Best TV of 2020: What we watched in the weirdest of weird years

Best of 2020: TV moments of the year
Our escapist viewing included The Crown, Normal People, Industry and The Undoing

In March, as the world entered suspended animation, millions of us were glued to a Netflix documentary about a man with a glow-in-the-dark mullet and a passion for big cats. 

Tiger King was the guilty pleasure we turned to en masse as life came to a halt. Covid was weird and scary. So was Tiger King. But it also served as an escape hatch as normality was turned inside-out.

The timing was uncanny. Just when we required distraction, along came this gonzo plunge into the dark side of the American dream. Did Carole Baskin really bump off her first husband? How could “Tiger King” Joe Exotic possibly be a real person? Despite ourselves, we were all sucked in. As we were, the unpleasantness outside retreated a little.

Tiger King was the guilty pleasure we turned to en masse as life came to a halt
Tiger King was the guilty pleasure we turned to en masse as life came to a halt

Tiger King and March 2020 have now long receded, like something on the far shoreline of a different life. Today the new normal feels simply... normal. The weird bit is going to be going back to crowds and commutes and live concerts.

That isn’t to suggest television has diminished in importance in the intervening months. This winter we’ve all been glued to The Crown season four, aka The Crown: Finally We Get to the Juicy Diana Stuff. And some of us have found our new Game of Thrones in Star Wars spin-off The Mandalorian.

Nick Nolte and Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian: Game of Thrones with spaceships instead of dragons and minus the nasty, exploitative stuff
Nick Nolte and Pedro Pascal in The Mandalorian: Game of Thrones with spaceships instead of dragons and minus the nasty, exploitative stuff

The Mandalorian is essentially Game of Thrones with spaceships and Beskar armour instead of dragons and minus the nasty, exploitative stuff. In a break with Thrones, The Mandalorian doesn’t, for instance, get off on shoving kids out of windows (unless something unpleasant lies in store for Baby Yoda). 

A blockbusting Disney romp was obviously never going to lean into gratuitous nudity and sexual violence. But those “edgy” flourishes have probably already had their time anyway. They were bound up in Thrones’ charm. And yet, just a decade on, how horribly they have aged. Would a “prestige drama” today get away with depicting a boy-king using a crossbow to kill a prostitute purely for the jollies, as GoT did in 2012?

The Queen’s Gambit was a word-of-mouth hit
The Queen’s Gambit was a word-of-mouth hit

Along with popcorn entertainment, 2020 has trotted out an impressive selection of middle-brow hits. The Queen’s Gambit crept onto Netflix in October, without anyone noticing. But word of mouth was soon spreading about this thoughtful and optimistic chronicling of the rise of an orphan chess prodigy (Anya Taylor-Joy) as she battles both the patriarchy and her own demons.

Beth Harmon’s story was assumed by many to be based on fact. Actually, it was completely fictional. Yet Taylor-Joy was so riveting, Scott Frank’s script so punchy, that the series succeeded in communicating a higher truth about ambition and self-realisation.

The Queen’s Gambit basked in deserved praise. Yet, when it came to universal acclaim, the true grandmaster was Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the Sally Rooney bestseller Normal People.

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the Sally Rooney bestseller was released in April, when we were all still indoors and losing the plot slightly
Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People. Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of the Sally Rooney bestseller was released in April, when we were all still indoors and losing the plot slightly

The Paul Mescal-Daisy Edgar-Jones two-hander was released in April, when we were all still indoors and losing the plot slightly. Did that contribute to the bug-eyed rapture with which it was received? Or would this tale of love across the divide – he was a mumbly GAA jock, she a posh geek soon to blossom into a Stoneybatter hipster – have triumphed anyway?

We’ll never know. But in 2020 it was a true phenomenon. It couldn’t even be derailed by a furore on Liveline, as shocked viewers called in to communicate their horror over the arty sex scenes. These they were obviously obliged to watch all the way through in order to be certain of their degeneracy.

Joe Duffy’s ratings aside, the biggest winners out of Normal People were its leads. Jones, raised in London, was heralded for what many considered a plausible Irish accent. And Mescal became the world’s most-famous former Kildare under-age footballer.

This was extraordinary. He looked like every second lad with whom some of us had gone to school. And yet his GAA half-zip “chic” had GQ and Vogue in a swoon.

Did Normal People achieve much of note beyond minting two new stars, however? The plot was incredibly threadbare. At moments it bordered on Twilight for Hipsters – a tale of a brooding hunk intersecting with a sardonic she-nerd. Perhaps that’s why millennials fell for it so utterly. It carried echoes of the stories they had grown up with as adolescents.

Feelings of deja vu were likewise evoked by the more recent critical sensation Industry. The BBC’s young-people-in-the-big-city caper picked the pockets of 1990s drama This Life with its depiction of over-stimulated twentysomethings walking the line between careerism and hedonism.

Sure, the drugs are more designer now. And there is an added layer of technological intrusion with social media. But the portrayal of bright young things having to grow up fast still felt reassuringly familiar. It also made you glad you had never considered a career in financial services.

As always, there were letdowns to go alongside the surprise smashes. Star Trek: Picard brought back Patrick Stewart’s Jean-Luc Picard without having first worked out if there was a good reason for doing so. HBO’s Westworld swirled down the plughole of irrelevance as it tried a hard reboot that moved the action outside the eponymous Wild West theme park. And Emily in Paris on Netflix went straight past guilty pleasure into the bin marked “unwatchable dross”. 

