It’s been a bad year for most things, but not for TV. This year we were locked inside and kept apart for longer than any of us liked, but at least we had good company on our screens.
Showmax was home to more 2020 Emmy and Golden Globe TV winners than any other streaming platform, thanks to big winners like Succession, Watchmen, Chernobyl, and The Loudest Voice. Those were all released in 2019 though, so Showmax has put together a list of some of their other favourites – all released this year – to add to your watchlist this festive break.
BEST COMEDY: PEN15 S2
PEN15 is an R-rated traumedy set in middle school as it really happened in the year 2000. Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play versions of themselves as 13-year-old outcasts, surrounded by actual 13-year-olds.
Season 2 is an even bigger hit than its Emmy-nominated first season, with a 93% rating on Metacritic, where it’s #1 on the top-scoring TV shows of 2020. Season 2 also has a 100% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s currently #3 on their list of the best TV shows of 2020.
As The Washington Post put it, “If one has to choose only one millennial-made TV series that ventures into adolescent angst in the AOL era, please make it this one. PEN15… could be almost considered an act of communal therapy. In their unflinching and even brave willingness to re-enact the range of hair-trigger emotions that turn teenagers into the worst kind of people, Erskine and Konkle (along with co-creator Sam Zvibleman) are offering a kind of catharsis to the rest of us: Yes, you were as awful as you remember being, but guess what? You were in the throes of becoming you. PEN15 is both an exquisite wallow in hormonal chaos and a belated act of forgiveness.”
Binge S2 of PEN15 from 8 January 2021, first on Showmax, where you can catch up on S1 while you wait.
Special mentions: Insecure S4, Ramy S2, and What We Do In The Shadows S2, as well as Brooklyn Nine-Nine S7 (due 1 Jan 2021) and Curb Your Enthusiasm S10 (due 1 Jan 2021).
BEST DRAMA < 30M: I MAY DESTROY YOU S1
I May Destroy You centres on Arabella (BAFTA winner Michaela Coel from Chewing Gum), a carefree, self-assured Londoner with a group of great friends, a boyfriend in Italy, and a burgeoning writing career. But when her drink is spiked with a date-rape drug, she must question and rebuild every element of her life.
I May Destroy You is #2 on Metacritic’s list of the TV shows mentioned in the the most top-10 critics’ lists in 2020, having been named show of the year by Time, Slate and TVLine. It has a 97% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, where the critics’ consensus says, “I May Destroy You is at once brave and delicate, untangling the trauma of sexual assault with dark humour and moments of deep discomfort, all held together on the strength of Michaela Coel’s undeniable talent.”
In their five star review, The Guardian raved, “It is the drama of the year so far… Michaela Coel’s exploration of consent, race and millennial life… works on every level… An extraordinary, breath-taking achievement without a false note in it, shot through with humour and with ideas, talent and character to burn at every perfectly plotted turn.”
Special mentions: Betty S1, Run S1, and Vida S3
BEST FOREIGN LANGUAGE SERIES: MY BRILLIANT FRIEND S2: THE STORY OF A NEW NAME
Based on Elena Ferrante’s bestselling novels set in Naples, Italy, My Brilliant Friend is the story of a life-long friendship spanning 60 years. Season 2, based on the second novel in Ferrante’s series, sees Lila (Gaia Girace) stuck in a brutal marriage to the wealthy Stefano Caracci (Giovanni Amura), while Elena dallies with suitor Antonio Cappuccio (Christian Giroso) and her growing attraction to the magnetic Nino Sarratore (Francesco Serpico).
My Brilliant Friend, helmed by multi-award-winning Italian directors Saverio Costanzo (Hungry Hearts) and Alice Rohrwacher (Happy as Lazaro), has a 96% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes and a 93% rating on Metacritic, where it’s #4 on their list of best TV shows of 2020.
In a five-star review, The Guardian raved, “Most big television shows are gorgeous now, thanks to a combination of technical advancement, the seemingly bottomless pot of money and the fact that, since TV is now considered cinematic, dominated by Hollywood stars, it really needs to look the part. But even by those standards, My Brilliant Friend is an exceptionally gorgeous show… Absorbing, gripping television that demands that you sink into it completely, closing off all distractions.”
Special mentions: Devils S1, The New Pope S1 (okay, that’s cheating, but the Italians are making amazing English shows now too). P-Valley S1 (it’s English, but not as you know it).
BEST LIMITED SERIES: THE GOOD LORD BIRD
Four-time Oscar nominee Ethan Hawke (Before Sunrise, Boyhood) stars in The Good Lord Bird as militant slavery abolitionist John Brown, who is credited with instigating the American Civil War. It’s told from the point of view of Henry “Onion” Shackleford, an enslaved boy who joins Brown’s family of abolitionist soldiers.
