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Top TV Drama Series of 2014

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We are going through a golden age of drama at the moment.

Some of it must be attributed to the recent trend of Netflix-binging, but a lot of the good content has come from more traditional broadcast models.

Perhaps they have felt threatened of late by the likes of House of Cards and have upped their game. As a result we have got more long-form pieces of writing that cry out to become our new addictions.

So here are the top twenty shows that stood out from the crowd in 2014.

From zombies to terrorists to governmental conspiracies to missing children, these are the shows that defined the past year and proved that TV is not only one of the most popular art forms, it is one of the most powerful. 

20. Homeland
Channel 4 (Original Channel: Showtime). USA. 

Homeland has changed. It is a different entity altogether now and that’s probably the best thing it could have done. It has adapted and changed in order to keep fresh and relevant. After losing its focus point at the end of Series 2 it had to shift direction. That is has certainly done and has provided its star Claire Danes with a stage in which to show off her staggering talent. There were some moaners last year about the quality of writing, but with series three Homeland is now back and better than ever.

19. Game of Thrones
Sky Atlantic (Original Channel: HBO). USA/UK/Ireland. 

This series was a bit lacklustre, but when a series can be described as lacklustre whilst being as good as Game of Thrones is, you know you’re onto something brilliant. Wedding deaths, spectacular fight scenes and a killer climax all helped make Game of Thrones keep its crown as one of the most gloriously addictive series currently on television.

18. Silk
BBC One. UK.  

Peter Moffat’s legal drama came to an end this year with a strange and unsettling final episode that left a lot of people confused. However, the third series as a whole was nothing but sublime, with Maxine Peake, in her role as defence barrister Martha Costello, proving herself to be one of Britain’s best actors.
 

17. Ripper Street
Amazon Prime Instant Video. UK/USA.

Ripper Street was a bold and compelling crime drama, made by Tiger Aspect for BBC One and BBC America. When it was axed last year, the public shrieked in dismay. How could the BBC get rid of something so entertaining. It’s evocative vision of the streets of Whitechapel just after Jack the Ripper’s reign was beautifully realised and it was a great shame it looked like the show was to suffer an early death. But thankfully for its fans, Amazon came to the rescue and commissioned a third series to stream on its Prime Instant Video service before it gets an airing on BBC One. And my goodness, they have done something incredible to the show. With an extended running time per episode and a shocking twist at the end of episode two, rarely has a show’s third series undergone a transformation so bold, brave and breathtaking as this.

16. Hannibal
Sky Living (Original Channel: NBC). USA/France.
 

 You have to pinch yourself that this show is on Sky Living, the home of froth that you can watch whilst Instagramming pictures of your dog. Hannibal raised the game entirely. It’s mixture of police procedural drama and macabre horror is also Shakespearean in its power. Mads Mikkelsen is downright terrifying and Hugh Dancy, Gillian Anderson and Laurence Fishburne up the class-factor. If you haven’t sampled its grisly delights, catch up now.

15. The Leftovers
Sky Atlantic (Original Channel: HBO). USA. 

 A bleak and emotionally intuitive dystopian series about a future where the world has lost a small percentage of its population due to a strange event. They just....disappeared. Although this might sound like a rather outlandish episode of Torchwood, this is actually more interested in how people cope with disaster and tragedy than with fantasy. Adapted from Tom Perrotta’s novel, this is the type of thing HBO does best: human drama on a huge canvas.

14. The Missing
BBC One. UK/USA/Belgium. 

 Long-form storytelling is going through a renaissance at the moment, particularly within crime drama. This story of a missing boy from a British family, lost whilst they are holidaying in France, had echoes of the Madeline McCann, although was confident enough to not mirror that cast to closely. Parents James Nesbitt and Frances O’Connor are magnificent as the boy’s parents, though it is Ken Stott as a millionaire with a very dark agenda who truly steals the show. Tom Shankland’s directing is also first class and some standout moments remind us that he is responsible for some chilling horror movies, including WΔZ and The Children. This is another kind of horror movie, but horror of the domestic kind. It stays with you.

