I’ve always found going into bookshops a little traumatic – all those brilliant stories you’ll never have time to read. Now, with multichannel and subscription TV, the same thing has happened with telly. And with so much quality TV out there (as well as a smattering of dross) we could all use a little nudge in the right direction. Here, then, is our take on the best box sets you just might have missed.
Grace and Frankie
Like its stars, Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, this Netflix sitcom simply gets better the longer it goes on. Grace (Fonda) is a retired cosmetics mogul, while Frankie (Tomlin) is a hippy-ish art teacher. They have little in common, bar one fairly significant thing: their husbands (played by Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston) are in love with each other, and have decided to get married. All of a sudden, cherished plans for their retirement years have gone out of the window, and the two are forced to move in together and face a future they never anticipated. If you think the limit of comedy about retirement wasLast of the Summer Wine, think again…
Seasons 1 & 2, Lions Gate Home Entertainment
The Handmaid’s Tale
You will watch easier dramas than this. You will watch cheerier dramas than this. But you’ll be doing well to watch a better drama than this. Based on Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel, this ten-part series screened on Channel 4 last year, is set in Gilead, a dystopian, theocratic, near-future version of the USA where puritanism rules and state brutality is commonplace. With fertility rates collapsing, women are subjugated, forbidden from working, reading or owning property or money. Those who are still fertile are sent to procreate with senior governmental figures. The drama features a simply unforgettable performance from Elisabeth Moss as its central character, Offred, whose unbreakable spirit shines like a beacon amidst the gloom. Both Moss and the series won pretty much every award available in 2017. Rarely has success been so richly deserved.
Season 1, MGM
After Broken and The Handmaid’s Tale, Mackenzie Crook’s gentle, whimsical, BAFTA-winning BBC comedy about two metal detectorists pottering about in the fields of Essex in search of a life-changing find is just the tonic, a charming, bittersweet balm to the excesses of modern life. In many ways, remarkably little happens in each episode, yet the characters are so lovingly drawn that it becomes simply a joy to spend time with them. So join Andy (Crook) and Lance (the marvellous Toby Jones) as they keep ploughing on through life’s endless fields, relentless in their search for the most valuable treasure of all – happiness.
Series 1-3 & Christmas Special, Acorn Media UK
Unless you’ve been living in a Trappist hermitage for the past couple of years, you’ll have heard of The Crown, but with it being on Netflix, you may not have had the chance to watch it. Put simply, do it! This is toweringly ambitious TV on the most lavish scale, and the results are monumental. Claire Foy is astonishingly good as the Queen and Matt Smith winningly charismatic as Prince Philip, and the supporting cast are uniformly brilliant (with John Lithgow’s Churchill a highlight). Combine with a pacey script and sensational sets, and you are talking about the absolute definition of must-see TV.
Seasons 1 & 2 (series 2 release date TBC) Sony Pictures Home Entertainment
This six-part series from the BBC is about as far removed from the glitz and glamour of The Crown as humanly possible, but is no less a dramatic achievement. Writer Jimmy McGovern’s rage against poverty and discord has never been put to better use than in this series about a troubled priest trying to care for his flock in an impoverished urban parish. Sean Bean delivers the performance of his career as Father Michael Kerrigan, and there is able support from Adrian Dunbar and Anna Friel. A gritty homage to It’s a Wonderful Life, this is a deeply affecting show about the seemingly insignificant ways that we can touch the lives of others.
The Vietnam War
Just as The World at War came to be seen as the definitive documentary series about the Second World War, so Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s meticulous ten-part series offers the final word in documenting the Vietnam conflict. Featuring almost 100 interviewees (from both sides) and with exhaustive research and extraordinary archive footage, the series was a decade in the making, and cost a whopping $30 million. The result, though, is a masterpiece, telling the story of Vietnam in all of its contextual detail, from the French invasion of 1858 right up until the present day.
A Place to Call Home
If you think Australian TV drama begins and ends with daytime soaps featuring plastic sets and wooden acting, you need to give this compelling period melodrama a chance. A Place to Call Home is set in 1950s New South Wales, dealing with issues including social change, class, money, religion and the burgeoning progressive movement and its effects on post-war attitudes. At its centre is Sarah Adams (Marta Dusseldorp) who returns to Australia after 20 years abroad, and whose life becomes intertwined with a local family, the Blighs, led by fierce matriarch Elizabeth (Noni Hazlehurst). Five series in, and the show continues to maintain the very highest of standards.
Series 1-5, Acorn Media UK
This Is Us
This fabulous, tear-jerking, joyous, heart-rending and utterly beautiful drama held America entranced for all 18 episodes of its first series, but failed to have much of an impact in the UK thanks to some bizarrely low-key scheduling by Channel 4. This is the story of the Pearson family, of couple Jack and Rebecca and their three kids, Kate, Kevin and Randall. It is a phenomenal achievement of writing, as the story of their lives is told using multiple flashbacks while also focussing on present-day repercussions. Funny, sad and either warming your heart or smashing it into a million pieces, this is, at heart, an old-fashioned show about love.
Season 1, Fox TV
This documentary series from CNN, executive produced by Tom Hanks, is understandably America-centric. But then, the heart of the Sixties was in America, even if much of the best music happened on this side of the pond. Each of the ten episodes deals with one of the epoch-defining aspects of 1960s America, from the moon landing to the Kennedy assassination, the Cuban missile crisis to the civil rights movement. Anglophiles will also be delighted by the episode that deals with the British musical and cultural influence on the country. Celebrities, expert commentators and archive footage combine to tell the story of the decade that changed the world.
Every episode of this BBC Two sitcom takes place in the same place – a suburban London house. Every episode features the same cast of characters. The series deals with the lonely life of a 59-year-old widow. In short, the whole thing sounds entirely depressing. How, then, has writer Stefan Golaszewski managed to turn these unpromising ingredients into televisual comedy heaven? Much of it is down to his ability to create memorable characters, from hopelessly ditzy but well-meaning Kelly to the grotesquely snobbish and misanthropic Pauline. But at the show’s heart is a will-they, won’t-they romance between widow Cathy (the astonishing Lesley Manville) and old friend Michael (a taciturn and wonderful Peter Mullan). It’s the oldest trick in the book, and it’s never been done better.
Series 1 & 2, ITV Studios Home Entertainment