Written by Joel Russell, Media Trainee
Struggling to find something to watch now we’re nearing six weeks of lockdown? Feel like you’ve exhausted all your options on Netflix or iPlayer?
Well, here’s a substantial compilation of some of the very best shows I’ve watched in their entirety. And I’ve seen a LOT. We’re going beyond Breaking Bad, Fleabag, The Handmaid’s Tale and Game of Thrones (which, if you’re here, I’m assuming you have seen. If not, I’m disappointed in you. Please go and watch these first).
I’ve put together a comprehensive guide to small-screen gems ranging from South Korean zombie slashers to slightly tragic Cotswold mockumentaries, which may have passed you by. There should be something for everyone here. Plus, I’ve gone the extra mile and detailed where to stream them, potential trigger warnings, Episodes to Watch and roughly how much of your time in lockdown they’ll consume.
When They See Us (US)
Drama, Factual, Mystery
Ava DuVernay’s excellent miniseries explores the shocking corruption at the heart of New York’s notorious Central Park Five case of 1989 and the heartbreaking impact it had on the very young lives it sought to destroy. Pieced together in the style of a feature film, it’s masterfully told, both deeply personal and smartly edited so suspense constantly builds, even though many of us know the tragic ending to this story from the start.
Commanding performances from newcomers Jharrel Jerome and Asante Blackk hold their own against more experienced cast members; Vera Farmiga (The Conjuring, Source Code) in particular is formidable as prosecutor Elizabeth Lederer. It’s not an easy watch, but it’s an incredibly important one. As a one-off miniseries, this is ideal if you’re looking for an absorbing way to spend a few weeknights (or an afternoon of binge-watching – no judging here).
Though don’t expect to not come away reeling as the injustice, and resonance of this investigation comes to light.
- 1 series, 4 episodes, avg. 1hr 15mins
- Trigger Warnings: violence, frightening/intense scenes
- Key Episodes: (1,4) Part Four
Now TV, 2019
Thriller, Drama, Factual
Unless you lived under a rock, you’ll undoubtedly recall this miniseries sweeping global attention as Game of Thrones‘ final season bitterly disappointed even die-hard fans of the series. HBO’s alternative offering: a brutal, unforgiving five-part drama scattered with eerie clicking sounds and desolate landscapes, carries the emotional weight of the Battle of the Bastards with a comparably fractional amount of build-up. And in Chernobyl, the destruction is devastatingly real.
Craig Mazin’s script is impeccably structured, transitioning from the moment the explosion lit-up the skyline from Pripyat high-rises to the devastating effects it had on the local community, wider Ukraine and the global scientific community. The exceptional final episode brings us full-circle and asks us to re-evaluate the disaster in light of the political climate of the time. It’s a story the world knows about, but I’ve never seen it told so intimately, putting faces to the devastation and detailing the entire ways of life left behind overnight, to be reclaimed by nature in the following decades.
Jared Harris and Jessie Buckley deliver the two stand-out performances in a star-studded cast, but the real star of the show is the beautifully bleak cinematography and soundscaping. This is another excellent shorter watch which will truly have you gripped to your seat.
- 1 series, 5 episodes, avg. 1hr 5mins
- Trigger Warnings: very strong gore, frightening/intense scenes
- Key Episodes: (1,3) 1:23:45, (1,5) Vichnaya Pamyat
Horror, Fantasy, Thriller
It’d be tough to argue it wasn’t a bold move for Netflix to release a medieval zombie apocalypse series in the wake of Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead. And yet Kim Eun-hee’s grim, twisty legend, starring Sense8‘s Doona Bae, is as visually impressive as it is genuinely scary. It’s been a huge year of recognition for South Korean cinema after Parasite‘s fully-deserved glory at the Oscars, and I have high hopes that this refreshingly humorous (and cinematic) spin on the conventional Hollywood zombie fare will be the next to sweep awards season.
In the midst of COVID-19, a story revolving around a plague threatening to wipe humanity from the face of the earth might not sound like the most comforting escape. But Kingdom, built around an outrageous imperial cover-up which starts with the “ailing” king himself, knows its audience and creates scenes so suspenseful they’re almost unwatchable at times. Watch out for a memorable scene early on involving a cauldron of soup.
If you’re after a high-production horror series that genuinely dares to walk in the footsteps of Game of Thrones (more than the overly lavish, irritatingly musical Witcher series could), this might just be it.
