I am incredibly busy this festive season, but keen to do my usual themed reviews/lists of the year. Let’s do TV. In a year where the most exciting stuff happened on the news, I will concentrate on new and returning dramas, comedies and documentaries. Clearly, there are more than 15 TV shows I loved in 2011 – I enjoyed Frozen Planet, like everybody else, and Spooks – but you have to draw the line somewhere, otherwise you would go mad. Here is the line that I drew.
1. The Shadow Line, BBC2
I spent much of the year watching British drama on television and failing to really passionately engage with it. And not all of it could blame its own hype for in-built disappointment, like The Hour. As a writer who can currently only dream of writing serious drama, I want everything to be great. I will it to be so. But much of it seems designed to be understood by idiots, which is likely to be down to pressure from broadcasters and producers, and I understand that. Meanwhile, Hugo Blick’s near-Shakespearean police corruption potboiler moved about familiar territory with such panache and confidence, it put all those identikit new cop shows like Vera, Case Sensitive, Case Histories and even The Body Farm in the shade. And required you to think at every turn. Even though none of us guessed the ending – surely! – it wasn’t a whodunit. It was so much more than that. I can never forgive it for seeming to drown a cat, and the fact that I have made it number one despite this shows just how good, and resonant all these months later, it is.
2. This Is England ’88, C4
This could have been more of the same from Shane Meadows, who found a comfortable spiritual home on TV last year with This Is England ’86. But he raised the emotional bar, and wrung so much more out of his gang, not least Lol, perhaps the most inappropriately named character in modern drama, through whose troubles Vicky McClure played a blinder. Lovely use of The Smiths on the soundtrack, too.
3. The Story Of Film: An Odyssey, More4
A truly epic undertaking, Mark Cousins filled a void we didn’t even know existed by providing a history of cinema that was at once personal and polemical, but strove for mainstream legitimacy and arguably achieved that, constantly criss-crossing continents to show echoes bouncing around the globe concurrently, but firmly placing entirely original and thrilling comparisons into context. His lilting voice – which I love – conveys “pretentious” to his detractors, but its softness and sense of wonder humanised a big subject. I didn’t want it to end.
4. The Killing, BBC4
I’ve only seen the first season. The second is stacking up in my Sky+, deliberately, so that I can watch it box-set style in big swathes – that’s how I devoured this one. I sense that Forbrydelsen II is not the equal of the original, but how could it be? It’s half as long, for a start, whereas the first one, out of the blue, took us into a whole other world and allowed us to linger for 20 episodes, all the while changing our minds about whodunit, and learning Danish as we went. Sophie Grabol was superb as Sarah Lund, but it wasn’t just about her and her jumper. This was a window on the parallel universe of Scandinavia, where grisly murders don’t happen as much, politics is all about coalition and the rain seems never to stop. Who knew that a subtitled drama would be one of the year’s best? (It originally aired in 2007, of course, but it’s new to us.)
5. Boardwalk Empire, Sky Atlantic
I apologise to all of you who diligently snub all of Rupert Murdoch’s works and thus cannot join in the chorus of approval for what is, effectively, our own little HBO: Sky Atlantic. Its launch was, for my household, one of the best bits of news of 2011. Whether it’s oddities like Bored To Death, from-the-start re-runs of the likes of Big Love and The Wire, TV movies of the quality of Too Big To Fail or Temple Grandin, or brand new, still-wet broadcasts of the best US stuff, like this, or Mildred Pierce, the stopcock of quality never stops flowing. What’s most astounding about Boardwalk Empire is the way the second season has turned it on a new pivot, with Jimmy taking over from Nucky, or attempting to, and Van Alden starting a new life. Also: the best opening credits on television. You can probably see those on YouTube for free.
6. American Horror Story, FX
Delighted to see this get a Golden Globe nomination today. I have a soft spot for FX (more Murdoch, I’m afraid, but he’ll get his comeuppance in hell), which this year brought The Walking Dead back and went all BBC4 with its thrilling French cop import Braquo. But American Horror Story, one of the few truly chilling pieces of mainstream television since Twin Peaks, pretty much instantly became a favourite, with Jessica Lange bringing some Hollywood ballast to a cast otherwise made up of familiar folks from other TV shows, like Connie Britton from Friday Night Lights, Morris Chestnutt from V, Zachary Quinto from Heroes, Frances Conroy from Six Feet Under, and on it goes. The haunted house standby gets an eerie makeover from the creator of Nip/Tuck and the now off-the-boil Glee (with both of which it shares a delicious sense of camp), with a gimp seemingly living in the attic, and everybody who ever died in the house living in the cellar.
7. Game Of Thrones, Sky Atlantic
I’m really not one for fantasy lit. And I doubt I’ll ever pick up one of George R.R. Martin’s novels. But this epic saga, based upon that very source material, provided a stirring narrative in its first season, with a parallel world of warring factions so complex the opening credits (which won an Emmy) are based upon a map. Perhaps a little too fond of soft porn nudity for its own good, it’s full of British and Irish actors – and shot in Northern Ireland – so has that instant appeal. And it’s got Peter Dinklage in it – another Emmy winner – so what can go wrong? Season two due to air on HBO in April 2012, and that means we’ll get it almost concurrently, something that never used to happen, did it?
