Everyone else is doing these articles so I figured I’d do one as well. There’s only so much TV I can watch though, so there’s probably some omissions, and feel free to call me a cunt below the line for missing out your favourite. Or just disagree politely, either way’s good. The list encompasses any non-American show aired in the UK since January 1, and any American show aired in the US since the same date.
The Challenger (BBC Two)
This dramatisation of Richard Feynman’s investigation of the Challenger shuttle disaster told the story of a genuinely maverick personality whose persistence in intellectual thinking unravelled a dangerous culture at NASA.
The drama was at its best when illustrating the true nature of conspiracies and cover-ups: that they are often just well meaning individuals trying to protect an organisation they care about. William Hurt was excellent in the role of Feynman, playing a very likable character but conveying a slight arrogance beneath the surface.
The Challenger is a film that inspires hope that competent and intrepid individuals exist out there, with the ability to unravel wrong doing by powerful organisations via sheer determination and superior intellect.
Bob’s Burgers (Fox [US])
Family Guy gets all the attention, American Dad is hailed as surprisingly good, The Simpsons is seen as the established genius and South Park is loved as the sarcastic, satirical rebel. The best cartoon on television right now though is none of these; it’s the overlooked Bob’s Burgers, a show packed with rapid-fire jokes, hilarious characters, inventive storytelling and genuine heart.
Highlights from season three include ‘Topsy’ in which 9-year-old Louise sought to expose the diabolical truth behind Thomas Edison – that he once electrocuted an elephant. The episode culminated in an outstanding showpiece song, and such songs are the show’s hallmark – original, funny music that is incredibly catchy.
And if humour and music isn’t enough, Bob’s Burgers makes an effort to provide real and engaging characters, and builds episodes around their relationships, issues and fears. This show is early Simpsons good.
Black Mirror (Channel 4)
The second series of Black Mirror didn’t live up to the standards of the first, but it is still one of the most thought provoking shows on British TV, very reminiscent of the message-laden Twilight Zone.
The first episode explored the modern world’s online obsession with chronicling every aspect of their lives, and how such timelines and archives of personal information have the potential to make it much harder for people to grieve and let go of dead loved ones.
The second episode – an attack on a voyeuristic culture and a populist approach to justice – was a little messy, while the third – in which writer Charlie Brooker attacked his own industry, as he often does – veered off into dystopian conspiracy. But the show deserves a place on this list for at least providing interesting ideas and themes, and for managing to be genuinely frightening at times (see horrifying photo above).
The Returned (Channel 4)
Channel 4 took a risk showing the French language supernatural drama in a prime time Sunday night slot, but it’s a risk that paid of in the ratings.
The Returned’s first episode was outstanding; gripping, dark and scary. The show span its wheels a little in the middle, and its final episodes set-up one too many mysteries that were left frustratingly unresolved, but the series as a whole was very enjoyable. As long as they have writers who are aware of the first series’ flaws, there’s no reason The Returned can’t make a welcome, er, return next year.
Arrested Development (Netflix)
Cult comedy Arrested Development was cancelled in 2006 after season three but six years of campaigning by fans saw it brought back via the online streaming service Netflix.
Season four opened awkwardly and disappointingly. The show’s central anchor Michael had been reduced to a pitiful version of himself. Early seasons made the point that Michael was ultimately good natured, unable to screw over his brother even when justified and when trying incredibly hard to do so. In season four he seemed like a completely different, selfish and delusional version of himself.
Halfway into the season though things began to pick up and the show returned to form, with its trademark call-backs and layers and layers of plot and jokes. Sure, it was flawed, with dodgy Green Screens at times and a noticeable lack of multiple actors in the same scene at once (thanks to those actors being tied up with other projects), but for a show returning from a six year hiatus it worked surprisingly well.
The final scene of the last episode was outstanding, cinematically and thematically satisfying, beautifully directed and acted, and indicating that there is almost certainly more of the show to come. For Arrested Development fans, it was a perfect ending to over half a decade of hope and campaigns.
Complicit (Channel 4)
Airing around the same time that Zero Dark Thirty picked up a fuckload of awards, Complicit showed a more brutally honest and less glamorised version of the intelligence industry. While Kathryn Bigelow’s film was made with cooperation from Barack Obama’s administration and was guilty of serving as propaganda, Complicit admirably took a restrained and objective view on the difficulties and problems of combating terrorism.
David Oyelowo played MI5 agent Edward Ekubo, tasked with flying to Egypt to interview a British citizen suspected of planning a terrorist attack on UK soil. Frustrated by bureaucracy and human rights laws, the agent commissioned an Egyptian colleague to torture the suspect.
The drama subtly raised a number of interesting points. Edward was in large part motivated by his own psychology; a belief that he was being held back for promotion due to his race and less privileged background. His own personal issues drove his actions, which is something overlooked when we examine the horrible things our nations do – that is, the personal issues of the individuals involved.
Also questioned was the effectiveness of torture, and how it can corrupt those who use it, and how incredibly counter-productive it can be. This is the film that should be winning all the awards, not the US president approved Zero Dark Thirty.
