Following on from my post last week covering my favourite one-off shows of 2020, here’s a look at new shows launched in 2020 that have either been renewed, or left the door open for a second season.
Lovecraft Country (10 episodes, HBO): Is it a coincidence that the two most viscerally entertaining shows of the past two years combine horror-tinged sci-fi with searing commentaries on the history of racism? HBO’s limited series Watchmen broke new ground in visual storytelling in 2019, and a year later, the channel delivered another reality-bending gut-punch with this adaptation of Matt Ruff’s 2016 novel. It’s very difficult to describe the plot in a single sentence, but suffice to say the story combines diverse genres – road trip, Lovecraftian horror (shoggoths!), time travel, Korean folk mythology, family drama – and is set during the 1950’s Jim Crow era of racial segregation. Brought to life by 36-year-old showrunner Misha Green and backed by executive producers J.J. Abrams and Jordan Peele, it’s the explosive on-screen pairing of Jurnee Smollett and Jonathan Majors, along with the standout supporting cast of Aunjanue Ellis, Wunmi Mosaku, Michael K. Williams and Courtney B. Vance that make this show special. Misha Green’s screenplay provides every member of the cast an opportunity to show off their acting chops, resulting in a number of intense scenes. There is a fair amount of graphic violence and sexual content, and every episode brings a new shocking moment or revelation, but it does take some effort to keep track of the convoluted plot that progressively reveals the connections between the key characters. Although the final episode ends the narrative arc of the novel, Misha Green has indicated she is open to creating more stories in this universe. The 8th episode of the show, Jig-a-bobo, one of the scariest, was directed by Green and she now makes her feature film directing debut on the Tomb Raider sequel starring Alicia Vikander.
Raised by Wolves (10 episodes, HBO): Legendary British director Ridley Scott is the executive producer behind this sci-fi show created by Aaron Guzikowski. In the far future, Earth has been laid waste by a terrible war between the religious Mithraic order and pro-science atheists. The atheists send two androids – named Mother and Father – on a spaceship containing several embryos in stasis to a distant planet to start civilization anew. After several difficult years, one child, Campion lives a seemingly peaceful life with his android parents. Their equilibrium is shattered by the arrival of a Mithraic colony ship, bringing to them the very conflict they sought to escape from. As with all Ridley Scott productions, the visual design of the show is stark and stunning; the science is highly advanced but entirely plausible; however none of the characters are particularly appealing (human and android alike), which makes it challenging to truly “enjoy” the show. Having said that, the intriguing storyline and taut pacing led me to virtually binge-watch all 10 episodes over a couple of days. Danish actress Amanda Collin is the star of the series, displaying incredible acting range as Mother, complemented on-screen by Abubakar Salim as Father. Of particular note is the fact that these androids have milky blood, the same as the androids in Ridley Scott’s Alien series of films. My only complaint was with the horrendous mullets sported by the Mithraic…is this really the future of humanity?
Snowpiercer (10 episodes, TNT/Netflix): The last remnants of humanity – rich and poor, good and bad – are cocooned into a high-tech train, 1000 cars long, that circles the globe every 133 days, speeding through an ultra-frozen wasteland, needing to keep running in order to generate power. This is the premise of Snowpiercer, the TV adaptation of the 1982 French graphic novel, which was previously brought to the big screen in 2013 by Korean auteur Bong Joon-ho. Ruled with an iron fist by the mysterious billionaire Mr. Wilford, the train is a microcosm of the real world, with the passengers segregated by class; the rich ones who paid a fortune for the tickets live up-front in First Class, eating food freshly grown in the agricultural section, waited on by the Hospitality division, and free to go “downtrain” to the Nightcar in Third Class for entertainment and other diversions; the people with specialist skills earn their place on the train by providing the various services (doctors, teachers, engineers) and occupy the middle cars; in the Tail are those who boarded the train without tickets or skills, and are now crammed into a few cars, living in unhygienic conditions and being fed blocks of protein gel while brewing resentment and rebellion. The show is part soap opera and part social commentary, filled with fascinating characters, both noble and repulsive. The first season has head of Hospitality Melanie Cavill (played by Jennifer Connelly) locked in a battle of wits with ‘tailie’ Andre Layton (played by Daveed Diggs), as they jointly try to solve a murder.
I watched three other shows that debuted in 2020, but didn’t really spark for me. These included the Steve Carrell comedy Space Force and the mission to Mars drama Away, starring Hilary Swank, both on Netflix. The latter was cancelled at the end of the first season. Also debuting in 2020 on Disney+ was The Right Stuff, an adaptation of Tom Wolfe’s chronicle of the early days of the US space program, which was made into a critically acclaimed film in 1983. I can never tire of this slice of human history, but somehow the show lacked the gravitas of the source material and tended to drift into daytime soap territory. The season ended with the first set of manned US space flights and if renewed, season 2 would focus on the race to the moon.
2020 was a great year for shows in their second or later seasons, and I hope to cover my favourites in a future post.