(HBO/Sky) 2019 was the year HBO threw millions upon millions of dollars at the final season of Game of Thrones, only to have another of its shows blow it out of the water entirely. That show was Succession, Jesse Armstrong’s dizzyingly seductive drama about a billionaire media family, which became a runaway hit with its second series. A veritable powerhouse, Succession contained all the things that had once drawn us to Westeros: power, wealth, loyalty and sheer nastiness.
What we said: The writing is so creatively foul that it fills the gap left by its sibling in crudeness, Veep; half the fun is waiting to see what the interminably vile Roman will sneer about next. Read more
(BBC iPlayer) That the second series of Fleabag successfully and satisfyingly deepened, enriched and furthered the first, which had been designed and stood as a perfectly worked standalone series, is a near-divine miracle. But this was appropriate enough, given the figure who supplied most of the fuel for our second journey into Fleabag’s world – Andrew Scott’s Priest. Or to give him the title by which he instantly came to be known: Hot Priest.
What we said: This series raised the bar so utterly that, at times, Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s risks and progression were so impressive all one could do was shake one’s head in appreciation. Read more
(HBO/Sky) On the most basic level, Chernobyl was one of the best true-story miniseries ever made, capitalising on the curious fact that most people know hardly anything about the meltdown of a nuclear reactor in Pripyat, Ukraine in April 1986, despite the incident’s global infamy. But it also made universal observations, painfully resonant in the UK or US in 2019, about how institutions and hierarchies turn people into liars who, in extreme circumstances, lose their basic humanity.
What we said: Director Johan Renck and screenwriter Craig Mazin will be remembered for crafting a remarkably cogent and multivalent drama, one aided by impeccable performances. Read more.
Years and Years
(BBC One) In the first episode of Years and Years, a family shindig was interrupted by the whine of air raid sirens and the news that Donald Trump had fired a nuclear missile at the Chinese – a moment of hysteria-inducing horror that doubled as the show’s starter pistol. That’s right: impending nuclear armageddon was merely an aperitif when it came to the terror and devastation the Lyons family were to face in Russell T Davies’s breathtakingly ambitious six-part dystopian drama.
What we said: For a series that compresses 15 years into six hours, it seems to pass in the blink of an eye thanks to Russell T Davies’s trademark humour, compassion and the kinetic energy with which he infuses every project. We do not deserve Davies, but thank God he’s here. Read more.
(Channel 4) It has been said that Stephen Graham is Shane Meadows’ muse. Graham’s qualities as an actor – unflinching emotional honesty, the ability to convey an infinity of turmoil in a single facial expression – coincide perfectly with Meadows’ journeys into despair and redemption. The Virtues is a career peak for both. A drama that began as a desperate trawl through the anguish of Graham’s Joseph – a lonely alcoholic, spun off the rails by the departure of his son to Australia – evolved into a moving depiction of everyday heroism.
What we said: In its last throes, The Virtues distilled itself down to drama in one of its purest forms: whether humans have something deep within that will save them when they face the source of all their pain, with the lure of the self-destruct button stronger than ever. Read more.
(Netflix) The trauma of sexual assault is often twofold. There’s the assault itself and then the systematic way in which victims are dismissed and disbelieved by the criminal justice system. This autumn, over eight precisely constructed episodes, Unbelievable dramatised this process more powerfully than ever before. This was the buddy cop duo that the #MeToo generation deserved.
What we said: Unbelievable isn’t a programme about whether a vulnerable teen was telling the truth. It’s about who gets to have their story heard, who is allowed to be believed. Read more.
(Netflix) Wisecracking New Yorker Nadia Vulvokov (Natasha Lyonne) finds herself caught in a traumatic Groundhog Day-style loop in this eight-episode dramedy, which – despite landing out of nowhere back in February – proved to be one of the funniest, saddest and trippiest shows of the year.
What we said: Russian Doll is an acquired taste. But do persist: there is such a fine, idiosyncratic, impressive show nested within. Read more.
