Top TV box sets to binge watch at home
Staff Reporter | On 24, Jan 2021
Weekends. Bank Holidays. Half-terms. Christmas. Coronavirus self-isolation. Whatever the reason for you being indoors, TV shows are one of the best cures for having time to fill. 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 to binge watch the hours away instead of venturing outside.
Whether you use Netflix, Amazon Prime Video, Sky, NOW, All 4 or BBC iPlayer, there’s something here for you:
“We are an unusual couple, you know.” That’s the sound of Wanda (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) returning to our screens for WandaVision, Marvel’s first Disney+ series. Part of the pleasure of WandaVision is seeing just how fastidiously the show recreates every old US sitcom you can think of, and Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are flawless together, leaning into every comedy beat that comes their way. But the happier their domestic bliss becomes, the less natural and normal everything seems. The innovative result is an entertaining, unusual and unmissable new direction for the MCU.
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.
This playfully meta take on France’s gentleman thief is slick, charismatic and effortlessly cool.
Dead to Me
Christina Applegate and Linda Cardellini are amusing, sweet and heartbreaking in Netflix’s dark comedy about two women who find unexpected friendship amid a perfect storm of grief, loss and betrayal. With James Marsden as an ex-fiancé muddying the moral waters, what emerges is a unique blend of cathartic character drama and unpredictable potboiler thrills.
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.
Back: Season 1 and 2
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.
This rough and ready sci-fi Western is the best thing to happen to Star Wars since Luke found out who his father was. Read our full review
The Queen’s Gambit
Anya Tayloy-Joy is remarkable in this slick, compelling drama about a troubled chess genius, the orphaned prodigy Beth Harmon.
Succession: Season 1 and 2
The biggest media and entertainment company in the world is controlled by the formidable Logan Family. However, their world changes when their father makes a life changing decision about his role in the company. Created by Jesse Armstrong and starring Brian Cox, this impeccably acted and hilariously painful saga is one of the best TV shows of the past five years. Don’t miss it.
The Good Lord Bird
Is there anything Ethan Hawke can’t do? The versatile actor has brought his earnest brand of charisma to everything from the Before Sunrise trilogy and the intensely disturbing First Reformed to the romantic comedy Maggie’s Plan. But you’ve never seen Ethan Hawke like this – he turns up everything to 11 in The Good Lord Bird, the true tale of John Brown, an abolitionist who may or may not have triggered the American Civil War. A witty, funny, moving and insightful tale of history, civil rights and how to be an ally, this is a contender for one of 2020’s most entertaining and thought-provoking shows.
His Dark Materials
This impressively faithful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s books is a grand but grounded epic.
This hilarious undead sitcom from the Horrible Histories team is quaintly spooky and irresistibly silly.
I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s frank exploration of consent is remarkable, personal and uncompromising TV. Read our full review
Into the Unknown
This surprisingly in-depth behind-the-scenes doc is an insightful and inspiring look at making Disney magic. Read our full review
Damon Lindelof’s remix of Watchmen is compulsively unusual, excitingly ambitious and challengingly pertinent television. Read our full review
I Hate Suzie
Billie Piper’s bold and bittersweet TV show is sly, sardonic and simply unmissable. Read our full review
Netflix’s reboot of the armchair detective series is a pivotal moment for true crime TV. Read our full review
This endearingly nostalgic, if occasionally uneven, follow-up to The Karate Kid delivers an entertaining punch. Read our full review
OJ: Made in America
This seven-hour epic documentary puts the history of OJ Simpson into profound, dizzying context.
Netflix’s entertaining mix of reality TV drama and property porn is jaw-dropping, compulsive TV. Read our full review
Jason Sudeikis is hugely charming as a clueless football manager in this delightful, optimistic TV gem that’s the nicest show of 2020. Read our full review
Amazon’s surprisingly timely superhero satire is darkly entertaining, unabashedly violent and certainly never dull. Read our full review
Lesley Manville and Samantha Morton are having a ball in this playful period drama about sex and power. Read our full review
BBC Three and Hulu’s 12-part adaptation of Sally Rooney’s hit novel is a moving, nuanced and beautiful drama that’s at once smart and sensual. Read our full review
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.
