If 2020 was the longest year ever then that meant there was more room for good TV series to stream than usual. It’s surely a coincidence that the makers of such things rose to the occasion, making the usual Top 10 lists outdated and demanding addendums and expansions that brought them closer to something we can pronounce as complete. If 2020 was a year that demanded a lot of people — asking them to cast aside their expectations and find beauty in the darkness, to recognize and appreciate their connections to other people, and to take responsibility for the lives of strangers by putting on a mask regardless of their political beliefs — then it was filled with series that demanded the same of their viewers with the idea that this wasn’t a time to tune out of the world but to instead embrace the complexity that dominates reality and the best fiction.
Detective stories are just as much about having a compelling location and protagonist and villain as they are about the mystery itself and Baghdad Central excels in all these areas, but with the added bonus of taking the audience outside of itself and asking it to go along from a point of view that may actually be in opposition to it. Waleed Zuaiter draws you in as former Iraqi police officer Muhsin al-Khafaji, who must grapple with his previous sins both within his own mind and all around him, trying to keep his daughters safe during the American occupation and facing off against various players from Saddam Hussein’s rule who hold a grudge against him. When one of his daughters disappears, he accepts a job with a British official, played with sneering, unhinged gusto by Bertie Carvel, as part of a scheme to restore honor to Iraq by building a new police force. With this in place, Muhsin must traverse a devastated landscape of corruption on all sides that reveals honor in unexpected places.
Watch on Hulu
If the series has been largely about the ripple effects of one singular event at its beginning, the final series does service to the human core of its espionage plots by gradually stripping it all down to meet its end at the core of what it has always really been about. Still centered on the spy with multiple identities played with exhausted hubris by Mathieu Kassovitz — who is surrounded by equally compelling performances — The Bureau is in part about the way political conflict between governments dehumanizes the on-the-ground players, requiring them to break with any hope of having a self in the service of defending the safety of the nation they align with. But nations become almost arbitrary as the pieces encounter each other as human beings, even if they are on opposing sides, and goals become corrupted or, conversely, corrupt the interacting humans. If The Bureau is about one man trying to step out of this all-encompassing existential trap, then the series finale is about the impossibility of that endeavor and how abstract fantasies like nations will disrupt and even destroy actual human-level desires and goals. A tragedy on Shakesperean levels? I dunno. But it breaks my heart. Devastating.
Watch on Sundance Now
Don’t Forget the Driver
Doing the right thing is of course the right thing to do, but doing the right thing can often be hard. It can frequently inconvenience you. But it can also be a way to burst out of a rut and find some value in life. Toby Jones, who also co-writes the series, is wonderful as Pete Green, a bus driver just trying to get through things and juggle his burdens, but now embroiled in the life of Rita (Luwam Teklizgi), an illegal immigrant who he unknowingly smuggled into the country on his bus. While also trying to find work for his aimless daughter (Erin Kellyman), caretake his ailing mother, and deal with other problems, Pete grumbles his way through the darkness as he finds that in this case, as in others he encounters, doing the right thing can range from pain in the ass to totally dangerous, but it can provide a sweetness to life regardless.
Watch on Britbox
Centered on a jazz club in Paris that shares a name with the title of the series, the lives of the people involved twist around the tortured experience of former jazz pianist and current club owner Elliot (Andre Holland) as he juggles business problems, interventions by police and criminals, band issues, and, most grippingly, unexpectedly having to raise his explosive teenage daughter, played by Amandla Stenberg in a magnificent performance. With a narrative structure that is a bit like a good jazz tune, this Jack Thorne-penned series moves onto characters beyond Elliot, circles back so you see him differently, swerves off in another direction, and keeps playing your familiarity against experimentation to create something multifaceted and complex.
