The consolation of the art, information and escapism that television delivers is no longer a diversion but a lifeline.
Now we’re all self-isolating. What to do? “Download Houseparty,” my daughter said. It’s an app that allows us to get on our phones to chat and do entertainment trivia quizzes together, apparently. A month with no contact apart from in cyberspace is a long time. It may come to that.
There are other options for being less, well, isolated. The supermarket shelves may be stripped, but cultural life online is flourishing, with balcony singing, live-streamed concerts and Sam Neill, the Vera Lynn of tough-times-Twitter, raising spirits with poems, ukulele recitals, story reading and duck-cuddling.
But when reality becomes a major shit show, the best bet is that other show – the alternative universe of television, where we used to go to watch dramas about scenarios such as the one we’re currently living through. As I write, with mere hours until Covid-19 alert level four and lockdown, the case for broadcast television in uniting a community in times of crisis is being made on a daily basis. And with what’s coming at us fast, the consolation of the art, information and pure, mindless escape that television delivers, contact-free to your hunkered-down home, is no longer a diversion but a lifeline.
Here’s a quarantine watchlist to be going on with. Let us know what you’re viewing. We’re in this together.
Let’s start with something bite-sized and bingeable. Ricky Gervais’ story of a man trying to carry on after the death of his wife is poignant and funny and co-stars a lovely dog. Because it’s Ricky Gervais, there are occasional, shall we say, boundary-pushing moments. I loved it. Netflix.
This is more challenging, but you can’t resist a show with a title like that in times like this. Based on a true case of a teenage rape victim who is charged with lying, this has a cracking lineup of female staunchness – Merritt Wever, Toni Collette, Kaitlyn Dever. It’s unflinching on sexual assault and even more so on what can happen to the victim after. Netflix.
An eccentric UK family living haplessly in the countryside. A funny foreigner. It sounds a little cliched, but these Flowers are not The Darling Buds of May. Japanese-English actor, writer and director Will Sharpe takes grief, depression and bipolar disorder and creates something funny, strange and charmed. He plays Shun, an impossibly endearing Japanese illustrator with a heartbreaking backstory. The cast includes the wonderful Olivia Colman and The Mighty Boosh’s Julian Barratt. Sharpe also does a scene-stealing turn in Giri/Haji, the story of a Tokyo detective in London to find his younger brother, a Yakuza thug. The title means Duty/Shame and for all the violence it’s about the obligations and trials of family. Oh, and there’s a climactic shootout done as ballet. Netflix.
The Handmaid’s Tale
Terrifying at any time, this adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel is more than ever essential viewing if you have the spare nervous-system capacity at the moment. It’s a dystopian story of the oppression of women in the near-future theocracy of Gilead, formerly a northern region of the US. It’s also about how fast things in a world you take for granted can change into something terrifying and how the human spirit can fight back. Atwood’s useful observation on smug complacency when people are suffering: “Ignoring isn’t the same as ignorance, you have to work at it.” Lightbox.
Olivia Colman is in this, too, but Phoebe Waller-Bridge outshines her and almost anyone on television as a furious, hilarious, excruciatingly filter-free twentysomething struggling with life, family and Olivia Colman in a comedy that takes no prisoners but still manages to be poignant and, given the often-bizarre subject matter, relatable. Amazon Prime.
The Dead Lands
Loosely based on Toa Fraser’s 2014 movie about a Māori chief’s son seeking revenge for the death of his father, but in this series it’s a daughter, Mehe, who is the avenger. She’s helped by a ghost warrior. There be monsters. I haven’t watched it, but now is the time. TVNZ OnDemand.
NZ on Screen
A treasure trove of great New Zealand television past. Catch an episode of The Jaquie Brown Diaries; see Jeremy Wells, before he became the nation’s inappropriate uncle on Seven Sharp, getting away with murder on Eating Media Lunch and The Unauthorised History of New Zealand; recall the communal, innocent madness in less fraught times that was Telethon … nzonscreen.com/
Location, Location, Location
Okay, everyone needs a guilty daytime television pleasure. When I’m not watching Fox News to raise my blood pressure, I’ll be watching a show that’s a little like The Bachelorette, but with houses. It may not be everyone’s idea of a good watch right now, but Phil and Kirstie are entertaining as they grapple with the unreasonable real estate expectations of odd British people. See also Love It or List It, Escape to the Country, A Place in the Sun, etc. Sky Living.
The Devil Next Door
Was Cleveland auto worker John Demjanjuk really the monstrous concentration camp guard known as Ivan the Terrible? Like another mesmerising true crime series, Making a Murderer, this documentary series leaves many questions unanswered, but it’s fascinating history and, once started, you can’t stop.
Old episodes of Seinfeld and Friends
Comedy gold that never gets old (TVNZ OnDemand), Lost and Found for sweet three-hankie family reunions when we can’t see our own (ThreeNow) and The Chase on TVNZ (Monday-Friday 5pm; weekends, 4.55pm) to keep spirits up and brain cells working. These are the TV equivalent of raiding the Tim Tams and we all need a bit of that right now.
This article appears in the upcoming issue of the Listener, which is on sale Monday, but we are releasing timely stories early.