Into the Night
“If we don’t get out of here, the sunrise will kill as all.” Those are the immortal words that set Netflix’s Into the Night in motion – and they set the tone for a ludicrous thriller. Inspired by Jacek Dukaj’s sci-fi novel The Old Axolotl, the Belgian apocalyptic series introduces us to a world where – yes – the sun is about to wipe out the human race. And so, as people start to keel over with the gradual spread of sunrise across the globe, one plucky airplane full of passengers find themselves racing through the night sky trying to keep one wing ahead of destruction. Barely plausible? Yes. But ludicrously entertaining nonetheless. Read our full review
It is 1814 and James Delaney reappears in London, a changed and haunted man, presumed dead in Africa many years before. His return finds his father, Horace Delaney, dead and a country at war with France and the United States. Set to inherit what is left of his father’s shipping empire, James’s arrival not only threatens to disrupt the plans of his half-sister Zilpha and her husband Thorne, but also the ambitions of the mighty East India Company. Tom Hardy swaggers through the web of politics and family tensions with an intensity that makes this atmospheric period drama a riveting, absorbing watch.
Messy, real, intimate and moving, ITV’s historic tales of communication in crisis are an accomplished, cathartic chronicle of a nation in lockdown. Read our full review
The future is fixed. Everything is determined. Or is it? Those are the kind of questions that Alex “Ex Machina” Garland asks in his latest project, following the dizzyingly ambitious Annihilation. His brilliantly ambiguous tech drama pieces together an existential conundrum from shards of philosophy, conspiracy and espionage thrills, as we follow young Sergei, a programmer who is recruited by the mysterious digital firm Amya. Led by Nick Offerman, who plays its CEO with lots of hair and even more mystery and tragedy, it’s a shady organisation that’s hard at work in its revolutionary examination of free will. But when Sergei disappears, his girlfriend, Lily (the excellent Sonoya Mizuno), begins to look into what exactly he was doing. The result is a wonderfully intriguing thriller with a convincingly chilling cast (including the always-great Alison Pill) and a sinister, eerie vibe that only tightens its claustrophobic grip. All eight episodes are now on BBC iPlayer. Boot up and prepare not to log off for the best part of your weekend.
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.
The Young Offenders
“We’re kinda like that Robin Hood fella. We rob bikes from the rich, and sell ’em back to the rich.” BBC Three’s laugh-out-loud comedy about two teen delinquents based on the feature film of the same name is as hilarious as it is heartfelt.
Life on Mars
John Simm is great in the role of Sam Tyler, a detective who finds himself transported to the 1970s. Philip Glenister is even better as Gene Hunt, a Manchester police detective who lives up to every stereotype of the period. And then some.
Years and Years
Russell T. Davies’ gripping portrait of a family fighting through a changing society is a hauntingly plausible state-of-the-nation thriller. Read our full review
Fear City: New York vs the Mafia
Netflix’s detailed Mafia doc has the tone of a crime drama and the intrigue of a suspense thriller. Read our full review
“She’s in heaven.” “Oh, which one?” “Lakeview.” “I hear that’s really pretty.” Death. The great leveller. But what if it wasn’t? That’s the kicker of an idea at the heart of Upload, Amazon Prime Video’s new comedy. The show, created by The Office and Parks and Recreation’s Greg Daniels, introduces us to a world where the afterlife has become a digital product – an eccentric place with an absurd sense of humour that will be familiar to anyone who has seen The Good Place. To compare the two, though, is to miss what makes Upload an intriguing and entertaining watch. The show balances its silly streak with a surprising satirical vein, investing as much effort in serious issues of social inequality as it does in slapstick and non-sequiturs.
“The bottom’s fallen out of the truth market,” observes someone halfway through Quiz, ITV’s remarkable retelling of the extraordinary story of how Charles and Diana Ingram cheated on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and won a million pounds. Or did they? Based on the play by James Graham, the three-part drama takes its central slice of history and builds it into an investigation into the very nature of truth in our modern, post-truth society – an age where quizzes have remained popular because they simply distil the world into black-and-white, right-and-wrong categories. A sensational story, sensationally told. Read our full review
This grippingly complex political thriller places character over cliffhangers to surprising, challenging and moving effect.
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK
The UK’s own incarnation of RuPaul’s veritable TV phenomenon has lost none of its delightful, uplifting charm with its second season. The show once again sees the best of Britain’s drag scene competing to impress judges that, this season, include Elizabeth Hurley. While episodes drop weekly, there’s also the whole of Season 1 to enjoy too, with judges ranging from Andrew Garfield and Alan Carr to Graham Norton. Witty, fabulous, and very, very British.
This haunting, gripping retelling of the 1986 disaster is not only a sweat-inducing thriller but also a timely story of power, corruption and truth. Jared Harris delivers a career-best turn as a scientist juggling duty and morals. The only thing scarier than seeing these heroes trying to stop this manmade disaster from spiralling out of control is seeing them go unrecognised by history that would rather cover them up.
