Look, I get it. The holidays are coming up. Lots of time off work/study and heaps of time spent hanging out with the people you love. That’s great… it’s also overwhelming. You need some time to yourself, chilling and unwinding, absorbing something other than real life for an hour or so. Don’t worry, mate, I’ve got ya covered. Have a peek at a few of these fine examples of televisual excellence…
The Little Drummer Girl
A six-episode miniseries based on the classic espionage novel of John Le Carré. That in itself should be enough to give this one a go but, hold your horses there, it gets even better. The show is directed by Park Chan-wook and that means style and grace abounds. There are also fantastic lead performances from Michael Shannon, Alexander Skarsgård and Florence Pugh. Especially Florence Pugh. The level of talent on show here is crazy.
The Little Drummer Girl begins with a bombing. A politically motivated bombing. Next thing we’re deep into the inner workings of global intelligence as the Israeli-Palestine conflict unfolds across 1980s Europe, caught in a web of push and counter-push. Michael Shannon, pretty much the finest actor on the planet these days, plays an Israeli agent determined to uncover and stop the Palestinian terrorist responsible for the initial bombing and several more, bringing some lovely accent work to the show in the process. His team, including a brooding Alexander Skarsgård, employ a boisterous and intelligent English actress, a revelatory Florence Pugh, to go deep undercover in the pursuit.
Next thing we’re sitting back puzzling trying to separate fact from fiction, trying to figure out the motivations behind the bluster. It’s exactly what you want from a spy show. It’s deeply clever, morally ambiguous, more than a little bit sexy, and politically complex. Brought to you by the same people that produced JLC’s The Night Manager a couple years back and, let me tell you, this is even better. Also… read the book.
How exactly this one slipped past my sight for its first two seasons is a mystery. One which has left me questioning myself and my media habits in a profound sense. Upstart Crow is an absolute delight. David Mitchell plays William Shakespeare – that should be a pretty handy elevator pitch in itself – in an old fashioned style sitcom as The Bard navigates life’s many hurdles and comes up with the inspiration for many of his greatest works. Which, if you didn’t know, is what he does (in-joke – there are plenty of those).
Mitchell’s Shakespeare is witty and endearing old chap with a hefty ego when it comes to his work and a brash befuddlement when it comes to public transport. Gemma Whelan is an enjoyable ally playing Kate, the Landlord’s daughter and a would-be actress (if only women were allowed to act). Very different to her role on Game of Thrones, by the way. And Harry Enfield has a minor role as Shakespeare’s (disgusting) father.
Skipping between Shakespeare’s humble family home to his traversings in London high culture to his working experience with Burbage’s acting crew. It’s remarkably well researched without being reverential and it’s more than a little winking when it comes to modern times. Lots of wordplay jokes and exaggerated similes, though it plays well even with only a surface knowledge of The Bard’s best works.
Oh and did I mention that it’s Ben Elton? Well I have now. The man who brought us such classics as Blackadder and The Young Ones getting back on the ol’ situational comedy wagon. Can’t really go wrong.
The Haunting of Hill House
Horror television is not such a common thing. It tends to be difficult to sustain over multiple episodes when it’s so reliant on atmosphere. That’s one of the reasons why Haunting of Hill House is such a masterpiece. Set back and forth between the current day and flashbacks of a traumatic summer spent at the eponymous Hill House, the series follows the five Crain siblings as they deal with a new tragedy. Back in the early 90s they’d lived at Hill House as their parents renovated it for resale but increasingly paranormal occurrences eventually led to disaster.
I don’t want to say too much about the plot because I don’t want to spoil much. Suffice to say that each of the siblings has dealt with their trauma in distinct ways. It’s a hugely symbolic show that’s absolutely smashed full of easter eggs and references – not in the least towards Shirley Jackson’s classic novel of the same name, of which this is only a very loose adaptation (but a fun one to piece together if you’ve read it… very literary suggestions today, aye? Maybe you should just read a few books instead of watching telly). It’s also terrifying. From those bloody ghosts hiding everywhere to the underlying dread that seems to simmer in the background.
Show creator Mike Flanagan is emerging as a real force in the horror genre but this show is so much more than that (hence why he’s on the rise). The ghosts are what got people talking about it but ultimately what takes THOHH over the top is its heart. It’s just as tear-jerking as it is frightening. It’s also surprisingly profound in more than a few ways. Far from a perfect end product I’ll admit, it takes until the third episode to really get moving (it’s only really late in the third when you finally understand the way the show is going to work) and the ending is hit and miss in equal measures. But episode five was utterly jaw-dropping and the payoff in episode nine was incredible.
And Stephen King already gave it the thumbs up so what more do you want?
What a lovely find this was. Wyatt Russell (son of Kurt and a rising star in his own right) plays Dud, a man as unsuccessful as his name suggests. Dud’s been down on his luck since his dad died, possibly in a surfing accident or possibly deliberately, which meant as well as losing his father he also lost his job in his dad’s pool cleaning business and the house they used to live in. Dud’s got a sister who is equally grieving but in a very different way, working way too hard instead of way too little.
Dud is basically a younger version of The Dude from Big Lebowski. He’s a chilled out oaf with a big heart in a world which doesn’t really seem to care. Financial troubles abound, both inherited and implicated, and not just for Dud either. It’s a show which gets at a very modern economic malaise as well as everything else it does… and there’s a fair bit. Dud stumbles into an old ancient secret society (The Lodge) where he meets a bunch of other kindred souls, all completely different, all with their own troubles, but all somehow finding solace together in this strange alchemical order.
The title is a nod to Thomas Pynchon, another literary tweak, while the show somehow mixes surfer vibes and magical realism into that concoction of late capitalistic wasteland. Lodge 49 is about finding meaning in mundanity. It’s about facing your troubles with a smile and a positive attitude, even when it doesn’t feel possible. It’s also been renewed for a second season.
Bobcat Goldthwait’s Misfits and Monsters
A fun one here featuring the name of the great Bobcat, so you sorta know what kind of tone you’re in for. It’s deeply conceptual, an anthology show in which each episode is a unique capsuled story, with pretty ambitious satirical intentions. Like the one where Seth Green plays a voice actor who gets violently stalked by the animated bear that he plays on TV. Or when David Koechner plays a used car salesman that becomes President (sound familiar?) only it turns out that he’s actually a werewolf. Or the dude who dates a mermaid to prove he’s not a racist. It’s funny and silly and a little obscure.
There’s also a weird pacing to the show which might come from condensing Bobcat’s usual form of feature films (some classics in his oeuvre, mate, check ‘em out – start with World’s Greatest Dad). Bobcat’s not the anarchist comic he used to be, these shows usually have an overt moral lesson or satirical finger-wagging to them. Kinda old fashioned in that way, actually. They’re also, as you might expect, extremely funny. The one with the werewolf president is straight up hilarious. Give it a go and see if it sticks.
Sweet as, happy viewings. Smash an ad if you appreciate the heads-up and leave a tip on our Patreon to say thanks. We look after our Patrons too, don’t even worry.
Keep cool but care