Monday

The Outsider

9pm, Sky Atlantic

While it’s probably still too early to start listing the best television shows of 2020, it’ll be a pleasant surprise if there are many coming down the pipeline as good as HBO’s new crime-meets-WTF drama, The Outsider. Even if it turns out not to be the greatest thing on TV this year, for many viewers, including this one, the ten-part series will be the year’s first great obsession. It’s launching with a double bill on Monday night, but it’s exactly the kind of programme that leaves you wishing every episode was available so you could do Just One More.

It’s also – at a time when we’re not short of them – one of the best Stephen King adaptations ever put on screen, in part due to the friction generated as the horror maestro’s material is worked over by what might seem at first an unlikely collaborator. Based on King’s 2018 novel, the series is overseen by the crime novelist and screenwriter Richard Price. Known for books like Clockers and TV shows including The Wire and The Night Of, Price’s trademark is gritty, particularly detailed realism. Simply put, he writes stories where things happen for reasons, and those reasons tend not to involve a shape-shifting evil entity from another dimension dressed up as a big scary clown.

But there are crossovers between Price and King. Both have a feel for the ground down, hard won textures of ordinary life, as well as a hustling sense of humour and, aided by superb direction from Jason Bateman, who also co-stars, it’s Price’s handling of this shared territory that makes The Outsider’s opening episodes so compelling, laying down a rock solid foundation before the story gradually begins to slip into the uncanny.

Shot in wintry greys and blues, it begins like a regular, methodical, superior crime show. In the woods outside a small mid-west town, an eleven-year-old boy is found brutally killed, mutilated in unspeakable ways. “Teeth impressions,” mutters one of the forensic team. “Animal?” asks the cop. “No.”

Leading the investigation is Ralph Anderson (Ben Mendelsohn), a local detective quietly carrying a deep wound that makes the crime sting even more: his own 15-year-old son died a few years before. Very quickly, Ralph has a mountain of evidence piled up, including fingerprints, CCTV footage, forensic traces and eyewitness accounts that point conclusively to one man as murderer: Terry Maitland (Bateman), a much-loved figure in the community as teacher and coach of the little league baseball team, where he once trained Ralph’s kid.

The case against Maitland couldn’t be more cut and dried. But around this point, something unexpected happens, about which I’ll say no more, except that it leads Ralph’s search in directions he never anticipated, although regular readers of King might.

Led by Mendelsohn’s superb performance, the series has the confidence to creep up on you slowly: one of the most important characters, Holly Gibney, a private investigator on the autism spectrum, quite wonderfully played by Cynthia Erivo, doesn’t even show up until episode three. Grounded by a terrific ensemble, including Paddy Considine and The Night Of’s magnificent Bill Camp, the series has an effortless naturalism, which makes the gradual incursion of the supernatural all the more unsettling. Imagine The Wire somehow becoming a classic creepy X-Files.

Along the way, as background characters move into focus, including Ralph’s wife Jeannie (Mare Winningham), it also mounts a surprising, moving study of grief. I’m about halfway through, so it might still go bad, but so far every episode has been better than the one before – scary and sad, funny and haunting, instantly intriguing then quickly addictive in a way nothing has been since the witchy shiver of the original True Detective.

DAILY HIGHLIGHTS

Today

Vera

8pm, STV

The New Pope

10pm, Sky Atlantic

ITV eases us into the new year with the return of DCI Vera Stanhope (Brenda Blethyn), back to investigate comfortingly familiar murder for a tenth series. In the first of four films, Vera sticks her dishevelled nose into the killing of an entrepreneur discovered dead by bailiffs attempting to repossess his house. Was it his dire financial straits that led to murder, or secrets in his private life? Later, The New Pope is the sequel to The Young Pope, the slickly surreal drama by Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino. Last we saw Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), the first American pontiff, he’d fallen into a coma. Now the Holy See scrambles to elect a successor: Sir John Brannox, a louche English theologian, destined to become John Paul III, played by John Malovich like a weird cat that’s had all the cream there is.