This Time With Alan Partridge
(BBC One) When it was announced that Alan Partridge was to make his return to TV in early 2019 as co-host of a chat show, the big question was: would his incontinent crassness stand out in a media landscape that contained actual buffoons such as Piers Morgan? The answer was a resounding yes.
What we said: We get the heroes we deserve, and as you finish writhing in agony and lie limp from laughter, hatred, panic, despair or in awe at the end of another half-hour in his appalling company, you can only reflect that if Brexit means Alan then the whole business just got more complicated still. Read more.
(Channel 4) What. A. Finale. Catastrophe’s climax was always going to come closer to explosive than orgasmic, but dear God it hurt like only 2019 could: deeply, because even after four seasons of watching Sharon and Rob love-hate each other till death did them part, we still cared; shockingly, because it turned out we weren’t made entirely of Brexit-born cynicism and we still wanted them to make it.
What we said: The great skill of Catastrophe has always been its unrivalled ability to show us brittle and spiky people, behaving mostly terribly, and then to make us feel deeply invested in their messy, fractured lives. Read more.
(HBO/Sky Atlantic) What made this hot teen drama such a blast of cool fresh air was not its shock tactics, or its NSFW content, but its massive heart. The writer and director Sam Levinson has spoken about how much of Rue’s story drew from his own experiences of anxiety and addiction, and you can feel the authenticity. By the end of its eight thrilling episodes, it’s difficult not to care deeply about the plights of these young people.
What we said: For all of its bleak vision, sympathy is not in short supply, and it is hard not to root for these kids to fight their way through to the other side. Read more.
(HBO/Channel 4) A harrowing four-hour exposé of alleged child sexual abuse by Michael Jackson. Wade Robson and James Safechuck outlined their chilling accounts of childhood grooming by the man that they, and the whole world, worshipped.
What we said: An astonishing piece of work. Relentlessly spare and unsensationalist, it manages better than any other in its genre not to let its attention wander from the survivors’ testimony. Footage of Jackson is confined almost wholly to that of him with the boys themselves on stage, private calls between them and family snaps. He is never allowed to overwhelm the story. Read the full review.
(Netflix) Resurrected thanks to Netflix’s notoriously deep pockets, the gangster drama set on a fictional Hackney estate (previously seen on Channel 4) could have ended up a glossy shadow of its former self. Thankfully, its return was as bleak and brilliant as ever, with ripped-from-the-headlines nods to county lines drug dealing and the Windrush scandal.
What we said: It is not a flattering portrait of our times, but as a TV drama, it is up there with the best – tense, gripping and relentless. Read the full review.
Stath Lets Flats
(Channel 4) “It’s all bowls baby!” The second series of Jamie Demetriou’s surreal comedy set in a family lettings agency boasted even weirder dialogue than the first. As well as its often excruciating laughs, however, the show also became more tender, cementing Demetriou’s titular character as a truly versatile comic creation.
What we said: At a time when television is fixated on memoirish sadcoms about loss and betrayal, Stath harks back to the golden era of 90s surrealist comedies such as The Fast Show and I’m Alan Partridge. Read more.
(Netflix) Gillian Anderson starred as Jean, a sex therapist whose son Otis (Asa Butterfield) – though too anxious to masturbate himself – sets up a sex advice service at school. A punchy, horny and eye-wateringly funny comedy with much to add to the teen TV genre.
What we said: Endlessly and seemingly effortlessly funny, in a naturalistic way that doesn’t have you listening for the hooves of the next gag thundering down a well-worn track but, like Catastrophe, catches you almost unawares and makes you bark with laughter. Read the full review.
(Channel 4) One of last year’s surprise hits, Lisa McGee’s Northern Irish comedy didn’t let things slip in its second season, with the gang still finding teenage kicks (this time courtesy of Take That and Bill Clinton) in the midst of the Troubles. The scene in which teens from both sides of the sectarian divide unleashed a barrage of stereotypes about each other (“Protestants hate ABBA!”) is among the year’s funniest.
What we said: Derry Girls’ magic remains intact. The evocation of the 90s is as lightly done as ever (Elizabeth Hurley is fleetingly referenced – “She’s a total ride, but she paperclips her frocks together”) and the Troubled setting never overwhelms but simply throws into relief the ordinariness of the girls’ lives in the middle of extraordinary depths of conflict. Read the full review.