- 2 series (so far), total 12 episodes, avg. 45mins
- Trigger Warnings: very strong gore, violence, frightening/intense scenes
- Key Episodes: (1,3), (1,6), (2,3), (2,5)
Sharp Objects (US)
Now TV, 2018
Mystery, Drama, Psychological Thriller
I’ll say now that I am a very outspoken fan of Big Little Lies: Jean-Marc Vallée and David Spade’s subtle, brilliantly acted murder-mystery, set against the lush seascapes of Monterey and accompanied by a banging soundtrack. If you haven’t seen it, go and watch it. You can imagine, then, when I heard the news of Vallée’s next project, starring and executive produced by Amy Adams (one of my favourite actresses), and adapted from a novel by Gillian Flynn (one of my favourite authors), I nearly had a heart attack. And Sharp Objects didn’t disappoint.
This is a substantially darker beast than Big Little Lies but unmistakably told by many of the same voices. The flickering edits reveal vital clues through flashbacks; the complex, tortured protagonist struggles against wicked rumours flying around a claustrophobic small-town setting; it’s every mystery fan’s dream. And Sharp Objects is a masterclass in character study. Amy Adams is on career-best form in the hugely challenging role of journalist Camille Preaker, whilst sinister performances from Patricia Clarkson (The Maze Runner, Shutter Island) and Eliza Scanlen (Little Women) complete a toxic Midwest family unit on the cusp of implosion. The trio is captivating to watch.
It’s a slow-burner under the dazzling heat of the Missourian sun, as we and amateur detective Camille grapple with an ugly, puzzling investigation. But its deeply satisfying, twisted conclusion rewards you in spades… watch until the very end!
- 1 series, 8 episodes, avg. 55mins
- Trigger Warnings: strong gore, self-harm, drug use and alcoholism, sex, strong themes (self-harm, child abuse, suicide, sexual violence)
- Key Episodes: (1,3) Fix, (1,7) Falling, (1,8) Milk
This Country (UK)
BBC iPlayer, 2017 – 2020
Comedy, Drama, Mockumentary
A huge proportion of the BBC’s sitcom output, historically speaking, has been very London-centric. Or it’s been Mrs Brown’s Boys: the death of comedy itself. But Daisy May and Charlie Cooper’s This Country, set in a bleak Cotswold village, has proven the sleeper comedy hit of the decade. It’s a consistently hilarious, often touching and occasionally tragic depiction of Brexit Britain, and packs a punch like no mockumentary has since The Office (the UK – if you don’t agree, you’re wrong).
Little happens. The siblings – here playing cousins – flit in and out of local employment, lose their minds because their crumpets don’t have holes in (before turning them over) and profess their love for Goosebumps at a church hall book club. Kerry and Kurtan are appealing protagonists because they ring true, and their grounding in the Coopers’ upbringing in Cirencester is ingeniously well-observed. The gags don’t rely on canned laughter; there are no punchlines here. Episodes often close with a shot of a wheat field or text statements which, whilst mocking the documentary style, speak the truth.
You’ll find after a couple of these easily-digestible 21-minute episodes, you’re totally hooked by these cousins’ mundane misadventures, and the eccentric cast of characters they encounter on their journey to nowhere in particular.
- 3 series, total of 19 episodes, avg. 21 mins
- Trigger Warnings: mild bad language
- Key Episodes: (1,3) Oven Space, (2,2) Threatening Letters, (2,6) Family Loyalties, (3,4) Kurtan’s Half-Brother, (3,6) Harvest
How to Get Away with Murder (US)
Netflix, 2014 – 2020
Thriller, Mystery, Drama
You’ve probably realised by now that I really do love a whodunit. Since I grew up reading Agatha Christie novels I’ve had a flavour for narcissistic fictional murderers and a good old red herring. Thankfully, Shonda Rhimes and Peter Nowalk came to the rescue with How to Get Away With Murder in 2014; a legal crime drama fronted by an exceptional Viola Davis as defence-lawyer-cum-university-professor Annalise Keating. Whilst not trying to be the next Breaking Bad, this is a hugely entertaining series with plenty of surprise revelations even Sherlock couldn’t have anticipated.
The genius of HTGAWM is in its structure. Building towards the notorious ‘Episode 9’ mid-season finale, each episode is peppered with flash-forwards to the scene of a crime, as we try to eliminate who’s dead, who did it or plainly what the heck happened. It’s lined with hooks rivalling Prince’s best guitar licks and makes the perfect binge-watch. It’s also on the front foot in tackling topical social issues; protagonist Annalise is a flawed force for justice in a corrupt system which leaves no (actually, plenty of) prisoners.
