In this post I waffle about some of the best TV dramas I’ve seen in 2020. Every show featured here is highly recommended, and available on either Netflix, Amazon, Sky, Disney+ or AppleTV+. What you’ll notice after the first entry is that all these shows are pretty much sci-fi shows. I remain unapologetic about my undying love of sci-fi.
The top five TV dramas I saw in 2020 are:
- The Morning Show
- The Mandalorian
- The Boys
- The Umbrella Academy
The Morning Show is a drama based in the studios of an American morning television show whose presenting duo Alex (Jennifer Anniston) and Mitch (Steve Carell) is torn apart when Mitch is forced from the show in a #metoo scandal. Reese Witherspoon’s character, Bradley Jackson, a younger feistier local news woman, is thrust into the spotlight as Mitch’s replacement.
There’s a hugely impressive cast and some really excellent writing in this show. Jennifer Aniston is good as the relatively aged presenter trying to hang on to her career and gain control within the male-dominated system, but my favourite character and performance comes in the form of Cory Ellison played by Billy Crudup (perhaps best known as Dr. Manhattan in Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie). Ellison is a studio executive who wants to mix things up and drag the show into the 21st century. He is a firm supporter of Bradley Jackson and his attitude toward the other staff and presenters twists and turns in a mischievous fashion. It’s great TV.
The Mandalorian is by far the best thing to watch on Disney+. The story is set after the fall of the Empire (in Return of the Jedi) and before the emergence of the First Order (in The Force Awakens). It is the story of a lone bounty hunter, played by Game of Thrones and Narcos actor Pedro Pascal, Netflix’s very own Burt Reynolds. Like Clint Eastwood’s famous cowboy character he is a man(dalorian) with no name (for most of the show) and indeed no face (for most of the show) since it is against the code he follows to ever take off his helmet. Mando, as he’s nicknamed by some, operates on the edge of the galaxy far far away from the authority of the New Republic and the warlord dregs of the old Empire.
The special effects are out of this world and if I didn’t know better from watching lots of making of clips on YouTube I’d swear they had a huge budget and had travelled to lots of really sweet-ass locations to shoot. Production values are way high and I have enjoyed every episode immensely. There are numerous connections to other parts of the Star Wars canon and a real treat for fans of the animated show Rebels when Bo Katan and Ashoka Tano turn up in Season 2. We’re currently still in the middle of that season and the revelations just keep coming. I wouldn’t be surprised if ‘Baby Yoda’ turns out to become a bad guy, but we’re not here for my ill-conceived fan theories.
Undone is so good I watched it twice – the second time with Siggy because I thought she’d like it too (she did). If I’ve written about the show, which is available on Amazon, before then I can’t find the post so let me tell you about it here. Undone is comprised of 9 short episodes and stars Rosa Salazar (Alita: Battle Angel) and Bob Odenkirk (Better Call Saul) as daughter and dead father in a rotoscoped animation akin to A Scanner Darkly. The animation allows the writers – Bojack Horseman veterans Raphael Bob-Waksberg and Kate Purdy – show the viewer the hallucinations and fantasy sequences Salazar’s character Alma experiences as she unlocks the powers in her DNA / has a mental breakdown.
The ambiguity about what is actually going on with Alma is one of the most enjoyable elements of the series and having witnessed a couple of psychotic episodes first-hand among family and friends it was great to see the subject handled well albeit dressed up in fantasy trappings. Like The End of the F***ing World (see below) the episodes are only as long as they need to be and are all killer no filler.
The Boys on Amazon is a really refreshing and entertaining take on a genre which is fast becoming quite dull – as one after another characters of comic books and graphic novels are dusted off and given a new lease of life. It’s very nice to see some darker niches of the genre being explored and Amazon and Netflix certainly are mining more interesting seams than Hollywood at the moment. It sets a bunch of norms up against a corporate controlled group of ‘supes’ callf The Seven who are the shows equivalent of the Avengers but nowhere near as wholesome.
