With such big-budget TV blockbusters as The Pacific, Boardwalk Empire and The Walking Dead on our screens and in our DVD collections, it should come as no surprise that much of our free time this year has been spent not only watching the original Star Wars trilogy over and over (hey, it’s traditional around here), but also the cream of American and British TV. Looking back over the past 12 months, here’s our brief glance over the best the little box in the corner of your living room has had to offer…
When HBO commissioned this $200m mini-series, the first, obvious question that popped into people's minds was: "Will it be as good as Band Of Brothers?" Followed by, "HOW much?!" It was true that the shadow of Winters, Guarnere and Easy Company hung heavily over this second slab of WW2 drama, but The Pacific definitively lived up to expectations.
A very different animal from Brothers, a broader ensemble piece set in the European theatre, The Pacific centred on three Marines struggling to survive the hellish island campaign with their humanity intact - as well as a fourth, Snafu, who already seemed to have lost his. The journeys of the men, real-life veterans Leckie, Sledge and Basilone, was movingly portrayed. No shelter was taken in mawkish cliché or over-reverence.
These were flawed men just trying to get through, it said; "how would you cope?" the unspoken question. Surprisingly, despite performances from its leads that lent the three storylines quiet power, the acting was overlooked at the Emmys. And what of that $200m? Well, that did hold sway with the Emmy judges, who made it their Best Miniseries. Watching the ten, hour-long episodes, at times it looked as if they actually did recreate the entire war. Spectacular, violent and terrifying, the battle scenes billowed cordite from our tellys. Get hold of the discs if you missed the broadcast.
With humour so black you could stick legs on it and call it a badger, AMC's mordantly brilliant, macabre, at times plain-ass weird miniseries went from strength to strength this year. Its third season took chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-kingpin Walter White (Bryan Cranston) deeper into the rabbit warren of supply and demand, black and white, and all shades in between.
Cranston was again terrific as an occasionally befuddled, permanently embattled man who's given lemons and decides to synthesize them into high-grade Class-A lemonade. Cranston was again the Emmys' pick for Best Actor, his third in a row, and was joined this year by Aron Paul, again terrific as Walter's methhead foil, Jesse Pinkman. Props too to the pin-sharp writing which brought dark laughs and emotional depth to all of the characters.
The hapless Jeese, who could easily have been a two-dimensional facsimile of True Romance's Floyd, grew a heart; Walter just grew a whole new set of problems. Breaking Bad's writer/director, one-time X-Filer Vince Gilligan, kept us guessing with twists and turns he might have learnt from Chris Carter. Can he keep it up? We'll find out when season 4 lands next year.
Nothing short of an addiction in the office, each of Sherlock’s precious three episodes was meticulously torn apart by everyone at Empire Towers every Monday morning. You know, in a good way.
Sure, the plots may have bordered on the utterly ludicrous at times (Why did the police keep not noticing people dying in the same cars hired from the same company? Why did the cabbie’s victims always pick the wrong pill?), but the characterisation was king, and the public loved it – even topping the Cameron Diaz and Tom Cruise Top Gear special one weekend.
Benedict Cumberbatch’s delicate balance of cruel bastardry, high-sprung energy and non-stop logical brilliance never failed to intrigue and entertain, perfectly bouncing off Martin Freeman’s Watson – a real, thought-provoking narrator rather than the typically clumsy doctor others have brought to the screen – giving us a modernised mini-series that may have been dragged down by preposterous plotting but still remained must-watch TV.
If anything, the Steven Moffat-ified 21st Century interpretation of the world’s greatest detective highlighted its similarities with Britain’s other adventuring obsession (and one of Moffat’s other success stories), Doctor Who, leading us to wish for some kind of crossover. The Tardis in 221B Baker Street, Holmes and Who chasing robotic bloodthirsty hounds, that kind of thing… Hey, it’s an idea!
