12 new TV shows from 2020 to binge-watch after ‘The Queen’s Gambit’
These days it seems like a new, must-see series is dropped on us every week, and it's hard to keep up. While you may have seen or at least were hyped on Netflix's excellent hit miniseries The Queen's Gambit -- or Amazon's The Boys, or HBO's Lovecraft Country -- there are many other shows that haven't gotten quite the same amount of attention but are just as worthy of your eyeballs. Here are a dozen new series from 2020 that are worth checking out, from dead-serious dramas to wacky workplace comedies to heady sci-fi and at least a couple that defy easy categorization.
Check out the list below.
Betty (HBO Max)
So many people lament the days of yore in NYC, when things were supposedly wild and free and cooler, complaining about how real estate has ruined everything. While some of that may be true, HBO's wonderfully vibey series Betty shows that that the city's unique heartbeat -- and youth culture -- are still going strong. Filmmaker Crystal Moselle adapted her 2018 film Skate Kitchen, about a group of girl skaters trying to be recognized in a male-dominated sport, into this series that manages to keep its loose feel across the first season's six episodes. The film's Dede Lovelace, Rachelle Vinberg, Anaji Russell, Moonbear, and Nina Moran -- who are all real skaters cast from the streets of NYC, and play slightly fictionalized versions of themselves -- reprise their roles here. While episodes are hung on standard plotlines involving relationships, competition and money problems, Betty is primarily a hang, with the actors' very real chemistry, camaraderie, and charisma, as well as the vibrant spirit of NYC, making it roll.
If a show based on the life and career of novelty rapper Dave "Lil Dicky" Burd didn't sound like something you'd want to watch (or have exist at all), Dave proves you and almost everyone wrong. In the series, Burd plays a somewhat fictionalized version of himself, as he tries to parlay his viral YouTube success into an actual rap career. Helping him are his supportive school teacher girlfriend (Taylor Misiak), his roommate/manager Mike (Andrew Santino), and hype man, GaTa (who also plays a fictionalized version of himself). The show is loaded with cameos from the rap and pop world, including Y.G. (who gives Lil Dicky his first big break), Benny Blanco, Young Thug, Tierra Whack, Gunna, Macklemore and Justin Bieber. It's also loaded, like his songs, with dick jokes and fratboy humor. But just when that's wearing thin, Dave (the character and the series) matures, getting better and more interesting with every episode, exploring some serious topics, from racism and bullies to the pitfalls of celebrity and mental health. An episode dedicated to GaTa's backstory is especially moving, and the assured first season finale points to what will hopefully be an even more interesting, less penis-obsessed Season 2.
Alex Garland has been one of the most distinctive, original voices in sci-fi of the last two decades, having written the screenplays for 28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go and more before getting to direct his own scripts with Ex-Machina and Annihilation. His best yet may be this dazzling, thought provoking eight part miniseries. In a lot of ways it's a companion piece to Ex-Machina. Both feature insanely wealthy tech moguls who may have a god complex (in this case Nick Offerman in a very effective dramatic role), and both star Sonoya Mizuno. Here she plays a computer engineer at Offerman's Amaya corporation, which is one of these seemingly idyllic companies that, in this case, harbors some sinister secrets. When her boyfriend, who works in Amaya's mysterious "Devs" division, goes missing, she finds herself possibly in over her head. Garland explores a lot of big ideas -- quantum theory, free will vs determinism, what it means to be human, love and loss -- while putting as much thought into the dazzling visuals that, at times, border on the psychedelic. The ominous, synthy and often unnerving score by regular Garland collaborators Geoff Barrow (Portishead/BEAK>) and Ben Salisbury makes Devs even more of a mindblower.
The Good Lord Bird (Showtime)
Ethan Hawke's television miniseries adaptation of James McBride's novel The Good Lord Bird is a wildly entertaining, often moving and slightly fictionalized ("All of this is true. Most of it happened") account of abolitionist John Brown's 1859 raid on Harper's Ferry which helped spark the embers of the Civil War. In one of the best performances of his career, Hawke stars as Brown who is on a literal mission from God to free the slaves, though the story is told from the point of view of a young slave, Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who is the story's wholly invented character. Like the book, The Good Lord Bird miniseries finds a lot of humor along the way to the doomed raid -- the first episode lands more jokes than many sitcoms do in an entire season -- but knows when to get serious, and the across-the-board great cast includes Daveed Diggs (clipping) as Frederick Douglass, as well as Steve Zahn, Wyatt Russell, and more, not to mention Run the Jewels' Killer Mike in a small role in the series finale.