This is a rare drama poised to entertain teens and young adults, which simultaneously reaches out to mature audiences. HTGAWM‘s ability to interweave past, present and future scandals, even when they border on the ridiculous, is unmatched by any other drama on the small screen.
- 6 series, total of 90 episodes, avg. 43 mins
- Trigger Warnings: strong violence and gore, mild sex, strong themes (suicide, murder, alcoholism)
- Key Episodes: (1,9) Kill Me, Kill Me, Kill Me, (2,9) What Did We Do?, (3,9) Who’s Dead?, (4,8) Live, Live, Live, (5,15) Please Say No One Else Is Dead, (6,9) Are You the Mole?
Better Call Saul (US)
Drama, Action, Comedy
I’ll start by saying if you haven’t seen Breaking Bad, I implore you to start right now. It’s the best show you’ll ever watch and improves season upon season. Two years after its fantastic conclusion in 2013, in stepped Better Call Saul: a prequel initially starring just two of Bad‘s most popular characters: corrupt lawyer Saul Goodman (Bob Odenkirk) and bent ex-cop Mike Ehrmantraut (Jonathan Banks). It’s grown to verge on matching the popularity of the former show, and now almost every episode boasts a surprise appearance from yet another former cast member. Everyone wants in.
Thankfully, Better Call Saul doesn’t try to be Breaking Bad. This is a much subtler, slow-burning prequel exploring the making of an antihero who deserves this backstory. It’s quirky, sad and often hilarious. And it’s particularly refreshing that, though Vince Gilligan could have had any budget he wanted, he’s strayed away from a Michael-Bay-esque spin-off and opted for something much less explosive.
Like Breaking Bad, it’s wonderfully acted and superbly written. Gilligan’s dialogue is like none other. But Better Call Saul has a heart and warmth that offers an easier viewing experience, if perhaps a less immediately gripping one.
- 5 series (so far), total 50 episodes, avg. 46 mins
- Trigger Warnings: violence, drug use, drug references
- Key Episodes: (1,6) Five-O, (1,9) Pimento, (2,9) Nailed, (3,5) Chicanery, (3,10) Lantern, (4,10) Winner, (5,8) Bagman, (5,9) Bad Choice Road
Killing Eve (UK)
BBC iPlayer, 2018
Mystery, Thriller, Drama
British spy dramas are often remembered for their ultra-seriousness, frightfully posh accents and hyper-masculine, martini-sipping saviours in spotless suits with tasers in their umbrellas. Killing Eve, written in part by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (whose wicked humour carries strongly from her outstanding Fleabag), arrived on the Beeb as a total breath of fresh air for the genre. It’s flat-out funny, stylish, crazy and strangely seductive. And best of all, it’s completely unpredictable.
That’s not to say Killing Eve is a comedy. You often laugh simply because Eve (Sandra Oh), our disgruntled, relatably awkward protagonist, sacked by MI6 and thrown into an off-the-book mission HQ’ed in a crusty backstreet office, finds herself unwittingly neck-deep in one of the craziest strings of assassinations ever put on TV. These are all orchestrated by Jodie Comer’s brilliant Villanelle: a psychopathic, multi-lingual Russian super killer, and the perfect muse to Eve’s bluntness.
We’re currently midway through the release of its third season, so catch up while you can!
- 3 series (so far), total 24 episodes, avg. 42mins
- Trigger Warnings: violence, sex references
- Key Episodes: (1,3) Don’t I Know You?, (1,5) I Have a Thing About Bathrooms, (2,8) You’re Mine
Living with Yourself (US)
Comedy, Romance, Drama
If you’d told me a year ago I’d be binge-watching a Netflix series starring two clones of Paul Rudd in a love triangle with Irish comic Aisling Bea, I’d have asked you who spiked my drink. As it is, Living with Yourself was a surprise hit in the UK and US, and a lighter watch enjoyed by all generations in my household. It’s unlikely to challenge any Emmy or Globe contenders, but if you can embrace its craziness (and cheesiness), it’s a show with heart and humour.
I was a little disappointed with the sheer pointlessness of Maniac, its closest relative in terms of its other-worldly premise. But there is a realness to Living with Yourself’s protagonists and the off-kilter relationship that makes it much easier to invest in them. The concept – a dubious cloning operation (in which protagonist Miles copies and pastes himself under the vague idea of ‘becoming a better person’) going awry, leaving both Mileses to battle for a place in a single household – sounds rooted in sci-fi, but thankfully steers clear of any long-winded quasi-scientific explanations. In fact, it all becomes quite existentialist.
