The 50 best TV shows of 2021: 50-21

This list is drawn from votes by Guardian TV writers: each votes for their top 20 shows, with points allocated for every placing, which are tallied to create this order.

50

Ladhood

(BBC Three) For some years now, Liam Williams has been blossoming into one of the sharpest observers of niche contemporary culture. In the second season of Ladhood, though, he continued to turn his gaze inward, unpicking moments from his adolescence that were critical to his development. It might just be his best work yet.

What we said: By the end of series two, nothing has been resolved and nobody has grown as a person, just as the rules of sitcom demand. Liam doesn’t know what he is doing, but as a writer/performer, Williams really does. .

49

Four Hours at the Capitol

(BBC Two) Jamie Roberts’ film, covering January’s failed insurrectionist coup, had one huge advantage over most documentaries; almost everyone there was filming it. From the police officers’ bodycams to gurning selfie footage from the insurrectionists, Four Hours at the Capitol could take you right inside the terrible events of 6 January. At its most intense, when we watch a mob try to beat an officer to death, it stands as some of the most claustrophobic television ever broadcast.

What we said: The underlying collective testimony furnished by Four Hours at the Capitol is that the age of Trump has not yet ended – and the true day of reckoning in the United States is still to come. .

48

The North Water

(BBC Two) Now that his days as a heart-throb leading man are over, Colin Farrell can concentrate on what he does best: intriguing character work. The North Water saw him bulk up and head out to the Arctic, where he could terrify the crew of a whaling ship to impossible ends. His best performance in years.

The 50 best TV shows of 2021: 50-21
© Provided by The Guardian Out cold … Colin Farrell in The North Water. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Harpooner Films Limited

What we said: This is a well-executed adventure story to be watched by firelight, wrapped in a sweater as robust – if less blood-drenched – as the seamen’s own. .

47

US Open women’s final

(Channel 4/Amazon Prime Video) With less than 24 hours to go, Channel 4 struck a deal to show tennis sensation Emma Raducanu (who had just done her A-levels in Bromley) appearing in the US Open final. And a staggering 9 million of us tuned in to watch and weep as she and the brilliant Leylah Fernandez – herself only 19 – battled it out. A gripping night of television, and a glorious slice of the future.

The 50 best TV shows of 2021: 50-21
© Provided by The Guardian Smashing it … Emma Raducanu wins the US Open. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

What we said: In a few small weeks she has improved as much as some do in years … and there is so much more to come. .

46

Together

(BBC Two) Written by Dennis Kelly, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, this Covid two-hander certainly didn’t want for talent. A couple are, like the rest of the country, stuck inside together. And, like the rest of the country, they’ve started to hate each other. The real anger, though, is reserved for the government. As such, especially for those who lost a loved one in the first flush of Coronavirus, it was a staggeringly hard watch.

What we said: “An absolute wonder.” .

45

Lupin

(Netflix) The story of a century-old French gentleman thief might not have screamed “blockbuster”, but that’s what Lupin was. Updated to contemporary Paris, Lupin became a sensation this year, largely due to the juggernaut charisma of star Omar Sy.

What we said: The winning combination of charismatic star and stage illusionist visuals in an iconic city setting bears comparison to the BBC’s London-set Sherlock. Where Lupin betters its English equivalent is in its effortlessly chic updating of the revered source material. .

44

The Pursuit of Love

(BBC One) Emily Mortimer’s retelling of Nancy Mitford’s novel could have fallen back on all the old Sunday-night TV chocolate-box tropes. Instead, Mortimer worked hard to boost both the joy and sadness of the source material. A clatteringly good watch that deserves to go down as a classic.

What we said: The insistent intertwining of the pain with the laughter, instead of flattening the tale into a Wodehouse-with-women yarn, makes this adaptation feel like a classic in its own right. It is a treat for all. Mitfordians – please, do give it a chance. .

43

The Flight Attendant

(HBO/Sky One) Not only did The Flight Attendant start with one of the best premises of the year – an alcoholic comes to with a murdered man in her bed – but it was inventively, breathlessly told, and held together by an all-time great performance from Kaley Cuoco.

