As the year draws to an end, there’s nothing we enjoy more than looking back and reflecting on those criminally good television moments of the past twelve months. Although 2014 has not seen the emergence of a new trend like the ‘Nordic Noir’ explosion of the last few years, TV crime drama has been in rude health nonetheless. The following selection of highlights from 2014 demonstrates the variety and vitality of the genre.
One of the most talked about new series of 2014, writer Nic Pizzolatto and director Cary Joji Fukunaga’s eight episode series used a dual time frame device to show how the investigation of a ritualistic murder in Louisiana revealed a vast conspiracy with demonic overtones that destroys every life it touches. This includes two investigating detectives who find themselves the subjects of an internal investigation 17 years later.
True Detective was notable for many reasons. Stars Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey were names more associated with the silver screen; McConaughey in particular was hotter than hot and about to win an Oscar. Written entirely by Pizzalatto and directed by Fukunaga, True Detective was remarkably constant in tone and style. Already a noted film director, Fukunaga gave the series a truly cinematic visual ambience.
Writer Stephen Knight has fashioned a British period gangster epic to rival Boardwalk Empire. Largely set among the dark satanic mills of Birmingham following the great war, Peaky Blinders takes its name from a genuine street gang so-called because they sewed razor blades into peaked caps to fashion an easily concealed weapon.
Peaky Blinders is a saga charting the peaks and troughs of the Shelby family as they attempt to become a legitimate gambling empire while also continuing with nefarious illegal activities. A starry cast is headed by Cillian Murphy as the Shelby boss and Sam Neill as the fanatical Ulster policeman charged with bringing their empire down. Series two was enlivened by a great guest appearance by Tom Hardy as a Jewish gang boss.
More of an action show than a traditional crime drama, US cable series Banshee has a high concept premise delicious in its improbability. An expert thief is released from prison after a 15 year stretch knowing a powerful Ukranian mob boss wants him dead and intent on finding the millions stashed by his former partner in crime and love. After tracking his former lover to the rural town of Banshee, an unlikely set of circumstances allow him to assume the identity of the town’s new sheriff. Splitting his time between fighting crime to keep up appearances and covering the tracks of his own heists, he comes into conflict with the local Amish gang boss (yes you read that correctly).
Banshee is ridiculously entertaining and constantly pushing against the acceptable boundaries of sex and violence on television. Mixing elements from western, crime and action genres it is the cutting edge of a new type of exploitation TV. As action films skew ever younger seeking a lucrative PG-13 demographic, Banshee turns your TV into a tribute to bloody eighties grind-house cinema.
Hinterland – Y Gwyll
S4C and BBC Wales’s dark moody detective series was one of the unsung treats of 2014. DCI Tom Mathias (the terrific Richard Harrington) is sent to Aberystwyth – for reasons that are never quite clear – and finds that the apparent rural idyll of west Wales hides dark secrets. The chief mystery of the series is actually the charismatic but troubled Mathias.
Shot on limited resources, the series emphasised mood and style over action. There is a budding literary sub-genre of Noir of the Valleys; Hinterland brought this to TV brilliantly.
Based upon Thomas Harris’s novel Red Dragon and featuring his iconic villain Hannibal Lector, Hannibal is one of the best TV series currently in production. Despite the extra restrictions of being a prime-time US Network show (rather than cable) the series is remarkably dark and gory, but tempers this with a ravishingly visual style.
Both a prequel to Harris’s (brilliant) novel, and a reboot of a film franchise that had become too complex for its own good, Hannibal centres on the relationship between Will Graham, a brilliant but psychologically damaged criminal profiler, and Lector a gifted psychiatrist who is secretly a serial killer. The two men are played by Hugh Dancy and Mads Mikkelson and over two series their relationship has developed into a very twisted mutual obsession that often borders on a love story.
Beyond the intriguing relationship at the heart of Hannibal, the show is also an incredibly inventive and high tech crime procedural. The likes of the CSI franchise have taken a great deal from Harris’s trend setting novels. Hannibal reclaims the crime procedural and returns it to its roots in the Gothic horror of Edgar Allen Poe.
While it is still (at the time of writing) some episodes from its conclusion, the BBC and Starz Channel’s The Missing is my personal pick as the year’s best crime series. A slow burning chiller with echoes of tragic reality, The Missing charts the investigation of a child abduction.
Like True Detective, the series interweaves two time periods (the abduction and immediate investigation in 2006, and the present day as the boy’s father and a retired detective pursue new leads). In addition, the eight episodes share a unified authorial voice – in this case sibling writers Harry and Jack Williams and director Tom Shankland.
The subject matter is extremely dark but The Missing has expertly avoided tastelessness while still remaining almost unbearable to watch at times. One of the chief pleasures of The Missing is the way it uses its expansive eight episode scope to depict a credible police investigation. In his role as the distraught father, James Nesbitt may be delivering a career defining role. While the father’s concern and love for his child are never in doubt, he is a morally compromised character. All traces of Nesbitt’s familiar geniality are suppressed in a harrowing performance that allows for this complexity and ambiguity.
Thanks to Stuart for sharing his favourite crime dramas of 2014! Let us know your top picks in the comments below…