Top TV box sets to binge watch this winter
VOD News | On 31, Dec 2016
A new year may be upon us, but things aren’t about to get any brighter. Winter has come and is here to stay for many months, which means weeks of dark nights on the sofa, curled up under a duvet, looking for something to distract us from the misery of returning to work after the Christmas holiday.
Thank goodness, then, for TV box sets. From comedy to mystery, sci-fi to crime thrillers, British to French programmes and fantasy to historical dramas, here are the top TV box sets around to binge watch this winter. Whether you use Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sky, NOW TV, All 4 or BBC iPlayer, there’s something here for you:
Alia Shawkat stars in this fantastic mystery drama, which follows Dory, a fragile, frustrated, life-long doormat, who’s not particularly proud of her impact on the world. So when she learns that Chantal, a girl she barely knew in college, has gone missing, she becomes obsessed with finding her. But Dory and friends – including clueless boyfriend Drew, self-diagnosed narcissist Elliot and struggling actress Portia – are not crime solvers. The result is a hapless investigation that spends more time uncovering their own privileged self-absorption than anything meaningful. A dark, funny and scathing look at modern youth. (Read our full review.)
Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti. That’s all you need to know about Showtime’s superb thriller, which is set in the ego-driven world of New York high finance. Lewis plays billionaire hedge fund kingpin Bobby Axe Axelrod, alongside Giamatti who plays Chuck Rhoades, the tenacious U.S attorney who tries to take him down. The gripping drama sparks to life as the two actors go head-to-head, setting up a thrilling game of cat and mouse.
Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij serve up a jaw-dropping mystery drama with this tale of a young woman who reappears in her home town seven years after she went missing. Once blind but now able to see, her story moves effortlessly between genres, blending sci-fi, coming-of-age, prison break and mystical elements to form a continuously surprising and compellingly earnest ride. Halfway through the first episode, you’ll have to take a leap of faith to go with it. Spoiler alert: if you do, you won’t regret it.
The royal family, but not as we know them, Netflix out-BBCs the BBC with its sumptuous period drama, which follows the young Elizabeth II as she takes to the throne and finds herself having to navigate her political relationship with Winston Churchill and her personal loyalty to her husband, Prince Philip. An endlessly expressive Claire Foy chirrups with the best of them, while Matt Smith brings scene-stealing depth to a part who could have easily been a caricature. Gorgeous stuff.
The hit show of 2016’s summer, if you haven’t seen Stranger Things, you’ve certainly heard of it. Netflix’s sci-fi horror mystery, which follows the disappearance of a young boy from a small US town in the 1980s, leaving his mum (Winona Ryder) devastated and his friends no choice but to play detective themselves, is a deft mix of retro nostalgia and modern-day storytelling. With its synth soundtrack, entertaining young stars and gripping screenplay, it takes strange children with telekinetic powers, nasty monsters, sinister scientific corporations and bike rides and turns them all into something entirely its own. If you haven’t seen it, watch it. If you have, watch it again to spot all the pop culture references.
The Expanse: Season 1
“In the 23rd Century, humans have colonised the solar system. The U.N. controls Earth. Mars is an independent military power. The inner planets depend on the resources of the Asteroid Belt. Belters live and work in space. In the Belt, air and water are more precious than gold. For decades, tensions have been rising. Earth, Mars and The Belt are now on the brink of war. All it will take is a single spark.” So reads the pre-credit crawl of The Expanse, deftly laying out the show’s basic ground rules, before flinging the viewer head-first into its world(s). Agents unknown are trying to turn the Cold War between earth and Mars hot, and the key to who they are and what their game-changing plan is seems to be rich-girl-turned-revolutionary Julie Mao – now missing. Tasked with tracking her down is grizzled detective Joe Miller (Thomas Jane), who works for corporate law enforcement on dwarf planet Ceres. His investigation is expertly structured, with each episode ending on a stonking cliffhanger that’ll have you clicking onto the next instalment. (Read our full review.)
The Path: Season 1
Aaron Paul, Michelle Monaghan and Hugh Dancy deliver excellent performances in this drama about a family inside a closed-off cult commune. As doubts loom, secrets come to the surface and outsiders intrude, the result is brilliantly layered and superbly acted study of religion in practice as well as in theory, one that fascinates as much as it frustrates. Every time you think you’re out of it, it pulls you back in. (Read our full review.)
