Let’s crack on.
umber 10 on the countdown is one of Channel 4’s most impressive dramas, soon to be remade by Amazon and a show that was cruelly under-appreciated
by the channel. It’s…
10) Utopia (2013, Channel 4) Meeting people you know online in real life isn’t as frowned upon as it once was but if Utopia is anything to go by, perhaps it should be. Foul-mouthed Becky (Alexandra Roach), straight-laced Ian (Nathan Stewart-Jarrett) and the paranoid Wilson Wilson (Adeel Akhtar) had been chatting together on a forum about ‘The Utopia Experiment’. This is a graphic novel which allegedly predicted the disasters of the previous century but it’s the unpublished follow up, which everyone thinks will save the human race, that makes everyone lose their minds.
This new strange alliance sets out to find the manuscript for good reasons but ‘The Network’ want it for bad and go on a killing spree. Neil Maskell is fascinating as the sullen Arby, the murderer who has his own catchphrase in “Where is Jessica Hyde?!” We, the viewer soon find her and she’s played with relish by Fiona O’ Shaughnessy.
In keeping with the comic book theme, the palette in Utopia is visually striking with its bright, bold colours where yellow is the stand out. Look very closely and you’ll see how much it subtly filters into virtually every element of the show. It adds to the uniqueness of a thriller that would stand on its own anyway.
The brilliant soundtrack supplied by Cristobal Tapia de Veer is another important factor. The electronic glitches and uneasy bleeps sit perfectly with the oddness of the world Dennis Kelly has created Imagine The Chemical Brothers on antidepressants.
Utopia is darkly comic and comically gruesome. While not the fastest moving of shows, the storytelling, humour and sense of farce are what give the urgency. Never a show to play it safe, so much so that the first episode of the second run was a genesis story featuring none of the main cast. From humble beginnings to eugenics and the dark forces behind it, this was a television masterclass and it’s influence on television dramas that followed is clear.
Everyone on the screen is playing a blinder (that’s an in-joke for fans) but there are two stand out performances. Alexandra Roach embodies the opinionated and strong-willed Becky with classic one liners and Adeel Akhtar’s nerdy, complex Wilson Wilson is so good they named him twice.
If Utopia has one major flaw it’s that there was no resolution. The story hadn’t finished and that is an insult to the writer, cast and fans. Series two ended on a cliffhanger and then Channel 4 pulled the plug. The Network were evil commissioners all along. There was talk of a streaming site taking it on but nothing ever materialised. There is however an American remake in the offing but that must be greeted with cynicism. The original story wasn’t fully told, why start a new one? There wasn’t a show like this before and there hasn’t been one since. Utopia is small screen paradise – if paradise involves a lot of bad language and deaths. Written by Michael Lee.
9) Car Share (2015, BBC1) Sometimes the simplest ideas are the best. Take The Royle Family, it’s a simple sitcom about a family who watch TV and chat about their day. It’s such a beautifully simple idea it’s incredible to think it hadn’t been thought of long before Caroline Aherne, Craig Cash, Ricky Tomlinson and co sat down on the sofa. The brilliance of The Royle Family is exemplified in its dialogue and its characterisation. It’s hard to imagine Peter Kay’s Car Share existing without The Royle Family before it. At the centre of Peter Kay, Paul Coleman, Tim Reid and Sian’s Gibson’s BBC masterpiece is another brilliantly simple idea. Two people on a worked organised car share scheme. The action, as it were, takes place entirely inside the car on the journey to and from the Supermarket the pair work for.
John (Peter Kay) is in management and his ‘car share buddy’ Kayleigh (Sian Gibson) is in promotions. Kayleigh’s bouncy lust for life personality can rub John up the wrong way but over the course of the brilliant first series the pair strike up a friendship and a genuine affection for one another. Peter Kay gives a career-best performance here. This is Kay at his most natural. A relaxed and human performance that can have you tearing up and crying with laughter. His chemistry with Sian Gibson (a friend of Kay’s since their time as students) is key to the huge success of the show. The pair’s affection for each other leaps off the screen.
Charm is a word used way too often in TV circles but this has it in spades. Two opposites collide and the results are fun and often bizarre. John’s view out of the windscreen is a foggy grey mist whereas Kaleigh sees sunshine and rainbows through the same glass. Opposites attract as the wise prophet Paula Abdul once said.
The journeys include conversations on ‘dogging’, funeral arrangements and which is Now That’s What I Call Music album is best. (Kayleigh’s is Now 48). Speaking of pop music, let’s hear it for the show’s third main character – Forever FM. The local radio station it’s ok to listen to. It’s upbeat music and oddball adverts matches the show’s feel-good tone perfectly. While your ears digest the cheese your eyes are distracted by ridiculous road signs and billboards. Ugly city landscapes are turned into comedy art. The attention to detail isn’t just in the script.