What we said: The premise is fun, the execution is slick and the action is fast and relentless (it only really pauses to let Cassie top up her blood-alcohol level or call her straight-arrow brother to assure him that she’s sober and will be home on time). Full of style and brio. .

42

Hellbound

(Netflix) Destined to be overshadowed by its fellow South Korean export Squid Game, Hellbound was far greater than the sum of its parts. A drama about demons who come to Earth and drag people to the underworld, Hellbound was much brainier – and more satirical – than you would imagine. And dark. So dark.

What we said: Although the “here’s when you will die” hook is lifted straight from The Ring, tonally it has much more in common with The Leftovers and The Returned, shows that shone a light on the fragility of the human experience that reminded us that it doesn’t take much for everything to fall apart completely. .

41

The Hunt for a Killer

(BBC Four) If you were worrying that Scandi noir was going to be outpaced by the dubious charms of the true crime fad, relax. This series about a real-life missing girl from the 1980s managed to combine the style and drama of Wallander with the queasy complicity of contemporary crime shows.

What we said: It’s not the tortured psyches of the detective that are of most urgent interest here. Like series Mindhunter, which dramatised the founding of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, this takes the familiar “case of the week” structure from police procedural thrillers and applies it to a serious-minded study of forensic psychology. .

40

Bo Burnham: Inside

(Netflix) It’s hard to know what was more impressive about Inside: the fact that Bo Burnham wrote, performed, directed and edited the whole thing by himself, the fact that it was simultaneously funny, inventive and gut-wrenchingly sad, or the fact that he was only 29 when he made it. Future generations will see Inside as the definitive document of the Covid lockdown.

What we said: It is a comedy Gesamtkunstwerk, a journey to the nerve-centre of the quarantined entertainer’s mind, a son et lumière Robinson Crusoe musical for the age of not just social but digital isolation. It could be a breakdown – or it could be the pandemic’s wildest gift to comedy. .

39

Pose

(BBC Two) Ryan Murphy’s series about New York City’s African American and Latino LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming drag ball scene was already an important show. But in wrapping up the story, Pose became an out and out celebration of an under-represented demographic. It’ll be missed.

What we said: Its version of revolution always included bettering the bleak truth through sheer force of imagination. And so, this show has offered up the happy ending that real life so cruelly denies. .

38

Clarkson’s Farm

(Amazon Prime Video) Just when it looked as if he had ossified into an obnoxious pub bore, Jeremy Clarkson suddenly went and became charming. In Clarkson’s Farm, we saw him trying his hardest to make profit from his land, aided by employees who don’t care a jot for his celebrity. If the success of this first series doesn’t go to his head, Clarkson’s Farm will be a highly successful reinvention.

What we said: To watch Clarkson’s Farm is to watch a man realise that the hobby he seemingly picked up for a lark is exhausting and all-consuming and increasingly unlikely to bring any real rewards. The show, like the job, has all the hallmarks of a labour of love. .

37

Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution

(BBC Two) A five-part retelling of the last time Labour got anywhere even close to power, Blair and Brown was the document New Labour deserved. And, just maybe, that British voters deserved as well.

What we said: It is an inside job, with Labour veterans as unreliable narrators. Brown’s speechwriter Douglas Alexander even says: “They were literally the Lennon and McCartney of British politics.” Rubbish. They were more like Wham!, with no George Michael and two Andrew Ridgeleys. .

36

Gods of Snooker

(BBC Two) The US had The Last Dance, an all-out spectacular retracing a vital moment in time for a figure who once arguably counted as the biggest name in all of sport. In the UK, we got a documentary about snooker. The amazing thing, though, was that this might have actually been better.

What we said: You cannot fail to be captivated by archive footage of Jimmy White spinning a ball around a table before, suddenly, decades later, the same man is in a hotel room telling you exactly how much of his winnings he spent on crack. .

35

Motherland

(BBC Two) By its third series, you pretty much know where a sitcom will go. That’s true of Motherland, which barely attempted to deviate from its formula of middle-class mums being horrible to each other. But why bother when the blueprint is so good?

