The Plain, Simple Review of the Year: Part One – Top Ten TV of 2020

Well, here we are at the tail end of one of the most wretched years in recent memory and it’s time once again for my end of year review, looking at the best (and worst) films and TV shows that we had access to this year.

When it comes to TV, I suppose that I was a little lazy because I only managed to get through 27 series (last year, I managed around 34), which I guess is surprising seeing as how two lockdowns would surely have encouraged me to watch a few more than usual. But there are just so many new shows available at the moment – tons that are available to view on Netflix, Prime, Disney Plus, or just on terrestrial TV and on those channels like Apple or Sky that I don’t have access to – that it’s obviously impossible to watch them ALL and with so many voices on social media saying “watch this, watch that”, most of the time I find it too daunting to dive into another new series and just settle for either sticking with films or watching older TV series instead. I mean, I did manage to get through four seasons of Game of Thrones and all five series of The Wire, so I’m really happy with that!

But still, I did manage to watch some good TV shows this year and here are ten of my favourites:

10. It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Series 14)

This irreverent sitcom just made history by becoming the longest running live action sitcom on television (though many would argue that that honour goes to The Last of the Summer Wine) and I’m glad to see that even after all this time, the show hasn’t run out of steam or ideas and it continues to entertain and delight, as well as shock and occasionally repulse. Head honcho Rob McElhenney has even said that they’re not even halfway through yet.

While Glenn Howerton was absent for much of series 13, he’s truly back in the fold for the fourteenth series (and the show is much better for it) and this year, in some standout episodes, Dennis and Mac attempted to set up a meat cube meet cute, the gang’s favourite movie franchise got ruined, they lost each other and set up a text chain at the zoo, they debated whether or not to stop a man from jumping off the roof (and missed out on their fish and chips!), and a particularly great episode saw Charlie go all noir in “The Janitor Always Mops Twice”.

Even though the characters are truly awful people, I still love them and always enjoy watching their exploits which see them ruin so many people’s lives, and the fourteenth season is yet another series of entertaining and funny episodes that prove that there’s still plenty of life left in the offbeat show.

9. Star Trek: Picard

The greatest (and best looking!) Trek captain goes all Logan in this Amazon original series, which looks immaculate, boasting many setpieces and sleek visuals that many feature films would envy, and it has a strong storyline (one which thankfully takes place within the “Kelvin Timeline” but it’s also one that goes on a few too many Mass Effect style side missions and crew gathering) and many new and colourful characters who are brought to life by a lively cast. And, of course, the series also brings back several well known Trek characters, including fan favourite Seven of Nine, with Jeri Ryan stepping back into the popular role, as well as Picard himself who is, of course, played excellently by the mighty Patrick Stewart who carries the series so very well.

8. Ratched (Series One)


Ryan Murphy seems to be getting plenty of work these days and although this “origin story” of the infamous antagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is perhaps too much of a departure from the source material, with too many creative liberties being taken and the feeling that the people involved don’t truly understand the character, Ratched is nonetheless a delightfully dark and unique series that gives us plenty of delectable drama that’s filled with interesting characters, moments of bold and bloody violence, and a pulpy, noir atmosphere – the series attempting to establish a Hitchcockian atmosphere and including several Bernard Herrmann pieces for good measure.

It’s well worth a watch and Sarah Paulson really does put her own spin on the character, aided by an equally strong supporting cast.

7. What We Do in the Shadows (Series Two)



BAT!

A step up from the first series, this outing for the entertaining Staten Island vampires is funnier than its predecessor – the episodes in which the group get captured by witches and one where Colin Robinson becones much more powerful are particular highlights – and it introduces an interesting new element, now that Guillermo knows that he is descended from Van Helsing; the cast all have an absolute blast, getting to further flex their comedic muscles, and the central characters are just wonderfully entertaining and memorable – especially my favourite: Colin Robinson.

6. Little Fires Everywhere (Series One)

Even more exciting drama, this one has two strong performances from Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, playing characters from opposite sides of the class divide who go up against each other, and as dark secrets are revealed and family members begin to “choose sides”, we soon start to learn that there’s more to these women than first meets the eye and though we may have begun the series perhaps on one particular “side”, our allegiances will surely be tested as we come to see that no characters are without flaws.

It’s an engrossing series, the televisual equivalent of a good thriller novel, and it has a cast of strong performers as well as great writing and plenty of unexpected plot developments.

