The Sopranos — Killer TV No 2

the-sopranos-blu-ray-finally-arrives

HBO, 1999-2007 (six series)

‘What fucking kind of human being am I, if my own mother wants me dead?’ – Tony Soprano

James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano), Edie Falco (Carmela Soprano), Lorraine Bracco (Dr Melfi), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Steven Van Zandt (Silvio Dante), Nancy Marchand (Livia Soprano), Peter Bogdanovich (Dr Kupferberg)

Identikit: A mobster in therapy balances problems at home with running a New Jersey crime empire.


CREATOR David Chase had worked in network TV for 20 years (Rockford Files, Northern Exposure and others) before pay channel HBO came along offering the freedom to make this bold and multilayered chunk of television brilliance. The Sopranos was the first of the non-network series to show that TV could be better than the movies given the artistic scope and freedom from network TV’s puritanism and advertiser-sanctioned wholesomeness. From its opening moments it was clear The Sopranos would break and toy with mobster-genre conventions. Tony Soprano – the late James Gandolfini was shrewdly and bravely cast – has a panic attack and secretly starts seeing a shrink, a chink of potentially lethal vulnerability in a mob boss, but one allowing viewers to watch him go on to balance his criminal empire with the demands of family life – troublesome kids, ballsy wife and psychotic mother. Brilliant writers (Terence Winter, Robin Green and others), directors (Tim Van Patten, John Patterson) and guest stars (Annabella Sciorra, Ben Kingsley, Annette Bening, Steve Buscemi, Lauren Bacall) came together to magic up a drama that was controversial, parodied, analysed by academics and given a glut of awards – including 21 Emmys and five Golden Globes. The Sopranos became the show everyone in the mainstream networks wanted to work on, but despite the great talents who came on board, the prime influence was always David Chase’s. Tony’s monstrous mother, being in therapy, the New Jersey setting – all reflected the showrunner’s own experience. The result was a series of extraordinary episodes, such as College (Tony is shown to be no hero when he brutally strangles a former wiseguy), Pine Barrens (Paulie Walnuts and Christopher lose a ‘dead’ Russian and get lost themselves in the snowy forest), and Whitecaps (Tony and Carmela’s toxic break-up). It had superb dialogue and direction, surreal dreams, great music, tears and black humour – but ultimately The Sopranos served up a radical new style of weekly TV drama. It also finished with a dazzling, ambiguous flourish, with Tony and his family in a diner after a mob war has just concluded, causing the death or injury of his top lieutenants. A man who’s been staring at Tony in the diner then goes to the Gents, and daughter Meadow Soprano enters the restaurant as the screen abruptly cuts to a long black silence – and an unknown fate for the Sopranos. The fate of TV was known, however. It could be more complex, audacious and involving than it had ever been.

Classic episode: Long Term Parking – Adriana, Chris’s wife, was developed throughout the series. However, when she was forced to become an FBI informant, Chris was tempted to run away with her, but finally decided to tell Tony about her new friends. This led to her heartrending demise at the hands of Paulie.

Music: Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One Mix) by Alabama 3

Watercooler fact: The Sopranos shared 27 actors with Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas, including Lorraine Bracco (Tony’s shrink Jennifer Melfi in The Sopranos, and Karen Hill in Goodfellas), Frank Vincent (Phil Leotardo/Billy Batts), Michael Imperioli (Christopher Moltisanti/Spider), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts Gaultieri/Tony Stacks), Suzanne Shepard (Mary DeAngelis/Karen’s mother).

Best thrillers on Sky Atlantic

While we’re waiting for new episodes of our favourite crime thrillers, there are some hidden gems playing on Sky Atlantic. Here are my favourite three series boasting risk-taking anti-heroes in high-pressure situations. What they lack in finesse, they make up for in adrenalin and escapism…

Ray Donovan (2013 to present)

This ongoing series has four seasons thus far for you to start watching, making for a few great weekends of binge viewing. Starring the excellent Liev Schreiber, the story follows a professional fixer who makes life better for the rich and famous. The ethos of his job is that if you have enough money, he can take care of it.

