Stories that can take you out of yourself, even momentarily, are worth paying attention to: just how did they shift your axis? In any other year, I would go looking for the unusual, veering towards stuff that was a little off-kilter. But as these months wore on, during which we hunkered inside, fearful of a virus that has no cure (yet), I caught myself actively leaning towards tales of human upliftment.
So, yes, I did succumb to the quirky charms of Lyra Silvertongue and her daemon, Pan, in the second season of His Dark Materials (Disney+ Hotstar). The series is based on Philip Pullman’s classic trilogy featuring parallel universes, a host of fantastical creatures, a fascinating fight pitting good and evil, and endless adventures.
I also took a deep dive into Perry Mason’s origin story, which revived our fading memories of Erle Stanley Gardner’s indomitable lawyer who cracked almost every case he took on. Perry Mason (Disney+ Hotstar) starts with him as a weathered war veteran-turned-private investigator looking for paying gigs in 1931-32 Los Angeles. What lifts this murder-kidnap whodunit is the startling depth on display: not only does Mason, played wonderfully by Matthew Rhys, solve the case, he finds purpose.
But my top four shows would have to be those which placed people like you and me, and their struggles, front and centre. Unorthodox (Netflix) tracks the flight of a young woman from a Hasidic Jewish community in Williamsburg, New York City, to Berlin. Nineteen-year-old Esty, played by the delicate Shira Haas, is imprisoned by the tight coils of tradition and community. Her journey is specific to her roots, but we know her troubles: you can be anywhere in the world, but as a woman, you have to fight to be your own person.
Normal People (Hulu), based on Sally Rooney’s book of the same name, refreshes the teenage romance trope quite beautifully. The fresh-faced Marianne and Connell play out their complicated, off-on relationship in Sligo, Ireland, but who doesn’t remember the flush of first love? From an adult, done-and-dusted perspective, it takes you back to your own time when youth stretched endlessly, and not talking to someone who mattered the most could be a silly choice of your own making.
Anya Taylor-Joy doesn’t make a single false move in The Queen’s Gambit (Netflix), in her playing of chess prodigy Beth Harmon who fights the twin demons of drug and alcohol dependency on her way to becoming a world champion. As an orphan in ’50s America, Beth needs to find her way to a chessboard, and to unlikely supportive partners, including a vulnerable older woman, who provides both succour and wisdom. This one’s pure joy, even if you don’t understand chess.
And Michaela Coel has my heart with her brilliant I May Destroy You (Disney+ Hotstar), a disturbing tale of rape and responsibility. Coel plays Arabella, a London-based Twitter star-turned-author, who relives the trauma of a dark night through flashes, and a hard path of self-realisation. It’s a difficult part to pull off, and Coel takes no prisoners, laying herself out completely, offering no excuses. So hard to watch, and so rewarding.
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