First off, let me clarify. There is nothing wrong, as such, with Downton Abbey but I think it’s accurate of me to point out that there’s nothing particularly special about it. I don’t see the significance of a typical formulaic ITV period drama, especially not when it’s full of ex-soap stars, the acting ability of which I’m dumbfounded hasn’t been called into question yet. Then add to that the fact that Maggie Smith seems to have been somewhat chucked into the mix and I’m left feeling rather bemused as to how it’s been so rampantly successful in the face of many dramas, comedies, documentaries and other sorts of programmes that are much better on every standpoint.
It’s nearly two weeks since Downton Abbey won a Golden Globe for Best Television Mini-Series, beating the likes of The Hour and Mildred Pierce. So with this in mind, I present ten or so television programmes (notice the ambiguity there) from the last two years that are all either better or on the same level as Downton, but without the awards.
Oh and where applicable, I’ve included various on demand links, links to the DVD or Bluray on Amazon and a few even have links for Netflix, should you have a subscription.
Campus lasted one series before Channel 4 brutally canned it. Easily the most creative, quick-witted, beautifully shot and acted comedy that’s been on British television in recent times, it was pretty much an Arrested Development we could call our own. What was conceived out of a pilot for Channel 4′s Comedy Showcase in 2009, there was promise from the initial opening 30 minute pilot episode. When it was commissioned for a full series however, after 18 months, all traces of Campus has disappeared from the British collective consciousness and doubling the runtime of each episode to 60 minutes didn’t really work.
Not many, if any, comedies can manage a full hour and Campus‘ chopping and changing fast surrealism didn’t really suit such a long run once per week. When considered as a series though, it’s almost perfect. Andy Nyman plays a bizarre university dean in fictional Kirke University, whilst Joseph Millson clashes with him as an English lecturer who’s lazy. If you’ve not seen even one episode, try it. It’s fantastic. It’s such a shame that it didn’t get to a second series.
Sirens also lasted one series before being cancelled. By Channel 4. Again. In that one series, though, Sirens managed to achieve a lot. Rhys Thomas starred as the lead, playing a rather lax paramedic who’s more concerned with what’s going on in his life that what’s happening whilst on the job. Richard Madden and Kayvan Novak support in what was one of the most touching yet also hilarious comedy dramas of last year.
Perhaps the fact it was rather bold in its narrative – Thomas’ stream of consciousness narration was at times difficult to fathom – meant that it didn’t rate particularly well on a Monday night. It is worth a look however. Based on the book by Tom Reynolds, the series was very well conceived, if not particularly critically applauded.
Exile was one of the more gripping three part dramas of last year. It’s almost certain not to be remembered as one of the most definitive dramas of the channel, being overshadowed by Doctor Who and Hustle for example, it definitely made an impression on me. John Simm plays a journalist who’s sacked in disgrace from his job in London, then comes back home somewhere in the North of England to stay with his Father (played magnificently by Jim Broadbent) who has alzheimer’s disease and his sister (also played magnificently by Olivia Colman).
Perhaps the most beautifully-written, albeit by Paul Abbott, and engrossing of television mini-dramas last year, the narrative was highly complex, with subplots such as Simm’s affair with his best friend’s wife playing out more gripping than tedious. It’s not so much the writing here that impresses, but the acting is simply sublime. A genuine must-see.
Now if there’s ever going to be an ITV-made drama that deserves all the plaudits that Downton Abbey has and more, it’s Appropriate Adult. Emily Watson received a Golden Globe nomination for her performance as Janet Leach, a social worker known as an ‘appropriate adult’ called in to sit in with the police interviews of notorious mass murder and rapist Fred West, played by Dominic West, of The Wire fame.
In two parts, the series was absolutely chilling, as we saw the events unfold under Leach’s point of view. Although the series caused much controversy for highlighting the actions of West’s evil crimes, it stayed rather close to the events of what happened nearly twenty years ago. Based on a true story, there are occasions in Appropriate Adult that do feel a bit gratuitous to provide a back-story, such as Leach’s own struggle with her husband who was admitted ill.
This aside however, it proved that ITV can make gripping, brilliantly written and well acted drama. And if that’s not reason enough to watch it, I can’t think what is.
