The Top 50 of the Decade: 5 – 1

by | Dec 21, 2019 | All

We’re finally here. What have we named the THE show of the Decade? In truth, any of these final five could be Number 1. This is personal to me.

So here we go.

 If you’ve missed the countdown so far you can find out what made 50-20 here and numbers 20 – 11 here and 10 – 6 here

Here are the final Five.

5) Mum (2016, BBC2) Stefan Golaszewski’s follow up to Him and Her managed to be low-key, laugh-out-loud funny and surprisingly moving.

The first two series of Mum are set entirely within the home of Cathy (Lesley Manville), whose husband has recently passed away. In series 1, we get to see six days during her first year without her husband, from the day of the funeral in January to New Year’s Eve. Series 2 covers six days during the following year, including Cathy’s 60th birthday, a summer barbecue and Bonfire Night. The third and final series then mixes things up and heightens tensions by taking place over one week, as Cathy and her family go away together and stay in a fancy country house.

Golaszewski’s previous BBC comedy Him & Her followed a similar format, with three series taking place in the central couple’s flat and a fourth unfolding over the course of a wedding. However, Mum is significantly less grotty and more heart-warming than its predecessor, largely thanks to the likeability of Cathy and Michael (Peter Mullan) as well as their touching, understated love story at the centre of it all.

It becomes apparent early on in Mum that Michael is quietly besotted with Cathy, and probably has been for a while, but has no idea how to approach this given that she is newly bereaved and her late husband was his best friend. Selfless Cathy is taken for granted by almost everyone around her and has the patience of a saint when dealing with her often insufferable family. She’s frequently the most intelligent person in the room, but nobody apart from Michael realises it, and you’d have to be a very cold-hearted person to not be moved by the way he looks at her. With stellar performances from Manville and Mullan, it’s easy to get invested in their slow-burning relationship, full of little glances and in-jokes, and there are moments as heart-wrenching as you’d get in any drama, without seeming overly sentimental or emotionally manipulative.

The show is sharply written and especially well-observed when it comes to matters such as ageism, masculinity and class. The latter comes to the forefront mostly when the deliciously monstrous Pauline (Dorothy Atkinson) is on screen, thinking she’s above others because her ex-husband was incredibly rich. Pauline casts her eye over Cathy’s perfectly lovely home as if it’s a hovel and considers it her duty to ‘improve’ her partner Derek (Ross Boatman), Cathy’s hapless brother, by introducing him to the finer things in life, like the theatre and Radio 4. Meanwhile, it’s a combination of hilarious and heartbreaking to watch the initially rather self-assured Derek become increasingly insecure throughout the show, as he desperately tries to meet Pauline demands. Boatman delivers a particularly great tragicomic performance in the final series, moping around on swings and becoming needlessly obsessed with the idea that he has “massive arms and legs”.

One of Mum’s key strengths is the way it manages to humanise people who could have easily just been one-dimensional sitcom characters. Kelly (Lisa McGrillis) is introduced in episode 1 as the ditzy and quite irritating new girlfriend of Cathy’s gormless son Jason (Sam Swainsbury), but it isn’t long before we get to meet her unbearable mother and learn about a bad past relationship, helping us to better understand her. Cathy’s elderly in-laws Reg and Maureen (Karl Johnson and Marlene Sidaway) are constantly sniping at each other, but occasional little moments – usually when nobody else is around – betray how much they still care about each other. Even Pauline is shown to have vulnerabilities, having lost all of her ‘friends’ when they sided with her ex-husband after the divorce, and it’s difficult to not feel sorry for selfish Jason (who becomes more of an antagonist as the show goes on) when he breaks down and cries over his dad while explaining that he feels like he shouldn’t because he’s a man.

Striking a masterful balance between astute comedy that will make you laugh and poignant drama that will make you cry, Mum is one of the best British sitcoms in recent years, and a gem that those who found themselves drawn in are unlikely to ever forget. Written by Sophie Davies.

4) The Leftovers (2014, HBO) On October 14, 2011, 2% of the world’s population disappeared instantaneously and without warning. That’s the premise for Damon Lindelof’s The Leftovers. It sounds simple enough, just like the premise for his previous show, where an aeroplane crashed on a mysterious island (Lost). But like LostThe Leftovers used its premise not as a constraint but as a springboard to explore the depths of human existence.

