1 Breaking BadAMC
The series that was a hit by virtue of word-of-mouth rather than huge ratings or, in the UK, even being
This was a labour of love for writer Chris Chibnall, a series he wrote on spec, without commission, because he had the itch to do it. Which suggests that tinkering from executives at ITV was kept to a minimum and the eight-part series flouished as a gripping, character-rich series. Terrific writing and a great cast – David Tennant, Olivia Colman, Jodie Whittaker, Andrew Buchan among them – lifted this way above your average whodunit. Chibnall is now writing a new version for American TV with David Tennant again starring, and Broadchurch 2 will hit ITV probably some time in 2015.
Another series that was the inspiration of one writer. Allan Cubitt worked hard to create a chilling, realistic serial killer for this five-parter, and Paul Spector (played with icy menace by Jamie Dornan) was unforgettable. The character was far more compelling than the ludicrous genius killer cliches of the Hannibal Lecter type, Spector being a normal family man in a caring profession (grief counsellor) whose secret obsession was murdering women. Gillian Anderson was formidable as the detective who could match his calculating precision and managed to close in on the killer in a cliffhanger ending that will see the series make a much-anticipated return.
Quite a few 'historical' dramas like to use 'period' as a way to pretty-up a series. Shows such as The Tudors and even Downton Abbey are not overly concerned with getting under the skin of the past. But Peaky Blinders takes its setting and time seriously, and is fascinated by the inter-war era of gangs in Birmingham. It merged a little known true story with a tense drama, as Tommy Shelby (Cillian Murphy) tried to build a seriously powerful crime empire in the face of gang rivals and the scary Inspector Campbell (Sam Neill). The drama looked stunning too, and has deservedly been commissioned for a second series.
5 UtopiaChannel 4
Utopia was different. In a sea of costume crime dramas and whodunits (Foyle's War, Marple, Poirot, Ripper Street, WPC 56, Father Brown etc etc etc), it stood out. A conspiracy hidden in a graphic novel and a flood of conspiracies designed to hide a real conspiracy certainly grabbed the attention. It was quirky and scary, but kept most of us intrigued through its six episodes. Neil Maskell certainly arrived on the TV radar with his performance as the torturing psycho Paul, and the whole cast – Fiona O'Shaughnessy, Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett and Adeel Akhtar – kept the drama sparking along. With dramas such as Utopia and Southcliffe, C4 offered something fresh and distinctive this year.
This year's season revolved around a rather garbled storyline that was pretty hard to make sense of, kicking off with a prologue about a guy with a defective parachute plummeting to earth and landing with bags of cocaine and an ID for 'Waldo Truth'. This McGuffin tied-in mafia figures, Raylan's father, a snake-handling preacher and Wynn Duffy. Despite the messy story arc, on a week-to-week basis, deputy US marshal and cowboy-hat wearer Raylan Givens (Timothy Olyphant) still gave good value for money. The character was the creation, of course, of Elmore Leonard, who sadly passed away in August, aged 87. He left behind some wonderful novels, and this sharp, cool TV series, which has been recommissioned for a fifth series. When so many mainstream US crime series are obsessed with forensic porn and buff model cops, it's a joy to take the back roads of Kentucky for a sassy, gritty crime saga.
7 DexterFox UK
It's a wrap for Dex, one of the most audacious and subversive dramas yet to emerge during the TV renaissance that's occurred since the late 1990s and the arrival of the US subscription channels – HBO, Fox, Showtime and AMC. Getting us on the side of a serial killer was a spectacular trick to pull off, but we were there with Dexter Morgan as he duelled with other killers, maintained his front as a blood-spatter analyst for Miami Metro Police, and tried to be a brother to cop sister Debs. This was a high-wire act for the character and the writers, and in seeking to close the drama (Debra dies and Dexter fakes his own suicide) the show polarised fans. But it was still a stunning, if bloody, series, and Michael C Hall and Jennifer Carpenter were compelling to the end.
The Inspector Morse spin-off prequel capitalised on its hugely successful pilot by becoming a character-driven series that remained true to the original. Everyone remembers John Thaw's grumpy, lonely older Morse, but here we got an insight into how he grew into that person by watching Shaun Evans's gifted, stand-offish younger detective. The cases were suitably challenging as brainteasers for our hero, and the cast, particularly Roger Allam and Anton Lesser, brought the drama alive. A new series is on the way.
9 BansheeSky Atlantic
A bloody, racing, furiously aggressive show with a crazy premise that was nevertheless addictive viewing for anyone who can't bear cosy mysteries in period costumes or anything resembling a traditional police procedural. Antony Starr is 'Lucas Hood' – we never learn his real name – who leaves prison and is immediately on the run from the Russian mobsters he betrayed. He finds himself in Banshee, an Amish town, looking for the beauty with whom he stole the Russians' diamonds, Anatasia (Ivana Milicevic). The opportunity presents itself for our man to assume the identity of the new sheriff in town, who conveniently is killed in a bar brawl before he can officially take the post. It's filled with great characters, sex, violence that is wince-inducing and preposterous, and rounded off with a great finale. Fortunately, there's more to come with a new series for 2014.
10 Arne DahlBBC4
Nordic noir continued to cast its spell in the shape of this Swedish crime thriller about an elite team of detectives. It was a shift away from the angst-riven brilliance of Sarah Lund in The Killing towards a more mainstream cop series of the kind made in the US and Britain. But this series, based on Jan Arnald's novels, had a cast of interesting characters and an intriguing and tense conspiracy to explore.
Series that were worth investigating but failed to make the Top 10: Scott & Bailey, Spiral, Sons of Anarchy, The Americans, Young Montalbano, Top Boy 2, The Great Train Robbery, Lucan, Top of the Lake, Montalbano, The Tunnel, Boardwalk Empire 4, Law & Order: UK
Series that never proved their cases beyond reasonable doubt: The Ice Cream Girls, Mayday, Foyle's War, Prisoners' Wives, Hannibal, The Following, Life of Crime, Mad Dogs 3, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher 2, Luther 3, What Remains, Vera 3, Southcliffe, New Tricks, Bates Motel, Case Histories 2, The Guilty, Wentworth Prison, Whitechapel 4, Ripper Street 2, Homeland, By Any Means
Series that plodded along: Father Brown, Silent Witness, Vegas, NCIS, Criminal Minds, Death in Paradise, WPC 56, Poirot, Murder on the Home Front, Jo