Educating Essex is a documentary filmed inside Passmore’s School in Essex during the 2010/11 school year and broadcast at the end of 2011. Instead of being the usual ‘Ooh, let’s stick a load of cameras inside the public sector and look at how glad we are we work in an office instead!’ (looking at you One Born Every Minute, Coppers and Party Paramedics) Educating Essex was warm, genuine and fascinating.
It followed the lives of students and teachers along with other staff and highlighted what a difficult job the teachers have but also how much they care for the students. It wasn’t overtly pushing the whole Cowell-esque sob story thing, either. There was something about the whole first series that was just amazingly genuine. For a documentary to have such a lasting effect too is impressive.
Why is Misfits good, you ask? Why is it universally critically acclaimed? Why is it the best thing (almost) that E4 have ever commissioned? I’ll tell you.
Remember when Heroes started in America, and it was really good because it was a fresh take on the whole superheroes thing, and it had that brilliant first series with the sideplots and all the plotpoints came together in the last episode and it was incredible?…And then the second series suffered because of the Writer’s Strike and it went downhill after that? Well imagine if someone took all that, thought they could do it better and more original, make it funny and cast teenagers to play the lead roles. Not just that, but that it wouldn’t compromise drama for cheap comic moments, would have genuinely brilliant performances (apart from Lauren Socha and yes I am aware she won a BAFTA, but come on) and would be shot entirely on expensive cameras that make the whole thing look amazing.
Well they did, and that’s Misfits. A show that began as a replacement of sorts for Skins which was beginning to falter and has now grown into something entirely of its own and would pass for a brilliant sci-fi series. Watch it.
PhoneShop originally started life as a pilot along with Campus on Comedy Showcase in 2009 and it really is the best thing E4 have ever commissioned. Why? Because it’s fast, it’s partly-improvised, it’s written well, it’s mad, its comic timing is incredible, it’s set in an actual phone shop on an actual high street, it juxtaposes youth urban culture with real life, it’s a great social commentary on the state of Britain today, it’s incredibly light-hearted, it’s funny, it’s genuine, it’s hilarious and it’s a comedy that doesn’t mess about. In other words, it will make you laugh constantly and consistently. I dare you to find me a better comedy, I actually do.
Anna and Katy was a pilot in September 2011 for E4 under the Comedy Lab umbrella. In recent times, there haven’t been as many sketch shows as there were, which is a shame because I grew up on Harry Enfield and The Fast Show. Anna (Crilly) and Katy (Wix) aren’t just a pair of women that happen to be on those adverts that sponsor Coronation Street, though. Their sketch show, which has recently been commissioned for a full series, was one of the most intelligent and genuinely hilarious comedies of last year.
Danish. Political. Drama. In. Danish. With. Subtitles. Either the above is one massive glowing advertisement to watch Borgen or a turn off. It should be the former, because it’s so good it’s stupid. It’s so brilliant that I actually might consider punching myself in both eyes so that I can squint for the next two weeks, just to enjoy its Danish glow. It’s shot so well and looks amazing in HD (!) that it makes my TV look like a window. If you liked Wallander (even the poor English language remake with Kenneth Branagh) then you’ll love this. If you’ve never watched a subtitled Scandinavian drama before, then this is perfect.
I can’t explain Stewart Lee’s Comedy Vehicle. It’s half an hour of Stewart Lee doing stand up, mixed with sketches featuring Kevin Eldon. Armando Iannucci appears a few times, too. It’s to be seen to believed, really. Better than most comedies but usually always placed late in the schedule after Newsnight, which is bollocks.
Sherlock – BBC One – DVD – Bluray Easily the greatest drama of the last 30 years and easily the best thing on this list. Brilliant in every conceivable fashion. I just can’t be bothered to write an essay on why it’s perfect right now. Perhaps in a few weeks when the second series comes out on Bluray.
Friday Night Dinner – Channel 4 – 4OD – DVD Friday Night Dinner, written by Robert Popper, starring pretty much everyone ‘hot’ in comedy right now and slowly progressing to become one of the best comedies I’ve seen recently.