The very best crime TV shows of 2020
You hardly need us to tell you that 2020 has been an unforgettable year in an almost countless number of really quite awful ways. For crime fiction fans, however, one of the few lights in an otherwise dark and miserable year has been the wide array of excellent crime TV that we could all escape to.
From chilling portraits of real-life homegrown serial killers, to ambitious and sweeping international dramas about drug trafficking – via reboots, adaptations, prequels and sequels – this year’s been another stellar one for us fans of the darker side of the box.
Here’s our pick of the best crime TV shows of 2020…
The best crime TV shows of 2020:
Dramas about real-life tragedies and loss have to be made tactfully. The urge to sensationalise and glamourise serial killers on both the big and small screen is real, but when the killer depicted isn’t a figment of a writer’s imagination, the story must be addressed with a real sensitivity. ITV’s Des, a three-part tale of Dennis Nilsen and his victims, hits its mark perfectly.
Daniel Mays and Jason Watkins – as the lead investigator and biographer of ‘Des’ – perform admirably, but this ratings hit will be solely remembered for David Tennant’s eerily uncanny portrayal of its central character.
IMDb rating: 7.8
Criminal: UK series 2
Netflix’s clever play-like one-setting anthology series Criminal returned to grateful subscribers’ screens this year. The first series was met with both critical and audience acclaim and this follow-up didn’t disappoint either.
Each one-episode story has its moments and generally keeps you guessing, but the undeniable stand-out hour comes in the second part, ‘Alex’. Not generally known for his acting range, Game of Thrones actor Kit Harrington is an absolute revelation here in this brave – albeit controversial – story of a supercilious businessman who’s arrested for rape.
The three other ‘criminals’ are Sophie Okonedo (Chimerica), Kunal Nayyar (The Big Bang Theory) and Sharon Horgan (Catastrophe). Grilling them are a new team of cops too, principal of which are Katherine Kelly (Cheat), Lee Ingleby (Innocent) and Rochenda Sandall (Line of Duty).
IMDb rating: 7.6
Save Me Too
Sky One’s Save Me was arguably the best British TV series of 2018. Created, written by and starring Line of Duty’s Lennie James, this tale of a desperate father trying to track down his missing daughter deserved a sequel. This year it got one.
A strong ensemble cast including the likes of Suranne Jones and Stephen Graham support, but this is all about the powerhouse performance of James. His Nelly Rowe is such a forceful and idiosyncratic presence, there’s something almost Shakespearian about him and the wider story.
IMDb rating: 7.7
Narcos: Mexico series 2
For many, Narcos isn’t Narcos without Wagner Moura’s moustachioed and polo shirt-wearing Pablo Escobar. But while its spiritual sequel Narcos: Mexico might have a central character lacking the personality of Escobar, fans of both the series and crime dramas in general would be fools to write the series off.
Diego Luna’s restrained performance as Miguel Ángel Félix Gallardo, the founder of the modern Mexican drug trade may be more understated, but it has serious depth. Scott McNairy’s DEA agent also lacks the charisma of Boyd Holbrook’s Steve Murphy and everyman charm of Michael Peña’s Kiki Camarena, but there are more than enough surrounding plotlines and characters to make Mexico #2 ten hours well spent.
IMDb rating: 8.4
Fans of Narcos might well think that 2020 was unlikely to produce a better TV drama about Mexican drug trafficking. Fans of Narcos might well be wrong. Gomorrah and Sicario 2: Day of the Soldado director Stefano Sollima is the man behind the – quite frankly – incredible international series ZeroZeroZero.
Tracking a seemingly cursed shipment of cocaine from Monterrey in Mexico all the way to Calabria in Italy via Africa, ZeroZeroZero gives us a fascinating and powerfully realistic snapshot of the world of international organised crime, drug smuggling and police corruption. All while telling several engrossing human stories.
Considering the cast includes the likes of Andrea Riseborough, Dane DeHaan (superb here) and Gabriel Byrne, it’s impressive that Mexican actor Harold Torres manages to steal this demanding and urgent series.
