2020 Retrospective – top TV comedy

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In this post I waffle about some of the best TV comedy shows I’ve seen in 2020. Every show featured here is highly recommended, and available on Netflix, BBC iPlayer/Britbox and All4.

The top five comedy shows I saw in 2020 are:

  1. Staged
  2. Derry Girls
  3. Taskmaster
  4. Drifters
  5. Community

Staged is a six episode BBC comedy recorded during lockdown and starring David Tennant and Michael Sheen as themselves trying to rehearse a play over online sessions on their laptops with director Simon Evans (who co-wrote the show with Phin Glynn). There are a couple of great cameos from other well-known actors and a rough-and-ready vibe to the show that looks like it was filmed mostly on mobiles or laptops.

The writing is witty and clever, the homemade feel in sync with our current COVID-19 situation, and the show is very much binge-worthy. It is great to see the actors’ other halves and domestic situations, and experience the genuine chemistry between Tennant and Sheen which came across clearly also in the Terry Pratchett / Neil Gaiman adaptation Good Omens which we enjoyed watching on Amazon Video in January before the shit hit the fan.

Derry Girls is a Channel 4 comedy based on a group of five school friends in early 1990s Derry, Northern Ireland. Obviously some of the comedy is based on the Troubles – described by Google as an ethno-nationalist conflict in Northern Ireland in which Irish nationalists, who were mostly Irish Catholics, wanted Northern Ireland to leave the UK and join a united Ireland. However, most of the comedy is based on growing up in a school system run by Nuns, with parents tied to dogmatic ways of life, when all you want to do is drink, get off with boys and eat chips.

The characters are all well written and while the situations they find themselves in are generally larger than life they still have that grounded feeling that show creator Lisa McGee has written them off the back of her real experiences. Saoirse-Monica Jackson, Louisa Harland, Nicola Coughlan, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell play the four girls with aplomb and Dylan Llewellyn provides their comedy foil as the only boy in the clique. There are two seasons of six episodes each to enjoy and I’m uncertain if there will be a third season.

Taskmaster is a long-running comedy game show, already into its tenth season in the UK, which has recently made the move from Dave to Channel 4. At its best, it’s the funniest thing on what I consider ‘terrestrial’ TV. I guess it depends on the contestants – each season has five comedians or celebrities competing over ten or so episodes in a range of bizarre tasks set by comedian Greg Davies and his helper Alex Horne (of the Horne Section). Here’s a taster of a typical task:

Drifters is another Channel 4 comedy also available in all it’s binge-worthy entirety on Netflix. It’s from the same kind of stable as Derry Girls but features graduates rather than schoolgirls and spans four seasons of six episodes each. Fleabag writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge did have a hand in writing at least one episode but most of the writing was done by creator Jessica Knappett.

After graduating from university, Meg (Jessica Knappett), her posh actor wannabe cousin Bunny (Lydia Rose Bewley) and their chav friend Laura (Lauren O’Rourke) initially work together and share a flat on and off in Leeds. Storylines revolve around Meg trying get laid, Bunny getting laid and some acting gigs, Laura getting laid and her on/off relationship with boyfriend Gary (Bobby Hirston). Desperate parties, late night drinking, toxic relationships and trying to eek out a living are all themes and it’s a very funny show in a long line of typically white British shows which always appeal to me more than similarly premised US shows which tend to be written by committee.

Talking of which, after finishing Parks & Recreation, Siggy and I were after a US show with a lot of short episodes and we chose the critically acclaimed comedy show with an MCU connection Community. The show is set in a community college and revolves around a group of misfits which tick almost every comedy box you could want. There are 110 episodes spread over six seasons on Netflix.

The ensemble cast includes comedy legend Chevy Chase, Donald Glover (Solo), Alison Brie (GLOW) and Gillian Jacobs (Mickey in Netflix’s Love) and the writing (yes probably by committee) is excellent. What I like most about this show is that it is willing to get meta at times and explore different film and TV genres. There are countless in-jokes referring to Batman, The Shawshank Redemption, Goodfellas, Doctor Who (or in the show Inspector Spacetime) and some novel episodes using different types of animation techniques.

Honourable Mentions
While I was figuring out my top five comedies from this year, I short-listed a few more which I think deserve an honourable mention here:

Santa Clarita Diet is a show Siggy and I are still in the middle of watching. It’s a comedy horror starring Drew Barrymore as Sheila Hammond zombie wife of Joel played by Timothy Olyphant who recently didn’t a brilliant turn in The Mandalorian Season 2. I’ll let the trailer for Season 1 of Santa Clarita Diet do the talking on this one. My only caveat with this one is that it is gory so don’t watch it if you have a weak stomach. Apart from that the writing is brilliant, the delivery of lines pitch perfect and the story is funny as fuck.

Space Force is based around the newly commissioned branch of the US military whose rather lofty mission is to protect space. The show has a kind of Catch-22 vibe in terms of its mockery of military bureaucracy. The chemistry between principal actors Steve Carell and John Malkovich as general and chief scientist on is undeniable and the writing is good. Thankfully it’s not done in a mockumentary style (haven’t we seen enough of those?) and there’s enough interesting peripheral characters to support the rather ‘tropey’ storylines. What I liked most about this show is that the characters have valid and engaging motivations and desires that are relatable so you end up emotionally invested in the events portrayed despite the farcical nature of most of the 10 episodes in the debut season.

The Good Place on Netflix takes the idea of heaven and hell as the good place and the bad place and riffs on all the various comedy threads that can come out of someone who should be in the one place accidentally finding themselves in the other. The main character in this situation is Eleanor Shellstrop (Kristen Bell) also decries the fact that there’s no medium place for those of us who aren’t entirely saintly or devilish, which I found amusing. Bell is joined by Ted Danson as the angel-like architect of the good place, Jameela Jamil as one of the unbelievably charitable and goodly residents along with William Jackson Harper, Manny Jacinto and the very funny D’Arcy Carden who plays Janet the good place’s equivalent of Siri/Alexa.

Friday Night Dinner is another Channel 4 comedy which recently had its final season. It ran for six seasons of six episodes each (with an extra Christmas episode in Season 2), and each episode is sitcom gold from writer Robert Popper. Each episode is based on brothers (The Inbetweeners‘ Simon Bird and Plebs’ Tom Rosenthal) visiting their parents’ (Tamsin Greig and Paul Ritter) home for dinner at the end of the week and getting into embarrassing situations. Oftentimes neighbour Jim, played by comedy bit-part legend Mark Heap (Upstart Crow, Green Wing, Spaced), will come round for an uninvited visit with his dog Wilson. Here’s a typical scene:

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