Top TV box sets to binge watch this winter
VOD News | On 10, Dec 2017
Weekends. Bank Holidays. Half-terms. Christmas. Whatever the time of year, life is full of days where you’ve got nothing to do. 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 the hours away – after all, what else are you going to do? Go outside?
Whether you use Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sky, NOW TV, All 4 or BBC iPlayer, there’s something here for you:
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 last summer and this autumn, 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.
“Did you try calling my husband? Oh, you just called me.” That’s Julia (Anna Maxwell Martin) in Motherland, the BBC’s new sitcom about the reality of being a mother. Motherhood, of course, is presented to us by the deceitful world of TV as a beautiful time of sanguine purpose and light-hearted farce – where all of life’s problems are made better by a laugh and a cuddle at the end of a stressful day. Mothers and kids, eh? What are they like? Mothers and mothers, though, is another matter entirely – and Motherland doesn’t pull any punches, as it throws us into the ring of child-rearing chaos and hits us with blow after blow of stress, barely contained rage and flat-out hilarity. Read our full review.
This Is Us
This high-profile US import more than lives up to its hype with a wonderfully nuanced, funny and moving ensemble of human drama. And you get all of that just rom its first episode. The show’s premise is simple – it follows the separate lives of people who share the same birthday – but Crazy, Stupid, Love’s Dan Fogelman uses it to wind some wonderfully complex tapestries, which swing from amusing to mawkish without the programme losing its stride.
We meet Randall (Sterling K Brown), a grown-up orphan who finds himself with the chance to meet his biological father; Jack (Gilmore Girls’ Milo Ventimiglia), whose wife (Mandy Moore) goes into labour on the day when he’s meant to be celebrating his birth; Kate (Chrissy Metz), who takes her birthday as renewed impetus to lose weight; and her brother, Kevin (Justin Hartley), who’s a sitcom actor sick of shallow roles and trying to make it on the stage. The latter would have no concerns about this show at all, as it gives each strand enough time to breathe, enough chance for the characters to see their life plan go off the rails, and enough warmth for us to genuinely care about every single one of them. Even the doctor helping Jack and his wife gets an abundance of one-liners, meaningful monologues and a profound backstory. Cathartic, hilarious and heart-tugging without feeling manipulative, say hello to your new favourite TV show. Watch it with your parents, aunts and uncles or grandparents and prepare for all the feels.
It feels like only next week that time-travelling series Travelers premiered on Netflix UK. A Canadian sci-fi with Will and Grace’s Eric McCormack in the lead, it impresses from the off with its blend of quick pacing, trashy familiarity and talk of a dystopian future. While its opening episodes are slick enough to intrigue, the maiden run ultimately ropes you in through creator Brad Wright’s sheer commitment to his concept. That concept is simple: a group of time-travelling agents are sent back to the present day from the future to save humanity from destruction. But rather than time-hop themselves, they are transported into host bodies, inheriting lives, relationships, illnesses and other problems. Quantum Leap with guns? Travelers doubles down on that idea – and then some.
The first half of the season sees our team attempting to avoid mankind’s obliteration, by diverting an asteroid (Helios) from its collision path with the planet. But where the show could have based its entire run around that threat, it turns out to be only the warm-up act for a really strong second half. Because while the idea of case-of-the-week challenges are all well and good, Travelers’ real strength lies in the challenge of taking over someone else’s life, and that increasingly becomes the real enemy facing our heroes. With Season 2 arriving this Christmas, don’t miss your chance to catch up. (Read our full review.)
“I can’t emphasise enough the risk you’re taking,” cautions Father Marcus (Ben Daniels) at a key turning point in The Exorcist Season 1. He might as well be talking to writer/executive producer Jeremy Slater, who dares to invoke the holy ghost of William Friedkin’s 1973 movie on the small screen. But from the unsettling first episode, this TV series confidently brushes aside any doubts in the show’s ability to possess the spirit of the feature film for 10 episodes – sometimes, you’ve just got to have a little faith. Read our full review.
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. With 2017’s dazzling The Return also available to binge-watch, it’s worth going back to the beginning before you sample David Lynch’s masterful revival. Seen it already? You don’t need us to convince you to watch it again.
“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.” Season 2 lands imminently – start catching up now. (Read our full review.)
“I’d rather be a murderess than a murderer, if those are the only choices.”
