The best TV-series of 2020
Illustratie: Gil Elvgren
Every year there is a television series that you are all hysterical about and that turns out to be a total dud, an empty shell, a total waste of my precious time, a lemon (although I love lemons, especially those in Napoli), a stinker, total and absolute trash. This year that series is The Queen’s Gambit, which is a gimmick, a fad, a brutal fraud. Let’s not talk about it anymore. Once more you have disappointed me with your sheepish superficiality.
This year I have been loyal to some old favorites. The fifth season of Better Call Saul was even better than the fourth, which was even better than the third and so on, and the whole series is superior to Breaking Bad, which it’s a spin-off of. I am looking forward to the sixth season, although I am worried about the continuous aging of all the main characters because this is supposed to play before the events in Breaking Bad, isn’t it, when they were still young(ish).
The fourth season of Fargo was uneven, not as good as the preceding seasons, but still good. Just not as good. I loved the second season of The Alienist, especially Rosy McEwen, what a fenomenal actor. And I still love Better Things, although in the beginning of the fourth season I began to tire a little of Pamela Adlon’s spoilt kids, what entitled little brats they are. But I just love Adlon, she’s the female Larry David. I wish to see more of her brother (in the series, I mean), played by Kevin Pollak. Heck, I just looked him up, I didn’t even realise that was Kevin Pollak. Very funny man.
Anyway, here goes, my favorites of this past year.
10: Gareth Evans: ‘Gangs of London‘
This series begins with a man coldbloodedly setting fire to a another man who’s hanging upside down a skyscraper, begging for his life and well, that pretty much sets the tone for the rest. You will see a mass slaughter in a Romani camp, a Kurdish freedom fighter baked alive, heads exploding and flesh-ripping and bone-breaking fights that will have you on the edge of your seat.
However, this is not just a crime action series, it’s actually a character study of people under continuous and immensily high stress. I will not spoil the plot, just that an important London crime boss is sort of accidently murdered, and his son will not allow the criminal organisations affiliated to his own organisation to even sell a gram of coke until the killer is caught. And this, of course, makes things only worse.
One of the most intense, violent, adrenaline-fueled series I’ve ever seen. Fans of Peaky Blinders will certainly like this, also because one of the main roles is taken care of by Joe Cole, who also plays Cillian Murphy’s younger brother in that series.
And Sope Dirisu is almost certainly going to be the new hottest thing in Hollywood, or I’ll eat my hat.
9: Ron Fitzgerald and Rolin Jones: ‘Perry Mason‘
Fantastic crime series set in 1932 Los Angeles, where the assistant of a fancy attorney, Perry Mason, investigates the death of an abducted baby. The baby’s mother is charged with complicity to the abduction and Mason gets entangled in a web of corruption and murder and eventually he is forced to defend the mother in court himself.
Perry Mason is hard-boiled and doesn’t spare the viewers. A dead baby, maimed corpses or a bashed-in skull with brains pouring out is shown in all its glory in almost every episode and the makers don’t shy away from some hot issues like racism and discrimination either. Interesting side-story is that of a woman preacher claiming to have healing powers she seems to really believe in herself. Mason himself is involved with a Mexican woman who is clearly his superior in every aspect but who is also realistic considering the societal reality they live. An intriguing subplot.
The acting is impressive. Mason is played by Matthew Rhys, of The Americans. I read that he’s Welsh, which amazed me because he’s so… American. His boss is the wonderful John Lithgow. Chris Chalk is great as a black policeman under huge pressure to keep his mouth shut about the things he found out and I love Juliet Rylance as Lithgows determined secretary. Hell, everybody is the star in this.
8: Ninagawa Mika: ‘Followers‘
I am a big fan of Japanese director Ninagawa Mika (family name first, as is the custom in Japan) and her film Diner is in my list of favorite films of 2020. She actually made two films this year (or at least they were released this year) and she had a Netflix series, Followers, about a group of women in different age categories with each their own struggles and happinesses. A young woman breaks through as a succesful model and influencer, another succesful woman falls from the grace of the public, a third woman tries to combine her career with motherhood and there’s a middle-aged woman seeing her careless life crash as she is diagnosed with breast-cancer.
Just like Ninagawa’s films this series is gorgeously designed, lush and colourful. The themes are serious, but handled with a sort of light-hearted grace and warm humanism. Ninagawa is very critical of the entertainment industry, she always is, but in the end this is a wonderfully soapy feelgood-series.
7: Misha Green: ‘Lovecraft Country‘
A little uneven and on the whole not as grand as I had hoped, but some of the episodes in this fantasy series inspired by the work of infamous but also tremendously influential racist, misogynist, antisemitic bigot H.P. Lovecraft are the best television has to offer. A kind of black Indiana Jones in Jim Crow territory. With tentacles and big fucking monsters and sexual depravities.
