It’s fair to say that 2020 didn’t turn out the way anybody had hoped. I don’t think I’ve ever come been in a time where literally everyone everywhere was affected by one issue. In all honesty, I don’t think the true full-scale nature of the pandemic hit me properly until TV productions across the world were shut down. We’ve lived through terror attacks, natural disasters and awful economic downturns, but nothing has really ever affected the TV landscape the way Covid-19 has.
This year, although an odd year, with broadcasters scrambling to find things to plug gaping holes left by the Olympics, Footie tournament (my lack of sporting knowledge leaves me unsure which big tournament was cancelled, but I’m sure one was) and music festivals. For the most part, every channel both here in the UK and in the US has handled the lack of programming well cleverly holding back shows so there was often as much new content as we’ve become accustomed to.
Though we didn’t get any of the big shows like Line Of Duty, Unforgotten, Succession or Peaky Blinders, I’d argue that this year has been one of the most consistent, diverse and exciting years that we’ve compiled a best of the year list. Has your favourite made the cut this year?
Cheer (January 2020, Netflix) Before things got really sticky earlier this year there was a huge breakout hit that took us all by surprise. Cheer was a compelling docuseries following the highs and lows of the Navarro College cheerleading squad as they underwent rigorous training in preparation for the national championships. The six-part Netflix series was extremely addictive, cut-throat and also moving in parts, and once you get sucked into this competitive world you start to understand the worldwide obsession with the series. Over the six episodes, the series explores in depth the lives and relationships of these Texan college cheerleaders and you find yourself not just rooting for the squad as a whole but also for these unique individuals, some with tragic personal circumstances, to find their own happy endings.
Before you watch Cheer I advise that you push aside everything you think you might know about cheerleading, because this docuseries will almost certainly destroy the stereotypical version thrust upon us from films such as Bring It On. Yes, these young men and women are beautiful and talented, but they are also incredible ‘gravity-defying’ athletes, and you will probably need to pick your jaw up off the floor when you bear witness to what they put their bodies through daily. To be the best of the best requires unwavering dedication and this series is an intense exploration of what it means to win while also being at times a heart-breaking journey to the top. There’s a reason why Cheer is a megahit, so surely it’s worth seeing what all the fuss is about? Or maybe this is just a great excuse to watch it all again! Written by Imogen Flack
The Good Place (January 2020, NBC/Netflix) Hands up, who remembers that the magnificent finale of The Good Place aired in 2020? No? I don’t blame you. It’s always hard to remember things that aired in early January and particularly this year, the show feels from a different year entirely. We’re also cheating slightly as only the final four episodes aired this year but they were so ruddy perfect we had to include them. Mike Shur’s comedy had an uncanny knack of continually re-inventing itself. Whilst every change didn’t always feel right, the show never lost any of the heart that kept us watching. The final episode, ‘Whenever You’re Ready’ was one of the most poignant finales in recent memory. With each of the gang accepting their fate and moving on from the afterlife. For all its zany moments, the series always championed the fact that these were good people trying to better themselves. It was impossible not to consider your own mortality as you watched each of the characters ‘pass on’. It’s a series we’ll be thinking about long after 2020, even if we did almost forget it aired this year!
Curb Your Enthusiasm (January 2020, HBO/Sky Atlantic) The tenth season of Larry David’s comedy was of the show’s best. Beginning with Larry’s feud with Mocha Joe, after he finds himself sat a wobbly table with a cold coffee. This being Larry David, these things aren’t just a minor niggle, instead, they manifest themselves into a vendetta with David opening a ‘spite store’ next door to Mocha Joe. Other highlights this year included Jon Hamm, shadowing Larry for a new role and taking on his characteristics, Larry finding out he’s been sat in ‘The Ugly Section’ of a restaurant and the fact Jeff’s weight loss means he resembles Harvey Weinstein. For a show in its tenth season, it shows no sign of going stale or repeating itself. The beauty of Curb is that you never know what you’re going to get. Larry David shows no signs of slowing and we’re already excited by the upcoming new series. As much as we don’t want covid to front and centre of our comedy or drama, self-confessed germophobe David is bound to pencil into the next run, and no doubt it’ll be all the better for it.
