• Through the Trees

End of the Year Spotlight on...Horror and Genre TV

The best horror and genre shows of 2020 according to us

Written by Amy West

When life gets a little rough, and the world around you starts to feel overwhelming, horror can - somewhat unexpectedly, in some cases - prove comforting. It’s been proven that the chemical the brain releases as it soothes itself after being frightened makes you feel good, and if we've ever needed any such thing, it's in the year 2020.

With lockdowns happening all over the world, people have found themselves spending more time indoors than ever before as well, so it’s fortunate then that there’s been an abundance of genre TV shows from DARK’s mind-bending third season and the continuation of The Twilight Zone to JU-ON: Origins to keep us company. While good, those weren’t even among the very best this year had to offer really, either (aren’t we spoiled?)…

The shows we loved in 2020 pay tribute to gothic romance, cosmic horror, vampire lore and the supernatural from a modern and often refreshing perspective. Some toy with beloved classic literature and iconic characters in surprising ways and have pleasingly split critical opinion or opened up discussions on representation. Our best TV shows of the year all possess a unique or fascinating way into the genre that either manage to effectively get under the skin or make us chuckle.

The Haunting of Bly Manor (Mike Flanagan)

It’s fair to say that the follow-up to Mike Flanagan’s profound The Haunting of Hill House had a lot to live up to, and while it’s not as polished as its predecessor, it shines in its own way. Blending a bunch of Henry James’s writing, most notably The Turn of the Screw, the gothic romance follows Dani (Hill House’s Victoria Pedretti), a grieving 20-something who moves from the US to London to start anew. There, she bags a job as an au pair and travels to a stately home in the country, where she meets a handful of kind-hearted staff members, two troubled children and well, a few ghouls, too.

While the first season in Netflix’s popular anthology series, which is based on Shirley Jackson’s book of the same name, explored death, trauma and the lasting effects of growing up in a haunted house, The Haunting of Bly Manor plays out as a gorgeous-looking, heart-wrenching love story. Its focus on the significant bonds we make with others sits at the centre of the series, with its emotionally devastating ending placing huge emphasis on why these bonds are so worthwhile even if having to say goodbye one day can be so tough.

Lovecraft Country (Misha Green)

Truth be told, not everything in Lovecraft Country’s first season worked. It dropped the ball with its queer representation in a big way during its finale and its narrative was needlessly convoluted at times. But the cosmic and supernatural horror wasn’t afraid to swing big (even if it missed occasionally), and such guts have to be commended.

Each episode offered up something different, from its spiritual second episode, to its haunted house outing and even a straight-up Indiana Jones-inspired adventure - all the while exploring racial tensions in 1950s Jim Crow era America. It’s bizarre, sure, with its monsters, magic and gore but that’s part of its charm. It also boasts some of 2020’s best performances from Jonathan Majors, Wunmi Mosaku and Jurnee Smollett, who all help ground its more bonkers moments.

What We Do in the Shadows S2 (Jermaine Clement)

UK fans of Jermaine Clement's small screen spin-off had to wait a long ol' while for everyone's favourite vampires to return for more silly antics. Boy, was it worth it though.

Kayvan Novak, Mark Proksch and Natasia Demetriou are as hilarious as ever but Matt Berry and Harvey Guillen steal the show as undead not-so-nobleman Laszlo Cravensworth and fangboy-turned-unwitting bloodsucker hunter Guillermo, respectively.

Much of the second instalment centres on Guillermo’s struggle to accept that he's a descendant of Van Helsing... and is actually crazy good at offing the beasties he's been dedicated to protecting since he was young. The run's standout episode though sees Laszlo flee an enemy (Mark Hamill!) and adopt a false identity as a bar-owner in small-town Pennsylvania.

Inside No.9 S5 (Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton)

Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton proved they are masters of balancing comedy and horror once again with the latest instalment of anthology series Inside No. 9. This season’s tales follow a young couple whose move into a new apartment spark some strange goings-on, a thrilling car stakeout, a working class family finding it hard to make ends meet at Christmas, and a world-famous magician being interviewed by a mysterious young journalist.

If you’ve enjoyed the show so far, then there’s much to be thrilled by here - particularly the ingenious, and rather raunchy way in which the opener interprets the meaning of ‘Inside No.9’. It features a great nod to the show running duo’s eerie black comedy Psychoville, too.

