So it’s that time of year when these list things start popping up left, right and centre and who am I to miss out on all of the fun?! Therefore, without further ado, here’s my list of the TV dramas that got me excited in 2011, along with the ones that, well… didn’t.
It’s not exhaustive because I am but one human being who is incapable of watching everything. It’s also subjective for I am but one woman with an opinion on almost everything that I accept may or may not gel with everybody else’s, so no virtual rocks please….
1. Breaking Bad
It’s hard to know what to say about this show without sounding like I’m gushing, so I’ll just go right ahead and gush away. Like a couple of other shows on this list I was barely aware of Breaking Bad before I stumbled across it this year and like it’s subject matter it is highly addictive and possibly bad for your health. Deservedly so Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of Walter White, an under appreciated high school teacher diagnosed with terminal cancer and decides to ‘cook’ crystal meth, along with former student, Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), in order to leave his wife and son money after his death, has garnered a number of plaudits from award-givers and critics alike. With taut storylines, robust scripts and stellar performances from the entire cast, Vince Gilligan’s creation is one of those rare gems that genuinely does get better with each outing and after the ‘explosive’ season 4 finale, the fifth and final season is almost certain not to disappoint.
2. Black Mirror
On paper a Prime Minister being bullied by the public into having sex with a pig on live TV (‘The National Anthem’), a young man living and loving in a dystopian future run by porn moguls and Simon Cowell clones (‘Fifteen Million Merits’), and a lawyer with an implant allowing him to replay every minuscule detail of his life (‘The Entire History of You’) may not seem like palatable viewing, and in reality the same is also true. However this was very much the point of Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror, which was billed as an exploration of the darker side of technology and the media. In terms of subject matter these 3 stand-alone dramas could easily have spawned movie-length features, but still in the time available the writers managed to produce thought-provoking, high-concept dramas, that unashamedly sought to create a debate about the possible pitfalls of our reliance on our TVs, Smartphones and laptops. This coupled with stand-out performances from Rory Kinnear, Daniel Kaluuya and Tony Kebble made Black Mirror compelling to watch, even if it was at times from behind your fingers .
3. Boardwalk Empire
I must admit when I first started watching Boardwalk Empire it did feel a little like wading through treacle, but mid-way through the first season it found it’s stride and hasn’t looked back since. Set in Atlantic City during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ the action centres around Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi) and his vacillating grip on the more dubious activities and proclivities on offer there, including bootlegging and prostitution. Much has been made of Buscemi being miscast here, but those who don’t think him imposing enough to pull off the part miss the genius of casting someone who comes across physically as the ‘runt of the litter’, and is forced to scheme his way to the top and stay there. With flawless direction, beautifully complex characterisation and exploration of the intertwining relationships in their 1920’s context, as well as stellar performances from the entire cast (especially from Jack Huston as the physically and mentally war-ravaged Richard Harrow), Boardwalk Empire has slowly, but surely become unmissable for me.
4. In Treatment
In Treatment was another show that I only discovered this year, and after finishing in the US in 2010 the third and final season was finally picked up by Sky Atlantic this year. Set initially in Baltimore and then in Brooklyn in the latter two seasons, the show was based on it’s Israeli counterpart BeTipul, and charted psychotherapist Dr Paul Weston’s (Gabriel Byrne) struggles with his family, his patients and his profession. Watching each half hour episode encompassing one session with each of Paul’s patients and then his own therapist at the end of the week was a lot like watching a ball of wool being slowly, and artfully unravelled. Often moving, thought-provoking, highly intelligent and at times infuriating, this drama was a welcome and understated change of pace to a lot of shows I currently watch. It will definitely be missed.
After finishing the first series with DCI Luther (Idris Elba) in an almost impossible situation as Nina Simone’s ‘Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood’ played in the background, it seemed hard to believe that another outing could match the almost theatrical intensity in an innovative reworking of a rather clichéd format, but that it did. Is Luther over-the-top? Of course it is, but that’s part of it’s beauty. With yet more unhinged serial killers for the brilliant, yet utterly flawed detective to outwit and ensnare my only two problems with the second series were that a. its second run was pitifully short at only 4 episodes and b. there was far too little of Luther’s very own ‘bespoke psychopath’ and (sort of) love interest, the deliciously twisted Alice Morgan (Ruth Wilson). Luckily Luther will be back for a third series, but it’s looking increasingly likely that this will be its last.