McMillion$ (February 2020, HBO/Sky Documentaries) We live in an era where documentaries can enthral just as much as a well-written drama. McMillion$ was the best example of this. The story of an organised crime group who hijacked The McDonalds Monopoly game, exchanging winning pieces with friends meaning that for the entirety of the games’ run no one from the public actually ever won. Told by the FBI agents who discovered the patterns and connections between the winners, and those on the inside of the scam, McMillion$ was one of the compulsive and addictive shows of the year. The star of the piece being Agent Doug Matthews who, at the time of the investigation, was an over-eager rookie with the bit between his teeth desperate to be involved in the undercover sting to bring the elusive ‘Uncle Jerry’ to justice. Aside from the truly shocking twists and turns the series takes across its six episodes, the joy comes from listening to those involved recount events in their own unique style.
In a particularly hilarious section, Matthews recalls the time he turned up to a clandestine meeting with the bosses of McDonald’s wearing a gold suit. Much to the disgust of his fellow officers. In other, we see him tackling a beachgoer who makes off with the fictitious big cheque his undercover gang have mocked up to catch a would-be winner in the act. As funny as it was shocking, McMillion$ had everything. A compelling and truly unbelievable story, characters you cared about, tragedy and undercover stings!
Inside No.9 (February 2020, BBC2) Inside No.9 has been a fixture on our best of the year lists since its launch. Its genius is episode offers something different and something for everyone. Whether it is the joy you take from trying to work out whether or not there is a twist (as most episodes enjoy turning things on their head) or whether you just enjoy the different characters that creators Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith bring to life, season five has you covered. Whilst no episode this series perhaps crack the lofty high of “12 Days of Christine” the last three entries this series certainly give it a try. “Misdirection” is the series at its mysterious best as it keeps the viewer guessing every single second, reminiscent of “Riddle of the Sphinx” as a magician is accused of plagiarising a magic trick. “Thinking Out Loud” lays the groundwork for a peak of emotion before turning everything on its head and leaving you shook by the crescendo, the acting in this episode was a particular highlight as six very different characters tell us their stories. Finally “The Stakeout” not only brings the season to a fantastic close but brings the series back to its horror roots as Pemberton & Shearsmith truly get thirty minutes to flex their acting chops as two policemen sat in a car. Not to mention the delight I felt during “Death Be Not Proud” when the cobwebs were shaken off a character I long thought were gone.
Inside No. 9 deserves all the plaudits it gets. The series grows stronger and is willing to take more risks. We’re already excited by the sixth series in 2021! Written by Dan Golding.
Better Things (February 2020, FX/BBC Two) Better Things is a joy. More of an immersive viewing experience that puts the audience as a fly on the wall of Pamela Adlon as he navigates through life as an actress in LA and try and not to lose her mind with her three daughters. Directed by and largely written by Pamela Adlon, who also stars as the mid-tier actress Sam Fox, the fourth season explores family, mortality and the ways of being a woman in the world. In the season finale, Sam’s daughter Duke (Olivia Edward) meets a mysterious elderly woman (quite likely a ghost) who recounts having had a full life without marrying, telling Duke, “One compliment from a woman is worth a thousand compliments from a man.” It’s haunting, tender, beautiful. Though the deal between the BBC and it’s US home FX means all four seasons are all there on the iPlayer, it’s cruelly under-watched here and woefully under-promoted by the BBC. It’s consistently great and a fixture on best of the year lists, I just wish more people had discovered it.
This Country (February 2020, BBC Three)When the third series of Charlie and Daisy May Cooper’s hilarious mockumentary aired began airing in February this year, we knew it would be the last time we saw Cotswold cousins Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe. From humble beginnings, This Country became a word-of-mouth hit, making the Cooper siblings stars and award winners in the process. However, I was a little worried that this final series may not have been of the pedigree of the comedy’s previous outings and may have tarnished its legacy to an extent. Thankfully, my worries were quickly abated with a fantastic opener which paid tribute to the Coopers friend Michael Sleggs, who paid Slugs on the show, as Kurtan learnt of a long-held secret relating to a trauma from his youth.
