|Sons of Anarchy
5 USA, starts Wednesday, 6 February, 10pm
US pay networks are more ambitious and exciting in the series they create than UK programme makers, which often play safe with picturesque procedurals (Lewis, Midsomer Murders) or period cosies (Father Brown, Poirot etc).
FX first let the throttle out on Sons of Anarchy in 2008, and the biker opera about an outlaw gang has been riding high with most crime fans who have crossed its path.
It’s got the bikes, the Californian highways, the biker babes and the wince-inducing violence, but it’s basically a tale about power. As it reaches series 5 next month in the UK (the US got it back in September), the poisoned chalice has passed to Jax (Charlie Hunnam) following the shooting of Clay (Ron Perlman) at the end of the last season.
Not that he sees it as poisoned. Jax, who had previously been promising his other half, Tara (Maggie Siff), that he would get them and their children out of the life, clearly thinks he can ride the storm as leader. And it is quite a hurricane besieging the Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original (SAMCRO).
The street gang known as the Niners is seeking revenge for the killing of gangster Damon Pope’s daughter by Tig (Kim Coates), while the Sons’ major gun- and drug-running deal with the Real IRA and the Gallindo Cartel is in danger of collapsing.
Throw in some bent policeman and the CIA and it is clear Jax has some high-wire manoeuvring to pull off.
Joining the cast this time round is Jimmy Smits, formerly of LA Law and NYPD Blue, who plays charming escort agency boss Nero Padilla.
This season gets off to an explosive start, and for those who haven’t seen it before, it is worth getting up to speed. But be warned – Midsomer it ain’t.
Sky Atlantic, starts Thursday, 14 February, 10pm
Next month sees another US series with an intriguing premise arriving here.
Vegas, starring Dennis Quaid and Michael Chiklis, is based on true events in early 1960s Las Vegas, a time when the mob was trying to strengthen its grip on the gambling mecca.
Vincent Savino (welcome back to The Shield’s Michael Chiklis) is a Chicago gangster just arrived in Sin City to look after a mob hotel and casino.
Meanwhile, rancher Ralph Lamb (Quaid) is pressed into service as sheriff because the real and crooked sheriff is missing. Lamb has to investigate the murder of a young woman, which soon sees him sparking off the menacing Savino.
This cowboys v gangsters set-up is an interesting take on a fascinating moment in the history of Vegas, which is beautifully recreated, with the fashions, the old Strip and the space-age cars.
Lamb represents a passing world of small ranchers, and Vegas is still small enough to be intimate but glamorous (people dress up for the casinos).
Also in the cast is The Matrix’s Carrie-Anne Moss as assistant DA Katherine O’Connell, adding legal know-how to the sheriff’s crusade and the potential for romance later on.
The series was created by someone who knows his wiseguys – Oscar-nominated screenwriter Nicholas Pileggi (Goodfellas). Interestingly, Vegas has not been made by a pay channel but by mainstream network CBS in what looks like an effort to step up from the formulaic stuff (Criminal Minds, NCIS) for something more character-focused and ambitious.
It has fared reasonable well so far in the States (though was outshone by Elementary in most viewer polls). If the producers can flesh out the characters to make them more believable and compelling, Vegas could hit the jackpot.
Sky Atlantic, Tuesdays, 10pm
From the man who brought you the Scream films, Kevin Williamson, comes this shocker of a crime series – which will suit those who enjoy people going into dark rooms where knife-wielding serial killers lurk.
Subtle it isn’t, but The Following has got off to a good start on Sky Atlantic, hoisting the subscription channel’s viewing figures by 636% to 270,000 on launch.
It stars Kevin Bacon as Ryan Hardy, an FBI agent called out of retirement to join the hunt for serial killer Joe Carroll, played by Brit James Purefoy. The twist here is that while incarcerated Carroll has been cultivating a small army of criminal followers on the outside.
It is violent and gruesome, coming from the same zone of crime-horror as BBC1’s Luther in its depiction of gothic serial maniacs with a near-supernatural ability to evade capture.
Bacon is intense and watchable as the man who helped to capture Carroll previously. In this week’s second instalment, he is frantically trying to locate Carroll’s young son, Joey, whom the Following has kidnapped.
Channel 4, Tuesdays, 10pm
Another series with a nasty streak is Utopia, which launched a couple of weeks ago (catch up with it here http://www.channel4.com/programmes/utopia/4od
Unlike The Following, Utopia mixes some dark humour into a drama that is offbeat and stylish.
Written by Dennis Kelly, best known for the sitcom Pulling and for co-writing Matilda The Musical, Utopia is about a legendary and mysterious graphic novel that four nerdy types talk about online. When one of their group comes into possession of the novel’s manuscript, the gang of four becomes the target of The Network.
This shadowy organization – run by Stephen Rea and James Fox – seems to have sent a couple of offbeat but vicious hitman to find the novel, and the foursome – an IT guy, a student, a conspiracy nut and an 11 year old – are suddenly running for their lives.
Throw in government wrongdoing, Russian prostitutes and biological warfare, and you’ve got a thriller that is frightening, wacky and oddly compelling. Alexandra Roach, Nathan Stewart-Jarrett, Adeel Akhtar and Fiona O’Shaughnessy are all excellent here, while Neil Maskell as the fat, dead-eye killer Arby is unforgettable.
BBC1, in production
Pictured here is a taster of Quirke, starring Gabriel Byrne as Benjamin Black’s eponymous 1950s Dublin pathologist. A series of three 90-minute films based on books by the author otherwise known as John Banville are currently being filmed by BBC1 in Ireland, including Christine Falls, The Silver Swan and Elegy for April. With Andrew Davies involved in the adaptations and plots full of atmosphere and intrigue, this should be one of the most absorbing crime series to come along in 2013.
Pic credits: BBC, Channel 4, BSkyB, Channel 5