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The 50 best TV shows of 2021

·29 min read

This list is drawn from votes by Guardian TV writers: each votes for their top 20 shows, with points allocated for every placing, which are tallied to create this order.

50

Ladhood

(BBC Three) For some years now, Liam Williams has been blossoming into one of the sharpest observers of niche contemporary culture. In the second season of Ladhood, though, he continued to turn his gaze inward, unpicking moments from his adolescence that were critical to his development. It might just be his best work yet.

What we said: By the end of series two, nothing has been resolved and nobody has grown as a person, just as the rules of sitcom demand. Liam doesn’t know what he is doing, but as a writer/performer, Williams really does. Read more.

49

Four Hours at the Capitol

(BBC Two) Jamie Roberts’ film, covering January’s failed insurrectionist coup, had one huge advantage over most documentaries; almost everyone there was filming it. From the police officers’ bodycams to gurning selfie footage from the insurrectionists, Four Hours at the Capitol could take you right inside the terrible events of 6 January. At its most intense, when we watch a mob try to beat an officer to death, it stands as some of the most claustrophobic television ever broadcast.

What we said: The underlying collective testimony furnished by Four Hours at the Capitol is that the age of Trump has not yet ended – and the true day of reckoning in the United States is still to come. Read more.

48

The North Water

(BBC Two) Now that his days as a heart-throb leading man are over, Colin Farrell can concentrate on what he does best: intriguing character work. The North Water saw him bulk up and head out to the Arctic, where he could terrify the crew of a whaling ship to impossible ends. His best performance in years.

Out cold … Colin Farrell in The North Water.
Out cold … Colin Farrell in The North Water. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Harpooner Films Limited/See-Saw Films

What we said: This is a well-executed adventure story to be watched by firelight, wrapped in a sweater as robust – if less blood-drenched – as the seamen’s own. Read more.

47

US Open women’s final

(Channel 4/Amazon Prime Video) With less than 24 hours to go, Channel 4 struck a deal to show tennis sensation Emma Raducanu (who had just done her A-levels in Bromley) appearing in the US Open final. And a staggering 9 million of us tuned in to watch and weep as she and the brilliant Leylah Fernandez – herself only 19 – battled it out. A gripping night of television, and a glorious slice of the future.

Smashing it ... Emma Raducanu wins the US Open.
Smashing it ... Emma Raducanu wins the US Open. Photograph: John G Mabanglo/EPA

What we said: In a few small weeks she has improved as much as some do in years … and there is so much more to come. Read more.

46

Together

(BBC Two) Written by Dennis Kelly, directed by Stephen Daldry and starring James McAvoy and Sharon Horgan, this Covid two-hander certainly didn’t want for talent. A couple are, like the rest of the country, stuck inside together. And, like the rest of the country, they’ve started to hate each other. The real anger, though, is reserved for the government. As such, especially for those who lost a loved one in the first flush of Coronavirus, it was a staggeringly hard watch.

What we said: “An absolute wonder.” Read more.

45

Lupin

(Netflix) The story of a century-old French gentleman thief might not have screamed “blockbuster”, but that’s what Lupin was. Updated to contemporary Paris, Lupin became a sensation this year, largely due to the juggernaut charisma of star Omar Sy.

What we said: The winning combination of charismatic star and stage illusionist visuals in an iconic city setting bears comparison to the BBC’s London-set Sherlock. Where Lupin betters its English equivalent is in its effortlessly chic updating of the revered source material. Read more.

44

The Pursuit of Love

(BBC One) Emily Mortimer’s retelling of Nancy Mitford’s novel could have fallen back on all the old Sunday-night TV chocolate-box tropes. Instead, Mortimer worked hard to boost both the joy and sadness of the source material. A clatteringly good watch that deserves to go down as a classic.

What we said: The insistent intertwining of the pain with the laughter, instead of flattening the tale into a Wodehouse-with-women yarn, makes this adaptation feel like a classic in its own right. It is a treat for all. Mitfordians – please, do give it a chance. Read more.

43

The Flight Attendant

(HBO/Sky One) Not only did The Flight Attendant start with one of the best premises of the year – an alcoholic comes to with a murdered man in her bed – but it was inventively, breathlessly told, and held together by an all-time great performance from Kaley Cuoco.

