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With cinemas closed for a large part of 2020 and as the public were confined to their homes, TV played a significant role in helping people get through the Covid-19 pandemic. Thankfully, there’s been many great new shows and seasons to binge. HeadStuff gathered the collective minds of our Film and TV section to bring you our top ten television picks of the year.
10. The Undoing
Who knew that all we needed in 2020 was another David E. Kelley show starring Nicole Kidman? The Big Little Lies’ creator came to our small screens this winter with another chilling book adaptation: The Undoing. This six part miniseries gripped me a little more each week as I wondered can humans really be so monstrous?
Kidman plays Grace Fraser, a successful psychologist living and working in Manhattan with her husband, Jonathan (Hugh Grant) and young son Henry (Noah Jupe). Her life seems perfect but as we delve deeper we strike an anomaly: Elena Alves (Matilda De Angelis). Their sons both attend the same elite school. Grace gets a weird vibe off this woman who is a lot younger and more provocative than the other Reardon moms.
Kelley doesn’t waste time. In the pilot episode Elena is found brutally murdered in her art studio the night after a school fundraiser. Despite Grace’s wealth and high standing in the community, there’s nothing she can do to prepare for all fingers being pointed at the Fraser family. The number one suspect? Her husband.
Each episode is more stomach churning than the last as we watch Kidman’s poise and elegance deteriorate with each passing day of the investigation. If you like watching rich white people have their lives turned upside down then this show is the chaos you need. Scout Mitchell
Unorthodox is without a doubt the most powerful show I watched in 2020. Based on a bestselling memoir, the Netflix four-part series depicts the rebellion of a young Hasidic woman. Feeling trapped in her community in Brooklyn, Etsy secretly decides to leave her unhappy arranged marriage and run away. From New York to Berlin, the heroine engages in a journey of self-discovery along which she finds her voice.
The impactful story is carried by a breathtaking Shira Haas who’s transformation grips the audience all the way to the show’s emotional finale. Both intimate and urgent, the true accomplishment of the series lies in its ability to create a strong sense of autenticity thanks to its Yiddish-fluent cast. Moreover to its credit, Unorthodox refuses to villify any of its characters, instead striving to paint a fair portrait of all sides involved. Charline Fernandez
8. The Mandalorian Seasons 1 and 2
Just as it seemed the Star Wars franchise was beginning to outstay its welcome – after the ultimately lackluster sequel trilogy and the disappointingly received prequel flick Solo – The Mandalorian has proven there’s still a lot of life in the galaxy far far away. Props must be given to showrunner Jon Favreau for the show’s success. Having already kickstarted the MCU with Iron Man, he and his well-chosen team of collaborators perfectly crystalised what exactly fans of the franchise were craving but not necessarily getting in its films – a lot of time to explore the vast unique world of Star Wars, a focus on characters not connected to the Skywalkers and of course, a Baby Yoda.
Another masterstroke of The Mandalorian is how even people not well versed in Star Wars can enjoy it. After all, the series mimics the style of old Western serials. Each episode sees Pedro Pascal’s title bounty hunter visiting a new environment and becoming entangled in an adventure – each one paying homage to a classic flick such as Alien, A Fistful of Dollars and Sorcerer. Because of this even your granddad who doesn’t get sci-fi and your annoying mate who constantly bemoans Disney’s monopolising over culture – which, fair – can enjoy it. Stephen Porzio
7. The Boys Season 2
Guess who just got back today? Hughie (Jack Quaid), Billy Butcher (Karl Urban) and the rest of The Boys return to expose the shady secrets of the Vought Corporation. The company control the branding of superhero group The Seven; a Justice League-style team of crime fighters who do little in the way of achieving justice and completely abuse their powers and position.
The first season, which was adapted from Garth Ennis’ graphic novel series of the same name, was a subversive jab at the superhero genre with some very profound and relevant commentary regarding celebrity culture and media representation. And it also wasn’t shy in delivering a bloody and jaw-dropping action set-piece.
All of this and more returns in the second season with even sharper writing as the series takes more time to flesh out certain characters. This includes an enhanced focus on the relationships between Hughie and Seven member Starlight (Erin Moriarty, no relation to yours truly), Billy Butcher and his ex-wife Becca (Shantel VanSanten), as well as the latter’s connection with the show’s “sick and twisted version of Superman” Homelander (Anthony Starr). There’s also the inclusion of new players such as Stormfront (Aya Cash), a quippy supe with a dodgy past of her own, and the mysterious Lamplighter (whose casting I won’t spoil but let’s just say it should raise a smile for anyone familiar with the X-Men franchise).