Onion is played by rising star Joshua Caleb Johnson, who co-stars along with Grammy winner Daveed Diggs (Blindspotting, Hamilton), Critcs Choice winner Ellar Coltrane (Boyhood), and Emmy winner Keith David (Community). The seven-part series is executive produced by Hawke, triple Oscar nominee Jason Blum (Blackkklansman, Get Out) and James McBride, who penned the National Book Award-winning novel it’s based on.
The Good Lord Bird is #5 on Rolling Stone’s list of the best TV of the year and has a 97% critics rating Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s #18 on their list of the Best TV of 2020. As the critics consensus says, “Ethan Hawke dazzles in The Good Lord Bird, an epically irreverent adaptation that does right by its source material’s good word.”
The Good Lord Bird will be available to binge on Showmax from 15 January 2021.
Special mentions: Howard’s End, I Know This Much Is True, Little Fires Everywhere, and The Plot Against America
BEST DOCUMENTARY SERIES: MCMILLION$
One of IMDb’s Top 10 Docuseries Of 2020, McMillion$ is a six-part HBO documentary investigating the biggest scam in the history of fast food: the rigged McDonald’s Monopoly competition that offered its US customers in the ‘90s the chance to go out for a burger and come home with $1 million. The scam ran for over a decade, had links to organised crime and netted $24 million worth of illegal profits.
McMillion$ was up for five Emmys this year, including Outstanding Documentary or Non-Fiction Series, and has an 89% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with The Hollywood Reporter saying, “McMillion$ tells a quirky and frequently hilarious tale filled with enough twists and turns that you’ll swear it came from the keyboard of a Carl Hiaasen or Elmore Leonard.”
Or as The Los Angeles Times put it, while naming McMillion$ one of their top 10 shows of 2020, “The cast of characters here is so colourful and bizarre they look as if they were cooked up in a scripted writers room (think The Sopranos meets Barry). An eccentric FBI agent, fraudulent winners from upscale suburbs and sleepy towns, fast-food chain execs doubling as undercover agents, vengeful family members (biological and otherwise): They all appear in this stranger-than-fiction tale, where greed and hubris come with a side of fries.“
Special mention: Hillary
BEST REALITY OR COMPETITION SERIES: THE MASKED SINGER S2
One of IMDb’s Top 10 Reality and Competition Series of 2020, The Masked Singer S2 won Outstanding Costumes: Variety, Non-Fiction or Reality at the Emmys, where it was also nominated for Outstanding Competition Programme.
Season 2 features even more undercover celebs, all concealed from top to toe in awesome costumes as they perform covers of famous songs and get us all guessing… until they’re unmasked if they receive the fewest votes. The show is once again hosted by Nick Cannon, with panellists Ken Jeong, Jenny McCarthy, Nicole Scherzinger and Robin Thicke taking their best shots (and often missing) at who the mystery contestants could be.
As Entertainment Weekly put it, “Do you like music, guessing games, and costumes with an aesthetic that can best be described as Donnie Darko + Pan’s Labyrinth x Las Vegas? Then Fox has the show for you… It is, for lack of a better term, mask-tastic.”
Special mentions: Love Island UK S6 (set in Cape Town), We’re Here
BEST MOVIE: THE INVISIBLE MAN
Golden Globe winner Elisabeth Moss (The Handmaid’s Tale) stars in this nail-biting horror, which is at #6 on Empire’s list of the best films of 2020, #9 on BoxOfficeMojo’s roundup of the highest-grossing films of 2019 globally, and was a People Choice’s nominee for Favourite Movie. The Invisible Man won Best Adapted Screenplay and Elisabeth Moss was named Best Actress at the Hollywood Critics Association’s 2020 Midseason Awards, while the film also has a 91% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Rolling Stone saying, “Alive with fresh thinking from Whanell and a dynamite Elisabeth Moss, this socially conscious horrorshow tips the old monster mash into way scarier sh*t about toxic masculinity that’s as timely as #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein in handcuffs.”
When Cecilia’s abusive ex takes his own life and leaves her his fortune, she suspects his death was a hoax. As a series of coincidences turn lethal, Cecilia works to prove that she is being hunted by someone nobody can see.
Inspired by HG Wells’s novel, The Invisible Man is adapted and directed by award-winning horror aficionado Leigh Whannell, who co-created the Saw franchise. The cast includes Oliver Jackson-Cohen (The Haunting of Hill House, The Haunting of Bly Manor); Saturn and Black Reel award nominee Aldis Hodge (Underground, Hidden Figures); and BET and Teen Choice nominee Storm Reid (Euphoria, A Wrinkle in Time).