However, personally, it was the last two episodes of This Country which will stick with me due to their simplicity and utter brilliance. The penultimate instalment saw the cousins waiting at the local train station for the vicar to return from Bristol. Putting me in mind of series one episode ‘Oven Space’; ‘The Station’ saw the cousins squabble, reunite with an old friend whilst Kurtan also launched into a diatribe about Toadie from Neighbours. The finale ended things on a high with the vicar departing the parish and having an emotional farewell with Kurtan and Kerry.
Balancing humour with pathos throughout this final series, I felt that This Country’s third series came as close to perfection as possible. Both Charlie and Daisy May gave fantastic turns as the cousins whilst Paul Chahidi was fantastic in the finale as the vicar questioned his decision to take a new job in a more urban parish. Ultimately, I thought this was the perfect way to end a series that has bought joy to many over the past few years and saw This County go out at the very top of its game. Written by Matt Donnelly.
Better Call Saul (February 2020, AMC/Netflix) Better Call Saul has spent most of its run in the shadow of its predecessor Breaking Bad, and that makes sense. It wouldn’t exist without Breaking Bad. The show is a prequel, built around the idea that we know where most of our major characters will end up. But in 2020, a year in which so much was terrible, Better Call Saul surpassed Breaking Bad by leaning into the show’s grim fate.
We know things don’t go great for Jimmy, Mike, and Gus because we’ve seen where they end up in colorful detail. So Better Call Saul has amped up the tragedy by creating interesting and complex characters and then hitching them to this doomed voyage. From Kim Wexler to Nacho Varga to Lalo Salamancha, the show has built a deep bench of characters whose destiny remains a mystery to us. All we know is that they’re not in Breaking Bad, and given how things generally turn out for characters in this universe, that is more than a little unsettling.
Better Call Saul’s entire season was a masterpiece from start to finish, following Jimmy’s return to practicing law but now fully embracing the Saul Goodman persona that will come to define him. That huxter finds himself at odds with his straight-laced girlfriend Kim Wexler (played by Emmy snub Rhea Seehorn), who was perhaps the single most compelling character on television this year. In the show’s unmatched run of second half episodes (“Wexler v. Goodman” to “Something Unforgivable”) Kim comes to realize that Saul might not just be a persona for Jimmy but a hint at his true nature—the person he not only wants to be, but the person he actually is.
But rejection would be a surrender, and Kim doesn’t quit. She doubles down and blazes a new path forward, one where she eagerly leads him down a “bad choice road.”
It’s a stunning role-reversal, Jimmy suddenly finds himself as a voice of reason for the woman who has been his conscience for the entire series. And it came at time where the stakes of Better Call Saul are escalating from career suicide to actual life-and-death.
While often separate throughout the show’s first four seasons, the cartel storyline begins to collide with the legal drama this year. Saul becomes Lalo’s lawyer, Kim comes face-to-face with the cartel, and the thin barrier separating Jimmy from Saul begins to fray, which couldn’t come at a worse time. Gus and Lalo engage in a cold war that might just turn hot in the show’s next, and final, season. Nacho (played by Michael Mando) finds himself in the middle, trying desperately to save his father from the crosshairs, but endangering himself in the process.
It’s hard to give Mando the credit he deserves playing Nacho because, as great as he is, everyone on this show is providing knockout performances. Bob Odenkirk turned in the best season of his character’s illustrious career, holding his lust for excitement and his fear of being in over his head at the same time. Giancarlo Esposito and Jonathan Banks became the showstopping duo we came to respect and fear in Breaking Bad. Rhea Seehorn did just about everything, arguing her way out of a jam with Lalo to realizing and accepting who Jimmy is in the same moment.
All of that is to say nothing of the “oh s**t” moments Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould are able to concoct. From the raid on Lalo’s villa to Jimmy serving as bait for Mike, Better Call Saul has surpassed Breaking Bad in even its action set pieces. How will it end? Who knows, but it’s safe to say that Better Call Saul has become a masterpiece on its own terms, separate from the legacy of its predecessor. Written by Jackson
Feel Good (March 2020, Channel 4) This engaging comedy-drama was a welcome pick-me-up in the spring, landing on Channel 4 right at the start of lockdown. Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical series follows a Canadian stand-up comedian in London, with drug addiction issues in her past, as she enters into a serious relationship with a woman who has only ever dated men before. Covering ground that we’ve rarely seen trodden on TV around relationships, addiction, sexuality and gender identity, such as Mae worrying that her girlfriend is just going through a phase and will one day leave her for a man, Feel Good offers a truly modern take on the romcom that never stops feeling new and refreshing. It also helps that the show is visually stunning and that Mae Martin charms in the lead role, with excellent support from Charlotte Ritchie as her girlfriend and Lisa Kudrow as her intimidating mother. Written by Sophie Davies.
