That Was The Year That Was: The Best TV Of 2011

The Quietus' telly correspondents put together a list of the best programmes from the year just gone

The year for television began in fine style, with BBC2 airing the wonderful comic biopic Eric and Ernie on New Year’s Day. The channel’s resurgence – having too long been the squeezed middle and losing out on major drama to BBC1, new comedy to BBC3 and hard-hitting documentary and niche intelligent drama to BBC4 was just one of the big TV stories of the year.

If not all of its new dramas quite lived up to the hype, BBC2 still managed to follow Eric and Ernie with The Hour, The Shadow Line, United, The Crimson Petal and The White, Page Eight, The Night Watch and Shirley – as well as Adam Curtis’s All Watched Over By Machines of Loving Grace, Rev and Wonders of the Solar System – any of which would have graced our end of year chart.

Another channel to have a major impact in 2011 was Sky Atlantic. As a home for imported HBO shows, including the long-awaited and so nearly worthy of the pre-transmission build-up pairing of Treme and Boardwalk Empire, plus The Borgias, James Gandalfini in Cinema Verite, Game of Thrones, Al Pacino in You Don’t Know Jack and Kate Winslet in Mildred Pierce, it is now a major player. The bad news is that it is also the new home of Mad Men – ensuring that fewer of us will have access to one of the modern greats.

At the high end of the ratings, warmth and comfort triumphed over cynical sheen as the finest series yet of Strictly Come Dancing narrowly beat The X Factor and Downton Abbey reigned supreme on Sunday nights.

But for our list we imposed the rule that only new shows, or those that the writers felt had made a great leap forward in terms of relevance (Question Time) or quality would be included. So Luther, which benefited so much from the new two-part format and chilling performances from Lee Ingleby and Steven Robertson as the two antagonists makes the cut.

While the selections for our Top 20 were far from scientific – no maths was involved, and the list finalized before, say, Great Expectations aired – the top three featured in many a contributor’s lists. In the end, The Killing narrowly trumped Frozen Planet as much for the element of surprise that a Danish crime thriller could challenge the impact of a big-budget, David Attenborough-narrated epic series from the best natural history unit in the world.

So, with honourable mentions to Appropriate Adult, The Story of Film, Treme, Shock and Awe: The Story of Electricity, The Big C, South Riding, Code Breakers – Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes, Psychoville2 and Arena: George Harrison – Living in the Material World,

as well as the near misses mentioned above, here is our list…

1 The Killing – BBC4

The finest series of the year gave us a new thirst for Danish crime drama, unleashed a wave of copycat knitwear, and introduced us to the hardcore deadpan detective stylings of Sarah Lund. A pitch perfect performance by Sofie Gråbøl in the central role – fearless, determined, intuitive, unbowed, cool, detached, obsessed, and utterly believable – was key. Yet it was the depiction of grief that singled The Killing out as special. The awkward silences, desolation, despair and anger of murdered Nana Birk Larsen’s parents was so raw, so painful as to feel almost intrusive to watch. Giving equal billing, alongside Lund and Meyer’s investigation and the Birk Larsens’ anguish, to the politicking of prime suspect Troels Hartmann ensured that The Killing maintained momentum over 20 twisty-turny episodes, in which jump-out-of-your-seat shocks punctured the languid, deliberate pacing. If series two failed to match up to its predecessor – in part due to it missing the heart and humanity supplied by Ann Eleonora Jørgensen and Bjarne Henriksen as Pernille and Theis Birk Larsen – it remained a cut above almost anything else aired in the UK in 2011… Adrian Lobb

2 Frozen Planet – BBC1

The BBC is much like the polar icecap, for when it finally melts away into nothing under Daily Mail and Tory heat, we’ll be surrounded by water and vapid flim-flam, with Rupert Murdoch and Sky floating around in his cable TV ark, laughing wheezily. The far northern and southern regions of our planet are largely unknown to most of us, a strange white land of Here Be Waddling Penguins, despite the potentially catastrophic affect their disappearance could have on us all. Frozen Planet‘s strength was to use the grandiose cinematography we’ve come to expect from the BBC Natural History Unit to depict the polar regions as they are: vast areas of different climates, flora and fauna finely balanced in ecosystems that are as fascinating and at times violent as any other on the planet. For what it’s worth, my favourite shot was the expression on the face of a seal as it was dragged backwards off a small iceberg to its death in the jaws of a pod of killer whales. – Luke Turner

