Sitting on the sofa in your pants bingeing box sets isn’t an official occupation (that we know of), but during 2020 many of us worked harder at it than our actual jobs. Course, with lockdown anti-baccing everyone’s social calendar clean, there wasn’t much else to do was there? No, the only judgement we’ll pass here is on the shows you chose to watch.
From boundary-breaking dramas to sweary superhero thrillers and board game-based period pieces to weird sci-fi animations, there was a lot crowding your Netflix feed (or, for anyone still living in 2002, your TV guide). No wonder it took the average subscriber 18 minutes to pick something to stick on. Well, thanks to us, you won’t have to make any more telly-based decisions until 2021.
Read on to find out the 20 best TV shows of the past 12 months. Can you cross them all off by Christmas?
Alex Flood, Film and TV Editor
Words: Elizabeth Aubrey, Mark Beaumont, Paul Bradshaw, Rhian Daly, Jesse Hassenger, El Hunt, Ella Kemp, James McMahon, Sam Moore, Hannah Mylrea, Nick Reilly, Gary Ryan, Ali Shutler, Thomas Smith, Andrew Trendell
20. Rick and Morty
Season: four, part two
It’s said that from small acorns – or in this case, a gross-out Back To The Future parody made for a short film festival in 2006 – do great oaks grow. That’s certainly the case with Adult Swim’s mercurial sci-fi animated sitcom, which is now essential watching for anyone who craves their cartoons highly creative and razor sharp. Highlights of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s fourth season include the appearance of Taika Waititi as Glootie, Rick’s alien intern, and Elon Musk as, erm, Elon Tusk, CEO of the Tuskla company. Look, we’re not saying the writing is always smart, but it normally is. And, it remains the warmest way to circle the abyss. Existentia-lols, if you will. As Morty says: “Nobody exists on purpose, nobody belongs anywhere, everybody’s gonna die. Come watch TV.”
Biggest fan: The person who is too clever to watch cartoons, yet too cool not to. JM
19. The Last Dance
Season: one (limited series)
The Last Dance was an audience with a king, but not the one we expected. For nearly three decades, unfiltered behind-the-scenes footage shot during legendary basketball player Michael Jordan’s final season with the Chicago Bulls in 1998 sat idle after he spiked a potential documentary about his farewell. Longstanding rumours said that Jordan considered the footage – in which he could often be seen belittling and bullying teammates – would be damaging for his business-friendly image.
But with his legacy as the GOAT (Greatest of All Time) coming into question, he eventually collaborated with ESPN for a revelatory 10-part documentary that enraptured sports fans and the normies alike during lockdown. Powered by spectacular archive footage, a banging soundtrack and often touching, but hilarious interviews with Jordan and his fiercest rivals, the Jason Hehir-directed series is already lauded as one of the greatest pieces of sports filmmaking ever.
Biggest fan: Your 20-something mate who thinks he is an outsider because he likes an American sport, but has come to realise that literally everyone on the planet worships at the altar of MJ. TS
18. Killing Eve
A gore-filled thriller about a psychopathic assassin hell-bent on killing a British intelligence investigator: on paper, at least, Killing Eve doesn’t sound much like a riotous dark comedy. But strong on cartoonish absurdity, stylish beyond belief (have you seen Villanelle’s killer fashion looks lately?) and sprinkled with a touch of everyday banality, this is exactly what the show is.
Season three had a tough cliffhanger to follow on from – at the end of the second (spoiler alert) we left Villanelle (Jodie Comer) in a Roman colosseum, and Eve (Sandra Oh) presumed dead. This time around, Killing Eve digs deeper into the psyches of the two women: in particular, we learn more about how Villanelle turned into the merciless and showy serial killer that she is today. And as her commitment to her chosen career path wavers, Villanelle and Eve’s dangerous obsession with each other spirals to chaotic heights – peaking with a particularly fraught cat and mouse chase around a London bus.
