Cinema has had a rough time of it during the pandemic, but the small screen has continued to provide a steady stream of entertainment and some of the biggest talking moments in pop culture.
2021's highlights include a treatise on the power structures that rule the world from the mind of Adam Curtis, the second instalment of Aisling Bea's darkly comic This Way Up, and an uproarious satire of the wealthy in The White Lotus. There's plenty to look forward to coming up, too, like the return of everyone's favourite sociopathic family in Succession season 3 and a new American Crime Story about the impeachment of Bill Clinton.
Here’s our pick of the best stuff we've seen so far, and the upcoming releases to get excited about.
The Beatles: Get Back
This fly-on-the-wall doc's been in the works so long that Disney+ didn't even exist when it was first announced as a single two-hour film. But then came the pandemic and a chance to rethink. What to do with 56 hours of unseen footage of the Beatles creating 'Let It Be', 'Get Back', 'Don't Let Me Down' and other decent tunes? Maybe... show more of it? So director Peter Jackson did what director Peter Jackson does best: razzled up crackly old footage with some powerful new tech a la They Must Not Grow Old, and turned one film into a sprawling trilogy. In two weeks flat, they work up a whole album, break up, get back together, invent the fly-on-the-wall band doc, and do the legendary rooftop gig on Savile Row. We've seen a little of it, and it's utterly joyous.
Stath Lets Flats
Haringay's finest lettings agent returns for a third series which writer and star Jamie Demetriou called "the most all-consuming thing I've ever done". Despite high expectations and a massive lump of writer's block, it's full of exactly the kind of innocent stupidity and malapropisms that made the first two series cult hits, plus some all-time great falling over from Demetriou. It all revolves around dads this time. Stath's about to become one – and he's made a list of English words he wants his daughter to learn – and Stath's own dad is getting serious with his lovely boyfriend Stephen. (Stath, naturally, is "full of the boys of string".) Along the way, the Michael and Eagle gang find a couple of new rivals, get cancelled and become stars of Greek TV. Plus, there's cameos from Julia Davis, Tim Key and This Country's Charlie Cooper. Glorious stuff.
The revolution will be televised. It's been two years since we last saw the Roys, but we picked up where we left off. Season two ended with Kendall's multi-megaton nuke of a press conference, and the promo images for this season suggest that Cousin Greg's still with Kenny, as is Roman. On the other side of the divide: Logan, Shiv, Tom and Connor. Quite where Gerri, Marcia, Stewy and the rest of the circling crows will end up remains to be seen. Want more? Here's our complete guide to Succession season three, and you can keep up with our episode by episode recaps too. We've got our fingers crossed for Connor 2024.
The eighth series of the BBC's fly-on-the-defibrillator doc shifts its focus from Liverpool – the last series was the definitive document of the very depths of the Covid crisis – to Blackpool on the Lancashire coast. If you're unfamiliar, Ambulance flips between the phone operators and managers in a frantic, chronically overloaded command centre and the ambulance crews on the road who actually go out to treat people. Often there's a theme to each episode, like mental illness or care for older people; sometimes it's just a shotgun ride through all of human life. Every single time, though, it's one of the most intimate and moving programmes on TV.
Every so often, a TV show becomes a full-blown cultural phenom: a Bodyguard, a Broadchurch, a Noel's House Party. This year, it was the South Korean horror-thriller which spliced Battle Royale with The Hunger Games. Cash-strapped Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a divorced gambling addict who thinks he's been thrown a last lifeline when a mysterious stranger invites him to play some kids' games for a big cash prize. Before he knows it he's seeing dozens of hapless types like him getting mown down by a massive machine gun-toting doll.
Another side of the Covid crisis was captured in this TV film written Jack Thorne, who also did This is England, The Virtues and National Treasure. At the heart of it are Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham: she's Sarah, a newly arrived care assistant at a Liverpool care home, where she quickly gets to know the residents; he's Tony, one of her favourite new friends, a middle-aged man with early-onset Alzheimer's. Suddenly, the pandemic hits, and Sarah is left wearing cobbled-together DIY PPE made of bin bags through a harrowing night shift where she desperately tries to help stricken residents on her own. Fittingly, Help frequently draws on horror cinema to get its point across.
The BBC put together a couple of reflective documentaries to mark 20 years since the 9/11 attacks, and though 9/11: Inside the President's War Room was a worthwhile bird's-eye-view of what the day looked like to George W Bush and his inner circle, the more affecting was Surviving 9/11. There's an icy grey look to it, as if everyone's being interviewed while lost in a deep fog bank. What could have been ghoulish or uncomfortably maudlin was instead a shatteringly empathetic series of stories which reminded you again that as well as being a pivot point in world history, 9/11 was a series of thousands of terrible tragedies, random chains of consequence that leave some alive and some dead, and bonds which continue to endure.
Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League
The Greatest League In The World™ turns 30 next year, and the BBC has given it the Last Dance treatment with a four-part history of its earliest years. The big talking heads are here – Eric Cantona, David Beckham, Alan Shearer, all the important suits who finagled a deal to dump the rest of the Football League – and the first two episodes luxuriated in some brilliant archive including the oddly This Morning-ish intro VT to the brand new league's opening day. The second focuses on Blackburn Rovers' rise, Cantona's karate kick ferrago and its roots in the racist abuse which continues to blight football. "I have one regret," murmurs The King. "That I didn't kick him more than that."
The days when the whole family would gather around the TV's warm glow to chuckle along with Dad's Army/Only Fools and Horses/Gavin and Stacey/Chris Morris' Jam are long gone, but Ghosts is about as close as it's possible to get to a genuinely generation-spanning sitcom these days. Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) are still doing up Button House; Alison can still see the ghosts of people who died there. This time though, Alison's half-sister (Jessica Knappett) has got in touch out of the blue – though the undead family she's found are bit suspicious. Silly, sweet, and very, very funny.
The White Lotus
Aloha, and welcome to the hotel that offers a paradise of tropical kabuki for its rich guests, and the third circle of hell for the staff unfortunate enough to wait on these giant babies. The six-part HBO mini-series from creator Mike White follows a group of wealthy, mostly white Americans holidaying at a luxury resort in Hawaii. There's the obnoxious Shane (Jake Lacy), who worms his way under your skin as he goes to war with the hotel over not being in the Pineapple Suite, travelling with his uncertain new bride Rachel (Alexandra Daddario). There's also the Mossbacher family, made up of tech CEO matriarch Nicole (Connie Britton) and her husband Mark, riding the swells of a mid-life crisis, who have brought along their bratty, bored children. By far our favourite is solo traveller Tanya, a role which allows Jennifer Coolidge to show off how much she can do with a single "Woo-hoo".
The story is a whodunnit which starts with a body being loaded onto a plane and then works backward to reveal who has been murdered under the swaying palm trees. The stiff hospitality grin of hotel manager Armond (a crazed Murray Bartlett) starts to slip, and as the micro-agressions turn into macro-aggressions the threat of violence gets closer. The White Lotus is a pitch perfect satire of rich Americans, with everything from the choice of which showy read to take to the pool, to the beach polo-shirt of choice for real estate bros, chosen with delicious malice.
This Way Up
The wave of British television shows written and fronted by the same woman, 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 show 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 real tenderness that catch you off guard.
Jimmy McGovern, veteran screenwriter of many a 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 (and terrified) inmate and a long-standing police officer respectively, who 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 makes the case, dish by dish, for how African food transformed America throughout history. Based on a 2011 novel of the same name, the four-part docu-series shows 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.
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.
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