3 The Slap – BBC4

The best Australian TV drama of all time – there’s no debate to be had there – The Slap peered uncompromisingly into the thoughts, desires and vices of its conflicted Melburnians. Based on Christos Tsiolkas’ award-nominated novel, its eight episodes each examined the repercussions of one banal yet impactful incident – a man slapping a child – through the eyes of a different character. Marriages snagged, affairs faltered, lies were told, secrets emerged and much was lost by credible men and women of varying ages and cultures. You had to take sides. Until a glued-on (relatively) feelgood ending, it was perceptive, sexy, harrowing and flawless. – Chris Roberts

4 Top Boy – C4

The road to an accurate portrayal of the modern UK inner city hell is littered with good intentions and shit programmes. So much so that it’s truly a wonder that Top Boy is as good as it is. From the forensically well observed script by political prisoner turned writer Ronan Bennett plus assured and gripping direction from Yann Demange to a counter-intuitive but brilliant score by Brian Eno and, above all else, astounding young (and not so young) cast, this is pure class. It is perhaps this level of quality that has seen it compared to HBO’s The Wire, because while they have little else in common, it’s certainly the first time in a long while that such a series coming out of Britain has felt world class. – John Doran

5 Fresh Meat – C4

What could have been a run-of-the-mill, ‘sideways look’ at student life proved, instead, to be one of the freshest, brightest and best comedies of the year. Characters grew quickly and effortlessly from easily identifiable archetypes to sympathetic individuals, as posh twerp JP (the surprisingly good Jack Whitehall), lunatic drug sponge Vod (Zawe Ashton), try-hard Oregon (Charlotte Ritchie), perpetual student nerd Howard (Greg McHugh), nice-but-dim Josie (Kimberley Nixon) and awkward Kingsley (Joe Thomas) met and set up home at their student house share. The series wisely failed to focus too much on Kingsley and Josie’s thwarted romance, instead showing the reinvention that comes with a fresh start away from home, the awkward attempts to fit in, the mayhem and the heartache. Only Robert Webb’s overplayed, needy lecturer Dan the Geology Man failed to score – and even he had his moments. Top marks… – AL

6 The Crimson Petal And The White – BBC2

A sumptuous antidote to cosy Dickensian TV retro-porn, Lucinda Coxon’s elegant distillation of Michael Faber’s sprawling post-modern novel put a subversive contemporary feminist slant on the stifling class and gender politics of Victorian literary convention. A luminous Romola Garai starred as Sugar, the self-educated London prostitute who flees her abusive pimp-mother to become courtesan to a sympathetic but hypocritical perfume magnate, magnificently played by Chris O’Dowd of The IT Crowd and Bridesmaids fame. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s atmospheric steampunk score and Lol Crawley’s painterly cinematography made this high-gloss BBC adaptation a ravishing

feast for the senses as well as the brain. – Stephen Dalton

7 The Shadow Line– BBC2

Hugo Blick’s serial drama about drugs smuggling and an apparent police cover-up was heavily stylised, with its Pinteresque dialogue and arrestingly improbably lead characters, particularly Stephen Rea’s Gatehouse, a deceptively mild-mannered but lethal antagonist, and Rafe Spall’s psychotic Jay. However far-fetched it might have appeared, however, its eventual point about the criminality of those who watch over us had more than a ring of allegorical truth. A prestigious cast and wealth of characters, including Christopher Eccleston’s sympathetic cartel boss and Alzheimers-stricken wife and Chiwetel Ejiofor as the surprisingly ill-fated amnesiac detective made for one of the most elaborate and multiply absorbing TV experiences of the year. – David Stubbs

Read the Quietus feature on The Shadow Line

8 Black Mirror – C4

If television (the "black mirror" of the title) is a drug, what are the side effects?, asked Charlie Brooker in these three dramas. ‘The National Anthem’ found a Prime Minister forced to have sex with a pig live on the air, ’15 Million Merits’ focused on a dystopian future variation of The X Factor, while ‘The Entire History Of You’ (produced by Brooker, and written by Peep Show‘s Jesse Armstrong) imagined a world in which memories, both happy and uncomfortable, are viewed on plasma screens like family photos. The satire may have been broad and heavy-handed in places, but all three films made for unsettling viewing. – Terry Staunton

9 All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace –BBC2

It wasn’t necessary to agree with Adam Curtis’s thesis on the role and conception of machines in modern life, and how they have affected all areas of thinking, including supposed "natural" notions such as ecosystems, or his take on Ayn Rand. Many Curtis watchers felt he overreached himself. Nonetheless, a Curtis hour is like a New York minute; densely packed, with a wealth of ideas conveyed with a fresh and imaginative use of stock imagery and ultra-hip soundtracking (Burial, Brian Eno, etc), bold additions to the traditional palate of documentary making. –DS

10 This Is England 88 – C4

If the original film, set in 1983 was a platform for Thomas Turgoose’s terrific breakthrough performance as Shaun, and the first television series, set three years later was dominated by

