Radio Times top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 40 to 31

The countdown begins: the first ten in our pick of the best programmes shown in 2011

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Radio Times top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 40 to 31
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Welcome to the definitive list of the year's best television - the 40 finest programmes of 2011, as voted for by Radio Times and RadioTimes.com's unrivalled band of critics. We'll reveal them in reverse order over the next four days, so without any further ado...

40. The Only Way Is Essex ITV2
Often imitated but never surpassed, TOWIE has led the charge in one of television's most controversial recent trends, structured reality. After three series in quick succession, the show that follows a group of over-tanned, over-sexed and under-worked youngsters as they play out a partially fictionalised existence in the greater Brentwood area continues to enthuse and infuriate critics and the public. Amy Childs (Celebrity Big Brother/It's All about Amy) and this year's I'm a Celebrity... runner-up Mark Wright are now breakout stars, while the English lexicon has had a few new words added to it. TV producers continue to try to emulate TOWIE, but there remained only one place for true structured reality fans in 2011: Essex. TG

39. Episodes BBC2
Has a sitcom ever started so badly and finished so well? Hopes were sky-high for BBC2’s Hollywood-set comedy that united the talents of a Friends star (Matt LeBlanc), a Friends writer (David Crane) and two gloriously on-form British actors (Tamsin Greig and Stephen Mangan), so the actual show was bound to disappoint. Which it did, with a wince-making mess of a first episode and several ho-hum ones to follow. Then, something magical happened: by the end of its short run, it found its feet and built to a brilliant finale – which, given that the plot was about sitcom writers finding their feet, was strangely apt. DBu

38. Scott & Bailey ITV1
It’s about time we faced up to it: Cagney and Lacey are never going to return. One’s 68, the other’s 65. They’d fail all the fitness tests. Thank the lord, therefore, that we finally have a UK equivalent: two flat-vowelled police officers from Manchester whose personal lives were just as involving as their cases. They may not have been ballbreakers, but aren’t we sick to death of female TV cops solving cases by kicking their male colleagues in the metaphorical goolies? Instead, what we had were two credible women who happened to be in the force, but whom you could easily imagine looking harried on the school run. DBr

37. Terry Pratchett: Choosing to Die BBC2
A fog of manufactured media outrage almost engulfed this profoundly important documentary where author Terry Pratchett asked difficult questions about the right to self-determination. The hysteria was provoked by the on-screen assisted suicide of Peter Smedley, debilitated by motor neurone disease and absolute in his conviction that he wished to die with dignity by his own hand. Choosing to Die was haunting and sad, without being ghoulish or intrusive. AG

36. Hattie BBC4
A superb example of BBC4’s curious but rewarding obsession with mid-ranking, mid-20th century entertainers, and the misery success brought them. Hattie Jacques, trapped by sexist typecasting and her supportive but inert husband John Le Mesurier, welcomes a sexy young lodger (Aidan Turner) into the family home and proceeds to have an affair with him. As Jacques, Ruth Jones captured the desperation of someone who knows, deep down, that she’s destroying herself, but can’t quite stop. Robert Bathurst was just as fine as Le Mesurier, who could see what Jacques was doing but couldn’t quite rouse himself to prevent her. A sensational-on-paper story became sober, classy and sad. JS

35. Human Planet BBC1
This spectacular, landmark documentary explored mankind’s fascinating relationship with the natural world. Shot in over 80 locations across the globe, an extraordinary eight-part series concentrated on a different area each week: the Arctic, mountains, oceans, jungles, grasslands, deserts, rivers and, finally, urban jungles. Human Planet was a cinematic experience created by some of the best natural history and documentary photographers in the world – but the stories were as captivating as the visuals. TG

34. All Watched over by Machines of Loving Grace BBC2
Ayn Rand, Silicon Valley, Alan Greenspan, the south-east Asia crash, 9/11, Jane Goodall, Richard Dawkins, the Congolese civil war. Over the course of three fantastic episodes, Adam Curtis pulled together a cast of hundreds to tell his grandiloquent conspiracy theory that the behaviour of modern humans is powerfully influenced by the machines (computers) that we created. It didn't matter if you agreed with his argument: Curtis brought together his disparate stories with a hypnotic blend of fast-cut archive footage, a groovy pop soundtrack and chunky typography. This was TV designed to stretch your synapses and make you question reality. DC

33. Wonders of the Universe BBC2
Brian Cox stands in front of a global landmark and explains how every atom in our bodies was forged in the heart of dying stars and really, it’s hard not to pay attention. His brilliance at wrapping our feeble minds around tough subject matter meant we followed him anywhere as he took us on a trippy pleasure cruise through the marvels of physics and cosmology. It was unique TV. DBu

32. Fresh Meat Channel 4
This comedy from the creators of Peep Show was an ever so slightly more grown-up, self-assured successor to The Inbetweeners. It even starred an Inbetweener: actor Joe Thomas playing yet another gaffe-prone, luckless-in-love student. And like its puerile younger brother, Fresh Meat had both teens and their middle-aged parents guffawing at the misadventures of its protagonists, six gauche undergraduates. Side-splitting moment? Swaggering public schoolboy JP (stand-up comic Jack Whitehall, proving he’s adept at more than one-liners in his first acting role) bonding with a dying horse after over-indulging. CW

31. Louis Theroux: Miami Mega Jail BBC2
Theroux’s eye-opening snoop around Miami’s pre-trial jails was one of the most horrifying broadcasts of the year, showcasing a veritable hell on Earth. Talking to everyone from corrections officers to the men hoping to avoid death row, Theroux uncovered a claustrophobic world within a world where time stands still and extreme violence is commonplace. The programme went beyond being an institutional exposé to shine a light on the darker sides of human nature, with every cell Theroux visited revealing new atrocities and the chilling world-views of the incarcerated men. Unpleasant, but truly unforgettable. TC

Voted for and written by Radio Times and RadioTimes.com’s resident critics: Alison Graham, TV editor (AG), David Butcher (DBu), Tim Glanfield (TG), Jack Seale (JS), David Brown (DBr), David Crawford (DC), Mark Braxton (MB), Gill Crawford (GC), Patrick Mulkern (PM), Claire Webb (CW), Paul Jones (PJ), Jacqueline Wheeler, William Gallagher, Laura Pledger (LP) and Tom Cole (TC); plus Radio Times editor Ben Preston and RadioTimes.com editor Helen Hackworthy (HH). Compiled by Jack Seale, assisted by Helen Lawson.

See Radio Times's top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 30 to 21

See Radio Times's top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 20 to 11

See Radio Times's top 40 TV shows of 2011: the top ten