The Best TV Shows Of 2020

I May Destroy You

by empire |

2020 has been an utter hellscape from top to bottom. So, more so than ever, we’ve desperately needed entertaining distractions this year and the world of TV and streaming has more than delivered. As we say through not one but two national lockdowns, none of us have ever had a closer relationship with our gogglebox, spending more time sitting in our living rooms than ever before and absorbing an incredible amount of top quality programming that delighted, surprised and, perhaps most importantly, allowed us to step outside this year's grim reality and experience another time and place.

From triumphant last hurrahs for established greats, to bold, fresh arrivals of soon-to-be-classic shows, major contributions from brand new streaming services, to gripping terrestrial TV hits. We've had visceral, action-packed thrillers, brain-bending sci-fi explorations, sob-into-your-pillow-for-an-hour dramas and more. There really has been something spectacular for everyone this year and here, Pilot TV rounds up the very best of them.

For a more detailed discussion of the shows on this list and our picks of the ones that didn't quite make the cut, listen to Pilot TV's Review Of 2020 podcast special now{ =nofollow}.


The Best TV Shows Of 2020 (So Far)

This Country1 of 20

20) This Country

When we arrived back in sleepy Northleach for the third and final season of This Country, nothing appeared different, and yet everything had changed. Starting life as the brainseed of two bored siblings fannying about in the Cotswolds, this monstrously funny mockumentary show now had two BAFTAs and a legion of celebrity fans (the disguised A-lister cameo in episode four remains a mystery). The team had also tragically lost long-standing cast member Michael Sleggs, with his passing honoured in a series opener that was befittingly silly yet quietly sentimental. Through maintaining this equilibrium for three series and filling a still Cotswolds village with scatty, loveable characters, Daisy May and Charlie Cooper have made the mundane unmissable. Their swan song is the most extraordinary achievement this side of Swindon.

The Crown2 of 20

19) The Crown

Some political types may not be able to tell fact from fiction, but the show's fans know it's all about the drama, albeit with some very realistic trappings. Series 4 of the show heads into the 1980s, with Gillian Anderson's pitch perfect interpretation of love/hate icon and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin's solid stab at Princess Diana. The times are, as, ever, a-changin' for the Royal Family, and while there aren't perhaps the standout single episodes like Series 3's Aberfan instalment, the fourth batch offered more consistency across the whole run. We'll miss Olivia Colman and co. now they're stepping down from the performance throne.Watch on Netflix{ =nofollow}.

Curb Your Enthusiasm3 of 20

18) Curb Your Enthusiasm

Ending the latest season on its 100th episode only confirms that the world's appetite for Larry David - TV's most appalling leading man - has not waned. In fact, with another season now in the pipeline, we seem to want him more than ever. From the moment Larry vengefully snaps a selfie stick in the series premiere, everything and everyone is an enemy, from his local coffee proprietor to the #MeToo movement (one breathtakingly devious scene sees Larry leave a woman to choke rather than help and be accused of sexual misconduct). The cameos come thick and fast - Jon Hamm as ever proves that his comedic timing is as genius as Don Draper's ad slogans - and the season finale culminates in a piece de resistance so petty that it sparks a celebrity trend. Both dreadful and impossible not to watch, America's cantankerous national treasure continues to delight.

The Boys4 of 20

17) The Boys

Shocking, caustic, violent, funny and peppered with enough C-bombs to make your granny faint, Eric Kripke's The Boys is a biting satire of the superhero setup that imagines what would happen if The Justice League were run by corporate overlords and populated by super-powered sociopaths. A delightfully nihilistic take on the genre, the show managed to hit new highs in Season 2 with a sharper script, new characters (hello Aya Cash's Stormfront) and the same black humour as we peel back more of the layers on the show's core characters, with the odd exploding whale along the way. Props, as ever, to the incalculably great Anthony Starr who steals every scene as homicidal Superman clone Homelander.

