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Best TV shows of the year 2021, 20-11: Time, Help, Maid and more

Stath Lets Flats and Only Murders in the Building are among the shows celebrated as we continue to mark the very best of 2021's small-screen entertainment.

Sean Bean and Stephen Graham in BBC's Time

Feel as though you’ve missed out on some small-screen gems this year, and hunting for some recommendations? Or just want to see if your favourite show made it onto our list? Then join us now as the countdown of RadioTimes.com‘s top 50 TV shows of the year continues.

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Over five days, we’re revealing our top picks as selected by our team of editorial experts. Today (29th December), we continue with 20-11 – featuring some of the year’s most inventive and impactful small-screen entertainment.

Be sure to join us again tomorrow as we reveal which shows have made the top 10, including the show that’s landed this year’s much-coveted no. 1 spot.

20. Maid

maid netflix

Available on Netflix

Netflix delivered emotional yet heart-warming viewing with the mini-series, Maid. Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, the show sees single-mum Alex doing everything she can to escape an abusive relationship with her ex Sean, and create a prosperous life for her and her young daughter, Maddy. Along the way, she experiences extreme poverty and many setbacks, as she grapples with the complex welfare system.

From sleeping on the floor of train stations, to living in mould-ridden properties, and being in-and-out of domestic violence shelters, Alex is tested over and over again. Nevertheless, her determination to give her daughter a better life, after having to deal with her mentally ill mother Paula when she was younger, sees her push through.

Featuring an impeccable cast, including lead star Margaret Qualley, who gives an outstanding performance as Alex, Andie MacDowell (Paula) and Nick Robinson (Sean), Maid is a must-see. – Grace Henry, Entertainment and Factual Editor

19. Framing Britney Spears

Supporters of Britney Spears gather outside a courthouse for a #FreeBritney protest in August 2020
Getty

Available on NOW

There’s no doubt that 2021 has been the year of Britney Spears – the iconic global pop star whose controversial conservatorship, controlled by her father Jamie Spears, became a matter of international debate over the last 10 months. While the conservatorship, which gave the singer’s father control of her professional and personal life, had been in place since 2008, public awareness reached an all-time peak this year, in part due to the release of Framing Britney Spears – one of the most talked-about documentaries to come out of 2021.

Produced by The New York Times, the 74-minute film directed by Samantha Stark looked at Spears’ rise to fame and her beginnings in show business, before re-examining her treatment by the press in the run-up to her mental breakdown in 2007, which resulted in her father taking control of her life. Featuring interviews with Spears’ former marketing executive Kim Kaiman, paparazzo Daniel Ramos and other people from her life, the film is a thought-provoking reflection on how the public’s attitude to Spears in the early 2000s contributed to her mental decline and digs deeper into the conservatorship, which as of November 2021, was terminated after 14 years – Lauren Morris, Writer

18. Ted Lasso

Ted Lasso season 2 cast
Apple TV+

Available on Apple TV+

Yeah, I might be all that you get. Yeah, I guess this might well be it. But heaven knows I tried. Tried to hold it together, that is, as Ted Lasso season two delivered one emotional wallop after another.

From Dani Rojas murdering a beloved mascot in the first episode, all the way through to a truly shocking turn in the finale, this season dished out devastation like it was going out of date. But it also found time for brilliantly barmy fare like a Christmas episode in August (with a central plot about the search for a dentist, no less) and an entire hour of the normally-reserved Coach Beard going out on the lash.

Along the way, Ted Lasso wedged its claws even further into our hearts. We worried as Roy and Keeley’s relationship headed for trouble. We shouted at the screen, urging Ted to take the club’s new sports psychologist seriously. We felt Rebecca’s pain when it looked like Sam might leave. And we even felt a feeling or two for Jamie Tartt, whose journey from Love Island reject to a sobbing mess in Roy’s arms might just be the show’s greatest achievement to date. – Rob Leane, Gaming Editor

17. Taskmaster

Greg Davies in Taskmaster series 12
Channel 4

Available on All 4, Sky Go

Alex Horne’s Taskmaster juggernaut showed absolutely no sign of slowing down in 2021. Now nicely nestled in Channel 4’s Thursday night schedule, the show admirably managed to negotiate socially-distanced tasks and the lack of a live studio audience to produce two of its most entertaining series of recent years.