Watch on Netflix
This eight-episode series by Turkish director and playwright Berkun Oya follows the intertwined lives of multiple people in Istanbul that spiral around the series’ emotional center of Meryem (Öykü Karayel), a devout Muslim housecleaner who has started seeing a therapist Peri’s (Defne Kayalar) because of fainting spells. The interaction between the two women provides an entry point to the lives of others around them, most notably Meryem’s brother and his mentally ill wife, Peri’s therapist, Peri’s soap opera actress friend, and numerous others who create an intricate web of human interaction, peppered with fury, shame, and love. It’s a remarkable tapestry fashioned by Oya and beautifully acted by his cast, all uniting for a type of precise artfulness that you seldom see in a series format.
Watch on Netflix
The conflict between two brothers in Japan — one a cop, one a burgeoning Yakuza member — ripples across the globe and into London, wrapping in unsuspecting bystanders and then circling back to where it began, transforming some of the original victims of the struggle in the first place. As a character study and crime story, Giri/Haji is intensely compelling and entertaining in its tactic of not following through with standard tropes or characters — Takehiro Hira, Kelly MacDonald, Aoi Okuyama and Will Sharpe are all particularly great, but there’s no weak point anywhere in the cast — but as an examination of the ballet that humanity engages in when faced with complicated conflict, Giri/Haji is nothing short of profound.
Watch on Netflix
The Good Lord Bird
In a year of great television, this was probably the best of the bunch, and that’s really saying something in 2020. A fictionalized account of the fiery abolitionist John Brown, played by Ethan Hawke with a brilliant mix of pathos and delicacy to create an unnerving kind of warmth, the series is as righteous in advocating for the idea that Black lives have mattered all along while examining the perils of resting your revolution on the hopes that others will rise up with you. Hawke is surrounded by equally strong performers, most notably Joshua Caleb Johnson as his sidekick, the gender-bending Onion, and Daveed Diggs as the intensely brilliant but comically self-absorbed Frederick Douglas, you just might feel tears as the series comes to a conclusion that we already know.
Watch on Showtime
In My Skin
Mixing together the ravages of extreme mental illness and its effects on a family with the fumbling, often ugly process of figuring out who you are as a teen may not be typical fodder for television comedy, but In My Skin pulls it off, as comedy springs from the darkness in a way that acknowledges how serious this all is but also offers an insider’s attitude towards coping with that darkness by using humor to disarm its potential violence on the soul. Gabrielle Creevey is astonishing as Bethan, with just the right mix of defiance, allegiance, and vulnerability, and Jo Hartley’s performance as Bethan’s mentally ill mother is filled with earnest pathos.
Watch on Hulu
Lambs of God
Being cloistered for religious reasons is more and more being looked at as a fanatical way to approach the world, typically done out of fear, but in Lambs of God, the nuns in the decaying abbey on the isolated island off the coast of Australia may have a point. There are three of them, the final ones of a once rich order, and much of their abbey has become a ruin. When a priest visits them unexpectedly to tell them that they are to be transferred and the island sold, the three nuns are willing to do anything to save their home. Meanwhile, the priest’s disappearance has been noticed on the mainland and those looking for them are getting closer and closer. This is really a reverse folk horror story, in that the stranger impinges on a closed religious culture, but in this version, we side with the closed religious culture as embodied by three fantastic actresses in peak form— Essie Davis, Ann Dowd, and especially Jessica Barden, whose wide-eyed innocence is never portrayed as simplistic.
Watch on Topic
In the first series, and two films, Aaron Pederson’s detective character Jay Swan has evolved into less a man and more a grim embodiment of Aboriginal justice, like some mythical figure come to correct the wrongs by rooting out the cancerous evil of destructive colonialism, and with this second series, that feeling has only heightened. As a man who walks between two worlds and finds acceptance in neither, Swan is not an instantly likable lead character, but the factors that make him so are immensely sympathetic, and often directed by the supporting characters as they interact with him and do their best to figure out how to pierce the armor he has built up around himself as he performs his righteous duty to his people, even as he faces rejection from them. Mystery Road is great because of the enormous subtext that lays underneath its well-executed crime plots, rooting out the horrors of Australian history even as Swan roots out the modern horrors of the drug trade and the poverty of the Indigenous people.
