The best TV shows and box sets on BBC iPlayer (19th September 2021)
James R | On 19, Sep 2021
We review the best TV shows and films currently available on BBC iPlayer. (Click here to see our reviews of the best movies on BBC iPlayer.)
For BBC Three recommendations, click here.
Pick of the week: Alma’s Not Normal
After a recent break-up, Alma tries to get her life back on track. But with no job, no qualifications, and a rebellious streak a mile wide, it’s not going to be easy. Family life’s not ideal either as Alma’s heroin-addicted mum has been sectioned for arson and her vampish Grandma Joan wants nothing to do with it. That was the starting point for Sophie Willon’s comedy when it aired its pilot last year, and the full series doesn’t flinch, diving further into the unusually dark subject matter with a shrewd, razor-sharp script and a strikingly sincere performance from Willan – not least when she’s trying to muster enthusiasm for her job as a “sandwich artist”.
Strictly Coming Dancing: Season 19
Shirley Ballas, Craig Revel Horwood and Motsi Mabuse are back alongside new judge Anton Du Beke for the 19th edition of the BBC’s dancing extravaganza – and, with Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman still on effervescent hosting duties and Nina Wadia, AJ Odudu, Rose Ayling-Ellis and Tokyo Olympics gold medallist Adam Peaty among the contestants, it’s set to provide the same kind of glitzy escapism needed each week all over again.
Gripping box set: The North Water
Andrew Haigh’s brooding, brutal whaling drama is an unflinchingly dark voyage into human nature. Read our full review
Catch up with: Vigil
“How are you with enclosed spaces?” That’s the question asked of DCI Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) when she’s hastily recruited and sent aboard HMS Vigil. A Trident submarine, it’s more than just a closed-off space: it’s a compressed echo chamber that’s home to nuclear warheads, unspoken tensions and a dead body. Is it an accidental overdose or is there something more at play? The six-part thriller dives right in from the off, laying the seabed of suspicion thick on top of layers of intriguing conspiracy – before she’s even underwater, she’s encountered anti-Trident protestors, and before she’s seen the body, she’s been warned about what she can and (crucially) can’t do. Jones is impeccable at the nerves-of-steel investigator, who can confidently laugh off a misspelling of her name but finds herself on shaky ground once she’s all at sea – and she’s surrounded by a remarkable ensemble that throws up threats and secrets aplenty. From Martin Compston’s duty-driven mess officer and Shaun Evans’ seemingly honourable liason to Sex Education’s Connor Swindells as the heated engineer. Stealing the show and steering the ship? The always-excellent Paterson Joseph, who brings intimidation and a sense of duty that brings wider political stakes to the whodunnit. “We have always been at war,” he warns DCI Silva with an unblinking stare. One episode in and you can already feels those walls closing in – this is a grippingly claustrophobic watch. Episodes arrive weekly.
Catch up with: Fever Pitch: The Rise of the Premier League
Football’s just a game of two halves – but it’s game that’s grown and transformed dramatically over the years, evolving from jumpers for goalposts in the park to a billion-pound business that’s broadcast and streamed across the globe. This fascinating four-part documentary series explains how we get here, charting the founding of the Premier League back in the early 1990s – the point at which Rupert Murdoch came along and, as football seemed on the out in the 1980s, invested a huge sum of money in crafting what would become the definitive football competition. From players such as Alan Shearer being snapped up to Murdoch’s insistence on having Monday-night matches regularly scheduled, it’s an interesting potted history, not least because David Beckham’s production company has secured punditry from some impressive names, including Alex Ferguson, Vinnie Jones and the always-entertaining musings of Eric Cantona.
Thrilling box set: Motherland: Fort Salem
“This new series has a lot to recommend it. Created by Eliot Laurence, the premise is beguiling, incorporating all the elements for what should be a terrific supernatural programme. Ancestral witches, going back generations, are recruited into an “army” to fight against a terrorist group called The Spree, made up of witches gone “bad”…” Read our full review Words: Helen Archer
Comedy box set: The Watch
This very loose take on Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is a fun fantasy romp on its own terms. Read our full review
Ordeal by Innocence
Sarah Phelps’ adaptation of the Agatha Christie classic takes place on Christmas in 1954. Wealthy philanthropist Rachel Argyll (Anna Chancellor) is murdered at her family estate Sunny Point. Her adopted son Jack Argyll (Anthony Boyle) is arrested for her murder. He vehemently protests his innocence. The stellar cast includes Bill Nighy, Matthew Goode, Eleanor Tomlinson and Luke Treadaway, and – together with a last-minute reshot part from Christian Cooke – the result is a gripping labyrinth of truth and lies, each sold with convincing, dark and bitter chemistry between a far from functional family.
Readings and Leeds Festival
Biffy Clyro, Wolf Alice, Liam Gallagher and Stormzy are among the names taking to the stage at this year’s Reading and Leeds Festival – and BBC iPlayer is once again there to present us with their performances streamed right to our living rooms, along with an hour-long “Best of Reading Festival” documentary that features highlights from over the years.
Comedy box set: 15 Storeys High
The late, great Sean Lock gets a deserved leading man showcase in this sitcom from the early 2000s, which starred him and Benedict Wong as Vince and his flatmate Errol. Their double act is reason alone to tune in, thanks to Wong’s optimistic innocence clashing with Lock’s dark, surreal, sarcastic wit. But it’s Lock’s script through and through, full of his signature deadpan observations that repeatedly raise a chuckle.
9/11: Inside the President’s War Room
This access-all-areas account of George W Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks is a gripping, insightful watch. Read our full review.
While Inside the President’s War Room gives us a riveting account of George W Bush’s response to the 9/11 attacks, as decision-making had to take place in the immediate aftermath of a tragic emergency, this hugely moving documentary presents another perspective on the disaster – that of the people left behind who lived through it. The film follows 13 people who were caught up in the attacks, from first responders to family members of victims. They each leave an impact, from an office worker who saw fire shooting out of an elevator and a colleague running towards him for help to a firefighter who struggles to comprehend how he survived and a painter who held the artists’ residency on the 91st floor of the North Tower, and still can’t bring herself to finish the picture of her perspective of the sunrise that morning. “If anything, it gets harder,” we hear early on. Sensitively moving from interviews in the present day with fragments of re-enactments, this is a poignant reminder that not only did 9/11 take thousands of lives, but forever changed the lives of countless others.
A Life in 10 Pictures: Amy Winehouse
BBC Four’s A Life in 10 Pictures has always been an inspired way to approach notable figures, and Amy Winehouse is a textbook example. Taking a handful of iconic photographs as its framework, the documentary’s hour-long episode is a thoughtful and poignant exploration of a woman whose image was everywhere at one point – balancing media snaps with private photos of her at a young age. While there have been several documentaries featuring talking heads with conflicting accounts of Winehouse’s life and career, this balanced piece lets the images do the talking.
Gripping box set: The Pale Horse
Rufus Sewell stars in Sarah Phelps’ final Agatha Christie adaptation for the BBC – a haunting, stylish mystery dripping with ghostly dread.
Catch up with: Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing: Season 4
The Trip, but with fishing instead of food. That’s the premise behind this charmingly low-key chat between Paul Whitehouse and Bob Mortimer, who go fishing for little reason other than catch some tench or salmon and shoot the breeze about health, childhood and bad Robert De Niro impressions. It’s not shockingly revelatory or a gripping gossip fest – and that’s exactly the point. Now four seasons in and headed to the Outer Hebrides, and that pointless drifting has become even more endearing, as the pair’s intimate bickering, quick-witted bantering and completely honest observations remain as frank and unguarded as ever. If The Trip is a show in which personas are knowingly deconstructed, Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing doesn’t even bother constructing its stars’ personas in the first place.
Catch up with: Gossip Girl
Not the 2021 remake (read our review of that here) but the OG GG, this wonderfully cheesy and surprisingly nostalgic teen drama charts the scandals and vengeful plotting of a group of wealthy youngsters on New York’s Upper East Side – and from pitch-perfect performances by Penn Badgley and Leighton Meester to Blake Lively, this is a superbly more-ish pleasure. Leave the guilt at the door. (Available until: August 2022
Comedy Box Set: Ghosts Season 3
Pitched somewhere between The Others and What We Do in the Shadows, this horror-tinged comedy from the Horrible Histories and Yonderland team is a hysterical, witty and irresistibly silly piece of television that gets a laugh out of the darkest of material. Season 3 continues to expand the show’s emotional canvas, from the possibility of Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) having a long-lost sister to the challenge of Kitty (Lolly Adefope) confronting her memories of her own adoptive sister. The continued ensemble approach gives every character in this undead limbo a chance to grow and develop, with Jim Howick on laugh-out-loud form as scout leader Pat who switches into slightly creepy mode when telling ghost stories – just watching him watch Alison dunk biscuits is hilarious. Simon Farnaby’s trouser-less MP finds ways to use his powers to be helpful – a growing friendship between him and Laurence Rickard’s Robin allows the caveman the rare and rewarding chance to be the smartest one in the room – and Bel Wilibond’s delightfully uptight Captain learns to talk about his feelings. Katy Wix’s witch trial victim has atmospheric, vivid, haunting nightmares, while Mathew Baynton’s lovelorn poet, Thomas, goes all The King’s Speech on Alison, as she prepares to record a TV documentary, and Martha Howe-Douglas’s Lady Button gets carried away watching Murder She Wrote. Three seasons in and what amazes is the attention to detail, with the tiniest touches paying off in dividends, from Kiell Smith-Bynoe’s endearing turn as Mike, who still uses catchphrases heard way back in Season 1, to Nick Collett’s direction, which uses handhelds and close-ups to heighten the comic timing, while subtly changing actors in flashbacks as truths are revealed. It’s a masterclass in comedy that’s simultaneously light and dark, spooky and silly, funny and sweet – bring on another three seasons please.
Drama Box Set: Pose Season 1 to 3
Vibrant, gripping, emotional and sassy, Pose is one of Ryan Murphy’s greatest TV creations, shining a spotlight on the ball culture of the 1980s. With its groundbreaking, primarily transgender cast, it’s a revelatory experience to watch it, not only because of the plethora of lives and stories finally being told but also the talent bursting through every frame. Season 3 takes things forward to the 1990s for a powerful final run that faces the AIDS crisis head-on, as its characters still struggle to find acceptance, respect, support and a welcome distraction. The result is as breathtaking and moving as ever.
