It might've been another trying year in many respects, but 2021 certainly didn't disappoint when it came to delivering fantastic television – from eye-opening documentaries to side-splitting sitcoms and mind-blowing dramas, this year saw creative teams overcome enormous obstacles to produce great TV against all odds.


Over the next five days, will be revealing its top 50 shows of the year, as selected by our team of editorial experts. Today (26th December), we kick off with 50-41 – expect personal stories of grief, trauma and anxiety, plus ghosts, Daleks and celebrities in outrageous outfits.

Be sure to join us again tomorrow and throughout the week as we disclose our full list, including the show that's landed this year's much-coveted no. 1 spot.

50. The North Water

north water cast

Available on BBC iPlayer and to buy on Amazon

It’s fair to say that this brilliant drama from Andrew Haigh could be a little bleak at times – what with its scenes of brutal seal murder and all – but it was also a genuinely captivating piece of work, led by some of the year’s best performances from the likes of Jack O’Connell, Stephen Graham and a terrifyingly menacing Colin Farrell.

Based on the novel of the same name by Ian McGuire, the series follows a former military surgeon (O’Connell) and his disastrous decision to accept a job as a medic on a doomed whaling voyage. He’s immediately treated with suspicion by the rather hostile crew, and the journey quickly descends into an unforgivable hellscape when the vessel becomes stranded in the Arctic.

It can perhaps be something of a slow-burn, especially in its early stages, but Haigh builds up a tremendously grim, gloomy atmosphere, leading to one of the most unforgettable episodes of television I’ve seen all year in the penultimate instalment. The performances from the cast are equalled by the brilliant location work, while Haigh’s direction is excellent throughout. – Patrick Cremona, Writer

49. Breeders

Breeders - Martin Freeman and Daisy Haggard

Available on Sky and NOW

Nimbly avoiding what might be termed "the Outnumbered problem", the creative team behind Breeders opted for a daring strategy, employing a significant time jump that saw parents Paul (Martin Freeman) and Ally (Daisy Haggard) no longer raising very young children – as in the first series – but instead dealing with a pair of pre-pubescent offspring and so a whole new heap of problems.

It's been said that the worst of "comedy-drama" is neither funny enough to sit in the first camp nor powerful enough to sit in the second, but after a stellar first run Breeders proved once again in 2021 that this need not be the case – nuanced writing from series co-creators Chris Addison and Simon Blackwell and their team, coupled with outstanding performances from Freeman and Haggard, both equally as adept at delivering a one-liner as they are at portraying absolute anguish, ensured that this second series hit all the right beats. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor

48. I Am

I Am Victoria
Channel 4

Available on All 4

The female-led drama series I Am has provided a superb showcase for some of our best acting talent across its two series (the first aired in 2019), with the likes of Vicky McClure, Samantha Morton and Suranne Jones signing up for these superbly-crafted one-off tales.

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The nature of the beast – one-off stories, improvised from a basic story outline – means that some instalments will always work better than others, but Lesley Manville was reliably magnificent in series two capper I Am Maria as a vital, voracious woman written off as "old" even by her loved ones, while in this year's premiere I Am Victoria, the series offered its finest chapter to date.

Suranne Jones was simply spellbinding in a piece based on her own experiences with mental health: the film saw Jones’ character struggle to keep up appearances as her underlying anxieties bubbled to the surface, impacting her relationships with her friends, her husband Chris (Ashley Walters) and her sister Deborah (Alice Feetham), and while it made for claustrophobic, sometimes uncomfortable viewing, it was also powerful, poignant and, in the end, hopeful. – Morgan Jeffery, Executive Editor

47. Alma's Not Normal

Alma's Not Normal
BBC/Expectation TV/Matt Squire

Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky and to buy on Amazon

Sophie Willan’s superb pilot was commissioned for a well-deserved full series last year and it’s a delight to say that it did not disappoint. Inspired by the comedian’s own upbringing, this bold sitcom introduces us to Alma Nuthall as she sets about pursuing a glamorous acting career across stage and screen. However, that dream proves very difficult to realise with limited job prospects and a commitment to her vulnerable mother, a recovering addict.

Make no mistake, there are some truly hysterical moments throughout this first series of Alma’s Not Normal, but like many of the best comedies, it also packs a weighty emotional punch when it needs to. Willan’s deft navigation of sensitive themes including life in the care system, coping with addiction and the cycle of poverty is to be applauded, explored through the three generations of Nuthall woman portrayed by herself as well as co-stars Siobhan Finneran and Lorraine Ashbourne.

The series is both hilarious and heartbreaking, but what stands out most about Alma’s Not Normal is its sheer authenticity. – David Craig, Writer

46. The Masked Singer / The Masked Dancer

The Masked Singer

Available on ITV Hub and Sky

The weird and wonderful The Masked Singer came back with a bang this year, with 12 new characters and a new judge in the form of comedian Mo Gilligan, who took over from Ken Jeong. From a singing sausage to a lyrical blob and dragon, series two didn’t come to play, as the unmasking revealed huge names from the showbiz world. And just when we thought we’d seen enough crazy, ITV treated fans to the The Masked Dancer, which aired across a week in February. Just as bizarre as its sister show, TMD saw celebs dressed up in wild costumes while trying to impress a panel of judges, including Strictly’s Oti Mabuse. Cue WhatsApp group chats and notepads full of celeb names as the guessing game commenced! – Grace Henry, Entertainment and Factual Editor

45. The Beast Must Die

Cush Jumbo in The Beast Must Die

Available on BritBox

As the first ever original drama commissioned by BritBox, the streaming service has set the bar very high for itself with The Beast Must Die. Cush Jumbo steals the show in this reimagining of the Nicholas Blake novel, portraying a grieving mother who infiltrates a wealthy (yet dysfunctional) family, believing the patriarch is responsible for the death of her infant son. Effortlessly shifting between the convincing facade she presents to the world and private expressions of raw emotional pain, this is certainly up there with the most engrossing performances of the year.

