NO OFFENCE and LINE OF DUTY
I spent much of the year rewatching all of Life On Mars, the first series of Ashes To Ashes, and the first two of Spiral, the French thriller which pre-empted the boom in classy Euro drama. Despite immersing myself in the sights, sounds and questionable police interview techniques of 70s Manchester, 80s London and 00s Paris, I clearly wasn't fed up of that most ubiquitous of TV genres, the cop show. Two very different examples were my highlights of the year.
Back at the start of the year, I took to the task of weekly reposting my fervent belief that No Offence was the best thing on telly. Looking back from the opposite end of 2017, I've gotta say that my opinion on this matter still stands.
Any concerns that this second series might not be able to match the stellar first outing from 2015 were successfully laid to rest in the opening sequence. Unlike gangster Nora Attah's son Herbie, whose funeral is somewhat disturbed by the explosion of a bomb hidden inside his coffin. This grimly comic set piece is No Offence all over, gleefully dancing over the lines of good taste.
The shocking conclusion of the first series is intelligently referenced without overshadowing the new storyline. In sharing a screwed-up secret, the triumvirate of Joanna Scanlan's DI Viv Deering, Elaine Cassidy's DC Dinah Kowalska and Alexandra Roach's DS Joy Freers have found their unity sorely tested.
Meanwhile Nora Attah, played terrifyingly well by Rakie Ayola, is the worthy adversary Viv didn't quite get in a first series where the killer was a shadowy presence. As, in her own way, is Sarah Solemani as Viv's more by-the-book superior officer DCI Christine Lickberg, essentially making the five most significant characters in this series all female - a significant part of its appeal is its implicit feminist credentials, never signposted but instead built into its structure.
The story arc involves child abuse, gang war and a bomb belt in a police station, but the dry humour of the first series remains, most often in one-liners from Viv. Joanna Scanlan has been in plenty of great shows in the past, most obviously The Thick Of It and Getting On, but Viv is surely the part she's been waiting for. It's a fearless, forthright portrayal of a no-bullshit woman, and really deserves awards to match the one her character is given in the first episode of this series.
If No Offence is primarily character-driven, the similarly returning Line Of Duty is all about the shocking twists. In a programme which has happily thrown a seemingly major character out of the window - literally - there's a sense that nobody is safe, a notion thrillingly toyed with in the biggest cliffhanger of this fourth series.
With the demise of one particular bent copper last time, it seemed as if Line Of Duty had finally purged itself of the conspiracy which fuelled previous events. Yeah, we should have known better, really. Before too long, even the most dedicated of viewers were online, searching for reminders of who that was, and how that reference fitted to this event. That was when they weren't sharing thoughts, theories or simply horrified reactions as events unfolded. Never mind binge-watching box sets or streaming entire series, having to wait a week between episodes enhanced the creeping dread which makes Line Of Duty so horribly compelling.
As per usual, a high-profile acting talent was cast as the adversary of AC-12. This time, it was Thandie Newton, whose cold, calculating DCI Roz Huntley spent the series going to increasingly extreme, not to mention insane, lengths to cover up what might have started as a simple error of judgement. Also along for the ride was Jason Watkins, possibly the most underrated of British character actors since everyone cottoned on to Toby Jones, as sceptical forensics officer Tim Ifield.
TABOO and RIPPER STREET
Tom Hardy vehicle Taboo deserves to win awards. Unfortunately for its creators, there isn't a BAFTA for Best Comedy Series By People Unaware They Were Making A Comedy.
The basic premise of the show is remarkably similar to that of Poldark, albeit transported from Cornwall to London, and set a couple of decades later. A man thought lost in foreign climes returns, scarred both physically and psychically, and determined to reacquire his birthright. Ross Poldark quickly establishes himself as a man of the people, repeatedly siding with the poor and decrying the greed of the landowning classes with a passion that must surely have left the sizable Telegraph-reading proportion of the period drama massive feeling slightly uneasy. Taboo's James Keziah Delaney, meanwhile, quickly establishes himself as a massive bellend by reacting to most verbal communication with a trademark grunt, a mannerism which is supposed to portray him as a man with no time to suffer fools. It doesn't. It just makes him seems like a bit of a dick.
