I used to write about TV on here, and then I got a job writing about TV which suddenly made writing about TV in my spare time feel a bit less like fun. But, since it’s the end of the year, I thought I might as well take a look back through the last twelve months and pick out an entirely arbitrary 13 programmes that I enjoyed in 2013. It’s either that or eat more chocolate.
It has been a quite spectacularly wonderful year for television, with a very long list of shows I probably should have (and quite happily would have) included in my list, such as Fresh Meat, Luther, Ambassadors, Top of the Lake, Southcliffe, The Tunnel, Black Mirror, Veep, the final episodes of The IT Crowd and Horrible Histories and the utterly magnificent Toast of London. And then there’s the series I didn’t get around to watching yet, like Orange is the New Black, House of Cards, The Wrong Mans, Yonderland and Borgen and countless others. Plus, I really can’t write something about the programmes I’ve enjoyed this year without mentioning daytime quiz Pointless, which is more fun than ever, and the so-much-better-than-it-sounds Gogglebox.
Feel free to rant about what I’ve left out in the comments. In no particular order, my list is…
“You should watch Breaking Bad! Have you started watching Breaking Bad yet? Why aren’t you watching Breaking Bad? WATCH BREAKING BAD!” It started as a whisper in 2008 and over time built up to a deafening yell – this is a show you apparently must watch. You have no choice in the matter. I first heard about Breaking Bad a few years ago and couldn’t really see where the appeal in a drama about a teacher taking up cooking crystal meth after being diagnosed with cancer. Like many others, I eventually gave in and started to watch. A matter of weeks later, I had hungrily devoured 59 fantastic episodes and had caught up in time to watch the final three with the rest of the world. And what an outstanding last three episodes they were.
The penultimate episode was a stunning subversion of expectations, while the finale was a masterclass in upholding them, somehow managing to tick all the boxes of what we expected to see while still somehow being surprising, entertaining and moving. I can’t think of many long-running dramas that have had as satisfying a conclusion as this and as the credits rolled I felt like I had read the last page of a very good book. But, as good as the ending was, it was the third-from-last episode that will go down for years to come as one of the all-time greatest hours in television.
It started with a flashback to the early days, reminding us of when Breaking Bad was still mostly a comedy, with Walt and Jesse bickering in the desert and Skyler hearing her husband’s first lie, before cross-fading us back to the horror of the present. From then on, every single scene in the episode was intense, thrilling and utterly devastating. There were enough huge moments in that single episode to supply an entire season with cliffhangers, with the first gut-punch coming in just the first few minutes. At the centre of it all, Bryan Cranston delivered one of the greatest performances I have ever seen. Breaking Bad was a compelling story wonderfully told from beginning to end. And while that story has come to a satisfying close, I can’t wait to return to that world in upcoming prequel Better Call Saul.
The television version of George RR Martin’s fantasy series always delivers something special in the second-last episode of each season, and the third season’s contained probably the most talked-about and certainly the most traumatic television drama moment of the year. Without going into spoiler territory, the Red Wedding was just as shocking as those in-the-know readers of the books had promised, and it even provided a surprise or two for them. It was the chapter which had compelled series producers David Benioff and DB Weiss to adapt the books in the first place, and the care with which it was brought to the screen was evident, with every ounce of drama squeezed from the page. None of that would have mattered, though, without the phenomenal performance of Michelle Fairley.
Of course, one great scene doesn’t make a great season and much of the rest of this year’s offering was top-notch. So much of this is down to the casting, with Peter Dinklage’s Tyrion Lannister and Charles Dance, his father Tywin, particular highlights. There was also Nikolaj Coster-Waldau and Gwendoline Christie becoming an unlikely double act, Emilia Clarke becoming ever-stronger as Daenerys, Iwan Rheon putting on a wonderfully creepy performance as he tortured poor Alfie Allen, David Bradley on fine form as despicable miser Lord Walder Frey, Jack Gleeson’s Joffrey as smugly punchable as ever and, well, I could go on – great performances and big, big names everywhere. But best of all this year was Diana Rigg as sharp-tongued Tyrell matriarch Olenna, absolutely stealing every scene she was in. Next year holds the tantalising prospect of Mark Gattis joining the ever-expanding (but occasionally dramatically reducing) cast.
The pace of this third season was perhaps the best yet, swiftly moving between dramatic events across the Narrow Sea, north of the Wall and across the Seven Kingdoms, with some of those disparate stories slowly starting to weave together. The return to Westeros in a few months’ time can’t come quickly enough.