That’s Grace Marks (Sarah Gadon) at the start of Alias Grace, Netflix’s new adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel. Based on the actual 1843 murder of Thomas Kinnear (a lascivious Paul Gross) and his housekeeper, Nancy (Anna Paquin), the book explores the double homicide from Grace’s perspective, as she relates the events to a doctor, Simon (Edward Holcroft). From the opening scenes, Grace is keenly aware of the impact of one word over another, picking and choosing her speech as she goes. The killings were notorious at the time, sparking debate about Grace’s complicity, morality and identity – and Alias Grace is a dizzying, gripping act of a woman reclaiming her story to her own ends. (Read our full review)
Over three seasons – soon to be four – Charlie Brooker’s Twilight Zone for the Twitter age has tackled everything from political engagement to relationships and all the pixels in between with a harsh, satirical hand. The Entire History of You, the climax of Season 1’s anthology, was promptly optioned by Robert Downey Jr. for a feature film adaptation, while none other than Jon Hamm starred in 2014’s seasonal special. That response only emphasises how much Black Mirror has tapped into a nerve in society, combining our feverish love of new technology with our most neurotic digital fears; a topicality delivered with detached cynicism that, even in its weaker instalments, feels bleakly relevant. Read our review of Season 4.
The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel
With one of the most recognisable creative voices around, Amy Sherman-Palladino’s defiantly witty, wittily defiant new project, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, was one of the most successful Amazon Pilots ever, almost immediately receiving a two-season order from Amazon Studios. Starring Rachel Brosnahan (House of Cards) as a dedicated, happy Jewish housewife in 1950s New York, the show charts her strict family life, her role as a woman, and her newfound fascination with stand-up comedy – and the conflict this causes. Sherman-Palladino’s trademark charm and attitude are everywhere you look. Packed with female empowerment, moments of real emotion, and more quips than anyone can keep up with in one viewing, Mrs. Maisel is far more than a placeholder for that Gilmore Girls-shaped void in your life. Read our full review
She’s Gotta Have It
“It’s not often that a director gets to remake their own film, and even less common that they get to experiment with a different medium. With Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It, Spike Lee makes a welcome foray into television fiction, directing a 10-episode remake of his debut feature. He’s found himself a powerhouse lead in DeWanda Wise and she proves herself beyond a shadow of a doubt. “Who is she?” demands Jamie’s (quasi-ex) wife. Why, she’s Nola Darling, and she’s stolen all of our hearts. Netflix’s filmmaker freedom has never felt quite so good. Lyrical, perfectly performed and bitingly relevant, Netflix’s She’s Gotta Have It series is all Spike Lee and it’s glorious.” (Read our full review.)
“It was the worst of times and it was the worst of times. HBO’s drama explores the founding and exploitation of the porno industry by the underworld in 70s New York, its effect on the city, commerce, law and order and the lives of people involved intimately or on the periphery. David Simon and George Pelacanos teaming up again is a big deal. Why? Because they’re amazing writers. Their attention to character, plot and socio-economic underpinnings pays riveting dividends and marks their work out as almost literary in its richness, like epic tomes of Hugo, Zola or Dickens. Here, the result is frankly as good as television gets.” (Read our full review)
“There ain’t nothing as scary as a man with a gun,” reflects Roy Goode (Jack O’Connell) in Godless, Netflix’s new Western series. It’s a prescient line in a show that flirts with a bold revision of the genre, with the action taking place in a town run entirely by women. But Scott Frank’s Netflix Western sticks to the tried and tested classics – and that approach pays off in dividends, as Jack O’Connell and Jeff Daniels deliver magnetic performances as two men destined to collide, set against a community of satisfyingly rounded female characters. The result is a potent mix of genre tradition and progressive writing that makes a pertinent point about the futility of men with guns, while giving their toys to the women too. It’s a testament to just how successful the end result is that it can be taken seriously in the wake of HBO’s Westworld, let alone still feel fresh in classic trimmings and trappings that have long since become old hat. Accomplished, confident and sumptuous storytelling, fans of Westerns have just had their prayers answered. Read our full review
