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Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.

In this, the weirdest year we have lived through, television saved us. A sanctuary of escapism, it was also the lifeboat, the saviour of sanity and a reminder that there’s normal life, filled with joy, companionship, touching, talking unmasked, travelling to places and feeling safe.

Where people went with their TV viewing makes a top-10 list slightly dubious. One person’s safe escape was another person’s masterpiece. People watched more TV than ever as the pandemic shut down everything. What they found, often, was storytelling of the highest calibre. And art – this was also a year of confident experimentation.

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Binge-watching guide: The recent shows you need to catch up on, all available to stream

Two HBO shows dabbled in unreliable narration, in I May Destroy You, with its jangled, nerve-wracking reconstruction of a sexual assault, and The Third Day, with its unique structure, featuring separate characters experiencing the same mental dislocation, and a live, one-off episode. These were praiseworthy and unsettling, but some of the year’s finest content was comforting, even as it challenged. Such was the second season of Ricky Gervais’s beautifully modulated After Life on Netflix.

There were superior thrillers in a superb final season of Homeland; the BBC paranoid-drama The Capture (seen here on Amazon Prime Video) and a gravely twisted, watch-me whodunnit in HBO’s The Undoing. It was a year in which Apple TV+ poured millions into the small masterpiece Little America, and hardly anyone watched, and then the platform’s Ted Lasso became a genuine word-of-mouth hit for a homebound audience in search of solace.

It was a year in which the Starz drama P-Valley was hailed as an instant classic for its progressive take on sex work, yet it went largely unnoticed. It was the year that the Canadian-made Schitt’s Creek won nine Emmy Awards and Jennifer Lopez and Shakira made the Super Bowl halftime show a thrilling, physical and political statement. Meanwhile, a tempestuous period of protest filled the news agenda and then the U.S. presidential race became a macabre drama that’s still continuing.

If the year seemed anarchic and shocking, it was just that. Viewers sought safety in The Crown and then argued over its blend of truth and fiction. While some people scoff at waiting a week to watch a show, Disney+ unleashed The Mandalorian as an old-school weekly drama, and it worked. If you wanted to feel as unhinged as events outside the home, you only had to turn on the TV news. And if you wanted art, psychological depth in storytelling, you had sufficiency in what those TV platforms offered. Here are 10 shows that mattered, some worthy, some wonky and some with true distinction as inventive storytelling.

1. The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix)

Jacob Fortune-Lloyd as Townes and Anya Taylor-Joy as Beth Harmon in The Queen's Gambit.

PHIL BRAY/NETFLIX/Netflix

Style, substance with a literary intent and a heroine for the ages – not since Mad Men has a drama seemed so perfectly poised as story, elegant visual escapade and gripping narrative. Triumph of the year.

2. Normal People (Hulu/CBC Gem)

Paul Mescal as Connell in Normal People.

Courtesy of CBC Gem

Love and its ecstasy and pain, perfectly captured. An Irish drama – but tethered to a sense of the universal – about a doomed romance, drenched in an honesty that is unforgettable.

3. Unorthodox (Netflix)

Shira Haas as Anika Molnar in Unorthodox.

Anika Molnar/Netflix/Netflix

A journey-story miniseries about Esty (Shira Haas), a 19-year-old Hasidic woman, fleeing her American community and her husband for Berlin in search of a separate life where she can live, uncontrolled. So emotionally rich and forthright, it feels like a documentary.

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4. Run (HBO/Crave)

Domhnall Gleeson and Merritt Wever in Run.

Ken Woroner

A romance but also a mystery, disarmingly oblique and unique. You have no idea where it’s going, but not in the sense that it’s twisted. Hilarious and heartbreaking, it’s about two people, Ruby (Merritt Wever) and Billy (Domhnall Gleeson), who were sweethearts in college and now reunite, and run, disturbing the universe with their intensity.

5. Mrs. America (FX)

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly in Mrs. America.

FX Productions

Cate Blanchett as Phyllis Schlafly, the destroyer of the Equal Rights Amendment and unknowable enemy of feminism. An elegantly made look at the allure of personal-politics conservatism.

6. Trickster (CBC/CBC Gem)

Joel Oulette and Kalani Queypo in Trickster.

CBC

A sublime adaptation of Eden Robinson’s novels; hugely entertaining, clever and fizzing with energy, the six-episode series is a vivid blend of familiar TV storytelling conventions with a startling dose of spooky Indigenous gothic. Canadian triumph of the year.

7. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist (NBC, CTV)

Alex Newell as Mo and Jane Levy as Zoey in Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist.

NBC/NBC

A rarely ambitious network series. Zoey (Jane Levy), a young woman who, after a medical mishap, hears other people’s thoughts through songs and sees elaborate dance numbers, and tries to cope. The emotional substance is so delicately unfolded it defies skepticism.

8. Tiger King (Netflix)

A scene from Netflix's Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness.

Netflix

Perhaps forgotten now, but the first pandemic-period sensation that mattered. This manipulative docuseries about Joe Exotic, who ran a zoo in Oklahoma and plotted to kill animal activist Carole Baskin, is the dark underbelly of exotic Trumpism.

9. Can You Hear Me? /M’entends-tu? (Télé-Québec/Netflix)

Mélissa Bédard as Fabiola, Ève Landry as Carolanne and Florence Longpré as Ada in Can You Hear Me? /M’entends-tu?

Courtesy of Netflix

Presenting a blunt and unpretentious depiction of underclass life in urban Canada, this an extraordinary achievement. Locating drama in the lowest social stratum in a country or community is always unique TV and this, set in Montreal, is a rare work of brilliance.

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10. The Flight Attendant (HBO/Crave)

Michiel Huisman and Kaley Cuoco in The Flight Attendant.

PHIL CARUSO

The purest, well-made escapism, tending toward froth but not frivolous. Flight attendant Cassie (Kaley Cuoco from The Big Bang Theory) wakes up with a dead man next to her and no idea what happened. Beautiful, hare-brained TV.

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