10. Peaky Blinders
Cillian Murphy and Sam Neill star in this rock ’n‘ roll gangster drama—music from Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, PJ Harvey and the White Stripes adds a modern touch to the period proceedings—set in 1919 in the West Midlands industrial city of Birmingham. Murphy is a soldier-turned-ambitious kingpin of the Shelby crime family. Neill is the equally ruthless inspector out to dismantle his organization, who enlists a lovely mole (Annabelle Wallis, also of Fleming) to aid his campaign. (Tom Hardy joins the cast in the second season.) As the steely, azure-eyed Tommy Shelby, Murphy brings his trademark quiet intensity to a multidimensional antihero, one of several thoughtful characterizations in the Shelby clan. As for the gang’s/ show’s namesake, picture razor blades sewn into the brim of its wearers’ caps and you’ll get the head-butting, eye-gouging extent of Peaky Blinders’ viciousness.
9. The House of Cards Trilogy
If you think Kevin Spacey’s machinating Frank Underwood is a smooth-as-molasses sumbitch, the late Ian Richardson’s Francis Urquhart is a Machiavellian monster on a whole other level. Not that the stateside adaptation of this lauded 1990 series veers all that much from its British blueprint, and Andrew Davies’ screenplays. But without Spacey’s snake-oil southern drawl and signature physicality, the U.K. original gets real dark, real fast. As the jilted Conservative Party whip in spiteful pursuit of the prime minister post, Anderson minces neither words nor pleasantries, his glassy stare refusing to register the slightest of scruples. He’s Macbeth in an After-Thatcher political realm—emotionless, depraved and on occasion delighted in his cunning superiority. Different but every bit as outstanding—some would argue more so—than its American successor, The House of Cards Trilogy (that’s three books by Michael Dobbs, three seasons, four episodes each) is calculating satire in the best possible way.
8. The Office
Another title that begs comparison, The Office has a very loyal, very vocal camp who swear by the Ricky Gervais-Stephen Merchant original. And while some feel the opposite, still others chalk it up to a “potato-potahto” situation, there’s no denying the brilliance of the initial sitcom, which ran just two seasons. Influential in its single-camera, mockumentary staging, The Office was deeply awkward, slyly self-aware and stultifyingly mordant in its petty day-to-day operations. American Office writer-star B.J. Novak revealed that they deliberately made Steve Carrell’s boss more likable than Gervais’ unfailingly inappropriate dipshit, David Brent. That’s the unique appeal of its British predecessor; David and his staff of paper peddlers are far sadder, more humdrum and much drier. If that’s your tepid cup of tea, the U.K. program is funnier, too.
Kenneth Branagh is marvelous in this moody procedural based on the novels of Henning Mankell, and the original Swedish film adaptations (the second and third series of which are also available for streaming on Netflix). A police officer on southern Sweden’s picturesque coast, Branagh’s Kurt Wallander must solve a run of freakish crimes. He’s also up to his grizzled scruff in the throes of an existential tailspin, which makes, say, the image of a 15-year-old girl seeing him, panicking and setting herself on fire an even tougher trauma to process. Branagh gives an aptly measured, introspective performance—he’s a man who observes everything, but can’t make sense of anything anymore, the very least of which is himself. Wallander is a study in visual contrasts: saturated color schemes, dramatic plays of shadows and light, extreme changes in focus. It’s an artful complement to the detective’s largely internal struggle, which also includes issues with his adult daughter and Alzheimer’s-afflicted dad (David Warner, exceptional as ever).
6. Doctor Who
A new generation of Whovians got TARDIS-envy when the cult sci-fi series was rebooted in 2005. Contemporary in its vibrant, almost retro comic-book production, interpersonal relationships (Welcome to the future, sexual tension!) and winks to its standing in pop culture history, the new Who is a sincere delight. Casting is uniformly on point; each doctor holds a devoted fan base, be it Christopher Eccleston (the Ninth), David Tennant (the Tenth), or Matt Smith (the Eleventh)—and the Thirteenth Doctor, Peter Capaldi, a Time Lord for a little more than a year now, has fast gained his own disciples. Unabashedly cheesy, cheeky and more suspenseful than haters would like to admit, Doctor Who remains sheer fun. There’s a reason he’s stuck around for so long—and it’s not just because of that time-traveling police box.