Schitt's Creek5 of 20

16) Schitt's Creek

Different series were vital in 2020 for different reasons. The final season of Schitt's Creek wasn't revolutionary TV, but it provided a warm, gentle space to hide away from the horrors of the year. Across its entire run, Schitt's Creek became increasingly confident with its identity as a show, and as a result this final stretch of 14 episodes was its greatest season yet – continuing the Rose family's trajectory of personal growth as they become increasingly thoughtful, loveable, caring people, integrating with the community of Schitt's Creek. Love that journey for them! Everyone here got a time to shine – Alexis (Annie Murphy) making bold and difficult personal choices, iconic matriarch Moira (Catherine O'Hara) releasing her Crows movie into the world, and Johnny and Stevie (Eugene Levy and Emily Hampshire) growing the Rosebud Motel business. But it was the conclusion of the love story between David (Dan Levy, also co-creator and showrunner) and Patrick (Noah Reid) that will go down in sitcom history – tender, heartfelt, and quietly revolutionary as a refreshingly trope-free gay romance. Ending on a high, Season 6 was simply the best Schitt's Creek has ever been.

Home6 of 20

15) Home

Rufus Jones' sitcom about a Syrian refugee (Youssef Kerkour) who bunks up with an English family in Dorking was one of the stand-out surprises of 2019 and Jones doesn't stumble with this second year. Genuinely funny but with its eye on an all-too serious topic, the show effortlessly walks the line between tones, seamlessly blending the ludicrous (a tackle-out, naked rant wielding a yucca plant) and the profound (Sami's heartfelt plea to the civil servant handling his asylum application). The whole series crackles with needle-sharp dialogue and, in large part thanks to roaring turns from Kerkour, Jones and Rebekah Staton, is among the most flat-out enjoyable sitcoms on TV. Bonus points for Kerkour's deployment of the word 'bellend' in episode 4, which may be the single greatest use of the term ever recorded. Watch now on All4

Sex Education7 of 20

14) Sex Education

Season 2 of this Netflix comedy, in which Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey set up a school sex advice clinic, took things even deeper than the first, shaking up the status quo and finding laughs by putting different couples together. Gillian Anderson's Jean continues to be a high point, but there are good storylines for a host of characters, including Connor Swindells' Adam and Ncuti Gatwa's peerless Eric. It's still throbbing with teenage hormones and frank discussion of sex of various flavours, though, and the charm quotient from the young cast remains high. Series 3 can't, er, come fast enough.Watch on Netflix

After Life8 of 20

13) After Life

Ricky Gervais may not have intended to make one of the most-watched titles on Netflix, but his uncompromising comedy about coping with death has tapped into something winningly cathartic. Reprising his role as Tony - a small town reporter still wrestling with grief after losing his wife to cancer - Gervais continues to explore the consequences of death on the living, while muddling in his signature potty-mouthed humour (the C-bomb is dropped three times in the opening ten minutes, by an OAP no less). Around him, the colourful townsfolk of Tambury continue to charm with their well-meaning whimsy, notably Penelope Wilton's widower, Anne. Her shared scenes with Tony showcase some of Gervais' most moving writing to date, that can find comedy, and more importantly hope, in even the darkest corners of despair.Watch on Netflix

Feel Good9 of 20

12) Feel Good

This surprisingly insightful comedy stars Canadian stand-up Mae Martin as herself, mixing the occasional on-stage routine with a touching and authentically-written sitcom about relationships and identity. As Mae struggles with addiction and paternal indifference (from an excellent Lisa Kudrow) she begins a new relationship with the hitherto straight George (Charlotte Ritchie), whose conservative group of casually homophobic friends (including one named Binky) only serve to complicate matters. The title does the series a disservice, suggesting easy dismissal as frothy nonsense when, while this is both fun and funny, it's as insightful and occasionally painful in its depiction of messy relationships and emotional baggage as any number of serious dramas. Watch on All4

The Third Day10 of 20

11) The Third Day

Felix Barrett and Dennis Kelly's The Third Day is, without overstating things, among the most ambitious projects in TV history. Two segments of three episodes bookending an audacious, twelve-hour live event, this is a twisted, bizarre and often surreal saga about the inhabitants of Osea Island. Jude Law and Naomie Harris are the two outsiders sucked in to a vortex of old gods, cults and psychotropic hallucinations as they attempt to unravel Osea's mysteries. While Covid impacted how the live theatre event played out, it's to Barrett and Kelly's enormous credit that they pulled it off regardless, producing a televisual event like no other.

