Unmissable TV

Spotlight Classics – Essential TV

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World on Fire


United Kingdom: 2019 (BBC)

1 Season (8 Episodes)


BBC One’s World on Fire immerses its audience in the horrors of fascism, the bravery of rebellion and the darkness of war through some truly stunning cinematography, performances and direction. Similarly to the outstanding 2013 German TV drama Generation War (also on this list), World on Fire focuses on the slow and devasting erosion of life, love and family as the world crumbles into darkness. Here the audience is asked to explore the slow march of fascism and all the warning signs that were missed or ignored along the way.

World on Fire gives a voice to those brave souls who stood up against the rising tide of hate from all backgrounds, risking their lives to combat oppression while politicians did nothing. In particular, it gives voice to the Polish people who bravely stood up against the early rise and march of Nazism while exploring the mental effects and horror of those who fought in silence.


Hunters


United States: 2020 (Amazon Prime)

1 Season (10 Episodes)


Within the first 10 minutes, David Weil’s Amazon series sets out its unconventional stall, as a 70s family barbecue turns to slaughter on a guest realising her host is an ex-Nazi war criminal. We are then whisked back to New York City in May 1977, where we join three young men as they step out of a movie theatre, having watched Star Wars for the first time. Here the boy’s conversations centre on the political dimensions of the Nazi-like Empire and the rebellion it has inspired. But, as events progress, a hidden Nazi empire may become a reality.

Mixing the realities of the Nazi atrocities during the Second World War with an action-thriller that equally plays fast and loose with characters that may jar with some viewers. However, Hunters is addictive viewing and carries a fascinating sub-text, speaking to the current march of right-wing politics worldwide. While simultaneously dissecting racism and oppression in all its forms with a comic book-inspired landscape of heroes and villains.


READ MORE: SLOW HORSES


Worzel Gummidge (2019)


United Kingdom: 2019 – Present

2 Seasons (7 Episodes)


Anyone of my generation will have fond memories of Jon Pertwee as the lovable, if slightly cantankerous, scarecrow Worzel Gummidge. His interpretation of Barbara Euphan Todd’s 1930s character shined on-screen from 1979 to 1981 before Worzel walked into the mists of time. However, Christmas 2019 would see BBC One resurrect the famous scarecrow under the creative guidance of Mackenzie Crook. The result was, and is, a beautiful, loving and assured reimagination laced with stunning cinematography, laugh-out-loud humour and delightful performances. 

Crook’s version of the scarecrow is tied to a delightful childlike innocence and dry humour while celebrating nature, folklore and countryside traditions. Here the show’s calming, nostalgic and gentle stories are utterly enthralling as we enter the magical world surrounding Scatterbrook Farm.


READ MORE: THE SNOOPY SHOW


Sex Education

sex education

United Kingdom: 2019 – Present (Netflix)

3 Seasons (24 Episodes)


From the first episode, Laurie Nun’s comedy/drama shines with optimism and charm, the screenplay captivating the viewer’s attention while single handily reinventing teen drama. Here, laugh-out-loud comedy is combined with teenage life’s pure anxiety, echoing the late great John Hughes. The result is a comedy/drama that continues to push genre boundaries as it swings from outrageous comedy to heartfelt emotion in the blink of an eye.

Meanwhile, the adults who pretend to have all the answers are just as confused by the sex and relationships surrounding them as the teens. But, it is in its casting choices that Sex Education truly shines above and beyond any of its contemporaries. Here Asa Butterfield, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, and many others shine as a group of teenagers struggling to find their way in an adult world that is just as confused.


Queer as Folk (UK)


United Kingdom: 1999/2000 (Channel 4)

2 Series (10 Episodes)


Fancy a slice of genuinely groundbreaking television? Then look no further than the Channel 4 drama Queer as Folk. Now celebrating its 21st Birthday, Queer as Folk changed gay representation on TV and lit a fuse of public acceptance. And while some aspects may now seem dated, Queer as Folk still shines with humour, power and sexuality. Its episodes are filled to the brim with shocking, engaging and enthralling characters as it joyously smashes the rainbow-coloured glass ceiling. Here Russell T Davies sparked a global transformation in queer TV, with Queer as Folk USA, The L Word and many more given the green light in the years following his drama. This groundbreaking slice of TV was the start of what would become a golden period of LGBTQ+ drama.


