The legendary feud between two screen divas, the fourth instalment of the dark and clever Inside No. 9 and more in our top TV picks for January.
Feud Season 1: Bette and Joan
History books suggest the face-off that took place between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford on the set of 1962’s rock horror What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? didn’t unfold exactly this way, but there’s something to be said for gossip when it’s this enthralling. As in his terrific The People vs. O J Simpson, Ryan Murphy uses factual events as the start point for a playfully ironic investigation of modern American mores: his Bette and Joan (Susan Sarandon and Jessica Lange), working single mothers struggling to find toeholds in a boys’ town skewed towards youth, actually have far more in common than divides them.
What is it? Eight-part series that prints Hollywood legend, lavishly and entertainingly.
Why should I watch it? Because, like the film that inspired it, it offers maturing performers roles to die for.
Best episode? Matters arguably crescendo with Episode Five (“And the Winner Is”), detailing the stars’ colossal awards-season tussle.
Best character? It would be ungentlemanly to suggest a winner in the central catfight, so let’s highlight Alfred Molina’s typically skilful embodiment of director Robert Aldrich as a doughty pro at the mercy of the star system.
Watch on: BBC1; BBC iPlayer
The Girlfriend Experience: Season 2
Loosely inspired by Steven Soderbergh’s doodle-movie, TGE’s first run watched a student juggling an internship with high-end sex work; its second boldly fragments into two miniseries, one (“Erica and Anna”) centred on a political kingmaker (Anna Friel) paying in every sense for professional and personal play, the other (“Bria”) following a former escort heading reluctantly into witness protection. Neither offers reassuring viewing, yet these shows are as remarkable to observe shot with a cool, Antonioni-like eye for oppressive corporate structures as they are bracing to submit to: here are the harsh realities of the power games the Fifty Shades phenomenon repackaged as glossy fantasy.
What is it? One of Peak TV’s foremost moral, intellectual and aesthetic accomplishments.
Why should I watch it? If you’ve always thought Christian Grey was a slimeball.
Where did we leave it? Each series is pointedly self-contained, so no prior narrative knowledge is required. (Some carnal knowledge will help.)
Best episode? “Erica and Anna’s” fifth instalment features the messiest break-up in recent screen history, if that’s any recommendation.
Best character? Riley Keough’s diamond-hard Christine stole off with Season One; Season Two’s breakout star is Louisa Krause as the painfully needy Anna.
Watch on: Amazon Prime
Inside No. 9: Series 4
If you want to know how difficult anthology series are to sustain, seek out the recent American variant Room 104, which over last year’s initial run generated two standout episodes, four that were merely watchable, and a half-dozen that proved trifling at best. League of Gentlemen alumni Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s darkly comic behind-closed-doors enterprise continues to maintain a far better strike rate over these six latest half-hours, precision-tooled, unfailingly inventive miniatures that—whether setting out a poignantly low-rent showbiz reunion or an unexpectedly bloody house move—hook us and surprise us, before keeping us all awake at night.
What is it? Six superbly written and performed returns to a very British Twilight Zone.
Why should I watch it? If you thrilled to the recent League of Gentlemen revival, and want to see what its co-creators did next.
Where did we leave it? Each episode is a one-of-a-kind standalone, making it well worth your while catching up with earlier instalments.
Best episode? Series opener “Zanzibar” is an absolute dazzler: a Shakespearian comedy of errors, performed in iambic pentameter over 30 minutes along one overpopulated hotel corridor. The clever sods.
Watch on: BBC2; BBC iPlayer
The Beeb’s adaptation of Jessie Burton’s 2014 bestseller is a somewhat lopsided affair—possibly a result of being subbed into the festive schedules as a last-minute replacement for the postponed Ordeal by Innocence—but it does justice to its source’s mystery, and develops a very striking, singular look. Essentially, it’s Rebecca via Rembrandt: Anya Taylor-Joy (The Witch) is a compelling heroine as Nella Oortman, the young bride obliged to use a scale replica dollhouse as a means of interpreting the secrets of her 17th-century Amsterdam household. Spanish director Guillem Morales provides the high-contrast, painterly images.
What is it? Two-part costume drama that brought a certain continental flair to our screens over Christmas.
Why should I watch it? Because it’s more Peter Greenaway than Downton Abbey.
Best episode? The 90-minute opener is stronger than the more conventional 60-minute pay-off: you may wonder whether there were originally three hour-long instalments, rejigged to fill a gap in the Radio Times.
Best character? It’s an adaptation strong on girl power: Taylor-Joy’s questing Nella is surrounded on both sides by nicely ambiguous work from Romola Garai as a sour faced sister-in-law and I, Daniel Blake’s Hayley Squires as the tight-lipped home help.
Watch on: BBC iPlayer
Would I Lie to You?: Series 11
While Have I Got News for You steams onwards into more overtly political waters—another consequence of Trump/Brexit—its unruly younger brother in the panel-show stakes goes about delivering the usual: seriously underrated diversion. Though its central dynamic is now familiar—posh boy David Mitchell sparring with oikish Lee Mack; host Rob Brydon striving to sneak in Ronnie Corbett impressions—what’s astonishing is how fresh this eleventh run feels: an ever-rotating merry-go-round of
supporting dissemblers helps, but it’s the regulars’ skilful variations on their established personas that make this particular parlour game an increasingly enjoyable half-hour.
What is it? Celebrities sort fact from fiction in TV’s liveliest panel show.
Why should I watch it? For the opportunity to sharpen your wits in this era of fake news.
Best episode? The recent Christmas special featured one doozy of a tale, whether true or false: commentary legend Henry Blofeld’s account of squiring the wrong woman on holiday.
Best guest? Some stars fit this format perfectly—and one senses Bob Mortimer, with his gift for spouting semi-plausible nonsense, must top the showbooker’s list every year. Episode Four sees him claiming to do his own dentistry.
Watch on: BBC1; BBC iPlayer