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With cinemas being closed for the next few months and people confined to their homes, TV has played a major role in helping people get through the coronavirus crisis. Thankfully, there’s been many great new shows and seasons to binge. Here, HeadStuff’s film contributors pick some of their favourites.
Devs Season 1, BBC Two
Say what you want about Peak TV but if it allows artists like writer-director Alex Garland (Ex Machina, Annihilation) a chance to make something adventurous and weird like Devs, I say long may the era continue. In the eight part mystery sci-fi, computer engineer Lily (Garland regular Sonoya Mizuno) investigates the secretive development division of the quantum computing company where she works, which she believes is behind the disappearance of her boyfriend. At the same time, the company’s CEO (Nick Offerman) and his top team (including Alison Pill and Stephen McKinley Henderson) make a scientific breakthrough that changes life as we know it.
Devs is Garland tackling timely themes he has covered elsewhere – free will, determinism, technology – but on a grander scale, no longer a victim of studio interference as with previous projects. It shows in the end result, the dark, brooding, ocassionally blackly comic series boasting a clear confidence in its storytelling. Unlike this year’s thematically similar Westworld season three, in Devs there are no twists for the sake of it or unnecessary witholding of key information. While there is a mystery element, Devs gives viewers the important details early – the show’s narrative driven then intelligently by what their consequences are for both the main characters and humanity itself.
While primarily known as a writer – penning the screenplays for 28 Days Later and Sunshine – Garland continues to highlight how gifted he is behind the camera. Devs looks gorgeous, from its near future San Francisco setting, to the central company Amaya’s headquarters located in the shadow of a creepy looming statue of its founder’s dead daughter, to the gold tinted vaccum-sealed lab where the Devs team’s scientific breakthroughs happen. On top of this, the filmmaker experiments with the TV form, often opening episodes with jaw-droppingly audacious scenes which first seem removed from the show’s narrative before explaining their significance later on.
Another great part of Devs – there will be no series two. It tells its story in eight hours, wrapping it up satisfyingly and with no loose ends. Instead, Garland says he wants to write a new series featuring the same great cast (Zach Grenier’s quietly terrifying turn as Amaya’s head of security deserves special praise). On the strength of Devs, I can’t wait. Stephen Porzio
Feel Good Season 1, All 4
Canadian comedian Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical series (which she co-writes and stars) centres on the intense relationship between Mae the character and her new girlfriend, George (Charlotte Ritchie). While at first it seems idyllic, darkness is simmering underneath. Formerly a drug addict, Mae worries about relapsing. Meanwhile, George – who is for the first time dating a woman – feels uncomfortable coming out to her friends.
Based on the above, it’s possible that in another person’s hands Feel Good would not be so well, feel good. However, Martin deftly finds humour out of heavy themes. It’s in her central performance and writing – the character’s perpetual optimism and hilarious one-liners a cover for her constant worry and self-doubt, the latter only rearing their head in Mae’s most vulnerable moments. She also has great chemistry with Ritchie, the biggest credit to the series being just how invested viewers become in their characters and relationship in just six breathlessly paced 25-minute episodes. Stephen Porzio
Normal People Season 1, BBC Three
Many have been singing the praises of young Irish author Sally Rooney – and rightfully so. Her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, is about the messy, overlapping relationships between four compelling characters. Her second novel Normal People and its subsequent TV adaptation, however, is where Rooney’s insight and intelligence flourishes.
And while the media – social and mainstream – have been primarily focused on Connell Waldron – and his chain – sending a legion of thirsty Irish mammies into a frenzy, we mustn’t ignore the symbiotic partnership formed by Rooney, Lenny Abrahamson and Hettie Macdonald to bring this melancholic tale so vividly to life.
The narrative follows young lovers Marianne and Connell, who continually endure the unforgiving nature of self-discovery, peer scrutiny and falling in love. Divided by class, both societally and within school, the dual protagonists are intrinsically tied throughout – regardless how often they attempt to sever their connection.
Stretching the story across their formative years may seem daunting, but the performances are so beautifully earnest and provocative – by both Paul Mescal and Daisy Edgar-Jones – that each scene portrays love and the lies we tell ourselves on such a deep, relatable level, you may become emotionally unstable while watching.
Depicting the complexities of a passionate, insatiable, intense relationship, Normal People will resonate with many. This show is easily one of the best narratives produced in recent years. As Connell and Marianne’s sprawling love story concludes, their relationship, interactions, and subsequent decisions will linger in your mind long after, as all great stories do. Jenny Murphy Byrne
Ozark Season 3, Netflix
In its first two seasons, Netflix series Ozark skirted that zone between must-see television, and just ok television. It had good performances and some great moments, but suffered from spells of glacial pacing and a certain po-faced seriousness that can sometimes be a chore. It was that show you see on your TV menu and say: “Oh, I suppose I better watch one of those.”
But in season three, the story of the Byrde family and their various criminal allies/enemies finally hit its stride. The once meandering pace locked into laser sharp focus. The story of season three moves at a brisk clip. Without spoiling previous seasons, the shifting dynamic within the Byrde’s family unit creates a crackling tension that really lends the show a sense of immediacy.
As in previous seasons, Julia Garner’s Ruth Langmore is the MVP. Wily and mercurial, but unfailingly loyal to a fault, Garner’s backwater operator is the beating heart of the series, and a perfect counterpoint to the more reserved and stolid Byrdes.
