The Best TV of 2020: a year in search of escape

These were the shows that delivered us from lockdown, with a focus on Australian content but not exclusively. From Mystery Road to Stateless, Aunty Donna, The Great and Bluey these rated highly with our critics.

Watching television became hard work for me this year, and I wonder if it was the same for you.

It wasn’t just the three remote controls I had to locate in order to operate my TV; or the lost passwords and expired credit card details for too many streaming services. I was also suffering the lockdown blues.Tied to my computer screen all day, I took refuge in books after hours, or browsed comforting and sensual makeup tutorials on my phone, dipping in and out of the ABC news app for coronavirus updates when I dared.

Watching gruesome crime, hard-hitting documentaries or even tense cook-offs felt too stressful in this weird limbo. Mainly I wanted comedy, or relationship dramas set in the olden days when we used to leave the house; or something visually stunning and geographically transporting.

Something like Warwick Thornton’s gorgeous six-part slow TV documentary event,The Beach (SBS & NITV), which took us up the north west coast of Australia to watch him detoxing on a deserted beach, cooking up a storm in an art-designed man-shack, and talking to his chooks from a hammock. The Beach was without a doubt the best thing I watched all year, and interviewing him about it was also a highlight.

The Beach (SBS/NITV)

Screenhub reviewer Chris Boyd loved The Beach too, watching it three times and giving it four stars. He called it ‘a blinder. Gorgeous. Fascinating… a deeply personal gift for our solitary times. See it on free-to-air, if you can, on the biggest screen you can find.’

Read: TV review: The Beach is gorgeous but deeply puzzling


Mystery Road Series 2 (ABC iview)

Also set in the same part of the world (and featuring Thornton as one of its directors, along with Wayne Blair), Mystery Road Series 2 was thoroughly engaging, full of memorable characters, locations and surprise twists. Detective Jay Swan (Aaron Pederson) is well worth spending time with, even if he’s not a great conversationalist. 

As our critic Anthony Morris wrote in his 4.5 star review, it’s genre done just right:

The strength of the Mystery Road franchise throughout all its incarnations (two movies and two series to date) is that it’s never been afraid to embrace its genre side. Jay is a hardboiled cop investigating a mystery, so obviously he’s going to get beaten up a lot, argue with the local police chief Owen (Mark Mitchinson) and not worry about getting a warrant. The initial movies were basically modern westerns; if you played a drinking game based around the number of times we see Jay’s dusty cowboy boots per episode here, you’d be lucky to make it to the half way mark. But there’s a nice touch of realism to it all too, like when the definitely lazy and possibly corrupt Owen reminds Fran that she needs to file a report after firing her gun.

Read: TV review: Mystery Road S2 is genre done just right

Stateless (ABC)

The series created by Cate Blanchett, Elise McCredie and Tony Ayres tackled some difficult subject matter, with much of it set in an Australian detention centre where a fistful of characters converge on all sides of a dilemma. In a cast full of standouts, including Blanchett, Yvonne Strahovski gave an amazing performance as a disturbed woman caught up in a cult and then a detention centre. The Matchbox Pictures drama dominated the AACTA Awards this year and our critic Chris Boyd gave it four stars. Praising its cinematography, direction, editing and sound design, he said, ‘…it is the evenness, depth and sheer acting torque of the large ensemble…that will grip you to the very end.’

Read: TV Review: Stateless is gripping to the very end

Maralinga Tjarutja (ABC)

Nuclear tests were just part of a longer story, as told by Larissa Behrendt’s excellent documentary made as a condition for filming drama series Operation Buffalo. In her 4.5 star review, Mel Campbell said:

Maralinga Tjarutja also gently but provocatively reminds the viewer of a colonial legacy just as toxic and persistent as nuclear contamination: the way that severing ties between people and their Country forces later generations to embark upon journeys home through white bureaucracies and archives, searching for the cultural knowledge that was stolen. No wonder the mystery and the road have been such powerful tropes in Aboriginal storytelling – case in point, Mystery Road.

Read: TV review: Maralinga Tjarutja paints a full picture

Amazon Original Comedy Special (Amazon)

Ten comedians took their shows to a global audience with this excellent straight up funny series, which Anthony Morris deemed 5 star-worthy, writing: 

If you weren’t able to make it to any of the big comedy festivals over the last few years, this collection of specials (filmed at Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre) is basically a greatest hits package. Celia Pacquola’s All Talk and Zoë Coombs Marr’s Bossy Bottom were released first, then last Friday saw Tommy Little’s Self-Diagnosed Genius and Alice Fraser’s Savage. Still to come are Judith Lucy’s Judith Lucy vs Men and Dilruk Jayasinha’s Bundle of Joy, Lano & Woodley’s FLY and Tom Walker’s Very Very, and finally Tom Gleeson’s Joy and Anne Edmonds What’s Wrong With You?

