Does talking about class make you feel uncomfortable? How about watching the complicated friction of it play out on screen? You’re not alone. It’s an elephant we’ve allowed to stomp around the room for years. There’s been the occasional calling out of reality TV’s habit of fetishising or demonising the working class, and then there's the fascination with the seemingly glamorous lives of the upper class. But what about everything (and there’s a lot) that happens in between?
It can vary between quietly influential and painstakingly obvious, but social class infiltrates most aspects of our lives. Nevertheless, many of our favourite TV shows of years gone by have taken it for granted. Look at Friends, for example. How many times have you struggled to understand how Rachel, Monica, Joey, Chandler or Phoebe were able to afford their apartments for 10 seasons – despite having each spent a good few episodes (months, in sitcom time) unemployed? The same goes for Sex and the City's Carrie's shoe habit funded by that weekly column and, well, the majority of Lena Dunham's Girls.
On home turf just last year, the second season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning Fleabag was met with frustration at how inherently "posh" it was. The debate that followed spoke directly to the gap in programming, and the desperate need to addresses this norm that had long dominated prime-time telly: the white privileged perception. We’ve seen a huge shift in how we define social class out here in the real world, thanks to fun things like lower wages, higher debt and dramatically reduced social mobility. But an onscreen shift seems to be lagging behind.
It’s a stressful and heavy topic, we know. Which is why entertainment has such a crucial role to play in destigmatising a complicated reality through which we all muddle at various points in our lives. There are, of course, gems that have proved exceptions to the mid-upper majority rule and shone a light on specific unsung communities: Chewing Gum, Misfits, This Is England, Atlanta and so on. But we're clearly hungry for much more. Thankfully, more space is opening up this year to satisfy that hunger.
First, we can thank the long-awaited book adaptations that are finally due to land in 2020. Sally Rooney’s heart-achingly beautiful novel Normal People is getting the BBC Three treatment this spring and will bring the intense but delicate romance between Marianne and Connell, underpinned by the fleeting friction of their respective upbringings, to the small screen. Then there’s Malorie Blackman’s monumental 2001 YA novel, Noughts & Crosses, which intertwines the complexities of class and romance with race in a way that fans have been begging to see televised for the best part of a decade.
Also look forward to Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington in Little Fires Everywhere, adapted from Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, which tells of two families of different social standing (in the traditional sense) brought together by the friendship between their daughters.
Away from the pointed contrast between middle, working and upper classes, we’ve got the return of the extremes, too. Succession's wild success as one of the best shows of the last couple of years speaks not only to our enduring fascination with the 1%, for whom the rules of this world don’t apply; it works so well because its point is not to be relatable but rather to satirise the unrelatable. The Roy family returns later this year for the HBO series' third season of what so far stands as the best delivered showcase of absurd arrogance and gross entitlement that we’ve seen.
It’s a great example of how to get class right (in a way that feels purposely, hilariously wrong because however would we, the average viewer, know any different?) when allowing one very white, predominantly male group to dominate a narrative. It’s TV that doesn’t pretend to relate to a presumed 'normal'.
What’s exciting about the BBC’s anthology series Small Axe (besides being directed by Steve McQueen and starring John Boyega and Letitia Wright) is that it addresses the under-explored realities of a number of black Britons. Taking us from the 1960s through to the 1980s, we'll meet a generation of London's West Indian community and see how their experiences of injustice are shaped and influenced by the circumstances they're in.
Elsewhere we'll be seeing lots of shows where class will inevitably play a part in the plot trajectory, but as we've seen with shows like You and, only slightly less so, Big Little Lies, the potential to address the class privilege that dictates the narrative in a provocative way hasn't always been fulfilled. At first glance, Nicole Kidman's upcoming Sky Atlantic drama The Undoing, where she plays a well-off New York therapist whose life is overturned the week before her first book is published, and Lena Dunham's British TV project Industry, in which young graduates fight it out for jobs at an investment bank, run the risk of stumbling down the same path.