The 20 best TV shows of 2021

Brilliant box sets to keep you busy ‘til Christmas

What with life mostly returning to ‘normal’ this year, you probably watched far less telly than in 2020. Who needs virtual escapism when you can get it in IRL, right? Well, no one told the TV big wigs, because they continued to pump out shows at a dizzying rate.

From superhero sitcoms to gritty queer dramas and off-the-wall ‘toons to pop star docuseries, 2021 catered to all – and then some. Here are our fave shows from the biggest 12 months on the box ever. If you start now, you might tick them all off by 2022.

Alex Flood, Commissioning Editor (Film + TV)

Words: Elizabeth Aubrey, Matt Charlton, Rhian Daly, Alex Flood, Jesse Hassenger, El Hunt, Ella Kemp, James McMahon, Sam Moore, Hannah Mylrea, Olly Richards, Thomas Smith, Adam Starkey, Andrew Trendell and Beth Webb

‘Friends: The Reunion’

20. ‘Friends: The Reunion’

Season: one-off special

Fans have been talking about a Friends revival since before the body of ill-received spin-off Joey was even cold. Befitting the original show’s sitcom classicism, the cast and creators decided to forgo an awkward multiple-episode revival or feature film, and commission an old-fashioned reunion special instead, with cast members hanging out, swapping anecdotes, and answering questions (sometimes ones they didn’t want to). The banter and refreshed interpersonal chemistry was a treat, underlining why people loved these characters to begin with – and adding a new dimension to those cherished reruns. But perhaps even better, the special pays tribute to Friends while letting it rest. Some other, more reunion-fixated shows should take note… JH

Biggest fan: Gen-Z devotees who found Friends through Netflix and were still watching Pokémon back when the show actually aired.

‘The Walking Dead’

19. ‘The Walking Dead’

Season: 10 and 11

As we enter the final year of The Walking Dead – the original TV series, the zombie franchise will totter on via spin-offs and sequels – there are plenty of reasons to be cheerful. Having been lifted out of its mid-2010s slump by showrunner Angela Kang, the show is as exciting and nerve-jangling as ever. With the Whisperers a fading memory, our season 11 Survivors are now knee-deep in the next set of quagmires. There’s an uneasy ‘normal world’ within the Commonwealth, the leaderless but vengeful Reapers and, yes, the millions of walkers that continue to roam the Earth. That’s not forgetting the bad blood between Maggie and Negan, or the fact that our hungry heroes are getting increasingly desperate for supplies – a survival of the fittest showdown seems inevitable. We can’t wait to see how it’s all wrapped up in 2022. SM

Biggest fan: The friend who always gets a little too technical about their ‘theoretical’ zombie apocalypse survival plan.

‘Framing Britney Spears’

18. ‘Framing Britney Spears’

Season: limited series

Though some Britney Spears’ fans have worried about her restrictive conservatorship agreement for a while, the #FreeBritney movement only hit top gear very recently. It was just two years ago, in fact, that a fan podcast called Britney’s Gram aired a series of allegations about the way her life and finances were being controlled. After a bit of snowballing, Spears soon began challenging the terms herself – and this is where hit TV doc Framing Britney Spears comes in. Digging deeper into the story, director Samantha Stark laid bare the devastating impact of media scrutiny and misogyny on Britney – though the singer herself wasn’t impressed. “I was embarrassed by the light they put me in,” she later wrote on Instagram. Even so, Stark’s programme brought the pop icon’s struggle to a new audience, possibly helping her in finally getting the agreement torn up last month. EH

Biggest fan: Avid Spears fans, and less clued-up pop stans alike got stuck into this one.

