This was a very strange TV year. It seemed to start so badly that I had barely any shortlisted programmes until the pandemic struck, at which point it looked as though it would be a total washout with production halted. But there were a number of excellent things already in the can, new forms of production were improvised and the summer easing of restrictions allowed the completion of some productions already underway.
In the end, there were plenty of things to fill the regular top 50 lists from the likes of The Guardian and Radio Times, while the poll I take part in myself, the BFI’s, produced a wide variety of nominations. While I noted and commended in this blog a fair number of the titles which filled these lists, my own shortlist of the things I regarded as the very best only crept above the magic number 10 in the final weeks of the year.
If, as I had expected, I had ended with 10 shortlisted titles, things would have been very easy, but ending with 11 puts me in a dilemma: do I eliminate just one title? ; do I list them all and claim that, while most top tens only go up to 10, mine goes up to 11? ; do I list them in order and have a joint 10th? Well, none of these – I am going to add one title which I greatly admired but (unaccountably) omitted to shortlist and give you a top dozen for 2020. This also enables me to add a second factual programme and restore some missing balance.
As always, I’ll list them in (rough) order of appearance through the year:
Star Trek: Picard (Amazon)
A welcome return for an old favourite in a new format, which did justice to all expectations.
Home, season 2 (Channel 4)
Moving and hilarious by turns, it walked several tightropes without a false step
Tales from the Loop (Amazon)
My best of the year – simply beautiful
Another wonderfully entertaining three-parter from Stephen Frears
Normal People (BBC3/1)
The big hit of lockdown, which allowed many more than would otherwise have watched to appreciate the way it slowly drew us in and kept us entranced.
After Life season 2 (Netflix)
Ricky Gervais really hit his stride in this second season and produced ensemble comedy at its best, while remaining true to its more meditative side at the same time.
Isolation Stories (ITV)
The best of the short dramas employing improvised production techniques under lockdown conditions and commenting most effectively on the situation we found ourselves in.
I May Destroy You (BBC1)
The most strikingly original new drama of the year
Once Upon a Time in Iraq (BBC2)
Riveting documentary series in which the testimonies to camera were the highlight
Play for Today: Drama Out of a Crisis (BBC4)
Brilliantly effective visual use of archive, employing every pixel of the HD screen to convey the full importance of the Play for Today strand on its 50th anniversary
The Crown: The Hereditary Principle (Netflix)
The standout episode of the best season so far
Small Axe (BBC1)
Significant aspects of black British history given immediacy and contemporary relevance by Steve McQueen’s storytelling and directorial skills
A lot of people watched a lot of TV this year and so it came under greater than usual critical scrutiny. The end-of-year lists I mentioned above reflect this, too, and, while there are certain things that recur in many of them, there is also a lot more divergence than usual. I find it strange that I have not been able to find four of my own choices on any other list, even those of 50 titles or more (apart from my own mention of two of them in the BFI poll). I’m particularly disappointed by the absence of my own personal favourite, Tales from the Loop, though I’m even more surprised not to find Picard on any of the lists I’ve seen.
But that’s what making lists is all about – there are plenty of things I have left out which others would champion, some of which would have been there if I was doing a list of as many as 50 or even 20 (Mrs America, Anthony, Des, Lovecraft Country), though my shortlisting system is intended to work as a kind of rigorous excellence filter and I tend to judge the overall quality of the TV year on the number I put on my shortlist. Added to which, even with as much time on our hands as we have had this year, it is still near impossible to have seen everything of interest – I have to admit that I didn’t see The Third Day (I intend to) or The Undoing (I don’t).
How much we will continue to be stuck indoors in the coming year and how much new production there will be is in the balance, but whatever happens, do have a very Happy New Year and, if you are stuck for finding something to watch, I hope my list helps.