Biggest fan: Your flatmate who listens to Serial religiously, and prides themselves on being the modern-day Nancy Drew. EH
In a post-Game Of Thrones world, there are only several series with a large enough budget to legitimately lay claim to the title of biggest show on TV. This year, one of them was Westworld. Returning with new episodes for the first time since Westeros’ controversial finale, Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan’s ambitious sci-fi project about sentient robots took things up a notch. Previously, the paranoid androids stayed inside the theme park they were created to populate, but in season three Dolores (Evan Rachel Wood) and the gang stepped out into the real world for the first time. Eight episodes of slick cityscapes, confusing flashbacks and metal-on-flesh combat later and many may have needed to pause this ride for a breather – but those who stayed strapped in were rewarded with an exhilarating, fulfilling and impressively cinematic experience.
Biggest fan: Stephen Hawking – you’d need a brain as big as the late physics genius to decode Westworld’s hidden philosophical meaning. AF
In a crumbling mansion on the outskirts of nowhere, the spirit of classic British ensemble comedy has been spectacularly resurrected. When Horrible Histories grew up and went prime time with Ghosts, its sharp cast taking on the roles of nine spectres from throughout history still roaming the corridors of Button Hall and only able to communicate with reluctant medium Alison (a long-suffering Charlotte Ritchie), it brought with it a playfulness, surrealism, variety and vitality long missing from the mainstream sitcom. Like Rentaghost meets Blackadder, series two played wonderfully with its time-hopping historical possibilities while adding flesh to its entire cast, living, dead or eternally plague-riddled; it’s impossible not to have a favourite, and for it not to be Lolly Adefope’s flighty Georgian flibbertigibbet Kitty. With episodes such as ‘The Thomas Thorne Affair’ emerging as storytelling tour de forces worthy of the greats, Ghosts was far and away the most essential family viewing of 2020.
Biggest fan: Yvette Fielding, for a bit of light relief from Most Haunted. MB
There’s nothing like a bit of sex on TV to get the gammons going. “Is Industry just prime time porn?” screamed the Daily Mail front page last week when the randy banker drama aired. At times, the answer would have to be yes, but there’s so much more to this financial-based thriller than gratuitous shagging. Set in London, the show follows a group of fresh-faced graduates at an investment bank called Pierpoint. Each has their strengths and weaknesses – from affable but slow-working Rob to clever Harper, whose tendency to make rash decisions belies her strong instincts – but they all (and there are multiple leads) get enough screen time to develop, and the writing is so good that their interweaving adventures dovetail perfectly by the hyper-stressful finale. Compared to Skins (for all the partying and hooking up) and Mad Men (for all the suits and shiny shoes), Industry is definitely one of the more x-rated series on TV, but it’s also one of the best.
Biggest fan: Your freshers flatmate who went clubbing every night after a 12-hour, study drug-fuelled revision sesh in the library. AF
14. This Country
Season: three (final)
When super siblings Daisy May and Charlie Cooper announced in January that the third season of This Country would be its last, it felt like a premature end for one of Britain’s greatest modern sitcoms. And, as that series went on to prove, the Coopers were still at the peak of their comic powers. Brilliant to the end, it offered the perfect conclusion to Kerry and Kurtan’s story, while subtly hinting that it’s not necessarily the last we’ve seen from them. As with the show’s other two seasons, it proved unexpectedly emotional too – the razor-sharp script taking fans from belly-laughs to tears in a single heartbeat. While we’ll definitely miss This Country’s fishbowl world of village fetes and scarecrow contests, the end of TV’s cleverest comedy means we also get to see what its creators do next.
Biggest fan: Anyone who’s known the pure frustration of living in a town that no good bands ever play. NR
13. The Walking Dead
Yes, it’s still going. And yes, it’s finally ending soon (season 11 will be The Walking Dead’s last). But at least TV’s ever-present zombie thriller is going down fighting, with a batch of much-improved episodes that further resurrect the show’s fortunes. Credit should go to showrunner Angela Kang for this year’s gripping storylines, which included Alpha, Beta and the Whisperers finally getting their comeuppance, Negan’s continuing redemption and, right at the death of season 10, our first proper glimpse at the mysterious Commonwealth. Six extra episodes will round off this section of the story from February to April next year. After that, it’ll be final season time — and if the show manages to maintain its encouraging return to form, we’ll be very sad to see The Walking Dead go.
