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The best TV shows of 2020 so far
From Love is Blind to Normal People and Mrs America, Hugh Montgomery and Eddie Mullan pick the year’s greatest programmes to binge right now
I May Destroy You
It’s not often that a series comes along that is so utterly idiosyncratic, it defies both categorisation and reference points. But such is the case with this extraordinarily raw and intimate 12-part drama – the work of British actor/writer Michaela Coel, who, if there’s any justice, will be toast of the Emmys next year (having just missed out on date eligibility for this year’s awards). Inspired by a very dark chapter in Coel’s own life, it tells the story of Arabella, a successful writer working on a follow-up to her zeitgeist-y millennial bestseller, whose life is turned upside down when her drink is spiked on a night out. As a study in the effects of sexual assault, it is astonishing – but it would also be an injustice to categorise it as a one-issue drama. Rather it explores the intersections of race, class and gender in Western metropolitan society with both freewheeling energy and breathtaking assurance, while also, more generally, nailing the vertigo-inducing experience of being a young adult with exhilarating authenticity. Available now on BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO/HBO Max in the US.
For the many of us who have been stuck in emotional rumination during lockdown, this romantic drama has provided the perfect televisual accompaniment. Based on Irish writer Sally Rooney’s 2018 novel, its story of two star-crossed, class-divided lovers, Marianne and Connell, as they weave in and out of each other’s lives through school and university is swooningly intense, with Rooney and co-writer Alice Birch’s spare, artful dialogue matched by gauzy, visually striking direction from director Lenny Abrahamson. Performance-wise, meanwhile, this is Paul Mescal’s show: as he guides us through Connell’s halting emotional awakening, he is quietly riveting, then heartbreaking, not least when his character is in the throes of depression. Above all, what a joy it is to see a story that is in one sense so small, ordinary and human given the epic scale – over 12 half-hour episodes – that it deserves. Available now on BBC iPlayer in the UK and Hulu in the US.
British playwright James Graham has a knack for digging into the recesses of the UK’s popular cultural history and picking on fascinating episodes to dramatise that somehow speak more widely of the nation’s sensibility: his latest drama in that vein is this three-part dissection of an infamous British TV scandal in 2001, when Major Charles Ingram, a contestant on mega-bucks quiz show Who Wants to be Millionaire, won the top GBP1m prize, but was later found guilty of cheating via a coughing scheme which alerted him to the right answers. Boasting superb performances from Matthew MacFayden, playing another oleaginous buffoon a la his character in Succession, and Fleabag’s Sian Clifford as his stern wife, it’s at once a media satire, an edge-of-your-set courtroom drama, and a fascinating inquiry into the relatively recent phenomenon of quizzing. Available on ITV Hub in the UK and AMC in the US.
With a cast led by Cate Blanchett, and including Tracey Ullman, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, and Sarah Paulson, this drama series about US conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly was always hotly anticipated – and thankfully it didn’t disappoint. Tracing the avidly anti-feminist Schlafly’s successful attempt to get an Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution stopped, it devotes individual episodes to other figures on either side of the political battle. And while there is a certain degree of fun to be had in Blanchett’s arch performance, the story is both grave and extremely pertinent. As Caryn James writes in her four-star review for BBC Culture: “Schlafly’s cultural conservatism included working against abortion rights and same-sex marriage, issues that have become political lightning rods again in the Trump era. The series pointedly reminds us that Schlafly’s blinkered version of the US never really went away.” Available on Hulu in the US and premiering soon on BBC Two in the UK.
Inspired by Deborah Feldman’s 2012 autobiography, this Netflix drama has been another of lockdown’s most talked-about shows. Telling the story of a young Orthodox Jewish woman who leaves her unhappy marriage in New York and escapes to Berlin, it successfully and rather ingeniously elides an exhilarating coming-of-age story with a tense thriller. As. Available now on Netflix. And at its heart is an outstanding performance by Shira Haas as its heroine: as Erik Kohn writes on Indiewire: “The 24-year-old actress is an instant sensation who commands every moment she’s on screen with a fiery intensity that transcends the language at her disposal.” Available now on Netflix.
The recent, controversially twee Oscar-winner Jojo Rabbit showed just how difficult it can be to reckon with the Holocaust on screen – so all credit to this new Amazon series written by David Weil and exec-produced by modern horror maestro Jordan Peele, for somehow managing to walk a tricky tightrope between providing stylised, suspenseful entertainment and honouring the unimaginable horror of what occurred. Set in 1970s America, it tells the story of a group of Jewish vigilantes, led by Al Pacino, who are on a mission to hunt down various surviving Nazis who have inveigled their way into the heart of the American establishment. As much as anything else, it makes for a stinging parable about how fascism is never far away from us even in our nice old Western liberal democracies. Available now on Amazon Prime.
With fans now acclimatised to its jarringly transatlantic aesthetic, this British Netflix series has really come into its own with its second series, which more than ever mixes up familiar teen comedy with a refreshingly candid and mature exploration of issues from sexual assault to anal douching. Gillian Anderson is once again on casually imperious form, in a selection of killer outfits, as protagonist Otis’ therapist mum, but it’s the younger performers who really shine, notably Emma Mackey’s wonderfully dry but vulnerable Maeve and Ncuti Gatwa’s endlessly charismatic Eric. Available now on Netflix.