I Hate Suzie11 of 20

10) I Hate Suzie

Before it found its home at Sky Atlantic, one the year's most talked-about, disruptive TV dramas was initially turned down by broadcasters, who told I Hate Suzie writer and creator Lucy Prebble that they "had their 'woman having a breakdown show' already". Co-creator Billie Piper plays Suzie Pickles, a former child actor turned franchise star, whose career and life start to fall apart after nude photographs of her and a man who is not her husband are leaked online. Eight half-hour episodes - named after the eight stages of grief - are directed by Georgi Banks-Davies with verve and precision. In moments it has echoes of horror, in others, the pulsating throb of a thriller. One episode feels like a panic attack in real time, while another is dedicated almost entirely to the finer points of masturbation. We LOVED Suzie. Does that mean we're now allowed TWO woman having a breakdown shows?

The Queen's Gambit12 of 20

9) The Queen's Gambit

Adapting Walter Tevis' novel, Scott Frank and Allan Scott delivered one of the most memorable shows of the year. About chess. Anchored by a witty, wild performance by Anya Taylor-Joy (with prime support from the likes of Bill Camp and Marielle Heller), The Queen's Gambit mixes drama, comedy and style for a show that seared itself into the pop culture consciousness and sent many viewers scrambling to figure out the finer points of tactical chess (not that you need any knowledge to enjoy the miniseries). Orphan Beth Harmon (Isla Johnston plays her at a younger age) becomes a player prodigy and finds success even as her own addiction demons threaten her mind and body. Dropping on Netflix with little fanfare, this was one of the most delightful surprises of 2020. Watch on Netflix{ =nofollow}.

Better Call Saul13 of 20

8) Better Call Saul

BCS just got better and better this year, as Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) fell further into the dark side as Saul Goodman. Odenkirk shines as the conflicted lead, but the truly impressive performance continues to come from Rhea Seehorn as his partner/occasional conscience Kim Wexler. Plus the series has truly found its way in blending the Mike and Jimmy storylines, with none more effective a demonstration than in Bagman, a Midnight Run-style misadventure for the pair that both allows for great character moments and drives the story forward. There's no doubt about it: as Better Call Saul starts to wrap up, it's more than proved it can stand alongside the best of Breaking Bad.Watch on Netflix

Gangs Of London14 of 20

7) Gangs Of London

Gangs Of London is, hands down, the most violent show on television; it's also a masterclass in action direction and choreography — but neither of these things should be surprising, given that it comes from Gareth Evans, director of The Raid. Set within London's criminal underbelly, the show Sees Joe Cole as Sean Wallace, the volatile scion of the Wallace crime family, who goes on a revenge-fuelled rampage after his father (Colm Meaney) is murdered. It's breakout star Sope Dirisu who steals the show here, however, cracking skulls and breaking limbs as enforcer and undercover officer Elliot Finch. Yes, it's gorier than most horror films and you'll spend much of it wincing and watching through your fingers but this is a gripping ride from end to end. Plus, if episode 5 were half an hour longer it would be a shoo-in for best action movie of the year.

High Fidelity15 of 20

6) High Fidelity

The 2000 John Cusack-starring movie already feels like a (very successful) cover version of Nick Hornby's music obsessed story, but the series, which gender flips the main character to Robyn 'Rob' Brooks (Zoë Kravitz), finds new tunes to play on the same tale. Sarah Kucserka and Veronica West found something authentic and fresh something fresh to say about life and love through Rob's viewpoint, resulting in a collection of ten perfectly-crafted, beautifully-told episodes. and there's the same blend of comedy and drama to be found. It's an absolute crime that this series was only granted one (glorious) season — we'll miss hanging out with Rob and the gang enormously.

