Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You.
Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Composite: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and Falkna

The 50 best TV shows of 2020: 50-1

Michaela Coel in I May Destroy You. Composite: BBC/Various Artists Ltd and Falkna

Michaela Coel’s smart, subversive and taboo-breaking drama gave us absolutely unbeatable television – plus more of the year’s best

First published on Thu 3 Dec 2020 01.00 EST

This list is drawn from votes by Guardian TV writers: each votes for their top 20 shows, with points allocated for every placing, which are tallied to create this order.

50

The Salisbury Poisonings

(BBC One) A shocking health crisis that startled Britain and called for urgent intervention from the authorities. No, not Covid, but the poisoning of the Skripal family – among other victims – in Salisbury, which was dramatised in this fine three-part drama. Though based on the lives of ordinary people, such as Anne-Marie Duff’s Wiltshire council worker Tracy Daszkiewicz, the circumstances were anything but.

What we said: Instead of hysteria and frantic Drama-with-a-capital-D in the face of an unknown contagion, it shows the disbelief giving way to hard acceptance, the sense of ordinary life suddenly intruded upon and a new normal mandated. Read more.

49

McMillions

(Sky Documentaries) An absolute rarity: a true crime documentary that doesn’t make the viewer feel grubbily complicit. Instead, this was a breathless retelling of the McDonald’s Monopoly scam that defrauded the fast food monolith of millions of dollars. The ebullient FBI agent Doug Mathews was central to the show’s success, and possibly the best TV character of the entire year.

What we said: It is a great story, made even greater because there is no harrowing suffering, no death and no catastrophic miscarriage of justice shown to be the result of systemic corruption that is featured in much of this genre. Read more.

48

Belsen: Our Story

(BBC Two) An almost unbearably powerful and painful hour of television, this collection of interviews with the survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was hard to watch. The documentary was as stark as you’d expect, as people recounted their horrific experiences for what may very well be the last time – and it is impossible to forget.

What we said: This is shamefully recent history, recent enough for some of those who lived through it to still be alive. We are privileged to be able to hear their stories. Read more.

47

Save Me Too

Lennie James in Save Me Too.
Emotional depth … Lennie James in Save Me Too. Photograph: Justin Downing/Sky Uk Ltd

(Sky Atlantic) Lennie James’ Save Me was one of the surprise hits of 2018; a taut, gut-wrenching examination of what happens in the space left by a missing child. Given its slightly underpowered finale, a sequel was inevitable. Thanks in part to an incredible cast, including James, Stephen Graham, Lesley Manville and Adrian Edmondson – it more than matched the power of its predecessor.

What we said: Such moments lift Save Me Too beyond your typical mystery, and give it far more emotional depth than most of its rivals. Read more.

46

Us

(BBC One) An adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2014 novel, Us was a snapshot of a failing marriage, told across a grand tour of Europe. A show about Tom Hollander struggling to cope with negative emotions is always welcome, but in 2020 it turns out that a gorgeously sad travelogue, full of places we can no longer visit, was exactly what everyone needed.

What we said: Hollander is superb as a man baffled by the need for change. His family want to eat adventurous meals, while he would like to stick with steak. He is everydad, just trying to get by. Read more.

45

In My Skin

Gabrielle Creevy, with Jo Hartley as her mum, in In My Skin.
Emotional heft … Gabrielle Creevy as Bethan, with Jo Hartley as her mum, in In My Skin. Photograph: Huw John/BBC/Expectation Entertainment Ltd

(BBC Three) On paper, In My Skin sounds so relentlessly bleak – a key scene involves a teenage girl seeing her father masturbate – that you’d wonder why anyone would ever want to watch it. But it is a series of huge emotional heft, and an extraordinary achievement by writer Kayleigh Llewellyn, who surely has huge things ahead of her.

What we said: An emotional rollercoaster of a TV drama about Bethan, a Welsh teenager coming of age and living a double life as she negotiates mental illness, friendships and her sexuality. Read more.

44

Insecure

(Sky Comedy) Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore’s comedy-drama was so overlooked this year that Schitt’s Creek co-creator and star Dan Levy used his Emmy acceptance speech to bemoan its lack of nominations. He’s right; Insecure is a gorgeous, complicated, bracingly contemporary examination of American Blackness. When it returns to screens, here’s hoping it gets a little more love.