But wait! Delaney is nice to his old school friend Michael, despite Michael's secret penchant for dressing up as a lady. What a forward-thinking friend to the 19th Century LGBT community! Er, yeah, except he's only using Michael because he takes minutes at the meetings of the dastardly East India Company, and routinely puts him in danger, as he does everybody else who gets pulled into his dark orbit.
Delaney's also an exotic creature, who's returned from his sojourn in Africa with a habit of covering himself in mud and speaking in tongues at least once an episode. If it wasn't laughable, there's a danger that he could be viewed as an early adopter of cultural appropriation. Fortunately, it's hilarious.
Taboo was not without its good points. It looked amazing and successfully marshalled a huge cast of characters. It had Stephen Graham in it, and that Jason Watkins again. And Scroobius Pip, of all people. Perhaps the only people who seemed in on the idea that it was just a massive lark were Mark Gatiss, playing a diseased Prince Regent in the manner of a man who is pretending to be in a lost series of Blackadder, and Jonathan Pryce, having a whale of a time as Delaney's nemesis Sir Stuart Strange, the east India's chairman, Delaney's sworn enemy and an impressively prolific 19th century swear word machine. But the real star was undoubtedly Jessie Buckley, playing Delaney's dad's young widow. Unlike the great Oona Chaplin, severely under-used as Delaney's half-sister/incestuous love interest, Buckley gets a decent role as the one person prepared to stand up to the ridiculous central character. After a winning turn in last year's War And Peace, Buckley is clearly an actor we'll be hearing more from - in fact she'll be turning up again before we're done here.
At the other end of the 19th Century, but in a London sufficiently grimy and sinister to suggest that little had changed, Ripper Street bowed out with its fifth series. After the shocking conclusion to its predecessor, the surviving leads are on the run from naughty Augustus Dove, a high-ranking police officer who'd be due a visit from AC-12 if only they'd been invented. At this stage, he's already framed two different people for the savage murders conducted by his brother Nathaniel, a confused chap who's rather too fond of killing people by ripping out their throats with his teeth. He's also exposed main man Edmund Reid for killing a couple of wrong 'uns (which, to be fair, he totally did), thereby putting the one man who might expose him on the back foot.
With Reid, American forensics expert/boozehound Captain Homer Jackson and former madam/Jackson's on-off spouse Long Susan holed up in Jackson's ex Mimi's disused theatre - you keeping up with this? - the world of Ripper Street has turned topsy-turvy. To make matters worse, Dove has installed Reid's Series 2 sparring partner Jedediah Shine as the new head of H Division. Joseph Mawle is on terrifying form as Shine; like Delaney, you often have to put on subtitles to understand him, but unlike Delaney he's not uttering nonsense, but rather a particularly twisted take on the 19th Century verbiage that Ripper Street has made its trademark. When Shine and Reid finally confront each other outside the Leman Street police station, the violence is as shockingly brutal as anything that you're likely to see on the BBC, Shine coming very close to ending Reid by stamping his head into the concrete steps.
The final episode is also something of an experiment, albeit one which perhaps comes off less well. With the majority of the surviving characters locked together in Leman Street, the stage seems set for an episode-long reckoning. In fact, this only accounts for about half the running time, before the rest of the hour is given over to what amounts to a montage of farewells. There's perhaps one offscreen death too many, but it's hard to deny that the very end feels right: Reid, all alone in his office at midnight as the 19th Century turns into a 20th which will have no shortage of horrors to match those he's faced over five excellent series.
THE STATE, THE LAST POST and THE VIETNAM WAR
The State in question herewas a certain Islamic one, and Peter Kosminsky's drama was unpopular with exactly the section of the press you'd expect to get the pitchforks out. Mainly, the section that will decry something for its very existence, without taking the trouble to engage with it. Or, y'know, watch it; even before the end of the first episode, it was evident that some of the four British Muslims we'd followed into an Isis-controlled area of Syria were already chafing against the reality of life on the other side.
