“Did you see…?”
If there’s one phrase you’re guaranteed to hear at the water cooler, the vending machine, the kettle, the office kitchen, the smoking area at the back end of beyond out the back of your workplace, then few make for a better ice-breaker to bond with people you don’t really know all that well (but are forced to spend eight hours a day with).
We love gabbing about our favourite TV shows. And some shows grab our attention and generate conversation more than others. I’m not talking about Soap Operas which keep their audience gripped through repeatedly recycling the same tired old storylines and ending every episode on a cliffhanger.
No! I’m talking about the shows that, every now and then hit out of nowhere and grasp us, from all walks of life, by the throat screaming “Watch me!” with their suspense-filled plots, engaging characters and seemingly unsolvable mysteries which we’re all invited to chip-in on.
Who killed W? What’s the real identity of X? What does Y’s mysterious message mean? Will Z ever get caught?
Questions we’ve all asked of our friends and colleagues (much to the dismay of bosses and teachers up and down the country) and in message boards and social media. We all have our own theories and can’t help sharing them. And there’s always that one person who’s a week behind and who says “Don’t spoil it! I haven’t seen it yet!”
Here are some of those extraordinary shows, many of which we’re still talking about years later.
Murder One (1995)
When smartphones were still a good decade away and the internet was very much in its infancy I used to buy the Radio Times for all my TV news. And it was issue 3762 – February 29th, 1996 – when something interesting was brought to my attention; A new show by the same guy (Steve Bochco) who made Hill Street Blues, LA Law, Doogie Howser MD, and NYPD Blue.
At first, I almost dismissed it, not really having shown any interest in any of those other shows but it was Mrs C who read the article about it and persuaded me to watch it with her. You see, there was something very special about this show, she informed me. Something TV shows hardly ever do. It was one story presented in twenty-three parts, and you had to watch the whole thing to follow it.
Big deal! I hear you say. BUT! What you have to understand is that in the mid-nineties, outside of soap operas, long story arcs were highly irregular. Story-of-the-week was very much the order of the day. Yes, there were ongoing strands that followed through from week to week in some shows back then, (Star Trek: Voyager being a prime example) but on the whole, you could dip in and out of any of them and follow what was happening without too much prior knowledge.
And then Murder One hit our screens (a year later in the UK than the USA) with its coverage of a single homicide trial – the Goldilocks Murder. Jason Gedrick (best know at that point for playing Doug in Iron Eagle – heck, that’s still what he’s best known for) played Hollywood heart-throb, Neil Avedon who was accused of murdering his girlfriend, Jessica. Daniel Benzali brilliantly played his defence attorney Ted Hoffman and, in the first time I ever remember seeing him on screen, Stanley Tucci played Richard Cross, a scheming millionaire who knew more about the murder than he was letting on.
Sadly the follow-up to the first season curtailed that successful format somewhat, compressing three mysteries into eighteen episodes, with six for each case. Benzali also jumped ship handing over the reins to Anthony La Paglia, who was good enough, but the show never quite captured that feeling of excitement the first season generated, and it was cancelled at the end of the second season.
This is one of the earlier examples I remember of this kind of show; where colleagues would gossip around the coffee machine, sharing their theories of who killed Jessica. However, as extraordinary as it was at the time, Murder One was not the first show to employ the tactic of drawing out a murder mystery over an entire season.
And I’ll come back to that later.
Stranger Things (2016)
I was reluctant to include a show from a streaming service as often all the episodes are dropped online at once. With such shows, it’s not so much a case of “Did you see this week’s episode?” as it is “How many did you get through this weekend?”.
However, I decided to make an exception with Stranger Things because it still got people talking. Not so much about the central mystery of what happened to Will Byers (and later the poor, unfortunate Barb), but more, well, just because it was unlike anything else we’d seen up until that point.
While the fun story of teenagers investigating their friend’s disappearance struck a chord with anyone who has been a kid and had friends, it was the heavy nostalgia factor that got people of a certain age (myself included) really excited.
