10. The Walking Dead
Why does the concept of a zombie apocalypse intrigue us so much? Is it because we imagine ourselves as a survivor, becoming a master samurai, and the protector of the ones we love? Or is the outbreak; the juicy part? I think it’s safe to say the majority of us preferred the post apocalyptic ‘walking dead’ over ‘fear the walking dead’. Plus Rick Grimes is a head-topping, gun-slinging badass with one purpose, to wipe out any walker that comes within a hundred miles of his family.
And I haven’t even mentioned Daryl yet, a character you hate at first, but will grow on you to love like a brother. Plus he’s an animal with a crossbow. And speaking of animals, have I got round to discussing Carol yet, or Michonne? Never mind, you can make your own mind up.
My point is, all the characters are pretty solid and they overcome one hell of a journey. That said, as exciting as The Walking Dead is, it does run out of steam towards the latter seasons of the show, and one might think it doesn’t deserve a mention on the list because of it. But no-one told you to watch it all.
When the world is overrun with brain-dead virus-spreading cannibals, there is never going to be an end. Especially when the zombies are slow as hell and you’ve got people like Daryl and Carol on your side. There will only be an end when AMC stop finding new and exciting ways to keep the show interesting. And for me, it’s around season four but the show solidifies it’s status early on nevertheless.
9. The Fall
A dark, gripping, psychological thriller that introduces a complex serial killer from the off. It’s then an intense cat and mouse chase spanning three seasons between a sexually motivated serial killer, Paul Spector and highly experienced detective superintendent, Stella Gibson. Spector is always one step ahead of the game, and the closer Gibson gets, the more obsessed she becomes with him.
What sets this apart show is that Spector is a family man, as normal as they come. Yet the audience are granted a somewhat unwanted access into his hideous double life. I use the phrase ‘somewhat unwanted’ because we aren’t sure whether we want to know all of this about Spector from the get go. It seems at first we have already hit the peak and the story could be wrapped at the end of the first episode. Yet as Spector’s killings become more grotesque, and ever so more sinister, we find ourselves ‘somewhat not wanting’ to continue as we experience the horror of Spector’s exponentially heinous imagination.
But of course we continue watching, because we believe in Stella Gibson and we believe the accumulating number of female victims is all too much to be left alone. At the same time we want to continue watching for the simple reason that there’s a guilty intrigue in watching these grotesque killings unfold.
That aside, gaining more and more insight into Gibson’s traumatic backstory is another reason we stay tuned. This disturbing catch 22 continues throughout seasons one and two, as the writers find new ways to reinvent story arcs and new angles on this marathon of a chase, yet it slowly fizzles out by season three. And instead of concluding this crime thriller as the perfect package, it feels a little dragged out and milked to the point where you only continue watching to find out how it ends.
That’s not to deter you from it though, as The Fall’s lets us follow a unique antagonist-lead thriller that not only has a multitude of layers, but also an arch nemesis that matches the same level of character depth. Plus the Irish accent is nice to listen to, even if it does come from a psychopathic, fiendish, sexual predator that murders women to feed the demons of his traumatic past.
8. Halt and Catch Fire
Fold the motherboard over to utilize space for the central processing unit to allow more room for the software code. Yeah. I’ve got no idea what they’re talking about in this show either, but it’s still great television. And that’s the point. We don’t care about how they’re going to beat IBM to the first portable computer, we don’t care how they’re going to beat Apple to make the most unique product on the market. We all know how that ended.
We care more about Gordon Clarke’s rags to riches story and how he juggles his precarious family needs to get there. We care about Joe Macmillan’s unpredictable impulses and his constant choice to do what’s right, or what’s necessary, whilst also having to choose for ourselves whether or not he’s the good guy, or just a narcissistic, egocentric salesman. We care for Cameron Howe, and her ability to consistently surprise us, whilst battling a tendency to self destruct and succumb to her inner demons.
Halt and Catch Fire is an early computer command that sent the machine into a race condition. Causing all instructions to compete for superiority at once. Control of the computer could not be regained. In a lot of ways, this show is as clever as it’s title. Full of subtext and metaphors. The characters have great depth and are superbly acted. Particularly Scoot McNairy (Gordon) who is so interesting to watch on screen, you can understand him even when he’s talking in algebra.