Read: TV review: Amazon’s Australian Comedy Special delivers laughs

Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun (Netflix)

Anarchic, rude and weird, Australian comedy team Aunty Donna don’t appeal to everyone, but they do appeal to Morris who gave the new show 4.5 stars. Honed on live performance and online, the wacky guys finally got a proper TV show on the biggest platform around and he reckons they just keep getting funnier.

Read: TV review: Aunty Donna’s Big Ol’ House of Fun shines on Netflix

Freeman (ABC)

Laurence Billiet’s tender insight into one of our most celebrated sports stars, Cathy Freeman, was joyous and timely, said First Nations critic Bryan Andy in his 4.5 star review of the documentary. Andy particularly liked the addition of Yawuru woman and dancer Lillian Banks, ‘who is choreographed sparingly but brilliantly by Stephen Page of Bangarra Dance Theatre, who doubles as the doco’s co-director’. Banks was used within the one-hour film as a kind of body double representation of the younger Cathy Freeman. Andy also writes that ‘the broad palette of media snippets in Freeman is complemented by reflections from the woman herself, in Cathy’s trademark bubbly-yet-sincere, determined voice. An engaging balance is struck, resulting in renewed appreciation for her focus, determination and tact in trailblazing a track that still, after twenty years, remains legendary and unmatched.

Read: TV Review: Freeman is a portrait of Aboriginal excellence

The Great (Stan)

Oscar-nominated Australian writer-creator Tony McNamara delivers a bingeable historical farce that will delight fans of The Favourite in this whipsmart rollicking comic costume drama, very loosely based on the historical Catherine the Great. It stars Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult in career best performances and Mel Campbell absolutely loved this giving it 4.5 stars. She wrote:

Rather than a soap, The Great is a bureaucratic sitcom in the same comedic tradition as Yes MinisterBlackadderThe Thick of ItUtopia or even The Office. Its characters fall into archetypes, have recognisable roles, and repeatedly create farcical misunderstandings within chaotic events that ‘reset’ after each episode. It’s through comedic repetition that The Great’s social satire and character building express themselves…. But The Great is never too superficial or flippant. Like The Favourite, it undercuts its farce with some surprisingly heavy dramatic moments.

Read: TV review: The Great is a lavish bureaucratic sitcom

Bluey Season 2 (ABC Kids)

Ludo Studios’ much awarded animated series about a blue heeler pup and her family is pure fun and ABC iview’s most watched show of all time. No wonder, said Anthony Morris in his 5 star review. The series couldn’t have come at a better time in the hard year that was 2020. He wrote:

So what makes Bluey work? For one thing, it looks good. It’s brightly coloured and pleasingly animated, with playful character designs that are distinctive while feeling calming and safe. It’s firmly Australian (the Bluey family home definitely feels like it belongs in the production company’s home state of Queensland), without being aggressive about it. If you’re a local you’ll pick up on local details, and if you’re not it’s just a vividly imagined cartoon world to play in.

Read: TV review: Bluey season 2 is a warm hug

Also highly recommended

Our critics this year gave four star reviews to a number of other shows including:

Hungry Ghosts (SBS)

A Sunburnt Christmas (Stan)

Looky Looky Here Comes Cooky (NITV)

Dom and Adrian 2020 (Stan)

Normal People (Stan)

Run (Foxtel)

A few of my personal favourites

In those moments when I managed to find all three remote controls and lose my phone for a minute, these were the shows that gave me hours of distraction, diversion and delight. Maybe they’ll do the same for you over the summer break:

The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

An emotionally satisfying and visually stylish drama about a female chess prodigy in 1960s America.

The Crown (Netflix)

The latest series covering the Lady Di years is intelligently plotted and totally addictive, chock full of fantastic performances, including Gillian Anderson as Thatcher and Olivia Colman as the Queen.

Upright (Foxtel)

Tim Minchin and Milly Alcock are sensational as two misfits on a road trip across the Nullabor with an old piano of the back of their ute.

Forever (Amazon Prime)

A darkly comic series from 2018 about a stale married couple (Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph) navigating their relationship in the afterlife.

Difficult People (SBS on Demand)

A pair of jaded aspiring comedians living in New York are almost unbearably nasty, but their saving grace is their staunch friendship and love for each other. This comedy has actual jokes and its very funny, staying just the ride side of sour, and occasionally sweet.

The Pier (SBS on Demand)

A Spanish mystery drama about a wife discovering her husband’s secret life after his apparent suicide. This is sexy, surprising and very delicious to watch, especially if, like me, you’re dreaming of visiting Valencia, or anywhere outside of Australia.

Rochelle Siemienowicz is the ArtsHub Group's Education and Career Editor. She is a journalist for Screenhub and is a writer, film critic and cultural commentator with a PhD in Australian cinema. She was the co-host of Australia's longest-running film podcast 'Hell is for Hyphenates' and has written a memoir, Fallen, published by Affirm Press. Her second book, Double Happiness, a novel, will be published by Midnight Sun in 2024. Instagram: @Rochelle_Rochelle Twitter: @Milan2Pinsk