To say that last year was difficult is a painful understatement, but one of the few good things that happened in the hellscape that was 2020 is the brilliantly creative TV shows we were blessed with. Television often acts as an escape for me under normal circumstances, so as we were told to isolate and put under national lockdown I dove headfirst into binge-watching several different shows as a way to pass the long stretch of free time we had suddenly been given. You’ll notice that every show listed in this article (bar one) is available on Netflix – my obvious streaming service of choice – which means this list isn’t too varied in that respect unfortunately. Without any further ado, here are my top five shows of 2020.
Starring Jennifer Connelly and Daveed Diggs, this post-apocalyptic series is a heavy-hitter. The show is based on the 2013 sci-fi action film of the same name, which starred Chris Evans and was adapted from the 1982 French graphic novel Le Transperceneige. The series focuses on the passengers of Snowpiercer: a perpetually-moving train that roams the Earth in the aftermath of a failed attempt to halt global warming, which has turned the planet into an uninhabitable frozen wasteland. With the world desolate and barren around them, the train’s passengers are the remnants of humankind.
Set in 2021 (yikes) Snowpiercer begins seven years after ‘the freeze.’ Andre Layton (Diggs) is a former detective and corageous rebel that lives in the Tail: the squalid rear-end of the train. Following a string of murders in First Class at the train’s other end, Layton, as the world’s only surviving homicide detective, is recruited by Melanie Cavill (Connelly) to help solve them. As the train’s Head of Hospitality, and its voice over the PA system, Cavill is one of the highest authority figures on Snowpiercer and train relations are her specialty. As Layton and Cavill investigate the murders, issues surrounding class warfare, social and economic injustice, and politics emerge in full force. The contrast between the living conditions of the Tail and First Class, as well as the middling carriages, is central to the show’s events. In effect, Snowpiercer has become a microcosm of the world’s former society and injustices are both replicated and amplified within the train’s 1,001 carriages. While First Class enjoys seafood and other luxuries thought to no longer exist, the Tailies are subjected to eating blocks of a questionable brown sludge just to survive.
Layton’s investigation grows more and more complex as the show progresses and loved ones from both his past and his present are pulled into the dramatic events. Snowpiercer is exciting, wickedly thought-provoking, and occasionally springs an unexpected plot twist that forms a wonderful deviation from the 2013 film. With world-class acting, shocking storylines, and an exploration of important issues this series is an absolute must-watch.
Snowpiercer is available to stream on Netflix. Season 2 (which premieres on 26 January) sees Sean Bean and Rowan Blanchard join the main cast.
2. Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts – a young adult animated series and DreamWorks-produced Netflix Original – comes next. The show follows teenager Kipo Oak, a confident girl raised in an underground burrow, as she searches for her father Lio on the surface of a post-apocalyptic world dominated by mutated animals. These animals (referred to as ‘mutes’) are just as intelligent as humans and able to talk. As she searches for Lio, Kipo is joined by new friends: humans Wolf and Benson and mutes Dave and Mando, forging their own little family in this great coming-of-age story. The show has received critical acclaim for its diverse range of characters, catchy music, exceptional worldbuilding, great voice acting, and amazing storytelling – all of which are more than deserved.
With just the right amount of science-fiction, comedy, drama, action, and suspense Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is absolutely phenomenal. Voiced by stars such as Karen Fukuhara (Kipo), Sydney Mikayla (Wolf), Coy Stewart (Benson), Deon Cole (Dave), and Sterling K. Brown (Lio), these animated characters feel incredibly authentic and more than well-developed. Adding to their authenticity, and to that of the show in general, is the great range of representation we see. Kipo’s parents, Lio and Song Oak, are Black and Korean respectively – which makes Kipo a character of mixed heritage, although her skin is a vibrant and unnatural shade of purple. Her two closest friends, tough girl Wolf and self-assured Benson, are also Black. Benson has been a primary talking point when discussing representation in Kipo because he is also openly gay. Benson’s sexuality is something that the writers clearly refused to shy away from as his love life becomes a cute and funny storyline in its own right. While both men and women star in the series, there is also a non-binary character that, although minor, is not to be missed. Asher Berdacs, twin sibling of Dahlia, is non-binary and voiced by non-binary actor Rhea Butcher. As one of Kipo’s friends from the underground burrow in which she was raised, we see Asher and their sister Dahlia at different points throughout the show’s three seasons.
