The best box sets on All 4
Ivan Radford | On 25, May 2020Reading time: 15 mins
Whether it’s classic British sitcoms or US drama, Channel 4 and its network of other channels has become one of the most exciting and interesting broadcasters in the UK today, able to spotlight homegrown talent and showcase provocative and topical issues in the same breath. All 4 continues that tradition for the streaming age, with a range of US exclusive imports, a deal with Adult Swim for some modern animations, and an entire section, Walter Presents, dedicated to TV series from around the world. (Read our dedicated list of the best TV shows on Walter Presents.)
From Derry Girls to Samurai Jack, these are the best box sets currently available to stream:
Ignore the ninth season and ABC’s medical comedy starring Zach Braff is a wonderfully silly modern classic. It follows the life of intern John Dorian (Braff) as he starts his medical career at Sacred Heart Hospital, which is bursting with eccentric staff and patients – including the scene-stealing John C. McGinley as his grouchy mentor, Perry, and Ken Jenkins as the sinister hospital chief Bob Kelso.
Every now and then, a TV show comes along with a voice that feels utterly unique. Derry Girls is one of them. From Northern Irish writer Lisa McGee, the candid, family-centred comedy set against the backdrop of The Troubles is stuffed with hysterical dialogue, instantly fully-formed characters and a bracing ability to turn its context into surtext with wit and heart. One of the best new comedies of the last decade.
Mae Martin plays a version of herself in this side-splitting comedy about a stand-up comic struggling with both personal intimacy and substance abuse. Balancing a script stuffed with razor-sharp one-liners with a heartfelt exploration of addiction, this is a moving, funny tale of honesty, communication and love. Blink and you’ll have devoured the whole thing in one sitting.
When is a comedy not a comedy? When you’re laughing to save yourself from despair. That’s the difficult line walked by Channel 4’s Flowers, a comedy that introduces us to the eccentric eponymous family – Maurice, Deborah and the twins – and manages the tricky job of swinging from the funny to the downright morbid, all the while teetering on the brink between profane and profound. Acted flawlessly by Julian Barratt and Olivia Colman, and bravely tackling issues of mental health, support and communication, this masterpiece is dark, funny, brave and profound TV.
One of the best TV shows before the modern box set era, this drama about a dirty Los Angeles Police Department cop and the unit under his command paved the way for Breaking Bad with its study of an antihero on a gripping downward arc.
The Other Two
This sharply written satire about two failed Los Angeles wannabes, who find their younger brother overtaking them in the fame stakes overnight, is fast paced, very funny, and impressively packed with surprisingly likeable characters. Great fun.
This intelligent, absorbing drama about truth and media today is thrillingly personal and grippingly political – often at the same time. It follows Lee (Alessandro Nivola), a photojournalist who took the iconic photo of the Tiananmen Square Tank Man – the apparently sole figure who stood up against tanks in the square during the horrifying massacre of protestors. It made his career, and after seeing that moment in the making, we jump forward several years to join him as he works at a New York paper, at the point where his career begins to be unmade. A picture from Syria is his undoing, after a young journalist reveals that he doctored the image. In an age where politicians lie and brand criticism as “fake news”, does integrity still matter? And if an image, even when altered, is still depicting fact, does that make it any less factual? These are the questions that Lucy Kirkwood is grappling with, and she does so impeccably and provocatively, turning her stage play into a TV thriller that tackles Trump and truth in confident, sweeping strides.
Channel 4’s answer to Westworld is a thoughtful, moving drama about a family who welcome a Synth into their lives, only to find themselves caught up in a battle between sentient robots and the humans who exploit them. Driven by complex characters and laced with subtle sci-fi, this is accomplished, provocative television.
This stunning animation follows young Jack, who becomes a samurai to avenge his father’s death.