READ MORE: It’s a Sin.


Generation War


Germany: 2013 (Arrow)

1 Season (3 Episodes)


How would a war directly affect your family and friends? And what does it mean to engage in a conflict where your values and beliefs oppose the pervading political ideology? These issues of morality, conflict, friends and family sit at the heart of Generation War. The result is one of the finest explorations of conflict and belonging ever produced for TV. Here each episode is wrapped in unflinching bravery as it explores the effects of World War Two on the German citizens living under polarising Third Reich.

Generation War opens up an important debate on political ideology, personal belief and duty while reflecting on the destruction war creates in personal, social and cultural identity. And if you find yourself questioning how intelligent and cultured people can be blindsided by political rhetoric and barbarism, then Generation War has done its job.


The Flash


United States/Canada: 2014 – Present (CW/Warner)

8 Seasons (169 Episodes)


The CW DC Universe may have started with Arrow, but for me, it is The Flash that stands tall among an ocean of DC TV shows. Much of its success sits firmly on Grant Gustin’s shoulders, who deserves every ounce of praise for reinventing Barry Allen for the small screen. Here Gustin’s interpretation of the character would become the defining model of the modern TV superhero. While at the same time injecting the character with fresh humour, intelligence and energy in equal measure.

Spanning eight seasons and 169 episodes, The Flash appeals to young and old alike, its style and vision, capturing the Saturday tea-time energy of 1970s classics ranging from The Incredible Hulk to Wonder Woman. Of course, like any TV series, there are solid seasons and those that struggle. But nobody can deny the pure joy, energy and electricity The Flash generates.


READ MORE: TITANS SEASON TWO


In the Flesh


United Kingdom: 2013-2014 (BBC)

2 Series (9 Episodes)


There has been no shortage of zombie-related TV shows over recent years, from The Walking Dead to The Santa Clarita Diet, to name but a few. Each one has provided us with a unique take on the familiar zombie apocalypse tropes while equally trying to outdo the other in gore or humour. But Dominic Mitchell’s 2013 BBC series stands tall among its contemporaries for its unique take on the zombie through a coming-of-age lens. Here the complex discussions behind its zombie invasion take In the Flesh far beyond the typical realms of TV horror as the experiences of young zombie Kieran dovetail with those of many minority communities and groups in the U.K.


Derry Girls


United Kingdom: 2018 – 2022 (Channel 4)

2 Seasons (12 Episodes)


Lisa McGee’s nostalgic comedy set in 1990s Londonderry is a genuinely groundbreaking slice of modern comedy/drama. Here, we follow family and friends, just as a spark of hope lights the way after years of conflict in Northern Ireland. Here, each young person’s journey reflects the changing political and social landscape of Northern Ireland as the Good Friday Agreement comes into view. Derry Girl’s intelligent, laugh-out-loud humour is laced with emotion as we follow the daily trials and tribulations of Erin, Orla, Clare, Michelle and their wee-English fella, James.

Rich in wit and charm, Derry Girls characters feel like a part of your extended family while watching – its beautifully timed comedy and expertly framed drama, a heartfelt exploration of teenage life in a politically volatile yet changing community.


Line of Duty


United Kingdom: 2012 – 2021 (BBC)

6 seasons (36 Episodes)


The crime drama has been a mainstay of British TV ever since the debut of Dixon of Dock Green and Juliet Bravo. However, few TV shows in the genre, except for Prime Suspect, have had the cultural impact of Jed Mercurio’s Line of Duty. Mercurio’s ongoing drama reinvented the police series for a modern age, as it wrapped the audience in an ongoing story of deceit and corruption. While at the same time grabbing its audience by the throat with electric drama and intrigue right from the first episode to the last. Line of Duty never lets the viewer catch their breath as each season links to the next while joyously bringing back the cliffhanger from the brink of obscurity. And while its later seasons lack the bite of the first five, it remains a modern-day TV classic.


High School Musical: The Musical: The Series


United States: 2019 – Present (Disney +)

2 Season (23 Episodes)


Love it or loathe it, there is no denying the sheer cultural clout of Disney’s High School Musical back in 2006. After all, it not only shot Zac Efron to global stardom, but it also gave a much-needed jolt of electricity to the movie musical. High School Musical took audiences back to a style of live-action musical last seen with Fame while single handily paving the way for a whole series of films and TV shows ranging from Glee to Camp Rock. But after three films, many thought the toe-tapping innocence of High School Musical was finally at an end; until Disney + announced a new TV series based on the films.