Tiger King – Murder & Madness (March 2020, Netflix) Unless you have been living under a rock for the past year, then you will know all about the extremely popular show Tiger King. You were either immediately intrigued to binge watch all 8 episodes, or everyone around you talked about it so much that it was like you had already watched it anyway. Either way, there is no denying that this Netflix original provided a much-needed distraction from the horrors that March threw at as all. No matter what people say about the show, or whose side you were on, there has to be a reason why people were so immersed within the scandalous lives of Joe Exotic and Carol Baskin…
With Joe Exotic’s exaggerated and shameless tone and Carol Baskin’s ambiguously peaceful persona, it was impossible not to find yourself immersed in the holistic drama that ensued between the on-screen enemies.
The fact that it was released at the birth of lockdown in the UK, significantly helped towards its immense popularity as so many of us were at home and relying on binge-worthy material to get us through. The show provided people with something to connect over and discuss online, in a time when face to face social interaction was not allowed.
An incredible story that seemed to get more bonkers by the minute, with twists and turns twists most dramas would kill for, Tiger King was just as engrossing as any of the best true-crime documentaries in recent memory. Written by Mellisa Lander.
In My Skin (March 2020, BBC3) This heartbreaking series by Kayleigh Llewellyn, based on her own teenage years, revolves around a working-class Welsh girl struggling with a chaotic home life and trying to keep it all a secret from her friends, classmates and teachers. With a bipolar mum who frequently has to spend time in psychiatric wards and an irresponsible, alcoholic dad, 16-year-old Beth (an incredible breakthrough performance from Gabrielle Creevy) is torn in countless directions, forced to juggle regular teenage activities with a myriad of adult responsibilities, and mostly having to prioritise the latter for the sake of her mum’s safety. Llewellyn’s writing really nails the nastiness that kids are capable of (so it’s perfectly understandable why Beth wouldn’t want her classmates knowing about her mentally ill mum), as well as the relentlessness of caring for an unwell parent. Among the brutal moments, hints of hope are all the more uplifting, such as when Beth shows a talent for writing at school and forms an intense bond with another girl. Written by Sophie Davies.
Unorthodox (March, Netflix)This four-part limited series arrived on Netflix to little promotion and quietly proved itself to be one of the streaming platform’s best shows of the year. Primarily in Yiddish with some English and German thrown in, Unorthodox tells the story of a young woman raised in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who decides to leave everything she knows behind and start a new life in Berlin. We follow Esty (the brilliant Shira Haas) as she befriends a group of musicians, reunites with her estranged mother, and is introduced to a world free from the strict rules and beliefs she grew up with. Meanwhile, after learning that she is pregnant, Esty’s husband travels to Berlin with a thuggish cousin in tow and tries to track her down in hopes of bringing her (and crucially their unborn child) back home. In the end, it’s impossible to feel unmoved by this tale of a woman escaping the social pressures of a tight-knit community and finding her own path. Written by Sophie Davies.
Normal People (April 2020 BBC3/BBC1/HULU) Subtle, tender, complicated and very often uncomfortable, this beautiful adaptation of Sally’s Rooney’s award-winning novel was pretty much flawless and did well to satisfy the extremely high expectations that preceded its release.
The story delves into the complicated on-again-off-again relationship between two young Irish lovers set over a period of time from secondary school to college. Marianne and Connell, mesmerizingly played by Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, are from completely different worlds – she is the rich outcast with a complicated relationship with her family, and he is the popular athlete struggling to find his voice; they find an instant attraction with each other as well as an intellectual bond that goes much deeper than just sex (and trust me, there’s a lot of sex). This is a touching coming-of-age love story which is affected by age, power, class and insecurities.
