Top 20 scripted TV shows of 2021

 Top 20 scripted TV shows of 2021

My movie-watching might have been crap in 2021 but lord I was SWIMMING in amazing telly, and this list below represents my very favourite stuff. Another shitshow of a year in The World but WHAT a year for small-screen excellence!!!!

Honestly the rankings here are almost completely redundant, you could reshuffle them all completely and the ordering would still stand. I’m just a creature of habit, yaknow? And for a millennial gay, that habit means: listicles.

You can see my singles of the year here, albums of the year here, and films of the year here.

For what it’s worth, my previous telly year-end No1s:

2016: Brief Encounters [blog]
2017: Crazy Ex Gilrfriend [blog]
2018: Derry Girls [blog]
2019: Pose [blog]
2020: Never Have I Ever [blog]

Here we go…

20. The Chair (Netflix, August)

Sandra Oh was so, so good in this really loveable six-parter; about the first woman to be appointed chair of the English department at a kinda stuffy university. David Duchovny has a really fun guest turn as a heightened (I assume) version of himself, and Holland Taylor is also, as ever, a riot.

19. The Flight Attendant (NowTV, March)

The pulpy, quick-witted tone to this thriller was SO up my street; and if it really kicked itself up a gear in the second half of the season with a string of breathtaking cliffhangers and delicious twists. Kayley Cuoco is perfection as the chaotic Cassie, and I also loved Michelle Gomez in her sinister-ish supporting role.

18. Starstruck (BBC Three, April)

Rose Matafeo and Alice Snedden’s scripts are packed with big laughs and big heart here; and Matafeo makes an amazing lead. Starstruck puts a more modern, gender-flipped spin on Notting Hill and is a real sitcom highlight of 2021.

17. Vigil (BBC One, August)

I love a good plotty, twisty, blockbuster thriller; and Vigil filled that void perfectly in the autumn. With Suranne Jones trapped on a submarine trying to solve a murder whilst getting on everyone’s nerves, and Rose Leslie back on dry land trying to get to the bottom of all sorts of political clownery, there were plenty of gasp-y moments right up until the very end – including an extremely tense cat-and-mouse chase through gas-ridden corridors in the finale.

16. White Lotus (NowTV, August)

Come for the Jennifer Coolidge memes in their original context; stay for the biting social commentary. White Lotus keeps the tension rife from start to bitter end, via a carousel of deeply, deeply (deeply, deeply, deeply) flawed rich people making a glittering array of shit decisions. The best kind of uncomfortable.

15. Landscapers (NowTV, December)

Just when you think Olivia Colman has already hit a career high… OOP! There’s another. Landscapers’ theatricality is its ace; director Will Sharpe putting slightly surreal, fourth-wall-breaking spins on Ed Sinclair’s wonderfully wry script. The fact it has two actors at the very top of their game front-and-centre (Colman and David Thewlis) is just another string in its bow.

14. Feel Good (Netflix, June)

How do you follow a perfect first season? With a perfect second! Mae Martin’s sadcom is as sad and com-y as ever; a perfectly executed blend of big laughs (shout-out Jordan Stephens for a very good guest turn) and hefty emotional beats that leave you in a deep state of contemplation over your own existence and past traumas. Dreamy.

13. Unforgotten (ITV, February)

We won’t talk about THAT ending, no ma’am! But safe to say Unforgotten was – yet again!!!! – on brilliant form; bringing together a raft of potential suspects and watching them all squirm under the weight of the grave missteps they thought they’d managed to escape. I think I’m excited about a fifth season, but… if you’ve seen the ending, you’ll know why I’m also in a grump over it.

12. Schmigadoon! (AppleTV+, July)

I’m not a massive musical theatre buff – which is to say, I didn’t get every reference here – but I still had a fucking blast. A loving send-up of all singing, all dancing classics, it sees a bickering couple getting lost on a hike and finding themselves trapped inside a musical. There are so many great supporting turns, but Cecily Strong in particular is the perfect lead. I would very much welcome another season.

11. Never Have I Ever (Netflix, July)

My favourite show of 2020 returned for its glorious second year, and these characters continue to be a hell of a lot of fun to spend time with. Maitreyi Ramakrishnan hopefully has a huge A-list career ahead of her, and Poorna Jagannathan as mum Nalini can do no wrong. Kylie playing over the final scene of the final episode was just… ugh. Chef’s kiss.

10. Girls5eva (NowTV, December)

This only dropped in the UK mere days ago so I haven’t finished it yet, but it’s already an instant favourite. One-hit-wonder girlband reunites twenty years later? SOLD!! The gags in the script are relentlessly funny, and the cast are all magnificent. Renée Elise Goldsberry in particular has me howling with every line.

