Were it not for the TV, in all honesty, we’d have probably given up on everything last year.
While it’s possible to track the exact point in the year by the current TV obsession (when things got bad: Normal People; when things got truly terrible: Tiger King) there’s no denying that television was one of the saving graces in 2020; the year of the unrelenting global pandemic.
Whether we were switching on edgy, genre-pushing series like I May Destroy You, Small Axe or Industry, or whether people were getting a comforting blast of nostalgia from much older TV shows, for many people the small screen has been our constant, reliable companion through these troubled times.
Well, settle back down on your sofa, because it doesn't look like we're heading outside again anytime soon. Fortunately, television is still here to soothe your lockdown woes, with the return of big hitters like Succession season 3 and Line of Duty series 6, limited series like Barry Jenkins' adaptation of The Underground Railroad, and engrossing documentaries exploring everything from the ripples of the Trump presidency to the power structures that rule the modern world. You know, for some light relief from the garbage fire outside your window.
It is, however, quite hard to predict how big an impact the coronavirus will have on the 2021 schedules. Production delays last year mean broadcast delays this year, but filming is slowly ramping up around the world, which means things are looking brighter for anyone keen to find out what's happening in the world of the Roys, the Shelbys and the Windsors.
Here’s our pick of the best stuff we've seen so far, and the upcoming releases to get excited about.
This Way Up
The wave of British television shows written and fronted by women, all exploring grief, trauma and loneliness while also delivering laughs, has gifted us Fleabag, I May Destroy You, and now, This Way Up. The second season of Aisling Bea's Bafta-winning sees a reversal for sisters Àine and Shona as the former is loved up with the father of one of her tutoring pupils, while the latter struggles to conceal her blossoming affair from her fiancée. What remains constant from the debut season is Bea's deft touch at switching between uproarious laughter – like a scene where Shona is called on to confirm a haemorrhoid in an unspeakable orifice – and moments of tenderness that catch you off guard.
Jimmy McGovern, veteran screenwriter of gritty TV series, brings his most violent inclinations to this three-part BBC prison drama which lays bare the brutality of the justice system. The tw0-hander stars Sean Bean and Stephen Graham as Mark Cobden and Eric McNally, a newly arrived inmate and a long-standing police officer respectively, each face difficult choices inside in a gripping story about forgiveness and atonement.
High on the Hog
You can tell the story of a country through its food, and this vibrant Netflix series based on a 2011 novel of the same name, dish by dish makes the case for how African food transformed America throughout history, showing how everything from a plate of rice to a shucked oyster is steeped in the history of Black people in America. It's glorious food porn which also asks pertinent questions about the long American tradition of assimilating and erasing other cultures.
The Underground Railroad
Barry Jenkins' adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning Colson Whitehead novel is a staggering achievement. At once a magical reimagining of the stories of enslaved people who fled the Antebellum South, and a journey across time and space which touches on many other aspects of the Black American experience across centuries, it's less a TV series than a kaleidoscopic meditation on how the legacy of slavery continues to ring through the ages. It's a very different kind of art about slavery too: there's no violence and trauma for its own sake, no clean, straightforward moralising.
The reinvention of BBC3 as a place where comedians get to make high quality sitcom boxsets (see also: Dreaming Whilst Black) continues with Rose Matafeo's Starstruck, which melds the end-of-twenties twitchiness of Girls with a gender-flipped Notting Hill plot. One New Year's Eve, Jessie (Matafeo) bumps into a guy at a club, one thing leads to another, and they end up at his place. In the morning, though, she realises he's a mega-famous film star and she, as her flatmate puts it, is "a little rat nobody". It's really, really funny. Plus! Matafeo hand-drew the titles and credits herself.
Inside No 9
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's anthology series has been the most consistently surprising and inventive shows on TV for ages now, but it's worth saying again. Each week, a different door marked number nine, each week another tale of the unexpected. The opener, 'Wuthering Heist' is typically Inside No 9-ish in its mashing up of two very different genres – a Reservoir Dogs-style heist flick plot and stock characters from commedia dell'arte – and the second follows the writer of a Game of Thrones-esque fantasy series as he reckons with obsessive fans disappointed by a lacklustre final series. Ahem.
Dreaming Whilst Black
Adapted from the cult YouTube series of 2018, British-Jamaican writer, director and star Adjani Salmon plays aspiring filmmaker Kwabena as he tries to break out of his tedious office job and into an intensely white industry to get his short film made. The nine episodes made for BBC3 exist in a subtler, more grounded world than the web series. "Dreaming Whilst Black sits in this observational space," Salmon told Esquire in April. "We present the story as a minefield where we show things which can be funny but might be racist, and we’re not going to tell you which is which. You’ve just got to laugh wherever you feel fit and ask yourself why."