13. Transparent
Amazon Prime Instant Video. USA. 

 Amazon have been pushing their content aggressively this year and they found a lot of fans with this touching and effortlessly watchable family-based drama about a father who undergoes gender-reassignment. At its core is an affecting performance from Jeffrey Tambor and a standout script from Jill Soloway. You’ll want to both binge on it and savour it in equal measure. 

 

12. The Walking Dead
FOX (Original Channel: AMC). USA.

This was one of the biggest series of the year and how great it is to see something so genre-focused get such a mainstream welcome. It’s a mixture of Lord of the Flies and Night of the Living Dead, with a touch of War of the Worlds about it. And it features some top Brit talents, including Teachers’ Andrew Lincoln and all-round great David Morrissey. Brutal and thrilling stuff. 

 

11. The Honourable Woman
BBC Two. UK/USA.

I know, I know, sometimes it was hard to know what was going on in this at times impenetrable drama from Hugo Blick. But my goodness, what an astonishingly accomplished piece of television this was. It took its time. It refused to rush itself. It didn’t care if you got bored. It had a story to tell - a lot of it involving a Baroness in Britain, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal with a pitch perfect English accent, and fibreoptic broadband in Palestine – and had confidence to do it at its own pace. Because of this, the viewer had time to appreciate the whole thing: the extraordinary cinematography, the haunting music and the career-best performances, not just from Gyllenhaal but from Lindsay Duncan and Janet McTeer, too. A real gem, one that deserves watching and rewatching. 

 

10. Peaky Blinders
BBC Two. UK.

If you thought this drama was strong on its first outting, the second series had the power to blew your mind. Gangsters in post-WWI Birmingham make for riveting stuff, helmed by the extraordinary Cillian Murphy. Written by the versatile screenwriter and director Steven Knight, the series has been compared to the US series Boardwalk Empire. It may well be better. And Tom Hardy offers a particularly memorable supporting turn.

9. Utopia
Channel 4. UK. 

This violent and eccentric Channel 4 series was thrust into the spotlight twice this year. First for its unfortunate mixing of the real death of Airey Neave into the storyline. The second was the fact that David Fincher is going to remake it for Americans. For those who get infuriated that those in the States can't just enjoy a British series for what it is rather than trample all over it, this was an understandably frustrating announcement. But at least they got to enjoy a typically controversial second (and it seems final) outing, with its sudden rushes of violence and quirky direction. And James Fox being very sinister (never a bad thing). 

 

8. The Legacy
Sky Arts (Original Channel: DR). Denmark.

The Scandinavians proved they could do drama better than most years ago when The Killing got the world buying big knitted jumpers (and was then inevitably and depressingly remade so Americans could understand it). This series, from the makers of The Killing, isn’t a crime drama, but a domestic piece, beautifully observed and immaculately put together. The handheld captured footage makes us feel like we are living the lives of the fractured family of its centre with them. It also presents a picture of a particularly disastrous Christmas which helps one feel content and happy that, despite the many stresses of grabbing presents for relatives, it’s unlikely to get as complex as this.

7. Fargo
Channel 4 (Original Channel: FX). USA. 

Fargo was undoubtedly one of the most compelling dramas of 2014, featuring Billy Bob Thornton and Martin Freeman, who play their reprehensible characters with great aplomb. The first episode set the tone for a truly fantastic series, with Freeman’s character bludgeoning his wife to death. Fargo was not a show which flinched away from the gore and violence which came from the central characters actions. With a narrative which kept the audience engaged in its twists and turns throughout, if you haven’t seen Fargo yet, you should catch up immediately.

