The 10 best Australian TV shows of 2021

It was a banner year for locally made nuggets of quality on the small screen

An incredible 80 per cent of Aussies now watch at least one streaming service, with the average household coughing up a $55 a month on subscriptions.

And speaking of coughing, not even audiences that were literally captive in Melbourne and Sydney for much of 2021 could prevent the commercial free-to-air channels haemorrhaging viewers as they wheeled out tired old reality formats for the millionth year in a row.

So kudos to the ABC, SBS, Foxtel and Stan for serving up these 10 tasty morsels of TV goodness over the last 12 months.

10. The Unusual Suspects

10. The Unusual Suspects

Season: one

Oceans 8 meets Widows in Sydney’s monied Eastern Suburbs in this sparky, four-part heist dramedy starring the always on-form Miranda Otto.

When a million-dollar necklace vanishes during a kid’s birthday party, the Kardashian-like veneer of glamour and ostentation crumbles like feta on a smashed avo focaccia. The ‘Real Housewives’ themselves come under suspicion, but it’s their Filipina nannies and cleaners who bear the brunt of the fallout.

Class and racial tensions bubble to the surface and are neatly satirised in a smart, sassy and uniquely Australian story that’s big on laughs and driven by an impeccable cast. Perfect fodder for a Friday night binge.

Biggest fan: A member of the Chardonnay set who’s already watched and dissected this week’s And Just Like That…

9. The End

9. The End

Season: one

The opening scene of this absurdly dark-humoured family melodrama has a recently widowed gran (Harriet Walter) lying in bed, having downed a bottle of spirits, with a plastic bag over her head.

Her suicide attempt is rudely interrupted when the house starts to burn down, so she jumps out of a window, hoping for a quick death – only to survive. She then scalds the ambo for ignoring her ‘do not resuscitate’ bracelet even though she’s still conscious.

When her daughter (Frances O’Connor) plonks her in a retirement village, the two squabble, despair and ultimately bond over 10 touchingly scripted and warmly funny episodes.

Biggest fan: Aficionado of brutal, pitch-black humour about the joys of aging

8. RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under

8. RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under

Season: one

Over a decade after its US debut, RuPaul has finally brought her glorious glitterfest down under to road-test a gaggle of taffeta-clad Antipodeans. The producers even asked Jacinda Ardern to be a guest judge, but the Kiwi PM politely declined because of “scheduling issues”. Her loss. They did, however, get Jojo Rabbit helmer Taika Waititi to hilariously screen-test the contestants for a mini challenge.

A second season is already in the pipeline and hopefully the casting director will assemble a more diverse line-up: the only two non-white queens were eliminated early, leading to an awkwardly homogenous top seven.

Biggest fan: Frustrated high-kicker bored of reality cooking shows

7. Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell

7. Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell

Season: 13

Australia’s funniest (and only) TV satirist has been mad as hell for 13 seasons now and there’s no signs of the anger or wit subsiding. Based loosely on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show format with regular offsiders assuming multiple roles, Shaun Micallef’s Mad As Hell is anchored by its majestically deadpan host wielding his trademark single, raised eyebrow like a comedy mallet.

COVID-19 deprived him of a studio audience in 2020, but this year Micallef was back along with long-term collaborators Francis Greenslade, Emily Taheny and Stephen Hall. One highlight was a moment of full-frontal male nudity that led the grumps at FamilyVoice Australia to label the show “morally bankrupt”.

Biggest fan: Anyone who’s not a hypocritical pollie

6. Wentworth

6. Wentworth

Season: nine

Prisoners ran for an impressive 692 episodes between 1979 and 1986, earning a cult following in the UK and US (its ratings were second only to Charlie’s Angels in Los Angeles). Wentworth began in 2013 as a brutal, bloody and bleak ‘reimagining’ of the show with a younger version of fearsome inmate Bea Smith – and vastly superior production values.

