Top 20 TV shows of 2011

Ed Williamson,
Matt Looker,
Kirsty Harrison,
Alex Gregg,
Luke Whiston,
Ali Gray

31st December 2011

10. Black Mirror

Channel: Channel 4
Starring: Rory Kinnear, Daniel Kaluuya, Toby Kebbell

The Prime Minister is having sex with a pig. The universe is populated by fame-hungry Xbox Live avatars. The new Sky+ box is installed in your head. Welcome to the nightmarish visions of Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror, a sort of Twilight Zone meets Tomorrow's World mini-series in which the shiny black rectangles we allow into our living rooms and pockets reveal themselves to be portals to terrifying otherworlds, where technology doesn't enrich our lives at all, but consumes them. It proposes a world where we are the app, and the tech uses us - a series of hyper-real fables that, in all honesty, are almost within WiFi range of our current reality.

Stranger things happen every day on the internet - Black Mirror merely dares to dream what would happen if we had to take them seriously. Social networks affecting mass real-world decisions? Ask the News Of The World how their year was. A celeb-centric world in which all we crave is a shot at stardom, and would crawl through a mile of someone else's shit to get it? Did you see Celebrity Big Brother? Okay, I'm not quite suggesting we're living in a world where we can access all of our memories on demand, but ... well, Virgin Media's TiVo box is pretty hot shit. Let's see where we're at a few system upgrades later.

Brooker has proved himself time and time again to be a man with his finger on the pulse, predicting the rise of the idiots with Nathan Barley and the rabid mutation of celebrity culture in Dead Set, but Black Mirror is his most prescient work yet - clever, compelling and eerily close to the truth we can't quite admit we're heading towards. Besides, I'll instantly 'Like' any show that can call itself a social commentary and still have the words 'LOL PM's wife gonna be sucking bacon juice off his cock tonight' shown within. Ali

Defining moment: A distraught Toby Kebbell wanders through his empty house, intercut with the 'redos' of happier moments that are literally playing in his head.

9. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle

Channel: BBC
Starring: Stewart Lee, Armando Iannucci

Not to everyone's tastes, Stewart Lee. But then a lot of people are idiots. Softened a little in recent years by fatherhood, but also hardened by stand-up comedy's modern diminution in status to a mere stepping-stone to a TV career, his material has grown more and more concerned with examining its own form, structure and effect. His critics call this "disappearing up his own arse". I'd love to categorically disagree, but it's hard to. Then again, he was already halfway inside his arse in the nineties, but the acoustics must have been pretty good in there, because you could hear him perfectly well - and what you heard was always funny.

Lee struggled to get this second series of Comedy Vehicle commissioned. It's easy to see why: how do you sell TV audiences on six episodes of a man doing stand-up with no real jokes to speak of? Answer: well, no one came up with one, really. Not many people watched it.

Had they managed to find it, buried in its weekday BBC2 graveyard slot, they might have marvelled at Lee's control of his audience, to a degree I've never seen another stand-up achieve. He perfectly understands the viewer's expectations, leaving him able to meet or subvert them, or both, in whichever way he chooses. He'll sometimes lead you down traditional stand-up paths, only to step back from it, deconstruct what he's just done, and remind you that you shouldn't expect him to do it again. Then he might do it again.

It is certainly elitist, this kind of comedy snobbery that derides Michael McIntyre's easy observational gags, but all it's really doing is reminding you that stand-up is an art form in its own right, not just a way of getting on TV, and that it can be so much more than Live at the Apollo. And besides, if you're an elitist you must be in the elite, right? Ed

Defining moment: "Scottishness is passed on through the male genes. It overwhelms all female chromosomes. That's why there are no Scottish women. There aren't, are there? It's a funny thing. You think about it. You think, 'Oh, there are', but there aren't. Do you know any? No. There's people sitting at home thinking, 'Hang on, I'm a Scottish woman.' You aren't."

8. The Killing

Channel: BBC
Starring: Sofie Grabol, Soren Malling, Lars Mikkelsen

I'm not against remakes in any way, but I do think that if a show has merited a remake into your language, it behoves you to watch the original as it's probably pretty damned good. I'm convinced that there's no television studio currently in pre-production of the Scandinavian Rosemary and Thyme.

Such is the case with The Killing ('Forbrydelsen' in Danish, meaning The Crime), perhaps the best contemporary crime drama ever made, and certainly the finest of the year - don't let the fact it was actually made in 2007 confuse you. While the US remake is a perfectly adequate drama, it doesn't quite capture the gripping atmosphere or recreate the intrigue which makes it almost physically impossible to not watch the entire series in one sitting. You're not just curious to know what happens next, you're compelled to find out.

The first series, shown on BBC4 in January, took UK audiences by storm, bringing in an audience of over half a million every week. That's even more popular than Mad Men. I assume the fact that main protagonist Sarah Lund wears the most awesome Faroese jumpers has something to do with it. If you haven't seen it, here's as much as I can reveal without giving anything away.