Ambulance: Season 7
Just when you think that you couldn’t admire the NHS any more, along comes Season 7 of the BBC’s heart-stopping, hugely compelling documentary, which puts us on the ground with the staff of the North West Ambulance Service in Merseyside. While the usual onslaught of accidents and incidents is already overwhelming, this season sees the paramedic crews also having to deal with the coronavirus pandemic, which adds an emotional weight and traumatic toll to their shifts. They face it all with comforting calm and remarkable humour, while also reminding us all watching of the need for perspective, as some people complain about the weather while other bid farewell to loved ones over the phone. A sobering, heartfelt watch, narrated with frank sensitivity by
Comedy Box Set: King Gary: Season 1 and 2
Back for a second season, this hilarious sitcom still has laughs and warmth in abundance. Tom Davis gets a deserved chance to take the lead as Gary King, a builder with aspirations to achieve social acceptance and moderate material success in competitive suburbia. He’s joined by his childhood sweetheart Terri, played with impeccable cluelessness by Laura Checkley (The Detectorists). But while the larger-than-life characters are amusingly inept at trying to climb the social ladder, King Gary succeeds because it has such affection for its man-and-wife double-act, ensuring we never chuckle at their expense. Gary, in particular, is a wonderfully observed and realised character, a balance of desperation and dated values; he’s perpetually trying to impress his dinosaur of a dad (Simon Day) and prove himself the man of the town, even though he’s visibly pained by trying to do so. Masculinity, marital loyalty and modern social pressures all elbow each other throughout every 30-minute episodes, erupting into brilliant set pieces such as one awkward confrontation over a football team Gary coaches – bringing him into conflict with Romesh Rangathan’s sarcastic, woke neighbour – and a very relatable struggle to establish order and respect on the family building site. With Neil Maskell providing generous support as Gary’s friend, Winkle, and – in Season 2, the introduction of Morgan Watkins as rude new neighbour Aaron, who has no time for Gary’s blustering outbursts – the result is a beautifully simple yet deceptively complex comedy that gets every detail just right, even down to Gary’s absurdly over-rehearsed walk. From the pressure to keep up appearances to finding the balance between helping others for them and helping others for yourself – a kids’ golf tournament has rarely been so enjoyably prickly – this is shrewdly written telly.
Exponential growth. Those two words are perhaps the epitome of the past year, packed with horror, indescribable grief and a mathematical and statistical scale that is hard to process. Together, Dennis Kelly’s new drama, brings home the personal significance of that phrase with a harrowing, devastating clarity, as Sharon Horgan’s wife and mother talks about loss. The line between personal and political has, in some ways, been widened in the past year, even as the boundary between state and personal responsibility has been blurred. But Together’s masterful achievement is to capture how intertwined the personal and politically are, putting every beat of a couple’s journey through the coronavirus pandemic in its wider context. That’s largely thanks to a recurring device of having each character talk to camera, a stagey concept that could be insufferable but actually makes this montage of monologues more immersive, relatable and engaging. James McAvoy is firing on all cylinders as “He”, who rockets back and forth between justifying his own views and business decisions and confronting his own feelings for “She”, and Horgan is impeccable as the also-unnamed spouse, trying to work out how she feels about him and his work, while they both try to adjust to a world where queuing for supermarkets has become a norm. All set within the confines of their home, the result is superbly acted and directed, a challenging and cathartic ride through all too recent history that is funny, tragic and resonant all at once.
Pick of the week: Uprising
“People on the outside, maybe they can just imagine…” That’s one of the survivors of the New Cross Fire in January 1981, speaking at the start of Uprising. Directed by Steve McQueen and James Rogan, the three-part series for BBC One charts a string of events from that, beginning with the fire, before going on to the first organised mass protest by Black British people and, that April, the Brixton riots. Respectful, moving and burdened with social, political and racial context, this is a vivid and powerful portrait of tragedy and legacy.
Pick of the week: Reclaiming Amy
Marking the 10-year anniversary of Amy Winehouse’s tragic death, this new BBC documentary is a fascinating and poignant watch. It makes no secret about its desire to set the record straight on the singer-songwriter, with her parents, Janis and Mitch, essentially using the film to reply to Asif Kapadia’s seminal 2015 documentary Amy. While your mileage may vary when it comes to Mitch refuting that film’s criticisms of his behaviour, what’s undeniable is the intimacy on display here, as Winehouse’s friends and family all chime in alongside home videos and recordings of her on stage. Objectivity isn’t going to be achieved here, but there’s a raw, personal quality that makes this if not a comprehensive rebuttal to Kapadia’s film then a moving counterpart. One standout segment features a clip of Winehouse playing Rizzo in a school production of Grease – a powerful reminder of a talent lost far too soon.
Gold Rush: Our Race to Olympic Glory
If you’re not quite in the sporting spirit this month, then this three-part series will do the trick, taking us in detail through the ups, downs and ups of Team GB on the world stage – from a disastrous 1996 games in 1996 to the boost provided by the National Lottery and the rise of young people in the shadow of London 2012 and its expectations and pressures. If you’re nostalgic for the heady joy of those games almost 10 years ago, this three-hour tour through national triumphs and struggles is an exciting and inspiring watch.
After working with Spencer Jones in The Mind of Herbert Clunkerdunk, BBC Three gives a welcome spotlight to Lucy Pearman for this one-off pilot, which sees her play Milly, a young woman whose life has been consumed by caring for her grandmother. Starved of a social life, stressed and exhausted, she begins to experience a breakdown, hallucinating and hearing voices (including Tim Key as a horse). But when that burn-out takes the form of apparent super-powers, we end up an enjoyably surreal limbo where her forceful rebuke of sexist workmen and her inability to sit still in a chair without hovering become a promising blend of absurdist humour and poignant statements about the lack of support in an underfunded healthcare system.
Tchéky Karyo once again reprises his role as the insightful but stubborn investigator Julien Baptiste in this second chapter of the BBC’s spin-off from The Missing. There’s certainly intrigue to keep you hooked, as he’s drawn into the hunt for the family of British Ambassador Emma Chambers (the always-excellent Fiona Shaw), but writers Harry and Jack Williams are smart enough to know that Baptiste also needs to grow and change – and a personal tragedy leads to a heart-wrenching turn by Karyo, as he moves between past and present with real emotional clout.
Dominic Cummings: The Interview
Dominic Cummings are two words that you probably never want to hear again, but this hour-long interview with Laura Kuenssberg is an interesting watch, whether it’s to hear his increasingly honed account of Brexit and the government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, or see how both he and Kuenssberg try to position themselves and the viewer in a quietly tense game of moving pieces around the political board.
Comedy box set: Shrill: Season 3
Hulu’s series makes a welcome return for a third season, with Aidy Bryant reprising her role as Annie, an overweight young woman who wants to change her life – but not her body. Top-notch writing and a glorious lead turn make this body-positive comedy a hilarious, sensitive modern TV gem. All three seasons are now available.
Drama box set: Gentleman Jack: Season 1
Suranne Jones is electric in this whip-smart, playful period drama that swaggers through its true story with style.
Gripping box set: The Pact
It’s been a few years since Broadchurch’s final season gave us a reminder that former Coronation Street star Julie Hesmondhalgh is a phenomenal talent. Now, Julie’s back again in this gripping BBC One drama, which follows five colleagues who find themselves frustrated by their egotistical, immoral boss and passed over for promotions – and, after an office party, also find themselves with a dead body on their hands and a police investigation underway. What happened that night in the woods? Hesmondhalgh and Laura Fraser lead a superb ensemble who ensure that the tension comes not just from the drip-feed narrative reveals but also from the twisting tensions between a convincing group of friends. Be prepared to binge through the whole lot within a week.
If you caught Steve McQueen’s Education instalment of Small Axe, this documentary will engage you all over again, as it exposes the shocking way the UK’s education system casually dismissed a generation of young Black students as requiring special education – without any regard for their actual intellectual and academic abilities. An important lesson in bias, prejudice and inequality that should never be forgotten.
The Psychedelic Drug Trail
“All psychedelic drug use shown in this programme was part of a carefully controlled clinical trial.” It’s not the sound of your usual documentary intro, but that’s the point of this BBC Two programme, which looks at a ground-breaking trial to try psychedelic drugs alongside psychological support to combat depression. In such a setting, the reports of people’s trippy experiences take on a new tone, while the overall documentary emerges as a thoughtful question about how open-minded medicine should be to the prescribed use of such substances.
Catch up with: Inside No 9: Season 6
Six seasons in and Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton are still finding ways to flex their muscles – even if it is with an episode that explicitly talks about how they’re doing just that. Combining a masked jewel heist with commedia dell’arte, the result is somewhere between Ben Wheatley’s Free Fire and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off, balancing threatening, gun-toting tension (courtesy of Paterson Joseph’s gang leader) with stock comic characters (such as Shearsmith’s heavily accented Scaramouche). In between it all, Gemma Whelan is clearly having a ball as the deceitful Columbina, who breaks the fourth wall every chance she gets, teeing up a non-stop stream of double entendre and double identities, plus an endearing running joke about a sandwich. “It’s quite clever in a way,” Columbina smirks. “But still sounds like something a drama teacher would have a **** to.”
Catch up with: The Pursuit of Love
“Is life all about love?” “Yes!” That’s the sound of Linda (the irrepressible Lily James) and her cousin Fanny (the always-excellent Emily Beecham) finding their way through life between World War I and World War II – Linda besotted with the idea of romance and Fanny held firm by the logic of common sense. Based on Nancy Mitford’s 1945 novel, the series is given a modern, playful air by writer and director Emily Mortimer, who introduces every character with their name scrawled over the screen and gives her two leads no end of witty dialogue to ping back and forth, while Fanny provides a contrasting voiceover. Dominic West is clearly having a ball as Linda’s strict father, whose behaviour only gives her greater passion for finding a husband and getting away from the family home. But there’s escapism on offer soon enough in the shape of Andrew Scott, who is an absolute delight as a flamboyant artist who swaggers through the scenery with big David Bowie energy. If you’ve been waiting for something to fill the Bridgerton-shaped hole in your life, this delightful period drama is it.
