A good number of adaptations this month – comics, books, and beyond that, ones which aren’t strictly adaptations but are tried-and-true ideas. A work being adapted for the screen tends to be a sign it’s struck it big in a way that the reverse isn’t. Nobody was chomping at the bit for the novelisation of E.T. The Extraterrestrial, for instance. Put crudely, flesh-and-blood people acting it out is real in a way that ink on a page simply can’t be – so, in that spirit, we start off with something thoroughly surreal.
1. Russian Doll | February 1
I somehow missed the chance to reference Groundhog Day in my jangled account of the interactive Black Mirror film Bandersnatch, which is strange, since all the essential ingredients are the same – go through the same period of time again and again, changing things each time and seeing what happens. Of course, a potato contains the same essential ingredients as a garden slug, so the analogy may not quite hold.
Anyway, the upcoming Russian Doll invites comparisons to Groundhog Day even more eagerly – Natasha Lyonne (lately of Orange Is The New Black) is at her birthday party, dies unexpectedly, and then pops right back up at the start of the party, like Mario respawning in world 1-1. It’s billed as a comedy, but a party that just won’t stop sounds like it’d slide rapidly into horror – yes, as an introvert I’m biased, but even the biggest, fattest, rose-garlandest party animal needs to disco-nap now and then.
The big difference is that the timeline is reset by Lyonne’s character dying, where Uncle Bill simply needed to run out the clock – which should add to the horror, but is fairly obviously a mechanism for comedy in the vein of The Bunny Suicides, and the internet classic Happy Tree Friends. (It really speaks to something in the cultural character that death is funny, but the death of cute critters is hilarious.) Based on the trailer, many of these cork-poppings seem to be done in quite a slapstick way, and it’s nice to see a woman getting a turn at that style of comedy for a change.
2. PEN15 | February 8
After The Lonely Island fucked that alien in their white-boy hip-hop odyssey Incredibad, they made a wish to become ‘the greatest fake MCs on earth’. That remains a hotly contested title (‘sup, Weird Al?) but there’s no denying that Incredibad hit on a very specific kind of sticky adolescent angst – and as such, there’s nobody better than the Islanders to produce a comedy about the Sisyphean horrors of middle school.
There’s been a fair number of takes on this hellishly pubescent time of life recently, from the softcore Sex Education to the fanciful Big Mouth – the quirk this time around is that the protagonists are 13-year-olds, but they’re played by creators Anna Konkle and Maya Erskine, with their classmates all played by actual children. (This will presumably make any precocious relationship subplots profoundly awkward at best.)
The name comes from an age-old school prank in which the target is asked if they’d like to join ‘the pen club’. Members of this club are, of course, numbered. You, the con, are ‘PEN14’, which is written on your hand. When the unsuspecting mark declares yes, they would like to join this fabulous organisation as member 15, you write ‘PEN15’ on their hand, and humiliation ensues. This gives a hint as to the kind of tone you can expect from the series.
3. Miracle Workers | February 12
While the hit show The Good Place is reticent about throwing around the terms ‘heaven’ and ‘hell’ (as you may be able to glean from the title) that doesn’t stop the two making for solid settings. You can introduce basically any prop or landscape you want, and it immediately opens the door to big questions – although in the case of ‘what happens when we die’ it answers them pretty quickly as well.
In a dramatic change to the usual Santa-in-a-toga conception of God, here the big cheese is played by Steve ‘Mr. Pink’ Buscemi, although our focus is on Daniel Radcliffe’s put-upon angel, who’s landed the unenviable job of dealing with humanity’s prayers. Here we’ve got one of those big questions already – given that organised religion isn’t big on the idea that prayers actually get answered due to issues around evidence, what kind of strange balancing act is Harry Potter having to pull off?
The show is an adaptation of the novel What In God’s Name? by Simon Rich, the man behind the series Man Seeking Woman (itself based on his earlier novel The Last Girlfriend On Earth). Rich comes with an impeccable comedy pedigree, having been one of the youngest cast members of Saturday Night Live, and the son of Frank Rich – mainly known as a columnist, but also an executive producer on Veep.
4. Weird City | February 13
Fans of Key and Peele – not to mention Jordan Peele’s movie debut Get Out, the film that solved racism forever – will presumably have their eyes on Peele’s upcoming reboot of the legendary anthology series The Twilight Zone, but that’s not the only thing he has in the pipeline. Along with former Key and Peele writer Charlie Sanders, he’s been creating and developing another anthology, a raygunpunk sci-fi-flavoured one called ‘Weird City’.
As opposed to The Twilight Zone’s rigidly self-contained stories, Weird City will have a few common threads, such as the ruthlessly segregated city itself – but most notably, the main character, a classically unhinged scientist played by none less than LeVar Burton. And, gloriously, the trailer offers a glimpse of him being sucked through a Futurama-style transit tube, a public transit system I will never forgive science for giving up on so soon.
The city having a clear line of demarcation between ivory-tower utopia and Mad Max neighbourhoods is a trope which has been used to great effect in a lot of sci-fi works, like District Nine, Bright, and China Mieville’s The City And The City. Weird City puts a bit of a spin on it, though – while the good side of the tracks is basically the good future you might expect, the bad side, while talked up like it’s Kabul or Mordor, is more-or-less how we live in the first world right now.
5. The Umbrella Academy | February 15
The public appetite for handsome people in spandex saving the world seemingly can’t be overstated – so, with the Marvel TV universe going down the pan one franchise at a time, something was bound to come along to fill the gap. From the off The Umbrella Academy wears its influences on its sleeve, with the conceit of superpowered children having been raised in a hoity-toity private school by a well-meaning older man practically being X-Men with the serial numbers filed off, although the children having sprung into existence through phantom pregnancies leans more The Midwich Cuckoos (better known via its pulpy film adaptation, Village of the Damned).
Based on the presence of Ellen Page in the cast, and Gerard Way of My Chemical Romance as creator, one could be forgiven for expecting the show to trade upon millennial-era emo nostalgia value – and yes, it’s probably been long enough that emo’s gone full circle and become retro. The project started off as a comic book back in Way’s heyday in 2007, though curiously, it was his contemporaries Fall Out Boy who drew their name from a comic book, while My Chemical Romance itself was the subtitle of an Irvine Welsh short story collection. So if anyone drops ecstasy in this, you know what that’s from.