While diversity and inclusion certainly plays a part in making Kipo a wonderful show, it’s actually the storytelling and visuals that do most of the job. The show’s worldbuilding has received a lot of praise – even from the likes of Forbes. Although set in a post-apocalyptic dystopia overrun by talking mutant animals, some of which are dangerously enormous in size and referred to as ‘Megas’, Kipo paints a stunning picture of it all. While the underground burrows that house most of the world’s humans are extensive structures with no natural light, the world above has a jungle-like landscape overrun with greenery. The mutated animals are also not as frightening as they may seem (except perhaps the Megas, which are unable to speak) as they have many human-like qualities that make each pack unique. The pack of Timbercats are lumberjacks that live in the forest and wear flannel, while the Scooter Skunks are an all-female biker gang that dons leather jackets. The Chèvre sisters are blind goat mutes that use cheese to peer into the future. There is even a K-Pop-singing pack of mutant narwhals. This kind of extensive worldbuilding establishes a uniquely imaginitive and immersive world within Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts and each episode pulls you in further.
When you add great storytelling to this you get a hit TV show. Kipo creates a sense of mystery and doesn’t give all of the answers away immediately, and that makes the viewer crave more. With all three seasons having been released shortly after each other in 2020 (in January, June, and October) we didn’t have to wait too long. By introducing both new allies and new enemies, and of course new problems to solve, Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts remains exciting from beginning to end. The series even has some major plot twists throughout that keeps things fresh and fun. Kipo is a shining example of great animation – from the characters to the visuals, although it’s clear that its greatness goes far beyond these two aspects.
Kipo and the Age of Wonderbeasts is available to stream on Netflix.
3. The Crown (Season 4)
Trigger warning: discussion of bulimia.
While The Crown originally premiered back in 2016, its incredible fourth season was released in 2020. A historical drama, the series details the on-going reign of Queen Elizabeth II. From Season 3 onwards Olivia Colman has starred as the Queen, having replaced Claire Foy, along with Tobias Menzies as Prince Philip, and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret.
The fourth season has received critical acclaim for the performances of Gillian Anderson and newcomer Emma Corrin as Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana respectively. Corrin shines particularly bright in this season and delivers a breathtaking performance as the late Princess of Wales. In particular, The Crown’s decision to include Princess Diana’s struggle with bulimia is graphic and eye-opening. Diana is depicted as having developed bulimia as a coping mechanism to deal with the emotional turmoil and lack of control caused by her loveless marriage to Prince Charles. While distressing to watch at times, acknowledging Diana’s eating disorder is essential in any attempt to understand her and portray her with honesty. It cultivates a deep compassion and, for those of us that can unfortunately relate, a sense of understanding and relatability. We watch as Corrin takes Diana from being a fresh-faced schoolgirl to the beautiful but embittered wife of the Queen’s son. Corrin’s performance has understandably breathed new life into this country’s love for Lady Diana Spencer, the People’s Princess.
Gillian Anderson, with stiffened hair and cobalt skirt suits, does swimmingly as the Iron Lady. Most notably, she alters her voice so as to replicate Thatcher’s distinctively slow and strained manner of speaking. In addition to Anderson, Josh O’Connor does an excellent job as a young and difficult Prince Charles. In an episode on their 1983 Tour of Australia, Charles childishly berates Diana for being more popular than him, then locks himself in the bathroom. As their relationship becomes increasingly strained you cannot help but pity Diana and detest Charles for his treatment of her. Although the show has been criticised for historical inaccuracies, this is to be expected. It has certainly dramatised some events and downplayed others for the sake of entertainment, as television shows often do. The Crown is not a documentary and should not be treated as such. Despite this criticism, The Crown remains well-casted and with top tier acting, making it a show that everyone should add to their Netflix list.
The Crown is available to stream on Netflix.
4. Lovecraft Country
Warning: some spoilers for Lovecraft Country. Sorry!
This historical sci-fi horror seems to have it all: brilliant acting, a majority Black cast, tales of witchcraft, history lessons, and grotesque monsters. Set in 1950s America, the show is largely characterised by the violently racist social climate of the Jim Crow era. As Korean War vet Atticus Freeman (played by Jonathan Majors), his Uncle George (Courtney B. Vance), and his friend Letitia ‘Leti’ Lewis (Jurnee Smollett) embark on a dangerous road trip to find Atticus’ missing father Montrose (Michael K. Williams) they encounter more secrets and danger than they could have ever imagined. The series also stars Aunjanue Ellis, Wunmi Mosaku, Abbey Lee Kershaw, Jada Harris, and Jamie Chung.