What we said: Insecure takes us to an important place and shows that all of the progress the girls made can be undone without the right people around them. Read more.

43

The Third Day

(Sky Atlantic) The Third Day is a simple show about Jude Law going nuts on a vaguely pagan island off the coast of Essex. What made it special was Autumn a live, 12-hour, single-shot special that dragged Law to the very limits of human endurance. There was nothing like this on television in 2020.

What we said: The Third Day: Autumn is a remarkable feat of live theatre and television, creating something that feels truly experimental, yet engaging; a mesmeric spectacle comprising surprisingly little, yet one that feels impossible to turn away from. Read more.

42

My Brilliant Friend

Gorgeous … My Brilliant Friend.
Gorgeous … My Brilliant Friend. Photograph: 2020 Home Box Office, Inc

(Sky Atlantic) HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels moved on to The Story of a New Name. Set in the 1950s, it was an equal mix of gorgeous scenery and ugly, slow-moving violence. It was a hit in Italy, but the televisual version of My Brilliant Friend is still largely undiscovered in English-speaking countries. Hopefully that will change.

What we said: My Brilliant Friend never had the breakout moment that a series of its quality deserved. Perhaps this second series will bring it the audience to match the acclaim. Read more.

41

The Undoing

(Sky Atlantic) Big houses. Horrible people with too much money. An unsolved crime. There are times when The Undoing seemed like David E Kelley’s deliberate attempt to become a pastiche of himself – and the similarities with his Big Little Lies is obvious, down to Nicole Kidman’s star turn. But what held this series together was a remarkable performance by Hugh Grant that took his entire acting toolkit – the charm, the deference, the sparkle – and used it to create a monster.

What we said: Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, After the Wedding) and writer Kelley (Big Little Lies) specialise in portraits of well-to-do couples in carefully concealed freefall, but the casting is what elevates The Undoing above most glossy psychological thrillers. Read more.

40

The Boys

(Amazon Prime) We didn’t get any new Marvel films this year – for the first time in more than a decade – but what we got in its place might be more important. The Boys, now in its second series, remains a whip-smart deconstruction of everything that’s wrong with the superhero genre. It’s gripping and darkly funny, Watchmen for a new generation.

What we said: “The political commentary of the comic-book adaptation has been dialled up – setting a new standard for how these super-stalwarts should be treated on screen.” Read more.

39

Dominic Cummings in the Rose Garden

Outdoor grilling … Dominic Cummings on 25 May.
Outdoor grilling … Dominic Cummings on 25 May. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/AFP/Getty Images

Also known as the bizarre press conference where the prime minister’s former chief adviser became the focal point for all the nation’s anger after he admitted driving to Barnard Castle when the UK was under lockdown. Viewed with half a year’s distance, the conference is no less strange. His lack of contrition. The oddness of his eyesight excuse. The, for want of a better word, vuvuzela that kept attempting to drown him out. What a weird moment in our national history this was.

What we said: “Classic Dom: Downing Street’s very own Prince Andrew. Show how much respect you have for the public and the media by turning up 30 minutes late for your own gig.” Read more.

38

Antiviral Wipe

(BBC Two) In the grip of a global pandemic, Charlie Brooker returned to screens to do what he does best – kick apart the news in a flurry of baffled annoyance. What made this episode more special than most were the glimpses of his home life. His wife and children featured, albeit briefly, and his shtick was sillier and more carefree than in the past. It’s a welcome change.

What we said: “As a one-off, Antiviral Wipe packs its most effective punch. It feels urgent and necessary, even as it despairs.” Read more.

37

Race Across the World

(BBC Two) This travelogue competition show could be awful – a sort of global, big-budget version of Coach Trip – yet it made for some of the most uplifting television of the year. And it remains relatively unvarnished. Yes, the contestants are constantly surrounded by natural beauty, but the joy and exhaustion of their adventure is right there for everyone to see.

What we said: “Perhaps it was this sense of holiday deja vu, alongside the heartwarming displays of kindness from strangers, that made more than four million people watch five couples, unaided by smartphones or air travel, race 25,000km through Latin America.” Read more.