David Simon’s superb, hard-hitting drama stars Dominic West (The Affair) as Detective Jimmy McNulty, who along with his fellow investigators attempts to infiltrate a West Baltimore drug ring headed by the elusive Avon Barksdale (Wood Harris) and his lieutenant, Stringer Bell (Idris Elba). Still influential, still insightful and still as gripping as when it first aired.
This Country: Season 1 to 3
BBC Three’s hilariously daft and quietly sweet mockumentary – about Kerry and Kurtan Mucklowe (stars and writers Charlie Cooper and Daisy May Cooper) – is charming slice of rural life that balances laughs and sweet sentiment with low-key genius.
Based on The Marshall Project and ProPublica Pulitzer Prize-winning article, this powerful, gripping drama follows a teen (Kaitlyn Dever) who reports and eventually recants her reported rape, while two female detectives, states away, investigate evidence that could reveal the truth
Parks and Recreation
This flawless sitcom stars Amy Poehler as Leslie Knope, whose leadership of the Parks and Recreation department in Pawnee, Indiana is as earnest as it is incompetent. She and her trusty group of office mates are followed around by a documentary crew, offering a quirky look into their everyday lives. When that ensemble includes Aziz Ansari, Aubrey Plaza and a pre-Marvel Chris Pratt – not to mention Rob Lowe and a scene-stealing Nick Offerman as man’s man Ron Swanson – the result is one of the funniest workplace comedies ever made.
When They See Us
Ava DuVernay’s enraging, powerful, deeply human retelling of The Central Park Five case is essential viewing.
David Tennant and Michael Sheen are hilarious in BBC One’s knowing lockdown satire. Read our full review
Dan and Eugene Levy’s sitcom follows a wealthy family who go bankrupt and whole up in the motel of the only remaining asset they have: an ugly small town named Schitt’s Creek. It sounds like a feast of unlikeable characters, but, like a sitcom cousin to Succession or Billions, this brilliant show teases out their flaws and insecurities until you’re rooting for an oddly sweet group of idiots who learn, grow and progress with every season. An unexpected delight.
Derry Girls: Season 1 and 2
“Protestants hate ABBA!” 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 Channel 4 sitcom has a neat premise: it charts the coming of age of a group of schoolgirls in Londonderry during The Troubles in the early 1990s. Laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully heartfelt, you’ll want to be friends with these Derry Girls immediately.
The Good Place: Season 1 to 4
One of the best TV shows of recent years, this fantasy series follows an ordinary woman who is wrongly sent to a pleasant afterlife and must hide in plain sight from its creator, who is unaware of his mistake, as she navigates her surroundings. Kristen Bell stars as Eleanor, who dies and finds herself accidentally in The Good Place, where she absolutely doesn’t belong. She is joined by Ted Danson, who plays Michael, the architect in charge of her neighbourhood. Funny, surprising, profound and moving.
Ryan Murphy is one of the best things about modern TV. If you’ve ever doubted that, just look at his latest creation, which is vibrant, gripping, emotional and sassy all at the same time. What makes Murphy’s work often so compelling is the way he so deliberately shines his spotlight not on himself but on other people, from Feud’s plumbing of the depths of the sexist engine powering Hollywood to America Crime Story’s hugely detailed character-driven portraits of real life. Groundbreaking in its largely transgender cast, Pose is bursting at the seams with lives and stories just waiting to be told, diving into the underground world of 1980s ball culture, where all those unwelcome in mainstream society, all those who can’t convert the American Dream into an American Reality, find acceptance, respect, support and one heck of a good night, as they strut their fashion sense and realness for everyone else to appreciate. Black transgender woman Blanca Rodriguez (Mj Rodriguez) works at a nail salon by day and serves as a member of the House of Abundance by night, and she’s our window into this world, as she takes in Damon (Ryan Jamaal Swain), a young dancer, and pushes him to audition for the local school. The resulting scene is just one in an endless pile of standout moments, as Swain veritably explodes off the screen with passion, conviction and physical agility. Its a breathtaking climax to a dizzying first episode – and sends you pirouetting into the box set released all-at-once on BBC iPlayer. Strike a pose, then get ready to hold it for eight hours.
