This is it! We’re finally here! Yes, we’re about to finally put 2020 behind us and move on into the (hopefully) brighter pastures of 2021, but more important than that, we’ve reached the end of RadioTimes.com‘s countdown of our top 50 TV shows of the year, as chosen by our editorial team.
From Dracula to Doctor Who, Strictly to Tiger King, His Dark Materials to Selling Sunset, we’ve celebrated television in all its many glorious forms over the past five days, but there can be only one winner (plus nine runners up) as we hurtle headfirst into the top 10.
So read on for our very top picks, from a year where small-screen escapism became less of a pastime and more of a necessary comfort. (To read our full top 50, follow the links below.)
- Best TV shows of the year 2020, 20-11: Quiz, His Dark Materials and more
- Best TV shows of the year 2020, 30-21: Strictly, The Undoing and more
- Best TV shows of the year 2020, 40-31: Doctor Who, Tiger King and more
- Best TV shows of the year 2020, 50-41: Dracula, Inside no. 9 and more
10. The Mandalorian
Available on Disney+
While this Star Wars spin-off (and its adorable green mascot Baby Yoda, aka The Child, aka Grogu) was a big hit for its first season, the Mandalorian’s continuing adventures in season two seriously raised the stakes.
Alongside the usual pulse-pounding action scenes and heists-gone-wrong the series introduced some iconic figures from Star Wars history, gave fans the Boba Fett action scene they’d all been waiting for and even managed to bring *spoiler alert* Luke Skywalker back to our screens.
Finally, for fans, this was the Star Wars they’d been looking for – and we can hardly wait to see what trouble and excitement Mando jets off to next. – Huw Fullerton, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Editor
9. The Masked Singer
Available on ITV Hub
“Take it off! Take it off!” – 2020 wasn’t quite what anyone expected, but heading into this most tumultuous of years, I can honestly say I never expected the sight (and sound) of Teddy Sheringham dressed as a tree singing ‘Evergreen’ to be one of my TV highlights of the year… but here we are.
The Masked Singer was a joyous escape from real-world woes back in January (if only we’d known what was to come) – colourful, absurd and, crucially, genuinely compelling. ‘Playing along’ with the panel, posting your best guesses as to “who’s that behind the mask” on Twitter and rushing to Wikipedia in the hopes of confirming your latest theory after the show dropped another tantalising clue as to a singer’s identity… this was part ridiculous variety show, part parlour game, and the experience was wonderful.
On top of those wild and wonderful costumes, the panel’s dreadful detective work (no, it’s probably not Emma Watson dressed as a Giant Octopus), the improbable names who’d actually signed up (Alan Johnson MP, Skin from Skunk Anansie, actual Kelis) and even Ken Jeong’s awkward catchphrases (“I know exactly who this is!”) only added to the surreal brilliance. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor
Available on Netflix
Netflix’s first German-language series, Dark had set itself a supremely difficult challenge ahead of its third and final season in June. Here was a show with a set-up so complex and a mythology so knotty that it seemed almost impossible the series could tie itself up in a neat little bow and reach a conclusion that would satisfy it’s adoring fanbase.
But fans needn’t have worried – the final series was another irresistible piece of sci-fi television, equal parts mesmerising and confounding, with a sweeping scope that gave it the sense of a true epic. With its exhilarating finale Dark has earned its place among the list of the very best original series made for the streamer. – Patrick Cremona, Writer-Researcher
7. Small Axe
Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and to buy on Amazon
Though it had been in development since 2012, and conceived of by writer/director Steve McQueen even earlier, Small Axe – an anthology of five films exploring the experiences of West Indian immigrants living in London through the ’60s and ’70s – felt especially timely in a year when conversations surrounding systemic racism and Black identity loomed large.
Across its five parts, Small Axe did plenty to examine the attitudes of the time, reflecting them back at us in such a way as to leave the audience pondering not just what has changed but crucially what has not, but McQueen’s series was no mere polemic. Though powerful and at points highly critical of the power structures that allowed – and in some cases continue to allow – suppression and abuse to continue, Small Axe was also a gorgeous celebration of West Indian culture, from the safe haven of the titular restaurant in Mangrove to the immersive house party of Lover’s Rock. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor
Available on BBC iPlayer, Netflix and Sky Go
Innovative, funny, and above all, just what we needed, Staged set the standard for lockdown television, striking just the right balance between humour and occasional poignancy. Starring David Tennant and Michael (not Martin) Sheen as exaggerated, comedic versions of themselves, the chemistry and balance between the lackadaisical, peace-making Scot and the rather shouty Welshman is just right.