Frank of Ireland
Domhnall and Brian Gleeson are best friends Doofus and Frank in this winningly daft sitcom. Brian is Frank, an unemployed musician who's not got a lot going on, and whose ex has just taken up with an MMA-practicing doctor. Fortunately, Doofus absolutely idolises him. Unfortunately, Doofus is exactly that. "Frank imagines himself as the hero of his own movie," Domhnall told Esquire recently. "He thinks his life should be like a movie. That’s what he expects for himself. He wants to be famous, he wants to be a star. But the world around him is nothing like a movie."
Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet is Mare Sheehan, a detective in small-town Pennsylvania on the tail of a murderer, whose her own life starts falling to bits around her. Expect a slow-burn treatise on how tragedy can shape a life and the deep, strange ties that families can form. It's hotly anticipated – how often does Kate Winslet do telly? Not often, buddy – especially with Julianne Nicholson and Evan Peters alongside her.
The final chapter in the Cold War spying saga opens with the collapse of die Mauer in November 1989 and with it, you'd think, a fair chunk of the tension which powered the previous two series along. Certainly the American embassy in East Berlin seems very smug about everything. But not ein bit of it: Martin Rauch, the East's mole in the West, has been a spy now for six years and everything that he originally signed up to try to defend is crumbling around him. He and the other Stasi agents have to find ways of protecting and reinventing themselves for an uncertain future.
Line of Duty
Bent coppers beware: at long, long last the BBC's flagship drama has heaved into port for its sixth series. The DC12 gang are splintered, though, and there's a new head honcho in town in the shape of Kelly Macdonald's Joanne Davidson. But is she, like every other apparently inscrutable and upstanding member of the police service, actually as crooked as a nine-bob note? Jez Mercurio's twisty, acronym-heavy scripts keep everything moving along even as the identity of the increasingly Keyser Söze-ish corrupt cop known as H remains tantalisingly out of reach.
The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
It's feels slightly odd to think that Marvel's TV onslaught was meant to open with this rather than WandaVision. Its extremely down-the-line explosions-and-technobabble rhythm is a sharp contrast to the sitcom-pastiching mega-hit which preceded it, and seemed rather tepid compared to the Twin Peaks via Twilight Zone strangeness Wanda served up in Westfield. But it's starting to warm up, and the buddy-up between Sam Wilson, the man Steve Rogers picked to take up the Captain America mantle, and Rogers' old mate Bucky Barnes has shifted to centre stage.
This Ridley Scott produced series originally aired on AMC in the US back in 2018, and considering how British it is – The Crown's Tobias Menzies! Motherland's Paul Ready! British ships trapped in Arctic ice in a metaphor for the decline of empire! – it's perplexing that The Terror took so long to reach these shores. It was worth the wait, though. A ghost tale that's based on a true story (ghosts aren't real fyi; the ill-fated voyage was), it follows the crews of two ships, the Erebus and the Terror (ominous, much?), which set out to map the Northwest Passage in the 1840s and, as the sea ice closes in, discover just why no one else has managed it. At which point, the story diverges from the historical narrative when something ancient and ghoulish decides that no matter how stiff their upper lips, these British sailors definitely shouldn't be there. Gulp.
Bryan Cranston is an honourable man who finds himself suddenly thrust into a situation that imperils his family. He makes some poor choices, violence ensues, and he swiftly descends into the darkness. If Your Honor doesn't quite satisfy those Breaking Bad pangs, there's still a lot to like here. Cranston plays a judge whose son – in an agonisingly tense series opener – accidentally kills a young man in a traffic accident and flees the scene. That the victim's father is the city's resident mafia boss complicates things somewhat, taking a speedy confession off the table. Cue subterfuge, ratcheting drama and another barnstorming performance from Cranston.
Murder Among the Mormons
Yes, it's more Netflix true crime, but this limited series by Napoleon Dynamite director Jared Hess, and producer Tyler Measom, is closer to its source material than most. The pair grew up in the Church of Latter Day Saints (better known as the Mormons), which positions them perfectly to tell the true story of Mark Hofmann, a Mormon who forged numerous documents that contradicted the church's founding mythology, forcing its leaders to purchase and hide them in case they caused a schism. As his crimes were uncovered, he resorted to ever more violent methods to conceal his tracks, and the shockwaves are still being felt in the church three decades later.
