In 2019 we drowned in television. I would like to point out that I am not complaining about this. How could you when it was a year that gave us the likes of Fleabag, Chernobyl, When They See Us, Succession and Russian Doll? But weren’t there just times when you were baffled at what you were supposed to watch next, as Netflix and newcomers like Apple dropped more and more titles every week?
You weren’t the only one. Part of this problem has come about because of the sheer quantity of new shows, but it’s also because a lot of these companies don’t reveal viewing figures unless, rather conveniently, a show does really well for them. This means that viewers don’t always have the benefit of knowing what other people are choosing to invest their time in, and it creates a problem for the companies too as they don’t want us to miss something and watch their rival either – especially at a time when having a big Hollywood name attached, or firing a tank full of cash at it (hello, Apple’s The Morning Show), barely raises an eyebrow.
So in 2020, expect more series to be as distinctive as possible. One trend that stands out is shows that give a new perspective on a recent news event. While such true-life dramatisations are nothing new – just look at The Crown – viewers crave them and always appreciate the lengths writers and creators go to in order to faithfully capture the lives involved.
ITV has Quiz, looking at the infamous Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? episode when a contestant was convicted of cheating, with Michael Sheen playing Chris Tarrant. The BBC, meanwhile, will be screening a three-part drama called Salisbury, showing how the 2018 Novichok poisoning affected the local community and how they have tried to move on (expect Russian news outlets to discredit the drama as quickly as they did when the British government released its findings on who was responsible). There’s also Sitting in Limbo, another BBC offering, based on a true story from the Windrush scandal.
Dramas such as this, which shine a light on communities that haven’t traditionally been fairly reflected on screen, are also on the rise. Oscar-winning filmmaker Steve McQueen has created an anthology series for the BBC, Small Axe, starring Letitia Wright, Malachi Kirby and John Boyega, which looks at London’s West Indian community over 30 years. Meanwhile Channel 4 will show Boys, written by Russell T. Davies, exploring how lives within London’s LGBT+ community were affected by the Aids crisis in the 1980s.
We’re going to see many more shows not in the English language next year, especially from Netflix. That’s partly because the streaming giant is focusing on international expansion at a time when US subscriber growth has slowed, but also because it can add subtitles in multiple languages from the moment a show is released, with the option of dubbing if viewers don’t want to read. New releases will include a Polish adaptation of Harlan Coben’s thriller The Woods; Anxious People, a Swedish hostage comedy drama based on a book by Fredrik Backman, the author of A Man Called Ove; a horror series, Ares, which is Netflix’s first original Dutch offering; and Ragnarok, a teenage supernatural drama about Norse gods, from Norway.
Finally, don’t expect the number of Hollywood heavyweights switching to television shows to slow down. Directors and actors love the medium for the instant global reach, and for the additional time they are given to tell stories. Andrew Garfield and Vanessa Hudgens are starring in a TV adaptation of the off-Broadway musical Tick, Tick… Boom! on Netflix, directed by Lin-Manuel Miranda. Ridley Scott is behind a new science fiction drama called Raised by Wolves, airing on the new streaming service HBO Max in the US. J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele are behind Lovecraft Country, which links supernatural horror with racism, for HBO. And Malorie Blackman’s young adult racial role-reversal novel Noughts + Crosses is being adapted for the BBC, with the rapper Stormzy making a cameo as a newspaper editor.
But before you choose your favourite, this is far from a full list. TV channels and streaming networks tend to hold some of the shows they are most excited about close to their chest until the absolute last minute, in the hope of surprising us and the competition. Unpredictability is part of what makes television so exciting: the most hyped show could end up being a damp squib, while a tiny show on a meagre budget – like the original Fleabag – might contain something unique and sensational, and go on to take the world by storm. Television is an erratic and frustrating medium, but a surprising and joyous one too. And my goodness, isn’t there a lot of it.
Five TV show to watch
A kind of adult version of Monsters, Inc., spun-off from the puberty-based animated comedy Big Mouth.
BBC and HBO
New drama series looking at themes surrounding sexual consent, created, written by and starring Michaela (Chewing Gum) Coel.
The Plot Against America
A drama based on Philip Roth’s book, set in an alternative reality in which 1940s America swings towards fascism.
Star Trek: Picard
He’s back. Patrick Stewart’s Captain Jean-Luc Picard returns to Star Trek after almost 20 years.
The Underground Railroad
Barry Jenkins directs an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s book, about a young slave trying to escape a plantation.