The series does require a lot of patience from the viewer but it is so worth it and before you know it, you have been swept up in the intensity of a complex relationship which only makes you more appreciative of the beautiful connection between the two protagonists. There is certainly nothing normal about the fantastic writing, acting and setting of this moving drama which will stick with us long after 2020. Written by Imogen Flack
What We Do in the Shadows (April/June 2020, FX/BBC2) Like everyone else in 2020, I have had more time on my hands so I made the decision to catch up on some of the TV that I’ve been promising to return to if my schedule freed up. One of these shows was What We Do in the Shadows; Taika Waititi and Jermaine Clement’s mockumentary about vampires living in New York. Whilst I enjoyed catching up with the first season, it was this year’s second season which saw the programme come into its own. This was primarily due to the decision to put Harvey Guillén’s Guillermo at the heart of the show as he struggled with the revelation that he was related to the Van Helsing family whilst still being Nandor’s familiar. The latter half of the season also saw Guillermo come to the realisation that Nandor may never turn him into a vampire before saving the day in a rather grizzly sequence in the second season finale.
The show’s other great attribute is the trio of fantastic performances from Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou as Nandor, Laszlo and Nadja. Berry’s turn was particularly great this season as his scenery-chewing performance as sex-crazed Laszlo dominated several scenes. Nowhere was this more evident than the episode ‘On the Run’, where Laszlo poses as ‘regular human bartender’ Jackie Daytona to avoid a duel from a former rival. Whilst the writing is always on point, What We Do in the Shadows is also a fantastically directed show and I especially appreciate that the fact that the vampires are being filmed for a documentary is regularly referenced.
The only issue I have with the show is the fact that, like with many of their imports from US cable network FX, BBC Two have done little to promote the fact that the show is airing and still available on iPlayer. This is a real shame as I think a lot of people are missing out on what I feel is currently one of the most consistently funny comedies on TV and one that I’m hoping only gets better when it returns for its third season. Written by Matt Donnelly.
I May Destroy You (June 2020, HBO/BBC1) During the summer months of this year, stuck in a seemingly endless limbo of half lockdown, one of my favourite distractions was BBC Three’s 12-part drama I May Destroy You, created by and starring Michaela Coel. The show follows Arabella, an up and coming writer struggling to meet her latest deadline, who is sexually assaulted whilst on a night out with friends. Over the series, Arabella attempts to piece together exactly what happened with the help of her friends Terry and Kwame (played brilliantly by Weruche Opia and Paapa Essiedu respectively), who are each secretly dealing with their own trauma. But this is no ordinary series, and I May Destroy You appears to push back against the conventions of British drama; there are flashbacks and tangents as well as ambiguity and a beautifully intricate social commentary woven into the narrative, but the series never loses sight of the central theme of consent, which itself is dealt with sensitively. Every episode is as unpredictable as the last, with the only constant being the quality and creativity of Coel’s vision.
I wrote a review of my thoughts about halfway through the series, which was full of praise. However, I don’t think even that does justice to how brilliant this show is, because I believe that the final episode is one of the most experimental and powerful pieces of television I have ever seen – a compelling display of the balance between boldness and nuance that Coel manages to achieve throughout the twelve episodes. Despite it being somewhat of a sleeper hit, without a primetime slot, for me I May Destroy You was still appointment viewing. I thought that the decision to resist putting all of the episodes immediately on iPlayer was an excellent one, and I wasn’t surprised to read that this was the strong preference of Coel herself. I enjoyed having that time to reflect on what I had seen and discuss thoughts and theories with others, and it felt like a treat to get two new episodes to devour every Monday. I May Destroy You is at times a difficult and harrowing watch, but there is also so much joy and humour, and it is a series that I will definitely return to in the future – the care that Michaela Coel put into every frame and every line of dialogue means I am sure there is much to appreciate on a second viewing. Written by Erin Zammit.
