The best TV shows of 2020: The Crown, Little Fires Everywhere, Tiger King, The Last Dance and The Third Day

Not sure what to binge on next? We’ve picked the dramas, comedies and documentaries that got people talking this year so you don’t miss out.

By Becky Gamester-Newton Published: 23 December 2020 - 12.20pm
Amazon Prime Video/Netflix Little Fires Everywhere, The Crown, Tiger King

Carole Baskin, Harry Kane swearing and a chess move called the Queen’s Gambit – all largely unheard of before 2020, but they’ve probably been part of your lockdown conversations.

In a year where many of us have been stuck at home for long periods of time, TV and the arts has never felt so important – and despite filming and production delays caused by the pandemic, we’ve been treated to some real quality programming.

Check out our list of the best TV shows in 2020 – are there any you haven’t watched yet?

Best of Netflix in 2020

The Crown season 4

Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher in The Crown Netflix

This dramatised historical series’ popularity has grown even further, with the fourth season being the most hotly anticipated yet.

For many viewers, the 70s and 80s represents the first time they can remember events happening and the people involved – in particular the introduction of Princess Diana to the Royal Family. However, as has become typical for The Crown, it depicts amazing stories that you might not have been aware of – like Prince Charles being caught in an avalanche, or Margaret Thatcher’s son Mark going missing.

Charles and Diana’s rocky relationship takes centre stage, although Gillian Anderson’s brilliant portrayal of Thatcher is bound to rake in the awards.

Tiger King

Joe Exotic in Tiger King Netflix

Tiger King is the craziest documentary you’ll ever see. On the face of it, it focuses on big cat owner Joe Exotic who owns an Oklahoma roadside zoo. His enemy is animal activist Carole Baskin, who wants to close down his business, before things get so weird that you forget that it’s real life and not fiction.

Add a murder investigation, drug lords, cults, polygamy and magic – and at the end you’ll need time to process exactly you’ve just witnessed.

The Last Dance

Michael Jordan 2012 NBAE

Michael Jordan's Chicago Bulls in the 1990s was one of the most successful dynasties in sports history, as arguably basketball's greatest player propelled them to six NBA championships in eight years.  

This 10-part documentary chronicles the global icon’s incredible journey in lavish and entertaining fashion - the episode on the birth of the Nike Air Jordans was particularly interesting – but the editorial control that Jordan supposedly had over the documentary’s content has divided critics.

Whichever side you’re on, you’re guaranteed to be entertained.

The Queen’s Gambit

Why wouldn’t you want to watch spend seven hours of your time watching a TV show about chess?

Except, of course, it’s not just about the game of kings. The Queen’s Gambit (which takes its name from a chess move) tells the story of Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy) who deals with unthinkable challenges and tragedies as she rises up through the ranks thanks to her brilliant mind.

We still don’t understand the game, but we promise that this series - and Taylor-Joy’s performance - will leave a lasting impression.

Sex Education season 2

Asa Butterfield and Gillian Anderson in Sex Education Netflix

This fast and funny second season is still not for the faint-hearted. These sixth form students’ experiences are as amusing as they are cringeworthy, yet Sex Education manages to achieve sympathy with the characters, keeping you engaged at its more tender moments.

We still don’t really understand why a UK sixth form college is set up like a US high school, or the many references to the 70s and the 80s despite the kids all having mobile phones, but it’s this conscious stylistic decision by the producers that partly to set it apart from other coming-of-age comedies.

After Life season 2

Ricky Gervais in After Life Netflix

After Life is one of the few shows that can see you in floods of tears one minute and howling with laughter the next, largely thanks to Ricky Gervais’ brilliant script.

Gervais stars as Tony, a local newspaper journalist who is dealing with depression following the death of his beloved wife. It’s a grim premise, but you can’t imagine any other writer making the show work in the way that he does.

Some describe After Life as a sitcom or comedy-drama, but really it extends beyond typical TV genres. It’ll make you reconsider your own life and the people around you, and that is truly powerful.

You season 2

Penn Badgley as Joe Goldberg in You Netflix

This glossy take on a stalker’s obsession was a huge hit for Netflix in 2019, so it’s no surprise that a second series was commissioned (with a third on the way).

The creepy, disturbing nature of lead character Joe Goldberg (Penn Badgley) is far from subtle as he finds a new woman to stalk, but it’s the fast pace and madly addictive plot that makes You the success that it is. The perfect binge-watch for a rainy weekend.

Elite season 3

The cast of Elite Netflix

Sordid, sexy and proudly unafraid to tackle social taboos, Elite is the ultimate millennial thriller.