The twist comes when we find out that Donovan can get rid of all the problems of others, but none for himself. His family seem set on creating trouble for Donovan, but can he fix things? The acting, directing and writing on this show is exemplary, so you’re in for a treat if you dive into this one. If you enjoy forensic dramas like Code of a Killer, then you’ll enjoy this.

Sky Atlantic is currently showing repeats of Ray Donovan, and the series is available on NowTV.

Billions (2016 to present)

After just finishing a triumphant first series, the next season of Billions is already slated for a 2017 release. The series examines the life and culture of hedge-fund managers, which is exciting to say the least!

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This ultra glamorous series is an exciting foray into the changing world of hedge funds, and every second of the action is fantastic. It’s a really cerebral thriller, so you’ll need to be paying attention if you want to keep up. It’s also a star-studded affair, with actors like Damian Lewis, Maggie Siff and Paul Giamatti leading the action.

Sky Atlantic is currently showing repeats of Billions, and the series is also available on NowTV.

Banshee (2013 to present)

You’ve probably seen this TV show advertised on the likes of Now TV and other Sky channels. Sadly, the final series has just finished on Sky Atlantic, but it’s been a furious, violent and lurid roller-coaster ride of a show.

Antony Starr takes the title role and he plays an ex-criminal who’s chasing the ghosts of his past. This leads him to Banshee, Pennsylvania, and brings action the like of which the small Amish town has never seen. It has a true crime feel, as there is a bit of forensic investigation to watch out for.

The best part of this series has to be the writing, as it keeps the pace exciting at all times. And as for the action, it’s the most adrenaline-fuelled and bruising anywhere on TV.

See our Killer 50 tribute to Banshee. Watch out for repeats on Sky Atlantic.

The Wire — Killer TV No 3

The Wire HBO

HBO, 2002-2008

‘Ayo, lesson here, Bey. You come at the king, you best not miss.’ – Omar

Dominic West, John Doman, Idris Elba, Frankie Faison, Larry Gilliard Jr, Wood Harris, Wendell Pierce, Sonja Sohn, Michael Kenneth Williams, Lance Reddick, Clarke Peters

Identikit: Despite internal divisions, the Baltimore police department elevates its battle against drug crime above street-dealer level by targeting the bosses of the Barksdale gang with the use of wire taps.


FIRST of all, there was the cast – no big name stars to buff and glam-up the characters. Then, there was the style – accurate, realistic, with many stories written by Ed Burn, former Baltimore homicide cop and teacher. Finally, there was the ambition of the series, led by showrunner David Simon but with a writing team including acclaimed crime fiction masters George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price. Over five series the drama focused on different levels of Baltimore society and the drugs food chain – the cops, the docks, politicians, schools, newspapers – in a powerful depiction of the never-ending, fractious and seemingly pointless struggle to contain the drugs epidemic. It was realistic (sometimes the street patois was so accurate as to be impenetrable, even to the characters!), and it gave us a gallery of unforgettable characters – Omar Little, Jimmy McNulty, Stringer Bell, Bubbles, Avon Barksdale, Kima, Bunk, Lester and more. It was never a ratings blockbuster (peaking at 4million in the US, against 26million for, gulp, CSI) and it took several episodes before most viewers could get into what was an epic TV experience. But once you did, The Wire was one of the most compelling and vivid dramas ever broadcast.

Music: Way Down in the Hole, performed by The Blind Boys of Alabama (series 1), Tom Waits (series 2), The Neville Brothers (series 3), DoMaJe (series 4), Steve Earle (series 5)

Classic episode: Old Cases (series 1) – Bunk and McNulty investigate an old crime scene. Using no dialogue in this scene other than the word ‘fuck’ repeatedly, we see the two old pros uncovering truths no one else had spotted.