Let’s be honest, on paper, The Trip was a very unlikely success story. A semi-autobiographical account of two comedians going on a jolly around the north of England, eating posh food, getting a bit drunk, winding each other up, and occasionally visiting areas of local interest. Hmm… sounds a bit BBC Four.
And yet, in Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon’s hands, it works. Somehow. God knows. The impersonations from the pair of them are the star attraction of course, with their Caines, Winstones and Hopkins(es) sounding ever-so-slightly different from each other, and yet at the same time both remaining… spot-on. Then there’s their general inane babbling, rivalling even Seinfeld in the complete comedy bullshit stakes (their waffling on about “I’m going to write a classic, I’m going to write it in an attic” springs to mind) as well as their competitive one-upmanship, culminating in Steve delivering Rob his pre-emptive obituary and refusing to be all that nice. At all.
Directed by Michael Winterbottom and edited into a feature-length sort-of-movie, it even garnered critical plaudits from across the pond at The Toronto Film Festival. Which you can’t say about My Family. No sir.
Arguably, the hype surrounding Boardwalk Empire was greater than that of any cable TV show, ever. Scorsese producing, Buscemi starring, it was meant to have cost kersquillions just to advertise (not to mention the price of recreating 1920s Atlantic City in a parking lot), seemingly destined to be the next shining star in the HBO’s crown. The good news? It’s worth it.
Filling the critical void left by Anthony and the rest of The Sopranos in 2007 was no small task, yet somehow they managed it – in no small part thanks to Buscemi’s magnificent master bootlegger, the sneaky, opportunistic, cut-throat Enoch “Nucky” Thompson. Telling tales of alcoholism, decadence, hardship and heartache, 1920s America comes to life in a way that US TV has as yet fail to address – touching on the advent of radio, female emancipation, the pre-depression boom… the list goes on. We almost learnt something, it was bizarre.
But with Sopranos writer Terence Winter at the helm and Scorsese directing the first episode, the show was never going to do anything other than good business – and yet, in the cruellest of ironies, chances are you’re going to have to do your own electronic bootlegging to get a look at Nucky and co. any time soon. Our tip? Wait for the DVD. Really, it’s that good.
Season 4 of 30 Rock is, in many ways, the same old 30 Rock we know and love. Liz is neurotic and utterly hilarious in equal measure; Jack Donaghy is cynical, slick and much better dressed than you; Kenneth is pagey; Tracy is TRACY, and everything goes on as normal / completely not normal.
Along the way, Tracy tries to win an 'EGOT' (an Emmy award, a Grammy, an Oscar and a Tony award) but finds starring in a Broadway show too much to bear; Michael Sheen makes a cameo that will… well… defy belief (we dare not spoil it for you, needless to say); Al Gore says hi; Jack goes out with two women at once (Elizabeth Banks and Julianne Moore… tough choice, right?) and we get to enjoy all the uproarious antics you’d expect all that to entail.
Essentially, Season 4 of 30 Rock managed to pull off that trickiest of comedy tricks – remaining fresh and new, even with the same characters you know and love. And bar a slightly weak middle, we’d easily put it as our favourite so far. Disagree with us? Well, that’s a dealbreaker, ladies! Yes, you just read that. Sorry.
Mad Men is going to Sky for its next season, meaning that the utterly addictive televisual Wednesday one-two of The Apprentice (9pm, BBC Two) then Mad Men (10pm, BBC Four) is, alas, no more.
But, as they say, it was fun while it lasted. Fun and gorgeous and emotional and surprising and magnificent, but fun in that fascinating, almost-historical soapy way. Don’s in the city, trying to find out who the real Don is through his work and through the women he meets – and, almost invariably, sleeps with – whereas as Betty is somewhat sidelined, her finest moments coming out of her changing relationship with their daughter Sally, and the therapist they share.
As we head into the mid ‘60s, it comes as no surprise that the beat era makes itself known, with Peggy making friends with artistic types, and as the newly formed company starts to hit the rocks, stringpurses are tightened and the whole office has to pull together to survive.