And that’s another thing. It would be quite easy for this show to patronise it’s audience with all the tech and coding talk, but the conflict is so rich even when it is subtle, and so universally relatable, the complicated subject matter becomes secondary to the drama. And of course it has to be complicated, making a computer is one the most cleverist things you can do.
A giant brought to it’s knees by little David and his slingshot. It’s the underdog story that everyone knows. But it’s not just that, otherwise it wouldn’t have made it on this list. Actually that’s a lie. Goliath made it onto this list just because of Billy Bob Thornton. He plays a dejected lawyer who’s given up on his once prosperous career for a life of alcoholism and apathy.
But of course we still route for little David the underdog when he goes after the firm he helped create. Thirsty for revenge. An underdog story is always attractive, but even more so when it involves court cases. And even even more so when the case is packed with conspiracies and cover- ups by an opposition of conglomerate elites that can only be taken down by one person and one person alone. Billy McBride. A character you love and empathise with, as well as hate and wash your hands on. Time and time again. A character that just keeps growing on you throughout each season, sealed and delivered with a brand new scrumptious court case. A character played by the not-quite-silver-fox-but-just-as-dapper-don that is Billy Bob Thornton.
And if that alone won’t sway you to watch it. I don’t know what will.
6. Bates Motel
We all know of the original Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho that is Norman Bates. But you’ll do well not to compare this series to the classic. It is similar in some ways. We revisit the whole set up of Psycho in season five, where we see a city woman running away with stolen money and fatefully winds up at the malevolent Bates Motel. We revisit Norman as a charming yet mysterious boy who dresses up as his mother to act out his psychotic atrocities. But it’s important to note that this series takes place a long while before the film.
Four seasons before in fact, yet it’s so easy to binge you’ll find yourself watching the last season in no time. You’ll find yourself allowing the countdown to the next episode defeat you. And you’ll find yourself staying up later than you should, or being late for work the next day, or even skipping work altogether to follow Norman through his labyrinthine adolescence.
A combination of profound character depth, faultless acting, and intricate plot-lines make it somewhat natural to sympathize with Norman, to root for him despite his wickedness, and to make you feel guilty for disregarding his devilry. It’s not quite accurate to label Bates Motel as a ‘horror’, but more-so a psychological thriller.
In other words, it’s not so much scary or jumpy, but it does make your skin crawl and your hair stand up on the back of your neck. And this happens routinely in each season. The cult following of Psycho will tell you that it would be a lost cause to even attempt a series remake of Alfred Hitchcock’s original. That Norman is just too complicated to ‘get right’, and the extensive psychology of the character would require such mindful handling, let alone even trying to tackle Norman Bates’ mother who is the catalyst of her son’s evildoings. More simply, it would be all too easy to rip off the film and ruin it for everyone. Like so many remakes inevitably fall victim to.
But Bates Motel succeeds in it’s endeavour in every way, it not only provides a complimentary backstory to the classic plot, but also plays around with clever twists that steer away from the its original, and in doing so, flies from the insecurity of its nest and soars as its own distinct story altogether.
Never has a history lesson been so interesting, even if it is dramatized to the point where you don’t know what’s true or not. But who cares really?
When you’re introduced to a character like Ragnar Lothbrok you want to keep watching just to see him take out over a hundred bods in one small battle. You root for Ragnar from the very start, because he overcomes all odds to survive and continue his dream. His dream to sail across the seas to England. You root for Ragnar and his Nordic followers even when they pillage a whole town of innocent Christians. Like I said before, we’re sick as hell.
As graphic as these scenes are, and as horrific as their violence may be, you still continue watching. You may even turn the show off and refuse to watch a character as ferocious as Ragnar, because we’re not used to following an antagonist through a series. But chances are you’ll come back to it. And get snagged with the barbed hook of great television.
There is a combination of things that make this show so great. Firstly, there’s something about being in the era of sharpened steel and bow ‘n’ arrows. I can’t explain it, maybe the it’s the skill involved in being a master swordsman or the archer that never misses. I don’t know, there’s just something to love. Secondly, the character chemistry is insane. How the psychology of two characters conflict and intertwine, the combination or hatred and admiration for one another, the shared connections that bring them together and simultaneously repel them. You’ll know what I mean when you watch it.