What we said: The premise is fun, the execution is slick and the action is fast and relentless (it only really pauses to let Cassie top up her blood-alcohol level or call her straight-arrow brother to assure him that she’s sober and will be home on time). Full of style and brio. Read more.

42

Hellbound

(Netflix) Destined to be overshadowed by its fellow South Korean export Squid Game, Hellbound was far greater than the sum of its parts. A drama about demons who come to Earth and drag people to the underworld, Hellbound was much brainier – and more satirical – than you would imagine. And dark. So dark.

What we said: Although the “here’s when you will die” hook is lifted straight from The Ring, tonally it has much more in common with The Leftovers and The Returned, shows that shone a light on the fragility of the human experience that reminded us that it doesn’t take much for everything to fall apart completely. Read more.

41

The Hunt for a Killer

(BBC Four) If you were worrying that Scandi noir was going to be outpaced by the dubious charms of the true crime fad, relax. This series about a real-life missing girl from the 1980s managed to combine the style and drama of Wallander with the queasy complicity of contemporary crime shows.

What we said: It’s not the tortured psyches of the detective that are of most urgent interest here. Like series Mindhunter, which dramatised the founding of the FBI’s Behavioral Science Unit, this takes the familiar “case of the week” structure from police procedural thrillers and applies it to a serious-minded study of forensic psychology. Read more.

40

Bo Burnham: Inside

(Netflix) It’s hard to know what was more impressive about Inside: the fact that Bo Burnham wrote, performed, directed and edited the whole thing by himself, the fact that it was simultaneously funny, inventive and gut-wrenchingly sad, or the fact that he was only 29 when he made it. Future generations will see Inside as the definitive document of the Covid lockdown.

What we said: It is a comedy Gesamtkunstwerk, a journey to the nerve-centre of the quarantined entertainer’s mind, a son et lumière Robinson Crusoe musical for the age of not just social but digital isolation. It could be a breakdown – or it could be the pandemic’s wildest gift to comedy. Read more.

39

Pose

(BBC Two) Ryan Murphy’s series about New York City’s African American and Latino LGBTQ+ and gender-nonconforming drag ball scene was already an important show. But in wrapping up the story, Pose became an out and out celebration of an under-represented demographic. It’ll be missed.

What we said: Its version of revolution always included bettering the bleak truth through sheer force of imagination. And so, this show has offered up the happy ending that real life so cruelly denies. Read more.

38

Clarkson’s Farm

(Amazon Prime Video) Just when it looked as if he had ossified into an obnoxious pub bore, Jeremy Clarkson suddenly went and became charming. In Clarkson’s Farm, we saw him trying his hardest to make profit from his land, aided by employees who don’t care a jot for his celebrity. If the success of this first series doesn’t go to his head, Clarkson’s Farm will be a highly successful reinvention.

What we said: To watch Clarkson’s Farm is to watch a man realise that the hobby he seemingly picked up for a lark is exhausting and all-consuming and increasingly unlikely to bring any real rewards. The show, like the job, has all the hallmarks of a labour of love. Read more.

37

Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution

(BBC Two) A five-part retelling of the last time Labour got anywhere even close to power, Blair and Brown was the document New Labour deserved. And, just maybe, that British voters deserved as well.

What we said: It is an inside job, with Labour veterans as unreliable narrators. Brown’s speechwriter Douglas Alexander even says: “They were literally the Lennon and McCartney of British politics.” Rubbish. They were more like Wham!, with no George Michael and two Andrew Ridgeleys. Read more.

36

Gods of Snooker

(BBC Two) The US had The Last Dance, an all-out spectacular retracing a vital moment in time for a figure who once arguably counted as the biggest name in all of sport. In the UK, we got a documentary about snooker. The amazing thing, though, was that this might have actually been better.

What we said: You cannot fail to be captivated by archive footage of Jimmy White spinning a ball around a table before, suddenly, decades later, the same man is in a hotel room telling you exactly how much of his winnings he spent on crack. Read more.