A return to form, some have called it, and a great use of a narrative reboot (what with Don leaving home), but more than anything, it’s the look of the damn thing. That, and the lack of foot-chopping ride-on lawnmowers this season. Always good, that.
Part Arrested Development, part The Office, part Outnumbered, part real life, Modern Family successfully hoovered up three Emmys earlier this year (beating Glee and 30 Rock in the process), garnered millions of loyal American fans, and since its British premiere earlier this year on Sky, no doubt a few more on these shores too.
As you’d expect from something that’s so reminiscent of so many other different shows (and was devised by Frasier writers Christopher Lloyd and Steven Levitan), it’s not exactly gamechanging comedy-wise, but it is – and this is the important bit – very funny.
Providing solid belly laughs each and every episode, though it may deal with regular family sitcom tropes it’s just so witty you don’t much notice. Especially flamboyant and floppy hats off to young Manny (Rico Rodriguez) for his superb scene-stealing skills – and dashing way with the ladies.
“Hamlet on Harleys” would be the easy way of describing Sons Of Anarchy, but in reality, it’s far more complicated – and far more brutal – than that handy paraphrasing would lead you believe.
Season 3 deals with the similarly difficult themes as the previous two: fatherhood, loyalty, senile dementia, and, of course, family. There’s more than a little Sopranos in here, the balance between bloodshed and political wranglings a delicate one to manage, but stellar lead performances from Ron Perlman, as club President Clay Morrow, and Katey Sagal as his significant other, Gemma (still Leela from Futurama to many) manage to bring the show to an equally addictive and involving level.
In terms of plot, the first few episodes deal with the aftermath of the abduction of the young son of Jax Teller (the club’s conflicted pseudo-Hamlet and heir apparent, played by Charlie Hunnam) by a member of the True IRA… but after that, there are just so many twists and turns that anything else would be unfair on you guys.
Rest assured, there’ll be just as many heads bashed into just as many slabs of concrete, as well as plenty of emotional moments of tough guy angst as the bikers try to keep their leather-clad dream alive – and provide quality drama while they’re at it.
November brought news that Frank Darabont’s TV adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s beloved zombie comic The Walking Dead was going to get a second series. Hip, and if you don’t mind, hooray! Why the middle-class jubilation? Well, because the first series was nothing short of very, very good.
As Stephen King puts it, The Walking Dead was a ”21st-century rarity, appointment TV”, scoring record-breaking ratings across the world as every man and his undead dog tuned in to get their fill of shambling corpses and see him off Teachers in a big sheriff’s hat getting himself into yet another zombie-induced pickle.
If you haven’t seen the show yet, and aren’t sure whether it’s for you, then the first episode should see you right – being as it is arguably one of the best debut episodes of any TV series of late, thrusting you headlong into the post-apocalyptic maws of Cynthiana, Kentucky, and refusing to shy away from the daylight, bringing you wide, cinematic shots of undead-filled disaster zones. The zombie genre hasn’t been spoiled with quality TV production like this ever before, so buy yourself the DVD, sit back and enjoy. That’s an order.
This was the year that Futurama moved from Fox to Comedy Central, so naturally we were expecting – despite a reduced budget and writing staff – big things. It may have gotten off to something of a stumbling start, but by episode three, Matt Groening’s other brilliant animated series began showing familiar signs of greatness with The Attack Of The Killer App. Nicely timed to coincide with the release of the iPhone 4 back in July, it centres on the evil Mom’s deployment of her virus-ridden eyePhone.
By week seven, Groening & co. delivered one of the show’s best ever episodes. The Late Philip J. Fry has our ginger hero agreeing to test out Professor Farnsworth’s time machine right before a big date with Leela. Not only do the pair shoot far further forward than the intended single minute, they learn that they cannot move backwards in time. It’s what Futurama does best – big, bold, unquantifiable scientific theory housing some great gags (a bit of Zager & Evans on the soundtrack never hurts, either). And the good news (everyone!) is that 2010 brought us only the first half of season 6; Eps 14 – 26 are slated for 2011. Huzzah!