Star Trek: Discovery
“Set phasers for goosebumps. Star Trek: Discovery’s cold open sees would-be Klingon prophet T’Kuvma (Chris Obi) give a chilling declaration – in subtitled Klingon for extra Trekkie titillation – to his followers. His intention, evoking ancient Klingon messiah-god Khaless, is to unite the 24 warring Klingon houses and declare war on the ever-encroaching Federation. His battle-cry, “Remain Klingon”, some have noted is similar to a certain president’s insular cry of America First… From there we travel to a distant desert world, where our lead, Michael Burnham (The Walking Dead’s excellent Sonequa Martin-Green; she’ll be a shoo-in come awards season), and Captain Georgiou (Michelle Yeoh) do what all Star Trek crews do in pre-credit sequences: nonchalantly save an alien civilisation from extinction in a manner that is both exciting yet pleasingly swift. Dialogue is snappy, the production values first-rate, and the cast all pitch-perfect. Better yet, the quality doesn’t waver – this is TV Trek that’s every bit as good as (and maybe better than) JJ Abram’s feature film reboot.” (Read our full reviews)
“Cora Tannetti (Jessica Biel) is a hard-working mother in the middle of a seemingly idyllic family life. Distracted and numbed by an intangible terror that stops her from sleeping, Cora finally cracks during a day out and commits a brutal murder, for which no one seems to know the motive. Catching the attention of dysfunctional detective Harry Ambrose (Bill Pullman), Cora’s story must be traced back to the source to find the truth. Rooted in the reverse-whodunit formula that recently saw The Night Of win multiple awards, The Sinner’s relentless eeriness and ever-sinister revelations keep the focus squarely on Biel’s traumatised killer and Pullman’s unyielding detective, as they traverse the depths of Cora’s reality… The psychological thriller is ideal for Stranger Things fans looking for their next unsettling box set.” (Read our full review)
The End of the F***ing World
“‘I’m James, I’m 17 and I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.’ Channel 4/Netflix co-production The End of the F***ing World, based on an award-winning graphic novel, sees two angst-ridden teenagers run away from home and embark on a road trip, with the morbid twist that one teen is thinking of murdering the other… This darkly funny coming-of-age comedy is quite unlike anything else.” (Read our full review)
When Shadow Moon is released from prison, he meets the mysterious Mr. Wednesday and a storm begins to brew. Left adrift by the recent death of his wife, Shadow is hired as Mr. Wednesday’s bodyguard. He finds himself in a hidden world where magic is real, where the Old Gods fear irrelevance and the growing power of the New Gods, and where Mr. Wednesday is building an army to reclaim his lost glory… Ostentatious, impressive, timely, beautiful. This adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s novel has been more than worth the wait. Read our reviews of each episode
The show is adapted from the book Mind Hunter: Inside The FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit by The Road’s screenwriter, Joe Penhall, and, working with Exec Producers Fincher and Charlize Theron, Penhall has produced something gripping and unique: a crime thriller with barely any crime in it. We open with a messy hostage situation, which sees FBI Agent Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff) try to talk down a man with a shotgun, but after a burst of bloody violence, the show consists almost entirely of very long discussions in closed rooms.
A little more conversation and a little less action might sound dull, but Mindhunter’s success lies in how compelling, complex and creepy those conversations are: it’s a show that has total confidence in the power of speech, knowing that if the characters, topic and words are just right, you can gladly watch two talking heads for hours on end. (Read our full review)
It’s all too easy to define people by their conditions. Those with alcoholism become alcoholics. Sufferers of anorexia become anorexics. Those with OCD say “I’m OCD”. It’s all too easy to forget that disorders aren’t the same as the people suffering from them. Overshadowed, BBC Three’s new series, does a brilliant job of demonstrating that literally, as we watch Imo’s (Michelle Fox) life gradually infiltrated by Anna (Eva O’Connor). Anna is Imo’s new best friend, someone who won’t let her out of her sight, interrupting moments with her friends and demanding she ignore her family to spend time with her. It soon becomes clear, though, that Anna is the physical embodiment of Imo’s anorexia – and, in no time at all, Imo begins to struggle to escape her. A compelling, thought-provoking and honest study of eating disorders. Read our full review.