Zoo: Season 1
Let’s be clear about this. By conventional standards, Zoo is not what you would call a great show. Hell, we’re not even sure it qualifies as a good show. But is it an entertaining show? Will you find yourself binge-watching the entire thing, despite yourself? Oh, yes. Yes, indeed. The set-up is simple: a mysterious pandemic is causing animals to mount what appear to be co-ordinated attacks against humans and it’s up to a team of five heroes (including a journalist, a vetinary pathologist, a French intelligence agent and two animal experts, all played by familiar TV faces) to figure out what’s going on and prevent the oncoming animal apocalypse. If you’re not hooked by the pilot episode, where cats conduct secret meetings in trees, then at least give it until the second episode, where dogs form assassination squads and lure men to their deaths in dark alleyways. Glorious TV trash of the highest order. Words: Matthew Turner
You’ve either read it or you haven’t. Or, more likely, you’ve started to read it and never quite managed to finish. But Hilary Mantel’s hefty novel makes for beautifully gripping television, as we follow Thomas Cromwell’s rising power in the court of Henry VIII. Adapted by Peter Straughan, you’d expect the result to be clunky, heavy on the exposition, light on the nuance, but Straughan plays things as slowly as he can get away with, while still cutting through Mantel’s prose at a pace. Peter Kosminsky shoots events like it’s modern day Washington, relying on handheld cameras to capture things quickly. Screws tighten and plots are laid, but quietly – a tone led by the marvellous Mark Rylance, whose silent presence is subtler, yet more intimidating, than Frank Underwood. Lit using natural sources, the end product may leave some straining to see, but the shadows only add to the intrigue. It’s like watching A Man for All Seasons shot by Michael Mann. Read our episode-by-episode reviews.
Photo: Company Productions Ltd / Giles Keyte
Penny Dreadful: Season 1 to 3
When was the last time a TV show surprised you? Penny Dreadful, starring Eva Green, Timothy Dalton and Timothy Dalton’s moustache, mashes up classic horror literature, such as Frankenstein and Dorian Grey, to produce a piece of pulp art that sounds trashy but rings with class. How close will it stick to the stories we all know? John Logan’s script weaves it all together with a taste for mortality – and adds a whole heap of freaky witchcraft in Season 2 (and Brian Cox in Season 3). The result would scare even the manliest of facial hair off, and never quite goes where you expect.
Rick and Morty: Season 1 and 2
Wubba lubba dub dub! Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty finally arrived on UK screens this autumn, introducing us to Dan Harmon – him again – and Justin Roiland’s warped creation. The animated series follows an alcoholic genius scientist called Rick Sanchez, who rocks up on his daughter Beth’s doorstep and takes his grandson, Morty Smith, on adventures to different planets and dimensions via portals and his flying car-cum-spaceship. With Harmon’s usual mix of humour and heart, endlessly quotable lines, colourful characters and creative movie spoofs? This is one of the finest animated sitcoms on television at the moment, and a must for fans of Futurama, Adventure Time and Doctor Who. Read our full review”>.
Outlander: Season 1 and 2
Tired of men ruling the fantasy world? Outlander, based on Diana Gabaldon’s novel, is a refreshingly female-led drama, which sees married WWII nurse Claire (Caitriona Balfe) accidentally transported back in time to 17th century Scotland, where she meets – and falls in love with – the strapping soldier Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). The result is intelligent, nuanced and genuinely moving, thanks to the top performances, epic period detail and the careful parallel of Claire’s chronological split with her torn affections.
Halt and Catch Fire: Season 1 to 3
AMC’s period drama about a computer company attempting to reverse engineer an IBM PC to create their own rival machine is a visually sumptuous, well-acted drama that grips thanks to its efficient cast – Scoot McNairy and Lee Pace – and precisely calibrated characters. Season 1 focuses on Gordon and Joe, but the show really comes to life in Season 2, when it shifts to the two female leads: rebellious coder Cameron (Mackenzie Davis) and Gordon’s wife, Donna (Kerry Bishé), who proves a smarter and better engineer than him time and time again. The result is a programme led by complex, nuanced female characters. With Apple looming in the background, and Cameron effectively founding her own Internet start-up, the result becomes an exploration of the relationship between humans and technology, and the way that we use computers to communicate, as well as create. The third season leaves you with that rare treat: a show that keeps on getting better with every episode.
