This past year, we’ve spent more time indoors than ever before. It’s no wonder, then, that streaming services have blossomed as more people switch from cable and terrestrial television channels to Netflix, Disney Plus, Amazon Prime, HBO Max, Peacock, Hulu, and more. There’s a lot to choose from.
Choosing the best TV shows of 2020 has been somewhat of a challenge. The Total Film team argued long and hard about what should make the top picks, with a diverse array of shows making the cut. There are series from acclaimed filmmakers, animated masterpieces, and, yes, a certain Star Wars spin-off. We’ve spent a lot of time with our televisions this year – so let’s celebrate that! These are the best TV shows of 2020, as chosen by the Total Film team.
25. Gangs Of London
If you’ve been hankering for the type of propulsive action that Gareth Evans introduced with The Raid, then Gangs of London is a squalid delight from the director. Each episode contains at least one action set-piece that rivals any Hollywood blockbuster, from a caravan park shootout to the world’s goriest riff on Home Alone.
The nine episode series isn’t all muscular fights and frantic gunfights, as an enjoyably soapy story about rival gangs struggling to fill a power vacuum offered plenty of intrigue between the punch-ups, with Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù’s undercover cop Elliot finding himself slowly pulled deeper into the criminal underground than he was expecting. Dìrísù’s compelling and soulful turn helps anchor some of the increasingly melodramatic moments towards the end of the series.
24. What We Do In The Shadows S2
The television adaptation of the vampiric mockumentary What We Do in the Shadows continues to impress, with the second season bringing on board some beloved actors – Mark Hamill, Benedict Wong, and more – to cameo as members of the undead. The laughs are once again hearty, with Harvey Guillén’s wannabe vampire driving the dark heart at the centre of the show.
Matt Berry and Natasia Demetriou delight as two lovers in a twisted quasi-open relationship, while Kayvan Novak’s Nandor the Relentless deals with his past more than ever. The highlight, though, is Mark Proksch as the energy vampire Colin Robinson. An episode that centres on his workplace is one of the funniest 20 minutes of television this year.
There are some shows that are destined for greatness from their first episode. The opener of Industry is as hard-hitting as they come, centring on a group of graduates who have just started working for an investment bank in London. It’s immediately cut-throat, and the series becomes more and more vicious as things go on.
Lena Dunham directs the electric first episode, setting a tone similar to Succession. Myha’la Herrold is excellent as the unassuming yet deadly lead, while the rest of the cast is bulked out by unrecognisable faces, minus Ken Leung (Lost, Sopranos) and Freya Mavor (Skins). If you can stomach seeing these terrible Londoners flashing cash and paying the price, then Industry is a must-watch.
22. The Crown S4
Olivia Colman returns as Queen Elizabeth II in The Crown, though this time her spotlight’s stolen by a few famous names. Season 4 sees the arrival of Princess Diana, played by Emma Corrin, who embodies the role completely. Sweet, innocent, yet completely capable, she’s a huge presence in the show that rocks the royals.
And then there’s Margaret. No, we’re not talking about the Princess, though Helena Bonham Carter is back, but Margaret Thatcher. Though Gillian Anderson may not be the first choice that comes to mid when casting the former Prime Minister, the American does wonders with the role. It’s a damning season all round – no wonder The Firm haven’t been all too happy with it.
21. Little Fires Everywhere
Little Fires Everywhere follows the seemingly perfect Richardson family and the way their lives become entangled with an enigmatic mother and daughter duo, who start renting a property the Richardsons own. Kerry Washington plays artist and single mother Mia, while Reese Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, the family matriarch (Witherspoon, as usual, nails the role of wealthy, neurotic WASP mother).
The limited series opens with the Richardsons’ house being engulfed by flames, and the subsequent episodes hinge around finding out who started the fires (of the ‘little’ and ‘everywhere’ variety). However, Little Fires Everywhere really shines in how it deftly tackles topics like racism, class, and motherhood. The series’ portrayal of abortion, for example, is one of the most refreshing depictions I’ve ever seen on TV. According to Hulu, it was the most-watched drama ever on the streaming service in its first 60 days online – and rightly so.
20. We Are Who We Are
We Are Who We Are marks Luca Guadagnino’s first television effort. This free-wheeling tale of American military base brats has snatched Euphoria’s teen angst crown thanks to its vibrant ensemble (led by It’s Jack Dylan Grazer), kicking soundtrack, and sultry Mediterranean atmos make up.
It’s a compelling look at the pain and pleasure of youth, exploring first love and all the pains that come with that. Watching these teens go through the motions is certainly a visceral experience, helped immeasurably by the guiding hand of Guadagnino – who helmed Call Me By Your Name.
19. The Eddy
This Netflix original series delivered on the promise of its international calibre. Written by screenwriting supremo Jack Thorne and with episodes directed by Damien Chazelle, Houda Benyamina, Laïla Marrakchi and Alan Poul, The Eddy is a gritty yet vibrant bop around the Paris jazz scene.