6. The Bridge
BBC Four (Original Channel: SVT1 & DR). Sweden/Denmark/Germany. 

This isn’t a straight murder-mystery. This is a weird and heart-pounding mixture of Agatha Christie meets Saw. Mixing the ingenuity of something like And Then There Were None with the horror of Jigsaw’s perverse games and a splash of 24-esque tension, The Bridge once again left viewers with their mouths open. Sofia Helin, as the socially-challenged lead cop, is one of recent TV’s best creations. 

5. True Detective
Sky Atlantic (Original Channel: HBO). USA. 

A 1995 murder case is revisited 17 years later, bringing up all the skeletons believed buried by Louisiana State Police Detectives Rust Cohle and Martin Hart. As the enquiry blooms into a particularly dangerous flower, we are submerged into the lives of our two detectives. And what bleak and morally dubious lives they are. Carey Joji Fukunaga’s directing suggested he was approaching this as an 8 hour film rather than a television show and Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson are flawless as the two lead detectives. The beautiful 35mm cinematography looked even more painfully sumptuous when the content amidst it was at its most dark and cruel.

4. Happy Valley
BBC One. UK. 

Sarah Lancashire delivers a powerful and heartbreaking performance as a grandma of an eight year old who spends her days as a uniform police officer. There is a lot of mystery about her character (why was she demoted from detective, what happened to her daughter to make her disenchanted with life?) but Sally Wainright’s no-nonsense screenplay doesn’t get hung up on what we don’t know; if anything she gives us more information than the main characters get as we watch Lancashire’s cop try to solve the case of a kidnapping to badly, terrifyingly wrong. A hellish sequence involving the series villain (James Norton) brutally murdering a police officer caused complaints. Although I defend the scene’s existence, I can understand why it upset people. This is drama that makes you think it is pleasant and nice and then goes so dark, so astonishingly, world-skewingly dark that you worry you will never come out of it.

3. The Knick
Sky Atlantic (Original Channel: Cinemax). USA.
 

When Steven Soderbergh announced his long-rumoured retirement from filmmaking, lovers of standout drama mourned his departure. Thank goodness, then, that he decided to continue making films over another kind - long form TV dramas. His first project in his career-shift is The Knick, a show made for former softcore porn channel Cinemax (owned by HBO).This is a period drama unlike any other. Razor-sharp, very modern and electrically shot (both in style and literally, since it was shot digitally on the Red Dragon camera), The Knick has taken viewers into the experimental side of surgery in early 1900s New York. Gory, but dazzling.

2. Line of Duty
BBC Two. UK/Ireland.
 

Twist after twist, revelation after revelation, Line of Duty was a real rollercoaster, a series that almost gave you whiplash with all the unforeseen turns it took. The show followed the investigations of the police who investigate police: internal affairs, some may call it (though here they are known as AC12). Each series focuses on the potential corruption of a police officer and for this second series Keeley Hawes’s DCI Lindsay Denton was the copper under suspicion. Hawes’s transformation into a woman so crushed and disappointed with life was a marvel. Writer and creator Jed Mecurio has been commissioned to write a third and fourth series by the BBC. Double commissions don’t come around very often. It’s a testament to how good his work is that they should invest so much into it. This is appointment TV of the highest order.

1. The Fall
BBC Two. UK/Ireland. 

Nothing really comes close to this. The Fall is not just an amazing television series. It is an amazing piece of filmmaking. The pursuit of killer Paul Specter (Jamie Dornan) by Detective Inspector Stella Gibson (Gillian Anderson) must go down as one of the greatest cat-and-mouse chases in entertainment history. This year’s second series picked up the investigation after the cliffhanger at the end of series one. Writer Alan Cubitt (who took up directing duties) also injected a flirty and playful storyline involving Gibson and her forensic pathologist (Arhcie Penjabi). As the series spirals towards an astonishing finale, the tone throws the viewer down a disturbing rabbit-hole of almost Lynchian darkness as Specter attempts to invade Gibson’s mind. Out of so many standout moments it is hard to pick one, but the scene where Gibson watches the video footage of one of Specter’s captors begging for her life is devastating. This is the best television gets. Mesmerising doesn’t even cover it.




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