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The best TV shows of 2021

The best TV shows of 2021


As we wrestled with the reality of, well, actual reality this year and last, one thing was always certain: top telly would be there for us

By Jon Billinge, Writer + Laura Rutkowski, Senior Staff Writer + Chris Miller, Writer

And what a ridiculously good year it was in tellyland! The top-quality shows – both original and returning – just kept on coming.


Here we take a look back at the best Comedy, Drama, Documentaries and Sci-fi/Fantasy of 2021.



Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Jessie (Rose Matafeo) is instantly relatable as a Millennial trying to find her place in London. Less relatable… her seemingly one-night stand with a celebrity (Nikesh Patel). We binged the whole thing in one sitting. 


Sex Education

Find seasons 1-3 in Apps & Games > Netflix  

A strict new headteacher (Jemima Kirke) makes the Moordale students’ lives less pleasant in season 3 of the funny and frank comedy drama. But life goes on: Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) travels to Nigeria, Maeve (Emma Mackey) and Otis (Asa Butterfield) are forced to admit their feelings, and Adam (Connor Swindells) spends some quality time with Madam.


We Are Lady Parts

Find it in Apps & Games > All 4 

Drawing on writer, creator and director Nida Manzoor’s own experiences, We Are Lady Parts follows a Muslim female punk band on a quest for a new lead guitarist. With loads of original punk songs and cover tracks, it’s a total riot. 



Find series 1-3 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

If possible, the third series of the supernatural sitcom was even sillier than before, with mysterious half-sisters and wacky working-from-home mishaps… but it delivered an emotional punch with its revelations about Kitty (Lolly Adefope) and her tragic backstory.


Call My Agent!

Find seasons 1-4 in in Apps & Games > Netflix

Absolument pas one to sleep on, this tongue-in-cheek look at the French entertainment industry – and the people running it from behind the scenes – is as star-studded as it is side-splitting.   


I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson

Find seasons 1 & 2 in in Apps & Games > Netflix

Surreal, subversive and never, ever sub-par, US comedian Tim Robinson’s sketch show is unlike any you’ve ever seen. Think Limmy’s Show but weirder, and you’re still waaay off.


Feel Good

Find series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > Netflix

Comedian Mae Martin’s struggles with addiction, love and love addiction are not perhaps obvious “feel good” material, but this semi-autobiographical story somehow balances the devastating and the endearing, the comedy and the tragedy, like nothing that’s come before.


Never Have I Ever

Find series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > Netflix

Teenager Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) may have moved on from her father’s death, but now she has to deal with new frenemy Aneesa (Megan Suri) AND choose between two boys, in Mindy Kaling’s touching and hilarious comedy drama. 


This Way Up

Find series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > All 4 

Luckily, all fears about a second series not being as good as the first were unfounded as Aisling Bea and Sharon Horgan returned, making us laugh and cry even more. We’re still not over the ending.


Inside No. 9

Find series 1-6 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s blackly comic anthology series is still overflowing with brilliant concepts in its sixth series. A highlight is “Lip Service”, in which Pemberton’s Felix hires a lip-reader (Fleabag’s Sian Clifford) to help spy on his wife – but all is not as it seems…


This Time With Alan Partridge

Find series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Steve Coogan keeps coming up with new ways for us to laugh and cringe at Alan, whose farcical attempts to negotiate simple human relationships – including a flirtation with half-seen make-up artist Tiff (Natasia Demetriou) – build to a messy climax in the This Time studio.



Find series 1-3 in Apps & Games > Netflix 

Anna Maxwell Martin’s tour de force as ultra-hassled mum Julia continued in the third series, as the chaotic parent group negotiated everything from head lice to cancer scares – and Julia became infatuated with builder Garry (Robbie Gee).



Find series 1 & 2 in On Demand > Channels > Sky One

He of stellar turns in Madagascar and something called [checks notes] “Friends”, David Schwimmer is a no-fuss US security agent transferred to the UK, who inadvertently risks everything on hiring inept – but charming – computer analyst Joseph Harries (Nick Mohammed).



Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Playing an unhappily married couple, Sharon Horgan and James McAvoy go through all the stages of lockdown – fear, boredom, frustration and anger – in this hugely relatable one-off drama that was the most 2021 thing on TV in 2021.


Back To Life

Find series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer 

In series 2, Miri Matteson (co-writer Daisy Haggard) has been released from her 18-year prison stint for six weeks. Yet, trouble is hot on her tail as she just tries to live a normal life and even find love with her neighbour Billy (Adeel Akhtar).  


The Cleaner

Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer 

A show about the daily life of a crime scene cleaner might not seem the most palatable of premises, but with Taskmaster legend Greg Davies writing and starring, you’re in safe, gloved hands. Quite literally, a bloody good time.