6: David Weil: ‘Hunters‘
This pulp-series, also produced by Jordan Peele, about a multicultural group of nazi-hunters in the seventies raised some controversy because of the fictional atrocities by the Nazi’s in WWII depicted. I must say that I didn’t look forward to the beginning of each new episode, in which another Jewish prisoner would meet his gruesome end in some creative way. Other than that I think Hunters is exciting, a crossing between Marathon Man, Inglourious Basterds and Charlies Angels and with a glorious Al Pacino, conspicuously subdued, possibly because he’s too old now to get into his patented screaming fits.
It’s a hybrid of a series, balancing between pastiche, paranoid thriller, concentration camp drama and seventies action flick, but it’s thrilling and thoroughly engaging.
5: Ed Burns and David Simon: ‘The Plot Against America‘
What if not Franklin D. Roosevelt but famed aviator and antisemitic populist Charles Lindbergh had won the presidential elections of 1940? The Plot Against America is set in this alternative universe, where a Jewish-American family lives under the building pressure of a nation turning to fascism and befriending Adolf Hitler. With not only fascist racists threatening their existence, but also opportunistic and naive Jewish political leaders feeding these crocodiles.
Based on Philip Roths masterly novel, this mini-series is dark, tense, gripping with passionate acting. Especially the feverish, angry performance of Morgan Spector is a thing to behold.
4: Alberto Rodríguez and Rafael Cobos: ‘La Peste‘
Spanish director Alberto Rodríguez makes brilliant crime movies that are social commentaries at the same time. His first TV-series is set in 16th century Seville, set during and right after an outbreak of the plague, so the timing couldn’t be perfecter. In the first season the main character Mateo Núñez, convicted by the church for heresy, is gang-pressed by that same church to investigate a series of murders in a city where politicians quarrel with each other about either a lockdown or saving the economy (but really, is Rodríguez a prophet or does history really always repeat itself?).
In the second season Mateo takes on a whole criminal and extremely ruthless gang exploiting prostitutes and corrupting the city. There’s a heart-stopping scene, so impressively well done, in which the prostitutes are trapped in a building besieged by violent criminals and escape by swimming (one of them with a baby) through an underground tunnel.
La Peste is pure eye-candy, with most scenes in clair-obscur and golden brown, thrilling, engrossing, hard-boiled and with great acting all around.
3: Henk Handloegten, Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries: ‘Babylon Berlin‘
This German series about a policeman and his prostitute-turned-sleuth in pre-war Berlin has everything a guy like me could possibly want: political intrigue, nazi’s, communists, gangsters, terrorists, an extravagant nightclub, deliberate anachronisms, social commentary, men with hats, breathtaking set-pieces and not one character who is not morally ambiguous and corrupted in one way or the other. Amazing cinematography, well choreographed but realistic action scenes. This is the bees knees, man!
And I love the weird German accents. While watching this, I constantly repeated the actors’ lines, or tried to. I find German one of the most intriguing languages, also one of the hardest. I never dare to speak it in the presence of others.
2: Elwood Reid: ‘Barkskins‘
This historical series is set in 17th century Canada where French colonists fight the British colonisers and everybody fights or at least exploits the Native Americans, the Mohawks and Iroquois, who are depicted as real people here, not as savages (although every character in this series is a savage of some sort) or as noble children of Mother Earth.
The best thing in this series is British actor David Thewlis (“Remus Lupin” my children alwas exclaim when they see him, while for me he will always stay Johnny Fletcher in Naked) who plays an excentric settler casting aside his Native American woman for an imported bride from France and
Kaniehtiio Horn, who plays the Native American woman, brooding and intimidating. I had never seen her before but saw her in Brandon Cronenbergs movie Possessor shortly after and hope to see her in many productions to come.
Barkskins is very atmospheric, a little soapy, which I like, very misanthropic, intelligent and engaging.
1: Tony McNamara: ‘The Great‘
This amazing production looks like a lavishly designed historical series but it isn’t really, although you could say it has the story right, if not the facts. The delightful Elle Fanning plays a character based on the Russian empress Catherine the Great who, with the help of some friends among the nobles in court overthrew her husband Peter III to make Russia great again.
Nicolas Hoult, who plays Beast in the X-Men movies, is Peter III-ish, a completely deranged despot whose idiosyncrasies costs many lives. An oafish and cruel dictator without any morals, respected by no-one but feared by everyone. He is, however, very handsome, disarmingly charming and extremely funny, so a likeable character. Fanning arrives at court a naive virgin but within the space of two episodes has become a scheming strategist with grand visions of a new Russia. With the help of her chambermaid, her lover (appointed to her by her husband), a couple of nobles and eventually a general tired of having to wage his emperor’s absurdly senseless wars against Sweden she decides to murder the emperor to replace him, but first she (a Prussian) has to get to know Russia and make the Russian nobility love her, which is quite a task.
The Great is gorgeous to look at, very funny, engrossing, thrilling and unsettling at times. The characters are played by actors of all color (which was confusing to me at first, racist as I am; I even googled the Swedish ambassador to see if he really was a black man and felt a little daft) and with great talent and great comedic timing. A real treat!