From WandaVision to Framing Britney Spears and Call My Agent, Hugh Montgomery and Eddie Mullan pick the year’s greatest programmes to binge right now
Such is the glut of crime dramas, it’s difficult for any new show in the genre to truly stand out, but this exceptional British effort makes it look easy – proving that what you really need to elevate your procedural is not high concepts or clever-clever twists, but just beautiful and humane writing. Through three series, creator Chris Lang has used the premise of coppers DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DS Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) investigating a years-old but newly-unearthed murder as a way to tell powerful stories of guilt, shame and regret – and this year’s fourth run, focusing on the discovery of a body on that links four former friends, who were all once trainee police officers, was no less powerful. Meanwhile the real highlight of the show remained the incredible central performance by Walker, one of the very most natural and organic screen actors there is. Extraordinary for being so ordinary, Stuart is not a tortured detective type but an exceptional, sympathetic yet understandably harried professional trying to do her best – and without giving anything way, this series made us value her, and Walker, more than ever. Available on ITV Hub in the UK, while series 1 to 3 are available on Amazon Prime worldwide.
Framing Britney Spears
Rare is it that a piece of television comes along that feels quite as important as this New York Times-produced documentary about the pop icon, and her mistreatment over her two-decade long career from all sides: the press and paparazzi, the music industry, her own family and associates and everyone who has readily consumed her very public suffering as entertainment. When it premiered in February, it was the catalyst for a much wider discussion about the collective, abject sexism directed at young women in the public eye – a conversation that has continued with Spears’ singing superstar peer Demi Lovato’s Youtube series Dancing with the Devil. Framing Britney Spears is by no means perfect – notably, it is rather too lenient towards the so-called #FreeBritney movement, which professes to be helping her get out of her father’s legal conservatorship but arguably is as unthinkingly rapacious towards her as all the other toxic parties in her life. But its impact is undeniable. Available on Sky Documentaries in the UK and Hulu in the US.
It’s a Sin
From The Normal Heart to Angels in America, there have been a number of landmark works about the US Aids crisis of the 1980s, but not enough depicting the scourge of the pandemic elsewhere – which is what makes Russell T Davies’ six-part exploration of what was happening in the UK at the time so welcome. A co-production with HBO, it is a masterful blend of comedy, tragedy, and pop hits, which perhaps showcases Davies’ unique brilliance as a writer better than any show he’s done before: that is, his particular ability to combine the immense warmth and homeliness of a classic British soap with a righteous anger that gradually, then suddenly unfurls itself. A fine young ensemble includes Olly Alexander, Callum Scott Howells, and Omari Douglas as the central trio of young gay men, moving to the big city and with no idea what’s in store, while they’re supported by a fine selection of more experienced names, the best of all being Neil Patrick Harris as an impish Savile Row tailor. And if it’s depiction of how the victims of a pandemic were turned into pariahs would have cut deeply at any time, right now its resonance is even more gut-wrenching.
Available on All4 in the UK and HBO Max in the US.
With Disney extending its Marvel Cinematic Universe to the small screen, it couldn’t really have created a better advert for the added creative possibilities therein. This marvellously surreal nine-episode limited series centres on Avenger Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), as she finds herself living in an ever-evolving alternate universe, modelled on various sitcoms through the eras, alongside her hitherto thought-to-be-destroyed robot husband Vision (Paul Bettany). Early episodes were such joyfully pinpoint pastiches of sitcom form, that it was almost a shame when the show devolved into more typical Marvel fare in its latter stages. Nevertheless, it still counts as the MCU’s most daring move yet, a piece that both offered sharp meta-commentary on the medium of TV and a poignant exploration of grief. Olsen and Bettany navigate the tonal shifts masterfully as the titular couple, though it is long-time indie favourite Kathryn Hahn who steals the show – and furnished the memes – as jarringly enthusiastic neighbour Agnes. Available on Disney+ internationally.
Call My Agent
French TV is having a bit of a moment, with a number of series becoming international talking points – and chief among them is this stiletto-sharp comedy-drama about a Paris talent agency, whose fourth series premiered internationally on Netflix in January after broadcasting in France late last year. Its central conceit is that each episode features a particular client, who is in fact a real-life star playing themselves – and for the first time, this new run looked beyond France for its cameos, with a special appearance by Hollywood’s finest, Sigourney Weaver. Other than that, however, it was deliciously acerbic business as usual; as the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz noted it “maintains the same rarefied heights of excellence of the previous three, as our bold and increasingly beleaguered agents do battle with the corporate ogre that is StarMédia, an array of recalcitrant actors, and – mostly – each other.” But though it was also purported to be the final series, fans will be glad to know that there has been a stay of execution: a fifth series and a standalone film have just been confirmed. Available on Netflix internationally.
