The Night Of (S1)
Riz Ahmed excels in this role as a shy and sheltered New York lad - a second-generation immigrant to America who just wants to do his parents proud, succeed at his studies and make something of his life. That life is snatched away when a horrific crime is committed – and all fingers point to him.
Off to brutal Riker’s Island prison he goes, with his future looking as bleak as bleak can be. John Turturro provides excellent support at the eccentric lawyer who takes up Ahmed’s case, but it’s the burning sense of injustice – and the desire to find out what really happened that fateful evening – that’ll keep you coming back episode after episode.
Written by Peep Show co-creator Jesse Armstrong and executive produced by Will Ferrell and Adam McKay, Succession is a blackly comic drama series about a vast multinational media company run by the demonic mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his brood of dysfunctional children (sound like anyone we know?).
When it becomes clear that Roy will soon step down as the company’s head, various members of his family begin to vie for the company’s levers of power – and it’s in this struggle that the satire begins to bite. More of a drama than Armstrong’s usual fare (and certainly not as knockabout as the likes of Veep), Succession has scooped armfuls of awards and looks set for a triumphant (and riveting) third season. Time to get on board, we reckon.
Penny Dreadful (S1-3)
A horror series set in Victorian London and bringing together many of the famous monsters and villains of literature and popular culture, Penny Dreadful is three seasons of grim, gothic delights – plus there’s an entirely separate but thematically similar spin-off in the shape of Penny Dreadful: City of Angels, set in 1940s Los Angeles to sink your fangs into once you’ve polished off the original.
Josh Hartnett, Timothy Dalton, Rory Kinnear and the incomparable Eva Green (made for this kind of show) star in an involving, atmospheric series that was offed before its time. Rest in peace.
Game of Thrones (S1-8)
The final stretch of HBO’s decade-long fantasy series may have left a sour taste in many viewers’ mouths but regardless of its divisive ending (which, to be clear, this particular writer thinks is very bad), Game of Thrones remains one of the most thrilling, surprising, involving and just plain old riveting TV shows of all time. It’s packed with so many well-drawn characters, memorable moments and assured world-building that you can’t write it off simply because the showrunners failed to stick the landing.
No other sword and sorcery series has enjoyed the production values lavished upon this adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s novels. It boasts a sprawling cast of faces both familiar and fresh, Hollywood-level visual effects and, particularly in the earlier seasons, some of the best writing and plotting on television full-stop. So take a trip to Westeros if you’ve never been – it’s bloody marvellous (emphasis on the bloody).
Band of Brothers (S1)
There’s a strong argument to be made that the “Golden Age of Television” in which we now apparently live started here, with this glorious 2001 World War II miniseries made by HBO (not to mention the BBC, Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks).
Boasting mammoth production values (at the time of its making, it was the most expensive TV show ever), a cast of dozens and an impeccable script, Band of Brothers tells the story of the war from the perspective of Easy Company, a US Army parachute company. Stretching from Easy’s jump training through their deployment on D-Day to the very end of the war in Europe, with each of its 10 episodes bookended by interviews from the real-life veterans on which the story is based, it’s compelling from start to finish, and will likely leave you in floods of tears by the end.
Boardwalk Empire (S1-5)
This lavish period drama recreates America’s early 20th century prohibition era – and retells the rise of organised crime that resulted from the banning of booze – in lavish detail, complete with a huge (and hugely impressive) cast of actual and fictional crooks, corrupt politicians, cops, conmen, mobsters and molls.
Centred around New Jersey’s glitzy, seedy resort town Atlantic City (run by Steve Buscemi’s almost comically corrupt central protagonist, Nucky Thompson) but frequently taking time out to visit Chicago and New York, Boardwalk Empire rivals other HBO shows like The Sopranos and The Wire for scope and production values, even if it feels a little worn-out by its own lofty ambitions by the time the final season rolls around.
The Trip to Greece (S1)
They’ve been to Yorkshire, Italy and Spain and for their final routine, Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan are off to the Aegean, recreating Odysseus’ journey home from Troy – but with restaurant trips rather than trials, tribulations and encounters with cyclopes. You probably know the drill by now: in director Michael Winterbottom’s nuanced, semi-improvised comedy, Coogan and Brydon play fictionalised versions of themselves, and the rivalry between the friends is as tasty as the dishes on show. Gently powerful, The Trip to Greece is a clever musing on friendship, art, food and impressions. Don’t forget about the impressions.
The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst (S1)
If you’re a documentary fan and you’re currently unfamiliar with the story of Robert Durst, you’re in for a treat: The Jinx is an utterly compelling exploration into the eccentric New York property heir’s past, in which he may or may not have murdered one, two or three people – and got away with it every time.
Durst’s story would be intriguing enough on its own, but in this six-part series the man himself volunteers to be interviewed by filmmaker Andrew Jarecki – a seemingly unnecessary risk when you consider the crimes of which he’s suspected. As Durst’s participation starts to shine fresh light on the old cases, you’ll find yourself superglued to your screen right up until the unforgettable end.
Jim Carrey stars as a grieving, issues-laden children’s TV entertainer in his first television role in a couple of decades, executive produced by his Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind director Michel Gondry. Carrey’s ability for nailing darker, more challenging characters is well proven (remember The Cable Guy and Man on the Moon?) and given how rarely he actually appears on screen these days, he’s worth the price of admission here alone.
A miniseries recreating the terrifying events of April 1986, when a Ukrainian nuclear power plant went into accidental meltdown, and the brave, risky operation to prevent it escalating into a continent-spanning disaster. With a cast including Stellan Skarsgard, Emily Watson and Jared Harris, this Sky/HBO collaboration puts true quality into the retelling of this real-life horror story.
The Wire (S1-5)
Consistently ranked among the greatest TV series ever made, The Wire is a compelling US crime show that’s far, far beyond your common or garden police procedural.
Set in Baltimore, its five seasons take a novelistic approach to detailing the interplay between the city’s power structures, all the way from the mayor’s office to the corner boy crack dealers. As much as The Wire is driven by its seasons-spanning plots and huge cast of memorable characters, it’s perhaps the way it turns a brutal examination of the systemic failure of American institutions – politics, the press, education, the police force – into gripping entertainment that cements its status as one of the 21st century’s best TV shows so far.