TV became king of visual entertainment in 2020, thanks to COVID-19. With cinemas, theatres, and concert halls all closed due to the pandemic globally, everything — worthwhile or not — happened on the small screen. That meant movies (even those as big as Wonder Woman 1984 or Disney’s live-action Mulan) were suddenly competing with TV shows. Television has always been a place where long-form stories rule though, and as people found themselves stuck for months inside their homes, everyone watched a lot more TV series naturally. And thanks to the golden age of TV that doesn’t seem to end, there was no shortage of choices for folks everywhere. Unfortunately, that also means that audiences are increasingly isolated, have fewer shows in common with each other, and tend to miss out on ones that don’t get talked about enough. Here are my top 10 Web series and TV shows from 2020, and I hope you’ll find something to add to your watchlist.
10. Better Things
The fourth season of this excellent series was about how hard it is to let go. The lead character Sam Fox’s (Pamela Adlon, also co-creator, director, and co-writer) ex-husband, who has hung over the show since the first season like something to be forgotten, is finally dealt with. And you realise why Sam has been avoiding him and the topic itself — Better Things is semi-autobiographical — and happy to avoid it still, until her friends and family force her to confront the hate she’s been holding onto for so long.
At the same time, Better Things season 4 was also about Sam having to let go of her kids, who are all (slowly and one-by-one) coming of age and making decisions for themselves without consulting Sam. She fears, as what becomes part of her midlife crisis, that she will soon be alone and have no one to serve. Better Things has always been a powerfully feminist series — there aren’t many shows about a single middle-aged mother and her three daughters — and season 4 gave us even more resonating moments, including the brilliant c-word exchange that unexpectedly ends in laughter.
What makes Better Things such a joy to watch is because Adlon is adept at crafting tiny character moments that speak volumes, and stay with you even once the credits have rolled.
9. Babylon Berlin
Babylon Berlin is a show set in pre-Nazi Germany — the Weimar Republic, to be technical — during the late 1920s and early 1930s, but in its third season, the neo-noir series feels like it’s equally as much about the world today. The judiciary and the executive branches of the government have been thoroughly corrupted, the country’s youth are being radicalised while the hatred of minorities is becoming mainstream, and the press, instead of reporting on serious national security concerns, only wants to talk about the sensational death of a celebrity, while the economy is nearing collapse.
But it’s not just a show that warns how history repeats itself (inevitably). Babylon Berlin is also an expertly crafted series, from its stellar production values (under the Weimar Republic, Berlin was one of the most fashionable cities in the world thanks to a cultural renaissance) to its motley of characters (kudos to Liv Lisa Fries and Volker Bruch who are given so much to do as the dual leads). Drawing off Volker Kutscher’s books — eight have been written stretching into 1936 — Tom Tykwer, Achim von Borries and Hendrik Handloegten have created a show in Babylon Berlin where a constant dread hangs over every event.
Babylon Berlin depicts the slippery slope of nationalism and how hate takes over a country, which resulted in one of the gruesome tragedies of human history. It’s a reminder that we ought to stand up and say something before it repeats elsewhere.
If in its first season, Ramy — the comedy-drama named for its creator, star, co-writer, and frequent director Ramy Youssef — was a breath of fresh air (merely by focusing on an American-born Muslim), then the second season is a display of the series’ empathetic depth. In addition to championing people of colour who are regularly vilified in global entertainment, other cultures, and by politicians, Ramy season 2 champions the disabled and LGBTQ. With the latter, Ramy season 2 delivers a wholly unique perspective, for it’s set in a culture where homosexuality is still frowned upon, more so for men for what it speaks to traditional ideas of masculinity.
The second season expanded on that front, constantly making room for characters that aren’t in the show’s title. Episodes were not only dedicated to Ramy’s mother (Hiam Abbass, as she deals with a world completely foreign to her: transgender), his sister (May Calamawy, who got to touch upon how Islam is misunderstood), his father (Amr Waked has a midlife crisis), and his uncle (the aforementioned LGBTQ angle). When it began, Ramy felt like a close cousin to Master of None, but it’s proved itself to be more mature.
