Here we go, then. It’s time for the crème de la crème, the dog’s bollocks, the grand fromages – the top five crime dramas of the year, and the ones that really stood out for us. This year has seen plenty of quantity but perhaps not the overall quality of previous years, but these top five are all superb pieces of work in their own ways. And the unifying theme? All bar one are from America, and the other is from Canada – sadly there were no British crime dramas aside from Unforgotten in the Top 10 this year. If anything, 2017 proved that American crime drama was back with a vengeance. Let’s have at it.
5. Big Little Lies (Sky Atlantic)
When Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern get together for a television drama you know it’ll be worth watching. And Big Little Lies – based on the novel by Liane Moriarty – was certainly worth watching. Based in the paradise of Monterey, California and around the affluent families of those who lived there, it focused on the mums of the community. Except these weren’t the mums we normally see on our school runs – these were high-flying execs, actresses, new age types and alpha-women who had everything they had ever wanted but were still searching for more. Causing tension in the heart of a community that had always threatened to go postal was newcomer Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), who neither looked like anyone else or acted like anyone else. Her arrival seemed to precipitate the purging of secrets, a murder was committed and a whodunit began. This had a bit of everything – delicious bitchiness, soapy melodrama, an examination of gender roles and status, and, yes, that addictive whodunit element. All with the waves of the Pacific crashing on the rocks below, and the warm, orange sun setting on the horizon.
For our post ‘Why Big Little Lies Won big At The Emmys’ go here
4. Twin Peaks: The Return (Sky Atlantic)
The big fear was that after 27 years, this new series of Twin Peaks – the cross-dimensional procedural with lashings of melodrama, nostalgia and those remarkable Lynchian extras – would feel dated and its legacy tarnished for good. David Lynch (and Mark Frost) decided not to compete with the new benchmarks in television drama and instead took us so far down a road whose landscape we didn’t recognise, we felt disorientated and, strangely, at risk. Twin Peaks: The Return followed none of the rules conventional TV drama adhere to, and provided such a visceral, multi-sensual experience it truly took us out of our comfort zones. It was vaguely political and satirical, but in a nebulous, surreal way (naturally), and it also gave us nothing, toying with our notions of nostalgia: characters we loved and held dear to our hearts were shattered, shards of who popped up everywhere. Agent Cooper split into several different versions of himself, Audrey Horne came back but not in any way we expected (or necessarily wanted), there were floating giants, eyeless women, people who we thought we knew but didn’t at all, gangsters and bunny girls, a Laura Palmer who wasn’t Laura Palmer and the best crime duo on television this year (Gordon and Albert). It was sprawling, unwieldy, flawed and hard work for sometimes little reward, but Twin Peaks: The Return – including episode eight, the most incredible hour of television this year, or perhaps any year – made you feel. Almost six months on we’re still trying to figure out what.
For all our news and reviews of Twin Peaks: The Return, go here
3. Alias Grace (Netflix)
Originally broadcast by CBC in its native Canada, Netflix picked up this superb adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s novel for global broadcast. If you were to vote for Woman Of The Year it would have to be Atwood, who, thanks to The Handmaid’s Tale and this, enjoyed a richly deserved renaissance and exposure to a new generation. Alias Grace – co-adapted by Sarah Polley and directed by Mary Harron – took all the key Atwood themes (female repression and imprisonment, uprising and revolutionary Canadian politics) and spun them around the engrossing, unsettling and ultimately tragic story of Grace Marks – a woman convicted of double murder who was being evaluated by a male psychologist (or at least the 19th century precursor to a psychologist) to determine whether she was fit for release from gaol. In their meetings, Grace recounted her life story to Dr Jordan – from abuse at the hands of her father in Ireland to a rough crossing across the Atlantic, death and disease, back-breaking work as a maid for a well-to-do family in Canada, and friendship and rites of passage as a young woman, not mention abuse in jail. As her story developed we were aware that Grace may not have been telling her inquisitor the full details, which kept her unreliable narrator tag well and truly intact right up until the last moments. As an audience we were pulled this way and that, hanging onto Grace’s every word as we believed her innocence in one moment, and in another thought her guilty. At the centre of all this was a hugely compelling performance by Sarah Gadon, who, it felt like, was in every scene – she played Grace with equal parts ferocity, compassion and glassy-eyed insouciance. In the end, Alias Grace allowed us to ponder the circumstances that lead to a person becoming a killer. In Grace’s case, her treatment at the hands of men in a constrictive patriarchy developed within her a duality that could not be suppressed.
