It’s a wonder any of us were able to tear ourselves away from the news for long enough to watch anything else this month, which took America from insurrection to impeachment to the inauguration of our 46th President in the space of just two weeks. Then again, how else were we supposed to self-soothe?
Among the best televisual distractions to debut this month are two excellent foreign-language thrillers, two very different vehicles for two very different New York cult heroes and an imperfect but extremely worthwhile addition to the Masterpiece canon—plus, as a bonus, my favorite new-to-streaming dramedy that isn’t actually new. For more recommendations, here’s my list of the best shows of 2020.
The Long Song (PBS)
In this three-part BBC miniseries, adapted from the late Jamaican-British author Andrea Levy’s acclaimed 2010 historical novel and airing on PBS’s Masterpiece, a debate arises at a holiday dinner in Jamaica among white plantation owners over the threat of slaves taking up arms against their masters. “They lack any ability to organize themselves,” one man opines. Later that night—at the precise moment when a guest is putting his hand up the skirt of the show’s protagonist, an enslaved woman named July, in a casual act of sexual assault—soldiers burst in with news of the revolt. It’s an episode that at first appears to depict the fall of a brutal institution. But, true to history, the triumph is brief. Even after emancipation, we watch supposedly free Black Jamaicans harvest sugarcane in the same fields they worked before it, still supervised by white men with bullwhips. Such complexity is the essence of this unimaginatively adapted but still incisive story, which subverts the overly simplistic binaries of bondage and liberty, oppressed and oppressor, abolitionist and enslaver. [Read TIME’s full review.]
Losing Alice (Apple TV+)
Built around Daredevil alum Ayelet Zurer’s magnificently layered turn as the title character, this eight-part Israeli series from creator, director and writer Sigal Avin is the kind of twisty, fast-paced mystery that will inevitably be described as addictive. And it is. But that undersells Avin’s achievement. Losing Alice avoids the crutches of second-rate thrillers like The Undoing: unbelievable coincidences, characters whose inner lives are black boxes, cliffhangers that appear out of nowhere at the end of one episode only to be dispatched within the first few minutes of the next. Instead, Avin patiently investigates the nature of relationships between husbands and wives, parents and children, women of different generations, older men and younger women—and, in a stunning finale, between life and art. [Read more about Losing Alice and other great foreign-language TV.]
The first big Netflix hit of 2021 is this French-language crime drama—a sharp, fun update of Maurice Leblanc’s frequently adapted novels about the gentleman thief Arsène Lupin. Instead of recasting the Lupin role yet again, creators George Kay and François Uzan dreamed up a righteous present-day outlaw who takes inspiration from the books. Omar Sy, best known in the U.S. for his roles in action blockbusters like Jurassic World and X-Men: Days of Future Past, gives an impossibly suave performance as Assane Diop, a Senegalese immigrant in Paris who has become a self-taught criminal mastermind in order to avenge the death of his single father when Assane was a teenager. It’s a quest he struggles to balance with his responsibilities to his own own teen son (Etan Simon), amid a long, complicated history with the boy’s mother (the wonderful Ludivine Sagnier). Lupin ranks among the most bingeable TV series ever made. The first three out of five episodes that dropped this month, all directed by Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me, The Dark Crystal: Age of Resistance), are master classes in slick, glamorous suspense. And although the remainder of Part 1 gets a bit bogged down by the addition of weak characters, the show deploys Sy, Sagnier and subtle statements on racism and colonial profiteering in France effectively enough to maintain anticipation for Part 2.
Painting With John (HBO)
Thirty years ago, the artistic polymath John Lurie—the downtown New York icon best known at the time for leading avant-garde jazz ensemble the Lounge Lizards and appearing in indie films such as Paris, Texas and Down by Law—blessed the world with cult-classic TV show Fishing With John. Over the course of six deeply idiosyncratic episodes, he traveled from Maine to Thailand to Costa Rica on fishing expeditions with famous pals like Willem Dafoe, Tom Waits and Dennis Hopper; you can watch the talky, hilariously absurdist results on Criterion Channel. Now, Lurie lives on an idyllic Caribbean island and spends much of his time painting. This spiritual sequel casts him as a sort of anti-Bob Ross, working away at the table he uses instead of an easel while insisting that not everyone is equipped to be an artist. So, instead of instruction, he offers musings on creativity and wild personal anecdotes ranging from a kitchen disaster that left him running around nude with a machete to that time he had to wrestle an eel to death for the purposes of shooting an album cover. His paintings are a compelling mix of global styles and Lurie’s strong artistic instincts, and a soundtrack pulled from his various musical projects makes most TV scores sound like elevator music. He has a knack for combining the spiritual and sincere with the sardonic and self-deprecating. This is a meditative show for people who can’t stomach meditation apps—and thank heavens for that.
Pretend It’s a City (Netflix)
If Pretend It’s a City has a thesis, it is that 70-year-old humorist, commentator, chronically blocked writer, sometime actor and Manhattan fixture Fran Lebowitz’s perhaps-masochistic devotion to observing what she calls her “fellow man” gives her a rare perspective on society—and particularly on the metropolis that has, over the years, been the most consistent object of her tough love. The title refers to her frustration with people so absorbed in their devices that they bump into you on the street. “Pretend it’s a city—where there are other people,” she pleads. But this is hardly a high-concept show. Director Martin Scorsese seems solely interested in putting a worthy frame around the living, breathing, eloquently complaining work of art that is Fran Lebowitz in conversation. [Read the full review]
Bonus: Flack (Amazon Prime)
Flack doesn’t quite qualify as a new show; it premiered almost two years ago in the UK, and the first season got a bit buried in the Peak TV glut when it aired stateside on Pop. As of this month, you can find it on Amazon Prime (with the year-old second season to appear on the service at some point in the future). And I strongly suggest that you do. Scandal meets UnREAL meets I Hate Suzie in this devastatingly quick-witted dramedy that casts Anna Paquin as an ingenious PR professional tasked with putting out fires for celebrity clients—a career that requires a near-sociopathic flair for deception. Even the story lines that don’t appear to be ripped directly from the headlines feel real; I can’t think of another show that’s half as insightful about entertainment in the age of social media and #MeToo. It’s also the most fun I’ve had watching TV in months.