Dennis Kelly’s riveting dystopian thriller about the hunt for a graphic novel at the centre of conspiracy theories was like nothing else on television this year. This was particularly due to its stunning cinematography, with huge blocks of acid colour and shots framed like panels from comic books. Incredibly stylish, thoroughly enthralling and with a large slice of the very darkest of black humour, it was my favourite British series of the year.
The first episode begins with a beautiful wide shot of a field, the screen split horizontally between a dazzling blue and gold, while a report about a growing worldwide food crisis is heard on the radio. The deeply disturbing and disturbed monotone assassin Arby walks in to a comic shop and asks “Where is Jessica Hyde?” before he and his associate Lee kill everyone in the room to the sound of Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s idiosyncratic score. In just a few minutes, the key components of the series have been introduced – the breathtaking visuals, the compelling mystery, Neil Maskell’s standout performance, the superb soundtrack and, yes, the violence.
The violence has been one of the more talked-about aspects of the series and it is brutal, unflinching and at times verges on the gratuitous. But really, there are only two scenes that come especially close to the bone and in one of these you don’t actually see anything. It also serves a purpose – we need to know the seriousness of the situation the main characters (including perhaps the greatest character name on television – Wilson Wilson) are in and it reminds us that, with two children among our heroes, nobody is safe and anything can happen. The story is complex, gripping and imaginative, the threads unravelling slowly and at times making you reconsider exactly whose side you are on. While I would have been satisfied to see the story end as it did in the final episode, a second series is on its way next year and I am really looking forward to it.
Wait, ITV have done a good drama? Really? Are you absolutely sure they’ve not just stuck on a repeat of Cracker? No? Oh. I’d better have a look then.
It turns out they really have, and it’s really rather brilliant. Chris Chibnall’s drama about the hunt for the killer of eleven-year-old Danny Latimer, found on a beach in the sleepy Dorset town of Broadchurch, generated huge publicity this year as people up and down the nation tried to work out whodunnit. David Tennant is excellent as Alec Hardy (a role he’ll reprise alongside Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn in US remake Gracepoint), a detective brought into the role local sergeant Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman – who seems to be in everything at the moment but we’re all the better for it) was hoping to be promoted into. Together they work on the case, outsider Alec hoping to move on from a notoriously scandalous previous case, while Ellie struggles with the first murder case the town has known in living memory, having to deal not only with the killing of a boy she knew well, but also with having to detach herself from her community and look at her friends and neighbours as possible suspects.
The tangled web unravels at a perfect pace, as we discover more about townsfolk (a great cast – David Bradley, Pauline Quirke, Arthur Darvill among others) and the twists and turns keep us guessing right up to the end. As the caption at the end of the final episode states, “Broadchurch will return”, and with the mystery now solved, it’ll be interesting to see what form the second series takes.
The unexpected success of the year was BBC Two’s Belfast crime thriller, which was the channel’s highest-rated new drama in almost a decade. Gillian Anderson stars as Stella Gibson, a high-ranking detective from the Met, brought over to Northern Ireland to assist the police there with an investigation into a series of murders that has gone nowhere for a month, under increased pressure from the press and the public. It soon becomes apparent that there are signs of corruption within the police, with dodgy politicians and people trafficking thrown in, and Gibson’s own indiscretions complicating things further.
From the start we also follow the serial killer. Played chillingly by Jamie Dornan, star of the upcoming Fifty Shades of Grey film, he is a family man and bereavement counsellor who leads a double life as a masked, sexually motivated murderer. As time goes on, he finds it harder to keep things from his family and ends up having to pretend to have done something terrible, but nowhere near as awful as what he has really done. We also follow his unfortunate victims, leading to some scenes that borrow tropes more from the world of horror than crime drama. At it’s heart, there’s something enjoyably grim about this series that you don’t get from your average police procedural – there are times that you don’t want to look and yet cannot look away.
The drama makes great use of its location, showing off Belfast’s streets at their bleakest and not shying away from the political sensitivities there. The first series had an audacious, surprising ending which only adds to the anticipation for the second series, when it eventually comes late in 2014.
Shown for the first time this year on BBC Four, this is a bit of a strange one to include on the list because the episodes we saw over here were from 2009 and 2010. But the mockumentary about the parks department of the fictional Indianan town of Pawnee is still in production, with season six currently going out in the States and, well, besides, anyway this is my list and I can do whatever the flip I like.