The 50 best TV shows of 2021: 50-21
© Provided by The Guardian Anna Maxwell-Martin and Diane Morgan in Motherland. Photograph: Grab/BBC/Merman

What we said: Motherland is at its best when it is skewering what it knows: the snobbery, hypocrisy and narcissism of a specific strain of white, middle-class London, plus the hellscape of the school gate. And when it is at its best, it is glorious. .

34

Ghosts

(BBC One) The best all-round British sitcom in years, Ghosts’ third series mined slightly more heartfelt territory than before. Not only were the phantoms fleshed out more fully, but Charlotte Ritchie’s Alison found herself yearning for a family that couldn’t quite manifest itself. As beautiful as it was funny.

What we said: I’m quite pleased the old guff survived. But my worry is that Ghosts will become ruined by the exclusivity of its admission policy. Somebody, preferably somebody likable and interesting, needs to die to save Ghosts. But who? .

33

Insecure

(Sky Comedy) Issa Rae’s comedy about a group of black LA girlfriends living, loving and frequently falling flat on their faces while doing both has spent five seasons deftly combining laugh-out-loud hilarity (who could forget Kelli getting tasered?) with real poignancy. Its ongoing final series has given fans a steady stream of zingers, contrasting the reality that a happy ever after for Issa, Molly, Lawrence and co is far from guaranteed.

What we said: The fifth and final season of this comedy about a group of black millennial girlfriends is all about giving its fans what they want. Namely, will-they-won’t-they drama, existential crises and pitch-perfect Kelli-isms. Despite its angst, it remains resolutely fun. Read more.

32

The Cleaner

(BBC One) Greg Davies adapted and starred in this adaptation of the German series Der Tatortreiniger, about a man tasked with removing crime scene evidence from the homes of several guest stars. It might not be the most original premise, but when The Cleaner worked, it really worked.

What we said: The Cleaner is a curious mix, attempting to balance slapstick moments, such as the brutal kicking of a pie, with pathos-laden observations about ambition and freedom. Sometimes, it works wonderfully. .

31

Unforgotten

(ITV) A dusty old survivor like this ITV detective show always runs the risk of becoming set in its ways. Not so with Unforgotten, which this year said goodbye to its star Nicola Walker. It’s bittersweet: she was perfect in this role, but now she’s freed up to become an Olivia Colman-style megastar.

What we said: Over the years, Unforgotten has turned into one of the finest shows on British television. By the time it reached its fourth series, which attracted more viewers than ever before – thanks to its growing reputation as a sure bet – it was as lean as an elite athlete. .

30

Master of None

(Netflix) Once Aziz Ansari was sucked into #MeToo’s bonfire of reputations, it seemed unlikely that he would ever make more Master of None. When he did, staying behind the camera for a new series subtitled Moments in Love, it was with a completely new focus. This run concentrated on Lena Waithe’s character Denise, and was composed of still, quiet episodes that paid off stunningly.

What we said: For conflicted comedy fans the solution might be to stop worrying and start watching. These 192 minutes speak more directly to the shifting status of women on screen than any public statement could. .

29

Guilt

(BBC Scotland/iPlayer) The first series of Neil Forsyth’s crime thriller was a word-of-mouth hit, largely thanks to Mark Bonnar’s psychotic growl of a performance. This year’s second series lost a little of its pace, but was still as compelling as ever. Let’s all cross our fingers for a third series.

What we said: Guilt is a guilty pleasure, and I won’t be missing a second of it. .

28

Help

(Channel 4) Another one-off Covid drama, Help starred Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham as a care home worker and resident respectively. Jack Thorne’s script surged with rage at the indifference with which the care sector was left to rot as the first wave of the pandemic rolled in. There’s plenty of warmth, but you’re never allowed to forget who the villains are.

What we said: Comer and Graham remain faultless to the end, and the first hour is a fine addition to the wealth of pandemic testimonies that can and must be entered into the record in any way they can be, from television drama to heart-wall monuments to official enquiries. Read more.

27

The Beatles: Get Back

(Disney+) Ambient Beatles? Slow Beatles? Peter Jackson’s Fab Four epic leaned into the sheer quantity of extraordinary footage at its creator’s disposal, capturing a band on the verge of dissolution but still full of heart and creative inspiration. Watching the song Get Back emerge, almost fully formed, from Paul McCartney’s fevered imagination was just one of numerous jaw-dropping moments.

