The TV landscape at the end of 2020 is abundant and confusing. Multiple streaming services — Disney+, Apple TV+, HBO Max, Peacock — have launched in the last 12 months or so, and every other network seems to have some sort of bespoke on-demand channel offering access to a few “premium” shows for extra dollars. While there isn’t really one show that is both extremely popular and extremely good right now, there are a lot of flawed-but-pretty-good shows tucked away on these new services. Read on for a guide to the best of the last few months of television.
The Mandalorian, on Disney+. In its just-concluded second season, The Mandalorian continued the nifty balancing act of appealing to both Star Wars superfans and people who don’t really care that the titular bounty hunter exists in the same universe as Darth Vader and Han Solo. You rarely get visual confirmation that it’s really Pedro Pascal under the Mandalorian armor, but there’s a weekly procession of familiar faces from the best of prestige TV — when Timothy Olyphant shows up as a local lawman, it feels like Justified In Space, and when Giancarlo Esposito plays the heavy, it’s Breaking Bad In Space. The Mandalorian works because it goes back to the samurai movies and western serials that inspired George Lucas in the first place. Also, baby Yoda.
Small Axe, on Amazon Prime. This five part anthology series about the lives of Black Britons is another ambitious statement from Steve McQueen, the director/writer behind 12 Years a Slave and Widows. The overall focus is on struggles against racist oppression, and some installments grapple with complex historical figures, but Lovers Rock is the moment of (relatively) light relief — a sweet, reggae-filled slice of life that takes place over one night at a West London house party, showcasing McQueen’s gift for creating a cultural snapshot with a dash of romance. Not since Twin Peaks: The Return has a series incited so much debate over whether it should be considered film or television (it’s film), but Small Axe is a must-see in either category.
Bridgerton, on Netflix. Shonda Rhimes’ first show under her gigantic Netflix deal is Pride and Prejudice meets Gossip Girl with a dash of Hamilton, and what could be more binge-y than that? Based on Julia Quinn’s romance novel series, the show follows a group of rich young ladies as they traverse 19th century England’s marriage market — the requisite stately homes, lavish parties, dashed romances and jealous schemes are freshened up with a feminist perspective and a gorgeous multiracial cast, nevermind historical accuracy. It drops on Christmas Day, and plenty of viewers will finish it before the new year.
The Flight Attendant, on HBO Max. If you’re trying to understand what the “Max” in HBO Max means, look no further: This pulpy comedy/murder mystery/addiction drama starring Kelly Cuoco would once have been an ambitious network TV series. Cuoco plays Cassie, who’s having a wonderful time partying hard with attractive plane passengers until she wakes up in a Bangkok hotel room next to one (Michiel Huisman) with his throat slit. As Cassie scrambles to solve the crime before she’s accused of it, The Flight Attendant walks a tricky tightrope between humor and darkness with just a few wobbles.
Ted Lasso on Apple TV+. You wouldn’t expect the breakout hit from well-funded Apple TV+ to be a goofy little sitcom adapted from a series of NBC Sports promos. But Saturday Night Live veteran Jason Sudeikis plays an American college football coach hired by a Premier League team despite no experience in the other kind of football with boundless charm that elevates the fish-out-of-water premise. At the beginning of the show’s first season, Lasso’s team and their fans hate him, and even the owner who hired him, played with steely reserve by Hannah Waddingham, is secretly rooting for him to fail. There’s a lot of heart here, and a lot of silliness.
Euphoria on HBO Max. Euphoria's Christmas special could've been lightweight, a stopgap to keep the fans fed and the show refreshed in the minds of short-attention span streamers. Instead, writer-director Sam Levinson turned in a quietly devastating hour of conversation between Zendaya’s Rue and her sponsor, the brilliant Colman Domingo, that treats addiction with a seriousness that’s rare on TV. What is Euphoria when it's stripped of the buzzy music cues, digressive cut-scenes, visual flair and excessive nudity? Well, a disturbing window on drugs, faith, race, love and suicide.