Before Rick and Morty came Dan Harmon’s equally impressive sitcom, which follows a tight-knit group of friends who all met at what is possibly the world’s worst educational institution – Greendale Community College. With Joel McHale, Gillian Jacob, Alison Brie, Donald Glover and Ken Jeong starring, it combines excellent cast chemistry and whip-smart writing with the kind of pop culture references that make this an immediate cult classic.
Rufus Jones’ deftly written sitcom about a family who takes in a Syrian runaway manages the impossible thing: it makes us laugh about the refugee crisis silently engulfing the world, juggling warm humour with compassion, respect and a serious consideration of duty and tolerance.
Spain’s answer to Orange Is the New Black, which follows new inmate Macarena as she navigates her way through life behind bars, this prison drama is slickly paced, well acted and grippingly toys with your sympathies throughout.
Written by and starring Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan, this remarkable series follows Rob and Sharon, an American guy and a British woman, who get together after she falls pregnant during a brief fling while he was in the UK on business. Since then, it’s been up and down for the couple, often at the same time – a balance maintained by the show’s juggling of sweet sincerity with scathing, foul-mouthed dialogue.
Hunted, a programme that sends members of the public on the run to be tracked down by a team of police-like pursuers, should, by any measure of logic, be a load of codswallop. But tune in just for five minutes and you’ll discover for yourself the ridiculous joy of this brilliantly ridiculous programme. Tired of the same old reality formats? That’s the starting point for Channel 4’s absurdly high-concept offering, which takes TV to new extremes, as the volunteer participants go on the run for 28 days, allowing themselves to be hunted by security experts and counter-terrorism investigators given the same powers as the authorities. The result is a surprisingly gripping study of surveillance in modern society, but not one that takes itself seriously – it’s a wonderful combination of low-brow nonsense and high-brow faux-topicality.
Channel 4’s anthology of short Philip K Dick adaptations is a confident, surprisingly understated piece of provocative sci-fi.
The End of the ****cking World
“I’m James, I’m 17 and I’m pretty sure I’m a psychopath.” That’s James (Alex Lawther), an awkward outsider and the central figure in The End of the F***ing World. Based on an award-winning graphic novel, the eight-part series sees two angst-ridden teenagers – James and Alyssa (Jessica Barden) – run away from home and embark on a road trip, with the morbid twist that one teen is thinking of murdering the other. The result is darkly funny and enjoyably unpredictable.
Lee and Dean
This mockumentary about two BFF builders is the most entertainingly awkward comedy this side of Peep Show
Ride Upon the Storm
“God moves in a mysterious way, His wonders to perform, He plants His footsteps in the sea, And rides upon the storm.” Those are the words of William Cowper’s 1774 poem that give Walter Presents’ new TV show its title, and they set the tone for this tempestuous Danish drama, a tale of storms brewing in a devout family – and the people trying to ride them out. Led by Lars Mikkelsen on career-best form, this tempestuous religious drama from the creator of Borgen is a thundering, tense exploration of family and faith.
Young and Promising
Made by Siri Seljeseth, who also stars in the show, this coming-of-age sitcom is a sweet, downbeat, often laugh-out-loud funny tale of three young women growing up in Oslo and realising their potential.
Before We Die
A tough-as-nails cop. A missing friend. A fractured family relationship. A hint of a conspiracy. Before We Die (Innan vi dör) bears all the hallmarks we’ve come to expect from Scandi noir, but wrapped up in a bundle that feels thrillingly closer to home. The series follows Hanna Svensson (Marie Richardson), a veteran of Stockholm’s police department, who doesn’t hesitate to arrest her own son when she busts a party where he’s dealing drugs. In short, she’s precisely the kind of person you’d want on your side if you went missing. Which, funnily enough, is precisely what happens to her former partner, Sven. Cue a slick police drama that barrels along at a gripping pace.
Dylan Moran, Tamsin Grieg and Bill Bailey are impossibly funny in this gleefully sour sitcom about three clueless adults running a book shop – a show that balances flawless comic timing with inventive, surreal, surprising jokes.
