Last year, I ended up being a bit over-ambitious with my Top 10 list. Rather than a single blog post, the plan was to write an article a day about ten different television shows, and ten different individual episodes of television too. Twenty pieces of writing proved more than a few too many – I managed five; the election threw me off rhythm and that was the end of that – and I never actually shared the full Best of 2019 list.
Until now! I’d thought about preserving the mystery, but better to just share it here, I think.
10) The Circle
6) Years and Years
5) The Good Fight
4) The Other Two
3) Russian Doll
8) Daybreak 1×08, “Post Mates”
7) Veep 7×07, “Veep”
6) This Way Up 1×06, “Episode 6”
5) The Good Fight 3×5, “The One Where a Nazi Gets Punched”
4) Superstore 4×22, “Employee Appreciation Day”
3) Succession 2×4, “Safe Room”
2) Years and Years 1×4, “Episode 4”
1) Fleabag 2×01, “Episode 1”
In hindsight, several of those choices are more than a little questionable – outright bad! – but then I suppose the point of these lists is as much a historical record of my bad opinions as it is anything else. Speaking of which, you can also find my similarly questionable 2018 and 2017 list here. (I do seem to only complete these lists every other year.)
This year, the plan was to do the same again, but I ended up scaling that back pretty quickly – first from twenty blog posts to ten, ditching the individual best episodes list, and then again from ten daily posts to a single article. (This one.) Why was that? I spent ages writing Christmas cards, basically. Just got completely and totally carried away, doing little illustrations and everything. Kept me entertained, at least. Maybe next year I’ll be able to do the full run of twenty daily articles (more likely I will just write more Christmas cards; if you want one next year, now is the time to start trying to befriend me).
A word quickly on two notable omissions, before we begin. I skipped Normal People, because I loved the book so much I didn’t want to invite in another interpretation; I’ve never particularly been a “the book is always better” person, so that was something of an unusual choice. I also opted not to watch I May Destroy You, because of a personal discomfort with the subject matter (for the same reason, I didn’t watch Save Me Too, even though the first series of Save Me made 2018 list).
Anyway! Onto the list proper.
10). This Country
I keep double-checking the Wikipedia page for This Country, because I’m half-convinced I’m making a mistake here. Surely, right, if This Country Series 3 – the final season! – had aired in 2020, I would’ve seen it on more year-end Best Of lists, right? So, it must’ve been a 2019 series that I was a little late to, or maybe I didn’t even watch it this year at all and I’ve just completely lost all sense of linear time?
But, no, the Wikipedia page insists it aired in 2020, and frankly who am I to argue with Wikipedia?
When I was still debating whether or not to compile a list of Best Television Episodes of 2020, one of the few things I was certain had to be on that list was an episode of This Country. Specifically, it was the fifth episode of Series 3, The Station – a pared-back, even-simpler-than-usual episode about Kerry and Kurtan waiting for a train. There’s a lot to love about this series and the world it inhabits, but the reason This Country was one of my favourite television shows of 2020 is that central dynamic: Kerry and Kurtan bickering away about nothing in particular, all those little idiosyncrasies on full display, the dialogue sparkling even as it’s entirely mundane.
Us made the list almost entirely on the strength of Tom Hollander’s performance as Douglas Peterson, here somehow sympathetic even as it’s always obvious exactly why his life is falling apart around him. Hollander walks a careful line throughout – it would’ve been easy to make Douglas too much of any one thing, when the drama demands he be much more complex – and does so deftly. The series wasn’t perfect – the ending is too neat, telegraphed too early on; that close focus on Hollander’s character is sometimes borders on myopia, crowding out the rest of the cast – but I really do think Hollander was.
Without realising, I spent a lot of time on David Nicholls’ writing this year – watching both Us and his film Starter For 10, and reading One Day, finally. (He also wrote the Patrick Melrose adaptation a few while back, which was my favourite show of 2018.) He’s not perfect, I don’t think, and there’s some obvious recurring flaws in each – but he’s very good at nailing a particular style of emotion I ended up appreciating a lot this year.
8). The Crown
Look, I know, I know, but let me explain. I couldn’t stand the first series of The Crown; it always struck me as a very short-sighted programme, never quite confident enough to actually commit to criticising the monarchy. For all that it insisted it was about the difficulty of life as a member of the royal family, it always seemed to contort to find some redeeming feature or another, making the few critiques it did let stand feel trivial at best and hollow at worst. It’s not that I needed it to take a republican stance, exactly (I was altogether more lukewarm on the royal family in 2016 than I am now), just that
I watched a few episodes of the second series, but quickly fell off, and didn’t bother with the third at all; I caught up ahead of this year’s series and enjoyed each one more than the last. The fourth series, though, felt like a revelation (well, comparatively speaking), a show that had finally become what it always wanted to be, the introduction of Emma Corrin’s Diana bringing a certain clarity and momentum it had previously lacked. Something about The Crown finally clicked into place – Peter Morgan’s writing no longer clangingly unsubtle, but instead somehow admirably blunt – and the show was all the better for it.