The newest season also boasts an affecting and memorable performance from Tom Pelphrey as Wendy’s brother Ben. He provides a compelling and volatile force throughout, and gives a stunning rendering of bipolar disorder. The season’s penultimate episode centres on his character, and is, probably, the best single episode of the entire series. Jesse Melia
The Last Dance Season 1, Netflix
Considering that Michael Jordan demanded the final word on each matter in Jason Hehir’s basketball documentary, it is fascinating to imagine what this ten-part series would look like if it weren’t skewed in Jordan’s favour. Even as it stands, Jordan frequently comes off as less than likeable, making the whole endeavour even more curious.
Focusing on Jordan’s NBA career with the Chicago Bulls and highlighting his final 1997-98 season in particular, the Netflix/ESPN series jumps around out of chronological order (sometimes distractingly), exploring his personal and professional exploits both on and off the basketball court (not enough focus on Space Jam sadly).
Narrated through both talking heads of basketball personalities and exclusive NBA footage, The Last Dance tells the compelling and often frustrating story of Jordan’s seemingly superhuman work ethic, clashes with rival players, and status as larger-than-life world-wide sports icon. It is, however, hard not to feel that certain individuals may have gotten short-changed by Hehir’s narrative. Indeed Scottie Pippin, Jordan’s right-hand-man on the court, is reported as being “beyond livid” for how he was portrayed. The veracity of some of the stories, it seems, should be taken with a pinch of salt: still, even if the rest is hagiographic, it’s hard not watch the incredible sporting achievements on show with a sense of awe. Sarah Cullen
The Mandalorian Season 1, Disney+
While the Star Wars universe continues to broaden its scope through a number of films and spin-off stories, the strength of the new Disney+ series The Mandalorian is its decision to tell a tale on a much more microcosmic scale than its gargantuan-sized predecessors. Set exactly five years following the events of Return of the Jedi, The Mandalorian (Pedro Pascal) is a mysterious bounty-hunting gunslinger on the run from the clutches of the evil Empire following the retrieval of an important and adorable package (who you may have already encountered in the form of various memes).
Evoking a similar feel to the westerns of Sergio Leone but with a science-fiction twist, The Mandalorian is the brainchild of Jon Favreau (Iron Man, The Jungle Book). His love for the beloved saga is on full display, with him never resisting the urge to showcase a variety of Easter-eggs and callbacks. The series though is also straightforward and to the point. Thanks to its shorter tight episodes, it keeps moving at quick pace much like the title character who is constantly on the run. The force is strong with this one. Sean Moriarty
The Outsider Season 1, Sky Atlantic
Ten part horror crime drama The Outsider saw two of the most acclaimed writers in their field bring out the best in each other. Adapting the ‘King of Horror’ Stephen King’s 2018 novel of the same time, which was released to moderate reviews despite a wonderful premise, pulp crime writer Richard Price (The Night Of, The Wire) turned the resulting TV series into gripping nightmare fuel.
When a young boy is found dead, all signs point to little league coach Terry Maitland (Jason Bateman) as the culprit. However, Terry has a rock solid alibi, leaving the pragmatic Det. Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn) and eccentric savant investigator Holly Gibney (Cynthia Erivo) on the trail of a new kind of villain.
Not only is Price’s dialogue so stripped back and sharp, his emphasis on the procedural aspects of detective work lends the series an incredible air of authenticity, which makes the gradual shift into Stephen King-esque terror all the more scary. In fact, The Outsider does what no other supernatural shows have done – detailing how it would feel if an ordinary person was confronted with a threat that can’t be explained rationally and how that would fundamentally change them. The result is something that fans of detective noirs and horror alike can enjoy.
While the show goes slightly off the rails in its increasingly silly and muddled final hour, the pitch-perfect performances (Marc Menchaca, Mare Winningham and Paddy Considine all do great work too) and the eerie atmosphere imbued by guest directors like Bateman and Karyn Kusama make the journey there worth embarking on. Stephen Porzio
ZeroZeroZero Season 1, Sky Atlantic
Rarely has TV felt as epic as ZeroZeroZero, an adaptation of Gomorrah writer Roberto Saviano’s book of the same name. A massive co-production between three countries, its befitting of the show’s plot – centring on a huge cocaine shipment between continents. Through it, we follow the sellers in Monterrey in Mexico, the buyers in Gioia Tauro in Italy and the brokers in New Orleans.
If viewers can get past the two episodes of set-up required to establish the show’s multiple main characters spread all over the world, they will be rewarded with an unbelievably complex and rich crime drama that just grows more insane and immense with each hour. ZeroZeroZero is a series with seemingly no barriers as we follow the cocaine shipment traversing the globe – particularly when an unforseen event forces transporters and siblings played by Andrea Riseborough and Dane DeHaan to take a detour through the Middle East and become entangled in a side mission with Jihadist terrorists.
Series directors Stefano Sollima (Sicario 2), Janus Metz (Borg/McEnroe) and Pablo Trapero (The Clan) only enhance the scope of the show through breathtaking visuals and action set-pieces, as does Scottish post-rockers Mogwai’s dark haunting score. Each episode’s narrative is inventively split up into sections, the show’s various plots constantly intersecting in fascinating ways. I couldn’t finish without raving about Riseborough’s turn as a character who undergoes a Michael Corleone-esque transformation almost entirely unspoken and Harold Torres’ terrifying turn as a religious yet ruthless soldier of the Mexican Army secretly working for the cartel. Stephen Porzio