From I May Destroy You to Better Things, ten best shows of 2020 and where to stream them
2020 was an outstanding year for TV and streaming. But this 'Best Series List' is less about the usual year-end listeria. It's more a testimonial to the series that saved us and the year along with it.
In 2020, we spent more time indoors than possibly ever before. We were left to our own devices for longer than we would have liked — by devices, I mean our phones and PCs, tablets and TVs. In a year defined by a pandemic and the pandemonium that followed, we all sought an escape, a refuge, some comforting constant. They came in the form of binge-able series for me and millions of streaming subscribers. Being (first and foremost) a film writer, I do tend to watch more films than series. But I found myself doing the opposite this year. Mostly because I craved for more long-term investments to buoy up the long weeks of self-quarantine.
Before we close the door on the COVID-19 year, we must take a moment to celebrate the shows that died a natural death and those that were killed. We bid our goodbyes to BoJack Horseman and The Good Place, two shows which helped us face our demons. We also bid some premature goodbyes. GLOW and Teenage Bounty Hunters were unceremoniously cancelled by Netflix so Ryan Murphy could make more haute trash.
Though I wouldn't say Peak TV reached new peaks, 2020 was still an outstanding year for TV and streaming. But this "Best Series List" is less about the usual year-end listeria. It's more a testimonial to the series that saved us and the year along with it.
"White rich people dealing with white rich problems" remains one of TV's most satisfying genres. If American shows serve it to us as spicy satire like Arrested Development and Succession, British shows serve it as comfort food like Downton Abbey and The Crown. In a year without Succession, no series could dethrone Peter Morgan's royal drama. The fourth season was the jewel in its crown. Never mind the pissed-off royals, their historians and press secretaries, seeing our once-colonisers as just another dysfunctional family sure makes for great TV. Besides Olivia Colman's Queen Elizabeth II, two other women took centre stage as counterweights this season. If Gillian Anderson's Margaret Thatcher served as a political foil to the Queen, Emma Corrin's Princess Diana served as an emotional one. Season 4 also had some of the most heart-breaking moments, as it disenchanted a fairy-tale marriage and exposed the royal family's heartless hypocrisy towards its own kin.
What We Do in the Shadows
It is hard not to sink your teeth into the new season of Jemaine Clement's mockumentary about four vampires and their familiar living together in Staten Island. The sophomore outing raised the stakes (excuse my terrible puns) as Mark Hamill, Haley Joel Osment and Benedict Wong guest starred. Guillermo, who desires to be a vampire, must deal with the conflicting vampire-killing instincts that come from being a descendant of the legendary vampire hunter Van Helsing. Colin Robinson, the energy vampire who drains his victims by exhausting them with his tedious small talk, gets promoted. He also finds a new energy source by trolling people on the Internet. Nandor, Nadja and Laszlo receive a chain-mail that they must forward to ten people to evade a curse. Things take a hilarious turn when they get an automated bounce-back notice from the Mailer Daemon. Laszlo reinvents himself as Jackie Daytona, a "regular human bartender" to avoid paying the rent he owed a vampire proprietor 167 years ago. Silly as it may sound, they all make for a joyful celebration of every trope of the vampire genre. The show packs more laughs into 20-odd minutes of each episode than anything Will Ferrell or Adam Sandler offered this year.
For a frustrated fan of Westworld and Mr. Robot, Alex Garland's Devs brought together the best of both worlds. It explored the former's ideas about algorithmic determinism (past can be used as context to predict the future) without the riddle-speak, by drenching it in the latter's techno-paranoia mood. Sonoya Mizuno plays a young software engineer who believes her employer may be behind her boyfriend's murder. Her employer is a tech company called Amaya, run by a sinister-looking Nick Offerman. The titular quantum computing division resembles a futuristic church — a fitting comment on the cult of Silicon Valley. After all, the people inside suffer from a case of Big Tech's God complex. There’s even a shot that not-so-subtly frames Offerman with a halo above his head. Though it does take a couple of episodes to take off, it is impossible not to get caught up in its possibilities.