Don’t miss: Motherland: Season 3
This fantastically frank sitcom about parenting remains as flawlessly written and performed as ever, thanks to Anna Maxwell Martin’s frantic performance as Julia, Diane Morgan’s laidback presence as Liz and Lucy Punch’s snooty presence as Amanda – not to mention Paul Ready’s put-upon Kevin. The opening episode taps into timely nods to the coronavirus pandemic with a lice outbreak at school – “Comb, Shampoo, Comb” – but what’s quietly brilliant is how deftly this sitcom has grown its sharply observed caricatures into increasingly layered characters, so that every new twist and turn of their lives can be moving as well as funny.
It was only in 2019 that Northern Ireland’s restrictive abortion law was lifted – a fact that’s still shocking two years later. This two-part dramatisation tells the real stories of the families behind the controversial campaign, and writer Gwyneth Hughes composes a moving tableau of lives upended by an unlistening law, superbly performed by a cast that includes powerhouse turns from Sinéad Keenan, Amy James-Kelly an Colin Morgan.
This one-off drama tells the true story of a soldier’s journey from hero to alleged war criminal and the determined lawyer on his tail. Anthony Boyle is excellent as the tough yet vulnerable trooper Brian Wood, and Tony Jones shines on the opposite side of the conflict, bringing a passionate confidence and moral righteousness to his lawyer, Phil Shiner. The result is a compelling and thoughtful exploration of the need for truth in the fog of war.
Leigh-Anne: Race, Pop & Power
“This is just the beginning,” says Leigh-Anne Pinnock in this insightful, thoughtful documentary – and it’s that sense of opening up a conversation without expecting to end it that makes this such a sensitive and illuminating watch. Pinnock was thrown into the spotlight along with the rest of Little Mix, after they won The X Factor. This week, they became the first all-female group to win Best British Group at the Brits. But Pinnock isn’t afraid to speak out about racial prejudice within the music industry – something that’s been keenly aware of since her image was changed for The X Factor to make like the Rihanna of the band. Today, she finds herself put in the room with another Black woman – the head of marketing – when she tries to discuss the need for change with her record label. There’s a strong sense that enough’s enough, that it’s time for her to ask the questions others won’t – and the response to even the programme happening in the first place sparked a conversation about colourism. There are no easy answers here, and Pinnock’s conversations with her own family – and her footballing fiancee – illuminate that fact with a personal intimacy and frank clarity. The documentary follows another candid documentary by Jesy Nelson (who left Little Mix in 2020) about mental health and social media. Brit award or not Brit award, the group’s members are setting a fantastic example not only of what to do with a high-profile platform, but also how to approach the world in an honest, open way.
Gripping Box Set: Gods of Snooker
Snooker might seem like a sedate sport, but it’s one that has enjoyed a dramatic past, and this three-part documentary is a perfect introduction to the appeal of the battles on and off the baize. Taking us back to the 1980s, when smoky halls were the backdrop for the tussle of talent and ego, the money-spinning soap opera introduces us to such legendary figures as Alex Higgins, the hurricane of skill who wouldn’t conform to the composed sheen of the circuit, Steve Davis, whose steely professionalism made him a key part of Barry Hearn’s Matchroom Mob, and Jimmy White, whose rock-and-roll lifestyle made him a popular people’s player.
Ian Wright: Home Truths
Ian Wright has long been a winning presence on TV screens as well as on the football pitch, but this striking and powerful documentary gives us a look at the man behind his often boisterous persona, as he shares his story of growing up in an abusive home. He’s always been a shrewd and smart sports pundit and he’s just as insightful here, as he sensitively speaks to others who also lived through the same kind of violence and psychological torment as children. It’s a compassionate, honest and important look at a subject that doesn’t get discussed often on TV, and is a moving reminder of why Wright is a national treasure.
This Time with Alan Partridge
Alan Partridge actually gets a second season with the return of This Time, the inspired spoof magazine show that has recruited Norfolk’s broadcasting legend to step in as co-host. Steve Coogan is pitch-perfect as the ageing Alan, who worries that, with a younger producer in the wings, he could be fading into irrelevance – and Susannah Fielding is flawless as Jennie, his pointedly professional co-presenter. As with Season 1, the behind-the-scenes segments when the cameras stop rolling as cringe-inducingly hilarious, but Season 2 has seen its parody of The One Show-style programming step up a gear, from on-screen reunions and proposals just waiting to go wrong to Lolly Adefope’s scene-stealing correspondent, each item held together with laugh-out-loud glances and facial expressions that communicate all the off-screen tensions without a word. Give him a third series, already.
Catch up with: The Syndicate: Season 4
It’s been several years since The Syndicate was last on our screens, but Kay Mellor’s lottery drama has made a delayed return for a fourth run. Each season tells a standalone story and this time, we follow the staff members of Woodvale Kennels, who find out that they’ve won the lottery. But how much they’ve won suddenly becomes unclear when they realise that they’ve been duped and their winning ticket has been stolen. Katherine Rose Morley, who impressed in BBC Three’s Thirteen, is fantastic as Keeley, the leader of the group, who sorely need the winnings to be able to turn their lives around and get out of debt. The moving, convincing scenes that show us her side of her story – one part unthinking entitlement, the other sincere morals – are balanced with other characters’ dilemmas, as Roxy (Taj Atwal) issues an ultimatum to her good-for-nothing boyfriend (Joe Suggs). And, seemingly in the background, Neil Morrissey steals several scenes as the callous local shop owner who cares more about his own dog than anyone else. The result is an entertaining and witty ride that juggles compelling what-ifs with caper-ish plot twists. In other words, it’s a winner.
Catch up with: Line of Duty: Season 6
Who is H? That was the question overshadowing Season 5 of Line of Duty, Jed Mercurio’s impossibly gripping cop drama. If that season ultimately struggled with the weight of trying to answer that mystery, Season 6 gets off to a thrilling start by not referring to H at all in its first episode. The result takes Line of Duty back to its earlier seasons of stripped-down – but rapidly spiralling – conspiracies and complex case notes.
It kicks off with DCI Jo Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) receiving new information about the whereabouts of a suspect in the unsolved murder of a journalist called Gail Vella. On the way to make an arrest, though, she pulls over the convoy after spotting an apparent armed robbery – leading to a standoff, a shooting and what appears to be the wrong person arrested for Gail’s murder. Meanwhile, a bearded DS Arnott (Martin Compston) and an aloof DI Fleming (Vicky McClure) seem poles apart, while AC-12 head Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) has fallen out of favour following the events of Season 5. Needless to say, they all start to fall in step once more, but with familiar faces from past seasons popping up in the background, the lingering tensions and suspicions of all the characters promises a twisting, gripping new ride – not least because Macdonald’s Davidson appears to be a formidable figure with her own tangled web of personal and professional problems. Roll on the next six weeks.
RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under
Sashay, G’day! This Antipodean edition of the RuPaul drag race phenomenon is just the thing to give you your fix before the next run of UK and US queens competing, as we meet the Australians and New Zealander hoping to become Down Under’s first Drag Race superstar.
Thrilling Box Set: Hustle
“The con is on” declares the tagline for this BBC series about a group of grifters, and it lives up to that slick vibe from the very first episode, which sees Adrian Lester’s veteran con artist joined by Marc Warren’s cocky newcomer. From Robert Vaughn cooly overseeing the whole thing to Robert Glenister’s fixer making sure all the sleights of hand pay off, it’s an effortlessly enjoyable ride, one that balances Ocean’s Eleven fun with the Lupin-style satisfaction of righting moral wrongs.
Dreaming Whilst Black
Adjani Salmon. Get ready to know that name. The filmmaker and writer has adapted his own web series – co-created with Max Evans, Laura de Sousa Seixas and Natasha Jatania – into a BBC Three Comedy Slice pilot and the result is surely destined to earn a full series commission. The comedy, co-written with Ali Hughes, follows wannabe filmmaker Kwabena (played by Salmon), who has almost given up on the idea of a film career after years in a recruitment job. A chance encounter with a former fellow film school graduate inspires him to keep chasing his dreams, and the result is a comedy that dissects the unspoken racial biases in the workplace and the gate-keeping nature of the film industry with fresh wit, personal authenticity and a steady stream of laughs. The script is stuffed with well observed moments that are played by a strong cast (including Will Hislop and The Pin’s Alexander Owen) with sharp comic timing – from a cringe-inducing microwave lunch incident to a white filmmaker pitching a project about someone else’s experiences with privileged presumption. At its heart of is Adjani Salmon’s brilliant performance, which balances frustration and aspiration with underdog charm and an awareness that Kwabena doesn’t deserve to be an underdog. The same is true of Adjani and the rest of the talent behind this – expect the BBC to order more episodes imminently.
Comedy Box Set: Starstruck: Season 1
“Why didn’t you tell me who you are?” “When did we eat cereal?” “Why are you wearing my coat?” That’s the sound of Jessie (Rose Matafeo) and Tom (Nikesh Patel) hooking up in Starstruck, BBC Three’s new romantic comedy, which tells the timeless tale of a slacker twenty-something striking up a fling with a movie star. If that sounds like a millennial Notting Hill, you wouldn’t be far off, and the script – by Matafeo and Alice Snedden – leans into the fairytale-like set-up with an uncynical charm. That’s matched by the cast, with Matafeo and Patel sparking off each other with wit and humour. Matafeo, whose pin-point comic timing has taken her from being a winning stand-up comedian to the winning star of recent rom-com Baby Done, does a great job of delivering a female lead who’s not bumbling or ditzy but talkative and confident in her own lack of confidence. Patel is wonderful as an actor who isn’t selfish or conceited. Together, they’re a delight to watch in action, while they chat in a bar, ask lots of questions in the bedroom, and work through the awkward excitement of the morning after. While that’s enough reason to put this show on your watchlist, there’s also an appearance from Minnie Driver as Tom’s agent.
Bent Coppers: Crossing the Line of Duty
This might be a companion documentary for Line of Duty, but there’s no better choice than Life of Mars’ “Guv” Philip Glenister to narrate this series, which exposes the real dirt behind London policing – and charts the formation of the first internal anti-corruption unit. The result is a gripping, knowing show but one that’s also serious enough to be genuinely gripping in its own right.
