Ladies and gentlemen, we may not have left the house this year, but the one part of normal life we managed to continue is watching TV.
So even if the rest of our social norms have collapsed, I can still give you this tiny fragment of routine: smacking my Top Ten TV Shows up in the final few days of the year.
What were previous years like? And are there now a terrifying number of them?
Yes, that’s nearly a decade of this. Maybe next year I’ll produce some kind of special 10th anniversary feature. Or perhaps I’ll pretend it isn’t happening, that seems equally likely.
As ever, this is entirely my opinion, based on an ethereal metric of what I watched and liked amid my pandemic-driven mood swings. Annoyingly they deleted this year’s season of Legends of Tomorrow from Now TV before I could fit it in and haven’t put it back up since, so although I still love them, the Ledges are not present in the below list.
But what is on there?
#10 – Westworld
HBO’s robot-cowboy odyssey Westworld finally leaves the pretend wild west to bring us a glimpse of its outside world, along with Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul as a tortured everyman protagonist.
I still find the pretentious “are we human or are we dancerbot?” ruminations of this show weirdly compelling, but I can’t pretend it’s not dipped a little since the glory days. In a post-Black Mirror world, this shiny robo-app future is a bit obvious and Westworld never quite shows us why its version is special, unique and interesting.
Still, enjoyably knotty story construction, strong effects, harrowing moments and enjoyable performances from the usual Westworld players, plus Paul. It may be past its best but I still enjoy it a great deal.
Stats Corner: Last seen at #2 in 2016 and #3 in 2018. As I say, bit of a drop.
#9 – Umbrella Academy
I also watched Umbrella Academy last year, but it didn’t even rate an honourable mention. It’s a fun concept, executed with a lot of spirit by a talented cast, but the first season suffered from some aggressively Netflixy plotting, especially in the second half of the season, and a few of the characters felt half-formed.
Well, credit to them for this much-improved second season. It could still stand to pick up the pace a notch or two, but the still-good characters from last year (Robert Sheehan’s Claus, Elliot Page as Vanya and especially the superlative Aidan Gallagher as grumpy child-man Five, all still great) are now joined by punched up writing for the other siblings, along with faster, funnier pacing and a noted reduction in busywork plotlines and meandering tangents.
So for whatever it’s worth, if you’re putting off this second season due to those flaws in the first, I endorse giving it a crack. Or read the original comic, that’s even better.
Stats Corner: As above, no previous mentions. But this is one of only two comic adaptations on this list, which is the least since 2017.
#8 – Insecure
Watched a few more sitcoms this year, in my quest for distraction and amusement amid the hell of it all. HBO’s Insecure is more of a comedy-drama, but it still fits that half-hour slot and provided reliable light escape via the ongoing sadly embarrassing struggles of Issa Rae’s self-named character, constantly searching for direction and happiness in a life besieged by bad luck, unfortunate men and cringeworthy situations.
It’s reliably fun, but with a constant underlying pathos and yearning striving that makes it hard not to root for the characters. I binged the whole show this year, then realised the fourth season came out in 2020 so qualifies for this exclusive club, especially a well-done, sad, all-too-relatable storyline about long-term friends drifting apart. Strong recommendation if it wasn’t on your radar.
Stats Corner: Second HBO show so far, and, surprisingly, the last.
#7 – The Good Place
The final season of The Good Place honestly wasn’t their strongest all told, it seemed a little too keen to relive those greatest hits and meander. But the final few episodes dropped this year, and it’s on this list on the strength of the finale, a tour de force which left me a struggling, sobbing emotional wreck, minutes before I was meant to travel across the country for a convention. (Back in early February, when that wasn’t a crime.)
I thought I might’ve drifted a little from these characters over the course of the less-good final two seasons, but the final episode put aside the over-busy metaphysical plot and left us with the main cast and one central dilemma, and it was both lovely and absolutely wrenching. Bravo.
Really, there’s one reliable strategy for this list – make me cry, win a spot on the top ten.
Stats Corner: #4 in 2017, #8 in 2018 and then missed the list last year. And here it is, making a small re-appearance before disappearing forever.
#6 – What We Do In The Shadows
Another sitcom, and one of my favourite new comedies of the last couple of years, we have What We Do In The Shadows, a ridiculous docu-comedy about four vampires living in a shared house, feeding on blood and getting on each other’s nerves.
Featuring a ludicrous sense of humour, enjoyable deep-lore supernatural references and, most crucially, Matt Berry as an overly melodramatic vampire, it’s hard to dislike. Also the concept of Colin Robinson the energy vampire is a stone-cold winner.
Huge amount of occasionally morbid fun, pushing in a tiny amount of drama with the secret destiny of their housekeeper and familiar Guillermo, but mostly the idiots are just idioting at each other until they fall over and I loved it.
Stats Corner: The concept of vampires, of course, last appeared at #6 in 2016 with Cassidy in Preacher.
