Ad Age's 10 favorite binge-watches of 2020
One of the defining points of the pandemic was the “Tiger King” moment, when it seemed as if everyone was consumed by the Netflix docuseries about the eccentric, mullet-haired, big cat collector Joe Exotic and his equally colorful foe, animal rights activist Carole Baskin. Here, a list of other binge-watches that gave the Ad Age team solace during the real-world nightmare that was 2020.
The Queen’s Gambit
Netflix scored again with this limited series, based on Walter Tevis' 1983 novel about orphan chess prodigy Beth Harmon (Anya Taylor-Joy), who quickly rises in the ranks of her sport while battling substance abuse. It has the drama of “Searching for Bobby Fischer” but mixed with a bit of sex, lots of drugs and plenty of nostalgic fashion eye candy. Ad Age’s Studio 30 Editor John Dioso describes the show as “the closest we've come to a top-notch adult version of a Disney Princess movie. Not an old-fashioned one, where the princess gets saved by, and lands, her prince, or even the mid-period princess who's tough as nails but also ultimately gets her man, but a postmodern princess who's brilliant and a hot mess and conquers the world on her own—princes be damned.”
Speaking of strong female characters, many on our team also love this dark comedic thriller for its strong, unconventional female leads, including the title character, British intelligence investigator Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), and the stylish, psychopathic antihero assassin Villanelle (Jodi Comer). ”Villanelle is an insane badass who just does not care,” says Ad Age Research Editor Catherine Wolfe. “And Eve is living out my fantasy life of becoming a secret agent.”
Nostalgia got even more popular during the pandemic and, naturally, many of us revisited shows from back in the day. NBC’s acclaimed series from the '80s, “St. Elsewhere,” was the salve that Jessica Wohl, Ad Age’s food reporter, needed this year, and today, its themes hold up surprisingly well. “St. Elsewhere is outdated when it comes to things like phones and even medical procedures, but the storylines are still so relevant: race relations, pregnancy issues, an outbreak that's not COVID-19, of course, but still there's a disease outbreak,” Wohl says. Also, the guest cast is a veritable Hollywood Walk of Fame. “You watch and all of a sudden you see Alfre Woodard, who plays a recurring character, Betty White, Helen Hunt, Ray Charles.” Not to mention, in the lead cast, there’s “young Denzel—I mean right there, that’s enough!” she adds.
This sequel, of sorts, to “The Karate Kid” franchise of the ‘80s first debuted on YouTube Red back in 2018 but, thankfully, Netflix picked the show up this year, attracting a host of new fans including yours truly. While the series catches up with where the characters are today, it also takes the opportunity to revisit the original martial arts saga from the viewpoint of the show’s young villain Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and reveals the heartbreaking path to how Johnny became a bully. He remains quite flawed, yet he’s the one you end up rooting for as he opens his own dojo and instills confidence in a bunch of rejects. All that, with the over-the-top cheese you’d expect from an '80s revival. Original Karate Kid Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) returns as well, but now he’s just a slick car salesman with a big schmancy home south of the boulevard. We’re counting the days till Netflix drops Season 3 on Jan. 1.
The Great British Bake Off
The popular long-running British baking show was the most cited favorite among the Ad Age team. Between the calming setting in the English countryside, the hosts’ corny sense of humor, the civil, even friendly rivalry between contestants and celebrity chef Paul Hollywood’s mesmerizing blue eyes—it’s a recipe for getting lost. Ad Age Senior Reporter Adrianne Pasquarelli loves it so much she even held her own "Great British Bake Off" at home—facing off against herself.
We’re all for the comforting familiarity of the formulaic competitive cooking show, but Netflix brought hilarious spark to the genre by throwing together comedian Nicole Byer and legendary chocolatier Jacques Torres, who challenge a bunch of folks who know very close to nothing about baking to create confectionary masterpieces that even pros might find difficult.
This British gardening show, starring host Monty Don, a team of master horticulturalists and a pair of canine helpers (Nigel and Nellie), is a favorite of Ad Age’s Senior Art Director Tam Nguyen. It’s a mixed bag of voyeurism (taking viewers through private gardens), how-to (with gardening tips and makeovers) and education (on different types of flora). “Nothing more Zen than watching plants progress episode by episode as the seasons change,” Nguyen says. “But most importantly, it’s a nice show about wanting to make your surrounding environment better.”
The Office (U.S.)
Curiously, Ad Age’s London-based Associate Creativity Editor Alexandra Jardine has been enjoying the U.S. version of the U.K.-born comedy series “The Office,” starring Steve Carell as awkward Dunder Mifflin boss Michael Scott. “It’s very easy to watch and has a gentle humor that isn’t too taxing,” Jardine says. “All the characters are funny in different ways and it reminds me of the old days of working in an office that now seem so far away.”
The West Wing
A number of the Ad Age team, including Editor-in-Chief Dan Peres and Editor-at-Large Jack Neff, enjoyed dipping back into Aaron Sorkin’s acclaimed NBC political series “The West Wing”—as if the real-life drama in the White House this year wasn’t enough. But perhaps Martin Sheen’s thoughtful Commander-in-Chief Jed Bartlet was the sort of fantasy we needed.
This Is Us
The masochists on our team found refuge drowning ourselves in this tear-inducing NBC saga by showrunner Dan Fogelman, centered on the angsty but loving Pearson family. “You might think that jumping onto this emotional roller coaster during one of humanity’s more distressing times is a bad idea … but it’s not,” says Ad Age Web Producer Corey Holmes. “Every episode of this high-octane Feels Machine had me completely transported and honestly, a dose of that kind of deep escapism is what we all need now and again. Because when you’re screaming at your TV about a crockpot, that’s time spent not screaming about the world.”