And lastly, bearing the chemistry in mind, it turns from being a single character-lead piece, and unravels into an ensemble story full of characters you equally adore. And there’s much to be said about why ensemble pieces are so interesting within the medium of TV. But that’s another article. For now I’ll just say that Vikings is a triumphant show, packed with stupendous action and compelling drama. And what’s more, it’s sort of educational too. Win win.
4. Mr Robot
F*** society. F*** the system of limitless capital and billionaire elites with more money in their back pocket than every third world country. If only there was someone who could hack the system and erase all debt. If only there was someone who could find a way to redistribute wealth fairly all over the world. Ever wondered what a world like that could look like?
Enter Mr Robot; the alter ego of a paranoid, socially anxious, cyber security engineer, and the leader of an underground hacktivist organisation, ‘fsociety’. Listen as he guides you with his poetic narration through a variety of different perceptions for the world we live in. Warped and wondrous. Delve into his beautifully delicate mind through motivational highs and clinically depressed lows, and see what happens down the rabbit hole of illusion and delusion. But what is clear about Mr Robot is the elements of surprise and panic.
Even when you know where the series is heading and sometimes knowing what is around the corner, it will still hit you with twist after twist until you lose all sense of direction. It will engulf you from the very first minute, and will keep you transfixed even down dark paths into overwrought territory. And when the stakes heighten and the conflict intensifies, writer Sam Esmail finds new ways to keep the show in the flawless equilibrium of intricacy, accessibility, and coherence.
And one more thing, f*** society.
3. This Is Us
Questions. They will pop up like ‘whac-a-moles’ throughout each season of this soul-stirring American drama. Who are ‘us’? Why is the show called ‘This is Us’ anyway? Bit lame a title don’t you think? And why are we being introduced to an ensemble of protagonists that seem to have less in common than a carrot, a giraffe, and a Bonsai tree.
The first one (Kate) has an eating disorder and is playing a never-ending game of cupcake chess with herself. The next (Kevin) has just suddenly realised that he isn’t the big shot sitcom actor he thought he was, but an overpaid topless gigolo with lines to learn. Another (Randall) is an intelligent, African- American trying to juggle his well-paid but mundane job with a mission to find his biological father and his true identity thereafter. And lastly, Jack, a soon to be father of triplets eagerly anticipating his wife’s water breakage. The only thing tying these characters together is that they are all celebrating their 36th birthday.
Yes, at this point one should be connecting the dots, we should of known that Dan Fogelman (writer of Crazy Stupid Love) had something clever up his sleeve. Yet it is so easy to get lost in the artful dialogue that is spoken with both innate language and concise subtext that our predictions fall behind a smokescreen. Not to mention that one is forcefully pulled into the these characters story arcs, even if their themes are somewhat difficult to relate to. Yet the true beauty of this series really hits home when questions are finally answered. When we realise that Kate, Kevin, and Randall are Jack’s triplets and we’ve been unknowingly jumping back into the past with Jack up until their birth at the end of the first episode.
It is here we are introduced to the first agonizing truth of the show and we must take a figurative bite out of the most ‘sour lemon that life had to offer’. I could whack in a spoiler right now but where’s the fun in that? I’ll just say that these lemons just keep on coming, along with more and more questions. It soon becomes evident that the answers to these questions only arrive when the characters are emotionally ready to share them. We are built up to really connect with them, to get to know who they really are, episode after episode, season after season. We stick with them and follow their stories, we think about them even when we aren’t in front of our television screens. Because we know that the scene we have been long dreading is yet to come, and we must eventually take another bite out of the lemon that will break us down and make us ponder why we bothered to watch something so gut wrenching in the first place.
We set ourselves up to fail. That’s what makes the jump-back storytelling device so compatible with this show and why the timing is so perfectly accurate. It is this balance of predictability and unpredictability that keeps the audience both on edge and comfortable in their seats, it is this willingness to follow these flawed characters to the bitter end, that makes this emotional roller- coaster of a show an indelible experience.
Where is Jessica Hyde?