As for comedy... well, the series the world came together for was Schitt’s Creek. A gentle Canadian updating of the cringe formula first patented by Arrested Development, it was the stealth hit that everybody seemed to have discovered on their own, and which we then all bonded over. In the year in which Donald Trump received his marching orders from the White House, this tale of a wealthy family who rediscover their humanity upon falling on hard times may have carried extra resonances.

RTÉ Investigates: Inside Ireland’s Covid Battle, revealed the harsh reality of life and death of Covid-19 for the patients and staff in St James’s Hospital and their families
RTÉ Investigates: Inside Ireland’s Covid Battle, revealed the harsh reality of life and death of Covid-19 for the patients and staff in St James’s Hospital and their families

Has RTÉ had a good pandemic? Its current affairs output has undoubtedly risen to the occasion. In June, Inside Ireland’s Covid Battle brought chilling frontline reportage from the fight to save lives in Ireland’s hospitals. 

The same assuredness informed a sequence of documentaries marking the events leading up to the foundation of the State. These honoured the past without coming across as didactic or triumphant. There was also a major new Famine documentary, The Hunger: The Story of the Famine, narrated by Liam Neeson in Voice of Aslan mode.

On the subject of divine entities descending from on high, Dermot Bannon was back as RTÉ’s lifestyle guru to rule them all. His was a 2020 of two halves. In January, Room To Improve: Dermot’s Home saw the architect overhauling his own house in Dublin. Alas, he did so while keeping his family off-camera, thus removing the crucial soap-opera component from the Room To Improve formula.

That was followed in October by a trip to North America for a new season of Dermot Bannon’s Incredible Homes. This time he was in Canada for a tour of some of the country’s most jaw-dropping residences. 

Dermot Bannon both invited us to watch his own home renovation – without his family on screen – and to have a look at some Canadian minimalist mansions
Dermot Bannon both invited us to watch his own home renovation – without his family on screen – and to have a look at some Canadian minimalist mansions

Incredible Homes plodded slightly. Once you’ve seen one minimalist Ottawa mansion you’ve really seen them all. But there was comfort in the familiarity. Life had changed beyond recognition. And yet Dermot Bannon was still padding around kitchen extensions marvelling at the floor-to-ceiling windows. 

RTÉ’s report card is more mixed when it comes to comedy and drama. The Den, with Ray D’Arcy and Zig and Zag, returned in November to general acclaim. It was proof that, if mediocre at many things, RTÉ has always been good at marshalling unabashed chaos.

There have been clunkers too, though. Deirdre O’Kane Talks Funny was a missed opportunity as the host engaged in not-quite-hilarious back-and-forths with Irish comics drawn from the usual suspects (Pat Shortt etc). And Amy Huberman’s Finding Joy continued to search in vain for anything approaching a laugh as it was summoned – much as restless souls are conjured from beyond the grave – for a second season. 

It was a middling year for Virgin Media. It brought back Adrian Dunbar in February for the efficient though underwhelming thriller Blood. However, it was equally reliant on gimmicky imports such as Love Island, and I’m A Celebrity... Get Me Out Of Here!

The latter has just wrapped up its first northern hemisphere season, having relocated Ant and Dec from Queensland in Australia to a draughty fortress in north Wales. It was a brave attempt at carrying on regardless, but one that didn’t pay off, as audiences failed to warm to the chilly new locale of Gwrych Castle. 

As Christmas is approaching we should talk turkeys. Any shortlist of the year’s biggest gobblers would have to include The Luminaries, starring Eve “daughter of Bono” Hewson. It wasn’t just that the BBC adaptation of the Booker-winning novel, set in 19th-century New Zealand, was shot largely at dead of night, so that it was impossible to make out what was happening. It furthermore suffered from impenetrable dialogue and a hazy storyline about zodiac signs and stars in alignment.

This was a shame, as Hewson’s performance brimmed with charisma. She will hope to fare better portraying “scorned wife” Adele in the 2021 Netflix psychological thriller Behind Her Eyes. 

Oddly, with more people glued to their screens than ever before, no one series brought us all together (with the fleeting exception of Tiger King). The closest the year came to event TV was probably HBO/ Sky Atlantic whodunnit The Undoing

It starred Hugh Grant as an oily oncologist in Manhattan who may, or may not, have bashed in his lover’s head with a sculptor’s hammer. All right, he did bash in his lover’s head. But goodness, producer David E Kelley and director Susanne Bier led us on a merry dance before the final reveal.

Jonathan Fraser’s guilt or innocence became the hot gossip of the hour. If we still had water coolers, this would have been the number one topic of conversation as we stood around them. 

Unfortunately, the finale wasn’t half as ingenious as it needed to be. Confirmation of Jonathan’s villainy impacted like a slap across the face from a room-temperature halibut. The Undoing then descended into farce as Jonathan fled and Nicole Kidman, as his emotionally unavailable wife Grace, gave hot pursuit by helicopter. 

Noisy, ridiculous and ultimately dull and stifling, The Undoing was undeniably a letdown. But it also captured something of what it’s been like to live through 2020. In the end, we were all a bit like Nicole Kidman’s Grace, trying to keep it together as the cosy life we once took for granted fell to pieces.