The Christmas schedule may have sent you running for the box sets, but it wasn't all bad this year.  Sharp mini-series, national treasures and (shock, horror) intelligent reality shows all feature in our pick of the the year's television.

The Shadow Line (BBC2)

A timely reminder that Britain can still produce smart noir thrillers. It looked beautiful and felt as though it had been scripted by Pinter, so sparse was the dialogue at times and so real the menace of Stephen Rea's bravura turn as soft-spoken, light-footed hitman Gatehouse.  As a gangland murder was investigated on both sides of the law, the labyrinthine plotting was sound enough not to be derailed by Rafe Spall's hammy sociopath, nor the the underwhelming revelation that the need for adequate retirement planning lay behind the whole caper.

The Slap (BBC4)

It takes a special kind of drama to retain its appeal despite having zero sympathetic characters in its cast. Faithful to Christos Tsiolkas' novel in its structure and its scope, this adaptation probed the fallout from the events at a suburban barbecue and found that everyone was damaged. Skilfully destabilising the viewer's position week-by-week, you were never quite sure where your allegiances lay. The Slap was a hell of a lot more rewarding that Wendi Deng vs. Johnnie Marbles, too.

Coronation Street (ITV1)

While its chief soap rival carried off all the awards and the viewing figure bun fights with its diverting, increasingly bizarre storylines, Coronation Street played to its comedic strengths and mined gold on a weekly basis. Special mention to the person with the vision and temerity to write a well-intentioned, hapless serial killer and put him in a soap opera. Quite some feat.

Frozen Planet (BBC1)

Penguins! Polar bears! Baby polar bears! Who cares that some of it was filmed at an animal park or that toes were bruised by the question of global warming? Not I. Captivating stuff.

Educating Essex (C4)

Harking back to a time when every third show on television was a fly-on-the-wall documentary of some mundane profession or other, Educating Essex took something universal and made it watchable, while largely avoiding the kind of idiot that the genre seems to uncover with alarming regularity. Sure, Deputy Head Mr Drew had the look of a man who enjoys re-enacting battles on the Fens at the weekend, but he retained the sense of humour and the humanity that was at the core of the entire run. One can only hope that he sticks to his vocation and avoids the path trodden by Jeremy Spake.

This Is England '88 (C4)

That rarest of beasts: the welcome TV spin-off. Two years on from Combo's act of redemption and the old gang were a fractured lot – Lol haunted by her slain father, Milky in reluctant exile and Smell sporting a tangerine Richard III haircut. The pace of this three-parter was glacial, the mood intense and the whole thing carried by Joe Gilgun's Woody. Smothered by over-bearing authority figures and estranged from his mates, he had mutated into a passive-aggressive Paddy McGuinness (only with jokes) but still had the presence to heal some of the old wounds. Roll on Gazza and The Happy Mondays in This Is England '90.

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