For some peculiar reason, and let’s just call it the spirit of 2020, I am really enjoying watching rich people suffer, on TV at least. It is an increasingly popular and extravagant genre, its property porn leanings masking serious sadism when it comes to inflicting trauma on the ineffably wealthy. You came for the coastal vistas, you stayed to see these people’s lives fall apart in murder, betrayal and those gigantic glasses of wine that moneyed women glug to show they may be beautiful, but they have problems too.
The Undoing was inescapable television, the Bodyguard of 2020, watercooler drama in a year without the watercooler. It starred Hugh Grant and Nicole Kidman, both now titans of Good Telly, and sailed to a climax last week, finally revealing whodunnit after weeks of teasing. I am about to discuss whodunnit, so if you are behind, please don’t read on. But the revelation that it was the most obvious culprit seems to have infuriated a surprising number of viewers, who felt misled by the fact that it could have snipped out episodes two to five and essentially taken us to the same place.
In my house, it was the second time the phrase “It’s not supposed to be a documentary” was uttered in recent viewing history, by me, huffily, after The Crown elicited a similarly unimpressed response. (Incidentally, last week George Clooney revealed that he had never once argued with his wife, Amal, which made me think they had not tried to watch The Undoing finale together.) Yes, it was implausible and over the top, but to paraphrase that great philosopher Russell Crowe, were you not entertained? We are so used to being led up the garden path then blindsided by a reveal involving someone who had been nowhere near the garden in the first place, that to have a thriller deliver what it suggested it would at the start was, in a way, a plot twist of its own.
If viewers were surprised that the lying, manipulative, cheating narcissist was capable of lying, manipulating and cheating his way back into his wife’s affections, having thwacked his lover on the head repeatedly with a hammer – and my one complaint was that I am not sure I needed to see that in all of its gory detail – then it seems like we were manipulated, too, and that is a job well done.
Besides, every week, the opening credits contained the words “Based on the novel You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz”. That is next-level trolling, hiding in plain sight all along.
Drake: love the album, buy the aroma
Pop star merchandise is getting more and more avant garde – with no concerts at which to sell T-shirts, I suppose being creative is the order of the day – but the great diva biscuit trend was an unexpected curveball.
Mariah Carey’s Mariah’s Cookies are coming to the US soon, while Lady Gaga has revealed a line of pink and green Oreos, themed around her Chromatica album. Drake, however, has gone for the traditional candle route, joining Gwyneth Paltrow in the borderline 70s feminist performance art-esque business of candles that are supposed to smell like the celebrity who has put their name to them.
While Paltrow went ultra-specific with This Candle Smells Like My Vagina and This Candle Smells Like My Orgasm, Drake has launched a line of five candles, with names such as Sweeter Tings, Williamsburg Sleepover and my favourite, Carby Musk. This apparently smells like musk, amber, cashmere, suede and velvet, “like Drake himself”.
It is, I believe, named after the perfumier Michael Carby, rather than any Friday night chippie aroma that it may also conjure up, though surely it is only a matter of time before someone makes a scented candle out of that.
Maggie O’Farrell: her plague diary helped us to escape this one
Maggie O’Farrell’s beautiful and unforgettable novel Hamnet has been declared Waterstones’ book of the year, an award voted for by the chain’s booksellers; it also won this year’s Women’s prize back in September and rightly so. It already has the sense of a classic about it. “2020 has been a strange and challenging year for all of us: what better time to listen to the narratives of others and lose ourselves in a book,” said O’Farrell after her latest win.
I know people who have turned to reading this year with newly insatiable appetites for stories and fiction, just as I know people who have been unable to concentrate on books at all. Both are understandable responses to this strange and challenging year. Mostly, I found myself in the former category, hoovering up novels at a surprising rate.
Hamnet is set in the 16th century and is about Shakespeare’s son, who contracts the plague during a pandemic, so while it does provide escapism, its fear of contagion and moments of quarantine also make it oddly timely. I read it over the summer, just as I moved to Stratford-upon-Avon, where much of it takes place. I have spent the last few months walking past Anne Hathaway’s cottage and Shakespeare’s birthplace and to parts of the town that once were the villages that O’Farrell has her characters walk through in the book.
Present-day Stratford emerged from the lockdown into tier 3 restrictions, having been in tier 1 a month ago. There is not much else to do but walk around landmarks, losing oneself in the stories.
• Rebecca Nicholson is an Observer columnist