There are so many classic moments from John’s loudspeaker call to his boss to Kayleigh’s neighbour going dogging. The standout might just be Reece Shearsmith’s appearance as a smelly fishmonger with anger issues. His scenes are full of such joy and the three of them together is comedy gold. Who doesn’t need a whiffy rendition of ‘Here Comes The Hotstepper?’ The only thing funnier than the scene are the outtakes.
British comedy often puts focus on characters we love to hate, but Car Share shines a spotlight on two lovely people who are a pleasure to spend time with. Written By Michael Lee
8) Line Of Duty (2012, BBC2) This decade has been synonymous with ‘binge-watching’ It’s a term that conjures up visions of people sat in vegetative states gorging on TV for hours on end. The rise of the streamers has only occasionally made the traditional broadcasters feel tired and out of touch. The BBC, in particular, seems to struggle to know how best to compete with the rise of a new way of consuming content. Often they’ll dump an entire series on the iPlayer without much fuss in hopes they can grab the audience who seem adverse to waiting the week for the next episode. Over the last decade, I’ve heard the phrase, “nobody watches television anymore.” It’s often said with such conviction that it made me wonder if I was the only one still devoted to the traditional medium. But there is more than one show that pokes a huge hole in that argument.
Jed Mercurio’s Line Of Duty brings in overnight figures that other dramas are envious of. It generates huge conversation across social media with fans sharing their theories on its many twists and turns and, perhaps even more impressive, the show has become appointment viewing: if you’re not watching at 9pm then you’ll be locked out of the conversation and the episode will likely be ruined for you.
The show started its journey to glory quite quietly just before the Olympics in 2012. The TV landscape was awash with crime dramas of varying qualities. The premise behind Line of Duty was instantly novel. It put police corruption in the spotlight with Anti Corruption Unit AC-12 going undercover to catch corrupt coppers.
The series starts with one of the most dramatic and engaging opening scenes in modern British television; anti-terrorism officer DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) is coordinating the arrest of a suspected terrorist. However, when the raid goes wrong, an innocent man is killed whilst feeding his baby. Arnott’s superior, Chief Inspector Osborne (Owen Teal) organises a coverup which Arnott refuses to take part in.
This initial conflict sets out Arnott’s moral code. He won’t compromise his ethics for a quiet life. Arnott is moved to Anti-Corruption Unit Twelve, headed by Superintendent Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar). Arnott’s first case is to investigate allegations of laddering – appearing to solve cases more quickly than they should be by cutting corners- against the new Officer of the Year DCI Tony Gates (Lennie James). Gates has become far more embroiled in organised crime than they realize – brought into it by his lover Jacqui Laverty (Gina McKee) whose dodgy business dealings force her to murder her accountant. When Laverty is murdered by a group wearing balaclavas, they begin blackmailing Gates so that he will cover up their criminal actions.
Yet Arnott and DC Kate Fleming, (Vicky McClure) an undercover officer working in Gates’ unit are convinced they can nail Gates with Steve stating that “you push from the inside and I push from outside, he’ll crack.” Gates attempts to renew his sense of justice by arresting John Thomas Hunter (Brian McCardie), the man he thinks is behind the balaclava men. Gates sacrifices himself to protect his family, yet it seems it is for no avail – Hunter is released into witness protection and his inside man, “The Caddy”, a member of Gates team DS Matthew “Dot” Cottan (Craig Parkinson) remains at large.
The first series lays the groundwork from which future series build: the modus operandi of AC12, the Balaclava Gang and the network that connects all the corruption. Cottan becomes a character that helps shape the series but so is another figure that I’ve not mentioned – Chief Superintendent Derek Hilton (Paul Higgins). Hilton, though not appearing in all series, is vital to the structure of the show and the development of the conspiracy at the heart of the police series.
The second series, which aired two years after the first, builds on the conspiracy that AC-12 are investigating from Series 1 and helps cements Cotton, or “The Caddy” as a major figure within the series. Cotton’s rise through the ranks helps to give this particular series a certain added edge which was utilised further in Series 3 – the continual tension over when or even whether Dot would be exposed helps to drive the drama. The second series proved to be an instant hit. A true word of mouth hit. Lennie James was a tough act to follow as Tony Gates but you could argue, of all the guest leads to anchor the series, none have come quite as close to perfection as DCI Lindsey Denton played by the brilliant Keeley Hawes. The first episode of the second series delivered one of the most shocking final moments of the entire series and set the bar for what was to come. No one is safe in Mercurio’s world.
