As far as we’re concerned, the one upside to being stuck at home for the majority of the year has been the opportunity to watch more TV. Fortunately, 2020 delivered a lot of good TV. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite recommendations of the year and paired them with gift ideas that ought to please any fan. You may even want to pick out a little something for yourself. Go ahead. You deserve it for making it through the year’s nine circles of hell.
The addictive, lush and soapy award winner returned for its best season yet, dropping us inside the political and economic turmoil of the 1980s and the tumultuous reign of Margaret Thatcher. Beginning with the origin story of Prince Charles and Lady Diana’s fraught union, each of the 10 episodes tackle different moments from different points of view, taking us behind the velvet curtains and into the Queen’s private meetings with the Prime Minister, into Thatcher’s political showdowns, or into Charles and Di’s infidelities.
At its best, The Crown forces us to ask what we want in our leaders — and what we want from our fairytales. It also makes us question historical narratives, and now that the Royal family has insisted that a disclaimer be added to the show, lest anyone think it’s a docuseries, expect to see more people jumping in to to watch it.
What to get a fan of The Crown:
Sapphire ring A symbol of wisdom, virtue, and good fortune, the sapphire was chosen as the gem at the center of Lady Diana’s engagement ring. This “vintage art deco” version on Etsy was inspired by the iconic royal one. And while the original may not have bestowed all that it promised for the Princess of Wales, it appears to have brought more wisdom and happiness to Prince William, who gave his mother’s ring to Kate Middleton when he proposed.
Starz Subscription Gift Card Anyone looking to fill the Buckingham Palace-sized hole in their lives after finishing The Crown will find plenty of palace intrigue and sweeping historical dramas at the home of The Spanish Princess, The White Princess, The White Queen, and Outlander.
Ted Lasso wasn’t the role model anyone expected at the end of 2020, but he was absolutely the one we needed. Supportive, good-natured, and undaunted by adversity, Ted (played with total commitment by Jason Sudeikis) could teach us all a thing or two about making the best out of a tough situation.
The story begins with Ted arriving in England to start a job as head manager of AFC Richmond, an English Premier League football team. He’s never coached soccer before, or even visited England, but he’s up for the challenge. Despite his folksy demeanor, Ted is no fool. He’s aware of how much he has to learn, puts in the effort, and catches on quickly.
What he doesn’t know is that the team’s recently divorced owner, Rebecca Welton (Hannah Wadingham), is determined to destroy her ex-husband’s beloved franchise, and has brought in Ted to help her do it. On the other hand, what Rebecca doesn’t know is that she’s picked the exact wrong guy for the job. Or, rather, she’s inadvertently picked the right one. Though he’s set up to fail, Ted handles each setback with grace and humor. His secret weapons against a hostile press, belligerent fans, and a team of resentful players who don’t take well to being told what to do by clueless outsiders are relentless optimism and genuine decency. Sometimes that’s enough. – Cindy White
What to get a fan of Ted Lasso:
Ted could have learned so much from this book. It’s also a great read for anyone curious about the workings of the Premiere League, including juicy stories about some of its most notorious figures. Just like the show, you don’t have to be a sports fan to appreciate the drama behind the scenes of this worldwide phenomenon.
With this set, your lucky gift recipient won’t have to go “down the pub” to get good enough to impress their boss by swindling her vile ex-husband out of a seat in the owner’s box. The darts are even adorned with American and UK flags, so you can compete for cultural supremacy.
There’s a scene in the The Queen’s Gambit when a Life magazine reporter asks teenage chess prodigy Beth Harmon (played by Anna Taylor-Joy) why the game appeals to her so much. Are the King and Queen pieces stand-ins for the parents she lost? No, she says, it was the board. “It’s an entire board of 64 squares. I feel safe in it. I can control it. I can dominate it, and it’s predictable. So if I get hurt, I only have myself to blame.”
Beth’s obsession with chess isn’t about what she’s lost, it’s about what she can control — the direction of her life and avoidance of pain.