We Are Who We Are on HBO Max. This story of American teens discovering themselves and their sexualities in Northern Italy from writer/director Luca Guadagigno is effectively Call Me By Your Name Part 2, but as an 8-hour miniseries it’s more deliberately paced and richly textured than the film, with a larger cast of characters and shakier plot mechanics. A gentler look at teen sex-and-drugs than Euphoria, it’s the kind of show where an intimate, soft-spoken scene between two characters can play out over several minutes while Young M.A’s “OOOUUU” blares from the next room, and much of the dialogue in the big dramatic speech is semi-audible.
P-Valley on STARZ. Even if you don't watch anything else on STARZ, this semi-overlooked show from the summer is worth the subscription. Katori Hall’s adaptation of her own play follows the complicated interpersonal lives of the staff at the hottest strip club in the Mississippi Delta as a looming property war threatens to shutter the club and the livelihoods of those who depend on it. Yes, there’s a lot of nudity, but it’s feminist nudity — the truly spectacular dancing sequences showcase the pride, splendor, and athleticism of the performers, and the eight episodes (all directed by women) take the perspective of the dancers rather than the men who leer at them. Hall and her team have lovingly outfitted P-Valley with as much authenticity and complexity as liquor and lash glue.
The Boys on Amazon Prime. This gritty realist alternative to Marvel, which is rapidly becoming Amazon Prime’s signature show, drops superheroes into contemporary reality. The result: moral bankruptcy, corporations bent on casual global domination and an undermining of government and democracy at every turn. Sound familiar? Season two leaned into Trump-era satire, working in themes of Neo Nazism, fascism, and the political manipulation of social media. It may sound like a lot on paper, but the show’s cynical tone, pitch-black humor and committed performances from the likes of Antony Starr and Aya Cash keep the series floating. The Boys thumbs its nose at the idea of “prestige,” but don’t be surprised if it comes up big with Emmy nominations — it already made Obama’s year-end list.
Gangs of London on AMC+. Did you know that AMC has a premium on-demand channel too? Aside from archives of various shows, it’s home to this ambitious British gangland thriller, whose scope stretches beyond various ethnic factions struggling for power in the UK capital to Middle Eastern drug cartels. There’s plenty of well-scripted familial crime drama, and familiar British faces like Michelle Fairley (Game of Thrones’ Catleyn Stark), Joe Cole (Peaky Blinders) and Paapa Essiedu (I May Destroy You), but the best thing about the show is the bravura fight scenes, which manage to be both spectacular in their John Wick-ish intensity and also grotesquely funny.
Industry on HBO Max. If you’ve ever wished that Billions was approximately 1000% hornier, may we interest you in Industry? HBO’s provocative workplace drama follows a group of Gen Z grads at an investment bank in London, as they snort, screw, and find their footing in the high-stakes world of global finance. It’s fast and reckless — the kind of binge fodder that goes down easy and makes you feel a little bad about yourself afterwards. Which, as you’ll come to see, is actually pretty on-brand for the show.
The Good Lord Bird on Showtime. It would be easy to portray John Brown, a white abolitionist who sacrificed everything to oppose slavery, as a purehearted hero. But this Showtime miniseries based on James McBride’s award-winning 2013 novel of the same name is a more complex portrait, narrated by an enslaved boy who joins Brown’s crew, that explores all the facets of his legacy: “People call John Brown a lot of things…killer, saint, prophet. He prophesied that the war was coming, and it came.” In one of the greatest performances of his career, Ethan Hawke brings Brown to life with a wild-eyed intensity.
The Undoing on HBO Max. This is a Big Little Lies world, and everything its cast and writers have done since is just a piece of that Monterey cinematic universe. That includes everything from Jean-Marc Valee's trademark visuals on Sharp Objects, Laura Dern's high-powered lawyer in Marriage Story, Reese Witherspoon's burgeoning friendship with Beyoncé and her early-2020 hit Little Fires Everywhere, and most recently The Undoing. David E. Kelley and Nicole Kidman's reunion resulted in a series that, while not half as good as BLL, is nearly as watchable. If you're tapping in for the whodunit factor you may leave disappointed; instead come for the lavish sets, Donald Sutherland’s patrician sneering, and Hugh Grant turning two decades of romcom hero reliability into reprehensible sleaze.