André Holland plays Elliot, the struggling manager of a Parisian nightclub. However, his business partner owes some people some money, and things quickly become even more difficult. And then Elliot’s estranged daughter, Julie, shows up. It’s one thing after another, but this music-enthused series grooves at its own tempo, slowing things down for reflection and, of course, a few jam sessions.
18. Ted Lasso
Love or loathe the beautiful game, this Apple TV Plus comedy about an American college football coach (Jason Sudeikis) who’s hired to run an English Premier League team is a warm and witty watch. Yes, there are more than a handful of jokes about classic English and American stereotypes, but Sudeikis has a certain charisma that makes everything work.
Agreed, there’s nothing groundbreaking about an American comedy that wears its heart on its sleeve, but Ted Lasso has more than enough funny material to make it the perfect antidote to most of 2020’s woes.
17. Mrs. America
The movement to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment is told from the perspective of the women on the front lines of the culture war in this illuminating nine-part miniseries. Cate Blanchett is teeth-clenchingly brilliant as conservative activist Phyllis Schlafly, who’s fighting against female empowerment.
While there are some who stand by her side, including Sarah Paulson’s housewife, there are those feminists standing against Schlafly, including Rose Byrne and Elizabeth Banks. The all-star cast is rounded out by Uzo Aduba, Margo Martindale, Tracey Ullman, and John Slattery, all excellent in their roles.
Based on James Graham’s excellent play of the same name, Quiz boasts winning turns by Matthew Macfadyen and Sian Clifford, and Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant impression is bang on the money. Perfect casting, telly nostalgia, and 50:50 ambiguity make Stephen Frears’ take on the Major Fraud scandal that rocked Who Wants To Be A Millionaire? unmissable.
What’s particularly impressive is how the ITV drama does not take a side. While things may seem cut and dry, like real life, events are not quite so straight forward. Add into the mix Helen McCrory as a barrister, and you have an excellent three-hour British drama that had the nation gripped.
15. Bojack Horseman S6
The alcoholic equine bowed out in typically chaotic fashion: with his world crashing inward. Bojack Horseman’s final season was split into two, and the second half was a hard watch as the eponymous character dealt with his past action in a post–MeToo world. Things hit a gut-wrenching high with the penultimate episode, followed by a perfectly measured finale that solidifies the series as a classic.
Of course, this wasn’t all about Bojack. The Netflix show had become so much more, with its many main characters – Princess Carolyn, Mr Peanutbutter, Diane, and Todd – all having their stories wrap neatley. Who’d have thought a TV show about a cartoon horse could be so moving?
14. Lovecraft Country
Misha Green’s feverish portrait of segregated ’50s America skilfully blends dagger-sharp social commentary with flights of horror-fantasy. Secret societies, time warps, mad tentacular sex… anything could happen in an episode of Lovecraft Country.
There were, however, two constants: breakouts Jonathan Majors and Jurnee Smollett radiate charisma, the pair anchoring the series. The series pushes the boundaries of what to expect from Lovecraftian horror – and does so beautifully. Although the ending may be definitive, a season 2 would not go amiss.
13. Schitt’s Creek S6
Dan and Eugene Levy’s sleeper hit bids a witty farewell to the Roses and the eccentric titular town, as David (Dan Levy) gets hitched, Alexis (Annie Murphy) finds her independence, and Moira (Catherine O’Hara) and Johnny (Eugene Levy) expand the motel chain.
The COVID pandemic led to millions more people discovering this delightful series, which concluded beautifully. And while it was sad saying goodbye to the family, they went out with more than a handful of Emmys. Simply the best, indeed.
12. The Last Dance
This eight-hour Netflix documentary took us inside the dressing room of the Chicago Bulls as they won six NBA championships in the ’90s… and inside the head of star player Michael Jordan.
Don’t like basketball? Jason Hehir’s slam-dunk doc will electrify you nonetheless. The Last Dance eases you into the game while focussing more on the lives and personalities of its great stars. Jordan is, of course, centre stage, but other members of the iconic Bulls team get the spotlight every now and again. This one will get the blood pumping – and, yes, we see Jordan on the set of Space Jam.
11. I’ll Be Gone In The Dark
HBO’s six-part true-crime documentary tracks how Michelle McNamara unearthed new evidence while researching her same-titled 2018 bestselling book on the Golden State Killer, who committed at least 13 killings and 50 rapes between 1973 and 1986.
Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) directs the first episode of I’ll Be Gone In The Dark, which sees McNamara pitch her initial idea to Los Angeles Magazine. As she dives deeper into the troubling truth, there are twists and turns that lead to a stunning conclusion. This is riveting viewing, and incredibly moving.