Tuesday

This Is Our Family

10pm, Sky Atlantic

Filming started on this ambitious new observational documentary series back in 2016, when four directors embedded themselves as flies on the walls of four families dotted around the UK, setting out to capture the stories of everyday lives as they unfolded across three years. Directed by Clare Richards (who previously made Acid Attack: My Story and Sally Phillips’s A World Without Down’s Syndrome?), this first film takes us to Newport, and into the home of the Borg family. A much respected boxing coach, Tony Borg has eight children, and, at the age of 50, is getting ready to marry for the first time. For the bride to be, Emma, however, the excitement over the upcoming wedding is balanced by grief, as she struggles to come to terms with the loss of her daughter, who died aged only 19.

Wednesday

Good Omens

9pm, BBC Two

First shown on Amazon Prime, this six-part fantasy, adapted from the collaborative 1990 novel by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, finally arrives on the BBC. Honouring a promise he made before Pratchett’s death in 2015, Gaiman handled the adaptation himself. Their whimsical satire follows the unlikely friendship between an amiable angel, Aziraphale (Michael Sheen), and a devilish hipster demon, Crowley (David Tennant, having a ball) who join forces to stop the antichrist bringing about apocalypse. It’s a shaggy, digressive thing, sometimes sharp, sometimes woolly, but there’s lots to see, including Jon Hamm as archangel Gabriel. It’s followed by Back In Black (9.50pm), a moving, offbeat 2017 documentary on Pratchett, with Paul Kaye playing the author, leading us through his life in the writer’s own words. Gaiman and Val McDermid are among those offering memories and the odd tear.

Thursday

Mum

10pm, BBC Two

Another chance to see the third and final series of Stefan Golaszewski’s slow-burning, award-winning sitcom, to be cherished for putting the brilliant Lesley Manville right at the centre of things with her beautiful performance as Cathy, a middle-aged widow trying to work out how to move on after the death of her husband. The audience can see that the way ahead probably lies with Michael (Peter Mullan, also terrific), a long term pal with whom Cathy has been having a sweet, tentative romance – but the feelings, opinions and self-absorption of her son, her brother, and her in-laws tend to block the course of true love. As the series begins, the family arrive in the countryside to celebrate Cathy’s brother Derek’s birthday in a rented mansion. Michael is along, too, which is something not everyone is comfortable with. It gets awkward.

Friday

COBRA

9pm, Sky One

There’s a new Prime Minister, and I like his style. Although it’s worth adding I don’t mean the guy we’re stuck with in reality – I mean Robert Sutherland, the fictional PM leading Britain through catastrophe in this new drama, played by Robert Carlyle. The show is a slightly lumpy mix of The West Wing, Borgen, House Of Cards and a Casualty episode made with the budget of a Hollywood disaster movie: a sun storm has wreaked havoc on Earth’s power systems, especially in, er, Northumberland, and Downing Street’s exciting COBRA committee assembles to prevent societal breakdown. The cast includes Game Of Thrones’s Richard Dormer (excellent) and David Haig as, more or less, Priti Patel. Dumb, but it keeps moving, and offers plenty of chances to shout out Trainspotting lines as PM Begbie deals with the latest bit of bad news.

Saturday

The Super Squirrels

7pm, BBC Four

A repeat for this unremittingly wonderful nature documentary, narrated by Olivia Colman in the style of a nice teacher inducting Primary One into The Tufty Club. The film offers an encyclopaedic round-up of the many various sub-species of squirrel, while ably demonstrating that these critters are about the most incredible creatures on the face of the planet, unfeasibly agile of body and of mind. Highlights included the heart-tugging story of Billy, a tiny-wee, unbearably cute Scottish orphaned red being hand-reared for reintroduction to the wild; an amazing grey making short-shrift of a fiendish Krypton Factor/Wipeout-style assault course to get some nuts; and the mysterious superhero known as the Northern Flying Squirrel, able to leap and glide 45 metres between trees. You will believe a squirrel can fly.