35

Motherland

(BBC Two) By its third series, you pretty much know where a sitcom will go. That’s true of Motherland, which barely attempted to deviate from its formula of middle-class mums being horrible to each other. But why bother when the blueprint is so good?

Anna Maxwell-Martin and Diane Morgan in Motherland.
Anna Maxwell-Martin and Diane Morgan in Motherland. Photograph: Grab/BBC/Merman

What we said: Motherland is at its best when it is skewering what it knows: the snobbery, hypocrisy and narcissism of a specific strain of white, middle-class London, plus the hellscape of the school gate. And when it is at its best, it is glorious. Read more.

34

Ghosts

(BBC One) The best all-round British sitcom in years, Ghosts’ third series mined slightly more heartfelt territory than before. Not only were the phantoms fleshed out more fully, but Charlotte Ritchie’s Alison found herself yearning for a family that couldn’t quite manifest itself. As beautiful as it was funny.

What we said: I’m quite pleased the old guff survived. But my worry is that Ghosts will become ruined by the exclusivity of its admission policy. Somebody, preferably somebody likable and interesting, needs to die to save Ghosts. But who? Read more.

33

Insecure

(Sky Comedy) Issa Rae’s comedy about a group of black LA girlfriends living, loving and frequently falling flat on their faces while doing both has spent five seasons deftly combining laugh-out-loud hilarity (who could forget Kelli getting tasered?) with real poignancy. Its ongoing final series has given fans a steady stream of zingers, contrasting the reality that a happy ever after for Issa, Molly, Lawrence and co is far from guaranteed.

What we said: The fifth and final season of this comedy about a group of black millennial girlfriends is all about giving its fans what they want. Namely, will-they-won’t-they drama, existential crises and pitch-perfect Kelli-isms. Despite its angst, it remains resolutely fun. Read more.

32

The Cleaner

(BBC One) Greg Davies adapted and starred in this adaptation of the German series Der Tatortreiniger, about a man tasked with removing crime scene evidence from the homes of several guest stars. It might not be the most original premise, but when The Cleaner worked, it really worked.

What we said: The Cleaner is a curious mix, attempting to balance slapstick moments, such as the brutal kicking of a pie, with pathos-laden observations about ambition and freedom. Sometimes, it works wonderfully. Read more.

31

Unforgotten

(ITV) A dusty old survivor like this ITV detective show always runs the risk of becoming set in its ways. Not so with Unforgotten, which this year said goodbye to its star Nicola Walker. It’s bittersweet: she was perfect in this role, but now she’s freed up to become an Olivia Colman-style megastar.

What we said: Over the years, Unforgotten has turned into one of the finest shows on British television. By the time it reached its fourth series, which attracted more viewers than ever before – thanks to its growing reputation as a sure bet – it was as lean as an elite athlete. Read more.

30

Master of None

(Netflix) Once Aziz Ansari was sucked into #MeToo’s bonfire of reputations, it seemed unlikely that he would ever make more Master of None. When he did, staying behind the camera for a new series subtitled Moments in Love, it was with a completely new focus. This run concentrated on Lena Waithe’s character Denise, and was composed of still, quiet episodes that paid off stunningly.

What we said: For conflicted comedy fans the solution might be to stop worrying and start watching. These 192 minutes speak more directly to the shifting status of women on screen than any public statement could. Read more.

29

Guilt

(BBC Scotland/iPlayer) The first series of Neil Forsyth’s crime thriller was a word-of-mouth hit, largely thanks to Mark Bonnar’s psychotic growl of a performance. This year’s second series lost a little of its pace, but was still as compelling as ever. Let’s all cross our fingers for a third series.

What we said: Guilt is a guilty pleasure, and I won’t be missing a second of it. Read more.

28

Help

(Channel 4) Another one-off Covid drama, Help starred Jodie Comer and Stephen Graham as a care home worker and resident respectively. Jack Thorne’s script surged with rage at the indifference with which the care sector was left to rot as the first wave of the pandemic rolled in. There’s plenty of warmth, but you’re never allowed to forget who the villains are.

What we said: Comer and Graham remain faultless to the end, and the first hour is a fine addition to the wealth of pandemic testimonies that can and must be entered into the record in any way they can be, from television drama to heart-wall monuments to official enquiries. Read more.