I've not yet watched The Handmaid's Tale, although I did reread the novel for the first time in a couple of decades. I'm certain that the adaptation's take on Gilead is absolutely horrifying, but for now it remains a warning, whereas the patriarchal society depicted in The State is something actually happening now. Ony Uhiara plays a doctor who's travelled to Syria with her young son, having been assured online that she'll be able to help tend the wounded. As the rather more restrictive rules become apparent, it's a wonder she's not shown longingly recalling the red tape of the NHS.
Meanwhile, Sam Otto plays a young man who's following in his late brother's footsteps by fighting for Isis. As he's forced to witness, and then take part in, atrocities, his face subtly portrays how uncomfortable he is with the reality of life (and death) in Islamic State. You'd have to be a special sort of idiot to revile this series as a potential recruitment film for Isis; it really is quite the opposite, particularly as not all of the four main protagonists make it out alive. And if you were too busy complaining about The State to pick up on the excellent performances from Uhiara and Otto, you'd also have missed out on an introduction to two fine young actors.
Fans of severed heads were well served by this year's television. In one of The State's most chilling scenes, we were shown a group of children using one for a kickabout; in The Last Post, one belonging to a recently-deceased character was found mounted on, well, a post.
Yep, the latter was more Brits Abroad fun, this time focussing on a military police base in Aden in the 60s. The Last Post seemed to get a muted reception from the critics, but was in fact an enjoyably tense piece ably acted by a cast of mid-level telly stalwarts. The more violent side of the story, centring on the soldiers' attempt to quell an uprising from locals opposed to British presence in their country, offered rather self-conscious parallels to more recent ill-fated occupations, but was delivered in admirably intense fashion. The other side of The Last Post was about the lives of the wives on base, and perhaps explains why it was decried in some quarters, with what might have been some condescension, as being "soapy". However, it featured what was by some distance a career-best performance from Jessica Raine, clearly relishing being freed from her wishy-washy Call The Midwife role by playing a boozy vamp, trying to keep partying while mourning the departed officer with whom she'd been having an affair. Jessie Buckley turned up again, expanding her range by playing a naive new arrival who falls under the spell of Raine's character Alison. Of the soldiers, my old Ashes To Ashes chum Stephen Campbell Moore impressed as Alison's husband Ed Laithwaite; he was also great in this year's adaptation of The Child In Time.
Another severed head appeared in The Vietnam War, but this was nothing to do with the props department. It was there in a photograph of an American soldier, posing with the recently removed head of a Viet Cong fighter.
You might feel that you've seen enough movies about this particular conflict, but the density of information supplied by Ken Burns and Lynn Novick means that all but the most specialist of historians will learn plenty from this documentary series. And, whether approached from a patriotic angle or delivering an anti-war message, this could have been purely about the American experience - history written by the losers, if you will. Instead, Burns and Novick have amassed a bewildering number of talking (not severed) heads from both sides of the conflict, not just soldiers and politicians but journalists, civilians, bereaved families and anti-war protesters. The result was the epic series this unfortunate episode in history deserved.
BROADCHURCH, THE LOCH, VANISHED BY THE LAKE and TOP OF THE LAKE: CHINA GIRL
The third and final outing to Broadchurch found its quality restored after a patchy middle series. At its centre was a courageous performance from Julie Hesmondalgh. The first episode opens with her character, Trish Winterman, near catatonic after a sexual assault. As a corrective to the overly prurient treatment of rape in the vast majority of TV crime dramas, sexual violence is wisely kept offscreen here; as with the unimpeachable first series, Broadchurch is principally concerned with the effects of a crime on an individual, family and community. A large chunk of the opening episode is taken up by the preliminary stages of the investigation, an unsensational sequence which is moving in its quietness. Slowly, the horrible realisation kicks in; somewhere in the real world, this process, or something much like it, is almost certainly happening to a woman right now.
Broadchurch is, of course, a whodunnit, and we're introduced to a cast of suspects who each, in their own way, embody a different take on toxic masculinity. When the perpetrator is finally revealed, his performance - clearly I can't say whose performance - is chilling, conveying evident sociopathy not through panto villainy but cold, calm disregard for the lives of others.