Watercooler fact: The Wire featured in minor roles several real-life Baltimore figures. These included former Maryland Governor Robert L Ehrlich, former police chief and convicted felon Ed Norris, and Virginia Delegate Rob Bell. ‘Little Melvin’ Williams, a drug lord arrested in the 1980s, had a recurring role at the start of series 3, and longtime police officer Jay Landsman played Lieutenant Dennis Mello.

The Secret Agent, BBC1

Programme Name: The Secret Agent - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Verloc (Toby Jones), Vladimir (David Dawson) - (C) World Productions LTD - Photographer: Mark Mainz

Twisted loyalties – Verloc (Toby Jones) and Vladimir (David Dawson)

Claustrophobic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s heartbreaking spy saga

★★★ BBC1, Sunday, 17 July, 9pm

COSTUME DRAMAS are two a penny on British TV, but occasionally one comes along that really has a feel for period, rather than being a piece of fancy-dress nostalgia. This is one of the better ones.

It is, of course, based on Joseph Conrad’s classic spy novel, which Alfred Hitchcock also turned into a modern-day suspense flick.

For this three-parter, the BBC has lined up a fine cast and returned events to era of the novel – London, 1886.

Toby Jones as Verloc

Programme Name: The Secret Agent - TX: n/a - Episode: n/a (No. 1) - Picture Shows: Winnie (Vicky McClure), Stevie (Charlie Hamblett) - (C) World Productions LTD - Photographer: Graeme Hunter

Family – Winnie (Vicky McClure), Stevie (Charlie Hamblett)

Taking the lead is Toby Jones as the horrible Verloc, owner of a seedy Soho smut shop. He is married to Winnie, played by Vicky McClure. Verloc is a second-rate agent-provocateur on behalf of the Russian government. When he is summoned to meet the new First Secretary, his cushy number is over.

Played with a mixture of evil and charm by David Dawson, Vladimir demands more of Verloc. He blackmails him into organising a bomb outrage that will be blamed on the anarchists Verloc is spying on.

Victorian London is evocatively recreated and filmed (without cloying chocolate-box tweeness), and the performers are extremely good. But it is the dynamics between the characters and the claustrophobia of unfolding events that makes the drama so gripping. [Read more…]

Hill Street Blues — Killer TV No 4

hsb6NBC, 1981-87

‘Oh, my gawd! Here it is Christmas Eve, and I’m gonna get shot in a moose suit.’ – Andy Renko

Daniel J Travanti, Veronica Hamel, Michael Conrad, Bruce Weitz, Joe Spano, Charles Haid, Michael Warren

Identikit: Chronicling lives of police officers at a station house in an unspecified US city, exploring their work at the front line of law enforcement and the subsequent conflicts with their private lives.


Creator Steven Bochco was king of the cop show during the 80s and 90s, and this series about the characters in a city police precinct was adored by a dedicated following. US magazine TV Guide once voted it best ever cop show, but today it looks a little polished and tame in comparison to more recent grit fests, such as The Shield or Southland. Unlike those recent cable network shows, which were free of network TV’s censorship and advertising demands, NBC’s Hill Street Blues was a little wholesome to contemporary eyes. But it was still a shift towards more realistic, multi-storylined drama, with handheld cameras, African-Americans among the main characters, slang dialogue, a backdrop of urban breakdown and social hardship, along with a attempt to show characters not always going by the book. Skilfully balancing human drama and a little humour, Hill Street Blues took us through a day at the station from roll-call to late-night sign-off, portraying the officers’ trauma and problems in dealing with prostitution, drug racketeers and killers. There was also a gallery of well-liked characters, from station Captain Frank Furillo and his legal adversary come romantic partner Joyce Davenport, to Detective Mike Belker (who bit those he arrested), SWAT squad Lieutenant Howard Hunter, toothpick-chewing Neal Washington and streetwise Sergeant Lucille Bates. It also gave us a great theme tune, the roll-call segment as an intro to each episode and many powerful stories. The series picked up eight Emmys in its first season (only surpassed by The West Wing), and American network TV wasn’t the same thereafter.