I took friends’ advice to bear with it for the first season’s unspectacular but still promising six episodes. Wisely, BBC Four went straight to the second season a week after finishing the first, and things soon picked up. From the start I loved Aubrey Plaza’s bored intern April and over a couple of episodes grew to enjoy Amy Poehler as the optimistic, well-intentioned public servant Leslie Knope. Fan favourite Ron Swanson actually takes a while to make an impact, though – I spent some time wondering what all the fuss was about – but when he finally does fully unleash his cooked breakfast-loving persona, it’s a thing of utter joy. Even then, I think my favourite moments come courtesy of Tom and that look of gleeful surprise he gives down the barrel of the camera every time he (and only he) is astonished by something brilliantly odd.
I think that last part comes to the heart of what I enjoy about Parks and Rec. Most of the time it is played straight, with characters like nurse Ann Perkins grounding the world of Pawnee in what seems like only slightly exaggerated reality, but suddenly out of the blue something hilariously surreal will suddenly happen. The big laughs in this series often take me completely by surprise, and that makes them all the more delicious.
The best sketch show of the year by far. The actor Kevin “I Haven’t Got A Catchphrase” Eldon has been appearing in TV sketch shows and sitcoms for over twenty years, from Lee and Herring’s Fist of Fun, where he memorably played hobby king Simon Quinlank and the “real” Rod Hull, to bit-parts in the likes of Spaced, I’m Alan Partridge and The IT Crowd. He was a cast member in Arthur Mathews and Graham Linehan’s Big Train and Chris Morris’s Blue Jam, but it has taken until now for him to get a sketch series of his own.
The guest cast list reads like a Who’s Who of British comedy, including Matt Berry, Adam Buxton, Julia Davis, Harry Enfield, Nick Frost, Simon Munnery, Peter Serafinowicz and Johnny Vegas. Plus, fellow “I know that face” comic actor Paul Putner appeared as the show’s “caretaker”, helping to provide the links between the sketches.
Like any sketch show, not everything works, but so much of it was fresh, different and very funny. Great moments included sketches about a beefeater fan, a Terminator-style mission to assassinate Andrew Lloyd Webber and coverage of the Outraged Seventies Sitcom Vicar Playoff. Best of all was the phenomenal shot-for-shot and word-for-word reconstruction of the Sex Pistol’s appearance on the Bill Grundy show, with the punks replaced with the Amish. Eldon also gets to wheel out two of his great stand-up characters, poet Paul Hamilton and the Fictional Yorkshireman. In summary: more please!
This is an entirely sentimental choice. ASBO superhero comedy drama Misfits is tied up with why I’m doing this whole “writing about telly” thing in the first place. It was after seeing a clip from the first series and chatting with the cast that I started blogging and a preview of the first episode at Channel Four HQ was the first press screening I went to. I’ve loved the show from that very first look and it has come a long way since then, with its cast slowly changing entirely from the first series to this year’s fifth and final one. There are those who say it hasn’t been the same since the original gang left, and they do have a good point, but I’ve really enjoyed the second cast, particularly Joe Gilgun’s Rudy and final addition Natasha O’Keeffe as Abbey.
While this year’s series wasn’t always the best, creator Howard Overman was still able to come up with some great episodes, with one in particular able to stand up alongside anything from the early days, as the slow-burning mystery around Abbey’s identity was finally resolved in a rather brilliant way and the gang found themselves chased by a terrifying bogeyman named Scary. I love the world that Overman has created, with stories able to build over time and characters occasionally returning, such a Tim, the man who thinks he’s in a Grand Theft Auto-style game, who first appeared back in series two. From the very start, it was said that we would never find out what caused the storm that gave everyone their superpowers so, short of having the old main cast members return for the send-off, the final episode was about as good as could be hoped for.
I’ll miss those orange jumpsuited, foul-mouthed, probation worker-killing scamps, I really will.
Another series that came to an end this year was BBC Three’s supernatural comedy drama Being Human. Like Misfits, it also ended in its fifth series with an entirely different main cast to the first. Again, it hasn’t quite been the same since Aidan Turner, Russell Tovey and Lenora Crichlow went on to bigger things, but I’d really taken to the new vampire, werewolf and ghost trinity of Damien Molony, Michael Socha and Sinead Keenan and they really came into their own this series.
The story this time centred around Captain Hatch, a long-time resident of the hotel where the gang are now working who also happens to be the Devil. Brilliantly played by Phil Davis, the portrayal of Lucifer as a nasty, grouchy old man was superb. Series creator Toby Whithouse also came up with a variety of other interesting ideas for these last six episodes, with Colin Hoult’s nerdy victim-turned-vampire Crumb a particularly gory highlight.
