At a dinner party back in January we became aware of a present day syndrome by which, when four or more people are gathered together, no two of them will have seen the same TV shows. Round that table of a dozen people, those who'd seen Game Of Thrones hadn't seen The Missing or Cilla; the Breaking Bad viewers hadn't heard of Plebs; for every Veep, Rev, W1A and Inside No 9 we'd be raving about there'd be someone championing Bojack Horseman or The Bridge. But never the twain would meet. So it is that my favourite TV of the year will differ from anybody and everybody's who reads it. I hope, along the way, I introduce you to some great TV shows you might have missed.
No, it's not a programme, it's a category. Those programmes that we watch, we enjoy, we wouldn't miss, but which aren't novel enough or on a big enough roll to be TV Of The Year. Doctor Who has had a variable year with no bit of it quite strong enough to make the chart (it's been so fanboy-oriented and family-unfriendly as to remind one, unfavourably, of 1980 when fun favourite Tom Baker was saddled with a dour and unlikeable final series which made his life miserable and the viewers with it. I wish Peter Capaldi could be given one season of scripts as good as Christopher Eccleston had); Strictly, The Apprentice, Pointless, and The Walking Dead are almost guilty pleasures these days; Mad Men we're only halfway through, and earlier seasons have been better; and Top Of The Pops 1980 was a pretty dire year production-wise which made the variability in music all the more outstanding (some weeks have my favourite music of all time, but interspersed with embarrassing interviews that qualify them for worst TV of their decade. A fitting accompaniment to Tom Baker's last year on Doctor Who). Bob's Burgers is brilliant too, and Veep which we're watching on DVD, but not quite great enough for this year's Top "10".
Honourable mentions go to No Offence, Paul Abbott's cop drama which had lots of high points; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell which managed to get some cracking television out of what was obviously an even more impressive novel; and Wolf Hall, which made most newspapers TV of the year and was indeed the sort of thing British TV does astonishingly well. We enjoyed Danny Brocklehurst's Ordinary Lives, but it faded from the memory quickly; W1A had an excellent second series as did Inside No9; and the Javone Prince comedy sketch show, which will probably be even better when it gets the second series it deserves. We also stuck with Odyssey, which started well before it became a protracted soap opera, and Humans, which had marvellous moments then tailed off. See also The TV That Made Me, a silly clip show presented by Brian Conley, which was as lightweight as TV comes but was our early evening staple throughout this year's Edinburgh.
So, the actual Top "10" TV of 2015. Beginning with...
10 and a half - BBC 4 Music Documentaries
Bubbling under the chart were a host of excellent documentaries, mostly on BBC4 (and therefore largely about pop music, by and for the benefit of 50 somethings). You'd think we now knew all we need to know about 10CC, The Bay City Rollers, Blondie and the like, but so often these docs have interviews that manage to dredge up a story you've not heard, and film clips you've not seen, that they keep being rewarding viewing. I am the target audience and, though I'm sure there are subjects that you can also make documentaries about, I'm a sucker for them, as long as they keep coming. The worst of these was a dreadful series by Dominic Sandbrook which we gave up on after one episode. The best of the bunch tie for 11th place.
- Reginald D Hunter's Songs Of The South explained the Southern States to me like no other programme has, through its musical history.
- Neil Brand's Sound of Song explained the development of 20th century music through the developments in sound technology. Without which none of the other documentaries that are the staple of BBC4's Friday night would exist, after all.
10 = Murder In Successville + Over The Garden Wall
Loving a programme then discovering no-one else has seen it is an increasingly prevalent phenomenon. (Long gone are the days when BBC2's programme Did You See..? could be answered with a Yes by more than a quarter of the available audience). These two are gems, one from the ill-fated BBC Three, and one from Cartoon Network, that we stumbled upon by accident and are so glad we did. One is improv comedy in an original format by the best new British comedy talent, and the other is a surreal cartoon for kids about two brothers lost in a wood with a pet frog and twists galore. If you can get to see either you will be that bit happier.
9 - Banished
Banished by Jimmy McGovern, which I learn while researching this paragraph hasn't been given a second series, was an outstanding piece of TV drama. Essentially, when you Tweet "best TV writing of the year" after you've watched the last episode, it has to qualify for your TV of the year. Sadly not on BBC2's drama controller's list though. (NB: Could pressure from a well-connected BBC drama controller explain why Banished doesn't appear in any major newspapers' TV of the year? Must Google that.)
