Let’s face it – Britain has long lagged behind the US when it comes to the quality of its TV drama output. In comparison to boundary-pushing US series such as The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under and the just-concluded Breaking Bad, our efforts have largely looked rather poor. Recently, however, the UK seems to have seriously upped its game, and has seen an influx of programmes so brilliant that they could rival many of the hits from across the pond. From edge-of-your-seat cop thrillers to taboo-busting relationship stories, 2013 has been a vintage year for gripping British TV drama – here are the highlights of the last 10 months:
No television drama has got the British public talking this year quite like Broadchurch, Chris Chibnall’s small-town ‘whodunnit’. The question of who killed young Danny Latimer was on everybody’s lips, with bookies even taking bets on the identity of his murderer. The eight-part seaside thriller throbbed with slow-burning tension, and made a real star out of its leading lady, Olivia Colman, who delighted audiences with her turn as the lovable DS Ellie Miller. Her co-star, David Tennant, is set to reprise his role as the gruff DI Alec Hardy in the US remake of this sensational murder mystery, which is expected to air in 2015.
THE FALL (BBC TWO)
An intense, nail-biting watch from beginning until end, Belfast-set series The Fall explored the activities of its serial killer (Jamie Dornan) with an intimacy that has rarely ever been seen on television. The unflinching scenes of violence against his victims contrasted disturbingly with the ones of his family life, leaving viewers (quite rightly) unsettled, but thoroughly absorbed. In perhaps her greatest performance to date, meanwhile, Gillian Anderson’s ice-cold DSI Stella Gibson led the investigation into the grisly murders, making her male colleagues weak in the process. The first series was left agonisingly open, but, don’t fret – there’s another on the way.
UTOPIA (CHANNEL 4)
It’s fair to say that his stylish conspiracy thriller from Dennis Kelly (Pulling) slipped under the radar for many viewers (it averaged just 1.5 million), but it deserves to be seen by all. Following five strangers whose lives are changed beyond recognition when they find themselves in the possession of a fabled graphic novel, Utopia was a dark, arresting and wildly inventive series, laced with wonderfully offbeat humour. Cristobal Tapia De Veer’s eclectic score was a real treat, too, perfectly complimenting the edginess of the show. Filming for Series 2 is underway now.
LUTHER (BBC ONE)
The third and final series of the BBC’s much-loved cop drama may have taken far-fetched to a new level, but it never failed to fully entertain its audience. Idris Elba stole the show once again in the title role of DCI John Luther, who was as troubled and enigmatic a figure as ever in these concluding four episodes. There was also no shortage of action – each instalment moved at such a pace, and delivered so many dramatic twists and turns, that it was impossible not to be taken in by it all. Ultimately, the thriller reached an emotional and satisfying climax, which rounded off another triumphant series for the Beeb.
SOUTHCLIFFE (CHANNEL 4)
While this four-parter’s relentlessly bleak content and sparse dialogue might have divided viewers, critics rightly hailed Southcliffe as something rather special indeed. Directed by Sean Durkin, the man behind haunting indie thriller Martha Marcy May Marlene, this harrowing series depicted the aftermath of a mass shooting in a fictional English market town. Boasting a stellar cast which included Rory Kinnear, Sean Harris and Eddie Marsan, and some of the most astonishing cinematography seen on TV in years, it was a gut-wrenching study of grief and trauma that lingered in the mind long after the end credits.
DATES (CHANNEL 4)
This frank, sexy drama about modern relationships from Skins creator Bryan Elsley was an unexpected gem. Exploring the ways in which different people interact on dates, the Channel 4 series took the form of loosely interconnected two-person vignettes, each largely consisting of dialogue. It could have been dull viewing, but the reality was quite the opposite – smart, unsentimental writing and electrifying performances by actors including Will Mellor, Sheridan Smith and Katie McGrath made these mini-dramas utterly compelling. A refreshing look at an everyday social activity.
IN THE FLESH (BBC THREE)
Turning the well-worn tropes of the zombie genre on their head, newcomer Dominic Mitchell’s In the Flesh cleverly combined blood-splattering horror with sharp social commentary. In this BBC Three drama, the undead (or those suffering from ‘Partially Dead Syndrome’, as the series opted to label it) were rehabilitated with therapy and medication after an unexplained ‘rising’ and sent back into society, much to the outcry of their fearful communities. With themes of prejudice, intolerance and guilt examined, this was a far cry from your average supernatural show.
Honourable Mentions: Black Mirror (Channel 4), Peaky Blinders (BBC Two), My Mad Fat Diary (E4), Run (Channel 4).