‘Tis 100% the season to stay indoors and catch up on all the brilliant TV we missed this year.
Updated on 23 December: Say what you will about 2020, but it’s been a fantastic 12 months for TV. Because, from Netflix’s The Crown to ITV’s Quiz, BBC One’s Noughts & Crosses to HBO’s Lovecraft Country, there truly has been something for everyone to get stuck into at every stage of this Covid-addled year.
If you’re the sort of person who likes to scare themselves silly, you had the likes of Ratched and The Haunting Of Bly Manor to binge. Armchair detectives, meanwhile, had a wealth of new true crime documentaries to choose from: think Unsolved Mysteries, The Innocence Files, and American Murder: The Family Next Door to name but three.
Elsewhere, we had romcoms galore in the form of Love Life and Dash & Lily. We laughed until we cried over Schitt’s Creek. We burned with anticipation for the steamy af Bridgerton. We fell hook, line, and sinker for Dead To Me – and we sank back into comforting old favourites like Gilmore Girls, Sister Sister, and Friends with all the reverence of someone slipping into a bubble bath.
There was The Stranger, and What We Do In The Shadows, and Ramy. There was Mrs America, and Never Have I Ever, and The Babysitter’s Club. And there were (ahem) the reality shows we all watched, even though we’ll never admit it (yes, we’re talking about Selling Sunset, Below Deck, and Love Is Blind. Of course we are!).
But which of this year’s TV offerings proved to be the biggest, brightest, and best? Which shows did we all wind up talking about for hours on WhatsApp, Zoom, and Twitter? And which shows were the absolute definition of ‘must-watch unmissable television’?
Well, we’ve thought long and hard about it, and we reckon we have all the answers. So, without any further ado, here’s our pick of the 11 best TV shows 2020, for you to watch (or rewatch) over the Christmas break.
We truly believe that each of these series defined this bonkers year in the best possible way.
How many have you seen already?
As reported on 2 December: Ah, the great sexual reawakening of the coronavirus pandemic. The BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s beloved book went down an absolute storm with viewers, prompting everyone to obsess over Paul Mescal’s silver chain and Daisy-Edgar Jones’ fringe every bit as much as they did the show’s unflinching portrayal of sex and consent.
But Normal People shouldn’t be written off as a mere bonkfest: it was moving, and uplifting, and transformative. And its depiction of depression? Well, there’s a reason we spotlighted it in Stylist’s Mental Health Awards 2020.
I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You gave us the addictive tale of social media star and author Arabella (Coel), who wakes up after a night out with the hangover from hell and very fuzzy memories of what happened. However, as the day progresses, she begins experiencing a smattering of intrusive, frightening flashbacks – flashbacks that indicate she’s been the victim of a sexual assault.
The result of all this? The kind of breathtakingly brilliant TV show that will make you laugh out loud and snap your heart in two, all at once. No wonder we’re all on tenterhooks waiting for Coel’s next show to drop, eh?
Throughout the first coronavirus lockdown, there was very much one thing – or, rather, one person – on everyone’s minds. And I’m talking, of course, about Netflix’s Tiger King – the docuseries about the larger-than-life Joe Exotic – which quickly became the platform’s most-streamed content in both the USA and UK.
Why? Because it was wild. Because every single episode ended on a “WTF?” cliffhanger. Because Exotic, for his sins, is easily one of the most compelling and watchable people on TV. Because we all had thoughts about Carol Baskin, damn it.
Yes, the Tiger King reigned supreme during this pandemic. Until, that is, it was dethroned by…
The first Netflix series to be filmed primarily in Yiddish, Unorthodox has been described by many as “the best miniseries of all time”.
Based on Deborah Feldman’s memoir of the same name, it tells the story of young ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman Esty Shapiro (as played by the phenomenal Shira Haas), who flees her arranged marriage that sours as she struggles to consummate the relationship and produce a baby.
After making her escape, Esty heads to Berlin with almost nothing – just her passport and a handful of cash – and does her best to start a new life. And it was this, this heart-pounding story of a young woman risking everything in order to win her freedom, that captivated audiences around the world.
