The 10 best British TV shows of 2020

What would we have done without TV in 2020?

In a year that saw countries across the world experiencing lockdowns and social distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic, television was one of the few sources of entertainment many people had left.

Fortunately, the TV gods delivered. There has been an influx of awesome new and returning shows this year, and Britain’s offering was no exception. From the shattering brilliance of Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You to the gentle humour of Mortimer & Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, here are some of our favourites…

1. I May Destroy You

Michaela Coel's 'I May Destroy You' was one of the biggest shows of the year.

Michaela Coel’s ‘I May Destroy You’ was one of the biggest shows of the year.

I May Destroy You follows London millennial Arabella, who’s in the process of writing her second book when she’s sexually assaulted by a stranger during a night out. As Mashable’s Rachel Thompson wrote in her review, the series has the power to challenge stereotypes and misconceptions about who rape happens to, and what sexual violence really looks like.

“You won’t be able to shake I May Destroy You from your thoughts. After watching, you’ll close your laptop, or turn off your television, but I guarantee you this: it will stay with you. Created by Chewing Gum writer Michaela Coel, this new 12-part BBC One/HBO drama tackles the intersection of sexual assault, consent, and race in a radical way that is rarely, if ever, seen on screen.” The show also featured one of the best TV episodes of the year. -Sam Haysom, Deputy UK Editor

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer or HBO

2. Normal People

Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) won and broke our hearts.

Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal) won and broke our hearts.

Based on Sally Rooney’s novel, the BBC/Hulu’s tear-jerking adaptation of Normal People seemed to capture everybody’s hearts when it aired in spring 2020, and with good reason, too. Telling the years-long story of the romance between two troubled Irish teenagers, Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), the show spliced beautiful writing and cinematography with gut-wrenching performances.

“Before watching, know this: there will be feelings, and plenty of them,” wrote Mashable’s Rachel Thompson in her review. “You might cry (I certainly did). You might see your own experience in amongst the drama. You might remember past loves, past heartbreaks. You might, for a brief moment, remember what life and love was like before COVID-19. And for that, you will feel thankful, young again, alive, and no longer numb.” -S.H.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer or Hulu

3. Sex Education

Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) go camping in 'Sex Education' Season 2.

Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Eric Effiong (Ncuti Gatwa) go camping in ‘Sex Education’ Season 2.

It feels like a lifetime ago, but the second season of Sex Education really did come out in 2020. If you’re not familiar, there’s so much to love in this hilarious show. Frankly, Gillian Anderson’s performance as Jean, the unflinching sex therapist and mother to Otis (Asa Butterfield), is reason enough to watch it. Season 2 also came with an abundance of will-they-won’t-they tension between Otis and Maeve (Emma Mackey), while things took a powerful and serious turn with Aimee’s sexual assault storyline, which many viewers found moving and painfully relatable. Netflix has confirmed Season 3, so let’s hope it lands soon. -Rachel Thompson, Senior UK Culture Reporter

Where to watch: Netflix

4. The Crown

'The Crown' Season 4 introduced both Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana (played by Emma Corrin).

‘The Crown’ Season 4 introduced both Margaret Thatcher and Princess Diana (played by Emma Corrin).

Image: Des Willie / Netflix

It was the season many Crown fans were waiting for since the moment the epic, sprawling series was first announced, and Season 4, with the arrival of Diana Spencer (Emma Corrin) and Margaret Thatcher (Gillian Anderson), did not disappoint. 

Pick your thrill: viewers got to luxuriate watching Anderson’s Thatcher and Olivia Colman’s Queen go toe to toe while also keeping a phone or laptop at the ready to Google the real story behind Charles (the excellent Josh O’Connor) did in the ’80s. The show reminded us why so many people remain deeply fascinated by this troubled, privileged family. Episodes zeroed in on dramatized moments (like standout “Terra Nullius,” when Charles and Diana go to Australia) that perfectly encapsulated larger relationship themes. If a feeling of doom overtakes you as the series goes, well, it’s a sad, lonely world inside Buckingham Palace. We’ll enjoy Corrin rollerskating down its stunning hallways while we can.* -Erin Strecker, Entertainment Editor

Where to watch: Netflix

5. Staged


If there was a show that embodied the feelings of being at home during the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic more than Staged, I’ll eat my hat. Good Omens buddies David Tennant and Michael Sheen teamed up to create a show filmed entirely over video call, and it hit the experience of working from home during this anxious time on the head. 

The premise is simple: Tennant and Sheen basically play themselves, as two actors whose West End play has been paused due to COVID-19. Their wildly intimidated, long-suffering director has them continue rehearsing online, which leads to constant down-the-camera bickering and some relatable awkward moments with the exceptional support cast — mainly the ever-excellent Nina Sosanya. Judi Dench and Samuel L. Jackson also make hilarious appearances. But among all the at-home jokes, the show deliberately catches you in lighthearted moments with subtle reminders of the severity of the situation we all continue to inhabit — a silly row with a neighbour over invaded recycling bins becomes chillingly real in an instant with one line of dialogue. -S.C.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer or Netflix

6. I Hate Suzie

Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) and Naomi Jones (Leila Farzad) figure out what to do next.