Seduced on Amazon Prime. HBO’s The Vow documentary about NXIVM, the multilevel marketing company/sex cult busted by the FBI in 2018, sucked up more attention. But Seduced is superior, because it has four tight episodes instead of a padded ten, and because it’s much clearer about the depravity of NXIVM leader Keith Rainere, who was recently sentenced to 120 years in prison. This profoundly uncharismatic little man somehow managed to convince Hollywood actors, members of the Bronfman family (who bankrolled him), and the Dalai Lama that he was humanity’s next great spiritual leader. In fact, he was an evil, abusive bullshit artist, but the details of the scheme he managed to unfold over decades are fascinating.
Murder on Middle Beach on HBO Max. This was not the flashiest or most-discussed docuseries of 2020, so we don’t blame you for overlooking it, but it’s worth a watch for a number of reasons. Its subject matter is deeply personal, as director Madison Hamburg unflinchingly interviews his family in an attempt to figure out who killed his mother, Barbara, in 2010. It’s also unique for attempting to subvert the genre of true crime, and restrained to four tidy installments instead of the bloated docs we’re getting inundated with these days. When you’re done, GQ’s interview with Hamburg should answer all your lingering questions.
The Queen’s Gambit on Netflix. This surprisingly dramatic period piece about competitive chess in the 1960s starring Anya Taylor-Joy (with wonderful supporting actors like Bill Camp) has been one of Netflix’s most-discussed shows since its release in October. The swift rise of chess prodigy Beth Harmon from local Kentucky competitions to international tournaments feels a little too much like a classic Cinderella story, but Taylor-Joy’s expressive yet often silent performance and the nuances of Out of Sight screenwriter Scott Frank’s script still manage to bring Harmon’s journey, and her struggles with addiction, to a satisfying and resonant close.
Fargo on FX on Hulu. Fargo took a dive with critics in its flat third season, and after a three-year hiatus, season four — which pits Chris Rock and Jason Schwartzman as leaders of opposing Kansas City crime syndicates in service of examining What It Means to Be American — was received no better. Is this some of creator Noah Hawley's most self-indulgent writing to date? Yes. Is the cast over-stuffed with characters whose arcs don't fully cohere? Undoubtedly. Does Rock's adolescent son grow up to become Fargo fan-favorite Mike Milligan? Obviously. But the inevitable dawn of Milligan is devastating to watch, as is Rock's slow realization that being the smartest gangster in the room won't help in a system designed for his failure. Throw in a breakout performance from Jessie Buckley, vets like Glynn Turman, and Timothy Olpyhant playing a marshal again, and this season has more highs than lows.
Real Housewives of Salt Lake City on Bravo. The Housewives are an acquired taste. But if you have acquired it, the latest entry in the series has all the key ingredients and then some: One housewife is married to her step-grandfather (in accordance with her grandmother’s dying wish); another is secretly separated from her husband, a huge deal in Mormon society; the premiere kicks off with a huge fight over an insult involving the smell of hospitals and an amputated leg. Plus, the snowy backdrops are pretty. So far, the ladies of Salt Lake are repping their city.
How To with John Wilson on HBO Max. Stitching together first-person footage shot over hundreds of hours roaming around NYC (with a few notable detours) and narrating matter-of-factly in his own voice, Wilson creates visual poetry with anthropological panache. Each 30-minute episode is ostensibly a tutorial on topics like "How To Make Small Talk," but Wilson shakes loose the eccentricities of his surroundings along the way, from the quotidian (an unattended hot dog cart rolling down the street, a pair of EMTs fumbling a dead body down a set of stairs) to the existential (an arresting conversation about mortality with a lonely, Monster-drinking attendee of MTV Spring Break.) There's nothing else quite like it.
Originally Appeared on GQ