What we said: There are fantastic moments. Lennon and McCartney’s eyes locking as they harmonise on Two of Us; Lennon’s delighted cry of “Yoko!” as McCartney’s adopted daughter starts screaming into a microphone; and especially McCartney, casting around for a new song, idly strumming his bass and singing nonsense words, gradually settling into a rhythm and melody that turns into Get Back. It is hard not to boggle. Read more.

26

Reservation Dogs

(Disney+) Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s comedy drama about bored youths trying to make it out of Oklahoma would have been brilliant in any case. But what elevated it is its cast (and near-uniform crew) of Indigenous North Americans. There’s a cultural specificity here that felt not only authentic, but authentically funny and sweet, like meeting a daft, lovable new circle of friends.

The 50 best TV shows of 2021: 50-21
© Provided by The Guardian Authentic … (from left) Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and Lane Factor in Reservation Dogs. Photograph: FX

What we said: Reservation Dogs is able to lay waste stylishly to centuries of myth and misrepresentation due to one simple, crucial, innovation: almost everyone involved in the production is a Native American, offering a perspective which never panders to the often-fetishising gaze of outsiders. .

25

Only Murders in the Building

(Disney+) A new show starring Steve Martin and Martin Short didn’t have to try very hard; a splash of the old charm and viewers would have fallen in line regardless. The genius of Only Murders in the Building, though, was how deftly it glued its comic shtick to a rigorously tight murder mystery. Much, much better than it had any right to be.

What we said: The investigation pings around with comic incompetency, from suspecting Sting (playing himself), to a bit involving a dead cat. The main event remains the unlikelihood of watching two comedy titans batting around with Selena Gomez – an enjoyable enough pairing, though it never quite transcends the clear beats of the scripts. .

24

Call My Agent!

(Netflix) Call My Agent!’s fourth season saw a change of personnel, with showrunner par excellence Fanny Herrero moving on to pastures new. With her departure came a noticeable drop in quality, but let’s be clear. A Herrero-less Call My Agent! is still Call My Agent! It was stylish, funny and star-studded, and still ran circles around most other shows. This year’s season was publicised as its last, but calm down – a fifth season and a movie are now on their way.

What we said: While the much-maligned Emily in Paris offered a kind of escapism for those hankering but unable to go to the city of lights and love, Call My Agent! gives you a far more authentic immersion into French culture. Read more.

23

Vigil

(BBC One) How to create one of the most nail-biting televisual experiences of the year? Take a tense, twisty procedural plot, get Suranne Jones to fire on all cylinders as a trauma-racked action hero badass, then cram her into a ready-made environment for a claustrophobic whodunnit: a nuclear sub.

What we said: Throughout, Vigil has been a rich and sometimes sickly meal. Just one of its anxiety-inducing scenarios would be enough for most dramas, but this had international conflict, political intrigue, claustrophobic horror, psychological trauma, murder, cops, romance and nerve agents thrown in and set to various clock-ticking countdowns. Read more.

22

Inside No 9

(BBC Two) By now you could be forgiven for taking Inside No 9 for granted. But this year, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton managed to find even greater heights. There was a Brexit episode, an episode about the uneasy relationship between fans and creators, an episode where Sian Clifford played against type twice at once. The invention here continues to be phenomenal.

What we said: As writers, actors and occasionally directors, the pair have shown that they can switch from bleak domestic drama to Shakespearean light comedy to full-on horror without dropping a stitch. .

21

Maid

(Netflix) A devastating and compelling portrait of life on the poverty line in the US, starring Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, the cutest child actor in years, as Maddy, Margaret Qualley as Alex, a woman willing to do anything for her family – and her real-life mother Andie MacDowell (the strongest she’s ever been) playing her gullible, free-spirited artist mum Paula. Right up there with Squid Game for word-of-mouth hit of the year.

What we said: It dramatises the precariousness of existence without a fixed abode and conjures a world rarely seen in real life or on screen. It is also good at showing the insidious forms and effects of emotional abuse without insisting that Alex be an ever-broken victim. .

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