It’s equal parts bloody cartel thriller, mafia saga and touching family drama. One which gets extra points for being soundtracked by the ever-spellbinding Glasgow instrumentalists Mogwai. If you’ve only got time for one crime series on this list, make it this one.
IMDb rating: 8.2
Ozark series 3
Jason Bateman’s Netflix crime drama about a family caught up in an inescapable money-laundering plot – somehow – just gets better and better.
Central to this third season’s success is the introduction of Wendy’s brother Ben, perfectly played by Banshee’s Tom Pelphrey, who looks uncannily like Keanu Reeves here. Wildly unpredictable due to bipolar disorder, he begins a romance with Ruth which adds some much-needed heart to an increasingly cold and claustrophobic show.
IMDb rating: 8.4
Killing Eve series 3
Despite murmurs from a few dissenting voices – mostly nitpicking critics – there’s been very little let-up in the quality from the BBC’s wildly popular Killing Eve. Series 3 saw the show continue to thrive on the inherent and undeniable chemistry between its two leads, Sandra Oh and Jodie Comer.
Adding to the mix this year are Steve Pemberton and Dame Harriet Walter, the latter of which comes close to stealing almost every scene she appears in as Villanelle’s former mentor, a deranged ex-gymnast.
IMDb rating: 8.3
The old Erle Stanley Gardner detective novels and short stories were published for some four decades, from 1933 to 1973. They’re most famous for the CBS TV adaptation that ran from 1957 until 1966, in which Raymond Burr played the shrewd and wily crime-cracking criminal defence lawyer of the title.
This 2020 reboot works as something of an origin story for Mason, effectively serving as a prequel. Over the course of the eight episodes, we watch Mason go from struggling private investigator to promising defence attorney as he takes on a conspiratorial plot surrounding a disturbing child kidnapping.
Star of The Americans Matthew Rhys brings layers and depth to the central role, while Juliet Rylance (The Knick), John Lithgow (The Crown) and Shea Whigham (Boardwalk Empire) ably support the Welshman.
Perry Mason is as patiently plotted, impeccably staged and visually stunning a series as you’re like to see; one that starts pure pulp and ends more like an inter-war John Grisham adaptation. It’s HBO, so it doesn’t exactly shy away from violence, but its quality – and obviously quite vast budget – easily shine through.
IMDb rating: 7.6
Now we’re cheating a little here, but bear with us. The superb, darkly comic Mr Inbetween first hit TV screens in its native Australia back in 2018. In 2019, its – somehow even better – follow-up run was aired Down Under. This year, a third season wasn’t shown, but has been announced.
As far as British audiences are concerned, though, it’s new. Scott Ryan’s half-hour shows following the life of a surprisingly warm and lovable hitman made their debut on the Fox channel late this year. The double bills have livened up cable schedules no end since.
Lead actor and writer Ryan based the character on the central figure on his 2005 sleeper hit film The Magician. In both he plays Ray Shoesmith, a nice guy crim trying to balance being a good father, boyfriend, brother and friend with the demands of being a tough guy gangster for hire.
The laughs are subtle, but then they’re supposed to be. The humour is organic, the realism is stark and the characters – no matter how peripheral – are always well observed and sharply drawn. Seek this out.
IMDb rating: 8.4
The Undoing was never going to be anything other than a beautiful piece of television.
With Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Édgar Ramírez and Donald Sutherland leading a cast in a David E Kelley adaptation of Jean Hanff Korelitz’s 2014 novel You Should Have Known, all the ingredients are there. With Ally McBeal and Big Little Lies‘ Kelley as head chef, this is a serious fine TV dinner.
The story might not be the most original, but with strong performances, stunning cinematography and enough twists to keep you guessing until the very end, this six-part thriller proved to be a delicious addition to 2020’s TV menu.
IMDb rating: 8.2
What would you pick as the best TV crime shows of 2020? Let us know in the comments below…