The final episode managed to pay tribute to what had gone before and, in true Being Human style, made it look as if we were finally getting a happy ending before cruelly pulling the rug from under our feet. It was a fitting end to a much-loved series. Whithouse’s next project is The Game, an exciting Cold War thriller for BBC One.
Stephen Moffat faced his biggest ever challenge this year. The fiftieth anniversary episode of Doctor Who would be the most culturally significant bit of television he’d ever have to write, with a hugely expectant audience of millions watching in a simultaneous broadcast around the world not wanting to be let down. As I sat down in a cinema screen that was buzzing with excitement, with strangers nervously chatting to each other before the trailers rolled, I thought that it wouldn’t possibly be able to live up to expectations and already felt sorry for the volleys of complaints that would be heading Moffat’s way later that evening.
I was completely wrong – it turned out to be an absolute triumph from the first strains of Delia Derbyshire’s 1963 theme tune to the stunning, poetic final dream sequence. The double act of Matt Smith and David Tennant turned out to be great fun, with John Hurt absolutely terrific as a surrogate for all those Doctors who came before as well as becoming an important part of the series history in his own right. It was also a relief to see that while Billie Piper was rightly involved, as an important part of the series history (and I’m sure if Lis Sladen were still with us, she’d have played a part as well), it was done without bringing Rose Tyler from the supposedly impossible-to-escape other universe again. The episode managed to celebrate the past fifty years, fill a the biggest gap in the show’s continuity, be an enjoyable one-off story of its own and, most excitingly of all, provide a new purpose and a direction for the series to head in for perhaps the next fifty years. And those two treats at the end – a face from the future and a face from the past – well, the thrilled screams and disbelieving gasps I heard in the cinema summed it up. Wonderful.
Moffat faced another challenge in the Christmas episode, giving Matt Smith the send-off he deserves and somehow tying up the seemingly endless list of plot threads that have been left hanging since he took over the Tardis a few years ago. While it did at times feel like an episode that was making up answers on the spot for questions that didn’t have any when they were written over the past few series, I was mostly satisfied with those answers. Finally, no more wondering why the Tardis exploded, making the crack in time appear, and no more wondering exactly why the Silence had gone to all that trouble bringing up young Melody Pond for just one mission. It also went much further back into the Who mythology than that, counting the regenerations and realising that the Doctor has reached his last according to the rules laid down in 1976, when writers probably assumed that the prospect of twelve regenerations was so far-off that it would never had to be worried about. Fortunately the classic series also provided a solution, with 1983’s The Five Doctors showing that the Time Lords can gift a new cycle of regenerations if they see fit. An extra two million viewers tuned in for the final five minutes, just to see the final moments of Matt Smith’s Doctor, my favourite of three we’ve had so far in the revised series. They would have seen him give a moving final speech, before losing his cool bow tie and, in an entirely unanticipated surprise that would have got many eyes damp, saw a face from his past. Then, Peter Capaldi’s Doctor snapped into life, and with a line about new kidneys and “Would you happen to know how to fly this thing?” got me incredibly excited about his first adventure in the autumn, particularly in the knowledge that it’ll be directed by Ben Wheatley.
There were plenty of other treats to celebrate the golden anniversary of Doctor Who, including Peter Davison’s wonderful Five(ish) Doctors Reboot, but it was Mark Gattis’s magnificent dramatisation of the birth of the series that was the biggest delight. Blessed with a remarkable cast – David Bradley as William Hartnell, Jessica Raine as Verity Lambert, Sacha Dhawan as Waris Hussein and Brian Cox as Sydney Newman – the film looked at the creation of the series in 1963 and the filming of key episodes from the first few years up to the regeneration in 1966 when Patrick Troughton takes over the role. Much of this played out in the magnificent setting of BBC Television Centre, parts of which were restored to its 1960s glory in the days before its doors closed.
There is so much lore to take in from that time that much had to be merely glanced at in a matter of seconds, from the creation of the famous sound effects in the Radiophonic Workshop to the design of the Doctor’s most famous enemies, the Daleks. Instead, the film looks at the people involved in those early years, at first focusing on ambitious producer Lambert, striving to prove her worth as the BBC’s first female drama producer in the chauvinistic, chain-smoking early sixties, before moving on to put Hartnell at the centre of everything, the actor given a new lease of life even as his health fades. The way he was written out, the decision to allow the character to continue with a new face, has long been lauded as a stroke of genius and of course is the only reason the series is still running half a century on. Here, for the first time, it was seen as a tragedy, as ailing Hartnell was stripped of the role that had given him a new purpose and made him a hero to his granddaughter.