36

Sex Education

(Netflix) Netflix’s hit teen dramedy continued its brilliant run this year, adding a sense of genuine decency into its wild and horny formula. Sex Education has two open secrets. The first is that, deep down, it actually is educational about sex in a way that school curriculums are not. The second is that Gillian Anderson really is too good for us. Her face should be on money.

What we said: “Every performer is wonderful, not least because the script is wonderful, playing the sex for laughs and the search for intimacy as something serious, good and noble. Not a single character is a cipher – even the smallest parts have a sketched backstory and some good gags.” Read more.

35

The Mandalorian

Smash-up … The Mandalorian.
Star smash … The Mandalorian. Photograph: Lucasfilm Ltd

(Disney+) While cinema continues to bugger it up beyond all recognition, television has quietly become the natural home for all things Star Wars. The Mandalorian takes everything you liked about Star Wars and reinvents it. All the themes and signifiers are smashed into a brand new form – a sort of space western – that is as satisfying as The Rise of Skywalker was annoying.

What we said: “The Mandalorian has all the quirky luxuries of the fictional universe of the Star Wars films – the monsters, the gadgets, the characters who only previously appeared in Return of the Jedi novelisations – yet it never lets the weight of expectation slow it down, as it does exactly what it wants.” Read more.

34

Gangs of London

(Sky Atlantic) A crime drama co-created by Gareth Evans, who directed the Indonesian action-thriller movie The Raid, Gangs of London was as grubby and violent as you’d expect. If you have the stomach for this sort of thing, it represents the pinnacle of the genre: loud, fast and nasty. A pure dopamine hit.

What we said: “Episode five is essentially a standalone mini-movie, an expertly choreographed masterclass of cranked-up tension and cathartic release that threatens to overshadow the rest of the series.” Read more.

33

Industry

(BBC Two) This series has been described by some as “a millennial Mad Men”, which, given that the first episode was directed by Lena Dunham, might have sent some running for the hills. But those who saw past such superficial tags were rewarded with a flashy, zippy show about the pressures of the banking industry, with the best young cast on television – one that has more in common with This Life than an American meditation on the ad scene. A decade from now, everyone in this series will be a superstar.

What we said: “The fanfare around this HBO/BBC co-production is wholly deserved. Industry is alternately mundane, thrilling, taut, messed up, real and shocking.” Read more.

32

Cheer

Sheer skill … Cheer.
Sheer skill … Cheer. Photograph: Netflix

(Netflix) The joy of watching Cheer has been tainted slightly by ugly allegations about one fan-favourite actor on the show – somewhat more of a problem in a documentary than a drama. But that shouldn’t detract from appreciating the skill on view in this docuseries, which was a work of pure wonder. Any preconceptions you might have had about the world of professional cheering fell away the moment you first saw one of the subjects crash to the ground in a broken heap. You could happily watch Cheer for ever.

What we said: “Seeing the dedication, resilience and innate talent of the athletes – many of whom come from profoundly troubled backgrounds and have seized on the sport and the specialised college course as a lifeline – will break you down.” Read more.

31

Devs

(BBC Two) Nick Offerman played against type in Alex Garland’s dark tech thriller. Anyone used to his Parks and Recreation character, Ron Swanson, might have needed a moment to adjust to seeing him as a grief-stricken, apparently murderous tech CEO. Devs was gripping from the word go, and grappled with vast theoretical ideas. An absolute under-seen gem.

What we said: “It’s a deep, dark, wild ride. How much of it deals in pure imagination and how much is grounded in stuff already here I don’t know. And please – nobody tell me. It’s better this way.” Read more.

30

Curb Your Enthusiasm

(Sky Comedy) Larry David’s long-running sitcom is best when it has a big idea behind it. This year’s series might have been his funniest yet. Offended by the tepid drinks and rude service at his favourite coffee shop, he builds what he calls a “spite store” next door called Latte Larry’s. Better yet, the guest stars, from Jon Hamm to Timothy Olyphant, operated on a new level of brilliance.

What we said: Larry is a terrible person, and then everything goes wrong. In the hands of a lesser show, the fact that he never learns from his mistakes would be repetitive, but Curb rewards viewers for their masochism. Read more.

