The most gripping TV dramas to stream right now
From I May Destroy You to The Crown to The West Wing, here are some of the most absorbing dramas to stream during the second lockdown
It’s always risky, especially considering the the global situation at the moment, to label shows as ‘important’. Isn’t the purpose of any kind of fiction meant to entertain? But when watching I May Destroy You, probably the most important series of this year (maybe of the last few), you realise that fiction can and should plunge into the rawest depths of reality.
Michaela Coel’s 12-part drama is broadly about sexual consent, tackling the issue with nuance and patience, but wraps that around race, sexuality and gender – while never skirting the dark humour these topics can inspire. This is revolutionary television.
Euan Franklin, TV / Cinema Editor
Arguably the greatest drama ever written, Aaron Sorkin’s wonderfully idealistic series bathes in a very liberal White House. From the speechwriters to the President himself, everyone's trying to make the world a better place.
Although its more hopeful messages about American democracy seem dated as we exit the Trump era, the political fantasy can be watched and re-watched with intelligent pleasure. In many ways, The West Wing is like a blueprint of governmental possibilities – walking and talking with musical, Sorkinese dialogue.
Whatever your views on the Royals, Peter Morgan’s absorbing historical drama (tracking the ongoing reign of Queen Elizabeth II) offers many fascinating lessons on their importance to British history.
Aside from Game of Thrones, The Crown is the most expensive TV show to date – and it shows. The opulent sets, lavish costumes, and big-name stars spread across the screen as the most powerful family in the world navigate the history and politics of the 20th century – all while dealing with family feuds, jealousies and rivalries. The factual truths in Morgan’s writing should be taken with many pinches of salt, but all four seasons prove educational as much as gripping.
Read our review of season four.
In times of self-isolation, the most rewarding watch is one that is simultaneously short enough to keep attention focused, and complex enough to distract from the overflow of real-life, antagonising headlines.
This six-part, razor-sharp police-thriller achieves both with immense introspection and devastation on an international scale. Richard Madden (1917, Game of Thrones) stars and it's the role of a lifetime. A perfect, gripping distraction.
Breaking Bad is often dubbed the greatest TV show of all time, and for good reason. Simply, there's nothing quite like it. The story of a chemistry-teacher-turned-meth-cook twists and turns over five outstanding seasons.
Beyond your traditional drug-cartel genre tropes, Breaking Bad gives complex psychology to all its characters, shading a story on the fears and dangers of family, friendship, in-laws, business, health, parenting and so much more. It truly has to be seen to be believed – you won't regret it.
‘You haven’t seen The Wire?’, people will exclaim with incredulity. Police reporter turned TV writer David Simon’s epic exploration of crime in Baltimore has a cult following – and rightly so.
The meticulous study of corruption across all layers of society, from small-fry street drug dealers to powerful politicians, is balanced by the police attempts to cut through it and catch the bad guys. Gritty realism and searing social commentary elevate the standard crime drama thrills to make The Wire as thought-provoking as it is dramatically satisfying.
There are 60 hour-long episodes across five very varied seasons. Now’s finally the time to watch, or indeed rewatch.
Lucy Brooks, Commissioning, Books, and Theatre Editor
Line of Duty is like a crime drama squared, turning the hunt inwards to show the police policing the police. The hunt for ‘bent coppers’ leads to master criminals and deep-rooted corruption, but the salacious discoveries are rooted in the brilliant banality and banter of daily life in the police force.
Adrian Dunbar is pure steely strength as the gaffer in charge, while Martin Compston and Vicky McClure make the perfect double act as detectives with the unpopular job of accusing their fellow officers of foul play. Best of all, this is a crime show on an epic scale with five series to sink your teeth into.
Read our review of series five.
Psychopaths don’t come more compelling than Villanelle (Jodie Comer). Her cat-and-mouse obsession with detective Eve Polanski (Sandra Oh) makes for stylish, thrilling viewing in Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Killing Eve.
The psychologically charged story takes you around the world, following Villanelle’s nonchalant violence and fickle fancies. The drama is high stakes, the characters are all a little quirky and the clothes are to die for.
Read our review of season three, episode one.
There are times when TV thrillers look like they’re all blending into each other: laying down predictable plots, monotonous visuals and characters as thinly drawn as if on tissue paper.