6. Being Human (UK)
Being Human is pretty much the jewel in the crown of BBC Three’s programming and with good reason. Over the past three years it’s been great to watch George (Russell Tovey), the intelligent but socially inept werewolf, Mitchell (Aiden Turner), the vampire much troubled by his blood-sucking addiction and Annie (Leonora Crichlow), the ditsy but loveable ghost try to maintain their humanity, despite circumstance, the supernatural and human beings themselves conspiring against them and in my humble opinion series 3 was its best foray to date. Without giving too much away we saw an apt and moving resolution to Mitchell’s narrative arc, including his love/hate relationship with his former mentor and über-vampire Herrick (Jason Watkins), and his past unceremoniously coming to bite him on the backside. Now that Turner has left the show it is hard to imagine that the dynamic between the characters won’t suffer, but I’m willing to bet that the brilliantly quirky Toby Whithouse has some tricks up his sleeve.
7. Game of Thrones
Game of Thrones was yet another HBO drama that I found slow to start with, but soon picked up as the pieces fell into place and the actors seemingly settled into their characters. Set in the mythical land of Westeros the first season pitted the Starks, headed up by patriarch Eddard (Sean Bean), against the Lannisters who are posturing for the crown as Robert Baratheon’s (Mark Addy) hold on it looks increasingly shaky. There are other threats too in the shape of the Targaryen siblings who also have a claim to the throne, and the mysterious deadly creatures behind ‘The Wall’ in the North; all of this as the decidedly ominous-sounding ‘Winter’ seems set to plague the Kingdom for an untold number of years. The scope of this series is truly breath-taking, the performances from the cast are almost without exception pitch-perfect and so Game of Thrones looks set to become a modern classic.
8. The Fades
There’s no getting round the fact that when I saw the ads for The Fades it did look fairly ridiculous. Luckily I soon got over that and tuned into what was probably the nicest televisual surprise for me this year. Paul (Iain De Caestecker) is a 17 year old boy who wets the bed and has apocalyptic nightmares. See what I mean? But no, this show genuinely a bit of a sleeper, it’s heart being the quirky friendship the young boy has with his best friend, the sci-fi loving Mac, who has to come to terms with the fact his mate is unknowingly a member of ‘The Angelic’, a group who have skills which include being able to see the souls of the dead who aren’t able to pass over. Now that these souls (or ‘fades’) have found a rather sinister way to become flesh and blood again under extra creepy Polus’ (Ian Hanmore) direction, it seems like Paul is the only one to stand between him and world domination… Surprisingly complex in its moral stance The Fades is definitely one to watch and hopefully will be recommissioned.
9. Doctor Who
People who know my love for Steven Moffat won’t be surprised to see the sixth series of Doctor Who making the cut. There were a couple of dud episodes in this split series, (namely ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ and ‘The Rebel Flesh’), but this was more than made up for by the likes of the frankly quite scary ‘The Impossible Astronaut’ and the undeniably clever ‘The God Complex’, in a run which saw a number of questions answered including who the Doctor’s wife is. Whilst criticism has been levelled at the showrunner for making this family show too cerebral, I for one am glad that Moffat refuses to underestimate his audience and with Matt Smith continuing to portray a simultaneously knowing and delightfully childlike Eleventh Doctor, I’ll keep tuning in until they see fit to stop.