BMXs, Dungeons & Dragons, the music, the cars, the fashions (Great Scott! those fashions!) and the pop-culture references come thick and fast (and don’t let up in later seasons). But more than anything, what really engaged me, and many others, were the shows, books and films from the Eighties which were so lovingly homaged. I spent ages with friends and colleagues listing off the ideas and themes I recognised from other properties I grew up with.
There were the obvious ones like E.T., The Goonies, Akira, Pretty In Pink, Alien, Stand By Me, and IT, but if you looked closer you could see more subtle tributes to the likes of The Lost Boys, Poltergeist, D.A.R.Y.L, Firestarter, Close Encounters, Less Than Zero, Videodrome, A Nightmare on Elm Street. And then when you talked to your chums, they’d spotted nods to Predator or The Karate Kid or Explorers.
And when you thought, between you, you’d finally spotted every reference, the trailer for the second season dropped with heavy references to Ghostbusters.
Doctor Who (2005)
Back in the “Classic Days”, one of Doctor Who’s defining features was the soap-style cliffhanger at the end of every instalment. The schoolyard was guaranteed to be alive with phrases like “How will The Doctor get out of this one?” or “The Cybermen are back! I never saw that coming!” or “Do you think Adric will be OK?” (that last one was a tough lesson in grief and loss for me). And this approach served the show well, keeping it moving at a zippy pace with its short, thrilling twenty-five minute episodes and generating enough buzz to entice you back for another week.
That is until Colin Baker’s first full series launched in January 1985 with Attack of the Cybermen. Although the full story was still approximately ninety minutes in length, it was split into two parts of forty-five minutes rather than the usual four or more. With the exception of The Two Doctors (which had three episodes), this format continued for just one season, returning to the standard twenty-five-minute slot for the experimental The Trial of a Time Lord.
That year of longer episodes is deemed by many to be the low point of Doctor Who. The writers struggled to make the longer episodes work, but more importantly, ratings were down. Not significantly, but certainly enough to give Michael Grade, who famously hated the show, enough ammo to continually bombard it into an early grave in 1989.
Interesting then that when the 2005 revival came, the episodes were this longer format. However, new showrunner Russell T Davies had an ace up his sleeve. With the exception of a few stories per season, the majority of each run would consist of standalone adventures. This gave us some amazing self-contained romps like Dalek, Blink, Turn Left, Midnight and The Girl In The Fireplace.
What we didn’t realise at first, as Christopher Eccleston’s Ninth Doctor whisked Rose Tyler away for adventures around the cosmos, was that Davies was playing a longer game with his story. A few weeks into the revival run people started to notice little things seeded into each episode. Like “Why does the phrase Bad Wolf keep appearing?” We should have known what Davies was up to when, at the halfway point of the series, we were presented with an episode which all but told us what was going on with its title – The Long Game. And then, as the season finale’s revelations came thick and fast, we finally realised we had been manipulated as much as the characters in the show. Extremely well played Russell!
This format continued throughout Davies’ tenure, with Torchwood, Mr Saxon and Bees being respective arc-words through each season. When Stephan Moffat took over he changed this, weaving a much more intricate and (some would say overly) complicated thread through each episode. Yes, the standalones were still there, but you missed one at your peril for fear of not having a bloody clue what was going on when you came back in.
Chris Chibnall’s run, with Jodie Whitaker’s Thirteenth Doctor at the TARDIS helm, has been very much a return to the Davies method – and it’s all the better for it. I’m writing this just days before the series 12 finale The Timeless Children and I feel like the internet has not been this alive with theories and thoughts about how it’s going to end since those early days.
Game of Thrones (2011)
You knew this show was coming. Love or hate it, we couldn’t stop watching until its devastating (you can apply the meaning of that word as you see fit) final season last year. But what was it about Game of Thrones that kept us coming back week on week? I have a theory. Of course, I do. And it goes something like this.
We are a pretty morbid lot. We were tuning in each week to see which characters would die. And die, they did. In numbers. VAST numbers.
Go back to the start, watch the first episode and choose a character you like. Then go to the last episode. Where are they? They’re dead. Because of course they are. Part of the fun with Game of Thrones wasn’t wondering whether your favourites would pop their clogs or not. It was trying to work out when and how it would inevitably happen.