Greta Thunberg: A Year to Change the World
What an inspiring and poignant figure Greta Thunberg is – a global hero for her determined activism in raising awareness of climate change and urging politicians and people to act, and a young adult shouldering the burden of a planet. This excellent three-part documentary captures both sides of that unique role she has come to embody, following her as she travels to a UN climate conference in Chile and then to the annual World Economic Forum in Davos – before finding her work restricted to remote campaigning due to the coronavirus pandemic. The series doesn’t shy away from the irony that it’s doing what she doesn’t like – focusing on her as much as, if not more than, the message she’s trying to convey, but it also highlights her commitment to making the most of the spotlight while she has it to do as much as possible to halt the looming climate crisis. A conversation with David Attenborough proves a particularly moving moment, as these two stalwarts fighting for Earth’s natural world share their perspectives on the battle. “I’ve been bleating about this for a long time,” Attenborough reflects. “The big changes came when you spoke.” It’s an encouraging, thoughtful reminder of how much difference one person can make, and makes you wonder not for the first time why that responsibility should fall on her in the first place.
Gripping box set: Mrs Wilson
Ruth Wilson is superb in this moving, gripping true drama about the blurred lines between fact and fiction.
Gripping box set: The Salisbury Poisonings
This riveting retelling of the 2018 Novichok poisonings is a moving, gripping tale of bravery and resilience.
Gripping box set: The Cry
This gut-churning tale of a child’s disappearance is impeccably painful TV.
Sort Your Life Out
Imagine if the entire contents of your home were laid out so you could decide what to keep and what to lose. That’s the starting point for this hugely likeable lifestyle series, which sees Stacey Solomon and her team help a family declutter their home – think Marie Kondo but a little more accessible.
I Can See Your Voice
The cycle of singing contest permutations hits its inevitable next step with this shiny floor show that sees a group of celebrities – and some members of the public – try to guess which singers out of a bunch of contestants can actually sing. Lip-syncing and interviews are the clues they have to navigate and, while it sounds ridiculous, an entertaining panel of sleuths (including Jimmy Carr, Alison Hammond and Amanda Holden) makes this a diverting addition to the Saturday night TV roulette – not least because you’re hoping that the guest singer who performs with the mystery singer at the end will be upstaged by someone who can’t carry a tune.
Catch up with: Louis Theroux: Shooting Joe Exotic
A year on from when Netflix’s Tiger King dominated our watchlists, it seems only fitting that Louis Theroux should revisit “Joe Exotic” a decade after he first interviewed the convicted felon and cult figure. Theroux, tellingly, responds to a direct call from Joe to tell the “real story” and to explore the saga of the animal hoarder. The result is a documentary that digs deep into Joe’s background, meets Carole Baskin and looks back at how Joe came across in his first screen appearance with Theroux – an initially charming figure with much darker things going on. This is a thoughtful, reflexive watch, even if you might never want to hear anything more about the Tiger King again afterwards.
Catch up with: Keeping Faith: Season 3
It’s always a pleasure to see Eve Myles get a chance to take centre-stage, so it’s a bittersweet return for the hit drama Keeping Faith, as it begins its third and final season. It takes us 18 months forward from Season 2, with Faith once again juggling being a mother with setting up a new law firm with Cerys. Her emotive style of arguing has put her at odds with a local judge, but it’s that compassion and empathy that makes Faith such an engaging screen presence – and it’s also what leads her to want to help Osian, a young boy who needs surgery to save his life but the hospital trust won’t go ahead with it. After two seasons of Faith fighting to retain a sense of life and identity, it’s a dilemma that leaves her having to decide exactly who she wants to be. Expect the remaining episodes to be a moving, cathartic watch.
Surrogacy isn’t something that people really talk about, with any mainstream media coverage usually restricted to pot-boiling thrillers. BBC Three’s compelling documentary series explores the truth behind the complex world of having a child via someone else, questioning whether it’s altruistic or exploitative. It mostly emerges as misunderstood, and as we meet a couple who have lost multiple pregnancies, the series clearly captures the human stakes, costs and motivations behind considering the idea of transferring an embryo into someone else’s womb – and the complications that can arise, as the woman carrying baby has to face letting go of the baby once born. An eye-opening, considerate insight into a little-discussed topic.
Paloma Faith: As I Am
How does one juggle being a mum and a pop star, while embarking on a make-or-break tour and writing a new album – and also launching an acting career? Welcome to the life of Paloma Faith, and this documentary gives us a fantastic, candid insight into the musician’s life and career. Starting out on the London underground circuit, her flamboyant, theatrical persona is what catapulted her to fame, with cockney sparrow cabaret charm to spare, but this shows us Paloma off-stage, with a partner who loves her for who she really is, with a manager who can’t persuade her to sing the national anthem because she doesn’t want to, and with a baby she doesn’t want to leave. The result is a likeable showcase for the pop star, which makes the most of its access, but also raises pertinent questions about motherhood and being a working woman today.
Billie: In Search of Billie Holiday
With The United States vs Billie Holiday up for awards, there’s no better time to catch this superior documentary, which takes us back through the life of the singing legend. An icon who has often been considered a victim, James Erskine brings depth to the story of her career, as unvarnished in its portrait of her talent and personal troubles as it is unflinching in its details of the politics and social tensions she had to somehow navigate. It’s all held together with spellbinding footage of her singing on stage, including the powerful, mesmerising Strange Fruit.
Gripping box set: Keeping Faith: Season 1 and 2
“Just keep going.” Those are the words of Faith Howells to herself as she fights through an increasingly intimidating set of circumstances. Eve Myles delivers a powerhouse performance in the Welsh drama, which sees a lawyer, wife and mother having to hold down all three forts when her husband, Evan (Bradley Freehard), disappears. The result is grippingly complex, moving sincere and able to balance both twisting narrative turns with the confidence to slow down and get to know each character. Before Season 3 returns to our screens, don’t miss the chance to catch up.
Moving On: Season 12
Jimmy McGovern’s anthology series returns for a 12th – count ’em, 12 – season and you might expect the drama to have reached its point of contrivance and tedium. McGovern’s a skilled writer, though, and his knack for capturing human nature on screen hasn’t worn off, from moral dilemmas to emotional relevations, all observed with compassion and honesty. The opening chapter sets the tone with a wedding in which a surprise guest arrives years after he was thought dead, leading to thoughtfully performed, low-key confrontations that ring with authenticity.
Funny Festival Live
Part of the Beeb’s Festival of Funny, this new series is a welcome companion to the collection of classic stand-up specials streaming on BBC iPlayer. While it’s nice to relive old sets, it’s a treat just to see live, new stand-up back on our screens – and particularly refreshing to see new material. Jason Manford presents the opening episode and launches straight into knowing anecdotes about performing stand-up comedy during the coronavirus pandemic. He’s complemented by a promising bunch of up-and-coming comics, plus the established and always-entertaining Jayde Adams. Perhaps the most promising of the lot is Toussaint Douglass, who playfully toys with social tensions while looking back through life in lockdown with a compellingly uneasy stage presence that gradually gives way to grinning confidence. He sets the bar for the rest of the collection, which culminates brilliantly with BBC Three star Tim Renkow, who talks about everything from relationships to public transport, a set from the ever-amusing Zoe Lyons, and some wonderfully charismatic compering from Nabil Abdul Rashid.
Gripping box set: The Terror
AMC’s spooky sea-faring mystery is a grippingly glacial tale of lost hope and chilling dread. Read our full review
Catch up with: Bloodlands
James Nesbitt is broodingly intense as DCI Tom Brannick in this gripping crime drama, which brings a polished sheen to darkly grim material, as a cold case awakens in Northern Ireland that brings with it the ghost of Goliath, a legendary killer who was reputed to be a former police officer who went missing 20 years ago. With Tom’s wife among Goliath’s victims, Nesbitt’s copper inevitably sees his judgement compromised and questioned – just the ticket to promise a twisting, gripping mystery plot until Line of Duty returns.
Festival of Funny
The BBC is bringing a boatload of comedy to our screens this spring, with celebrations of such legends as Victoria Wood and Tommy Cooper balanced by a new live stand-up series and a wave of comedy specials from modern comedians, including Rose Matafeo’s hilarious Horndog, Eddie Izzard’s formidable Force Majeure and Dylan Moran’s darkly funny Off the Hook. See our full guide to the season here.
Attenborough’s Life in Colour
Using the latest camera technology, David Attenborough reveals the extraordinary ways in which animals use colour: to win a mate, to fight off rivals and to warn enemies. Attenborough’s vocals are as soothing and insightful as ever, but it’s the visuals that take centre-stage here, giving us an eye-popping fresh look at the natural world.
Gripping box set: Bates Motel
Can a modern-day spin-off/prequel based on Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho really work as a TV series? Don’t miss your chance to find out.
Charming Box Set: Love Life
If it’s messiness you want, look no further than Love Life, HBO Max’s wonderfully observed romantic comedy, which takes the form of an anthology – each season follows a new protagonist’s romantic entanglements, while each episode introduces another flame that is either kindled or expunged. In this first season, it’s Anna Kendrick’s Darby, who is trying to make her way through life in New York. Along the way, there are some wonderful guest stars, including Scoot McNairy as her mature, divorced boss, with his own emotional baggage, Jin Ha as college fling Augie, who has an insufferable partner who wants to take him away on a road trip, and Gus Halper as “Danny Two-Phones”. whose perspective on relationships is even more naive than Darby’s. The result shuffles along at a pace driven by character and circumstance, with Sam Boyd’s dialogue nailing the awkward conversations, even more awkward unsaid feelings and the thrilling moments of connection that shape bonds between people. Most of all, it’s a joy to see Anna Kendrick get the kind of leading role that gives her a chance to explore her range and versatility. If things risk falling into lightweight or cliched territory, Kendrick’s charming performance is more than enough to keep you emotionally invested.
The Ranganation: Season 3
Romesh Ranganathan’s state-of-the-nation talk show is back for a third season, and Romesh’s ability to adapt the current situation to his own comedic strengths remains brilliant. Romesh has always been one of the best TV comics around thanks to the fact that he is naturally funny and at his best when he’s simply talking to other people. Having his panel of representatives from across the UK – “Pride of Wales”, “Small Town Girl”, “Technophobe”, and so on – on one big video call is a natural step for the show’s smart and simple format, while his celebrity guests (starting with Jack Dee and Welsh presenter Alex Jones) chip in without being allowed to dominate the chat – although Dee does take the chance to playfully insult some of the panel. The result may be Romesh sitting with a TV screen in an empty studio (with his mother dialling in remotely), but it is, just for a second, like nothing’s changed at all. Throw in conversations about testing and vaccinations and you’ve got a genuinely funny hour of TV.