I have written quite a long post about The Boys here. I concentrated on the main characters in the post because I really think that this is what makes this show. As well as their powers, they all come with their own collection of neurosis, bad attitudes and personal drivers often reflecting bigger issues at large in contemporary society. The show is a great ‘what if?’ show – what if superheroes were complete fuck-ups and arseholes, what then? Who comes to the rescue? The Boys that’s who…
Netflix’s The Umbrella Academy is the story of five characters adopted at birth and raised by a mysterious old man with a chimpanzee butler and a robot nurse. The five characters have various super powers and the set up reminded me a lot of E4’s great show Misfits (now available on Netflix). Indeed one of the cast is from that very show – Robert Sheehan plays Klaus who uses drugs to try to avoid seeing dead people everywhere (including the sixth and dead sibling of the adopted family whose power was that he has powerful Manga like tentacles).
Sheehan is joined by a very good cast including bill-topper Ellen Page as Vanya (who initially like Sheehan’s character in Misfits doesn’t appear to have a power), Tom Hopper as Luther (who is a sort of super-strong man-beast), David Castañeda as Diego (a knife-throwing fighter), Emmy Raver-Lampman as Allison (who is charmer like my character Stepanova in Black Book) and Aidan Gallagher as the cocky Number Five (who can travel through time and space). It’s a really fun show which keeps you guessing while exploring some common superhero tropes. The effects are really well done and makes me think that this has more than the usual TV show budget.
Some shows that didn’t make it into the Top 5, but were still great are:
The End of the F***ing World is a dark tale of a teenage boy who is pretty sure he is a psychopath and who goes on a road trip through Surrey with a girl from his class who wants to runaway from home and visit her stoner dad. Season 1 is told in eight parts it is based on a graphic novel of the same name. Season 2 continues the story and introduces a troubled new character bent on revenge against the runaways. Both twenty-something lead actors are playing characters who are much younger than they are, but it is not obvious. I only started looking into it because I recognised Jessica Barden as nosebleed woman from The Lobster. The End of the F***ing World has funny moments if you’re into dark comedy and moments of extreme realistic violence.
I also thoroughly enjoyed Westworld Season 3 (click on the link to see a long post about the show) on Sky and The Witcher on Netflix. The Witcher, which stars Henry Cavill in the titular role, is based on a much-loved series of books and video games centred around Geralt of Rivia, an antisocial monster hunter, who tends to have more trouble with the machinations of the humans he comes across than he does the beasts he slays.
We’ve also started watching Hunters on Amazon. It’s a show about a gang of Jewish Nazi hunters in America, very loosely based on real events, which feels like a comic book adaptation with hints of Tarantino and some parallels with The Boys in terms of structure (an innocent young man witnesses a death and joins a hidden group bent on revenge against a powerful foe).
And I guess I should also mention that we’ve spent most Sundays this year (and the last) watching an episode of the highly rated cult classic The Sopranos. Whenever I get into conversations with people about favourite TV shows this often comes up along aside Game of Thrones, Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Walking Dead. So, having never seen it back in the day, we have been making amends. I think people who rave on about it are more in love with writer David Chase’s superbly constructed character of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) than the show itself.
Apart from some good episodes in the last few seasons (coincidentally around the time Steve Buscemi briefly joined the show) The Sopranos is dreadfully slow and frustrating in what it chooses to focus on inside the organised crime genre. Also most other characters (perhaps with the exception of the ill-fated Christopher and Adriana) are quite two-dimensional characters that I couldn’t find remotely believable.
Even the, perhaps at the time novel, psychotherapy session scenes tend toward exposition and break the writers’ guild ‘show don’t tell’ mantra in a very unrealistic and clunky fashion. Despite all the references it’s no contender with The Godfather or Goodfellas and also has practically no strong female characters. While I’d happily sit a rewatch The Wire sometime, I have no plans to rewatch any of The Sopranos. However, just for the sake of giving an honourable mention to one of the most memorable characters ever (as good as Walter White?) I’ve stuck it here.