No matter which side of the fence you sit on over the quality of the final season, you’ve got to admit, you were shocked at who departed the show during The Battle of Blackwater or The Red Wedding or The Battle of the Bastards and many, many other catastrophic episodes throughout its eight-year run.
Unless you were one of those smug lot who had read the books and liked to spoil it for everyone who hadn’t. In which case the last couple of seasons were a poke in the eye from us viewers who were fed up of constantly being told what was coming.
Big Brother (2000)
Now bear with me on this.
Our relationship with reality TV is somewhat strained of late, given the recent tragic events surrounding shows like Jeremy Kyle and Love Island and the public is starting to fall out of love with the wannabe celebrities that kind of shows engenders.
But come with me, if you will, on a trip to the distant future of the year 2000 (well it seemed like the distant future when I was a kid but is now almost half my life away. Sigh). Dutch production company Endemol had successfully run a season of their “social experiment” on TV in the Netherlands and sold the format around the world. Channel 4 was quick to sign it up and on 18th July eleven ordinary people from around the UK entered the Big Brother house for the first time.
What you’ve got to remember, twenty years on is how much of a MASSIVE thing this was back then. There had hardly been anything like it before and viewers were genuinely interested in what would happen when folks were locked up for so long together. It was also barely recognisable from the format (purchase by C5 in 2011) in the latter stages of its run (the BB house’s doors were finally closed in 2018).
There were no real gimmicks aside from the idea itself. There was none of this nonsense introduced in later seasons designed to keep viewers attention, like a wall down the middle of the house, a poor half and a rich half, pitting contestants against each other. No, in the first season, it was just eleven people mooching around a house, often making a cup of tea or a sandwich, occasionally having a shower, sometimes reading a book in the garden. Aside from the weekly live eviction, which upped the climatic atmosphere, and daily tasks the housemates were required to perform to earn their food and toiletries, that was pretty much it.
And we were gripped by it. The housemates’ antics were aired every day except Saturday and viewers couldn’t get enough of it. Those with a good enough internet connection could even log on to the webcams around the house and watch live (with audio removed of course, in case someone said something slanderous.
But the real shocker, and what created a lot of the drama, came at roughly the mid-point of the show. It emerged that one contestant had, against the rules, snuck in a pen and paper and had been passing notes around the other housemates leading to the weekly eviction’s nominations being unduly influenced and therefore cancelled. The show bosses instead opted to eject the perpetrator of this conspiracy.
Unless you’ve actually been living in the Big Brother house for the past twenty years, you know his name. Such was the media outcry at the time you couldn’t escape headlines citing ‘Nasty’ Nick Bateman as the worst kind of cad and bounder.
Despite that, he became one of the very few contestants from that inaugural year to maintain a media presence. It’s perhaps for the best that social media was still a few years off at that point because the poor guy received a hell of a beating from the press and the public anyway – I dread to think what the Twitter backlash would have been like.
Battlestar Galactica (2004)
The gritty reboot of Glen A Larson’s obvious Star Wars cash-in had people talking from the get-go for one reason. Starbuck was now a woman.
This might be the first example of gender-swapping a remake that I can think of (answers below in the comments if you know of any that came earlier). Not only that but Boomer was too. And Adama, once white, was now Hispanic and Tigh, formerly African American was now white. But those minor (and they really were minor) alterations aside, the story remained very much the same: with the help of a traitor, the Cylons, a race of warrior robots, were able to launch a devastating attack on the homeworlds of their sworn enemies, humanity, leaving a once booming population reduced to a small fleet of ships who make an exodus to look for a new home.
Those similarities aside, though, this mini-series, which later went on to become a fully-fledged weekly show, running for another four seasons (and numerous spin-offs), adopted the central idea and then ran with it to some pretty dark and unusual places. One of the primary causes of drama in the show was the appearance of “villains” themselves. Once metallic-looking Stormtrooper clones, the Cylons were now indistinguishable from their enemies. And this led to some interesting plotlines, many of which would run for several years. Throw into that the fact that some of the Cylons were sleeper agents who hadn’t yet been activated and didn’t even know they were not human and you have an identity crisis thriller like The Thing, but lasting over several weeks, months and even years. “Who Are The Final Five?” was the question plaguing viewers in the run-up to the season 3 finale Crossroads.
