One thing we can all be thankful for this year: that the best Australian TV shows of 2020 had already wrapped and were ready to air before production plunged into a six-month COVID-19 hiatus. Here are the 10 homegrown highlights that made the last 12 months just a little bit more bearable – enjoy them while you can, because next year’s top 10 may struggle to get beyond five or six entries.
10. Hungry Ghosts
Three generations of a Vietnamese-Australian family are still traumatised by the events of the Vietnam War, and their anguish isn’t helped when a vengeful spirit is released during the Hungry Ghost Festival, when dead ancestors rise as phantoms to visit the living.
Before long, the evil entity is wreaking havoc across the whole community and the humans need to find some Harry Potter-inspired ways to push the pesky beast back into the depths of hell… or hotel quarantine, whatever’s easiest. Not a classic, but there do need to be more mainstream vehicles like this for Australian minorities to tell their stories.
Biggest fan: The wannabe horror fan who’s too scared to watch actual horror
A musician (Tim Minchin) driving from Sydney to Perth with a piano to visit his dying mother accidentally teams up with a precocious teenager (Milly Alcock) before getting hopelessly lost in quite a big desert.
Over eight darkly funny episodes, the duo’s relationship teeters between outright hate, surrogate father-daughter squabbling and an awkward mutual empathy as they stumble from one disaster to another on their highly symbolic journey through desolate, red nothingness.
Minchin shows us previously unexplored dramatic depths while newcomer Alcock is a revelation as his mouthy antithesis in a surprisingly affecting two-hander.
Biggest fan: Minchin disciples who will self-flagellate in ecstasy, but wonder why he’s not singing a few pithy tunes
8. The Secrets She Keeps
Season: one (limited series)
In this nightmarish chillfest, two women from very different backgrounds are due to give birth on the same day: one baby lovingly planned, the other a mistake.
As the single supermarket worker (Downton Abbey’s Laura Carmichael) gradually worms her way into the life of a prissy mummy blogger (Jessica De Gouw), nothing is as it seems – both women conceal dark pasts that threaten their fragile reality. Don’t expect a kooky baby shower scene.
A little silly in places, but rest assured nails will be gnawed to the bone throughout the intricately manipulated and increasingly manic six episodes.
Biggest fan: Packed To The Rafters tragics who bemoan the lack of pregnant characters with evil intent
7. Australian Lockdown Comedy Festival
Season: one (limited series)
Amid the global devastation and shattered lives left in the wake of the coronavirus, not enough frontline care workers have considered the fates of Australia’s stand-up comics.
These vulnerable essential workers, deprived of the oxygen of laughter, have been gasping for attention while isolated in their homes with only social media channels to communicate with the outside world. Desperate to be super-spreaders of joy, one group decided to make the nation smile from their homes.
And we’re glad they did. Dave Hughes hosts the four-part showcase of funny people from his kitchen, wrangling the likes of Wil Anderson, Cal Wilson, Zoe Coombs-Marr, Nazeem Hussain and a dozen more to show they can still deliver the giggles without a live audience.
Biggest fan: The guy who sits next to the guy who guffaws loudly at every single joke in a comedy club
6. Maralinga Tjarutja
Season: one (limited series)
Brutally displacing Aboriginal peoples from their land to make space for agriculture, mining and urban sprawl have been national pastimes in Australia for over 200 years. Imagine that: not only had your ancestral home been snatched away, but the white folks dumped you in institutions and then spent 10 years testing nuclear weapons where your families had lived happily for 60,000 years.
This doco about the Maralinga people’s decades-long battle to reclaim their land and have them cleared of radioactive waste is certainly uneasy viewing, but the determination and optimism they display is ultimately uplifting and inspiring.
Biggest fan: The woke teen whose TV-addled family think the biggest issue our nation has ever faced was Candice Warner being kicked off SAS Australia
5. Black Comedy
Conceived to showcase Indigenous writers and performers, the fourth series of the satirical sketch show was arguably the best, most out-there yet, and every bit as surreal, silly, topical and clever as the previous three.
Directors Nakkiah Lui and Steven McGregor deliver an outlandishly high laughs-per-minute average and steer clear of preachy politics to ratchet up the absurdity and effectively parody modern Australia.
Biggest fan: Your stoner, trainee merchant banker flatmate who clearly doesn’t get any of the satire, but laughs when someone falls over or says a rude word
4. Mystery Road
After the critical success of Season 1, Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pedersen) was always set to swagger back into town to solve another whodunnit while quietly smouldering under his customised cowboy hat.
This time he’s in a coastal community near Broome, WA, where a decapitated body linked to a drug trafficking operation has appeared in a mangrove swamp close to where a Swedish archaeologist is making some important discoveries. So, just a normal day in the office.
This is Aussie drama at its best – intelligently written, unpredictable and held together by the always dazzling Pedersen in a subtly nuanced role. It’s now the solemn duty of every citizen to write to the ABC demanding a third season.
Biggest fan: Buttoned-up townies who feel vindicated in their theory that everyone who lives more than 10km from a vegan deli is a red-necked, homicidal bushranger with an oversized knife
3. The Other Guy
Technically, the sophomore season of The Other Guy was released in 2019, but its mid-December premiere would’ve excluded it from most best-of lists that year – so we’re gonna roll this forward to 2020.
Stand-up star and radio host Matt Okine is back with a second outing for his feel-good comedy-drama about a radio host who returns to the dating game after getting dumped by his pregnant, cheating girlfriend.
Now drinking heavily and unemployed, he’s approached about writing and starring in a TV show about his break-up. But it soon upsets pretty much everyone in his orbit and jeopardises what little sex life he’d salvaged from the wreckage of his past. Oh, and an unexpected tragedy means he’s going to have to build a fake dick with his best mate. It’s lightweight stuff, but Okine’s script and performance soon become addictive.
Biggest fan: Dweebs, preppies and geeks who remain confident they’ll find a beautiful woman who’ll love them for their knowledge of chemical elements
2. Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun
After 10 years of wowing comedy festivals, amassing millions of YouTube views and topping podcast charts, the absurdist Melbourne comedy trio hit the big time with their own Netflix show, produced by The Hangover star Ed Helms (whose real name is ‘Egg’, apparently).
Over six glorious episodes, they evict their dishwasher after it comes to life, a bonsai tree-loving pro-wrestler drinks their urine to help them compete at the Olympics and a whoopee cushion prepares them for dinner with the Queen.
It’s kinda The Goodies meets Monty Python in a Rick & Morty acid trip sprinkled with dollops of The Mighty Boosh, all set in a nice, suburban bungalow with clipped hedges.
Biggest fan: Long-term asylum detainees and lobotomised orangutans
Season: one (limited series)
Four strangers find themselves in a detention centre for refugees in the middle of the Australian desert in this gripping drama partly based on the real-life case of Cornelia Rau, who was held illegally at various correctional and immigration centres for 10 months in 2004. Her shocking case led to a federal inquiry and apology from then-Prime Minister John Howard, but conditions in processing centres remain scandalously poor even today.
Stateless shines a much-needed light on the subject in a year when the public’s attention was elsewhere. Cate Blanchett is terrific as always as a sinister former cult leader, but it’s Yvonne Strahovski who steals the limelight as the persecuted woman with nowhere to turn. An important, landmark ABC series that gained a global audience courtesy of Netflix.
Biggest fan: Anyone who’s not Scott Morrison