With so many blockbuster movies still held up by the pandemic – here’s looking at you, No Time to Die – TV has had to provide our pop culture thrills and spills. Thankfully, it’s really stepped up to the plate with a steady stream of binge-worthy series ranging from offbeat comedies to superhero thrillers and heartbreaking historical dramas. In fact, 2021 has already dished up too much great TV to get through, so here’s our guide to the truly standout series you’ll want to prioritise.
1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything
Based on a book by former NME writer David Hepworth, this documentary series offers a fascinating insight into a year of seismic political change. Executive producers Asif Kapadia and James Gay-Rees, who previously made 2015’s heartbreaking Amy Winehouse doc Amy, use fabulous archive footage to explore the galvanising soundtrack provided by icons like The Rolling Stones and Aretha Franklin.
Best moment: This richly layered series really is a tapestry – to borrow the title of the year’s best-selling album, by Carole King – but sections on Marvin Gaye‘s socially conscious masterpiece ‘What’s Going On’ are especially evocative.
Back series two
After a three-year gap, this Mitchell and Webb sitcom finally returned in January. Thanks to pitch-perfect performances and consistently wry writing from Simon Blackwell, a fellow Peep Show alum, it’s worth the wait. Webb’s creepy schemer Andrew is still a terrific foil for Mitchell’s tense and resentful Stephen, the foster brother whose life he wants to steal.
Best moment: When Andrew apologises for “everything that happened before”, Stephen shoots back: “What, everything in the world? The Napoleonic Wars? Smallpox? The cry-laugh emoji? Slavery? Declining literacy rates?”
Cobra Kai season three
Picked up by Netflix after being dropped by YouTube, this continuation of the Karate Kid film franchise remains riotously entertaining. As ever, the decades-old rivalry between Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) drives the narrative, but this time Elisabeth Shue softens the macho peacocking by reprising her role from the original 1984 film.
Best moment: Is a trip to a Twisted Sister concert overegging the ’80s nostalgia? Of course not!
Euphoria: ‘Fuck Anyone Who’s Not a Sea Blob’
With season two delayed by COVID-19, Euphoria creator Sam Levinson produced a pair of gap-bridging specials. December’s first part centres on Zendaya’s Rue, while January’s second shines a spotlight on Hunter Schafer’s Jules. Co-written by Schafer, who delivers a truly poignant performance, it’s a frank and affecting meditation on what it means to be a trans woman.
Best moment: When Jules tells her therapist “I feel like I’ve framed my entire womanhood around men,” it sets the tone for an episode of revelations.
Feel Good season two
The second and final season of Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical sitcom doesn’t so much build on the first as dig deeper into its themes. Across six well-judged episodes, Martin’s character battles addiction, explores their childhood trauma and grapples with being non-binary. Thanks to sprinkles of silliness and their relatable romantic relationship with Charlotte Ritchie’s George, it never loses its lightness of touch.
Best moment: Any of Mae and George’s bedroom roleplays, which subvert the earnestness of many TV sex scenes.
Framing Britney Spears
When it premiered in February, this lightning rod documentary made the world question the legitimacy of the conservatorship that denies Britney Spears agency over her personal affairs. Six months later, with Spears having branded the arrangement “abusive”, it makes for prescient as well as thought-provoking viewing.
Best moment: Archive footage showing US broadcaster Diane Sawyer reducing Spears to tears in 2003. It really exposes how cruelly the media treated Spears during her heyday.
Don’t sleep on this superhero series just because it’s animated. Based on a comic book co-created by The Walking Dead‘s Robert Kirkman, it follows ordinary teen Michael Grayson (Steven Yeun) as he transforms into a superhero – with help from dad Nolan (JK Simmons) aka the all-powerful Omni-Man. Dazzling action sequences and super-dark humour make it a very wild ride indeed.
Best moment: Episode one’s game-changing post-credits scene. After a deliberately misleading PG opening, Invincible shows its hyper-violent true colours.
It’s a Sin
Written by the great Russell T Davies (Years and Years, Queer as Folk), this landmark drama series explores the HIV/AIDS epidemic from a British perspective – something that’s never really been done before. Years & Years singer Olly Alexander and rising star Omari Douglas lead a fantastic ensemble cast who capture the giddy thrill of LGBTQ London at the start of ’80s, then trace its tragic fallout.
Best moment: “What the fuck were you doing?” In a ferocious cameo, veteran character actress Ruth Sheen calls bullshit when Keeley Hawes’ traumatised mother claims she had no idea her son was gay.
This hyped-up miniseries doesn’t squander Tom Hiddleston’s God of Mischief, one of Marvel’s most compelling characters. By giving him a complex time-travelling mission and a teasing mentor played by Owen Wilson, it manages to be bouncy, offbeat and bundles of fun. Wunmi Mosaku and Sophia Di Martino’s supporting characters are cracking too – a sure sign of a series that’s been fleshed out right.