Biggest fan: Doomsday enthusiasts who spend every night babbling COVID-19 conspiracy theories on their internet radio show. SM
12. The Mandalorian
“Grogu” might be a dumb name but it’s hard to hold a grudge against the show that’s given us eight blockbuster-grade mini sci-fi movies in two months. For the second time running, The Mandalorian has delivered everything fans could possibly want from a Star Wars TV show – including Jedi duels, X-Wing battles, resurrected side characters and the kind of stripped-back, old-fashioned Lucasfilm magic that hasn’t been felt on film since the original trilogy. Early episodes have taken the usual detours, and casual viewers who haven’t picked up every plot twist from the animated shows might have had to do a lot of googling, but the second season mostly hits its stride far more confidently (and far more expensively) than last year’s debut – keeping Mando well on track to becoming the coolest Star Wars badass this side of Han Solo, and keeping that Disney+ subscription indispensable.
Biggest fan: The IT guy at work who doesn’t stop telling everyone why the new Star Wars sequels ruined his childhood. PB
11. The Queen’s Gambit
You’d be forgiven for thinking chess isn’t the most gripping competitive sport, but then it’s never been made into a Netflix show before. The Queen’s Gambit, based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel of the same name, ripped up public perceptions of the crusty board game and is now its most-watched limited series ever. It stars Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon, an orphan who develops a drug dependency in care before discovering she’s a chess prodigy. On her quest to become the best, she faces misogyny, temptation, childhood trauma, the pitfalls of adolescence, the actual USSR and a pawn-slingin’ chess cowboy (Thomas Brodie Sangster). By setting Beth’s coming-of-age struggles against the backdrop of the Cold War – and bottling the tense drama of head-to-head chess – The Queen’s Gambit has turned everyone’s least favourite family pastime into an even hotter game than Pokemon Go. Checkmate, Pikachu.
Biggest fan: Jeff from accounts, who’s never played chess in his life but tells everyone he’d be good at it because he’s a “deep thinker”. AT
10. The Umbrella Academy
Everyone’s favourite family of superpowered misfits returned to save the world in 2020 – and even though you’d seen similar stories told countless times before, The Umbrella Academy was still the most fun show on TV. After a colourful, if predictable, first season introduced us to the Hargreeves – a crime-fighting team of orphans, put together by an eccentric billionaire – season two took fans further into the comic book-inspired world. Time travel, superheroes and the end of the world all popped up, but this weird, wacky and emotional series is best when it focuses on the well-drawn characters at its heart, which this season it was never afraid to show off. Klaus, Vanya and co. have evolved quickly from quirky cliches into flawed, relatable young adults and while The Umbrella Academy thrives on its larger than life plot twists, the new episodes never strayed into absurdity – apart from the bits with aliens in. Actually, let’s not mention the aliens.
Biggest fan: That emo you watch on the bus each morning, My Chemical Romance blaring from their Skullcandy headphones. AS
9. Sex Education
Otis Milburn (Asa Butterfield) has been dishing out advice to his classmates for two seasons now, but in the latest episodes it was his own romantic life that needed a bit of TLC. His relationship with friend-cum-business-associate-cum-potential-love-of-his-life Maeve (Emma Mackey) became more complex than ever, although fans hoping for an answer to the perennial will-they-won’t-they question were left disappointed. Elsewhere, Otis’ best friend Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) won himself a seemingly perfect boyfriend, before a tricky situation with former bully (and crush) Adam arose. As usual, Sex Education took care of every character wonderfully, making room for a whole range of inclusive narratives. A storyline around sexual misconduct and trauma made for one of the most powerful moments of the season, while vaginismus and pansexuality were explored with respect, humour and hope. Season three can’t come soon enough!