5. Call the Midwife
“Midwifery is the very stuff of life,” proves this incredibly moving, often provocative series, based on the memoirs of British nurse Jennifer Worth. Set in 1950s London—read: pre-choice, not pro-choice—Call the Midwife focuses on the nurses and nuns who work at a convent in the East End. Vanessa Redgrave narrates the experiences of Jenny Lee (Jessica Raine), a privileged young woman who must quickly adapt to life in an impoverished district, where medical resources are precious and newborns are plentiful. Predictably meticulous in period detail, the ensemble drama brims with joy and compassion while maintaining a bracingly unromantic grip on pregnancy and parenthood. Disease, labor complications and tragedies like miscarriage, stillbirth and Sudden Infant Death Syndrome are common—along with domestic violence, rape and unwanted pregnancy—yet the show warms as many hearts as it breaks. Call it feminist, call it what you will, Call the Midwife is brave television.
Though stateside audiences may have last seen David Tennant in this season’s Fox show Gracepoint, the former Doctor Who actually starred in the original British production, a riveting crime drama that focuses on the murder of a young boy. Tennant is detective Alec Hardy, who with his partner Ellie Miller (Olivia Colman here, Breaking Bad’s Anna Gunn in the U.S. remake) must infiltrate a close-knit community on Britain’s Jurassic Coast. Of course, everybody in town has a secret, and no one takes kindly to the mounting media attention. As Hardy and Miller continue their investigation, the mystery unfolds in a slow, deceptively languid fashion, lingering on the effects of the child’s death upon the town’s residents. Creator-writer Chris Chibnall (another Doctor Who vet) is a master of atmosphere (a haunting, piano-driven score, the glistening seaside vistas)—by taking his time with the details, he keeps the whodunit at a slow boil that rewards patient viewers.
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s legendary sleuth gets a modern makeover in the series that launched a thousand memes. Benedict Cumberbatch, in his breakout role, solves crimes alongside his trusted sidekick, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman, the U.K. Office, the Hobbit movies). Not unlike CBS’ present-day Holmes-Watson drama Elementary, the Sherlock team wisely play it straight—no winks, no questions, no classic literature context. They’re a duo from the pages of history who just so happen to exist in the 21st century. Whip-smart writing and pacing to match, coupled with a crafty, inventive visual approach—clues are revealed with onscreen text—cast Sherlock as an Information Age rock star. Then there’s the crackling chemistry between Cumberbatch and Freeman, pitch-perfect in their respective roles. Sophisticated and straight-up hip, Sherlock is addictive viewing.
Idris Elba (The Wire) kicks ass and pays the consequences as an emotionally damaged police officer who can’t leave his work at the office. “You care about the dead more than the living,” John Luther’s estranged wife accuses him. She’s right—the detective chief inspector is consumed by his cases, and a months-long suspension seems to have done little good for his mental health. Luther is nothing short of mesmerizing, slicing through suspects with the angry efficiency of a man on the brink. His already tenuous grasp on civility and basic sanity is tested further by the mind games of a woman (The Affair’s Ruth Wilson, seductive and threatening) he knows to have killed her own parents. Psychological sparring aside, this is Elba’s show, so white-hot is Luther in his rage and determination to overcome it. “Do you not worry you’re on the devil’s side without even knowing it?” wonders the tormented cop. Luther’s dread is palpable—and contagious.
1. The Fall
Let it be known that before he was Christian Grey, Jamie Dornan proved his acting chops and charisma as a disturbingly undisturbable murderer in this superb psychological thriller. Dornan’s mild-mannered husband, father and grief counselor (!) is among the most terrifying onscreen serial killers in recent memory. Paul Spector is a stalker, as exacting and methodical as his eventual pursuer. Enter Gillian Anderson’s Stella Gibson, a British detective superintendent called to Belfast to look into a spate of gruesome murders. As the cat-and-mouse game intensifies, Anderson’s characterization is its own triumph: analytical, uncompromising, reserved, but brazenly sexual on her own terms, entirely unfazed by the politicking and dick-swinging of her male colleagues. That we know the identity of the killer from the show’s first frames, and yet can’t take our eyes off the screen is a testament to the stealth creep with which The Fall operates. Dornan’s star may blow up this Valentine’s weekend as the S&M-loving billionaire, but this performance will make your blood run cold.
Amanda Schurr is Assistant Movies Editor at Paste and a Pac NW-based culture writer. You can follow her on Twitter.