The best TV of 2021: the year in television

From It’s a Sin to Mare of Easttown to Squid Game, dramas that resonated with a widespread sense of anxiety, confinement and grief made a strong showing in this year’s poll. Then again, so did shows like Succession and The White Lotus that turned the spotlight on the sins of the rich

It's a Sin (2021)

It seems fitting that, in another year dominated by the pandemic, many of the programmes in the TV poll hinge on grief and loss.

At the top of the list, Russell T. Davies’s opus on the gay community and the Aids crisis in the 1980s, It’s a Sin, hits triumphant highs with the joys of a group of young characters coming together, coming out and finding themselves, before tragedy after tragedy occurs, striking down friends, lovers and flatmates who are closer than family – all in the face of the scrutiny and paranoia which went with the misinformation and stigma that characterised the reaction to Aids in Britain during the period. Olly Alexander shines as central character Ritchie, but it’s Callum Scott Howells’ endearing Colin who is afforded the most heartbreaking journey, as he collapses and is detained in hospital under a Public Health Order.

Davies has spoken about how he drew on his own experiences of the period to write the series, as well as how the death of his husband from brain cancer is reflected in Colin’s death. He could not have known when writing the series that those experiences of grief and isolation would resonate so sharply with so many when the series was eventually aired in January 2021, a month in which the UK averaged over 1000 Covid deaths per day.

Released as a box-set on Channel 4’s on-demand platform All 4, It’s a Sin drove record streaming numbers for the service. A few months later the government announced plans to privatise the public service broadcaster, raising questions about its future.

The Underground Railroad (2021)

On Amazon Prime, Barry Jenkins’ impressive adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad drew adulation from critics, and it’s somewhat surprising that it missed out on the top spot of this poll. Thuso Mbedu plays Cora, an enslaved woman in antebellum Georgia who seeks her freedom through the Underground Railroad – historically, a network of houses and people, but here a magic realist railroad complete with train and stations. As Cora rides the train to new destinations, Jenkins works to make each episode and each location some new horrible world with its own framing, landscape and light. It’s a remarkable achievement, and while the series perhaps lacked a break-out moment where it captured the cultural conversation, it will undoubtedly have a long legacy, with audiences returning to appreciate the tone and craft of each episode.

Further down the list are three titles strongly connected by themes of guilt, death and confinement. Mare of Easttown, The North Water and Time all have powerhouse central performances, and both Time and The North Water feature Stephen Graham in supporting roles – in both cases, Graham is on dependably good form playing men in authority who are undone by corruption and the violent charges they were meant to control. Kate Winslet’s Mare Sheehan also grapples with corruption, and is haunted by the suicide of her son. Each of these series is brutal in its own way, with redemption remaining elusive for some of the protagonists.

WandaVision (2021)

One might have expected the Marvel series that appears in the poll to provide escapism and satisfying heroics but WandaVision, too, is (super)powered by grief, as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) alters reality in order to resurrect her partner Vision (Paul Bettany). With each episode modelled on a different era of TV sitcom, WandaVision is a stylish delight, playing with television history in disarming ways. The first live-action Marvel series on streamer Disney+, it was an unqualified success with both critics and audiences.

But there was only one show dominating the global streaming conversation this year: the all-conquering Squid Game. It fast became Netflix’s No 1 show in over 90 countries (though has since been overtaken by Hellbound – another Korean show), and briefly spawned a moral panic about children imitating games from the show. The series follows the debt-ridden Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) into a bizarre series of life-or-death children’s games in which (to begin with) hundreds of players compete for a single cash prize. As it emerges that the game exists as entertainment for a group of über-rich patrons, the theme of exploitation that marked Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite is writ large. Although Netflix had already experienced hits with non- English language series like Money Heist (from Spain) and Lupin (from France), Squid Game took the success of international original commissions to a new level; we can expect more high-profile foreignlanguage series from the streaming giants.

The evils of the super-rich also appear in the much-anticipated third series of Succession and in Mike White’s The White Lotus. Conceived and shot during the pandemic in 2020, The White Lotus focuses, over six episodes, on the class disparities between guests and staff at a luxury hotel – and the dangerous lengths to which some will go to avoid losing their status. Full of witty performances and verbal one-upmanship, it has a good deal in common with Succession. At the time of writing, only four episodes of the third series of Succession had been broadcast: I can only conclude that voters found the first few episodes so satisfying that they were sure it would make the best television of the year. In fairness, the Roy family easily match the goldenmasked villains of Squid Game for cruelty, wealth and power – and who could be sure that one of the Roys was not hiding behind those animal masks, watching players fight for their lives? You wouldn’t put it past Roman Roy (Kieran Culkin).

Nonfiction did not do well in this year’s poll. Compelling and powerful though they were, Steve McQueen’s Uprising and Adam Curtis’s Can’t Get You out of My Head received relatively few votes – though that isn’t a surprise: a bias in favour of episodic drama at the expense of everything else is often noticeable in TV polls. The fact that our list was specifically arranged around series also meant that no consideration was given to single programmes such as Channel 4’s care-home drama Help and Netflix’s lockdown comedy special Bo Burnham: Inside – both titles that, directly addressing the pandemic we are still living through, made for tough but essential viewing.

Squid Game 2021
Squid Game 2021Courtesy of Netflix

What I think the top ten series in the poll demonstrate most clearly is the mixed economy of current television production and consumption. In September, the then media minister John Whittingdale suggested that British public service broadcasters should be required to make ‘distinctively British’ programmes. As it happens, that is exactly what Channel 4 served up with It’s a Sin – which happened to be a co-production with HBO Max in the US. The notion that popular streaming series have to be generic to have mass appeal was deftly undermined by the success of Squid Game. Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series is designed around South Korean social hierarchies and deeply rooted in national culture. While the critique of capitalism that the series offers has contributed to its global success, the specificity of its milieu is what makes it great television.

Where national and international production are also mixing and matching is at the point of release and viewing. Audiences swap happily between on-demand programming and catch-up services from public service broadcasters. Series may be released as box-sets (It’s a Sin, The Underground Railroad, Squid Game) or as weekly episodes (WandaVision, Only Murders in the Building, Mare of Easttown); and, importantly, streamers and broadcasters can employ both strategies. Streaming companies have begun releasing episodes of some series weekly, rather than dropping every series as a complete set. It seems they have at last grasped one of the original pleasures of television – the tantalising wait for the next episode.

Sight and Sound: the Winter 2021-22 issue

We count down the 50 best films of 2021. How many have you seen? Also inside: the best TV, books and discs of the year; interviews with Paul Thomas Anderson, Guillermo del Toro, Joanna Hogg and Paolo Sorrentino

Find out more

Our 2021 polls