10. I Hate Suzie
Billie Piper’s semi-autobiographical collaboration with Lucy Prebble (Secret Diary Of A Call Girl) is an unflinching, brutally funny and reflective look at the female experience (mother/wife/friend/lover) via singer-turned- actor Suzie (Piper), whose life unravelled after a phone hack.
Ballsy and brilliant, I Hate Suzie sees Piper in her best role to date, offering a brave performance that bears her soul. It’s also darkly funny in moments, making the gut-punches even more painful when they land.
9. Dead To Me S2
The tragicomedy’s second instalment ramps up the twists as polar opposite pals Jen and Judy struggle to keep the aftermath of last season’s criminalising cliffhanger a secret. A masterful blend of dark thrills and laugh-out-loud one-liners.
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are both sensational as the central duo, while James Marsden as Steve’s semi-identical twin brother is pure excellence. There are even more unforgettable turns this time around – we couldn’t stop watching.
8. The Boys S2
The sophomore season of Amazon’s superhero series is messier than the first and without the same surprise factor. But boy is it dark, with all-American hero Homelander (Antony Starr), egged on by Stormfront (Aya Cash), going full-psychopath to genuinely disturbing effect.
The Boys season 2 is also more timely than its predecessor, dealing with racism and other topics plaguing America in this modern age. Karl Urban is excellent as the returning Billy Buther, yet it’s Starr who steals the show as the utterly terrifying Supe.
7. Better Call Saul S5
The penultimate season of Vince Gilligan’s rich Breaking Bad prequel sees Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) slippin’ closer to the Saul Goodman character we know from Breaking Bad. One episode in particular, “Bagman”, delivers 55 minutes on par with the best of the original show.
However, it’s Kim (Rhea Seehorn) who continues to be the show’s most valuable player – though we wonder why she doesn’t make it across to Breaking Bad. Expect heartbreak to come as Better Call Saul wraps with season 7.
6. The Queen’s Gambit
An introverted U.S. chess prodigy, played by woman of the moment Anya Taylor-Joy, takes on the Russians and discovers life beyond the board is far less patterned and symmetrical. While, of course, a series about chess may sound… well… boring… The Queen’s Gambit is anything but. In fact, it even makes the game exciting – and led to a huge spike in searches of “How to play Chess”.
Scott Frank’s stunning ’60s-set drama proves a worthy follow up to his 2017 western series Godless, and solidifies Taylor-Joy as a force to be reckoned with.
Alex Garland’s first foray into TV matched up to his features Ex Machina and Annihilation. A big-brain chin-stroke on free will and determinism, Devs follows software engineer Lily Chan (Sonoya Mizuno) as she investigates the disappearance of her boyfriend after he just started working for a top-secret division of a quantum computing company.
The series delves deep into whether humans can be blamed for their actions, and sees Nick Offerman play against type as the evil Willy Wonka-esque leader of a Silicon Valley company. It’s just mesmerising.
4. Normal People
If you were craving intimacy during lockdown, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel more than delivered, its heart-piecing romance resonating across generations.
Following high-school lovers Connell and Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal) as they navigate early adulthood on opposite ends of the social spectrum, Normal People is binge-viewing to obsess over. The central duo announce themselves as ones to watch.
3. I May Destroy You
Confirming creator/writer/co-director/star Michaela Coel as a major talent, I May Destroy You defies all small-screen expectations. A vivid depiction of the aftermath of surviving a sexual assault, the 12-parter confidently tackles themes of consent, race, gender, and social media, while evading genre shackles.
I May Destroy You is funny, moving, shocking, and relatable, but always thought-provoking. Coel stuns in the lead role in this uncompromising drama that’s a must-watch for everyone.
2. The Mandalorian S1 + S2
There was gratification with Disney Plus’s delayed UK launch: we got two seasons of Jon Favreau’s superlative Star Wars serial in one year. Arguably an even more satisfying visit to the galaxy far, far away than the sequel trilogy, both seasons lean into the franchise’s early pulp and western roots.
The Mandalorian has a cool hero, kick-ass action and movie-quality production values, which it didn’t even need, because quite frankly we’d tune in every week just for Baby Yoda/The Child/Grogu. And then there’s the addition of Boba Fett, Ahsoka Tano, and other familiar Star Wars faces. No wonder they’re making a half-dozen spin-off series…
1. Small Axe
Expectations were high when Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen (12 Years
A Slave, Widows) turned to TV for a five-film anthology series based on London’s West Indian community in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. But it was impossible to anticipate just how impactful this collection would prove to be.
Featuring stories of oppression, hope, love and adversity, it was a remarkably potent mix: moving, thrilling, funny and sensual. True stories of the likes of the Mangrove Nine and Leroy Logan were told with historical and cultural specificity, and gave a brace of talented actors a chance to shine: John Boyega, Shaun Parkes, Letitia Wright, and more made fine work of complex roles. A powerful, personal TV event to savour each week.