The Americans (ITV)
Yes, it can be a little unbelievable at times, but this 1980s spy show, about Soviet agents living with a family in the United States, is consistently exciting and uses the deceit-filled world of espionage to examine personal relationships.
Keri Russell is great as the icy Elizabeth while Welsh actor Matthew Rhys plays her husband Philip, a gentle and likeable counterpoint to his distrustful and permanently suspicious wife.
My main criticism of the show is that – the two main characters aside – the Russians are nearly all bad guy stereotypes, while the Americans are portrayed as flawed but fighting the good fight. In short, it has the lack of objectivity you’d expect from a show about the cold war produced in a country that was one of the two combatants in that war.
Hannibal (Sky Living)
The best indicator of this show’s worth is that it can be described as original despite there already existing five movies and numerous books about the cannibalistic serial killer Hannibal Lecter.
The first episode of Hannibal threw the audience into the deep end, leaving it up to the viewer to catch on to what was happening, and who the characters where, without trying to hold anyone’s hand. The tone of the show is consistently unnerving and creepy, making it quite hard to watch at times; it’s like someone is permanently scraping their nails down a blackboard while you watch, and that person is a serial killer, and he’s right behind you.
The protagonist is Will Graham, an FBI special agent with a gift for empathising with serial killers, a gift which allows him to find those killers. Graham is assigned a psychiatrist to help him with his ‘gift’, and that psychiatrist is Hannibal Lecter. The show made a point of portraying Hannibal as likeable and genuine, and for the first five episodes he does only one thing that suggests his true nature, and that thing is a simple phone call.
Danish actor Mad Mikkelsen is great as the creepy psychopath Hannibal, who genuinely considers Graham a friend, and yet can’t help but toy with him, and endanger his mental health. The show can be unnecessarily grotesque at times, and revels far too much in its scenes of torturous death, but it is often quite intelligent, and incredibly gripping.
Mad Men (Sky Atlantic)
Mad Men is the deepest programme on TV. There is so much to dig into. Every scene is laden with so much history. It has pushed forward television as an art form and done things no other TV show has done; namely, accurately illustrating the complex reality of relationships between people.
At the centre of the show is the relationship between Peggy and Don, a relationship which reached a watershed moment last season when the two characters subtly acknowledged how much they meant to each other. In this season, the relationship started to poison, as Don let his bitterness and personal hang-ups fuck with Peggy’s life, and he himself slid further down a slope of self-destruction. In the season’s final episode, a refreshing candour about his own life screwed up Don’s personal circumstances but indicated that he might be finally starting to come to terms with his own identity, and that he might be about to build an honest and happy life.
It’s really hard to explain the sheer outstanding and groundbreaking nature of Mad Men to people who don’t watch it. The best comparison I can make is to a large novel; one which traces the characters over decades, and at the end of which you have formed a bond that leaves a painful feeling of loss when you close the book.
Utopia (Channel 4)
As an avid watcher of US drama it’s been disappointing to see the UK unable to produce running dramas that come anywhere close to the quality of the best US shows. With Utopia, Channel 4 went some way to redressing this situation.
A complex conspiracy drama, Utopia came with unique and utterly stunning cinematography and directing, which echoed the comic books the show was indebted to, most notably Alan Moore’s Watchmen.
The soundtrack was incredible and the acting stellar, in particular from the two youngsters playing Grant and Alice. Paul Higgins was great as the empathetic everyman stuck in a terrible situation, and Neil Maskell made his character Arby unique and terrifying, before turning this killer of children into a likeable person.
Utopia was criticised for its hyper violence, but the show was making a point about such violence in TV. Unlike in most film – where characters get shot and shrug it off no problem – the characters in Utopia were all physically and mentally altered by the violence they suffered. Despite being very stylized, Utopia had some of the most realistic portrayals of violence on television, showing as it did how violence has consequences.
From its opening to its closing scenes, Utopia was unique, awesome to look at, intelligent, funny, and populated with enjoyable characters and outstanding acting. Utopia is one of the best British dramas in a long, long time.
Shamelessly Excluded Because I Didn’t Watch It
Just Off the List
Dancing on the Edge. With an all star cast, this period piece was incredibly, incredibly slow; unnecessarily so. Once the pace picked up, it got better, and subtly criticised upper-class attitudes to race, and noted how prejudice can come in many shades.
Justified. A fantastic American show about a US Marshall in rural Kentucky, but season four was a little unstructured, and messy, and didn’t have an engaging enough narrative or central focus.
In the Flesh. BBC Three’s Zombie drama built an interesting world and addressed issues from mental illness to discrimination and prejudice, but it was a little too short, with too much packed in. The second series airing next year, with an expanded length, can build on this series and fulfil its potential .
Surprisingly Good Award
Plebs, a show I expected to be utterly awful, but which turned out to be very funny, if lacking in any depth or any memorable plot or characters (beyond Grumio, but he’s pretty much just a modern Baldrick from Blackadder).