Best TV shows of the year 2021, 10-1: Our no. 1 series revealed
Our countdown of the year's very best small-screen entertainment concludes – which series has won the top spot?
2021 was a remarkable year for television – not only did it produce some phenomenal programmes that we'll almost certainly continue to discuss in years to come, much of it was also produced under incredibly difficult conditions, with COVID restrictions making the tricky business of producing telly quite a bit harder.
It's a testament to every single person involved that we here at RadioTimes.com have so much great TV from the year to celebrate
From Doctor Who to Strictly Come Dancing, We Are Lady Parts to Dopesick, Taskmaster to Time, we've celebrated television in all its many glorious forms over the past five days, but there can be only one winner (plus nine runners up) as we hurtle headfirst into the top 10.
So read on for our very top picks, from another year where small-screen escapism became less of a pastime and more of a necessary comfort. (To read our full top 50, follow the links below.)
- Best TV shows of the year 2021, 20-11: Time, Help, Maid and more
- Best TV shows of the year 2021, 30-21: Back to Life, Midnight Mass and more
- Best TV shows of the year 2021, 40-31: This Way Up, The Outlaws and more
- Best TV shows of the year 2021, 50-41: Doctor Who, Ghosts and more
Available on Disney Plus
Marvel’s third Disney Plus series had one glorious purpose – provide a passable spin-off vehicle for Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief – but managed to give us so, so much more over the course of its six episodes.
Introducing the Multiverse long before we were debating the arrivals of Andrew Garfield and Tobey Maguire, forging a bromance for the ages between Hiddles and Owen Wilson, introducing the world at large to Sophia Di Martino’s Sylvie (aka Lady Loki) and a host of other variants (including Richard E Grant, stealing the show in just one episode), there was more content than could fit on just one Sacred Timeline. Luckily, by the end, we had a few more to play with…
Loki was Marvel’s biggest, weirdest and most exciting series yet – and with season two already on the cards (picking up from season one’s big cliffhanger) fans around the world will soon once more be staying up all night to get Loki. Or watch it whenever it comes out in their country on Disney Plus, anyway. – Huw Fullerton, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Editor
Available on Netflix
2021 has been something of a breakout year for foreign language drama on Netflix – and the release of this stylish thriller in January rather set the tone. A modern day update of the classic French book series of the same name, about the misadventures of gentleman thief Arsène Lupin, this was an extremely entertaining crime caper with a thoroughly likeable lead performance from Omar Sy at its centre.
Rather than playing Lupin himself, Sy’s character is a man named Assane Diop who is inspired by the stories of the fictional thief. Across two five-episode stretches (the second of which arrived on the streamer in June) he skilfully manages to outsmart an assortment of nemeses – with the main target of his crafty schemes an elderly man who had previously wronged his family.
We’re also treated to regular flashbacks that offer us some background as to Diop’s criminal beginnings – with the actors brought in to play younger versions of the main characters having been especially well cast. Pacy, tense and full of excellently executed set pieces, this is a show that it’s almost impossible not to enjoy – an exhilarating blend of Sherlock and Oceans 11. – Patrick Cremona, Writer
8. Line of Duty
Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and to buy on Amazon
Jed Mercurio did it again, with another fantastic instalment of Line of Duty. Season six was centred around the could-be-dodgy DCI Jo Davidson (played by Kelly MacDonald) and an alleged incident she had planned as a distraction to an investigation, meaning a suspect could escape. All seems fairly routine at first, until Ted Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) and Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) get on the case and discover Jo and members of her team all link back to illusive H... And with Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) also working for Jo, it's safe to say you feel like you can't trust anyone.
It all culminates in an epic finale, largely set in one room in true Line of Duty style, with Ted and Steve tasked with unravelling their H suspect in a cat and mouse interrogation scene. The result? Devious H is finally unmasked. And while it wasn't a massive surprise to those who'd paid close attention, it was certainly satisfactory to see the work of six instalments wrap up quite neatly with a little bow.
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It's uncertain just yet whether Line of Duty will return for season seven, but with an open-ended conclusion suggesting there's simply more corruption in the fictional police, we wouldn't be surprised if the BBC manage to twist Mercurio's arm just one more time at least. – Helen Daly, Associate Editor
Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and to buy on Amazon
Setting a murder mystery crime drama on a Vanguard-class submarine always looked like an inspired idea, and the latest thriller from World Productions very much lived up to its promise. From the shock death inside the opening 10 minutes of episode one to the thrillingly tense climax in the final instalment, this was a terrifically gripping and propulsive affair that proved a huge hit with the viewing public.
The story revolved around Surrane Jones’ DCI Amy Silva, who was placed on the titular submarine to solve a murder and quickly found that not all of the military personal on board were too happy about her presence – with the inhospitable conditions adding a sense of urgency to her already challenging mission.
The cast list read rather like a who’s who of British TV drama – with performances from Jones, Shaun Evans and Anjli Mohindra particularly worth a mention – while the scripts from Tom Edge and his team were expertly crafted, even if the love story was a little less convincing that the main whodunnit conspiracy plot. There’s no doubt about it: Vigil was Sunday night drama at its very best. – Patrick Cremona, Writer
Available on Disney Plus
When Marvel Studios announced that it would be making the inevitable leap to the small screen on Disney Plus, there was some concern that the MCU’s TV offerings might somehow feel like ‘lesser’ entries. Why would it want to tell its best stories on a streaming service when it could be giving them pride of place alongside the Civil Wars and the Endgames of this world?