RuPaul’s Drag Race UK: Queens on Lockdown
Already caught up with the weekly drama from Drag Race UK? Get your fix with this engaging documentary following the lives of the queens when they were sent home for a seven-month break in filming due to the coronavirus pandemic. Combining self-filmed video diaries and interview footage, the queens give us an all-access look at their quarantine home lives, their professional struggles, their emotional highs and lows, and how they got ready to return to the competition – by shopping at H&M or otherwise.
Gripping box set: The Mallorca Files: Season 2
“This daytime crime drama is Jacuzzi TV – warm and bubbly at any time of year.” Read our full review.
Comedy box set: Zapped: Season 1 to 3
Don’t you hate it when you accidentally travel through time, leave behind your menial office job and wind up trapped in a medieval-era land of fantastical creatures and blithering idiots? That’s the starting point for Zapped, one of Dave’s most enjoyable original comedy series to date, which balances fantastical silliness and sitcom scenarios with imaginative production design and an amusing cast – including a hilarious, scene-stealing Paul Kaye as an extremely wayward wizard.
Catch up with: 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. Read our full review.
Thrilling Box Set: 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
Craftivism: Make a Difference
With many people spending a large amount of time indoors this past year, some people have taken that time and turned their hands to positive work through craftivism. Comedian Jenny Eclair serves as our guide to this practice, a combination of craftwork and activism – communicating messages through creativity that engage and inspire others to not only take action themselves but pass it on. From miniature knickers dotted around Bradford on Avon to encourage screening for cervical cancer to cross stitched notices of positivity, it’s a sweet and upbeat reminder that the world can be changed through the smallest ways.
Gripping box set: The Investigation
From A Hijacking to Mindhunter, director Tobias Lindholm is one of the most compellingly patient storytellers around, and this six-part drama is catnip for fans of his forensic approach to building tension and exploring moral dilemmas. It follows the complex investigation carried out by Jens Møller, the Head of Homicide for the Copenhagen Police, surrounding the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall in 2017. Determinedly keeping the focus away from the killer, it’s a slow-paced, methodical drama that finds humanity and catharsis in the process of justice, without descending into harrowing nastiness – no wonder that it reunites Lindholm with Pilou Asbaek and Soren Malling, who have starred in his films A War and A Hijacking.
Gripping box set: Noughts + Crosses
We’re in a dream age for dystopian fiction – an ironic paradox if ever there were one – and a golden era for alt-history thrillers. Noughts + Crosses is based on Malorie Blackman’s novel of the same name, first published in 2001. 20 odd years later, it’s still blisteringly topical and breathtakingly bold. The series introduces us to an alternate 21st century, where the black ruling class – the “Crosses” – lead society and the “Noughts” are the white underclass. Sephy, the daughter of the home secretary, reunites with Callum, a Nought and a friend since childhood. With a spark reignited between them, the stage is set for a star-crossed, socially forbidden romance. It’s a grippingly astute role reversal, and one that the script – plus directors Julian Holmes and Koby Adom – bring to life with immediately convincing, and remarkably detailed, world-building. Segregation, we’re told is over, but the programme shrewdly captures the little ways in which racism is still alive in society, whether it’s interactions with the law or people’s choice of words. The always-excellent Paterson Joseph leads the cast as Sephy’s father, with Peaky Blinders’ Jack Rowan and newcomer Masali Baduza shining as our two young leads. The result is timeless and timely, gripping and heart-wrenching, dazzlingly different and searingly recognisable. There’s never been a better worse time to watch it.
Celebrity Best Home Cook: Season 1
BBC One’s attempt to replace Bake Off in its schedules finds its strength in getting people to cook meals that others would actually recognise as being cooked in everyday home kitchens. Adding celebrities into the mix is a nice variation on the recipe, as it gives us a chance to see how stars eat themselves. The group, which includes Ruth Madeley, Ed Balls and Ed Byrne, is faultlessly nice throughout, which means that any sense of tense competition soon seeps out of the kitchen, but in the current climate, something warm and cheerful is much more preferable.
Katie Price: Harvey and Me
Katie Price is movingly honest in this frank but sensitively filmed documentary, which follows her as she navigates her way through raising her son, Harvey, as he reaches the crucial age of 18. The result is thoughtful and insightful look at not only finding the best place to support the special needs arising from Harvey’s Septo-optic Dysplasia, a rare genetic disorder, but also learning to let one child’s go as they become an adult.
Gripping box set: Informer
This grippingly complex political thriller places character over cliffhangers to surprising, challenging and moving effect.
The Trump Show
If you were ever in doubt about the catastrophes going on behind the scenes in the current US administration, this eye-opening documentary takes us behind the scenes of the White House in the first 18 months of Trump’s presidency, as a reality TV star took control of the country and run it like an immature businessman determined to appear successful at all costs. What’s impressive here is the access and willingness of contributors to speak out about such events as the first delivery of “alternative facts” to the press regarding the crowd size attending Trump’s inauguration. With interviews from Sean Spicer and Steve Bannon among others, it’s hard not to take seriously their accounts of the most incredulous presidency in history.
Death in Paradise
Ralf Little once again steps into the lead shoes for the long-running BBC drama about a bumbling UK detective, and he’s a good fit for the surprisingly light crime series – a show that, in a modern age of grim true crime, relies not on gore to keep audiences interested but solid mystery plots and gorgeous seaside backdrops. What more could you want for escapist pandemic viewing?
Would I Lie to You?
Now in its 14th season, there’s no surprise in store for fans of Would I Lie to You?, a panel show that gets celebrity guests to tell lies and truths and get others to spot the difference. But a constant that also remains true is its consistently high laugh count, with host Rob Brydon and team captains Lee Mack and David Mitchell always entertaining to watch box with each other – a skirmish of quick-witted one-liners and sarcastic put-downs that they enjoy as much as we do. The chance to see Stephen Hendry enter the fray this season is the icing on the cake, but the core of the show has lost none of its appeal. If it isn’t broken, why change it?
A Perfect Planet
It wouldn’t be the BBC without David Attenborough, and this new series is as wonderful as you’d expect, capturing Attenborough’s respect and infectious awe for our planet – one where every element of the Earth seems to be perfect for human life, and all other life, to exist. Kicking off with volcanoes and the benefits they bring to the global ecosystem, this is a visually stunning reminder of why Earth needs to be looked after – and also will likely haunt your dreams with the introduction of the vampire finch.
Comedy Box Set: Staged Season 2
David Tennant and Michael Sheen are hilarious in BBC One’s knowing lockdown satire. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: The Serpent
Bangkok, 1975. Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg investigates the disappearance of a young couple who were last seen alive at the apartment of gem dealer Charles Sobhraj. What sounds like a gripping starting point for a serial killer thriller is in reality a slow-paced watch, as the eight-episode drama based on real events takes its time to unfold its chilling true story. But there’s style, colour and a superb cast underneath that glacial surface – Tahar Rahim as Charles and Jenna Coleman as his sidekick Marie-Andrée are excellent – and that’s reason enough to get hooked.
Doctor Who: Revolution of the Daleks
With the Doctor imprisoned halfway across the universe, how can Graham, Yaz and Ryan stop a deadly Dalek takeover of planet Earth? This New Year’s Day outing doesn’t always do the best by its iconic villains, as Chris Noth returns to play the Donald Trump-like tycoon using the Daleks’ shells to make security drones, but it excels at bringing back John Barrowman as Captain Jack Harkness, who immediately brings out new dynamics between the likeable core cast – and, with John Bishop lined up to become a new companion for Season 13, there are some surprisingly moving moments involving the Doctor’s fam as they take agency over their own futures.
Drama Box Set: Black Narcissus
This vibrant tale of desire and doubt is an atmospheric echo of Powell and Pressburger’s iconic adaptation of Rumer Godden’s 1939 novel. Read our full review
Comedy Box Set: 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. Read our guide to the best episodes
BBC Two’s pandemic sitcom Pandemonium might sound like a terrible idea, but it doesn’t ask us to laugh at any of these things – it asks us to laugh at the tiny frustrations and absurdities that we all face day-to-day, almost regardless of the fact that a global pandemic is raging through our lives. Thanks to shrewdly observed and sharply delivered dialogue, it’s highly entertaining. Once this pandemic is over, it’s easy to imagine the Jessops being just as fun to watch in a fully-fledged sitcom, no matter what they’re going through.
Thrilling Box Set: Pretty Little Liars
If you’re a teen drama fan, this is your chance to catch up with one of the definitive modern high school mysteries. Based on the best-selling book series written by Sara Shepherd, it follows four friends whose darkest secrets come to light. All seven seasons are available now – with spin-off The Perfectionist also available in the UK for the first time.
Thrilling Box Set: 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.
Documentary Box Set: OJ: Made in America
This seven-hour epic documentary puts the history of OJ Simpson into profound, dizzying context.
Cinderella: A Comic Relief Pantomime for Christmas
If you’re suffering Zoom fatigue, then the idea of a lockdown production of Cinderella might sound like the worst concept ever. With a star-studded cast all gamely playing the panto roles, though, this is a rather enjoyable hour of silliness, with Anya Taylor-Joy playing Cinders, Guz Khan as Buttons, Helena Bonham Carter as Devilia, Tom Hollander as Baron Hardup and real-life sister and brother Daisy May and Charlie Cooper as the Evil Stepsisters. With no one rehearsing properly, the result is as messy as it is amiable, and while there’s a charity component at its heart that is both important commendable, the show is stolen by Olivia Colman as the Fairy Godmother/narrator, who forgets when she’s meant to be on screen and blusters her way through with candid aplomb. A royal national treasure, indeed.
Worzel Gummidge: Saucy Nancy
Shirley Henderson proves a natural fit into Mackenzie Crook’s update of Worzel Gummidge, bringing an irascible, sincere and cacklingly funny personality to the eponymous Saucy Nancy – a carved wooden figurehead who once adorned a ship and now sits still in a scrapyard. Needless to say, Susan and John come across her with Worzel, and seeing his determination to make his old friend see the sea again is as adorable as it is quaintly simple. Crook’s performance is, as ever, perfectly underplayed, and the effects work is nothing short of miraculous, capturing the childlike magic of the way a scarecrow and wooden carving can convincingly come to life. What a real treat for the family this is.
Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Christmas Fishing
Gone Christmas Fishing follows Bob Mortimer as he returns to his childhood roots in Middlesbrough to fish and reminisce with his dear friend and angling mentor Paul Whitehouse. Because – and we mean this – there’s nothing that quite gets you in the Christmas spirit like two old friends reconnecting.