But how do you recreate High School Musical for a modern teenage audience? After all, this audience now expects fast and snappy content. The answer is simple, you don’t try to recreate the movie, but instead, pay homage to it with a new group of teens performing a musical version of the famous film. The resulting show manages to create something that feels fresh and decidedly familiar.


READ MORE: LOVE, VICTOR


The Wonder Years


United States: 1988 – 1993 (ABC)

6 Seasons (115 Episodes)


I would love to hear about a better coming-of-age TV show if you can find it. I say this because, in my opinion, The Wonder Years is one of the finest TV family dramas of the 20th Century. Each delightful 30-minute episode steals the viewer’s hearts in a journey that explores the complex dynamics of family life against a backdrop of a changing America. Every season of The Wonder Years is bathed in nostalgia as we follow Kevin’s journey from a boy to a man within a sea of politics, and social and cultural change, as the American dream is celebrated and dissected in equal measure.


READ MORE: WE ARE WHO WE ARE


Deutschland 83 & 86


Germany: 2015/2018 (RTL)

2 Seasons (18 Episodes)


While proving to be a considerable success abroad, Deutschland 83 and 86 flopped in their home country. However, this is one killer series with its mix of espionage, tongue-in-cheek humour, action and 80s tunes. Here we see Jonas Nay’s Martin Rauch transformed from a wide-eyed twenty-something into a killer spy against the backdrop of a segregated Germany in the first season. Meanwhile, the second season, Deutschland 86, picks up the story three years later as the cold winds of change blow south in a sequel that continues to hum with all the ingredients that made the first outing a total blast.


Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves

Sweden: 2012 (SVT)

1 Mini-Series (3 Episodes)


There have been numerous TV dramas exploring the HIV/AIDS epidemic that I could have picked for this list. For example, both Angels in America and A Normal Heart are striking examples of AIDS-based drama. Still, for me, this small but perfect Swedish mini-series is undoubtedly one of the most emotionally powerful and fascinating.

Jonas Gardell’s story is unique because of the interface between Swedish sexual liberation and a virus that injected fear and oppression. By the 1980s, Sweden led social equality for LGBTQ+ communities, with same-sex relationships decriminalised in 1944 and the age of consent equalised in 1972. Sweden’s progressive social reforms paved the way for one of Europe’s most enlightened and liberal LGBTQ+ communities. Yet despite this, AIDS stripped away many of the rights Swedish young men held so dear. And it is here that Don’t Ever Wipe Tears Without Gloves is at its most fascinating—exploring the interface between social equality and fear in a society built on sexual freedom.


Eerie Indiana


United States: 1991 (NBC/Disney)

1 Season (19 Episodes)


It may have had a short run, but Eerie Indiana’s legendary status was born in just 19 episodes. Its combination of fantasy and horror paid homage to Tales from the Crypt and the science fiction of The Twilight Zone, with each gloriously dark and delicious tale set in a world of weirdness and wonder. In Eerie Indiana, young Marshall Teller (Omri Katz) and his best friend, Simon, find themselves unpicking their sleepy small town’s bizarre and creepy daily routines.

Written by Jose Rivera and Karl Schaefer, who would go on to produce both The Motorcycle Diaries and Z Nation, it is the creative hand of Joe Dante that sits centre stage, its universe resembling Gremlins while providing us with one of the most innovative children’s TV shows ever made.


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OZ


United States: 1997 – 2003 (HBO)

6 Seasons (56 Episodes)


Without Oz, the world of TV drama would have been a decidedly different place. Oswald State Penitentiary gave birth to the HBO we now recognise while reinventing the template of TV drama for the modern age. Oz would lace its narrative with grit, social commentary, and unflinching violence in a way few before or after have managed.

Oz not only dissects the American penal system but layers its narrative with discussions on race, sexuality and religion, creating a drama that still talks to modern social barriers of poverty and racial and religious segregation. However, what makes Oz a genuinely unique TV experience is its ability to dovetail these significant social issues with nerve-shredding tension—taking a soap opera model of delivery to new heights of dramatic power. While in turn, creating the template for many of the HBO dramas that followed.


