Reflecting on 2020 – as a whole as well as specifically relating to television series – Charles Dickens’s opening paragraph of A Tale Of Two Cities comes to mind: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”
Let us never forget this was the year that brought us Tiger King. March seems so long ago now, doesn’t it? There was also Space Force, a rather dismal outing for Steve Carell following the success of The Morning Show (Apple TV+) opposite Jennifer Aniston. It earned him an Emmy nomination at this year’s virtual online ceremony.
We’re not going to dwell on the worst of times, the foolishness or the darkness. The Plum List is all about plucking the juiciest, sweetest and most delicious fruits to stream, so here are my personal Plum Picks for 2020; not always necessarily the popular vote, but certainly the shows that brought light to my life during these turbulent 12 months.
Perry Mason (Showmax)
Perry Mason is quite possibly the most famous television lawyer in the history of television legal shows. His creator, Erle Stanley Gardner, was prolific to say the least; he wrote a whopping 80 Perry Mason novels, and Raymond Burr starred in the eponymous series that ran from 1957 till 1966, and is still in syndication to this day.
This is not that series.
This is an origin story, going back to the days when Mason was a farm-boy-turned-private-detective with a traumatic war history as well as domestic drama. Here he is played by Matthew Rhys (The Americans), in 1930s Los Angeles, a city prospering while the rest of the country is in the grip of the Great Depression.
Mason is hired to investigate a sensational baby kidnapping case, which in turn leads him to take the bar exam and follow through all the way to the courtroom.
The series has been signed by HBO for a second season.
Mrs America (DStv online) – expires on 22 December 2020
It’s crazy to realise that despite women holding all manner of jobs and positions of power, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) – first written in 1923 – remains, to this day, a proposed amendment to the United States Constitution. Proposed! After nearly 100 years!
The amendment was designed to guarantee equal legal rights for all American citizens regardless of sex, and seeks to end the legal distinctions between men and women in matters of divorce, property, employment, and other matters. And yet here we are.
This miniseries stars Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, a staunch Republican and vociferous opponent of the ERA, circa 1970s. On the other side of the fence are the women’s libbers and feminists, like Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne) and various other real-life characters (very well cast for looks, if you watch the end credits after the final episode) played by Tracey Ullman, Sarah Paulson, Margo Martindale, Uzo Aduba and Elizabeth Banks. For these women alone, the series is to be commended. Go on, Google them all.
Mrs America received 10 Emmy nominations, including Outstanding Limited Series, and a win for Aduba (Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Limited Series or Movie).
“Although set in the Seventies, Mrs America is alarmingly current. We like to reassure ourselves that steps towards female emancipation have been taken, but the show illustrates we’ve essentially been fighting the same battle for nearly 50 years,” says Harpers Bazaar.
Dead To Me (Netflix)
At the beginning of Season 1 of this show created by Liz Feldman, who didn’t know at the time if she’d get a second season, we were introduced to Jen (Christina Applegate), who had recently lost her husband Ted in a hit and run. At a grief counselling group, she met Judy (Linda Cardellini), who had lost her fiancé Steve (circumstances not stated). That very first episode concluded with the first big surprise – Judy had been involved in that hit and run.
And so begins a litany of unexpected events that shouldn’t be spoiled, throughout the first season, and the second, which premiered in May this year.
It’s a dark and twisted comedy, bordering on the outrageous at times, and also a story of an unexpected friendship. I wrote: “There are indeed some plot developments that will test your ability to suspend disbelief to its breaking point, but the sharp dialogue between the two well-directed leads allows all that to slide effortlessly over them.”
Need more convincing? From Esquire: “Netflix’s Dead to Me… is not just a show about secrets. It’s a murder mystery and a dark comedy and a meditation on grief and a buddy adventure drama. But when you try and define the series by one of those singular monikers, it takes away from the greater good, so let’s settle on this: Netflix’s murder-mystery-dark-comedy-buddy-drama is a damn good time.”
