Julia Roberts stars in Watergate drama Gaslit on Starzplay
This week’s round up of the best new television is fully political. There’s the global politics of Watergate in Gaslit, the post-Me Too sexual politics of C4’s Chivalry, Tan France’s powerful new BBC2 documentary on colourism, Heartstopper – the vital, adorable LGBTQ+ teen romance on Netflix, plus contrasting time-loop series Life After Life (BBC2) and Russian Doll (Netflix).
Gaslit – Starzplay, from 24 April
Gaslit is a funny, smart and oh-so-timely political drama with a starry cast. This is the good stuff. It could not be more perfect for the times we are living through.
The Watergate Scandal might have already been the subject of classic film All The President’s Men. But it is overdue the long-form, or at least, medium-form TV treatment. This new series presents the scandal from a completely different angle to the 1976 film, and is based on the first season of Leon Neyfakh’s popular Slow Burn podcast.
Julia Roberts and Sean Penn are lead actors with real weight. Martha Mitchell (Roberts) is the self-styled Mouth of the South – whose lack of discretion and openness with journalists causes her husband John (Penn), the former US Attorney General now leading President Nixon’s re-election campaign, all manner of headaches.
And that was before Mr Mitchell decided to augment the re-election campaign with an espionage unit spying on the Democrats – despite being 19 points ahead in the polls. Now he will find himself trying to cover up the scandal of the century – knowing his wife is more likely than anyone to alert the press to the inside story.
This is one of the big political stories of the 20th century. But while the politics might be serious, this drama is laced with comedy. And it’s beautifully played.
Roberts is outstanding as larger-than-life Mrs Mitchell – whose nationwide popularity outstrips that of any politician, while Penn’s hangdog expression is the real deal. Forget the politics, the espionage, the cover-up and the trial – the couple’s relationship would be enough to carry an entire series.
And the fine performances don’t stop there. We know Dan Stevens has sublime comic timing. He showcased it recently on The One Show, eviscerating the Prime Minister with charm and panache, never dropping that winning grin, in a clip that has since been viewed millions of times.
Stevens – who continues to take on challenging roles that stretch his talent and surprise viewers (speaking German in I’m Your Man, playing a Russian disco star with questionable hair in Eurovision) – is on top form as John Dean, White House Counsel. His mix of arrogance, vanity and desperation mean he is willing to break the law for the slightest sniff of power, but we also see his fragility, his fear that, actually, he is unimportant.
We see him meet and start dating airline stewardess Mo (Betty Gilpin), who is smarter and way cooler than him. “You don’t exactly make the best first impression. You seemed like you were going to be a huge piece of shit,” she tells him on an early date.
But in each relationship, despite the chaos and apparent mismatches, we see the love, the joy, the connection, the wit. “Everyone’s so evil here, I’m having so much fun,” Mo says, when Dean takes her to a Republican fundraiser (she only goes because of Martha Mitchell).
Dean is torn. He writes a resignation letter, about to choose love over power. But he’s seduced, once again, by the promise of proximity to the most powerful man on the planet.
A brilliantly written and acted political drama – if only Anatomy Of A Scandal had half the wit, power and dramatic thrust. Because this high class look at low class politicians and their hangers on could not be more perfect for this moment, when we really need to talk about liars and cheats in positions of power.
And with focus switching from the President’s top team to the hapless bunglers tasked with tapping phones and collecting campaign secrets from the Democrats and security guard Frank Wills (Patrick R Walker) who ultimately foiled them (receiving a whopping $2.50 payrise for his troubles), we get a vivid, 360 degree view of power, corruption and vanity.
Chivalry – Channel 4, all episodes available on All4
Chivalry is a vital and funny comedy series exploring how the entertainment industry is responding to the #MeToo movement. Conceived by Sarah Solemani (writer of Ridley Road and on Barry, star of Him and Her, Bridget Jones’s Baby and The Wrong Mans), and Steve Coogan, of Alan Partridge, The Trip, 24 Hour Party People and Philomena fame on set of their film Greed, this should be another smash hit for Channel 4.