Vicky McClure’s astonishing portrayal of Lol, then this three-part series showcased Joe Gilgun’s emotional range, as well as the natural humour that Shane Meadows is canny enough to harness. From the evocative opening montage, setting the historical context for the drama, via karaoke nights, Woody’s excruciating dinners with his boss and his family, through a massive brawl, overdose and finale, this was a televisual tour de force… – AL

Read the Quietus feature on This Is England 88 here

11 TOTP 76 – BBC4

So this is what Year Zero, the decisive period in modern musical history really looked and sounded like. Yet cultural historians do not record David Dundas’s ‘Jeans On’, the nagging wrongness of Doctor Hook, that this was the ‘Summer of My Life’ for future EastEnders theme composer Simon May or that Pussycat were No.1 for four weeks with ‘Mississippi’ – a song so insipid that even Noel Edmonds (who predicted that John Christie would be the face of 1977) hated it. This was a year of JJ Barrie, Elton John and Kiki Dee, The Wurzels, Demis Roussos, Tina Charles, Paul Nicholas and Abba, as well as the good, the bad and the Average White Band of disco. To watch TOTP76 is to see a world in which punk isn’t happening, the emerging subculture safely hidden from sensitive tea-time viewers behind Dave Lee Travis’s beard. But to claim it as showing why punk had to happen is to be possessed of clear-view hindsight. Sure, watching history unfold, week by week, exposes some of the lazy, self-satisfied, bloated, complacent music of the time. But there was also Status Quo’s truly heavy ‘Mystery Song’, T Rex embarking on what would surely have become a fascinating new direction, and, erm, ‘Requiem’ by Slik – which inexplicably became one of my songs of 2011. So roll on TOTP77… – AL

12 Romanzo Criminale – Sky Arts

Heralded as an Italian Sopranos when first shown in its homeland in 2008, this hard-hitting 1970s-set crime drama charted the rise of an underworld gang from small-time street chancers to major players. The series wove real-life news stories (including the kidnap and assassination of politician Aldo Morro) into an epic, gritty tale of vengeance and loyalty, taking a few leads from the Martin Scorsese playbook with elegantly choreographed violence set to perfectly pitched period music, and complex, chillingly believable characters constantly on the verge of self-destruction. – TS

13 Boardwalk Empire – Sky Atlantic

Set in Atlantic City from the year 1920 onwards, Broadwalk Empire revolves around a cast of factual and fictional characters from the bootlegging era that was the making of organised crime in the US. Such figures as Lucky Luciano, Meyer Lansky and Al Capone (played by Stephen Graham) lurk as fledgling, background figures but it’s Steve Buscemi who stars as the murderous, wholly corrupt, yet strangely sympathetic City treasurer and de facto town boss Nucky Thompson. Stars, but does not dominate. His authority is challenged by young war vet Jimmy, once his own sidekick, and in this series he finds himself having to pull in favours from all sides to maintain his illicit hold on power. There’s an ensemble of characters with their own, vivid interior lives including the swivel-eyed religious zealot Agent Van Alden (Michael Shannon) and Kelly MacDonald as Margaret, Nucky’s lover, a brilliant depiction of demure moral ambiguity, all of which make this a worthy successor to The Sopranos, in which creator Terence Winter was also involved. All this, and among the most shocking finales of recent years… – DS

Read the Quietus feature on Boardwalk Empire here

14 Holy Flying Circus – BBC4

To attempt to dramatise the furore surrounding the release of The Life Of Brian while channeling the Pythons’ sense of chaotic comedic anarchy was either brave or foolhardy. But this one-off pulled off the near impossible, with the party political broadcast delivered on behalf of John Cleese – in which Darren Boyd (the actor who played him) admits to basing his entire characterisation on Basil Fawlty – and Rufus Jones doubling up as both his namesake Terry and Michael Palin’s wife among the clever, post-modern touches. Screening the real life Friday Night, Saturday Morning – with Cleese and Palin debating The Life of Brian with Malcolm Muggeridge and the Bishop of Southwark under the laconic eye of Tim Rice – in all its excruciating glory directly after the film only added to its impact… –AL

15 Bored To Death – Sky Atlantic

New York columnist Jonathan Ames adapted his magazine articles about romantic misadventure into a sleeper hit, starring Jason Schwartzman as a struggling writer and aspiring private detective, a kind of updated noir gumshoe for the East Coast literary scene. Much of the comedy comes from the clash of urbane and slacker cultures, with Schwartzman helped and hindered by a best friend comic book artist (Zach Galifianakis) and his mentor and editor (a hilariously stoned Ted Danson). The series takes well-aimed pot-shots at a self-important intellectual print media, but Schwartzman’s ongoing pre-mid-life crises provides the bulk of the laughs. – TS