A superb performance by Suranne Jones makes this story of marital betrayal and revenge a compelling watch. Read our full review
There are some TV shows that are so good, everyone starts talking about them as soon as they’re released. Not so for The Leftovers. Damon Lindelof and Tom Perrotta’s show depicts a world where 2 per cent of the population mysteriously disappeared, and despite the lack of audience buzz, the result is a stunning – and stunningly consistent – examination of loss, faith and despair, as the impeccable cast (notably Christopher Eccleston’s devoted priest) and beautifully complex scripts combine to make the kind of TV that simply doesn’t come along very often. Season 3’s finale emphasises just how unique the whole affair is, reaching heights of philosophical discussion without losing its unique humour and wit – only The Leftovers could cover terrorism, resurrection and cults and still find time for karaoke, weddings and pigeons.
“A maverick doctor and a disturbed civil servant walk into an underground station. It sounds like the start of a bad joke, or a terrible TV show, but it’s the unlikely basis of TV show Valkyrie. And, sure enough, Walter Presents’ latest foreign-language drama, acquired fresh from Norway, is like nothing you’ve ever seen. That’s not to say that it merely shuns the Nordic Noir expectations that many now have from the region’s TV: convention-bucking Scandi shows snapped up by Walter Presents, such as Hellfjord or Young and Promising, have their influences and roots traceable back to Norway’s dark sense of humour or the welcome rise of young women creators, such as Phoebe Waller-Bridge and Lena Dunham. Valkyrien, on the other hand, doesn’t really seem to have come from anywhere: it’s a programme that feels thrillingly new with every twist and turn.” (Read our full review)
Last Chance U
Netflix’s documentary series takes us behind-the-scenes at East Mississippi Community College, where one of the most successful teams in the USA’s Junior College league makes and breaks the future of young athletes. The good news is that Last Chance U isn’t about football. It’s about the people who play it, and the stakes that are on the pitch: The Lions are a mixed bunch of misfits, from college dropouts to poverty-stricken locals, who all have one thing in common: football is their ticket out of town. Many of them black, many of them without a back-up plan, they pin their hopes on the sport, whether that’s the long-term dream of making it to the NFL or the more immediate challenge of just getting a college scholarship. Every match, every rivalry for every spot on the team, every disciplinary or pitch riot (in an ominous sign of what’s to come, things get violent in the very first episode) – whatever happens matters to them all. Sporting dramas about underdogs are two a penny, but you’ve never seen a sports story so raw or devastating. Read our full review
The Americans: Season 1 to 4
“Dollars to doughnuts, The Americans is almost certainly the best US TV show you’re not currently watching. While it has yet to garner the same kind of awards recognition as classic prestige shows such as The Sopranos, Breaking Bad and Mad Men, it is unquestionably worthy of a place at their side, thanks to its stunning lead performances and its compelling mix of gripping Cold War spy thriller and powerful family drama.” Read our full review
Into the Badlands: Season 1 and 2
In an age where excellent TV isn’t hard to come by, Into The Badlands does something few manage: it employs cliché as its starting pistol. AMC’s martial arts thriller follows Sonny, the quintessential ronin on a quest for his past in a dystopian feudal society, where six Barons try to murder one another and gain more power in the process. . Above him is Quinn, a tyrannical warlord, whose son is filled with ambition to prove himself, while harbouring jealousy for Sonny, his father’s favourite creation. With its stunning action, epic scale, colourful style and mysterious backdrop, this is unlike any show on television.
Hap and Leonard: Season 1 and 2
Hap and Leonard is one of the saddest TV shows around. That may not sound like a recommendation, but that’s precisely why SundanceTV’s adaptation of Joe Lansdale’s novels is so brilliant. The show wallows in melancholy the way a steak and kidney pudding soaks in gravy, surrounded by vegetables – it’s hearty, warming, and just the thing to enjoy on a chilly spring evening. The show follows the two titular friends (James Purefoy and Michael Kenneth Williams), a devoted duo who stick together through thick and thin – or, to be more specific, through scantily clad killers, submerged cases of money and one heck of a femme fatale (Christina Hendricks). Season 1 is an absorbing study of nostalgia and faded dreams, laced with comic violence, while Season 2 steps into political territory for a blistering tale of prejudice, corruption and cover-ups. At its heart, though, Hap and Leonard remains firmly a tale of friends – and their chemistry, devotion and tragic shared history is enough to make you stick with them through thick and thin. The result is laugh-out, downbeat TV. It’s distilled sadness – and you’ll be grinning at it every second.