READ MORE: TIME


Doctor Who


United Kingdom: 1963 – Present (BBC)

895 Episodes


Few TV shows on our list can claim legendary status, but Doctor Who is undoubtedly one of them. Not only is this BBC science fiction drama the longest-running sci-fi series in TV history, but it is also, without a doubt, the most unique.

Born in 1963 with veteran film actor William Hartnell in the leading role, Doctor Who was never forecast by the BBC to become a behemoth of TV. After all, its low-budget effects, black-and-white film and wobbly sets are no match for American TV shows such as Star Trek. But from the start, Doctor Who captured the imagination of a whole generation of children with its unique mix of time-travelling adventure, science fiction and historical curiosity – its main character as much of a timeless mystery as the police box-shaped ship that transported him.

However, Doctor Who’s true genius was born out of Hartnell’s final performance in the lead role, with regeneration devised as a tool to continue the story. This has allowed the Doctor’s adventures to continue under the stewardship of many fine actors over the years, each one expanding the universe of the Doctor.

Of course, its 39 seasons are a mixed bag, but Doctor Who’s strength lies in its ability to appeal to different audiences at different times. And despite a hardcore fan base who can be over the top in their devotion, love and opinions. Doctor Who continues to reinvent itself for each new generation.


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American Horror Story


United States: 2011 – Present (Fox)

13 Seasons (116 Episodes)


When Ryan Murphy announced, he was planning to follow Glee with a new horror show, fans’ ears pricked with a devilish delight. After all, while TV had a long history of horror, from Tales from the Crypt to Alfred Hitchcock Presents, it had been some time since the horror genre sat at the heart of prime-time television.

Thankfully, American Horror Story did not disappoint a legion of horror fans on its launch in 2011. Murphy’s first season would wrap the audience in a classic haunted house tale with a decidedly modern twist. Here, Murphy would take the genre in new directions with dark humour, gore, social commentary, and divine performances. But this new horror universe would expand from season to season, allowing the returning cast to embody various roles within the same world. And while some seasons shine more than others, with Asylum the pinnacle of the journey so far, American Horror Story remains a must-see TV event.


Breaking Bad


United States: 2008 – 2013 (AMC/Sony)

5 Seasons (62 Episodes)


If Oz gave birth to modern TV drama, then Breaking Bad changed how we viewed TV drama forever. Launched on mainstream cable TV in the USA back in 2008 to rave reviews Breaking Bad initially struggled to find its audience. While here in the UK, its premiere on FX and Five fell flat. However, when Netflix picked up the show, it thundered towards global success. Netflix quickly capitalised on the growing success of Breaking Bad in international markets. In part, this helped the streaming service to become the juggernaut of TV drama we now recognise. Netflix would discard the weekly episode structure, allowing audiences to binge, therefore cementing the show’s popularity.

But aside from the monumental impact Breaking Bad had on global viewing, it is also an exceptional drama, reflecting a mid-life desire to throw everything away and try something new. While equally reflecting the cost of doing so through the eyes of a family, community and unlikely friendship.


Chernobyl


United Kingdom/USA: 2019 (HBO/Sky)

1 Series (5 Episodes)


Chernobyl combines the abject horror of the 80s disaster with heart-stopping political and social tension in a genuinely masterful slice of gripping television that never spirals into melodrama. Here the reality of the nuclear disaster at its heart remains horrifyingly authentic.

Chernobyl is a TV drama that doesn’t aim to entertain but instead shock, with a grim tale of denial and fear. However, Chernobyl balances its darkness with moments of sheer bravery, heroism, and kindness amid pain and suffering. Ensuring the horror does not engulf and consume the audience. While at the same time enabling brief periods of respite in what is ultimately a rollercoaster of nerve-shredding tension.


Stranger Things


United States: 2016 – Present (Netflix)

3 Seasons (25 Episodes)


Combining 80s nostalgia with The Goonies’ energy and Spielberg’s visual style, Stranger Things has become a global phenomenon for Netflix, launching the careers of Finn Wolfhard, Millie Bobby Brown and Noah Schnapp. But Stranger Things is far more than a pure 1980s nostalgia-fest for anyone over the age of 40; it is a reinvention of fantasy horror. Stranger Things references E.T., Gremlins, Poltergeist and Dungeons and Dragons in building its sublime homage to the best of fantasy/horror in film. The result is a divine mash-up of inspirations, a mixtape of fantasy and horror in the hands of a talented cast and crew.