Your sympathies swing between these characters faster than that green ball of fuzz in a Wimbledon final, and it’ll be interesting to see what this tension culminates in seasons to come (of which I’m sure there’ll be multiple).
- 1 series (so far), total 8 episodes, avg. 26mins
- Trigger Warnings: sex, sex references, mild violence/gore
- Key Episodes: (1,5) Va Bene, (1,8) Nice Knowing You
Twin Peaks & Twin Peaks: The Return (US)
Now TV, 1990 – 1991, 2017
Mystery, Supernatural Thriller, Drama
Now for a classic, any TV lover has to have on their list. It’s about as difficult as it gets to categorise this shape-shifting cultural phenomenon – at moments YA soap opera, at others surrealist horror-house – but David Lynch’s genius comes from his total disregard for genre. There’s a recurring character who speaks prophecies she hears from a log. Another talks backwards. Another is transformed into a doorknob. No one had seen anything like it before, and ‘it’ never ‘happened’ again. Until it did. In 2017.
Twin Peaks‘ charming world of eccentric characters and misty waterfalls and overbearing wood-panelled buildings long outlasted the show’s whodunit premise – which was a revolution all of its own. Laura Palmer’s prom-queen smile became one of the most recognisable portraits in television history. And 25 years later, the show was revitalised for an even-more-curious 18-episode stint, for which almost all key cast members returned. This time around, Lynch wastes no time throwing us in the deep end, slapping us across the face with audacious, almost art-gallery weirdness in the opening 5 minutes (I’ll say nothing more than ‘glass box’).
Twin Peaks holds a legacy and an influence few other series achieved, or are ever likely to. You’ll be pushed to find a world more atmospheric and alive, even though it’s plagued by an entity that can only be described as death itself.
- 3 series, total of 48 episodes, avg. 47mins (S1-2), 1hr (S3)
- Trigger Warnings: violence, gore, sex references, frightening/intense scenes
- Key Episodes: (1,3) Zen or the Skill to Catch a Killer, (1,8) The Last Evening, (2,7) Lonely Souls, (2,9) Arbitrary Law, (2,22) Beyond Life and Death, (3,16) Part 16, (3,17) Part 17
Inside No. 9 (UK)
BBC iPlayer, 2015
Comedy, Mystery, Thriller
For the Black Mirror fans out there seeking a similarly structured series of standalone narratives with no relation to one another beyond a generalised theme, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton’s Inside No. 9 might be your next port of call. Whilst this BBC Comedy series, now shooting its sixth season, is produced on a much tighter budget, the sheer, mundane strangeness of it all provides an amusing contrast to Black Mirror‘s lavish sets and blockbuster VFX.
Shearsmith and Pemberton, co-creators of The League of Gentlemen, are known for having pretty messed-up imaginations, and they deploy them to the endless invention here. From a lacklustre marriage which sees a husband keep prisoners in the basement, to a Halloween live broadcast (which had to be watched live to be fully appreciated) that convincingly appeared to go off-air as a murderous demonic spirit possessed the BBC Studios, it’s an unpredictable journey with a whole cohort of special guests, from Peter Kay to Dunkirk‘s Fionn Whitehead.
It’s bizarre, often outrageously funny and occasionally pretty serious stuff. You never know what you’re going to get in this chocolate box of gruesome mysteries, but variety is guaranteed.
- 5 series (and counting), total 31 episodes, avg. 30mins
- Trigger Warnings: violence, gore, sex references, frightening/intense scenes
- Key Episodes: (1,2) A Quiet Night In, (2,2) The 12 Days of Christine, (2,4) Cold Comfort, (3,6) Private View, (4,3) Once Removed, (5,1) Dead Line
Netflix, 2013 – 2015
Thriller, Drama, Horror
Silence of the Lambs fans, I think we’ve got you covered. Based more closely on the books and characters created by Thomas Harris, this gorgeously gothic, deliciously violent drama about the making of one of America’s most notorious fictional killers, and perhaps the world’s most famous cannibal, is both beautiful to watch and gripping from the start. There’s something about the nods to MasterChef at Mr Lecter’s dinner parties, with culinary delights so pretentious and immaculate (his guests marvel innocently at the tenderness of his ‘foie gras’ and ‘pork medallions’), that you can’t help but crack a smile whilst your stomach churns.