In many ways, Series Three is perhaps the most important series of Line of Duty. A clever marketing ploy by the BBC made us think the story would revolve around Armed Response Unit Leader Sergeant Danny Waldron (Daniel Mays) and his team. Instead, again in another shocking twist, Waldron was killed off at the end of the first episode leaving Mercurio free to focus on the Caddy’s backstory. In a show of the BBC’s commitment and belief in the show, series three ended with an action-packed feature-length episode that saw Kate Flemming hanging off the side of a lorry as Dot’s true identity was exposed. The Caddy had loomed large over the series since day one and even though Mercurio had admitted that none of this was planned, the world he has created is so rich and dense with backstory that it feels as if he were telling one long story.
By the time we reached the most recent series the BBC had promoted the series to BBC1 and given it pride of place on a Sunday night. The most recent series saw Mercurio delve deeper into the inner workings of the ‘balaclava gang’ and setting up a new conspiracy: Who is H?
Even though we know to expect the unexpected the series still manages to shock, deceive and keep us on the edge of the seat at 9pm. With a sixth series confirmed for 2020, it’s reassuring to know we’re starting the new decade with one this decade’s finest.
7) Succession (2018, HBO) Succession, HBO’s Shakesperian global media drama, earns its Top 10 spot thanks to two phenomenal series. The second series manages to avoid the dreaded sophomore slump while building excitement week-after-week. Much like Line Of Duty, this is a show that uses the week between episodes to start heated debates and deep dives into the previous episode.
At the centre of this drama is the Roy family lead by ageing patriarch Logan (Brian Cox). Vying for power and acceptance within the family are Logan’s four children: eldest sibling Connor (Alan Ruck), Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Siobhan “Shiv” (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin). If the series has a trademark it is its biting dialogue from Fresh Meat co-creator Jessie Armstrong.
Series 1 initially invests a large portion of its capital exploring familial relationships and corporate politics inside the Roy’s media company, Waystar Royco. Logan’s deteriorating health comes to the forefront after his bouts with dementia became more apparent. Kendall’s resentment toward his father grew because Logan refused to relinquish control, and publicly name Kendall as his successor. This frustration multiplied because the Roy siblings have limited access to Logan courtesy of their stepmother, Marcia (Hiam Abbass). Kendall’s dissatisfaction results in him leading a failed coup attempt midway through Series 1. The takeover floundered because Kendall could not physically attend the meeting and a last-minute change of heart by his brother Roman.
Roman’s attempts to ingratiate himself with Logan often result in backhanded compliments. Though Roman appears to internalize Logan’s insults, he redirects that anger and shame towards others in the form of vicious verbal assaults. Roman’s quest to outshine Kendall leads to Waystar Royco commissioning a satellite launch that results in several deaths. Connor, like his sister Shiv, is not involved in the day-to-day management of Waystar Royco. He only cares if corporate politics impacts his finances. Connor prefers living an eccentric bohemian lifestyle with his much younger aspiring playwright Willa (Justine Lupe). However, a sense of patriotic duty and a strong belief in right-wing conspiracy theories leads to Connor announcing a presidential bid.
Connor is not the only Roy family member with ties to the world of United States politics. Throughout Series 1 Shiv Roy serves a political consultant, juggling allegiances to her family and political candidates like Senator Gil Eavis (Eric Bogosian). Adding additional stress to Shiv’s personal and professional firewall is her suitor turned fiancé Tom Wamsgans (Matthew Macfadyen). Tom, a rising corporate executive at Waystor Royco, receives a poison chalice promotion to head the company’s cruise division leading to some corporate malfeasance. Assisting Tom is Logan’s great-nephew, Cousin Greg (Nicholas Braun), a lovable slacker who fails his way up from amusement park mascot to junior (junior) executive. Series 1 culminates in Shiv and Tom’s wedding, and Kendall committing manslaughter just as he was launching a second coup attempt.
Series 2 opens with Kendall attempting to recover from an emotional breakdown, and is forced to turn to Logan for support. Covering up a death (probably) isn’t cheap. Unfortunately for the Roys, Kendall’s return to the fold does not stop the second takeover bid. Kendall’s co-conspirators, former drinking/drug mate Stewy (Arian Moayed) and rival media mogul Sandy Furness (Larry Pine), refuse to back down. After consulting with the family and several loyal (but fearful) confidents Logan decides Waystar Royco needs to bulk-up. Logan also lures Shiv into the company’s grasp by dangling the opportunity to become his new heir apparent. The Roy family patriarch’s expansion plan involves a corporate marriage between Waystar Royco and Pierce Media Group (PMG). After initially appearing to swipe left, PMG CEO Rhea Jarrell (Holly Hunter) elects to explore a relationship. Complicating the courtship is the Pierce family, PMG’s owner, lead by their matriarch Nan Pierce (Cherry Jones). The turbulent relationship ends in dramatic fashion with Waystar Royco being left at the altar after serious allegations against the company emerge.
