From Succession to Squid Game, It’s a Sin and that reunion, our critic picks the dramas, comedies and documentaries that kept us glued to our screens over the past year
The small screen continues to astound. Indeed, 2021 will go down as another year when we relied on the best bingeworthy dramas, life-affirming documentaries and heartfelt comedies to take our mind off of real-world matters. Thankfully, there were more than a few gems in the mix, and as the year draws to a close, we’ve been thinking about some of the standout telly moments. In no particular order, here are the shows that kept us glued to our screens this year — and, in case you missed them, where you’ll find them now.
Succession (Now TV)
Is Succession the best show on the box? It is certainly up there. After a two-year wait, Jesse Armstrong’s scorching, satirical dramedy went full f***ing beast with a phenomenal third season in which television’s most despicable family fully turned on one another. Funny, cruel and tremendously wicked, with a magnificent central turn from Brian Cox, the series continues to play by its own rules, and a fourth season has the green light. We can’t wait.
Keelin Shanley: Far Away, Still Close (RTÉ Player)
A noble tribute to the broadcaster, who died of cancer in February last year, this beautiful documentary — co-directed by Judy Kelly and Shanley’s husband, Conor Ferguson — doubled up as both a respectful eulogy and a candid, lovingly assembled career retrospective. It also featured Shanley’s final interview, in which she bravely discussed what it was like living with a terminal illness. Essential viewing.
Inspired by American author Stephanie Land’s acclaimed memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, this quiet yet beguiling mini-series tells the story of a young mother desperate to escape an abusive relationship and to build a better life for her young daughter. A smart, sensitive and brilliantly plotted examination of life below the US poverty line, Maid also saw the terrific Margaret Qualley deliver a career-making lead performance. In a word? Unmissable.
Scenes from a Marriage (Now TV)
Never mind the silly gimmick at the start of each episode (you know, the bit where the actors prepare for their scenes with one another). What’s important is that Hagai Levi’s exquisite, contemporary cover of Ingmar Bergman’s seminal divorce drama hits us where it hurts. Jessica Chastain and Oscar Isaac take the reins as an ordinary couple falling apart at the seams.
Squid Game (Netflix)
Who would have thought that the biggest show of the year would be a barmy, blood-soaked satirical blend of Takeshi’s Castle and Battle Royale? Even Squid Game’s creator, Hwang Dong-hyuk, seems genuinely surprised by the South Korean show’s success, which depicts a deadly — and demented — survival game in which poor contestants risk their lives to win a life-changing sum of cash. It’s ridiculously entertaining and a second season is in early development.
It might have been nice had WandaVision — an inventive superhero show with a twist — been allowed to stay outside the lines for its entire run. Despite a dodgy finale, the series — which played fast and loose with familiar sitcom styles from the 1950s onwards — gave us something that the Marvel Cinematic Universe often lacks: originality. Plus, Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are wonderful together.
The Great British Bake Off (All 4)
Eleven years in and Bake Off shouldn’t still look and sound this fresh, funny and endearing, but here we are — still amazed, still watching, still praying for a Paul Hollywood handshake. One of the best things about this show is that the contestants are always — always — rooting for each other. You don’t see that anywhere else. Oh, and just for the record, Jurgen was robbed.
Sex Education (Netflix)
The most outrageous show on Netflix is also one of the loveliest. Three seasons in, and Sex Education has somehow managed to transcend its original concept (son of a famous sex therapist starts a teenage version at school) to become something else entirely: a smart, diverse and tender coming-of-age dramedy. Season four is on the way.
Mare of Easttown (Now TV)
Kate Winslet picked up an Emmy for her startling turn — the best of her career, we would argue — in this enthralling detective drama set in Philadelphia. Though it was originally conceived as a limited mini-series, there are rumours that a second season is in the works.
McCartney 3,2,1 (Disney+)
We probably shouldn’t still be learning new things about The Beatles in 2021. But that’s exactly what happens in this simple yet remarkable series. Basically, Paul McCartney sits in a room for a few hours and shoots the breeze with super-producer Rick Rubin. The lads talk song writing, recording, touring, friendships — the whole shebang. It is, essentially, like eavesdropping on a couple of old friends chatting about the greatest songs ever produced.
Mr Corman (Apple TV+)
Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s expansive — and expensive — character study may have divided audiences, but we were quite taken with this odd yet rewarding series about a Californian schoolteacher struggling with anxiety. True, it’s a bit of a downer, but it’s also one of the most relatable shows on telly, and Gordon-Levitt shines while multi-tasking as writer, producer, director and leading man.
The White Lotus (Now TV)
Our second favourite show about horrible rich white people (you can probably guess the first), The White Lotus made our heads spin. Not only did it provide the brilliant Jennifer Coolidge with a role she could sink her teeth into, but it also served up a murder mystery like no other. Think Fawlty Towers meets Death in Paradise, with a wee bit of Succession throw in.
Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Everyone needs a little Ted Lasso in their lives, and it’s not an exaggeration when we tell you that Jason Sudeikis’s magnificent, moustachioed angel remains one of television’s most beloved good guys. You know the story (American football coach accepts a job as manager of a struggling British soccer squad). Season two pushed things along nicely. Feelgood comedy at its most irresistible.
This Way Up (All 4)
Can the folks at Channel 4 hurry up and give Aisling Bea’s note-perfect dramedy a third season? Her wonderful series — an expertly crafted tale of a young Irish woman struggling to keep it together in London — tackled bigger themes and weightier issues in its swift second run. Still, it managed to keep its head above water thanks to a wonderful cast (Bea continues to shine opposite her on-screen sister, Sharon Horgan). More please.
Friends: The Reunion (Now TV)
Save for the presence of the ubiquitous James Corden, Friends: The Reunion was about as perfect — and as wholesome — a TV event as we could have hoped for. It also let us in on something we hadn’t seen before, shining a light on the real-life friendships behind the scenes, and giving audiences a personal and at times emotional testimonial about what it was like to be part of a proper pop culture phenomenon. Joyous stuff.
Wellington Paranormal (Now TV)
An awesome spin-off of Jemaine Clement and Taika Waititi’s What We Do in the Shadows, this cult New Zealand comedy deserves a bigger audience. Basically, it’s a mockumentary about two Kiwi police officers who discover that their city is overrun with spooky activity and that their station has its own Paranormal Unit. Get on it.
Line of Duty (BBC iPlayer)
Did you correctly identify the ‘Fourth Man’? Because we certainly didn’t. Aside from keeping us guessing right until the end, season six of Jed Mercurio’s acclaimed police procedural showed us that traditional, terrestrial telly habits (one episode a week, same time, same night) are alive and well. Kelly Macdonald proved a fine choice for the lead.
I Am Victoria (All 4)
Dominic Savage’s I Am… a female-led anthology series, exploring themes of relationships, mental health and empowerment, returned for a second run this year. The first and finest instalment starred Suranne Jones (who also co-developed the story) as a married mother-of-two whose restless mental state begins to affect her most personal relationships. We’d be surprised if she doesn’t win awards for her frighteningly intimate turn in this searing and honest drama.
Kin (RTÉ Player)
Peter McKenna and Ciaran Donnelly’s unusual crime drama didn’t always hit the back of the net. But Kin — a slow-burning, novelistic portrayal of a Dublin crime family and their gangland war with a greater, more powerful enterprise — just about had enough twists and turns to keep us invested. It was a proper Irish Telly Moment — and we have not had too many of those lately.