This recap of my favourite mini-series of 2020 should have come out a month ago, and with January now coming to any end, I figured I better write this before 2020 becomes a distant memory!
For the past few years, the mini-series format has yielded entertainment to rival the quality of the best feature films, in terms of production design, scripts and acting. In fact, with a narrative duration of typically 250-400 minutes, mini-series have room for superior character development and better constructed plots.
My favourites from 2018 were all BBC productions – the true-life dramedy A Very English Scandal, the urban terrorism thriller Bodyguard, the Agatha Christie adaptation Ordeal by Innocence and the John Le Carré spy novel adaptation The Little Drummer Girl.
In 2019, my top mini-series were Chernobyl and Watchmen from HBO, Years and Years which was a joint BBC-HBO production, Giri/Haji from the BBC, and not surprisingly, Netflix entering the mix with Unbelievable and The Spy.
Here are my 5 noteworthy mini-series from 2020:-
Devs (8 episodes, FX): Alex Garland has established himself as one of the most talented creators of “intelligent sci-fi/horror” over the past two decades, scripting or directing acclaimed films such as 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Dredd, Ex Machina and Annihilation. Last year’s sci-fi thriller on FX marks his first foray into an event series. Garland brings back actress Sonoya Mizuno (can’t forget that dance routine with Oscar Isaac in Ex Machina) as a young developer working at a secretive tech company who gets sucked into a conspiracy with world-altering consequences. Comedian Nick Offerman is pitch perfect as the billionaire founder-CEO of quantum computing company Amaya, a man whose god complex is fueled by his virtually unlimited access to money and technology. His inner circle includes two other power-obsessed characters, the head of security and head of technology, played superbly by actors Zach Grenier and Allison Pill respectively. The plot becomes quite mind-bending and requires the viewer to pay careful attention (maybe even take notes!). Available on Amazon Prime.
The Plot Against America (6 episodes, HBO): Based on the Philip Roth novel, this alternate history set in the early 1940s, shows what might have happened if Charles Lindbergh, the real-life American aviator and national hero had become US President in 1940. Lindbergh was a Nazi symphathizer and in Mr. Roth’s novel, his isolationist, populist policies with undertones of white supremacy (sound familiar?) hold America back from joining the war against Nazi Germany. In fact, Lindbergh’s appeasement of the Nazis means that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor never happens in December 1941. Meanwhile, his new domestic policies including the creation of an Office of American Absorption plays havoc with the lives of American Jews, who increasingly feel alienated and targeted in their own country. All this unfolds through the eyes of a middle class Jewish family living in Jersey City, nearly tearing them apart. The outstanding cast includes Winona Ryder and John Turturro, as well as several other character actors from TV and the stage. This is a slow-burn narrative that uses the events taking place on the national stage as a trigger to explore family dynamics between husband and wife, parents and kids, and siblings young and old.
The Queen’s Gambit (7 episodes, Netflix): Perhaps the best event series of 2020, this show is based on Walter Tevis’ 1983 novel and helped to revitalize global interest in chess with its dramatic portrayals of the many strategies used in the game. Centered on the character of Beth Harmon, the show charts her eventful journey from an orphanage in Kentucky in the 1950s to global fame as a female chess prodigy, culminating in the high stakes Moscow Invitational tournament against Russian world champion Vasily Borgov, at the height of the Cold War in the 1960s (the period detail is exceptional). During this time, she battles her own personal demons including substance abuse and PTSD resulting from the circumstances of her mother’s death. Anya Taylor-Joy, who broke through in 2015-16 in the horror-thrillers The Witch and Split, delivers a nuanced performance as Beth Harmon, supported by an eclectic group of young actors who portray the various chess players she encounters, antagonizes and befriends over the years. Special mention also for director Marielle Heller, appearing as Beth’s personable step-mother Alma Wheatley. The show is written and directed by Scott Frank, following on from his outstanding 2017 limited series Western Godless, also produced for Netflix.
The Undoing (6 episodes, HBO): Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant are absolutely irresistible in the murder-mystery/legal drama The Undoing, written by David E. Kelley and directed by award-winning Danish director Susanne Bier. Kidman and Grant play the Frasers, a professionally successful, high profile New York couple – she’s a psychologist, he’s an oncologist. Their seemingly perfect lives are upended by the brutal murder of a beautiful young artist, whose son attends the same exclusive school as their young son. The subsequent police investigation reveals an unsettling connection between the Frasers and the murdered woman. Did either of them play a role in the murder and what is it that the couple aren’t telling each other? The show is perfect for binge-watching, as every episode ends on a cliffhanger; it goes slightly off the rails and over-the-top in the final act, but is nevertheless very entertaining.
Mrs. America (9 episodes, FX): This mini-series provides an unprecedented insider look at the turbulent years of the mid-70s, when the feminist movement became a significant player in American politics, as it battled with male politicians and an unheralded but determined cohort of conservative WASP housewives, over the ratification of the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). Each episode focuses on the big names of that time, including Democrat congresswomen Bella Abzug and Shirley Chisolm (the first black candidate to stand for nomination for US President), feminists Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Brenda Feigen, Republican activist Jill Ruckelshaus and of course the star of the show, Phyllis Schlafly (played by Cate Blanchett), the wealthy Missouri housewife, whose intelligence, determination and organization skills led to the founding of the “Stop ERA” campaign. Directed by Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck (the duo behind Captain Marvel), this is such a relevant story for our times, showing that the more things change, the more they remain the same in terms of women’s and minorities rights. Particularly insightful is Blanchett’s portrayal of Mrs. Schlafly, the anti-feminist who is intelligent enough to recognize the holes in her own logic and the hypocrisy of her stance, but is nevertheless trapped in a narrative of her own making and must see it through at all costs…tragic in so many ways. The show is already picking up a host of acting nominations, and I especially hope it will win the Best Ensemble Performance at the SAG Awards. And how about that choice of Walter Murphy’s disco hit A Fifth of Beethoven for the title sequence!
There are two other mini-series on my watch list that I haven’t yet made time for; the coming-of-age drama We Are Who We Are from Luca Guadagnino (the director of Call Me By Your Name) and the British-American psychological thriller The Third Day.
In a future post, I hope to also write about three new recurring shows that kicked off in 2020 – Lovecraft Country, Raised by Wolves and Snowpiercer.