Series 11 introduced the wider world to the genius of milk-guzzling, vole-undermining Mike Wozniak, while also revealing Ghosts’ Charlotte Ritchie as the best Blue Peter presenter who never was. Series 12 was a similar joy, as the nation tuned in to watch Guz Khan slap a space hopper and Victoria Coren Mitchell share her thoughts on the sexiest Mr Men. Seriously, light entertainment doesn’t get much better than that.

With its New Year’s Treat, Champion of Champions 2 and series 13 on the horizon, plus several international versions now airing to great fan acclaim (hello Taskmaster New Zealand), it’s safe to say we’ll be living in the Taskmaster-verse for a good while yet. Five points all round! – Christian Tobin, Production Editor

16. Motherland

Motherland
BBC

Available on BBC iPlayer and to buy on Amazon

Our favourite social satire returned and brought us more hilarious trials and tribulations from the world of parenting with a third series this year, which went from strength to strength as Julia, Liz and Kevin were plunged into playground politics one again. It began with Julia hosting a nit treatment party after a pandemic swept the school, and many other laugh-out-loud moments like this – which accurately reflect the madness of parenting – played out, as well as some quieter and more mundane events, which writer Sharon Horgan has proved she can also squeeze comedy from, even if it is just Julia making porridge.

Anna Maxwell Martin continues to excel as Julia, but it is Lucy Punch who really lights up this season as Amanda, the queen bee of the parents. In a touching scene, the audience is given more insight into her character when she’s forced to endure a passive aggressive lunch with her mother Felicity (Joanna Lumley), with the pair making a delightful comedy duo. – Molly Moss, Trends Writer

15. The White Lotus

The White Lotus
HBO

Available on Sky Go, NOW and to buy on Amazon

The White Lotus, which was created, written and directed by Mike White, gets under your skin. The narrative unfolds at the eponymous luxury Hawaiian resort, where the affluent (and predominantly white) clientele makes the lives of the staff tending to their every whim a living nightmare. The guests clap and the men and women with painted smiles dance, like puppets on a string, which imbues the series with an ever-present, simmering tension that continues to build. It’s deeply uncomfortable to observe and yet, you can’t tear yourself away. It’s a seven-car pile-up and you’ve got a front row seat.

Entertainment aside, White also touches upon the intersections of race, gender and class, which lends the show to a communal viewing experience, before being unpacked en masse. His approach to the former, in particular, drew some criticism for not being robust enough and centring the white characters when the manager of the resort spa, who is Black, or many of the other employees, who are Hawaiian, should have been White’s way in. Unlike so many of the shows on this list, The White Lotus does leave itself open to extensive criticism, but that doesn’t water down its watchability, instead increasing our desire to talk about it. Plus, Jennifer Coolidge’s performance must be seen to be believed. – Abby Robinson, Drama Editor

14. Help

Tony (Stephen Graham) and Sarah (Jodie Comer)
Channel 4

Available on BritBox and to buy on Amazon

In an interview with Channel 4 News back in January 2021, award-winning writer Russell T Davies suggested that the “anger” felt by “generations to come” over the COVID-19 pandemic, how its been managed and the toll its taken would eventually fuel spectacular pieces of drama. “That anger, that’s going to be drama,” he said. “There will be plays, there will be books, there will be pieces of television.”

How right he was – Help, a one-off feature-length drama also broadcast on Channel 4 in September, was simply raging at the sheer injustice of it all.

