The best box sets on All 4
James R | On 03, May 2021
Whether it’s classic British sitcoms or US drama, Channel 4 and its network of 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:
The West Wing
Aaron Sorkin’s seminal political drama takes us behind the scenes and experience of the inner workings of the White House and the Presidential advisors. Starring a sublime cast including Rob Lowe, Allison Janney, Bradley Whitford and Martin Sheen, this remains one of the best series ever brought to the small screen.
David Mitchell and Robert Webb are brilliantly acerbic in Simon Blackwell’s darkly funny and surprisingly moving comedy about Stephen (Mitchell), who tries to follow in his recently deceased father’s footsteps and take over the family business. His plans are foiled, though, by the unexpected return of his estranged foster brother, Andrew (Webb). As the twists and turns make their relationship increasingly twisted, the show grows into a hilarious but surprisingly thoughtful meditation on belonging, gaslighting, family and identity.
Moving from Dave to Channel 4, this uniquely daft TV contest remains as hilarious as ever, as a string of comedians take part in pointless tasks, from making something disappear to trying to get an egg into a frying pan several metres away. Daisy May Cooper (This Country), Johnny Vegas (Benidorm), Katherine Parkinson (IT Crowd), Mawaan Rizwan (Live At The Apollo) and Richard Herring (RHLSTP) are one of the best group of participants the show has ever seen, second only to the golden fifth season featuring Nish Kumar and Mark Watson, while the two presenters – Greg Davies and Alex Horne – are as sarcastic and mean as ever. With all of the seasons available to stream, this is, against all the odds, exactly the TV show we need right now.
It’s a Sin
“My friend says it’s a plague.” “Don’t be silly. That’d be all over the news.” Russell T Davies’ astonishing new series is steeped in historical accuracy, period glee and gorgeously likeable characters, as we follow five friends growing up in the 1980s. As we watch them assemble in a London flatshare – including Callum Scott Howells’ endearingly naive Colin, Lydia West’s Jill, gently schooling and support him, Olly Alexander’s Ritchie, a wannabe actor, Omari Douglas’ defiantly ambitious Roscoe – Davies surrounds them with banging tunes and a cast that includes Shaun Dooley and Keeley Hawes. In short, there’s everything here you need to get immediately emotionally involved in this tale of growing pains, forming identities, self-discovery and shared expression. Neil Patrick Harris provides added star power, without distracting from the central cast, as Henry, who takes Colin under his wing and provides some wisdom and shelter. But looming over it all is the shadow of AIDS, and no sooner have we started to care for these characters than Russell T Davies starts to bring home the reality of the unspoken crisis. Prepare to laugh, cry and get angry at the heartbreaking brilliance of it all.
Set in modern Britain, this darkly amusing and thought-provoking four-parter delves into the adult entertainment industry from the perspective of a woman who has been working in it her entire adult life and has seen it grow from an illegitimate backroom enterprise to a mainstream and highly profitable business.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
If you haven’t ever seen Joss Whedon’s seminal vampire-slaying series, starring a literally kick-ass Sarah Michelle Gellar, stop reading and get watching now. Then move to on to David Boreanaz spin-off Angel, also available to stream.
This Way Up
Aisling Bea gets a deserving chance to take the lead in her own show with this fantastic series about a young woman trying to rebuild her life. That woman is Shona, who has just come out of rehab after a nervous breakdown, and is living with her supportive, concerned sister, Aine (Sharon Horgan). Together, Bea and Horgan are a dream double-act, grounding every interaction in affection but an unspoken distance, and they swap insults, one-liners, encouragement and clothes in the blink of an eye, often all at the same time. Horgan brings whip-smart wit and flawless comic timing, while Bea, in no way short of laughs herself, delivers a heartbreakingly raw performance.
From writer, director and star O-T Fagbenle (Black Widow, The Handmaid’s Tale, NW), this entertaining comedy centres around a formerly famous boyband star who tries to make his music come back in a bid to win back his famous supermodel ex-girlfriend Jourdan Dunn and prove to the world that he isn’t a washed-up old has-been. Supported by Helen Monks as his cousin-slash-superfan-slash-stalker and Christopher Meloni as his former manager, this is darkly amusing telly.
Timothy Olyphant and Elmore Leonard fans shouldn’t miss this FX series that sees Olyphant play US Marshal Raylan, a quiet law-man haunted by his past who returns to his native town and is hell-bent on enforcing his own brand of justice.
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.
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.
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.
Genndy Tartakovsky’s animated epic follows the adventures of a caveman at the dawn of evolution and a T-Rex on the brink of extinction. Bonded by tragedy, this unlikely friendship becomes the only hope of survival in a violent, primordial world. Dialogue, who needs dialogue when the visuals are this good? If you liked Samurai Jack, don’t miss this.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 (86 and 89)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.