Well, in one fell swoosh of a scarlet cape, WandaVision proved that not only could Marvel magic up something very different from its cinematic blockbusters, but TV was the only place it could be done. Part-comedy, part-mystery, part-sci-fi thriller – the show worked not least of all as an homage to the medium of television itself, utilising the considerable talents of Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany to better effect than any previous Avengers movies.
It wasn’t afraid to examine the trauma at the heart of it all either, with the exploration of grief in penultimate episode Previously On containing some of the most devastatingly emotional moments in the whole of the MCU. We all wondered what project would shake up the tried-and-tested Marvel format the most this year – turns out it was WandaVision all along. – Christian Tobin, Production Editor
Available on Sky Go and NOW
How do you follow up a perfect season of television? The third run of HBO comedy-drama Succession had a hard task following up its stellar preceding season but managed to pull it off with plenty of cringe-worthy moments, nail-biting twists and some of the wittiest lines on television.
Initially hingeing on the attempts of Kendall Roy (an ever masterful Jeremy Strong) to destroy his father Logan (the fiery Brian Cox), the series expands to capture the various hopeless but hilarious attempts of the rest of the Roy family to advance their positions in business and in the family.
New guest stars, gorgeous locations and the most painful birthday party ever build to one of the best finales in recent years. Someone must have made a deal with the devil to bring us Succession. – Lewis Knight, Trends Editor
4. Mare of Easttown
Available on Sky Go, NOW and to buy on Amazon
Brad Inglesby’s Mare of Easttown is a remarkable piece of television. In the opening episode, a young woman is murdered and her body is dumped in a creek. We learn that another young woman disappeared a number of years ago and the police are yet to uncover what happened to her. Drug abuse, alcoholism and depression are par for the course, the weight of which is worn on the faces of the townsfolk. And yet, in spite of that, humour and humanity somehow find a way to claw through the grief and grime, which is no small achievement. That is complemented by a raft of heavyweight performances, with Kate Winslet, Jean Smart and Julianne Nicholson delivering some of their very best work.
Mare of Easttown’s central premise is nothing new and the setting is one we’ve encountered countless times before but Inglesby’s writing, coupled with a cast at the top of their game, demonstrates that a tried and tested formula is no barrier to success when it’s executed to perfection. – Abby Robinson, Drama Editor
3. Squid Game
Available on Netflix
Squid Game didn't just shake up the way Netflix views its non-English language offerings, it shook up viewers. One of the most disquieting dramas released in 2021, the Korean series is genre-bending at its most uncomfortable: darkly comedic and intensely violent with a not-so-dystopian surreality that rarely achieves blockbuster levels of popularity. And yet everyone was talking about it.
Created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, marking his first international success, Squid Game obliterated Netflix records and expectations, ranking number one in 97 countries and becoming the streamer's biggest show ever, watched by over 140 million subscriber households in its first month on the service.
The statistics speak for themselves, but the viral character of Squid Game's success is backed up by a gripping plot, outstanding writing and accomplished acting, in addition to its much-praised visual aesthetic. Though you might be sick of hearing it, this one's a must-watch. – Minnie Wright, News Editor
2. Sex Education
Available on Netflix
After facing over a year of COVID-related delays, Sex Education made a triumphant return to our screens with its third season in September, giving fans of the Netflix comedy-drama all the coming-of-age awkwardness we’d been missing over the pandemic.
While the show initially began back in 2019 with Asa Butterfield’s Otis Milburn handing out sex advice at school with Moordale’s resident rebel Maeve Wiley (Emma Mackey), season three saw a moustachioed Otis retire his unofficial clinic, with Maeve having seemingly ignored his confession of love, and focus on his own love life. Enter mean girl Ruby (Mimi Keene), whose new relationship with Otis soon had many viewers switching over from Team Maeve to campaign for this unlikely romance.
As always, Sex Education delivered another thoughtful, hearty and often hilarious dive into the themes surrounding sex, gender identity and general teen issues with season three, however this time the show shifted the spotlight onto supporting characters we hadn’t had a chance to get to know.
From storylines involving new non-binary student Cal Bowman (Dua Saleh) and Jackson Marchetti (Kedar Williams-Sterling), to the blossoming of a friendship between Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) and Eric’s ex Rahim (Sami Outalbali), season three introduced some exciting new dynamics whilst still providing plenty of Jean Milburn (Gillian Anderson) content to get us through another year without our favourite Moordale students. – Lauren Morris, Writer
1. It's A Sin
Available on All 4, BritBox and to buy on Amazon
Russell T Davies said: "Thank you so much, what a lovely end to the year. That's hugely appreciated. And really, all praise to that cast, the nicest bunch of people portraying such tough stories with so much imagination and commitment. As ever, my thanks go out to those doing the hard work in the field of HIV & AIDS, the activists and the allies, all fighting to this day for a better future."
It’s A Sin is one of those rare shows that ascends above mere excellence to the status of essential viewing. From a narrative perspective, Russell T Davies crafted a truly harrowing story about five friends living in London during the AIDS epidemic, which destroyed each of their lives in the cruellest possible way. But while the hard-hitting script and knockout performances will leave you in floods of tears – I’m barely fighting them back just writing this refresher – there’s so much more behind why it sits atop our best shows of the year.
It’s A Sin is a devastating tribute to those who lost their lives at the height of the epidemic and weren’t afforded the dignity or compassion that they deserved. It’s a powerful educational resource for anyone unaware of the immeasurable suffering and stigmatisation that occurred at that time. It’s a stark reminder that the work isn’t over yet, as we must continue to fight discrimination against people living with HIV, and testing ourselves regularly as we work towards the goal of eradicating the illness altogether.
Achieving so much in a mere five episodes, It’s A Sin will be remembered for many years to come. – David Craig, Writer
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