What We Do in the Shadows
(FX/BBC Two) This weirdo vampire tale – based on Taika Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s 2014 film of the same name – was transposed from New Zealand to Staten Island, for brilliantly awkward, cross-cultural, cross-species laughs, with a cast helmed by Matt Berry, Kayvan Novak and Natasia Demetriou. Fangs a lot!
What we said: What We Do in the Shadows is a deft and seductive comedy that has all the hallmarks of a series it will be easy to fall for completely. Read the full review.
Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain
(BBC Four) Eat, sleep, rave, repeat was the mindset for thousands of young Brits in the mid 80s and early 90s, as Turner prize-winning artist Jeremy Deller explores in this politically charged music documentary. As well as transporting former rave and acid house fans back to their younger years, it offered a group of young participants a window into a world of hedonism and irrevocable social change.
What we said: Everybody in the Place has enveloped viewers in a loved-up embrace. Across social media, even hard bitten, seen-it-all old ravers have been celebrating the film. Read more.
Back to Life
(BBC Three) Daisy Haggard’s downbeat gem took on a tough topic – a woman’s return to her home town after a stretch behind bars – and turned it into a meditation on grief, regret and the passage of time, though with enough gags to keep things zipping along.
What we said: The beauty of the script and the performances – which build relationships so delicately and naturally, which modulate so deftly in and out of grief and laughter, and which turn ordinary moments into hilarity and heartbreak without you noticing how they got you there – will take your breath away. Read the full review.
(BBC One) The Horrible Histories team offered up more thrillingly silly comedy with this spirited sitcom about a gang of ghouls going to war with the new owners of a crumbling mansion.
What we said: In making us giggle at the supernatural, Ghosts is very British. But it is American in the sense of having a gag-to-airtime ratio much higher than British sitcoms normally manage these days. Read the full review.
(BBC Two) Stefan Golaszewski’s splendid sitcom ended on a heartwarming high. Over three lovely series, Lesley Manville and Peter Mullan as Cathy and Michael gave us the gift of a quietly epic romance that kept the tears in our eyes – and that will echo down the ages.
What we said: Mum might have looked like it was just a sitcom, but it had something beautiful to say about love and loss. It’s said it. Read the full review.
Prince Andrew and the Epstein Scandal: The Newsnight Interview
(BBC Two) Not since the Princess Diana and Martin Bashir sit-down in 1995 has such an astonishing royal spectacle been shown on our screens. This was gobsmacking television from entitled first to “unbecoming” last, which the world swallowed with a side order of Pizza Express dough balls.
What we said: An extended moment of clownish, life-changing stupidity wrapped around a kernel of true nastiness. Prince Andrew has been accused of doing genuinely awful things that reek of consequence-free privilege. The way in which he blithely slow-blinked his way into catastrophe during the interview seems to suggest that he still doesn’t understand the scale of what has been levelled at him, and that is absolutely damning for his family. Read more.
I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson
(Netflix) With sketches ranging from the man who wants a “stinky” car to a baby pageant where the audience hurl abuse at the infant competitors, this deliriously absurd sketch show from a former Saturday Night Live player was hailed as one of the greatest, strangest Netflix shows yet.
What we said: I wolfed down the entire series in one sitting, genuinely incapacitated with laughter. And then I watched it all again. I’ve watched I Think You Should Leave more times than I’ve watched entire series of Monty Python, and it’s only been available for two weeks. I’m fully obsessed at this point. At its peak, I Think You Should Leave might be one of the funniest things I have ever seen. Read the full review.
When They See Us
(Netflix) Ava DuVernay’s staggering miniseries about the Central Park Five showed how a group of young men came to be falsely convicted for raping a young white woman in 1989. It is unbearably harrowing to watch the boys, as young as 14, get violently coerced by police into giving confessions.
