* Even as the pandemic has devastated theatres and box-office sales, over-the-top (OTT) platforms have prospered
* People are asking each other to recommend long-form television series, a genre that’s now firmly entrenched in our lives
* 2021, too, could be a year as exciting for long-form television as 2020
The dreadful months of 2020 wrecked the romance of watching a film in the darkness of a theatre, looking wondrously at images unspooling on the big screen. It’s certain that even when the world has succeeded in quelling Covid-19, the prognosis for theatrical exhibition of films is, to put it mildly, not good.
But even as the pandemic has devastated theatres and box-office sales, over-the-top (OTT) platforms have prospered. People are asking each other to recommend long-form television series, a genre that’s now firmly entrenched in our lives.
These are the 20 best series that we in India binged on in this annus horribilis; they made being homebound most of the year a little more sufferable.
1 The Queen’s Gambit | Netflix
Not knowing your rook from your knight wasn’t nearly enough to prevent you from enjoying this riveting tale of a chess prodigy and her pursuit of a world title in the 1960s.
Adapted from a fictional novel by Walter Tevis, this story of Beth Harmon arrived in October and quickly became Netflix’s number one show in 63 countries; also its most-watched limited series ever. It also caused chess sales to boom. Superbly written, and spectacularly shot, it has period detail that’s veridical, rather Dickensian initially, and a performance by Anya Taylor-Joy that’s spellbinding; her eyes will haunt you.
The climactic episode set in Moscow, as Harmon takes on the Soviet world champion, will find your hands forming fists, and will ultimately draw from you a furtive tear.
2 The Crown Season 4 | Netflix
The arrival of a ravishing princess and a charismatic prime minister immediately lifted the calibre of a well-written drama of the British monarchy, especially the life and times of Queen Elizabeth II. Gillian Anderson plays Margaret Thatcher and Emma Corrin is Diana, the people’s princess, and their presence means you can’t take your eyes off the royal shenanigans they participate in season 4 of this royal family drama.
Writer Peter Morgan gives us this melange of royal history and fiction so potent that it leaves us tantalised at the prospect of two more seasons of The Crown, with Princess Diana’s tragic death looming large.
3 Zero Zero Zero | Amazon Prime
This mini-series, with three interwoven stories of global drug trafficking, is an exhilarating ride. It takes place in Italy, Mexico and the US, following the explosive international transit of a single cocaine shipment.
Based on a book by Italian journalist Roberto Saviano, the global breadth of the show is unparalleled. The title of the series means pure, uncut cocaine. The story of Manuel, a brutal Mexican soldier, set in Monterrey, Mexico, is nihilistic and particularly intriguing — he believes everything he does is reflective of God’s will.
4 The Plot Against America | Disney Hotstar
What if fascist Charles Lindbergh, celebrity aviator and anti-Semite, became US president in the ’40s, not Franklin Roosevelt? The brilliant David Simon, creator of The Wire, wrote this six-episode series based on Philip Roth’s dystopian novel that has Germany winning World War II. The anti-Semitic xenophobia is seen through the eyes of a working-class Jewish family in New Jersey. It is impossible not to notice the parallels between Roth’s story and the America of the past four years.
5 Our Planet | Netflix
There hasn’t been a voice more eloquent than David Attenborough in recording natural history and warning against the looming ecological disaster. He is the human voice of nature.
The sequences shot in oceans and forests are mesmerising. Five cheetahs working as a team to bring down a wildebeest is the most dramatically compelling thing I saw all year. The eight-episode series is a visual feast, even as it establishes how all living beings are interdependent on each other. To weave all these instructional stories into seven hours of television with nary a dull moment — that’s something only Attenborough can achieve.
6 Paatal Lok | Amazon Prime
Quite the best Hindi OTT series of the year. Maybe the finest ever. It’s a brutal yet eloquently sympathetic portrayal of the perils of majoritarianism. Written by Sudip Sharma, perhaps the most stellar writer to emerge in at least a decade, the story unfolds through the personal and professional life of a police inspector, Hathi Ram Chaudhary (Jaideep Ahlawat in, for me, the best performance of the year).
Caste and religious depravities that abound in our urban society are tellingly portrayed. Also, harrowingly, Paatal Lok shows us what we do to transgenders.