The best description to give this show is that it’s about superheroes who are far from “heroic”. In fact, the majority of supposed “superheroes” in The Boys are complete and utter scumbags. If you’re a fan of the genre then there’s enough here to keep you satisfied with numerous tongue-in-cheek references to other franchises. However, if you’re fed up of the tiresome elements of superhero flicks then you’ll be equally satisfied with all the clever ways the series pokes fun at those worn-out tropes. And boy oh boy was this season bloody diabolical. Sean Moriarty
Say what you want about Peak TV but if it allows artists like writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) a chance to make something adventurous and weird like Devs, I say long may the era continue. In the eight part mystery sci-fi, computer engineer Lily (Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno) investigates the secretive development division of the quantum computing company where she works, which she believes is behind the disappearance of her boyfriend. At the same time, the company’s CEO (Nick Offerman) and his top team (including Alison Pill and Stephen McKinley Henderson) make a scientific breakthrough that changes life as we know it.
Devs is Garland tackling timely themes he has covered elsewhere – free will, determinism, technology – but on a grander scale, no longer a victim of studio interference as with previous projects. It shows in the end result, the dark, brooding, ocassionally blackly comic series boasting a clear confidence in its storytelling. Unlike this year’s thematically similar Westworld season three, in Devs there are no twists for the sake of it or unnecessary witholding of key information. While there is a mystery element, Devs gives viewers the important details early – the show’s narrative then driven by intelligent conversations on what their consequences are for both the main characters and humanity itself.
While primarily known as a writer – penning the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine – Garland continues to highlight how gifted he is behind the camera. Devs looks gorgeous, from its near future San Francisco setting, to the central company Amaya’s headquarters located in the shadow of a creepy looming statue of its founder’s dead daughter, to the gold tinted vaccum-sealed lab where the Devs team’s scientific breakthroughs happen. On top of this, the filmmaker experiments with the TV form, often opening episodes with jaw-droppingly audacious scenes which first seem removed from the show’s narrative before explaining their significance later on.
Another great part of Devs – there will be no series two. It tells its story in eight hours, wrapping it up satisfyingly and with no loose ends. Instead, Garland says he wants to write a new series featuring the same great cast (Zach Grenier’s quietly terrifying turn as Amaya’s head of security deserves special praise). On the strength of Devs, I can’t wait. Stephen Porzio
5. Normal People
Many have been singing the praises of young Irish author Sally Rooney – and rightfully so. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, is about the messy, overlapping relationships between four compelling characters. Her second novel Normal People and its subsequent TV adaptation, however, is where Rooney’s insight and intelligence flourishes.
And while the media – social and mainstream – have been primarily focused on Connell Waldron – and his chain – sending a legion of thirsty Irish mammies into a frenzy, we mustn’t ignore the symbiotic partnership formed by Rooney, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald to bring this melancholic tale so vividly to life.
The narrative follows young lovers Marianne and Connell, who continually endure the unforgiving nature of self-discovery, peer scrutiny and falling in love. Divided by class, both societally and within school, the dual protagonists are intrinsically tied throughout – regardless how often they attempt to sever their connection.
Stretching the story across their formative years may seem daunting, but the performances are so beautifully earnest and provocative – by both Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones – that each scene portrays love and the lies we tell ourselves on such a deep, relatable level, you may become emotionally unstable while watching.
Depicting the complexities of a passionate, insatiable, intense relationship, Normal People will resonate with many. This show is easily one of the best narratives produced in recent years. As Connell and Marianne’s sprawling love story concludes, their relationship, interactions, and subsequent decisions will linger in your mind long after, as all great stories do. Jenny Murphy Byrne
4. The Last Dance
Considering that Michael Jordan demanded the final word on each matter in Jason Hehir’s basketball documentary, it is fascinating to imagine what this ten-part series would look like if it weren’t skewed in Jordan’s favour. Even as it stands, Jordan frequently comes off as less than likeable, making the whole endeavour even more curious.
Focusing on Jordan’s NBA career with the Chicago Bulls and highlighting his final 1997-98 season in particular, the Netflix/ESPN series jumps around out of chronological order (sometimes distractingly), exploring his personal and professional exploits both on and off the basketball court (not enough focus on Space Jam sadly).