What we said: The performances are uniformly astonishing – especially from the central five, Asante Blackk, Caleel Harris, Ethan Herisse, Marquis Rodriguez and Jharrel Jerome, most of whom are just a few years older than the teens they are playing. They capture the innocence, in all senses, of children, and the permanence of its loss. It feels like a great privilege to see them. Read the full review.
His Dark Materials
(BBC One) After a laughably lacklustre 2007 film version, Philip Pullman’s much-loved fantasy trilogy finally got the adaptation it deserved in this gripping eight-parter. Dafne Keen shone as orphaned, daemon-tethered protagonist Lyra Belacqua, with James McAvoy and Ruth Wilson among its enviable cast.
What we said: There is time and space to do the books justice and the first episode, in all its steampunkish glory, gave every sign that the potential is to be realised. Read the full review.
(Netflix) Although somewhat overshadowed by grim royal events in the present, Peter Morgan’s lavish regal drama returned for its third outing, with Olivia Colman ascending to the throne and Helena Bonham Carter as Princess Margaret keeping her on her toes. Taking in the period from 1964 to 1976, from the Aberfan disaster to the moon landing and the meeting of Charles and Camilla, the royals were mired in crisis – making this series as dark and compelling as ever.
What we said: It will leave you either longing for the monarchy to be decapitated for its endless, parasitical privilege (great scenes arise from Philip complaining about being asked to cut back on his yacht consumption, for example) or abolished for the Windsors’ own good. Read the full review.
(HBO/Sky Atlantic) The second season of this black comedy about a hitman who catches the acting bug took its story into darker territory, with Barry’s attempts to extricate himself from his past life only dragging him further into oblivion. Things are not going to end well.
What we said: Though it’s a comedy rather than a thriller, Barry replicates much of what made Breaking Bad irresistible. Read more.
State of the Union
(Sundance TV/BBC Two) Rosamund Pike and Chris O’Dowd shone as estranged spouses Tom and Louise in Stephen Frears’s bite-size tales of crisis, crosswords and couples therapy. While Louise tells her husband that “discussing a malfunctioning marriage is depressing and time-consuming”, watching it proved quite the opposite.
What we said: As honest and multi-faceted an examination and appreciation of marriage as you could hope to find (as well as an astonishingly cliche-free one). Read the full review.
The End of the F***ing World
(All 4/Netflix) Despite a tense cliffhanger of a series one ending, Jessica Barden and Alex Lawther returned as the millennial answer to Bonnie and Clyde in the second run of the pitch-black comedy that became an unexpected global hit. And with Naomi Ackie on board as a creepy hitchhiker with a mysterious connection to the pair, three was very much a crowd.
What we said: These 20-minute instalments are hymns to brevity. It is gruesome and violent and scatalogical, but then it is funny and pointed and wry, and then it defers to a tender look, or an affectionate touch, and shows its heart. Read the full review.
The Other Two
(Comedy Central/All 4) How would you react if you were a struggling actor who could barely get cast as Man Who Smells Fart in an advert … while your kid brother became a Bieber-esque teen heart-throb overnight? That’s the premise of this brilliant satire, which follows Cary, Brooke and their famous sibling ChaseDreams, spectacularly skewering our pop-culture-obsessed society.
What we said: It has heart, charm, steel, belly laughs and a gimlet eye. Get on it. Read the full review.
(Netflix) As it entered its final series, BoJack once again proved that adult animation could be just as hilarious and quietly devastating as any drama. While our titular horse is finally wrestling with his demons and looking for a way out of LA, there still seems to be a reckoning yet to come.
What we said: BoJack Horseman has blossomed over the past five years from an unoriginal entertainment satire into something far richer and more profound. Read the full review.
(BBC One) Sally Wainwright travelled back in time for her latest piece of thrillingly human Yorkshire drama, the real life tale of Anne Lister. Suranne Jones has received rave reviews for her portrayal of the 19th-century industrialist and prolific diarist, who developed a code to hide her lesbianism.
What we said: It’s Regency Fleabag! Because the heroine occasionally breaks the fourth wall and exteriorises her inner monologue. But it’s set in Halifax in 1832, so it could be Northern Jane Austen … You can afford to have a little fun with Gentleman Jack; Sally Wainwright clearly has. Read the full review.
