Looking back: the best TV shows of 2021
From the return of Jed Mercurio's thrilling Line of Duty to Russell T Davies' fun and tragic Aids drama It's A Sin, here are our favourite TV shows of 2021
Although many weren’t convinced by the finale, season six of Line of Duty held the nation week by week in a tight grasp. There isn’t a better example of such high-octane, cliffhanger television: each episode was an event. The long-standing characters and complicated backstories and numerous acronyms of AC-12 never fail.
Season six fractures the core anti-corruption squad, as DI Kate Fleming (Vicky McClure) moves to the Murder Investigation Team (MIT) while DS Steve Arnott (Martin Compston) and Superintendent Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) look sombrely unmotivated. But after the mysterious DCI Jo Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) at MIT becomes the latest suspect in police corruption, the team joins together again.
Read our review of episode one of season six
Undoubtedly the biggest TV surprise of the year, the brilliantly violent K-drama Squid Game became the most popular show on Netflix by a massive margin. Whereas Bridgerton held the top spot at 625 million hours watched over 28 days, Squid Game reached over 1.6 billion. It’s inspired heavily circulated memes, Halloween costumes, and even protests around the world – an instant sensation. And for good reason.
Melding together elements from Battle Royale and The Truman Show, Hwang Dong-hyuk’s surreal nine-part drama follows a crowd of contestants – in debt or destitute – selected to play a series of children’s games… to the death. If you fail or break the rules, you’re shot down. But with every death, more money pours into the overall jackpot, which is held over their beds in a massive piggy bank.
Photo: NetflixRead more ...
Although Mike Flanagan’s latest project has a dodgy subplot that involves ‘curing’ a disability, it’s still one of the best horror series ever made. Coming after The Hauntings of Hill House and Bly Manor, both dark and incredible achievements in themselves, Midnight Mass dives into the poetic, the existential, and the theological with such detail and dread. And there are monsters, naturally.
Welcome to Crockett Island – a small blob of land cut off from the rest of the world – where a tight-knit community exists in relative harmony. But then a new priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater), arrives and many strange events take place. Turns out, he can make miracles happen – strengthening the religious zeal of the island. But the atheistic ex-convict Riley (Zach Gilford) isn’t convinced…
The great thing about modern TV is its creative freedom, often achieved on smaller shows. Master of None is a criminally underrated Netflix rom-com, examining the laughs and pitfalls of millennial life and love. Season three, Moments in Love, departs from writer/creator Aziz Ansari's character Dev and focuses instead on his best friend Denise (Lena Waithe) and her relationship with Alicia (Naomi Ackie).
The result is a slow, delicately shot romantic drama that feels like a modern, diverse update of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage. You follow this Black and queer couple in their quaint, old, secluded house in upstate New York. They decide to have a baby, but things don’t go according to plan. Moments in Love is a gradual drama, but a fulfilling one.
Barry Jenkins, director of Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, leads a refreshing new development in stories about slavery and Black trauma with his pristine magnum opus The Underground Railroad. Although there are moments of intense violence from white slavers in this 10-part magical realist drama set in 19th-century America, Jenkins refrains from showing too much, from indulging too much. The brutality is left largely to anecdotal dialogues.
More importantly: Jenkins shows these slaves as human beings – their lives larger than their chains, capable of loving and laughing. And with his regular cinematographer James Laxton, he frames their faces so beautifully.
Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel, the story makes the abolitionist 'Underground Railroad' into an actual subterranean train track. The slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) runs away with the well-read Caesar (Aaron Pierre) via the Railroad, but she’s pursued by a white bounty hunter (Joel Edgerton).
The time between seasons of Sex Education was far too long. Even a year was too long, but with season three's Covid delays the wait became unbearable. The good news: it's now available. Bad news: you have to wait at least a year for season four. Laurie Nunn’s sex-positive comedy-drama became an instant Netflix hit. It captures the colourful atmosphere of an 80s teen movie, but for a more enlightened generation.
Season three is all about embracing oneself. A new headteacher (Jemima Kirke) comes into Moordale Secondary to tidy up the mess left by Mr Groff (Alistair Petrie) in season two. But it turns out: she’s a populist authoritarian who turns the school into a grey, Orwellian existence – preparing the kids for the so-called ‘real world’.
Otis (Asa Butterfield) tries to make it work with popular girl Ruby (Mimi Keene) and her friends. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) tries to find a sense of belonging as a boy who's both gay and of Nigerian descent. Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling) confusedly starts a rapport with non-binary student Cal (Dua Saleh). And Maeve (Emma Mackey) gets closer to Isaac (George Robinson), resulting in one of the most beautiful scenes in the entire series. An absolute delight from start to finish.