Set in the 1960s, all of the female characters in the series lack control over their lives. Yet to Beth, the gender constraints are not so much a bother as a puzzle. Why does the Life magazine article focus on her being a girl instead of a great chess player? Why can’t she play in this tournament if she’s willing to pay the fee? She doesn’t get mad when men tell her she can’t win (and she’s told this a lot), she just beats them. Ironically, her blasé attitude and fierce competitiveness attracts men anyway — as groupies, teachers, lovers, or sometimes all three.
But as she’s left disappointed and abandoned by the men, the women in her life are there for her – and so are the 64 squares she can control. – Liz Coopersmith
What to get a fan of The Queen’s Gambit:
Garry Kasparov Teaches Chess A chess set is no help without some instruction. If you know someone with ambitions of becoming a real-life Beth Harmon, consider gifting them the opportunity to learn from six-time World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov. With a MasterClass subscription they can also watch video lessons covering more than a hundred subjects taught by famous experts in dozens of fields. And right now, the site is offering a special holiday deal of two memberships for the price of one, so you can sign yourself up while you’re at it.
The notoriously fractious Star Wars fandom can agree that The Mandalorian is a worthy torchbearer as the franchise heads into an uncertain future. Set five years after the events of Return of the Jedi (1983) and the fall of the Galactic Empire, it follows a lone bounty hunter known as Mando (Pedro Pascal) in the outer reaches of the now lawless galaxy. When he’s hired to retrieve “The Child” (formerly known as Baby Yoda, now officially “Grogu”) he goes on the run to protect the infant rather than collect the bounty on him.
In the first season, Mando became a target of the scattered remnants of the Imperial army still reeling from its defeat at the end of Return of the Jedi. Now that he’s has decided to keep the little green guy around, season two follows them on a quest to find out more about The Child’s origins. The answer may lie with a legendary religious sect that was once the enemy of the Mandalorian’s people: the Jedi.
While many of the characters from season one returned, it was the new additions (guest star Timothy Olyphant and Temuera Morrison returning as the iconic Boba Fett) that gave this season its watercooler status. – Cindy White
What to get a Mandalorian fan:
Who doesn’t need more Baby Yoda in their life? (We’re still having trouble with Grogu, and “The Child” wasn’t ever going to catch on.) This little robotic version makes adorable sounds and performs several actions, including moving his head, hands, and ears. If you lay him down he’ll even close his eyes and take a little Force nap. Aww.
Adapted from James McBride’s historical novel, this ambitious Showtime series somehow teeters between urgent historical epic and addictive, comedic entertainment. It’s told through the voice of a fictional 12-year-old former slave nicknamed Onion (Joshua Caleb Johnson), who joins the legendary abolitionist John Brown (Ethan Hawke) on his holy crusade to end slavery, culminating in the raid on Harpers Ferry in 1859—one of the catalysts for the Civil War.
They are joined by an unlikely army of freed slaves, Brown’s own sons, a Native American, a Jew, and the voice of God himself, channeled by Brown, an evangelical who is convincingly “touched” while simultaneously channeling the deep-rooted rage of a nation boiling over from oppression.
What can seem like a Coen brothers adventure-comedy on one level is actually a stirring exploration of history: a peeling away of the layers of religion, identity and race that have intertwined to drive some of the biggest events that collectively shaped us. — Melissa Roth
What to get a fan of The Good Lord Bird:
Go right to the source material with the James McBride novel that inspired the series. If you want to show off your literary knowledge, casually mention that it won the 2013 National Book Award.
If you’re a gamer – or know a few — you are bound to have extra fun with the humor in Mythic Quest. If you are not, then get ready to learn more about the eccentric folks who get paid to make them. At its heart, the show is a workplace comedy that does what Silicon Valley did best during its six-season run. The characters are the hook, which allows viewers who have never played a video game in their life to become invested. — Morissa Schwartz
What to get a fan of Mythic Quest:
Razer Kraken Gaming Headset A good pair of headphones is a must for any serious gamer, and these are sure to fit the bill. Not only does the Razer brand have a good reputation within the gaming community, its products are featured prominently on the show.
