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TV in 2009: Beyond reality TV's stranglehold, comedy and drama excelled

Authentic and harrowing visions of war, life in the North and teenagers, plus alcoholic clowns and rehabilitated soap stars: the small screen had it all


Let's begin with the year's great TV passing: Big Brother, which came to a belated demise after format exhaustion and red-top disaffection. And yet, blow me if reality TV's stranglehold didn't get tighter than ever. There was the rise, fall, and rise again of SuBo and the fall, rise, and fall again of Jedward; the hysteria-inducing replacement of Arlene with Alesha, and the Hydra-like separation of Katie and Peter: The Next Chapter into What Katie Did Next and Peter Andre: Going It Alone. We had Paris searching for a British best friend, Heston taking on Little Chef, myriad minor celebrities posing at being poverty-stricken, and a "famously camera shy" Charles Saatchi being fawned over on School of Saatchi. And then there was my own reality peccadillo, Masterchef: The Professionals, a four-nights-a-week culinary saga as bloated as Mr Creosote and as addictive as McDonald's. Though, when I wasn't watching Gregg Wallace gurgle over a chocolate fondant, I did chance on some other small-screen gems.

Documentary of the Year

Wounded (BBC1) dealt with the physical and emotional rehabilitation of two amputee soldiers, and what started as an unbearable watch ended as a life-affirming one – such a trite, Hollywood-ised expression, and yet here the only one that will suffice. Less life- affirming, but equally compelling, was Louis Theroux's A Place for Paedophiles (BBC2), about a Californian treatment/internment centre for post-sentence sex offenders, which saw his transition from insincere faux-naïf to insightful journalist continue apace. Finally, there was BBC2's wonderful Wonderland series, whose cameo portraits of bed-bound couples, singing Alzheimer's sufferers et al displayed an Alan Bennett-like knack for teasing profundity from the everyday.

Drama of the Year

The visions of hell up North that were March's Red Riding trilogy displayed a rare breadth of ambition even as they appeared to eat up the entirety of Channel 4's 2009 drama budget. E4 continued to lord it over yoof-TV rival BBC3 with Misfits, whose "Asbos with superpowers" premise belied a show that was utterly authentic when it came to the vagaries of teenage behaviour. But sweeping all before it was the Iraq war drama Occupation (BBC1), a big-issue piece that was brazenly emotional, morally complex, and even extracted a decent performance from an ex-Hollyoaks actor. Really, who could ask for more?

Comedy of the Year

From Horne & Corden to Life of Riley, the BBC may has churned out comedy duffers by the dozen in 2009, but it also produced the year's best. Featuring alcoholic clowns, telekinetic dwarves and Christopher Biggins, Psychoville (BBC2) offered more delicious grotesquerie from The League of Gentlemen team. And geriatric nursing satire Getting On (BBC4) did for the NHS what The Thick of It did for Westminster, with some twilight years pathos thrown in for good measure.

American Import of the Year

For sheer entertainment, nothing beat Alan Ball's True Blood (Channel 4) which rescued the vampire genre from the Twilighters and launched it into a campy, Deep-South soap opera. And forgive me a shallow moment if I feel compelled to mention that it featured Vinnie from Home and Away in a near-permanent state of undress.

Turkey of the Year

Actually, let's forget the turkeys this year and slaughter a sacred cow instead: therapy drama In Treatment (Sky Arts) which crossed the Atlantic on a wave of critical adulation for its searing insights into the human condition. Was I watching the same show, or had my preview tapes been substituted for some over-schematic stage playlets performed by a bunch of over-grown drama school auditionees?

Face of the Year

Just as you had James Nesbitt written off as the gurning embodiment of everything mediocre about British TV drama, he produced two stonking performances, as the transfixingly harrowed sergeant in Occupation, and a nervily vengeful victim's relative in Irish-troubles piece Five Minutes of Heaven. Give the man a Bafta.

Interview of the year

Move over Frost/Nixon ... it's Fearne Cotton and Peaches Geldof. Peaches: "I've always been really interested in quantum theories ... that's how, I guess, I got involved in spirituality and the religious path I chose to go down." Fearne: "She hasn't got that base level of politeness or etiquette ... if she doesn't want to do something, she won't. I kind of admire that." Enough. Said.