Good Girls (Netflix)
This is a bit of a tricky one to put in a “best of” list because its third season, which we were happily watching in February, was supposed to be 16 episodes but was cut short at 11 due to the sickness of the world. This means it stands on one heck of a cliff hanger, which may or may not ever be resolved, even though its network (NBC) has renewed for a fourth season. Still, it’s a good watch if you like a mixture of comedy, drama and crime with a kick-ass female-led cast which includes Christina Hendricks (Tin Star, Mad Men), Mae Whitman (Parenthood, Arrested Development) and Retta (Parks and Recreation).
The story is about three women who really, really need money, so they hold up a supermarket. That’s all the way back in Season 1. From there, things escalate until they are deeply involved with a crime syndicate and laundering money.
“This kind of television show shouldn’t feel as rare as it does—an intelligent yarn that’s broadly accessible, that’s digested easily and satisfyingly while still provoking hunger for more,” comments Vanity Fair.
Sex Education (Netflix)
A teenage boy with all the attendant hormonal issues, whose mother is a sex therapist: what a great basis for a comedy series. Sixteen-year-old Otis (Asa Butterfield) makes the best of the situation by taking what he’s learned from being around his mum Jean (Gillian Anderson) and begins dishing out advice to the confused teens at his school – for a fee, of course. It’s quite a good business model.
This is a very basic plot outline; there’s oh-so-much more going on, with Otis, his friends, his crushes, their crushes, Jean and her gentlemen callers, and many, many complications. Sex is like that.
“The teenagers’ sexual escapades continue apace, bringing constant laughs in this rare, magnificent comedy that is good for both the heart and the soul,” says The Guardian of season two. Good news is that season three is in production.
This hip and funky show came to Showmax in June. In my review I wrote: “For six half-hour episodes, HBO’s series Betty sure packs in a lot, from negatives like toxic masculinity to positives such as the power of the matriarchy. It combines a lot of talking and discussion about these and other weighty topics while at the same time presenting breathtakingly beautiful sequences of young women taking possession of the male-dominated sport of skateboarding in an urban environment.”
Betty – the derogatory term applied to female skaters – is described as a teen comedy but it rises well over and beyond that, with much wider appeal.
Says GQ: “Centering around young women shredding in New York City, the series is abound in good vibes and impressive skating to boot. HBO rarely ever dips into teen drama territory, but when it does, the results are pretty staggering (see: Euphoria), so Betty already has a lot of promise.”
Years & Years (Showmax)
This one took me by surprise, I must admit. Glancing up from what I was doing when the trailers came on before it aired on M-Net 101, I muttered to myself, probably rolling my eyes, “another dystopian series.” But due diligence is A Thing so I watched it, and ended up thoroughly enjoying it.
At the core of the story is an extended family who live in a future that is not difficult to imagine. There’s quite a bit that will make you go “what the…?” but after what we’ve lived through lately, not much can surprise us now.
“The key question of our times, one so massive that it demands to be broken up into several smaller ones, is how the individual should or even can react to living through increasingly rapid change,” says Variety (in June 2019 when Years And Years first aired). “TV has made a couple of previous attempts at it: There’s Westworld on HBO, which operates in the realm of allegory to illuminate just how surreal we become even to ourselves as familiar reality slips away. And Black Mirror has for years now crafted stories in which protagonists face down technological change that has the capacity either to illuminate familiar traits in us, or to break us apart in the process of changing us.”
While the subject matter is serious and sometimes tragic, there is dry, sardonic wit to “lighten” the mood, from time to time.
Grace & Frankie (Netflix)
Trust me, Season 6 did come out in 2020, albeit in January, which was actually 13 years ago. The series was renewed for a seventh and final season, but production was halted because you-know-why and will hopefully resume early in 2021.
Grace and Frankie (Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin respectively) are two older women whose husbands (Robert played by Martin Sheen and Sol played by Sam Waterston) finally admit they’ve been in love with each other for years. They, the wives, are not particularly fond of each other and could not be more different – Grace is uptight and elegant, Frankie is a flaky hippie. Circumstances, however, draw them together as a grudging friendship is formed.