The Salisbury Poisonings (June 2020, BBC1) This three-parter centring around the truly bonkers true story of the public health crisis and criminal investigation that followed the 2018 poisoning of MI6 agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia, was far better than it had the right to be. Based on first-hand accounts and extensive interviews with the people caught up in it. Perhaps there was an irony that the BBC aired this in June when we were in our third month of the national lockdown, some of it felt eerily close to home. The series cleverly put three characters in the spotlight. Council worker Tracy Daszkiewicz (Anne-Marie Duff) The director of public health for Wiltshire who found herself at the heart of the most bizarre attack to take place on British soil. Leading a team who were unsure what they were facing, who relied on her plans whilst dealing with a hungry press who descended on Sailsbury. As all of the best true stories do, it put a human face on a story we thought we already knew about. Rafe Spall was wonderful as DS Nick Bailey, the policeman who was exposed to the novichok poison before anyone really understood the danger he had put himself in. There was also Myanna Buring as Dawn Sturgess, a woman who succumbed to the poison weeks after it was thought the situation was under control. A drama that every right to ring every melodramatic moment out of a truly hellish story, writers Adam Patterson and Declan Lawn used their backgrounds in documentaries to make sure the story felt truthful and authentic. It took a methodical look at those who were tasked to keep the public safe rather than taking the route of instilling panic. One of the best true adaptations of recent times that could have so easily turned the whole thing in a Hollywood disaster movie.
Once Upon a Time in Iraq (July 2020, BBC2) This documentary about the Iraq War was one of the most moving, thought-provoking and eye-opening pieces of documentary filmmaking you’ll ever see. Told by Iraqi’s who lived through the horrors of war and by American soldiers who fought on the ground, it puts a human face on a conflict you feel you understood. From the young Iraqi’s who talk fondly of life under Sadam to the soldiers who find themselves conflicted and not understanding the war they are fighting.
The talking heads are damaged by their part in the war, whether they were in active duty, a reporter covering it for the news, or a local who found them suddenly living in a warzone. Behind every warm face and is a story of devastation and heartbreak. Told with honesty and care, the five-part series is a tough but compulsive watch. It could be argued it was the most important piece of television to air this year, shining an uncomfortable light on a piece of modern history we need to learn from.
Mortimer & Whitehouse Gone Fishing (August 2020, BBC2) A show where two old men go fishing in idyllic countryside and have serious heart-to-hearts about their mortality. They catch maybe a couple of fish at best, cook lunch, then Bob falls over, and they go home. How on earth did this get four series (there’s one in the works), a Christmas special (hooray!) and 20 million viewers on iPlayer?
A heart-to-heart is right on the money here. Paul, who himself had an emergency stent operation, invited Bob fishing after his own open-heart surgery as a way to get him out of the house again and boost Bob’s confidence.
While lounging on a beautiful British riverbank like Ratty and Mole they talk about their health and their lives in general. Everything is up for discussion, sometimes with sincerity, but usually punctuated with black gallows humour. Bob is the chef for the weekend trip, cooking a ‘heart-healthy’ recipe often involving lentils while trying not to pine too much for the pub.
It’s a warm and joyous celebration of friendship; two men opening up and talking to each other about heavy subjects, confident they will be heard by someone who cares for them, but also confident they won’t be taken too seriously. It’s a warm-hearted chat about nostalgic childhood memories, family, grief and worries about the future. Their friendship is plain to see, but it doesn’t feel exclusive; it feels like all 20 million of us are there on the riverbank with them, waiting for Bob to lose his battle with gravity yet again and slide gracelessly down into the mud. Oh, and sometimes, there are fish! Written by Sarah Kennedy.
I Hate Suzie (August 2020, Sky Atlantic) Billie Piper gave a knockout performance in this emotional rollercoaster of a series (written by Succession’s Lucy Prebble) about an actress whose life is turned upside down when intimate photos of her, with a man who isn’t her husband, are stolen and leaked online. Exploring a very modern type of crime and how female celebrities can possibly move on with their lives and careers when they are victims of it, I Hate Suzie provides a visceral portrait of a woman pushed to the edge. From photoshoots and auditions to fan conventions and family weddings, we follow Suzie as she understandably unravels and struggles to meet other people’s demands and expectations of her. The whole thing feels refreshingly unpredictable, since it’s impossible to know from one minute to the next whether Suzie is going to have a complete meltdown, burst into song, or spend an entire episode trying to decide what to think about while masturbating… In a year dominated by incredible female performances, Billie Piper stands head and shoulders with Hayley Squires, Michaela Coel and Daisy Edgar Jones. Written by Sophie Davies.
