Escape at Dannemora (S1)
An eight-episode miniseries directed by Ben Stiller and starring Benicio del Toro, Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano, Escape at Dannemora tells the story of a New York state prison breakout and the bizarre love triangle surrounding it. Astonishingly, it’s all based on real-life events.
In short, it’s precisely the kind of interesting, well-crafted one-off drama series that we’ve come to expect from Sky Atlantic in recent years, with an outstanding cast worthy of a Hollywood feature. It’s only available to stream on Now TV for a limited time, so don’t delay.
The Sopranos (S1-6)
Nowadays we take intelligently written, thematically deep, beautifully shot big budget television series for granted – but a couple of decades ago such programmes (bar the odd miniseries) were a rarity.
Then along came HBO and David Chase’s The Sopranos, a long-running drama about the New Jersey mob, family and millennial America. Gripping, funny, moving and often hard to watch, this show made a bone-fide star of the late James Gandolfini, who excels, attracts and repels in equal measure as mafia boss Tony Soprano.
Every single episode of what might be the greatest TV show ever is currently available on Now TV, so if you haven’t watched it already – or it’s been a few years and you’re missing Paulie Walnuts, Silvio, Big Pussy and Christopher – grab yourself a bin bag full of snacks, several gallons of your preferred bevvie and get settled in for a mobster marathon.
Patrick Melrose (S1)
Based on the semi-autobiographical novels of Edward St Aubyn, this Sky- and Showtime-produced drama series stars Benedict Cumberbatch as the titular Patrick, an aristocratic heroin addict trying in vain to outrun the damage done in childhood by his monstrous upper-class father and weak, emotionally absent American mother.
With each of the five episodes based on a single novel in the St Aubyn’s series, each feels like a self-contained story – but together they represent as vivid, complex and compelling a portrayal of addiction, hopelessness, cruelty and redemption as you’ll find on television.
The Affair (S1-5)
This slow burn of a series charts the growing mutual attraction between two married people and the passionate, destructive affair that unfolds. As with any affair, people end up hurt – but in this case it’s worse: somebody ends up dead.
What elevates this beyond your typical steamy thriller is its structure: The Affair is told through multiple characters’ points of view, which differ in slight but significant ways. The effect is to make you question what you think you know.
Throw in stellar performances by Dominic West and Ruth Wilson and this becomes an utterly riveting watch. But don’t worry, you have five whole seasons to plough through before withdrawal sets in.
Based on journalist Roberto Saviano’s non-fiction book of the same name, Gomorrah takes a deep dive into the dark, bloody Naples underworld and the Camorra – the Mafia-like crime syndicate that runs it.
While Gomorrah isn’t quite as all-round impressive as The Sopranos (and it’s an Italian show, so sorry – you’ll have to read subtitles unless you speak the language) it provides a similarly enticing look into both the “professional” and personal lives of the crime family’s members, as well as a glimpse of a seldom seen side of Italy.
As for the show's accuracy to the real-life machinations of the Neapolitan mob? Well, given that Saviano has been living under 24-hour police protection since his book was published, it’s safe to assume that he unearthed some truths during his investigations - so this show is probably as accurate as any drama series is going to get.
Twin Peaks: The Return (S1)
There are two ways to look at the new series of Twin Peaks. One is that it is without question the most utterly brilliant TV show of the year, the other that it’s a massive pile of pretentious poo-poo.
Now we’re firmly in the former camp here at Stuff, but if you a) didn’t like the original two series or b) generally don’t like David Lynch’s creative ouput then this is emphatically not going to change your mind. Indeed, The Return is a kind of meta-Lynch show, distilling themes, elements, tropes and filmmaking techniques he’s employed elsewhere into one bewilderingly incredible experience.
Set 25 years after the events of the groundbreaking first two series, The Return revisits many of the characters from the originals, and there’s enormous amounts of fun and interest to be gained merely in seeing how they’ve aged and how their lives have worked out.
We don’t want to spoil things by going into detail about the plot, but suffice to say that it’s about as far from a straightforward linear journey as you could ever imagine. Absolutely essential viewing.
Think of Billions as the high-finance counterpart to House of Cards and you won’t be far off the mark.
Damian Lewis and Paul Giamatti are superb as, respectively, the win-at-all-costs head of a massive hedge fund and the win-at-all-costs district attorney determined to put him behind bars, although both are thoroughly upstaged by the even better Maggie Siff as the woman who keeps both at the top of their game.
It can get a bit bogged down in financial jargon - unless you’re a hedge-fund manager yourself, you’ll likely not understand a word of what’s being discussed at times - but that’s never really a problem, because this isn’t really a show about global financial markets. Well, no more so than Game of Thrones is really a show about dragons.
Instead, it’s a show about power and whether the kind you can buy is more important than the kind you earn. Well worth a watch.
Whenever we talk about the greatest TV shows to suffer an untimely cancellation, Deadwood is the name that comes first to most people’s lips – and the ones that don’t say it probably just haven’t seen it yet.
David Milch’s Old West drama, set in the eponymous frontier town, is so much more than a simple tale of grizzled gamblers and driven lawmen. It’s more like a rich, ugly, booze- and tobacco-stained tapestry, encompassing so many threads of early American life that it’s almost novelistic in its scope and detail.
That detail came at a huge budgetary cost, which is why HBO decided to cancel it after three seasons, despite several storylines being very much unresolved. Keep that in mind while watching, but also retain a little bit of hope in your heart, because rumour has it a feature-length final instalment is coming to tie up all those loose ends and give Deadwood the send-off it so richly deserves.
Ray Donovan (S1-7)
Liev Schreiber plays the titular character in this long-running series about a Los Angeles law firm “fixer” who solves problems for Hollywood’s elite – often in ways that bring him into conflict with the authorities.
When Donovan’s father (played with rascally relish by Jon Voight) is released from jail, the distant past comes back to haunt him. And that’s lucky for us, as it kicks off a chain of events which help make this one of the most absorbing mainstream dramas on telly.
Hank Moody is a writer, but he behaves – and is treated – like a rock star. It’s all Hollywood parties and excess in all its most debauched forms. It’s glorious to watch in the same way Entourage was when its characters were at the peak of their success. What’s more fun than watching someone living the dream?
The show’s guilty of getting a little too bogged down in the relationship between Hank and his paramour and “baby momma” Karen, but Duchovny plays the roguish charm so well that it’s always pretty irresistible. And an outrageous sexual encounter or improbable cameo is never far away. Marilyn Manson and Tim Minchin pop up in the final series, for heaven’s sake.
Twin Peaks (S1-2)
You've already read about Twin Peaks: The Return earlier in this list, but if you haven’t already met Agent Dale Cooper, The Log Lady, Audrey Horne and The Man From Another Place, you ought to do that before starting on the new series.
The first season, now 25 years old, is a masterpiece of TV and is still every bit as brilliant as it was when it first had the world hooked. Season Two isn't always so successful - director/writer David Lynch left halfway through and it shows, with a major lull in the middle and a succession of rather stupid storylines - but stick around for the final few episodes and you'll be nicely set up for the third season.
Just remember: the owls are not what they seem.