Classic episode: Grace Under Pressure (season 4) – Sergeant Phil Esterhaus (Michael Conrad) dies while making love to Grace Gardner (Barbara Babcock); Fay Furillo (Barbara Bosson) is arrested for prostitution by a rookie cop; and Sandy (Linda Hamilton), the girlfriend of Officer Coffey (Ed Marinaro), is raped.

Music: The series’ famous piano theme was written by Mike Post and was a hit on Billboard’s Hot 100.

Watercooler fact: Steve Bochco followed the huge success of Hill Street Blues by having a hand in creating LA Law, Hooperman, Doogie Howser, MD, NYPD Blue and Murder One – but also the misfiring Cop Rock, a police procedural that combined with Broadway singing and dancing. The series’ theme song, Under the Gun, was performed by Randy Newman and Mike Post was the show’s music supervisor, but the misguided venture was unanimously found guilty of being rubbish by a jury critics and became infamous as one of the mega-flops of the 1990s.

Prime Suspect — Killer TV No 5

Prime_Suspect_TV_Series-474100502-largeITV, 1991-2006 (seven series)

‘Don’t call me ma’am – I’m not the bloody Queen.’ – Jane Tennison

Helen Mirren (DCI Jane Tennison), Tom Bell (DS Tom Otley), Tom Wilkinson (Peter Rawlins), Mark Strong (Larry Hall), Ciaran Hinds (Edward Parker-Jones), Jonny Lee Miller (Anthony Field), Peter Capaldi (Vera Reynolds), Robert Glenister (Chris Hughes)

Identikit: DCI Jane Tennison gets her chance to lead a major murder inquiry, but has to battle her sexist male team members, who want her replaced.


Writer Lynda La Plante took the boring old police procedural and turned it into something challenging and ultimately moving. Helen Mirren had a career-defining role as Detective Chief Inspector Jane Tennison, fighting to do a good job in the face of fierce male hostility (at a time when female DCIs in London’s Metropolitan Police were rare). Series one, in which officers on her squad tried to get her replaced while she chased a rapist-murderer, was the best, but while the standard occasionally dipped in some of the subsequent seasons, the subplots of Tennison’s struggle for personal happiness, the termination of her pregnancy and her battle with alcoholism gave the character-driven drama greater impact than just about every other cop show of the time. Certainly by series 7, The Final Act, with Tennison confronting the death of her father (Frank Finlay) and receiving a heartrending apology from Sgt Otley (Tom Bell), who’d tried so hard to undermine her early on, Prime Suspect packed an emotional punch few drama serials ever match. The end, with Tennison alone with her drink problem, avoiding her own retirement party, was controversial. Some reviewers felt that the male scriptwriters wanted to punish the female protagonist for being successful. But hasn’t Tennison come through on her own terms? She was not a desk detective feathering her own career, but a dedicated case solver who successfully closed her final investigation, into the murder of a teenage girl. But she is not unscathed, having paid a similar personal price as Otley, both having sacrificed their personal lives and stared into the abyss of human degradation. The ending is sombre, but as Tennison leaves the office she has poise and even a faint smile. She did it her way, and a new phase of life without office politics, child killers and rapists awaits. Prime Suspect did for the British crime genre what Nordic noir is now doing for Scandinavia by shining a light on the underside of society, with stories tackling sexism, racism, paedophilia and prostitution. It won a shed-load of Baftas, Emmys and Golden Globes, and dwarfs all the whodunits and forensic shows that clog today’s TV schedules.

Spin offs: Steer clear of the limp 2011 US reboot with Maria Bello. La Plante’s most recent series, Above Suspicion, also has nothing like the resonance of Prime Suspect. News that the author is writing a Prime Suspect prequel has cheered many fans – soon to be seen on ITV in the UK – but it will have to be distinctive and powerful to match Mirren’s series.