Over six detailed and sober episodes we never meet the killer – and we don’t hear his name. In this retelling of the real-life investigation into the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, Borgen actor Søren Malling leads the cast as Jens Møller, the stern Head of Homicide for Copenhagen police. Alongside chief prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jepsen (fellow Borgen star Pilou Asbæk), Møller works non-stop to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Wall, last seen going to interview an inventor for a story on a homemade submarine in Copenhagen harbour, was indeed murdered. In telling the story of how people worked together to solve a crime, without reproducing the gruesome crime itself, director Tobias Lindholm’s understated dramatisation of the ‘submarine case’ became a radical reinvention of the true-crime genre. In a behind-the-scenes podcast, Lindholm explained that in focusing on the professionals – the divers, forensics, investigators – making sacrifices and missing important time with family to tirelessly do get the job done, it was a way to “humanise the dehumanised… and offer a confrontation with our behaviours as media consumers”. Available now on BBC iPlayer in the UK and HBO Max in the US.
Can’t Get You Out of My Head
In a sprawling six-part series for BBC iPlayer, British journalist Adam Curtis reflects on how in the age of the individual, fundamental power structures governing us all haven’t gone away. Tracing the different forces that have led to now, over eight hours the wide-ranging films chronicle the growing anger and anxieties in China, Russia and the Western world, and how this came about. Featuring off-beat archival footage of figures in politics and culture – soundtracked with Curtis’s signature choice selection of pop music – the montage of film essays focuses on the loosely interconnected stories of historical revolutionaries. Telling the individual tales of Jiang Qing, Afeni Shakur, Edward Limonov, and Michael X, filmmaker Curtis sets out the argument that it was all of us – self-expressing individuals, politicians and technocrats – who together made these strange times we’re living through. It doesn’t provide any answers, but through his typical dazzling, yet untraditional collage documentary format, Curtis does at least offer us an explanation of the dynamics of our time. Available on BBC iPlayer in the UK.
Far funnier than its farcical premise should allow, this comedy-drama based on the Dark Horse comic series provided much-needed escapism and so became Syfy’s highest-rated new drama in recent years. Alan Tudyk (Firefly) stars as Harry Vanderspeegle – real name unpronounceable – an alien who, after crash-landing in the mountains outside the small town of Patience, Colorado, has killed and taken the physical form of the first man he encounters. After a stint alone in a fishing cabin learning English by watching Law & Order reruns, we learn that Harry’s secret mission on Earth is to destroy humanity – but he’s lost his detonation device in the mountains, so he needs to assimilate into his new home to buy some time to uncover it. Tudyk brilliantly reveals the alien’s flawed personality, flicking between comedy and menace with ease, as we follow Harry posing unconvincingly as a human doctor. Things, however, are going to plan, until Harry gets embroiled in solving a local murder (“Chung chung!”), bringing him closer to the townsfolk and especially workmate Asta (Sara Tomko), while he also discovers a love of pizza. As time goes on, Harry begins to wrestle with the moral dilemma of his mission. Available now on Sky/Now TV in the UK and SyFy in the US.
One of the year’s first hit shows was the delightful high-energy French heist comedy, inspired by classic stories of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, written in the early 1900s. Many binged the slick and fast-moving series of five episodes (the remaining five are set to follow later in 2021), and it’s not difficult to see why: Actor Omar Sy oozes charm as Assane Diop, a towering con artist with the smooth style of Bond and the wits of Sherlock, who sets out to avenge his father for an injustice inflicted by a wealthy family. As the only son of an immigrant from Senegal who had come to France to seek a better life, his father is framed over the theft of a diamond necklace by his powerful employer, Hubert Pellegrini. After his father dies in prison, teenager Assane is left an orphan. When we meet Assane 25 years on, inspired by a book about a certain gentleman thief his father had given him on his birthday, our hero sets out to right a wrong, using his mastery of disguise and subterfuge. Available now on Netflix internationally.