Best TV you should’ve watched this year
Most of us have probably spent more time watching TV this year than usual, confined to our homes for weeks (if not months).
Happily, there has been many amazing stories played out on the small screen as we turned to tales of hope, existential epiphany, endurance and hilarity to get us through our never-ending days.
And if you missed any of these must-watch shows of the year, the summer break is the perfect time to catch up.
WHAT WE DO IN THE SHADOWS (Foxtel/Binge*)
Genuinely laugh-out-loud funny, the second season of absurdist vampire comedy What We Do in the Shadows cemented the delights of the first season with even wilder episodes as Guillermo grappled with his vamp hunter genealogy, Mark Hamill popped in for some debt collecting, and ghost excretions exploded in the house.
THE BOYS (Amazon Prime Video)
Building on its eviscerating critique of superheroes and corporatisation, the second season of The Boys introduced new friends and villains while also taking on the spectre of radicalisation, media manipulation and right-wing extremism in a year where every second headline was dealing with exactly that. Plus, lots and lots of heads blew up - and that whale.
LOVECRAFT COUNTRY (Foxtel/Binge)
By drawing on the legacy of renowned sci-fi and fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, the series also cleverly exploits those very conventions by flipping Lovecraft's white supremacy on its head. In this searing series that tells a story about American racism under the guise of horror, the real monsters are human.
It's so loose and natural, you'd believe that David Tennant and Michael Sheen had improvised this pandemic comedy was real and not a scripted series. The pair's dazzling screen chemistry shine in this six-part show in which they play exaggerated versions of themselves as petty grievances come to the fore while rehearsing a play over zoom.
THE QUEEN'S GAMBIT (Netflix)
With its impressive production values and a riveting central performance from the talented Anya Taylor-Joy, the 1960s-set The Queen's Gambit was a surprise hit when it dropped in October. Set in the world of high-stakes chess, this story of a drug-addicted prodigy was a fan and critical favourite.
TED LASSO (Apple TV+)
Probably few people saw this coming, that a half-hour comedy born from a series of American sports promos would be the salve our downtrodden spirits needed. Starring the supremely likeable Jason Sudeikis, Ted Lasso's story of the American coach put in charge of an English football team was a cosy and funny character piece that only became better with each episode.
SMALL AXE (Foxtel/Binge)
It's hard to classify Small Axe was a TV series because it's actually a collection of five movies, all directed by Hunger filmmaker Steve McQueen. While they're five distinct stories about the experiences of the West Indies community in London in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, some of them based on historical events, as an anthology, Small Axe is a rich tapestry that explores racism, police brutality and community.
I MAY DESTROY YOU (Foxtel/Binge)
Michaela Coel's drama is insightful, witty and a blistering examination of sexual consent, based on the experience of her rape. Throughout its 10-episode run, Coel's series was authentic and provocative, a towering work that honestly looked at one character's experience of sexual assault and the complex aftermath.
MYSTERY ROAD (ABC)
Building on the intensity of the two outback noir films and first season that preceded it, the ABC series welcomed onboard two new directors, Warwick Thornton and Wayne Blair, to weave a new mystery for the tough but thoughtful Detective Jay Swan to solve. Nothing else on Australian TV quite looks like the sweeping landscapes captured in Mystery Road.
NORMAL PEOPLE (Stan)
The on-and-off, charged romance of Irish youngsters Connor and Marianne had everyone enthralled, a blend of strong performances, great writing and a sensitive, nuanced and intimate portrayal of sex scenes that actually told you something about the characters rather than existing only to titillate.
THE CROWN (Netflix)
After a sluggish season, The Crown was back in full-throttle mode as it finally arrived in the 1980s. With era-defining women Princess Diana and Margaret Thatcher driving the story, The Crown was able to match its lavish production with a rich narrative that was punchier, more compelling and irresistible to watch.
MASTERCHEF AUSTRALIA (Channel 10)
With everyone at home, cooking more and looking for something positive, invigorating new MasterChef presenters Melissa Leong, Andy Allen and Jock Zonfrillo plus the cast of returning challengers including Poh Ling Yeow served up exactly the kind of restorative TV Australians needed.