Transparent: Season 1 to 3
When Amazon released Transparent, a show about a father who comes out as a mother to his children, we declared it the best TV series of 2014, a ground-breaking piece of television, both on-screen and off. With several Golden Globes under its belt, Transparent has gotten even better. Jill Soloway’s first run, which saw Jeffrey Tambor’s Maura navigate the initial steps of being a woman, was a provocative, uplifting story about someone accepting who they were. That acceptance had a knock-on effect for the other members of the Pfefferman family, each one starting their own journey of self-discovery. If Season 1’s strength was in the power of the self, though, Season 2 expanded Transparent’s scope to explore how people are defined in relation to others. Add in Season 3’s unabashedly religious themes and this is an endlessly nuanced drama that understands family and history are the same thing. The emotional baggage just keeps getting passed down.
The Affair: Season 1 and 2
Showtime’s drama, which stars Dominic West and Ruth Wilson, follows Alison, a young woman waiting tables at a popular Hamptons diner, who begins an affair with West’s married husband. What follows is a conflicting series of flashbacks, as we follow the story of their infidelity from alternative perspectives. The result is a mesmerising study of memory, lies, control and story-telling. What makes Season 2 just as gripping is creators Sarah Treem and Hagai Levi’s decision to add two more POVs to the mix: Helen’s and Cole’s. That extension forces us to spread our sympathy further, adding more shades of grey to the emotional palette. As Season 3 continues at the start of 2016, we can’t wait for Season 4, where we get the perspective of the local bus driver. Or Season 5, where we find out what the postman makes of it all.
Instead of swiping the night away on Tinder, allow us to suggest a friend of ours: Fleabag. Created by comic genius Phoebe Waller Bridge, Fleabag has been labelled ‘the British answer to Girls’ or ‘your new feminist icon’. Sure, if you want to class a show about a woman who plays fast and loose with sexual partners, common sense or common decency either of those two things. But they diminish what Fleabag is. She’s one of the most interesting female characters permitted on British TV screens. The best way to describe her is: just like us. Where a Hannah or a Carrie represent a terrible facet of womanhood, Fleabag is just a woman. Sure, a bitingly clever, screamingly funny one, but a real one. Frustrating and frustrated. Always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time. Sexy and sexual. A great friend, a bad friend, someone who has her life together, someone who can’t handle anything. A total blooming mess. The fact that her show exists deserves celebration. As a date, she definitely deserves three hours of your time. She’ll probably get the drinks in too. Read our full review.
Available until 14th February 2017.
BBC Three / BBC iPlayer
Sky’s first major drama in its recent push for original programming, Fortitude didn’t always win the highest praise from viewers and critics, but its bizarre blend of detective thriller and supernatural horror makes for a refreshing (if uneven) cocktail, as we see a gruesome murder committed in the tiny Arctic town. The icy location, with its frozen corpses and isolated community, adds to the eeriness, while The Killing’s Sofie Gråbøl, Richard Dormer and a scene-stealing Stanley Tucci led an impeccable cast.
Mafiosa: Season 1 and 2
“You’re not lacking in guts. Certainly not lacking in skill.” That’s how someone describes Sandra Paoli (Hélène Fillières) in Mafiosa. The crime saga follows Sandra’s rise to power within the Paoli clan, from young, just lawyer to increasingly corrupt clan leader, stepping into the shoes of her deceased uncle. Writers Stéphanie Benson and Hugues Pagan slowly navigate her moral descent – and her underworld ascent – with gripping precision, making sure that family remains as big a part of the story as the violence and power struggles. First aired back in 2006 in its home country of France, it’s taken 10 years to arrive in the UK – and it’s more than worth than wait.
The Girlfriend Experience: Season 1
The Girlfriend Experience is a superbly written and exquisitely made series with one of the best performances of the year. A slow burn that sizzles and crackles into something quite remarkable, the narrative is simply about the main character, Christine Reade (Riley Keough), supplementing her salary as an intern at a law firm by becoming an escort, and, eventually, her complete acceptance of this as her primary career. The process through which we see her enter this profession is intriguingly and quite deliberately mirrored with her path into law and the way in which she is treated at her firm, Kirkland & Allen. The concept of selling yourself for money, competition within corporations and what you should and shouldn’t be ashamed of in any profession, are ideas that Lodge Kerrigan and Amy Seimetz – who co-wrote the series together and take turns directing – frequently dip their toes into, but these heady themes never threaten to drown the show. Threads are left hanging for a smart, engaged audience to tie together and mull over. Read our full review.
