Top Ten New TV Shows of 2020

Come on - what have we forgotten this time?

by Tom Davies

2020.
I'm just going to leave that there for a second.
2020.
Am I right?
I'm Right.

BUT, if you’re a lover of science-fiction, women-led drama and civil rights, boy oh boy has this been a great year of TV for you. And if you’re not a lover of those things… just go and take a good long look at yourself. Once you get back from that, have another long look at and a good old fashioned argue about our list of the ten best new TV shows of 2020.

10. I Know This Much is True (HBO / Sky)

Mark Ruffalo and Mark Ruffalo star as twins in this dark drama which examines the impact of paranoid schizophrenia on a family. It also continues the tradition of having a Marvel Avenger play opposite themself on the small screen in a year-best TV show (the first, in case you missed it, was last year’s Living With Yourself on Netflix).

What Cas said:

It takes a minute to settle into the dark void that is I Know This Much Is True, but once you're in, you'll realise it's one of the most emotionally charged dramas of late, taking an exceptionally incisive look at mental health and abuse, and organically plotting out a childhood history and parallel events in adulthood which form the pieces of a complex puzzle. It's trademark work from Cianfrance, who revels in the gritty texture of the period setting, Malickian monologues and an exceptionally well-chosen soundtrack, skipping back and forth in time effortlessly to give us fragments in the lives of these damaged individuals.

9. Lovecraft Country (HBO / Sky)

A deft piece of genre television, mashing together a whole host of genre tropes to tell exciting, spooky and troubling stories. Taking the work of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the greatest writers of horror stories (and a deeply unpleasant human being) and producing TV which hinges on a through-line of civil rights takes real skill.

What Tom said:

Lovecraft Country is an adaptation of a 2016 book of the same name by Matt Ruff, with a screenplay by Misha Green, previously known for her historical drama centred around the organisations helping African-Americans escape the South, Underground. These credentials made her the ideal candidate for the project as the context of ongoing oppression of civil rights are central to the impact of the stories. But in Lovecraft Country, this context is woven into a story of hauntings, monsters, ancestral links to evil (the reveal on this one made me laugh out loud) and cults. An impossible balancing act is achieved - though still wobbly – between a story of the everyday fear in the lives of 1950s’ Black Americans and a fantastically fun plumbing of early 20th century pulp fiction. But I suppose this ability to flit between making a difficult point and having fun along the way should be no great surprise to fans of producer Jordan Peele.

8. DEVS (FX / BBC)

For anyone familiar with Alex Garland’s science fiction movies – Annihilation, Ex Machina, Sunshine - DEVS is typically cerebral. What’s atypical is that it actually sticks the landing. Providing a gripping story of science fiction conspiracy centring around a mysterious tech icon and his hand-picked R&D team, the edge-of-your-seat twists and turns rarely let up.

What Cas said:

Produced by the now-Disney-owned FX Channel, Devs is as much of a coup for the BBC as Annihilation was for Netflix, immediately jumping to the top of your must-watch pile as some of the strongest and most compelling programming on offer (and that's in a month that also saw the return of Killing Eve). Superbly led by the relatively unknown - or at least underserved - Sonoya Mizuno (Garland's go-to girl in all of his endeavours thus far), with scene-stealing support from Fargo's Nick Offerman and an unsurprisingly shifty performance from Snowpiercer's Alison Pill, Devs doesn't pander for those with half an eye on their phones or their dinner, demanding 1000% attention as every micro-movement of a watch can change the entire dynamic of what you are watching. It's cerebral, adult, and steeped in that same richly ominous atmosphere that has pervaded everything from the filmmaker so far.

7. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Based on the Walter Tevis novel, the story of a young woman and chess prodigy breaking into the male dominated competitive arena was a chance for star, Anna Taylor-Joy, to demonstrate once again why her star has risen so quickly as she gave one of the finest performances of the year.

What Kumari said:

This is a classic sports underdog/coming-of-age story, and it’s done really well and in a refreshing way. Director Scott Frank manages to make a whole series of chess matches seem approachable, exciting, absorbing and even magical across the episodes. Seriously, it’s wild how many different ways Frank manufactures to present the chess board as a new battleground. Using the board as the location, hanging back casually as an observer, even utilising the classic split-screen; Frank’s work – in conjunction with cinematographer Steven Meizler and with exciting editing by Michelle Tesoro – makes even the biggest chess novice in the world a participant.

Ultimately though, The Queen's Gambit is all about Beth, who is probably one of the year’s most interesting leading characters to grace our screens.

6. I May Destroy You (BBC / HBO)

With I May Destroy You, Sam Miller and Michaela Coel have crafted something unique and devastating about the lasting impact of rape on victims. With its subject matter and story arc, it might surprise anyone not familiar with Coel’s previous work when moments of comedy shine through.

What Cas said:

This isn't your usual rape-revenge tale, nor anything even vaguely approximating it, with the perpetrator almost tangentially relevant, and instead the focus on the psychological and emotional fallout. Main character Arabella is damaged horrifically, becoming a super-alert beacon of pain, no longer able to emotionally connect with anybody around her (her friends have their own horrific issues but Arabella is so busy dealing with - or avoiding - her own trauma that she has no bandwidth to read any of the signs), smashing her way through the world to try and get her head above water.

5. The Good Lord Bird (Showtime / Sky)

Ethan Hawke’s passion project for US network Showtime is the story of white abolitionist and Civil War catalyst John Brown. Part grotesque spectacle of racism in pre-civil-rights America, part gun toting action, part farcical comedy, this limited series was never afraid to skewer its heroes.