This Way Up
(Channel 4) A dark yet beautifully irreverent sadcom written by and starring comic Aisling Bea (with Sharon Horgan as her older sister), This Way Up breathed new life into the often staple themes of mental illness and difficult families with wicked wit and lashings of craic.
What we said: The sisters’ relationship is one of the show’s most consistent joys, featuring conversations that switch between huge, bleak subjects and the mundane, before dissolving into considerations of dogs on the internet who look like Nicolas Cage. Read the full review.
Spotlight on the Troubles: A Secret History
(BBC One) Darragh MacIntyre’s staggering seven-part look at the historic unrest in Northern Ireland meticulously traced tensions from early discontent to horrendous, bloody conflict and on to the eventual peace process.
(Comedy Central) After five virtually flawless sitcom seasons, Ilana Glazer and Abbi Jacobson’s millennial kweens went out the same way they came in: with gross-out gags, madcap surrealism and one of the greatest on-screen friendships in TV history.
What we said: This season has given Abbi and Ilana the best possible send-off. It has been joyful, silly and wild, and while it feels like the perfect time to wrap up their adventures, it is poignant that they’ve done so by reminding you just how good those can be. Read more.
Don’t Forget the Driver
(BBC Two) Pulling off a state-of-the-Brexit-nation series looked a tall order, but Toby Jones’s comedy-drama was taller, finding humour and pathos in its tale of a coach driver who discovers a refugee hiding in the luggage compartment and a body washed up on the beach.
What we said: If it is a comedy, it is one with the bleakest tragedy at its heart. But whatever label you put on it, it is a fine, fine piece of work. Read the full review.
Game of Thrones
(HBO/Sky Atlantic) Whether you felt the final season of the Westerosi fantasy stuck the landing in a blaze of dragon fire or was one great coffee cup gaffe that should have been remade from the ground up, this was unquestionably the most talked about TV of the decade.
What we said: The ending was true to the series’ overall subject – war, and the pity of war – and, after doing a lot of wrong to several protagonists, it did right by those left standing. When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die. Overall, I think, it won. Read the full review.
(BBC One) With flashes of Jed Mercurio’s Bodyguard, the BBC’s deliciously paranoid primetime drama about a soldier accused of a horrendous crime and the authorities snooping on him proved that conspiracy theories sometimes do come true.
What we said: Ben Chanan’s surveillance thriller isn’t just one of the most cleverly plotted dramas of recent years – it’s also one of the most satisfying. Read the full review.
Surviving R Kelly
(Lifetime/Crime+Investigation) A heartbreaking investigation into the decades of abuse by the R&B star towards young and often vulnerable women, this six-part series was among the year’s most hard-to-stomach but vital documentaries.
What we said: All the young women who shared their stories with the world last week spoke of some of the most unimaginable harms a person could endure. Yet they still participated. Read more here.
(Netflix) David Fincher turned his talents to TV back in 2017 with this disquieting thriller set in the FBI’s nascent Behavioural Science Unit, based on investigator Holden Ford’s (Jonathan Groff) efforts to get into the heads of violent killers. Series two was equally gripping and even more disturbing, with a plot based around the real-life abductions of African American children in Atlanta.
What we said: If you’re going to indulge in a nasty crime drama, at least make it the classiest one on TV. Read the full review.
(HBO/Sky Atlantic) A rare superhero tale infused with the tense racial politics of modern-day America, this HBO saga saw Regina King at her steely best as detective with a double life Angela Abar. Not your average comic book adaptation, and all the better for it.
What we said: A bravura series that interrogates power, storytelling and the former embedded in the latter. Read the full review.
Line of Duty
(BBC One) 2019 was the year that Jed Mercurio’s cop corruption hit went fully mainstream, boosted by the huge success of his Whitehall thriller Bodyguard. While series five wasn’t as light on its feet as previous runs, the nation was firmly gripped by Stephen Graham’s star turn – and the possibility that H might have been right under our noses all along.