Mae Martin becomes the latest comic to blur the lines between fiction and autobiography with this wonderfully warm and well-observed six-part comedy-drama in which she plays, you’ve guessed it, Mae; a struggling, Canadian stand-up, and recovering addict, living in London. The chief focus is on her up-and-down relationship with girlfriend George (Charlotte Ritchie), who is navigating same-sex romance for the first time, while Lisa Kudrow puts in a splendid supporting turn as Mae’s abrupt mother, mostly seen via Skype. This is a microscopic rather than epic show, that shines a light on the foibles of humans as they attempt, falteringly, to live and love – foibles that, in these times, seem more cherishable than ever. Available now on All4 in the UK and on Netflix in the rest of the world.
Another perfectly-formed slice-of-life comedy, this mockumentary series about two feckless cousins living in a village in the Cotswolds in South-West England, has been consistently both hilarious and heartwarming through two series – and now its third and final one makes for a fitting conclusion, with its creators and stars, brother and sister Daisy May and Charlie Cooper, adding yet more depth and poignancy to its characters. With so much TV comedy and drama focused on the bright lights of the big cities, there are simply few depictions of rural life quite like it. Series 3 is available now on BBC iPlayer in the UK, and Seasons 1 and 2 are available to stream on Hulu in the US.
Love is Blind
Dating shows do not come more gripping than this Netflix sensation, which dominated social media conversation in the weeks after it debuted in mid-February. Featuring a predictably un-diverse range of heterosexual and conventionally attractive contestants making connections unseen while separated in the show’s hallowed ‘pods’, before declaring their love for each other, getting engaged, and only then getting to see each other in person, it is premise that is at once absurd and makes brilliant TV sense. However the fun really starts when the new couples get down to the nitty-gritty of trying to communicate and forge a proper adult relationship with each other without the advantage of walls between them. Available now on Netflix.
Anthology series are invariably, by their very nature, a mixed bag, but this effort, co-created by husband and wife team Kumail Nanjiani and Emily V Gordon (best known for their hit rom-com The Big Sick) among others, is one of the very best: a series of eight half-hour stories about the life of immigrants in the great cultural melting pot that is the US. Whether the focus is a teenage Mexican squash player or a gay Syrian man seeking asylum, all the stories, as Caroline Framke writes in Variety, stare “down the fundamental questions of what it means to be American and what it takes to build a life from the ground up.” Available now on Apple TV+
The Plot Against America
David ‘The Wire’ Simon is undoubtedly one of America’s great TV-makers, and his latest project will do nothing to mar that reputation. An adaptation of Philip Roth’s ever more prescient 2004 novel, it is a counterfactual history drama that imagines what would have happened had Nazi-sympathiser Charles Lindbergh become US president in 1940. Zoe Kazan, Winona Ryder and Morgan Spector are among the members of a New Jersey Jewish family from whose perspective the story is told, and for whom the consequences of Lindbergh’s reign are chilling. It all builds to what Darren Franich in Entertainment Weekly calls “one of the most breathtakingly tense episodes of television I’ve ever seen, carrying you on a dark journey through a country on fire.” Screening weekly on HBO in the US, with a launch date in the UK to be confirmed.
This Netflix docu-series about the cheerleading squad of Navarro College in the Texan town of Corsicana lifts the spirits as high as its remarkable protagonists throw their teammates in the air. To the uninitiated, cheerleading may seem a wholly alien sport, not to mention terrifying in the perilous tricks that the squad are required to perform, but the series does an excellent job of shading in these young people’s often troubled backstories, and making us understand their obsessive drive and commitment, as they prepare for the National Championships. As Nick Schager writes in the Daily Beast, “Cheer prizes its sports outcome far less than it does its human ones, all the while celebrating the resilience of its young competitors and the beloved coach dedicated to giving them a chance to be the very best version of themselves”. Available now on Netflix
Better Call Saul
Even though Breaking Bad fans know how it will end, could this gripping spin-off outshine the revered original? Fans had an extended year-and-a-half break since series four concluded, but it returned in February better than ever. Following the origin story of earnest public defender Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) and his transformation into greasy Saul Goodman – better known as Walter White’s crooked lawyer in Breaking Bad – the series has masterfully eked out its protagonist’s creeping character development aided by Odenkirk’s darkly comic performance. In this penultimate series, McGill’s personality change is almost complete – much to the dismay of girlfriend Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn) who often cleans up after Jimmy’s mistakes, Available now on AMC/Netflix.
Following the existential crises of former ’90s sitcom star BoJack, former acting rival Mr Peanutbutter (Paul F Tompkins), journalist Diane Nguyen (Alison Brie), agent Princess Carolyn (Amy Sedaris), and slacker Todd Chavez (Aaron Paul), the greatest animated series of the 21st Century somehow tackles serious issues such as sexual harassment, depression and drug abuse head-on, without ever losing its comic touch. In the concluding sixth series – the final episodes of which launched in January – Princess Carolyn struggles to balance demands of work and motherhood – referring to her daughter as “Untitled Princess Carolyn Project” – while BoJack checks into a $100,000 rehab facility with an addiction to painkillers. “Can’t put a price on clean living”, says the receptionist on check-in, “And yet somehow you’ve found a way”, BoJack replies The show’s best ideas are often both sincere and cynical in equal measure – and crafted beyond reproach. Available now on Netflix.
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