TV OF THE YEAR 2021 - The Top Ten
Remember these are only my opinions, and chances are you, dear reader, saw a totally different range of TV to choose from. But here are what I thought the ten most notable TV shows of the year. Following, of course, the…
These shows are such staples, and of such consistent quality, that I never feel like putting them in the chart. Yet we never miss a single episode of any of these, nor would we:
Strictly Come Dancing
Richard Osman’s House Of Games
THE TOP 10
10 - Post Mortem: No One Dies In Skarnes (Netflix)
I have yet to find anyone else who’s watched this. It was a little gem, a Norwegian thriller, which looked from the start that it was just going to be a crime procedural, then very quickly took a turn for the slightly quirky. And comedic too, a refreshing variation on quite a few themes. The second year in a row there’s been a Norwegian show in my top twenty.
9 - Dollface (Star/Disney+)
Until I saw her in WandaVision, I didn’t think I’d even seen Kat Dennings. Turns out she’s been in the Marvel movies since Thor a dozen years ago, and was in a sitcom we never saw called 2 Broke Girls. This comedy drama, with brilliant layers of surrealism and fourth-wall-breaking meta stuff, was a total delight. Being made with the kind of budget you get with Disney shows (though this is Star, whatever the difference is, in fact wikipedia says it’s Hulu) it seems unfair to try comparing it with shows made for a tenth of the budget. But that’s what I just did, into the top ten it goes.
8 - Only Murders In The Building (Star/Disney+)
Another Hulu/Star/Disney series with a movie-sized budget (so unfair, sorry normal telly), this was the best bit of comedy crime drama writing, with fabulous turns from Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, and a perfect balance of fun and twisty plot. Also it centred around a podcast, and this was the year I did a podcast, so up the chart it shoots.
7 - Unforgotten (1 - 4) (ITV) (v) Line Of Duty 6 (BBC)
Let me make it clear, Line Of Duty is not in my Top Ten. I thought it was a parody of its former self, and would have relegated it to the Lost It section of my chart, save that I wanted to make a point. And the point I want to make is how much better Unforgotten was. They were both screening at the same time early in 2021: series 6 of Line Of Duty and series 4 of Unforgotten, the latter of which we’d never seen before. They are both crime procedurals, and they both have a formula of sorts. But whereas LOD was being raved about, and getting the highest ratings live TV had seen for years, Unforgotten was, well, forgotten. But whereas Line Of Duty’s once-interesting characters (who we knew well, having blitzed all five previous series again in 2020) had now become reduced to little but cyphers delivering plot points peppered with risible catchphrases, Unforgotten was about realistic characters dealing with the struggles of life as well as the mechanism of their crime story. Nicola Walker’s character was the strongest of leads, and the direction and writing allowed for some proper acting from all concerned.
The formula of Unforgotten, we discovered once we went on to watch series 1 to 3, is repeated every time like clockwork. A body is found, the cold case investigation starts, there are 5 key suspects all apparently unconnected, there’s an episode where everyone is asked “do you think there’s something you should be telling me?”, then the plots twist and, best of all, the one whodunnit is never the one you were thinking.
Series 5 of Unforgotten is on the cards and I hope it keeps up the quality. Line Of Duty could learn a lot from it, but I doubt it’s bothered.
6 - Pen15 (Hulu / Sky Comedy)
Until I started writing this, I didn’t know 3 of my Top Ten were made by Hulu. Hu knew? This self-described cringe comedy, of which we have only seen a series and a half so far, is the best capturing of the angst of being a teenager for years. Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle play their 13 year old selves and, as well as telling great stories that are as painful to watch as they are brilliant, they also experiment with the form. The way the behind-the-scenes staging of a school show turns into a dance routine is hard to describe and truly wonderful. And there’s an episode done entirely as animation. Okay, as soon as I try describing Pen15 to anyone who’s not seen it, I find I’m describing things that have been done in Community and Bob’s Burgers and Miranda and The Office. But trust me, it’s it’s own show, and a gem of one.
5 = Wanda Vision + Loki (Disney+)
I could not feel more guilty for putting this in a chart up against shows made on a BBC budget. One episode of Loki probably costs more than the whole last ten series of Doctor Who. It’s just unfair. However these TV shows, made with the budget of blockbuster cinema releases, have spent the money well, and that includes on scripts as well as special effects. It is to their credit that I didn’t know a fraction of the stuff they were referencing from the comics, and it didn’t matter. WandaVision did a metatextual retake of the history of sitcom while also giving the audience a challenging puzzle to chew through, before developing into more of a familiar superhero drama, but one full of viral moments, easter eggs and memes that made it the most important thing on TV at the time. Loki, for its part, just did all the things that Doctor Who wishes it had thought of and did them better than Doctor Who could afford to do. Two brilliantly entertaining shows that probably set the bar for what’s to follow.