It became something of an awards juggernaut and wrapped up for the final time in 2021 after exactly 100 episodes with an explosive (literally) finale in which a bomb blew up the prison, allowing the infamous ‘Freak’ to escape – possibly straight into another spin-off.

Biggest fan: Serial Orange Is The New Black binger

5. Eden

5. Eden

Season: one

Set in the titular beach-fringed costal town, an impossibly serene idyll populated with impossibly beautiful people, this paradise noir mystery from Stan is unnerving from the get-go.

Everything seems just too perfect, as indeed it turns out to be. Think an enticingly juicy mango that’s rotten at the core… and stuffed with some proper hallucinogens.

When a woman vanishes, the assembled luvvies – ad exec, washed up actor, cellist, writer – confront their past as a world-weary cop (Samuel Johnson) investigates. It’s not exactly cerebrally challenging, but some quirky casting, playful twists and frenetic flips back and forward in time make Eden a stylish and addictive easy entertainer.

Biggest fan: Hipster whodunit addict

4. Bump

4. Bump

Season: one

When her schoolgirl daughter suddenly gives birth in a cubicle – having not even realised she was preggers – Angie (Claudia Karvan) has more to worry about than getting the blood splatters out of her blouse, as it turns out the baby’s dad is the son of the man she’s leaving her husband for.

A delightfully strained and explicit – baby poo, placenta, mastitis – first episode sets up a joyous and very authentic teen mum fable set mainly in Sydney’s Chilean community.

Karvan takes the acting honours in a show that reportedly broke Stan’s viewing records. And the best news is fans only have to wait until Boxing Day for the next season to drop.

Biggest fan: Home and Away tragic who wishes it was grittier and featured more bodily fluids

3. Iggy & Ace

3. Iggy & Ace

Season: one

This immensely likeable SBS series of six 10-minute episodes centres on a couple of young, gay alcoholics in Perth who live, work and misbehave together – but fall out when one of them, Ace (Josh Virgona), decides to sober up.

Iggy (Sara West) becomes paranoid that Ace has been indoctrinated into a cult after he visits a gay chapter of Alcoholics Anonymous. As she pulls out all the stops to derail his recovery, he starts to wonder if their friendship is at the core of his troubles.

Writer/director AB Morrison doesn’t pull the punches on the harrowing effects of alcohol abuse, but it’s never preachy, and features a cavalcade of wildly colourful characters who deliver laughs aplenty.

Biggest fan: Party-going functioning alcoholic with no intention of quitting

2. Fires

2. Fires

Season: limited series

ABC’s breathtaking dramatisation of the catastrophic 2019-2020 bushfires captures the sheer terror that firefighters and residents faced – and the life-changing decisions they had to make as the blazes raced towards them at unimaginable speeds. RFS volunteers beg a traumatised woman to flee, but she can’t face losing her house, while stranded emergency workers shelter in their truck while surrounded by apocalyptic flames.

The series, which won best miniseries at December’s AACTAs, also shows the aftermath: farmers returning to see cattle charred black, some not even dead; families realising they have lost literally everything. Perhaps most importantly, Fires is an indictment of the lack of preparation from authorities that hobbled rescue efforts. A genuinely spellbinding production.

Biggest fan: Resident of a treeless landscape with comprehensive contents insurance

1. The Newsreader

1. The Newsreader

Season: one

This utterly compelling period drama is set in a fictional 1980s TV newsroom covering the era’s biggest real stories – Lindy Chamberlain, Chernobyl, the Challenger explosion, the advent of AIDS and the Russell Street police station bombing.

The frenetic chaos of the era is brilliantly captured as video tapes get mangled seconds before they go to air, satellite signals fail and reporters under unthinkable pressure bash out script revisions on typewriters in the tobacco-choked studios. The squabbling anchors are all power suits and helmet hair, their calm belying the caffeine and bourbon-fuelled anarchy around them.

High-spec Australian productions of this calibre are rare indeed – and the AACTAs agreed, awarding it five out of the 16 (!) awards it was nominated for.

Biggest fan: Nostalgic Gen X or a Millennial interested in ancient history