Devs16 of 20

5) Devs

Alex Garland's switch to television was never going to be ordinary. And indeed, Devs is very far from mundane, spinning off into such heady territory as fate, quantum mechanics and the multiple universes nestled within Nick Offerman's magnificent beard. The story follows Sonoya Mizuno's Lily as she investigates her boyfriend's mysterious disappearance from tech company Amaya, where they both work, and just gets deeper from there. Garland's ability to weave technology and morality together is on full display here, Devs feeling of a piece with Ex Machina, while also given the room to breathe that a TV series (even with a relatively short eight episodes) offers. Watch on BBC iPlayer

The Mandalorian17 of 20

4) The Mandalorian

Star Wars is thriving on the small screen, with several series either shooting, about to film, or in development. And it's all thanks to Jon Favreau and Dave Filoni leading the way with phenomenon that is The Mandalorian. We had to wait a little while for Season 1 but it certainly didn't disappoint when it finally landed in the UK earlier this year. However, it's Season 2 that really raised the bar, with a phenomenal run of episodes that got better with each instalment. Mixing nostalgic callbacks with some of the best Star Wars action yet seen, the show managed to pull off an accessible space-Western yet have it bristle with in-universe references and franchise fan service. Excitement? Adventure? A Jedi craves not these things, but The Mandalorian delivers them with bells on. Come for the cutest little green space kid in the galaxy, stay for high set pieces and big ticket curtain calls from cult Star Wars characters. Watch on Disney+.

Save Me Too18 of 20

3) Save Me Too

Lenny James' follow-up to Save Me's searing first series manages the improbable feat of packing an even more potent emotional gut punch than its predecessor. As we rejoin Nelly a year on in the search for his kidnapped daughter, Jodie, we're taken to even darker, more harrowing places as he delves further into the world of child-trafficking, fearing that the trail has long gone cold. Written once more by James himself, the story plays with expectation and perspective, at once prompting a visceral revulsion at unthinkable exploitation, while counterbalancing with the nuanced, tragic portrayal of Stephen Graham's sex offender, Melon. Stunningly written and beautifully performed (one moment in particular is a strong contender for scene of the year), this remains one of the most powerful dramas on television.

I May Destroy You19 of 20

1=) I May Destroy You

Few shows cross the line from incendiary into vital, history-making television, yet this is precisely where I May Destroy You sits. Drawn from the mind of Chewing Gum creator Michaela Coel - specifically the memory of a sexual assault that she survived during a daunting period of her writing career - the show tasks Arabella (Coel) and her best friends with unpicking the knotty, overwhelming topics of sexual consent and pleasure, and the aggressions that they endure as members of the Black and queer communities. I May Destroy You could easily have been a drama that leaves you reeling from the density of its subject matter, but Coel doesn't allow this, threading humour and tenderness into the fabric of a show so desperately needed today that it should be put on the national curriculum. Watch on BBC iPlayer

Normal People20 of 20

1=) Normal People

An adaptation of Sally Rooney's novel about two Irish teenagers navigating their first tentative romance, Normal People is far more than a simple tale of sex and adolescent yearning (although both are in generous supply). What directors Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald have crafted is a singularly affecting story of the ties that bind us in all their messy, relatable glory. With powerhouse performances from Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal as Marianne and Connell, manifesting a level of sexual chemistry that could happily solve the world's energy crisis, this is a show that resonates on a deep, emotional level, forcing you to feel every scene. Love in all its complexity is rarely depicted so honestly or believably — an intimate, compelling portrait of human entanglement, rendered with a raw intensity that sucks you in from the very first episode and leaves you crying, devastated and elated by its conclusion.

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