Biggest fan: That semi-famous influencer you follow on social media who live-tweets their terrible Hinge dates. EK
8. Schitt’s Creek
Season: six (final)
TV’s wackiest sitcom bowed out at its very best. After six seasons of following the once-minted Rose family smirk, quip and scowl their way around the backwater town, fans left Schitt’s Creek on a high. Warm and witty, Dan Levy’s Emmy-sweeping series is the viewing version of comfort food, and at the last, each character served up the perfect final dish. David married Patrick, despite going full bridezilla during the planning. His sister, spoiled socialite Alexis (Annie Murphy) bagged a new job in the big city; and Catherine O’Hara’s outrageous matriarch Moira, with her collection of wigs and bonkers accent, elbowed her way back into acting and moved to LA with husband Johnny (Eugene Levy), now a successful businessman once more. Gripping, tear-jerking and laugh-out-loud funny, the final episodes were quite the ride – and it’s heartbreaking that we have to finally get off.
Biggest fan: That one pal with the most embarrassing dad – it’s a reminder that they could be much, much weirder. HM
7. BoJack Horseman
Season: six, part two (final)
The final half-season of Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s animated tragicomedy dropped early this year. The last episode’s innate sadness – its spiritual emptiness – essentially set the tone for the rest of 2020. Why should you subject yourself to this dank vibe if you’re not already saddled up on such a relentlessly bleak show? Because, surprisingly for a TV programme about an anthropomorphic horse and faded sitcom star, and his quest for relevance and redemption, BoJack Horseman is perhaps the best show ever made about the human experience. That means depression, trauma, addiction and more. But also love, friendship and empathy. And it’s funny. Making it to six seasons on Netflix, avoiding the platform’s habit of cutting down beloved shows in their prime, is an achievement much like fighting and beating a rabid bear armed only with a spoon. This unique show deserved the best – and it got it.
Biggest fan: Your drollest friend you rarely see because they’re writing a sitcom that will never get made. Check in on them. JM
6. I Hate Suzie
Season: one (limited series)
Ever seen a woman masturbating on prime-time telly before? No? That’s because there haven’t been many. In fact, the first one was just two years ago on BBC One‘s Wanderlust. But what about a seven-minute-long female masturbation scene? There hadn’t been one of those either until I Hate Suzie, which this year broke the record for the longest female wank scene in television history.
Its boldness didn’t stop there. Like Adult Material and Sex Education, the show gave us a rare, realistic insight into sex from a woman’s perspective, putting female desire front-and-centre and highlighting the shame women continually face for expressing desire – especially ones in the public eye. Billie Piper plays Suzie Pickle, an actress whose life unravels when compromising snaps of her having an affair with a male colleague are made public. While her career plummets, her male co-star escapes unscathed. Flitting between the escapist fantasy of Suzie’s imagination and the harsh reality of patriarchal society, the show takes a candid, groundbreaking look at the double standards women are subjected to when it comes to their own bodies.
Biggest fan: A closet OK reader: a gossip doom scroller who hates their guilty pleasure but does it anyway. LA
Moving anywhere can be stressful, but it’s probably more traumatic if the reason you’re relocating is that a cartel wants you dead. This is the plot of Ozark, which sees financial advisor Marty (Jason Bateman) drag his family from Chicago to hicksville Missouri, where he must launder money for scary drug boss Omar or face execution. By season three, released on Netflix earlier this year, Marty and his wife Wendy (Laura Linney) have graduated to running casinos as well. The cartel’s lawyer Helen is on their case though – as is the FBI, whom the Byrdes are half-tempted to take a plea deal with and rat out their employers. It’s all very tense and Breaking Bad-ish, but the success of Ozark lies in its ability to weave domestic storylines (Wendy’s drug-addled brother, son Jonah’s worrying interest in firearms) in with the central crime drama. All the best mob shows are about family (The Sopranos, Peaky Blinders) and the Byrdes are as messed up as the rest of them.
