise, viewers such as myself who started the series with low expectations, cannot help but become enamoured with the warmth and sincerity the programme exudes. I consider myself to be a ‘glass-half-full’ person, but 2020 tested that assumption on numerous occasions. Thankfully, Ted Lasso, both the character and the series itself, carry a similar outlook.
5. Normal People
As an Irish man, there was no way this was not going on my list. Bringing Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel to life in the form of 12 episodes, this limited series, co-directed by Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald, details the relationship between two school friends turned lovers over the course of several years, from their final days of secondary education to their time as undergraduates in Trinity College. There were many breakout performances across many television shows which debuted this year, but I struggle to identify any that were as raw and moving as those delivered by the two stars of Normal People: Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal. The characters of Marianne and Connell have to confront various obstacles over the course of the narrative, and while their relationship blossoms, regresses, and reignites, the audience never loses sight of the bond between them, beautifully captured through the exchanges, both verbal and non-verbal, shared between the pair of leads. Beyond these outstanding turns, the series itself is a profound coming-of-age story, exploring how young adults deal with familial estrangement, changing social status, long-distance relationships, and career ambitions. Ultimately, it recognises that all of these aspects are in a constant state of flux, rendering the ambiguous conclusion rather fitting. On the back of Normal People’s success, a television adaptation of another Sally Rooney novel, Conversations with Friends, is currently in development. If it can go some way to matching the level of quality of this show, we are in for a treat.
6. The Boys
This and my next pick dominated mainstream television during the autumn and winter months. After a solid first season which premiered in 2019, Eric Kripke’s adaptation of Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson’s eponymous comic-book delivered a thrilling follow-up, which built upon the foundations laid by its first run of episodes by introducing brand new characters and storylines while taking previously established ones in enthralling directions. The show’s tone treads a fine line between simultaneously satirising tropes of the superhero genre and often indulging in them, yet in spite of the cynicism on display, the complex characterisation and pertinent themes make the series worth investing in emotionally. There are many programmes which are exceptional overall but contain a handful of episodes which could be considered disposable or lacking in re-watchability. With The Boys, I knew I could rely upon it each week to provide an hour’s worth of exhilarating entertainment, and in Homelander, I have found a worthy figure to pick up the mantle from Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones of being the television character I love hating.
7. The Mandalorian
When I walked out of an IMAX screening of The Rise of Skywalker a year ago, I felt deflated about the Star Wars franchise. It seemed as if the series was stuck in a difficult position between taking the overarching storyline into bold new territory while also fulfilling the desires of its core fanbase to see their favourite characters in action. Although I enjoyed the first season of The Mandalorian, I experienced a nagging sense of frustration at what the show wasn’t rather than embracing what it was, whereby its ‘adventure of the week’ format and relatively light tone were at odds with my hope for a series with high narrative stakes and large ensemble cast. Well, as the old saying goes, “patience is a virtue”, because with its second season The Mandalorian took the narrative structure of the first and enhanced it significantly by pairing the main protagonist with figures from the Star Wars universe who casual fans like myself only had a vague familiarity with, but carry a rich history within the franchise. This enabled the Jon Favreau-created series to go to exciting places narratively and visually, and while the first season had its fair share of rip-roaring set-pieces, the ones featured in the recent set of episodes felt bigger not just in sheer scale but in drama, with the relationship between Pedro Pascal’s title character and his companion initially known as The Child’ serving as the show’s emotional core. The season finale boasted a moment that will be revered by Star Wars fanatics for years to come, but it also opened up a range of possibilities which are manifesting through upcoming Disney+ programmes. It has been just over eight years since the acquisition of Lucasfilm by Disney, but this is the most optimistic I have felt about the franchise’s future, as it finally appears as though they have entrusted the right people to develop a vast array of intriguing storylines with old and new characters. I just started watching Star Wars Rebels off the back of The Mandalorian’s second season and plan on catching up on The Clone Wars soon. Man, it is good to be on board with this franchise again
8. Better Call Saul
One big regret I have is not catching up with this series earlier, but it was not until the beginning of January 2019 that I started watching the Breaking Bad spin-off revolved around the memorable figure of Saul Goodman. The original show was the first prestige television drama I was obsessed with, and when it ended in such a gratifying fashion, I felt reluctant to emotionally invest in a prequel where you know that the majority of characters are going to survive. However, upon my initial viewing of the first few episodes, it became clear to me that this follow-up had lost none of its predecessor’s magic, sustaining the meticulous technical craftsmanship, sharp dialogue, stellar performances, and, most impressively, tension. The fifth and penultimate season of Better Call Saul was its best to date, with multiple storylines that had developed in previous instalments finally crossing over in a surprising and captivating manner, and culminating with three episodes (‘Bagman’, ‘Bad Choice Road’, and ‘Something Unforgivable’) that would all warrant a placement on a ‘Top 10 Episodes of 2020’ list. It is a prime example of how to do a prequel correctly, adding new layers to familiar characters while shaping narratives and figures around whose fates are uncertain.