The Goes Wrong Show: The Nativity
The Goes Wrong team have found themselves a natural fit for the small screen, with their BBC One series taking us through different genres and expectations. It was inevitable, then, that they should turn their attention to the Christmas Nativity – and it’s equally inevitable that the result is highly amusing, thanks to a throw-everything-at-the-wall energy and an endless stream of nicely executed slapstick chaos.
Upstart Crow: Lockdown Christmas 1603
Ben Elton’s Shakespeare sitcom smartly scales down for this intimate and intense half-hour, which becomes a two-hander between the show’s strongest players: David Mitchell’s Bard and Gemma Whelan’s forward-thinking Kate. They find themselves locked down during a plague, which is a thinly veiled excuse for Elton to rant about the current state of coronavirused England, from masks to tiered systems (“North” and “South”), but there’s still plenty of witty nods to Shakespeare’s most recognisable dialogue to keep things amiably wordy.
Catch up with: The Vicar of Dibley in Lockdown
What a joy it is to have Dawn French’s “buxom vicarette” back on our screens. Even in 10-minute chunks, she’s a delightfully comforting presence, catching us up on the Dibley village gossip through the now-time-honoured format of an online video message. Sprinkling reassuring words of kindness in between subtle but sharply observed gags, it’s a bite-sized reminder of just why The Vicar of Dibley was a heavenly bit of TV in the first place. More please.
Drama box set: Small Axe
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.
Thrilling box set: His Dark Materials
This impressively faithful adaptation of Philip Pullman’s books is a grand but grounded epic, with Season 2 proving bigger, bolder and darker than the first. Read our review
Barack Obama Talks to David Olusoga
In a UK exclusive, Barack Obama encounters historian David Olusoga to discuss his long-awaited memoir A Promised Land, and how he may have cast a spotlight on the racial fault lines in America. The result is, as you’d expect, thoughtful and insightful, but also a stirring reminder of how calm, smart and statesmanlike a national political leader can sound.
Gripping Box Set: Industry
Lena Dunham directs the opening episode of this series about a group of graduates trying to find their way at a top London financial institution. They all aim to make their mark on the world by proving their worth and becoming permanent hires at the bank, which leads to agonising over the font size in a key meeting document, hazy, chaotic nights out to relieve pressure and boldly speaking one’s mind at dinner to pitch an idea. The result isn’t telling us anything new, but it’s well acted, slickly paced and gripping to watch.
This superb series of fictional monologues, based on factual research, shines a spotlight on the voices of disabled people who are so often overlooked by society. From an actor hoping to audition for parts that aren’t stereotypes to a woman trying to catch a benefits cheat in the act, these are amusing, thought-provoking and just 15 minutes each.
Saving Britain’s Pubs
Tom Kerridge presents this deceptively thoughtful and insightful docuseries that charts the challenges facing the humble British pub in the modern day. From the difficult facing one in driving up local custom to the costs plaguing another that has to pay its dues to the brewery chain that owns it, there’s no end to the obstacles pubs need to overcome to make ends meet – and that’s before the coronavirus pandemic came along. As well as an eye-opening account of the realities of running a boozer, it’s also a thoughtful tribute to the crucial role many pubs play in communities across the country.
Gripping Box Set: Guilt
Mark Bonnar is on a role. From Catastrophe and Summer of Rockets to Defending the Guilty, Humans and Line of Duty, the actor is everywhere you look, and about time too – his ability to blend comic timing, desperation and pent-up anger is perfectly matched to the tale of Max, who, along with his brother Jake (Jamie Sives) accidentally run over an old man – while stoned and uninsured. And so they try to cover it up – but, of course, things don’t go to plan. Jamie Sives is an ideal foil to Max’s annoyed, guilt-stricken older sibling, with a clumsiness and cluelessness that’s delivered with a deadpan face – even as he winds up getting a little too friendly with the deceased’s family. Darkly funny and grippingly paced, this four-parter promises to be a jet black treat.
Comedy Box Set: Blackadder: Season 1 to 4
Put aside the uneven first season and Ben Elton and Richard Curtis’ historical sitcom is one of the funniest British TV shows ever made, with Rowan Atkinson on never-better form.
Out of Her Mind
Sara Pascoe goes into full-on meta mode with her postmodern sitcom about Sara Pascoe trying to make it through life, resenting her sister for getting engaged and her friend for getting pregnant. All of this is intercut by Sara Pascoe commenting on Sara Pascoe, while rollerskating around a warehouse with footage of herself playing in the background, dispatching lectures about the science behind the illusion of romance and the way that expectations of and pressures placed upon women in modern society shape perceptions, ambitions and self-worth. It’s not new or cutting-edge, but it’s delivered with a sparky energy that’s nonetheless entertaining.
Gripping Box Set: Collateral
Carey Mulligan is quietly brilliant in David Hare’s complex, compellingly dark portrait of modern Britain.
Comedy Box Set: The Vicar of Dibley
Dawn French is on hugely charming form in Richard Curtis’ classic comedy about a forward-thinking female vicar assigned to a backwards Oxfordshire village.
Young, Black & British: Hear Us
“No one is born racist.” CBBC’s Newsround confirms itself as one of the best news organisations around with this fantastic series about young Black and British kids across the country, who share their experiences of growing up in a society where racial prejudice sadly still exists. But while the confirmation that they’ve already had to face racial abuse in their young lives is heartbreaking, their resilience and determination to be themselves and rise above it is inspiring.
Hugh Laurie makes a welcome return to our screens in this brilliantly dark and grim political drama. He plays Peter Laurence, a self-made politician who is charismatic and enjoys being the controversial figure on the edge of Whitehall, juggling a radio phone-in show with the media attention that comes with a trial. But threats of skeletons being dragged out of his cupboard are on the rise, thanks to dogged journalist Charmian (Sarah Greene) and an unexpected figure from his past. With David Hare pulling the plot threads together, the result is a rivetingly plausible thriller, one that pits personal ambition against the political system, with Brexit on the horizon, Boris Johnson-like questions about family and legacy and everyone’s professional stakes at the highest possible level. The cast are superb, from Helen McCrory as a ruthless PM to Sidse Babett Knudsen, and simply seeing them all lock horns is reason enough to tune in. Expect the conspiracies to thicken quickly – and with all four episodes released at once following the broadcast of the first episode, expect to get through them all even quicker.
Enslaved With Samuel L Jackson
Samual L Jackson presents this excellent, thoughful series which tracks the journeys of the trafficked men and women from Africa to Brazil, the US and more. Also diving into the ocean to explore the sunken ships that took the lives of many, the result is an eye-opening and powerful documentary, one that traces Jackson’s own family tree while tracing the footsteps of people trafficked into slavery years ago with heart-rending detail and stomach-churning evidence of the horrific trade.
Who Do You Think You Are?
Jodie Whittaker’s enthusiasm and grounded positivity have made her an instantly iconic Doctor, and those same qualities are still evident in abundance when she’s not in a TARDIS – a fact that makes her a perfect opening subject for the return of the BBC’s family tree series. Finding out how her great-great-grandfather climbed from working a mine to being a mine owner, her passion for learning – both about her family and in general – is charmingly infectious.
Strictly Come Dancing 2020
What with everything going on in the world, it’s not easy to keep dancing, so it’s to the Beeb’s credit that it’s brought back Strictly Come Dancing for a welcome dose of glittery escapism. The opening episode doesn’t offer a huge amount in the way of dancing, but it does make it clear how careful the programme-makers have been to make sure everyone involved is as safe as possible – and gives a tantalising glimpse of the chemistry between the amusingly game Bill Bailey and the effortlessly effervescent Oti Mabuse, not to mention the joy of seeing boxer Nicola Adams and dancer Katya James meeting each other at the Royal Albert Hall.. Expect some socially distanced, carefully bubbled but also impossibly sequinned fun over the coming weeks.
Michael Palin: Travels of a Lifetime
One of the legacies of the coronavirus pandemic is a slew of retrospective TV shows in which people in the safety of their own home look back at clips of themselves from years ago. But Michael Palin is as good a tour guide as anyone’s memories could wish for, and he does a wonderful job of bringing fresh insight and humour to his travelogues that were groundbreaking at the time, thanks to the refusal to turn off the cameras and practically accompany him everywhere he went. Palin proved an unexpectedly perfect fit for that approach, and his candid yet genial charm is still evident as he recalls how he accepted the offer to retread Phileas Fogg’s literary journey around the world in 80 days without really realising what he was getting himself into. The result is a nice way to sate your wanderlust, while also feeling like you’ve just caught up with your friendly estranged uncle.
Gripping Box Set: A Very English Scandal
Hugh Grant and Ben Whishaw are a delight in this deliciously entertaining, deceptively topical and deeply moving drama. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: Us
Anything starring Tom Hollander is always worth a watch and BBC One’s Us is no exception. It follows Douglas (Hollander) and Connie (Saskia Reeves), two parents who go on a tour of Europe before their son (Tom Taylor) leaves for university. But marital discord soon surfaces and Douglas ends up using the trip to try and win his wife back – a set-up that David Nicholls’ script (based on his own book) mines for maximum awkwardness and humour, nailed with precision by the top-notch cast. Not one for honeymoon viewing.
Extinction: The Facts
David Attenborough has made it his mission of late not only to showcase the natural wonders of our world but to educate everyone on their responsibility to look after it. Here, he graduates from stark words of warning at the end of a series to a one-off documentary that’s wall-to-wall warnings, delivered with a heartbreaking urgency. A million species are currently at risk of extinction, he explains, a crisis that has knock-on effects for food and water security, not to mention pollination, plant growth and more – all of which carries grave consequences for food chains and life cycles that underpin our basic existence. With scientists cautioning that our behaviour and treatment of the planet are driving the emergence of diseases, the very question of environmental awareness and safeguarding takes on an even more terrifying importance.
Thrilling Box Set: The Bridge
One of the best Scandinavian crime dramas ever made, this superb, slick, noir sees the Danish and Swedish police forces join together, as Saga from Malmo CID and Martin from Copenhagen PD are both assigned to solve the murder of a woman in the middle of Oresund Bridge, exactly on the border between the two countries. The first two seasons are now available to binge – don’t miss your chance to relive them.