The trans-continental noir series Giri/Haji offers a refreshing divergence from the usual, formulaic offering. It’s stylish, it’s over the top, and it’s artistic – using black-and-white, stretched aspect ratios, animated sequences, and poignant dance numbers to deliver an outstanding criminal thriller set in both London and Tokyo.
Since you can't venture far out of the house, never mind the country, watching cultures clash and unite is a riveting spectacle to behold.
This four-part mystery drama from Killing Eve writer Rob Williams might be a bit, well, dark considering the current need for escape. But it’s worth giving The Victim a chance, especially as it’s the most underrated series of 2019.
Plunging into deep moral and philosophical questions, the series follows a contentious court-case in which a bus driver is accused of being a released convict. His crime is meant to be the murder of a child, 15 years earlier. The child’s mother, tenderly and beautifully played by Kelly MacDonald, is convinced that the bus driver killed her son.
But the sentence was served, after which the accused changed his name. Even if the accused committed the murder, which he denies, shouldn’t he be left alone? Is it morally or lawfully right to raise the case again? This may be a bleak drama, but it takes your mind away from what’s happening outside.
This true-life rape drama starts off almost unbearably dark. We watch as Marie Adler (Kaitlyn Dever) is violently raped, then we watch those who should bring her justice and reassurance use Marie’s vulnerability and trauma to discredit her.
After this chilling and hard-to-watch exploration of bias, snobbery and misogyny, Unbelievable evolves into a thrilling whodunnit with a bad-ass lady detective duo pulling out all the stops to hunt down a serial rapist. And so a gripping mystery unravels, without ever losing the integrity and emotional power at the heart of this extraordinary real-life story.
The drama that turned a deerstalker-clad Benedict Cumberbatch into a national obsession has plenty of cryptic cases and caustic wit to grip. Plus there’s Martin Freeman as everyone’s favourite everyman Dr Watson, and Andrew Scott as the irresistible villain Moriarty.
Steven Moffat’s sparky script updates the Sherlock mysteries to modern London, putting a fantastical gloss over the city. Each episode has a self-contained case to solve, but the human drama develops through the series, making this the perfect Sunday-night viewing.
Okay, so The Stranger is pure trash, but it’s the kind of addictive and increasingly silly show you can easily lose a weekend to. And, if you watch it quickly enough, the plot holes and oddities are less grating.
Based on the premise that a shady stranger shows up to blackmail people with their darkest secrets, it shows the lives of middle-class families unspooling. From alpaca sacrifices to staged pregnancy, there’s plenty of intrigue, which escalates at a dizzying pace. Not only does The Stranger offer a very easy way to pass the time, but if you watch it with someone (in person or virtually), you add the extra pleasure of picking apart the more dubious plot points.
Happy Valley might just be the pinnacle of British detective dramas. Complex characters, wry comedy and small-town comforts emphasise the intensity of the rape, kidnap and murder that propel the narrative.
Sarah Lancashire is magnetic as no-nonsense police sergeant Catherine Cawood, who has her own interest in tracking down a convict, newly released back to her Yorkshire town. The tightly wound plot gets increasingly twisty and intriguing while remaining plausible and eminently human.
Many shows have tried to compete since, but Skins truly marked a turning point in the way teenagers were allowed to exist on screen.
The raucous Bristol-based drama series leans into the Trainspotting-type vision of youth, with all the sex, drugs and crime Channel 4 could allow. But then there's the piercing devastation that came with every violent act: every loss and every heartbreak on the show revolutionised the way we consider the young among us. Its legacy spawned many spin-offs, but the original still offers unparalleled education.
Although Netflix swept The Queen’s Gambit under the radar, with barely any marketing, the glamorous chess series continues to top their viewing charts.
The always-brilliant Anya Taylor-Joy plays the young chess genius Elizabeth ‘Beth’ Harmon, who learned the game at an early age and spends the entire series playing and beating the all-male players. This is on top of having a drug addiction, started by state-sponsored tranquilisers in her orphanage.
Although seven hours of chess sounds boring, the intelligent feminism, the colourfully 60s visuals, and the liberating entrance to sex and drugs and rock 'n' roll brings a bingeable ecstasy to the premise.
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