Classic episode: The whole of series three. Make no mistake, it’s strong stuff, but this season (Lynda La Plante’s last as writer) reveals a lot about Tennison (she rejects the man who loves her, later having an abortion). It’s also a dark story about child abuse, with powerful performances from David Thewlis and Peter Capaldi, along with the regular cast.

Music: The music for the first five series was done by Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck.

Watercooler fact: Writer Lynda La Plante wanted to know how many female DCIs were in the London Metropolitan Police. On calling Scotland Yard she was told, ‘Oh, quite a number – four.’ She based Tennison on the one she interviewed, Jackie Malton.

Shades of Blue, Jennifer Lopez

Shades of Blue Season 01 - Episode 01 'Pilot' Pictured: (l-r) Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak, Jennifer Lopez as Detective Harlee Santos, Robbie Tann as Earl (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC) © 2016 NBCUniversal All Rights Reserved.

Watch out, he’s behind you – Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak and Jennifer Lopez as Detective Harlee Santos

Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta hit the mean streets of New York as corrupt cops

★★★ Sky Living, starts Wednesday, 13 July, 9pm

SHADES OF BLUE wants to be a gritty cop show, but it comes out as grit-lite, a bit like a Glock handgun with the safety on.

Shades of Blue Season 01 - Episode 01 'Pilot' Pictured: (l-r) Jennifer Lopez as Detective Harlee Santos (Photo by: Peter Kramer/NBC) © 2016 NBCUniversal All Rights Reserved.

Shooting star – Jennifer Lopez

Starring Jennifer Lopez and Ray Liotta, it’s made by NBC, one of America’s mainstream networks, rather than the pay channels that produce most of today’s cutting-edge dramas, such as AMC (Breaking Bad), Netflix (Orange Is the New Black) and HBO (The Wire).

So, while Lopez and Liotta play corrupt New York detectives, they’re kinda nice with it. Liotta’s character, Matt Wozniak, does deals with drug gangs, but it’s not just about getting rich for Woz. He also arranges it so that the drug barons keep the dealers away from parks and schools.

JLo, Drea de Matteo and Ray Liotta

Shades of Blue Season 01 - Gallery Pictured: (l-r) Vincent Laresca as Tony Espada, Dayo Okeniyi as Michael Loman, Drea de Matteo as Tess Nazario, Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak, Jennifer Lopez as Harlee Santos, Hampton Fluker as Patrick Tufo, Santino Fontana as Stuart Jeff Riedel/NBC © 2016 NBCUniversal All Rights Reserved.

Thin blue line – Vincent Laresca as Tony Espada, Dayo Okeniyi as Michael Loman, Drea de Matteo as Tess Nazario, Ray Liotta as Bill Wozniak, Jennifer Lopez as Harlee Santos, Hampton Fluker as Patrick Tufo, Santino Fontana as Stuart

And while Harlee Santos, JLo’s character, is also on the take, she needs the dough because she is putting her daughter through a fancy music school.

They are rogues rather than top-division baddies in the league of Walter White or Vic Mackey.

Still, Shades of Grey has its plus points. JLo is a decent actress, The Sopranos‘ Drea de Matteo is on hand as a streetwise detective, while Ray Liotta really gives the drama some power and menace. How strange that he made so few big movies and TV dramas after Goodfellas. [Read more…]

Fortitude 2 trailer

Here’s a taste of chills to come next January with the second series of Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude, starring Dennis Quaid (Far from Heaven) and Sofie Gråbøl (The Killing). Set to the music of Björk’s It’s Oh So Quiet, it shows a calm and collected Michael Lennox (Quaid) motionless in a frosted car and later, an anxious Governor Odegard (Gråbøl) standing alone in a snow-covered Fortitude poised with a flickering flashlight. Which new threats face the residents of the isolated Arctic town…?