Christmas is nigh and 2014 is drawing to a close making it the perfect time to look back with fondness and wonder at the TV highlights of the year.
So here, for your delectation, are my top ten TV shows of the year – concluding with 5 – 1.
Please don’t get angry, okay?
5) The Missing
If Line of Duty and The Fall were lessons in how not to end a series, then Harry and Jack Williams’s haunting tale of child abduction showed how it should be done. Offering closure without the unrealism of wrapping everything in a neat little bow, last week’s finale provided an answer to the fate of Oliver Hughes but also showed how impossible it is to ever fully recover from the loss of a child.
It was a fitting conclusion to eight weeks of masterfully slow-burning dread that began with the gut-wrenching moment of Oliver’s disappearance, shocked us with Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt)’s sudden murder of predatory paedophile Ian Garrett (Ken Stott), and ended with a miserable image of a still-grieving Tony being carted away by Russian police.
Steadily unfolding the drama across two timelines, The Missing was never really about the disappearance of a child but was a sensitive examination of the all-consuming power of grief, especially when the loss is so tragic and unexpected.
4) In The Flesh
Forget The Walking Dead, the best zombie-focused series on TV right now is BBC Three’s off-beat drama In The Flesh. Appearing more confidant after the ground-breaking success of its three-episode ‘pilot series’ in 2013, Dominic Mitchell showed greater ambition in his second series, broadening the reach of his story by introducing a guerrilla army of zombie rebels and digging deeper with his ruminations on themes of acceptance, humanity and prejudice.
The ensemble cast is fantastic, Luke Newberry leading the way with a pathos-laden turn as perpetual outcast Kieran while Emily Bevan provides both comic relief and moments of sheer heartbreak as Kieran’s loopy ‘best dead friend forever’ Amy.
Entertainingly gloomy, diverse and intelligent, that In The Flesh’s future still dangles by a thread with the impending death of BBC Three is incomprehensible, and given lesser shows like Don’t Tell The Bride and Backchat have been transferred to BBC One and BBC Two respectively, the BAFTA-winning zombie-drama surely deserves a home on a bigger stage rather than being consigned to the doldrums of the internet.
3) Happy Valley
Considering she wrote the gently paced Last Tango in Halifax, the idea that Sally Wainwright would create one of the most harrowing pieces of television in 2014 seemed absurd. But she did just that with Happy Valley, exposing the deliciously seedy underbelly of a seemingly quiet, bucolic Yorkshire town through powerfully gruesome acts of violence.
Slightly more expected was the impeccable quality of acting talent on offer with Sarah Lancashire giving a career-defining turn as Catherine Cawood, a strong-willed police woman who, crucially, remained emotionally accessible to the audience, and James Norton emerging from obscurity to stalk our nightmares as coldly vicious rapist Tommy Lee Royce.
Already an awarding-wining writer, Happy Valley further marked Wainwright as one of the most striking and original writers working in television today.
2) Peaky Blinders
With its incongruously modern alt rock soundtrack, artfully noirish depiction of industrialized Birmingham and wandering Brummie accents, it’s fair to say Peaky Blinders is one of the most distinctive and divisive shows on TV.
And you feel that’s exactly the way writer Steven Knight likes it, especially as series two of his period gangster drama is shamelessly louder and more idiosyncratic than ever, his grand mythologisation of civic corruption in post-war Britain continuing to establish itself as the boldest and brashest drama in Britain today.
What’s most enticing about series two is that the character drama, a rare weak point of the show’s first run, has intensified exponentially. While Cillian Murphy has always commanded attention as icy mob boss Tommy Shelby, this series has focused on how his actions have increasingly impacted upon his loved ones. Not least his matriarchal aunt Polly (Helen McCrory), who struggles to keep her son out of Tommy’s criminal dealings, and Paul Anderson’s violent guard dog Arthur Shelby, who falls deeper under the hold of PTSD, winding up in a London prison as a consequence of Tommy’s failed mechanizations.
With its rich visuals, pulsating narrative and, now, engaging human tragedy, Peaky Blinders is going from strength to strength; and with a master plan that unfolds over multiple series, there really is no telling how far Knight can take this show.
The ambitious and sublime Fargo miniseries may have had to overcome the intense trepidation of fans of the Coen brothers’ 1996 movie before viewers bought into its chilling blend of darkness and humour, but once they did there was nothing to stop it becoming the TV highlight of 2014.
Series creator Noah Hawley smartly set out to put the spirit of the original film – with similar character types and a bleak and bloody story shot through with a wry humour – into a completely new dark drama that would appease both the already-initiated and the innocent newcomers.
The result was less of a whodunit and more of an exploration into the dark things ordinary people do, set against the gloriously operatic backdrop of Minnesota’s grimly desolate milieu. And there’s no one darker than Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton), a dangerous drifter in the mould of the Coens’ ‘devil with a bad haircut’ type who strolls into Fargo to inflict chaos and violence on regular folks’ lives – just for the heck of it.
The cast on Fargo is superb, Martin Freeman’s affable everyman shtick providing the perfect foil for his opportunistic sleaze ball Lester Nygaard, and Allison Tolman is immensely impressive as determined cop Molly Solverson. But none stand out more so than Thornton, who brings a magnetic charisma to the cold killer with a penchant for dry observation, reminding the world of just how great an actor he can be.
Savage and absurd, Fargo did the unthinkable and actually matched the original film, giving Hawley the confidence to undertake an even greater challenge: writing a second season with an all new story and set of characters. And since Fargo clearly revels in taking our expectations and blasting them into the sky, you can expect season two to at least be the equal of the last season.