MYTHIC QUEST: RAVEN'S BANQUET (Apple TV+)
A quirky workplace comedy set in a video game developer's office, Mythic Quest beautifully captured the complicated, platonic friendship between Rob McElhenney and Charlotte Nicdao's self-involved characters. But it's two special episodes that really distinguishes this show - a prequel bottle episode with Jake Johnson and Cristin Milioti and the show's quarantine episode that did it better than anyone else.
This unflinching drama about strippers working in the Mississippi Delta isn't about tits and arse - far from it. Contextualised within a community of marginalised women, P-Valley , created by Katori Hall, doesn't disembody their inner lives. The camera only ever shows them as they want to be seen, not as sexual objects but for their strength, complexity and ambitions. That's the female gaze at work.
Cleaning up at the AACTA Awards this year, this humanist six-part miniseries was created by Elise McCreadie, Tony Ayres and Cate Blanchett. It stars Yvonne Strahovski and Fayssal Bazzi as two people trapped within Australia's soulless immigration detention system, an urgent reflection of uncomfortable truths.
THE GOOD PLACE (Netflix)
With a transcendent series finale that not only kept the promise of discovery and growth creator Mike Schur made in its first season, this constantly reinventive series closed out with nothing less than the meaning of life. We laughed and we cried in this story that reinforces the idea that there is always hope.
Anyone who's a fan of Alex Garland's challenging work (Ex Machina, Annihilation) will find much to love and mine from Devs, a visually stunning and intellectually curious sci-fi series that questions the conflict between free will and determinism. It stars Sonoya Mizuno as a woman trying to discover what happened to her boyfriend and what their mysterious tech company boss (Nick Offerman) had to do with it.
ZEROZEROZERO (SBS On Demand)
We're not wanting for gritty crime dramas but ZeroZeroZero is definitely worth your time. The series is three interweaving stories - one in Italian, one in Spanish and one in English - delving into the journey of a shipment of cocaine from Mexico to Italy via an American shipping company acting as brokers. Engaging and tense, ZeroZeroZero shows us there can still be fresh perspectives in a well-worn genre.
SCHITT'S CREEK (Netflix)
Schitt's Creek was the perfect show for lockdown with its mix of witty repartee and big-hearted spirit. Warm and soothing for the soul, the final series of Schitt's Creek took the Roses full circle, paying off six seasons of character growth with a perfect send-off that closed the book on a truly joyful and funny series.
It's not just children that love the delights of homegrown series Bluey. There are plenty of parents who would probably watch Bluey even if their kids weren't around. Each episode captures wonder of play and imagination, all grounded in smart and relatable stories.
THE GOOD FIGHT (SBS On Demand)
The Good Fight is never one to back down from a, well, fight, though coronavirus did claim the three episodes of this season it hadn't yet filmed. Despite those challenges, it was a season that was as sharp as ever as Diane and the rest of the firm dealt with new owners and a biting Citizen Kane homage in which they investigated the death of Jeffrey Epstein.
Kooky, open and emotionally resonant, PEN15's second season was every bit as charmingly cringe as its debut. With the horrors and wonders of puberty, growing up and friendship laid bare, Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine's creation continues to radiate honesty and awkward appeal.
TALES FROM THE LOOP (Amazon Prime Video)
The entrancing Tales from the Loop is adapted from an art book of Swedish rural landscapes littered with ageing technology from a future that never was, set in a small town engaged in a sci-fi experiment that changes reality and time. The unexplainable isn't the point, the beauty of Tales from the Loop is found in its meditative introspection on what it means to be human.
Honourable mentions: Teenage Bounty Hunters (Netflix), The Great(Stan), Perry Mason (Foxtel/Binge), Little America (Apple TV+), The Plot Against America (Foxtel/Binge), The Good Lord Bird (Stan), Better Call Saul (Stan), We Are Who We Are (SBS On Demand), Salisbury Poisonings (SBS On Demand), Saved By the Bell (Stan), The Mandalorian (Disney+), Ramy (Stan), Quiz (Foxtel/Binge/Fetch) and Mrs America (Foxtel/Binge).
Originally published as Best TV you should've watched this year