The premise for season one is that the pair are rehearsing for a play via Zoom, but inevitably their conversations drift towards more pressing topics: chiefly, what time in the day is it acceptable to start pouring out the red wine. – Flora Carr, Drama Writer
5. The Crown
Available on Netflix
The launch of The Crown season 4 was one of the television events of the year, and for good reason. This was the season which spanned the Thatcher years (hello, Gillian Anderson) and kicked off the Princess Diana years (introducing: the wonderful Emma Corrin).
This latest instalment of Netflix’s flagship show was somewhat uneven in quality, and sometimes clunky in dialogue – but when it was good, it was very good, with superb performances from Corrin, Josh O’Connor as Prince Charles, and the rest of the royal gang who will now bow out ahead of season five and the next cast changeover. – Eleanor Bley Griffiths, Drama Editor
Available on ITV Hub, BritBox, Sky Go and to buy on Amazon
It was a busy year for true crime drama series, with ITV also offering us Honour and White House Farm, but top of the pile was Des, a chilling miniseries that felt like true event television when it aired across three nights in September.
Depicting the arrest and subsequent trial of Scottish serial killer Dennis Nielsen, the eerie Des was magnificent on all fronts – Luke Neal and Kelly Jones’ compelling, sophisticated scripts, Lewis Arnold’s taut direction, Jason Watkins’ superb turn as Nilsen’s biographer Brian Masters and, of course, David Tennant’s utterly magnetic performance as Nilsen himself. But arguably the heart and soul of the piece was Danny Mays’ portrayal of DCI Peter Jay – a performance less showy than that of his co-stars’ but with so much power and truth to it.
A bleak, unpretentious depiction of the true monotony of evil, Des was not just great drama but the perfect example of how to approach true crime storytelling. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor
3. The Queen’s Gambit
Available on Netflix
On the face of it, a limited series about chess might not sound like a likely candidate for a mega word-of-mouth smash, but Scott Frank’s series The Queen’s Gambit became exactly that when it arrived on Netflix in October (chess set sales jumped 87% in the US after its debut).
Lavishly produced and consistently engaging, this sumptuous series is elevated by its star Anya Taylor-Joy, who turns in a terrific performance as prodigy Beth Harmon – whose rise to the top is offset against her frequent struggles with addiction. With an outstanding supporting cast and an array of expertly-staged chess match set-pieces, it proved almost impossible to resist The Queen’s Gambit’s charms. – Patrick Cremona, Writer-Researcher
2. I May Destroy You
Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and to buy on Amazon
To put it simply, Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You is astonishing. In just six hours, the show covers a staggering amount of ground, providing a detailed and insightful examination of sexual consent and assault in numerous forms.
The show certainly doesn’t shy away from its sensitive subject matter, but Coel’s razor-sharp wit and beautifully written characters go a long way to keeping the conversation accessible. Her portrayal of Arabella is one of the best performances of the year without any doubt, but co-stars Paapa Essiedu and Weruche Opia are also phenomenal, each of them excelling in both comedic and heart-wrenching scenes.
I May Destroy You is not only hugely compelling television, it’s important, educational, and impossible to forget. – David Craig, Writer-Researcher
1. Normal People
Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and to watch on Amazon
You’ll have heard the gags about how most everyone in the UK got through the first lockdown – by starting a podcast, baking banana bread, and binge-watching Normal People. Like all the best jokes, this one has its root in truth.
Landing on BBC iPlayer as a boxset one month into our seriously prolonged staycation, the arrival of this sublime adaptation of Sally Rooney’s novel felt like a cultural moment – you’ll have heard too, many times, about how this show or that was “exactly what we needed” in 2020, but of these, Normal People felt like the most unifying, providing not just a touching, sometimes frustrating love story but also a sense of community for its audience at a time when our day-to-day was otherwise sorely lacking in personal interactions.
We all celebrated, obsessed over and related to the highs and lows of the years-long relationship between Marianne and Connell as we watched them grow from awkward school kids to young adults, with plenty of pain, passion and misunderstandings in-between, with relative newcomers Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal (and his chain) guaranteeing instant stardom and long careers with a pair of blistering, beautiful performances.
Elegantly adapted from the book and gorgeously shot, this nuanced, intimate, intelligent drama was the most-discussed television in 2020 for good reason. Believe the hype. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor
Find something to watch now with our TV Guide.