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 2018

Time for my annual round-up of the best TV of the year.  And I’ve watched a lot for work and pleasure over the last eleven and a bit months. The flood of great shows hasn’t abated, in fact it seems to be increasing.  That’s not going to stop.  Several new streaming services are launching in 2019, including Apple’s and Disney’s.

If you watch only ten shows this year, you could make it the ones in this list. But honestly, so many only just missed the cut, and in the end it came down to margin calls.  And it’s the same at the top end of the list where I went back and forth several times, and would probably come up with a slightly different ranking tomorrow.

I’ll be counting down with one a day, so check back to see what got my viewing and screenwriting juices flowing during 2018.

10. Chilling Adventures Of Sabrina (Netflix)

A Buffy the Vampire Slayer for the modern generation? The big win here is the design of an immersive world that’s like being dipped in a big vat of Halloween. Sabrina’s house, the school, the forest, the pumpkin fields and lonely roads, everything here has a hyper-intense feel that pulls you into a place where the creepy is normal.  The tone is all over the place – and that’s one of the reasons I like it.  Gory, disturbing, playful, but thankfully nowhere near as over-cooked teen drama as its stablemate Riverdale.  Couple that with some great character actors playing it large – Lucy Davis, Michelle Gomez, Miranda Otto and Richard Coyle – and you’ve got a frightening funhouse of a series. Yes, some of the mid-season writing is a bit patchy, but stick with it.  The Midwinter special drops soon.

9. The Good Fight (CBS All Access)

A series with something important to say about the state of the world, and of today’s America.  As a spin-off of the well-crafted but not wave-making The Good Wife, not a lot was expected from The Good Fight.  Indeed, on the surface, this looks like a traditional legal show.

But from the very first scene of the first episode, it set out its stall that this is a critique of Trump and all he stands for, of the vulgarity and the profit-first coarseness that characterises current times.  It’s a series about the huge divide in society, and the inequalities thrown up by a 1% inured to suffering.  The credits come in halfway through the first episode with a reversal that pulls the rug out from under your feet.  And then you can see where The Good Fight is going.

And yet it’s not preachy.  It tells it’s tales with verve and a popular style, with strong characters and a light, yes, traditional, touch where necessary.

8. Homecoming (Amazon Prime)

Another massive critical hit from Prime, after The Magnificent Mrs Maisel, and deserving of all the praise heaped on it, and its star Julia Roberts.  Paranoia runs deep in this series – and paranoia is possibly the key response to the 21st century – as Roberts oversees a facility for military veterans wanting to adjust to the civilian world.  It’s told via different competing timelines, and tackles issues like memory and personality.

The relentless pace – the episodes are only 30 minutes – drag you through the labyrinth.  There’s tricksy direction and graphics, as you’d expect from the director and producer Sam Esmail who made Mr Robot such an interesting and iconoclastic creation.  But the real, emotive performances hold everything together.

7. The Deuce (HBO)

A brave series, in its unflinching attention to every grimy, seedy, brutal aspect of its milieu.  In its examination of the early years of the New York porn industry, it takes you into a world you’ve never seen before, and tells you things you never knew in the process.  As you’d expect from David Simon and George Pelecanos, the flawed characters lie at the heart, raw humanity trying to survive in a time and place determined to grind them down.  Maggie Gyllenhaal is the queen of all she surveys, as both producer, and as Candy, the former streetwalker now photo-feminist demanding agency as she shapes this new industry from behind the camera.  A class act.

6. Atlanta (FX)

The genius that is Donald Glover has achieved something of TV nirvana here – a show that can be absolutely anything it wants to be.  Slice of life, romance, comedy, gritty urban survival, social comment, and, in the episode where the main character goes to buy a second-hand piano, even horror.  Sometimes it’s all of them at the same time.  In the end, the genre here is simply Donald Glover’s worldview, mercurial, wry and witty.  Everyone in the cast gives first-rate performances, and, what makes it great for me, it never fails to surprise.

5. Maniac (Netflix)

A deliriously hallucinogenic comedy-drama miniseries that occupies its own space – post-modern, with heightened performances and a look that often echoes cheap 70s SF movies.  What keeps it from being too quirky for its own good is the big heart at the core, and ultimately it’s deeply affecting.  Emma Stone and Jonah Hill play two broken people volunteering for a new treatment that supposedly will help cure their mental health issues.  This involves flinging them into drug-induced imaginary alternate lives where they can work through their neuroses.  Cary Joji Fukunaga’s direction is dreamy yet emotional, but it’s the career-best performance from Emma Stone, and Justin Theroux as a disturbed psychologist that nails this one down.

