So much TV. This year it’s sometimes been hard to keep up, with all the new streaming services rolling out. Somehow I managed (no choice really – I have to watch a little of everything new for work. Can’t write TV if you don’t know what the current landscape looks like).
Here, then, is the best TV drama I saw during the last year. And there has been some truly great work screened. I’ve been enjoying some of Apple’s new launches, but they haven’t yet quite hit that critical level to make it to the top. There were also several shows I expected to drop in here, but in the end fell at the last (looking at you, Game of Thrones).
Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
10. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel
(Amazon Prime) I resisted including this last year, not wholly sure if it should be filed under comedy. But the quality is just phenomenal, and the drama is certainly there, if in ‘light’ mode. The recreation of 50s New York is perfect. Yet it also manages to tell a story relevant to today, with its sly look at gender, family and work. Rachel Brosnahan is luminous as the title character, but all the cast here do brilliant work.
9. After Life
(Netflix) Another one that could have been considered comedy with the pedigree of its creator and star Ricky Gervais. But this is a serious work with something important to say about grief and finding the value in life when you don’t have any faith. There are certainly laugh out loud moments. But there are heartbreaking ones too. A humanist masterpiece.
Shown on the BBC, this was a groundbreaking piece of work for UK TV. It’ll be available to the rest of the world via Netflix next year. A Tokyo detective comes to London to search for his missing brother following the murder of a Yakuza member. That death ripples out to touch several lives. Joe Barton’s scripts avoid the cliches and dive into an almost dreamlike state, digging out the essential humanity in cultures that seem at odds with each other.
(HBO) Ostensibly a teen drama, but one which digs deep into what it’s like to live – and try to survive – in the great Age of Disruption. Drugs, naked selfies, sex as currency, a raw examination of addiction, this is a long way from The Breakfast Club. Zendaya grounds it as the central character and commentator (although spoiled slightly by one extended sequence which served as a video for her new single).
6. Russian Doll
(Netflix) What seemed to be another Groundhog Day, quickly diverges into a twisty mystery. Centred on a brilliant performance by Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created, the show follows games developer Nadia Vulvokov as she dies again and again only to be reborn in the same situation. Clever, funny and moving, it’s well worth its four Emmy nominations.
5. The Handmaid’s Tale
(Hulu) Dark and desperate, The Handmaid’s Tale is as much about modern America as it is about its dystopian setting. The early episodes were a hard watch, but now the story has progressed, flickers of hope and righteous anger move to centre-stage. A fantastic performance by Elisabeth Moss, she starts to reveal the cracks within the central character June Osborne that Margaret Atwood’s novel sets up.
(HBO/Sky) Not by any stretch of the imagination ‘entertainment’, this is a grim but devastatingly human examination of the nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. The award-winning script by Craig Mazin dramatises the failings of the Soviet system set against the struggle of regular people to try to save the day. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard provide the odd couple central performances.
(Showtime) Billions goes from strength to strength and in any other year would well have held the number one slot in this list. The Shakespearean battle between Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhodes and Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod in the worlds of high finance and law takes on new dimensions and gets even more brutal. In a series of standout characters and actors, Asia Kate Dillon’s non-binary Taylor Mason wins hands down.
(HBO) A slow burn that took just about everyone by surprise. Damon Lindelof’s sequel/reimagining of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1980s graphic novel is a masterpiece that manages to capture the groundbreaking approach of the source material and then break even more new ground. Tackling racism, gender and power in America today, it still manages to capture an emotional chore. Regina King is a brilliant guide through the mazey storytelling.
(HBO) Springboarding off the real-world accounts of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his clan, Succession is a study of how emotional abuse destroys lives. That doesn’t sound a bundle of laughs, but there’s black humour aplenty in this tale of a declining media power broker pitting his children against each other to take the mantle from him. Much of the enjoyment comes from watching the slow motion car crash of these characters disintegrating in spectacular fashion. A brilliant, multifaceted work.