Hugh Dancy is brilliant as Will Graham: the hyper-intelligent, stray-dog-fostering detective protagonist, who becomes an intimate friend of Hannibal (an equally excellent Mads Mikkelsen) without making the connection between this charming psychiatrist and a string of grotesque murders in and around Baltimore. Show creator Bryan Fuller has a real eye for set design, and his visual style becomes more ambitious and pronounced with every episode; it is utterly beautiful to watch. There are some fantastic slow-motion sequences where Will strips-back crime scenes and re-imagines them as-it-happened. And these crime scenes are beautifully twisted. Body parts twisted into a totem pole, anyone?
You’re unlikely to find another thriller that can play on the senses quite the way Hannibal can; and beneath all the colour-graded banquets and bloated corpses, there is a cast of fascinating, complex characters who all have a touch of evil inside them.
- 3 series, total of 39 episodes, avg. 44mins
- Trigger Warnings: strong violence, strong gore, frightening/intense scenes, drug use
- Key Episodes: (1,8) Fromage, (1,13) Savoreux, (2,4) Takiawase, (2,5) Mukozuke, (2,13) Mizumono, (3,7) Digestivo, (3,13) The Wrath of the Lamb
The IT Crowd (UK)
Netflix, 2006 – 2013
Comedy, Drama, Sitcom
It’s been a while since a British sitcom kickstarted so many careers at once. For Katherine Parkinson, Chris O’Dowd and Richard Ayoade, The IT Crowd‘s three eccentric leads, now international stars with a tonne of credits to their names, it all began with Graham Linehan’s off-the-wall comedy set in the basement of a corporate high-rise.
There’s a loose overarching storyline here, but the joy of The IT Crowd is its complete randomness, its ability to dedicate an entire episode to a historical fire at Sea Parks or Jen’s dinner party with her new boyfriend, Peter File. This relatively small cast, supported by hilarious performances from Matt Berry and Noel Fielding and thrown together in such a claustrophobic environment, leads to some of the most colourful arguments, nerd-offs, mid-life crises and all-out fistfights a live studio audience are likely to ever have witnessed.
The brilliant writing, abundance of ideas and across-the-board fantastic performances mean this show’s characters feel lived-in and relatable, even in the most other-worldly of circumstances (see Noel Fielding’s resident goth Richmond levitate to the ceiling to escape a theatre trip).
- 4 series (+ 1 special), total 25 episodes, avg. 25mins
- Trigger Warnings: mild bad language, mild sex references
- Key Episodes: (1,5) The Haunting of Bill Crouse, (2,1) The Work Outing, (2,4) Dinner Party, (3,4) The Speech, (4,4) Italian for Beginners, (Special) The Internet is Coming
Now TV, 2017
Sci-Fi, Thriller, Western
Bring yourself back online. That’s what you’ll be saying when you’re debating watching an eighth successive episode of HBO’s excellent sci-fi-Western mash-up. Westworld arrived in 2016, set in a land of indulgence and sin in which ultra-rich human ‘Guests’ can spend day trips, weekends, even months in what is essentially a gigantic video game à la Red Dead Redemption, populated by uncanny robotic ‘Hosts’.
There are Tarantino-esque volumes of blood and explosives, train heists and culture clashes in this extreme re-imagining of The Truman Show, where all activities of Hosts and Guests alike are scrutinised by a team of scientists, storytellers (crafting the ‘narratives’ of the Guests – what an awesome job) and stakeholders in this controversial escapade. At the head of a complex underground hierarchy are Ford and Bernard: a sinister duo memorably portrayed by Anthony Hopkins and Jeffrey Wright. Timelines blur as quickly as the line between human and non-human dissolves. In the end, the question of what it takes to be human is revised altogether.
There are so many mysterious storylines to get stuck into here, but what is most impressive are writers Jonathan Nolan (brother of a certain Christopher) and Lisa Joy’s mind-bending twists, which transform your perception of these dystopian desert landscapes forever. It’s never predictable, and whilst Westworld pays homage to a tonne of influences, it’s constantly rewriting its own path into enlightenment.
- 3 series (and counting), total 28 episodes, avg. 1hr
- Trigger Warnings: strong violence, strong gore, sex references, strong language, frightening/intense scenes
- Key Episodes: (1,7) Trompe L’Oeil, (1,9) The Well-Tempered Clavier, (1,10) The Bicameral Mind, (2,4) The Riddle of the Sphinx, (2,8) Kiksuya, (2,10) The Passenger, (3,4) The Mother of Exiles
You can read my original write up over on my website – https://asjrproductions.wixsite.com/website/post/14-binge-worthy-series-to-lock-down-to.
Stay home and stay safe!