Amongst the corporate courtship, Kendall along with his siblings continue to struggle with emotional (and financial) issues. Kendall’s journey throughout Series 2 is very twisty and full of destructive detours. Logan constantly tests Kendall’s emotional stability and loyalty. Early in Series 2, Kendall is ordered to gut one of his favourite Waystar Royco assets. By the end of the series, Kendall appears to have broken Logan’s shackles and is able to speak his truth. After an explosive setback in Series 1, Roman is forced to evaluate himself and attempt a different approach to earning Logan’s respect. Roman gains a new ally and dominatrix in Gerri Kellman (J. Smith-Cameron) – Waystar Royco’s General Counsel. Following a sequence of abusive and soul-crushing setbacks, Logan seems to finally appreciate Roman.
Connor’s finances take a hit thanks to some double-dipping: financing a theatrical flop and running for president. Clearly, these are problems only a one-percenter can endure. However, Connor is able to break through the public consciousness thanks to memes and a highly irregular tax plan. Shiv and Tom’s wedded bliss is short-lived thanks to an open-marriage clause attached to their prenuptial agreement. Also, Shiv’s new heir apparent status adds additional pressures to the marriage. Tom along with Cousin Greg manage to escape cruises for Waystar Royco’s news division – ATN. However, they are haunted and hunted by the spectre that is the cruise division scandal. The skeletons are unearthed courtesy of the often mentioned but never seen ‘Uncle Mo’. This scandal undercuts Tom and Greg’s workplace bromance which was strengthened by a humiliating Hungarian corporate retreat. Mounting pressures at home and work (plus a United States Congressional hearing) causes Tom to reevaluate his marriage to Shiv late in Series 2.
Succession may only be two series deep, but it has already caught the eyes of critics. The show was recognized in 2018 by American Film Institute Awards (AFI); Succession was named on of AFI’s Top 10 TV Programs of the Year. In 2019, the show won Best International Programme at the BAFTA TV Awards. Jesse Armstrong earned a Primetime Emmy for Outstanding Writing for a Drama Series. Composer Nicholas Britell also won a Primetime Creative Arts Emmy for Outstanding Original Main Title Theme Music. Those GIFs of Kermit the Frog dancing to Succession’s theme must have swayed Emmy voters. Dialogue from episodes have become part of the online zeitgeist – “Boars on floor”. As the show approaches Series 3, media critics and pundits believe Succession is poised to make a bigger splash! Written by Mo Walker
Chernobyl is an utter masterpiece. Capitalising on the curious fact that most people know hardly anything about the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine despite the news coverage and global condemnation.
The series, from American writer Craig Mazin, looked at the story from every possible angle. From those who worked at the reactor and didn’t understand the gravity of the situation, to the governments who had their own reasons for making sure the true horror of the disaster was kept from the public to the hospital workers caring for those affected by the explosion and its horrific side effects. Adaptations of true-life events can often feel a bit ‘off.’ As if you’re being preached to, but this series managed to avoid all of the pitfalls and tell a story that was as moving as it was blood-curdling.
This formidably researched piece of television felt worryingly relevant, particularly when it comes to climate change misinformation, and it’s one that Chernobyl returns to time and time again, with increasing urgency. Our window onto events is physicist Valery Legasov (Jared Harris) who is approached to be an expert on the panel to address the fallout – an expert who must only answer questions when spoken to and certainly never ask any of his own.
When Valery and Council of Ministers deputy chairman Boris Shcherbina (Stellan Skarsgard) ask coal miners from Tula to dig a tunnel under the plant to prevent fuel melting into the groundwater, they both know that it’s a mission that will kill them all. The scene is one of the countless scenes across the five episodes that make for difficult viewing.
True-life dramatisations are commonplace in television but Chernobyl felt bigger, bolder and more important than any to come before. The story of the trial and the incredible coverup should never be confined to history, and Mazin and the team bring the story to life in such a way that you can imagine it happening today. Horrifying and humbling Chernobyl is perhaps the most important piece of television on this list.
Thank you to all of my team who have written as part of this list: Deborah Shrewsbury, Jackson, Matt Donnelly, Maurice Walker, Michael Lee, Sophie Davies, Sarah Hughes, Sarah Kennedy, Stephen Patterson, & Will Barber-Taylor & the logo and artwork design from eastendersweek
Numbers 5 – 1 are coming soon.