5. Tiger King


This was apparently the series that everyone watched during the first national lockdown and although the opening episode, which introduces us to the outrageous “gay, gun toting, mullet wearing redneck” that is Joe Exotic, may give you the impression that this will simply be about a few eccentric animal lovers and the crazy world of big cat breeding, we slowly get to see “behind the curtain” as the series goes on and we and start to realise that there’s a dark side to Joe and most of the other major players, learning how both animals and employees alike were mistreated, and events take a darker turn as battle lines are drawn and everyone starts talking of murder.

The story of Joe Exotic, Carole “F***ing” Baskin, “Doc” Antle and Jeff Lowe, among others, truly is stranger than fiction and while watching the series, we witness a truly remarkable, shocking and compelling story unfolding and the documentary sure is a good one as it’s always interesting, the filmmakers assemble a whole host of interviewees – “heroes and villains” alike – who all tell us their remarkable stories, and all in all, Tiger King is a unique, entertaining and memorable documentary that has provided plenty of watercooler moments during this tumultuous year.

4. Better Call Saul (Series Five)



There are apparently people out there who believe that Saul is actually superior to Breaking Bad and while I wholeheartedly maintain that those people are nuts, Vince Gilligan’s spinoff series is nonetheless one of the better and most exciting TV shows on offer at the moment and this latest series gives us more drama as things between Gus and Lalo heat up, the latter given a lot more to do in this series, and Jimmy and Kim’s relationship gets even more strained as a new case pops up and as the former gets pulled into a lot more danger, slowly turning into the infamous Mr. Goodman.

3. The Queen’s Gambit



This was an impressive (and very popular) series as it gave us a solid narrative and it made the game of chess, which could easily have been shown as something rather dry and dusty, appear fascinating and often exciting; at the centre, the beautiful Anya Taylor-Joy carries the series brilliantly by using her eyes to tell us just what her character is going through and feeling during her games, she brings some comedy in the earlier episodes when she demonstrates her lack of understanding about the “real world”, and overall, she gives yet another impressive leading performance, ably supported by an equally strong cast that includes Bill Camp, Marielle Heller, Harry Melling, Isla Johnston, and Thomas Brodie-Sangster. Who will surely ALWAYS look as though he’s twelve years old. Even with the coat, hat, facial hair, and the world weary, “too cool for school” demeanour that his character has.

2. Normal People


Another particularly popular and highly regarded series of the year, one that a lot of people started watching during the lockdown, the story of Connell and Marianne and their tumultuous on again/off again relationship that spans several years (and several other boy/girlfriends) had a particularly incredible opening as the first two episodes, in particular, showed off some of the best writing that I’ve seen for some time, making use of dialogue that felt incredibly authentic and relatable, and the all important relationship at the centre of things was just so engrossing and fascinating, the two flawed and well developed characters given so much life by Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones, and they came across as remarkably realistic people with their insecurities as well as their inability to express just how they’re feeling, and they developed beautifully throughout the series’ run.

It does run out of steam, though, in the second half as it becomes clear that there are a few too many episodes and the characters’ inability to make things work gets a little annoying (plus, you end up wishing that Marianne would keep her clothes ON for a change!) but still, Normal People is nevertheless a remarkably well written and emotionally affecting series and both Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones put in two relatable and powerful performances

1. The Mandalorian (Series One and Two)


Earlier this year, on the day that lockdown began, we in the UK were FINALLY given access to Disney Plus and as such, we were able to catch up on Jon Favreau’s Star Wars series that many in other countries had been talking about for some time, as well as being able to view the second series soon afterwards.

And under the stewardship of ol’ Happy Hogan (with the aid, I’m sure, of the knowledgeable Dave Filoni), The Mandalorian is a consistently excellent, exciting, entertaining, brilliant and technically amazing show that has proven to be a major asset to the Star Wars universe.

It’s technically flawless (with big thanks to “The Volume” which allows the actors to essentially be transported to the alien worlds and to see their surroundings, rather than relying on greenscreen) and the high octane action sequences sure do excite and additionally, both series are full of exciting characters who are portrayed with vim and vigour by the game cast, there’s plenty of effective comedy, the escalating drama really works, there’s so much imagination on display, and so many of the episodes are written superbly by people who clearly understand the franchise, including in-jokes, references and characters that diehard fans will savour while also making the show perfectly accessible to those who aren’t as familiar with the material.

Both series are just so thrilling, technically amazing, and just plain fun and I’m glad to see that it rarely puts a foot wrong. Further series will be more than welcome and if it continues, I hope that it continues to be just as amazing as it has already proven itself to be.

* * *

And that’s part one. Join me tomorrow, on New Year’s Eve, where I count down the very best (and the worst) 2020 films.

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