Lovecraft Country is based on the 2016 horror novel of the same name by Matt Ruff, which explores the intersection of racist author H.P. Lovecraft’s fictional horror and the real-life horror that was, and still is, homegrown American racism. The violent and overt racism in Lovecraft Country shows us that some people can be far more viscious and more cruel than any monster can, and perhaps it’s these people we should fear – not fictitious monsters of the night. With such authentic acting this series does a brilliant job of transporting the viewer to historical times and places which, as a history graduate, I greatly appreciated. In the penultimate episode on the Tulsa Massacre (entitled “Rewind 1921”) Montrose, who having survived the massacre himself, is deeply disturbed by being there again. He is disoriented, distressed, and often cries, which cultivates a real sadness and sympathy for his character by presenting him in an atypically vulnerable manner. We usually see Montrose as stubborn and headstrong, making Williams’ superb acting in “Rewind 1921” just one of many great performances we see in Lovecraft Country.
Alternatively, the show has received some criticism for how the character of Ruby Baptiste (Wumni Mosaku) is treated. Ruby, a plus-sized dark-skinned singer, is the older half-sister of Leti. Throughout the series, Ruby is often depicted as the voice of reason. She keeps Leti grounded by frequently calling her out on her bullshit but is there when she needs her. Without giving too much away, Ruby also allows the show to explore sexuality and and the concept of ‘race envy’ in an incredibly unique and unusual way. She is a multifaceted and dynamic character that brings so much to the show but by the season finale Ruby’s storyline reaches a disappointing end – one that perhaps constitutes the show’s biggest failing.
While this treatment of Ruby is very disheartening, Lovecraft Country does well in this historical and horrific probe of American racism during Jim Crow. Queer sexuality is also an important theme, especially how it intersects with race during a period of formal segregation. To find out more about exactly how Lovecraft Country explores this you’ll have to watch it – which you absolutely should!
Lovecraft Country is available to stream on HBO Max.
This Netflix Original stars the amazingly talented Sarah Paulson. Developed by Ryan Murphy, the creator of horror anthology series American Horror Story, which also stars Paulson, Ratched is a haunting psychological thriller. The series also stars Finn Wittrock, another AHS alumn, Cynthia Nixon, Jon Jon Briones, Judy Davis, Charlie Carver, and Sharon Stone. Based on Nurse Mildred Ratched from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and the iconic 1975 film, the show acts as a prequel by detailing Nurse Ratched’s life before she became the oppressive head nurse we all know her as.
Arriving in 1940s California the stylish Nurse Ratched impressively cons her way into becoming a nurse at Lucia State mental hospital, which is run by Dr. Hanover (Briones). After violently murdering four priests, Ratched’s long-lost adopted brother Edmund Tolleson (Wittrock) becomes the newest patient at Lucia State. The show follows her as she watches over the hospital and its patients, including her brother, all while plotting behind closed doors. While Paulson is incredible as Mildred, the unexpected star of the series is without a doubt Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells, a woman with dissociative identity disorder. In her first appearance as Charlotte, Okonedo puts on a wildly convincing performance – rotating through five separate identities at lightening speed. To each distinct identity, Okonedo gives her all and portrays distinctly unique characters in one body. Her performance is indisputably riveting, making it impossible to look away whenever she is on-screen, and has unsurprisingly received mass praise.
One of Ratched‘s most striking characteristics is its cinematography, which makes for a visual masterpiece. The show employs screen wipes, sliding split screens, and symbolic lighting – all of which are typically accompanied by suspensful music. The characters are often bathed in either green or red lighting and both colours have distinct meanings that reflect the nature of the scene. Green lighting, which corresponds with the overly green aesthetic of the hospital, indicates overwhelming lust or something of a sexual nature. In an interview with Fashionista, costume designer Rebecca Guzzi said that the heavy use of green in the show is also meant to symbolise violence, envy, greed, and evil. Red, on the other hand, represents a loss of control and the danger that accompanies this. When Mildred imagines Edmund’s possible execution the scene is covered with red lighting – highlighting the danger he is in and suggesting that his death could cause her to lose control. The use of such an intensely vibrant colour palette emphasises the show’s inherent terror and suspense.
At other times Ratched is visciously gory. Most notably, in a clear reference to the original novel, Mildred is utterly enchanted as she watches Dr. Hanover perform a lobotomy on a cadaver and is the only audience member that finds the procedure more fascinating than nauseating. With blood and gore making occasional yet impactful appearances, the show subtly leans into the genre of horror. If you enjoy suspense and psychological thrillers, Ratched is definitely the show for you. Even if you don’t, with phenomenal acting from Paulson and Okonedo, eye-catching cinematography, and a rather interesting plot, Ratched is one to watch.
Ratched is available to stream on Netflix.