Focusing on the lives of (ridiculously attractive) students at a posh high school in Spain, this glossy series reels you in with unlikely romances and murder mystery – but it’s how it brazenly tackles themes such as poverty, race and LGBTQ that sets it apart from your typical high-school drama.

The Stranger

Richard Armitage in The Stranger Netflix

This addictive thriller, based on the Harlan Coben page-turner, is another brilliant binge watch.

The mystery begins when family man Adam Price (Richard Armitage) is approached by a mysterious woman in a baseball cap (Hannah John-Kamen), claiming that his wife Corinne’s (Dervla Kirwan) pregnancy was a lie.

As with all good dramas, the truth begins to unravel with a frequency that will keep you gripped. The Stranger may not be ground-breaking, but it is the kind of irresistible escapism you can devour in one or two sittings.

Schitt’s Creek season 6

It may not be new, but after six seasons Schitt’s Creek finally became the sitcom that everyone’s talking about.

When the show first began in 2015, it was panned by some critics for being juvenile (the title doesn’t help), but its popularity has slowly risen. The script is sharp and witty without being too high-brow, the characters are hilariously mean yet loveable, and it’s subtly radical – for example David’s (Dan Levy) pansexuality is mentioned early on, but the writers smartly show that this is easily accepted by the characters, rather than going down the small-town homophobia route.

It is perhaps no coincidence that its popularity peaked at a time of political unrest in the US, which suggests that this sitcom is the big-hearted hug we all need this year. The bad news is that season six is its last.

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Best of Amazon Prime Video in 2020

Little Fires Everywhere

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon in Little Fires Everywhere 2019 Hulu/Amazon Prime Video

Where to begin? The novel on which this series is based is a worldwide bestseller, and Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington and Joshua Jackson take the starring roles.

However, the themes explored in Little Fires Everywhere could not have been more timely: with the Black Lives Matter movement bringing more discussion about race and privilege to the wider world, Elena’s (Witherspoon) treatment of Mia (Washington) is well-meaning but hugely problematic.

A hard-going drama that follows the fate of the Richardson family and an enigmatic mother and daughter, we think this really is the must-watch of 2020.

The Wilds

A late entry to the 2020 list, The Wilds is the Lost-meets-Big-Brother drama that you didn’t know you needed.

When nine troubled young women are in a plane crash en route to a retreat in Hawaii, they end up on a deserted island – but don’t too much expect too much Bear-Grylls style survival stuff. Instead, the show focuses on each character, exploring their past and how their facades unravel in their unusual surroundings.

The Wilds is a real grower, and by the end you’ll be desperate for the second season that’s already been confirmed.

All Or Nothing: Tottenham Hotspur

Jose Mourinho Amazon Prime Video

With the success of Sunderland ‘Til I Die and First Team: Juventus on Netflix, and a previous All or Nothing series focusing on Manchester City, the football docu-series is nothing new – but in a year when the season was suspended and matches were played in empty stadiums, another one was definitely welcome to fill the football-shaped hole in our viewing schedule.

This Spurs incarnation may be as sanitised as its City predecessor, but you have to hand it to the production team for making the club's comedown after reaching the Champions League final in 2019 as entertaining as it is. Son Heung-min getting angry and Harry Kane’s motivational speeches should keep them in their day jobs, but we think the Jose Mourinho character deserves a second series.

The Boys season 2

The Boys is an all-action, superhero spoof with depraved characters that will make you wince.

But for those of you who actively avoid superhero stuff, don’t dismiss The Boys straight away. You’ll be swept away by its fast-moving plot and jaw-dropping moments, while Chace Crawford’s The Deep provides comic relief.

Season 2 continues the exhausting, gory ride that began in season one, while somehow never losing sight on its sharp commentary on the world.

This Is Us season 5

The cast of This Is Us 2019 NBCUniversal Media/Amazon Prime Video

This Is Us is a beautifully written drama that requires tissues at the ready, so it’s no surprise that it has made it as far as five seasons. Chronicling the Pearson family across the decades, it explores how small moments shape who we become.

And if you’re up to date, then you’re in for a shock during this season. Without giving anything away, one surprising twist is a major gamechanger - so if you’re a bit behind, now’s the time to get catching up.

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Best of NOW TV in 2020

The Third Day

Jude Law and Naomie Harris in The Third Day

The Third Day is a theatrical epic that will leave you confused, disoriented and disturbed.

It features big-name stars including Jude Law, Naomie Harris, Paddy Considine, Emily Watson and Katherine Waterston in the cast, and Brad Pitt is one of the executive producers – but it is interactive theatre specialists Punchdrunk that make the series a truly unique experience.