‘Big Mouth’

17. ‘Big Mouth’

Season: five

The brilliance of Netflix’s coming of age cartoon lies in its unrivalled ability to accurately portray the mayhem of adolescence. So deep is the writers’ well of creativity, that it seems less likely to dry out even than that ancient tube of acne cream you keep in the medicine cabinet (just in case). Incoming characters this season include Rochelle the Hate Worm, Walter the Love Bug, Kumail Nanjiani as himself, and best of all, Jemaine Clement as Simon Sex, velveteen padding for Maury’s abrasiveness. In fact, there’s now so many Hormone Monsters, Big Mouth’s first spin-off, Human Resources, is due to be released next year. On the evidence of its parent show’s relentless consistency, it too promises to be essential viewing. JM

Biggest fan: Millennials, Xennials and Gen-X-ers ready to laugh at the cruelty, spite and – well – hormones, that preceded where they now find themselves.

‘Taskmaster’

16. ‘Taskmaster’

Season: 11 and 12

So heartwarming that it should be listed in the dictionary under “feel-good TV”, Britain’s best gameshow returned in 2021 with two more series of enjoyable silliness. As usual, host Greg Davies tortured sidekick Alex Horne, but no more than the comedians and celebrities they put through their paces with a combination of daft, surreal and inane challenges. Season 11 wowed with an all-star line-up courtesy of Charlotte Ritchie, Jamali Maddix, Lee Mack, Mike Wozniak and Sarah Kendall, before raising the stakes once more in season 12 (Alan Davies, Desiree Burch, Guz Khan, Morgana Robinson and Victoria Coren Mitchell). The highlight? Creepy-uncle-meets-geography teacher Wozniak causing an entire nation to fall in love, even as he dealt with a dislodged haemorrhoid resulting from that week’s failed fart-tastic challenge. All viewers will remember where they were when they heard that troubling parp. AT

Biggest fan: Your BFF who’s always rooting for you, but still finds much amusement in watching you fail.

‘We Are Lady Parts’

15. ‘We Are Lady Parts’

Season: one

Nida Manzoor’s trailblazing comedy sees wildly talented folk guitarist Amina (Anjana Vasan) fall in with an all-girl Muslim punk band while simulataneously trying to keep up with her best friend who is getting married. Oh, and she has a fear of performing in public. This is a show that mashes together the nerve-shredding, shambolic spirit of youth with the raw catharsis of punk, played out by five raucously funny and energised young performers. With a soundtrack that blends modern classics with original music – some of the girls learned new instruments to perform as a real band – this is an exuberant and joyful debut that deserves, at the very least, a second season – and a live tour to boot. BW

Biggest fan: Children of the early noughties MTV2 generation, who still know every word to ‘Chop Suey’ and wear their Green Day hoodies on lazy Sundays.

‘Rick and Morty’

14. ‘Rick and Morty’

Season: five

While season five wasn’t a classic season of Justin Roiland and Dan Harmon’s very clever, very funny sci-fi opus, it still delivered week to week. And there were big reveals. We learned more about Rick’s squalid backstory (though we’d still like to know more about who Mr Nimbus is and where he came from). We now know who the authentic Beth is. And we also know more about what Squanchy gets up to in the cupboard than we really wanted to. Sure, we never ever want to see an episode about sentient sperm again (scratch anything we said about “very clever” for one episode) but Rick and Morty remains some of the most innovative storytelling to be found on the box. JM

Biggest fan: You’re flicking through the comics department at Forbidden Planet, but someone wants to talk quantum physics with you. Rick and Morty, meet your viewer.

‘The Underground Railroad’

13. ‘The Underground Railroad’

Season: limited series

In the age of binge-watching, TV shows are made to be inhaled faster than you can shout “Netflix!” And yet, so overwhelming is The Underground Railroad that only the emotionally stunted could breeze through. This isn’t TV to brush off after a weekend, but a sprawling epic where the horrors of slavery are depicted in relentless, raw, and consistently affecting fashion. Savour it over a month, if only to soak in the beautiful cinematic visuals from director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) between your cold showers.