In series one Detective Inspector Sarah Lund is leaving Copenhagen for Sweden, but one last case stops her: the rape and murder of a 19-year-old girl. She and partner DI Jan Meyer begin an investigation that twists and turns around the city and the girl's family, and reveals the killer to be crazy intelligent. Meanwhile, a local politician who's running for mayor may or may not be linked to the murder, which creates a secondary storyline weaving in and out of the investigation.

In series two, a lawyer has been found brutally murdered with a videotape which reveals things to be a lot more complicated. After the events of the first series, Lund is not particularly keen to take on the case - until it really starts to get weird. The secondary plot involves the Justice Minister Thomas Buch and some Danish soldiers in Afghanistan. And that's really all I can say about that.

It's beautifully shot and intricately detailed, the kind of TV you have to pay attention to and watch twice. Not just because it's subtitled, but because it's smart, funny and you need to be watching everyone's faces to see if the latest revelation means THEY DID IT! I bet you think they did, but you're almost certainly wrong.

Once you're a bona fide Killing-ite, and you've gotten over the fact that Sofie Grabol appeared in a cameo as Lund on Ab Fab this year, you'll be boring everyone with your love of all things Danish (bacon) and conspiracy theories, and you can do it wearing your very own hand-knitted Sarah Lund jumper.

Har du ikke mareridt! Kirsty

Defining moment: Lund just wouldn't let it lie... Towards the end of series two, the team are packing away case files while some loose end niggles at Sarah. She begins asking a few questions. What follows is the most reluctant and duty-filled "just one more thing", and the pieces to a puzzle she'd rather not solve.

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7. This is England '88

Channel: Channel 4
Starring: Vicky McClure, Joe Gilgun, Andrew Shim

Two mini-series in, I'm convinced that This is England works far better as TV than as a film. You've got to credit Shane Meadows not only for recognising the extra mileage in these characters, but for realising that the supporting ones were more worthy of investigation.

In December's three-episode series, you noticed two key things: the racism theme of the film has disappeared entirely (having appeared only as subtext - and subtext you really had to be looking for - in This is England '86) and Thomas Turgoose's character Shaun is really just a bit-part now. Both decisions were as wise as they were brave. A continued focus on white nationalism would've made for a one-dimensional, overly issue-laden show, and it took some cajones to ditch that element and go in a totally new direction.

The great gamble was that we'd care about Lol and Woody, two characters who were there to add colour to the film (and in Lol's case barely that) but not much more. Now they were the love story at the centre, and the whole thing hinged on them. It worked like a bleak, uncomfortable dream. If you didn't want Woody to be your best mate (guys) or hug him while he cried out all the hurt of the last two years (girls ... OK, guys a bit as well) you basically had a tin heart. Lol wore the pain of her infidelity and her father's abuse on her dead-eyed face. His ghost, still panting, haunted her at every turn.

It was an alternative Christmas message, to be sure, but for an emotional impact it beat the shit out of the Queen's speech. Ed

Defining moment: Woody comes to see Lol in hospital after her Christmas day suicide attempt. They haven't been on speaking terms for two years, but they slip back into their rapport within seconds. "So how's the whole overdose treating you?" he asks, after making her laugh by walking with a Zimmer frame. "Yeah, not too bad," she says. "Didn't quite go to plan."

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6. Doctor Who

Channels: BBC
Starring: Matt Smith, Karen Gillan, Arthur Darvill

Some say that Matt Smith is an inferior Doctor to David Tennant's Time Lord. Others say that Steven Moffat's take on the character is too complicated with over-long story arcs and unresolved questions. A few people say bring back K-9 and rubber alien suits. These people are idiots. Especially that last lot.

Where Russell T Davies had the Doctor dealing with episodic threats and finding last-minute convenient solutions, Moffat's distinctly more adult line really gets to the heart of what is most interesting about the series: who IS the Doctor? Why does he do what he does? Does he do more harm than good?

This series in particular has been, from start to finish, brave storytelling for Saturday night primetime television. With issues still left unresolved from last year, not only did answers not come quickly but we had a whole new mystery to deal with too, which took all year to uncover - the Doctor's apparent death. With the introduction of The Silence, a wrinkle-suited, Munch-faced alien race with the strange power to make you forget them as soon as you turn away, this has been a series of exciting problems that, in true Moffat style, the Doctor solves with ingenuity and panache.

Ok, Amy and Rory seemed less than concerned that their baby was stolen, one or two episodes missed the mark and no one can disagree that the big finale ended on a massive cop out. But with increasingly more creative visual cues (NASA spacemen emerging from the sea, black marker counts all over the body, a mysterious eye-patched villainess appearing on walls, etc) and the Lost-esque fashion in which explanations were torturously slow in coming, this has been the most thrilling and engrossing Doctor Who series to date. And no, I'm not counting anything pre-Eccleston. That requires a dedication to the canon that I just don't have. Matt

Defining moment: Too many to choose from, between the Doctor getting shot, Amy's ganger reveal, River Song's bombshell ... but for all fans young and old, the stand-out moment must be seeing the Tardis downloaded into a woman's body and acting as a surreal companion in the Neil Gaiman-scripted ep 'The Doctor's Wife'.

Click here for more Doctor Who content

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