27

The Beatles: Get Back

(Disney+) Ambient Beatles? Slow Beatles? Peter Jackson’s Fab Four epic leaned into the sheer quantity of extraordinary footage at its creator’s disposal, capturing a band on the verge of dissolution but still full of heart and creative inspiration. Watching the song Get Back emerge, almost fully formed, from Paul McCartney’s fevered imagination was just one of numerous jaw-dropping moments.

What we said: There are fantastic moments. Lennon and McCartney’s eyes locking as they harmonise on Two of Us; Lennon’s delighted cry of “Yoko!” as McCartney’s adopted daughter starts screaming into a microphone; and especially McCartney, casting around for a new song, idly strumming his bass and singing nonsense words, gradually settling into a rhythm and melody that turns into Get Back. It is hard not to boggle. Read more.

26

Reservation Dogs

(Disney+) Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo’s comedy drama about bored youths trying to make it out of Oklahoma would have been brilliant in any case. But what elevated it is its cast (and near-uniform crew) of Indigenous North Americans. There’s a cultural specificity here that felt not only authentic, but authentically funny and sweet, like meeting a daft, lovable new circle of friends.

(from left) Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and Lane Factor in Reservation Dogs.
Authentic … (from left) Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and Lane Factor in Reservation Dogs. Photograph: FX

What we said: Reservation Dogs is able to lay waste stylishly to centuries of myth and misrepresentation due to one simple, crucial, innovation: almost everyone involved in the production is a Native American, offering a perspective which never panders to the often-fetishising gaze of outsiders. Read more.

25

Only Murders in the Building

(Disney+) A new show starring Steve Martin and Martin Short didn’t have to try very hard; a splash of the old charm and viewers would have fallen in line regardless. The genius of Only Murders in the Building, though, was how deftly it glued its comic shtick to a rigorously tight murder mystery. Much, much better than it had any right to be.

What we said: The investigation pings around with comic incompetency, from suspecting Sting (playing himself), to a bit involving a dead cat. The main event remains the unlikelihood of watching two comedy titans batting around with Selena Gomez – an enjoyable enough pairing, though it never quite transcends the clear beats of the scripts. Read more.

24

Call My Agent!

(Netflix) Call My Agent!’s fourth season saw a change of personnel, with showrunner par excellence Fanny Herrero moving on to pastures new. With her departure came a noticeable drop in quality, but let’s be clear. A Herrero-less Call My Agent! is still Call My Agent! It was stylish, funny and star-studded, and still ran circles around most other shows. This year’s season was publicised as its last, but calm down – a fifth season and a movie are now on their way.

What we said: While the much-maligned Emily in Paris offered a kind of escapism for those hankering but unable to go to the city of lights and love, Call My Agent! gives you a far more authentic immersion into French culture. Read more.

23

Vigil

(BBC One) How to create one of the most nail-biting televisual experiences of the year? Take a tense, twisty procedural plot, get Suranne Jones to fire on all cylinders as a trauma-racked action hero badass, then cram her into a ready-made environment for a claustrophobic whodunnit: a nuclear sub.

What we said: Throughout, Vigil has been a rich and sometimes sickly meal. Just one of its anxiety-inducing scenarios would be enough for most dramas, but this had international conflict, political intrigue, claustrophobic horror, psychological trauma, murder, cops, romance and nerve agents thrown in and set to various clock-ticking countdowns. Read more.

22

Inside No 9

(BBC Two) By now you could be forgiven for taking Inside No 9 for granted. But this year, Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton managed to find even greater heights. There was a Brexit episode, an episode about the uneasy relationship between fans and creators, an episode where Sian Clifford played against type twice at once. The invention here continues to be phenomenal.

What we said: As writers, actors and occasionally directors, the pair have shown that they can switch from bleak domestic drama to Shakespearean light comedy to full-on horror without dropping a stitch. Read more.

21

Maid

(Netflix) A devastating and compelling portrait of life on the poverty line in the US, starring Rylea Nevaeh Whittet, the cutest child actor in years, as Maddy, Margaret Qualley as Alex, a woman willing to do anything for her family – and her real-life mother Andie MacDowell (the strongest she’s ever been) playing her gullible, free-spirited artist mum Paula. Right up there with Squid Game for word-of-mouth hit of the year.