The Outsider (Richard Price)

A show featuring the likes of Jason Bateman, Paddy Considine, Cynthia Erivo and Ben Mendelsohn being worth a watch is hardly a surprise, but The Outsider’s commitment to the serious, slow burn - something which, in the age of streaming services and binge-watching, seems to be somewhat of a dying art - is what cements it as one of the best genre shows of the year.

Based on Stephen King’s novel of the same name, it follows detective Ralph Anderson (Mendelsohn), who is tasked with investigating the gruesome murder of a young boy. Things become complicated and weird when the prime suspect, whom all the indisputable evidence points to, proves he was at an out-of-town conference during the time of the attack. Gripping, unsettling stuff on the nature of fear and suspicion in modern times.

Ratched (Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky)

If you purposefully forget that it has anything to do with One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy’s retcon on one of literature and cinema’s most iconic characters is a surprising delight. Set in 1947, it sees Mildred Ratched (American Horror Story's Sarah Paulson, fantastic) charm her way into a job at a Californian psychiatric hospital, in the hopes of helping her murderous, adoptive brother Edmund (Finn Wittrock), who has been incarcerated there, escape.

As anticipated, it's stunning to look at - (it is from the showrunner behind the likes of The Politician, Pose and Hollywood after all) - as it juxtaposes its glam, vibrant costumes and settings with its encroaching chaos and violence. But it's the predominantly female starry cast, who are clearly enjoying themselves bringing this pulpy material to life, that really keep you hooked. Bring on season two of Ratched!

Paranormal (Amr Salama and Majid Al Ansari)

Netflix’s first Egyptian TV series centres on Dr. Refaat Ismail, a hematologist Dr. Refaat Ismail (Ahmed Amin), whose gloomy outlook has led him to believe that he’s unlucky - a more faith-based notion than a man of science usually subscribes to. That said, Refaat remains sceptical about the idea of the supernatural, despite the events around him increasingly proving otherwise.

Based on the book series of the same name by Ahmed Khaled Tawfik, it kind of uses a monster-of-the-week style format, from spectres to mummies and mythical creatures, which basically means it’s got everything a horror fan digs. Atmospheric, and well-acted, it’s not to be missed.

Truth Seekers (Nick Frost, Simon Pegg, Nat Saunders, James Serafinowicz)

A fabulous blend of freaky and chuckle-worthy moments, fast-paced comedy Truth Seekers sees Cornetto Trilogy star Nick Frost play Gus Roberts, a broadband installer who's obsessed with the afterlife - and capturing evidence of it, too.

Shortly after his company assigns him a new partner, Samson Kayo's wide-eyed nice guy Elton John, the twosome are accosted by a disturbed young woman who's convinced she's being pursued by malevolent spirits. Together, the unlikely trio stumble across all sorts of unexplainable phenomena, from exploding heads and soul transference to a wider conspiracy involving mind control. GLOW’s Kate Nash and Kelly McDonald cameo, while Malcolm McDowell has a blast portraying Gus's demanding, doddery dad-in-law.

Fear the Walking Dead S6 (Dave Erickson, Robert Kirkman)

Kicking off weeks after season five’s dramatic finale, which saw Morgan (Lennie James), Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey) and the gang forced apart by Ginny (The Boys’ Colby Minifie) and her cronies, the first half of Fear the Walking Deads sixth instalment - (the second half is expected to air in 2021) - dedicates each episode to just one or two characters.

In doing so, it awards itself the time to explore each of their emotional states more deeply than has been possible over the last season or two. In every outing within The Walking Dead universe, the zombies have never really been the most interesting part, the survivors have. Giving us time to strengthen our bond with this lot can only be a good call.

It's also properly leaned into Western territory now too, which is super fun - not just because all of them look fabulous in cowboy hats – but it differentiates it from the main show, which has adopted a more epic, almost medieval style tone in recent years.

Ghosts S2 (Tom Kingsley, Mathew Baynton, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Ben Willbond)

Much like What We Do in the Shadows, Ghosts takes a spooky premise and makes it funny.

The BBC show kicked off in 2019 and continued earlier this year, as new mansion owners Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) endeavour to rent Button House - which is chock-full of Casper-types from all different historical periods - out as a wedding venue, having put their plans to make into a hotel on hold. Things hit an immediate snag, though, when a photographer snaps the former owner’s ghost in one of the windows and occult enthusiasts descend upon the dwelling. Silly, sweet and light-hearted entertainment, that possesses an endearing humanity that creeps up on you when you least expect it.

Keep an eye out for the Christmas special airing on 23rd December on the BBC.

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