Des (September 2020, ITV) If there is one thing that most people enjoy, it is true-crime. Better yet,
true-crime about an emotionless killer. It’s not hard to understand why so many people enjoy this truly chilling three-parter. The drama tells the story of Dennis Nilsen, a horrific killer that would kill indiscriminately before bathing and dressing the bodies, keeping company with them for weeks before finally disposing of the bodies down his toilet. The series starts with Nilsen’s arrest and immediately you are struck by how cold and forthright Nilsen is, admitting to the murders and stringing along a dumbfounded police force, a force that is desperate to make sure that they make Nilsen pay for his crimes.
Although the subject matter is obviously very interesting and you are left shocked and horrified by the proceedings, this shows greatness falls at the feet of the acting, most notably David Tennant. The sheer quality of Tennant’s ability to convey the shocking nature in which Nilsen conducted himself is so awe-inspiring that each episode left me with an unease I could not wash off. Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins are equally compelling. Mays deal desperate to convict DCI Peter Jay who is desperate to bring Neilsen to justice while Watkins plays autobiographer Brian Masters who struggles not to lose himself in Des’s charisma and lies. “Des” is a fine example of what the likes of ITV and BBC can bring when it comes to drama, the incredible directing are complemented by the chilling set design and fantastic acting make “Des” one of the best true-crime dramas of the past few years. Written by Dan Golding.
Ghosts (September, BBC One) This supernatural sitcom was
deservedly a big hit for the BBC last year and went on to win an even larger,
more devoted audience in 2020 when series one was repeated in advance of
series 2. For the unconverted (in which case where have you been?), the set-up
of Ghosts is that a young couple, Alison and Mike, inherit a country
house and move in to renovate it, only to find that the house is full of ghosts
and, thanks to a near-death experience, Alison is the only person who can see
them. Much of the magic in this unique house-share comedy comes from the fact
that there isn’t just conflict between the living and the dead, but also
between the ghosts themselves, who all originate from different eras. The
second series proved to be just as funny as the first and perhaps even more
inventive, with one episode exploring the day of a character’s death from the viewpoint of multiple ghosts, while another involves the ghosts trying to
prevent a burglary when nobody at home can see or hear them. Written by Sophie Davies.
Honour (September 2020, ITV) Where Des told the story of the capture and sentencing of serial killer Denis Nielsen. Honour is, in contrast, about a case that many people may not have heard of. Honour stared Keeley Hawes as DCI Caroline Goode who is given the case of missing woman Banaz Mahmod. It soon becomes apparent to Goode and her team that Banaz’s disappearance is the result of horrific abuse by her family and community and continual failures by the police.
This exposure of institutional failure and the regressive attitudes towards women expressed by members of Banaz’s family and community are at the heart of the drama. The acting is, of course, excellent, with Keeley Hawes, in particular, expressing Goode’s exasperation and anger so truthfully, but the fundamental heart of the story is the tragedy of Banaz’s death.
It is clear that writer Gwyneth Hughes wanted to present the story of Banaz’s tragic murder with as much sympathy and delicacy as possible and she certainly achieves this. Honour is an excellent crime drama but more profoundly it is a truly unique insight into the horror that so many women face on a daily basis across the world.
It is not only the telling of the terrible story but a message to all those watching it – make sure something like this never happens again. Drama cannot be more powerful than when it forces us to act and change our behaviours as a society for the better and I am sure that Honour will do just that. Written By Will Barber-Taylor.
The Third Day (September 2020, Sky Atlantic/HBO) We were always going to watch this. Coming from the mind of Utopia’s Dennis Kelly and reuniting him with director Marc Muden, we should have instantly loved their next collaboration. In truth, we didn’t. The story of a man stuck on Osea island, unnerved by the locals and experiencing strange visions didn’t immediately draw us in. The intensity of Jude Law’s performance coupled with the strange mythology of the island was at times as frustrating as it was intriguing. The series was made up of three strands. Jude Law being the focus of the first three episodes with Naomie Harris arriving with their two daughters for the final three. By the end of the Jude Law section, we’d ‘just about’ settled into the bizarre rhythms of the show, but when Naomie Harris arrives the story takes such an interesting and emotional turn, it was impossible to switch off.
Relative newcomer Nico Parker steals the final three episodes with a brilliantly brittle and gentle performance that was utterly captivating. The Third Day is a story of grief. It’s an immersive viewing experience that builds and builds. The final moments are among the tensest and breathtaking any show has thrown at us, and it’s one that that will stick with us long after this god awful year.