Locked Up: Season 1 and 2
Say the words “female prison drama” to someone and they’ll immediately think of Orange Is the New Black. Locked Up (or Vis a Vis, as it’s known in its home country of Spain) appears, on the surface, to be a similar beast. It’s even available in the UK on a streaming service: All 4’s Walter Presents. But Locked Up has a colour all of its own. More thriller than comedy, the series follows Macarena Ferreira (Maggie Civantos), who is screwed over by her lover and boss, leaving her struggling to adjust to being behind bars – and directly in conflict with prison kingpin Zulema, who has her eyes on a stash of cash buried by a dead inmate. It’s grittier than Orange, more visceral, more sexual (the Spanish title, Vis a Vis, is a nod to conjugal visits) and it doesn’t let up. Read our full review
The Trip: Season 3 (The Trip to Spain)
The BAFTA-nominated comedy series, now in its third season, follows Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, as they go on a culinary odyssey – this time, as you might have guessed, across Spain. Playing fictionalised versions of themselves, their gastronomic road trip is as self-aware as ever, with director and creator Michael Winterbottom on hand to capture half-improvised conversations about life, love and luscious cuisine with an intimacy that makes everything feel a little too close to real life to be scripted. The Trip takes Steve and Rob from Cantabria to the Basque region, Aragon, Rioja, Castile-La Mancha and Andalusia – each destination tastier, and more awkward, than the last. Meditations on middle-age and success and failure are served up as you’d expect, as well as a side helping of in-car singalongs, but it’s in the shifting affection and annoyance each man feels for the other that the joy lies, as prickly digs are disguised in endless impressions that range from Michael Caine to, best of all, Mick Jagger. Delectable.
Five Came Back
“You guys have been looking for a war,” says Rick (Humphrey Bogart). “That’s right,” comes the reply. That’s the sound of Casablanca, the golden age of Hollywood. But that golden age was also part of another era of the movie business: a time of war, patriotism and propaganda. Netflix unpicks the passion, principles and compromises involved in its engrossing, informative and brilliant documentary series. Borrowing its title from a 1930s melodrama, Five Came Back charts the military service of five key Hollywood players: William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston. All joining the armed forces and, signing up to make films for the war effort, they put their cinematic skills to work for the country. Each found their own challenges, inspiration and repercussions, as they left the traditional studio system for another, altogether more complex chain of command and responsibility. This is dense, rich material, and writer Mark Harris mines his own non-fiction book for every nugget of gold he can fit into three hour-long episodes. A must-see for cinephiles. Read our full review
How does a small screen adaptation of a movie succeed? 12 Monkeys has one answer: by not being the movie. The good news for those that have not seen Gilliam’s film is that you needn’t worry, because previous knowledge is unnecessary – in short, Bruce Willis is hairier, Brad Pitt’s now a woman and Madeleine Stowe is a virologist. The starting points are pretty much identical: in 2043, the earth is desolate. The population have been ravaged by a mutated virulent infection – 7 billion people are dead. The only survivors are underground. Society no longer exists. Most traded their humanity for survival. But a group of scientists have a plan – a reset button – involving a complicated method of time travel. Stop the virus, save the world.
“The result is an adaptation that really comes into its own when it leaves the source material behind. This is currently a fantastic era for sci-fi on TV and 12 Monkeys is at the forefront. Its dystopian vision may be bleak, but with Season 3 having just wrapped, stick with 12 Monkeys and you have a bright future to look forward to.” Read our full review.
Mad Men: Season 1 to 7
Period costumes. Advertising pitches. Smoking. Jon Hamm. If you’ve never caught up with Don Draper, Peggy Olsen and the gang, now’s your chance to enjoy AMC’s drama, which is one of the best TV shows of the last decade.
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 and 2
“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
Rick and Morty
Wubba lubba dub dub! Season 3 may not be here yet, but that just means more time to watch (or re-watch) Adult Swim’s Rick & Morty on Netflix. Dan Harmon – him again – and Justin Roiland’s warped creation 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.
Halt and Catch Fire
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, a trend that continues all the way to the bittersweet conclusion of Season 4.
The Affair: Season 1 to 3
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. Season 3 only makes things even more nuanced. Now, 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.
Mafiosa: Season 1 to 5
“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.
“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.)
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.
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 ruled America? The show’s brilliance isn’t that it asks the question, but that it provides such a chillingly convincing answer. Read our reviews of Season 1 and 2 – and our interview with Rufus Sewell here.
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.