I watched a ridiculous amount of television this year. And you probably did too. With all of us spending a significant part of our year hunkered down in hiding from the coronavirus, what else would we do with our plentiful spare time? (If you're one of the eager beavers who worked out everyday with the Peloton app or read the complete works of Shakespeare, please don't answer that question.)
The shows I write about here represent only a small percentage of what I watched in 2020. In a year where every week brought us new, unpredictable horrors, I found it comforting to re-watch my favorite television series of the past where I already knew how everything would turn out. So I binged the entire runs of Mad Men, Seinfeld, Veep, Sex and the City, Frasier and the Andy Griffith Show. (Yes, one of those things is not like the others. What can I tell you? Some days, the most challenging things I could wrap my brain around were the up and downs of Barney and Thelma Lou's romance. Or maybe just seeing what Aunt Bee cooked when the preacher came for Sunday dinner.)
I also watched about 240 movies this year - almost a fourth of those were repeat viewings of old favorites. I'll get to those in a future post. The takeaway here is: I've become an extra starchy couch potato this year, and I'm going to tell you all about it!
Normally this post is titled "Binge Watches of (insert year here) Ranked." But most of the limited series or seasons of a series that I watched dropped in weekly installments of 1-3 episodes so it wasn't practical to binge them.
As usual, this list skews heavily towards streaming platforms and premium cable rather than network television, and - of course - it only includes the shows I actually watched. Many popular series of the past year don't appear here because they either didn't pique my interest or I started watching but quickly bailed on them. (The latter of those categories includes The Good Lord Bird, Normal People, The Great and Ratched. Also The Queen's Gambit, but I plan to give that one another shot, based on recommendations from many people whose opinions I respect.)
It is also a particularly cranky and contrarian ranking. I was unimpressed with many of this year's high profile/prestigious offerings and more drawn to some of the less-celebrated or even the sneered-at series (Tiger King is on the list, and probably ranked higher than you would expect. Judge me all you want, I stand by my ranking.) Feel free to take my rankings with a large grain of salt. But if you see something here that appeals to you, watch it and like it, then my work here is done.
Anyway, here are the series I actually did complete, in reverse order of preference:
13. The New Pope (HBO)
I'm not sure whether writer-director Paolo Sorrentino has some actual point to make about the modern Catholic Church or just likes throwing together a bunch of visually sumptuous but batshit-crazy scenes to give the illusion that he's saying something. Some critics have found this series to be relevant and profound, but I thought it was just an exhausting mess. It's all outrageousness and sacrilege and weird juxtapositions of sex or pop culture with religious iconography. You may admire Sorrentino's inventiveness, but you'll long for some emotional or intellectual hook to really engage you in the narrative. It never comes.
12. Hollywood (Netflix)
In Ryan Murphy's fantasy/alternate history of 1940s Hollywood, a woman gets to run a major studio, an actress of color gets the Oscar-winning lead role in a blockbuster drama and Rock Hudson goes to the Oscars with his boyfriend. All of which is not only very nice, but underlines just how limited and backwards the thinking of that day actually was. Unfortunately. Murphy's ham-fisted melodramatic tendencies are exhausting; he'll take any opportunity to titillate or shock, but nuance and subtlety are forever lost on him. What's more, his incorporation of real people into this fictional story is frequently problematic. I'm fine with his re-creation of George Cukor's Sunday night dinner parties winding up with naked men in the pool and Vivien Leigh hooking up with a hot guy in Cukor’s guest room. But I will never forgive him for depicting Hudson as a good-looking but dim-witted lunk with no acting ability whatsoever.
11. The Undoing (HBO)
Despite its A-list cast and veneer of artistic respectability, The Undoing amounted to a good opening episode, a good final episode and four hours of utter nonsense sandwiched in between. Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant play a wealthy and well-respected Manhattan couple (she a psychotherapist, he a pediatric oncologist). The mother of their son's classmate is brutally murdered while Grant is mysteriously out of town without his cell phone. Then we learn the dead woman had ties to both of them. Did Grant kill her ? Did Kidman? Or their 12-year-old son? Or was it Kidman's ultra rich, creepy dad, played with icy relish by Donald Sutherland?
I'm just old enough to remember when the Equal Rights Amendment slowly made its way through the state-by-state ratification process, including the well-orchestrated campaign of right-wing darling Phyllis Schlafly to stop it. I can even remember picking up a STOP ERA flyer in a local drugstore when I was about 13, and briefly jumping on Schlafly's bandwagon until I became the early '70s version of a "woke feminist" a year later at 14.
This genial, slightly goofy British mini-series succeeds largely due to the welcome presence of Dawn French in the title role. (You may remember her as The Vicar of Dibley or perhaps as the '80s comedy partner of Absolutely Fabulous star Jennifer Saunders.) Maggie Cole is the town historian in the kind of quaint, sleepy English village where everyone knows everyone. After being plied with gin and tonics by a devious radio interviewer, Maggie spills all the gossip whispered around town regarding certain residents. As she sets about attempting to repair her relationships with those she drunkenly slandered, we learn that the truth about these people is actually far more interesting than the gossip about them. French is the friendly, funny heart of the show, but really all the characters are easy to take to heart, and it all goes down as comfortingly as a warm mug of tea
There's no accounting for how addictive and enjoyable this supremely silly little confection turned out to be, but I devoured it like it was a box of Ladurée macarons. Lily Collins plays a Chicago PR flack sent to manage a Paris-based luxury brand marketing firm. In the real world, she'd probably at least have learned to speak French before taking this job, but this is Fantasy Paris, so instead she's the gauche American that the snotty French people eventually learn to tolerate and even admire. Emily fills her Instagram feed with pictures of croissants and sidewalk cafés and falls into all kinds of romantic entanglements with handsome Frenchmen. Not one moment of the show is remotely believable, but if ever there was a year when we needed an escape from harsh reality, 2020 was it. So I went right along with the fantasy. Besides, Collins is charming enough to carry the day. A second season is on the way in 2021; it will be interesting to see if it remains popular.
A stunning achievement by writer/director/star Michaela Coel who distills her own experience of a sexual assault into a prismatic 12-part drama that examines her post-traumatic emotional landscape from a multitude of perspectives. In that respect, it perfectly mirrors her mental state and uneasy, 'one step forward, two steps back' progress towards healing. The heavy use of British slang can be a little difficult for an American to get a handle on in the early episodes, and the extreme casualness of the all the characters' drug use and hooking up was a bit hard for this quaint old fart to get her mind around. But there's an almost dreamlike quality to the series that captures you and pulls you in. You can feel Coel's sense of confusion, disorientation, rage and, ultimately, forgiveness and release.
Unorthodox is loosely based on Deborah Feldman's memoir Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, the subject of which is pretty much obvious from its title. What is particularly impressive about this adaptation is the efficiency and lack of fussy exposition in the storytelling. The writers (Anna Winger and Alexa Karolinski) trust us to figure the roles, rituals and narrowly proscribed roles for women in the Hasidic sect by jumping right into the story at its point of highest tension. We open on a young woman named Esty (Shira Hass playing a fictionalized version of Feldman) who's about to leave her husband and her Brooklyn-based Hasidic community - on the Sabbath of all days - and is clearly violating major tenets of her religion to do so.