I would love to say that 2013 has been a vintage year for television drama, but when one considers that the show that everyone most raved about was actually a little bit flawed then maybe not (naming no names……………………… OK: Broadchurch.)
That is not to say it has been a complete washout – there have been some amazing pieces of television from across the globe, and here’s a rundown of the top five, in reverse order.
5. The Paradise Series 2
Bill Gallagher’s shop-based period drama, based on a novel by Emile Zola, came quite out of the blue last year. With ITV’s flagship Downton appropriately countered by BBC’s Call the Midwife, another mainstream bonnet-fest was almost unnecessary – but we are so lucky to have it! The Paradise has been brilliant, oozing intrigue and sophistication in a tangible setting. It won us over with plucky Denise, rising star Joanna Vanderham, and absolute professional Emun Elliott at the helm. Although it was slightly derailed by stiff competition in the shape of ITV’s excellent Mr Selfridge.
It must be said that this year’s offering has received less attention than its debut series in late 2012, but that had little to do with the content. Spring boarding off from the end of Series 1, Moray’s jilting of Katherine, Series 2 has put front a centre a tense foursome: Moray, Katherine, Katherine’s new husband Mr Weston (played by the excellent Ben Daniels) and Denise. It would be all too easy to opt for out-and-out war so instead, long games and tricks are teased out, backstabbings are subtle and everyone gets a little confused as to where their loyalties lie. I will be gutted if this doesn’t return for a third series. Also – the novel is well worth a read too. Very different from the series but on television it has managed to retain the same glorious spirit. With a touch more money, ambition and a renewed enthusiasm to push boundaries, if it returns The Paradise could slide further up this list.
4. Doctor Who’s 50th Year: Series 7 Part 2, The Day of the Doctor and The Time of the Doctor
I would have liked to have seen old favourite Doctor Who a little higher up this list in its special golden year, but although the show delivered some fantastic moments, it did not quite eclipse the competition in terms of quality drama. The Day of the Doctor, however, was a near-flawless celebration of the last fifty years and that alone would deserve a place on this list.
Matt Smith has proven himself yet again to be a worthy and versatile Doctor and in Jenna Coleman we have a companion actress who is confident and sharp but not hollow (goodbye Amy.) Having said that, the characterisation of Clara has been one of the show’s missteps this year… even though it led to some great fan-pleasing moments it sacrificed far too much along the way. The stories themselves were adequate and a step up in some ways from before, although nearly every one fell foul of the underdeveloped climax plague – the packing too much into 45 minutes plague – which really needs to be rectified in the near future. Doctor Who should be bursting at the seams with good ideas but that should not be at the detriment to all the other competing notions and concepts.
All in all though, a strong series (special mention to the beautiful An Adventure in Space and Time too) and a true iconic television ‘moment’. Doctor Who took over television in 2013.
3. Luther Series 3
What was probably Luther’s last bow was breath-taking. The four-part series blended thrilling tension and spectacle with serious, intimate emotion and moral dilemma. With powerhouse performances from Idris Elba, Warren Brown, Nikki Amuka-Bird, Dermot Crowley and especially Ruth Wilson, it tied up three years of excellent storytelling but took it so much further too. The last story in particular is notable for playing even more on the idea of Luther as a force for good AND evil.
Neil Cross gave us a crime drama – a genre that I’m sure we’re all nearly sick of – with a refreshing bite. He made what has been so often obscured by act-structures and motive checklists into a solid work with all the consideration and eloquence of a novel.
Lovingly-crafted and beautifully shot, the third series of Luther was everything we desired. Roll on the promised prequel film and the Alice Morgan spin-off!
2. The Village Series 1
This series, the beginnings of a century-spanning narrative about just one village, deserves a place here partially for its ambition alone. In a television climate where a writer is lucky to be granted three episodes, to come out and say “I want this to run to forty-two episodes, I want to see the whole of the twentieth century whistle past this landscape” is brave. Whether it happens remains to be seen, but it will be on the whim of often-misjudged executive decrees, and not a reflection of Moffat’s dedication. I do so hope it happens.
The Village was marvellous, battered and ripped by the winds of time like Wuthering Heights, contrasted with the life of the upper echelons like the best of the period dramas. With fully-defined characters, a great cast of top talent including Nico Mirallegro, John Simm, David Ryall, Juliet Stevenson and Maxine Peake (and rising star Bill Jones – who stole the show!), it’s hard to knock.
And yet some still did. It was blasted for being overly bleak, soaked in dull hues. But these people missed the beauty of the art direction, and the charm. Yes, it was dark, but their lives were dark. Bert peaking in at the ladies’ baths sticks in the mind. Cheeky and real, mixed into the cold. Meanwhile the stories captivated, history imprinted and time passed, but the village stayed the same. Good, but not good enough to reach the top spot…
Full review of The Village Series 1 coming soon. Series 2 will be broadcast in 2014.
1. Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves
So good I cried throughout.
Great drama doesn’t have to be tragic. But it does have to engage you, and from the very beginning Don’t Ever really engaged. This is bold storytelling, which shows every graze, every tear, every flower, exactly as television should. The story of AIDS in the 1980s is not one (thankfully) that has never been told… but I can say with some assurance that it has never been told as well as this. It was one of those dramas for which I am so full of praise that it is almost impossible to single out individual examples – and I am sure to run out of superlatives.
In some ways, I’m cheating: this Swedish drama was in fact made and broadcast last year, but BBC4 imported and waited until Christmastime 2013 to show us UK viewers, hence its inclusion here. And I’m very glad they did – the drama uses Christmas as a frame beautifully, as a season that exemplifies the fullness of a good life and the lacking of a bad one. The scene in which Rasmus and Benjamin first take each other’s hands in the snow on a street in Stockholm will become iconic. For its simplicity, its sweeping romance, and the performances of the leads, Adam Lundgren and Adam Pålsson.
Also, this is in part my way of setting the record straight, or whatever the TV-appropriate metaphor would be. This site mainly focuses on British television drama, because British television drama is what I mainly watch, but I have worried that could come across as a slight television xenophobia. There is great stuff being churned out internationally, and we’re so blind to most of it, but gradually that is changing. I was unsure about watching Don’t Ever because I knew it would mean subtitles, but you know what? When Benjamin and Rasmus are in a room, emoting their socks off, it almost doesn’t matter what the words are beneath them. Someone said to me once, after the advent of The Killing, “it makes you wonder why Britain can’t produce great programmes when Scandinavian networks seem to be doing it routinely.” I took great umbrage to that presumption, and still do – not because of patriotism, just because I think it demonstrates a slight naivety. But after Don’t Ever, I’m conceding a bit more. It’s beginning to feel like other nations just get drama much more than we do, and not just that but have the people in place to ensure good stuff is made, as opposed to axed or popularised or bastardised. A sobering thought.
But let’s put this aside and consider the drama alone again. Near flawless, resonant and deceptively clever. If 2014 produces a drama just half as good as this, I’ll be a very happy viewer.
I would like to say a fond thank you to everyone who has supported this site in its humble beginnings this year. It has not gone unappreciated. Just one request… keep checking back in 2014?
Don’t forget to head over to http://tvafterdarkonline.com/ to check out the countdowns of the best of 2013’s television! Includes contributions from me and all the rest of the TV After Dark team.