Just reading through the first 10 picks in our annual Top 15 Crime Dramas of year, it really hits you just how high the standard has been this year. Already we’ve had some of the heavy hitters of British crime drama, which means – I hope – that our top five is something really special. What makes these final five so special? It’s a subjective business, of course, but for us the very best crime drama manages to infuse a compelling mystery and detection process with stories of the human condition, and we really think this final batch of brilliant series managed to strike that perfect balance between the two. Read on for the top five, but don’t worry – I’ll give you the chance to vote for your favourites tomorrow.
5 Happy Valley, BBC1
What can you say about Happy Valley that hasn’t already been said? Not a lot, really. (Well, some stuff, at least.) While Sally Wainwright’s superb version of a western set in the parochial north of England didn’t improve on its first series (although there are plenty of viewers out there that will disagree with me), it once again subverted gender roles within crime drama. This time around our Sheriff, Catherine Cawood (Sarah Lancashire, again fantastic), was having more trouble, when she unwittingly became a suspect in the murder of the mother of her nemesis, Tommy Lee Royce. Suddenly Cawood’s integrity – something she values so highly – was questioned, and her home threatened (imprisoned Royce had sent an infatuated woman, Frances Drummond, to wreak revenge on his behalf). On top of all this, there was a murderous copper and more air time for Cawood’s sister Clare (Siobhan Finneran, quite brilliant), who continued to battle her alcoholism. The site of Cawood’s house becoming a kind of ark for women in need was brilliant, while the standard of Wainwright’s writing and dialogue never slipped below the highest standard.
For all our review of Happy Valley, go here
4 The Night Of, Sky Atlantic
Based on BBC series Criminal Justice, The Night Of transported the story of a young man accused of the brutal slaying of a young woman after a wild night of booze, sex and drugs to New York, swapping Ben Wishaw’s Ben Coulter with Riz Ahmed’s Nasir Khan. Landing himself with defending the seemingly indefensible was huckster lawyer John Stone (a magnificent John Turturro), a sharp, streetwise attorney who, previous to the Nasir Khan case, was more used to small-fry, in-and-out cases. The world these characters suddenly found themselves in – the American justice system – was rife with rules, politicking and ruthlessness beyond our main players’ abilities: Stone, with his crippling eczema, was seen as a comical figure; rookie lawyer Chandra Kapoor was eaten alive despite verve and idealism; and Naz found himself fighting for his life in the notorious Rikers Island prison. His transformation from trembling prey to prison lynchpin was terrifying. Each of them had to adapt as the system was waiting to devour them. Expertly written by crime novelist Richard Price and Steven Zallian and brilliantly played by Ahmed (who is now one of this country’s best actors), Turturro and Bill Camp as old-school NYC detective Dennis Box, The Night Of had its flaws, but such was the quality of dialogue (which sometimes to took you back into the golden era of film noir) and a first episode that was so incredible in construction and high in levels of suspense, The Night Of reminded you that America could still produce outstanding crime drama that explored important themes.
For all our reviews of The Night Of, go here
3 The Witness For The Prosecution, BBC1
To many, this wasn’t the Agatha Christie adaptation they were looking for this Christmas, but we loved Sarah Phelps’s second Christie adaptation. It was full of dark, sickly London streets; flawed, broken people and a storyline that fleshed out the human side of its characters while still retaining those classic Christie twists. Another fabulous cast – including a mesmerising Andrea Riseborough – brought this to life, while Phelps’s writing was full of invention, heart and authenticity (when isn’t it?). It didn’t quite have the zingy tempo of And The There Were None, but it was another superior effort, which crafted a heartbreaking human story around the experiences of war and, of course, a murder. Intensely moving, The Witness For The Prosecution was exactly what crime dramas should be about – a crime and a mystery, yes, but also rich characterisation and believable, heartbreaking social context.