29

The Trip to Greece

Like a warm bath … Coogan and Brydon.
Like a warm bath … Coogan and Brydon. Photograph: Andy Hall/IFC Films via AP

(Sky One) You would have thought that four seasons in, the magic would have worn away from Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s improvised, semi-autobiographical travelogues. But this year’s series felt like a warm bath. The food was there. The impressions were there. The undercurrent of impossible sadness was there. At this point, it’s just nice to have them around.

What we said: If it is the last season, then it is bowing out with dignity and sticking to what it knows best, rather than setting fire to its legacy and sending Brydon and Coogan off on an 18-30 all-inclusive holiday at the Ibiza Rocks hotel, although honestly, I would watch that, too. Read more.

28

BoJack Horseman

(Netflix) What an achievement BoJack Horseman was. A show that began as a slightly annoying animation quickly became a devastating treatise on regret, as we followed a life of bad decisions to its inevitable conclusion. After a series as perfect as this, BoJack’s final season had everything to lose. That it stuck the landing as well as it did is incredible.

What we said: How could BoJack Horseman have anything more to say than one hoof-stamp yes, two no? Yet it has amassed awards and outlived Channel 4 Racing, so it clearly has something. Read more.

27

The Deuce

Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce.
New heights … Maggie Gyllenhaal in The Deuce. Photograph: HBO/2019 Home Box Office, Inc. All Rights Reserved

(Sky Atlantic) To enjoy The Deuce in 2020 meant overlooking a number of things, including the grubby subject matter and the continued participation of James Franco. But in its final season, HBO’s porn drama hit new heights, thanks in part to a present-day flash forward that would have been syrupy and sentimental in the hands of anyone but David Simon.

What we said: The show’s scorn for churned-out, cheap entertainment for the masses is palpable. This is rich television that demands you put down your phone and give it your full attention. Read more.

26

The Good Place

(Netflix) Although this season lacked the daring propulsion of the first two, Mike Schur’s sitcom set in the afterlife still went out on a high. Our heroes struggled against great eternal forces, one of them played by Maya Rudolph, and finally achieved the peace they’d been looking for. Few comedies have ever been as overtly high-minded as The Good Place, and few will be remembered as fondly.

What we said: The show’s saving grace was always knowing that an endpoint was in sight. It gave the stories weight and context, and made the journeys matter. This was the real wonder of the finale. Read more.

25

Dracula

Claes Bang and Dolly Wells in Dracula.
Strange beast … Claes Bang and Dolly Wells in Dracula. Photograph: Robert Viglasky/BBC/Hartswood Films/Netflix

(BBC One) This retelling of Dracula was a strange beast, split into three wildly different parts over three nights at the start of the year. The first was classic Bram Stoker, the second was Dracula on a boat and the third – and most divisive – was set in the present day. Still, at least we can all agree that Claes Bang was born to play Dracula.

What we said: BBC One’s new series is a pure and joyous BELTER. It’s in three 90-minute parts, adapted by Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss. And it is basically Sherlock but about Dracula. Read more.

24

The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty

(BBC Two) With no new episodes of Succession this year, viewers had to look to the source material for entertainment. This documentary, telling the Rupert Murdoch story in three rollercoaster instalments – with help from figures as diverse as Nigel Farage, ex-Trump acolyte Steve Bannon and former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger – was relentlessly entertaining, if genuinely frightening at times.

What we said: The first thing we have to confront is the Succession parallel: it is a little heavy-handed with that. The soundtrack is basically the supermarket, own-brand version of the actual Succession theme. Read more.

23

Ramy

(Starzplay on Amazon Prime) Autobiographical comedies are 10 a penny, but the quality of Ramy raises it above the crowd. Ramy Youssef plays a lightly fictionalised version of himself struggling to find a balance between his Egyptian family and his crowd of twentysomething New Jersey friends. This year’s second season took huge leaps forward – Youssef didn’t even appear in one-third of the episodes and Mahershala Ali wowed as the new sheikh. Every comparison with Donald’s Glover’s Atlanta is thoroughly deserved.

What we said: Ramy’s comedy lies in small justifications and mundane excuses – he had sex with a married woman during Ramadan, but “I just want you to know,” he reassures, that it was during eating hours. Read more.

