Time to finish off my rundown of what I thought were the greatest tv shows of 2009. Before I do, as usual I’ll first mention a few other shows that didn’t quite make the grade. South Park had another great year, but I’ve discussed that already elsewhere on Sunshine Playroom. Also close to making the list was Ashes To Ashes, which although having some episodes of very high quality, didn’t manage to keep it up for the whole run. Perhaps the forthcoming third series will do that. Doctor Who has only given us two ‘specials’ this year, so far, but produced nothing close to being in the running. Instead, CBBC’s The Sarah Jane Adventures gave us a third series that always entertained, but never patronised, and was just outside my Top 10. Finally, the one show that did manage to entertain all year round was just that, The One Show. Adrian Chiles and Christine Bleakely are a perfect presenting couple, and always manage to raise a laugh or two with their friendly banter.
And now for the Top 5…
5. The Thick Of It (BBC Two)
BBC Four’s The Thick Of It has had hilarious moments ever since it started with a short pilot series back in 2005, but this year it really stepped up a gear as it was lengthened to eight episodes and promoted to sister channel BBC Two. Described by it’s creator, Armando Iannucci, as “Yes Minister meets Larry Sanders” it follows the world of ministers, spin doctors and civil servants working behind the scenes at Westminster in the fictitious Department of Social Affairs and Citizenship.
The first series had starred Chris Langham as minister Hugh Abbot alongside Downing Street “enforcer” Malcolm Tucker, played superbly by Peter Capaldi. Due to highly publicised problems in his private life, Langham was quickly replaced in the show, and this new series introduced the character’s eventual successor, Nicola Murray played by the very under-rated Rebecca Front. Having appeared in many other comedies over the years, Front has worked with Iannucci before making frequent appearances in shows such as The Day Today, and alongside Steve Coogan’s Alan Partridge character. I’ve always been a big fan of hers, and her inclusion here in an almost starring role was very welcome, and gave the series a fresh impetus. The star of the show though, as always, is Malcolm Tucker, whose foul-mouthed tirades at all those around him take swearing to the highest level.
Amongst the many highlights this year that included an eventful visit to BBC Five Live’s Richard Bacon show, and a very special birthday cake for Tucker sent by the Prime Minister, the writing team also cleverly built up the opposition team over the course, which will allow them more opportunities to continue the show next year reflecting whatever should happen in the real world of politics. The show continues to go from strength to strength, and has already seen a big screen spin-off this year in the shape of the film In The Loop, so I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Malcolm Tucker.
4. Torchwood – Children Of Earth (BBC One)
After two previous series of thirteen episodes on the BBC’s lesser channels, hardly anyone would have predicted such a tour de force when it moved to a primetime slot, with one long story stripped over five consecutive nights. Russell T. Davies was able to return as showrunner to the spin-off he had created, and took on the writing duties with contributions from James Moran and John Fay. And what he delivered was his strongest script since ITV’s The Second Coming, and re-affirmed his standing as one of the UK’s greatest television writers.
Captain Jack, Gwen and Ianto start to investigate when every child in the world suddenly stops at the same time all chanting the same thing, “We Are Coming”. The children are being controlled by transmissions from outer space, which are recognised by the government as originating from a species known as the 456 (named after the frequency they transmit on), who had secretly been in contact with Britain more than forty years earlier. Wanting to cover up this previous liason, the Prime Minister sets about secretly destroying anyone who could uncover this knowledge, and the main target of this becomes the Torchwood team themselves. Soon the team have no base, no-one to turn to, or trust, and are on the run in fear of their lives.
The three regular cast are all fine in this, where maybe they haven’t always before, but as Children Of Earth unfolds you start to feel they’re not the focus of this story as some wonderful guest performances and the story itself takes over. By far the star of the whole thing is Peter Capaldi who plays John Frobisher, a typically dull civil servant chosen by the Prime Minister to oversee all negotiations with the 456. A highly respected actor in his own right (and already appearing in this Top 5), he steals every scene he’s in.
Children Of Earth continues to build the tension as the week progresses, and the fate for the world grows even bleaker. And quite cleverly, the presentation of the alien menace itself is helped considerably by always being shown to the viewer obscured in a darkly lit chamber of thick gas, proving that sometimes less is more. As Day Five starts, things couldn’t look worse for the Earth, or Torchwood, and Captain Jack has to make a very hard decision that will change his life forever. Quite often I found the last episode hard to watch, as the events have such a dark tone to them, but all the time you can’t draw yourself away from such fine drama.
3. Robin Hood (BBC One)
After two successful series, and some major cast departures, it was always going to be interesting to see in which direction the show would go when it finally returned earlier this year. What was probably most surprising was the way in which the BBC suddenly seemed disinterested in it themselves. The fact it was airing at a very different time of year was probably a hint (the previous two seasons had aired in October, this one in March – a much quieter time for viewing figures), but no-one could have expected that the final episode would be shifted, at fifteen minutes notice, to BBC Two to make way for tennis from Wimbledon.
It was treatment that the show, and it’s many fans, really didn’t deserve. This was top quality entertainment, with a great cast, exciting plots, and wonderful humour, all filmed in High Definition in beautiful locations (albeit in Hungary, not Sherwood Forest). Having boldly killed off the character of Maid Marian along with the departing Will Scarlett and Djac at the end of season two, there were many fresh faces when it returned. We finally met Friar Tuck (played by David Harewood), and the band of merry men were also joined by newcomer Kate, who was played by the very under-rated and exceptional Joanne Frogatt. On the villainous side of things, they added Prince John (Toby Stephens) and we were introduced to Guy of Gisbourne‘s sister in the shape of Isabella (Lara Pulver).