Narrated through both talking heads of basketball personalities and exclusive NBA footage, The Last Dance tells the compelling and often frustrating story of Jordan’s seemingly superhuman work ethic, clashes with rival players, and status as larger-than-life world-wide sports icon. It is, however, hard not to feel that certain individuals may have gotten short-changed by Hehir’s narrative. Indeed Scottie Pippin, Jordan’s right-hand-man on the court, is reported as being “beyond livid” for how he was portrayed. The veracity of some of the stories, it seems, should be taken with a pinch of salt: still, even if the rest is hagiographic, it’s hard not watch the incredible sporting achievements on show with a sense of awe. Sarah Cullen
3. Ozark Season 3
In its first two seasons, Netflix series Ozark skirted that zone between must-see television, and just ok television. It had good performances and some great moments, but suffered from spells of glacial pacing and a certain po-faced seriousness that can sometimes be a chore. It was that show you see on your TV menu and say: “Oh, I suppose I better watch one of those.”
But in season three, the story of the Byrde family and their various criminal allies/enemies finally hit its stride. The once meandering pace locked into laser sharp focus. The story of season three moves at a brisk clip. Without spoiling previous seasons, the shifting dynamic within the Byrde’s family unit creates a crackling tension that really lends the show a sense of immediacy.
As in previous seasons, Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore is the MVP. Wily and mercurial, but unfailingly loyal to a fault, Garner’s backwater operator is the beating heart of the series, and a perfect counterpoint to the more reserved and stolid Byrdes.
The newest season also boasts an affecting and memorable performance from Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s brother Ben. He provides a compelling and volatile force throughout, and gives a stunning rendering of bipolar disorder. The season’s penultimate episode centres on his character, and is, probably, the best single episode of the entire series. Jesse Melia
2. The Queen’s Gambit
Setting a viewership record for Netflix, The Queen’s Gambit makes chess captivating for the widest audience possible with this intense coming-of-age story. Adapted from Walter Tevis’ novel, the miniseries follows Beth (Anya Taylor-Joy), a remarkably smart orphan in the mid-50s and 60s who finds salvation in the game, even as she struggles with drug addiction. Each episode takes her evolution towards becoming a future chess grandmaster forward, setting a new battlefield in the war between knights and rooks.
To writer-director Scott Frank’s great credit, The Queen’s Gambit makes the numerous scenes where characters play chess so compelling, even for viewers with no knowledge of the game. Partly this is down to the bold editing, deploying everything from dynamic split screens to 3D projections of chess pieces on the ceiling as a means of jazzing up this tale.
On top of this, The Queen’s Gambit’s attention to period detail is remarkable, capturing perfectly the psychedelic colour patterns we associate with the era in which the series is set. In particular, the costumes are stunning and serve to reinforce the story the show is telling. During the final tournament, Beth wears a black and white chequered dress resembling a chess board. Right after, meanwhile, her hat recalls a queen’s crown.
Armed with her red hair and expressive eyes, it is a joy to watch Anya Taylor Joy’s heroine evolve as a person. Although she is presented as a genius, the audience never feels distanced from this faulted character. Her substance abuse issues serve to make Beth into a more human figure. She is not invincible, and this is what makes the prodigy even more admirable. Charline Fernandez
1. Better Call Saul Season 5
After a string of entertaining if deliberately paced first couple of seasons, this Breaking Bad prequel is finally reaching crescendo. In the unforgettable final three episodes of Better Call Saul season five, well-intentioned lawyer Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) finally took the first major steps into becoming Saul Goodman, the ‘friend of the cartel’ who we know goes onto represent meth dealer Walter White.
Giving the follow up to a series often referred to as the best TV show of all time the top spot may not be the most daring choice. However, no one in the medium is firing on all cylinders the way that showrunner Vince Gilligan and his team of collaborators are. Better Call Saul works on so many levels. It’s a gripping detail focused legal drama. It is a black comedy that can make viewers guffaw. It’s a character study about how a good man’s morality slowly gets chipped away and the people he drags down with him. And it is a stunningly shot western influenced gangland thriller.
The fact that it can balance all these disparate elements successfully while also shouldering the burden of being a Breaking Bad prequel is a testament to everyone involved. Odenkirk and co-lead Rhea Seehorn, as Jimmy’s compelling in her own right fellow lawyer and wife Kim Wexler, have been playing these people so long that they feel incredibly natural, as if the characters have become ingrained in the performers. At the same time, new regular cast member Tony Dalton as the genial if terrifying gangster Lalo Salamanca has injected a fresh dose of energy and tension into the series.
Somehow Gilligan and co have managed to make Jimmy’s transition into Saul so compelling, despite the inevitability of it all. It’s because of how much they make us care about him, as well as the time that’s been devoted to him and Kim’s relationship, the latter curiously missing from Breaking Bad. Couple this with the stunning and wide scenery of Albuquerque – best deployed in series high point ‘Bagman’ – and the delicious season six stingers contained in finale ‘Something Unforgivable’ and you have the best show currently airing on television. Stephen Porzio