Every cloud has a silver lining. Never again are you likely to have a better opportunity to catch up with those classic TV series your friends have been banging on about but which you've not had time to see. I'm not saying my own list is definitive, only that if you're not blown away by all of the below, you really need your taste examining.
There isn't space to give my recommendations in one go, so this week I will cover War and Drugs (Pt I):
Band of Brothers
If you like war movies then this is at least as exciting as the first twenty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, only spread out over ten, often nail-bitingly tense, visceral, grimily authentic episodes. It's based on the real-life experiences of the Easy Company of 2nd Battalion, 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment, from their landing on D-Day through the Battle of the Bulge to their capture of the Eagle's Nest in Berchtesgaden. Damian Lewis – as Captain Dick Winters – leads a fine cast, though they are often unrecognisable beneath their camouflage and helmets and the dialogue can be unintelligible. The main point is to show you what war is really like, and when you’ve seen in the Bastogne episode what shells airbursting in trees can do to a man's body, you'll feel grateful you're only experiencing this stuff vicariously.
Not quite in the league of Band of Brothers, unfortunately, not least because – even more so than with its North-West Europe campaign predecessor – you rarely have a clue who is who: they're just grunts in olive drab – US Marines, primarily – becoming increasingly brutalised on a succession of Pacific islands before meeting invariably hideous ends. Definitely worth a watch, though, for insights into just what terrifying obstacles those kids faced, be they in the jungles of Guadalcanal or atolls like Peleliu where you couldn't even scrape a foxhole in the coral against a foe who always chose death rather than surrender. The scenes where some of the marines are recalled home to sell war bonds and end up disillusioned, ashamed, and desperate to rejoin their comrades may contribute to a broader historical dimension. But they're also slow, tedious and distracting.
Make sure it's Wolfgang Petersen's 1981 mini-series you watch – starring Jürgen Prochnow – and not the recent disappointing reboot. Based on the experiences of a real-life U-boat commander, it follows a German submarine crew on a typically nerve wracking voyage. You live every sweaty, smelly, claustrophobic moment with the crew, sharing their elation as they torpedo another merchant ship and their terror as they are strafed and depth-charged. It's not just the greatest submarine film ever – it's quite possibly the greatest war film ever.
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a middle-aged dad with all the usual problems: tricky relatives, needy wife, troubled kids, bills to pay, stress and anxiety to manage – except he's also a regional boss for the New Jersey mob and, on occasion, an utterly ruthless killer. Sometime between 1999 and 2007, the TV boxed set genre eclipsed film and literature as perhaps the pre-eminent artistic form of the modern age. This series (created by David Chase) set the template for this – suddenly the best actors, writers and film-makers realised that extended TV drama offers opportunities for depth of characterisation, massive, epic plot arcs, digression, light and shade; quite impossible in a 90 minute movie. The jarring mix of cosy (but not remotely dull) domesticity and sudden, unexpected ultraviolence keeps you continually unsettled and involved. You get to know the characters like they're your own family. To watch the entire series – right up to the ingenious and not remotely disappointing denouement – will only require 3 days and 14 hours of your life. Not a moment of your bingewatch will be time wasted.
This is the other big one – the 2013 answer to that previously unanswered question: ‘When are we going to get another drama as great as Breaking Bad.’ Created by Vince Gilligan, with a superb cast led by Bryan Cranston, it begins with the most inspired premise: Walter White, a loving dad, dying of cancer, decides to throw in his job as a chemistry teacher and use what's left of his life to provide for his family by manufacturing the purest crystal meth amphetamine in the southern USA. But that's the easy part. How do you distribute it? How do you launder the proceeds? How do you fend off vicious, killer Mexican gangs? How do you dispose of a dead body? How do you keep it from your wife and son? Towards the middle of the 62 episodes it starts getting so bleak you may be tempted to give up – stick with it. Yes, it's excruciatingly dark and violent – but also bleakly funny in places, especially in any scene involving Walter's crap Attorney ('Better Call') Saul Goodman – but it's almost Shakespearean in its tragic dimensions. Walter becomes a monster; but he's the monster within us all.
Narcos/ Narcos Mexico
The only problem with these true-life dramas set in Colombia and Mexico respectively, is that they're told from the perspective of US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) operatives, whereas the characters you really root for – naughty, but true – are the drug kingpins, Pablo Escobar and Felix Gallardo. Yes, they're ruthless murderers; they were also charismatic, ingenious escape artists with complicated love lives, glamorous properties (some with their own private zoos) and a certain Robin Hood mystique. Perhaps because it's mostly Spanish language with Hispanic actors – almost everything that's good on TV is foreign language – everything feels natural, plausible, with none of the political correctness which increasingly spoils English and American drama. Brutally violent, horribly compelling, visually inventive – often with the most fantastical South American locations, spectacular set pieces (the jungle fastness; the shoot out on the world's biggest marijuana plantation) and a sultry, slinky, Latino soundtrack.