What we said: It dramatises the precariousness of existence without a fixed abode and conjures a world rarely seen in real life or on screen. It is also good at showing the insidious forms and effects of emotional abuse without insisting that Alex be an ever-broken victim. Read more.

20

Can’t Get You Out of My Head

(BBC iPlayer) Adam Curtis polarises audiences like few other documentarians. For some, he is television’s ultimate truth teller. For others, he’s an impenetrable conspiracy theorist. If you’re in the first group, Can’t Get You Out of My Head was an absolutely breathless delight.

What we said: It is vanishingly rare to be confronted by work so dense, so widely searching and ambitious in scope, so intelligent and respectful of the audience’s intelligence, too. Read more.

19

Line of Duty

(BBC One) Now overshadowed by its finale, dismissed as anticlimactic by viewers and aggressively defended at length by Jed Mercurio, Line of Duty’s sixth series was just as tight and knotty as ever. And it absolutely pummelled everything else on television to pieces. Sixteen million people watched its final episode in May. In 2021, that’s incredible.

What we said: At the risk of sounding like a mere embittered fan shouting at Johnny-come-latelies … man, you should have seen it back in the days when it was good. Read more.

18

Back to Life

(BBC Three/iPlayer) Daisy Haggard and Laura Solon’s Hythe-set comedy-drama returned in just as good shape as it left us: a sad, strange tale about the reputations we cannot shake. Exquisitely observed, sensitively performed and gorgeous to look at. Who could ask for more?

What we said: The show has lost none of its delicacy or nuance, nor have its makers disturbed its heart and soul – in fact, they have only added to it. Quality pum-pum all round. Read more.

17

This Way Up

(Channel 4) Like Back to Life, the second series of Aisling Bea’s This Way Up improved on its first. This time, as well as focusing on the recovery of Bea’s character Aine, the show was also bold enough to tackle Covid as a storyline. The fact that it was almost entirely alone in making the subject work with this little distance makes it doubly worthy of praise.

What we said: The best thing of all about This Way Up is that we don’t know what is going to happen next. Bea’s is such a nuanced, delicate portrait of mental health that Aine is neither a one-note self-sabotager, or manic, or depressive. She is a real person and, as such, she could go anywhere or do anything depending on when and if her circumstances change. Read more.

16

WandaVision

(Disney+) The Marvel Cinematic Universe’s first real extension into television could have gone horribly wrong – and, indeed, the shows that came afterwards prove that much is still to be mastered in that area – but WandaVision was a delight from start to finish. By basing each episode on a sitcom from a different era (for reasons that do make sense at the end, honest), this was Marvel reassuring us that it reveres television as much as it does comics and film. The most unexpected love letter of the year.

What we said: It’s all deliciously, confidently, stylishly done. The parodies are fantastic fun, the jokes are great, the performances are wonderful, and it has the glorious air of something shaped by people who know exactly what they’re doing, where they want to go and how they’re going to get there. Read more.

15

We Are Lady Parts

(Channel 4) A sitcom about an all-female, all-Muslim punk band, We Are Lady Parts is the sort of show a cynic might write off as tokenistic. Until they actually watched it, that is, because Nida Manzoor’s comedy was exactly that; a silly, giddy half hour that was actually designed to make people laugh. The band’s song names – Voldemort Under My Headscarf, Bashir With the Good Beard – were just a glorious bonus.

What we said: We Are Lady Parts is an assured mix of second-generation cultural confusion and millennial feminism, one part Chewing Gum to two parts Wayne’s World. Read more.

14

Ted Lasso

(Apple TV+) What else is there to say about Ted Lasso? Its achievements are already numerous – it’s funny, warm-hearted, wildly celebrated and it made people actually want to watch Apple TV+ – and yet you sense that more is to come. The first season was an unexpectedly sweet fish out of water comedy, the second dug a little deeper into the compulsions of its characters. What on Earth will a third do? Initiate world peace?