22

Tiger King

Joe Exotic with one of his tigers..
Lockdown sensation … Joe Exotic with one of his tigers.. Photograph: Netflix/Kobal/Shutterstock

(Netflix) A show destined to live on as a memorial to the coronavirus pandemic. In March, people made banana bread and watched Tiger King and did nothing else. Opinion has soured on the series since it first broke through, with detractors pointing out how exploitative it was, to the subjects and subject matter. But don’t forget that this was the series that helped many get through the first lockdown.

What we said: Little wonder that a documentary about a gay, gun-toting, polyamorous, imprisoned tiger breeder with a sideline in country music and running for political office has captured our attention. Read more.

21

Lovecraft Country

(Sky Atlantic) Like Watchmen before it, Lovecraft Country hides piercing commentary about the African American experience in a heavy genre workout. It’s a fantasy series, so there are plenty of ghosts, magic and monsters, but the real antagonist is white supremacy in Jim Crow America. Watching it, you get the happy feeling that noted racist HP Lovecraft would be horrified by the show, which is probably the point.

What we said: Lovecraft Country is a beautiful bounty of black creativity and black history. It is protest art, just when the world needs it most. Read more.

20
PEN15

Anna and Maya in PEN15.
Sweet … Anna and Maya in PEN15. Photograph: Alex Lombardi/Hulu

(Sky Comedy) Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle didn’t make life easy for themselves when they created PEN15. Not only did they mine their own experiences to tell an authentic story about high school, but they played teenage versions of themselves (surrounded by real teenagers playing the other characters) to boot. This year’s second season bested its already great predecessor by being funnier, sweeter, sadder and much more confident.

What we said: It’s only when you lift your head for air after each half hour of agonising immersion in their immaculately and intimately detailed pubescent world that you remember how old they are, and the collapsing of chronology makes the show’s depiction of the malevolent first stirrings of adolescence even more exquisitely painful. Read more.

19

Inside No 9

(BBC Two) How do Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton do it? There are more than 30 episodes of Inside No 9, each telling a new story from scratch, and somehow they keep improving. This year’s batch was arguably the most impressive yet. If you only have time for one, watch Thinking Out Loud, a half-hour so meticulously constructed that it will take your breath away.

What we said: Shearsmith and Pemberton’s ability to transform absolutely anything into half an hour of must-see TV is an invaluable asset for Inside No 9, which has already had an impressively long lifespan. Read more.

18

Des

Horrible … David Tennant in Des.
Horrible … David Tennant in Des. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock

(ITV) A drama about serial killer Dennis Nilsen could have gone terribly, terribly wrong. So it’s a testament to Des that the first episode begins long after Nilsen’s final murder has been committed. There’s no mystery to solve here, no revelling in his wickedness, but instead an exploration of a criminal mind that defies sense. Sober and powerful, and possibly David Tennant’s strongest performance yet.

What we said: I mean it as the highest praise when I say that Des, the three-part ITV dramatisation of the crimes of Dennis Nilsen, is absolutely horrible. There is an almost visible miasma enveloping every scene. Read more.

17

Schitt’s Creek

Schitt’s Creek.
Acceptance … Schitt’s Creek.

(Netflix) Throughout lockdown, a common refrain on social media was: “Why does everyone love Schitt’s Creek?” After all, it began as a fish-out-of-water comedy about an obnoxious family in a small town. But it blossomed into a show expressly about acceptance and love and, by the time its finale aired, was capable of reducing you to tears with just a glance. A beautiful achievement.

What we said: This show is a lovely, romantic, smile-inducing bundle of happy feelings. Who knew wholesome could be so funny? Read more.

16

Feel Good

(Channel 4) Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical romcom was a breath of fresh air when it breezed on to screens in March. It’s a simple tale of Mae falling in love with Charlotte Ritchie’s George, and trying to stay within that first infatuated bubble – but there’s so much more going on in this very modern romance. It helps that one of the things trying to pop the bubble is Mae’s mother, played brilliantly by Lisa Kudrow.

What we said: What a time to be recommending a comedy called Feel Good. But I am – wholeheartedly and without reservation. It is a glorious, shining jewel in the middle of what we can safely call the greatest global shitstorm since the second world war. Read more.

