The Ten Best New TV Shows of 2020
From a topical horror series and a mind-bending sci-fi thriller to an offbeat Aussie sketch comedy — and they're all available to stream.
Whether you watch television programs on your laptop, phone or TV set (or a combination of the above, depending on your mood and situation), the small screens in your house got quite the workout in 2020. That's a definite side effect of this strange year, with everyone spending more time on the couch than normal. You don't need us to tell us that, of course — but, thankfully, there was no shortage of things to watch.
Checking out the latest seasons of your favourite shows probably helped while away some of the hours. More than a few, we're guessing. Restreaming classics likely did the same as well, because everyone likes some comfort viewing in tough times. But if you were looking for something new and exciting to fill your time in 2020, the various networks and streaming platforms all did their part. Stunning new dramas, savage historical comedies, engaging miniseries — they all made their debut over the past 12 months, and we've picked the ten best of the year that you should check out if you haven't already.
I MAY DESTROY YOU
Newly returned from a working trip to Italy, struggling to write her second novel after her first struck a sizeable chord and pushing up against a draft deadline just hours away, Arabella (Michaela Coel) takes some time out from an all-nighter to procrastinate with friends over a few drinks in a couple of London bars. The next morning, the Twitter-famous scribe is shaky, hazy and feels far from her normal self — and across the next 11 episodes of this instantly blistering 12-part series, I May Destroy You delves into the aftermath, as Arabella realises that she was raped that evening. Not only created and written by the unflinching and captivating Coel, but inspired by her own real-life experience with sexual assault, the result is as bold, raw and frank as it is sensitive and affecting. It also feels personal at every single moment. An immensely powerful series that intimately interrogates power on multiple levels and features an unsurprisingly potent performance by Coel, I May Destroy You is easily this year's number-one must-see show — and its absolute best.
I May Destroy You is available to stream via Binge.
When Sally Rooney's Normal People first hit bookshelves in 2018, it thrust readers into a disarmingly relatable love story, following the amorous ups and downs of an on-again, off-again couple from Sligo, Ireland. Teenagers Marianne and Connell have known each other for years, as tends to happen in small towns. And although she's aloof, intense and considered an acerbic loner, while he's outgoing and popular, a torrid and tumultuous secret romance blooms. That's just the beginning of the Irish author's novel, and of the both tender and perceptive TV series that brings the book to the screen. As it dives deep into a complex chronicle of first love, it not only charts Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones, Cold Feet) and Connell's (newcomer Paul Mescal) feelings for each other, but details the recognisable and realistic minutiae of being a high schooler and then a uni student. This is first and foremost a romance, and a passionate and intimate one at that; however, the series can't tell this complicated couple's story without touching upon everything else that pops up along the way.
Viewing US race relations and the nation's treatment of its black residents through a horror lens has long been Jordan Peele's jam, dating back to his Key & Peele days. Anyone who has seen Get Out and Us, the two films he has directed thus far, also knows this — and it is evident in Hunters, the TV series he executive produced earlier this year, as well. So Lovecraft Country, HBO's new horror drama based on the 2016 of the same name, was always going to be in Peele's wheelhouse. He's an executive producer again, and he's firmly in his element. Set in the 50s in America's south, this extremely well-executed series follows returned soldier Tic Freeman (Da 5 Bloods' Jonathan Majors), his uncle George (Project Power's Courtney B Vance) and his friend Leti Lewis (Birds of Prey's Jurnee Smollett) as they set off on a road trip to both find Tic's missing dad and locate African American-friendly places for George's Green Book-style guide. Their journey takes them to a part of the country where famed real-life sci-fi and horror writer HP Lovecraft found inspiration for his tales, too — and the results are smart and unnerving on multiple levels.
TALES FROM THE LOOP
If Black Mirror set all of its bleak futuristic tales in one small town, followed interconnected characters and sported a low-fi, retro sheen, the result would be Tales From the Loop. This patient, beautiful, poignant and incredibly moving sci-fi series is actually based on a series of paintings by Swedish artist Simon Stålenhag — and even if you didn't already know that fact while you were watching, you'd notice the show's distinctive aesthetic. The title refers to a mysterious underground machine, called The Loop, that's designed to explore and unravel the mysteries of the universe. For the folks living above it, their lives soon take strange turns. Anchoring jumps and pauses in time, body swaps, giant robots and more in everyday situations and emotions (such as being envious of a friend, falling in love, betraying your nearest and dearest, and trying to connect with your parents), Tales From the Loop is as perceptive as it is immersive and engaging. And, its eight episodes are helmed by an exceptional array of fantastic filmmakers, including Never Let Me Go's Mark Romanek, WALL-E's Andrew Stanton, The House of the Devil's Ti West and actor-turned-director Jodie Foster.
Tales From the Loop is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
Radiating unease from its very first moments, yet sporting both a mood and a futuristic look that prove simultaneously unsettlingly and alluring, Devs is unmistakably the work of author-turned-filmmaker Alex Garland. His first jump to the small screen, it instantly slots in nicely beside Ex Machina and Annihilation on his resume — and it's just as intriguing and involving as each of those excellent movies. The setting: Amaya, a US technology company that's massive in size yet secretive in its focus. When Sergei (Karl Glusman) is promoted to its coveted, extra clandestine Devs division, his girlfriend and fellow Amaya employee Lily (Sonoya Mizuno) is thrilled for him. But when Sergei doesn't come home from his first day, Lily starts looking for answers — including from the company's guru-like leader Forest (a long-haired, very un-Ron Swanson-like Nick Offerman). Devs is the kind of series with twists and turns that are best discovered by watching; however, as each second passes by, the stranger and more sinister it all appears. Expect conspiracies, tech thrills and big questions, in a series that does what all the very best sci-fi stories do: tackle big existential queries and intimate everyday emotions in tandem, all while asking 'what if?'.