Spooks: Season 1 to 10
M:I-5. Not 9 to 5. Even the slogan for the BBC espionage series feels quaintly dated, but for all its love of numerical keypad phones and laptops as cutting-edge gizmos, this spy thriller is still grippingly modern, as it never relied on technology to make its programme relevant: the series’ real secret weapon was its focus on character, which was driven by increasingly far-fetched plots. With a cast including David Oyelowo, Richard Armitage, Matthew Macfadyen and Nicola Walker, that means you have a show that’s as hugely entertaining as ever.
Inside No. 9: Season 1 to 5
Nothing says winter like a spooky horror story, and who better to inject chills directly into your spine than Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton? The pair are kings of creepy, a status that has been reinforced over multiple seasons of their superb series Inside No. 9. Alongside Black Mirror, the show has inspired the return of anthology programmes to our screens, serving up a collection of short tales, which range from funny to frightening. These impeccably crafted one-act plays are thrillingly varied, increasingly imaginative and consistently excellent; previous chapters (each one set in a different nine-themed location) have included silent comedy, Shakespearean farce and even 70s-style retro scares, complete with old-fashioned video cameras.
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
Lighter on production value than ingenuity and impact, there’s more to this crime drama than meets the eye.
The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air
“Now, this is a story all about how, my life got flipped turned upside down…” If you’re already reciting that out loud, then The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air needs no introduction. One of the best sitcoms of the 1990s, it featured rising star Will Smith, it was exec produced by Quincy Jones and taught everyone the correct way to dance to Tom Jones. Over 25 years later, and the show looks even better, a charming mix of 90s nostalgia, admiration for Will Smith’s on-fire charisma and surprise at just how many serious issues and emotional character moments the show managed to pack into its 148 episodes.
Ricky Gervais’ bittersweet comedy about sadness is a movingly honest piece of television.
Steve McQueen’s remarkable anthology tells stories of people within London’s West Indian community, and how they shaped their own lives in the face of society’s racial bias. it begins with Mangrove, telling the story for the first time on mainstream TV of a group of Black activists who, 50 years ago, took to the street to protest against police harassment in Notting Hill. The result is a taut yet free-wheeling, important yet understated celebration of a community building – and defending – a home in a city that’s growing and changing, of voices being heard rather than silently despairing or being dismissed.
Fleabag: Season 1 and 2
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s six-part comedy, which started its life as a play at Edinburgh’s Fringe Festival, already has people asking whether she’s Britain’s answer to Lena Dunham. It’s easy to see why – this shares with Girls a willingness to explore the darker aspects of what it is to navigate life as a single female in the city. The characters portrayed share, too, a willingness to (ahem) experiment, and a certain type of knowing narcissism, mixed with self-loathing. All this is done with self-aware, fourth-wall-busting, straight-to-camera asides, and genuinely laugh-out-loud funny moments. Words: Helen Archer
Lost in Space
Netflix’s ambitious reboot of the sci-fi series about a family lost in space is big, ambitious and decidedly cinematic, from the shiny, sleek interiors of the practical sets to the CGI effects that send the Robinsons racing past alien planets – and, in the thrilling opening sequence, hurtling into them. A large part of the show’s success stems from that very real sense of risk, casting the series as a sci-fi tale of survival in the vein of The Martian, rather than a old-school sitcom, a la Fuller House. Directors Alice Troughton (Doctor Who) and Deborah Chow (Jessica Jones) fuel the whole production with a burning sense of adventure, capturing the beauty of the Robinsons’ home and the warmth of a family drama, as well as its spookier side. The result is enormously fun sci-fi offers that rare thing on TV: a genuine family blockbuster.
This quartet of short films inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement are a timely portrait of modern Britain, exploring racial tensions and divisions and highlighting the importance of empathy, communication and compassion.
“I’ve just gone to see me dad.” Those are the last words recorded by Jody, in a video to her mum, Claire (Suranne Jones). So when she disappears, her dad, Nelly (Lennie James), is naturally the first suspect. Estranged from the 13-year-old girl, he’s a loser, a barfly, the kind of man everyone on his South London housing estate knows. He’s also been receiving messages from her, and got a phone call from her just before she went missing. But Nelly, while far from the best guy in the world, is innocent – and so he sets off on his own investigation to find the person who’s abducted, or possibly even killed, his daughter.
It’s a premise that might sound familiar, but Save Me proves wonderfully unique at every turn. A large part of that comes down to the script, which is written by James himself. After impressing repeatedly with his sincere turn as Morgan in The Walking Dead, he brings that same authenticity to his screenplay, which twists and turns with the best detective dramas, but never lets plot get in the way of character.
