Frasier was one of those rare things: a comedy series that relied on smarts (and the odd pratfall) to get its laughs. Cleverly transposing the beloved Cheers stalwart to his home town of Seattle and shifting the broader format of the original show to suit the unique quirks of its new characters, the most successful spin-off of all time was wordy and wise and not averse to indulging in the odd moment of high farce. Like the quality comedy theatre it aspired to emulate, Frasier‘s appeal will continue to endure.
People use the word ‘gritty’ in relation to film and TV drama all the time, but as a TV cop drama, Homicide: Life On The Street was the real deal. An avowed attempt by creator David Simon to get into the business of day-to-day procedural police work, as opposed to the glossier cop-show version audiences were used to, it ran for seven seasons in the 1990s, and remains incredibly influential. Testament to its quality was the ridiculous guest cast it attracted: Vincent D’Onofrio,Robin Williams, Paul Giamatti, Jake Gyllenhaal and J.K. Simmonswere among those who temporarily joined the outstanding regulars.
Spaced, in which Edgar Wright, Jessica Hynes and Simon Peggchannelled their own pop-cultural obsessions and witty observations to spin gold out of a well-used sitcom idea, is endlessly rewatchable. Kicking the careers of the three creators up a notch, it can be uproarious, but it’s also heartfelt, never forgetting to make the characters into people you care about while riffing on different genres. And the fact that only 14 episodes exist adds to the reason we all like it so much – it never overstayed its welcome, no matter how much we might have pineed for more.
For the unconverted, Matthew Weiner’s show was just a lot of people in suits aggressively smoking at each other. But for fans of the multi-Emmy and Golden Globe-winning AMC drama, there’s magic in even the slower moments as Don Draper (Jon Hamm) and his advertising kin negotiate first the perils and pitfalls of Madison Avenue, then a fast-changing America, often while sloshed on whisky. A show of great moments (the lawnmower, the death of Lane, Betty’s shotgun, the LSD), it made an early bid for greatness and maintained it across seven seasons. There aren’t many shows you can say that about.
Launched to low ratings and audience confusion, it looked like Hill Street was destined for a short life on TV. But it endured, and rightly became known as one of the most audacious series on TV, effectively re-inventing the cop drama. It eschewed much of the hard-nosed cop cliches (but used them well when embracing them) and presented a serialised mixture of drama and comedy, featuring a diverse cast of three-dimensional characters at a run-down police precinct. And Hill Street Blues is just as notable for what it led to as the show itself: it scored 98 – count ‘em – Emmy nominations across its run, and won eight in the first season alone, while also becoming a template for the sort of ambitious TV drama that was to follow.
Those who tuned into the first episode of The Sopranos in 1999 found not a documentary about opera singers but a dark, offbeat drama about a New Jersey gangster with a fixation on the ducks who visit his swimming pool. As the first season wore on, viewers became hooked on creator David Chase’s uncompromising vision of an old-school criminal organisation beset by all the stresses and tensions of the modern day. A fusion of sharp, unpredictable writing and powerhouse acting ensured this show classic status, spawning spoofs by The Simpsons and the Clintons (!) as well as an Artie Bucco recipe book, so you can make like Tony and feast on ‘gabagool’ yourself.
The rootinest, tootinest, sweariest show that ever dared raise its head on television? That’ll be Deadwood. Set in the lawless Dakota Territory town when the disenfranchised of the world descended on the Black Hills to find their fortune, David Milch’s masterpiece presented the frontier townspeople as disparate souls with morals more muddy than the main thoroughfare. Happily throwing traditional notions of good and evil out the saloon window, the show constantly shifted audience loyalties, presenting a world where every act, noble or not, had repercussions. And in Ian McShane’s foul-mouthed barman, Al Swearengen, we were presented with one of television’s most complex and interesting characters.
Such is the impact of Rod Serling’s series, which gathered some of the best speculative writers and stories of the time, that it keeps coming back in different forms, and its impact is felt through popular culture to this day. Aiming to explore universal concepts while creeping us out or making us think (or both), The Zone merged big ideas with popular ideals and proved that smart storytelling could work on television. Once seen, rarely forgotten; especially with that unnerving theme and Serling’s iconic introductions.
In Edward ‘Fitz’ Fitzgerald, Robbie Coltrane concocted one of television’s most memorable antiheroes. The gambling, chain-smoking, heavy-drinking, overweight psychologist may have incorporated almost every vice known to man but viewers delighted in the ease with which he mercilessly beat lesser men to an intellectual pulp. Jimmy McGovern’s tautly-written drama was never concerned with the whodunit aspect (the perpetrator was generally revealed in the first scenes) but rather built up to the moment Fitz got the suspect in an interview room. Assaulting them with cutting insight and outright provocation, the portly profiler bent them to his will and put the squeeze on until they finally cracked. One of the finest dramas Britain has produced – just don’t mention the lamentable US remake.
One murder; three intricately interwoven plotlines; 20 episodes. In its home country of Denmark, The Killing’s first series was supposed to be split into two halves with a year’s gap in the middle, but demand for the conclusion was so great it was brought forward by six months. As an export, it was right in the eye of a perfect storm of Danish noir: its breakout UK success coming hot on the heels of Wallander, and paving the way for Borgen and The Bridge. Sofie Gråbøl’s chunky-knit sweater became a star in itself.