What we said: The broadening and deepening must have felt like a risk to everyone involved in a show predicated on bringing light comic relief to viewers, and which then became frankly essential to their mental wellbeing. But it’s paid off. They shot and they’ve scored. Read more.

13

The Underground Railroad

(Amazon Prime Video ) Director Barry Jenkins’ harrowing, bravura adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel about slavery, which turned the networks that smuggled enslaved people to safety in the north into a literal train network with stations hidden in the homes of sympathetic white folks. Scene for scene, this was some of the most visually staggering television in years – and a rare show that was impossible to binge watch.

Visually staggering ... The Underground Railroad
Visually staggering ... The Underground Railroad. Photograph: Kyle Kaplan/PA

What we said: An extraordinary adaptation – hallucinatory, magical, allegorical and yet permanently in the pursuit of historical and eternal truths, the resurrection of lost perspectives and the uplifting of unheard voices. Watch it, but slowly, one complex, virtuosic, heartbreaking episode at a time. Read more.

12

Uprising

(BBC One) Following his Small Axe anthology series last year, Steve McQueen returned with a documentary that dug much deeper into a subject that underpinned many episodes. Uprising told the story of the 1981 New Cross fire, carefully setting it in political context, then unleashing the horror of a crime that took 13 Black lives, then refusing to back down from its consequences. Unbelievably powerful.

What we said: To watch this knowing the horrors to come is almost unbearable, but it has a clear-headed determination to show the real, full, human lives of the people who died. Read more.

11

Stath Lets Flats

(Channel 4) In its third series, Jamie Demetriou’s sitcom remained as riotously silly as ever – witness the tender song about eggs Stath sings to his newborn child – while mining the characters for a deeper vulnerability. There were moments of unbearable sweetness nestled among the idiocy this year, and the thought of a life with no more Stath is almost too much to take.

What we said: Stath is not a show designed to assess the state of the nation, or dive deep into a dysfunctional psyche, but to make people laugh: the clothes are funny, the situations are funny, the speech patterns are funny, the relationships are funny. Read more.

10

I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson

(Netflix) In its second outing, Tim Robinson’s absurd comedy sketch show scaled new heights of surreal, laugh-out-loud greatness. Its meme-friendly skits somehow managed to cram subplots into scenes shorter than most ad breaks, often managing to draw belly-laughs through cleverly wrong-footing the viewer. At its best, it felt like it was reinventing what a sketch show should be in the internet era – and it was often at its best.

What we said: In its second season Robinson and his co-stars pulled at the threads of their gags almost to the point of unravelling the very sense of them – and it left viewers astounded at their capacity to create hilarity from increasingly outrageous situations. Read more.

9

Starstruck

(BBC One) In New Zealand comic Rose Matafeo’s lovable romcom, her character Jessie is having a strange old time living in London, with a titchy flat, tedious jobs – and the fact that she can’t stop bumping into a movie star named Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel) that she had a one night stand with.

What we said: It was basically the 2021 version of Notting Hill, and – gladly – like the 90s, all the meet-cutes happened in real life rather than in the ninth circle of dating app hell. At just over 20 minutes an episode, it was a sweet, gentle, moreish confection that could have easily stretched to more than its six episodes. Read more.

8

Alma’s Not Normal

(BBC Two) Sophie Willan’s autobiographical show about the childhood she describes as being “the baby in Trainspotting, if she’d lived” won a comedy Bafta for the pilot alone. So this six-episode series, which saw her move from a job in a sandwich shop to becoming a sex worker and finally joining a theatre troupe, was an absolute riotous delight.

What we said: Serious ground is covered – observations on the welfare system, the reality of living with addiction – and Alma’s attempt to address her childhood will leave a tear in your eye. But, throughout, the show is an invitation to acknowledge life’s lemons and laugh in the face of them. One of the most joyous comedies of the year. Read more.

7

Time

(BBC One) Jimmy McGovern’s hard, horrifying look at prison life was seen largely through the eyes of former teacher Mark Cobden (Sean Bean), who was serving his first stretch. Bean’s performance was a masterclass in understatement, communicated mainly through silence and shuffles on the wing – and it made for even more devastating television.