Watch on Acorn TV
Save Me, Too
In the first series of Save Me, we saw the train wreck that is Nelly — a character that actor Lennie James seems to inhabit more than merely portray — try to move past his own self-inflicted roadblocks to find his estranged daughter, who was kidnapped while supposedly running away from home to find him. Surrounding his quest is a cast of his close friends, really the regulars in his local pub hangout, misfits and losers who grapple with their own problems but sincerely want to come through for Nelly in his quest. This second series is a perfect extension of the first as Nelly’s inquiries into the world beyond that pub widens, becomes much darker, and still benefits from his erratic world view that balances defiant optimism with reckless excuse-making for fucking up. The series is also created and written by James and in his roles, he weaves an intoxicating character who will make you believe his bullshit and beg you to look into his heart.
Watch on Peacock
The Third Day
Bearing more than a slight resemblance to Lost — mystical island with a specific path to getting there inhabited by a strange cult-like group that has been built-upon by earlier inhabitants and following the experience of a new arrival that has hints of pre-destination — The Third Day also has direct ancestry in the area of folk horror. However, in its execution it twists and breaks a lot of the things we’ve come to expect from the genre, calling into question our assumptions about the stock roles and even taking the basic story well beyond the point where they typically end. By the time it’s over, The Third Day questions the way we approach history in a non-academic way, as a result of a need that focuses on one vantage point and forsakes any other as an attack on our own sacred beliefs. Created by Dennis Kelly, who also devised the original, brilliant British version of Utopia (which Amazon should have just funded a third season of rather than paying for an unnecessary American remake), The Third Day refuses to play it the way you want and suggests that the stories we tell ourselves to justify however we choose to exist are merely that, stories, and they are very fragile when faced with reality.
Watch on HBO Max
It’s tempting to dub this the Australian Borgen, but that would sell both series short. They do have one very important thing in common though — dynamic revelations playing the lead roles. In this case, it’s Deborah Mailman as an Aboriginal woman who finds herself appointed to a Senate seat after she becomes the bright focus of a moment of national horror. Prime Minister Rachel Anderson (Rachel Griffiths) sees Alex’s appointment as the kind of positive press you couldn’t buy and entices her to the office with promises of helping Alex’s community. But Alex finds out — no surprise — that politics doesn’t work so simply and she must traverse a maze-like system of deal-making and backstabbing while trying to retain her integrity and make the right decisions for the people she represents. The political drama is compelling enough, but the care that the series takes with portraying the Indigenous community and presenting its structures adds an extra element that sets it apart from anything else on television. It would be a great show without Mailman, but her dynamic presence and ability to juggle hilarity, tenderness, and darkness — and to allow her character to be completely fallible — means she rules the screen whenever she’s on it. She’s bound to become your new TV hero.
Watch on Sundance Now
A paean to making amends in the guise of a rollicking Australian road comedy, two broken people literally crash into each other on the road, pair up to get where they going, bicker a lot, and don’t really open up with the whole truth about what either of them have left behind or are moving toward. Tim Minchin plays a washed-up musician and Milly Alcock a hostile teenager, and their combativeness in just letting each be a transformative presence for the other is a sweet and funny journey that feels genuine and satisfying. It could’ve been contrived but it ended up lovely.
Watch on Sundance Now
A partial This Is England reunion with actor Stephen Graham, writer Jack Thorne, and director Shane Meadows, The Virtues embraces many of the techniques of This Is England — a pseudo-documentary feel that includes raw sequences of emotional distress that’s almost too hard to watch as it examines the dysfunction of a group of people who grapple with their own wounds — and employs it toward the reunion of a brother and sister estranged through social services in Ireland. But at the thematic center here is the devastation of substance abuse and the failures, whether intentional or not, of families to come through for each other. Stephen Graham, as ever, is a miraculous open wound on the screen.
Watch on Topic