Best TV Drama 2021

2021 was another year which marked a march away from the relevance of network TV towards the dominance of streaming. In this age of complexity and nuance where there is no longer a broad shared culture, the SVODs have the upper hand: they can produce shows tooled for any particularly micro-tribe.

It’s not going to get any better for network TV.

Here are the best shows I saw this year…

10. For All Mankind

Once Apple TV+’s alternate history series about the Space Race revealed what it was *really* doing midway through season one, it took on a completely new dimension. As much a secret history as an alternate history, this show is equally about down here as it is out there. It reveals exactly what we lost by not pushing forward with space ambitions after the moon landings. Like all Apple TV+ shows, the storytelling has a solid old school charm, with some great characters and performances, and immense production values (again, a regular for Apple shows).

9. Only Murders In The Building

A frothy confection that is instantly engaging thanks to the chemistry among the three principles – Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. It plays nicely with the conflict between old and young generation, pointing up the strengths and weaknesses of both, rather than taking any sides. And as you would expect from a Steve Martin vehicle, the dialogue sparkles: “The only thing your generation is scared of is colon cancer and societal change,” as Selena Gomez says to her older comrades. Not the only true crime podcasters investigate real crime series you’ll find this year, but certainly the best.

8. You

This has been a year of regular series steadily improving in quality and You is no exception. The best of the three seasons, There’s a great dynamic between Penn Badgley’s psychopathic world’s worst husband Joe and Victoria Pedretti’s equally psychopathic Love, with both of them digging new graves in suburbia. Stitched through with black humour, the stakes are raised continually with plenty of twists and turns. Pedretti does her best work here.

7. The White Lotus

A show about terrible people doing terrible things – I don’t know if that trope’s arisen because we like to revel in our moral superiority or to gawk at a slow-motion car crash, maybe both. The White Lotus is packed with brilliant performances, each one simmering in turn while creator Mike White slowly and sadistically turns the blade on each one of them as they gather in a Hawaiian hotel.

6. The Good Fight

Not enough people are watching the only satire on TV, and a great one at that, which has skewered every aspect of the Trump presidency and the subsequent fallout. This year I watched both the pandemic-truncated season 4 – with the soon-to-be classic Jeffrey Epstein episode – and season 5’s post-January 6 nightmare for America. Ostensibly a legal drama, this show is really a dissection of US society with a focus on who actually pulls the levers of power.

5. The Crown

The best season of the Royal drama – though not the best Queen, although Olivia Coleman does a passable job. There’s an almost unbearable sense of tension building throughout these episodes. With the addition of Diana and Charles’ affair with Camilla, the Shakespearean tone comes to the fore, every scene heightened with the knowledge of what is to come. Emma Corrin as Diana, Josh O’Connor as Charles and Gillian Anderson as Margaret Thatcher are all fantastic.

4. Mare Of Easttown

Hatchet-faced people investigating a grim crime in a depressingly hope-free post-industrial town, so much, so UK network TV. But this series is elevated by the excellent writing and show running of Brad Ingelsby and the performance of Kate Winslet which turns it into a detailed and ultimately inspiring character study of a woman who’s lost so much – not the least her hope for the future – and yet still does her best for her community. Mare of Easttown isn’t about the crime, it’s about human beings struggling to get on and it has a big heart tucked away.

3. Squid Game

TV commissioners often recoil from anything too imaginative, as if ‘real’, or their perception of such, is the only way to tell a story. But you can examine a serious subject by slamming your nose against the brick wall or sitting on a distant hill and taking a more reflective view. Squid Game does the latter in the way it tackles the mechanics of the capitalist system (sounds dreary doesn’t it?) in a story that could not be more unrealistic and as such delivers a more effective gut punch. Desperate people on the edge of society are given the chance to compete in a life-or-death struggle for big rewards. It’s all one big game, for the edification of those who don’t have to get their hands bloody. It’s also the most popular TV show in the world this year so maybe there’s something to that imagination lark.

2. Sex Education

Despite the title, this show is really about love in all its many forms. Ostensibly another fantasy – the cast are British but it’s set in a school that is like no British school anywhere – Sex Education uses the lack of specificity to make this a universal story about discovering love here in the 21st century. The character work is phenomenal, one of the best shows for that on TV, the storytelling at turns heart-soaring and heartbreaking. Thoroughly modern in every human aspect, it tracks the diversity and complexity of how we live today. Sex Education has improved with each season and this one was so close to being the best show of the year. But then came…

1. Succession

On the surface, another show about terrible people doing terrible things, but just like Sex Education, it’s really about love, particularly what happens when you don’t get it as a kid and how that drives you in adult life to fill that void. Succession is a rich, complex series that tackles many things crucial to today’s world and this third season is the best. Eschewing big plots, it drills down into the characters of the children of media magnate Logan Roy (think: Rupert Murdoch) and how their search for his approval both destroys them and corrupts the wider world. The performances at every level are astounding, the writing pitch perfect as it coldly dissects this toxic sphere of existence. One of those series that will ultimately define the golden age of TV.

