To say I’ve been burning the candle at both ends would be an understatement. I did think lockdown would be a time for taking a step back and easing off the accelerator slightly, but as my overheating laptop will attest, that really has not been the case at all. As the days have all but morphed into one continual time warp consisting only of running around like a headless chicken punctuated by rather unrestful non-refreshing nightly sleeps, it was inevitable that eventually I would crash. And crash, I did.
My weekends – or rather, the days I can get away with doing the least work – tend to fall on Monday and Tuesday and although I normally continue to beaver away on these days, ploughing through extra-curricular work that never quite makes the priority list on the rest of the days, this week I decided that my rudimentary weekend would be genuine days of rest.
Too tired to even read, my so-called weekend consisted of nothing but giving my horses the basic level of care needed to keep them alive, eating lockdown snacks, drinking copious amounts of milky tea (I even treated myself to a sugar in one of the cups) and bingeing TV series. Not counting that fog of a week between Christmas and New Year when you don’t know what day it is or if you’ll ever fit into trousers with non-elasticated waistbands ever again, I genuinely haven’t binged on TV shows since 13 Reasons Why in my final year of uni (it dropped just at the start of revision period – a heart-wrenching yet addictive show to drag me down when I was already up to my eyeballs in stress…not ideal). So this ‘weekend’ to just relax and make my way through my ‘To Watch’ list without feeling guilty that there’s a ‘To Do’ list somewhere which needs completing was a real gift to myself. Heck, I’m gonna call it exactly what it was – self-care!
I started with Self Made. This Netflix original is a chronicle of the life of Madam C.J Walker, the first ever self-made female millionaire. Many people mistake her for being the first black female self-made millionaire, but to further marginalise her in this way is a disservice. Race aside, she was the first female to start from scratch and make a million, period.
After having read An American Marriage for House 21 Book Club, I was in the mood to continue with entertainment on the theme of the black experience in the American Deep South and the ubiquitous scars of slavery on the social landscape. Self Made is set against the backdrop of the American South one generation-post slavery, so its prominence in the quotidian life of African Americans is still raw and oppressive. Whilst the gruesome earmarks that we all associate with American history rightly have a strong presence in this depiction – lynchings, segregation etc – this is at its heart, a story of a woman hellbent on succeeding despite the obstacles life keeps rolling her way. Madam C.J Walker takes the glass ceilings posed by her race and her gender, and smashes them with such force that you cannot help but feel personally motivated by her unshakeable ambition.
As the owner of a riot of unruly mixed race hair myself, the significance and symbolism of Afro hair and all its variants is no new revelation to me. From the age of about six or seven, I was acutely aware that my hair made me distinctly different to my peers and that, in its natural form, it existed nowhere within the beauty standard. I was tragically young to be so conscious that my natural appearance would, by default, be deemed unappealing because of my hair and its ethnic significance. What’s even more grievous is the fact that I spent the next sixteen years doing all that I could to ‘tame’ my hair into a style that would be more palatable to Western eyes. This experience is extremely common amongst women and girls who have Afro or mixed-Afro hair and thus the systemic racism surrounding black women and their natural appearance is a conversation which needs to be had more broadly even now, a hundred or so years after Madam CJ Walker made her million by selling Afro hair products to fellow black women.
Self Made’s demonstration of the effects of internalised racism on black women who’ve been taught to hate their natural hair makes the series’ message as timely today as it would have been in the early twentieth century. Walker not only made herself a penny or two – she did so by empowering other black women and trailblazing so that others could follow in her footsteps.
Octavia Spencer absolutely sparkles as Madam C.J Walker and her performance brought to life the legend of a woman who’s inspired generations of women, both black and otherwise.
Fast forward a century and a rather different black experience is depicted in Netflix’s #BlackAF. This mockumentary genuinely had me rolling with laughter, so much so that my mother actually came to my bedroom to check I was alright because she “heard what sounded like screaming”. Kenya Barris, the writer of hit show Black-ish and its spin-offs Mixed-ish and Grown-ish, as well as the film Girls Trip, stars as himself in what is very much a mocking of his home life. It’s formatted like a fly-on-the-wall insight into Barris’s family home including one-on-one interviews with members of the family as well as the unfolding of a whole host of familial drama within the home – think Keeping Up With The Kardashians, but if it were directed by one of the daughters.
Viewers of the show Black-ish, the show which has earned Barris his wealth and reputation as a masterful comedy writer, will recognise key similarities in certain plot lines and characters in #BlackAF which, according to Barris himself, is testament to how much of Black-ish is inspired by his own life.
The way in which Barris scripts both himself and his wife as pretty terrible parents, his six children as mostly unruly and his career success as “riding this black wave” makes for hilarious viewing and is brilliantly bingeable if you’re in need of some easy-to-watch but cuttingly contemporary entertainment.
