A short disclaimer: the question of 'best' is mostly arbitrary. Yet, it provides the space for us to engage with our love for film and television. It eases us into conversations which let us think and argue about this artform the way we ought to: with sincerity, with our emotions, and with joy.
2020 has seen the launch of some excellent new shows and mini-series. Shows from the West such as the rare successful adaptation of a great book, Normal People; an artfully complex dramatisation of a piece of American history, Mrs. America; a surprisingly subversive, fun, and proudly feminst, Harley Quinn; a great, auteur-led sitcom about a queer relationship that explores love as well as it examines addiction, Feel Good; and the maddeningly original, animated, podcast-on-an-acid-trip, The Midnight Gospel. Closer home, we saw both audiences and critics fall in love with the daringly political Pataal Lok which simply blew away everything else. But the question for us television (urgh, ok– web-series) nerds is: which one do we crown as our queen (pardon the pun)?
Almost immediately, The Queen's Gambit (Netflix), the Cold War era, mini-series about an orphaned, chess prodigy's rise to world chess champion whilst battling inner demons, comes to mind. First things first, there simply hasn't been a show with the same level of impact since, maybe, Stranger Things (which was more an American than global phenomenon anyway): from breaking viewership records for a limited series with 62 million viewers within a month of its release, as reported by Deadline, to causing Google searches for 'how to play chess' to reach a 9-year peak. From new Chess.com sign-ups increasing by 500% to chess streamers and YouTubers talking about an explosion in their viewership and subscribers following the show's release. Phew! That's a lot to take in.
But making chess popular isn't the only cultural impact of the show– it has also opened up conversations about mental health and substance abuse, with publications like Psychology Today writing about the show, and academics like Diti Bhadra praising the show for its astute observations: "the plot-line makes clear that such accurate retrieval of information from LTM (Long Term Memory) is neurally entwined with the abuse of the Librium drug and alcohol for Beth".
And then there's its impact on women. Anyone who has even the slightest idea of what our patriarchal world is like, knows that chess is a heavily male-dominated field. Since the release of the show, however, Levy Rozman, an international chess master, says that his YouTube channel, GothamChess, has almost doubled its amount of female viewers. The Queen's Gambit has triggered a change; one that could swell into a tidal wave of Beth Harmons (without all the trauma, we hope).
None of this, however, is what makes it a contender for the year's best show. Let's break it down a little.
A show about a genius which is technically a rags-to-riches, sports biopic (even though it is about a fictional person), runs the risk of falling for all the old 'underdog prodigy' and 'successful but tortured' tropes.
However, unlike much of the film and television that explores these subjects, The Queen's Gambit is able to pull off remarkable, subtle character growth. Beth Harmon doesn't just keep winning. She starts out having some of the typical 'autistic coding'/'social awkwardness' that is often thrust upon geniuses in fictional media. In her case, this has more grounding in the story– she is a victim of childhood trauma, thrown into an alien orphanage and then an equally alien new home, and develops a dependence on pills at a very young age. But she grows. Throughout the series, there is subtlety and detail in every little change in her. Notice her changing hairstyles, her growing confidence in expressing herself through her appearance, the pivot from being uncomfortably quiet to commanding power in her silences.
The show also thrives in the relationships between Beth, and all the people in her life. The obvious path for the relationship with her adoptive mother was to explicate its exploitativeness, to make her mother ugly in her selfishness. The show goes another way. It develops an uneasy yet loving bond between them with undertones of toxicity.
Beth's relationships with multiple men reveal her character. Her unrequited love for Townes leads to a spectacular, almost-kiss after a photoshoot in a hotel room, which labelling as 'brimming with sexual tension' fails the energy of the scene. Beltik – former opponent, then coach, then lover, and finally, concerned friend – is never the typical 'asshole with a heart of gold' and yet his insecurity about her is shown for what it is. And Benny, the self-styled modern cowboy, United States chess champion, is eccentric and flawed but never a caricature. Beth and him growing close is a delicate journey that takes its time, and produces some crackling conversation along the way. The best part is that at the end all these men come together to support and celebrate her, a beautiful completion of her arc about searching for family.