Best TV Drama 2020

In the Year of Staying In, we were all fortunate we were no longer trapped in the era of network TV. With the plethora of offerings from the streaming giants – a number growing year on year – no one could complain they couldn’t find something to their taste.

And there would have been lots more if Covid-19 hadn’t shut down so many productions, including all Apple TV+ returning dramas and Disney+ landmark Marvel series.

I try to keep up with at least a couple of episodes of every new drama. That’s getting increasingly hard to do. But here are my top ten lockdown loves of 2020.

10. Perry Mason

HBO offered up a gloomy take on the attorney of Erie Stanley Gardner’s crime novels, a far cry from the brightly-lit sixties TV series with Raymond Burr in the title role. It’s a strong dose of noir set as America claws its way out of the Great Depression, built on excellent period detail and with a tough realistic edge. Matthew Rhys makes a good hound dog Mason and there’s strong support from Tatiana Maslany, John Lithgow and Shea Whigham.

9. The Marvellous Mrs Maisel

The third season maintains both its class and remarkable period detail while touching on issues with contemporary resonance. Mrs Maisel remains the unlikely outsider in a highly constrained society – a woman! in stand-up comedy! – but this time encounters people even more outside the norm. Winning characters and gentle humour are given full force by excellent performances from Rachel Brosnahan, Alex Borstein and Tony Shalhoub among others. Worth all the Golden Globes and Emmys.

8. The Plot Against America

A chilling and timely adaptation of Philip Roth’s novel which looks at how easily fascism could arise in America, and out of the democratic system. Told through the eyes of a working class Jewish family in New Jersey as the nation deals with the rapid rise of populist politician Charles Lindbergh, its easy to see why, after the events of the last four years in the US, David Simon and Ed Burns decided to tell this now. Terrifying not only in how the story unfolds, but also in what it says about human nature and the nature of America.

7. The Good Fight

One of the few shows that is overtly about Trump and his influence on America. The Good Fight doesn’t shy away from the divisiveness and the underlying sense of threat in the country for people who don’t agree with the former President, and calls out Trump defiantly – he’s the background villain of the piece. But it delivers its commentary with wry wit and character-based drama. There’s also a winning quirkiness to its storytelling with flashes of animation, asides and hallucinations.

6. Ozark

One of the unfolding strengths of this series is the ability to increase the stakes for the central characters not only from season to season, but from episode to episode. Every single choice the Byrde family makes as they attempt to stay alive and free leads to a worse situation. In lesser hands that could come across as breathless, but here it’s measured and the twists are always surprising. Julia Garner is the standout star, but Laura Linney is doing career-best work as the resourceful matriarch.

5. Billions

A truncated season because of the pandemic, this subsequently lacks the killer punch of previous finales (the final episodes will be shown in 2021, running straight into season 6). The manoeuvring and manipulation of Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhoades and Damien Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod grows more intense in the Shakespearean telling. Sociopaths rule the world. We all feared it. Now we see it’s true.

4. The Crown

As well made and enjoyable as this series has been, it’s never made my list before. But season 4 has been a tour-de-force. That’s partly because it’s reached the eighties, the era of high drama for the Royals with the spiralling tragedy of the Charles and Diana romance. And partly because of Gillian Anderson’s coruscating performance as Margaret Thatcher, perfectly capturing her divisive nature – driven and ambitious for Britain, but a megalomaniac, paranoiac and uncaring about a large swathe of the population which Thatcher deemed, in her own words, not “one of us”.

3. DEVS

Novelist and filmmaker Alex Garland’s science fiction murder mystery is packed with ideas and deep themes that will leave you pondering long after its over. As with his movie Ex Machina, it’s ostensibly about technological advancement, here quantum computing and the wonders that offers, but it tackles free will and determinism. At it’s heart, though, it’s a human story about loss and the search for meaning in everyone’s life.

2. Better Call Saul

One of the best-written and acted returning series on TV. There’s nothing flashy about it. No shocking twists or bursts of ultraviolence. Instead it’s crept up quietly in the background with great storytelling and dialogue and pitch-perfect performances from Bob Odenkirk and Rhea Seehorn. It’s very different to Breaking Bad, the series that spawned it, yet it has now, in its own way, transcended Walter White’s odyssey. A measured character study of a flawed man and the way he changes the world around him.

  1. The Queen’s Gambit

Not just the best series of the year, but the best for very many years. It came out of nowhere during the pandemic months and travelled the world through word of mouth – a drama, about chess? Are you sure? Of course, it’s not really about chess. In a way, it’s very old school storytelling. The script and direction by Scott Frank is unflashy yet brilliant, hitting all the notes of character, emotion and theme without drawing attention to itself. The world it creates is new and refreshing, a rarity these days, and you don’t need to know anything about chess to appreciate it. And it’s anchored by a luminous performance by Anna Taylor-Joy with an equally great supporting cast. Awards will shower down on it, and rightly so.