Over the course of the 20th century televisions began to replace log fires as the warm centre the household gathers around. Now that coronavirus has made captive audiences of us all, what better time to dig into some of the hidden gems that you’ve never found the time to watch.
3 Seasons available on Now TV
The most expensive German language show ever produced, Berlin Babylon recreates the last days of Weimar Berlin in all its decadent, shadowy glory. The show follows the (mis)fortunes of traumatised WW1 veteran Detective Gereon Rath as he contends with both the criminal underworld, corrupt fellow officers and his own addictions. Meanwhile the fragile democracy Rath is fighting to defend is increasingly eclipsed by a rising horror that threatens to destroy everything the city holds dear. Berlin Babylon is a truly sumptuous production: full of flesh, sin and cabaret. Whilst the frequent violence and sex might be a bit of a turn off for some viewers, in terms of panache, style and just straight cool, there’s nothing on TV that can touch it.
1 Season available on Hulu
Devs is the brainchild of Alex Garland, virtuosic director of cerebral thrillers Ex Machina and Annihilation. Garland’s first TV series takes the sci-fi ready utopianism of Silicon Valley and transforms it into something chilling. Taking place on the beautiful campus of Amaya, a tech company pitched somewhere between Google and Jonestown, Devs unwinds the mystery of a bizarre murder that seems to defy the laws of reality. Whilst an unrecognisable Nick Offerman as a billionaire tech entrepreneur who feels closer to a cult leader offers a palpable menace, the show makes no bones about its central interest in exploring the philosophical implications of its ideas. This is sophisticated entertainment, but luckily Devs is such a visual feast that it’s hard not to be swept away by Garland’s vision. For those leery of getting invested in a mystery box drama, Devs is a single eight-episode series which means that all its mysteries are guaranteed to be solved, which in this post-Lost world can only qualify as a relief.
2 Seasons available on Amazon Prime
The light and big-hearted Lodge 49 defies easy categorisation; simultaneously a wry hangout comedy featuring Wyatt Russell (the son of Kurt) as a Big Lebowski-esque surfer bumming around Long Beach, L.A., and a Pynchonesque mystery involving alchemy and secret societies. Full of delightfully quirky performances and a sense of humour as sunny as the Californian climate, the series also paints a surprisingly affecting portrait of working-class Americans who have slowly had their livelihoods cut from under them. Frequently symbolic and mystical without coming over the least bit pretentious, Lodge 49 is a joyous refutation of the idea that ambitious television has to be hard work.
3 seasons available on Netflix
Anthony Hopkins’ turn as Hannibal Lecter won him the Best Actor Oscar for only 23 minutes of screen time, but for my money Danish actor Mads Mikkelson’s Luciferian turn as the cannibal doctor all but blows Hopkins out of the water. A prequel series where Lecter serves as both outside consultant for the FBI’s violent crimes unit and the personal psychiatrist of the agent who would canonically arrest him sounded like a clichéd snooze, but instead Hannibal proved a deeply and alarmingly sensual feast. Through James Hawkinson’s camera lens the world of Hannibal took on a dreamlike tone full of Jungian imagery and murders that were more Saint Sebastian than CSI. The fevered ambience of the show was perversely undercut by a sly sense of humour that kept the show just grounded enough for the tone to seriously unnerve. In addition, the cooking sequences are practically food pornography: when your mouth is watering watching Hannibal Lecter set the table, you realise just how much Hannibal has gotten under your skin.
1 season on Amazon Prime
To say Homecoming is a show about unravelling a mystery does it a bit of a disservice: in television these days ‘mystery’ means an ever-expanding array of questions with as few answers given as humanly possible to keep viewers on the hook for multiple seasons. By contrast the single season Homecoming’s mystery is something a little more Hitchcockian. Adapted by Mr Robot’s Sam Esmail from the podcast of the same name, Homecoming traces the unclear arc of how one Heidi Bergman went from head therapist of the mildly ominous Homecoming PTSD recovery centre, to a waitress in a waterfront dive bar and why she can’t quite seem to remember much of anything about her past. A bravura visual style that harks back to Hollywood conspiracy thrillers like the Parallax View help set the tone as Heidi (a revelatory Julia Roberts in her small-screen debut) is drawn ever deeper into the moral quagmire of her unremembered past. Excellent supporting turns by Shea Wigham and Bobby Cannavale and a breezy 30-minute episode runtime means it’s easy to binge this little gem in one sitting if you aren’t careful.
1 Season on Netflix
Recent true-crime television miniseries like The Jinx and Making a Murderer all owe something of a debt to Errol Morris’s ground-breaking 1988 film The Thin Blue Line. That moody, arresting independent doc about a wrongfully imprisoned man had real-world implications: it got someone out of jail. With Wormwood, Morris returns to the genre he helped define and throws out all the rules: making something that’s one-third film, one-third documentary and one-third art installation. Wormwood’s central talking head is Eric Olson, an eloquent, edgy man in his early 70s. He is haunted by the death of his father, biochemist Frank Olson, who jumped out of a 13th-floor window of the Statler Hotel during a trip to New York on November 28, 1953. Or maybe he was pushed by the CIA. One thing is for sure, that the CIA had in fact surreptitiously dosed him with LSD some weeks before his death as part of the bizarre MK Ultra operation. Over the course of the documentary Morris blurs obsession and conspiracy with capital ‘A’ art and whilst there can be no definitive answers, the questions he raises will stay with you for a very long time.