7 Borgen | Netflix
The Danish series, all 30 hours of it, may be the most riveting political drama you could ever see. This is long-form television at its best. Creator Adam Price controls all threads of the drama deftly, showing how politics is the art of compromise. How politics and media feed off each other is splendidly depicted and Sidse Knudsen, it seems, was born to play the part of Birgitte Nyborg. The series needed to be seen in the original Danish. There is a dubbed version in English and it’s not half as good.
8 Deadwind | Netflix
A highly binge-able Finnish series about a female Helsinki homicide detective who investigates a murder on a construction site weeks after her husband’s death. Nordic noir has defied the crime genre’s conventions by its treatment of women. Sofia Karppi (Pihla Viitala) is a loner, has a broken home life and an obsessive intelligence, which she uses to dominate her male detective partner, and even her bosses. It’s a resolutely constructed crime procedural with enough twists to keep you watching.
9 Little America | Apple TV
This episodic anthology show on Apple TV has eight immigrant stories, told beautifully and with resonance and restraint. At a time when the US is in turmoil because of an openly racist president, Little America is heartwarming. And empathetic. It celebrates diversity and discrete cultures.
The series served up one of the year’s most delectable moments. In the Nigerian cowboy episode, actor Conphidance takes apart the all-American hamburger, laden with all manner of unnecessary things and often drowning in sauce. And he does that with a delightful sneer.
10 Filthy Rich: Jeffrey Epstein | Netflix
A sharp true crime documentary series about the monstrous Jeffrey Epstein case, his network of the rich and powerful and how money corrupts. Lisa Bryant’s series is emotionally draining, as you hear the survivors of Epstein, who sexually abused underage girls, got them to his Palm Beach mansion on the pretext of a massage, and used them to get their friends over with the promise of $200 for a massage. To see how he uses money to thrive even after he has been caught is horrifying and deeply unsettling. “Before Epstein, I was…,” a survivor says, “I was something else.”
11 The Last Dance | Netflix
For sports enthusiasts, this 10-part ESPN documentary was the real deal of the year. With little or no competitive sport during most part of the year, this and the Formula One series filled the need for sporting action.
When it was released, it immediately became the top Google search in the US. Basketball is not a sport Indians love much, but Michael Jordan is a name that perhaps transcends boundaries, and The Last Dance is a dazzling tribute to the greatest basketball player.
12 Line of Duty Season 5 | Netflix
Police drama doesn’t get much better. The tightly-knit season five of this long-standing British series delivered handsomely to its legions of fans in Britain and elsewhere. Showrunner Jed Mercurio also made Bodyguard but Line of Duty is his claim to fame with its many twists and turns in pursuit of ‘bent’ cops. The previous seasons all had a stellar guest presence (Thandie Newton in season four), and this season has Stephen Graham playing an undercover cop.
13 Defending Jacob | Apple TV
A Massachusetts assistant district attorney finds his comfortable life in turmoil when his 14-year-old son is charged with the murder of a bullying classmate. Did the teenager do it? The Apple TV series changes the ending of the William Landay novel on which it is based to become a strange whodunit — one that (spoiler alert!) fails to reveal the murderer at the end. But the series is a showcase for Chris Evans, and the Marvel hero delivers. It is strong on the atmospherics of a Boston suburb and the palette is stunning.
14 Panchayat | Amazon Prime
Not often do we find effective political satire in Indian films, or television series. Panchayat is that rare feat. And the credit must go to its writer Chandan Kumar, who creates a vivid rural world peopled with engaging characters, and then, in concert with director Deepak Kumar Mishra, gets a fine ensemble cast to essay those parts. The village is Phulera in East UP, and we have an engineering graduate desultorily taking up the job of a panchayat secretary. It’s an engaging ride.
15 Bordertown | Netflix
More Nordic noir bingeing. This too is an engrossing Finnish series about a Holmesian detective whose preternatural investigative gifts are required to solve a series of murders in an idyllic town close to the Russian border. Actor Ville Virtanen plays Detective Kari Sorjonen, and by himself he’s sufficient reason to watch Bordertown.
