Culture

The Best TV Shows Of 2020

Let's talk about good TV, then never speak of 2020 again.

Best TV 2020

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In the year 2020, television shows became our friends. They were our companions, they were what we cried to as things got worse and worse, distractions from the many things we’ve all needed distracting from.

This year, many of us upped our number of subscriptions to cope — or checked to see if the passwords of our exes still worked. New streaming services came and went (RIP Quibi) and, collectively, we all lost our minds and obsessed over shows like Tiger King — things got bad.

But there was also an exceptional amount of high-quality TV this year that kept us from working too hard on our sourdough-baking and claymation. There were a handful shows that captured life in lockdown without feeling exploitative.

The year was dominated by doco-series about legendary sports stars, absurd Aussie sketch comedy, a true-crime odyssey, and dramas that delved into deeply personal experiences. With those things in mind, let’s dive into the best TV shows of 2020.

Availability of each series is based on where they lived when this article was written, but they are subject to change.


Dave 

Dave

Dave Burd, AKA Lil’ Dicky, is convinced that he’s destined to become one of the greatest rappers of all time. Loosely based on Burd’s real life (he plays himself), his neurotic hubris is where Dave brilliantly satirises internet fame and the music industry. Unsure of Burd’s greatness, his friends (Taylor Misiak, Andrew Santino, Travis “Taco” Bennett, and Christine Ko) tag along including the scene-stealing hype man GaTa, whose backstory leads to the show’s best episode ‘Hype Man’.

You can stream it on Binge.

Normal People 

Normal People
Handle with care — that’s the mantra of this adaption of Sally Rooney’s novel (she co-wrote six episodes) that captures the intensity of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell’s (Connell Waldron) teenage relationship and their emotionally crushing encounters in adult life. Directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald kept it intimate, but the series opens up with a stunning trip to the Italian countryside with echoes of Call Me By Your Name.

You can stream it on Stan.

Little America 

little america

Anthology series are underrated. People love to tell you when a show “gets good after three seasons”, but who’s got the time? Thankfully, Little America will have you hooked in one episode. Little America dramatises true stories about immigrant experiences in America and it’s a beautiful collection of stories. A lot of care and attention is given to the emotional nuances of each episode that drift from comforting to tragic, and always find a way to hit you right in the heart.

You can stream it on Apple TV+.

Upload

upload
Afterlife exhaustion is definitely a thing on TV but Greg Daniels (The Office US) found a way to keep it going with Upload, a series where a digital afterlife exists, but is owned by tech companies. What makes Upload hilarious is its vision of the future where it totally makes sense that a digital afterlife would exist because corporations are embedded into daily life. It’s spooky because it feels like we’re on that trajectory.

You can stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

Aunty Donna’s Big Ole’ House of Fun 

Aunty Donna’s (Mark Bonanno, Broden Kelly, and Zachary Ruane) Netflix series is perfect Aussie absurdism that presents an Ingenious labyrinth of sketches. It’s a show the manages to be too silly and too real at the same time (see: the sketch where they try to find a car park). If you haven’t watched it seven times already, WTF are you doing with your life?

You can stream it on Netflix.

Ramy 

ramy

You know a TV show is doing well when two-time Oscar winner Mahershala Ali contacts the producers and asks if he can be in it. Luckily, they said yes! In season two, Ramy Hassan (Ramy Youssef) dug himself deeper into self-loathing and looked to his faith for answers – enter Ali as Sheikh Ali Malik – but made things so much worse. Ramy continues to balance its main story with wonderful character pieces that shed the light on its supporting players beautifully.

You can stream it on Stan.

Breeders 

breeders

Can a TV series be a contraceptive? After Breeders, my answer is: yes. Breeders is a brutally honest show about parenting and long-term relationships but it’s a relief to see more of the gloss removed from shows about parents. Anchored by awesome performances from Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard, Breeders joins the excellent ranks of Catastrophe, The Letdown, and Better Things.

You can stream it on Binge.

Central Park 

central park

The folks who created Bob’s Burgers made an animated musical with some of the voice talent from Hamilton and it’s spectacular. Told from the point of view of a busker (Josh Gad), the series focuses on a family (Leslie Odom Jr., Titus Burgess, Kristen Bell, and Kathryn Hahn) who live in Central Park, New York City, and must save the iconic park from a land developer (Stanley Tucci).

You can stream it on Apple TV+.

Staged 

staged
One of the very few good things that came out of the pandemic. Staged forces David Tennant and Michael Sheen (playing themselves) to rehearse a play over video chat due to you-know-what. Director Simon Evans (also playing himself) tries to keep things on track but his cast want to do anything but rehearse. Staged avoids being exploitative because it’s a witty and cathartic exploration of lockdown life with a huge heart.

You can stream it on ABC iView.

The Boys 

the boys

It’s clear that second seasons were all the rage this year and The Boys grew in stature as it became an outlet for superhero fatigue and corporate monopolies, set to the musical stylings of Billy Joel. But The Boys went further with its examination of modern politics and alt-right extremism hiding in plain sight. Anthony Starr continues to astound as the psychopathic Homelander, and Karl Urban has a wicked amount of fun turning supers to pulp.

You can stream it on Amazon Prime Video.

I May Destroy You

I May Destroy You streaming now in Australia

There are not enough words that can do I May Destroy You justice but here goes. Creator, writer, and star Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum) worked through the aftermath of sexual assault with deep introspection rarely seen on television. It’s messy, impulsive, and raw, and there are deep cuts for mental health and the way social media invades our headspace. I May Destroy You navigates complicated territory with honesty, humanity, and grace.