Jumbo is given some strong screen partners in the form of Jared Harris, her conceited target, and Billy Howle, a traumatised detective leading a parallel investigation. The five-part series keeps you guessing throughout, perfectly paced by writer Gaby Chiappe and eerily scored by composer Matthew Herbert. In a television landscape frankly overpopulated by detective dramas, The Beast Must Die stands out as head and shoulders above its peers. – David Craig, Writer

44. Doctor Who

Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill and John Bishop in the Tardis

Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky and to buy on Amazon

Jodie Whittaker’s final full Doctor Who series also proved to be her best, providing the Thirteenth Doctor with a pacy, action-packed adventure full of great cliffhangers, big twists and an all-time great episode in Chris Chibnall and Maxine Alderton’s Village of the Angels.

As the Doctor tracked down the Division, battled Swarm and Azure and tried to hold back the Flux over the course of six interlinked episodes, fans were on the edge of their seats and trying to solve every mystery.

Who were the Mouri? What were Vinder and Bel’s backstories? How did UNIT change, and what did any of it have to do with the absent Time Lords? There was so much going on, it was a surprise they managed to wrap everything up as neatly as they did in the finale.

It wasn’t a perfect series – there were a lot of underdeveloped characters, bizarre plot moves and some strange storytelling decisions – but in the face of COVID disaster, the Who team pulled off a miracle by creating the pandemic-proof Doctor Who: Flux. Frankly, it’s a rescue the Doctor would’ve been proud of herself. – Huw Fullerton, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Editor

43. Ghosts

Ghosts cast – BBC One

Available on BBC iPlayer, Sky and to buy on Amazon

Ghosts isn’t always full of belly laughs – it’s more gentle amusement than raucous comedy – but it’s still become one of the best shows on TV.

Perfectly conceived, performed and plotted in every episode, series three was a particular triumph from the creators (so-called 'Six Idiots' Simon Farnaby, Martha Howe-Douglas, Jim Howick, Laurence Rickard, Mathew Baynton and Ben Willbond), delving into stormier emotional waters as second-sighted human Alison (Charlotte Ritchie) discovered an unknown family connection.

The ghosts themselves also had their own spiritual journeys (sorry), as yet more details were tantalisingly teased out about their former lives, deaths and the deep sadness many of them carry behind their ridiculous, exaggerated personas.

Really, it’s a show that could go on for years to come – and with season four already on the cards, we’re a long way off exorcising Button House any time soon. – Huw Fullerton, Sci-Fi and Fantasy Editor

42. Starstruck

Rose Matafeo in Starstruck

Available on BBC iPlayer and to buy on Amazon

A few years ago, I squeezed into a small, hot room at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival to watch some stand-up from a comedian I wasn’t familiar with. My boyfriend, who had booked the tickets, assured me that he’d heard good things, and those things turned out to be true.

Rose Matafeo had me from the word go and I’ve remained invested in her career (and enviable hair) ever since, so it was a given that I’d inhale Starstruck in a single sitting and fall wildly in love with it.

Matafeo, who teamed up with Alice Snedden to write the series, also stars as Jessie, a woman who winds up having a one-night stand with a big-time movie star (Nikesh Patel). But she doesn’t clock who he is until after their dalliance when she stumbles across a giant poster of his face. It doesn’t take long for their unexpected encounter to morph into something more and before long, they’re all up in one another’s ~ feelings ~.

Not only is Starstruck funny and effortlessly watchable, you firmly believe in the relationship at the heart of the narrative. Matafeo and Patel have wonderful on-screen chemistry and you root for them every step of the way, cursing anything that threatens to derail their blossoming romance. That’s a hard trick to pull off, but they make it look easy. – Abby Robinson, Drama Editor

41. The Pursuit of Love

Pursuit of Love

Available on BBC iPlayer and to buy on Amazon

Lily James took a starring role in an adaptation of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love, the glorious BBC series that followed the stories of two cousins who were seeking different outcomes in life.

James played Linda Radlett, a free and wild teenager who longed for love and passion, that could only be found in a man. Emily Beecham plays the young and naive Fanny Logan, who is at once in awe and slightly terrified of her cousin's whimsy, with Andrew Scott as Lord Merlin, the flamboyant neighbour who teaches Linda to dream bigger than expectations for a woman in the 1940s.

While the drama was criticised by some for being too slow, and a little predictable, this BBC series offered a fun and honest retelling of Mitford's novel. James was a particular highlight, playing Linda on the edge of naivety and borderline annoyance, but with enough heart that you simply warmed to this young woman with a big dream.

The Pursuit of Love was whimsical and yet fierce, reminding us all to aim for the sky. – Helen Daly, Associate Editor


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