Best moment: Loki isn’t over yet, but episode four’s show-stopping finale will be tough to beat.
Lupin Part 2
Released by Netflix in two parts – five episodes in January, then five more in June – this French-language series provided high-gloss pandemic escapism. Omar Sy is magnificent as Assane Diop, an orphan who reinvents himself as a gentleman thief in order to avenge his father’s death. With slick action sequences, breakneck plot twists and lashings of Gallic style, Lupin is a properly addictive thriller.
Best moment: An audacious narrative volte-face in which it’s revealed that a key character isn’t dead after all.
Mare of Easttown
This Kate Winslet vehicle is the caviar of crime dramas. Because creator Brad Ingelsby really embeds us in the smalltown Pennsylvania setting, every plot twist packs a killer punch. As a troubled detective investigating the murder of one local girl and the disappearance of another, Winslet nails the tricky Philly accent and delivers shedloads of repressed emotion. An Emmy surely awaits.
Best moment: The penultimate episode’s nerve-shredding shootout between the Easttown cops and their prime suspect.
Mythic Quest season two
Season two of Apple TV+’s zingy sitcom set in a video game studio confirms it’s a worthy successor to popular workplace comedies like Parks and Recreation. Some subplots soar higher than others, but the tense friendship between chalk-and-cheese creative directors Ian Grimm (Rob McElhenney) and Poppy Li (Charlotte Nicdao) will keep you invested. At its best, it’s funny and touching at the same time.
Best moment: When normally meek David Brittlesbee (David Hornsby) is compared to a wolf in a personality test, he takes it a bit too literally.
Pretend It’s a City
This Netflix documentary series is simple but effective: it’s really just a series of conversations between Martin Scorsese and his old friend Fran Lebowitz, the cult author and social commentator. Because Lebowitz’s insights about life, art and New York City are so witty and insightful, it almost feels like eavesdropping on the smartest conversation at a cocktail party.
Best moment: Lebowitz’s takedown of the so-called ‘wellness industry’: ”Wellness for me is like a greediness. It’s not enough for me that I’m not sick. I have to be well. This is something you can buy.”
It’s difficult to concoct a romcom without heaping on the cheese, but creator-star Rose Matafeo manages it with Starstruck. Once you embrace the fairytale-like premise – Matafeo’s ordinary millennial enjoys a one-night stand with a film star, then starts dating him – it’s a brisk and infectious binge-watch.
Best moment: The very last scene is charming, but before that Minnie Driver shines as a hard-nosed agent who tells actor Tom (Nikesh Kapoor) to “call me” if he even thinks of eating bread.
The Underground Railroad
Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s prizewinning novel is a masterpiece. Using stunning cinematography, he reimagines the “underground railroad” – a 19th century network of secret routes and safe houses used by Black American slaves seeking freedom – as an actual railroad with tracks and tunnels. We experience this sprawling, deeply painful story through the eyes of Cora, an enslaved young woman played with breathtaking intensity by Thuso Mbedu.
Best moment: Cora’s flickers of joy when she visits the Black-owned Valentine Farm are a wonder to behold.
The Walking Dead season 10
Though this season was stretched out by the pandemic – the finale aired in April, a full 18 months after the premiere – it didn’t drag. Actually, by focusing largely on wildcard antagonists the Whisperers, The Walking Dead is bounding along with more energy than it’s had in years. Bring on season 11, due to begin next month.
Best moment: When the season finale, ‘Here’s Negan’, reveals that Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s character isn’t quite so indefensible after all.
This Time with Alan Partridge series two
Though it never quite reaches peak Partridge, Steve Coogan’s spoof magazine show continues to supply more hits than misses. There’s still plenty of comic mileage in Norwich’s not-so-finest export – especially when he makes a half-arsed stab at wokeness – and Susannah Fielding’s professionally bland co-presenter Jennie Gresham is brilliantly observed.
Best moment: When John Thomson gamely reprises his Knowing Me, Knowing You role as rubbish ventriloquist Joe Beasley.
Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany reprise their Avengers roles in this cleverly meta miniseries. A deft blend of sitcom pastiche and slow-burning mystery, WandaVision offers tremendously entertaining proof that Marvel has no intention of resting on its laurels during Phase 4. Bring it all on, quite frankly.
Best moment: That viral montage sequence featuring Kathryn Hahn’s scene-stealing neighbour, Agatha Harkness.
We Are Lady Parts
This brilliant new sitcom about a post-punk band with an all-female, all-Muslim lineup is hilarious and subversive. Creator Nida Manzoor overthrows tired old stereotypes about Muslim women by giving us flawed and funny characters who are very much in charge of their own destinies. Each scene is infused with such warm and authenticity that it’s impossible not to stan.
Best moment: The band’s savage banger ‘Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me’.
Words by Nick Levine