What we said: McGovern is known for polemics but the brilliance of Time is that it manages to show, not tell. There is very little grandstanding here – we are simply presented with the grim realities of our dysfunctional penal system and asked, implicitly, how we would cope. Read more.

6

Feel Good

(Netflix) Mae Martin’s exquisite romcom returned, this time fuelled not by love but by trauma, as Mae returned to Canada to confront her past and her gender identity. Though that makes it sound heavy, Feel Good is so glorious that it not only managed to make it work, but also outdo its first run.

What we said: Series two dug deeper than the first. It was funnier, darker and more prescient. Each of its six episodes are mini-masterpieces – as taut, atmospheric and perfectly paced as short stories. The Channel 4 executives who unfathomably chose not to pick Feel Good up must be kicking themselves. Read more.

5

Squid Game

(Netflix) The grim, grisly South Korean drama became a global word-of-mouth smash in a matter of days. We saw 456 debt-riddled contestants compete in a horrific gameshow whose winner goes home with 4.6bn won (£28m), and losers get killed on the spot.

What we said: This was a drama that encouraged us to follow the logic of capitalism to its extreme by treating everything, including fellow humans, as commodities. Would you, in extremis, resemble the relatable dad – player 456, Seong Gi-hun – or self-serving venal gangster – player 067, Kang Sae-byeok? Read more.

4

Succession

(HBO/Sky Atlantic) For half a season, the third outing of this captivating drama about a dysfunctional media dynasty took things slowly. Then it went supernova, finding a gear that, even by the show’s own impossible standards, it had never found before. It’s not overstating it to say that this was the show’s best ever run of episodes.

What we said: All the storylines that had been humming away in the background snapped to attention, and the stakes are colossal. Professionally, everything is on fire. Personally, the ground is littered with bodies. If the first six episodes were about sharks circling the water, this is where we get to see them rip each other apart. Read more.

3

Mare of Easttown

(HBO/Sky Atlantic) So gripping was this twisty, compelling detective drama that for two months of 2021, Mare-mania took hold. Who killed Erin? Would anyone pay for her poor baby’s ear surgery? And was it OK to use the term Katenaissance to describe Kate Winslet’s finest ever performance? Mare of Easttown could easily have fallen into familiar tortured-cop-investigates-dead-teen territory. Instead, the depth and detail of every character arc and subplot was incredible, with even seemingly minor moments delivering some of the most horrifying TV scenes ever. By the end, as each character’s full tragedy was laid bare, it was a miracle anyone was still standing.

What we said: This was a whodunnit that blindsided the viewer from start to finish – and had so much more besides. It was thrilling: tense and edge-of-the-seat stuff, excellently paced with plenty of twists and cliffhangers. Read more.

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The White Lotus

(HBO/Sky Atlantic) Was it a murder mystery? A tragicomedy? A social satire on the way America contorts itself around the requirements of late western capitalism? Mike White’s immaculate six-part creation was all of these and more, serving up a hilarious drama, brought joyously to life by a brilliant ensemble cast and hooky story, kept from slipping into soapiness by delicate dialogue and a firm hand on the narrative reins. At times, it was so good, it felt rather like you’d been treated to a luxury holiday yourself.

What we said: A hysterically funny drama that folded in every kind of comic moment, from alpha mom Nicole’s fretting over lumpen, screen-addicted scion Quinn (“so alienated”) because there’s never been a harder time to be a straight, white male, to Rachel’s giddily awful mother-in-law, to the simple joy of Armond’s scatological revenge in the finale. Read more.

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It’s a Sin

(Channel 4) A five-part drama about the arrival of Aids in Britain and the devastation it wrought was always going to be gut-wrenching viewing. But it was the furious, beautiful joy of the show that took you by surprise, with Russell T Davies serving up a viewing experience that was funny and full of life in a way that was – strange though it sounds to say – genuinely enjoyable to watch. Not only did it make you care deeply about its characters’ lives, it did so with a sense of humour that made the darkest moments all the more heart-rending.

What we said: This was television full of energy and vitality. It’s a Sin was deeply upsetting, as it was supposed to be, and Davies made us love these characters, flaws and all. I cried at the end of the first episode, knowing what was going to happen, and I wept as it did happen, again and again. Read more.

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