Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton might just have pulled off their most audacious trick ever with Death Line, the apparently malfunctioning “live” Halloween episode that comprehensively wrong-footed even IN9’s savvy audience. It went down as a spooky collective experience to rival Ghostwatch, one of its obvious influences. Some months before that, the (relatively) ordinary episodes in series four of the horror-comedy anthology had delivered several classics, from Shakespearean merriment to old-showbiz pathos and, in Once Removed, a fiendish feat of reverse storytelling. Shearsmith and Pemberton are simply masters of their craft, regularly succeeding this year at things other comedians couldn’t even imagine.
Normally, when you sit down in front of a big drama, you pretty much know what you’re in for. But this taut four-parter was never quite what it seemed: it shifted from a bleak picture of new motherhood to a disturbing baby-kidnap nightmare to a subtle, bristling psychodrama about the power struggle within a marriage. It had surprises in store right up until the last frame, but all the way through, Jenna Coleman excelled in a role made up mostly of moments and reactions rather than luxurious chunks of dialogue. It was a new challenge for Coleman, and she aced it.
8 Mortimer and Whitehouse: Gone Fishing, BBC1
With no series of The Trip this year, a new pair of self-ironising, physically fading comics arrived to provide a sunnier take on kinship between two very funny middle-aged men. Those of us who didn’t even know Bob Mortimer and Paul Whitehouse were mates soon delighted in the closeness of their evidently long-held friendship, as they simply went fishing together and chatted as they sat waiting on the riverbank. Notes of wistful, mortal vulnerability, along with the slight competitiveness that’s always there when two comedians meet, gave their conversations depth to go with the endless silly laughs.
7 Ozark, Netflix
The US drama nobody can write about without making a Breaking Bad comparison somehow got even more darkly involving in its second series. Jason Bateman and Laura Linney continued to excel as the disillusioned couple who, having been more or less forced into a life of crime in the Missouri lake district, have discovered a set of hidden skills – and this year, a quickening of the pace gave them a stream of life-or-death situations to work with. As Linney in particular shone as a woman learning to become a master criminal, we burned through all ten episodes in no time, happily shocked and utterly gripped.
Benedict Cumberbatch continued to be as good at choosing his projects as he is at acting in them: here he popped up in a dramatisation of Edward St Aubyn’s novels that allowed him to show his prowess at raucous, substance-fuelled comedy and then, in the next moment, awfully dark drama. Across five episodes that shifted in location, time and tone to form a cogent picture of its main character, Patrick Melrose became a vivid study of an addict for whom privilege and wit is no defence against the lifelong grief created by childhood trauma. A searing, highly adult drama.
Two Baftas meant BBC3’s mockumentary could no longer be described as underrated. Could it cash those high expectations with a better second series? Yes. Charlie and Daisy May Cooper’s snapshots of two wastrel cousins in a knackered Cotswolds village welcomed newcomers with a fresh torrent of stupid antics and twisted one-liners, particularly from Daisy May Cooper as both Kerry Mucklow and her mother Sue, who’s becoming one of the great never-seen comedy characters. It was more sturdily put together this year, too, with some textbook sitcom plotting and stronger pathos, as we saw what matters to these young people who are so hilariously careless on the surface.
November was full of fine programmes commemorating a century since the end of the First World War, but there’s only one that we’ll be watching again ten or perhaps even 100 years from now. Peter Jackson’s genuinely stunning documentary – meticulously stitched together from archive film, soundtracked by old interviews with veterans and, ingeniously, new atmospheric sound synced to previously silent footage – put us right there in the trenches. The dramatic shift from monochrome to full, vibrant colour (added artificially, but with easily enough artistry for it not to jar) was the single greatest TV moment of 2018.
Radio Times’ writers didn’t think it was quite the best drama of 2018 – but in terms of social media buzz, office chat, fan theories and good old ratings, Jed Mercurio’s outrageously engrossing series was by far the year’s biggest show. Richard Madden cruised to the top of the “Next James Bond” betting, playing a traumatised war vet tasked with protecting a hard-nosed Home Secretary (Keeley Hawes): as conspiracies swirled, knickers dropped, main characters were suddenly killed and Mercurio fully exploited his talent for complex plots and hypertense stand-offs, 10 million viewers sat happily agog. Sunday nights in September were a pure thrill.
Although she wasn’t in it, you could tell instantly that this wildly original comedy thriller was the work of Fleabag creator and super-hot writing talent Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Backed by scripts that sparkled with clever energy and sheer cheek, the star was Jodie Comer as Villanelle, the funniest, most ruthless assassin in the world. Her assignments took her all over Europe, always dressed to kill. A second outstanding performance from Sandra Oh, as the bored secret-service analyst stepping out of the office and her comfort zone to try to bring Villanelle down, underlined that Killing Eve was a spy caper like no other.
A perfectly judged script by Russell T Davies told the unbelievable true story of how a secret homosexual affair, and some crazy schemes to try to cover it up afterwards, ruined the esteemed Jeremy Thorpe MP in the buttoned-down Britain of the 1970s. Ben Whishaw was typically excellent as mercurial interloper Norman Scott, while a career-best Hugh Grant brought out the vulnerability and tragedy of Thorpe, without losing the motif of an establishment figure who would brook no challenge to his privilege. The shifts from farce to tenderness to sly satire were masterfully handled by the cast, and by Davies – who, even in a TV career as long and illustrious as his, has never written a bolder, richer drama than this.
Words: Jack Seale