Much of the regular cast reappear, which is mostly a good thing. David Tennant might have played everyone from Hamlet to The Highway Rat, and will always be most renowned for his turn as a certain Doctor, but I'd argue that DI Alec Hardy is his defining role. Only a few chinks in his permanently impatient facade are allowed to appear; there's no real final series mellowing to his brittle character. In fact, his best scene comes when he unleashes verbal hell against a bunch of lads who've been slut-shaming his daughter Daisy (Porn, both revenge and otherwise, is frequently lurking in the background of the series, implicitly suggesting the deleterious effects it can have on young men's attitude to women).
Soon to play The Queen, a character nearly as iconic as Doctor Who, Olivia Colman is someone whose very presence acts like a guarantee of a show's quality. Back one last time as DS Ellie Miller, she embodies her character's resilience and humanity with understated skill. Perhaps the real heart of the show, however, is Jodie Whittaker's Beth Latimer. In a move which brings her into the new storyline while making perfect sense for her character, she's transmuted her grief for her dead son into a new career as a support worker for victims of sexual assault. Estranged husband Mark, played by Andrew Buchan, is still unable to move on. The Latimers' story might not conclude with the happy ending I was perhaps wishing for, but it did bow out in a way that felt appropriate.
There was, however, little reason for the return of Arthur Darvill's reverend; apart from fairly one-way conversations with Mark, he spent most of his screen time moaning about dwindling church attendance in an almost-meta reflection of his pointlessness. I even briefly considered that he might have been the villain, attempting to swell his congregation by instilling fear in the community. Speaking of pointless, there was a point where it looked as if there was going to be a sub-plot about the decline of regional newspapers, but thankfully this was limited to a showdown between Carolyn Pickles' Broadchurch Echo editor Maggie and some corporate superior.
The links between Broadchurch and Doctor Who are many, the first series featuring not two but three past or future Doctors, given that David Bradley has now played both The First Doctor and William Hartnell playing The First Doctor. With Whittaker and showrunner Chris Chibnall off to do timey-wimey stuff on the BBC, ITV are surely desperate to replace their most critically-acclaimed original drama in aeons.
And so: The Loch.
It was almost charming how little effort the creators of The Loch made to hide the fact that it had been lined up as a speedy replacement for its superior predecessor. We had a shocking crime in a small community living in picturesque surroundings. We had an investigating team headed up by a duo of cops, one a grumpy out-of-towner and the other a charming local whose evident talent was both aided and hampered by her closeness to her fellow natives. For good measure, they essentially shared a tagline.
VBTL was a classier breed of Broadchurch tribute than its Scottish counterpart, however. The story felt less sensational, and its characters somewhat better-developed. Inevitably, however, it was advertised (in England, at least) by the phrase "A Town Full Of Secrets Buried Under Lies". It probably sounded better in French.
Top Of The Lake: China Girl wasn't even set by a lake; what a swizz! I finally watched the first, more lakey series this year, after having avoided it on its original release, and found much to like, not least Elisabeth Moss as lead character Robin Griffin. Its sequel found her transported to Sydney, losing the incredible New Zealand setting, but showing that urban murkiness can be just as threatening as rural isolation. Top Of The Lake: China Girl was driven by an almost baroque insanity. Nearly every character seemed to be on the edge of insanity, and a good proportion of the male characters were such bastards that Broadchurch's roll call of rape suspects suddenly looked like people you'd want to spend time with. Yes, it was frequently frustrating, but once you'd settled into the borderline hysteria of its tone, it proved weirdly gripping.
VALKYRIEN and WITNESSES: A FROZEN DEATH
My pick of the foreign language TV which hit Britain this year was rather more original than Vanished By The Lake. OK, it featured a man of science driven to crime by a lack of funding, and therefore picked up some spurious Breaking Bad comparisons, but it was really nothing of the kind.
There's no way of describing the plot without it sounding slightly bonkers, so here we go: Ravn is a doctor whose wife, also a doctor, is in a coma after a failed suicide attempt inspired by her terminal illness; their friends and family believe Vilma to be dead. He continues her research while caring for her in a makeshift clinic hidden in the underground train network of Oslo, a facility provided by civil engineer and doomsday prepper Leif. Along with Ravn's colleague Unn and Leif's dunder-headed buddy Teo, in hiding after a botched robbery, they start using the clinic to treat people who can't or won't use conventional health services. Obviously, a cop buddy of Leif's is searching for Teo and slowly getting closer to the truth...
