Here are some of my favorite “Masterpiece” shows, in no particular order. I have restricted the list to those that have aired in the past 25 years, which is why you won’t see the well-known classics, including “I, Claudius,” “The Jewel in the Crown,” “House of Cards,” “Elizabeth R,” or “Prime Suspect.”
“Bleak House” (2005) Arguably the best Dickens TV adaptation I’ve seen. About the epic legal wrangling known as Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the six-parter was written by Andrew Davies. It’s a thrill to watch Davies spill out the pieces of Dickens’s puzzle, then link them together for us slowly, one by one, character by character, motive by motive. Gillian Anderson is indelible as Lady Dedlock, suffering every moment of her dreary life frozen-faced at a window, as if in mourning for her own spirit.
“Wolf Hall” (2015) Based on Hilary Mantel’s Henry VIII novels, the mesmerizing six-parter takes place from the point of view of the king’s most trusted adviser, Thomas Cromwell, played by a quietly sardonic Mark Rylance. This isn’t the bodice-ripping, horse-hopping likes of Showtime’s “The Tudors”; it’s elegant, downbeat, authentically lit, intensely acted, and clever and relevant when it comes to 16th-century politics. Damian Lewis is Henry, Jonathan Pryce is Cardinal Wolsey, and Claire Foy is Anne Boleyn.
“The Forsyte Saga” (2002) This lavish, engrossing adaptation of John Galsworthy’s novels is, on the surface, a soap involving a wealthy family. But beneath that, it represents some of the deepest moral conflicts of the late Victorian era, including passion versus repression, with cousins Soames (Damian Lewis) and Jolyon (Rupert Graves) at opposite corners of the ring. The interiors and exteriors are lovely, the powerful emotional content less so.
“The Virgin Queen” (2005) This two-part portrait of Elizabeth I has an operatic sweep, as it tells her story of resisting the pressure to marry. It is high-charged by a raw performance from Anne-Marie Duff, who originated the character of Fiona Gallagher on the British “Shameless.” She has temper tantrums, she expresses childlike joy, she looks increasingly like a sad clown, and she is riveting. Tom Hardy, before he was well-known in the States, is here, along with Kevin McKidd, Ian Hart, and Joanne Whalley.
“Victoria” (2017) Jenna Coleman plays the young queen as she rises to power in the 19th century. As with “The Crown” and, frankly, most historical dramas, the facts are twisted a bit to fit a story line. But that story line is fascinating, as Victoria builds relationships with Rufus Sewell’s Prime Minister Lord Melbourne and Tom Hughes’s Prince Albert. The series is filled with gorgeous costuming and locations, and it fully blossoms after the first, uneven season.
“Little Dorrit” (2009) Another superior Dickens adaptation, once again built around an intricate, coincidence-filled backstory, a daisy chain of characters, and contemporary socio-economic relevance. Claire Foy, who went on to greater fame as Elizabeth in the first two seasons of “The Crown,” stars as the titular waif, whose father is in debtors’ prison. Matthew Macfadyen is here, along with Russell Tovey and a spectacular Tom Courtenay.
“The Lost Prince” (2004) I found this two-parter touching, but not maudlin, as it tells the story of the son of King George V, Prince John, known as Johnny. Set at the beginning of the 20th century, it shows how the royal family tried to hide the boy, who had epilepsy and an intellectual disability. Only his brother and his nanny see him as a presence, and not just a political liability.
“The Way We Live Now” (2001) Anthony Trollope’s 1875 novel gets a top-notch adaptation, with David Suchet starring as a financier who anticipates Bernie Madoff by over a hundred years. The four-parter is about the way they lived then, which isn’t entirely different from the way we live now, with plenty of class struggles and greed. The cast, including Cillian Murphy, Matthew Macfadyen, Miranda Otto, Anne-Marie Duff, and Jim Carter, is all aces.
“The Tenant of Wildfell Hall” (1996)
“Wives and Daughters” (2000)
“To the Ends of the Earth” (2006)
“My Boy Jack” (2008)
“Any Human Heart” (2011)
“The Miniaturist” (2018)
“Man in an Orange Shirt” (2018)
“Elizabeth Is Missing” (2021)