Ones to Watch: Trends & Trailblazers
DQ spotlights the people, places and things that have provided the biggest talking points in television drama in the past year, from virtual production to Covid-19 supervisors.
Adult animated series have been on the rise for several years, but in 2021, perhaps fuelled by the pandemic, commissioners have been ordering more series in this genre than ever. HBO Max has commissioned Poor Devil, its first animated series from Spain, which tells the story of an ordinary boy who also happens to be the Antichrist. Meanwhile, Russian streamer KinoPoisk has ordered the first ever Russian adult cartoon, CyberSlav, which depicts a futuristic Russia featuring gigantic robots and cyber implants.
Together with shows such as What If…? (pictured), Marvel Studios’ first animated series, which imagines alternative timelines for some of its most recognisable characters, animation is proving to be a big draw. And without the need for live-action shoots, it’s a pandemic-proof genre to which many are turning as the industry continues to recover from delays caused by the numerous lockdowns over the past two years.
Agatha Christie’s Hjerson
While the Marvel Cinematic Universe continues to dominate the box office, could this Swedish series herald the start of the Agatha Christie Universe? Agatha Christie’s Hjerson put a unique meta twist on the work of the oft-adapted author by focusing on the titular Sven Hjerson, a Swedish detective who is the work of Christie’s fictional writer Ariadne Oliver – think Hjerson is to Oliver as Poirot or Marple is to Christie. In the series, down-on-his-luck Hjerson (Johan Rheborg) is given a new lease of life when he meets a reality TV producer (Hanna Alström) who wants to make a new series – with him as the lead.
Around the World in 80 Days
As broadcasters around the world scrambled to fill their schedules in the wake of the lockdowns that delayed or paused production of new series, family-friendly content was most in-demand as families found themselves spending more time watching television together. Around the World in 80 Days is perfectly primed to take advantage of this new trend, with David Tennant (Doctor Who) starring in a new adaptation of Jules Verne’s 1872 story. He plays Phileas Fogg, who accepts a crazy bet to traverse the globe in 80 days. Exotic locations and new adventures in each episode mean this show could be one to tempt families to stick together even as lockdowns lift.
World-renowned Italian opera tenor Bocelli was the artistic advisor on Blanca, a new series for local broadcaster Rai 1 that is billed as the first ever to use holophony, a special recording technique that replicates for audiences the way sound is perceived naturally. Its aim is to put viewers in the shoes of the show’s title character, a young woman who became blind as a child and later joins the police force. Her speciality is decodage, an analytical listening technique she applies to numerous investigations, such as interceptions and interrogations. Bocelli, who is visually impaired, offered advice to the show’s screenwriters to help create the world of a blind person and also worked with the show’s lead actor, Maria Chiara Giannetta.
Two years ago, the world was yet to confront the devastating effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, which meant there was no such position on a television set as a Covid supervisor. Fast-forward a few months and with productions paused during those initial lockdowns, the industry came together with guilds and unions to find a way to continue to work safely, and now every series employs people specifically to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading, which could lead to filming being paused for days or even weeks, with major financial implications. They weren’t part of the past, but these now-essential supervisors will be an important part of every production for the foreseeable future.
As a writer and director, Deer’s credits include feature film Beans and series Mohawk Girls and Anne With An E. She is also director on her latest project, Three Pines, a Canadian series commissioned by Prime Video and starring Alfred Molina as a Quebecois police inspector investigating a spate of murders in the titular idyllic village. In addition, as the importance of telling stories with an authentic voice is increasingly recognised, Deer is working as an Indigenous consultant on the series, having been born and raised in the Mohawk community of Kahnawake. Her upbringing has led her to work as an activist and speaker with the goal of ensuring stories are representative of the society we live in, leading to feature documentary Mohawk Girls and the award-winning comedic series of the same name about four women who are trying to stay true to their Mohawk roots while navigating sex, work and love in the 21st century.
While the television community reacted to the initial coronavirus lockdowns with series and films relating the kinds of experiences people the world over were living through, it remains to be seen how TV will address the pandemic in the years to come. Earlier this year, Channel 4 single drama Help became the first major project to chronicle the effects of Covid-19 and how it specifically related to the staff and residents of a care home. Written by Jack Thorne (National Treasure) the show starred Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham in a delicately handled, hard-hitting story about the pandemic. It won’t be the last.