15

Adult Material

Hayley Squires in Adult Material.
Tremendous … Hayley Squires in Adult Material. Photograph: Channel 4

(Channel 4) Lucy Kirkwood’s porn drama might share a setting with The Deuce, but its execution was much less glum and far more British. Hayley Squires was tremendous as a woman juggling porn shoots with motherhood, and Rupert Everett as a kind of porn Gandalf was a masterstroke.

What we said: That it often plays at length like a workplace comedy – the bored rattling off of health and safety questions and answers after the shoot (“Did you feel like you were raped during this shoot?” “No”) – means your defences are down when the moments come that confront the business they’re in. Read more.

14

Better Call Saul

(Netflix) It was a long and meandering road to become as enthralling as Breaking Bad, the series to which it is a prequel. This year the villains were more villainous, the set-pieces – including a desert shootout directed by Vince Gilligan – were more ostentatious and the scams were even trickier. Breathless as the story was, though, the showrunners never let you forget that you were watching a tragedy unfold.

What we said: Better Call Saul works particularly well in these extraordinary times because of its novelistic qualities. It requires patience (which feels fitting, given the state of the world), but that patience reaps reward. Read more.

13

The Crown

(Netflix) Almost nothing whatsoever happened in season three of The Crown, but that’s because everything was being saved up for season four. This was the Thatcher and Princess Diana season, with all the anguish and shagging and bloodletting it promised. The whole thing was as superbly cast as ever and, in Emma Corrin as Diana, you sense that the show has uncovered a megastar.

What we said: This is The Crown at its best, jumping from beautiful location to beautiful location like an episode of Countryfile with a jaw-dropping budget. Read more.

12

Mrs America

Cate Blanchett in Mrs America.
Formidable … Cate Blanchett in Mrs America. Photograph: Sabrina Lantos/BBC/FX

(BBC Two) Without question the best cast on television this year: Mrs America threw together Cate Blanchett, Rose Byrne, Uzo Aduba, Elizabeth Banks, Sarah Paulson, John Slattery, James Marsden and Tracey Ullman. And they were put to good use, too, telling the fascinating story of Phyllis Schlafly, a woman who almost singlehandedly stopped the equal rights amendment from being passed in the US.

What we said: It marshals its abundant material brilliantly, reflecting all the besetting sins we still suffer from and for. Read more.

11

Unorthodox

(Netflix) The first Netflix original to be primarily in Yiddish, Unorthodox told the story of a young Brooklyn woman (played by Shira Haas) who flees an arranged marriage to try and live in Berlin. It’s probably not a spoiler to say that she does, and the sensation of liberation when she leaves her past behind is tangible.

What we said: Its focus – thanks to a mesmerising lead performance by Israeli actor Shira Haas – is Esty’s own coming-of-age story. Read more.

10

Ghosts

Endearing … Ghosts.
Endearing … Ghosts. Photograph: Steven Peskett/BBC/Monumental Television

(BBC Two) This is only the second series of Ghosts, and already it feels like a beloved treat. The premise – a young couple move into a big house that has ghosts in it – is perfectly designed for long-running comedy, and the scripts, direction and performances are all beautifully pitched. Ghosts could be on lists like this for decades.

What we said: One of the things that makes Ghosts so endearing is how the spirits find the modern world in which they’re doomed to live so absurd. I don’t know how your 2020 is going, but that resonates with my lived experience. Read more.

9

The Queen’s Gambit

(Netflix) If the cheap and chaotic Tiger King represented our mindset during lockdown one, then The Queen’s Gambit – the chess drama everyone fell in love with during lockdown two – demonstrates a level of growth on our part. It was stylish and beautifully shot, and managed to balance out its smarts with a surprising amount of emotion.

What we said: The Queen’s Gambit came from nowhere, but suddenly, it seemed as if everyone was talking about it. Its timing was perfect. As the nights drew in and the days grew colder, it was television to hunker down to, as absorbing as it was lovely to look at. Read more.

