5 Biggest TV Shows Of December 2019

When I think Christmas television, I think - true crime, revenge, and low fantasy, apparently.

the witcher henry cavill december

Halloween’s done. Thanksgiving’s done. Now it’s just a long, slow slide of darker mornings and colder weather until the flurry of the Christmas-New Year’s nexus, and then it all starts all over again. So, in between the usual jingle-belly, tinsel-themed Christmas specials, check out some of these newcomers.

 

1. Truth Be Told | December 6

He may be pushing 40, but Aaron Paul is still a twenty-something stonery slacker for the ages – just witness his roles as Aaron Paul in Breaking Bad, and as cartoon Aaron Paul in BoJack Horseman. The thing is, though, where he truly shines isn’t in dudely wackiness, but rather being in truly horrible situations. So being banged up for a murder he may not have committed seems like a natural next move for him.

Truth Be Told represents the whole true crime genre starting to spill over and flow back into itself, since the main character isn’t a detective, nor even an elderly woman with an incisive nature, but the host of a true crime podcast – played here by Octavia Spencer, previously of Hidden Figures and The Shape Of Water. The hook is that she’s the one who incriminated Paul’s character in the first place, and now, on looking over the case again, she’s having doubts. This is what’s known as ‘dramatic irony’.

 

2. Reprisal | December 6

Having a woman take violent, bloody revenge against the men who’d done her wrong used to be the exclusive preserve of shlocky video nasties like I Spit On Your Grace and The Last House On The Left – now it’s the stuff of mainstream television. What a time to be alive.

Abigail Spencer plays the repriser in question, in a role likely to be a little more lively than her better-known work on Mad Men and Suits – or even her role on True Detective, since these days, internal affairs come down like a ton of bricks on elaborate and brutal acts of revenge. Co-star David Dastmalchian decribes the show as “like a crash derby…there’s like 16 cars and each one is souped up in its own style. Tarantino painted this one, and David Lynch designed this one, Hitchcock built that one. And they’re all driving at 100 miles per hour towards the middle and there is [Spencer’s character] Doris/Katherine in the middle”. While the metaphor may have got away from him, if the show includes any scenes even remotely like that it’ll be worth a look.

 

3. Work In Progress | December 8

If you know Lilly Wachowski, it’ll be for The Matrix – so what you probably didn’t expect her to go and do now would be a slice-of-life romantic comedy set in Chicago, and normal Chicago too, not a computer-generated one or an underwater one or anything wacky like that. It’s a most singular creative career that can make a project like Work In Progress seem an unconventional choice.

Where a few too many TV shows are still parading around token same-sex relationships like they’re on the bleeding edge, Work In Progress centres on a relationship between a lesbian and a trans man – i.e. somebody assigned female at birth, who doesn’t want to be. Representation in the media is always a tricky matter, since, as nice as it is for people in those demographics to see themselves reflected onscreen, this isn’t necessarily the same thing as the work being good. Nonetheless, and this is in a way a complete volte-face on all that funny contrasting with The Matrix I did earlier, this is at the very least breaking new ground. In an age of gender and sexuality being more fluid, you’re going to get many kinds of pairings other than the traditional ‘insert tab A into slot B’, and this is one of them.

This idea was at the core of my criticism of one of the most recent episodes of Black Mirror, ‘Striking Vipers’, in which a man falls in love with his best friend, but only when the guy’s being a woman in virtual reality. In the language of love as we know it, there’s simply no name for such a situation – and, sadly, Black Mirror wasn’t even willing to try and provide one. The furthest it went in exploring this idea was ‘are they gay? No, they’re not’. But we can hopefully expect a little more from one of the women who gave us most of the modern metaphors for ‘everything you know about the world is wrong’.

 

4. The Witcher | December 20

It seems like longer since Game of Thrones officially went from TV darling to the biggest turkey the world’s seen since the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but it was only in May that its final episode aired to a mass grunt of disbelief. TV audiences aren’t known for their long memories, but something that ran for eight years and fell from grace so dramatically will tend to stick in the mind. So it’s sort of poisoned the well for any other projects set in a cod-medieval Europe with a fantastical edge – like, for instance, the adaptation of The Witcher.

Despite the similarities in genre, though, The Witcher’s a very different beast. The fantasy elements are a bit less limited, and it’s already an established enough franchise that it’s unlikely the showrunners are going to tone them down. More broadly, it’s a different kind of story. Less continent-wide political intrigue, more one lovable rogue knocking about getting into all sorts of scrapes – rather like The Mandalorian, which has proved an instant hit, even if it’s little baby Yoda who’s getting all the press.

 

5. Gavin & Stacey | December 25

Now, granted, most of our American readers will know James Corden as ‘that awful little man the Brits palmed off to us’ – but what you may not know is, before he Peter-Principled his way into a do-nothing talk show role, he used to be an actor. And what brought him to a level of fame required to quit the shores of Blighty was a show called Gavin & Stacey, which returns this year for a one-off Christmas special.

(It also brought he and co-star Matthew Horne enough fame that they could parlay it into a truly dreadful sketch show.)

For a certain audience, the return of Gavin & Stacey is bigger than Eurovision. The core of it is a love story that reaches across the small but definite cultural divide between England and Wales (how to explain this for the transatlantic? Imagine a New Yorker dating an Appalachian and you’re halfway there) – and from there it spirals outwards into a cosy family drama. So cosy, in fact, that the word ‘drama’ seems a bit too startling for it. While there’s a certain amount of comedy drawn from the cultural divide, it’s not a kind of ‘you say tomato’ thing – rather, that’s just one facet of two families puzzling through each others’ funny little ways.

‘Funny little ways’ is about as far as that side of things goes. Sure, there’s tiffs, but these aren’t particularly dysfunctional families – and after 30 years of The Simpsons, things have come full circle, and that’s the surprising option. Anyway, if you really want to share Christmas with a truly dysfunctional family, the Queen’s Speech is just on the other side.

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