With the story of a Muslim female punk band and original songs such as Kill My Sister and Bashir with the Good Beard, music comedy We Are Lady Parts (pictured) proved to be one of the surprise packages of the year. Featuring a string of engaging characters, relatable situations and plenty of laughs, the show also stood out for its discussion about women and identity, which Manzoor modelled on her own experiences to prove that religion – in this case Islam – shouldn’t be the single defining characteristic of any person.
From HBO’s groundbreaking Oz to Australia’s Wentworth, comedy drama Orange is the New Black and Spanish thriller Vis a Vis (Locked Up), prisons continue to be a fascinating arena for drama, and so it proved to be the case again with McGovern’s Time, one of the year’s standout series. The award-winning British writer is no stranger to intimate character dramas grounded in real life, and in Time he paired Sean Bean’s con with a conscience with Stephen Graham’s principled prison officer to tell a story brimming with nervous tension as the stakes for both characters are heightened by a conflict with one of the prison’s most dangerous inmates.
As actors become increasingly involved behind the scenes in the shows in which they star, Merchant cemented his status as one of the leading multi-hypenates when he wrote, directed and starred in BBC One’s comedic crime thriller The Outlaws. Set and filmed in the star’s native Bristol, the show blends The Office co-creator’s brand of humour with the story of seven criminals who are carrying out community service together when they are drawn into the world of organised crime after one of their number gets into trouble. This year also saw Australian comic Kitty Flanagan write, direct and star in comedy Fisk, in which she played a solicitor helping grieving relatives at a wills and probate office, while Hugh Laurie writes, directs and stars in a forthcoming Agatha Christie adaptation Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?.
In the wake of the sexual abuse revelations about Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein and the #MeToo and Time’s Up campaigns, the increased awareness of inappropriate and illegal behaviour on film and TV sets has led to more productions using intimacy coordinators. These performance and movement coaches specifically work with actors and directors to bring choreography to sex scenes and, most importantly, ensure everyone is happy and comfortable with what they are being asked to do on camera. The role has gained greater visibility in recent years, but it was pushed further into the spotlight this year when Michaela Coel, the award-winning creator and star of I May Destroy You, specifically thanked intimacy coordinator O’Brien for making it possible to shoot the series during a speech at this year’s Bafta Television Awards. O’Brien has long been a leader in this field, having worked on Sex Education and Normal People among other series, and now trains others in this increasingly vital role.
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson
For almost 25 years, Icelander Ólafsson has championed film and television in his home country. And in the wake of the huge interest in Nordic noir series, his profile has skyrocketed around the world. He stars as police officer Andri Ólafsson in crime drama Trapped, which is returning for a third season, while this year he toured Iceland as ‘himself’ in the extremely playful yet poignant Journey, in which his character goes on a road trip with his best friend that leads them both to confront their emotions, pride and friendship. Earlier in 2021, Ólafsson was named Actor of the Year at Iceland’s Edda Awards for his performance as a politician with bipolar disorder in drama The Minister (pictured), while he will soon be seen on screen around the world in The Tourist, an Australia-set thriller from the writers behind The Missing and Liar.
In the US, writers rooms have been fantastic training grounds for writers. Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire), Matthew Weiner (Mad Men), and Mitchell Burgess and Robin Green (both Blue Bloods) all worked on The Sopranos. Vince Gilligan (Breaking Bad), Howard Gordon (Homeland) and Frank Spotnitz (The Man in the High Castle) wrote episodes of The X-Files. Marti Noxon worked on Angel, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Prison Break and Grey’s Anatomy before creating shows such as UnReal and Sharp Objects. The same effect is now appearing outside the US, with Sex Education, the Netflix comedy that returned for a third season this year, leading the charge. Created by Laurie Nunn, the show’s writing team has included Bisha K Ali (Ms Marvel), Laura Neal (Killing Eve S4), Freddy Syborn (Bounty Hunters, Ragdoll) and Alice Seabright (Chloe). As writers rooms become more common, expect to see more writers emerging with their own shows.
Discussing the making of BBC period drama Ridley Road, writer Sarah Solemani credited exec producer Shindler as a showrunner who “was in the trenches” with her on the story of a woman who goes undercover to combat fascism in 1960s London. A champion of writers, Bafta winner Shindler has worked with some of the biggest names in British TV, from Sally Wainwright (Happy Valley) and Kay Mellor (The Syndicate) to Paul Abbott (Hit & Miss) and Russell T Davies, the Queer as Folk and Years & Years writer who is already collecting prizes for this year’s It’s A Sin, which Shindler also exec produced. Having left Red Production Company to start a new venture, Quay Street Productions, Shindler has many more stories to tell, not least through her ongoing partnership with Harlan Coben and Danny Brocklehurst that has yielded Netflix series Safe and Stay Close.
