Breaking Bad — Killer TV No 1

Here is the final entry in our Killer TV top 50. It's been fun revisiting favourite series.

Below is the full list of 50. Are any of your favourites not here? Leave a comment and let us know…

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AMC, 2008-2013

'Nah, come on, man. Some straight like you, giant stick up his ass at like what, 60, he's just gonna break bad?' – Jesse Pinkman

Bryan Cranston, Anna Gunn, Aaron Paul, Dean Norris, Betsy Brandt, RJ Mitte, Bob Odenkirk

Identikit: A humdrum chemistry teacher turns to crime to provide for his family when he is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer.


WHAT an unlikely premise it must have appeared to US cable network AMC! A low-grade chemistry teacher in dullsville Albuquerque discovers he has cancer and decides to make and sell methamphetamine to provide for his family (his wife's pregnant with their second child). From that idea came one of the most dazzling, profound and blackly funny TV dramas ever. Through five seasons creator Vince Gilligan (once of The X Files) offered a compelling portrait of a man, Walter White, going bad and giving in to his dark side. This journey from decent man to criminal radically subverted TV's traditional formula of flawed characters learning life lessons. Gilligan summed it up: "The goal was to turn him from Mr Chips into Scarface." Walter's transformation is wild but convincing, with the teacher having missed out on making a fortune earlier in life, so that when he faces death he's determined to use his talents to cash in before it's too late. Bursting with superb, three-dimensional characters, sublime acting and bravura visual storytelling, Breaking Bad rarely failed to pack an emotional punch. Sometimes it was bleakly violent, sometimes heartrending. An episode in series three called One Minute was breathlessly suspenseful and moving at the same time, a typical powerhouse piece of drama with Dean Norris (as Hank) putting in an affecting performance as the shaken DEA man, unknowingly facing assassination and confessing to his wife that he may not be the man she thought he was. This coupled with a gallery of nightmarish psychos (Tuco, Gus Fring, the Cartel's hit-men cousins) and memorable characters (such as lawyer Saul 'Better Call Saul!' Goodman) makes Breaking Bad an undeniable modern classic. It's unlikely AMC could out-resource the BBC or ITV, but the (comparatively) fledgling network produced an unforgettable series with a scope and ambition UK channel honchos can't even dream of.

Classic episode: Grilled – crazed Tuco takes Walter and Jesse prisoner in the desert. Tense, with a bloody finale.

Music: Main theme by composer Dave Porter. Fine music throughout the five series, with The Ballard of Heisenberg by Negro y Azul particularly fun.

Watercooler fact: The pink, burnt teddy bear, which is seen throughout series two as a harbinger of the plane crash at the end of the season, appears in black-and-white flash forwards. Only the bear appears in colour, in tribute to the little girl in a red coat in Schindler's List.

Cagney and Lacey — Killer TV No 15

cagneylacey8CBS, 1982-86

‘You feel like a little girl. What I see is a woman of great courage.’ – Mary Beth Lacey

Tyne Daly, Sharon Gless, Al Waxman, John Karlen

Identikit: Two women show their strength and vulnerabilities dealing with their private lives and careers as New York detectives.


The TV landscape is awash with formulaic police procedurals. Cagney and Lacey was one that lifted the genre above the norm, for the first time depicting women as buddies in a tough job. Christine Cagney was the career woman, Mary Beth Lacey was the working mother, and here was a drama that cut away a lot of guff usually seen in hero cop shows. Cagney and Lacey did rough police jobs in brutal New York to make a living, usually close and mutually supportive but occasionally dishing out home truths to each other, often in the privacy of the Ladies. The weekly stories had the usual chases and shootouts, along with the odd corny routine for light relief, but what made it distinctive was the human side of the characters – Mary Beth’s breast cancer, her pregnancy; Chris getting shot, being raped, her failed relationships and dread of ending up alone. It also never shied away from the bleak side of policing, such as Chris’s occasional lapses into booze dependancy (like her cop dad before her). The cases they dealt with exposed the underbelly of grimy Gotham – abandoned children, victims of the pornography industry, sexual abuse – some based on true events. And real issues were confronted – abortion, nuclear weapons (Mary Beth was arrested on an anti-nuke demo), date rape. But in addition to its strength as a crime drama, its depiction of working women in a male environment certainly spoke to women holding down jobs in the real world. It was Christine’s boyfriends and frustrations, and Mary Beth’s family crises that always chimed with fans, rather than unravelling the whodunit. Despite early misgivings by some execs in CBS that the characters would be perceived as ‘dykes’, or at least as too unfeminine, executive producer Barney Rozenzweig steered the show through two cancellations. Sharon Gless was brought in to replace Meg Foster as Cagney after the first series to reduce the character’s aggression a bit. When the show was cancelled at the end of the 82-83 season, it was brought back by popular demand when viewers (many of whom were women) wrote to CBS to complain. It became one of the most cherished series of the 1980s, with Daly and Gless going on to share best actress Emmys for six years on the trot – a unique achievement.

Classic episode: Turn, Turn, Turn, the two-part conclusion to season 6. Christine’s dad dies after a drunken fall, and Mary Beth confronts her about her own disastrous boozing, eventually dragging her to AA. ‘My name is Christine, and I’m an alcoholic.’

Watercooler fact: Barbara Avedon and Barbara Corday actually developed an outline for the series in 1974, but it was turned down by all the networks, none of whom thought a series about women cops would succeed.

http://www.cagneyandlacey.com/Home

The Sopranos — Killer TV No 2

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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).

