Television

The eight best box sets that aren’t The Wire

18th November 2016
Old television

I mean, I know lots of us don’t watch anything on DVD any more but I’m inspired by this lovely quote about Try Not to Breathe in round up of best beach reads, “As addictive as the best box sets.” It set me thinking about which ‘box sets’ had left the biggest mark on me.

Now I love The Wire and The Sopranos, but I’m trying to edge away from the totally obvious.

Our Friends in the North

Not so much a box set as a single DVD, Our Friends in the North was an exceptional BBC series first broadcast in 1996. It’s impossible to overstate what an effect it had on me, politically and creatively. Starring a whose who of the best British actors (Daniel Craig, Gina McKee, Mark Strong, Christopher Ecclestone and Peter Vaughan) it follows a group of friends from their teens to middle-age.

It wasn’t perfect, the wigs were naff, but it was truly special. Exceptional TV showing a slice of British twentieth century life that will never be recreated.

Line of Duty

I finished the finale of season three last night and I’m still reeling. It’s almost impossible to say what’s so good about it without giving important details away – because every detail is important. The way the different story arcs are knitted together, almost in the corner of your eye, is breathtaking.

The series follows the work of anti-corruption police officers as they navigate the duplicity and hatred of other officers, their own knotty private lives and the effect that working as professional cynics has on their humanity. Oh god it’s just so good.

Northern Exposure

First, in case you feel the same way I do, I’ll say from the off that Aidan from Sex And The City (John Corbett) is in it. But there are other great reasons to watch too.

The series, which ran from 1990 to 1995 and was broadcast late at night on Channel 4 around that time, followed the lives of residents in a tiny outpost town in Alaska. The ‘outsider’s eye’ is provided by Dr Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) and at first he just craves his hip young life in New York but – lo and behold – he starts to become entranced by this unique place and it’s residents. Other people would call them ‘quirky’ but I HATE that word.

The West Wing

Kind of a cheat as I should have excluded it along with The Sopranos and The Wire but now more than ever, as we death slide into an unprecedented and terrifying era of politics, do I wish I could hide in the world of President Bartlett and his unsinkable intellect. The writing (Aaron Sorkin for the first four seasons) is pitch perfect, the acting top of the tree. The soundtrack doesn’t get enough credit either, as far as I’m concerned.

Poirot

No I’m not being ironic.

Two reasons: David Suchet and Agatha Christie.

The original stories are bloody good. And they’re as twisty and cruel as a basket of vipers. But without Suchet’s masterclass in sometimes comedic but always precise acting, I don’t think they would have worked anywhere near as well on screen. They’d have just been plain silly.

The first few series are fairly ridiculous, but by the time we reach Murder on the Orient Express (series 12) we’re well into dark and emotional territory. The scenery and clothing – particularly in later series – are often breathtaking and for escapism and killer twists, it’s hard to beat.

Cracker

Blistering writing from Jimmy McGovern, brilliant acting from Robbie Coltrane and a bravery in subject matter that stood out, even when I watched it as a pretty young teenager. Cracker follows the work of genius criminal psychologist Dr Edward “Fitz” Fitzgerald (Coltrane) as he solved cases that navigated viscious crimes, the worst of human behavior and real life tragedies like Hillsborough.

Fitz is an obese, chain smoking, gambling addict. A terrible human being in many ways, particularly as a husband, but as all TV anti-heroes do, he has a good (if strained) heart.

It ran from 1993 to 1995, just three series, but a couple of specials have also been broadcast. Christopher Ecclestone and Ricky Tomlinson also star.

Columbo

I bloody love Columbo. When my husband and I were first together, young and poor, we lived in a crappy flat in Catford with nothing to do except watch TV. Which was okay, except our TV only showed one channel, sometimes, and that was Channel 5. When Aircrash Investigations wasn’t on, there was still nothing to do.

My friend Stuart had a DVD and video collection to rival Blockbusters (this was back when that was a good thing) and we steadily worked through them. We started watching Columbo with a certainly early-twenties irony. Until we got about five minutes in to the first DVD and realized how good they were. No need to describe the character or the plots, because we’re all somehow born with that knowledge, but it’s SO much better than you remember.

The Killing

I ummed and aahed about including The Bridge as well, but I felt let down by the second series which seemed to have lost a lot of the subtlety of the first. In contrast, The Killing remained pretty consistent and exciting throughout and only once (admittedly the final series finale) pulled the rug away by making Sarah behave in a way that contradicted everything we’d ever seen of her. Rage.

A huge breakthrough Scandi hit as everyone knows, if you’ve been put off because so many people love it so it must be chewing gum, forget that – it’s really bloody good.

I’ve only included series here that have concluded or are at least a big chunk through (Line of Duty), so you can mainline the whole thing. But I’m pretty confident that if I wrote this again in five years, the list would include How To Get Away With Murder, Narcos and The Crown. Definitely The Crown. You should really watch The Crown.

2 Comments

  • Reply Rich 28th March 2017 at 7:06 pm

    A great list!

    I was obsessed with Columbo, though slightly ruined it when they were being re-run in the early hours, which meant I could watch the last 15 minutes of every episode before leaving for work. I can’t watch a whole episode now.

    I’d like to see the Ellery Queens from the seventies again.

    Murder in Suburbia was a far-too-short-lived British series from about 10 years ago. Bloody loved that.

    And finally, The Tunnel, the anglo-french remake of The Bridge that nailed the comic tensions between the two countries perfectly. Like the original, season two wasn’t so good.

    • Reply hollyseddon 7th April 2017 at 1:40 pm

      How have I never heard of Murder in Suburbia or The Tunnel?! They both sound ace.

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