Biggest fan: You know that older kid in year 11 who sold cryptocurrency through Minecraft? He eventually got nicked for flogging drugs on Silk Road. AF
4. Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness
Season: one (plus a special episode)
During the OG lockdown in March, everybody binged this documentary series which chronicled the spiralling feud between outlandish big cat owner Joe Exotic and his nemesis, self-professed animal rights activist Carole Baskin. Spawning countless memes, it was a WTF?-a-thon that took in sex cults, polygamy, politics, meth-heads, attempted murder and, yes, more tigers than you can shake a box of Frosties at. Add in a supporting cast of equally larger-than-life characters that seem like they’ve been nicked from South Park, Joe’s country rock songs, and (denied) suggestions that Carole fed her missing millionaire husband to tigers, and it’s fair to say viewers found comfort in a show that was even more crazily unreal than the hellscape outside their living room windows. Yep, it was accused of being exploitative, nobody came out of it particularly well and it contained the same level of wrongness as your average Laurence Fox tweet, but goodness, it was addictive.
Biggest fan: Everyone who wanted something to talk about in between rounds of a Zoom quiz. GR
3. The Boys
This ultraviolent adaptation of the bawdy Garth Ennis-penned comic book got knottier and more complex for its second season, expertly satirising public fascination with superhero narratives and tying them to the contemporary re-emergence of Nazism. The catalyst for this movement is Stormfront (Aya Cash), a repurposed “supe” whose savvy use of memes and live-streaming belies the fact that she’s nearly a century old. Her trysts with Homelander (Antony Starr) tease out both his superiority complex and his insecurities, with the show acknowledging how both can be equally deadly. Other superhero stories blanch at committing to a portrayal of true systemic rot; The Boys isn’t shy about admitting that the entire hero enterprise may be irredeemably corrupt (while still indulging in some killer setpieces and memorably gnarly imagery). Plus, Billy Joel becomes a running motif, in a genre that often has no idea what to do with pop music.
Biggest fan: The genre-savvy comics fan who’s terribly sick of the whole superhero movie phenomenon, but still consumes only superhero-related entertainment. JH
2. Normal People
Season: one (limited series)
Back in April, there was only one thing getting us through lockdown 1.0. The perfect way to binge away the boredom, Normal People captured all the highs, lows and moody middles of modern relationships in 12 perfect episodes of slow-burning swoon. Dancing right on the edge of soapiness, directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald steered Sally Rooney’s bleak novel towards poetic perfection – never shying away from real emotions, real sex or the real human tragedy of love lives that never quite connect. Even more astonishing was the casting of the show’s leads – with Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal seemingly coming out of nowhere to give us two of the most elegantly powerful performances of the year. A rare show that felt personal and private to everyone who watched it, Normal People pulled us in and held us under.
Biggest fan: Whoever started that letchy Instagram called “@connellschain” (and the 179K people who follow it…) PB
1. I May Destroy You
Season: one (limited series)
Since the resurgence of the #MeToo movement in late 2017, there’s been an uptick in sexual assault stories on TV. While some have presented thought-provoking ruminations on consent, abuse – of both people and power – and more, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You managed to encapsulate the experience of rape and the subsequent process of surviving in a way that hit harder than ever before. Based on her own experience, Coel plays Arabella, a writer who is assaulted in a bar toilet after having her drink spiked. Over the next few weeks, she tries to piece together the events of that night and identify her attacker, while building her own coping mechanisms to help deal with the trauma. Other complex strands of sexual consent and objectification are brought to the table through the stories of best friends Terry (Weruche Opia) and Kwame (Paapa Essiedu), weaving together a show that’s as knotty and perplexing as life itself. After the year’s most essential TV experience, we’re desperate to see what she does next.
Biggest fan: Not your casual telly-watcher looking for a light-hearted binge, that’s for sure – this series strikes a chord with those who aren’t afraid to get vulnerable and into their feelings. RD