And even when it comes to Ramy himself, season 2 continued to deliver. For all his desire to be faithful to the principles of Islam, Ramy ends up giving into his base desires again and again. It was great to have Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali (as a sheikh) along for that ride, and Ramy entered the surreal realm when it brought in Mia Khalifa for a surprise appearance (and delivered a scathing attack at her detractors).
7. Paatal Lok
No other piece of Indian fiction in recent memory accurately captures the rot at the core of Indian society, how a patriarchal mindset and values, centuries of discrimination against so-called lower castes, and the vilification of religious minorities has led to their dehumanisation, quite like Paatal Lok does. The sad and grim reality is reinforced by the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement finds more acceptance and generates more support from India’s influential and the elite, than anything for their fellow countrymen who have been marginalised. Paatal Lok cuts close to the bone and is a painful reminder that the lives of women, Dalits, Muslims, and hundreds of million others do not matter.
But Paatal Lok’s first-rate examination of India’s deep-rooted socio-political problems can’t be matched in the plot department, where it comes across as a second-rate police procedural. Still, it manages to touch upon the unholy nexus that has corrupted the executive branch of our democracy. The Indian police acts with impunity as it sets up extra-judicial killings (or “encounters” in Indian police parlance). A system so crooked that it spins a complex web to tie up small-time criminals in a conspiracy. A system that can designate its citizens as terrorists without furnishing any amount of proof. Even our protagonist — a tour de force performance by Jaideep Ahlawat — condones and actively engages in police brutality.
Paatal Lok is a calling card for Sudip Sharma — creator, head writer, and showrunner on the Amazon series — and there will be a close eye on what he does next.
6. Mrs. America
2020 was the year Cate Blanchett decided to return to TV — her last regular role was in 1995 on Australian cable TV — and boy, what a return it was. As she did on Thor: Ragnarok, here too Blanchett took on the role of the villain, except she was also the lead protagonist in Mrs. America. Blanchett was note perfect as Phyllis Schlafly, a conservative activist who took a hammer to the US Equal Rights Amendment in the late 1970s, leading a posse of similar-minded women in opposing a bill that had bipartisan support from both Democrats and Republicans. She might be wrong, unforgivably manipulative, and pushing women’s rights back several decades, but you couldn’t deny that she was smarter than everyone in the room. And Blanchett knew how to deliver that.
But what made Mrs. America so much more than a one-woman showcase was the power of the ensemble around her. There was Rose Byrne as Gloria Steinem, Uzo Aduba as Shirley Chisholm, Elizabeth Banks as Jill Ruckelshaus, Margo Martindale as Bella Abzug, and Tracey Ullman as Betty Friedan — all women and proud feminist activists, who were trying their best to create a more equal world for every American, and who couldn’t believe why traditional gender roles were so appealing to Schlafly and her legions of supporters. It’s what made Mrs. America more than “that period drama about second-wave feminism”, as it drew stark parallels to the toxic political environment in the US today. Trump tapped into the same reservoir as Schlafly, and there’ll always be more like them.
5. The Last Dance
Yes, Michael Jordan had a hand to play in the production of The Last Dance — after all, the footage sat in a dusty corner somewhere precisely because Jordan had the ultimate say on whether it could even be used. But that doesn’t discount what is still a thrilling, captivating, and revealing look at a larger-than-life squad that was the Chicago Bulls in the 90s in the NBA, led by a larger-than-life sporting legend in Jordan, possibly the greatest of all time. It is Jordan’s competitive nature that made so many of the real-life moments possible, and what makes The Last Dance a great watch too. And though it might be great to witness, the docu-series suggests that it wasn’t always nice to have him as a teammate.
