Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more


This year, television was therapy. Here’s a rundown of those shows that comforted, inspired and elated us, making 2020 slightly easier to handle

We have been living in the golden age of television for so long now that it’s quite easy to forget how, in a year like this, we owe much of our sanity to the medium. The likes of Netflix, Disney+ Hotstar and Amazon Prime faced stiff competition from new entrants Apple TV+, Hulu and Voot as the streaming wars intensified with several outstanding English-language dramas and comedies arriving every week.

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Favourites such as Bojack Horseman bid solemn goodbyes with a typically-cathartic farewell, while the likes of Better Call Saul set up the stage for an epic final season to come. Other limited offerings such as The Queen’s Gambit and The Good Lord Bird paid heed to our binge-watching pleasures with addictive storylines, while Grogu and Mando continued to form the most endearing fictional relationship of our times.

 

There were comfort watches, historical dramas, tear-jerkers, action-thrillers, seductive romances, and a whole lot more. Some came just at the right time to provide solace; others woke us up from the pandemic slumber with urgency.

Quite simply, in 2020, television was therapy. Picking the best among so many notable contenders was no easy task, but here are the best English shows of the year, in no particular order.

Better Call Saul (Season 5)

For a prequel that kicked off being in danger of living (and eventually ending) in the shadow of its much-feted predecessor (Breaking Bad), Vince Gilligan’s Better Call Saul has done alarmingly well to raise this question every single season since its inception: is the character study of Jimmy McGill — dare we say it — better than Walter White’s legendary turn for the ages?

Viewers of both shows will hesitate to answer; that’s how progressively good the best-written drama on TV has been (Bagman is my favourite TV episode of the year). Every single storyline it has dared to take on: Jimmy’s exhilarating evolution into Saul Goodman, the continued swinging of Kim Wexler’s moral pendulum, Mike Ehrmantraut’s many intriguing sagas, or indeed, Lalo Salamanca’s horrific retribution to come, has been phenomenal.

The end of season five sets up several cliffhangers, with fans already speculating Bryan Cranston to have a guest appearance at some point. The cast, be it new additions or regulars Bob Odernkirk and Jonathan Banks continue to be criminally excellent, but for now, can we just wax eloquent on how Rhea Seehorn is probably the most outstanding actress of the decade?

Normal People

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

Based on Sally Rooney’s bestselling novel, the limited series follows the complex — and, at times, achingly familiar — relationship between Marianne and Connell during their formative decade, as we love, laugh and cry along with them.

No recent drama has captured the beautiful agony of first love quite as poignantly, and the electric chemistry between the two astonishing lead actors Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones will have you wanting more once the show ends. Around their tempestuous romance, the intimate direction by Lenny Abrahamson and Hattie Macdonald takes on issues such as gender and class, with the project even bringing on board an intimacy coordinator to help film some of the best sex scenes ever depicted in modern-day television.

Normal People is raw, real and and painful as it gets — you’d be hard-pressed to find a better take on young romance anytime soon.

Read The Hindu’s review of Normal People

The Good Lord Bird

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

This adaptation of James McBride’s 2013 National Book Award-winning novel is a dazzling, almost-irreverent take on history, headlined by the ever-dependable Ethan Hawke, who co-produces, co-writes and also stars in it.

Hawke is quite fabulous as the American abolitionist John Brown whose mission is to end slavery in 1850s America, but he is adequately eclipsed by the performance of newcomer Joshua Caleb Johnson, who plays a fugitive named Henry who dons a dress and passes as a girl. The Good Lord Bird is impossible to encapsulate in a few words, but suffice it to say, makes for a rollicking, terribly entertaining adventure filled with chaos and violence.

Read The Hindu’s review of The Good Lord Bird

Never Have I Ever

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

Mindy Kaling’s YA-drama for Netflix might have been regarded by some as just another coming-of-age story, albeit with an Indian-American high schooler in the lead role. However, apart from being a massive win for South Asian representation in Hollywood, the manner in which the show dealt with high school themes such as romance, sex, friendship, queer/ LGBTQIA+ issues — while navigating the life of a teen coping with the unexpected loss of a parent — was refreshingly watchable.

Apart from populating the series with an extremely likeable cast who brought their roles to life charmingly, Maitreyi Ramakrishnan’s breakthrough performance as Devi set the tone for a finale that was as funny as it was emotional — and raises high hopes for the next season.

Read The Hindu’s review of Never Have I Ever

The Queen’s Gambit

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

The most-watched show of the year? The best-rated Netflix mini-series ever? Scott Frank’s adaptation of Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel following the fascinating journey of a chess prodigy in the ‘60s is that rare offering which lives up to all the hype surrounding it, and then some.

Anya Taylor-Joy’s performance as the intense Beth Harmon — from gifted orphan to world-famous genius — is stunning, aided by the writing and costume design, which makes the world of professional chess look sexy and fashionable. The Queen’s Gambit ticks all the pulsating boxes on how to provide a new twist to a classic underdog-against-the-odds tale, and is as inspirational as modern-day dramas come.

