Guilt to Zomboat! The unsung TV gems of 2019

A moving rave documentary, a triumphantly twisted crime drama and canal boating with zombies … here are the unmissable shows that may have passed you by

Killing Eve to Game of Thrones: the biggest TV disappointments of 2019


In a sea of interchangeable crime dramas, all dead girls and doom-ridden detectives, Neil Forsyth’s Guilt felt like a breath of fresh air from the BBC. The story of two brothers in Edinburgh – smooth lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar) and hapless record shop owner Jake (Jamie Sives) – whose lives are turned upside down after a car accident, Guilt was a joyful mixture of pitch-black one-liners, sharp plotting and clever performances. This was crime drama the way it should be: free of gimmick and filled with well-drawn characters – most notably Bonnar’s Max, who increasingly commanded the screen as his carefully managed world spun beyond his control. Best of all in this overstuffed era, Guilt didn’t outstay its welcome, unfolding in four perfectly paced episodes and ending in an unexpected and quite exceptional betrayal. A triumph. SH


Gloriously romantic ... Mum.
Gloriously romantic ... Mum. Photograph: Mark Johnson/BBC/Big Talk Productions

I’d always been on the fence about Mum, Stefan Golaszewski’s BBC sitcom about a widow (Lesley Manville) beset by annoyingly selfish relatives in her big old family house. It always seemed a bit pleased with itself, and almost cruel in its cartoonish depiction of all those buffoons. But season three, turbocharged by setting its action across a week rather than months, made the first two runs look like a mere warmup. The emotional payoffs came far more frequently, and all the characters’ vulnerabilities poured movingly out. At its centre, the courtship between Manville’s Cathy and Peter Mullan as her late husband’s besotted friend Michael provided several moments so gloriously romantic you wanted to reach in and hug them both tight. When it properly bared its soul, Mum revealed itself to be a treasure. JS

The Other Two

Like a junior 30 Rock ... The Other Two.
Like a junior 30 Rock ... The Other Two. Photograph: Comedy Central/All 4

At first glance, The Other Two, which was about a 13-year-old pop sensation and his two loser siblings, had the air of a dire US comedy destined to be repeated on E4 for the next 10 years. But despite its unpromising premise, seemingly dislikable characters and obvious parallels between protagonist ChaseDreams and Justin Bieber, it was a spiky, satirical gem about the realities of being an also-ran. Penned by former Saturday Night Live head writers Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly, The Other Two was like a junior 30 Rock, each line peppered with pop culture references, including a long-running gag about Justin Theroux’s motorbike-shaped toilet. But it tackled bigger themes, too, like alcoholism and homophobia – fixed, of course, by Chase penning a song called My Brother’s Gay and That’s Okay! HJD


Don’t say they didn’t warn you. That exclamation mark in the title functioned as advance notice from ITV2 of Zomboat!’s daffy intent. Indeed, how you feel about excessively jolly punctuation may have determined whether you got on board with this Birmingham-set zom-com or not. I’ll confess I was sceptical: it felt like the channel that has been screening Shaun of the Dead on loop for over a decade had spontaneously spawned its own baby TV version, Jurassic Park-style. But thanks to winning performances and a perfectly absurd conceit – four ragtag survivors flee the undead apocalypse in a Rosie and Jim-style narrowboat that moves only fractionally faster than the hordes of biters who stagger down the towpaths in pursuit – Zomboat! had genre smarts, chum-buckets of charm and a genuinely killer theme tune. Although perhaps it speaks to our apocalyptic times that hanging out with panicky smart-mouths besieged by flesh-eating zombies felt something like self-care. GV

Everybody in the Place: An Incomplete History of Britain 1984-1992

Everybody in the Place.
Unmissable ... Everybody in the Place. Photograph: © Jeremy Deller

Jeremy Deller’s documentary on rave culture was shown twice; both times on BBC Four, both times in the middle of the night. But for people of a certain age, it was still unmissable. This was not just an impeccably curated portrait of a point in time; Everybody in the Place looked at rave anew. This was partly the result of Deller’s inquiring mind: the Turner prize-winning artist has a fascination with unofficial history and folklore, and saw it at work in Shoom or Hardcore Uproar. But he also has a passion for collaboration, and it was choosing to present his story to a classroom of 2019 schoolchildren that turned this show into something special. The children saw something for the first time, just as Deller was revisiting it, and the way their responses differed but also chimed at points was truly poignant. PM