The Dream Architects Just released in September, this memoir by a game industry veteran examines the past, present, and future of the business with personal stories from the front lines of major franchises. Also a great resource for anyone looking to break into video games, although watching Mythic Quest might make anyone think twice about that career choice.
The timely, taut espionage thriller follows Mossad agent and hacker Tamar Rabinyan, an Israeli born in Iran, as she infiltrates her former homeland, posing alternately as an Iranian flight attendant, an electric company worker, and a student dissident. Her mission: to disable Iran’s aerial defense system and clear the way for an Israeli attack on a nuclear reactor.
What distinguishes the series from others like it is the extent to which it empathizes with the other side, dispelling myths as it reveals the fraught emotional lives of its characters: an Iranian intelligence officer, a devout young Muslim, Israeli assets, young Iranian counter revolutionaries. It also explores the underground world of dissidents, showing a side of Iran that is rarely seen, from drug-fueled parties to sexually liberated 20-somethings to bold acts of open protest. In light of the recent assassination of an Iranian nuclear commissioner – and the execution of a dissident journalist – this one feels urgent. – Melissa Roth
What to get a fan of Tehran:
Reading Lolita in Tehran Anyone curious to learn more about life and culture in Iran, especially the inner lives of Iranian women, should enjoy this memoir by a teacher and a group of students studying forbidden works of Western literature. Set in the revolutionary era of the 1980s, it’s a fascinating look at history, literature, and culture, and all the different ways they intersect.
It may play out against some bleak backdrops, but this Breaking Bad origin story has gripped viewers season after season by peeling back the bark to reveal what created several now-iconic characters. It’s the story of Bob Odenkirk’s Saul Goodman before he became the scam artist attorney for Walter White. Originally known as Jimmy McGill, a small-time attorney working the angles, Season 5 sees his transition to Saul, which sets off a shock wave of events. Set against a covert war on a drug cartel, the series mixes sly comedy with life or death stakes. Ultimately, it’s Odenkirk who draws you in and keeps you engrossed throughout this gripping saga — which pays off in two immersive series.
What to get a fan of Saul’s:
Inside jokes are a great way for fans to recognize other fans in the wild. Those in the know will appreciate this quality shirt representing Saul Goodman’s dubious alma mater. And those who aren’t don’t really matter anyway, do they?
This blind bag comes with collectible dog tags featuring photos of the characters. Small and inexpensive, it would make a great stocking stuffer.
A trip back to the most mortifying moments of middle school may not be for everyone. But this year, the hilarious cringe-com PEN15 delivered a perfectly absurd escape watch. The show recently earned an endorsement from Game of Thrones showrunner David Benioff, who watches with his teenage daughter, and Josh Groban, who wants to play a part in the show.
The set up: Grown-up comedians Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine play awkward 13-year-old versions of themselves in the year 2000…surrounded by actual 13-year-old actors. It’s a conceit that draws you in to see how they pull that off, but it (mostly) takes a back seat as the two convincingly disappear into their braces and their, like, bowl cuts and stuff.
Where the first season saw the BFFs dipping their toes into the mysterious waters of boyfriends, whippets, and masturbation lessons, the second season sees them canon balling into the deep end, as they walk the line between their child-like pretend worlds and the realities of divorcing parents, periods, and the inevitable forces that pull best best friends apart.
Kangol Bucket Hat They’re cool, they’re fluffy, and they contain all the humiliations and hormones that bubble up inside a teenage (and a grown-up teenage) head.
A dark and dirty film noir, Babylon Berlin is also gripping and layered history lesson with a lot to say. Its set amid the final years of Weimar Germany, steamrolling towards the inevitable rise of Hitler. The most expensive non-English language series ever produced, it’s a melting pot of gangsters, prostitutes, and political intrigue set against the most intoxicating spectacle of the roaring 20s you’re likely to find. – Lauren Eather
What to get a fan of Babylon Berlin:
Shop Etsy’s Berlin Cabaret Marketplace
You’ll find lots of cool, unique gift ideas here, from vintage art reprints to fashionable accessories. They all capture the iconic style of 1920s pre-War Germany as seen on the show and make great conversation pieces.
