Radio Times Top 40 TV Shows of 2013: 30 to 21

The countdown of the year's best TV programmes continues... has your favourite appeared yet?


30 Africa BBC1
Airing amid a raft of mediocre January drama, Africa had it all. Gripping suspense, romantic courtship, a fight to the death, even slapstick comedy. This was one of David Attenborough’s best, his dulcet tones plotting out the trials and tribulations of Africa’s animal kingdom. We saw giraffes duelling, baby turtles racing across the beach to safety, enchanting swarms of butterflies twirling up a mountainside. Visually this series was breathtaking, and yet it was surprisingly human as we witnessed a baby shoebill shunned by his parents in favour of an elder sibling. And who could forget the baby rhino who stole Attenborough’s heart in an unforgettable final scene… SL


29 Black Mirror C4
Though Black Mirror sometimes lacks subtlety, that’s sort of the point – we live in a world of ever-widening extremes. What the show does so cleverly is to merge this present reality with a sci-fi future so convincingly realised it seems more of a prediction than a warning. This series bettered the first, though the final episode, The Waldo Moment, suffered by comparison with the earlier instalments. Be Right Back, starring Hayley Atwell and Domhnall Gleeson, was a beautiful, haunting exploration of virtual life after death, while the horror of White Bear, where punishment became entertainment, was hard to shake off. HS

28 Yonderland Sky1
There’s pure joy in a well-pitched family comedy, and Yonderland was a particularly good one. Set in a magic realm where puppets mix with eccentric humanoids, it was Labyrinth meets Life of Brian: the cast of Horrible Histories playing hundreds of fabulous, usually incompetent figures posing puzzles for Debbie (Martha Howe-Douglas), a housewife who’s stepped through a portal in the pantry. Characters tended to appear once when they could each have had their own series; this gang have so many ideas and such skill in executing them that, in the long term, Python comparisons might not be out of place.

27 Girls Sky Atlantic
Series two of the Brooklyn-based sitcom about narcissistic twenty-somethings wasn’t for the faint-hearted. Written, directed and starring the precociously talented and unnaturally confident Lena Dunham, it continued to break comic ground and challenge the way young women are portrayed on TV. Dunham’s alter ego – who is no Barbie doll and refreshingly doesn’t give a damn – spent an entire episode parading around in her knickers. In another, she succumbed to OCD. It wasn’t always funny but it was impossible to look away. CW

26 Sound of Cinema BBC4
Celebrity-fronted documentaries are all very well (or are they?) but there’s nothing like a not-so-well-known expert given free rein. In this intelligent BBC4 series (shockingly only a three-parter), composer/silent-film accompanist Neil Brand played famous chords and explains them, while asking Scorsese about Mean Streets or Vangelis about Chariots of Fire. If you’d never considered the importance to a film’s mood of the soundtrack, Brand was the man to put you straight. Educational, entertaining, and made with love. More please! MB

25 Man Down C4
At first, Greg Davies’ debut sitcom, about a teacher called Dan who is much less mature than any of his pupils, seemed like it would merely be very funny: Davies the disgusting, massively overgrown clown, larking about amid a cast of oddballs including Rik Mayall as Dan’s bonkers dad. As the series went on, though, we began to see that the storylines, characters and relationships had been carefully constructed, so that at the point where most sitcoms start flagging, Man Down just got funnier and funnier. Davies says it took him six months’ full-time work to write series one – the hard work paid off. JS

24 Mad Men Sky Atlantic
As this period drama approached the 1970s, viewers had to deal with the disturbing sight of its cast growing sideburns. But while the suits have got wider, the writing is as sharp as ever. Compared to its lean, poetic first series, Mad Men has essentially become an upmarket soap opera. This is no bad thing. Seeing dapper ad man Don Draper hit rock bottom was brave in a way you rarely see from sexy dramas: Mad Men dared to make its main character not just unlikeable, but vaguely tacky. As we wait for the last series next year, fans are left wondering whether Don can be redeemed, or whether he deserves redemption in the first place. JH

23 Count Arthur Strong BBC2
Thank goodness BBC bosses had already paid heed to the quality of the material, commissioning a second series of Count Arthur Strong before the disappointing ratings came in. Steve Delaney’s comic creation made the tricky transition from Radio 4 to BBC2 by relocating to a café full of odd-bod friends, led by Rory Kinnear as fussy author Michael Baker – the perfect foil for the former music hall star’s eccentricity. As for Arthur himself, his spirited stagger and unique ability to spit words out like cherry pips made for a character you could love like a meddling grandfather – one who had us laughing heartily one minute and reaching for the tissues the next. SL

22 Doctor Who BBC1
Despite peripheral distractions (stamps, books, docs, a Prom), fans could be forgiven for thinking the golden anniversary was lean in terms of transmitted episodes. The concluding chunk of series 7 was a stew of corkers and stinkers, with Mark Gatiss’s juicy pastiche The Crimson Horror (with Diana Rigg) eclipsing Neil Gaiman’s Cyber-tripe Nightmare in Silver. Steven Moffat’s big celebration special, simulcast in 94 countries, ticked fan boxes by deftly weaving old Who with new. Yet at a time when ever-younger Time Lords seemed in vogue, he and Gatiss boldly volleyed Peter Capaldi (55), David Bradley (71), John Hurt (73) and even the majestic Tom Baker (79) into primetime TV as viable Doctors. PM

21 Gogglebox C4
The premise sounded like the scraping of the bottom of the reality barrel, but Gogglebox turned watching people watching TV into a viewing phenomenon. Yes, we all laughed at June’s face when Leon made an inappropriate remark about a female presenter, or Sandy and Sandra drank from a Pot Noodle cup while lamenting the passing of Corrie’s Hayley, but it was a brilliant way of monitoring the zeitgeist, whether it was reactions to Nelson Mandela’s death or performances on The X Factor. A hilarious slice of life as seen from the nation’s sofas, it’s rightly made stars of posh bon vivants Steph and Dom, and sharp-witted couple Stephen and Chris. JR

40 to 31 — 20 to 11 — 10 to 1

Voted for and written by critics from Radio Times magazine, and the Radio Times DiscoverTV app: Alison Graham (AG), David Butcher (DBu), Jane Rackham (JR), Tim Glanfield, Paul Jones, Jack Seale (JS), Patrick Mulkern (PM), Mark Braxton (MB), Gill Crawford (GC), James Gill (JG), Claire Webb (CW), David Crawford, Susanna Lazarus (SL), Ellie Walker-Arnott (EWA), David Brown (DBr), Emma Daly, Jonathan Holmes (JH), Hannah Shaddock (HS), Ellie Austin (EA) and Emma Sturgess. Compiled by Jack Seale.