What Tom said:

Portraying John Brown in a way which is both sympathetic and damning; shocking and entertaining; passionate and psychotic is less like threading a needle and more like putting an axe on the helve. It initially seems easy but by the end you are bashing something dangerous and sharp onto something blunt and heavy. Nevertheless, despite a few missed hits and a bit of dubious construction, The Good Lord Bird succeeds in crafting something that is able to cut deeply into modern attitudes towards achieving equality through violent means, but more impressively, it has a lot of fun swinging it around.

4. Small Axe (BBC)

Turner Prize and Oscar winning filmmaker Steve McQueen told a series of stories chronicling the Black experience in 1970s and 80s Britain. Initially conceived as a single story told across a series, McQueen found that the true stories of Black British trailblazers each demanded a feature length runtime, leading to Small Axe, an anthology of films broadcast on BBC One in November and December.

What Kumari said about part one - ‘Mangrove’:

Obviously, it’s wonderful and important for viewers of Caribbean heritage to see their stories told on screen by people who look like them. But more to the point, this is a series about British history – it applies to all of us and we should all be watching. It’s a joy to watch, even though it’s distressing and anger-inducing stuff. Stars, Malachi Kirby and Letitia Wright in particular are extraordinary as two extraordinary people. Wright is at once luminous and furious, joyful and incensed, powerful and real as the amazing Jones-LeCointe. The film also does a much neater job than the roundly criticised Guerilla in showing how the struggles of the Black and South Asian communities intersected at this time, without having to de-centre this amazing story of Black women.

3. Raised by Wolves (HBO Max / Sky)

Ridley Scott returns to some high concept science fiction, giving a nod to some of his best early work in this series produced for HBO Max. Using android protagonists to depict detached portrayals of the brutalities of survival, tribalism, religion somehow made the series even more human.

What Cas said:

Across its 10 episodes, Raised by Wolves continues to push the boundaries with regard to audience expectations, successively blowing your mind as it jumps the next hurdle, introducing religious zealots, virtuality, indigenous creatures, planet-boring holes, and the near-invulnerable Necromancers, who are just about as scary as their name suggests. From the first time Mother opens her mouth and screams, to the visions and voices that plague characters later on in the season, Scott's spectacular sci-fi is utterly gripping - you simply don't know where it's going to go next.

2. Tales from the Loop (Amazon)

A series of art pieces by Simon Stålenhag juxtaposing small town pastoral life with ominous brooding technology was the inspiration for this Amazon Original science fiction anthology series from April this year. A ten-part series of interwoven stories where the technology is incidental to human stories being told.

What Tom said:

Tales from the Loop director Nathaniel Halpern has attempted here to honour the atmosphere of Stålenhag’s work (he is credited as an executive producer and worked closely with Halpern throughout development) whilst delving deeper, not into the science fiction concepts but into the lives of the people affected by them. The result is a thoughtful piece of speculative fiction unlike anything else being made for television: a blend of Ray Bradbury-esque focus on small town America and Mike Cahill and Britt Marling’s award nominated Another Earth.

The direction is absolutely stunning. Long lingering shots of tranquillity give nature as important a part to play as technology; claustrophobic interior shots give the impression of ever shrinking personal spaces; and watching over it all, the three glowing towers of the institute, the town’s sentinels, dominating the landscape as they do the lives of the people.

1. The Mandalorian (Disney+)

This year Jon Favreau pulled of the impossible by presenting the most uncontroversially enjoyable Star Wars story in decades. Looking past Lucas’s core movies to his original influences – samurai movies, westerns and space adventure serials – The Mandalorian managed to strike immediately at the core what people liked about Star Wars in the first place. Even better, as UK subscribers we were in the fortunate position of getting two seasons in the same year.

What Cas said:

Creator Jon Favreau has absolutely nailed the balance between gritty but Disney-friendly action (shooting the door shut, fighting the beast), exciting space-western adventures (escaping the ice 'shark', chasing the Jawa transport), and sharp wit (the "I will self-destruct" riff is perfectly played), whilst doing a fantastic job at world-building within this curiously underdeveloped universe

This is the kind of rich, war-torn environment Rogue One fans would have had a taste of already[…]that same feeling of finally seeing what we've always wanted to see from this universe. It's glorious. Everything anybody could have possibly hoped for and more, The Mandalorian is just outstanding, amazing, classic Star Wars. The best TV show of the year, with the best single episodes of TV of the year, and the best Star Wars anybody has seen in decades, if ever. This, most certainly, is The Way.

Also ran:

I Hate Suzie – Billie Piper plays an actress clawing to get ahead of a scandal after personal photos of her are leaked online. Piper, essentially playing a fictionalised version of her own story, turns in a career high performance.

The Plot Against America – Tapping the rich seam of alternate history drama, this HBO series told the story of a Jewish American family fighting for survival under the fascist regime of President Charles Lindbergh. It maybe hit a little too close to home for some.

Blood of Zeus – From the studio which brought us Castlevania came the year’s best new animated series: a Greek myth inspired feast of blood and guts culminating in an epic battle between the gods of Mount Olympus and the demonic Giants controlled by Hera.

Stateless – A damning indictment of Australia’s Mandatory Detention program which permits indefinite detention to anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Hard hitting, moving and terrifying drama.

The Third Day – Jude Law spent 12 hours alone on an island being filmed live in character for the high concept middle episode of Dennis Kelley’s drama for Sky. At the very least, it pushed the boundaries of what a TV show is.

Thanks for a wonderful year, TV!

You're my best friend!

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