Not since high school has numbers had the power to make me recoil in fear. True, working in retail has resulted in infrequent flashbacks to doing sums in my head like some sort of supercomputer. That being said, the shame in getting that weekly notification telling me I’ve spent the same amount of time on my phone in a week than it would take to fly to America and back TWICE — well, that’s pretty crushing.
Though between you and me, flying was the last thing I or anyone else should have thought of doing in 2020.
Airlines have one thing right, though: stick a tiny screen full of shows and movies in front of someone, and you can make them forget about how imminent their demise is. Granted, my film experience was somewhat limited — yes, my favourite movie of 2020 was Borat 2, and no, I won’t be taking any further questions — but I watched enough TV that the BBC would start paying a license fee to me.
While I watched enough shows over the past 12 months that the total watch time would fill me with the same shame my mobile phone did, there were some mainstay series that I relied on time and time again in 2020. Here are the five TV shows I tuned in to when I was so desperate to tune out from the world…
Better Call Saul
It only makes sense to start this feature with the first truly remarkable show of 2020. While there were some fantastic debut seasons — we’ll get around to one momentarily — any piece compiling the best TV of the past year that doesn’t include Better Call Saul is incomplete.
As someone who owned a worrying amount of Heisenberg merch back in 2013, the thought of a Saul Goodman spin-off reaching the same heights as Breaking Bad was naive at best and, at worst, a pathetic cash grab.
How foolish young me was.
Seeing as I include it on this list, you know Better Call Saul is good. I’m here to tell you that it’s not good. It’s great. In fact, it’s so great that not only is it every bit as good as Breaking Bad was at this point in its run but — if Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould play their cards right — it is very likely that Better Call Saul will go down as the better of the two shows.
This comes down to so many factors; cinematography so good you could make a book detailing it; masterful pacing; acting that could win every possible award and would still feel underappreciated. When it comes down to it though, the sheer strength of the writing and characters has on more than one occasion led me to stay up till 2 am wandering through Reddit rabbit holes connecting dots and witnessing hidden details that had me audibly gasping.
The last time a show had me doing that? I won’t give it away, but it rhymes with ‘Raking Rad’. For that level of immersion/distraction, Better Call Saul has more than earned its place on this list. Now about those “great debut seasons” I mentioned a few moments ago…
The Midnight Gospel
While I’ve no resolutions set out for 2021 — I just want to make some cool stuff and create cool memories with the cool people in my life — something I want to do more of is listen to podcasts. Whether it’s the intimacy and insight that can come from a conversation between two people or just some much-needed belly laughs from some friends goofing around, I want to set aside more time to take in some of these shows.
Something that incited this desire was The Midnight Gospel which is up there with the work of Don Hertzfeldt when it comes to daring animation. A weird hybrid of television and podcasts, The Midnight Gospel follows Clancy to interview beings on dying planets for his “spacecast”.
That set-up may have you expecting something along the lines of Adventure Time — which is no coincidence considering Pendleton Ward is credited as a co-creator — but that’s where you’d be wrong. As Clancy goes on these adventures, his conversations are interviews Duncan Trussell conducted with real individuals. There is a running fictional narrative involving intergalactic police and the likes, but the main chunk of your experience will be these chats.
And boy are they interesting. The Midnight Gospel is a show trying to make sense of the world, and so the topics it handles aren’t exactly “light”; philosophy; morality; creativity; grief. The subject matter alone would make for fascinating conversation, but it’s the individuals who elevate it. Prime amongst them is an actual serial killer and Trussell’s mother: that latter one proves to be the best of the bunch though it will 100% have you calling your own mum once it’s done.
2020 proved to be one of the most challenging years in recent memory, so it only makes sense one of the best shows would try to help viewers make sense of it all. With an ending that leaves things open for a second season, there’s ample room for Ward and Trussel to get into even more profound territory.
While we’re on the topic of promising beginnings, why don’t we explore the flip side…
You knew it was coming. Hell, ever since the show aired in 2014, it’s felt like creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg and co was trying to give us ample time to prepare for whatever the titular BoJack Horseman’s fate may become the show’s finale. Death? Suicide? Forgiveness?
I dare not spoil it for those who haven’t found themselves enamoured by this animated masterpiece, but I, for one, was not disappointed. Well, at least not by the show itself — I’m currently taking the position of “if I don’t think about it too much it won’t hurt” when it comes to whether or not this was exactly how the team wanted to end things.
When it comes down to what we actually got, I struggle to think of much in the way of complaints. Even if I were to tread into spoiler territory, I would still be happy with the ways things turned out. In fact, I’d argue that there was no other way for a show that aimed to tackle the subject matter it did to end any other way.
Whether you share the same view as me or think that the penultimate episode should have been where the show ended, it can’t be denied what a swan song of a final season BoJack Horseman bowed out on. It hurts to let go of something you’ve relied on, but if ever there was a show to help you process those bittersweet feelings, it was this very one we said goodbye to in 2020.
The weak breeze whispers nothing, the water screams sublime…
What We Do In The Shadows
After that cavalcade of seriousness, let’s try something a little more light-hearted — as well as a bit more bloodthirsty.
My intent with this piece was to group some shows that for one reason or other brightened up my year by teaching me something new or coming to terms with something about myself. As cathartic as that would be, I think having a show that made me laugh out loud week after week during a miserable summer is a good enough basis to include it on this list.
And here is that show — What We Do In The Shadows. This spin-off of Taika Watiti’s much-adored vampiric comedy faced a similar scenario to Better Call Saul: “how on earth do we fill in these shoes?”
The answer to that is simple: be funny. Sure, upping the stakes — har dee har har — with servant Guillermo facing some revelations about his family lineage keeps you invested but what had me coming back was the sheer comedic batting rate of this show. The cast helps that and while everyone will praise Matt Berry and Kavyan Novak — rightfully so, they’re brilliant — it’s Natasia Demetriou as Nadja who regularly steals the spotlight.
It’s cliched, but laughter really is the best medicine so when it came to the peak of Season 2 — which follows Lazlo (Matt Berry) taking on a new identity as a bar owner/heart and soul of the local volleyball team — I could have chuckled any illness out of my body.
Let’s bow out with…another Netflix animated series? I promise I’m not being paid off — look at my bank account, I can assure you I’m being paid NOTHING from NO ONE!
While I was looking forward to its long-awaited second season, I can’t say I was expecting Hilda to be quite as impactful as it ended up being. Going into it, I would have been pretty content with the trademark humour, some more mischief, and maybe a few more appearances from Woodman.
What did I end up getting? A “kid show” that helped me process some recent grief as well as all that.
When I tell you every episode of Hilda’s second season is excellent, I don’t just mean “good for a kid’s show”. It’s a barrage of top-tier stories that include fighting off interdimensional worms while rekindling a 50-year-old romance; ending a battle that has waged on for eternity; a race against time to find a missing book to avoid being flung into a void of no return, and so much more.
However, with The Deerfox, I was left in a condition that was a mixture of complete joy and paralysing sadness. I won’t give away the whole story, but in a year that saw my partner and I have to say goodbye to her furry friend of 17 years, Hilda made us face our grief head-on. We came out of that episode feeling all the better — other than our eyes being puffy and our faces covered in tears.