16 Luther 2 – BBC1

Those who baulked at the operatic use of cop-show clichés missed the point. Luther wilfully amped up the tropes of wayward genius investigator, troubled personal life, insane criminals and moral ambiguity unto they bled existential truth. This was police procedural as brain-stormed by Paul Auster, Luke Rhinehart and Ken Russell. Equal parts stalked and intrigued by Ruth Wilson’s sociopathic Alice Morgan, inspired by David Bowie (the picture on the wall of his grotty flat reveals so much), Luther is a detective for people bored with detectives. Hungry for unbearably tense set-pieces, he’s next level. And if Idris Elba isn’t cool, nobody is. – CR

17 The Hour – BBC2

If it was overloaded with plot at the expense of characterisation in the opening episodes, Abi Morgan’s The Hour grew into a fine series. Ben Whishaw, Romola Garai and Dominic West starred as, respectively, angsty young newshound Freddie, ambitious producer Bel and well-connected host Hector who came together on a radical new-launch current affairs show – taking on politicians and a complex murder mystery along the way. A timely look at the birth of modern television news and the machinations of the British establishment – and likely to improve in this year’s second series… – AL

Read the Quietus feature on The Hour

18 Wilfred – BBC3

Reprising the character he created for an Australian series that first aired in 2007, stand-up comedian Jason Gann excels in the title role of this US remake. Wilfred is a typical domestic canine in the eyes of everyone except suicidal lawyer Ryan (Elijah Wood), who sees him as a talking, cynical, manipulative, pot-smoking man in a dog suit with a passion for Matt Damon movies. As Ryan stumbles along looking for a purpose and true love, Wilfred offers a succession of off-kilter life lessons and dubious wisdom. Does the neighbourhood pooch represent Ryan’s unexpurgated inner voice, or is he just barking mad? – TS

19 Question Time – BBC2

Though recent years have seen the BBC’s flagship weekly current affairs debate programme relying more on celebrities (Carol Vorderman, Richard Madeley) journalists (Peter Hitchins, Melanie

Phillips) and plain headcases (see the last two brackets) as members of the panel, Question Time remains the go-to show

for unrestrained political discourse. As a barometer of what the

public is thinking and feeling about the weightier matters of the

day, the show captures the mood like no other. Elsewhere, the contributions of our elected leaders and those who would replace them is even more telling: they have even less of a clue about what’s going on as our inexorable journey into political and

economic oblivion continues without the application of brakes or bumpers. – JM

Twenty Twelve – BBC 4

Writer and director John Morton’s earlier 1990s mock fly-on-the-wall series People Like Us was the clear template for his more in-depth offering, focusing on the fictional Olympic Delivery Committee, tasked with getting London ready to host the games. Hugh Bonneville, as head honcho, was suitably full of bluster, juggling his ludicrous day job with a deteriorating marriage, but the true star was Jessica Hynes as all too real self-important but clueless PR guru Siobhan Sharpe, spouting nonsensical mediaspeak at every opportunity. Olympics chairman Seb Coe joined in the joke by appearing as himself, and the affectionate ribbing is set to continue in a further series before the games kick off in the summer.

Contributors: John Doran, Terry Staunton, David Stubbs, Chris Roberts, Adrian Lobb, Stephen Dalton, Julian

Marszalek, Luke Turner


Chris Roberts: The Slap, Luther, The Killing, The Good Wife, Strictly Come Dancing, Fresh Meat, The Shadow Line, TOTP 76, The Story Of Film, Sons Of Anarchy

David Stubbs: Boardwalk Empire, The Shadow Line, Homeland, Rev, Fresh Meat, Curb, All Watched Over Machines Of Loving Grace (despite dubious conclusions), Phoneshop, Educating Essex, Breaking Bad, Frozen Planet

Julian Marszalek: The Killing, Rev, Curb Your Enthusiasm, The Big Bang Theory, All Watched Over By Machines Of Loving Grace, Twenty Twelve, Frozen Planet, Harry Hill’s TV Burp, Question Time

Adrian Lobb: The Killing, This Is England 88, The Shadow Line, The Hour, Holy Flying Circus, Fresh Meat, TOTP76, The Story of Film, Black Mirror, Eric and Ernie

Terry Staunton: The Killing, Justified, Luther, The Shadow Line, Modern Family, Bored To Death, Romanzo Criminale, Rev, The Big Bang Theory, Boardwalk Empire.

John Doran: The Killing, Top Boy, Code Breakers – Bletchley Park’s Lost Heroes, Rastamouse, The Sky At Night, Heavy Metal Britannia, The Killing 2

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