What BSG (as it affectionately became known) also did brilliantly was look at modern-day issues and concerns through a science fiction lens. War, sexual assault, immigration, racism, sexism, classism, extremism (all the isms, really), terminal illness, crime and punishment, the treatment of refugees, religion – all were recurring themes throughout.
Perhaps the biggest question of all was “What does it mean to be human?” and this remained a topic of discussion from the opening scene of episode one to the closing shot of the finale. Did they ever answer it? Not really, but they certainly gave the viewer lots of ideas to chew over to help them make their own mind up.
A bit of an odd one, this. Dexter started brilliantly and kept us on our toes for six nailbiting seasons as this repulsive, yet utterly charming serial killer performed his “duties”, taking out the murderers and rapists who had escaped justice, while himself evading being caught by his employers, the Miami Police Department.
The big question that we tuned in for week-on-week was “Will his sister Debra find out?” and it was thrilling to watch as our anti-hero covered his tracks and assigned blame for his bloodthirsty deeds to other more deserving crooks.
And then [SPOILER] Debra found out. In many ways, as it ran for two more seasons, Dexter suffered from what I call Moonlighting Syndrome. In episode one, we were presented with a question (in the case of Moonlighting, it was the classic Will They/Won’t They) and then, without warning, mid-run, that question was answered.
But viewers kept watching, thinking “Wow! They really went there! I can’t wait to see what happens next!” In the case of Moonlighting all of the sexual tension was gone. With Dexter the thrill of him almost getting caught, we realised was what we enjoyed the most. But we still watched, hoping the showrunners would come up with some amazing new hook to dangle before us and sadly when the last episode finally came, we were left feeling more than a little let down.
Had Dexter ended on that cliffhanger at the denouement of season 6 I think people would now mention it in the same breath as the likes of Breaking Bad or The Wire. But those two disappointing final seasons have somewhat tainted its legacy.
Now here’s one show that relied massively on its hook. Twenty-four episodes, each an hour-long (or forty-five minutes if you watched ad-free in the UK), and each set in real-time creating one whole day’s worth of action-packed anti-terrorism antics.
Questions about food, “comfort” breaks, sleep and stuff like that aside, each season of 24 was like it’s own self-contained, octane-fueled, super-long action movie. There was no way you could dip in and out of this show – you were in it for the long haul. And people were glued to it, afraid to miss a single hour of Jack Bauer’s day from hell.
But each season, while inevitably setting up threads for a new adventure next year, did rather neatly tend to resolve its storylines at the stroke of midnight each day and as such, you could duck out after, say season two, and not suffer the FOMO. British viewers were treated to two thrilling seasons of 24 on BBC2 in 2002-03. And then SKY bought the rights, so those of us without a satellite dish had to go without our weekly fix of Jack.
I’ve still never seen 24 beyond season 2 – perhaps I should one day, but I don’t feel like I’ve missed anything stopping where I did. I’m happy to be proved wrong though. Maybe I’ll borrow my parents’ Complete 24 boxset we bought them for Christmas one year when they were going to get snowed in.
Line of Duty (2012)
Now we’re sucking diesel, fella!
For a couple of years, my parents nagged me to watch two British cop shows: Happy Valley and Line Of Duty. I eventually relented and did the, frankly, depressing Happy Valley first and then moved onto the first three series of Line Of Duty, which were on Netflix. The fourth was yet to air in the UK but would be coming soon, in the spring of 2017, so it seemed the ideal time to power through them.
My goodness, I have never been gripped so much by people sitting in a room talking! Yes, there are action set pieces aplenty, and intrigue coming from every angle, but Line Of Duty’s strengths lie, first in its brilliant cast, but second, and perhaps more importantly, in the stunning writing (the dialogue especially) of Jed Mercurio.
Line Of Duty follows the career of two new recruits Kate Fleming and Steve Arnott, played by Vicky McClure and Martin Compston (best known before this show as the chef in Monarch of the Glen), who join the police’s Anti Corruption unit, AC-12. Leading the fray against institutionalised corruption is the charismatic Ted “Like The Battle” Hastings, played by Adrian Dunbar (who I once saw play Edmund in King Lear on the West End in 1993 alongside Tom Wilkinson, Iain Glen, Philip Jackson and Andy Serkis).
