Living in the 21st century can be hard for many reasons, but one of the most difficult experiences we struggle to cope with as human beings is the paralysing realisation that we are running out of television series’ to watch. As recently as the turn of the century, whilst slightly aggravating, we were content to wait a week for the latest episode of our favourite shows. It was a shared experience with our friends, excitedly analysing what may be to come in the next episode, reaching a frenzied climax of speculation on the day the episode was due to air.
This rite of passage still exists to a degree, but it is becoming less and less common, with streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Apple and now Disney+, unceremoniously dumping full seasons in one go on their platforms. This practice began in earnest in 2013 when Netflix released the entire first season of their debut original ‘House of Cards’. I’m sure there are arguments for and against, but personally I find this change wonderful, although it’s extremely rare I can watch an entire season in one sitting (I think I’ve only almost done this once), it’s great to be able to tailor a season around your own schedule, rather than the opposite.
That said, the ultimate first world problem is that this leads to rapid consumption of a finite resource, it’s an addiction, like a packet of cigarettes, you get to the second last episode, and start to wonder where you are going to get your next fix. Recommendations are good and all, but like any medium of entertainment or art, they are highly personal. There may be a post-modern painting worth millions of euro, but if you saw it in a car-boot sale you might laugh at the €5 price-tag for this hideous splatter. Popular, chart-topping music can also sound as complex and artistic as the process of burning a slice of toast, and a blockbuster, record-breaking, box office smash of a film, can be about as engaging and entertaining as eating wet newspaper.
I have fallen foul of this addiction, and I embrace it, as have most people, it is one I am happy to live with, I want more, more, more, and as a result, I spend a significant amount of time hunting through cyberspace for something, anything that will provide gratification. I would like to think I have become quite good at this type of research. At the end of the day, one of the most time-honoured activities is story-telling, I love the Irish phrase ‘béaloideas’, which translates to folklore, but literally translates to ‘mouth education’. Escapism, quality entertainment, and thought-provoking television, be they fictional or factual, are an opiate to anxiety, boredom, and banality.
As such, I am compelled to share the below list of TV shows which have ticked so many varied boxes for me over the last few recent years, and a handful beyond that. Series’ which traversed basic entertainment, long-lasting reflection and contemplation, and incredible story-telling, sometimes all three in one. You may only agree on one of them, you may like all of them, you may only like half of them, or less, that is fine, there is no judgement of your taste or lack thereof here.
In the interest of cutting to the chase, I have, in the main, avoided including well-known shows and platforms that most people will have already tried watching or decided it’s not their cup of tea. So in the majority of cases, not many of the below shows have been on the aforementioned major streaming platforms, or TV networks we flock to such as HBO, but, some are. I have also used a self-made formula to provide an idea of how long it would take you to watch each show, this is basically based on the average couch-surfer dedicating 6 hours per day to watching a TV show, and I’ll start with the series with the most seasons and episodes (longest to watch), down to the least in that order, and where possible, where you can watch them now if you wanna binge, go top from bottom. As a minor aside, I find it useful to pick three TV series’ that sound interesting, watch the first episode of each back-to-back, and then commence with the one that tickled my fancy most. This is a vital piece of time-saving advice I would implore you not to ignore. Happy hunting.
Wentworth (2013 – 2020) – 7 Seasons – 100 Episodes – 14 days watch time. Remy Says: The best prison drama since HBO’s ‘Oz’, Australian TV at its finest. Available to watch in full on Amazon Prime.
Spiral / ‘Engrenages’ (2005 – Present) – 7 Seasons, 88 episodes – 12 days watch time. You’ve all seen the Scandi crime dramas, and they’re great, like The Bridge (‘Bron’), but French police-drama ‘Spiral’, pronounced, spee-rallll’, is the bomb. One of the best crime dramas I’ve ever watched. Also available on Amazon Prime.
The Shield (2002 – 2008) – 7 Seasons, 89 Episodes, (Channel 4 Player) , 12 days watch time. Before The Wire, and after Law & Order, came The Shield, a dramatic and sometimes hard to watch cop series. Perfectly capturing the blurred lines between right and wrong, and confusing the viewer as to whether they agreed or disagreed with the methodology. Vic Mackey (Michael Chiklis) for the win.
Oz (1997-2003)- 6 Seasons – 56 Episodes, 9 days watch time. HBO’s first mega-hit, this prison drama captures human behaviour, in the worst, and sometimes best, manner imaginable. A stellar acting cast with unique interludes.
Mr. Mercedes (2017 – present) – 3 Seasons – 30 Episodes, 5 Days. Tells the story of a psychopathic killer who drives a stolen Mercedes into a crowd and a recently retired detective who tries to bring him down. Starring the wry brilliance of Brendan Gleeson himself.
Broadchurch (2013 – 2017) – 3 Seasons – 24 Episodes, 4 days. (Virgin Media Boxset). Essentially the English crime drama that rekindled my interest in British drama and TV in general. Excellent performances from Olivia Colman and David Tennant, not to mention a soundtrack from Ólafur Arnalds himself! Tagline; “The murder of a young boy in a small coastal town brings a media frenzy, which threatens to tear the community apart.”
The Missing (2014 – 2016) – 2 Seasons – 16 Episodes, 2.5 Days – Amazon Prime. This was one of those real gem of a finds that I discovered when I had completely run out of shows to watch. Both seasons feature missing children investigations conducted by detective Julien Baptiste, an intriguing character played by Turkish-born French actor Tchéky Karyo. Don’t let the fact that James Nesbitt plays the main victim role in Season 1 put you off! (I don’t know what it is about him that bothers me). I would avoid the follow-up season merely titled ‘Baptiste’, it’s not great.
