Top TV: 2020

The Outsider

When it began its run, little would the show know it’d inadvertently end up showcasing 2020’s somber mise-en-scène. For, creator Richard Price, basing this tense show off Stephen King’s novel, takes you to dark places. But amidst the heart of the umbra, the fleeting shadows reflect your own fears and scampering monsters. With murders and mysteries lurking and hounding a disbelieving detective Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn, lending a touch of languid sorrow to his terrific act) and a gifted ESP investigator (Cynthia Erivo, beautifully calibrated and nuanced), the terror ratchets up. And yet, hovering above this clammy series is a cloud of grief. That grief and the accompanying self-perpetuated horror is what continues to haunt you, long after the show runs its course. (Streaming on Hotstar)

Paatal Lok

Directors Avinash Arun and Prosit Roy with creator Sudip Sharma pack you off on a redemptionless journey of no return to the underbelly of northern India’s politics and vicious discrimination and exploitation. But the creators do not simply flash their torches toward this layered festering of rot. They string out its innards with a claw hammer and lay it bare for you to shrink into your sofa. The show, dark like a pregnant cloud bearing acid rain, connects a monstrous netherworld to the upper, layered, well-manicured societal strata of newsrooms, single malts, and posh accents. Like a worn-out, blackened kerosene lamp, it flickers its light on financial exploitation, sexual and ethnic imprinting, educational snobbery, and school bullying that’s rampant in a world not far from ours. And propping this dark tent up is a fantastic cast, led by the terrific Jaideep Ahlawat, who, in an act of devastating implosion is his own fuse wire and spark. When God said “Let there be light”, He didn’t include Paatal Lok. (Streaming on Prime)


Written by Chandan Kumar and directed by Deepak Kumar Mishra, Panchayat (Village Council) is a gentle, breezy look at life in a village with characters that are real, solving problems that encompass their seemingly calm lives where nothing seems to ever roil you. And yet, it is these trivial matters that work, especially with a stellar cast led by Raghubir Yadav, Neena Gupta, and Jitendra Tripathi who elevate daily routine to an effortless, enjoyable art. Panchayat‘s half-hour episodes may not zip around to deliver twists and mega thrills, but in these disquieting times, it’s a soothing salve. And even if seemingly there’s not much happening, all you have to do is look carefully at its main characters. Not unlike us, there’s lots playing on their minds. (Streaming on Prime)

Bandish Bandits

Despite a weak and bland start, you’d do well to stick around for and with this musical show. For, as director Anand Tiwari warms up (with some stunning cinematography by  Sriram Ganapathy) so do his characters, and even if some of the plot lines seem forced and contrived, there’s something that makes you for the Rathod gharana (lineage) in Jodhpur, and all those who orbit in its musical system. Bandish Bandits draws you in with its hook of traditional versus modern, the scansorial, sacrificial ascent of musical prowess versus the highway stardom of software auto-tuned microwaved offering. And in doing so, highlights the very real-life struggles that Indian classical music proponents, performers, and practitioners face in this attention-deficit world of Insta photos and two-minute fast food. Plus, a shining cast led by Naseeruddin Shah, Atul Kulkarni, Sheeba Chaddha, and Rajesh Tailang keep you wanting more. And even if the storyline doesn’t quite deliver, making Bandish Bandits a must-watch is the outstanding soundtrack by Shankar-Ehsaan-Loy. The trio composes a richly decorated, scintillating album, scoring high especially when they delve into their Indian classical side. Which is what a true blue musical is all about. The music. (Streaming on Prime)

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark

The six-series true-crime documentary is given a heavy, ominous treatment by directors Liz Garbus, Elizabeth Wolff, Myles Kane, and Josh Koury. And yet, there’s a firm grip to it as it tracks the late Michelle McNamara’s obsession about the Golden State Killer and how she single-handedly begins to spearhead reviving the hunt for the mysterious person who, at final count, committed at least 13 murders, 50 rapes, and 120 burglaries across California between 1973 and 1986. McNamara trawls the dark web communities to piece clues and narratives together, struggling to form a final, elusive picture of the killer. The directors chillingly capture the unstitched wound that rape slices on its victims, and McNamara is determined to stitch the story up, solve the case, and deliver closure for the survivors to heal. In the process, she slowly begins to erode her own life, her obsession the ultimate drug to keep going to dangerous and dark places to shine a light. McNamara’s life—and death—serve a chilling reminder that the maniacal energy that drives you to what you set out to consume, if left uncontrolled, eventually turns around to devour its lone prey. (Streaming on Hotstar)

Scam 1992: The Harshad Mehta Story

Director Hansal Mehta (aided by Jai Mehta) spins out a terrific web of a financial misdemeanor, crime, and systemic rot that encapsulates all that is wrong with the markets, based on Sucheta Dalal and Debashish Basu’s book, The Scam: Who Won, who Lost, who Got Away. Harshad Mehta’s true story involving a manipulated, conniving, scheming bull run gets a superb series to uncover a labyrinth of cooked up numbers, in the form of this tight thriller. Never mind if you don’t understand the market technicalities. Most of us don’t and it doesn’t matter. Because the show is an outstanding achievement in direction, writing, casting, and acting. And it is in the tiny attention to detail that makes it the class product it is. A massive and massively talented casting roll-call—including lead Pratik Gandhi and his onscreen tracker Shreya Dhanwanthary—make this one of 2020’s must-watch. That and the realization that we’re all, in one way or the other, one justification or the other, only a blink away from choosing between fear and greed. (Streaming on Sony LIV)

The Queen’s Gambit

Based on the novel by Walter Tevis, this is a coming-of-age mini-series that’s wrapped around the mind-game of chess and a who’ll-blink-first finale endgame in the Soviet. Director Scott Frank, with a scintillating sleight of lens and writing, brings the action from the board to the screen. Following the tale of Elizabeth Harmon that opens in 1958 when she’s orphaned at 8 and sent to an institute that inculcates usage of drugs and fascination for chess, in that order. The latter’s thanks to the orphanage’s custodian, Mr. Shaibel (a terrific Bill Camp), who develops the ultra-sharp Beth’s gambits, while the drugs do their bit in helping her visualize board moves on the ceiling across an entire game, sometimes almost phallic in their nature of upside dangle and moves-—Beth’s insatiable hunger for the game, her arousal erupting in newer strategies, the nymphomania of chess. Mixing patriarchy, drug abuse, and the politics of chess, this slick match fest is propelled by Anya Taylor-Joy’s hypnotic performance. See-sawing between defiant fiery blasts and intimidated deep-freeze blows, the actor’s unblinking, IMAX-deep eyes pack a wallop. For her, you—as some of her wannabe suitors onscreen do—can gladly zugzwang your remaining life pieces away. (Streaming on Netflix)


This tensile Israeli espionage series, directed by Daniel Syrkin and pumped up by Mark Eliyahu’s electronic-meets-mid-east theme music, packs in enough twists and turns in its eight episodes to keep you edgy and worried. Combining the politics of Israel versus Iran and its peoples, the series, via its lead actor Niv Sultan, playing the increasingly troubled and trapped Tamar, sprints across the city of Tehran to bring a mission to urgent and deadly closure. What she doesn’t account for is the dogged investigation head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, Faraz Kamali, played by a raggedly brilliant Shaun Toub. Taking some pieces from the globally resonating and always relevant Homeland (itself a remake of the Israeli Prisoners of War), the show cuts deeply especially when it takes a pause to look at people on both sides of the conflict and their personal angst and tells you there’s no such thing as collateral damage. Every shattered life is primary, painful damage. (Streaming on Apple TV)