While Fleming and Arnott tend to get the Lion’s Share of screen time in most episodes, it’s straight-speaking Ted who steals every episode with his snappy dialogue, unwavering moral compass and intense focus on Nicking Bent Coppers. Ted’s skill as an interrogator is often the focus of the episode, with extended scenes of Ted in his preferred hunting ground – the police interview room – being some of the most gripping.
As well as this, what has also kept folk watching is an ongoing story that has developed over five series as more and more corruption is uncovered in the upper-echelons of the constabulary. Yes, this series’ bad guy might have been banged up (or made a deal to sing like a canary) but with each crook incarcerated, another, bigger, badder one is revealed. The conclusion of series three, while bringing some of those prior stories to a close, ended with a revelation so devastating the consequences would be felt by many of our favourite characters over the next two series; the mystery of the high-profile officer involved in organised crime known only as “H” (and no, it wasn’t the ice-skating guy from Steps).
The Mandalorian (2019)
The newest show on our list was eminently watchable for a couple of reasons. Firstly, to all intents and purposes, we finally got the Boba Fett show fans have been clamouring for pretty much since he first appeared in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special. Yes, the main character is not everyone’s favourite bounty hunter, and that’s to the show’s benefit. Over forty years the cult of Fett has built up such a legend that any show or film about him could never really live up to it. And so making it about the culture from which Fett came, and introduce a brand new character who can be shaped and moulded as the creators see fit made perfect sense.
It really is the best of both worlds as the writers, designers, episode directors and not to mention actor Pedro Pascal (with his army of body doubles and stuntmen) can create something new while giving fans almost what they want. Nobody can say “Fett would never do that” because Mando (as his friends call him) is his own man, separated from all those years of extended universe material and fans’ expectations.
At just thirty minutes, the episodes are stripped down, bare-bones western-like adventures. There’s plenty of fan service – this is the Star Wars universe of course and you’d expect to see Stormtroopers, aliens, blasters and the like – but it’s never at the expense of the story. And with such a small running time to play with not a minute is wasted.
So what I’m saying is that the first reason to watch, really, is that it’s good. Not perfect, and some episodes are better than others, but overall, it’s very good.
And the second reason people have latched onto this show? Come on! You know. If you don’t, then where have you been? On the farthest rock from the bright centre of the universe?
Life On Mars/Ashes To Ashes (2006/2008)
Now we’re talking! This year sees the tenth anniversary of the end of what I call the Gene Hunt Saga. Remember when I mentioned earlier about shows posing a question early on and then answering it prematurely? Well, Life On Mars and its sequel show Ashes To Ashes were very strict in not giving the game away early.
The question in question (hoho) was even uttered out loud by John Simm’s Sam Tyler every single week in the show’s opening credits: “Am I mad, in a coma, or back in time?” But the question was never explicitly addressed. We were left to make up our own mind as to the nature of “Gene’s World”.
When LOM finished in 2008, we were given a small degree of closure. Sam’s story had run its course, he realised that the sterile nature of modern policing was nowhere near as invigorating as the old school, seat of the pants, armed-bastards-kicking-in-the-door style of crime-fighting as employed by Gene Hunt and his colleagues. So he went back there in the only way he knew how in a heartbreakingly beautiful scene (filmed on the roof of Stockport Town Hall, just down the road from my office) to the soundtrack of Israel Kamakawiwoʻole’s bittersweet cover of Somewhere Over The Rainbow.
But even then, there were more questions posed than answered and internet message boards and Facebook groups were alight with people wondering out loud just who Gene Hunt was. Luckily, the BBC caught onto this buzz. They saw longevity in Hunt’s adventures and had a last-minute scene inserted in the ambiguous LOM finale which set up the follow-up show, Ashes To Ashes in which a new police officer (Keeley Hawes’ DI Alex Drake) found herself back in time and out of her depth.