Solemani plays acclaimed indie filmmaker Bobby Sohrabi, called in to rescue a sleazy director’s bad film and re-shoot sex scenes that “fails catastrophically” in the #MeToo environment. Overseeing the project is producer Cameron O’Neill (Coogan) – a man out of touch, out of time, and who knows, deep down, he will (rightly) be out of a job if he doesn’t change his behaviour. Both leads are perfectly cast and Sienna Miller and Paul Rudd add star power, to a sharply written series that, by looking at deeply serious issues through a comedic lens, offers viewers an important space for dialogue.
Tan France: Beauty and the Bleach – BBC2, 27 April
How great is Tan France on Queer Eye? The brilliantly British swearing, the short-sleeved shirts in a perfect French tuck, the sensitivity and smartness and confidence and class.
But for a new documentary, Tan visits a time when he was not so comfortable in his own skin. When he was nine, Tan stole some skin-lightening cream and began to bleach his skin – as a reaction to racist bullying but also a feeling he had encountered, within his South Asian community in Doncaster, that fair skin was something to aspire to. He has never forgotten.
For his BBC debut, Tan travels the world – from LA (where he talks with Destiny’s Child star Kelly Rowland) to his hometown of Doncaster – exploring issues around colourism, confronting personal demons, and looking for solutions.
Russian Doll – Netflix
When time-loop comedy drama Russian Doll hit Netflix in 2019, it seemed like the perfect one-season wonder. Smart, engaging, brilliantly led by Natasha Lyonne – we watched Nadia party hard and die repeatedly, before returning to the same night. Over and over again. How to recapture the magic once she solved one time-loop conundrum?
No spoilers here, but Nadia finds a new situation in which to be droll and implacably cool, even as she remains discombobulated and out of time in a slick, stylish and surprising second series. Too many series offer diminishing returns after a near perfect perfect debut – Homeland and Killing Eve are just two examples. Thankfully Russian Doll bucks the trend with Lyonne sensational once again…
Life After Life – BBC2, Tuesdays. All episodes available on iPlayer
A high quality drama that, like Russian Doll (above), finds a creative and powerful way to explore fate through multiple alternative existences. But there the similarities end. Life After Life is a profound period drama following Ursula Todd through multiple existences, whereby each time she dies (in childbirth, of the Spanish Flu, by various childhood misadventures), we witness her taking different decisions the next time around, compelled by intuition, instinct, and the eerie feeling she has lived before. In each life, we see how her decisions (and demises) impact her mother, Sylvie (the brilliant Sian Clifford).
The adaptation of Kate Atkinson’s bestselling novel wears its high concept very lightly – following Ursula (Thomasin McKenzie) from birth in 1910 through more than half a century as she encounters the Spanish flu pandemic, the Blitz, love and loss, trauma and trials. It’s a drama that stays with you, prompting meditations on how our futures can hinge on the smallest moments, simple twists of fate, lives changed in a heartbeat. And it probably should have been on Sunday nights on BBC1.
Heartstopper – Netflix, from 22 April
If there is any justice, this should be the next smash hit on Netflix, which appears to be losing thousands of subscribers just as it releases a glut of brilliant new TV. Heartstopper is adorable, sweet, upbeat and really fucking important.
The series, based on the graphic novel by Alice Oseman, shows queer teenagers falling in love. This should not feel so revolutionary, yet this is the sort of representation and visibility that saves and improves lives.
Joe Locke and Kit O’Connor are terrific in the lead roles as Charlie Spring and Nick Nelson, who meet at their all-boys school and gradually evolve from friends to boyfriends across eight episodes. There are also strong supporting stories. Elle (Yasmin Finney) is a trans girl starting life at an all-girls school, where she meets Tara (Corinna Brown) and Darcy (Kizzy Edgell) – who are secretly a couple. Top class teen drama…
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