Here’s my pick of the TV releases of the year, from ratings winners to cult favourites by way of some archive classics that appeared on DVD for the first time in 2011.
1. The Shadow Line:
Hugo Blick’s magnificent conspiracy thriller, starring Chiwetel Ejiofor and Christopher Eccleston, concerns the opposing methods used by cops and criminals to solve the murder of a man recently released from prison. But its study of blurred morality and scary bogeymen (Rafe Spall and Stephen Rea vie for top billing in your nightmares) are what make it totally unforgettable. A masterpiece. Buy now.
2. The Killing – series 1: The premise of the cult hit of 2011 sounds like a slow death: a single murder case investigated over 20 episodes. In Danish. But The Killing’s tone ensure that you’re soon in its thrall – this is a world filled with rain, gloom, torches and more rain, while the events leave everyone – from victims and families to cops – bloodied. At the centre of events is the hypnotic Sarah Lund (Sofie Grabol), the uncommunicative officer who cracks crime without cracking a smile. Series two, currently airing on BBC4, is released on 19 December. Buy now.
3. Louis Theroux: the Odd, the Bad and the Godly: Five recent documentaries that find Theroux accompanying the Lagos police as they keep the peace, meeting parents in America whose children use psychoactive medication and revisiting the Westboro Baptist Church. But it’s the time he spends with Israel’s ultra Zionists and his trip to Miami’s mega-jail that elicit the biggest gasps – the former for the scene in which he’s tear-gassed in an East Jerusalem riot and the latter for its exposure of a gladiatorial culture where cage-like dwellings house up to 24 inmates who adhere to a vicious code of conduct. Buy now.
4. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy/Smiley’s People: Gary Oldman earned rave reviews for his big-screen Smiley, but for many Alec Guinness’s meticulous performance as the sober spymaster in the BBC original remains the definitive version. Both of these dramatisations of John le Carré’s espionage stories, available for the first time as a box set, make for absorbing viewing with the atmosphere of Cold War paranoia hard to resist despite the lengthy running time. Buy now.
5. Exile: Disgraced London writer Tom Ronstadt (John Simm) returns home to the North West to reconnect with his father, Sam (Jim Broadbent), who’s suffering from Alzheimer’s. What follows is a gripping story (penned by Danny Brocklehurst) of prodigal redemption and journalistic integrity as Tom tries to get to the bottom of a mystery from his childhood that drove the pair apart. Able support comes from Olivia Colman as Tom’s put-upon sister and the always-reliable Shaun Dooley as a disillusioned childhood friend. Buy now.
6. Frozen Planet: Polar bears, emperor penguins and killer whales have been the true stars of BBC1’s winter schedule. Never before have the scale and beauty of the Arctic and Antarctic been captured in such detail, while David Attenborough’s skill for resonant narration remains unmatched. More than just a wildlife series, Frozen Planet also impresses with its footage of rupturing cliffs, with areas of ice the size of Australia disappearing into the ocean. Awe-inspiring. Pre-order in time for the release on 8 December. Buy now.
7. Shoestring – series 1: Long before Trevor Eve started investigating cold cases on Waking the Dead, he starred as “private ear” Eddie Shoestring, an offbeat detective with his own show. What makes the drama so appealing is the fact that Shoestring is battling not only the bad guys but also his inner demons: Eddie’s job as a sleuth is his second choice of occupation following a stint as a computer programmer that led to a nervous breakdown. Long delayed on DVD due to the cost of obtaining music rights, this first season is now available in its entirety. Buy now.
8. Blue Bloods – season 1: First shown on Sky Atlantic, Blue Bloods proved to be one of the most involving US cop shows of recent years, thanks to its mix of police procedural drama and family angst. Tom Selleck plays Frank, the paterfamilias of the Reagan clan, a long line of law enforcers that includes eldest son Danny (Donnie Wahlberg) – a detective – and DA Erin (Bridget Moynahan), who all argue the ethics of their cases over the evening meal. Imagine something that mixes the best elements of Law & Order and Brothers & Sisters and you get the idea. Buy now.
9. Downton Abbey: Series 1 & 2: Whisper it, but surely Downton Abbey is a soap opera for people who don’t normally watch soap operas? The will-they-won’t-they tension between Lady Mary and Matthew, the machinations of sneering Thomas the footman, the conveniently placed bar of soap that causes a miscarriage – none of this would look out of place on EastEnders (or even Dallas!). For those counting down the days until the Christmas special, here’s a reminder of events so far, complete with tantalising deleted scenes. Buy now.
10. A Very Peculiar Practice:
Screenwriter Andrew Davies had his first hit with this drama that takes a surreal look at the effects of private cash and Thatcher-era spending cuts on a campus medical practice. Peter Davison plays a naive medic who begins work at Lowlands University and finds his fellow healers to be an odd bunch that includes the likes of the alcoholic Jock McCannon (Graham Crowden) and ruthless entrepreneur Bob Buzzard (David Troughton). This set contains the 1986 series, its follow-up, plus the one-off reunion A Very Polish Practice. Buy now