Exquisite ... Takehiro Hira in Giri/Haji. Photograph: Luke Varley/BBC/Sister Pictures

A perennial problem with “heavyweight” BBC drama, apart from its fixation on murders and lakes, is that it feels obliged to follow certain tried and tested rhythms and protocols. Joe Barton’s Anglo-Japanese thriller, refreshingly, had a cadence that made it feel more like a foreign arthouse movie. Telling the story of a Tokyo cop, Kenzo Mori (Takehiro Hira), sent to London in search of his lost gangster brother, and co-starring the drily excellent Kelly Macdonald as a London-based cop and Will Sharpe as an Anglo-Japanese gay rent boy, Giri/Haji kept you watching because you had absolutely no idea in which direction it was headed but were very willing to find out. As well as the development of the emotionally torn Mori, exquisite touches included the use of animation as a means of exposition – a method also used in 2018’s Black Earth Rising. Giri/Haji deserved a lot more watercooler conversation than it got. DS

Back to Life

Back to Life.
Impeccable ... Back to Life. Photograph: Luke Varley/BBC/Two Brothers Pictures

Darkly comic and crushingly grim, this show, co-written by and starring Daisy Haggard, tackled the stigma of life after prison head on. Haggard played a thirtysomething woman, Miri, returning to her claustrophobic childhood town in Kent after being released for what, it became apparent, was a deeply troubling crime – prompting her neighbours to hang an effigy in her garden and graffiti her fence. Haggard played Miri with buckets of the compassion that those around her so obviously lacked. And there was an impeccably placed cast of supporting characters: Adeel Akhtar as the unlikely and endearing boy next door, Richard Durden as Miri’s emotionally stilted father, and Geraldine James as her steely mother. Haggard and co-writer Laura Solon built an utterly convincing world, and took a delicate look at the attempt to rebuild a life that had been on hold for half of its existence. AK

Teen Titans Go!

I love Teen Titans Go! with all my heart. I could write thousands of words about how it, rather than Joker, has been the real left-turn of the DC universe; about how its lack of continuity – and willingness to kill its main characters – has kept it fresh; how the voice cast, returning from a cancelled former version of the series, have found entire new characters in their old characters; how I can relate to Robin’s default mode of screaming, insecure, ego-driven stress more than any other character on television; and about how the Working on an Episode song from the 200th episode special is the perfect encapsulation of modern work. More than anything, though, it just makes me laugh. Unfailingly. Not bad for a kid’s show. SH

The Cockfields

The Cockfields.
A gut-punch ... Joe Wilkinson and Diane Morgan in The Cockfields. Photograph: UK Gold

As a panel show comedian, Joe Wilkinson specialises in sustained oddness, his deeply offbeat shtick designed to give you the creeps as well as tickle you. It’s a persona that bestowed on The Cockfields – Wilkinson’s Isle of Wight-set dramedy, in which he starred as eminently sensible everybloke Simon – an instant novelty value: who knew the man could be so normal? It was not the show’s only surprise, as Simon brought his girlfriend Donna (Diane Morgan: sweet, smiley, decidedly off-brand) home for his 40th birthday celebrations. What first appeared to be a cosy slice of domestic farce – a Gold sitcom with a heritage cast (Sue Johnston, Bobby Ball, Nigel Havers) – turned out to be a knotty family portrait bristling with resentment and disgust. Channelling the stifling mundanity of a Mike Leigh film, Wilkinson and his co-writer David Earl recreated step-family dynamics and cloying parental behaviour with an accuracy so uncanny you wondered if they’d been bugging your family home. A gut-punching piece of TV that deserved to have more people shuddering in recognition. RA

After Life

Post-Extras, Ricky Gervais went nasty. In his standup and Golden Globes gigs he aimed his abuse both upwards (“Take that, Hollywood!”) and down (“… and you, fat people”). Yet from this soup of toe-curling viciousness came a starting point for redemption. In After Life, Tony (Gervais) is angrily disillusioned with life after the death of his wife. So this time, in contrast to Gervais’s regular controversy-baiting, the abusive diatribes had a rationale: his character’s depressive nihilism. With help from a sterling supporting cast, including Ashley Jensen and a snarling David Bradley, Tony lost the bitterness and learned to live again. And if you’re feeling generous, so too did Gervais. DA


Sarah Hughes, Jack Seale, Hannah J Davies, Graeme Virtue, Paul MacInnes, David Stubbs, Ammar Kalia, Stuart Heritage, Rachel Aroesti and David Alexander

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