If The Day Today was a worryingly prescient vision of what 1990s journalism was becoming and where it would end up, Chris Morris’ follow-up, Brass Eye, is a vivid night terror that now takes place in the daytime. Honing the fake news satire’s nose for nonsensical bleating, it sniffed out the moralising grandstanding of the media with a repulsed sneer, calling out the self-justifying hypocrisy that was on the up. Existing in an era before websites and clickbait, today, it’s like watching The Daily Mail’s sidebar of shame acted out in real-time.
Tamsin Greig, Stephen Mangan and Julian Rhind-Tutt star in Channel 4’s medical comedy set in a (thankfully) fictional hospital. Fast-paced, occasionally in slow-motion, this is a silly, surreal, side-splitting sitcom.
Toast of London
Anyone who’s seen Matt Berry’s BBC iPlayer series of shorts, “Matt Berry Does…”, will already be familiar with the fertile hilarity of the actor’s voice. If some musicians are so musical that they impregnate the front row of their audience, Berry’s comedic delivery is so naturally funny it could probably make a baby materialise right there in your living room.
Perhaps the best showcase for his uniquely voluptuous vocals is Channel 4 sitcom Toast of London. He stars as Stephen Toast, a performer with a plummy voice and little else to recommend him. And, like all the best comedy characters before him, he’s entirely lacking in self-awareness, considering himself a successful, award-winning actor, despite his total failure of a career. Sublimely silly stuff.
Simon Pegg and Jessica Hynes (nee Stevenson) play two adorably geeky flatmates in this inspired comedy from Pegg, Edgar Wright and Nick Frost – a taste of the Cornetto-flavoured wit and ingenuity that was to come in their big screen outings.
Friday Night Dinner
Even after several seasons, this Channel 4 sitcom about the Goodman family and their constantly-thwarted attempts to have a Friday evening meal together remains pin-sharp funny. Robert Popper’s writing knows his characters inside and out, with Simon Bird and Tom Rosenthal tuned into a believable weariness with each other and their parents, Tamsin Greig and Paul Ritter’s married couple wonderfully tired of each other, and, between it all, Mark Heap, whose eccentric neighbour is never less than hysterical.
Stath Lets Flats
From Fleabag to Paddington 2, Jamie Demetriou has been slowly infiltrating our screens to demonstrate his comic timing and versatility. Here, he gets a welcome chance to take the lead as Stath, a lettings agent in London who is as incompetent as he is, well, incompetent. Co-written by Friday Night Dinner’s Robert Popper, the result shares that show’s same knack for awkward humour, with Demetriou’s performance perfectly judged.
Meet Marnie, a 24-year-old Scotswoman, whom we first meet as she tries to deliver a speech at her parents’ wedding anniversary. Marnie, though, is plagued by an acute, extreme form of OCD, called Pure O, which causes her brain to be constantly, consistently interrupted by thoughts of sex. Extreme, inappropriate, never-ending sex. That speech? It doesn’t go well. And so she hops on a bus and heads to London to try and get away from it all and start afresh. Adapted by Kirstie Swain from a book by sufferer Rose Cartwright, the result is a sensitively depicted, honest account of what’s it like to live with the condition – a brave, bold piece of taboo-breaking TV that’s still very, very funny.
Deutschland 83 (Deutschland 86)
This gorgeously stylish period drama about a 24-year-old native of East Germany asked to spy undercover in the West, blissfully blends coming-of-age thrills with espionage suspense, resulting in a gripping, fun spy series that was a deserving smash hit both in Germany and the UK.
This Is England ’86
After his powerful drama from 2006, about a teenager who finds friendship with a group of skinheads, Shane Meadows catches up with his ensemble of characters years later – a reunion that’s packed with nuance, emotion and raw honesty. This Is England ’88 and ’90 are also available.