8. Fresh Meat, C4/Rev, BBC2
Hedging my bets a bit, I realise, but these two comedies, so very different, cannot be separated in my mind. Fresh Meat, which showed Campus how to do a student comedy – mainly by doing it about the students and not the staff – will surely win Jack Whitehall a Comedy Award on Friday, and if not, it doesn’t matter, he’s redeemed himself in the eyes of anyone who had him down as a smug, preening, fast-tracked, over-privileged stand-up hunk, breathing life into the monstrous but lovable JP. (Zawe Ashton also a revelation as Vod.) Sam Bain and Jesse Armstrong created the template and, we may assume, the characters, but other writers, some much newer to telly, took on individual episodes. This programme is actually like a university. And Rev I’ve raved about very recently. It continues to delight.
9. Top Boy, C4
Although arbitrarily broadcast across successive nights when it should have been allowed to bubble and simmer across the same number of weeks, Top Boy was writer Ronan Bennett at his dramatic and journalistic best, translating what he learned from residents of estates in East London into a story that – in bravely dispensing with the police (or “Feds”) – found a human story among the hardship. Along with Attack The Block, another fiction about black youths by a white writer that sidestepped caricature, this dared to look beyond the cliches. Also, what an atmospheric piece, so brilliantly founded upon the insistent, ambient riff from Ghostpoet’s Finished I Ain’t. (It’s interesting that this came so soon off the back of The Jury on ITV1, also by Bennett, but replete with cliches and clunky exposition, almost as if someone somewhere decided that ITV1 viewers needed their food cutting up into chunks for them, which I would argue they don’t.)
10. Treme, Sky Atlantic
Like Boardwalk Empire, here’s another sprawling drama that manages to keep a number of stories spinning, and was not defeated by a second season, despite a spectacular first. So very different to The Wire, whose Ed Simon co-created it, and yet so similar in many ways, it concentrated on the black experience, but not exclusively, and did a unique thing in narrative drama in letting the music tell the story. There is clearly music in the veins of New Orleans, and this aspect was what made Treme so different. It’s not a musical, but it is.
11. All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, BBC2
I saw a lot of documentaries this year, as I am drawn to non-fiction. But Adam Curtis is more than a documentary maker, and his latest, esoteric, uniquely paced three-part opus took in everything from Ayn Rand, Alan Greenspan and Buckminster Fuller to President Mobutu, Richard Dawkins and the Club Of Rome, all the while taking the back off our obsession with computers and machine-age utopianism. This is a filmmaker who joins dots that you didn’t even know were dots.
12. The Promise, C4
Sometimes, ambition is not enough. But in tackling the Israel-Palestine question from both a historic and a contemporary viewpoint, without ever decisively demonising or lionising either side, Peter Kosminsky – a dramatist who likes issues – created a compelling story that asked as many questions as it answered. Claire Foy came of age (did that sound patronising enough?) as the initially apolitical tourist in Israel who delves into the past via the death of her grandfather. I didn’t feel brow-beaten – terrorism, cruelty and prejudice was shown on both sides – but came away feeling pretty sad about the whole situation. (It made me re-attempt Martin Gilbert’s epic account Israel, but it defeated me again. The Promise was in that sense far more successful.)
13. British Masters/Art Of America, BBC4
It would be churlish to separate these fine art series on the channel that does them best. The former gave us a new expert, Dr James Fox (with whom I entered into a pleasant correspondence when I contacted him through the faculty of Gonville & Caius College, Cambridge while trying to ascertain his actual age, which is a sickening 29), the latter set a well established one, the persuasive Andrew Graham-Dixon, at another part of the world, this time America. So we had Dr Fox, not that one, moving from bathhouse to terraced street in search of the great, in some cases unsung, British painters of the 20th century, from Nash, Spencer and Freud to Hamilton, Bomberg and Hockney, while Graham-Dixon hopped in the statutory open-top car and went from coast to coast to get to the heart of Hopper, Wyeth, Rockwell and Warhol. Both utterly absorbing – the former knocked on forums by certain academics for sanding down the rough edges (a criticism my new friend Dr Fox refutes) – and both pulled off, with aplomb and approachability, in just three parts apiece. I could have watched either for twice as many. Can’t wait for their next LP. In a year when BBC4 had a large chunk of its pocket money taken away by a government that hates it, we have to hope they have ringfenced funding for this type of thing. Sky Arts do an ever improving job, but we can’t have Murdoch taking over the whole sandpit. Even Sky Atlantic disciples understand that.
14. Modern Family, Sky1
Still the best US import, Modern Family has been a constant in my life all year, and, when a run coincides with 30 Rock and Curb, as it did this autumn, I feel spoiled by American wit. Favourite character? Still Cam.
15. Celebrity Masterchef, BBC1
You know I have a soft spot for this, and it gets into the Top 15 partly because it had such a likable and impressive bunch of contenders in Kirsty Wark, Hollyoaks‘ Nick Pickard, Danny from Supergrass and eventual winner, the sweet and soft-spoken retired rugby captain Phil Vickery, but also because the show was exiled to the salt mines of daytime from the early evening and I think this was a bad move. It deserves to be reinstated.