What to watch: a guide to the best spring TV

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 (BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu/Enda Bowe)
(BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu/Enda Bowe)

From Punks colonising King’s Road to performance poets in bohemian, academic Dublin, this spring’s TV drama is going high rather than low — perhaps a precursor to a summer of trash.

Sally Rooney’s words are back on screen, a guaranteed event post-Normal People, as are adaptations of bestsellers by Kate Atkinson and Sarah Vaughan. If you haven’t had enough of political scandal on the actual news, a couple of scheduling diamonds should satiate that desire further, too.

Purloin the best blanket, uncork a bottle and prepare to binge.

Pistol (Disney+)
Pistol (Disney+)

Pistol (Disney+)

USP: The Crown, but with punk royalty

Danny Boyle’s retelling of the Sex Pistols story has already made the ascension from culture pages to news story on three diverging counts. Firstly, the actual Pistols, most noisily John Lydon, are absolutely beyond livid about it, to the point of taking a TV show to court. Second, the sad recent and early death of Jordan (played here by Game of Thrones’ Maisie Williams), the amazing, arresting symbolic figurehead of Vivienne Westwood’s King’s Road punk emporium, Sex. Third, model-of-the-moment Iris Law shaved her head for the role of another key supporting player in the Pistols notoriety, Soo Catwoman. Criminality, death and radical hair: it’s almost told the story of punk before airing.

Breakout star: Even if she’s in it for five minutes, this is Law’s gig. Behold the mainstream coronation of a very familiar face with the distinct possibility of holding a generation of new London in its palm.

Conversations with Friends (BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu/Enda Bowe)
Conversations with Friends (BBC/Element Pictures/Hulu/Enda Bowe)

Conversations With Friends (BBC)

USP: Sally Rooney on TV, part two

Girls/Sex Education’s Jemima Kirke stars opposite Joe “Mr Taylor Swift” Alwyn as the deplorable couple who become wryly titillated by a pair of equally ghastly young performance poets, ex-couple Bobbi and Frances, two bickering graduates who enter their lives at a Dublin speakeasy. Look, Sally Rooney’s debut novel was the one which cemented her as the Jane Austen of millennial anxiety. It reframed the restless love graph of people with too much time on their hands as a complex, detailed and specific pathology, bespoke for the digital age. The casting here is perfection, though lacks the newness of the discoveries of two bona fide Hollywood stars that happened with Normal People’s Daisy Edgar Jones and Paul Mescal. The same creative team who brought NP to talking-point prominence are in charge once again, guaranteeing Margaret Howell advertising campaign levels of painterly screen plainness and beauty. Expectations for this second Rooney adaptation are almost impossibly high.

Breakout star: Six years ago, American Honey should’ve turned Sasha Lane into an awards magnet. As Bobbi here, she might just belatedly get there.

Life After Life (BBC/House Productions/Nick Wall)
Life After Life (BBC/House Productions/Nick Wall)

Life After Life (BBC)

USP: The huge life scope of what-ifs?

Kate Atkinson’s critically garlanded 2013 novel introduced us to the Todd family in fantastical circumstances. Daughter Ursula is born on February 11, 1910. Strangled by her umbilical cord, the child dies. On the same day. Ursula Todd is reborn, over and over again, living a succession of parallel lives which only serve to expose the extremities of human possibility. It’s an impeccable premise. Who might we have been if only we had made different decisions, if circumstances had altered the shape of our lives? Is our essence innate? This is meat for some of the big, existential questions that TV likes to take on, from time to time. It could categorically not be a film.

Breakout star: Amid some very familiar names (Jessica Hynes, Sian Clifford, Jessica Brown Findlay), New Zealand actor Thomasin McKenzie, most recently seen in Edgar Wright’s messy Last Night in Soho, as Ursula Todd is set to arrive at her hour in the sun.

Russian Doll (Netflix)
Russian Doll (Netflix)

Russian Doll (Netflix)

USP: Addiction, this time told with playful care

The first season of Russian Doll introduced us to the circuit-breaking repeat day in the life of Nadia Vulvokov, the 21st-century New York cornerstone Natasha Lyonne at her feral best. All swathes of vibrant russet hair, this was a career-defining role for the actor, who also produced the show. For part two, she steps up as showrunner, a smart move. There’s more time travel, as Nadia scooshes between 1982, the year of her birth and 2022, the year of her 40th birthday. All the better as it promises to explore the trauma that informed her infancy, the mother she can’t trust and the addict she turned into. In Season One, Chloe Sevigny played mom, making Russian Doll a kind of timelapse all of its own, of what happened to the New York youth who ruled the early Noughties, 20 years later.

Breakout star: Lyonne’s second life is already guaranteed by Russian Doll. Which doesn’t mean it’s not phenomenal to witness.

Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix)
Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix)

Anatomy of a Scandal (Netflix)

USP: Sexual consent in the dock

James Whitehouse (Rupert Friend), fictional MP, is caught in a routine, Matt Hancock-ish sex scandal when he’s discovered in flagrante with one of his aides, Olivia Lytton (Naomi Scott). His stoic wife Sophie (Sienna Miller, the one actress who is always, without a shadow of a doubt, better than you think she’ll be) stands by him. Events take a turn for the sinister as Lytton accuses him of rape and the drama flits between flashback and the courtroom. Because Anatomy of a Scandal is an examination of sexual consent, there will be a lot of talk of I May Destroy You this coming Easter weekend, which will be dominated by its release. It reminded me rather more of the smartly observed, febrile powerplay between Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård’s characters in Big Little Lies, another work by master screen adapter here, David E Kelley, who has brought Sarah Vaughan’s novel to TV.

Breakout star: Michelle Dockery finally fully sheds her Downton second skin as the lawyer determined to prove Whitehouse’s guilt, for increasingly transparent reasons.

Gaslit (Starz!)
Gaslit (Starz!)

Gaslit (Starzplay/Prime)

USP: Watergate, told by its forgotten cast list

More political scandals, of perhaps a more familiar stripe, as Watergate gets its umpteenth dramatic incarnation. This new, indirect spawn of All The President’s Men features in lead roles Julia Roberts, Sean Penn and Dan Stevens (after Jessica Brown Findlay in Life After Life and Dockery in Anatomy of a Scandal it’s obviously a very useful spring to have Downton on your CV). Arkansas socialite Martha Mitchell, wife of President Nixon’s Attorney General John Mitchell, is the first to raise cause for concerns in this pacy Seventies period piece. The repercussions both at home, for her husband at work and for the USA as a whole, will keep on reverberating forever. It’s a story told many times. Having a woman at the centre gives this a genuine reason to exist.

Breakout star: Look out for Patrick Walker as Frank Wills, the Watergate building security guard who helps raise the alarm.

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