Suzie Pickles (Billie Piper) and Naomi Jones (Leila Farzad) figure out what to do next.

Created by Lucy Prebble and Billie Piper, I Hate Suzie is a show with zero reasons to despise. Piper is unrelentingly brilliant as former pop star and current Nazi zombie TV show star Suzie Pickles, whose phone is hacked and compromising photos of her are leaked to the press. Aside from this abominable, illegal invasion of privacy, it kickstarts a chaotic chain of events for Suzie, whose best bet to survive it all is clinging to her best friend and agent, Naomi, played with unshakeable cool by Leila Farzad. 

Suzie’s life choices are often as unpredictable, hilarious, and relatably ill-advised as Fleabag’s. The similarities to Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s show stop there, however, as Piper and Prebble take the series into its own realm, a poignant, smart, funny, and unnerving tale of celebrity, sexism, motherhood, and sort of kind of knowing what the hell you’re doing with your life. -S.C.

Where to watch: NOW TV or HBO Max

7. Noughts + Crosses


In a year which saw global protests against racism and police brutality in the aftermath of the police killing of George Floyd, who died after a police officer knelt on his neck for almost nine minutes, the BBC’s Noughts + Crosses series feels crucially important.

Based on Malorie Blackman’s massively popular YA novels, the story is set in an alternate version of the UK in which Black people (Crosses) dominate the white population (Noughts) following the African (or Aprican as it’s renamed) colonisation of Europe. The story itself is a kind of drama/thriller/romance hybrid, mixing Game of Thrones-style political backstabbing with a very human story of discrimination and systemic oppression. The end result? A stunningly-crafted epic that’s every bit as tense as it is impactful. -S.H.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

8. Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing

Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, off on a fishing expedition.

Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, off on a fishing expedition.

It’s difficult for me to sum up in words just how much I love Gone Fishing. In a year like 2020 it’s the perfect kind of show, a gentle watch that combines peaceful British countryside footage with the ever-entertaining (and often fairly philosophical) musings of two well-known British comics. You don’t need to like fishing to enjoy this BBC docuseries, and you don’t even need to be familiar with the work of its stars, Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer. You just need to sit back and let the gentle humour wash over you.

2020 marked the show’s third series, and rather than the formula feeling tired or predictable, it was every bit as good as the first two, combining constant banter with some more serious musings about mortality, mental health and the meaning of life. -S.H.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

9. This Country

Kerry (Daisy May Cooper) and Lee "Kurtan" Mucklowe (Charlie Cooper) show you around.
Kerry (Daisy May Cooper) and Lee “Kurtan” Mucklowe (Charlie Cooper) show you around.

Image: bbc

Everyone’s favourite Cotswold-dwelling bumpkins graced our screens for the last time this year with the third season of This Country. This mockumentary follows cousins Kerry (Daisy May Cooper) and Lee “Kurtan” Mucklowe (Charlie Cooper) as they navigate their life in the small, and deeply boring village they’ve grown up in. Despite the fact that neither of them have much going on in their lives, this show hilariously captures what it’s like to grow up in the English countryside, particularly in a place where very little happens. Tune in for banter with the vicar (who is basically Kerry and Kurtan’s best friend/mentor/father figure), drama at the village’s annual Scarecrow competition, and some, uhh, high emotions at the Harvest Festival. -R.T.

Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

10. Alex Rider

Alex (Otto Farrante) accepts a mission from Mrs. Jones (Vicky McClure), even without the coercion.

Alex (Otto Farrante) accepts a mission from Mrs. Jones (Vicky McClure), even without the coercion.

Image: Des Willie / Eleventh Hour Films / Sony Pictures Television

For those disappointed by the news that No Time to Die had been pushed back to 2021, Amazon Studios and IMDbTV’s Alex Rider — a TV adaptation of Anthony Horowtiz’s YA spy thriller series about a teenager investigating his uncle’s disappearance — may have gone some way to plugging the gap.

“From the outset Alex ends up in near-constant peril, in truly adrenaline-pumping situations with dark twists at every turn,” wrote Mashable’s Proma Khosla in her review. “These twists might be less shocking to someone not reading them in eighth grade, but they’re tried and true spy movie moments that satisfy even when they don’t surprise. It helps that they’re set to a rip-roaring rock soundtrack and filmed alternately as action drama and horror movie. What previous adaptations did not understand was that Alex Rider contains multitudes — here, he lives his double life to the fullest.” -S.H.

Where to watch: Amazon Prime

*This show writeup also appeared on a previous Mashable list.

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