Waffles + Mochi
Here's a sentence we never thought we'd write: former First Lady Michelle Obama fronts this cooking show for kids, flanked by a couple of puppets, namely Mochi (a mochi), and Waffles (a yeti-waffle hybrid – try not to think about it). The grand aim is to teach kids about where their food comes from and how to make healthier, more wholesome choices, but there's plenty in there for adults, especially adults with the munchies, if you catch our drift.
For All Mankind
The first series of Apple TV+'s counter-factual space race drama was pretty good, but it's come into its own in the second. In this alternate timeline, the USSR got to the moon first and the Americans are doing the chasing from there on in, hurriedly catching up to Russia's epochal achievement. By the start of series two in 1993, humanity has colonised the lunar surface, John Lennon's still kicking and Pope John Paul II has been shot instead. It's a dizzyingly fast-paced watch full of flawed heroes and moral greyness, as well as an pest-infested spacecraft following an unfortunate ant colony accident last season.
Can't Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World
Adam Curtis's latest BBC doc is typically concise – as in, it's a sprawling, six-part series that attempts to unpick the power structures that underpin our modern world by tracking them back to their birth in the mid-20th century. All the Curtis signatures are there – deep archive footage everything from Fifties dancehalls to Mao's revisionist fourth wife to Russian bodyguard competitions; a soundtrack heavy on gloopy electronica and obscure post-punk – and his thesis won't convince everyone. But it's so engrossingly put together, and so deep a dive into the tendrils that constitute our recent history, that it should be essential viewing for people of every political stripe.
The true crime boom has precipitated a slew of dramas based on real tragedies that leave an unpleasant taste (see: all of ITV's current offering). Too often, these shows obsess over grisly details, or the killer's tortured backstory, and in doing so ignore the experiences of the victims – often, women – and their families. Not so The Investigation, a Danish thriller which dramatises the 2017 killing of journalist Kim Wall on a homemade submarine, after she went to interview the man who'd built it. The series focuses on the people left behind and the system that eventually brought her murderer – who is never given the dignity of a name – to justice. Its tension builds not from trying to figure out whodunnit, but as we wonder whether the system will work as it should to right an awful wrong.
Trump Takes on the World
Back when the great orange one was actually embedded in the Oval Office, his foreign policy – which made Nixon's Madman Theory look like judicious statesmanship – was, frankly, terrifying. Now he's gone, it's possible to reassess every gaffe, blunder and moment of nuclear-brinksmanship-by-Twitter with a sprinkling of schadenfreude. This three-part BBC doc serves that up in spades, courtesy of curtain-pulling revelations from those who were there at the time: in the first episode alone, Theresa May's SPAD Fiona Hill reveals the former PM's horror at that hand-holding incident, Australian ex-PM Malcolm Turnbull recalls how Trump giddily showed off his secure communications bunker at the G7 summit, and erstwhile National Security Advisor HR McMaster confirms that Trump really had no idea what Nato was for or why US support for it mattered. All of which will make you even more relieved that he's relinquished control of the nuclear codes.
Gomorrah writer Roberto Saviano and showrunner Stefano Sollima return with a typically slick thriller that explores the global narcotics market via the journey of 5,000kg of cocaine and its impact on everyone from producers to traffickers to the users caught up in the war on drugs. If ZeroZeroZero lacks a little of Gomorrah's emotional depth – truly, everyone in this TV show is awful and you hope awful things happen to all of them – it makes up for it in pulse-racing plotting and inventive violence. You know, if you like that sort of thing.
Intouchables star Omar Sy is Assane Diop, a master thief inspired by Arsène Lupin in this French thriller. Diop's father, a Senegalese migrant, was framed for the theft of a necklace by one of Paris's powerful elite and hanged himself. Taking a very literal leaf out of the very literal book of Maurice Leblanc's Belle Epoque gentleman thief, Assane sets out for revenge on the people who wronged his family using the dark arts of thievery, disguise and raw charisma. It's not exactly a Silent Witness-style hard crime thriller, but it's charming enough and Sy is intensely watchable. Part two is slated for this summer.