A beautiful mix of humor, poignancy and pain as we accompany Gervais’ character, Tony Johnson, on his funny, painful, bumpy journey dealing with the aftermath of his beloved wife’s death from breast cancer, as well as the possible demise of the newspaper for which he works.
It explores some big questions: How do we reenter and exist in the world after our world has been shattered? Where do we find answers and meaning? How do we stop dwelling in an idealized past at the expense of missing out on current chances for love and growth? How do we learn to open up and be vulnerable again? All things occupying our minds and spirits in this challenging time.
In a time when death has become so much closer and more real to all of us due to the Coronavirus, After Life reinforces the value of working through depression, inertia and wallowing in a pool of nostalgia — by focusing on life. — Mark Miller
What to get someone who’s lost someone: The holidays can be particularly hard on those who are grieving. Rituals for the Living, created by writer and grief counselor Patricia Danaher, offers different ways to pay tribute to those we’ve lost…and help those who are still here. The Jizo Healing Ritual includes the Bodhistva from seventh century Japan who protects the grieving and those who have died…including the pets.
It’s set against an escapist back drop: mesmerizing dance clubs, glamorous trips to Ostia, handsome Italian boyfriends, and a sunny version of millennial life in London. But the story pivots when its lead, a famous millennial author, Arabella (played by Michaela Coel, also the series’ creator), is haunted by flashbacks after her drink was spiked during a night out. The viewer is left to process what happened as she does, in fragments, doubts and denials. What unfolds is a series that explores power, consent and exploitation in its many forms — and from many different points of view, including that of the falsely accused.
Addictive, provocative, and timely, the series challenges how we think and feel about our own relationships. – Melissa Roth
What to get a fan of I May Destroy You:
When Arabella finally overcomes her own fears, which kept her in the grips of writer’s block, she’s able to frame her own story to confront what happened to her. For the writer in your life, or aspiring writer, this book by Elizabeth Gilbert could help them work through their own creative anxiety.
Based on the beloved book series by Ann M. Martin, this new Netflix adaptation manages to update the franchise in a way that feels modern and relevant, without losing any of the heartfelt authenticity that’s kept young readers engaged for more than 30 years. The stories are engaging and layered with meaning, and the endearing group of middle-school girls behave and talk like actual middle-school girls as they face challenges from mundane to monumental (is there any difference at that age?). All of it is handled with a delicate touch and a healthy dose of humor. The Baby-Sitter’s Club showcases the mettle of young girls by putting them through trials of character and seeing them come out the other side with newfound grit, maturity, and self-confidence. – Cindy White
What to get a fan of The Babysitters Club:
Go back to the beginning with this set of the first eight Baby-Sitter’s Club books by Ann M. Martin, complete with original retro cover art. Great for for kids who’ve just discovered the series, grownups with fond memories of the original, or as a gift to both to read together.
If you missed seeing the NCAA on TV, this all-star historical political drama filled the gap. The teams going at it are the Libbers and the Skirts. The game ball is the ERA, or Equal Right Amendment, passed by the U.S. Senate in March 1972 and sent to the states for ratification. The crux of the debate: The Libbers claim it provides necessary legal protection for women and girls against gender discrimination. The Skirts claim it undermines traditional American family values by blurring gender differences and subverting cherished gender roles. Of course, the referees are the all-male political establishment. Still, how the Libbers and Skirts marshal their small-time organizational skills to play the big-time political game is probably the best and most inspiring part of the series. But it’s most relevant in its exploration of where our current political and cultural divisions started widening. Prepare to hear more about this one come awards season. – Mary Beth Ross
What to get a fan of Mrs. America:
The UK Times describes them as “the shades of 2020.” But they became legendary as Steinem’s staple in the 1970s. As Rose Byrne, who plays the feminist pioneer in the series, explained to the Hollywood Reporter: “The aviator glasses were so integral, I tried on many pairs and tried to match it without having the glasses be too big, trying to avoid being a caricature.”
Founded by Steinem and fellow activists in 1972, the historic magazine has survived against all odds for nearly five tumultuous decades, and continues to offer topical interviews and articles. It was also the subject of an HBO doc.