4. Billions (Showtime)

If this series maintains its trajectory, it has a good chance of being up there with The Sopranos by the end of its run.  There are similarities with the Mafioso drama – turbulent families, gangster capitalism, big egos crossing lines – but Billions ploughs its own furrow.  Its financial machinations are never dull and always subsumed beneath the character dramas, and it sparkles with an urbane wit that adds to its dynamism.  Fantastic duelling performances from Damien Lewis as hedge fund manager Bobby Axelrod and Paul Giamatti as NY attorney Chuck Rhoades provide the visceral, Shakespearean core.  But there are two stand-out supporting turns that will keep you coming back – David Costabile as Wags, Axe’s right hand man who plays louche so well you expect him to seize his pleasure in every scene; and Asia Kate Dillon as the non-binary analyst Taylor, a performance that is all about brains and repressed vulnerability.

3. Ozark (Netflix)

Season one took a while to get going, but set out its stall with its aspiration to be the new Breaking Bad. Season two takes that mission to a completely different level.  Every dilemma, every choice made, fires the characters into a new level of hell, which requires more choices and more terrible consequences.  In the end, the tension of that grim spiral becomes almost unbearable.  This tale of a middle class family among the rednecks is a culture clash drama.  But when it asks the question, who has the capacity for the most evil – the sophisticated family, the uncomplicated, uneducated backwoods folk, the monied, the violent criminal gang, even the FBI – that’s when it comes into its own.  And the answer  demanded in every episode is usually not the one you expect.  Also in this series, Laura Linney emerges as the real star as her character edges into Walter White territory, a strong, unflinching person who will do absolutely anything to ensure survival.

2. Sharp Objects (HBO)

A near-perfect adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s chilling debut novel.  Director Jean-Marc Vallee uses the tics that made Big Little Lies such a success – flashes of images that are sometimes memories, sometimes notions, sometimes fantasies, that together create a dreamy atmosphere that echoes the languorous southern setting.  The pacing is deliberately measured, allowing the slow accretion of detail and character that brings the story to life. Which makes the ending so effective – after that oneiric approach the final scene and the post-credits sequence comes like a baseball bat to the face, smashing home the shattering horror of what has taken place.  Great performance too by Amy Adams as the alcoholic emotionally-troubled reporter returning to her disturbed family to investigate dark goings-on in the community.

1. The Haunting of Hill House (Netflix)

From the outset, this remarkable drama transcends its horror roots and becomes something universal.  The scares aren’t the point here, though there are several very effective ones.  This is a story about grief, addiction, depression and the very personal psychological suffering that is part of the human condition.  If that makes it sound heavy or preachy, it’s not at all – the supernatural is used as a powerful metaphor and that keeps everything moving.  But it is possibly the saddest thing you will see on TV.  Some of the episodes, and the characters, are heartbreaking.  The creator Mike Flanagan has made something enduring because he doesn’t pander to the viewer.  Questions are left hanging until Flanagan is ready to give his answers.  Duelling timelines are rolled out and the viewer is left to piece together which character is which and what’s going on.  There’s some brilliant dexterity behind the camera, with several long, prowling takes around the haunted house(s), and excellent work in front of the camera, particularly from Victoria Pedretti, Kate Siegel and Elizabeth Reaser.  This is a complete and satisfying novel, and there doesn’t need to be another series. But there will be, and I trust Flanagan to do something equally interesting.

And that’s it.  Honourable mentions to Narcos Mexico, Killing Eve, Unreal, 13 Reasons Why, Better Call Saul and Westworld, all of which could easily have made the cut.

And a special award to House of Cards for so spectacularly losing the plot.  The denouement was the worst for any highly-rated show in this new golden age of TV, so bad in fact that it effectively destroyed all that had come before.  It outlined a few basic writing issues.  If a character has been shaped to be supporting, you can’t simply elevate them to lead.  And this was always a novel about Francis Underwood, told in chapters.  His story was left hanging, and no amount of running around and dramatic posturing can make it feel fulfilled. Should have ended it with season 5.

Finally a big vat of the sourest grapes is being hauled by Deliveroo to the home of director Steve McQueen who insisted the golden age of TV was now over…minutes after HBO turned down his pitch for a new TV series.  On the evidence of these ten shows he couldn’t be more wrong.