4 - Lupin (Dans L’Ombre D’Arsene) (Netflix)
What do you know, a second foreign language show in my top ten? This time it’s French, and a splendid little find. Inspired by the Arsene Lupin books of 100 years ago that I’d never heard of but that are massive in France (the French Sherlock Holmes, so they say), the show created a string of brilliant heist plots, every one full of splendidly unpredictable twists and satisfying resolutions. It held its series-long story arc together better than most, and bodes well for the promised second series. Again it’s the Netflix budget that helped it to be so good, but the idea running underneath it is very strong.
3 - Taskmaster (1-12 + NZ) (Channel 4 / Dave/ Avalon)
A game show? In the top ten? Surely this should be in the Honourable Mentions or Sequels? And it will be next sure, I’m sure. But the thing is, I managed to not discover Taskmaster, or to watch it properly, till the end of 2020. At which point Hev and I went back and watched every series in order and got totally hooked. It’s just the funniest game show, with a level or originality that hasn’t been seen for a while, and quite a challenging ambition in the formats conceived of by Alex Horne. Crossing over to Channel 4 at the end of 2020, the series lengthened, and the confidence of the participants and presenters grew. They maintain great apparent camaraderie while always making the games involving for the viewer as well as being potentially humiliating for the candidates, but never crass or exploitative. It’s like It’s A Knockout without the nonces. We were so desperate for our feed of Taskmaster that we then took to watching the New Zealand series, available on Youtube, which wasn’t quite as good, but wasn’t bad. We tried watching a Danish and a Swedish episode, but to be honest couldn’t work out what the hell was happening. It’s still an amazing franchise though, and deserves being remarked upon as one of the most original TV formats of the decade.
2 - Resident Alien (Syfy / Sky)
This was a joy. The fact that it’s adapted from a comic book is just a bonus. I’ve not actually read the original comic (by Steve Parkhouse, and writer Peter Hogan who was good enough to join me on my podcast this year) and that’s irrelevant. What Syfy have ended up making is that hardest of things, a family friendly comedy drama. No swearing, no nudity, none of the cheap shots you can get away with on streaming shows. We have an inclusive cast, including Native American central characters, and we have an alien, who’s come to earth and having to pass himself off as human, One part Mork & Mindy, one part Northern Exposure, it’s perfectly balanced and a total delight. That it’s not at the top end of everyone’s TV of the year is a travesty. Or, you might say…
1 - It’s A Sin (Channel 4)
As I come to the top of my chart and realise that, for the first time ever, my Top Ten doesn’t include a single BBC programme, I console myself that the author of this year’s favourite flits between channels, and that his next show will be another BBC show. And his show after the show after next will be bloody Doctor Who! How amazing is that? Until then, though, this was his production for 2021, made back in 2019 but, presciently, dealing with a nation facing up to a pandemic. Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin is a marvel of television.
Its historic reconstruction of the 1980s was chilling, capturing not just the superficial appearance - and the sound track - but the mood of the meeting. A society in which gay kids were, at best, ignored, and at the very least misunderstood, turned into a world where they were feared and shunned, thanks to the most terrifying and mysterious illness. It’s A Sin is a horror movie with an invisible monster lurking in the shadows, while also being a laugh out loud comedy where ordinary people are trying to live ordinary lives, sometimes their only worry being that they’re too fabulous for their own good. When the inexplicable plague comes into everyone’s lives, the way everything changes is all too real and consumes everyone.
I can’t describe so many of its great moments for fear of spoilers. If you can watch It’s A Sin with dry eyes you’re a harder-hearted soul than me. The magic Russell T Davies can perform with characters on the screen has never been more impressive than this.
So there you have it, my Top TV of 2021, spread across a few blogs, feel free to disagree. Now, I wonder what delights 2022 holds...
My Top TV of 2021 Part 1 - Lost It, Just Crime?, Made In Bristol
My Top TV of 2021 Part 2 - Sequels & 20 to 11
My Top TV Of 2020
My Top TV of... 2019 2018 • 2017 • 2016 • 2015 • 2014 • 2013 • 2011 • 2009
Buy the books: