The pandemic that has dominated 2020 has been something of a boon for purveyors of telly programmes, given the locked-down captive audience they can fire content (and adverts) at.
For those that have been furloughed, or turfed out of employment entirely, there has perhaps been some solace in catching up on recommendations, or even 'completing Netflix'.
I have fortunately/unfortunately been able to work from home, with a commute of literally three steps from my bed. While I have enjoyed the obvious benefits of this new situation, the lack of abode/office boundaries does mean that the job has bled into time traditionally allocated to relaxing in front of the slightly larger screen.
This is basically a long-winded way of saying that I haven't actually watched that much more TV than usual this year. But what follows is a summary of the best things I did view during this most cursed of years.
Let's start with the first lockdown shall we? Roughly 34 months ago, when people communally clapped and there was some genuine leeway given to our government.
A couple of US documentaries dominated the discourse during the first spell of social isolation.
Tiger King was ostensibly a critical look at exotic animal ownership, which became something much darker due to the multiple misdeeds of the various big cat park owners.
Chief among them were the ludicrous figures of Joe Exotic and his rival Carole Baskin, but equally onerous were the likes of Jeff Lowe and Doc Antle.
The show certainly provided an engrossing distraction from reality, but given it was also reality, it was quite a depressing one, as the horrific treatment of the animals was increasingly overshadowed by the base behaviour of the human cast.
More uplifting was the sporting spectacle of The Last Dance.
This staggeringly in-depth tale of Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls team - specifically, but not exclusively, his final 1997-98 season - was a treat, regardless of your basketball knowledge.
All oversize suits, slow-mo slam dunks and the high-stakes NBA politics, the series was a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of one of the greatest sportsmen of all time - with the context that made and almost broke him.
Another Netflix signing, Charlie Brooker, returned to the platform just this week with a star-studded 2020 Screenwipe special entitled Death to 2020. While I appreciate the sentiment, it was all a bit US-centric and not that funny - they even managed to make Diane Morgan virtually laugh-free.
Thankfully, in May he was on the Beeb with a one-off Antiviral Wipe, which tried to counteract the overwhelmingly bad news with more silliness and personal touches than usual - and was all the better for it.
Sticking with documentaries - one of my favourite genres of TV - there was plenty of good stuff this year.
Long past his when he should have rightly retired, the nation's grandad David Attenborough was at it again - albeit this time trading epic wildlife stories for the grim reality of the climate crisis. His Extinction film had a suitably sobering first half, followed by a pleasingly positive second, which I can only hope resonates with enough people capable of affecting change in the crucial years ahead of us.
Another of the few ageing on-screen men that haven't gone Yewtree or Gammon on us, Michael Palin returned for a retrospective of his much-loved explorations Around the World in 80 Days, Pole to Pole and Full Circle.
The BBC used to play these during summer holiday weekday mornings when I was at school and I loved watching the archetypal genial British gent making his way to far flung parts of the globe, giving a bit of history, interacting with the locals and showing the amazing sights.
These condensed overviews, with Palin watching along and adding insights from his diaries, could have only been improved had the mostly superfluous talking heads been replaced with the actual camera crew from the journeys - explaining the logistics and how they got the many shots of him seemingly leaving them behind at railway stations.
As Frankie Boyle noted in his first foray, there comes a time in every comedian’s career when he turns to travelogues, and his Tour of Scotland was an excellent addition to the cannon.
The bombardment of beautiful tourist board-approved drone shots were the perfect foil for his devastating deadpan commentary, and he managed to fit some characteristically offensive lines in-between the generic format.
There are those documentaries you feel obliged to watch.
I must admit I never made it through all nine hours of Shoah, but Belsen: Our Story was at least a bit more palatable time wise. Still an almost unbearably powerful and painful hour of television, this collection of interviews with the survivors of the concentration camp felt all the more important given the recent rise of neo-Nazis.
There are also those documentaries that you've been waiting years for someone to make.
As a lifetime fan of unsolved mysteries, from those compilation library books to the conspiratorial corners of Reddit, I was cheered to see Storyville was covering The Mystery of DB Cooper. In keeping with their output, this was a well made film, going in deep with the various people who claim his legend as their own.
Among the other factual highlights was the brilliant WuTang - Of Mics and Men, which told the Staten Island supergroup's story in great detail, revealing them to be so much more than a squabbling bunch of gangsta rappers.
And finally, McMillions, the retelling of the McDonald’s Monopoly scam that defrauded the fast food giant of millions of dollars. The ebullient FBI agent Doug Mathews was central to the show’s success and makes a strong case for best TV character of the entire year.
Big US shows
Sticking in the US, where the big budgets are, there were a few more finales to enjoy.
As I mentioned on last year's list, BoJack Horseman extended its last episodes into this January, so another quick salute to Raphael Bob-Waksberg’s superlative series.
In keeping with the overarching theme, a near-death experience confronts BoJack with the friends and family he’s lost over the years and how badly he hurt them all. But away from the self destructive protagonist, there were satisfying conclusions for the likes of Princess Carolyn and Diane Nguyen. For all its emotional blows, the show ended on a quietly hopeful note.
Another fairly relentlessly dispiriting series, albeit in very different ways, was Westworld, which closed season three with either the beginning or end of the world, depending on whether you're made of meat or metal.
In an increasingly convoluted spectacle, I started to give up on trying to make sense of the various plot seams and people of interest, so the news that a fourth series had been commissioned didn't fill me with glee. However, with the actual world appearing to be reaching its climax, maybe they'll never actually be able to film it.
Continuing with the penultimate series theme, Better Call Saul's slow burning brilliance took it dangerously close to eclipsing the show that spawned it.
Peter Gould and Vince Gilligan's writing and directing is matched by the performances of Bob Odenkirk as Jimmy and Rhea Seehorn as Kim; the latter of whom really came into her own in the last few episodes.
While I can't wait to see how they intermingle the show with Breaking Bad in the final series, it's so good on its own merits I really hope it doesn't stray towards shark jumping territory.
I suppose the surprise hit of the year - apparently the most watched scripted limited series on Netflix to date - was The Queen's Gambit.
The magnetic lead performance from Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon - whose drug and alcohol addiction both aid and damage her genius - is complemented by plenty of period style, snappy dialogue and classy direction. An unexpected delight.
The one good thing about Disney+ until the Marvel miniseries' start, has been The Mandalorian, which has made a generation of disillusioned Star Wars fans fall back in love with the franchise.
This is in no small part down to the show going back to basics. What made the original trilogy great was the unashamed pillaging of Western/cowboy movie tropes, but combined with all the zoomy, zappy fun of space.
Creator and arguable Spielberg heir Jon Favreau knows this, so each episode sees the mysterious bounty hunter on a self-contained adventure across the wilds of the galaxy. This year's second series really built on the promise of the first, getting more and more entertaining with each subsequent episode - until THAT finale.
Keeping it sci-fi, the trans-Atlantic production of Devs was a real treat.
One of my favourite authors turned directors, Alex Garland, took on the twisted morality of big tech, brilliantly casting Nick Offerman in contrast to his Ron Swanson role. As a Silicon Valley CEO, he pushed into the quantum unknown at all costs in this gripping, hallucinatory thriller.
A friend of mine who's currently putting his big brain to use in the same San Francisco circles reckons the science is a bit iffy, but much like with the similarly well-soundtracked film Tenet, I was quite happy to let the big ideas and gorgeous shots (see below) wash over me.
I feel like I should also mention Lovecraft County, the politically aware, live-action Scooby-Doo set in a world featuring monsters inspired by the horror fiction writer of the same name.
Much like Watchmen last year, the show mixed all-too-relevant commentary on the African American experience with a heavy genre workout. To be honest, I preferred the Jim Crow-era America drama bits more than the magic and monsters, but it was still a very accomplished and entertaining bit of telly.
Back to Blighty, and the Beeb played a blinder this year, commissioning some of the finest drama I've seen, well, since last year.
I'll start with the two shows that garnered the most hype - the volume of which convinced me to add both to my schedule.
Turning such a popular novel into a TV series was never going to please everyone, but having not read Sally Rooney's bestseller, I was happy to take Normal People on face value. And weren't they pretty faces?
Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal's Marianne and Connell could have so easily been irritating 'Millennial' stereotypes - and I was certainly screaming at them to just communicate with one another - but that's because the performances were so engaging.
I can't believe I'm writing this, but there probably was a bit much sex. If that's about the extent of the criticisms thought, it's fair to say this was one of the finest debuts of the year.
Similarly, I May Destroy You was an absolute powerhouse from the supremely talented Michaela Coel, whose unreliable narrator Arabella worked her disorientating way through the aftermath of a sexual assault.
As good as she is, her superb supporting cast are also crucial in exploring the confusing reality of consent, mental health and relationships. We binged it in less than a week, but the issues raised and way they were tackled stayed with me for much longer.
Another really affecting drama was Steve McQueen's masterful Small Axe anthology.
Across five films - which each telling distinct stories about the lives of West Indian immigrants in London during the 60s and 70s - there is both a raw retelling of the tragedy and injustice the community faced, but also a celebration of the cultural legacy they laid down.
If we're talking serious drama, then The Third Day has to get a mention.
I must admit I didn't commit to the full 12-hour immersive theatre event, even though our Sky package allowed it. The main excuse being that our four-year-old wasn't that keen on Jude Law's slow descent into madness, literally digging his own grave in the rain off the coast of Essex.
But fair play to Punchdrunk for making it, the execs for giving it that big a billing, and the cast and crew for pulling off something so ambitious. There really was nothing else like it on the box this year, or arguably any other year.
Fair play also to Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith continuing to think up and create such wickedly entertaining stories, maintaining the quality that Inside Number Nine has become relied upon for five series'.
This year’s little ensembles were some of the best, from a mind-bending dissection of the magician’s craft to a surprisingly touching kitchen sink drama, it's always a pleasure to be in such good hands for half an hour.
Sadly the same can't be said for the final season of Killing Eve, a once riveting show that should have gone out on the high of the previous run. There was just about enough to keep fans sticking with it, but plots really stretched believability, character traits were overworked and the episode where Villanelle went back to her familial home felt like a massive misstep.
Ending on a higher note was Limmy, who called time on his TV career this year with another run of sketches in the Homemade Show and a Vine clip retrospective called the Other Stuff.
Cooncil telly's loss will be Twitch streaming's gain though, as he's decided to swap the hassle of making shows for the apparent freedom of playing games and making music for his legions of online fans. Fair play to him I say, he was always a man of the internet, rather than traditional media.
A few more honourable mentions before I conclude.
The second season of the small screen version of What We Do In The Shadows was excellent, building the brilliant characters, adding some great cameos and generally being very funny.
A bit more hit and miss is Rick and Morty, which at times feels like it's a show struggling under the weight of obsessive fan expectation. The latest batch of season four shows produced some real highlights though. The Vat of Acid Episode in particular had a typically complex and convoluted storyline, but some real moments of pathos, particularly the incredible dialogue-free few minutes of montage where Morty finally finds true love - only to be foiled by Jerry's stupidity.
I wrote about the revelation that was Euphoria in last year's round-up, and I'm pleased to report it's back with a two episode special - the first of which aired last month and focused solely on Zendaya's character.
In a bold move - and perhaps something we'll see a lot more of given the restraints of filming things during Covid - most of the hour is dedicated to a conversation between Rue and her sponsor; the enigmatic Ali. This diner booth chat could have been a massive drag, but fine direction, a solid script and some proper acting elevated it to something special.
It's not entirely clear where this fits in the timeline left off at the end of the first series, or as ever, if it's actually based in reality - but having heard Rue's side of the story, it' going to be interesting to see what Jules' version of events looks like in the accompanying episode.
Odds and sods
And so to a final run-down of things I've started watching, seen bits of, or still have on the to-do list.
- The Crown - being an apathetic republican I've largely tried to avoid this glossy dramatisation of our royal family, but at the behest of my better half, we've been working our way through the Diana years. It's clearly very well made, and I love the fact it riles up certain sections of the English establishment, but it does move awfully slowly and as hard as Gillian Anderson tries, I just can't feel any pity for Thatcher. One does wonder how they're going to deal with Prince Andrew's noncery in the next series though.
- Given the amount of Emmys it picked up this year, I felt duty bound to give Schitts Creek a go. Maybe it really picks up in the sixth series, but from what I witnessed in the first few episodes, I just don't think I can wait that long.
- There have been several other things I quite liked the look of, but just haven't had the time or inclination to return to - chief among them The Plot Against America and A Brave New World.
- Similarly, I enjoyed the first seasons of both The Deuce and Tin Star, but while they're sitting there downloaded on the magical black box beneath the screen, there's just been so much new stuff vying for my attention that they remain unwatched.
- Finally, if you've seen them and loved them as much as others I've picked up on, then do let me know, as a personal recommendation is often what moves things from the ever-growing iPhone note to an actual viewing - so should I bother with Girl/Haji, The Virtues, the US remake of Utopia, Ted Lasso, Industry, or How to With John Wilson?