Like Russell T Davies take on Doctor Who, series creators Matthew Graham and Ashley Pharoah played a wonderful long game over both shows. It transpired later that, although they had hoped to continue Life On Mars (which was brought to an untimely end when Simm jumped ship to play Harold Saxon in Doctor Who among other things), Graham and Pharoah always knew how it was going to end, and A2A gave them the opportunity to conclude their epic tale.
In December 2009 I was unfortunate enough to break my leg and this meant five months at home, foot up, watching DVDs for most of that time. One of the things I did during that time was watch the entire run of LOM and A2A up to that point. This then led perfectly into the airing of the third and final series of A2A. As I watched, I looked extra closely for hints and meaning, where I might not have seen it before.
And then, in the week leading up to the final episode, I wrote down what I thought was going to happen and what it all meant. Who was Gene? Where is Gene’s World? Is Alex dead? Where did Chris and Ray come from?
I really have to tip my hat to Graham and Pharoah. From episode one, they seeded all thirty-nine prior episodes with so many hidden clues as to where it was going that I was in absolutely no doubt what was going on. The story was so well crafted, it couldn’t end any other way. I HAD to be right. And I was. My hit rate was, I’d guess, about 95% accurate. And I don’t put that down to being a smart-arse – it’s entirely the penmanship of two skilled writers at the very peak of their game.
Some members of the Facebook group accused me of being a BBC insider,or a reviewer who had seen it, and others ranted at me for spoiling the surprise. But sometimes a satisfying story is, once you’ve examined all the evidence, one that goes exactly as you hope it will, and LOM/A2A is one such show. I’ve rewatched the entire run another 3-4 times since it ended (and am mid-way through another crack at it right now) and I STILL notice new hints and clues each time.
Twin Peaks (1990)
Of course, it’s Twin Peaks. It couldn’t be anything else really could it?
That image of the body of Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee), washed up on the beach and wrapped in a plastic sheet is ingrained in the memory of anyone who, well, anyone who was alive and watched any kind of TV in the very early 90s.
Revolutionary at the time for its single long story which you absolutely had to come back for every week for fear of missing an important clue so you could talk to your friends at work or school the next day. And the mystery of Twin Peaks wasn’t just “Who killed Laura Palmer?” but also “What the hell is going on?” Of course, we all had our theories but in reality, nobody actually had a clue. But it was very cool, even if you weren’t really understanding it, to say you watched Twin Peaks.
If you approached the show as a standard police procedural then you were going to be left rather baffled and probably upset too. But if you accepted it as a mishmash of cop show, teen drama, arthouse weirdness, soap opera, folk horror and science fiction, then you were still very much in the dark but at least you enjoyed the supremely odd ride.
I have never seen a show as odd, thrilling, intriguing, terrifying and laugh-out-loud funny as Twin Peaks.
Where Twin Peaks went wrong, and which led to a massive drop-off of viewers, culminating in an early demise at the end of its second season, was solving the mystery. Laura’s killer was revealed and everyone just drifted away. Which is a shame, and I blame the viewers every bit as much as I do the show (no, more so) because Twin Peaks wasn’t defined by Dale Copper’s (Kyle McLachlan) investigation into Laura’s death.
No. Twin Peaks was defined by the rich world-building David Lynch employed, with folklore, history, landscape and, not to mention, the vast array of eccentric characters of the town all playing a part in the charm and grotesqueness of this spooky place.
Lynch is another one who plays the long game too. After the show ended Lynch managed to fire off a parting shot with his supremely odd, and frankly, terrifying movie spin-off/prequel Fire Walk With Me which only fueled viewers’ theories rather than answering them. But it was Twin Peaks‘ final episode in which a bemused Agent Cooper is told by a spirit in the Black Lodge, this show’s version of Hell, ““I’ll see you again in 25 years.” that we see Lynch’s plan in action…
Because 25 years later, a new series, Twin Peaks: The Return was announced, fulfilling that prophecy. Were questions answered? Of course, they weren’t! And we were left with more creepy mysteries to ponder and talk about ad infinitum.
But oh my, what glorious, frightening, yet somehow comforting strangeness it was to be back in that weird little haunted Washington town.
What shows have kept you gripped to your TV right to the end, and had you arguing with strangers on the internet about how it might pan out?
Heroes? Lost? Fringe? Any others we’ve missed?
Let us know in the comments below!