Nadiya Hussain is always a delight to watch in the kitchen, and here, she’s even more in her element as she goes back to the thing that made her a household name: baking. Her unique combination of flavours, practicality and enthusiastic indulgence is as infectiously enjoyable as ever, which leaves you brimming with inspiration to make at lest one of the recipes on show – whether that’s a blueberry scone pizza, a strawberry cupcake or a spicy Asian take on the traditional toad-in-the-hole. It’s all presented with a refreshing lack of pretence and a candid excitement – right down to a cameraperson dropping their slice on the floor by mistake.
Thrilling Box Set: Battlestar Galactica
If you’re still to find who’s a Cylon and who isn’t, this reboot of the classic series is one of the best pieces of sci-fi to be brought to the screen in recent memory, tackling politics, social tensions and humanity’s drive to survive, all wrapped up in a polished, gripping mystery.
Harry Hill’s World of TV
Harry Hill’s new series takes aim at different TV genres and pick out cliches and recurring patterns from each. From music and dialogue to episode titles, his dissection of medical dramas alone – including Dr Finlay’s Casebook as well as Casualty – is worth tuning in for alone. Unabashedly silly, enjoyably broad and sharply observed, Harry’s back at his best.
Drama Box Set: Good Trouble
The Fosters was a long-running drama, unfolding over five seasons, which detailed the lives of a large and diverse foster family. When it was cancelled in 2018, this spin-off series sprung from the ashes, following two of the adopted Foster-Adams daughters as they head to LA to find their fortune. But fear not if you’ve heard of neither programme – Good Trouble has the legs not only to stand on its own, but to sprint light years ahead.
It is inhabited by a cast of characters that, if listed, would sound like the writers are checking off one diversity box after another, but who are ultimately so rounded that they fully come to life. Returning characters from The Fosters dip in and out but the sharpness of the writing fills in any gaps with wit and economy.
Fans may have to wait some time for the third season, as filming was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic, but these 31 episodes should keep viewers going for a while. Be warned: Good Trouble can only be described as ‘moreish’ and, once started, the urge to gorge is strong. Read our full review
Cuba: Castro vs the World
Cuba has one of the most interesting histories of any nation, and one of the most complex, taking us from the Cuban Missile Crisis to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union, which cut short the Communist funding of Fidel Castro’s regime. This two-hour documentary walks us through all of these, starting with the overthrow of dictator Batista and the start of a revolution that would ambitiously challenge the whole world. Post-Cold War, we see how the island continued to shift still, finding new paths to international diplomacy. If you underwhelmed by Netflix’s Wasp Network recently, this two-hour deluge of accessible, informative filmmaking is a riveting watch.
Thrilling Box Set: Heroes
All four seasons of the NBC drama have landed on BBC iPlayer. While the multi-arc episodic drama lost its powers the more it went on, there’s still much worth checking out in Tim Kring’s ambitious series, which juggles a range of abilities (time travel, seeing the future, healing quickly) with an equal array of personal dilemmas. Its best seasons are anchored by Zachary Quinto enjoying playing the villain as the nasty murderer Sylar, while the strong cast and apocalyptic scale make for often gripping TV – at least, at first.
The Rise of the Murdoch Dynasty
Rupert Murdoch has been one of the most influential figures in the world over the years, thanks to the reach of his media empire and his business clout. Like watching an evil Forrest Gump, this three-part documentary tells the story of the media mogul, from his own family tensions to his interactions with key politicians in recent decades. That includes his decision to support Tony Blair in becoming Prime Minister in 1995 – we see Blair flying out to Murdoch’s private island in the summer for a summit – and the scrutiny facing his newspapers’ use of police bribes. From Blair and Murdoch’s close ties, particularly in the run-up to the Iraq war, to Murdoch’s apparent demands for the Conservative Party to change its policy, it’s an eye-opening, gripping watch – and, although it includes Nigel Farage among its talking heads, it also boasts Alistair Campbell and Hugh Grant. The running theme becomes not only Murdoch’s habit of being in the right place to influence the right people in his own interests, but also the Murdoch empire’s consistent ability to avoid being held to account for its practices.
A Suitable Boy
Vikram Seth’s acclaimed novel about life in post-partition India is one that has been long overdue on our screens, and the BBC certainly sets out to do it justice, with no white actors or characters and an all-Asian cast, and the wonderful Mira Nair at the helm. Andrew Davies penning the script, then, is perhaps a bit of a step backwards, as he stays closely to the traditional TV drama playbook in balancing the personal and the political, the period and the contemporary. Davies’ skill is as evident as ever, as he introduces us to Lata (Tanya Maniktala) in north India, who is being pushed into a marriage by her mother, and then Maan (Ishaan Khatter), a wayward youth who is an embarrassment to his politician father. The result, though, with its mostly English-language dialogue, perhaps isn’t as modern or strikingly different as you’d expect. Then again, giving this Indian period drama the gloss and production value of The Crown is still a step forward for Sunday night TV. Here’s hoping its opulent style and good intentions carry it to something sincere over its six, condensed episodes.
Miriam Margolyes: Almost Australian
If Miriam Margolyes wasn’t a national treasure already, she’s cemented herself as one in recent months, thanks to her frank, no-nonsense observations. She’s the perfect choice, then, to continue the time-honoured genre of celebrity travelogue, as she embarks on a 10,000-kilometre journey across Australia to work out what it means to be “Australian” today. The country’s history and identity have always been a thorny and fascinating subject that the nation and its citizens have grappled with, and Margolyes doesn’t hold back as she looks at everything from the housing market to the “Australian Dream”, from drought to migration. It’s an eye-opening and thoughtful study of a national identity, plus a fun excuse to watch Miriam in action.
The Misadventures of Romesh Ranganathan: From My Sofa
How do you turn a travel series into something you can film in lockdown? Hire Romesh Ranganathan, a comedian who has already proven he can adapt to streaming from his home without losing any of his sarcastic charm. His follow-up to his “misadventures” in unlikely tourist hotspots involves him catching up with friends and travel guides that he met in previous episodes, revisiting highlights from both of their perspectives and unveiling some previously unseen moments. There’s a behind-the-scenes intrigue to the format, which gives you a glimpse of the difficulties in filming certain sequences – including one amusingly failed gag recreating Lawrence of Arabia that was understandably cut from the programme. But the real gems is Romesh’s interest in the culture, politics and social tensions of the places he’s visited, and his catch-up with his host from Zimbabwe once again turns into a sensitive and eye-opening insight into what’s happening in the country right now, pandemic or no pandemic.
Rise of the Nazis
Playing out like a political thriller more than a documentary, this BBC Two documentary charts the rise of the Nazi party to power. With narration from Kate Fleetwood and a sinister soundtrack from Tom Hodge, director Julian Jones paces things perfectly, as we see Hitler plot to move from the fringes of Germany’s political scene to the heart of government. What follows is a plan to mark Nazis a seemingly legitimate party, teaming up with a disapproving president and a manipulative mastermind to get his way, while ensuring neither of their own schemes come to fruition. A riveting watch that’s extremely, worryingly timely – and not because of the recent government decision to make masks mandatory in shops.
Art of Persia
Art is a vital part of human existence, reflecting back our selves, our values, our culture and our history to us. This eye-opening, visually stunning three-part documentary, then, is more than just a snapshot of Persian art: it’s the whole story of Iran’s history and language, including its golden age of poetry that emerged after the threat of Genghis Khan. Presented with passion, knowledge and engaging insight by Samira Ahmed, this is a gorgeous box set that’s entertaining and informative in equal measure.
Drama Box Set: Mrs America
Cate Blanchett is brilliant in this playful, provocative, stylish and highly entertaining drama about the battle for women’s rights in the 1970s. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: The Secrets She Keeps
“The value of a secret depends upon whom you’re trying to keep it from,” says someone partway through The Secrets That She Keeps, a show that’s bursting at the seams with secrets – although it doesn’t always do a very good at keeping them. The Australian thriller, adapted from Michael Rowbotham‘s novel, is inspired by a real life hospital incident from the 1990s. Over the years, it’s been embellished and transformed into something far more audacious and implausible, but – it goes without saying – something more entertaining too. An entertaining page-turner that doesn’t outstay its welcome. Read our full review
Drama Box Set: I May Destroy You
Michaela Coel’s frank exploration of consent is remarkable, personal and uncompromising TV. Read our full review
Comedy Box Set: What We Do in the Shadows Season 2
The vampire sitcom’s second season balances horror myths and human tedium to witty, silly effect. Read our full review
Comedy Box Set: This Country: Season 1 to 3
DAisy May and Charlie Cooper are gently side-splitting in this low-key mockumentary, which explores the lives of young people in modern rural Britain
Comedy Box Set: Dave
A neurotic mid-20s suburbanite is convinced he is destined to be one of the greatest rap stars ever in Dave Burd’s new comedy, which stars Dave Burd as, well, Dave Burd. His rapper name? Lil Dicky. And that gives you a clue what to expect from this FX sitcom, which is built on the viral success Dave had with a rap song several years ago. In the show, that song is about Dave’s genitalia, and what follows is a string of jokes about “Lil Dicky” in all senses of the word. See past that easy gag, though, and this sitcom is a wonderfully observed portrait of middle-class, white privilege, male ego (Taylor Misiak’s patient girlfriend, Ally, is far more rounded than more other shows would make her) and – just maybe – some actual rapping talent. You suspect that it might be more interesting to have the show told from the perspective of Ally or one of the rappers he tries to ingratiate himself with. Don’t expect that to stop you cringe-chuckling, though.
Killing Eve: Season 3
The enjoyably twisted thriller finds a renewed sense of focus in a fun start to its third season. Episodes arrive weekly on Monday mornings, and are repeated on Sunday nights on BBC One. Read our full review
Don’t Miss: Normal People
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 here.
Drama Box Set: Taboo
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.
Drama Box Set: Devs
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.
The Mash Report
In contrast to HIGNIFY, The Mash Report has always excelled at rolling with the absurdity of modern existence, and its first remote-hosted episode is a surprisingly slick affair. That’s partly thanks to a pre-filmed segment on Facebook radicalising everyone’s mothers, and partly thanks to the news correspondents’ ability to deliver increasingly daft headlines with a smile – including one brilliant segment involving a monkey. Add in the usual witty back-and-forth between Rachel Parris and Nish Kumar – and the right-wing comedian Geoff Norcott who completes a running joke about Rishi Sunak with aplomb. Kumar’s signature frankness, whether talking about his tiny flat or the fact that these are genuinely scary times, has never been a more welcome presence on our screens.