AUNTY DONNA'S BIG OL' HOUSE OF FUN
2019's I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson was the best sketch comedy of that year. In 2020, the equivalent title goes to Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun. If you're familiar with Australian comedy troupe Aunty Donna, then you'll know what to expect. Writers and performers Mark Samual Bonanno, Broden Kelly and Zachary Ruane, director and writer Sam Lingham, filmmaker Max Miller and composer Tom Armstrong have been treating audiences to absurdist gags, satire, wordplay and songs since forming in 2011 — but now the group has channelled all of its silliness and surreal gags, and its astute ability to make fun of daily life in a smart yet ridiculous way, into a six-part Netflix series. Bonanno, Kelly and Ruane star as themselves, and housemates. Each episode revolves around a theme, starting with the search for a fourth member of their household when they decide to turf their annoying talking dishwasher (voiced by Flight of the Conchords' Kristen Schaal). There's nothing too over-the-top for Aunty Donna, or too trivial, including treasure hunts, an out-there recreation of Ellen DeGeneres' talk show, a pitch-perfect takedown of trendy barber shops to a parody of male posturing when the guys turn their house into a bar. And there's little on offer in the extremely binge-able show that doesn't deliver just the dose of side-splitting absurdity that this hectic year needs.
It takes its title from its central figure, Russian empress Catherine the Great. It's filled with lavish period-appropriate costumes, wigs, sets and decor. And, it explores an immensely famous time during the 18th century that had a significant impact upon the world. Normally, that'd all smack of a certain kind of drama; however The Great is firmly a comedy as well. As starring Elle Fanning as the eponymous ruler, Nicholas Hoult as her husband Peter III and Bohemian Rhapsody's Gwilym Lee as a fellow member of the royal court, that means witty, laugh-out-loud lines, an irreverent and often cheeky mood, and having ample fun with real-life details — much in the way that Oscar-winner The Favourite did with British royalty on the big screen. Of course, the comparison couldn't be more fitting, with that film's BAFTA-winning screenwriter, Australian Tony McNamara, using his savagely hilarious satirical skills to pen The Great as well.
Whenever Warwick Thornton makes a new project, it demands attention — and the Indigenous Australian filmmaker has never made anything quite like The Beach. The director of Samson & Delilah and Sweet Country turns the camera on himself, chronicling his quest to escape his busy life for an extended soul-searching getaway. With only chickens and wildlife for company, Thornton bunkers down in an electricity-free tin shed in Jilirr, on the Dampier Peninsula on the northwest coast of Western Australia. He fishes, cooks, chats to the chooks, wanders along the shoreline and reflects upon everything that's led him to this point, with this six-part documentary series capturing the ups, downs, sublime sights and epiphany-inspiring moments. Unfurling quietly and patiently in the slow-TV tradition, Thornton's internal journey of discovery makes for both moving and absorbing viewing. Indeed, combined with stunning cinematography (as shot by Thornton's son and Robbie Hood director Dylan River), it just might be the best piece of Australian television you see this year.
The Beach is available to stream via SBS On Demand.
Deborah Feldman's best-selling 2012 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots makes the leap to Netflix as a four-part mini-series. And, as the book's title makes plain, both explore her decision to leave her ultra-Orthodox Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York, flee her arranged marriage and everyone she's ever known, and escape to Berlin to start a brand new life. Names and details have been changed, as tends to be the case with dramas based on real-life stories; however Unorthodox still follows the same overall path. In a tense but instantly commanding opening to the show's first episode, 19-year-old Esther 'Esty' Shapiro (Shira Haas) slips out of the apartment she shares with her husband Yanky (Amit Rahav), picks up a passport from her piano teacher and nervously heads to the airport. The end result proves a unique and intriguing coming-of-age tale, a thoughtful thriller, and an eye-opening but always careful and respectful look at a culture that's rarely depicted on-screen in such depth. Israeli actress Haas (The Zookeeper's Wife, Foxtrot, Mary Magdalene) turns in a nuanced, weighty and gripping performance as Esty, too — which is absolutely pivotal in making Unorthodox so compelling to watch.
WE ARE WHO WE ARE
Two on-screen tales about American teenagers in Italy. Two floppy-haired male leads oozing with uncertainty and yearning. One filmmaker. After Call Me By Your Name, Luca Guadagnino returns to familiar territory with HBO miniseries We Are Who We Are — and if its star Jack Dylan Grazer reminds you of the now ultra-famous Timothée Chalamet, that's completely unsurprising; in 2018's Beautiful Boy (not directed by Guadagnino), the former even played a younger version of the latter's character. But don't go mistaking Guadagnino's eight-part TV show for a mere or lazy rehash of the director's past work. Following two neighbouring 14-year-olds who live on a US army base with their enlisted parents, including Grazer's newly arrived loner, We Are Who We Are once again taps into universal themes about finding one's own identity and place in the world, and navigating affairs of the heart as well, but it definitely has its own story to tell. Also starring first-timer Jordan Kristine Seamón, plus Chloë Sevigny (Queen & Slim), Alice Braga (The New Mutants), Scott Mescudi (aka Bill & Ted Face the Music's Kid Cudi), Francesca Scorsese (daughter of iconic filmmaker Martin Scorsese) and Tom Mercier (Synonyms), this patient yet involving series once again boasts Guadagnino's eye for gorgeous and revealing imagery, though, with every intoxicating shot (and every camera angle and placement used for each shot) luring viewers in.
We Are Who We Are is available to stream via SBS On Demand.
Looking for more viewing highlights? Check out our list of film and TV streaming recommendations, which is updated monthly. We also picked 12 standout new 2020 series in the middle of the year, too.
Published on December 15, 2020 by Sarah Ward