It’s been another stellar year for TV drama, following on from 2014’s roll-call of top notch shows.
We’re counting down our Top Ten serious highlights of 2015’s telly schedules, from across both sides of the Atlantic, and streaming services as well as conventional broadcast.
Given that the likes of London Spy, Fortitude and the latest series of The Bridge all just missed out on inclusion, you can tell what a difficult task it was to whittle 2015’s lofty crop of dramatic offerings down.
Nonetheless, in our humble opinion, here are the 10 best TV dramas of 2015:
10. True Detective
A weaker showing than the celebrated first season? Maybe. But an essential, gritty and compelling crime saga in its own right? Certainly.
For all its pretentious dialogue and surreal imagery, Nic Pizzolatto’s new LA-based story had the strength of extremely fine performances from Colin Farrell, Vince Vaughn, Rachel McAdams and Taylor Kitsch, not to mention impressive cinematography, suitably slimy antagonists and an appropriately murky noir atmosphere. Ignore the unfairly savage reviews: if you haven’t seen it already, take the plunge. The final episode was one of the most intense, heart-in-the-mouth hours of drama in recent memory.
9. Game Of Thrones
It’s hard to escape the fact that this was arguably the first less-than-sensational season of the supreme fantasy saga yet, even if that essentially means this was just very, very good, as opposed to phenomenal. At times, deviation from the source material fell utterly flat (a particularly unnecessary death; the Dorne storyline; Sansa’s disappointing arc). But there was nonetheless still enough excellence here to elevate it far above most other TV dramas.
Certain character downfalls were powerfully tragic and beautifully conveyed, while the Hardhome episode was perhaps the most jaw-dropping TV episode of the year: an astonishingly epic battle in the snow, staged with real movie-scale flair and adrenaline. Oh, and that gut-punch of a finale. If nothing else, you can always rely on Game Of Thrones to ramp up the excitement.
Robot servants, companions and even sex slaves side-by-side with humans in a dystopian society? Sounds familiar, sure. But what could have been a simple re-tread of a highly familiar sci-fi theme actually felt distinctive and original here; placing the synths in an alternative modern-day an inspired way of confronting us with the intense moral conundrums such a society would provoke, as well as mirroring relatable contemporary issues.
Humans was a fascinating start to a saga that left us eagerly craving more. Gemma Chan and co did a marvelous job portraying the uncanny valley of the synthetic characters, and any show that features the unlikely sight of Katherine Parkinson, Neil Maskell, Rebecca Front and William Hurt acting alongside one another, has got to be worthy of note.
7. American Horror Story: Hotel
Lady Gaga: take a bow. What might have struck some as headline-grabbing novelty casting proved anything but in the fifth instalment of the wonderfully demented gore, sex and shock fest. She has been simply spellbinding as the countess in a season both sexy and scary in equal measure.
Hotel has boasted the usual gleeful tangle of plot spaghetti that American Horror Story is infamous for, while the cinematography, soundtrack and set design have never been better. The ensemble cast have all been as splendid as ever too, but a special mention must also go to Evan Peters as the deliciously evil 1920s murderer James Patrick Marsh. Playing against type with moustache-twirling relish and THAT accent, his is a darkly comic performance of the highest quality.
Forever banishing all memory of the cheesy Ben Affleck film to the history books, Netflix’s barnstorming team-up with Marvel yielded arguably the most riveting and rewarding superhero show yet: packed full of exhilarating action sequences, gripping detective scenarios, and an immersive origin story and character study to boot.
Carried off with impressively epic staging and a dark, gritty tone that felt just right for the subject-matter, Charlie Cox has been a revelation as blind vigilante Matt Murdock, while Vincent D’Onofrio provided one of the finest comic book villains in living memory. Bring on season two.
5. This Is England ’90
Shane Meadows’ anthology came to a (supposed) end in this hard-hitting, yet playfully hilarious four-part series. After watching Lol, Woody and their band of disenfranchised youths grow from young teens to adults, over the course of seven on-screen years, the last instalment in the series was highly anticipated – and didn’t disappoint.