Dark, trippy and existential, Russian Doll is a lot more than just Groundhog Day with hipsters. Read our full review
The Good Fight: Season 1 to 3
“The only constant we have is the law,” says Adrian Boseman (Delroy Lindo) in the of The Good Wife’s first season. It’s exactly the kind of declaration you expect to hear in a slick legal drama, and The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from ticking all the boxes of the genre. But it ticks them with such style, confidence and class that it’s impossible not to be hooked.
The show, of course, is a spin-off from The Good Wife, ordered by CBS to launch its subscription streaming service, CBS All Access. But it’s testament to how good the writing by creators Robert and Michelle King is that The Good Fight never feels like a sidekick or a companion piece, but a courtroom heavyweight in its own right – while it’s designed to woo fans of the original, you can tune into this without having seen any of The Good Wife and still be utterly gripped.
Jim Carrey is heartbreakingly good in this moving, hilarious, surprising journey of one kids’ TV presenter’s painful self-discovery. Read our full review
Sunderland ‘Til I Die
Football, they say, is game of two halves. In the case of Sunderland Association Football Club, it’s a game of two halves, hundreds of disappointments, several managers, multiple fights for survival and a handful of stunning goals. For a town that loves its local team like no other, it’s the very stuff of life. For everyone else, it makes for sublime television. This beautifully edited series captures the gripping despair and heart-wrenching hope of being a sports fan, and that human angle makes for something hugely entertaining, whether you’re a football lover or not.
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)
The Haunting of Hill House
“No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality.” That’s the first line of Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House. First published in 1959, it has gone on to inspire two films and a play. Here, it’s resurrected once again as a TV series, which reimagines the story as a 10-part drama. The tale may have changed, but director Mike Flanagan returns to Jackson’s opening sentiment and proves it over and over again. The series charts the lineage of the Crain family, starting with father and mother Hugh and Olivia (Henry Thomas and Carla Gugino). After moving into Hill House to renovate the old mansion and sell it on, things go very wrong, and Olivia ends up dead one dark night, as Hugh and their five children flee the estate in a panic. The series follows them as adults, jumping between their dysfunctional lives in the present and the origins of their problems several decades past. Each character gets an episode devoted to their experiences, and Flanagan uses that age-old device to weave a freshly compelling, complex tapestry of trauma and the mechanisms humans have devised to cope with it. The result is as much family drama as it is horror story, and it’s all the better for it; like the best entries in the genre, it’s as moving as it is purely terrifying.
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 – work that’s continued by Olivia Colman and Tobias Menzies in Season 3. Gorgeous stuff.
A hilarious, heartfelt study of love, commitment and change, Forever is a quietly profound triumph, with an irresistible, unique hook that sees the lives of married couple June (Maya Rudolph) and Oscar (Fred Armisen) turned upside down.
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. It might have been cancelled after three seasons, but it’s still wprth a binge.
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.
Over five seasons, 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 – or, in the case of the interactive special, mind-bendingly chilling. Read our review of Season 4.
Spiral: Season 1 to 8
With Season 8 now on BBC iPlayer, the rest of this superb French thriller has also returned to stream. Following Laure Berthaud and her team of detectives facing the brutal world of organised crime, the iconic Paris-set thriller – which began way back in 2005 – hasn’t lost its gripping edge, its nuanced portrayal of the nature of justice or the dark cycle of crime under the city’s busy surface.
“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
Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult are flawless in this hilarious satirical comedy about Catherine the Great’s rise to power.
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 thundering tale of storms brewing in a devout family – and the people trying to ride them out.
We meet the Krogh family as they prepare for a higher calling: the election of priest Johannes (Lars Mikkelsen) to Bishopdom. But becoming the head of the Copenhagen diocese is no simple matter, and the politics involved are a complex blend of ambition, showmanship, strategy and humility. No wonder, then, that the writer behind this exploration of duty and devotion is Adam Price, the creator of the hugely successful Danish drama Borgen. With equally complex issues and dynamics at play behind Denmark’s altars, it’s safe to say Price has another hit on his hands. (Season 2 is now also available.)
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)
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 6
“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
Locked Up: Season 1 to 3
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
Walter Presents (All 4)
The Expanse: Season 1 to 4
“‘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.)
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.
Over the course of six seasons, James Gandolfini and a superb ensemble cast, including Edie Falco, Lorraine Bracco and Michael Imperioli, deal with myriad personal and professional problems, from power struggles and affairs, to violence and the threat of exposure and betrayal. This mob crime drama is one not to miss.
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.
This slick, stylish and smart thriller is a James Bond box set the whole family can binge.