A delicate, grown-up drama. Emily Watson was superb as a woman who, having stopped being happy at home, begins a wish-fulfilling affair with the enticingly enigmatic Ben Chaplin, only for a horrifying shock to leave her marooned. Based on a page-turning novel, Apple Tree Yard – like Broadchurch – folded a thoughtful treatment of rape into what could have been a wholly unsuitable narrative setting: in this case, a spiralling crime thriller where an ordinary person has to take extraordinary decisions, and the surprises keep coming right up until the last scene. Watson made this unusual, unsettling creation work.
Other dramas might have been a lot more edifying, but nothing got us talking more than the even crazier second outing for Suranne Jones as a wronged wife who really doesn’t take her husband’s infidelity well. As a custody death-match developed between Jones’s furious GP and Bertie Carvel as her smarmy ex, viewers’ most outrageous predictions were repeatedly, gloriously outstripped by the show itself. Towards the end it seemed Doctor Foster would lose its grip on plausibility completely, but the pleasure of this twisted pantomime has always been that it knows where the line is – and how to thrill us by tiptoeing past it.
Mackenzie Crook’s determinedly low-key comedy is a treasure: one of those programmes that offers a restorative trip to a world where nothing much can go too badly wrong. The simple pleasures and small sadnesses in an exquisitely filmed corner of England continued in their unassuming way as we prepared to say goodbye to Andy (Crook) and Lance (the outstanding Toby Jones), two men for whom metal-detecting is a way to stave off making grown-up life decisions. Crook has made the all too adult decision to bring Detectorists to an end: we’ll miss it, quietly but keenly.
Probably the TV comeback of the year: after scoring a huge hit with season one’s “Who killed Danny Latimer?” storyline, Chris Chibnall’s coastal crime drama had lost its way by spending its second run following the less involving murder trial. In 2017 it found new focus, with David Tennant and Olivia Colman’s sleuthing double act investigating a rape. Handled wrongly, that could have been a disastrously cheap variation on the whodunnit format, but it was sensitive as well as intriguing – and with the original killing still echoing in the character’s hearts, Broadchurch was back on form.
The news, broken in November, that we haven’t actually seen the last of Car Share was welcome: an unsatisfying tease of an ending slightly marred the pure joy of the second run of a comedy about two carpooling colleagues who clearly love each other. Before that, Peter Kay and the fantastic Sian Gibson had further developed one of sitcom’s great will they/won’t they relationships, as reticent, reliable John and talkative, optimistic Kayleigh contrived more elaborate ways to spend more time listening to 80s hits on John’s car radio. Never enjoying another warm, unpretentious belly laugh with them would have been unbearable.
A posthumous appearance by Carrie Fisher was just one way in which this joyously profane sitcom got serious in season three. Rob Delaney and Sharon Horgan’s screen alter egos have always had good hearts behind their irresponsible-parent exteriors, and a believably loving relationship underneath all the sex and swearing; in short, we care about them, so when proper family problems like death and addiction reared up, Catastrophe could carry them off. Lesser shows might have lost some laughs in the process, but Delaney and Horgan are too naturally funny and too skilled at their sitcom craft for that.
In a year when Netflix ramped up its drama offering, the Elizabeth II bio was still the streaming giant’s boldest and best. The visibly even more expensive second season took us from Suez to Profumo, with Claire Foy still doing the finest, subtlest acting work as a Queen who must fight for her marriage and her place in the world without ever appearing to break sweat. But it was a widening of the canvas that made this year’s Crown superior: Matt Smith’s Prince Philip and particularly Vanessa Kirby’s Princess Margaret put flesh on what had previously been supporting characters, to often heartbreaking effect.
Telly’s pilfering of Hollywood movie talent continued with a US drama that cast Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley as the grown-up mean girls in a saga about competitive mums. As well as the starry cast, the series stood out with its opulent California beach-house locations – those enormous kitchens! – and with a flashforward structure that told us the sniping and rivalries were taking us into dark territory. As a central murder mystery slowly, addictively unravelled, the details of the women’s unhappy home lives gave Big Little Lies heart and nuance as well as a sensational story.
The fourth and best season of Jed Mercurio’s corrupt-cop drama delivered the double twist of the year, when it revealed that A-list guest star Thandie Newton hadn’t been shockingly killed off after all… and that was just the end of episode one! From there it was another staggeringly well plotted crime thriller, with Newton’s battle-toughened DCI Roz Huntley the show’s best ever antagonist, Adrian Dunbar becoming a cult hero as upstanding team boss Ted “Fella” Hastings, and the mystery of Balaclava Man’s identity baffling the nation. All of this unfolded with cynical wit, at a scintillating pace. Scorching.
If we thought the BBC’s ever-improving nature series could go no further than 2016’s astounding Planet Earth II, we were mistaken. Every episode of David Attenborough’s second deep dive into the oceans was a string of scarcely believable sights, filmed with stunning clarity and shaped into gripping miniature narratives, with the sea’s capacity for kaleidoscopic weirdness boggling our minds still more. Like so much of Attenborough’s work, Blue Planet II had importance beyond mere spectacle. Its environmental warnings – about climate change and the plastic we dump into our precious waters – were devastating, and there was a message, too, in the sheer ambition of the programme itself: perpetually beleaguered as it is, only the BBC would or could even attempt this.