It’s difficult to talk about the legacy of the show without discussing Lost because, in many ways, it was a direct response. The ending of Lost is among the most polarizing in the history of television, in large part because fans felt it didn’t answer the myriad mysteries that the show posed throughout its run. What were Walt’s powers? Who was in the outrigger? What is the deal with that weird cabin?

The conceit of The Leftovers is that its mysteries are unknowable. If you’re watching this show and looking for answers — as many did with Lost — well, you’re shit out of luck, because there aren’t any. We don’t, and can’t, understand The Sudden Departure. We don’t know why it happened. We don’t know how it happened. We don’t even know what happened.

And from that starting point, The Leftovers was free to explore the real meat of its story: grappling with that lack of answers and figuring out what comes next. In some ways, losing someone to the Departure was more agonizing than if they had died. There’s an utter lack of closure — an unsolved mystery that simultaneously tied together millions of people affected and isolates those left behind.

Its exploration of questions, not answers, was what makes the series so realistic, as unrealistic as its premise is. In the real world, we never get the answers to our biggest existential questions. What is life about? What happens when we die? Why are we here?

Each of these questions spawns more, and in the same way, The Leftovers questioned everything and dealt with the pain and difficulty of shouting into the void. If something as logic-breaking as The Sudden Departure can happen, who’s to say someone can’t have the superpower of hugging pain away? Who’s to say the borders between life and death are fixed?

These are gigantic questions that are incredibly difficult to tackle on a TV show, but The Leftovers was always grounded in experiencing them through the eyes of its deep and complicated characters.

Police chief Kevin Garvey (Justin Theroux) dealt with the Guilty Remnant, a group somewhere between cult and domestic terrorist organization determined to prevent anyone from forgetting The Sudden Departure or move on. Nora Durst (Carrie Coon) lost both children and her husband and struggled to redefine herself after becoming an empty nester so abruptly. Meg Abbott (Liv Tyler) lost her mother the day before The Sudden Departure and never got a chance to own her own grief.

These were all nuanced forms of grief and coping and the series drew its strength from the specificity of these experiences, bringing characters to life, which in turn made the show’s suspension of disbelief an easier pill to swallow.

The Leftovers was careful not to let anyone question or emotion linger too long. The first season explored grief, but the show evolved overnight in seasons 2 and 3, some of the greatest television the decade had to offer, precisely because they became more ambiguous not less.

The second season (one of the greatest seasons of television I’ve ever seen) abandoned everything about the first season that fell flat, moving Kevin and his family to the miracle town of Jarden, Texas, the largest population in the world to not lose anyone to The Sudden Departure. Every path led not to answers, but to deeper questions that guide you into and then out of existential crisis after existential crisis.

When I think about The Leftovers, the moments that immediately come to mind are the two episodes that follow Kevin Garvey into the afterlife, a world where everything almost makes sense. Everything is abstract and illogical while still pulling precise emotional strings. Like a dream, the story sounds outlandish when you wake up, but when you’re in it, nothing feels more real.

In that world, emotion is the only currency, and the story only exists to give its characters — and by extension, us — emotional catharsis. This is The Leftovers in a nutshell.

The show can be and should be, praised for its worldbuilding, constructing an environment where The Sudden Departure feels real. It explored dozens of different reactions to that trauma and thought about how systems would respond, from the US government’s Department of Sudden Departure to the Guilty Remnant to the other cults that sought to find some meaning in a world without prescribed meaning.

But that worldbuilding was just a tool to bring that world to life — to make us forget that it was fictional, and to bring us on a journey of intense emotional catharsis unlike any other show of the decade. Written by Jackson (Skip Intro)

3) Happy Valley (2014, BBC1) Within its first moments you could tell Happy Valley was special. The opening scenes see police sergeant Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire) go into a newsagent and ask if they have a fire extinguisher. She needs it because a local youth has soaked himself in petrol and was threatening to set himself on fire. She takes this in her stride, regaling the youth with her backstory. “I’m Catherine by the way, I’m 47. I’m divorced. I live with me sister, who’s a recovering heroin addict. I’ve two grown-up children, one dead, one who doesn’t speak to me and a grandson so.” From that moment on, we loved Catherine and would follow her for whatever the journey would be.

Set in Sowerby bridge in West Yorkshire, the Sally Wainwright-penned drama follows Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire), who struggles to come to terms with the fact that old adversary Tommy Lee Royce (James Norton)— the young man she holds responsible for her daughter’s death eight years prior — has been released from prison. Simultaneously, she investigates the disappearance of a young woman — but little does Catherine know that both events are connected.