Pretend It's a City
Fran Lebowitz epitomises the bygone era of cool New York, and in this new docu-series directed by Martin Scorsese she towers like the Chrysler Building over all the idiots stopping to play on their phones on the sidewalk. Marty and Fran are old friends, with the esteemed writer serving as a subject for Scorsese's 2010 documentary Public Speaking, as well as giving her an enjoyable cameo sentencing Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street. Their comfortable rapport, as well as the extent to which he gets a kick out of her cutting remarks, make Pretend It's a City feel like you're hanging out with old pals and cackling over coffee. Beneath that cosiness are her astute remarks on the wellness industrial complex, the importance of reading, the joy of fashion and the hell of public transport. Lebowitz might be intent on smoking till the end of her days, but here is a reminder to cherish her wit and perception while she's here.
The BBC turns its hand to a glossy true-crime thriller, which tells the story of French serial killer Charles Sobhraj, known as the Serpent, who murdered backpackers in South-East Asia in the Seventies. A Prophet’s Tahar Rahim takes the creepy lead role, with Jenna Coleman (Victoria, Dr Who) going darker than we've seen her before, as Marie-Andree Leclerc, Sobhraj’s glamorous French-Canadian accomplice.
Night Stalker: The Hunt For A Serial Killer
Netflix's latest dive into the darkness tells the story of the Night Stalker, a deranged and apparently motiveless killer who rampaged through Los Angeles in the mid-Eighties, sexually assaulting and murdering victims who ranged from six to 82. It's an ickier version of true crime than the slow boil of Making a Murderer, but it's guaranteed to make you check your front door is double-locked.
Wanda and Vision are look like just another young couple in love, but they've got a secret: he's a sentient robot, and she can manipulate the fabric of reality. A show pastiching 60 years of American sitcoms from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Modern Family is a very oddball way to kick off the next Marvel phase, and it feels quite difficult to assess whether it's actually any good or not yet, as we've only just got to what feels like the story after three episodes. It's very interesting though, and the hard, shiny pearls of Twin Peaks oddness do appear to be leading to something suitably Marvel-sized. Plus, at 20 minutes an episode, Wandavision certainly barrels along.
It’s A Sin
Three young men leave their old lives behind to find friendship, family and sex in the burgeoning gay scene of early Eighties London, in what might be Russell T Davies's masterpiece. It's warm, and really funny, and belts along at a giddy pace, but be warned: the backdrop is the Aids epidemic, and there are some absolutely gut-wrenching moments. As Callum Scott Howells, who plays lovely Colin, put it when we spoke to him: "It’s kind of like, eps three and four are like someone shooting a gun at you and it hitting you and you’re like, 'Fuck!' And then ep five is like someone getting a knife and just repeatedly fucking stabbing you."
Call My Agent
This French comedy is back for its fourth and final season, taking the good bits of Extras (the great and good sending themselves up) while leaving out the tedious bits (Ricky Gervais getting on his high horse to lecture everyone about fame) and adding a top-note of barely controlled chaos. It follows the day-to-day of the ASK talent agency in Paris and its staff, who are forever firefighting on behalf of pretty much anyone who's anyone who's French: Juliette Binoche, Isabelle Huppert, Charlotte Gainsbourg, Jean Reno, Jean Dujardin et beaucoup plus pop up. It's very funny.
The show that launched Zendaya properly into the stratosphere has filled the gap between seasons one and two proper with a two-part special, the second half of which dropped in January. The first followed Rue (Zendaya) as she tried to reckon with her relapse at the end of season one and the collapse of her relationship with Jules (Hunter Schafer), while the second takes Jules' point of view as she starts therapy and considers what she really wants from Rue.
Yes, it's very nice to see David Mitchell and Robert Webb bickering in a sitcom again, but this is far more than a reunion of the Peep Show axis. The first series was all about Stephen (Mitchell) getting ready to take over the family pub after his dad's death, only for his foster brother Andrew (Webb) to schmooze in and start charming everyone. Series two kicks off with Stephen in a psychiatric facility, and things only get more problematic – and funnier – from there.
A Perfect Planet
There was a time when a new David Attenborough-led BBC nature documentary was the televisual equivalent of your comfiest joggers and a hot toddy, but in the last few years DA's been much more urgent in his climate crisis warnings and given everything a bit more edge again. So it is with A Perfect Planet, the full title of which should run Shame If Someone Were To... Pollute It. It's really good though: beautifully put together and packed with insights, and its most awestruck sequences do give you that feeling of sinking into a very deep, very warm bath. Which, incidentally, is what it'll be like living in Margate in about 60 years if we don't sort ourselves out.
And everything else to look forward to in 2021
Sex Education series 3
The show that made us appreciate Gillian Anderson all over again – and in a whole new light. She and the rest of the cast will be back with more tales of teen angst and sexual frustration in mid-2021.