#5 – Teenage Bounty Hunters
From the production house who bought us Orange Is The New Black (finished last year) and GLOW (sadistically cut down in its prime this year, dammit Netflix), it’s Teenage Bounty Hunters, a show which certainly doesn’t try and hide its central concept in the title.
It’s silly at times, and evidently I’m leaning towards that this year, but the last half of the season delves further into the characters and taps into some of the reasons behind their silliness, as well as adding a few well-executed plot twists. One of the new shows of the year.
And then there’s a massive cliffhanger ending, which feels all the more tragic now since, you guessed it, the show’s already been cancelled. Fuck’s sake, Netflix.
Stats Corner: OITNB, of course, was a high-ranker on this list, including three times at #1, and GLOW was also #3 last year and #2 the year before. Hope these guys get another show out soon.
#4 – Better Call Saul
The Breaking Bad prologue motors into its endgame and after a season or two where the crime section of the plot sometimes seemed to tread water while the action went down on the lawyer side, this year saw Saul Goodman finally make his first big steps out into the underworld. Yes, it’s the moments we’ve been waiting for ever since Better Call Saul began, and it’s worth the wait.
Some harrowing shit, some long awaited conversations, some killer final episode stuff. The next season is meant to be the last, and I’ve no idea if they’ve managed to resume filming yet, what with the high COVID risk among the cast, but I hope it happens soon.
Stats Corner: #7 in 2018, #5 in 2017. So this is the highest it’s yet gone – could there be one final climb?
#3 – Schitt’s Creek
That thing I said earlier about watching a lot of sitcoms to escape the grim real world – I’m pretty sure it wasn’t just me, and this was the show that really defined that trend. If there’s one thing a lot of people did this year, it’s finally watch Schitt’s Creek. Fortunately, the last season released in the calendar year 2020, so it’s eligible here.
For those who haven’t gone there yet, this is about the wealthy Rose family, who lose their fortune and are forced to move into a motel in the tiny town of Schitt’s Creek. There, they embark on a heartwarming journey of self-discovery that manages to both base its humour on what awful people they are and somehow make them utterly lovable and endearing.
If you want to laugh at some snappy one-liners and get blindsided by sudden sincere emotions, this is the one. Another show riding into this chart on a tidal wave of my tears.
Stats Corner: Highest ranking sitcom, appearing once and burning out.
#2 – The Boys
After everything I’ve said about watching cheerful shows to perk myself up, you may find the list goes in an odd direction at the end. Because, yes, this is The Boys, the punishingly bleak superhero-murder drama from Amazon, based on the comics by Garth Ennis and Darick Robertson.
Last year, this slid in at #9 and I remarked that it was a fun, smart reimagining of the comic, keeping the strong worldbuilding and enjoyable ultra-violence but improving the sometimes-shallow characterisation. Well, they kept all that up and delved harder into the bleak reality of the world, making this show about shady overlords profiting by driving us apart and secret Nazis pushing their agenda via memes all the more relatable.
I both looked forward to this show every week and slightly dreaded it. One of the most surprisingly gutting shows of the year, I very much hope it becomes less relevant in future.
Stats Corner: The second and last comics adaptation of the year. Yes, Marvel and DC both missed the charts entirely.
#1 – Dark
If you’ve listened to the podcast this year, #1 may not come as a huge surprise. I watched all three seasons of the intense German time travel drama Dark in the opening few months of 2020 and it was one of the most immersive, baffling, brilliant TV experiences I’ve had in a while.
And to my joy, surprise and relief, they more or less nailed the ending. Not only did it work when I watched the episode, looking into the details further only made the steel-trap construction look more elaborate. Carefully drawn characters, baffling cosmic actions, horrendous actions, nuclear fear, time paradoxes.
This is a genuine masterpiece, it’s on Netflix now, watch it and stuff. Ideally in one long run so you can at least try and keep the ridiculous intricacies of the storyline in your head.
Stats Corner: The last subtitled show on this list was Borgen in 2013. (Yes, I heard Netflix are bringing that back. I’m both intrigued and scared.)
Speaking of subtitled TV, if you’re reading this at the tail end of the Christmas holiday and still fancy something seasonal, Netflix’s Norwegian festive romcom Home For Christmas is extremely fun.
The last item to be pushed out of this list, you may be surprised to hear, was viral chess sensation The Queen’s Gambit. This was one of the most beautifully produced shows of the year, but ultimately felt a little simplistic.
Over in the nerd division, The Mandalorian had a good year but, as I said on the podcast, maybe a little hollow in the opening half of the season, and annoyingly I haven’t yet seen the 2020 season of Harley Quinn. (Thanks, UK release schedules!) Interested to see how many of these upcoming Marvel Studios TV shows make it into next year’s list.
I also enjoyed some older non-eligible TV shows, such as the first three seasons of New Girl, another show a lot of people are using to escape the outside world, plus the whole of Silicon Valley, which… is great but also about the miserable reality of big tech, so not quite as good for escapism.
Oh, and Lucifer. I’ve been putting off that series for years, but fair enough, I’m now in the early sections of season 3 and absolutely loving its grand silliness.