Radio Times top 40 TV shows of 2011: the top ten

We reveal our critics' top ten programmes of the year! And the winner is...

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Radio Times top 40 TV shows of 2011: the top ten
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10. Educating Essex Channel 4

Following a group of GCSE pupils and teachers in Harlow, this obs-doc was – even beyond the logistics of rigging an entire school with cameras - one of the boldest commissions of the year. Despite certain mid-market newspapers using the show as an example of society in ruin, the warts-and-all portrayal of teaching in the 21st Century did a great service to the profession, illustrating its challenges but highlighting the great rewards. From headmaster Mr Goddard’s genuine desire to “never give up” on a pupil, to his colourful deputy Mr Drew’s equally compassionate – if sometimes oblique – approach to mentoring young people, Educating Essex entertained, informed and intrigued. TG

9. Curb Your Enthusiasm More4
Larry David continued to make art of social awkwardness with the eighth season of Curb, having us laughing and wincing all over again. There aren’t many comics who’d risk near-the-knuckle routines about something as serious as, say, Parkinson’s, but somehow David managed to continue his war against the restrictions of good taste in a manner that was both funny and insightful. With series highlights such as a run-in with a neckerchief-sporting Ricky Gervais and the return of JB Smoove’s inimitable Leon, Curb was back on storming form in 2011. TC

8. Doctor Who BBC1
A sometimes frustrating, often majestic second series for showrunner Steven Moffat. He trusted his audience to deal with a torrent of ideas, particularly in the series’ bewildering major story arc about the apparent death of the Doctor and his inside-out relationship with River Song (Alex Kingston). But the real highlights were the one-offs: among the strongest were The Doctor’s Wife, an ingenious story of the Tardis made flesh that encapsulated the Doctor’s fundamental Flying Dutchman predicament; the simple retro spooks of Night Terrors; and The Girl Who Waited, a stripped-down story that asked for and got a best-ever performance from Karen Gillan. More often than not, Moffat and his muse, Matt Smith, gave kids (big and small) sci-fi thrills of extraordinary quality and ambition. JS

7. Rev BBC2
An intelligent sitcom that didn’t panic about gag quotas, Rev was funny and likeable without trying, and concealed nuggets of social commentary and real emotional resonance. A comedy of clerical errors is an insanely unfashionable thing to attempt, but then Tom Hollander’s conflicted inner-city minister Adam was a world away from those buck-toothed twits of yore. Not that Rev was a one-man show. All the characters made their mark, from feral Colin and druggie Mick to slinky headmistress Ellie and edged-out wife Alex. In series two, Rev still seemed like a delicious secret. A divinely inspired one. MB

6. The Crimson Petal and the White BBC2
The best-directed drama of 2011? Blessed with sets and costumes that stank of ratty Victorian London, Marc Munden’s cinematic flair – strange compositions, flashes of supernatural wonder and a palette of dirty burgundy and frayed gold – served a tragic tale so bewitchingly told, it took the breath away. Romola Garai obliterated the memory of roles in more conventional period dramas by playing wily, wronged prostitute Sugar, but the truly startling performance came from Chris O’Dowd as Sugar’s lover/escape ticket William Rackham. Previously known for comedy, O’Dowd was sensational as a self-absorbed weakling who is a joke, but isn’t funny because he destroys everyone around him. JS

5. Downton Abbey ITV1
As the Great War impacted on toffs and servants, it changed the rhythm of Julian Fellowes’s comfy saga. Death and, with the outbreak of Spanish flu, disease raised the stakes and solved the problem of how to avoid simply rehashing the first series. It also led to a faster, slightly soapy churn of characters and storylines - it seems pretty much agreed that the “burnt face man” episode was a rank duffer. But the important things stayed the same: efficient, pacy dialogue, based on Fellowes’s knack for quickly sketching situations and emotions; and the theme of love crossing social boundaries, which gave series two plenty of those sneaky emotional sucker punches that the most cynical viewer can’t resist. JS

4. Eric and Ernie BBC2
This fond look at the early struggles of Morecambe and Wise was no broad-brushstrokes biopic. Rather, it was an accumulation of lovely detail: the down-at-heel venues, the pushy parents, how the double act evolved. Writer Peter Bowker even had room for the duo’s harmonica-tootling stooge, Arthur Tolcher. The very definition of “affectionate”, Eric and Ernie was a series of revelations: that Vic Reeves ought to take more straight roles; that funny can flip to poignant without being crass; and that Daniel Rigby’s Eric wasn’t just an uncanny impersonation – it was a stunning performance, full stop. MB

3. Frozen Planet BBC1
Nobody does it better. When the BBC Natural History Unit pushes the boat out (and the helicopter, the sea-plane, the snowmobile…) for one of its epic series, nothing else comes close. Four years of filming and a TV great, in the shape of David Attenborough, narrating – it added up to the kind of viewing experience people cite as “worth the licence fee on its own”. After all the heart-stopping footage of bears and penguins and killer whales, the final episode brought us down to earth. Charting the effects of climate change, it reminded us the poles are in flux: catch them while you can. DBu

2. The Shadow Line BBC2
Who would dare create this? Hugo Blick, up to now the author of brittle comedies, suddenly unleashed a labyrinthine, fearlessly stylised crims-and-cops thriller, employing himself as writer, producer and director and refusing to compromise his vision. Blick did whatever he wanted, beginning with an incredibly long scene of a bent cop examining a murder victim, then showing how gangsters and the police competed to find the killer. First Rafe Spall seemed to be the star, then Stephen Rea, then Chiwetel Ejiofor; layer after layer of pitiless betrayal was revealed, each darker and cooler than the last, every scene crisp and cruel, every character just a pawn in a maddening game. But Blick was in complete control. JS

1. The Killing BBC4
Surely no one is surprised that the Danish crime drama took RT’s Crown of Greatness for 2011? It was a good, old-fashioned, proper TV event of the type I thought had been lost for ever. Crucially, fans wanted to watch it, in the widest possible sense, together: as it went out, as a community, rather than trailing behind on catch-up. Because the big thing about The Killing was that we needed to talk about it immediately, to wrestle over every teeny-tiny plot point, everything that might or might not be a clue. And though The Killing was a murder mystery, it was so much more, thanks to a meticulously drawn set of characters: jumper-clad detective Sarah Lund, grieving parents Theis and Pernilla, and suave politician Troels Hartmann. AG

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 top 40 TV shows of 2011: from 20 to 11

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