This list is drawn from votes by Guardian TV writers: each votes for their top 20 shows, with points allocated for every placing, which are tallied to create this order. Check in every weekday to see our next picks, and please share your own favourite TV of 2020 in the comments below.
(BBC One) A shocking health crisis that startled Britain and called for urgent intervention from the authorities. No, not Covid, but the poisoning of the Skripal family – among other victims – in Salisbury, which was dramatised in this fine three-part drama. Though based on the lives of ordinary people, such as Anne-Marie Duff’s Wiltshire council worker Tracy Daszkiewicz, the circumstances were anything but.
What we said: Instead of hysteria and frantic Drama-with-a-capital-D in the face of an unknown contagion, it shows the disbelief giving way to hard acceptance, the sense of ordinary life suddenly intruded upon and a new normal mandated. Read more.
(Sky Atlantic) An absolute rarity: a true crime documentary that doesn’t make the viewer feel grubbily complicit. Instead, this was a breathless retelling of the McDonald’s Monopoly scam that defrauded the fast food monolith of millions of dollars. The ebullient FBI agent Doug Mathews was central to the show’s success, and possibly the best TV character of the entire year.
What we said: It is a great story, made even greater because there is no harrowing suffering, no death and no catastrophic miscarriage of justice shown to be the result of systemic corruption that is featured in much of this genre. Read more.
(BBC Two) An almost unbearably powerful and painful hour of television, this collection of interviews with the survivors of the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp was hard to watch. The documentary was as stark as you’d expect, as people recounted their horrific experiences for what may very well be the last time – and it is impossible to forget.
What we said: This is shamefully recent history, recent enough for some of those who lived through it to still be alive. We are privileged to be able to hear their stories. Read more.
(Sky Atlantic) Lennie James’ Save Me was one of the surprise hits of 2018; a taut, gut-wrenching examination of what happens in the space left by a missing child. Given its slightly underpowered finale, a sequel was inevitable. Thanks in part to an incredible cast, including James, Stephen Graham, Lesley Manville and Adrian Edmondson – it more than matched the power of its predecessor.
What we said: Such moments lift Save Me Too beyond your typical mystery, and give it far more emotional depth than most of its rivals. Read more.
(BBC One) An adaptation of David Nicholls’ 2014 novel, Us was a snapshot of a failing marriage, told across a grand tour of Europe. A show about Tom Hollander struggling to cope with negative emotions is always welcome, but in 2020 it turns out that a gorgeously sad travelogue, full of places we can no longer visit, was exactly what everyone needed.
What we said: Hollander is superb as a man baffled by the need for change. His family want to eat adventurous meals, while he would like to stick with steak. He is everydad, just trying to get by. Read more.
(BBC Three) On paper, In My Skin sounds so relentlessly bleak – a key scene involves a teenage girl seeing her father masturbate – that you’d wonder why anyone would ever want to watch it. But it is a series of huge emotional heft, and an extraordinary achievement by writer Kayleigh Llewellyn, who surely has huge things ahead of her.
What we said: An emotional rollercoaster of a TV drama about Bethan, a Welsh teenager coming of age and living a double life as she negotiates mental illness, friendships and her sexuality. Read more.
(Sky Comedy) Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore’s comedy-drama was so overlooked this year that Schitt’s Creek co-creator and star Dan Levy used his Emmy acceptance speech to bemoan its lack of nominations. He’s right; Insecure is a gorgeous, complicated, bracingly contemporary examination of American Blackness. When it returns to screens, here’s hoping it gets a little more love.
What we said: Insecure takes us to an important place and shows that all of the progress the girls made can be undone without the right people around them. Read more.
(Sky Atlantic) The Third Day is a simple show about Jude Law going nuts on a vaguely pagan island off the coast of Essex. What made it special was Autumn a live, 12-hour, single-shot special that dragged Law to the very limits of human endurance. There was nothing like this on television in 2020.
What we said: The Third Day: Autumn is a remarkable feat of live theatre and television, creating something that feels truly experimental, yet engaging; a mesmeric spectacle comprising surprisingly little, yet one that feels impossible to turn away from. Read more.
(Sky Atlantic) HBO’s adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels moved on to The Story of a New Name. Set in the 1950s, it was an equal mix of gorgeous scenery and ugly, slow-moving violence. It was a hit in Italy, but the televisual version of My Brilliant Friend is still largely undiscovered in English-speaking countries. Hopefully that will change.
What we said: My Brilliant Friend never had the breakout moment that a series of its quality deserved. Perhaps this second series will bring it the audience to match the acclaim. Read more.
(Sky Atlantic) Big houses. Horrible people with too much money. An unsolved crime. There are times when The Undoing seemed like David E Kelley’s deliberate attempt to become a pastiche of himself – and the similarities with his Big Little Lies is obvious, down to Nicole Kidman’s star turn. But what held this series together was a remarkable performance by Hugh Grant that took his entire acting toolkit – the charm, the deference, the sparkle – and used it to create a monster.
What we said: Director Susanne Bier (The Night Manager, After the Wedding) and writer Kelley (Big Little Lies) specialise in portraits of well-to-do couples in carefully concealed freefall, but the casting is what elevates The Undoing above most glossy psychological thrillers. Read more.