The heavy subject matter – and Amazon’s decision to release it all at once – might be why it didn’t receive the attention it deserved. Yet, there’s far more here than bleak moments. Immerse yourself in an alternative history thriller laced with creative steampunk wonder – all tied together by an astounding performance from Thuso Mbedu as runaway slave Cora. AS

Biggest fan: The “did you know…” nerd who wants to tell everyone and his dog what the underground train network is actually based on. Yes, we have Google too.

‘Sex Education’

12. ‘Sex Education’

Season: three

Moordale comes under attack in these new episodes of Laurie Nunn’s inclusive Netflix comedy. The high school – now dubbed “sex school” – meets its match in new headteacher Hope (Jemima Kirke), and the show’s focus expands beyond the unorthodox sex clinic run by students/best friends/almost lovers Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey). Instead, a revolving cast of teens explore depression, consent, anxiety and every form of relationship you can think of. And while the ever-growing list of characters can prove unwieldy at times, each new classmate is so likeable it’s hard to get upset. Sex Education is still setting up a rich tapestry of stories for future seasons, and remains one of the most truthful and emotional depictions of intimacy, psychology and sexual chemistry you’ll find on screen. Long live Moordale! EK

Biggest fan: Your younger brother who won’t talk to you about his dating life but takes notes during every one of Otis’ monologues.

‘The Great’

11. ‘The Great’

Season: one and two

The debut season of Hulu’s ambitious historical show was essentially The Crown meets Succession: posh royalty in the pursuit of power (and ego) acting like utter bastards to each other. For once, we, the plebs, were the victors in a riotous, crude and daft depiction of Catherine The Great’s (Elle Fanning) takeover of the Russian throne from her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), in the late 1700s. It knew precisely when to muddy the waters by blurring fact with fiction, never abandoning TV’s golden rules: to inform, or to entertain. The Great did just enough of the former, and so very much of the latter.

Highlights include: marvellous chemistry between Fanning and Hoult, a supporting cast that veered between hapless (Douglas Hodge’s permanently sozzled General Velementov) or ruthless (Phoebe Fox as the maid, Marial), and a simply dazzling display of set pieces and costumes. TS

Biggest fan: The kid who flunked history in school and now hopes – and, somewhat believes – that all of this brutal tomfoolery actually happened (it largely didn’t).

‘Stath Lets Flats’

10. ‘Stath Lets Flats’

Season: three

From being a rather unsympathetic idiot in the first series, Jamie Demetriou has grown letting agent (and occasional hair stylist) Stath into one of the most lovable fools in modern comedy, supplying delicious malapropisms, brilliant moments of physicality, and an astonishing variety of different emotions. One of the most satisfying things about scripted comedy is how insidious the great ones can be – you half-heartedly, almost hesitantly, press play on season one episode one, and before you know it, you’re at the end of season two, quoting things such as “I peg your garden”. Things only got better with season three, which gifted us a gloriously pathetic and hilarious fight scene featuring guest star Charlie Cooper, a quick dip in the canal for Stath, and a sweet resolution to Al and Sophie’s will they/won’t they relationship. MC

Biggest fan: Your letting agent brother-in-law Karl, who, though he loves to quote from the show at the gym, doesn’t really get the irony of phrases like “deceptively spacious” and “Tardis-like”.

‘Ted Lasso’

9. ‘Ted Lasso’

Season: two

The true success of this multi award-winning comedy lies in what a pleasant surprise it continues to be. When Jason Sudeikis’ underdog story was first announced, the plot synopsis made it sound like some nightmarish combination of Footballers Wives and Dream Team: an American college football coach, Ted Lasso – played with understated brilliance by Jason Sudeikis – heads to London to manage AFC Richmond, a struggling English Premier League soccer team. What transpired, however, was a show which defied expectations from the kick-off, and continues to do so. The second season drills down into its emotional essence, while maintaining the chuckles (mostly) throughout. We root for, commiserate with, and laugh at every character, each one fulfilling a crucial role – our fave is sweet and savvy WAG Keeley Jones, played by Juno Temple. Also! Do give the much-maligned Christmas special another shot, since it’s now the correct time of the year ‘n’ all. MC

Biggest fan: Tabitha from Balham has six months of Apple TV+ for free as part of her new iPhone deal. She doesn’t really like football, but “if you ignore that part, it’s a bit like a Richard Curtis film, isn’t it?”