7). The Good Fight
I cannot think what The Good Fight will look like when it returns. In part that’s because it’s always been so defined by the Trump era, which is now – in the most straightforward sense of the term, anyway – coming to an end. I worry it might lapse into a certain complacency under a Biden presidency, lacking the sense of direction that animated its wit and made it so sharp (which admittedly is not the worst trade-off in the world, all things considered).
Less obvious but more significant, though, is the loss of Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, both of whom have always been such huge parts of the show. I could imagine The Good Fight reinventing itself successfully with them; it’s much harder to picture the series making that just adjustment without them. Still, though: this is the fourth year running that I’ve included The Good Fight on my Best Of list. This year it was still just as smart and as thrilling as it always has been – perhaps it’s about to falter somewhat, perhaps not, but either way that’s a really strong run.
6). Two Weeks to Live
The obvious point of comparison is The End of the F***ing World, but Two Weeks to Live leans much more heavily on its comedy than TEOTFW; it’s not funnier than its predecessor, exactly, but it’s less idiosyncratic, broader, more open and inviting in its laughs. It opts to be earnest more often than not, largely shying away from the tongue-in-cheek, detached sensibility found in so many ‘genre’ comedies. Two Weeks to Live is self-aware, yes, and often undercuts its own clichés – but it does so with a straight face rather than a roll of the eyes.
A big part of that is Maisie Williams, in one of the more straightforwardly comic roles of her career. It quickly becomes clear that she’s got great comic timing (“We need to call the World Health Organisation.” “The who?” “Exactly”) as much Kimmy Schmidt here as she is Arya Stark. Her performance is deceptively precise – sincere without losing any levity, heightened without becoming exaggerated, and witty without becoming quippy. Williams has great chemistry with the rest of the cast (Mawaan Rizwan and Taheen Modak in particular, both of whom are fantastic) and taken together there’s a lot to like about Two Weeks to Live.
5). Star Trek: Lower Decks
If you’d asked me in January which of the 2020’s three Star Trek shows would make the Best of 2020 list, I’d likely have said Picard. I might well have said Discovery, which I suspect in hindsight probably deserved a place on the 2019 list. There’s not a chance I would’ve said Lower Decks – I didn’t even think I’d watch it, beyond a cursory glance at the first episode. I can’t stand Rick and Morty, and this looked like the same with a Star Trek gloss.
So, you can imagine my surprise when I absolutely loved it. It’s very much Star Trek’s answer to The Curse of Fatal Death: affectionate but not reverent, fannish but not insular, mocking but not meanspirited. It was a consistent highlight of my week – bright and colourful and above all else just a ridiculous amount of fun. In its own way, Lower Decks feels like it justifies the ongoing franchising of Star Trek more than Picard, Strange New Worlds or Section 31 do, and I can’t wait for the second series.
4). The Umbrella Academy
It took me a while to get into The Umbrella Academy (outside of that long opening sequence where Elliot Page plays the violin, there wasn’t much of the first few episodes I enjoyed without caveat) but I’m glad I stuck with it. Not because the series was particularly innovative or anything like that – it’s exactly the fairly straightforward riff on the X-Men it looks from the outside, and its actually very charming second season retreads well-worn ground by returning to the Kennedy assassination. The Umbrella Academy is in a lot of ways a fairly middle-of-the-road genre piece, the Netflix algorithm responding to the end of their Marvel partnership and not a lot more than that. (Actually, I often found myself thinking this is what Doctor Who-by-Netflix would look like.)
The reason The Umbrella Academy made the list, though, is because I ended up watching it with some friends (and also Bethany), so there was a nice communal aspect to it. Felt like we’ve kinda lost that over the past few years, now television schedules are a bit less linear and everything drops at once and so on. It’s all a little more atomised and discrete, I suppose? So it was nice to have that and share that and so on. Especially this year!
3). I Hate Suzie
I Hate Suzie features Billie Piper’s best performance, in a show not just written for her, but written very much to her strengths – a subtle distinction, and one that makes this such a striking star vehicle for Piper. There’s a sense perhaps that this sort of broadly autobiographical role might be a relatively easy one to play, but I doubt it: the frantic neuroses and layers of artifice on display here are fantastically realised, a really remarkable achievement on Piper’s part.
