The 10 best television drama series of 2021
Last year, I thanked the TV gods for providing us with ample fare to get us through lockdown, but warned that 2021 would be the year that our glowing, rectangular friends would feel the Covid pinch. And so it came to pass. We must salute the TV industry for soldiering on during lockdowns and stringent pandemic regulations that could shut down a production at a moment’s notice. But there is no escaping the fact that 2020 was a vintage year for British TV drama: Quiz, I May Destroy You, Small Axe, Normal People, I Hate Suzie. And 2021 has, well, not been.
However, let’s not write the whole year off. Innovative and idiosyncratic dramas such as Landscapers, WandaVision, The Serpent, The Chair and Reservation Dogs have not made my top 10, but all deserve plaudits. And, as you can see from my top five below, this was a year in which the Americans showed us how it was done.
The list below, I note in retrospect, leans heavily on the dark, the downbeat and the downright depressing, but perhaps that’s fitting for a year in which we’ve all been tested to the limit. Great art reflects its time, and TV is no exception.
10. Time – BBC One
Most people were sold on this drama in six words: Sean Bean. Stephen Graham. Jimmy McGovern. Bean played a basically decent middle-aged bloke, doing a long stretch for killing a man while drink-driving; Graham was the honest screw forced into dodgy dealings. McGovern didn’t spare us the bleakness of the British prison system in the 21st century, but, as ever with the great writer, this brawny story was one of hope. Bean’s performance of guilt made flesh was striking.
9. In My Skin – BBC Three
On paper, Kayleigh Llewellyn’s drama sounds like a worthy hodgepodge of social issues – teenager Bethan (Gabrielle Creevy, remember the name) struggles with her sexuality, her mentally ill mother and abusive father, as she grows up in relative poverty on the concrete streets of suburban Cardiff. However, the lightness of Llewellyn’s writing, which captures the ecstasy and agony of teenagedom with wit and verve, made this returning series a little wonder. A brilliant – and very Welsh – TV novella.
8. Crime – BritBox
More gritty realism, this time from the auld scoundrel Irvine Welsh, adapting his own novel for this brutal crime drama. This one, however, was no story of hope. Dougray Scott was magnificent as the irrevocably damaged detective, scouring sex offenders from the streets of Edinburgh with an ugly determination. Scott – and Crime – ticked a lot of crime drama cliches. The booze, the past, the rule-breaking. But Welsh took those cliches and dragged them through the gutters of Auld Reekie. Hats off to BritBox, whose first few original dramas have been superb.
7. Help – Channel 4
Jack Thorne’s howl of outrage against the abandonment of care homes during the early stages of the pandemic was savage and direct, with Jodie Comer impeccable as the lackadaisical young woman who, in her first few weeks, found herself facing a living nightmare inside the home where she worked. Director Marc Munden, understandably, shot it like a horror film. Easily the best bit of “pandemic TV” so far.
6. It’s a Sin – Channel 4
Trust Russell T Davies to take something so harrowing – the Aids epidemic of the 1980s – and do something with it that no one else would. Of course, we saw the suffering and the bigotry and the trauma, but the drama coursed with love, life and joie de vivre – and a wonderful Eighties soundtrack. Olly Alexander impressed as the leader of a group of gauche young men, hurtling headlong into London life and something far worse. But it was Welsh newcomer Callum Scott Howells who remained in the audience’s minds.
5. The White Lotus – Sky Atlantic
Mike White’s wicked satire arrived at the perfect time – most of us were cooped up and locked down as we watched the filthy rich guests of a remote Hawaiian island resort disintegrate over the course of a week. Mystifyingly, the Golden Globes chose not to reward Murray Bartlett, whose performance as the pin-perfect hotel manager, who combusts when he encounters one horrendous guest too many, is a wonder to behold.
4. The Underground Railroad – Amazon Prime Video
Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s magic-realist novel, about the network of abolitionist routes used to help enslaved African-Americans in the mid-1800s, was a ferocious, sprawling epic. Thuso Mbedu mesmerised as the runaway
Georgian slave who attempts to flee north, while Joel Edgerton was skin crawling as the “slave catcher” on her tail. The star, however, was James Laxton’s astonishing cinematography.
3. The North Water – BBC One
The Arctic backdrop was chilling, the sets terrific, and the story was gripping, but Andrew Haigh’s adaptation of Ian McGuire’s novel will be remembered for one thing: a pungent, appalling powerhouse performance from Colin Farrell as the dastardly harpooner Henry Drax. There were shades of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian as Jack O’Connell’s ship’s surgeon staggered through the ice, either in pursuit of or fleeing from Drax. Farrell was the devil himself.
2. Mare of Easttown – Sky Atlantic
Brad Ingelsby’s poisoned love letter to his Pennsylvanian hometown had us all on whodunit tenterhooks in a way no show has done since series one of Broadchurch. It’s enormous beating heart was Kate Winslet’s middle-aged, hobbling, dowdy, tough-as-teak detective, Mare Sheehan, trying to keep her Rust Belt community in check after a shocking murder.
1. Succession – Sky Atlantic
After a handful of episodes, I thought this was a relatively weak series of Jesse Armstrong’s media-Lear saga and, therefore, may not make the top 10. After seven or eight, it was a shoo-in for this list. After the finale, nothing else could be No 1. It is, quite simply, the best drama on TV by a country mile. This series focused on the rise and fall of Kendall Roy, and his attempt to oust his father, Logan. But, quietly, almost without notice, the series built towards a confrontation between Logan and his youngest and most loyal son, Roman. It was a devastating finale.
And the five worst...
5. Nine Perfect Strangers (Amazon Prime)
I still can’t work out why Nicole Kidman was playing a Russian alien.
4. Vigil (BBC One)
The greatest of whodunit concepts sunk to the depths.
3. Angela Black (ITV)
Domestic abuse as the peg for a lurid, manic melodrama? Dreadful.
2. Close to Me/Before We Die (Channel 4)
Appalling, garbled, po-faced Scandi-lite guff.
1. The Pursuit of Love (BBC One)
Whimsical Nancy Mitford adaptation with the depth of a Vogue cover.shoot.