Despite moments of surreal and painfully drawn-out humour, and the baffling promotion of some previously undeveloped characters (Flip and Higgy, Jennifer, Woody’s parents), Meadow’s script and the execution by the young cast brought us a drama that felt more like watching friends than fiction. It’s simply impossible to watch the plot-lines unfold and not feel emotionally engaged with them, on a level usually reserved for real life matters of the heart. TIE 90 provided us with some of the most memorable and raw scenes of recent years, never mind 2015. [SS]
Even if you had a passing knowledge of Pablo Escobar and his Medellín Cartel, your jaw still hit the floor every five minutes as you watched Narcos, a superb drama from Netflix that sticks faithfully to the mind-blowing story of the kingpin’s rise and fall (not that they’d need to embellish any of the real-life details). At one point Escobar, who claimed to be a man of the people but was more violent than any of his rivals, was one of the ten richest people in the world, raking in $60 million per day from cocaine trafficking.
Narcos, narrated by American DEA agent Steve Murphy (Boyd Holbrook), owed a lot to Goodfellas in its treatment of an unbelievable but true criminal story, but any risk of romanticising ‘Don Pablo’ was tempered by Wagner Moura’s understated, malevolent portrayal of Escobar as a ruthless, paranoid bully, with the fashion sense and physique of a 1980s darts player. [NM]
3. Better Call Saul
For those of us who just couldn’t let go of Breaking Bad, along came Better Call Saul, the understated yet brilliant spin-off. Focusing on Walter White’s money-laundering criminal lawyer, the prequel series follows his journey from legal small-fry Jimmy McGill, to decidedly dodgy defence, Saul Goodman.
Despite sharing the same leisurely pace, black humour and some key characters with Gilligan’s original creation, the show worked in its own right. Set before Walter White and Saul Goodman ever crossed paths, the prequel series gives an insight into the background of Alberqurque’s most criminal, criminal layer. Against the odds, Saul and his right hand-man Mike Ehrmantraut gradually became the most empathetic and relatable characters in the Breaking Bad saga, and that’s the clincher for this series. We care about Saul much more than we cared about Walter in the end. More obviously funny, with plenty of pathos and beautifully shot, Better Call Saul proved to be much more than just a spin off. [SS]
2. Wolf Hall
BBC period dramas may never be the same again. Hilary Mantel’s books got the small-screen treatment in extraordinary fashion this year, with the story of Thomas Cromwell’s rise in the court of Henry VIII as quietly gripping as it gets. Beautifully written barbed dialogue, a slow-burning suspenseful story, and a fascinating morally ambiguous anti-hero at its core – you found yourself rooting for the scheming, intelligent rags-to-riches protagonist, even as his soul became ever more corrupted by power and revenge.
Mark Rylance’s watchful, complex performance as Cromwell has deservedly been lauded, but Claire Foy’s unconventional and multi-layered take on the tragic Anne Boleyn deserves plaudits too, as does Damien Lewis in a deceptively jovial turn as infamous monarch Henry, whose ultimate reveal of his slimy, ruthless and borderline sociopathic nature proved absolutely chilling.
Few could have thought that the second season of the tragi-comic crime thriller would surpass the brilliant first. But here we are.
Make no mistake: Fargo season two has been mesmerising television of the highest order, and the show deservedly tops our countdown for the second year running. Funny, poignant, smart, suspenseful and highly creative, it has had us tightly held in its clutches ever since the explosive first episode, with its tale of feuding families, unlikely killers and war-haunted small town cops caught up in the chaos throwing up nail-biting tension and hilarious gags in equal measure – packing more great character moments into every episode than most shows manage in a lifetime.
Watching the simmering, tangent-loving Mike Milligan face-to-face with the no-nonsense Lou Solverson, or Betsy coming to terms with her terminal illness in an emotional yet matter of fact confession to Karl ‘King Of Breakfast’ Weathers, are things we could happily watch again and again and again. Simply masterful.