The decision to set season 4 two years after where season 3 left off seemed to be a good one for the Damages writers after the cliffhanger of Tom Shayes’ (Tate Donavan) death, and the explosion of antagony between ruthless lawyer Patty Hewes (Glenn Close) and her son, Michael. The main focus of this show though has always been the complicated relationship between Patty and her one time protege, Ellen Parsons(Rose Byrne). This outing offered a return to this complex dynamic by means of a case which Ellen wishes to bring against security contractors High Star, who conducted an illegal mission in Afghanistan, and for which she reluctantly enlists Patty’s help. Not only is it great to see a show with two unrelenting female leads, whilst Close offers obvious gravitas, it’s great to witness Byrne having grown into the role and her become a plausible foil for Hewes. Season 4 was at times edge of the seat TV, with it’s pretty scathing attack on the US governments reliance on security firms and their consequent sway on the political landscape, which left me chomping at the bit for the ultimate showdown between Patty and Ellen in the final season next year.
For me the biggest disappointment of 2011 had to be the 7th season of House. Launching into a relationship between the male and female leads is definitely dangerous territory for any show, but it did seem possible that an exploration of an unconventional pairing between House (Hugh Laurie) and his boss/love interest Cuddy (Lisa Edelstein) could add another string to the show’s bow. Sadly the writers floundered and flapped about for most of the season as they tried to figure out what to do with the hand they’d dealt themselves, finally settling on a half-baked break-up followed by House crashing his car into his Ex’s home, the execution of which being as idiotic as it was offensive. I’d like to think we’ve moved away from Hollywood portraying the level that someone cares about/loves another individual being equivocal to the amount of damage they are prepared to do to them (physically and/or mentally) or their property. Sadly this and the responses of those who were responsible for it seem to prove otherwise. The showrunner, David Shore, maintains that his protagonist will never change, yet ironically the more House refuses to learn from his mistakes, the more he becomes less of a compelling character, devolving steadily from flawed genius to pathetic loser. A great shame for a show that once thoroughly deserved all the plaudits it received and its bumper ratings.
Other let-downs included the mildly ridiculous Outcasts, with it’s troop of futuristic settlers on Carpathia, waiting for a spaceship from Earth like a bus that promises to take you into town before the shops close, but has most probably broken down, whilst mysterious winds picked them up and flung them around aimlessly. Alas the ship never came and neither did the excitement. Similarly Torchwood: Miracle Day believed its own hype when sadly it was relying on clunky dialogue and what appeared to be a suped-up Dyson cleaner crossed with an ‘über vagina’ cameoing as ‘The Blessing’, which gave every human on the planet immortality. The American version of The Killing also failed to engage, despite more than competent performances from Mireille Enos and Michelle Forbes.
Shows I’m looking forward to in 2012…
Finally, finally, finally Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss’ brainchild, the up-to-date Sherlock, starring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson respectively, is bringing in the New Year in style, hopefully resolving the showdown cliffhanger at the end of the first series between the two leads and the deliciously demented Moriarty in good fashion. With series 2 looking set to delve into versions of Doyle’s ‘A Scandal in Bohemia’, ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ and ‘The Final Problem’ it seems hard to imagine two self-confessed Sherlock Holmes fans not doing them justice, especially if their first outing is anything to go by.
Another show which has insisted on making me wait, and nearly driven me mental in the process, is the brilliant Mad Men which left us at the end of season 4 with Don Draper (Jon Hamm) engaged to his secretary, just as his complicated friendship with Peggy Olsen (Elisabeth Moss) deepened, and Joan Harris (Christina Hendricks) keeping the secret that the baby she was carrying was in fact her boss and former lover interest, Roger Sterling’s (John Slattery) and not her husband’s. Matthew Weiner’s show is singularly excellent in that, in terms of action, very little happens and yet utterly convincing performances from all of the cast and exquisite scripts make it unmissable television. Other American shows I’m looking forward to include the third season of the always solid court procedural/family drama The Good Wife, which I’m currently working my way through and relishing the thought of guest stars including Eddie Izzard, Parker Posey and Lisa Edelstein, along with returns from Michael J. Fox and Dylan Baker. Regarding new shows the high-concept Awake, fronted by Jason Isaacs, about the aftermath of a car crash where the protagonist flits between one reality where his wife died and another where his son was killed has piqued my interest; as has thriller Homeland, a vehicle for Claire Danes and Damian Lewis, which appears to be garnering critical acclaim from all angles.