Inside No.9 (2014 – Present) – 5 Seasons – 32 Episodes, 2.5 days. BBC. The dark and twisted pre-cursor to Black Mirror, Inside No.9 is one of the most fascinating anthologies I’ve ever seen, a deep-dive into the unpleasant recesses of the human mind. Highly recommended from the creators of The League of Gentlemen.
The Twilight Zone (2019 – Present) – 2 Seasons – 20 Episodes, 2 days. Reboot of the classic 1960’s sci-fi series with Jordan Peele taking over the reigns as narrator from the legendary Rod Serling. In my opinion the series is very under-rated, with Season 2 due later this year, allow this episode synopsis whet your appetite; “A journalist finds an MP3 player with a true crime podcast that details how the airplane he is currently on will disappear.”
Atlanta (2016 – Present) – 2 Seasons (an additional 2 ear-marked) – 21 Episodes, 2 days. – Amazon Prime. One of the better-known shows on this list, but one that took me a long time to finally get around to watching. Unusually there was quite a long wait for Season 2 to arrive in 2018, but it was interesting to note that the light-hearted feel of Season 1 was replaced with a far more serious Season 2. Donald Glover shows that he can kill it on the big screen just as much as he can with his musical alter ego Childish Gambino. Season 3 was due to air in 2020 but like many productions has now been postponed to early 2021, Season 4 will be shot at the same time and is tentatively due to be released in autumn of the same year.
The Act (2019) – 1 Season – 8 Episodes, 1.5 days. Based on a true story, The Act is a biographical crime thriller with outstanding and highly disturbing performances from Patricia Arquette and Joey King who play Dee Blanchard and her daughter Gypsy Rose. An over-protective mother smothers her young daughter whom she pretends has multiple ailments in order to force her to stay indoors, but the desire for independence and freedom leads to a grisly finale. WARNING – major spoilers in trailer!
Deutschland ’83 / ’86 (2015 – Present) – 2 Seasons – 18 Episodes, 3 days. Channel 4 Player. A pure delight for history nerds and thriller aficionados such as myself! A young soldier and spy from communist East Germany is tasked with infiltrating the West German state and stealing secrets. The drama is tense, it’s wonderfully shot and highly gripping. Deutschland ’86 came out in 2018 and Deutschland ’89 is in the pipeline to wrap up an anthology culminating in the fall of the Berlin Wall. Einfach klasse!
The Virtues (2019) – 1 Season – 4 Episodes, 1 Day. Channel 4 Player. Stephen Graham excels as Joseph, an Irishman who emigrated to Liverpool to escape a traumatic past, but also exists in an equally traumatic present. An alcoholic whose 9 year-old son has just emigrated to Australia with his mother, removing the only light in his life. In total desperation and grief, he decides to return to Ireland but is confronted by his past yet again. A very difficult watch but equally compelling and human drama from the creators of This is England.
Devs (2020) – 1 Season – 8 Episodes, 1 day. Currently on episode 6, Devs is an original take on the shady operations of a silicon valley type tech. company who appear to be developing a system that will change the world. It’s ruthless CEO will go to any measures to protect their secrets and his psychopathic end-game. It’s very weird and highly enjoyable, but thus far is keeping its big reveal well and truly under wraps. Created by the genius sci-fi story-teller Alex Garland who directed Ex-Machina, and also wrote Sunshine and 28 Days Later.
Escape at Dannemora (2018) – 1 Season – 7 Episodes, 1 day. As the title suggests we have a prison break mini-series on our hands here, based on a true story, and starring the inimitable Benicio Del Toro. Patricia Arquette and Paul Dano. Whilst you could argue they stretched the story out a little bit too long, the incredible acting makes up for the sometimes slow pace.
Waco (2018) – 1 Season – 6 Episodes, 1 day. I’ve always been fascinated by cults in the modern age, Jim Jones, The Manson Family, Heaven’s Gate and yeah, David Koresh’s Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas. The only difference between these guys and the major world religions is numbers! A man with a messiah complex, I actually remember in 1993 seeing the news footage of the botched FBI raid on his compound, it was a tragic disaster. Starring Michael Shannon as the lead investigator / negotiator, and Taylor Kitsch who scarily resembles Koresh, this is a very well put together dramatisation of the events preceding to the catastrophic finale.
Years and Years (2019) – 1 Season – 6 Episodes, 1 day. A timely look at the upside-down world of modern politics in the 21st century, and the dangers of populism. I’ll watch anything with Emma Thompson in it (apart from Nanny McPhee and The Big Bang), who excellently portrays an aspiring politician who “tells it as it is” (sigh) and rails against liberal, PC do-gooders. Think a UK Prime Minister in full-on Trump mode and you get the idea. A stark look at how easy it has become for radicals to climb to the top of the power chain.
White House Farm (2020) – 1 Season – 6 Episodes, 1 day. ITV. Another mini-series based on a tragic true story of the Bamber family who were murdered in their family home in August 1985 at their Essex farmhouse. I was so engrossed in the story that I started doing more research into it after finishing the series. Some of the acting is a bit kooky, but the story itself is fascinating, it also stars Stephen Graham and an excellent turn from Mark Addy, the detective who doubted the narrative all along.