For our review of Alias Grace go here
2. The Deuce (Sky Atlantic)
Here’s another show that we watched and loved but didn’t have time to review. The eagerly awaited return of David Simon and George Pelecanos to TV drama – a working relationship that was forged during The Wire – The Deuce was an eight-part series that told the story of how the sex industry in early 1970s New York graduated from the streets into the massage parlours and onto film. For this project, Simon and Pelecanos hired some of the pre-eminent crime writers working in America today – Megan Abbott, Richard Price and Lisa Lutz among them – to collaborate with in their hallowed writing room. And it showed. Unlike most crime dramas there was no procedural thread, no shock-and-awe tactics and no pastiche. This was human drama of the highest order, with a rhythm of dialogue and a tempo so natural it was as if they had been borne from the streets themselves. Like The Wire, The Deuce told the story of a group of characters who lived in a self-contained area, which meant they survived together by the rules they had created. Take them out of this place and they wouldn’t or couldn’t survive. Underpinning the whole piece was Maggie Gyllenhaal’s fearless, astonishing performance as ‘Candy’, a sex worker on the streets whose emotional connection to humans outside of The Deuce had been blunted by the terrifying culture of manipulation, violence and ownership enthusiastically propagated by local pimps, but saw a light at the end of her particular tunnel thanks to the nascent adult film industry. She saw an opportunity to take back some control. With pimps and sex workers rubbing shoulders with cops and journalists in an area that was at once rotten to the core and vibrantly alive, The Deuce wasn’t so much about crime and punishment but about crime and opportunity. It provided a viewing experience that was both immersive and engaging, with fully-formed, 3D characters who were good and bad, and everything else in between. This staggering study of how we create, consume and exploit product (including human beings), had all those familiar, classical tropes (yes, we used that word) contained in the best, richest storytelling – struggle, survival, usurpation, ruthlessness, betrayal – and confirmed that David Simon and George Pelecanos’s creative partnership is the closest thing we have to Charles Dickens in the 21st-century.
And The Killing Times Best Crime Drama Of The Year is… *drumroll*
1. Mindhunter (Netflix)
David Fincher and serial killers go together like cookies and cream, but if you thought Mindhunter was another Fincher shocker along the lines of Se7en and Zodiac, your preconceptions were about to be shattered. Created by British playwright, Joe Penhall (Fincher directed four episodes), Mindhunter – based on the real-life book, Mindhunter: Inside the FBI’s Elite Serial Crime Unit, written by John E. Douglas and Mark Olshaker – was instead an intelligent and intimate study of the serial killer (so often depicted onscreen as an almost cartoonish bogie man). We met young idealist FBI agent, Holden Ford (Jonathan Groff), who teamed up with veteran agent Bill Tench (Holt McCallany) to travel across the United States, teaching local forces about a new kind of criminal profiling. Before long, their pioneering techniques got them involved in local cases involving murders the likes of which no one had seen before or, crucially, known how to deal with. Before long, Ford and Tench were interviewing serial killers on their travels and had been given the go-ahead to create a covert investigative unit back at Quantico, which was bolstered by Dr Wendy Carr (Anna Torv). Together they collated information about the behaviour of these ‘thrill killers’, and while there were small procedural threads that wove their way in and out of short, multi-episode arcs, Mindhunter was never about solving crimes: it was about examining the human condition, and trying to pin down what causes people to kill. What was remarkable about the series was how intimate the scenes between Ford and the serial killers were (especially Edmund Kemper, played with uncanny and disorientating matter-of-factness by Cameron Britton), how banal these killers ultimately were and, crucially, how Ford, Tench and Carr started to display elements of obsessive behaviour of their own, proving that whatever side of the line you’re on the capacity for psychopathy is, perhaps, there in all of us. With more interesting and thoughtful side examinations of toxic masculinity, Mindhunter (which initially sounded like a title Alan Partridge would’ve come up with) aspired to be more than just a crime drama, and succeeded mightily in being a progressive, intelligent and bold entrant into the serial killer sub-genre.
For our review of Mindhunter go here
For The Killing Times Top 20 Crime Dramas Of The Year: Part one, 20-16 go here
For The Killing Times Top 20 Crime Dramas Of The Year: Part two, 15-11 go here
For The Killing Times Top 20 Crime Dramas Of The Year: Part three, 10-6 go here