In the Year of Staying In, we were all fortunate we were no longer trapped in the era of network TV. With the plethora of offerings from the streaming giants – a number growing year on year – no one could complain they couldn’t find something to their taste.
And there would have been lots more if Covid-19 hadn’t shut down so many productions, including all Apple TV+ returning dramas and Disney+ landmark Marvel series.
I try to keep up with at least a couple of episodes of every new drama. That’s getting increasingly hard to do. But here are my top ten lockdown loves of 2020.
10. Perry Mason
HBO offered up a gloomy take on the attorney of Erie Stanley Gardner’s crime novels, a far cry from the brightly-lit sixties TV series with Raymond Burr in the title role. It’s a strong dose of noir set as America claws its way out of the Great Depression, built on excellent period detail and with a tough realistic edge. Matthew Rhys makes a good hound dog Mason and there’s strong support from Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and Shea Whigham.
9. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel
The third season maintains both its class and remarkable period detail while touching on issues with contemporary resonance. Mrs Maisel remains the unlikely outsider in a highly constrained society – a woman! in stand-up comedy! – but this time encounters people even more outside the norm. Winning characters and gentle humour are given full force by excellent performances from Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shalhoub among others. Worth all the Golden Globes and Emmys.
8. The Plot Against America
A chilling and timely adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel which looks at how easily fascism could arise in America, and out of the democratic system. Told through the eyes of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey as the nation deals with the rapid rise of populist politician Charles Lindbergh, its easy to see why, after the events of the last four years in the US, David Simon and Ed Burns decided to tell this now. Terrifying not only in how the story unfolds, but also in what it says about human nature and the nature of America.
7. The Good Fight
One of the few shows that is overtly about Trump and his influence on America. The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from the divisiveness and the underlying sense of threat in the country for people who don’t agree with the former President, and calls out Trump defiantly – he’s the background villain of the piece. But it delivers its commentary with wry wit and character-based drama. There’s also a winning quirkiness to its storytelling with flashes of animation, asides and hallucinations.
One of the unfolding strengths of this series is the ability to increase the stakes for the central characters not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. Every single choice the Byrde family makes as they attempt to stay alive and free leads to a worse situation. In lesser hands that could come across as breathless, but here it’s measured and the twists are always surprising. Julia Garner is the standout star, but Laura Linney is doing career-best work as the resourceful matriarch.
A truncated season because of the pandemic, this subsequently lacks the killer punch of previous finales (the final episodes will be shown in 2021, running straight into season 6). The manoeuvring and manipulation of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod grows more intense in the Shakespearean telling. Sociopaths rule the world. We all feared it. Now we see it’s true.
4. The Crown
As well made and enjoyable as this series has been, it’s never made my list before. But season 4 has been a tour-de-force. That’s partly because it’s reached the eighties, the era of high drama for the Royals with the spiralling tragedy of the Charles and Diana romance. And partly because of Gillian Anderson’s coruscating performance as Margaret Thatcher, perfectly capturing her divisive nature – driven and ambitious for Britain, but a megalomaniac, paranoiac and uncaring about a large swathe of the population which Thatcher deemed, in her own words, not “one of us”.
Novelist and filmmaker Alex Garland’s science fiction murder mystery is packed with ideas and deep themes that will leave you pondering long after its over. As with his movie Ex Machina, it’s ostensibly about technological advancement, here quantum computing and the wonders that offers, but it tackles free will and determinism. At it’s heart, though, it’s a human story about loss and the search for meaning in everyone’s life.
2. Better Call Saul
One of the best-written and acted returning series on TV. There’s nothing flashy about it. No shocking twists or bursts of ultraviolence. Instead it’s crept up quietly in the background with great storytelling and dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. It’s very different to Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it, yet it has now, in its own way, transcended Walter White’s odyssey. A measured character study of a flawed man and the way he changes the world around him.
- The Queen’s Gambit
Not just the best series of the year, but the best for very many years. It came out of nowhere during the pandemic months and travelled the world through word of mouth – a drama, about chess? Are you sure? Of course, it’s not really about chess. In a way, it’s very old school storytelling. The script and direction by Scott Frank is unflashy yet brilliant, hitting all the notes of character, emotion and theme without drawing attention to itself. The world it creates is new and refreshing, a rarity these days, and you don’t need to know anything about chess to appreciate it. And it’s anchored by a luminous performance by Anna Taylor-Joy with an equally great supporting cast. Awards will shower down on it, and rightly so.