What we said: As ever, nothing is wasted; not a scene, not a line, not a beat. For every morsel of information gathered by the team and by the viewer, another turn reveals 100 hidden possibilities. Read the full review.
(Netflix) Having thrilled viewers with its Spielbergian, Stephen King-flavoured brand of nostalgia, these days Netflix’s shockfest isn’t quite as novel as it once was. Even so, watching the gang grow into teenagers – and uncover a top-secret facility under the Hawkins shopping mall – added new intrigue to its third series.
What we said: It’s a slicker, pacier operation than the slightly sprawling previous season, and far more fun. Read the full review.
(ITV) The latest instalment in Michael Apted’s groundbreaking series, which has followed a group of children from vastly different backgrounds throughout their lives since the age of seven. Now heading towards retirement age, the changes – from marriage breakups to reconciliations to the death of one of the cohort, Lynn – proved all the more poignant.
What we said: Up makes other attempts to replicate the project – let alone the reality TV shows to which it is sometimes considered a precursor – seem trivial in comparison. Read the full review.
Seven Worlds, One Planet
(BBC One) Another year, another epic Attenborough extravaganza. Seven Worlds upped the game once again, with its jaw-dropping cinematography and huge scale (41 countries featured, a crew of over 1,500 people) – plus an environmental message that was never far from the surface.
What we said: As gorgeous, breathtaking, moving and harrowing as we have come to expect from this world-leading branch of the BBC. Read the full review.
Transparent: Musicale Finale
(Amazon) They said it couldn’t be done. After the show’s lead, Jeffrey Tambor, was fired for accusations of sexual harassment on set, fans of Jill Soloway’s bold exploration of sexuality, identity and Judaism in the Pfefferman family feared it would never return. But return it did, with a gobsmacking feature-length send-off including the most out-there closing number in musical history: Joyocaust (“We need a celebration of the soul / For this extermination Superbowl.”) One thing’s for sure: TV won’t be this transgressive again any time soon.
What we said: Some will feel it’s too outrageously close to the bone, but this is what it means to take risks all the way to the final curtain. Read the full review.
(BBC Scotland) BBC Scotland’s first original drama – a murder mystery kickstarted by a bungled hit-and-run – was an unexpected triumph of Hitchcockian twists, razor-sharp wit and the best sibling rivalry since Oasis.
What we said: Writer Neil Forsyth has mapped out a tense noir story that spirals out in unexpected directions while reliably lacing the whole thing with withering one-liners. Read the full review.
The Curry House Kid
(Channel 4) “There’s a reason why you run.” So says feted dancer and choreographer Akram Khan at the start of this astounding one-off documentary, in which he confronts the racism he faced as the child of Bangladeshi restaurateurs, before creating a cathartic dance to honour his family’s past.
What we said: Threaded through this stirring narrative is the exquisite piece Khan creates in response, performed at the end in a disused Brick Lane warehouse. The choreography is extraordinary: expressive, dynamic and deeply moving. Read the full review.
The Last Survivors
(BBC Two) Arthur Cary’s thoughtful, wonderful and always dignified 90-minute documentary heard the stories of some of the last living people who survived concentration camps as children. Very important viewing indeed.
What we said: For an hour and a half, I was crying, especially when Cary followed three generations of Holocaust survivors to Auschwitz, knowing all the time that tears are not enough. Nor guilt. Read the full review.
World on Fire
(BBC One) Peter Bowker’s ambitious wartime drama, featuring both the burning home fires and the plight of families in Germany and Poland, was an emotional tour de force right to its flabbergastingly open ending.
What we said: There is plenty of action, for those who want it, but this is far from the standard wartime miniseries. It is a beautifully turned ensemble piece, with everyone getting their time in the spotlight. Read the full review.
(BBC America/BBC iPlayer) Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s blackly comic assassin hit returned without the midas touch of its creator (who was busy working on the final series of Fleabag), but with more than enough wit and comic book-style action to keep fans satisfied.
What we said: The core of its success – the relationship between Villanelle and Eve – remains intact and further torqued by events. It is still stylish, sexy and gorgeous. Read the full review.