High Fidelity (Hulu)
Many wondered if we needed another version of Nick Hornby's 1995 novel about a record store owner whose albums are organized but whose love life is in shambles. But showrunners Veronica West and Sarah Kucserka and producer/star Zoë Kravitz do a terrific job of updating High Fidelity for an era where people make playlists not mixtapes and record stores were closing even before the pandemic hit. In addition to the gender flip of the lead role -- Kravitz plays store owner Rob who was portrayed by John Cusak in the 2000 film --, the show also moves its location to Brooklyn, specifically Crown Heights, where Championship Vinyl is still a home for heated musical discussions and attempts to figure out what album they could put on and sell to everyone in the store. (Swamp Dogg gets the moment Beta Band had in the film.) The more dated aspects of the original are mostly gone, but the series still features room for some of High Fidelity's classic moments, like the woman (Parker Posey) who wants to sell her cheating husband's priceless record collection for pennies, and Debbie Harry shows up to give Kravitz' advice in the scene that Bruce Springsteen had in the film. While some of the granular music industry elements are a bit unrealistic/hamfisted -- like, how does a store with almost no customers have two clerks working on a weekday? -- High Fidelity really connects as a romantic dramedy. Kravitz is genuinely terrific as Rob, whose litany of exes power many episodes. One of the nice things about turning this into a series is it gives the other clerks their own stories as well, and an episode about one of them (David H. Holmes), is one of the series' highlights. High Fidelity felt ready to give even more room to the supporting players, but sadly was not picked up for a second season, a victim of COVID and the cost of filming in NYC. Thankfully the show's sole season wraps on a satisfying conclusion -- think of it as a one album wonder.
How to With John Wilson (HBO / HBO Max)
What to say about this totally original, hilarious, sometimes sad, always thoughtful docuseries? There's nothing else like it on television. After gaining a cult following with his low-fi short films uploaded to his Vimeo channel, filmmaker John Wilson -- with help from Nathan Fielder who is a producer on the series -- brought his unique style to HBO, who did little to change what made his work so great in the first place, apart from giving him access to better equipment and a crew. Each episode takes on a different banal-seeming subject -- "How to Make Small Talk," "How to Put Up Scaffolding," "How to Split the Check" -- with Wilson narrating and holding the camera. (He's rarely seen, except shots in mirrors, or of his feet.) What starts as a straightforward look at the subject very quickly heads into major digressions. "How to Wrap Furniture," somehow leads to an encounter with a an anti-circumcision activist. The magic of How To With John Wilson, though, is in the editing, which uses mountains of seemingly random on-the-street footage -- store signs, people doing weird things while not realizing they're being filmed, pets, garbage, celebrities trying to use subway Metrocards -- to underline and pay off Wilson's nebbish narration. The mind boggles at the effort it must take to shoot, write and assemble, and How To With John Wilson is a show you 100% need to watch so put that second screen away. It's also impressive the way, no matter how far he strays from an episode's original theme, it always manages to return to it by the end. The S1 finale, "How to Make the Perfect Risotto," does this while tying the whole season together, filming as NYC goes under pandemic lockdown, and you may find yourself a little verklempt along the way. It's uniquely New York series, with Wilson shooting it in all its weird wonderful, digressive beauty.
I May Destroy You (HBO / HBO Max)
Writer/director/star Michaela Coel followed up her acclaimed British sitcom Chewing Gum with the very different I May Destroy You, the most striking, intelligent, provocative, unforgettable series of the year (and recent memory). Coel wrote all 12 episodes of the series and directed nine of them, and stars as Arabella, a young Londoner whose relatively carefree lifestyle and burgeoning literary career is turned inside out when she is slipped a date rape drug and sexually assaulted in a club. While the series deals frankly with the assault and its ramifications, I May Destroy You defies easy categorization and expectations, and is at turns devastating, funny, heartbreaking, and frightening, while also giving time to Arabella's circle of friends. Balancing the tone of a show like this is beyond a tightrope walk, but Coel rarely takes a wrong step. The series is just as assured visually and pops much like its soundtrack full of British hip hop, EDM and R&B. It's unclear whether there is going to be a second season but whatever Coel chooses to do next, we'll be paying attention.
Industry (HBO Max)
Set in the high risk world of international finance, soapy drama Industry follows five recent graduates who vie for just a few open spots at Pierpoint, one of London's preeminent financial institutions. Series creators Mickey Down and Konrad Kay both worked in banking in their 20s and use that experience to make Pierpoint and these characters very believable. Everything and nothing seems to have changed since the days of The Wolf of Wall Street, with these young brokers and analysts partying as hard as they work, and Industry is filled to the brim with sex, drugs, cons, power-plays, double crosses, and millions of dollars at play. (The show has been compared to Grey's Anatomy, which is pretty on the money.) The series premiere, directed by Girls' Lena Dunham, drops you in the deep end and is thick with banker/broker lingo, but you don't really need to understand the details to get the stakes of this shark tank of financial portfolios. As Season 1 heads to the Reduction in Force Day chopping block, Industry makes time for the Office Holiday Party to End All Holiday Parties which throws everything and everyone into drug-and-booze-fueled disarray. The cast is terrific, especially MyHa'La Herrold as the only American among the group of graduates, and Ken Leung, as her sarcastic, ruthless mentor. The airy synth score by Nathan Micay (electronic artist Bwana) really adds to the tense, often chemically altered vibe of this compelling, soapy series.
