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

It's the penultimate instalment of our critics' favourite programmes - has your top pick appeared yet?

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Radio Times top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 20 to 11
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20. Misfits E4

It’s won awards aplenty, even though its subject matter is Asbo kids with superpowers and its language is the ripest on TV. But the departure of cheek-master Nathan (Robert Sheehan) might have been the kiss of death for Howard Overman’s concrete universe. Thank heavens, then, for Joe Gilgun, whose sex-obsessed, wholly inappropriate Rudy almost immediately stole the third series. This was the freshest drama around - although probation workers, who invariably came to a sticky end, might disagree. GC

19. 24 Hours in A&E Channel 4
Channel 4 excelled in fly-on-the-wall documentary in 2011, and this look at the Casualty department of King’s College Hospital in London had it all: committed and passionate doctors; seen-it-all nurses who were often at the sharp end of drunken/violent patients; eccentric ancillary staff; and, of course, the patients and their friends and families. Sometimes the stories had tragic outcomes, and the series discreetly captured both pain and grief. Equally often, the casual asides of visitors had us rolling in the corridors. GC

18. Spooks BBC1
The BBC tossed the farewell series of Spooks away, giving it a suicide mission up against Downton Abbey on Sunday nights. That looked even more criminal when we saw what a fine swansong it was. The slimmed cast, shorter run and lack of episodes where apocalypse is averted with seconds to spare all turned out to be good things: a simple, elegant story arc, centred on the ever-present Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), was punctuated with big shocks and breath-quickening tension, culminating in a superbly poised final episode. Did Harry and Ruth (Nicola Walker) get their happy ending? Spooks aficionados always knew the answer, but were still agog. JS

17. Dexter FX
Entering its fifth series, the saga of the serial killer who kills other serial killers could have gone stale, despite the guarantee of a magnetic central performance from the enigmatic Michael C Hall. But new characters, ever more imaginative ways to harness Dexter’s anti-hero status and his own journey from monster to… something else helped keep it fresh. This story arc featured one of the performances of the year from Julia Stiles as Lumen Pierce, the one who got away from a repulsive gang of torturers and murderers. Her all-consuming need for revenge meant that, for the first time, Dexter didn’t have to work alone. PJ

16. Holy Flying Circus BBC4
A dementedly energetic, militantly unpredictable script by Tony Roche created one of the comedies of the year from a shabby and much-documented episode: how the Pythons were ambushed by religious finger-waggers upon the release of Life of Brian in 1979. Holy Flying Circus sought not to describe the Pythons, but to emulate them, using dream sequences within dream sequences, hokey rolling text, smashed fourth walls and, at one point, a lightsabre duel between puppets. As references and in-jokes twanged back and forth, Holy Flying Circus was funny on its own merits as well as a fanboy joy, not stuck in aspic but bright and sharp – a thing to cherish on the same shelf as those Python box sets. JS

15. The Hour BBC2
This stylish thriller about a trio of Beeb journalists was tipped to be the British Mad Men. It wasn’t, but the retro togs, tart dialogue and sheer exoticism of Cold War England kept us tuning in. Wire star Dominic West played deeply obnoxious but undeniably sexy anchorman Hector, while Romola Garai pouted to perfection as Bel, the producer who was too busy flirting to make her new current affairs programme a success. Bel’s old pal, fellow reporter Freddie (played by a typically pallid Ben Whishaw), had to do all the hard graft, unearthing a dark and dangerous conspiracy. CW

14. The Apprentice BBC1
A format change saw Lord Sugar stumping up £250,000 of his own hard-earned cash to invest in a business venture with the winner, but although the selection process was changed to try to weed out any further Stuart Baggses, it didn’t dilute the entertainment. The Apprentice still managed to deliver that heady mix of misplaced bravado, cringeworthy pitches, ridiculous Twitter-trending product names, boardroom tension and wince-inducing punning from Lord Sugar. We even got a final showdown featuring three pretty capable candidates - quite possibly a first for the show. PJ

13. Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle BBC2
Stand-up comedy is experiencing a boom - just look at the TV schedules, or the number of comics plugging DVDs this Christmas - but it’s also becoming homogenous and dull. Enter Stewart Lee, with his unique talent for deconstructing that very comedy, and the laconic delivery to make it hilarious, not dry. Not afraid to tackle the big issues, Lee nevertheless often ends up talking mostly about crisps. PJ

12. Black Mirror Channel 4
The second and third of Charlie Brooker’s techno-fables were provocative and strange; but the first, The National Anthem, was extraordinary, the edgiest, most zeitgeisty TV fiction all year. Tackling the mob mentality of “the online hive-mind”, Brooker imagined a prime minister challenged via YouTube to have broadcast sex with a pig, or see a kidnapped princess die. It wasn’t just the warped premise that was so powerful, it was the way politicians were shown to be at the mercy of social media and comment boards. Beautifully played, it was deliciously black and thought-provoking. And very funny. DBu

11. Being Human BBC3
Toby Whithouse’s vampire/werewolf/ghost drama ramped up the excitement in its third season with excellent guest stars, including Robson Green, and the revival of characters such as Herrick (the funny yet quite terrifying Jason Watkins). But most of all, it was the journey of smouldering vamp Mitchell (the equally smouldering Aidan Turner) finally taking responsibility for the Box Tunnel massacre. His eventual death at the hands of his best friend, George (Russell Tovey), was powerful, tear-wrenching stuff. GC

Voted for and written by Radio Times and RadioTimes.com’s resident critics: Alison Graham (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 40 to 31

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

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