Special mentions: Bad Education
BEST FANTASY: WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS S2
From multiple Emmy nominee Jemaine Clement (Flight Of The Conchords) and 2020 Oscar winner Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit, Thor: Ragnarok), the hit mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows is a look into the daily (or rather, nightly) lives of four vampires who’ve lived together in New York for over 100 years – plenty of time to get on each other’s nerves. Mark Hamill (aka Luke Skywalker in Star Wars) guest stars this season, but the real hero is Nandor’s downtrodden familiar, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén), who swoops into the spotlight this season, having discovered he’s descended from the famed vampire slayer van Helsing.
“The best very dumb, very serious show on TV right now is What We Do in the Shadows,” says Vulture. “Season two has been an amplification of everything I already loved about the show… a quartet of immortal, sociopathic horror creatures who can’t do their own laundry… Their blend of lethality and weakness… They are, bless their hearts, just the sweetest, dumbest monsters imaginable… but the real key to the series is the fifth member of their household, Guillermo. Where What We Do in the Shadows truly shines is in balancing vampire goofiness with Guillermo’s earnest tragedy. Guillermo’s sudden empowerment turns his subservience to Nandor into something fraught and unstable and oddly tender.”
This magnificently silly mock-doc series is currently at #4 on Metacritic’s list of the TV shows mentioned in the most top-10 critics’ lists in 2020 and at #7 on Rotten Tomatoes’ Best TV of 2020 list, with a 100% critics rating. It was also nominated for eight Emmys, including Best Comedy.
BEST SCI-FI: WESTWORLD S3
One of IMDb’s top 10 shows of 2020, Westworld started out as a dark Wild West odyssey about the dawn of artificial consciousness and the birth of a new form of life on Earth. But with Season 3 moving beyond the park, the playground just got a whole lot bigger.
Season 3 saw the return of Golden Globe nominees Evan Rachel Wood (Dolores) and Thandie Newton (Maeve), Golden Globe winner Jeffrey Wright (Bernard/Arnold), People’s Choice nominee Tessa Thompson (Charlotte), Screen Actors Guild nominees Luke Hemsworth (Ashley) and Rodrigo Santoro (Hector), and Oscar nominee Ed Harris as The Man in Black, alongside new faces like Golden Globe nominee Aaron Paul (Breaking Bad), César Award winner Vincent Cassel (Ocean’s Twelve, Black Swan), Emmy winner Lena Waithe (Ready Player One), Tommy Flanagan (Sons of Anarchy) and Grammy winner Kid Cudi.
As The Atlantic put it, “This is a zanier, sillier Westworld, and much more entertaining for it.”
BEST CHRISTMAS SPECIAL: EUPHORIA SPECIAL EPISODE – PART ONE: RUE
Zendaya became the youngest ever best actress Emmy winner this year for her Euphoria performance as Rue, a 17-year-old who returns home from rehab with no plans to stay clean, and falls for the new girl in town, Jules (played by trans superstar Hunter Schafer). Euphoria also won 2020 Emmys for Original Music and Lyrics for All For Us by Labrinth, as well as Contemporary Makeup (Non-Prosthetic).
But Euphoria S1 was released in 2019, so isn’t eligible for this list. Thankfully, while we wait for the pandemic-delayed Season 2, Euphoria has just released a special holiday episode, which is already at #12 on Metacritic’s list of the best-reviewed shows of 2020. The episode follows Rue as she celebrates Christmas, in the aftermath of falling back into old habits. Written and directed by series creator Sam Levinson, the special episode will also feature Schafer and fellow Season 1 star Colman Domingo, who plays her sponsor, Ali.
As RogerEbert.com says, “Spiralling through a brilliantly written conversation about addiction, revolution, and depression, this is one of the best hours of TV in 2020 – an incredibly moving piece that hints at the limitless potential of Euphoria’s future.”
BEST CRIME: FARGO S4
Created by Emmy winner Noah Hawley (Legion, the upcoming untitled Star Trek sequel) as a spin-off of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning classic movie, Fargo has won three Golden Globes, six Emmys and a Peabody Award. It’s #36 on IMDb’s Top Rated TV list, with an 8.9/10 score, and holds a 92% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes.
Season 4, which is Complex’s TV show of the year, is set in Kansas City in 1950, with four-time Emmy-winning comedian Chris Rock starring as Loy Cannon, the head of the African American crime family who trades sons with the head of the Italian mafia as part of a tenuous truce. BAFTA nominee Jessie Buckley (Chernobyl), Teen Choice nominee Jason Schwartzman (The Grand Budapest Hotel), and Golden Globe winner Ben Whishaw (A Very English Scandal, Mary Poppins Returns) co-star.
