20 The Assassination of Gianni Versace, BBC2
The second instalment in the American Crime Story franchise followed up its bravura re-imagining of the OJ Simpson trial by profiling… not Gianni Versace, at least not in the main, but more the singularly troubled and raging serial killer Andrew Cunanan. Previously known for the toothy Broadway fizz of Glee, Darren Criss was mesmeric in the lead role, bringing out the lonely shame of a man who despised himself and everyone else.
19 Mark Kermode’s Secrets of Cinema, BBC4
He’s been the king of film reviews on radio for years without being given a proper TV vehicle – until now. The encyclopaedic knowledge that sits behind every good critic’s verdicts surfaced as Kermode dismantled his favourite genres, looking at classics afresh and making connections even hardened cineastes hadn’t noticed. From heists to horror and from rom-com to sci-fi, Kermode’s blend of personal taste and technical acumen told us how film really works.
18 The Bridge, BBC4
So long, Saga Noren. The Scandi noir departed with a fourth and final series that was as compelling and kookily entertaining as the three previous. Sofia Helin still enchanted as the cop with the leather trousers and total lack of interpersonal subtlety: while her visits to a therapist were uproarious, they also satisfyingly clarified the issues behind Saga’s eccentricity. Meanwhile, she cracked another case of chilling, elaborate vengeance. She’s one of the great TV detectives.
17 Succession, Sky Atlantic
From Peep Show and Veep writer Jesse Armstrong, the year’s most withering comedy drama introduced us to a family of dysfunctional media moguls, all jostling to carry favour with and/or usurp their ailing billionaire patriarch (Brian Cox). What could have been merely an amusing study of dreadful, hateful people gradually became, through fine scripting and acting, a fascinating study of pitiable empty souls. A stealthy slow-burner.
A solid thumbs-up for the first episodes overseen by new showrunner Chris Chibnall, starring new Tardis pilot Jodie Whittaker, and residing in a new Sunday slot. Amid all that change, a series of all-time-great stories was too much to hope for, but the overtly educational historical episodes were a welcome innovation and, crucially, Whittaker was exceptional: like she’d always been there. It became more reliable family viewing too.
Rather like 2015’s The Hunt, this Attenborough-voiced masterclass of natural history documentary-making gave the lives of animals a narrative power that felt cinematic. Whereas that series was like watching fast-moving thrillers, this one was pure drama, with lions, tigers, penguins and most unforgettably chimpanzees starring in brutal fables about individual families trying to survive – often in circumstances made even harsher by the selfish actions of humankind.
The latest dark wonder from writer Sarah Phelps, the modern master of Agatha Christie dramatisations, had an outstanding cast: Anna Chancellor, Matthew Goode, Eleanor Tomlinson and others shone in the tale of a family rocked by the news that the wrong relative was jailed for the murder of their matriarch – meaning the killer was still in the house. A parade of cruelty, suspicion and appalling people being beastly to each other. Lush.
13 Save Me, Sky Atlantic
An instantly engaging premise for a thriller: a cheeky south-London geezer is shaken out of his easy-going, womanising existence when he’s accused of abducting a 13-year-old girl. He’s bewildered, not least because the girl is his own daughter, whom he’s not seen for years. Actor/writer Lennie James took this idea and thoughtfully developed it in three dimensions, sketching out a diverse community of marginalised strugglers all nursing their own heartaches.
The cult reality hit of last year became the mainstream reality hit of 2018, drawing in unheard-of ratings for ITV2 as another clutch of randy, heavily tanned young adults shared a villa. You could see it as a fascinating study of millennial sexual politics; or more likely, you could feel slightly guilty as you massively enjoyed the chance to gossip about people with vastly more eventful sex lives than your actual friends.
The surprise hit of the sitcom year came from writer Lisa McGee, whose rampaging teens in Northern Ireland in the 1990s had all the reckless energy of the best coming-of-age comedies and, as a distinctive backdrop, the Troubles. Bombings, checkpoints and stories about someone’s uncle being tied to a radiator by the IRA added an extra note of absurdity, although McGee’s scripts were too smart and agile to belittle the anguish of the times.
Words: Jack Seale