It’s a little bit of a shame, really, that I Hate Suzie had such a muted American debut – picked up by HBO Max but not available when the platform launched, then overshadowed somewhat by the arrival of movies straight from the cinema. In an ideal world, I Hate Suzie might prove to be something of a slow-burn hit, a series people stumble upon and then quickly fall in love with.
2). The Queen’s Gambit
On a moment to moment level, The Queen’s Gambit was likely the show I enjoyed most all year – the most slick, the most confident, the most glamorous and the most entertaining.
1). Small Axe
Is it film? (Yes.) Is it television? (Also, yes.) Does it really matter? (Well, not exactly, but it’s interesting to get into all the same.)
For the moment, though, let’s call it television. Small Axe is the best – let’s say “project” – project of the year, no question, and I included the individual episodes on my list of the best films of the year. That doesn’t feel like it entirely captures why and how they’re so good, though, because no one instalment is acting discretely – to take one in isolation from another is almost missing the point. Each part of Small Axe is in communication with another: Alex Wheatle’s depiction of childhood speaks to similar themes in Education; the music in Mangrove and in Alex Wheatle again lends Lovers Rock even more depth; the four biographical instalments inform and accentuate one another; so on and so forth.
On their own, any given episode of Small Axe would be a career best pieces of work – together, they’re something so much denser and so much richer. That, to me, is television (apart from when it’s film, anyway) – so Small Axe is the Best Television Show of 2020.
As ever, there’s a handful of shows that – while they didn’t make the full list – still warrant a mention.
- I spent most of May working my way through New Girl, which I’d seen stretches of before but never watched in full. Even though it ended in 2017, I debated putting it on this list anyway; it’s such a deeply charming programme, and a big part of the year for me.
- After missing it last year, I finally caught up on Watchmen. I’m not convinced it quite stuck the landing with “more Black female superheroes”, but the first eight episodes were sublime – even as it faltered slightly at the end, it was one of the best pieces of superhero-adjacent drama we’ve had over the past decade. (Speaking of Watchmen, I really enjoyed this piece on it.)
- I enjoyed Hugh Laurie’s Roadkill quite a lot, though it faltered in its final episode – I’d have really enjoyed a second series focusing on the leadership race, but the series skipped ahead a few months in its last minutes. Still not sure why.
- Superstore was one I deliberated over; ultimately, I don’t think that fifth season was brilliant (perhaps because of the change in creative team, or maybe because anything would’ve felt a let-down after that finale), and too little of season six has aired for it to have made an impact in 2020. Perhaps next year, though, with its (far too soon) final season.
- Finally, Quiz. The other 2020 show of the five special mentions, it would’ve been eligible for the above list – I still wonder if maybe I should’ve shuffled things around to include it. I really loved it, and I think the piece I wrote about it was one of my best bits of writing all year. (Also, James Graham is now a
close personal friendtwitter mutual, so it seems only polite, especially given how much I’ve slated some of his other stuff in the past.)
I’m not sure there’s anything else to make note of particularly; there were plenty of things I meant to watch but didn’t get round to (Lovecraft Country, Life, The Good Lord Bird, Westworld series 3, The Plot Against America, The Mandalorian, Raised by Wolves, so on, so forth) but that’s always the way. Is there anything I’m forgetting that you think I should’ve watched? Let me know, I’ll make a note, get round to it over the next few months.
What am I looking forward to next year? This and that. Russell T Davies’ It’s a Sin is the first big show of 2021 on my list – I’ve got something in the works for that at the moment, which I’ll be able to share more about in a few weeks’ time. I’m also cautiously optimistic about the new Marvel shows; Wandavision moreso than the other two, though I imagine I’ll watch all three of them anyway. (Loki I’m quite curious about too, Falcon and The Winter Soldier feels like it could really go either way.) There’s also, of course, my beloved Riverdale, returning after far too long away.
I’ll also be watching The Serpent, mostly for Jenna Coleman; I’m always very wary of that sort of true crime series, but I’m also always very fond of her, so. In theory, Doctor Who Series 13 is due in 2021, though I’m not entirely convinced that’ll actually be ready to air in September as planned – which is going to be the case for a lot of things I imagine. Is Moffat’s Inside Man still due for 2021? I assume not, because I don’t think they were able to start production this year. Hmm.
A broader 2021 target, I suppose, would be to try and watch less rubbish, and be faster to give stuff up when it’s not very good – like, the amount of time I knowingly spent this year on rubbish like Spitting Image and Space Force, or even something good-but-not-great like Catastrophe, long past the point I was getting anything out of it… not the best use of my time, I suspect.
Equally, on the flip side, I do also want to just try and watch everything next year, which surely means there’s gonna be some rubbish. We shall see!