9. Sex Education
I watched a lot of television series over the past 12 months, some of them being beloved classics of the medium such as The Wire and The Sopranos, but the two weeks I spent binging both seasons of Sex Education were the most enjoyable I had viewing a show this year. Like some of the other entries on this list, it took a while for me to catch up with this Netflix comedy, but by the end of its second episode I found myself enraptured with it. This is the kind of content I wish had existed during my time in secondary school, as it treats so many topics related to adolescence with a remarkable amount of frankness and sincerity. It is a very easy show to love, mainly because its core cast of characters, particularly the main trio of Otis (Asa Butterfield), Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Eric (Ncuti Gatwa), are so believable and likable that they almost transcend being creations for television and feel like genuine friends. Moreover, creator Laurie Nunn is able to tackle a variety of subjects like sexuality, peer pressure, dysfunctional families, and mental health from a multitude of perspectives which are rarely spotlighted in mainstream television, but doing so in a way that does not feel forced or heavy-handed. I credit this series more than any other for boosting my morale in 2020, especially in the knowledge that a third season is expected to air next year. I cannot wait to go back to Moordale High.
10. I May Destroy You
While I was reluctant to rank my favourite shows of the year, if someone asked me what I would consider to be the best programme I watched in 2020, it would be the BBC comedy-drama starring and written by the immensely talented Michaela Coel. This sensational piece of work and the buzz surrounding it reflects how vital strong word-of-mouth was in this particular year where viewers had more time on their hands to catch up with shows that in other years might have gotten lost in the midst of tentpole TV events. Detailing the efforts of a social media star-turned-novelist to piece together the events of a traumatic night out in London, I May Destroy You confronts the subject of sexual abuse in an exceptionally ambitious and nuanced manner, following characters shrouded in uncertainty as they struggle to cope with issues regarding sexuality, race, and gender. The series contains many hard-hitting sequences, but it juxtaposes these with enough light-hearted moments to render it consistently entertaining rather than a chore to sit through. Over the course of twelve episodes, I May Destroy You challenges viewers’ expectations of its central figures and storylines and does not offer any instantaneously satisfying resolutions, encapsulating the complicated nature of its subject matter. The show establishes Coel as one of the most important voices in the industry, and deserves to endure in the pantheon of must-watch limited series.
There were many other splendid television programmes in 2020 that deserve recognition. These include:
The Plot Against America
Ozark (Season 3)
BoJack Horseman (Season 6)
Insecure (Season 4)
Dark (Season 3)
The Queen’s Gambit
We Are Who We Are
I hope anyone reading this post who is on the fence about watching any of the series I have mentioned throughout is encouraged to catch up with them. It is just as well so many gifted creatives are working in television, because this year more than any other in recent memory demonstrated the value of having a diverse range of content to explore.