Succession series 3
Winter, Sky Atlantic
One of the greatest series of the decade left us on a cliffhanger at the end of series two, with Kendall (Jeremy Strong) dropping daddy dearest (Brian Cox) into a world of public pain and humiliation. Which is exactly how we like our Roys. Filming is well under way for series three of Succession, and HBO bosses have confirmed we'll be settling into TV's best opening credits again before the end of 2021.
Winter, BBC One
Thought the Shelbys had peaked with an entire IRL festival devoted to the Brummie series last year? Not likely. As one of the biggest hitting BBC dramas, Steven Knight is sure to draw in the ratings again with the last series of Peaky Blinders. Filming started up again in February up on the Moray Firth coast in Scotland. We're hopeful they'll turn the production around quickly enough for it to land at the tail-end of the year.
Lord of the Rings
Autumn/winter, Amazon Prime
Fantasy fans will be hyped to hear that Amazon Prime is currently filming a multi-season series of Lord of the Rings, which will explore new storylines preceding Tolkien's The Fellowship of the Ring. The showrunners are JD Payne and Patrick McKay, and stars currently on set in New Zealand include Robert Amarayo, Joseph Mawle and Lenny Henry. Thanks to the Kiwis' world-beating coronavirus response, the show is still on schedule to land in late 2021.
Summer, Channel 4
Stephen Graham is teaming up with another Scouse legend, Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer, for a Jack Thorne-scripted drama about the pandemic. The one-off show is set in a care home in Liverpool, where Jodie plays Sarah, a care worker, and Stephen is Tony, a patient with early onset Alzheimer's. The pair are “pushed into a dark corner and look for a way out”, so expect emotions to run high.
In 2018, a wealthy German socialite called Anna Delvey was unmasked in New York Magazine as Russian con-woman Anna Sorokin: and the internet went wild. She defrauded countless people across the arts and hospitality industries, and appeared to have absolutely no shame when she was caught. It seemed inevitable that Netflix would option the story, and now, created and produced by Shonda Rhimes, we’ll get to watch the unbelievable tale ourselves.
American Crime Story: Impeachment
TBC, BBC Two
We’re jumping back to the Nineties, for the most famous story about an intern and a president of all time. This Ryan Murphy drama about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky – starring Sarah Paulson and Clive Owen – was forced to shut down filming recently due to a Covid outbreak, but Bill will get his day in court (again) soon.
Derry Girls series 3
TBC, Channel 4
Everyone’s favourite wisecracking Northern Irish girls return – with their English lad mate too. Lisa McGee’s coming-of-age series set in the Nineties always brings the laughs, and all the feels too.
Not only one of the most unforgettable names of a series in recent history, Cowboy Bebop is a live-action sci-fi series based on the manga of the same name by Hajime Yatate. John Cho will take the lead as the cool bounty hunter, Spike Spiegel.
McMafia series 2
TBC, BBC One
James Norton returns once again for this gripping Bond-meets-The Night Manager series about the flow of money and power through murky underworlds across the globe – all in a wardrobe of enviable designer suits, of course.
TBC, Amazon Prime
Graphic novel fans have another adaptation of a classic to look forward to in 2021: and this time it’s the Eighties hit, Paper Girls, about a group of time travelling newspaper delivery girls who get transported on all-new adventures.
Stath Lets Flats series 3
TBC, Channel 4
Howly parker! The world’s most endearingly useless estate agent returns, as brother and sister duo Jamie and Tash Demetriou get ready to crack our funny bones once again in this deadpan comedy.
Industry series 2
One of the surprise hits of 2020, this “bonking and banking” drama (as one tabloid charmingly put it) follows four graduates as they try to navigate their way through the cut-throat world of high-finance. We didn’t see the plot twist coming at the end, but love the savage deviance behind it, and can’t wait to see how further warped the characters become. In December, HBO announced Industry had been commissioned for a second season, although strict coronavirus controls will slow production. It might – might! – arrive in the second half of the year, with a fair wind.
The Talented Mr Ripley
Thought Jude Law and Matt Damon’s adaptation of a con-man charming American socialites couldn’t be beaten? Hold my beer, says the BBC. Fleabag’s Andrew Scott will step into Damon’s shoes as Tom Ripley, and Patricia Highsmith’s 1956 thriller about obsession and class will be scripted and directed by Steven Zaillian. The show was originally supposed to land in 2020, but production hold-ups – cheers, coronavirus – mean it's been knocked back into 2021.
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