‘Feel Good’

8. ‘Feel Good’

Season: two (final)

The tender love story between George (Charlotte Ritchie) and Mae (Mae Martin) in season one gripped the nation as it became one of the must-watch shows during the first lockdown. As season two arrived – complete with a move from Channel 4 to Netflix – viewers were desperate to know if George and Mae would make it after a crushing break up. Mae’s incisive, comedic takes on addiction, love and sexuality returned, as did a greater exploration of #MeToo (something touched on in season one). Mae revisited a previous trauma from her teens – something that helped her to understand her struggles to move forward with George, as well as her difficult relationship with parents (played brilliantly once more by Lisa Kudrow and Adrian Lukis). The scenes exploring trauma, PTSD and mental health were some of the most powerful on screens this year, as was the show’s ending, which suggests George and Mae might just be on the right track after all. EA

Biggest fan: For those who are looking for love but find the whole thing quite terrifying.

‘WandaVision’

7. ‘WandaVision’

Season: one

The shining star of Marvel’s new TV offerings, WandaVision managed the unthinkable: to appeal to both diehard MCU viewers and those who squirm at the word superhero. We jump in post-Endgame, as Avengers Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany) start a new life in the suburbs. Having to hide their powers because of the neighbours, the loved-up heroes pay homage to classic American sitcoms – joking through references to The Dick Van Dyke Show, Bewitched, I Love Lucy and more. Unfortunately, something fishy is afoot in the town of Westview, though – and as the season unravels, so does Wanda’s perfectly-curated life. Eventually, it’s revealed that Wanda’s constructed this sitcom-pastiche herself, as a way of coping with the death of Vision in Infinity War. It makes for Marvel’s most moving, but also funniest, show yet. And who could forget Kathryn Hahn’s interfering neighbour Agnes – recipient of the best theme song this side of Malcolm In The Middle. HM

Biggest fan: Your pal who constantly reminisces about her perceived ‘golden age of television’. It’s better now!

‘Mare Of Easttown’

6. ‘Mare Of Easttown’

Season: limited series

On paper, Mare Of Easttown looks like just another crime drama, its plotlines of murder, violence and mystery appealing to society’s unquenchable thirst for whodunnits and grisliness. But spend just a few minutes in the seemingly drab, ordinary-looking town and you’ll soon decide otherwise. Painted in washed-out greys, its quiet collection of suburbs is presented as a place where life is tough and everyone’s just trying to get by. Mare – Kate Winslet’s gruff titular detective – makes for the perfect local guardian, attending to every one of her neighbours’ struggles, be they a stolen bicycle or gruesome murder. Hers is a tour-de-force performance, crafting a fascinating character who is a key part of the show’s ability to grip, and filling her with multitudes that combine to create pure authenticity. RD

Biggest fan: That one mate who chained true crime docs in lockdown, but gets squeamish at the idea of squashing a bug.

‘The Beatles: Get Back’

5. ‘The Beatles: Get Back’

Season: limited series

It might take a whopping eight hours just to watch three episodes, but Peter Jackson’s epic docuseries is more than worth its runtime. Packed with revelatory nuggets, charming song stories and even clips of Ringo humming nursery rhymes, Get Back takes fans deep inside the making of The Beatles’ final album (though it was recorded before their penultimate record, ‘Abbey Road’). Yes, it’s too long. Yes, we probably don’t need to see every different version of ‘Let It Be’. But it’s as Jackson told NME last month: “I felt acutely – and this is the Beatles fan part of me kicking in – that anything I didn’t include in this movie might go back in the vault for another 50 years.” And that’s a long time to wait for season two. AF

Biggest fan: Yoko Ono – after decades of being blamed for breaking up the Fabs, John Lennon’s widow can rest easy. Jackson’s mega-doc proves she had nothing to do with it.