The series showcases Wainwright at her very best. We’ve long known to expect the unexpected with a Sally Wainwright script but the story here: part Fargo part Scott & Bailey offered so much scope. Lancashire’s performance is a knockout. The series feels particularly British. It bounces humour with moments of darkness and shocking violence. The characters and the world feel so real it’s hard not to find yourself swept up in the emotion of the piece.

While criminality is the backdrop against which the narrative takes place — not to mention the fact that it also provides for much of the conflict which arises throughout — Happy Valley is so much more than your average crime drama because it’s not really a crime drama, but rather it’s the story of a woman who’s been left somewhat damaged by the heartache she’s suffered, and she’s determined to ensure that the man responsible for said heartache doesn’t inflict the same sort of suffering on her beloved grandson.

Wainwright’s spectacular scripts leave us on the edge of our seats — as does her superb use of dialogue — and her ability to create strong characters who feel incredibly authentic is never more on display than it is here. Happy Valley remains one of the greatest shows to ever grace our screens.

We reached out to head of Red Production Company, who produced Happy Valley Nicola Shindler for comment on what made the show the special.

Reading any Sally script is always exciting but reading Episode 1 of Happy Valley was especially so. We had been talking for some time about the tone Sally was hoping to achieve, a little bit Fargo, a little bit Juliet Bravo, but from the first scene, Sally had created something completely original and that lived in its own very truthful world and that felt very complete. The speech where Catherine introduces herself was a perfect example of the boldness of the character and the writing. 

That so many other people felt the same was especially rewarding. Nicola Schindler

 2) The Bridge (2011, BBC4/BBC2) The Bridge, which was broadcast in the UK in 2012, looked like another formulaic Scandi import, but it was so much more. Sure, we had the outlandishly twisted plots, the heart-stopping cliffhangers, the dark grimy streets and the bloody gore we expected from the genre but this was a show with heart. The essence of it was the detective partnership between the Swedish Saga Noren (Sofia Helin) and her Danish counterpart Martin Rhode (Kim Bodnia). Saga was a fascinating, complicated character, not a close cousin to Sarah Lund but certainly from the same family. Martin was an unlikely partner for her, with an irrepressible cheeky smile. His kindness, warmth and spirit was perfectly balanced against her steely, robotic analysis, rather like Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson. Saga was a rare female eccentric, neurodivergent but never tied down to a diagnosis, dismissive of common courtesies and devoted to the job.

A maze-like plot and a cast of thousands baffled and intrigued viewers, but we had faith in Saga to see her way through with laser focus. Series 1 was a perfect capsule and needed nothing more, but by golly, we were glad when they did another. It was a real shame that Bodnia quit at the end of series 2, but it showed that Saga’s character could survive and thrive away from that original partnership. The creators were even more conscious of place than in The Killing; there are no tourist traps here, the only buildings on film were from the 1960s onwards, the director opting for that gritty any-city vibe. The tension between cultures, languages and values of these Scandi neighbours meant The Bridge spawned it share of remakes (none as good as the original) on many different international borders.

There were four series in total; of course, not all were up to the standard of the first (how could they be?) but the last series went out strong, and with an emotionally satisfying conclusion to Saga’s saga, a moment in any TV drama.  Whisper it softly, but was The Bridge better than The Killing? Yes! Written by Sarah Kennedy.

So it’s come to this. What have I named THE best show of the Decade???

1) The Americans (2013, FX/ITV) Part of what elevates The Americans to the top spot here is its prescience. When the show started in 2013, I’m not sure anyone would have predicted that covert Russian intelligence would play the gigantic role in US politics and world news that it does today. Indeed, one of the driving forces in the series was the doomed nature of our deep-cover KGB spies Philip (Matthew Rhys) and Elizabeth Jennings (Kerri Russell), that their country was on the brink of collapse and that their cause was headed for ruin. Audiences knew that the protagonists were on the losing side, not just as a gut feeling, but as a historical fact.

While The Americans finally got the recognition it always deserved in its final season — snagging Emmy Awards for Best Actor (Rhys) and Outstanding Writing in a Drama Series — it was brilliant long before it felt so relevant, largely for different reasons. Espionage and political commentary were always just tools that The Americans used to probe questions of identity. What does it mean to be an American? A Soviet? A mother? A husband? A freedom fighter?