Our Girl: Season 4
Michelle Keegan is back again for another tour as Georgie Lane, the determined, smart and tough army medic. The start of Season 4 showcases her calm skills in the face of emergency, but this time in the refreshingly domestic context of a nightclub brawl – and her decision to then move back from normality to Afghanistan means the return to active service has the same impact it had three seasons ago. This time, it brings with it difficult memories of loss, and Keegan sells the emotional toll with a convincing, heartfelt performance that continues to grip.
Thrilling Box Set: 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.
Thrilling box set: 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.
Don’t miss: The Split: Season 2
The Defoe sisters, Hannah (Nicola Walker), Nina (Annabel Scholey) and Rose (Fiona Button) – and their formidable mother Ruth (Deborah Findlay) – are back for another round of legal dramatics on London’s divorce circuit. Hannah and her sisters make for engrossing, compellingly human television. With so much seething distrust, jealousy and resentment simmering under the surface, the fun lies in seeing each relative use their clients as ammunition to snipe at the others, while watching Hannah try to navigate the tensions between her unhappy marriage to Nathan (an excellent Stephen Mangan) and her desire to be with former flame Christie (Barry Atsma), who works with her. Throw in the always-excellent Chukwudi Iwuji as Alex, her boss, and you have a show that’s as gripping as ever. Not caught up with The Split? Don’t miss the chance to catch up with Season 1, also available as a box set.
Drama box set: The Victim
Kelly Macdonald and John Hannah are on superb form in this four-parter, which delves into the complex legal case that surrounds the attack against a man, Eddie J. Turner (James Harkness), who was convicted of murdering a young boy 15 years earlier. Given a new name (“Craig”) and a new life, that identity is exposed, and the boy’s mother, Anna (Macdonald) is accused of doing the leaking and inciting the killing. Investigating is John Hannah’s DI Grover, who picks apart the ensuing thorny questions with a suitably grave gravitas. Created by Rob Williams, the drama doesn’t shy away from delving into its complex material right from the opening episode, and the result is a nuanced, yet twisting, exploration of grief, the right for rehabilitation and the line between justice and revenge. Set aside four hours and prepare for your sympathies to be torn.
Thriling box set: Line of Duty: Season 1 to 5
Before Jed Mercurio’s ridiculously tense cop thriller returns for a sixth season, don’t miss your chance to binge through the first five.
Louis Theroux: Selling Sex
The exchange of sex for money is legal in Britain, so long as it doesn’t involve coercion, exploitation, or any kind of public nuisance. Now, in an age of social media and digital connections, the notion of transactional sex is suddenly in front of people who might never have previously considered it. Enter Louis Theroux to untangle the complicated presumptions, expectations and challenges surrounding what is now an industry. He meets 30-something Victoria, a mother who fits in multiple bookings each day between school runs, Caroline, a former dental nurse who is turned onto the work by a friend and Ashleigh, a student with Asperger’s who is using transactional sex to pay for art school. Theroux may not be making headlines with this film, but he’s at his absolute best, teasing out details from his subjects through probing but sensitive questions, from how one of their past relationships has framed their valuing of sex and themselves to his own reticence to make judgements or assumptions and his attempts to stop any thoughts of paternal concern. The result is a thoughtful consideration of an unseen but prevalent economy, and a provocative examination of moral, ethical and financial issues.
Drama Box Set: The Trial of Christine Keeler
The Trial Of Christine Keeler takes a fresh look at one of the most infamous British stories of the 20th century: the chain of events in the 1960s that came to be known as the Profumo Affair. This stylish, gripping drama finds the female voice at the heart of it: 19 year-old Christine Keeler, a young woman whom the powerful, male-dominated establishment sought to silence and exploit, but who refused to play by their rules. (Read our full review)
Family box set: Worzel Gummidge
Is there anything Mackenzie Crook can’t do? One suspects not, based on Worzel Gummidge, his new two-part adaptation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s children’s books. Stepping into the straw shoes of Jon Pertwee, who was the definitive Worzel for a generation of kids, he’s instantly iconic here with his own take on the scarecrow of Ten Acre Field. (Read our full review)
Comedy Box Set: The Young Offenders: Season 1 to 3
This sublime comedy series is expertly performed, smartly written and very, very funny. Read our full review
The Fear of God: 25 Years of The Exorcist
Mark Kermode’s engaging, insightful documentary about The Exorcist manages to be more than just a making-of.
Comedy Box Set: State of the Union
“It sounds like you’re trying. I am. Well, don’t.” Brexit gets a brief mention but it’s another union breaking apart in this delightfully funny, wonderfully heartfelt comedy, which sees one couple’s marriage crumbling – while they attempt to rebuild it at the same time. The premise is inspired, as we drop in on them every week for 10 minutes before their go their marital therapist – a brief chat in the pub that, it soon becomes obvious, covers far more ground than they do in their actual session. Nick Hornby pens the 10-minute bursts with the kind of honesty and wit you’d expect, with each episode delivering a revelation or step forward in their relationship – while also pushing them several feet back. Stephen Frears, meanwhile, brings an agility and brevity to the helm that captures endless telling details in the shortest of time-frames. Chris O’Dowd and Rosamund Pike sink their teeth into the bite-sized morsels with relish, O’Dowd full of immaturity and tragedy, Pike conveying unhappiness and frustration, both of them balancing their regrets, secrets, resentments and fears with a razor-sharp comic timing and – this is the kicker – a huge dose of feeling that ensures we’re always rooting for the happiest outcome, whatever that may be.
Thrilling Box Set: Killing Eve: Season 2
Professor Brian Cox has a mellifluous voice that prompts a Pavlovian response in any listener that hears it: to open their ears and turn on their brain, even as they slip into a warm, relaxed state. It’s only fitting, then, that his physics-defying larynx should be put to use by the BBC in picking up the very fabric and history of our universe. After exploring those wonders in gorgeous detail, The Planets sees him take on the rocky orbs that float through out solar system, each born at the same time but radically different, as they shifted from Earth-like conditions to become scorched by the son or drift out into the cold. Breathtaking CGI illustrates the journey of each mass, with real grandeur and spectacle, while Cox muses on the way Mars had its precious water taken from it, and how Saturn’s moon, Titan, may one day get its own moment in the Sun. It’s enough to make you appreciate the miraculous odds of life on Earth actually being possible. Dazzling, essential viewing.
Funny Box Set: What We Do in the Shadows
This wonderfully silly, superbly written comedy transforms vampire horror into flatshare sitcom. (Read our full review)
Comedy Box Set: Fleabag: Season 2
The return of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s comedy is as brilliant, candid, rude and funny as you’d expect. Read our review here.
Testosterone and gasoline fuel this biker drama, spun off from Sons of Anarchy. And, once again, we’re immersed in the group politics, personal conflicts and violent retributions that bubble under the surface of a petrolhead gang – this time, a Latino gang in Santo Padre, on the US/Mexico border. Created by Kurt Sutter and Elgin James, the series picks up four years after Sons, as young Ezekiel (J.D. Pardo) finds himself drawn into the world of the Mayans Motorcyle Club, driven by the need for revenge against the Galindo cartel. Flashbacks introduce us to his childhood sweetheart, Emily (Sarah Bolger), who is now married to the son of the cartel’s boss. That’s more than enough to hook in fans, even without the presence of Ron Perlman and other stalwarts from the original show – although there are some crossover cameos to watch out for. Throw in a compelling veteran turn from Edward James Olmos as Ezekiel’s father, Felipe, and you’ve got all the promising mechanical components for another muscular drama waiting to be revved up.
Pamela Adlon’s comedy about a single mother has taken its time to arrive on our screens, and has had a tumultuous time of it even before then – it was initially co-written by Louis C.K., who was rightly and promptly booted from the series (along with his production company) when accusations of sexual misconduct surfaced against him. Its belated premiere on UK TV, courtesy of the Beeb’s deal with FX, nonetheless deserves praise for Adlon’s central performance as Sam, a mother of three who is trying to balance her flailing acting career with raising three daughters. Adlon co-created the programme and sets the tone from the off, with a performance that’s honest in its semi-autobiographical approach and unapologetically prickly – we first meet her in a shop, where she’s ignoring her crying child, who’s in tears because she wants to buy some earrings she doesn’t need. Later, she argues with her eldest in a car. “Hide things from me please!” she cries, as her child tries to solicit her to buy weed. With Adlon working on a third season, both directing and reprising her lead role (and with four new writers on board), this opening run (available as a box set on BBC iPlayer) promises a candid, fresh take on motherhood that’s worth checking out.
Drama Box Set: Luther
“I’m with the police.” “Which police?” “The police.” That’s the sound of Idris Elba remaining as tough, gruff and willing to rough people up as ever over four seasons of Luther. The BBC drama, which co-stars Ruth Wilson and a fantastic coat, dives into grimy police work with a glowering swagger that only adds to the hard-hitting appeal of the concise storytelling, curt dialogue and did we mention Idris Elba? Before Luther returns for Season 5, don’t miss the chance to catch up with show’s gripping back catalogue.
Family Box Set: Blue Planet II
David Attenborough once again narrates this majestic, majestically filmed nature documentary, which dives beneath the waves to reveal not only the life beneath, but the way in which that life is being transformed by our existence up above. From the Earth’s frozen poles to coral reefs, it’s an eye-opening, informative and infinitely accessible programme that is almost too much to take in one sitting. Plus who doesn’t like the excuse to drop the word “phytoplankton” into everyday conversation?
This charming collection of comedy shorts balance sharp observations and witty writing with infectious imagination. Read our full review
“I have written and directed a film about veganism,” says Simon Amstell. “I’m sorry.” If you laughed at that, you’ll love this. Set in 2067, when the human race has apparently converted entirely to veganism – an alternate universe to rival The Man in the High Castle and SS-GB for unnerving chills – Amstell’s mockumentary looks back at the years when people slowly began to realise the horror of consuming meat, eggs and other produce sourced or derived from animals. The film purports to explore the strange, alien idea that humans and animals aren’t equal, aiming to break the taboo surrounding Britain’s carnivorous past. It’s a neat way to tackle an oft-derided concept, by deliberately presenting what’s considered normal as the absurd – but Amstell, crucially, doesn’t lose sight of the ridiculousness of his own concept. The result is simultaneously laugh-out-loud funny and unsettling – and, most of unsettling of all, is the knowledge that, deep down, you may even feel yourself being won over by Amstell’s viewpoint. A thought-provoking, rib-tickling, stomach-churning satire. Read our full review.