Glitch: Season 1
Ever since creepy French drama Les Revenants became a surprise global hit in 2012, producers have been drawn to its basic premise – people return from the dead, but not as zombies. The latest spin on the idea is Glitch, from Australia’s ABC, and the happy news is that it works far better than the po-faced American attempts. The core reason for its success is an elegant simplicity. We have a taut plot, told over six episodes, focusing on a small band of characters, thus avoiding the flailing narrative strands that brought down the other shows. The six episodes cover a lot of ground, but Glitch doesn’t feel rushed or crowded. As many questions are raised as answered – why are they back, for starters? – and the season ends with a fantastic, tantalising twist. Thank the Lord, then, that Netflix has stepped in to co-produce Season 2. Once you’ve watched Season 1, you’ll crawl out of your own grave to find out what happens next. .
People Just Do Nothing: Season 1
One of the best homegrown British comedies of recent years, this BBC Three series follows the vaguely inept owners of pirate station Kurupt FM. (They’re very big in the Brentford area.) Co-created by and starring Allan Mustafa as MC Grindah and co-starring Hugo Chegwin as DJ Beats, what started as a YouTube series has been nurtured by the Beeb into a comedy staple. There’s a hint of Alan Partridge to the mockumentary – “How far does Kurupt reach?” asks our filmmakers on a balcony overlooking a council estate. “As far as the eye can see,” comes the proud reply. “But not that bit on the left.” – but the setting, characters and knowingly bad music has its own rhythm, which the cast stick to with engaging chemistry. Scenes where we catch Beats out of his hat and in a business suit for a job interview bring a surprising sympathy to his useless existence – and even more sympathy for his girlfriend, Roche, who has to endure the worst birthday party for their daughter ever recorded on screen. Asim Chaudhry as their friend, who runs a string of incompetent and illegal businesses, is always a treat. (Watch out for his “Polish Vodka”, which isn’t from Poland, but is made with window cleaner.)
Early on in the first season of iZombie, The CW’s supernatural procedural show created by Veronica Mars’ Rob Thomas and Diane Ruggiero-Wright, a zombie acknowledges that his kind are a little played out – in fact, they’re everywhere in TV and movies. “I think we might surprise a few people,” he immediately follows up. He’s not wrong. Although we never thought that the current cycle of monster-mashed teen series would bring us around to a sexy zombie show, this one turns out to have more than its fair share of brains too. It’s very loosely based on the DC/Vertigo comic of the same name, which follows a revenant gravedigger, who passes for human, as long as she keeps eating the grey matter of the living on a regular basis. Coolly and confidently pitching its wholesale reinvention of “played out” tropes, this is the most singular and stylish treatment of the supernatural on TV since Being Human and one of the very best comic book shows going. Read our full review.
Be it the likes of The Hunger Games, ELysium, Divergent on the big screen, or the likes of The 100 on TV, western mainstream viewers have gotten used to the planet’s resources being depleted, and straggly (yet handsome) survivors having to use their wits against (usually) a powerful and shady elite. Netflix dips its toes into the dystopian pool with 3%, a Brazilian series set in the future in which the world has been divided into two camps. Offshore is the little seen, yet idyllic utopia, in which the successful and affluent live out their days. Inland is for those who are less fortunate struggle to survive. 3%’s episodic structure (each episode focuses on one character) feels out of place in a world of grand, over-arching narratives. However, the show’s breezy pace, enjoyable performances and well-used arrangement of Brazil’s political landscape make for a brief but entertaining diversion. When you’re done with the Netflix shows that have been hogging the limelight, watch this. Read our full review.
Created by Emmy Award nominated comedian Tig Notaro (Transparent) and Diablo Cody (Young Adult), this semi-fictional series stars Notaro as herself, as she returns to her hometown in Mississippi, when her mother passes away unexpectedly. As she copes with the tragedy and deals with events from her past, the series becomes a poignant and surprisingly humorous exploration of family. That warts-and-all tone keeps you so emotionally engaged that you’ll be three-quarters of the way through the eight episodes before you know it – at which point you’ll be surprised to find yourself in tears. And yet even the moments that do make you cry are boldly underplayed, with one scene involving a mirror proving devastating in its simplicity. That’s the secret to One Mississippi’s sincerity: neither the comedy nor the drama feels forced, which, ironically, takes a colossal amount of unseen talent.
