Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without precious time frittered away in front of the television. Back in the day, this meant sitting through a Roger Moore Bond movie or an RTÉ seasonal “special” guaranteed to have you in a stupor by the first ad break. But now we live in the era of the boxset and are no longer at the mercy the TV schedule.
With the big day just one sleep away, here is our ultimate guide to the best boxsets to give and receive. For lovers of...
Admittedly, this Netflix show is a “box set” in the strictly virtual sense. Still, for our money, the series justifies a subscription to the streaming site. Based on the true-life rise and rise (and eventually spectacular combustion) of cocaine emperor Pablo Escobar, it blends documentary detail with swashbuckling storytelling. Think Miami Vice meets Goodfellas (from which the voiceover narration style is lifted wholesale), with a pinch of BBC4 doc sprinkled on top. Critics certainly love Narcos which has been nominated for a Golden Globe.
We shan’t spoil — suffice to say, lots went down in Westeros this season, with the shuffling into the great beyond of several beloved characters. The fifth series of the much loved swords and sorcery series was perhaps the most ambitious yet, with at least one episode rivaling Hollywood for sweep and bombast.
As bloody and intrigue-packed as Game Of Thrones, this BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker-winning novels chronicles the unlikely ascent of Thomas Cromwell, advisor to Henry VIII. Given the Tudor monarch’s penchant for lopping off the heads of foes, and occasionally of friends, Cromwell’s exalted position brought with it certain potential downsides. Mark Rylance (left) is absolutely compelling as he helps dispatch to the chopping block several of Henry’s wives while ensuring his own neck is kept out of harm’s way.
Winner of the 2015 Golden Globe for best drama, The Affair took a soapy conceit — a ruinous infidelity told from several vantage-points — and spun it into stunning television. Dominic West was fantastic as a cheating husband — conflicted yet with an undercurrent of ever-present sleaziness. His partner in a forbidden romance both would come to regret, Ruth Wilson communicated a world of pain and frustration simply by pursing her lips and jutting her jaw.
Television So Bad It’s Almost Good:
Series two alas erred in doubling down on its predecessor’s brooding nihilism and tough-guy banter.
In modest quantities both were mesmerising but, with the entire salt-shaker tossed in, the broth was spoiled. Chronicling a slow-burn battle for control over a corrupt suburb in LA’s suburban wastes, TD 2.0 was just about worth watching for Colin Farrell’s turn as a booze-marinaded cop. But Vince Vaughn’s hooded-gazed gangster felt like a bad parody of noir archetypes and the plot pirouetted from baffling to ludicrous.
County Meath’s Sharon Horgan wrote and starred in this sweetly cynical tale of modern love and parenthood. London-based Irish school teacher Sharon becomes pregnant after a “one week stand” with American Rob (played by actual American Rob Delaney — did you see what they did there?). Romance duly blossoms, though Sharon and Rob bicker as often as they lose themselves in one another’s gazes. Just like real life then — only funnier.
If you haven’t seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens yet, a more than acceptable substitute is on offer with this stunning reboot of the cheesy late ‘70s sci-fi saga. Going on for a decade old now, the rebooted Battlestar Galactica remains one of the smartest, savviest science fiction shows ever. With disturbing real- world undertones — the human insurgency against Cylon overlords is still uncomfortable to watch — and a gripping plot, BSG combined the sweep of classic space opera with a post-Sopranos grit and “realism”.
In the original Trip, character comedians Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon played unlikeable caricatures of themselves — with results that were by turns devastating and hilarious. They reprised the conceit in a 2014 follow-up, again directed by Michael Winterbottom and chronicling a road trip south of Rome. Largely improvised, it finds the comics vying for laughs yet conveying profound truths about what it’s like to be a middle-aged man beginning to lose sense of his purpose in life.
Superheroes with Brains:
The whole world is salivating over Jessica Jones, Netflix’s 13-part collaboration with Marvel. For us, though, it is the earlier Daredevil which really nails the source material, with Charlie Cox outstanding as hero (blind lawyer by day, lycra-clad vigilante by night) and the post Avengers New York setting powerfully, yet sensitively, echoing life after 9/11. Vincent D’Onofrio’s Kingpin, meanwhile, is arguably the most nuanced Marvel villain to date.
Truth that is Stranger Than Fiction:
This HBO documentary tells the stranger-than-fiction story of Robert Durst, a socialite accused of murder yet never found guilty. At once charismatic and creepy, Durst is like something from an unsettling crime novel. But he was all too real — as were the terrible crimes of which he was accused and which he discusses in chillingly detached fashion.
Nature In Tooth And Claw:
When it comes to capturing nature in all its beautiful brutality, the BBC remains the alpha dog. The broadcaster’s skills are on view in this surprisingly heart-wrenching series chronicling the struggles of predators such as cheetahs, wolves and polar bears. While careful not to anthropomorphize the animals, The Hunt nonetheless paints them in a highly sympathetic fashion. The sequence in which a ravenous polar bear is driven to climbing a treacherous cliff to snack on eggs is especially moving.
Series two of Fargo is enjoying swooning reviews and hugely positive word of mouth. So it’s the perfect time to catch up on year one, loosely, though not slavishly, adapted from the Coen Brothers movie. In rural North Dakota, dark deeds are afoot in a series that confirms that, behind the banality of small-time life, lurks evil beyond comprehension. Martin Freeman and Billy Bob Thornton head a stunning cast.
A slow-burn drama that hooks you without causing a song and dance, Rectify is the big sleeper hit of the year. It stars Aden Young as a former death-row inmate who returns to his sleepy Georgia hometown after a dramatic acquittal. The show is ambivalent as to his guilt or innocence — instead we see the world from his subjective perspective and that of the people reentering his life. From such seemingly mundane ingredients, Rectify weaves TV gold.
Dapper formal wear and casual prejudice:
Man Men ended this year with Don Draper (right) meditating on a cliffside and cooking up the I’d Like To Buy The World A Coke commercial. As the show and its creator Matthew Weiner, have assuredly “stuck the landing”, what better time to bask in all seven seasons of the series? Marvel at the John Updike-quality dialogue and how Jon Hamm never seems to age.