‘Squid Game’

4. ‘Squid Game’

Season: one

TV’s biggest viral hit of 2021, Squid Game captured the world’s attention and turned its cast into global stars because of how incredibly twisted it was. The survival thriller followed a group of society’s down and outs, each struggling with debt or poverty, who were given the chance to become rich beyond their wildest dreams simply by winning a series of childhood games. Of course, there had to be a catch – and it was a brutal one.

Conceived when director Hwang Dong-hyuk was himself struggling financially, the Netflix series provided a searing critique of the rat race capitalism has turned life into – and examined the lengths we each would go to in order to save our own skins. Shocking and savage, it had us on the edge of our seats throughout. RD

Biggest fan: Your definitely-too-old-for-TikTok mate who downloaded the app during lockdown and now plays ‘Green Light Red Light’ every day.

‘The White Lotus’

3. ‘The White Lotus’

Season: one

Mike White’s masterpiece is part comedy-murder-mystery and part pitiless evisceration of white privilege. A gaggle of wealthy, mostly white people arrive on a Hawaiian island, ready to enjoy sun, sea and bitching about the difficulty of their very easy lives. Someone will not be going home alive. Through brilliantly written characters, played by an impeccable cast including Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton and Murray Bartlett, creator White holds up a mirror to America, and quite a lot of his audience, showing how power is always weighted in one direction and how hating white privilege doesn’t mean you’re averse to benefitting from it. Innocent lives are ruined, bad people get away with things, because that’s the way the world works. If you want easy morals and happy endings, look elsewhere. If you want the funniest and smartest show of the year, binge it now. OR

Biggest fan: That friend who complains about their neighbourhood being gentrified but loves the new cafe-slash-cycle shop that opened just before they moved in.

‘Succession’

2. ‘Succession’

Season: three

Here is a collection of the best moments from Succession season three so far: 1. When Logan Roy screams “IT’S WAR! FUCK OFF!” at no one in particular. 2. The quintessentially Greg line: “I don’t know how you did it back in the ’60s. Different times. Different times indeed. Better times? Not for all.” 3. Tom offering to take a hit and do jail time for the rest of the family: “Just clonk the trout on the head and put it in your pouch.” 4. A minor subplot involving Kendall asking the family doctor to resuscitate his child’s pet rabbit. 5. Greg trying to sue his grandpa. 6. Greg trying to sue Greenpeace. 7. Greg trying to work out if “the real Pope” has just followed Kendall on Twitter. 8. Roman accidentally sending a dick pic to his dad.

Now tell us Succession isn’t the funniest show on TV. AF

Biggest fan: Every posh rowing douchebag at uni who thinks wearing a blazer is the height of sophistication.

‘It’s A Sin’

1. ‘It’s A Sin’

Season: one (limited series)

With his latest series – which depicted the devastation of the AIDS epidemic on a group of friends – Russell T. Davies crafted one of the most moving shows in recent memory. Our teen runaways first find each other in London during the 1980s before becoming a kind of ramshackle family. As it progresses, each of the main all-queer cast (including Years & Years’ Olly Alexander) gets a turn in the spotlight. A retelling of Section 28’s introduction (which made it illegal to “promote” homosexuality in schools) and the government’s complete neglect of the LGBTQ+ community during the epidemic jar intentionally with a bright, booming soundtrack of contemporary icons like Pet Shop Boys and Bronski Beat. Perhaps most crucially, It’s A Sin managed to bring a sense of warmth, laughter and community, even as it told a story rooted in grief and unimaginable loss. EH

Biggest fan: From your Coronation Street-loving aunt to your cousin’s primary school teacher, seemingly everyone – and most importantly, heaps of straight people – tuned in.