More importantly, what does Arby, a fearless, sociopathic simpleton, have in store for her? Even more importantly, what does playwright Dennis Kelly have in store for us in his debut television series?
Those that know of Dennis Kelly will also know that he is renowned for placing complex characters in the most devastating situations imaginable. He also has a knack for writing colloquial, realistic dialogue that would make even Arby sound relatively normal, that’s if he said something other than ‘where is Jessica Hyde?’. But obviously there’s more to it than that, and as the plot unfolds, we soon realise that Jessica Hyde is just one speck of much bigger story.
Utopia itself begins as a mere cat and mouse chase, about a cult graphic novel being passed around amongst a small fan club, who soon realise they are being pursued. Then the bigger cats come out, with bigger motives, and soon enough bodies start piling up, faces are being mutilated, and a deadly conspiracy involving an obscure entity known as Mr Rabbit is unearthed with lethal ramifications.
This tight knitted British TV series proves itself as a hidden gem, full of excess blood, ultra violence, dark humour, and vibrant colours, packed inside a clever story that will keep you biting your nails until there’s nothing left.
1. Friday Night Lights
It doesn’t matter whether you watched it yesterday or back in 2006, Friday Night Lights is a television show that will stick with you forever. Bold statement I know, but hear me out. Pour yourself a Texas beer or a glass of red and put a nice country soundtrack on if you want – just make sure you’re settled in and hear me out.
You should know better than to just disregard it as another One-Tree-Hill-type-show, or because it’s about (American) football and you hate football. You’re wrong. Coach Taylor reminds us time and time again that this is more than just football. Winning state championship is the ultimate dream for the young players of the Dillon Panthers and for pretty much everyone who lives in Dillon. True. Friday Night is sometimes the only thing that the town folk look forward to in life. Hell, Panther football is probably the only thing that can bind them together and create that community spirit. We all want Coach Taylor to win state, but all too often in life we focus on the end product instead of what we learn along the way. And what do we learn?
In the very first episode, when star quarterback Jason Street break his neck, we learn that life is precious, and that one day ‘we will all fall’. We learn after the first series that all of us struggle, that life is hard and we must all band together to hold each other up, with love and unity. We learn by the end of the whole series that it’s more than just football, it’s where it all begins, sure. But it’s more. It’s way more for these characters and its way more for us, the audience. The themes relate to us. You may see yourself as young Matt Saracen, a timid boy that is forced to grow up quickly and care for his sick Grandma, or Tim Riggins, a lost soul with no-one but his dysfunctional brother to support him, or ‘Smash’ Williams who gets caught up in a pipe dream and comes crashing back down to grim reality. Or maybe even Vince Howard, full of talent, but forced to turn to the streets to help a loved one beaten down by the cold hard truncheon of poverty.
These situations may seem extreme to the average viewer for sure, but there is one thing that they all have in common. Coach Taylor. He is tough with his players when you want him to be sensitive, he pretty much says the opposite of what you’d want him to say when young players crave his advice, sometimes blunt, sometimes abrupt, but always perfectly precise. And when these rare moments do arrive, they arrive not only when the players really need it, but also when we the audience really need it.
Just as this show is more than the Dillon Panthers, Coach Taylor is more than just a Coach. He is everything you’d aspire to be as a family man, and Tami Taylor is everything you’d aspire to be as a mother and a wife. It was incredibly easy for Peter Berg and the writers of this show to make Tami a one-dimensional character like we’ve seen so many time before, and so many times since. But just like Coach, she becomes the light for a whole other side to the show. And she’s not the only strong female character. To anyone that thinks they’re not worthy of a better life, told they’re not good enough, judged like a book, and treated like an under-achiever, watch this show and tell me you can’t relate to Tyra Collette or Lyla Garrety. I’ll wait.
In fact I’ll wait for anyone and everyone to watch this show, not just put it on in the background while you’re watching Tik Toks and Instagram stories, but really watch it. Follow these characters with your full attention, as they battle through hardship and strife, have their dreams crushed and rebuilt, fall out of love and learn to love again, keep on following them all the way from adolescence to adulthood, from high school to college, from a rundown Texas football team all the way to state championship, watch the whole show with clear eyes and full hearts, and I promise you, it will stick with you forever.