Adult Material (October 2020, Channel 4) Adult Material is arguably one of the most important dramas of the year. Perhaps considered an underdog in comparison to the likes of Normal People or Tiger King, shows which generated so much well-deserved buzz that it’s hard to not find 2020 synonymous with them, but this smart and complex drama packed its own unique punch and stood out in its own right.
The four-part Channel 4 drama, written by Lucy Kirkwood, is an unapologetic exploration of the dark realities of the adult entertainment industry, seen through the eyes of porn star extraordinaire Jolene Dollar, played fantastically by Hayley Squires. Jolene, a protective and stubborn mum of three, takes new girl Amy under her wing and attempts to steer her clear of the seedy side of the porn industry. When an incident between Amy and porn kingpin Tom Paine (Julian Ovenden) has a drastic effect on Jolene’s life we start to see her life unravel and she is forced to confront her own demons.
There’s a lot to work through over the four episodes but Kirkwood does justice to complex and uncomfortable issues including exploitation, rape and consent, and she does this in a thought-provoking way through very clever writing. With a fantastic cast, including Kerry Godliman as disgraced MP Stella Maitland who forms an unlikely friendship with Jolene, and Rupert Everett as porn producer Carroll Quinn, the series is absolutely essential viewing. Adult Material will make you laugh at times but it will also have you on the edge of your seat and most importantly, it will make you think and question the grey areas of issues that should be discussed. It rightfully deserves a place as one of the top shows of 2020. Written by Imogen Flack
The Queen’s Gambit (October 2020, Netflix)The Queens Gambit is a frustrating show. Not because anything is lacking; it’s a tremendous story, with beautiful period interiors, a gorgeous 1960s wardrobe, the building excitement of a sports movie, and stellar performances – but because it’s so hard for me to pin down why I love it. Normally I dislike a chilly central character, keeping their emotions fiercely in check – give me something to like about you or trot back into your hermit cave! – but there’s something really likeable at the core of the repressed Beth Harmon which Anya Taylor-Joy’s perforate uncovers, especially in her moments alone, liberated and dancing like a carefree teenager.
Please don’t let the focus on chess put you off. At just seven episodes, the story of this orphaned girl with a prodigious talent that goes hand-in-hand with her addiction issues does not hang around. It deals with her perfectionism and psychological trauma well, if not entirely plausibly, but never lingers on it for too long or makes her life into an X-Factor sob story. This is an inspiring tale of batting your demons and beating the odds, and you’ll be rooting for Beth all the way through. Written by Sarah Kennedy.
Euphoria (December 2020, HBO/Sky Atlantic) 2020 robbed us of so many of our returning favourites. We should have had Barry and Succession on HBO this year but I’m so glad that Euphoria creator Sam Levinson decided to write two bridge episodes of his teen drama when production of season 2 was shut down. The first of which, Trouble Don’t Last Always, was a two-hander between Zendaya’s Rue and her NA sponsor Ali. Set on a dreary Christmas Eve, the hour-long special strips away all of the ‘in your face’ traits the series is known for in favour of a heartfelt and heartbreaking conversation between the two characters. With Zendaya proving in every scene why she was so deserving of her EMMY win, the show feels the most intimate it has ever been. At times it was like watching two seasoned fighters punching back and forth while at others it was tender and quiet. It’s a series that has re-invented the teen drama and this special proved it doesn’t need all of the flashier elements that may have been a turn off for some during its first season. Whilst this wasn’t an episode Sam Levinson had planned to put out, I think it was an utter masterpiece, perfectly in step with the tone and feel of 2020. I’m already excited by the second special which is due at the end of January and to see the second season at some point in 2021.
I want to thank you for all your support for the site. It’s a passion project and all the interactions I get be it, through social media, an interaction on our podcast or with the wonderful team that help by contributing reviews to the site it always means so much. I’d like to thank the team: Matt Donnelly, Jackson (Skip Intro) Will Barber-Taylor, Imogen Flack, Sarah Kennedy, Megan Hyland, Erin Zammitt, Sophie Davies, Michael Lee, Dan Golding. Here’s putting this awful year behind us and look forward to the shows of 2021!
Luke Knowles – Editor of thecustardtv.