Mythic Quest: Raven's Banquet (AppleTV+)
This workplace sitcom about the makers of a World of Warcraft style multiplayer online fantasy game is much better than its title might leave you to believe, though knowing that it's from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia's Charlie Day, Megan Ganz and Rob McElhenney is probably all some needed to check it out. McElhenney plays Ian Grimm, the narcissistic tech-bro creative director behind Mythic Quest which is set to launch its latest edition, "Raven's Banquet," if he'd ever stop futzing with it. His team includes uptight lead engineer Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao), beta male managing producer David (David Hornsby), ruthless marketing exec Brad (Dani Pudi), and head writer C.W. Longbottom (F. Murray Abraham) who has been coasting on past laurels (and swigs from his flask) for decades. Shows like this are all about the chemistry between cast members and Mythic Quest has a full health meter on that -- that camaraderie made its special pandemic quarantine episode so fantastic (and heart-tugging). Even if you haven't played a video game in years, its basic workplace conflicts and smart writing make it relatable to anyone who's punched the clock in an office. It's even funnier if you are a gamer, of course.
Normal People (Hulu)
Based on Sally Rooney's 2018 novel of the same name, Normal People is a wonderful romantic drama that charts the up-and-down, years-spanning relationship between Marianne Sheridan (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell Waldron (Paul Mescal), from high school in a small Irish city though college. Marianne's wickedly smart and well off but a bit of an outcast; Connell is a star on the football field but is shy, extremely sensitive and has aspirations to be a writer. There are instant sparks between them and they are soon deep in a passionate, secret romance. Despite their intense connection, ambitions, economics and other real life factors get in the way, but their attraction keeps pulling them back together. A story like this would not work without real chemistry between the leads, and Edgar-Jones and Mescal are off-the-charts together. Fearless, too, as the intimacies of their relationship are central to this wonderful series that stays true to their characters and not a need for a neatly tied ending.
Raised by Wolves (HBO Max)
After a religious war between the devout, zealous Mithraic and equally fervent atheists all but destroys Planet Earth, a scientist sends two androids -- Mother (Amanda Collin) and Father (Abubakar Salim) -- and container embryos to the inhabitable but seemingly desolate planet Kepler-22b to raise the children and begin repopulating the human race. Unfortunately, Earth's war eventually follows them there, and Kepler-22b may not be as uninhabited as it first seems. If this sounds a little like the book of Genesis, you're not wrong, but Mother and Father may end up resembling another biblical couple. Ridley Scott, who knows a thing or two about androids and the milky fluids inside them, is executive producer of Raised by Wolves and directs the first two episodes. While the visual effects aren't overall quite up to Mandalorian standards, some pretty crazy stuff does happen, and the production makes great use of the naturally alien looking landscapes of South Africa where the show films. Raised by Wolves is more about ideas and allegory than spaceships and weird creatures, anyway, though there's plenty of that, too. The show falls somewhere between Battlestar Galactica and Ridley Scott's high-minded Alien sequel Prometheus. The cast, most of whom you've probably never heard of and look like they all also play in Icelandic indie or metal bands, is uniformly excellent, especially Collin as a Mother who will do anything to protect her children. They don't make you wait too long to find out what anything means, either.
Based on Deborah Feldman's 2010 autobiography Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots, this compelling Netflix miniseries tells the story of Etsy, a 19-year-old woman living in Williamsburg, Brooklyn's insular Hasidic community. She is deeply unhappy in her arranged marriage and, after a year of trying to conceive a child, decides to leave her husband, escape to Berlin and find her mother (who left the same ultra-Orthodox world many years before). But her husband and the community are not ready to just let her go. Israeli actress Shira Haas was nominated for an Emmy for her breakout performance as Etsy and it's hard to imagine this working so well without her. In a must-binge television climate where every idea that 10 years ago would've been a theatrical film is now a 12-part series, Unorthodox's easily digestible four hour-long episodes give Etsy's story room to breathe without ever dragging. Unorthodox works as an inspiring human drama, a taut escape thriller, and perhaps most interestingly, a look into a world that co-exists within many of our cities that most of us never get to see.
More things to watch: