Serial pleasures: The TV series that got us through lockdown

Kingdom

What was the series that you binged during lockdown? From zombies to racing cars to robots battling monsters; our writers reveal their pandemic bingeing

 

KINGDOM

Kingdom was my household’s escape from Covid for a while last year. The visually stunning Korean zombie series from writer Kim Eun-hee and director Kim Seong-hun tells the story of an infectious outbreak during the Joseon Dynasty. Unlike the Covid pandemic, this is one in which frustrations with a virus can be relieved by stabbing someone through the head with a sword.

Dawn of the Dead was about consumerism; Zombie by the Cranberries was about Northern Ireland; The Walking Dead was about unrelenting boredom (I assume). Like all good zombie art, Kingdom has a potent metaphor at its core. Its zombie plague has its origins in a zombified ruler puppetted by a family of power-hungry lackeys. This sickness at the top of society spreads through the land alongside a pre-existing plague of corruption and famine that appal our virtuous heroes – a noble prince (Ju Ji-hoon) and a lowly physician (Bae Doona).

But Kingdom also comes with more optimism than is usual in this genre. Unlike almost all of the more westerly zombie apocalypses, it focuses less on individualistic survival against a backdrop of societal anarchy (which is the main US mode for zombie stories) and more on logical plague containment and a concern with the collective good. It ultimately pans out more like a tense adventure story than a nihilistic gorefest (thought it’s also a bit of a gorefest) as its likeable heroes battle both zombie armies and malevolent courtiers while trying to find a cure.

They never quite institute a functioning test-and-trace system, largely relying on the old-fashioned “stick a sword through the zombie’s head” method of disease repression. But, quite frankly, there’s a lot to be said for that too.
– Patrick Freyne

Kingdom is available on Netflix

THE BOLD TYPE

The Bold Type

The New York-located Scarlet magazine of The Bold Type is based on the glossy flagship Cosmopolitan. Its editor, Jacqueline Carlyle, is based on Cosmo’s former editor Joanna Coles (notice the initials?), who is the show’s executive producer. Carlyle is pretty bold, as are the three twentysomething employees who are best pals – Jane, Sutton and Kat.

Jane is a writer favouring telling stories through her personal experiences. Sutton is a fashion assistant aspiring to be a stylist. Kat, who is biracial, is Scarlet’s social media director, and at one point scolds her two white friends for misappropriating the word “woke”.

Between what’s happening in their own lives and what’s being covered in the magazine, the show sharply covers subjects ranging from gender and identity, the Me Too movement, workplace power dynamics, body image, sexuality, ambition and social media difficulties. Scarlet also goes digital along the way, and there are the inevitable media tussles between editorial and advertising.

There’s a lot of terrible CGI throughout, but the material about an evolving media industry, and the zeitgeist for young women, is robust and relevant.

However, at core, The Bold Type is about female friendship. Jane, Sutton and Kat meet up to decompress during work hours, not in the women’s toilets, but in the magazine’s glamorous fashion closet. Outside work, they are the tightest of trios, always challenging and supporting each other. It’s refreshing to see a show that celebrates female friendship in all its messiness, without ever resorting to reductive bitchy animosity. – Rosita Boland

Available on Netflix; fifth and final season coming later this year.

FORMULA 1: DRIVE TO SURVIVE

The Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix in São Paulo in 2019. Photograph: Vladimir Rys
The Brazilian Formula One Grand Prix in São Paulo in 2019. Photograph: Vladimir Rys

There are many unexpected personal revelations within lockdown, but becoming fully immersed in a sport I didn’t give a damn about until a month ago is definitely a twist. The catalyst for my newfound fandom of Formula 1 is the amazing soap-opera/reality/documentary series Drive To Survive. The Netflix series (there are three seasons, and I’ve gone through them at Lewis Hamilton-level pace) is a masterclass in editing and conflict.

The races are high drama, of course, but so is the jostling within and between teams coloured by immaturity, backstabbing, territorial rage, emotional meltdowns, insecurity, jealousy, arrogance, favouritism, vindictiveness, resilience, joy and egomania, in a ludicrous but brilliant sport that makes a virtue of its inequities, running on the fuel of warped capitalism, toxic brand pressure, and self-loathing billionaires. Brilliant.

Then there’s the strange, comforting parallels with the pandemic. Drivers’ dreams are crushed frequently. When an engine explodes, or a car spins off track, these arbitrarily cruel moments remind us that no matter how prepared and focused we are, no matter what ambitions or plans we have, s*** happens.

Finding myself leaping off the couch at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix result, screaming “He’s done it! He f***ing did it! I don’t believe it!” or turning to my girlfriend after another particularly poignant result, tears streaming down my face, saying, “No matter what happens, no one can take this away from him,” may be part of a broader existential crisis, or it could just be that Drive to Survive presents an opportunity to feel something – adrenaline – in the emotionally flat desert of the pandemic. Box, box, box! – Una Mullally

Available on Netflix

THE ASCENT OF MAN

The Ascent of Man
Jacob Bronowski in The Ascent of Man

The sequence of “authored” documentary series made by the BBC from the late 1960s to the late 1970s are among the imperishable jewels of the medium. Kenneth Clark walked us through the history of art in Civilisation. Alistair Cooke’s America made sense of that nation as it prepared for a bicentennial. Best of all, perhaps, was Jacob Bronowski’s still-gripping The Ascent of Man. Now available in a reasonably priced boxed set, the series, first broadcast in 1973, attempted an overview of science from the first plough to the Manhattan Project. Bronowski is the ideal companion for such a daunting journey. A mathematician whose Jewish family moved from Poland to Britain in the 1920s, he was as happy quoting William Blake as talking us through the principles of special relativity. As he reaches the 20th century, he is able to relate personal anecdotes about interactions with distinguished geniuses. (“You wake me up early in the morning to tell me that I’m right?” the late-sleeping mathematician John “Johnny” von Neuman once berated someone who dared to call before lunch. “Please wait until I’m wrong.”)

Most importantly, Bronowski had a gift for turning his teaching into stories. None ends so powerfully as the episode on quantum mechanics. He wades into the swampy land that absorbed the ashes of so many humans outside Auschwitz and grabs a handful of damp mud. “We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power,” he says, standing amid the remains of his own relatives. “We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.”

Among the most powerful moments in television history. – Donald Clarke

Available on YouTube

NEON GENESIS EVANGELION

Neon Genesis Evangelion
Neon Genesis Evangelion

One of the first things I did in lockdown was order a short-story anthology about kaiju – those huge, city-ravaging monsters that are a long-time staple of Japanese cinema. If this wasn’t the moment to curl up with tales of Godzilla-like terrors plunging humanity into dystopia, when was?

The book was fine – but I wanted more. Pacific Rim, Guillermo Del Toro’s take on the genre, is one of my favourites. Alas, I’ve watched it to death and can quote whole chunks of dialogue (“Today we are cancelling the apocalypse!”, as I shouted at the postman the other morning).

And so I finally went down the rabbit hole. That is to say, I developed an obsession with Neon Genesis Evangelion, the 1995 anime series credited with pioneering the concept of kaiju battling huge robots.

It’s great, though the gender politics are “of their time”. The story, however, holds up wonderfully. The year is 2015 and across the Earth, massive, destructive beings called “Angels” have awakened. The only line of defence are titanic robots – “Evangelions”.

In Dublin they’d probably be outlawed for detracting from the historic skyline. But in the city of “Tokyo-3” Evas are exactly what is required. Enter hero Shinji Ikari, a teenager who reluctantly becomes the pilot of “Eva-01”.

Episode by episode, we see Shinji conquer his fears, and turn tables on the Angels. A crowning touch is the complicated lore, with the origins of the Angels drawing on Christian mysticism and the Jewish Kaballah tradition.

In short it delivers more excitement than you can shake a giant robot arm at. Across the world the recent Godzilla v Kong has whetted appetites for monster apocalypses. If that includes you, then you owe it to yourself to dive off the deep end and into Neon Genesis Evangelion. – Ed Power

Available on Netflix