Jack Thorne’s script was set in the days leading up to and immediately following the initial outbreak of pandemic in the UK and, through the eyes of newly-minted care assistant Sarah (a spectacularly good Jodie Comer), documented how care homes like the one housing early-onset Alzheimer’s patient Tony (Stephen Graham, predictably brilliant) were all but left to fend for themselves.

Brought to harrowing life by director Marc Munden – one particular sequence exploring Sarah’s desperation as she’s left isolated and alone with ailing patients, all shot in one 20-minute take, will stick in the memory – this was more than just a powerful piece of drama,  it was a mirror to our times and what we saw reflected back at us was horrifying. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor

13. Only Murders in the Building

Only Murders in the Building stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez
Hulu/YouTube

Available on Disney Plus

That Steve Martin and Martin Short make for a good comic double act was news to precisely no one, but what came as more of a surprise was that the addition of Selena Gomez improved that dynamic even further. The trio bounce off each other superbly in the sharp and playful Only Murders in the Building – which serves as both a hilarious parody of true crime podcasts and a gripping murder mystery in its own right.

Set in an opulent apartment building in New York City, the series sees flamboyant theatre producer Oliver Putnam (Short), washed-up TV actor Charles-Haden Savage (Martin) and mysterious young woman Mabel Mora (Gomez) join forces after they each discover they’re fans of the same podcast – on the same night that a young man is killed in their building suspicious circumstances.

Their investigations see them run into various dead-ends – including a brief interrogation of Sting (hilariously played by himself) – and they even pick up a small but devoted following as they aim to get to the bottom of exactly what happened. One episode, which is almost entirely silent, is particularly well crafted, while the supporting cast, including Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, is also a delight. – Patrick Cremona, Writer

12. Stath Lets Flats

Stath Lets Flats
Channel 4

Available on All 4 and Sky Go

Stath Lets Flats gave us some much-needed silliness this year with its highly-anticipated third series. The latest instalment of the mould-breaking comedy, which stars creator Jamie Demetriou as the titular Greek lettings agent attempting and failing to prove he’s capable of handling the North London-based family business, delivered six half-hour episodes of estate agent absurdity, inexplicably funny phrases (“This floor is made of slips”) and even more insight into the creative mind of the BAFTA-winning comedian.

Series three follows Stath as he tries to keep Michael and Eagle Lettings in business whilst adapting to life as a new father to his and Carole’s (Katy Wix) unexpected baby daughter Dina. Meanwhile, awkward Al (Al Roberts) is trying to make romantic progress with Stath’s sister Sophie (Natasia) as postwoman Katia (Ellie White) fights for Stath’s divided attention.

While this sitcom isn’t everybody’s cup of tea, Stath Lets Flats’ new series was, as always, a fresh addition to the increasingly monotonous comedy scene, showing off its talented ensemble with eccentric characters, side-splitting slapstick and ridiculous yet genius dialogue which firmly cements Stath as one of the best shows of 2021. – Lauren Morris, Writer

11. Time

Sean Bean in Time
BBC/James Stack

Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky Go and to buy on Amazon

Tender isn’t a word you typically associate with a prison drama, but Jimmy McGovern somehow achieved the impossible with Time. The BBC series stars Sean Bean as Mark Cobden, a man who is sentenced to a stint in prison following a catastrophic lapse of judgement. Stephen Graham appears alongside him as Eric McNally, a prison officer who has mastered the unique art of his job, but finds himself at a crossroads, which threatens to derail his life. In the most unsurprising news of the year, they are both outstanding.

We spend the lion’s share of the series with Mark and Eric, but Time is an ensemble piece and any of the characters we meet could sustain their own series, such is the strength of the writing and performances. And while the environment that McGovern sketches is a brutal one, brimming with tension and threat, he also makes space to humanise the men that we meet, never once excusing their actions, but providing vital nuance and an emotional landscape that is so often lacking during conversations about the incarcerated.

It is one of the most raw, powerful pieces of television you will ever watch, and one that stays with you long after. – Abby Robinson, Drama Editor

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