As the reality of Covid lockdown dawned in the spring, the internet began filling up with well-meaning listicles: home-schooling tips; store-cupboard recipes; recommendations for stress-relieving TV shows (cooking, the countryside and cosy sitcoms all featured prominently). Yet as time went on, it became clear that the television that was cutting through was far from comforting. In fact, it was precisely the opposite: 2020 was the year of anxie-TV.
Michaela Coel’s BBC drama I May Destroy You, the Guardian’s best show of 2020, wasn’t just groundbreaking, it was utterly gut-wrenching. An exploration of the trauma of rape – and how that trauma interacts with the other pressures in protagonist Arabella’s life (racism, book deadlines, dysfunctional family dynamics) – the show evoked her psychological fallout with imagination and depth. Prior to its release, Coel said she had been concerned about how the heavy subject matter would land during a time of global crisis. But a news cycle churning with tension and suffering did nothing to dissuade people from diving into I May Destroy You’s own specific world of pain.
Hot on the heels of that era-defining series came Billie Piper and Lucy Prebble’s I Hate Suzie. Part-drama, part-tidal wave of anxiety, the acclaimed series centred on Suzie (Piper), a former child star whose marriage, career and peace of mind implode after explicit photographs of her are leaked, the ensuing panic visualised by frantic closeups and soundtracked by the noise of stress-induced diarrhoea. Elsewhere, Steve McQueen’s historic BBC series Small Axe saw racially motivated violence and injustice loom, relentlessly, disturbingly, over almost every shot, an Escherian nightmare for characters both real and imagined.
There was more. In The Queen’s Gambit – which quickly became Netflix’s most-watched miniseries ever – childhood trauma snaked around nail-biting chess matches, while investment banking drama Industry saw a different kind of game pump out an endless stream of residual stress. Heart-stopping sci-fi series Devs had its characters risk their lives in order to prove their beliefs about the laws of physics, while the outlandishly bad life decisions of Ramy in the Hulu sadcom made for a squirm-inducing second season. Even mainstream sitcoms ramped up the tension, with Lee Mack comedy Semi-Detached – an intricate, high-octane farce that seemed to sweat through the screen – likened to “playing a game of Jenga blindfolded in a speeding vehicle”.
In one sense, that this barrage of jaw-grinding telly swamped the schedules in 2020 was a complete coincidence – TV’s set-to-screen time-lag meant all these shows were filmed pre-pandemic. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm’s 10th season – the climax of which was ignited, literally, by Larry’s obsession with hand sanitiser (watching bumper bottles of Purell go up in flames at a time of shortages was more eye-watering than any social faux pas) – was spookily prescient rather than sharply satirical.
Although none of these shows were commenting on our current plight, it was all too easy to see things through the lens lockdown gave us: Kerry and Kurtan’s isolated aimlessness in This Country’s third series paralleled the tedium of lockdown; Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s pointless, repetitive conversations in The Trip to Greece reflected relationships glazed by cabin-fever; while fear in any form felt more relatable than ever. As a constant state of frenetic stress was becoming the status quo, shows steeped in anxiety felt relevant and of the moment, whatever their subject matter. What’s more, our increased familiarity with hyper-vigilance and constant dread meant anything that wasn’t visibly vibrating with panic seemed just a bit dull.
It was a state of affairs that made stresses unrelated to Covid into a potent form of escapism. The plots of Hugh-centric prestige dramas like The Undoing (Dr Hugh Grant is the prime suspect in a brutal murder) and Roadkill (Hugh Laurie MP fails upwards after committing many lesser crimes) teemed with tension, but watching them felt like a holiday. Elsewhere the suspense of a make-or-break chess game or a dicey banking deal was a welcome distraction from more oppressive, inescapable, interminable forms of anxiety.
That strange form of schadenfreude-tinged envy, however, is only half the anxie-TV story. If television crested a wave of panic in 2020, that’s only because the world was already an increasingly uneasy place. Those idealising life pre-pandemic might like to remember the rush of sweaty unease that accompanied all news broadcasts in the years since 2016. It’s been hard to process, but this turmoil has already made TV substantially more progressive – and many of the most anxiety-inducing shows of this year are the result of a new desire to truly engage with people’s experiences of oppression, and look unflinchingly at the kind of physical and psychological injury that has tended to be pushed under the carpet.
With Small Axe, McQueen blasts through the lie that Britain is not an institutionally racist country while demonstrating how that actually feels on a person-to-person basis. I Hate Suzie looks at how women in the public eye are at best treated carelessly, and at worst dehumanised. I May Destroy You revolves around a devastating sexual assault and the insidious impact of racism, as well as the precariousness of working in the creative industries.
Thanks to all these shows and more, the anxiety radiating from our screens this year had the potential to result in something hopeful, their secondhand stress perhaps sparking an empathy more constructive than that of your average thriller. In 2020, we might not have found much stress-busting solace on our TV screens – nor a real mirror for the pain of the pandemic – but what we did find was even more precious.