The Crown

Find seasons 1-4 in Apps & Games > Netflix

Exaggerated? Maybe. Over-dramatised? Perhaps. But this exploration of the life and times of HRH Queen Elizabeth II has been wowing us with its lavish costumes, staggering sets and inspired performances since 2016.


Line Of Duty

Find series 1-6 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

AC-12’s investigation of DCI Jo Davidson (Kelly Macdonald) brings them ever closer to uncovering the sinister H – with some nail-biting armed stand-offs along the way. As Hastings (Adrian Dunbar) would say: Jesus, Mary and Joseph and the wee donkey, it was tense!



Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Police detective Amy Silva (Suranne Jones) is sent to investigate a death on a nuclear submarine and gets caught up in a web of deceit, drugs, conspiracies and geopolitical hostility, all while trying to recover from trauma of her own, in Tom Edge’s smartly plotted, occasionally unbearably tense, six-parter.



Find series 4 in Apps & Games > ITV Hub

DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and DI Sunny Khan (Sanjeev Bhaskar) are a detective duo unravelling the mysteries behind long-buried cold cases. This time the discovery of a headless body leads to some very dark places.  


It’s A Sin

Find it in Apps & Games > All 4

The first British TV drama to fully tackle the AIDS crisis, Russell T Davies’ It’s A Sin follows happy-go-lucky Ritchie (Olly Alexander), a budding young actor, as he navigates London life at the start of the AIDS epidemic.


Modern Love

Find it in Apps & Games > Amazon Prime Video

The second collection of John Carney’s drama anthology based on the New York Times column brought us more charmingly intimate tales of ardour, featuring Minnie Driver, Anna Paquin, Tobias Menzies, Sophie Okonedo and lots more stars.



Find series 2 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer. Find series 1 in Apps & Games > Netflix

Michael Sheen and David Tennant returned as possibly exaggerated versions of themselves in an even more self-referential second series of the lockdown comedy, bickering on Zoom over who will play them in the US adaption, along with guest stars including Cate Blanchett, Simon Pegg and Phoebe Waller-Bridge.


Too Close

Find it in Apps & Games > ITV Hub

Emily Watson and Denise Gough give truly powerhouse performances as a forensic psychiatrist and her patient, respectively. With a predominantly female cast and crew, the plot is similarly female-driven – it will take your breath away and break your heart.



Find seasons 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > Netflix

The first French-language show to make the Top 10 on Netflix in the US, Lupin, which follows a charming thief and conman’s mission to avenge his father, well and truly stole our hearts. 


The Serpent

Find it in App & Games > BBC iPlayer + Apps & Games > Netflix

Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay’s fact-based drama about an inscrutable killer, the acolytes caught up in his crimes and the the man obsessed with trying to thwart him, made for a wonderfully slow-burning, atmospheric tale.


Cobra Kai

Find seasons 1-3 in Apps & Games > Netflix

QUIET! If you haven’t yet seen this triple roundhouse-kicking continuation of the ultimate 80s teen martial arts flick, The Karate Kid, you’re in for an absolute treat. Original cast members, intense action and nostalgia hit after hit after hit. Ouch. And season 4 is coming on New Year’s Eve!



Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

When obnoxious posh girl Talitha (Céline Buckens) is charged with murder, will her gender and background count against her? A fascinating and beautifully plotted look at how justice works in society, anchored by the excellent Tracy Ifeachor as unflappable lawyer Cleo.


The North Water

Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Grizzled and gruff men in natty (and equally tatty) jumpers aboard a whaling ship circa 1859? Sign us up. Relentlessly bleak but never less than gripping, The North Water – buoyed by top turns from the likes of Colin Firth, Stephen Graham and Jack O’Connell had us hook, line and sinker.



Can’t Get You Out Of My Head

Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Famously immersive, head-scratching and illuminating, Adam Curtis’s documentaries are experiences to behold. You may have seen his 2016 effort, HyperNormalisation, but it’s CGYOOMH that took us deeper through the history of the modern world in Curtis’s idiosyncratic style.


A Perfect Planet

Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Soothing us right off the bat of 2021, this Earth science-oriented doc saw the one and only Sir David Attenborough revealing the natural phenomena that make our world the habitable – and at times deadly – place it is. Timely, fascinating; basically all the best adjectives apply.


Greta Thunberg: A Year To Change The World

Find it in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Despite her young age, Greta’s environmental activism has inspired millions around the world to take a stand on climate change. A Year To Change... sees her take a year-long sabbatical (from school!) to explore the latest science and challenge world leaders. Stirring stuff.


Liverpool Narcos

Find it in On Demand > Channels > Sky One

We all love a crime documentary that delves deeper than the norm. And Liverpool Narcos goes right to the beating heart of 1980s Merseyside, where mass unemployment and corruption at the city’s docks created the perfect storm for a drug crisis to take hold.