In a cynical world bathed in hate and horror and madness, it’s nice to have TV that actually makes you feel more wholesome, more comfortable. Although nihilism and hedonism are essential on-screen, the priority of kindness cracks a light in the dark. That’s what Ted Lasso represents.
Yes, it’s a football comedy with a contrived premise: a smiley American football coach, Ted (Jason Sudeikis), crossing the Atlantic to rebuild an English football team. But its cosy atmosphere, delightful moral messages and warm comedy moments make this essential viewing for our dark times.
In season two, AFC Richmond employs a sports therapist Dr Sharon Fieldstone (Sarah Niles) for the players. This allows the series to lightly examine men’s mental health within a heavily masculine environment. But despite Ted’s obvious issues, hidden from the rest of the team, he refuses to engage in therapy. Meanwhile, the growling Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) tries out punditry and the arrogant Jamie Tartt (Phil Dunster) goes on a reality TV show.
The modern surfeit of information makes the world into a kind of chaos, and the documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis channels this feeling for his latest series Can’t Get You Out of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World. His points of focus scatter around the world and across time, chiefly hopping around the UK, the US and China. At times, it’s like you’re watching three docs at once.
The connective tissues aren't immediately clear; you have to persist, absorb, and complete the puzzle yourself. Curtis covers the origins of conspiracy theories, the individual vs the collective, and the guilty paranoia buried under countries with terrible histories.
Like the religion/philosophy of Discordianism examined in the film, Curtis presents his findings – all archive footage – in a seemingly disparate and non-linear way: emphasising the chaotic multiplicity of reasons why the world is the way it is. There can be no better title than Can’t Get You Out of My Head: once you’ve finished an episode, Curtis's incredible analyses continue to clash in your mind.
With only seven episodes available to review, Culture Whisper gave four stars to Succession season three. But those last two episodes – Chiantishire and All the Bells Say – provide some of the most shocking, thrilling and satisfying hours of television this year.
Although these are deplorable people in a deceitful family in a greedy corporation, each one of them is written with such absorbing depth. With every relationship, there’s an infinite amount to pleasurably deconstruct and piece together. There’s not one boring personality in the lot. As this season concludes, you see different sides to these people that are rarely shown. But the usual barriers are being torn down and after the finale, it’s hard to know if the family will ever be the same again.
After the second son Kendall (Jeremy Strong) publicly denounces his father – the patriarchal CEO Logan (Brian Cox) – a corporate civil war is declared. As such, various shareholders and members of the family divide their loyalties between the old and the new. Do they dare take the risk?
In British television, there are few writers like Russell T Davies. He created Queer as Folk in 1999, when there were barely any depictions of queer people on television. He successfully rebooted Doctor Who to universal acclaim, even making its mainstream format more inclusive. And he satirised the current state of populist politics in Years and Years.
It’s A Sin is another phenomenal achievement, plunging into the paranoia of 80s Britain during the Aids crisis. But more than burying the story in trauma and tragedy, Davies shows how fun that time was: the freedom, the parties, and the sense of acceptance in the gay community.
Aids creeps up on the young heroes much like Covid did – through curious whispers and small headlines – before becoming one of the biggest crises of all time. The lives of these liberated spirits are so full of optimism and happiness, looking to the future with no concern. And then there’s the bravery of the people who fought against the prejudice that followed, against the parents who’d rather forget their queer children than celebrate who they were. Upsetting, funny and frightening, It's A Sin is the best TV show of the year by far.
Photo: Channel 4
Baptiste, season 2 (BBC iPlayer)
Dickinson, season 2 (Apple TV+)
Feel Good, season 2 (Netflix)
The North Water (BBC iPlayer)
Special, season 2 (Netflix)
Starstruck (BBC iPlayer)
Them (Amazon Prime)
This Way Up season 2 (All4)
Time (BBC iPlayer)
Vigil (BBC iPlayer)
We Are Lady Parts (All4)
The White Lotus (Sky/NOW)
You Don't Know Me (BBC iPlayer)
Your Honor (Sky/NOW)
Photo: Channel 4. This Way Up, season 2.
You have reached the limit of free articles.
To enjoy unlimited access to Culture Whisper sign up for FREE.
Find out more about Culture Whisper
Thanks for signing up to Culture Whisper.
Please check your inbox for a confirmation email and click the link to verify your account.