Amongst all these changes, the show had perfected it’s craft and viewers were treated to the best season of all. The quality of scripts was just that little bit better, and many critics acknowledged the fact. All the regulars were on top form as usual, Keith Allen, Richard Armitage and Sam Troughton in particular. Having toyed with the idea of a fourth, cheaper series (to be filmed in Scotland), Robin Hood bowed out (get it?) in an explosive final episode. It was a perfect ending, if a little sad, as everything was wrapped up and all the characters paths reached a satisfying conclusion. I’ll certainly miss it, but am glad that it didn’t outstay it’s welcome and drift off in to mediocrity.
2. Battlestar Galactica (Sky One)
Possibly the greatest show of the decade, and certainly the best reinvention, Battlestar Galactica returned in January with what was already confirmed to be it’s last set of episodes. Having only just survived becoming a casualty of the US writers strike in the previous year, for fans of the show it was important that this ragtag, fugitive fleet reached the end of their journey. And they finally did, but not before more heartbreak and tragedy was to befall the crew.
That first episode (Sometimes A Great Notion) hadn’t even finished when it became clear the show’s writers were going to continue wrongfooting and surprising the audience right up until the end, as a much loved and major character took their own life in what was one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever seen in a tv drama. It was yet another moment that simply left you open mouthed, and totally drawn in to the suffering of the characters, something the show had done so well since it first started. As many others have written, Battlestar Galactica has always been about the characters first and foremost, never about spaceships and laser guns like so many inferior science fiction tales. As well as whether or not the fleet would ever find Earth, one of the show’s biggest mysteries that fans wanted answering was the identity of the final human Cylon, and this was at last revealed. Their identity certainly wasn’t a letdown, and the answer seemed to fit well with what had gone before, and also added extra spice to certain relationships within the fleet.
And so the end finally came with Daybreak, a tense, dramatic and bold double length finale. Time for one final showdown with the Cylons, but would the Galactica, almost at breaking point, be up for the fight after it’s punishing and gruelling journey? The stakes couldn’t be higher, for the humans or the Cylons. Daybreak had everything and delivered a rollercoaster journey of emotions and excitement. And in amongst all that, it also managed a quite thought provoking ending, full of subtext and symbolism that had always been bubbling under the surface of the show, since it’s conception.
As I said above, Battlestar Galactica had a wonderful array of characters, all richly drawn by the writers. And you can’t have great characters without great actors, and they were in abundance in the show. Surely the best of these was Edward James Olmos as Admiral William Odama, but there was strong competition from James Callis (Baltar), Katee Sackhoff (Starbuck), Dean Stockwell (John Cavil), Michael Hogan (Tigh) and surprisingly, Tricia Helfer, in her roles as various Cylons. The show always had superb direction, and state of the art special effects that as well as being convincing, managed to somehow feel new with a unique feel to them.
If you haven’t quite had your fill of Battlestar Galactica, you can see one final outing for the show in the form of Battlestar Galactica: The Plan, a two hour tv movie which retells the story from the point of view of the Cylons. It’s available on Region 1 DVDand Region Free Bluray from Amazon.
1. Harper’s Island (BBC Three)
If you’re a fan of Freddy Krueger or slasher-type horror movies such as Scream or I Know What You Did Last Summer, then Harper’s Island is the show for you, in weekly doses. Throw in a little touch of Agatha Christie, a hint of Lost, and give it the feel of The O.C., and you’re a little way toward describing what was to me, the most entertaining and thrilling series of the year.
The plot centres around Abby Mills (played by Elaine Cassidy), as she returns to Harper’s Island for the wedding of childhood friend Henry Dunn, seven years after a series of brutal murders were carried out there, including that of her own mother, by John Wakefield. Slowly, the murders start to happen again, as one by one the wedding guests are picked off in gruesome and devastating ways. The murders show all the hallmarks of those carried out seven years before, but who is responsible? It can’t be Wakefield, as he was shot dead by Abby‘s father, Sheriff Mills, after his rampage. Has he somehow returned from the dead, or is someone carrying out copycat killings? There’s no shortage of suspects, as in turn almost everyone on the island seems to have a motive, or a secret they are trying to hide.
As is so often the case, Harper’s Island takes a couple of episodes to get going, as all the characters are set up, but as the killings snowball, you’re reeled in with some superb cliffhangers and outrageously over the top deaths. The cast are all very good, and there’s a couple of familiar faces from other well known shows too. There’s nothing particularly new, or groundbreaking, in the elements that make up Harper’s Island, and some of the major twists you can see coming (if you’re a fan of the genre), but it succeeds perfectly in keeping you gripped, and coming back for more each week.
The conclusion was an interesting one, and one which I didn’t quite see coming, and so it does very well to keep part of you (at least) guessing right up until the final moment. Whether there’ll ever be a Harper’s Island 2, I couldn’t say. It doesn’t leave a whole lot of scope for one, but as we’ve seen in the past with other horror movies, you can never rule it out. Until that should happen, this will sit very nicely as a one-off gem of a show that didn’t outstay it’s welcome.