My So-Called Life


United States: 1994 (ABC)

1 Season (19 Episodes)


Now and again, a TV series comes along that is truly ahead of its time. These shows tend to sink or swim due to their innovation, with many succumbing to the studio axe before finding an audience. My So-Called Life was one of those shows as it was axed before it had a chance to prove its worth – only finding a dedicated audience after the curtain had fallen on one of the most beautiful teenage TV dramas of the 20th Century.

However, despite the series never being given room to expand and develop, the 19 episodes we have are sublime. Here the sheer bravery and innovation of the screenplay paved the way for dramas ranging from Skins to Euphoria. While at the same time pioneering a more nuanced character arc for the teenager on TV that defied simple stereotypes. My So-Called Life’s narrative dealt with the real problems teenagers faced in mid-90s America through stories that explored homophobia, homelessness and drugs.


Game of Thrones


United Kingdom/United States: 2011-2019 (HBO)

8 Seasons (73 Episodes)


Within the history of television drama, few shows have become event viewing, but, Game of Thrones is one of them. Based on the book series by George RR Martin, Game of Thrones transcends the boundaries of television by bringing us a cinematic quality never seen before or since. Its screenplay, design and cinematography joyously mix elements of Star Wars, Ben-Hur, Lawrence of Arabia and Lord of the Rings in creating a world we can truly believe in an epic tale of family, revenge, politics and magic. Of course, there will long be a debate around the final season and its farewell to the characters we loved, despised and rooted for, but despite this, Game of Thrones remains one of the most culturally significant shows in TV history.


Hollywood


United States: 2020 – Present (Netflix)

1 Season (7 Episodes)


There is always a risk in merging fantasy with reality. Here the audience needs to navigate and unpick the truth from many ideas and concepts. However, with Hollywood, Ryan Murphy manages to mix the fantastical with a cutting exploration of institutionalised discrimination, celebrating the artistic legacy of the minoritised groups who helped create Hollywood. Here we have a ‘what could have been’ story of wasted potential made good. The period setting of the 1940s studio system is beautifully realised, with performances that engage from the first episode to the last. But what makes Hollywood stand out is the nuanced reflection of both the creative drive and talent of those who Hollywood forgot. Here we find ourselves asking whether the studio system could and would have survived longer if it had embraced diversity.


Mr Robot


United States: 2015 – 2019 (Amazon Prime/USA Networks)

4 Seasons (46 Episodes)

Rating: 4 out of 5.

TV dramas that manage to captivate and enthral their audience in the first ten minutes are a rare commodity. But that is precisely what Mr Robot achieves, despite its slow pace. Owing much to Fight Club in both style and tone, Mr Robot laces its story with deep discussions on media, mental health and tech in a dystopian thriller that holds a mirror up to our 21st Century life. Here the demons of capitalism are wrapped into every aspect of our online and offline world. As we delve into social and personal anxieties, Mr Robot’s success is held firmly within its writing, direction, and performance.


Charlie Brown and Peanuts: The TV Specials


United States: 1965 – 2011 (Bill Melendez Productions/ABC/Warner)

45 Episodes/TV Movies


First published in 1950 in various American newspapers, Charles M. Schulz’s Charlie Brown and Peanuts have become one of the most famous comic strips of 20th Century pop culture. These exquisite slices of comic perfection glow with intelligence and humour while reflecting the joy and anxieties of childhood. But Peanuts also challenged old-fashioned views of psychology, child development and acceptance through characters that have become pop culture icons.

Feature-length TV specials based on Schulz comic strips began in 1965, with 45 specials produced. However, the first three specials shine the brightest in bringing the world of Charlie Brown to life. With A Charlie Brown Christmas, the quintessential family special. Here we find Christmas celebrated as a holiday for all, no matter religious or cultural differences, as Charlie Brown searches for the perfect Christmas tree while also struggling to find meaning in the holiday season. The divine and brilliant script is surrounded by the beautiful jazz-inspired score of Vince Guaraldi in a TV film that set the template for 44 specials.


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