If that synopsis feels a little far-fetched, it benefits from being different from any other Nordic Noir. It has elements of crime, medical drama and conspiracy theory, but doesn't slot comfortably into established genres. The portrayal of Fred and Vilma's middle-aged love feels both real and moving, with Sven Nordin, previously in the under-rated Blue Eyes, an unconventionally watchable leading man. Pål Sverre Hagen manages to find sympathetic notes in Leif, a character struggling to control his fears and frustrations, and frequently exploding into anger when that fails. Conspiracy theorists tend to get a bum deal in fiction, either being played for laughs or written as sad losers. Leif might be the closest anyone's got to a well-rounded vision of such a character, his warring impulses increasingly challenged as events spiral out of control.
Apparently, an English version of Valkyrien has been mooted with Mark Strong in the Ravn role. it'll have to go some to come up to the standard of the original.
The first series of Witnesses, aired in the UK a couple of years ago, was a decent French equivalent to yer Scandi thrills. No Killing or Bridge, and perhaps let down by its bad guy turning out be a bit panto goth, but a solid entry into the genre. Its sequel, Witnesses: A Frozen Death, turned out to be quite a treat.
Its opening was certainly attention-grabbing: a bus full of suited-and-booted men, who also happen to be frozen corpses. The person who links them is Catherine Keemer, played by my old Spiral chum Audrey Fleurot, recently returned from two years as a missing person and with no memory of what happened to her (or, for that matter, of her husband and two daughters).
Returning cop Sandra Winckler, played with no little charm by Marie Dompnier, ends up going off-piste to investigate alongside Catherine, like Scott and Bailey in chic skinny jeans. Let's just say that what they discover turns out to be incredibly complicated and leave it at that - this is the sort of drama which works best if the revelations come slowly rather than being blurted out in a blog.
A few random observations, though... By chance I visited Mont Saint-Michel, a key location in this series, in September, and judging by the crowds on that late season afternoon, it's slightly baffling to see it portrayed here as a ghost town; Wikipedia tells me that Audrey Fleurot has been busy on stage and screen over the years, but from an English perspective it was nice to see her play a different character to Spiral's chilly lawyer Joséphine Karlsson, though she still wasn't required to do a lot of smiling; thanks to a view of Sandra's teenage bedroom, we can see that she liked the Cocteau Twins as une adolescente; I had no idea that the evocative opening music was by Tricky until I accidentally left the TV's subtitles on; the ending, by which I mean the last episode, of Witnesses: A Frozen Death, could have explained a little more of certain characters' motivations, but was effective nonetheless; the ending, by which I mean, the very last conversation, seemed to make hints that I couldn't quite figure out. If there is a third series, I'll certainly be watching.
INSIDE NO.9 and THE LEAGUE OF GENTLEMEN
With the new series of Inside No.9 already underway, it feels strange to go all the way back to Christmas 2016 for what was effectively the start of the previous series. Like the best of Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith's standout stand-alones, The Devil of Christmas worked on more than one level, both as a loving mockery of the production values of 70s telly horror, and, with the final twist, probably the single most dark-hearted Christmas episode of anything, ever. It also gave Jessica Raine a plum role as someone who could have been her Last Post character Alison, a few years on.
It's pretty much inevitable that an anthology series will be inconsistent, but Inside No.9 has a higher success rate than most. Highlights of previous series like The 12 Days of Christine, Cold Comfort and Tom and Gerri have been absolutely masterful, but some filler has been inevitable. This time round, only Empty Orchestra really qualified. Everything else was fantastic: the uncomfortable restaurant scene of The Bill, featuring that Jason Watkins and my old Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes chum Philip Glenister, cryptic crossword-themed nasty The Riddle of The Sphinx, featuring No Offence's Alexandra Roach, and shoe-based psychological thriller Diddle Diddle Dumpling, featuring my old Ashes To Ashes chum Keeley Hawes, were all particularly rewarding. Quite possibly the best series to date, and in a world where everyone wants to find the new Black Mirror (see: Channel 4's Electric Dreams), it's much more agreeable to spend time with the 21st Century Tales Of The Unexpected.