It’s sweet and funny and kooky and heartwarming and oh-so-easy to slide into like a pair of comfortable slippers.
“The real appeal of Grace and Frankie are the characters, and they’re still the same lovable, dysfunctional bunch viewers have grown to love over since 2015,” says The Spool of season six. “The cast is top-notch, and it’s obvious they all still have the same level of passion for the characters and the show that they had in the first episode.”
Quick recap: financial advisor Marty Bird (Jason Bateman, who also directs from time to time) offers to make good on an organised crime money-laundering operation gone wrong, and ends up, with his family, in the Ozarks in central Missouri with a seemingly impossible task of cleaning $500 million.
It’s crime drama at its smartest. To answer a Google user’s question as to what makes it so great, the answer is, according to Cool Material, “Ozark’s strongest qualities are how well developed the plot is, along with the intelligence of the characters. To viewers, it means that there’s never any ridiculous plot thinness, and no one is ever obsessing over the wrong questions or missing obvious connections.”
Treat yourself to all three seasons to become immersed in the shady characters and the unavoidable decline into deeper and darker criminal activities. Ozark – which can draw parallels with Breaking Bad – has been renewed for a fourth and final season.
The Crown (Netflix)
Season 4 of The Crown came to our screens in November 2020, this time examining the British monarchy from 1977 to 1990. It’s a juicy period, which includes the UK’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, played most remarkably by Gillian Anderson, supported by much hairspray.
During this time, the young Diana Spencer made her appearance, and between her and Mrs Thatcher, Queen Elizabeth II (Olivia Colman) takes somewhat of a back seat, providing a canvas for the other stories to play out.
Camilla Parker Bowles (Emerald Fennell) and her enduring love affair with Prince Charles (Josh O’Connor) is featured too, and the portrayal of this relationship has drawn some criticism, particularly against the backdrop of Diana’s unhappiness.
That a South African drama series charts at number three is an indicator of how the local film and television industry has grown and matured. We have incredible talent right here at home, which is being recognised globally through shows like Trackers, and several African and South African series on Netflix – with more to come in 2021.
Inconceivable is a title that describes the plot: a woman whose infant is stillborn steals another woman’s baby. If the shocking audacity of this action in the first episode isn’t enough, it escalates as friendships and relationships are torn apart by the heinous secret – with a side order of infidelity bringing its own special kind of devastation in its wake.
I think the success of this show is its realness. We know these people. We are these people.
Schitt’s Creek (Netflix)
Created by Eugene Levy and his son Dan, this comedy series is an absolute delight. I have no idea what took me so long to get to it but I’m so glad I did. It has six seasons and concluded in April 2020, followed by a spectacular Emmy haul in all the major comedy award categories.
After falling on financial hard times, the Rose family is forced out of their mansion and into a crumby little town filled with offbeat characters, and 80 episodes of misadventures. The Levys star as father and son Johnny and David, alongside Catherine O’Hara as mom Moira and Annie Murphy as daughter Alexis.
It’s difficult to convey in this short space how brilliantly funny Schitt’s Creek is so let me put it this way: I binged it all in less than a week, and I wouldn’t hesitate to do it all over again right now. Today. To my fellow fans all I need to say is “Ew, David!”.
The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)
There is no surprise whatsoever that this one tops the list. It was the best show of 2020 by far – and Netflix’s biggest and most successful scripted limited series, ever.
Adapted from the book of the same name by Walter Tevis (back on the New York Times bestseller list 37 years later), The Queen’s Gambit stars the exquisite Anya Taylor-Joy as chess prodigy Beth Harmon. The story follows her from childhood when she became hooked on the game – and drugs – at an orphanage, up to her biggest triumph on the board.
Chess has never been more exciting, but there’s so much more than that going on here as we watch Beth’s victories and tragedies not only in the game but in life.
The Queen’s Gambit is pure viewing pleasure and a visual feast from beginning to end.