Beauty and the Baker
Hailing from Israel, the Hebrew-language series is a romantic comedy about a young baker from a Tel Aviv suburb, who falls for a famous model. He’s up to his armpits in pitta. She’s heading to Hollywood. It’s like Notting Hill with naan bread (sort of). You’ll love it. Like any good romance, there are some obstacles for our happy couple to overcome – every time you think that the path is clear for them to get together, something else gets in the way. The result deftly manages to celebrate the couple’s cute affair without becoming too sugar-coated, while the well developed supporting ensemble add real substance to go with the surface gloss. You’ll be eight episodes in before you know it, but as Phil Collins says, you can’t hurry love. And this delectable rom-com deserves to be savoured, every last morsel.
Mozart in the Jungle
Mozart in the Jungle is not a show about Mozart trying to stay alive in the jungle. But it might as well be, given how delightful it is. Amazon’s comedy about a New York orchestra began with a likeable Season 1, blossomed with confident, witty Season 2 and, with a third season under its belt, has cemented itself as one of the nicest, smartest, wittiest and catchiest programmes around. “Catchy” is the key word, as the show unashamedly – and unpretentiously – roots itself in classical music, in a way that makes you enjoy the pieces on display, and care about the people playing them, regardless of whether you like orchestras or not. It’s a rare thing for a TV series to take classical music seriously, while still having a sense of humour, and it’s a unique trait that only gets more nuanced and honed. Add in a charming Gael Garcia Bernal as Rodrigo, a maverick conductor who woos and upsets everyone around him, and Lola Kirke as Hailey, the ensemble’s rising star oboist, and you have a genuinely unique piece of easy-viewing fun.
The Man in the High Castle
If Transparent put Amazon’s original shows on the map, The Man in the High Castle carves out a whole country for the streaming site, which more than rivals Netflix with its ambitious, addictive story-telling. The show, based on Philip K. Dick’s novel, shows us what it would be like if the Axis Powers won World War II, with Japan ruling the Pacific half of the US and the Reich ruling the Atlantic. Produced by Ridley Scott and created by The X-Files’ Frank Spotnitz, the world-building is astonishingly effective, providing spades of exposition without characters saying a word. The cast, meanwhile, are engagingly enigmatic, as resistance fighters attempt to smuggle banned newsreels across the border – and Rufus Sewell’s SS officer, John Smith, hunts them down. Able to make us feel sympathy with either side, this is a provocative and daring study of indoctrination, propaganda and national identity that only gets more intricate and interesting in its second season. What would the world be like if the Nazis won World War II? The show’s brilliance isn’t that it asks the question, but that it provides such a chillingly convincing answer.
Billy Bob Thornton is on blistering form in Amazon’s compelling legal drama, created by Ally McBeal and Boston Legal’s David E. Kelley. Within the show’s opening few episodes, everything is laid out as expected: there’s the suspicious death of an average, blue collar worker (who works for a military defence contractor), the gigantic company trying to cover it up and the plucky young innocent keen to out the truth. Who’s she gonna call? Why, Billy McBride, of course, the once-great lawyer who has since descended into an alcoholic, anti-social disgrace to the profession. Can the underdog take on the system and win? The plot is conventional, but this is more character-driven than narrative-driven. Indeed, watching Thornton in action in court is reason to tune in itself, but Kelley’s tightly scripted ensemble drama, which ensures every rule-breaking cheat brings brutal consequences to Billy and his equally developed supporting cast, is full of gripping exchanges, nasty double-crosses and corporate deceit.
Twin Peaks: Seasons 1 and 2
An idiosyncratic FBI Agent investigates the murder of a young woman in the small town of Twin Peaks. If that premise sounds familiar, wait until you see David Lynch and Mark Frost’s show in action. Things quickly go from weird to strange, from strange to odd, from odd to disconcerting and from disconcerting to fascinating. Kyle MacLachlan is our window into this world as the FBI’s Dale Cooper, who has a thing for pie and coffee (and dictating things to his secretary, Dianne, who may or may not exist). But as a parade of bizarre characters grace our screen, the story takes a back seat to atmosphere and style, resulting in something that’s inexplicable, scary and downright iconic. Sometimes, it’s even funny too. If you’ve never binge-watched this remarkably unusual programme, do so before it returns in 2017 for new episodes. If you’ve seen it already, you don’t need us to convince you to watch it again.