“Fargo, as in past seasons, manages to be both more dramatic, and more comic, than almost any other show on TV right now,” says NPR, while Complex hails it as “high art for TV lovers… There aren’t many shows shot this well, nor are there many shows taking this many risks between the first and last frames, seemingly without a care for convention or consideration… If only more TV series could operate at Fargo levels of greatness.”
Fargo comes to Showmax every Tuesday from 12 January 2021 at 23:30, same day as M-Net.
Special mentions: Briarpatch S1, Devils S1, Perry Mason S1, The Outsider S1, and The Undoing, as well as Hightown S1 (due 12 March 2021).
BEST LEGAL: THE GOOD FIGHT S4
Diane Lockhart (Christine Baranski in an Emmy-nominated role) and Lucca Quinn (Cush Jumbo in a Critics’ Choice-nominated role) continue the fight for justice in The Good Wife spin-off series, The Good Fight.
Season 4 finds Reddick/Boseman/Lockhart navigating a very different landscape. After they lost their biggest client, ChumHum, and their founding partner’s name was tarnished, they were forced to accept an offer by a huge multinational law firm, STR Laurie, to be a small subsidiary. Suddenly all of their decisions can be second-guessed by the giant firm that is literally on top of them. While STR Laurie initially seem like benevolent overlords, we find Diane and her colleagues chafing at their loss of independence.
The Good Fight is currently at #6 on Entertainment Weekly’s best TV shows of 2020, and at #21 on Metacritic’s list of the best-reviewed TV shows of 2020 overall. Nominated for Outstanding Drama at the 2020 Television Critics’ Association Awards, the seven-episode fourth season has a 100% critics’ rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with Decider calling it, “one of the biggest hidden gems on streaming… No longer simply a great legal drama, it is a wacky, indulgent, incredible work of art… In its triumphant fourth season, The Good Fight remains one of the best, and most insane, shows on television.”
BEST HORROR: LOVECRAFT COUNTRY S1
Lovecraft Country is Rolling Stone’s second favourite TV show of 2020 and has a 90% critics rating on Rotten Tomatoes, placing it at #52 on their Best TV Shows of 2020 list as the highest-rated horror of the year. As Newsday put it, “To call Lovecraft Country ‘wildly original’ seems almost a quaint understatement. But it is wild. And original. Little doubt about that.”
In the 1950s, Atticus, a young African-American, sets out on a road trip with his friend and uncle to find his missing father. This catapults the three into a struggle for survival against the dual terrors of Jim Crow-era America and terrifying monsters that could be ripped from a paperback written by pulpy horror author HP Lovecraft.
Based on the cult novel by Matt Ruff, Lovecraft Country is a collaboration between Misha Green (creator of Underground, named Best New Cable/New Media Show of 2016 by the African-American Film Critics Association) and Oscar winner Jordan Peele (Us, Get Out), executive produced by JJ Abrams (Star Wars, Star Trek, Lost, Super 8, Westworld). The fantastic cast includes Black Reel nominee Jonathan Majors (The Last Black Man in San Francisco, Da 5 Bloods), Teen Choice nominee Jurnee Smollett-Bell (Birds of Prey, Friday Night Lights), four-time Emmy nominee Michael Kenneth Williams (The Wire, The Night Of), Golden Globe nominee Courtney B Vance (The People Vs OJ Simpson, Law & Order), Abbey Lee (Mad Max: Fury Road, The Neon Demon), and Nigerian BAFTA winner Wunmi Mosaku (Luther, The End of the F*ing World, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them).
Special mentions: The Third Day, The Walking Dead S10
BEST TEEN: ALEX RIDER S1
When Alex Rider learns that his Uncle Ian was killed in the line of duty as a British spy – and not a car accident like he’s been told – everything changes for this otherwise normal teen. Alex is approached by Alan Blunt, head of a top-secret offshoot of MI6 known as The Department, who reveals that he’s been unknowingly trained since childhood for the dangerous world of espionage. Pressured to leave his old life behind, Alex goes undercover to investigate the connection between the deaths of two billionaires and a remote boarding school called Point Blanc, aided by his classmate Kyra, best friend Tom, and his au pair Jack.
Rated 13VL, the eight-part series is based on the best-selling Alex Rider books by Anthony Horowitz, which have sold over 19 million copies in 33 languages. Alex Rider has an 85% critics’ score on Rotten Tomatoes, where it’s #78 on their list of the best TV shows of 2020, with Daily Telegraph hailing it as “a junior version of the Bourne franchise… that can also keep adults entertained.”
And there are those shows that won the fans, even if they didn’t land on critics’ top lists, like Anna Kendrick’s romcom Love Life S1, the medical drama New Amsterdam S2, and the viral, BAFTA-nominated sketch comedy Famalam S3.