8

This Country

Charlie and Daisy May Cooper in This Country.
Heart … Charlie and Daisy May Cooper in This Country. Photograph: Jack Barnes/BBC

(BBC Three) This Country wasn’t just one of the shows of the year, it was one of the best shows of the century. In just a handful of episodes it managed to transform what could have been a caricature of village life into something that was absolutely dripping with heart. However, the sadness of it ending is evened out by the realisation that Daisy May Cooper is already vaulting to national treasure status.

What we said: 280 minutes, in mockumentary format, of some of the most tender, densely written, hysterically funny television you are ever likely to see. Read more.

7

The Last Dance

(Netflix) An incredible documentary about the Chicago Bulls at the height of their powers, The Last Dance also functioned as an insight into the mind of Michael Jordan: an athlete so untouchably great that he barely seems human, almost brought down to earth by the enormous pressure of his own talent.

What we said: The Michael Jordan-produced show has proved to be one of the most addictive viewing experiences of the year, channelling the fast-paced unpredictability of basketball. Read more.

6

Quiz

Sian Clifford, Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen in Quiz.
Humanised … Sian Clifford, Matthew Macfadyen and Michael Sheen in Quiz. Photograph: Matt_Frost/ITV

(ITV) For years, Charles and Diana Ingram were vilified as cheats, thanks to the coughing scandal that led them to a million-pound payday on a gameshow. James Graham’s Quiz might not have changed that, but it went a long way to humanising them. And then there’s Michael Sheen’s Chris Tarrant, as uncanny a performance as you’ll ever see.

What we said: Quiz didn’t seek to humiliate the Ingrams – although the real Charles did note that the programme makers had made their house look a little shabby. However, it also refused to paint the other Charles and Diana as Robin Hood figures. Leaving the matter of their guilt, or otherwise, down to the viewer. Read more.

5

Once Upon a Time in Iraq

(BBC Two) James Bluemel’s documentary told the story of the 2003 invasion of Iraq from a weirdly overlooked perspective: the people who lived there at the time. Army cadets, translators, professors, comedians, all telling stories of an abject horror that is still much too close for comfort. Truly essential viewing.

What we said: There are no politicians offering global justifications or hindsight-tinged regrets here; participation is limited to folks with front row seats. Read more.

4

Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones in Normal People.
Sensation … Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar Jones in Normal People. Photograph: Enda Bowe/BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu

(BBC Three) Put up a show about horny youngsters during a time of lockdown and people will go nuts for it. But the BBC’s adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel was nothing short of a sensation. It made instant stars of its leads, and created a villain for the ages in Fionn O’Shea’s Jamie. If you’re a certain type of person at a certain stage in your life, Normal People will have hit you like a truck.

What we said: The skill required to convey an experience as universal and ineffable as first love is considerable; to convey it honestly, more so. Read more.

3

Small Axe

(BBC One) Steve McQueen’s anthology series about Black life in Britain was one of the most incredible television feats of the decade. As five stories interlinked by the thinnest of threads, this barely even counted as television. It was a clutch of brand new films by an Oscar-winning director. It deserves to go down in history alongside the genuine greats.

What we said: Small Axe couldn’t have picked a better moment, or found a better means of expression … It will doubtless stand as Steve McQueen’s magnum opus, and a landmark of British television. Read more.

2

I Hate Suzie

(Sky Atlantic) Graphic sexual images of Billie Piper’s Suzie leak on to the internet, except her partner in them is not her husband. From that bombshell came the magic of I Hate Suzie, Piper and Lucy Prebble’s howl of barely contained rage. It was shocking, funny and heartbreaking in equal measure. In any other year, this series would have topped this list.

What we said: It’s so honest multiple TV networks wouldn’t touch it. One episode is entirely dedicated to an unsatisfying bout of masturbation. Read more.

1

I May Destroy You

(BBC One) Once seen and never forgotten, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is a thing of intangible beauty. Autobiographical but not, issue-heavy but not, this was a transcendent God’s eye view of the world. As the story of a woman tracking down her rapist, it could be impossibly heavy. But it was also smart, subversive and, at points, truly hilarious. Unbeatable.

What we said: Its forensic and unflinching look at race, dating, social media, sexual abuse, consent and friendship is equally harrowing and hilarious. Read more.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.

comments (0)

Sign in or create your Guardian account to join the discussion.