Channel 4’s “Top Boy” Makes Triumphant Return.

Series 2 of Top Boy.

Series 2 of Top Boy.

When Channel 4 aired the first series of Top Boy over four successive nights in 2011 it felt like something of an aberration. Here was a brilliantly illuminating window on a corner of inner city life, dramatizing a part of Britain that conventional television traditionally ignores. Compelling, believable, impressively visual and all too real, series 1 was reviewed by me earlier here.

Hardly the sort of programme in other words that one normally associates with a station like Channel 4.

But since then, programmes like Southcliffe, the dystopian Utopia, the brilliant French import The Returned (which I reviewed earlier here) and now this, series 2 of Top Boy suggest that Channel 4 might finally be getting some of its mojo back.

The Returned.

The Returned.

It’s pointless trying to talk about Top Boy without comparing it to The Wire. That is manages to stand up to and merit that comparison is remarkable. Even if, for the moment, it doesn’t quite scale those kind of heights. But then again, neither has it so far been given scope to, with just the four episodes per series to play with.

As with all the best drama on television, it’s all down to the writing. Ronan Bennett’s scripts are brilliantly structured and wonderfully nuanced. They’re given life by a collection of remarkable performances from a mixture of veterans and new comers. And once again the direction is notable for its sense of style and grandeur as much for its gritty realism. And the whole thing is given a wonderful sheen thanks to Brian Eno’s quietly menacing score.

Series two has just begun on Channel 4. Watch it. This is the best and the most important drama produced for television on these islands this decade.

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“Breaking Bad” – AMC.

The golden age of American television continues, and an august lineage that began with The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men continues apace with Breaking Bad. Series 4 of the AMC show went out in the US last autumn, and the fifth and final season is due to be aired there later on this year. But it’s yet to surface on terrestrial television here, and many people on this side of the Atlantic will only be coming to it now.

All the best television depends on a series building a carefully constructed micro-world that you completely trust in because they know every square inch of it, and into which you’re invited for an hour once a week. What’s unusual about each of the above, is that they each focus on two completely disparate worlds, both of which you believe in and crucially, both of which are given equal weight when they inevitably come into collision.

The conflict created in The Sopranos arises when the mundane domesticity of family life comes into contact with the world of organized crime. But both worlds are given equal importance, and each of their characters are equally deserving of our sympathies.

Similarly The Wire has the good guys – the cops, the unions, a school and a newspaper – and the bad guys – the street gangs – but refuses to take sides. Instead, both sides are shown to be equally tainted by petty personal politics and conflicted loyalties which makes both sets of characters all the more fascinating.

Mad Men is a bit more complicated. The two worlds that come into conflict here are, on the one hand the black and white certainties of the late 1950s, which is what the show looks and sounds like, and on the other the pitch black and oh so contemporary cynicism of the show’s storylines and its characters, which is what the show feels like.

Breaking Bad takes this template and reduces it to its purest form. The two worlds here are the whiter than white collar world of an elementary school teacher and the bleached blond vanilla world that he and his family live in, and the dank and dark, grim and grimy realm of underworld drugs. When the school teacher (Bryan Cranston) is diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he decides to provide for his family by manufacturing crystal meth, and two worlds that ought never to have come into contact collide.

What’s so captivating about the show is that once that decision has been made, they treat everything he has to do, drug wise, as seriously as they do family wise. So for instance, when he has to dispose of a dead body, they really take you through, step by step, exactly what you’d have to do if you really were faced with having to get rid of a corpse.

Similarly, when he and his sidekick decide to offer their pristinely produced crystal meth (he is after all a Chemistry teacher) to one of the underworld’s main distributors, and suggest that perhaps he might consider using them instead of his usual producer to supply him with all his chemical needs, all Hell breaks loose, just as you’d have expected it to, should such an unlikely event have ever occurred in the real world.

All the advance reports on Breaking Bad were worryingly reverential. For once, they were entirely justified.