Of course, the reunion of Pemberton and Shearsmith with Mark Gatiss and the unseen Jeremy Dyson proved more headline-worthy. And what a pleasure it was to have The League Of Gentlemen back. Pretty much every old favourite character returned, if only for a scene, and in many cases their appearances intelligently reflected the passing of time and the changing world. Perhaps inevitably, Edward and Tubbs were given the most central storyline, reflecting both their iconic status and the creepy way that their small world obsessions have taken centre stage in certain political movements out there in the world beyond Royston Vasey.
I'd forgotten how many rewind-worthy sight gags The League fit in, managing to elevate what are often Dad jokes at heart to an art-form. And it was lovely for an Inside No.9 reference to creep in, too.
With more than one character dead by the end, this could well be the last ever visit to Royston Vasey - it certainly wouldn't be wise to expect any more any time soon. But if this is it, these last 90 minutes were a suitable farewell.
THE 100 and DOCTOR WHO
To finish, two very different representations of sci-fi. In its fourth series, The 100 retained its photogenic post-apocalyptic charm, while Peter Capaldi's swan song as The Doctor featured some of the best episodes of his run.
Maybe I should have described The 100 as inter-apocalyptic, as this series was driven by another impending catastrophe. Initially, this season's Big Bad being an offscreen wave of deadly radiation seemed like a bit of a blunder, the lack of a physical representation of an enemy leaving far too much time for more of the factional fighting between the various tribes (suffice to say, a coming conflagration that threatened everyone didn't mean that all the different "krus" started working together). However, in due course The 100 started to explore more of the big themes a which it's so effective. Previously, these have included the dangers of populism, artificial intelligence and any number of dilemmas relating to loyalty, guilt and grief. Here, there are once again no shortage of difficult decisions to be made, with the future of the entire human race at stake, while personal reactions to the news that we'll all probably be ash inside six months range from self-sacrifice to self-destruction. Fans of action aren't short-changed either, with a nod to the YA roots of The 100 coming from a Hunger Games-style fight to the death in one of the latter episodes. And the last scene looks set to give The 100 legs for at least one more season.
Everyone looks great, as always.
Of the 21st Century Doctors, Peter Capaldi has been the one who felt most like The Doctor, at least to those of us who remember at least some of the original run. His last hurrah wasn't without its flaws and duff episodes, with the mid-series three-parter descending from an intriguing and creepy opener to a flat finale. However, Capaldi was on fine form and several episodes hit their mark perfectly, especially at either end of the series. Knowingly-titled first episode The Pilot felt like a reset, gently mysterious and, no pun intended, more grounded than usual. And the final two-parter gave us one more Steven Moffat time-twister, a spaceship by a black hole where time moves at different rates at different ends. More than that, though, it gave us tragedy, sacrifice and a face-off between Michelle Gomez's imperious Missy and her earlier incarnation, The Master as played by John Simm, my old... OK, I've done that joke too much now.
Really, though, as sad as it is to lose Capaldi, the real shame is the loss of Pearl Mackie. Her Bill Potts was a contender for best companion of the modern era, her perky optimism, comfort in her own skin and utter humanity providing a very different presence to manic pixie dream girl Clara.
Mackie and Gomez, along with many of their predecessors, have proven that women can hold their own alongside The Doctor. Now it's time for one to be The Doctor, and I couldn't be more thrilled.
PAULA was a spooky, twisted drama driven by an excellent lead performance from Denise Gough. Similarly commanding was Helen McRory in conspiracy thriller FEARLESS. The charisma and chemistry of Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger saved JK Rowling adaptation STRIKE from being just another telly detective outing. Unfortunately, another strong cast couldn't save counterfactual history pot-boiler SS-GB, which ultimately deserved a Barry Shitpeas review starting "So they did this reboot of Allo Allo, right, but they done it all dark..." Comedies didn't get much of a look-in above, but while there was nothing to match 2016's mighty Flowers and Fleabag, I enjoyed THE WINDSORS, W1A, MOTHERLAND and BACK. And TUNES FOR TYRANTS was the best documentary series that wasn't about oceans or war, with the fantastic Suzy Klein exploring the relationships between music and the notorious dictatorships of the first half of the 20th Century.