The first part, Summer, sees Sam (Law) rock up on a mysterious island, while the third part, Winter, brings Helen (Harris) into the mix.

The second part, Autumn, was broadcast live on Facebook. This was a remarkable feat, combining live theatre and television – but at more than 12 hours long, it is the recorded TV episodes that are an easier commitment.

Watch The Third Day on Sky Atlantic with NOW TV.

I Hate Suzie

Billie Piper in I Hate Suzie

Right from when she was dubbed ‘the British Britney’ as a teenage pop star, to marrying young and frequently being papped in the pub, through to a surprisingly successful acting career, Billie Piper has now been in showbusiness for 20 years.

I Hate Suzie unashamedly draws on Piper’s experiences of a work-hard, play-hard lifestyle to portray a character who was thrown into the limelight at a young age. Suzie Pickles is a thirtysomething former child star, but her career is under threat thanks to some leaked photographs.

Written by Piper and her Secret Diary of a Call Girl collaborator Lucy Prebble, I Hate Suzie is chaotic, funny and further proof that she made the right decision when she moved into acting.

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The Outsider

The Outsider

In keeping with Stephen King adaptations, The Outsider is a bleak thriller brimming with supernatural questions.

The plot focuses on the death of an 11-year-old boy – and how the prime suspect appears to have a solid alibi, despite strong evidence that he is the killer.

If you’re ready to take on a dark and heavy murder mystery after an exhausting year, this is the one for you.

Watch The Outsider on Sky Atlantic with NOW TV.

The Undoing

Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant in The Undoing

The Undoing was the TV show everyone was talking about towards the end of 2020.

Boasting an impressive lead cast of Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant and Donald Sutherland, it paints a picture of a wealthy family’s perfect life in New York – before a gruesome murder occurs.

The cliffhangers at the end of each episode and the periodic sprinkling of new information will keep you guessing – and while the ending has divided opinion, it’s worth the ride.

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Best of BritBox in 2020

Des

David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen ITV

This three-part series tells the chilling true story of serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who murdered at least 12 young men and boys between 1978 and 1983 in London.

The story itself is as gruesome as you’d imagine, with boiled human heads and decomposing corpses making appearances – but it is the performance of David Tennant as the murderer that makes Des so compelling.

Tennant perfectly captures the chillingly composed nature of Nilsen as he talks appalled DCI Peter Jay, played brilliantly by Daniel Mays, through the horrific crimes he has committed. Just don’t watch it too close to bedtime.

Quiz

It's so much a part of modern TV history that it was inevitable that the Who Wants To Be A Millionaire ‘coughing major’ scandal of 2001 would eventually be dramatised. Adapted from a hit West End play, Quiz tells the true story of Major Charles Ingram who was convicted of cheating his way to the million-pound jackpot, losing the money and much more besides in the process.

As well as Michael Sheen absolutely nailing it as show host Chris Tarrant (would you expect anything less?), it’s the largely untold parts of the story – such as the organised network of ambitious quizzers, Charles and Diana Ingram’s private moments, and how their lives were affected by the press coverage – that will keep you interested.

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Best of BBC iPlayer in 2020

Normal People

Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones in Normal People BBC

Normal People tells the love story of popular Connell and aloof Marianne in rural Ireland, following the couple through school and university.

However, this is far from a typical cheesy romance; the leading performances of Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones exquisitely portray the intricacies of each character’s complexity and the pain of first love, while the series is beautifully shot to capture the richness of Sally Rooney’s novel.

It is not an easy watch, but episodes are only 30 minutes long so you can easily catch your breath between instalments.

Inside No.9 season 5

A football referee’s last match, a couple moving into their first home, a family struggling to make ends meet at Christmas, a world-famous magician and a police officer stakeout: entirely different stories that aren’t what they seem.

For the uninitiated, Inside No.9 is a black comedy anthology written by Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton. Each 30-minute episode is a self-contained story, paving the way for a plethora of guest stars – this latest series features Maxine Peake, Jenna Coleman, David Morrissey, Ralf Little and Jill Halfpenny.

Series 5 is disturbing and thrilling with powerful performances, and episodes often finish with the show’s trademark surprising twist. Bizarre, horrifying yet misleadingly low-key, it’s the anthology of short stories that will keep you going back.

I May Destroy You

Weruche and Michaela Cole in I May Destroy You BBC

This exploration of millennial life is a must-watch.

Written by, starring and partly directed by Michaela Cole, its overarching theme is consent – with each main character suffering sexual abuse at some stage in the series.

Ambitious and radical, you’ll be thinking about this show for months.

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