Belfast Telegraph

Looking back at the 9 best TV shows of 2018

Feminist spies and brooding bodyguards — 2018 offered up a televisual feast. Alastair McKay presents a guide to the best and where you can still find them

The year is not over. The baubles on the Christmas schedules are still being hung (John Malkovich as Poirot, Olivia Colman in Les Mis). But there is a definite sense that the TV networks have played their best cards. So how was 2018? And what shows deserve our continued attention?

1. Succession

Sky Box Sets/Now TV

The best show on television in 2018 was Jesse Armstrong's saga about ageing media magnate Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his venal, despicable family. Put aside for a moment the knowledge that Armstrong previously tried to make a film about the Murdoch clan.

This isn't that. It's bigger and bolder than anything biographical could be (witness the factual restraints which held back the Getty kidnap drama Trust).

The story starts when Roy unexpectedly postpones his decision to retire and hand over the business to number one son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), and then promptly has a stroke, leaving his media empire in limbo.

Poor Kendall is left to deal with his own thwarted ambition, and resolves to take over the company anyway while his father is indisposed.

Matters are complicated by the conflicting desires of siblings Roman (Kieran Culkin) - a card-carrying idiot - and Shiv (Sarah Snook), who has commitment problems with her twerpish fiancé Tom (Matthew Macfadyen). Armstrong wrote for The Thick Of It, and that vein of profane rage fuels the humour.

2. Bodyguard

BBC iPlayer/DVD/BluRay

If you don't know the score, look away now. Jed Mercurio's thriller was an extraordinary thing, and those who complain that it wasn't as good as Line of Duty are missing the point.

It broke audience records, being the most watched BBC drama since the Christmas episode of Doctor Who in 2008, and it also delivered record numbers of viewing requests to the BBC iPlayer. Why? Because in Richard Madden - as the troubled special protection officer David Budd - it had a smouldering hunk who was capable of looking tough and vulnerable at the same time.

Because Mercurio delivered plot-shocks such as... the thing he did to the sexy blue-stocking home secretary Julia Montague (Keeley Hawes), which led to Bobby Ewing-like conspiracy theories about her fate. Would a writer really sacrifice a central character like that?

Well, Mercurio has form when it comes to brutal dispatches. But even asking the question displays the key to the drama's success. It was a paranoid tale for paranoid times, and in its first and final episodes the way Mercurio played with suspense was thrilling.

3. Patrick Melrose

Sky Box Sets/Now TV

Benedict Cumberbatch was born to play Patrick Melrose, the dissolute hero of the Edward St Aubyn novels, because it requires supersonic levels of charisma to make the character appealing.

As well as being semi-autobiographical, the Melrose stories offer a sardonic glimpse of the final days of a certain kind of English privilege.

As scripted by David Nicholls (writer of One Day), the order of the books is changed so that events start with the gonzo tale of the drug-addled Melrose's journey to New York to bury his beastly, domineering father, David (Hugo Weaving).

You don't have to look too closely to observe hints of the Terrible Event which is at the root of Patrick's inappropriate levels of grief (none, or a bit less) and Cumberbatch is never better than prat-falling around Manhattan in an oppressive overcoat.

4. Killing Eve

BBC iPlayer

Another big hit for the iPlayer, Phoebe Waller-Bridge's adaptation of Luke Jennings's Villanelle stories is a feminist treatise disguised as a pop comic. Or maybe it's the other way round. Generically, the show is a spy thriller, but it also works as an interrogation of the spy genre.

Whatever, it features a star-making turn by Jodie Comer as the mysterious female hit-woman who is assassinating her way around Europe, pursued by secret agent Eve Polastri (Sandra Oh), whose interest in her quarry is closer to a teenage crush than a professional imperative.

Did it make sense? Not at all, but by putting women in all the crucial roles, it undermined the assumptions of the thriller, and made something new. Clothes and perfume are important, there's a lot of talk about food, a digression about armpit shaving, and a tampon becomes an offensive weapon.

5. A Very English Scandal

DVD

This late flowering of Hugh Grant, in irrepressible form as the former Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe - and his part in a plot to assassinate his former lover Norman Scott (Ben Whishaw) - should not have been a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention throughout the actor's career.

It's true that in his early romantic comedies he traded on his looks, but making those roles plausible is a serious skill.

The Thorpe story has always seemed too crazy to be true. But, viewed from this distance, with the benefit of society's more relaxed attitudes to homosexuality and infidelity, the mad plot serves as a cipher for political deception and establishment cover-ups.

6. Informer

BBC iPlayer

The ambition in Rory Haines and Sohrab Noshirvani's streetwise East London drama is obvious. It looks, and feels, like a British equivalent of The Wire, with characters who fluctuate between good and bad in the pursuit of right and wrong.

The roots of Informer were the duo's interest in the relationship between spies and their narks, and how this might work when applied to the War on Terror, but it broadens into a study of cultural identity.

There are two heroes. The cop, Gabe Waters (Paddy Considine), is more flawed than his contact Raza (Nabhaan Rizwan), but that doesn't make him wrong, necessarily. Gabe's motivation is to stop terrorism before it happens, and he has a brutal pragmatism.

Raza, meanwhile, is an innocent Pakistani who finds his horizons narrowing as he tries to do the right thing.

7. Homecoming

Amazon Prime

Julia Roberts in a TV drama? Yes, that's her, dressed down in this curiously compelling drama about... well, what exactly?

It's something to do with an experimental post-traumatic stress centre for soldiers, and there's something going on which involves the deletion of memory. Roberts plays Heidi Bergman, a counsellor to the traumatised troops, but is that really what she's doing?

One of the soldiers, Walter Cruz (Stephan James) is flirtatious, and the two of them seem to be developing an inappropriate relationship in their sessions. As directed by Sam Esmail (who made Mr Robot), this dreamy unreality flickers between past and future, reality and dream state, to the point where reality starts to dissolve.

There are Hitchcock-like shots of staircases and unnatural colours, but the nagging feeling - experienced by the character herself - is that Heidi has transgressed in a way that she no longer remembers. Bobby Cannavale keeps it sleazy as Heidi's nagging boss.

8. The Assassination of Gianni Versace

Amazon Prime

First screened on the BBC, but only half-available on iPlayer, this second series of American Crime Story examines the life of Andrew Cunanan, who shot fashion designer Versace in 1997.

It won three Emmys, with a story which reached deep into the story of Versace's killer, though the designer's family condemned it as a work of sensationalist fiction.

At the centre of it there's a terrific, endlessly creepy performance by Darren Criss as Cunanan, a career killer before he managed to inveigle his way into the orbit of Versace.

Without ever seeking to forgive his actions, they happen against a backdrop of homophobia and repression.

9. Atlanta

Now TV

Donald Glover, aka Childish Gambino, broke through to the mainstream with his extraordinary video for his song This Is America, but the two seasons of Atlanta are television at its most inventive.

The show (not quite a comedy, somewhere in the region of a satire) follows the directionless lives of three men in the southern city of Atlanta.

Glover plays Earnest, a college dropout who falls into managing the rap career of his cousin Alfred aka Paper Boi (Bryan Tyree Henry), while their vague but oddly intellectual friend Darius (Lakeith Stanfield) interjects. The show is directed by Glover's artistic partner Hiro Murai (who also did This is America).

This year's second series - Robbin' Season - manages to undermine the traditional format of the sitcom while probing questions of cultural identity. One minute it's funny, then it's sad.

It is, however, always ferociously intelligent.

© EVENING STANDARD

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