It’s been absolutely ages since my last post but the end of the year always feels like a good time to sum up what I’ve seen.
DISCLAIMER: I have watched a lot of television this year but I have not watched all the television. So shows that I have not seen include seasons 4 of Orange is the New Black and The Americans, season 5 of Girls, season 2 of Mr Robot and debut seasons of The Night Of, Atlanta, The Young Pope and The People vs OJ Simpson. I’ve also started, but not finished, the fourth season of Braquo.
Now that that’s clear, here are my favourite TV shows of the year.
10. Peaky Blinders (Series 3 BBC) – Probably the most stylish show Britain has to offer came back with a third series that definitely improved as it went on. After an opening couple of episodes that felt disjointed, events ramped up and we were treated to acting excellence from the always brilliant Cillian Murphy and guest stars Paddy Considine and Tom Hardy, in particular. And with a rather shocking, unexpected ending, it seems that another series is in store. Swagger.
9. The Hollow Crown: The War of the Roses (BBC) – Whether you’re a fan of Shakespeare or not, this adaptation of his three plays Henry VI Part I, Henry VI Part II and Richard III, which cover one of the most important periods in British history (The War of the Roses), is television of the highest quality. It successfully treads the line between being adapted well for television and maintaining the feel and theatricality of a play. However, featuring a raft of recognisable British actors, the main focus falls on the wonderful performances, namely of Sophie Okonedo as a Margaret of Anjou spiralling ever further into madness and an absolutely-nothing-like-Sherlock Benedict Cumberbatch as an evil, Machiavellian and monstrous Richard III. Class.
8. Planet Earth II (BBC) – Another astonishing feat of television from the legend that is Sir David Attenborough. Through its ‘chase scenes’ (we’re all thinking of one in particular), this incredible show conjures up more tension and creates a much keener sense of investment from its audience in 5 minutes than something like the criminally overrated The Night Manager can muster in its entirety. Any programme that shows a man hand-feeding hyenas on his front step or a jaguar casually walking into a river, grabbing a crocodile by the neck and dragging it back into the jungle to be eaten is simply unmissable. Fascinating.
7. Better Call Saul (Season 2 Netflix) – Having loved Breaking Bad I was tentative about the prospect of Better Call Saul. As a result, it wasn’t until a few months ago that I watched both seasons of the prequel and thankfully, I was more than pleasantly surprised. The show successfully juggles the act of being similar enough to its predecessor in tone and appearance while also being deep, complex and encapsulating enough to be an excellent series in its own right. Bob Odenkirk’s Jimmy is as interesting a central character as any currently on TV – quite a testament to Odenkirk and the show’s creators Vince Gilligan and Peter Gould, considering that we know how he will eventually turn out. Unpredictable.
6. Happy Valley (Series 2 BBC) – Never has a show been so ironically named. It seems there is very little happiness in the valley where the show is set and, after the often brutal events of the first series, the second continues in much the same vein. This is no criticism however because Happy Valley is British TV at its best – raw, real and gritty. And for all the lack of happiness, there is a note-perfect streak of black humour that is woven seamlessly into the show by writer Sally Wainwright and delivered equally as well by Sarah Lancashire and Siobhan Finneran, in particular. Gritty.
5. Line of Duty (Series 3 BBC) – Line of Duty has quietly been one of the best shows on (not just British) television for a little while now. It’s a police procedural show that lays bare the mechanics of an investigation or the intricacies of an interview and turns them into some of the most nail-bitingly tense scenes on TV. It has outstanding intro and outro music as well as characters that are neither good nor bad, white nor black but are instead, complex, well-rounded, varying tones of grey – none more so than the fantastic DI Lindsay Denton played with such authenticity by Keeley Hawes. Pulsating.
4. Stranger Things (Season 1 Netflix) – Few shows have surprised me as much as Stranger Things. When I started writing this list, I hadn’t seen it. Then I watched one episode, and less than 48 hours later I’d watched them all. It’s a bit weird and slightly mad but it’s also engaging and enjoyable with characters that you want to root for. Most of the ideas are borrowed from the 80s B-Movies (and blockbusters) that it openly, lovingly refers to but somehow, the show still feels fresh and unique. It also has an amazing soundtrack and probably the best theme tune I’ve heard in a long time. Heartfelt.
3. Westworld (Season 1 HBO/Sky Atlantic) – Where to begin. Westworld is one of the most ambitious shows to be released in a long, long time and after a slow start did more than enough to have me counting down the days until the next episode. For all the talk of the show’s mysteries, hidden clues or multiple timelines, at the centre of its maze it is, literally, about what it means to be human. It also features career-best performances from Evan Rachel Wood and Thandie Newton as well as strong supporting turns from Jeffrey Wright, Anthony Hopkins and Ed Harris, amongst others and a brilliant, unsettling score. In a year that, at times, has felt as though it may be being written as part of a post-apocalyptic sci-fi series, the meta-narrative within Westworld that we witness being written, reworked and tinkered with by Hopkins’ puppet-master Dr Ford feels rather timely and apt. Enthralling.
2. The Fall (Series 3 BBC) – Self-indulgence isn’t always a good trait for a TV show to have; too much time spent basking in its own style or mood can often be a ploy to hide a weak plot or lack of substance. The Fall is the exception to this rule. Rarely is a show so comfortable in its own skin that it dedicates real time to the development of characters and manages to create tense, thrilling scenes from conversations. Back for a third (and potentially final) series, it picks up immediately after the events of series two with serial killer Paul Spector clinging to life in the arms of the detective who’s finally caught him, DSI Stella Gibson. What ensues is powerful, tense and dramatic television at its very best. Jamie Dornan’s Spector is as compelling as his crimes are horrific but Gillian Anderson’s Stella is the real star here. Anderson performs with such authority and dignity and lends so much weight and gravitas to Stella’s words that it’s impossible to take your eyes off her. Gripping.
1. Game of Thrones (Season 6 HBO/Sky Atlantic) – After a rather frustrating and unsteady fifth season, Game of Thrones came back to form with arguably its best season to date. In addition, some of the payoffs that viewers have been waiting for, that many feared would never come, finally came to pass. With the show’s ending now firmly in sight, it felt as though the writers provided the sense of urgency that had perhaps been lacking (possibly due to the show now moving beyond the bounds of the source material), and breathed new life into the show with plot strands coming together and revenge being taken. It’s no secret that Game of Thrones can provide jaw-dropping moments of horror like no other show on TV but this season offered some truly emotional punches too (‘Hold the door’ for example), showing that it’s more than just a one-trick pony. Visually, once again, it was excellent, with the ‘Battle of the Bastards’ episode providing one of the most visceral, unforgettable sequences (and experiences) in TV history. Epic.
Once again, 2016 was a year where I watched more TV series than films but from those that I did see, my clear favourite was the one I’ve seen most recently – Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival – which was both spectacular in its simplicity and elegant in its complexity. I also loved Alejandro González Iñárritu’s brutal, beautifully shot The Revenant, which I saw way back at the beginning of the year and, sandwiched in between, a real return to form from Pedro Almodóvar with the intensely memorable and powerful Julieta. A special mention must also go to Whit Stillman’s superbly sharp Love & Friendship (the highlight of which is Kate Beckinsale’s unforgettable performance), a film that I never thought I would even watch, let alone thoroughly enjoy.