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.

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.

The Shield — Killer TV No 6

We’re into the top six of CrimeTimePreview’s Killer 50 crime shows…

the-shield

FX, 2002-2008, seven series

‘Good cop and bad cop left for the day. I’m a different kind of cop.’ – Vic Mackey

Michael Chiklis, Glenn Close, Catherine Dent, Paula Garces, Walton Goggins, Michael Jace, Kenneth Johnson, Forest Whitaker

Identikit: An experimental LAPD division is set up to deal with a crime-ravaged district of the city, with a Strike Team that includes leader Vic Mackey, a brutal and illegal operator who maintains order while profiting from drug-protection scams.


logosExploring the bad side of the badge, The Shield was a slickly scripted, pacy portrayal of city policing as a form of urban warfare. Though an ensemble drama, it was the block-like figure of Detective Vic Mackey that dominated proceedings. He was violent, obnoxious, insubordinate, corrupt – but effective. He made enemies on the street and at the Barn (the converted church that served as headquarters), particularly politically ambitious Captain David Aceveda. From the pilot these two butted heads, with Mackey telling Aceveda that he did not answer to the captain, and Aceveda planting officer Terry Crowley to gather evidence on Mackey’s corrupt methods and protection racket for drug dealers. The episode ended spectacularly with Mackie shooting Crowley in the face during a drug siege and making it look like the cop was killed in the shootout. The question of whether Mackey, whose clean-up rate also made him powerful allies in the police hierarchy, would ever have any justice visited on him kept the tension simmering brilliantly for seven series. Mackey was no pantomime villain, however, but a complicated figure of contradictions, loving his children and generous with his assistance to the odd hooker, but happy to set a police dog on a drug dealer. The biggest threat to the Strike Team came from Internal Affairs Department investigator Lieutenant Jon Kavanaugh, played with scary intensity by Forest Whitaker. The Shield was a riveting journey with a great cast of characters, including Mackey’s cronies, such as Shane Vendrell, the strait-laced, pompous Dutch, and Claudette, the star detective unjustifiably kept from promotion to captain. And topping it all was Mackey – ‘Al Capone with a badge’ – who never failed to appal and fascinate.

Classic episode: On Tilt – the finale to season three saw the Strike Team targeted by an Armenian hit man and Vic taking matters into his own hands, while Claudette endangered her career by pursuing a risky case that made her unpopular with colleagues and the DA.

Music: Hip hop (Master P), pop (Duran Duran), country (Willie Nelson) and hard rock (Kid Rock) all featured during the series. The theme music was composed by Vivian Ann Romero, Ernesto J Bautista and Rodney Alejandro.

Watercooler fact: Kurt Sutter, who produced, wrote, directed and even starred in The Shield (as Armenian hit man Margos Dezerian), went on to create Sons of Anarchy, which stars his wife, Katey Sagal.

The Killing — Killer TV No 7

3033360-low-the-killing

DR1 (Danish TV), 2007 series one, 2009 series two, 2012 series three

‘Why do you insist on going to work, now you can have a proper life?’ – Sarah Lund’s mother

Sofie Gråbøl, Lars Mikkelsen, Bjarne Henriksen, Ann Eleonora Jørgensen, Søren Malling, Nicolas Bro, Charlotte Guldberg

Identikit: In Copenhagen, Detective Inspector Sarah Lund is about to begin her last shift before moving to Sweden with her fiancé when she becomes entangled in the disappearance of 19-year-old Nanna Birk Larsen.


logosFour years after it was shown in its homeland of Denmark, The Killing turned up complete with unknown cast and subtitles on minority channel BBC4 in the UK – and sent a thunderbolt through television drama. Not since Prime Suspect had anyone realised just how engrossing and emotionally deep a crime series could be. The advantages it had were that 20 hour-long episodes were devoted to the story of Sarah Lund and her team investigating the rape and murder of Nanna Birk Larsen; the cast was superb, fronted by an enigmatic performance from Sofie Gråbøl, who single-handedly blew away the cliché of the Nordic blonde dollybird; and the writing (by Søren Sveistrup) focused on character and the impact of a violent crime on the victim’s family, rather than just the whodunit. Moving and engrossing, set in an alien Nordic world, this was a mature, fascinating drama. Series two and three were also a cut above your average TV crime fare, but the first instalment was a true classic. TV execs at the Beeb and ITV hate to hear it, but The Killing was far superior to just about every drama made in the UK in recent years.

Spin-off: The 2011 US copy fiddled with the story and failed to convince viewers, but somehow kept going for another couple of series.

Classic episode: number 18, in which Jan Meyer is murdered at the warehouse. Having spent the entire series trying to get Sarah to clear off and being rude to her, Jan had – without any verbal acknowledgement between them – become a partner with Sarah, a team that had begun to value each other, with Meyer expressing concern for Lund and addressing her ‘as a friend’. His death was a shocking, emotionally affecting twist. Lund almost cracks when she’s told the news.

Music: Soundtrack composed by Frans Bak.

Watercooler fact: Sofie Gråbøl had no formal training as an actor. Encouraged by her mother and having responded to a newspaper ad, she got the role of a young girl in a film about Paul Gauguin and that ‘summer job’ led to others and suddenly she was an actor. She’s done Shakespeare and appeared in a Danish romantic drama, Nikolaj go Julie, before achieving international stardom as Lund.

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