For our reviews of The Witness For The Prosecution, go here
2 National Treasure, Channel 4
This was a series that was difficult to watch. But what a series. Jack Thorne’s timely examination of historical sex abuse featured a stellar cast – including Robbie Coltrane as legendary comic performer Paul Finchley, Julie Walters as his wife, Marie, Andrea Riseborough as his daughter Dee, and Tim McInnerny as his ambiguous, cowardly comedy sidekick, Karl. It told the story of Finchley and how he and his family coped with the bombshell of him being accused of historical sex offences. Coltrane brought an immense physicality to the role, at once alluring and grotesque, while Walters, as his confused, shamed wife, was simply magnificent. Riseborough, yet again, was unmissable as a daughter broken by dysfunctional family life. Both were struggling with guilt and questioning their role in Finchley’s life and the abuse of power he exhibited, and the whole horrid back story was revealed in nightmarish flashbacks, long-buried details shimmering like ghouls emerging from the shadows. National Treasure was about the effect of crime not only on the accused, but also the family and those closest to them. It was intoxicating, sickening and bleak – we waited until the very last to see whether Finchley was guilty or not, and when the big reveal came it made us think that the world was a dangerous, unjust place.
For all our review of National Treasure, go here
And here’s our best crime drama of the year…
1 Trapped, BBC4
Back in February, we were transported to the new Nordic hotspot for crime drama – Iceland – for a gripping, 10-part story that pretty much ticked every single box when it came to the genre. Created by Baltasar Kormákur, and written by Sigurjón Kjartansson and British writer Clive Bradley, Trapped was an ingenious series that, initially, presented us with a single-location murder mystery – the small coastal town of Seyðisfjörður in the extreme north of the island had been cut off from civilisation thanks to a Biblical snowstorm. Just before the storm hit, a ferry from Denmark docked in the port, bringing with it the discovery of a mutilated corpse. Unable to call for help, it was down to unprepared local police chief Andri Olafsson (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) and his partner, Hinrika Kristjánsdóttir (Ilmur Kristjánsdóttir), to not only contain a restless, twitchy local populace (whose long-held secrets and family beefs tumbled out), but also find the killer before the storm and the ferry left, carrying with it some big suspects. That was the clever set-up, but what made this so enjoyable and so affecting was the partnership between Andri and Hinrika. Like The Bridge before it and like any great TV police partnership, there’s was one of contrasting personalities – Andri was hulking, taciturn and unable to express his emotions freely, while Hinrika was no-nonsense and said what she saw. Each of them had flaws and less than perfect personal lives, which made them so believable and characters that you fell in love with. With lashings of everything you love in Nordic Noir (including that socio-political ‘second story’ bubbling away in the background) and characters who dealt with loss and grief in believable and heartbreaking ways, Trapped was the most consistent, addictive, gripping, well-rounded and satisfying crime drama in 2016, in a year packed with exceptional crime dramas. It now dines on the top table of Nordic and Scandinavian crime dramas, alongside The Killing and The Bridge.
For all our reviews of Trapped, go here
We managed to catch up with Ólafur, to get his reaction on winning this, cough, highly prestigious award.
The Killing Times: What is your reaction on winning The Killing Times Best Crime Drama Of 2016?
Ólafur Darri Ólafsson: I would say that I feel honoured. With all the great TV currently being made it feels great to have broken through and that so many people have watched and appreciated our show. That’s a pretty great feeling.
TKT: Why do you think the show resonated with so many people around the world?
ODO: I think the best way to really reach people is to have a good story and interesting characters. I’m hoping that Trapped had both. I also think people are interested in a group of people that choose to live life so far in the north of Iceland.
TKT: Since you finished Trapped, how has life been for you?
ODO: Life has been great. I have been working on a few things, a couple of films: The BFG with Steven Spielberg and MEG with Jon Turteltaub, as well as shooting TV series The Missing and Quarry to name but a few. Next month I’m heading to LA to shoot a second season of Lady Dynamite for Netflix.
TKT: You mentioned The Missing there… what was that experience like for you? It was odd seeing you in a hot-weather location for a change!
ODO: I loved working on The Missing. I had watched the first season and was completely wrapped up in that so when the opportunity to work on the second season came along I really didn’t have to think about it. Plus I got to spend a couple of weeks in Morocco with Tchéky Karyo and the crew and that was so lovely. I won’t lie though, it was hot: it went up to 47 degrees. Whew, I’m better in the cold.
TKT: We understand Trapped 2 will be filming some time next year… are you looking forward to being Andri again?
ODO: Andri is one of my favourite characters and Baltasar Kormékur, the creator and one of the directors of the show is one of my favourite directors, so YES, I really can’t wait!
For part one of The Killing Times’ Top 15 Crime Dramas Of 2016, go here
For part two of The Killing Times’ Top 15 Crime Dramas Of 2016, go here