It was a show that was always deeply interested in these different genres that we all encompass, and how their unwritten rules shape who we are. Each of us exists at a unique intersection of the institutions we subscribe to — a Venn diagram of representative identities.

Ultimately, what we watched Philip and Elizabeth do for six outstanding seasons was to crack into a person’s psyche using one of those doorways. They’d break their marks by exploiting an aspect of their true self, the one that they kept hidden behind social identity masks.

If their mark was a soldier, they might find incriminating information about their sexual orientation that would endanger their life of service. If they targeted a family man, they might seduce him into an affair and hold the destruction of that identity over his head. Yes, losing a job or a family might be painful, but what the Jennings team always understood was that it tapped into a deeper fear, the fear of losing sight of yourself. Revealing those secrets posed an existential threat to other competing identities, creating a cascading domino effect of collapse.

The Cold War setting of the show was a perfect petri dish for this experiment, and not just because of creator Joe Weisberg’s background at the CIA. The Cold War was a culture clash as much as a political chess match, pitting the capitalist-consumer United States against the socialist-state Soviet Union. Citizens of each country defined themselves equally by which side they were absolutely against as whichever team they were on.

Opening these channels made Philip and Elizabeth susceptible to the same kind of existential trauma. They were confronted by the dissonance between the violence (both physical and emotional) they inflicted on their marks and the way they wanted to see themselves, as citizens not just of the Soviet Union but for workers and the oppressed everywhere.

Even more than that, as they created a real family, they had to square who they were with who they wanted to be. There was always this lingering threat that their home life would blow their cover, that one of their children would discover the truth or that they’d be caught in their own home. But that’s not what made the scenes at home so powerful or memorable. In them we saw uncluttered versions of Philip and Elizabeth, as they took off the masks of spies and tried to see what was underneath. Who were they as parents when they weren’t just pretending to be parents? Who were they as husband and wife?

For me, it’s scenes like these that linger in my mind more than any thrilling heist, soul-crushing act of violence, or narrow escape:

In their family, the one thing they cared about even more than their mission or their country, they revealed who they really were underneath all of those masks (and some perfectly hideous wigs) and, even more importantly, who they wanted to be.

We bore witness to Philip and Elizabeth as they struggled in their relationships with each other and with their parents but it was these human moments that made the show the success that it was. More than any technology or biological warfare or piece of intelligence, it was watching Philip and Elizabeth navigate their life with each other while also struggling with who they were that gave us the show’s best moments, moments like:

At its heart, The Americans was a family drama that just happened to take place in a family of deep-cover Soviet spies. Their work raised existential questions about who they were and what they might become, but it was all about how those questions then affected the people behind those jobs. This aspect of the show might have been best embodied by the FBI agent next door Stan Beeman.

Stan wasn’t undercover, but he still struggled with how his work created dissonance between who he was and who he wanted to be. His marriage fell apart when he fell in love with his contact in the Russian embassy, and while that story was made more dramatic by the life-or-death stakes of counterintelligence, a marriage falling apart because of a workplace affair is a tale as old as time.

The Americans was equal parts political/historical fiction, spy thriller, and family drama with each of those genres helping to color in characters that transcended any one of those singular identities and became people. We understood them and the choices they made, even without anyone having to come out and explain them fully.

This deep understanding is what makes the finale of the show so powerful, and such a big risk. It is an episode of television not defined by what happens, but specifically by what doesn’t happen. And yet, we understand every step of the way what our characters are doing and why. We see their thoughts and feelings across their faces as clear as day because we’ve seen beneath all the masks. As Philip looks at the camera in the final moments, there’s a farewell written in his sad eyes, the kind that can only be expressed to someone, and by someone, who knows the true self underneath it all.  Written by Jackson (Skip Intro)

Thank you to all of my team who have written as part of this list: Deborah ShrewsburyJacksonMatt DonnellyMaurice WalkerMichael LeeSophie DaviesSarah HughesSarah KennedyStephen Patterson, & Will Barber-Taylor  & the logo and artwork design from eastendersweek 

Luke Knowles

Luke Knowles


Editor of the website and host of the podcast. A general TV obsessive. I've been running the site since 2008 and you can usually find me in front of the TV. My Favourite show of all time is Breaking Bad with Cracker coming a close second. I feel so passionately that television can change the world and I'm doing my little bit by running this site. You're Welcome!


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