As with last year’s recap, I’m covering the best of what I saw in 2020, as well as shows from 2021 that I’ve liked so far. None of my picks are network programs. The best work being done these days is seen on streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, and cable sources such as HBO, Showtime, and FX. I’m sure many of you are familiar with most of the shows on my list, but there may be some that you either weren’t aware of or haven’t caught up with yet. There’s way too much stuff to watch, even if one wanted to, and the proliferation of streaming outlets has only increased the problem. But better too much than not enough.
The following titles are in alphabetical order and not separated by year. This will be in two parts.
The Boys (Amazon Prime) I came to this a year after the first season, but burned through that and the second in short order. I love it. The show posits a world where superheroes are sponsored, managed and marketed by a huge corporation. Almost all of them have been totally corrupted by their unlimited power. Opposing them are the “boys,” led by Karl Urban, a very tough character. Traditional superhero definitions are turned inside out. These are not the good guys. If you haven’t seen it, be advised that it’s extremely violent, often in ways you probably haven’t seen before.
Bridgerton (Netflix) Shonda Rimes’ previous hit shows include Grey’s Anatomy, Scandal, and How to Get Away with Murder. Her latest, based on a series of novels by Julia Quinn, is a period drama set in England in 1813. What gives it a terrific spin is that it takes place in an alternate reality in a racially integrated society where people of color have rank and privilege. It’s well written and well acted; the production design is incredible.
Call My Agent (Netflix) Friends had been recommending this series for years. It began showing in the U.S. in 2016, but we only started watching after the fourth season had been released earlier this year. Call My Agent follows four agents in a fictional French talent agency as they compete for business, deal with temperamental clients, juggle personal problems, and try to keep the agency afloat. It adds a meta-level by having real actors and directors play versions of themselves, which recalls Garry Shandling’s excellent HBO series, The Larry Sanders Show. We basically loved Call My Agent, though I became very irritated with some of the characters during the second season. I thought I was done with it, but kept watching and loved the rest of it. This was supposedly the end of the series, but it was announced earlier this month that there will be a fifth season.
Criminal: UK (Netflix) Previously this series consisted of four separate “seasons,” all taking place almost entirely inside a police interrogation room in the respective countries, the UK, France, Germany, and Spain, with four episodes per each. The format remains, but we have only the UK for this second season. It’s concentrated, claustrophobic, and compelling as the episodes play out. The characters of the interrogators are fascinating.
The Crown (Netflix) Created by Peter Morgan, this terrific series dramatizes the life and reign of Elizabeth II, Queen of England. Claire Foy played her in the first two seasons, with Olivia Colman taking the role in the next two seasons, of which this is the fourth. Colman is excellent, as she is in seemingly everything she does. Tobias Menzies (Rome, Game of Thrones, The Night Manager) is also excellent as Prince Philip. Josh O’Connor (The Durrells in Corfu – see below) is petulant and nasty as Prince Charles, while Emma Corrin is quite heartbreaking as Princess Diana. Gillian Anderson is great as Margaret Thatcher, and very frightening, like some sort of crocodile. There will be another cast change for the final two seasons.