09. Maid (Netflix, October)

You’d expect a drama about domestic abuse to end with the sufferer leaving – but in this case, that’s literally the first scene. In Maid, we explore what happens next: the hoops you have to jump through and the obstacles you encounter when you’re in a society that does so little for survivors. Where do you go? How do you earn? How do you care for your child? How possible even is it to cut ties with the environment you’ve left behind? Margaret Qualley is phenomenal as Alex, and her real-life mother Andie MacDowell turns in a career-redefining performance that deserves a hell of a lot of awards. Casting Love Simon heartthrob Nick Robinson as abuser Sean was also a stroke of genius.

08. We Are Lady Parts (Channel 4, May)

I’d be quite happy for creator-writer-director Nida Manzoor to take charge of every TV comedy ever. We Are Lady Parts is an intensely funny show about an all-Muslim, all-female punk band trying to make it in London; tackling stage fright, cultural differences, friendship troubles and relationship woes on their attempted route to stardom. So funny, so heartfelt, so warm, and the music slaps.

07. Insecure (NowTV, October)

Insecure was a lockdown 1.0 discovery for me, and I literally finished its final season hours before writing this. As ever, the will-they-won’t-they stuff with Lawrence and Nathan was beautifully done, but it was the friendships that really made this show sing. The whole final episode is, essentially, a tribute to Molly and Issa’s bond; and I’m gonna miss those two – not to mention Kelli and Tiffany – with my whole heart.

06. Sex Education (Netflix, September)

Season three was, I reckon, the strongest season yet for those at Moordale – with the usual mix of heart’n’humour more potent than ever. In such a massive ensemble cast, so many players got their chance to shine without overwhelming the stories: Mimi Keene in particular had a very strong season as Ruby, and I thought Jemima Kirke made for a delicious antagonist. It’s just so colourful and fun and knows exactly how to make you laugh and how to leave you devastated, often within the space of one single scene. It just keeps getting better.

05. Mare of Easttown (NowTV, April)

There’s a moment at the end of Episode 5 when Mare of Easttown goes from “ooh, this is a good show” to “OH SHIT!!!! THIS SHOW!!!!!!!!” (no major spoilers but it involves Mare and Zabel going to visit a shady man in his house). The story is riveting, and only increases in intrigue as the series progresses; and Kate Winslet has genuinely rarely – if ever – been better. Shout-out also to Jean Smart, delivering my favourite supporting performance of the year as Mare’s mother.

04. Only Murders In The Building (Disney+, August)

If it weren’t for the hype, I would never have dug into this show, but I’m SO fucking happy I did. It’s a whodunnit but it’s also a three-handed buddy comedy; it’s a heightened murder mystery but also a genuinely affecting study of loneliness and friendship. I didn’t think a second season would be necessary story-wise, but the end of season one sets it up tantalisingly and I cannot WAIT. I would take a bullet for these three!!

03. Alma’s Not Normal (BBC Two, September)

To be honest, what first caught my attention re: this show was the fact that the narrator of The Circle wrote and stars in it. Sophie Willan is – as Alma herself would say – “fabulous” in this absolute hoot of a comedy: the writing is watertight, with genuine laugh-out-loud moments coming consistently in every episode. The more affecting moments towards the end of the season are perfection as well; always feeling well-earned and genuinely quite hard-hitting. I absolutely adored this programme and urge every fucker to watch it.

02. It’s A Sin (Channel 4, January)

I feel like we all went into this knowing full-well we’d be in emotional smithereens by the end, but what can’t be understated as well is how much joy there is in this show; how much of a sense of community and friendship courses through it. Not only does that make the inevitable tragedy all the more devastating, it also elevates It’s A Sin way, way higher than the sort of misery-porn you might expect from a mainstream so-called AIDS drama. Russell T Davies remains one of the best writers we have, and the cast – many of them previously unknown on an A-list scale – all give phenomenal performances.

01. WandaVision (Disney+, January)

The bad news for Marvel is that now all of their small-screen capers are going to be compared to this; the very first MCU series to be made by the studio. WandaVision has so much fun with the form; paying homage to different generations of TV sitcoms whilst slowly but surely peeling back the mystery of why the hell we’re watching Wanda and the isn’t-he-supposed-to-be-dead Vision in, for example, a black-and-white 1950s-style comedy. For the first half of the season it leaves you scratching your head for just the right amount of time before hitting you with another surprise reveal or clue or bombshell; and it all culminates in the latter episodes with a genuinely exciting climax and an ending that feels spot-on. Kathryn Hahn is nothing short of iconic as neighbour Agnes (if you haven’t seen the show yet, keep an ear out for her incredible song); but WandaVision is about grief more than anything else, and Elizabeth Olsen hits every damn beat. Magic.

Shaun Kitchener

Scriptwriter for the theatre and TV (currently Hollyoaks) and freelance entertainment ~reportage.