The Last Dance benefits greatly from the sheer power, spectacle, and narrative roller-coaster-ness of the sporting action itself. Under Jordan, fellow Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen, and their legendary coach Phil Jackson, the Chicago Bulls delivered a story — quickly summarised as a three-peat (that’s a championship hat-trick), Jordan retiring and then un-retiring, and then another three-peat — that would be considered wholly unbelievable and outlandish if it were penned by a writer for a movie. Truth is stranger than fiction, as they say, and The Last Dance is ample proof that fiction can’t beat real-life drama.
4. City So Real
When Hoop Dreams director Steve James set out to chronicle the state of Chicago in 2018, through the lens of its upcoming mayoral election, he couldn’t have foreseen what would unfold. Yes, he had a potent setting on his hands: Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel — once chief of staff for US President Barack Obama — had seen his ratings nosedive after a disastrous handling of the aftermath of (yet another) police shooting of a Black teenager. A highly-scrutinised public trial, involving said police officer, was now underway, against the backdrop of an unexpectedly wide-open mayoral race. But City So Real isn’t just a simple account of those events.
During its five hours, James paints a portrait of Chicago that is as wide-sweeping as the five seasons of The Wire. Yes, I just compared City So Real to one of the greatest shows of all time. In addition to following the dozen mayoral candidates, City So Real offers a look at small business that are staring at gentrification, dives into hair salons to hear from former police chiefs, Black war veterans, and the barbers, and examines the intricacies of Chicago politics that stand in the way of change. It is so insightful and full of depth that I felt I knew more about how Chicago worked than Mumbai, the city I actually live in, by the time it ended.
City So Real is further enhanced — terrible for those involved, but great for the documentary — by COVID-19. As the US grapples with livelihoods being snatched away and another police shooting (this time of George Floyd), James is handed a horrifying coda to his docu-series: Chicago is literally burning, with protests and riots that erupted through the city going off the rails, all under the watch of Chicago’s first black and lesbian mayor. City So Real can be a depressing watch at times, and as Chicago wrestles with history and itself in its struggles to change, it makes you wonder if that’s a dream too big.
3. Normal People
In the hands of the author Sally Rooney herself, and delicately brought to life by directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (Doctor Who’s “Blink”), Normal People — a rare half-hour drama, based on Rooney’s 2018 novel — is gentle, tender, and lovely. The writing, and more so, the direction elevates a first-love story into so much more, one that touches upon class, abuse, and public image as it charts an on-off years-long relationship (from high school into university) between an introverted aloof girl from a wealthy family, and a working-class popular boy.
Credit also goes to its dual leads, Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal, who have such a terrific grip on their characters despite their young age. Normal People ask a lot of them, not just in the honest wrenching conversations they share, but also loads of on-screen sex. It’s very, very intimate. Both those aspects require authenticity and vulnerability, of varying kinds, and the duo prove themselves up to the task. And as their characters find their place in the world, their dynamic evolves and shifts, painting a raw picture of our deepest insecurities.
2. My Brilliant Friend
No other period series transports me to a place and time quite like My Brilliant Friend does. The production design is exquisite; much of the series takes place in a poor dusty suburb of Naples (first during ‘50s and then the ‘60s) and the team essentially built a mini-town from scratch. And it makes wonderful use of Italy’s well-preserved architecture (My Brilliant Friend season 2 takes us north to Pisa, and gives us more of Naples the city) and picturesque locations (the volcanic island of Ischia is breath-taking). Add to that the costumes, the hair, and set design, and it truly feels like you’ve travelled back in time to post-World War II Italy.
But what makes My Brilliant Friend a great show is its deeply-felt exploration of female friendship. The one between the studious Elena “Lenù” Greco (Margherita Mazzucco) and the rebellious Raffaella “Lila” Cerullo (Gaia Girace), who are set on varying trajectories, with the latter destined for tragedy. In season 2, as its leads approach adulthood — the teenage actors playing their ages, but feeling so much more mature — My Brilliant Friend looks at how trashy but powerful men (Italy was, and is, heavily patriarchal) test and reinforce their friendship. Their fierce bond, at times, feels like it’s fuelled by a rivalry too, with both defying what society has in store for them.