16 Formula 1: Drive to Survive | Netflix
Netflix was given unprecedented backstage access to this series. You have to be a fan of the world’s fastest sport to survive this series, but, if you are, you will watch both seasons (20 episodes) with rapt attention. And the next time you watch a race in 2021, you will see it differently. No doubt about it — watching all the backstage capers at Mercedes, Renault, Red Bull, Haas, et al, is an adrenaline rush for a motor sport lover.
17 Undekhi | Sony Liv
A drunk patriarch of the wealthy Atwal family shoots dead a tribal girl hired to dance at a Punjabi wedding in a Manali resort. A videographer hired to film wedding ceremonies captures the murder. The debauched Atwal family wants to erase the episode and continue with the festivities. Enter a Bengali cop investigating the killing of a constable in Sunderbans (he believes the suspects are somewhere around). Almost unbearably foul-mouthed, the series has enough gravitas to hold your attention through its 10 episodes.
18 The Undoing | Disney Hotstar
This HBO limited series has two charismatic performers — Nicole Kidman and Hugh Grant — in an engaging plot line set in New York. It moves at a plodding pace, with too many flashbacks about marital infidelity and a murder, but towards its climactic moments it gathers pace and finally delivers a satisfying whodunit. If nothing else, you can feast your eyes on Kidman walking around the streets of New York in sartorial splendour.
19 Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story | Sony Liv
It’s an audacious attempt at telling the story of the Big Bull. And for the most part director Hansal Mehta succeeds. For making an absorbing 10-part television series on the complex subject of stock market trading and the 1992 scam that exposed the frailties of the securities market and the banking system, the director deserves unstinted applause. Pratik Gandhi, who essays the part of Harshad Mehta, is an absolute revelation.
20 Visible: Out on Television | Apple TV
Documentary is for me television’s greatest strength. And there’s nothing that I have seen in recent times quite as powerful as this five-part Apple TV series. Director Ryan White’s Visible: Out on Television explores the history of the American LGBTQ movement through television.
Combining archival footage with interviews conducted with some key activists of the movement, the series achieves a great telling of history. It’s an extraordinary story of the highs and lows of LGBTQ representation — how television first dehumanised, and then helped humanise them through ground-breaking shows. Some of the archival footage you see of the decades of struggle for earning dignity for gays and queers is breathtaking.
Sanjeev Verma is a writer and broadcaster based in New Delhi
2021: A screenshot
- As 2021 looms large, what can we expect from long-form television? What Covid-19 has done to production schedules and release dates is hard to predict. It could be a year as exciting for long-form television as 2020. Many exciting limited series on the anvil.
- The most anticipated series of the year may be BBC’s The Serpent, which tells the story of Charles Sobhraj, master of disguise, who hoodwinked international sleuths, travelling across India, Nepal and Thailand in the mid-’70s, along with his French girlfriend, and continued his crime spree.
- The sixth season of Line of Duty will come up for sure in 2021. The filming finished last month and post-production work is afoot. Guest star Kelly MacDonald comes under the anti-corruption scanner this season.
- After Big Little Lies and The Undoing, David Kelley and Nicole Kidman have again teamed up to make Nine Perfect Strangers, adapted from Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name. Moriarty wrote Big Little Lies too.
- Amazon Prime should release Made in Heaven 2. The lives of Tara and Karan, two wedding planners, had captured our imagination in 2019. Creators Zoya Akhtar and Reema Kagti should be able to give us the next season of a much-anticipated series reprise.
- Following the international success of Bong Joon Ho’s film Parasite, HBO is producing Parasite (Limited Series). Joon Ho is working with Adam McKay for the series, which will not be a retelling of the film’s story but a different tale along similar lines.
- Remember Clarice Starling, the FBI agent who seeks help from Hannibal Lecter, a psychopathic serial killer and former psychiatrist, in order to apprehend another serial killer who has been skinning his female victims? Lecter was played by Anthony Hopkins, Jodie Foster was Starling, and the film was The Silence of the Lambs. The untold personal story of Starling will debut this year in Clarice.
- If you liked The Stranger and Safe, both series that emerged from Netflix’s collaboration with the popular crime fiction writer Harlan Coben, get ready for Stay Close this year. That’s another Coben bestselling yarn that should produce a bingeable series. This is about a detective who can’t let go of a missing person cold case — a local husband and father missing for 17 years.