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 2019

So much TV. This year it’s sometimes been hard to keep up, with all the new streaming services rolling out. Somehow I managed (no choice really – I have to watch a little of everything new for work. Can’t write TV if you don’t know what the current landscape looks like).

Here, then, is the best TV drama I saw during the last year. And there has been some truly great work screened. I’ve been enjoying some of Apple’s new launches, but they haven’t yet quite hit that critical level to make it to the top. There were also several shows I expected to drop in here, but in the end fell at the last (looking at you, Game of Thrones).

Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

10. The Marvelous Mrs Maisel

(Amazon Prime) I resisted including this last year, not wholly sure if it should be filed under comedy. But the quality is just phenomenal, and the drama is certainly there, if in ‘light’ mode. The recreation of 50s New York is perfect. Yet it also manages to tell a story relevant to today, with its sly look at gender, family and work. Rachel Brosnahan is luminous as the title character, but all the cast here do brilliant work.

9. After Life

(Netflix) Another one that could have been considered comedy with the pedigree of its creator and star Ricky Gervais. But this is a serious work with something important to say about grief and finding the value in life when you don’t have any faith. There are certainly laugh out loud moments. But there are heartbreaking ones too. A humanist masterpiece.

8.Giri/Haji

Shown on the BBC, this was a groundbreaking piece of work for UK TV. It’ll be available to the rest of the world via Netflix next year. A Tokyo detective comes to London to search for his missing brother following the murder of a Yakuza member. That death ripples out to touch several lives. Joe Barton’s scripts avoid the cliches and dive into an almost dreamlike state, digging out the essential humanity in cultures that seem at odds with each other.

7. Euphoria

(HBO) Ostensibly a teen drama, but one which digs deep into what it’s like to live – and try to survive – in the great Age of Disruption. Drugs, naked selfies, sex as currency, a raw examination of addiction, this is a long way from The Breakfast Club. Zendaya grounds it as the central character and commentator (although spoiled slightly by one extended sequence which served as a video for her new single).

6. Russian Doll

(Netflix) What seemed to be another Groundhog Day, quickly diverges into a twisty mystery. Centred on a brilliant performance by Natasha Lyonne, who also co-created, the show follows games developer Nadia Vulvokov as she dies again and again only to be reborn in the same situation. Clever, funny and moving, it’s well worth its four Emmy nominations.

5. The Handmaid’s Tale

(Hulu) Dark and desperate, The Handmaid’s Tale is as much about modern America as it is about its dystopian setting. The early episodes were a hard watch, but now the story has progressed, flickers of hope and righteous anger move to centre-stage. A fantastic performance by Elisabeth Moss, she starts to reveal the cracks within the central character June Osborne that Margaret Atwood’s novel sets up.

4. Chernobyl

(HBO/Sky) Not by any stretch of the imagination ‘entertainment’, this is a grim but devastatingly human examination of the nuclear disaster in Ukraine in 1986. The award-winning script by Craig Mazin dramatises the failings of the Soviet system set against the struggle of regular people to try to save the day. Jared Harris and Stellan Skarsgard provide the odd couple central performances.

3. Billions

(Showtime) Billions goes from strength to strength and in any other year would well have held the number one slot in this list. The Shakespearean battle between Paul Giamatti’s Chuck Rhodes and Damian Lewis’ Bobby Axelrod in the worlds of high finance and law takes on new dimensions and gets even more brutal. In a series of standout characters and actors, Asia Kate Dillon’s non-binary Taylor Mason wins hands down.

2. Watchmen

(HBO) A slow burn that took just about everyone by surprise. Damon Lindelof’s sequel/reimagining of Alan Moore and Dave Gibbon’s 1980s graphic novel is a masterpiece that manages to capture the groundbreaking approach of the source material and then break even more new ground. Tackling racism, gender and power in America today, it still manages to capture an emotional chore. Regina King is a brilliant guide through the mazey storytelling.

  1. Succession

(HBO) Springboarding off the real-world accounts of media mogul Rupert Murdoch and his clan, Succession is a study of how emotional abuse destroys lives. That doesn’t sound a bundle of laughs, but there’s black humour aplenty in this tale of a declining media power broker pitting his children against each other to take the mantle from him. Much of the enjoyment comes from watching the slow motion car crash of these characters disintegrating in spectacular fashion. A brilliant, multifaceted work.