Women aren’t supposed to be seen or heard, everyone tells Lenù and Lila, and My Brilliant Friend is about them defining a life for themselves on their own terms.
1. Better Call Saul
It’s common knowledge that spin-offs are meant to be a commercial exercise first and foremost, seeking to capitalise on the success of the original product. They are generally bad. And even when they are good, they never come close to what birthed them. Enter Better Call Saul. A prequel that centred on how con artist Jimmy McGill (Bob Odenkirk) came to be the smooth-talking lawyer Saul Goodman (Odenkirk) we met in Breaking Bad. Thanks to the honed talents of Breaking Bad creator Vince Gilligan and co-executive producer Peter Gould, Better Call Saul has been brilliant from the get-go. And it’s strange that a show already so good could deliver a season — its fifth — so exact.
Now close to its endgame (the sixth season will be its final), Better Call Saul season 5 made the line — or rather, the gulf — between Jimmy and Saul evident and stark as he pushed himself over the edge. It would seem normal to us for we’ve known Saul for long, and it’s only by giving us the perspective of those around him, namely Jimmy’s now-wife Kim Wexler (Rhea Seehorn), that it reminds us of the horrors within. And my word, the performances. It’s a shame then that both Odenkirk and Seehorn are overlooked for the work that they do. Forget being nominated, they deserved to win the acting Emmys. Don’t believe me, just watch the episodes “Bagman” and “Bad Choice Road”.
Better Call Saul isn’t just the best TV spin-off of all time, it’s one of the best shows ever made.
It’s impossible to make a top 10 list without having to — painfully — cull some names, which is why I’m happy to present you the candidates that nearly missed out on a spot.
With P-Valley, Katori Hall gave us a richly-realised world of pole dancers in America’s Mississippi Delta, approached its complicated characters with empathy, and made their usually-stigmatised work ooze with style and panache, without being exploitative or objectifying them.
Hansal Mehta assembled a cast of relative unknowns — Pratik Gandhi is a find — in Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story, for a fascinating look at the rags to riches story of a Gujarati stock broker, who made the most of the pre-SEBI wild wild west days of the Indian stock market.
In a year where we’ve had a serious lack of blockbuster fun, The Mandalorian season 2 treated us to a lot of thrilling action, in addition to the return of some Star Wars favourites from across the galaxy (far, far away).
For all the controversies it generated over its authenticity, the fourth season of The Crown showed the terrors of a young woman — Princess Diana — stuck in a loveless marriage that she can’t get out of. It also featured excellent performances from Gillian Anderson as UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, Olivia Colman as Queen Elizabeth II, and Emma Corrin as Diana.
Unorthodox was short and sweet at just four episodes, but it was powerful — more so because it’s drawn from a true story — in showing how orthodox communities can be hell for women (and operate in otherwise liberal, free countries) and the quest of a quiet-minded woman (Shira Haas) to escape those shackles.
Anya Taylor-Joy proved the value of an actor with The Queen’s Gambit, which followed an orphaned girl’s rise to the top of a male-dominated chess world, while battling her own demons and of those around her. All eyes on Scott Frank’s next venture.
Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle took their adolescent show PEN15 to new heights in season 2, studying how kids’ crave for attention and approval can turn them into horrible people, and that the gap between not being a kid anymore and not being an adult yet is truly the worst.
Curb Your Enthusiasm was close to its best in its tenth season, as Larry David took a throwaway joke (spite store) and turned it into the premise of the season itself.
Michaela Coel showed what’s so special about her with I May Destroy You, which offered a look at how violent and traumatic rape can be, and its brilliant meta finale turned the question — of closure and justice — on us.
Schitt’s Creek ended its run in the warm embracing ways we’ve come to expect of it — it swept the Emmys too, with Dan Levy delivering a historic quadruple — though it’s a shame it couldn’t extend its progressive values to the only character of Indian origin.
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