8 - Orange Is The New Black
This is a hard programme to include in your top ten when you've just given up on series 3. But such are the vagaries of Netflix, of which we became new customers this spring. Series 1 is an incredible and original piece of television, juggling more characters in one programme than any other I can think of. Series 2 got a bit shark-jumpy towards the end as it haemorrhaged cast members. Then series 3 is a feeble parody of the show that used to be Orange Is The New Black. And we've seen all 36 episodes in the space of 6 months. Some people have managed to run this gamut in a long weekend. Whatever, parts of it remain excellent.
7 - Comedians biographical sitcoms
Emma Kennedy's The Kennedys, Danny Baker's Cradle To Grave, Caitlin Moran's Raised By Wolves, Lenny Henry's Danny and The Human Zoo, Chris O'Dowd's Moone Boy and Josh Widdecombe's Josh. Did you have a childhood? Quick, phone the telly. That's what they make sitcoms out of this year. Moone Boy wasn't as strong as the first 2 series but still excellent; Lenny Henry's had a stupid name and changed names & details for no obvious reason but was fun; and Josh is a very funny sitcom that it was worth shoehorning in here. But the three genuine comedy biopiccoms (if that's the word) were highlights of the year. Emma's the funniest, Danny's the geekiest, and the Moran sister's the one-on-earliest-in-the-year which is always unfair, it was grand.
6 = Fargo season 2 + Better Call Saul.
Did I mention Tweeting "best TV writing of the year" when a show's just finished? Well Saul got that treatment already - very different from Breaking Bad but equally original - and Fargo's not even finished at time of writing, but it is standing head and shoulders above the pack. Great ideas being pulled from the ether, storytelling tricks abounding, and best of all a show having to compete with its own amazing first season despite having a totally different cast and setting.
5 - Doctor Foster
Doctor Foster by Mike Bartlett. I not only tweeted Best TV writing of the year after this one, I also made a note of it on a Stickie on my laptop so I wouldn't forget. Truly kept you gripped, and twisted and swerved throughout its story.
4 = John Finniemore's Double Acts & Souvenir Programme + Peter Kay's Car Share
John Finniemore's shows are both on the radio, but since they whupped the ass of any other British pure comedy writing on telly, they made the chart. Finniemore's sketch show is the best radio sketch show since The Day Today 25 years ago, and the six episode series Double Acts gave us the best self-contained comedy one-act plays I can remember since Alan Bennett's Talking Heads, also a quarter of a century ago. And joining them in this slot is the most charming and low key TV comedy of the year (for those of us who didn't warm to Detectorists and have missed Catastrophe) Peter Kay's Car Share. He really is the most coothy writer and performer since Victoria Wood.
3 - The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
The Guardian has named this their TV show of the year and it's easy to see why. Tina Fey and her fellow writers are at the top of their game. And although the programme lost a little edge towards the end of this first series, its energy and originality made it an unquestionable star of the year.
2 - Cucumber and Banana
Cucumber and Banana by Russell T Davies (didn't see the third part, Tofu, sorry). I realise now I may have Tweeted "Best TV Writing of the year" a few times too many to be fair to everyone this year, but by God did you see episode 6? Masterful. Also variable, there were a couple of episodes towards the end where I felt it had gone on a bit long, but to have a writer who can make great episodes as great as the great episodes RTD did, variability is a small price to pay. And Banana, which was largely by new writers, was by the best crop of new writers on any British series this year, giving them a freer creative rein than any other show I can think of.
As far as I know, Hev and I are the only people we know who saw this, hidden away as it was on Sky. A high budget international production, filmed everywhere from Italy to what genuinely appeared to be American desert to what was definitely a school in East London that I've taught at, it featured possibly the best writing of the year, by certainly the best new find of the year - I hadn't heard of Ian Hollands before, had you? He doesn't even have a Wikipedia entry, and he created, co-wrote and show-ran this 10 week extravaganza. Neither comedy for drama and the best of both, YM&TA is hard to describe, but involves the end of the world, messiahs, bunkers, Vatican emmissaries, Slough bank managers, and stars Matthew Baynton, Pauline Quirke, her out of the US Office, Rob Lowe, him out of Plebs, Diana Rigg, so many people. Watch it on Sky Go, you really won't be disappointed.