(Not completely relevant but pretty hilarious side-note: I recommended Black-ish to a friend, telling him it was one of the funniest shows I’ve watched in a long time, a proper side splitter etc etc. Three days later he Whats’apps me to ask if I genuinely found it that funny and that he actually thought it to be pretty heart-wrenching. It wasn’t until he dropped in “those poor Orcas must be suicidal” that the penny dropped: he’d been watching Blackfish, the documentary about Killer Whales in captivity…Still a programme I’d recommend, but for very different reasons…)
Next, I took quite a different turn by watching the ITV show Quiz. The drama is based on the true story of Charles and Diana Ingram who were charged with cheating their way to winning the top prize on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire.
Personally I wouldn’t be nominating the programme for any BAFTAs – at times it’s cringe-worthy and there’s a trippy musical interlude in the final episode which pops up without warning. However, it’s worth a watch simply for the occasional fantastically funny one-liners, and not least for Michael Sheen’s portrayal of Chris Tarrant. Sheen embodies Tarrant so accurately and hilariously that he is, without a doubt, the star of the series.
The show is as meta as you can get – it’s an ITV series about an ITV series, which does make you question some of the show’s narratives. However, to their credit, it is very much left up to the viewer to decide whether the Ingrams were in fact guilty of cheating. Helen McCrory puts in a blazing performance as the defence barrister, convincing the jury and us viewers of the Ingrams’ innocence. I saw one tweet which said: “I think Helen McCrory in #Quiz could convince me the earth was flat” which sums up better than I could the confidence she gives of the Ingrams’ innocence. However, just as you are ready to believe in them wholeheartedly, other evidence and information comes along to completely turn your decision on its head. My mind changed several times within the final episode on whether or not they were guilty and it leaves a bitterly frustrating sense of injustice that we will never really know the truth. Still, it was an enjoyable few hours of easy-viewing drama with a cast comfortingly filled with British favourites. It’s still available to view on the ITV Hub.
Then came the hotly anticipated twelve part TV adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Normal People. I read the book last summer and really did not enjoy it. This probably says more about me than it does the book, as it seemed the whole literary world was raving about how this book was iconic and one of the best literary works of art in decades. For me, I just didn’t get it. I felt as though critics were lauding Rooney for a portrayal of a sort of eviscerating romance that had never been written about before, when to me it read like one of those girls at uni who spent the whole three years crying over their boyfriend as though he’d gone to war, when in reality he was a £1.50 Megabus journey away.
So when literary Twitter went mental over the rumour circulating that Normal People was to be adapted for television, I was less than interested. However, like the FOMO-stricken millennial that I am, as soon as the series dropped on BBC iPlayer and my Twitter timeline became abuzz with discussion of the adaptation, I couldn’t help but give it a go.
Hand on heart, I loved it. It’s heavy going with very little light relief in the six hours of near complete turmoil, therefore it’s not the type of series I’m craving for more of once it’s over – if anything, I felt exhausted by the end. The series is given enough time to stick to the novel’s plot impressively accurately and no part is skimmed over. It’s dark, it’s tender and at times it’s blisteringly intense.
A mild word of warning: if you’re thinking of watching this with your parents, you may want to reconsider. The sex is…frequent. The intimacy plays a very important part in the plot and therefore the scenes, although recurrent, are not excessive. However, if you’re isolating with the family at the moment, you might not want to suggest you all gather around the TV for some Saturday night viewing. Personally, the very thought makes me want to stick pins in my eyes.
After Normal People I needed a breather with something light and uplifting. Scouring Netflix, I stumbled across Never Have I Ever, Mindy Kaling’s eye-poppingly colourful teen comedy. I was hooked.
Set in a stereotypical American high school, the series tells the story of Indian-American teenager Devi Vishwakumar who, following the sudden death of her father, is on a quest to achieve the one thing she thinks will make her truly happy again: losing her virginity to her long-time crush Paxton Hall-Yoshida.
I am just in love with every part of this series. It’s hilarious, it’s modern, it’s heart-warming and it offers an insight into the many contradictions of being a child of immigrants. I read a Forbes article this morning which hailed Never Have I Ever as the best teen series on Netflix to date, and I wholeheartedly agree. Mindy Kaling’s genius strikes again, and I am one hundred percent here for it.
And so, after many (many) hours of TV consumption came the end of my weekend of bingeing. There once was a time when a “binge” at the weekend didn’t exactly mean slothing in bed with the remote and a tub of Halo Top, but hey…in the time of quarantine and self-isolation, I’d say this was a pretty great way to spend my two days off.