The Durrells in Corfu (Amazon Prime) This is a simply wonderful series. If it had continued past four seasons (26 episodes), we’d still be watching. And it’s all true, sort of. In 1935, with little money and no prospects, single-mother Louisa Durrell (Keeley Hawes) moves from England to the Greek island of Corfu with her four children, Larry (Josh O’Connor), Gerry (Milo Parker), Margo (Daisy Waterhouse), and Leslie (Colem Woodhouse). On Corfu they encounter hardship, friendship, adventures, and romance. Budding novelist Larry would grow up to become famous as Lawrence Durrell. Gerry, whose three memoirs of their lives on Corfu would become the basis for this series, became well-known as an author and naturalist. Something that’s really a kick is watching his collection of animal life expand over the course of the series. Parrots, pigs, pelicans, various lizards and the occasional goat wander through the rooms of their house. With war imminent, the family is forced to move back to England in 1939, but it’s been an extraordinary adventure
The Good Fight (Paramount+) Another series we came to several seasons in. This is a spin-off of The Good Wife, which we really liked. Christine Baranski carries over from that series as Diane Lockhart, along with the wonderfully named Cush Jumbo as Lucca Quinn and Sarah Steele as Eli Gold’s daughter Marissa. Strong additions to the cast are Delroy Lindo, Rose Leslie, and Audra McDonald. Legal struggles and court cases abound. An interesting real-world connection was having the Trump presidency as part of the storyline. I had no trouble with the anti-Trump position taken by the show, but I felt it was limiting and got in the way at times. Still, this is an excellent series, well written and well acted. We had to subscribe to yet another streaming platform in order to watch it, CBS All-Access, which is now known as Paramount +. There have been four seasons so far.
Jack Irish (Amazon Prime/Acorn) An0ther engaging Australian series. Guy Pearce stars as a formerly successful lawyer in a Melbourne law firm until his wife’s murder causes him to skid into an alcoholic depression. He’s now a somewhat tattered part-time investigator taking on dirty dealings in high places, aided and distracted by a colorful crew of friends. Based on a series of detective novels by Paul Temple, Jack Irish began as three feature-length movies (Bad Debts, Black Tide, and Dead Point) before becoming a series for two seasons. The movies and series are available via Amazon Prime & Acorn. All are excellent, Guy Pearce especially.
Line of Duty (Amazon Prime/Acorn) This is a critically-acclaimed series in the UK. As happened with several other series on this list, we came to this one late, after five seasons had been released. No matter, we proceeded to burn through those in short order. Line of Duty follows DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston), his partner DC Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure), and their boss, Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) as they work to uncover corruption and corrupt police officers in the fictional Central Police Force. Each season of six episodes follows one storyline. We see a lot of British cop shows. This is one of the best. A sixth season has been produced, which will likely be available here later this year.
Lovecraft Country (HBO Max) Based on a novel by Matt Ruff, this series deals with issues of race and Black experience through the filter of a horror story. Jordon Peele did this with his feature films Get Out (2017) and Us (2019). The Amazon Prime series Them is doing it now. All are using the conventions and expectations of the horror genre to get at something very real. Set in 1950s America, Lovecraft Country follows Atticus “Tic” Freeman, a Korean War veteran and fan of science fiction and horror, as he goes in search of his father Montrose (Michael K. Williams). An incredibly complex and often outlandish narrative unfolds. It gets very violent. There are some horrific images and actions I don’t think I’ve ever seen before.
Lupin (Netflix) An immensely entertaining French series. Here’s a synopsis per Wikipedia: “The story follows professional thief Assane Diop, the only son of an immigrant from Senegal who had come to France to seek a better life for his child. Assane’s father is framed for the theft of an expensive diamond necklace by his employer, the wealthy and powerful Hubert Pellegrini, and hangs himself in his prison cell out of shame, leaving the teenage Assane an orphan. Twenty-five years later, inspired by a book about a gentleman thief Arsène Lupin his father had given him on his birthday, Assane sets out to get revenge on the Pellegrini family, using his charisma and mastery of thievery, subterfuge, and disguise to expose Hubert’s crimes.”
As Assane, Omar Sy is stylish, clever, smooth, and always several steps ahead of everyone. He made me smile. The show is altogether very satisfying. Master thief Arsène Lupin was a character created by Maurice Leblanc in the early 1900s. His novels and short stories became extremely popular. Ending after only five episodes, Lupin felt rather abrupt and incomplete. I’ve since learned that the first season was originally to be ten episodes. I suspect the pandemic interrupted the production, though I don’t know the details. In any event, the next five episodes have been completed and are planned to be released this summer.
That’s all for now. Part 2 will follow shortly. Stay safe. — Ted Hicks