Find it in On Demand > Channels > Sky Documentaries

This three-parter on the AIDS era in Britain shows the devastating impact of the epidemic. Featuring vivid archive footage, it’s harrowing but essential viewing, and captures the uncertainty and fear felt by so many at the time.


Framing Britney Spears

Find it in On Demand > Channels > Sky Documentaries

The sensational story of the legendary pop singer’s fight to end her conservatorship had the nation gripped. Exploring themes of fame, exploitation, mental health and the media, it was one of the most talked-about documentaries of the year. Now the conservatorship has been quashed, there’s no better time to revisit it.



Squid Game

Find it in Apps & Games > Netflix

Breaking all kinds of Netflix records, this South Korean smash – in which debt-ridden contestants play children’s games for money, with a deadly catch – quickly became a global phenomenon. 


The Terror

Find series 1 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Royal Navy ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror vanished in the 1840s. This bleak and powerful drama, based on Dan Simmons’ 2007 novel, imagines the horrific fate that may have befell the crew.


The Witcher

Find series 2 in Apps & Games > Netflix from Friday 17 December. Series 1 available now

Henry Cavill in full fantasy garb swinging a great big sword around is something we never knew we wanted. OK, so it’s absolutely what we wanted. Based on the celebrated book and game series of the same name, this swords and sorcery epic had us swooning. 


Doctor Who

Find series 1-13 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

Needing no introduction (except its eternally epic opening theme), the thirteenth outing of everyone’s favourite Time Lord (Jodie Whittaker) had us biting our nails at the conveyor belt of baddies it churned out. Though it’s Whittaker’s last series as The Doctor, she’ll return for three specials in 2022!


The Wheel Of Time

Find it in Apps & Games > Amazon Prime Video

Based on Robert Jordan’s sprawling fantasy book series, this truly epic adaptation arrived in late 2021 to fill the Game Of Thrones-shaped hole in our hearts. With a huge ensemble cast and heaps of magical action, you’ll be pleased to know that a second series is already on the way!


The Handmaid’s Tale

Find series 1-4 in Apps & Games > All 4

Shocks abounded in this explosive fourth season as June (Elisabeth Moss) faced torture and loss before finally extricating herself from Gilead’s clutches – but realised justice wouldn’t be forthcoming, unless it was up to her.


Midnight Mass

Find it in Apps & Games > Netflix  

From modern horror maestro Mike Flanagan (The Haunting Of Hill House, Doctor Sleep), this miniseries set in an isolated community where low-key miracles begin to occur is seriously suspenseful and creepy, but it’s also a thoughtful meditation on death, grief, guilt and what faith means to different people. Hamish Linklater is outstanding as the charismatic priest with a disquieting secret.

Reality TV

The Great British Bake Off

Find series 1-5 in Apps & Games > All 4

Ready, set, BAKE. As comforting as a bed made of brioche, TGBBO continued to prove (geddit?) a slice of TV perfection this year. Plus, the inimitable Tom Allen continued to (literally) whisk up trouble with his withering putdowns in sister show An Extra Slice.


The Masked Dancer

Find it in Apps & Games > ITV Hub

Not since we binged all the Magic Mikes have we as a nation bellowed “TAKE. IT. OFF!” with such gusto. Following The Masked Singer, this guessing game/dancing hybrid saw a suite of celebs styling it out in all manner of madcap costumes.


RuPaul’s Drag Race UK

Find series 1-3 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

The promise of glitter, gowns and all-round gorgeousness every week kept us going on a weekly basis. The British queens stole our heart as they competed to snatch the crown. Now let the music play!


Strictly Come Dancing

Find series 18 & 19 in Apps & Games > BBC iPlayer

This year has brought one of those rare series where no one is awful, while some unlikely stars – the guy who won Bake Off nine years ago? – have proved hugely appealing. But there’s nothing to match the amazing performances of EastEnders’ Rose Ayling-Ellis, surely a shoo-in to win.


The Big Breakfast (2021)

Find it in Apps & Games > All 4

A reboot of the chaotic, quintessentially 1990s breakfast show that helped launch the careers of Chris Evans, Johnny Vaughan and Denise van Outen. And it’s co-hosted by Mo Gilligan? Yes please.


Friends: The Reunion

Find it in On Demand > Channels > Sky One

The return of the whole gang, Justin Bieber as a potato and... James Corden. Questionable moments aside, this reunion of reunions was packed with reminiscing, guest stars and more than a few tears.


Sexy Beasts

Find series 1 & 2 in Apps & Games > Netflix

The show that had us screaming “WHAT THE HECK IS THAT” mid-Netflix search, Sexy Beasts is a dating show like no other. Like ever. Wooers and wooees don some truly impressive prosthetics to explore whether beauty truly is skin deep.


Christmas has come early

This year we’re bringing Christmas early with gifts and giveaways, plus check out all your Christmas TV, movie and sport listings, and tips on what to watch and play!

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