Read The Hindu’s review of The Queen’s Gambit

The Mandalorian (Season 2)

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

Do you really need one more article extolling why Baby Yoda/ The Child/ Grogu is the best thing to happen to television in recent years?

The second season of the superhit Star Wars’ spin-off provided more of exactly what made its introduction tick: a straightforward storyline that appealed to even newbie viewers who knew naught of Jedis or lightsabers; a dashing central protagonist to root for (even if you have to wait till season finales to get a glimpse of his face beneath the beskar armor); epic arrivals of beloved characters such as Bo-Katan and Ahsoka Tano to satisfy the most unforgiving of Star Wars’ fans; and finally, Grogu’s many coos and babbles that have proved to be a more potent antidote to 2020 than any vaccine so far.

Jon Favreau, just thank you. You have no idea how much we needed this.

Read The Hindu’s review of The Mandalorian Season 2

I May Destroy You

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

Michaela Coel’s devastating character study of a carefree woman trying to deal with the trauma/ mystery of what happened to her after a hard night of partying, is astounding and triggering in equal measure.

A complex semi-autobiographical story of sexual assault laced with dark humour and uncomfortable moments, I May Destroy You is often a difficult watch, but Coel’s stirring script urges viewers to stick with her, and the result is an incredibly sensitive, yet smart and powerful series that does justice to every topic it takes on. An award frontrunner, the show has been rightly hailed as an important, even essential watch in the aftermath of the #MeToo movement.

Read The Hindu’s review of I May Destroy You

Mrs. America

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

It’s Cate Blanchett’s first TV series. Of course it had to be phenomenal, right? Surrounded by A-listers such as Rose Byrne, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba and Tracey Ullman, Blanchett and the rest of the cast are in their element paying real women who emerged as feminist icons in the 70s. Created by Dahvi Waller, the mini-series details the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment, and the accompanying backlash led by conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly (a superlative Blanchett).

Mrs. America’s focus is unwavering — and often draws parallels from its storyline to the political environment that exists in today’s world — while paying tribute to the women who fought the hard battles nearly five decades ago, to lay the foundations for feminism and gender equality.

Read The Hindu’s review of Mrs. America

Unorthodox

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

This limited series on Netflix was a surprise hit, headlined by a strong and complicated female character, played impeccably by the fiercely talented Shira Haas.

Following the life of a young woman who runs away from her Orthodox Jewish community after surviving a deeply unhappy arranged marriage, Unorthodox is adapted from Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same title, and paints a deeply-absorbing tale of freedom and redemption. From New York to Berlin, Etsy’s transformation and journey from restriction to liberation is tantalisingly captured, and gorgeously filmed to boot.

Read The Hindu’s review of Unorthodox

Bojack Horseman (Season 6)

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

It’s easy to forget that the second half of Bojack Horseman’s final season debuted back in January, when the world was an easier place to live in. But the influence of the animated show, led by an anthropomorphic talking horse, on modern culture is so immense that it’s impossible to ignore.

In the final six episodes of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s genre-defining masterclass, Bojack has to face all his demons —past, present and future — one last time, as his relationships with friends Todd, Diane and Princess Carolyn, the only ones who ever truly cared for him, come under the scanner too.

What is more terrifying than death? Confronting the reality you have created, and living with your mistakes every single day. That’s the final lesson Bojack offers us, after a scintillating six season-run in which it broke every rule known to modern television — and succeeded admirably at it. There is no other show more relatable to the year that has passed us by — in which our lives, both physical and mental, have been stretched to the very margins — and Bojack will help with reflection, reconciliation or whatever form of catharsis you choose to get yourself through the day.

After everything 2020 was, “Diane, how was your day?” remains the most heart-breaking moment of the year for me.

Notable mentions:

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

Ted Lasso: Jason Sudeikis’ sitcom about an American college football coach travelling to England and managing an English Premier League soccer team has its flaws, but brandishes them with so much heart, making it impossible not to root for.

High Fidelity: This gender-swapped retelling of Nick Hornby’s novel, led by a magnetic Zoë Kravitz captured all the charm and angst of the John Cusack 2000 rom-com, but was disappointingly cancelled after one season.

Lovecraft Country: The series, whose producers include Jordan Peele and JJ Abrams, uses pulp fiction to explore deeper questions of race, gender and sexuality, and was a political history lesson and outright horror drama juxtaposed into one.

Best TV shows of 2020: ‘Normal People’, ‘The Queen’s Gambit’ and more

Harley Quinn: This adult animated sitcom is everything the live-action feature was not. A newly-single Harley Quinn and her best friend/partner-in-crime Poison Ivy leave The Joker behind, to make Gotham City her own. It’s dark, witty and oh-so-sexy… so much so that you won’t even miss Batman.

We Are Who We Are: Luca Guadagnino’s first series is a gorgeous coming-of-age drama that follows a group of teens in Italy discovering each other —and themselves — in the most beautiful of settings. The Call Me By Your Name and Suspiria filmmaker couldn’t have chosen a better, more relevant subject to make his mark upon.

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