Where would we be without Gogglebox, eh? The Channel 4 show took on a new sense of importance this year, giving a face and voice to all those others around the UK struggling with this pandemic. Because in doing so, it allowed the coronavirus to shift in status from a looming sense of unspeakable doom to… well, something still horrible, but ordinary, too. Something tangible, and real, and possible to fathom. Something we can all handle, if only we pull together (metaphorically, at least) and follow governmental guidelines.
It helped us to feel some sense of connection with the outside world, essentially. And that, considering we have all been stuck indoors during lockdown, is no small thing.
The Last Dance
In the fall of 1997, Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls allowed a film crew to follow them as they went for their sixth NBA title in eight seasons. As such, the award-winning The Last Dance offers a positively stunning portrait of one of the NBA’s most iconic athletes.
The documentary rocketed its way up the Netflix charts to become an unexpected hit with pretty much everyone, whether they’d watched a single professional basketball game or not.
Give it a go if you haven’t already.
You may also like
Netflix: 27 Emmy award-winning TV shows to stream now
The Queen’s Gambit
Nobody, and I mean nobody, saw this sleeper hit coming. Why? Because, let’s face it, “a feminist drama about chess” doesn’t sound all that meaty on the surface.
Despite this, though, The Queen’s Gambit has won widespread acclaim thanks to its emotional storylines, magnetic performances (all hail Anya Taylor-Joy), and outstandingly beautiful aesthetics. It’s the period drama to end all period dramas, essentially. It’s the show that made us believe we could all become chess masters, if only we put our minds to it. It’s the series that is well and truly deserving of its 100% ‘fresh’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
And, yeah, it’s the show that convinced us we wanted a blunt copper bob with baby bangs, just like our flawed heroine Beth Harmon. So sue us.
Emily In Paris
Was Emily In Paris a critical darling? No. Did the French loathe it for its peddling of tired croissant-caked stereotypes? Absolutement! But that didn’t stop this Netflix romcom series from hotfooting its way into our hearts and lifting us up when we needed it most.
If you somehow missed this perfect example of ‘ambient TV’ (aka TV shows you can have on in the background while you’re working), then all you need to know is this: it tells the story of an ambitious 20-something marketing executive from Chicago, who unexpectedly lands her dream job in the city of lights when her company acquires a French luxury marketing brand.
Her mission? To revamp their social media strategy. However, Emily’s time in Paris isn’t just about working hard: there’s a lot of playing hard, too. And, with Patricia Field, aka Sex And The City’s designer and four-time Costume Designers Guild award-winner, in charge of Emily’s wardrobe, the show is packed full of dreamy and covetable fashion hits.
Who killed Elena? That’s all we were asking ourselves (and anyone who’d listen) after The Undoing dropped into our TV schedules, and we kept on asking it right up until the show’s explosive finale.
Based on the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz, the addictive series stars Nicole Kidman as successful therapist Grace Fraser, who lives in New York with her husband Jonathan (played by Hugh Grant) and their young son.
From the outside, the family seems to have the perfect life: Jonathan is a top doctor and devoted father, while their son attends one of the top schools in the city. But then a young woman is murdered, Jonathan disappears, and Grace’s life quickly begins to disintegrate. And, yeah, it sounds depressing as hell, but we loved it. We loved it. Especially because, as it wasn’t available to stream all at once, it forced us to embrace the art of delayed gratification.
Small Axe, an anthology of five films from writer and director Steve McQueen, takes its title from a West Indian proverb about collective struggle (“If you are the big tree, we are the small axe”), and encompasses true stories from the late 60s to the mid-80s. And, yes, we’re here to tell you that it has easily proven to be one of the most transfixing series we’ve ever had the pleasure of watching.
“I felt these stories needed to be shared,” says McQueen. “I wanted to re-live, re-evaluate and investigate the journeys that my parents and the first generation of West Indians went on to deliver me here today calling myself a Black British person.
“What’s important about our stories is that they are local but at the same time global. I think audiences will identify with the trials, tribulations and joy of our characters as well as reflecting on the present environment in which we find ourselves.”
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.