I’m not sure, but I think that what might have made the slightly controversial ending, which some complained took them out of the moment, completely work for me is that I’m not hugely familiar with Who pre-Tom Baker, so while I enjoyed seeing recreations of the well-known first episode, for me much of the drama was simply about a group of plucky young outsiders struggling to get their little show off the ground and an ageing actor getting one last shot at leaving his mark. I was so absorbed in the 1960s drama that it almost came as a shock to be reminded that the “little show” is the same massive international success we know today. And that look across half a century between them both, as if to acknowledge that Hatnell’s legacy was secure, well, I was in floods of tears. And it’s been a while since TV has done that to me.
Known in the UK as The Returned and loosely based on a 2003 film, this was probably my favourite new series of the year. Les Revenants caused something of a stir when it was first broadcast as it was given a relatively high-profile slot for a subtitled European drama, normally the reserve of BBC Four and Sky Arts, with Channel Four adding to the publicity by booking French adverts in the first commercial break. Beautifully shot, taking in the gorgeous but foreboding Alpine scenery and striking modernist architecture, and featuring a haunting soundtrack by Scottish post-rock band Mogwai, this drama asks a simple question – what would happen if the dead came back? Not as flesh-munching zombies, but as they were when they were lost.
Each episode centred around the back-story of a different character such as Camille, the teenage girl who returns to find her twin sister is all grown up, and Simon, whose cause of death on the eve of his wedding ten years ago is a mystery to even him. And then there’s Victor. At first the creepiest kid in the history of television, he eventually began to warm our hearts as we learned more about him – at least until he did something creepy again.
At first, this appeared to be a simple tale of “be careful what you wish for”, as families struggle to adapt to their loved ones returning years after they had come to terms with their loss while others look on and wonder why theirs have not come back. But, as the layers of the story begin to unpeel (along with some of the character’s skin), the mysteries surrounding the return deepen and some of the revenants start to act a little… strangely. The first series ended on a cliffhanger that we’ll have to wait until at least November to see resolved (an even more agonising wait for French viewers who finished watching the first series six months before us), featuring more than a hint of Lost, a stand-off at the Helping Hand and some of the revenants appearing to have a more sinister motive. Which brings us to a more familiar type of zombie…
Not the TV series – which itself went from strength to strength this year, with a gripping and action-packed mid-season finale and David Morrissey superb as the Governor – but the videogame based on Robert Kirkman’s comic book series. Released in by Telltale Games in a “season” of “episodes”, each part of the game plays out exactly like an instalment of a popular box-set drama, with a “Previously on…” sequence followed by a cold open, opening titles and a three-act structure ending with a cliffhanger and end credits. With the game being much more about making difficult moral decisions than being quick on the trigger (although that sometimes comes into it), this is essentially a television show where you get to influence what happens.
What allows this to stand alongside the best television series of the year are its characters. In the first season, you take on the role of Lee Everett, convicted for murder after a crime of passion, who escapes during the early stages of the zombie outbreak. Early on, you meet Clementine, a nine-year-old girl left to fend for herself after her babysitter became a “walker”. I know I’m not the only person who would say that they’ve never cared about a character in any game, film or TV show as much as they care about Clem. Somehow the writers managed to hit upon a way to trigger all those parental protective instincts, especially amazing considering the track record of young videogame characters who are, well, annoying. You end up really wanting to take good care of that girl and she becomes the emotional and moral heart of the game.
The first season came in 2012 (but I started playing it this year, so shh…), with the second season starting this year along with the excellent 400 Days, a non-linear bonus featuring some great standalone stories that neatly tie together at the end and with characters who might crop up in future episodes. The game’s journey includes as many twists and turns as the year’s best TV dramas, with moments of real horror of both the gory, visceral kind and, even more effectively, of the emotional kind – those familiar moments from any zombie film when someone is revealed to have been bitten seem to come as even more of a heartbreaking blow here. An absolute triumph of storytelling, it was definitely one of the best things on my TV screen this year.
So, that was 2013. Already plenty to look forward to in 2014, including new series Vic and Bob’s House of Fools, Inside No. 9, The Musketeers, Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, The Game and Better Call Saul, more Sherlock, Game of Thrones, Utopia and The Returned, the return of Jack Bauer in 24: Live Another Day, the final series of Peep Show and Peter Capaldi’s first series of Doctor Who. Phew. Happy new year!