The absence of villains, especially for an American show portraying Cold War era Russians, complements the dignity of the show. Borgov, current World Chess Champion and Harmon's greatest opponent, is formidable even with the fewest words but displays a deep respect for Beth through his demeanour.
The only true disappointment, which has been pointed out by others but not by enough, is the show's treatment of its one black character, Jolene. Despite being taken under her wing at the orphanage, Beth barely thinks of her once she is adopted until one day, out of the blue, she pops up to 'save her' just a little, facilitating some good ole' emotional catharsis. It is yet another embarrassing example of what is known as the 'Magical Negro' trope.
The show incorporates many critiques of gendered structures of power but does not indulge in being "guilt-lit", by making Beth suffer endlessly for being a woman. In fact, the most novel argument it seems to make is through its focus on her career, her complexities, and her relationships, and in doing so, respecting its own character's wishes. After reading a profile on her in a magazine, Beth comments, "It's mostly about my being a girl… they didn't print half the things I said". The show does not dismiss the politics of this statement.
It also treats substance abuse differently than most other media. Although it has been criticised for lacking serious consequences, and the chess hallucinations on the ceiling are distasteful, it manages to not make its protagonist go truly 'crazy' because of her substance abuse and still treat it as self-destructive behaviour.
Anya Taylor-Joy cements herself as a character that is becoming, and maybe already is, iconic. She makes the transition of playing a character from ages 15 to 21 look effortless. Each movement of her eyes, twitch of her lips, and careful expression is magnetic. Even the greatest actor in the world cannot guarantee an iconic performance (except Brando maybe?), but somewhere between what's written on the page, the vision of the creators, and the right, engaged performer, the magic of a perfect role is created.
And all this is just the narrative. The show is elevated by its gorgeous cinematography, production design, costumes, and ingenuitive editing. Director of Photography, Steven Miezler, who has previously assisted on The Social Network, based the visual style around Jonathon Glazer's underrated Birth. His lighting, self-admittedly, mirrors German expressionism, deepening the sense of Beth's inner feelings through her surroundings. The production design and costumes create new, immersive worlds out of famous cities as they were during the '50s and '60s. What has astounded me the most is that the editing manages to make chess sexy. This hasn't been done before. One doesn't need to know anything about chess to be drawn in. If anything can be criticised, it is the minor point of Beth's hair being perfect at all times with no exceptions. I can let that go, though.
And finally, the performances. Anya Taylor-Joy cements herself as a character that is becoming, and maybe already is, iconic. She makes the transition of playing a character from ages 15 to 21 look effortless. Each movement of her eyes, twitch of her lips, and careful expression is magnetic. Even the greatest actor in the world cannot guarantee an iconic performance (except Brando maybe?), but somewhere between what's written on the page, the vision of the creators, and the right, engaged performer, the magic of a perfect role is created. Anya has mentioned how she used her experience in ballet to try and create choreography for her fingers as they moved the pieces on the board.
So is The Queen's Gambit 2020's best show? When I started writing this piece, all I knew was that, best or not, the show had cemented itself as the first 'iconic' new series (limited series, that is) of the new decade. For me, the fact that it will be remembered and celebrated is enough. However, as I arrive at the end of this investigation, I am forced to confront the fact that there really aren't many faults to find in the show. On the other hand, does its merits outweigh those of the penultimate season of the dark, funny, and tragic, Better Call Saul, or even the emotionally intelligent closure given to us by the final season of Bojack Horseman? Well – dare I say it – yes. For as much as I love the many other brilliant shows that the year has offered us, none felt quite as fresh as The Queen's Gambit. And in a year as claustrophobic as this one, what else could you want but a little bit of fresh air?