Was 2021 the year period dramas had a modern makeover? Bridgerton set the trend at the start of the year and will be back for a second season; the story of Henry VIII’s second wife was turned into psychological thriller Anne Boleyn; and Emile Zola’s classic novel Germinal, about coal miners in 1860s France, was given a new perspective by sharpening the focus on the story’s female characters. German-language drama Sisi, meanwhile, sought to retell what has been described as Europe’s greatest love story for new viewers, some 70 years after Romy Schneider portrayed the real-life figure of Elisabeth in 1955 film Sissi. It follows a 19th century duchess who falls in love with the emperor of Austria. In the new series, Sisi is a confident, sexual and independent woman who takes centre stage in a story that, coupled with the central romance, also confronts darker elements.
Netflix is no stranger to competition dramas (3%), particularly those played to the death (Alice in Borderland), but none has made an impact close to that achieved by Squid Game. Approximately 142 million member households watched at least some of the South Korean thriller in the first four weeks of its release, making it Netflix’s biggest series ever. For those who haven’t watched it, Squid Game sees 456 desperate and debt-ridden contestants compete in deadly versions of children’s games for the chance to win 45.6 billion won (US$38.6m).
Female-led psychological thrillers proved to be a big trend of 2021, with shows such as Angela Black, Behind Her Eyes and Close to Me filling the schedules. One particularly notable entry was Too Close, a three-part miniseries that pitted Emily Watson’s forensic psychiatrist Emma Robertson against Connie Mortensen (Denise Gough), a wife and mother who is involved in a despicable crime. It is Emma’s job to determine whether Connie should spend her life behind bars or if she is capable of being rehabilitated and released. In a show based on a 2018 novel by Clara Salaman (writing as Natalie Daniels), it is the dazzling performances of Watson and Gough that lift the story from the page, featuring some electric head-to-head confrontations.
Visual effects have taken cinematic strides in recent years as television has sought to transport viewers to increasingly varied and fantastical worlds. Now, the use of virtual production is only going to push these limits further by unlocking the ability to create complex shots in-camera using virtual sets and locations with video game technology. This has already been seen on Disney+’s Star Wars series The Mandalorian, but perhaps the best demonstration yet will come in the form of Netflix’s upcoming 1899 (pictured). Series creators Jantje Friese and Baran bo Odar (Dark), their company Dark Ways and Studio Babelsberg have partnered to build a permanent virtual production stage at the Berlin studios that will be used to tell a story concerning the mysterious circumstances surrounding the voyage of an immigrant ship from Europe to New York.
Characters from comic book Publisher marvel are no strangers to TV, but this was the year that Marvel Studios’ shared universe landed on the small screen. While The Falcon & The Winter Soldier had the same sense of scale and action as the Captain America films and Loki matched the nuances of Tom Hiddleston’s charming, cunning character with a time-bending plot, it was WandaVision that changed expectations for what a Marvel Cinematic Universe series could be. Ultimately a story of grief and acceptance, it finds Wanda Maximoff, who has powers of telekinesis and telepathy, and android Vision living an idyllic suburban life while trying to conceal their true identities. But the show really stood out because each episode perfectly replicated the style, tone and humour of a different US sitcom from the 1950s to the present day.
West had previously partnered with award-winning writer Russell T Davies on the futuristic – and prophetic – Years & Years, but it was their collaboration on one of this year’s standout series, It’s A Sin, that would cement West’s rising star and see her win a Golden Nymph prize at the Monte Carlo Television Awards. It’s A Sin charts the gay experience in the 1980s and the rise of the AIDS crisis during the decade, with West’s character – based on a real person – arguably the heart of the story. She plays Jill, an aspiring actor who begins to worry about the impact of the disease and becomes a carer for and supporter of her friends when they are diagnosed with AIDS, before going on to visit others being treated in hospital.
tagged in: Agatha Christie’s Hjerson, Andrea Bocelli, Around the World in 80 Days, Help, Ita O’Brien, Jimmy McGovern, Lydia West, Nicola Shindler, Nida Manzoor, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Sex Education, Sisi, Squid Game, Stephen Merchant, Too Close, Tracey Deer, WandaVision