You can stream it on Binge.

The Last Dance 

the last dance
In this doco series, Michael Jordan — the human meme — looks back on his astonishing career with an honest perspective that helps explain how he became one of the greatest athletes of all time. Coaches, teammates, and rivals reflect on what it was like to go up against Jordan — even for his allies it was tough. But along the way the series sheds a light on how the Chicago Bulls became more than a one-man team. It’s so much more than just a sports doco.

You can stream it on Netflix.

Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet 

mythic quest
A workplace comedy that focuses on a video game studio that’s responsible for the world’s biggest multiplayer game. Staff members navigate issues within the games industry (what to do with all the Nazis?), as well as all the quirks of the office. Rob McElhenney (It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia) and Charlotte Nicdao (Content) ground the series with their characters’ tug-of-war between creative vision and hard work. Mythic Quest also has one of the best standalone episodes of the year with ‘Quiet Dark Death’, starring Jake Johnson (New Girl) and Cristin Milioti (Palm Springs), that’s a cautious allegory for the themes of the series.

You can stream it on Apple TV+.

The Good Fight

the good fight

We only got half of Season 4 because it got interrupted by the pandemic, but even half a season of The Good Fight is better than most shows with a competed season. Alternate realities, new owners, and an investigation into the death of Jeffrey Epstein pushed the legal drama to new heights of genius.

You can stream it on SBS On Demand.

Avenue 5 

avenue 5
Earlier this year, when people started panic buying toilet paper you may have thought: How much worse can it get? (Don’t answer that.) Thankfully, Avenue 5 put us on a cruise ship in space that gets knocked off course while doing a lap around the solar system. Suddenly, panic buying loo paper didn’t seem that bad compared to what went down on the titular Avenue 5. Creator Armando Iannucci (Veep) pokes fun at a future dominated by corporations with satirical punch.

You can stream it on Binge.

Long Way Up 

long way up
Ewan McGregor and Charley Boorman did Long Way Down and Long Way Around, so it makes sense to go up next. McGregor and Boorman ride electric motorcycles from the bottom of South America up through Central America and it’s a stunner. Being homebound for most of the year meant Long Way Up became an awesome way to explore parts of the world we may not be able to see for a bit. Plus, McGregor and Boorman’s friendship provides the magic to make this more than just a travelogue.

You can stream it on Apple TV+.

The Good Place

the good place

In its final season The Good Place asked that we don’t be good people, but be better people. It acknowledged that there’s room in life to be a messy bitch, but we must grow beyond our own self-interests to make our short time on Earth count towards something else. The Good Place recognised the good stuff wasn’t in grand gestures but quiet deeds. In the finale, each character had their own moment of zen. (when you know, you know — cue a flood of tears.) Not many shows can claim to reconcile its own end with the fate of its characters with the same conclusiveness of The Good Place.

You can stream it on Netflix.

Mrs America 

mrsamerica
Real-life conservative activist, Phyllis Schlafly (Cate Blanchett), is the perfect antagonist in any dramatisation of the movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment in America in the 1970s and beyond. Yet Mrs America made Schlafly a central figure in a series that shifted perspectives to show the widespread impact of a conservative uprising and the battle within the ranks of the feminist movement at the time.

You can stream it on Binge.

The Great

thegreat

Australian writer Tony McNamara (The Favourite) gave us an origin story loosely based on the life of Catherine the Great, Empress of All Russia (Elle Fanning). But like The Favourite it’s an anti-period drama where the absurdity of royalty is skewered and every privileged character is deplorable. The oddball tone set the stage for Catherine to take down her douchebag husband (Nicholas Hoult) and delight in pitting members of the court against each other. When it comes to regal dramas, The Great takes the crown.

You can stream it on Stan.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark 

True crime is in abundance right now but writer Michelle McNamara covered it when it was considered an off-kilter obsession. McNamara’s work looking into the case of the Golden State Killer, who terrorized California in the 1970s and 1980s, led to new interest in the case and his capture. McNamara profiled her investigation in the book I’ll Be Gone in the Dark, but tragically passed away and her work was published posthumously. The doco series uses a combination of past interviews with McNamara, readings from her book and interviews with acquaintances and loved ones to tell her story. A lot of true crime exploits terrible incidents without a thought for the emotional impact it may have on the survivors and families of victims. I’ll Be Gone in the Dark takes one back for the victims of crime by de-mystifying the twisted appeal of serial killers.

You can stream it on Binge.

PEN15 

PEN15
TV’s greatest high-wire act returned for its second season with Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing teenage versions of themselves surrounded by actual teenagers. The brilliance of PEN15 —  aside from its laser pointer accurate re-creation of the year 2000 — is the way it captures the teenage experience and how the best day of your life can also be the worst day of your life. The series also explored sexuality with a subplot focused on Gabe (Dylan Gage) that took a tender approach to his complicated feelings that got cred for its authenticity.

You can stream it on Stan.

Quiz 

quiz
Who Wants to be a Millionaire?
was a TV phenomenon worldwide, but it was deeply cooked in the UK. Quiz tells the story about how the gameshow was infiltrated by super fans, and resulted in cheating scandal built around a cough. Matthew Macfadyen (Succession) and Sian Clifford (Fleabag) play the couple at the centre of the 1-million pound controversy, but director Stephen Frears (A Very British Scandal) and writer James Graham, who wrote the play of the same name, keep it vague enough to have us act as the jury. Even the mechanics of how a game show works to create drama are pulled apart and examined in search of a guilty party. But it’s up to you, did they do it?

You can stream it on Binge.