I May Destroy You
I May Destroy You is a bold and refreshing antidote to every show that treats sexual assault as a plot device, or worse a punchline. Creator, writer, director, producer and star Michaela Coel presents self-therapy in 12 episodes. A sexual assault in a nightclub catapults Coel's Arabella into deep torment. As she unpacks the details of what happened, Coel examines what it takes to rebuild after a traumatic event. Though diving into grey areas of sexual consent gives the show the density of drama, Coel still keeps the story buoyant with humour as she guides us through her trauma.
Better Call Saul
Inching ever so closer towards its endgame and the events of Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul expanded its focus on the cartel conflict in its fifth season. But if in previous seasons, the Jimmy-and-Kim thread ran almost in parallel to that of the Mike-Gus-Nacho cartel drama, this time the paths cross to a degree where it can't be uncrossed. In fact, this was the season of Kim Wexler, whose dynamic with Jimmy has always been the heart of the show. Now, she embraces her own inner badass — showcasing it in one of the season's (and the show's) most unforgettable moments, where she saves Jimmy's life by ripping into Lalo. The season wasn't without the occasional courtroom hijinks. In "things that won't happen in real life but make for great TV", Jimmy tricks a plaintiff into identifying the wrong defendant, by hiring a lookalike to sit next to him while the actual defendant sits in the gallery. Another peak Jimmy moment saw him send hookers to humiliate Howard at a business lunch. To paraphrase Jimmy, Season 5 was perfection in a perfectly adequate TV year.
Honourable mentions: The Midnight Gospel (Netflix), Perry Mason (Disney+ Hotstar Premium), The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), Mrs. America (Disney+ Hotstar Premium), BoJack Horseman (Netflix)
Shows that went under the radar
If you scour through many of the year-end lists, you will likely find some of the same shows I've mentioned — Better Call Saul and I May Destroy You — and for good reason. Spoilt for choice, some quality shows however went under the radar. Here are five of them that deserve more fanfare.
Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet
Two of my favourite episodes this year came from a little-known workplace comedy called Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet on Apple TV+. Think of it as a less bro-y counterpart to Silicon Valley, or one of Community’s more video-game-obsessed episodes stretched to series length. It's even got Danny Pudi. Only, the sitcom comes from the creators of It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Rob McElhenney plays a douchey creative director of an MMORPG, which is set to drop a highly anticipated expansion pack. Workplace conflicts and misadventures ensue. One of the standout episodes is actually a standalone short film of sorts ("A Dark Quiet Death"), where Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti play '90s video-game developers in a resonant story about selling out. The other standout episode is resonant in a very 2020 way, being a quarantine special.
The Good Lord Bird
The Good Lord Bird is a miracle from its beginning, as abolitionist John Brown announces his name, to its end, where he is hanged. In the middle is the exploits of a man “nuttier than a squirrel turd,” as seen through the eyes of a young fictional slave. It's a quasi-historical lesson that operates on the same wavelength as a Coen brothers movie. The writing fizzles with period flourish, and Ethan Hawke's acting is gleefully over-the-top in an unmissable miniseries.
Pamela Adlon's consistently fresh comedy deserves a lot more love than it has got across its four seasons. Its maternal lens is itself one that has mostly been overlooked on TV: a comedic perspective on the complications of being a working single mother of three daughters. Each season sees a renegotiation of their relationships, captured with an authenticity in fine points and comic touches. In Season 4, Sam Fox welcomes us to her midlife crisis. Max, Frankie and Duke grow up a little more, and learn to accept their mother in all her beautiful imperfections.
After their mother's death, two sisters Lyn (Melissa Barrera) and Emma (Mishel Prada) are forced to come together to run their family bar in East LA. Over the course of three seasons, contrasting personalities, family secrets and financial problems add to the complications. An all Latinx writers' room gives Vida a bracing authenticity rarely found in TV, where Mexican-Americans are almost always maids, drug dealers or illegal immigrants. The show conscientiously navigates issues on the intersection of Latinx and queer identities, and relates the effects of gentrification on a touchingly human scale. It's also the steamiest show on streaming.
Matt and Jake are underachievers stuck in soul-sucking cubicles of a soulless conglomerate called Hampton DeVille. The name says it all, and their slogan, "We Make Everything," says a lot more. They're into everything from arms to tech to streaming. In an episode, they even co-opt a protest against them by selling anti-Hampton DeVille T-shirts. The final season, which aired this year, took its anti-capitalist satire to absurd new heights. Corporate finds comedy in cynicism, as opposed to Superstore's optimism.
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