Channel 4’s BAFTA award-winning show has seen Fred match hundreds of couples over its run, paving the way for seven engagements, three weddings and even a baby. It’s the place to ‘find the one’ for 18-year-olds right through to 101-year-olds, and the fact that it treats every one of them with the same sincere warmth and respect makes it genuinely lovely telly.
Paul Finchley, a much-loved, ageing comedian finds his world shaken to its foundations after an accusation of rape that dates back to the 1990s. Jack Thorne’s drama is well aware that it’s a Important Issue to examine, but like HBO’s The Night Of, this is a reminder that Good TV can also be good TV. A provocative, gripping discussion of a pertinent subject, but one that never forgets that sometimes, saying nothing is just as powerful.
Stephen Graham is heart-wrenching in good in Shane Meadows’ thoughtful drama about trauma and recovery.
When a seemingly perfect and happy family is murdered by someone they know and trust, the small Scottish community they call home becomes riven with doubt and suspicion as those closest to the family begin to question everything they thought they knew about their friends. David Tennant and Cush Jumbo star in this gripping drama.
This irreverent comedy drama, which follows the messy lives, loves, delirious highs and inevitable lows of a group of raucous teenage friends in Bristol, is generation-defining telly.
The Great British Bake Off
In these times, nothing’s quite as soothing as a bit of Bake Off action in the tent – a time when the most disastrous thing is a cake falling off a table.
Jamie: Keep Cooking and Carry On
The ever-likeable Jamie Oliver shows us how to rustle up some grub from what you’ve got in the house.
Channel 4’s ridiculous royal comedy returns and it still has the same silly charm simply because it refuses to take any of its characters seriously whatsoever.
Freaks & Geeks
Judd Apatow and Paul Feig’s 1999 comedy series is one of those US comedies that was cancelled before its time – but that doesn’t make it not worth watching. The show follows a group of Michigan high-school students in the 1980s, with Lindsay (Linda Cardellini) and her friends making up the Freaks half of the programme (cast members including James Franco, Seth Rogen and Jason Segel) and her brother, Sam (John Francis Daley), heading up the Geeks (cast members including Samm Levine and Martin Starr). From Ben Foster and Ann Dowd to Lizzy Caplan, it’s a series that not only established Segel, Feig and Apatow as comedy forced to be reckoned with, but paved way the way for a number of future stars.
Originally airing between 1989 to 1998, Seinfeld stars Jerry Seinfeld as a stand-up comedian whose life in New York City is made even more chaotic by his quirky group of friends who join him in wrestling with life’s most perplexing, yet often trivial questions.
The multiple Emmy Award–winning ER explores the inner workings of a Chicago teaching hospital and the critical issues faced by the dedicated physicians and staff of its overburdened emergency room. These medical professionals remain determined to save lives in a place where nothing is taken for granted and nothing is certain … nothing except that another desperate person will be rushed through the emergency room door in the next moment, in need of their help.
Barrymore: The Body in the Pool
In the early hours of 31st March 2001, a body was found in the swimming pool of television presenter Michael Barrymore. When Paramedics arrived, Stuart Lubbock’s lifeless body was found by the side of Barrymore’s swimming pool. Every detail of the story was poured over by the media. Was it a drug-fuelled orgy? Was Stuart gay? Did Stuart drown or was there another cause of death? Why did Barrymore flee from his home? Would Barrymore’s career ever recover from the disturbing event? 19 years on, this documentary explores the mystery with compelling detail. Putting the death into context, it’s an expertly paced deconstruction of a tragic death and our own relationship with the media and celebrities. A must-watch.
Channel 4’s documentary about two boys allegedly abused by Michael Jackson is alarming, upsetting and important viewing.
All nine seasons of the award-winning sitcom starring David Mitchell and Robert Webb sees these dysfunctional flatmates make the adjustment from university life to the working world, while their all-too-frank voiceovers creep into your own internal monologues.