Nick’s Top Ten TV 2021

30th December 2021

Ladies and gentlemen, ten years of top ten TV lists. Ten sets of ten. The big ten tens.

Weirdly, it feels both a long time and… almost not long enough. My relationship with time truly is fraying as I move through both this pandemic and my late thirties.

Those previous nine years? Here they are:

Anyway, this has been a weird year in me watching television. I’ve somewhat failed to stay on top of big Premium Telly shows in the same way I might’ve done in previous years, perhaps in part because there’s so many of them now, plus a few haven’t put a season out due to the pandemic. (Although yes, not seeing Succession season 3 is entirely on me.)

So there’s a few more genre shows (which means, yes, more comic adaptations), plus plenty of older shows and comfort viewing for the Honourable Mentions, such as the Sorkin seasons of West Wing.

Nonetheless, I’ve seen enough to put together a top ten, and oh, I have…

#10 – Doctor Who

Doctor Who used to be a fixture round these parts, but last seen in 2017 because the current Jodie Whittaker era hasn’t done a huge amount for me. Which is no slight on Whittaker, she’s just not had amazing scripts to work from, and it’s a shame.

But it’s back, sneaking in at #10 with the new series 13 (or Flux if you prefer), a story which finally managed to capture the feeling I associate with good Who episodes – big silly romps, with a fringe of serious melodrama but mostly just garbled fun. An entertaining format experiment splitting one six-part story across the series, it also features one of the best Weeping Angel stories since they first appeared and a range of entertaining bit part characters.

Yes, they still mentioned the not-that-interesting Division subplot, but can’t have everything. I enjoyed this a decent bit, helped by the fact even they seemed to get bored of the Division stuff in the final episode.

Stats Corner – The trajectory of Doctor Who on this chart is… deep breath everyone… #6, #8, #7, #4, skipped a year in #2016 and then back for one last appearance in 2017 at #10. So if you ignore the three missing years, this is a non-mover.

#9 – Sex Education

Watched the first two seasons of Sex Education last year and it entertained me but didn’t quite make the charts – however, in a TV landscape slightly starved of old favourites, they put out their third season and it hit the spot. Yes, the teenage will-they-won’t-theys are going through an inevitable stage of dating other love interests who probably won’t go the distance, but still, it’s fun, it’s endearing and earnest, the way it pulls off its bawdy antics while still promoting a surprisingly thoughtful, adult approach to relationships is impressive.

And many of the relationships entered interesting new phases this season, so I’m glad to see it back, and extremely happy that Netflix, who famously start sharpening their cancellation axe around the second or third year, have deigned to give this good series a fourth outing in the future.

Stats Corner – One of only two Netflix shows on this list.

#8 – Legends of Tomorrow

Is this on many other people’s Best TV Show charts? I don’t know, but it’s (50%) my website and I’ll talk about the Legends if I want to.

Anyway, after shamefully not getting round to it last year, I watched two seasons of Legends of Tomorrow in 2021 (seasons 5 and 6), and because they’re absolutely steaming ahead on The CW, the seventh one already started airing in the US. But not yet here, so I’m covered there.

I used to follow the whole Flarrowverse of superhero shows from that channel once upon a time, but due to a combination of boredom with the formula and various shows finishing, I’ve whittled them down to one now, like a more successful Lex Luthor. Might give that Superman show a try, not decided yet. But for now, it’s just me and the Legends, and although their lovable losers/genre parody approach might not be quite as fresh as it was in season 3, it’s a warm, smart, knowing series that manages a good knife-edge of taking its business seriously and undercutting it, often in the same scene. The most recent season brought us a bunch of alien business, including a huge retcon about one major character which made me laugh no end, plus a big climactic storyline for Matt Ryan’s always-fun TV version of John Constantine. Good times.

Stats Corner – Last seen at #6 in 2018. In 2016, I heartlessly listed the rest of the Flash/Arrow/Supergirl franchise yet specifically not Legends, but they’ve really turned the tables on me since. (In my defence, that first season of Legends was very bad.) And as hinted earlier, this is the first of a few comics adaptations on this chart, after a couple of years where we didn’t list that many. Speaking of which…

#7 – Invincible

Amazon’s animated adaptation of Invincible, the Image comic by Robert Kirkman, Corey Walker and Ryan Ottley, surprised the hell out of me this year by being absolutely killer. A thrilling weekly combination of drama, twists, suspense and a frankly ludicrous amount of freshly splattered gore, I followed this diligently every single week and on sheer action/drama terms, it might’ve been some of the most fun I had all year.

I believe I compared this to Game of Thrones when we covered it on the podcast, and that’s probably a big reach, but also – is it? The size of the cast, the scale of the drama and the huge glaring betrayals – yes, I was shooting for the moon with that piece of criticism, but I kinda stand by it.

Anyway, it’s a great show and if you enjoy a high-stakes superhero adaptation but haven’t got to this one because it’s a cartoon, I strongly recommend.

Stats Corner – Second animated show on these charts after Rick & Morty appeared in 2017, but not the last one on this list. Hmm, what could it be?

#6 – Hawkeye

Yup, more comics stuff. And I’ll be honest, it’s a hair-split between Hawkeye and Invincible, I swapped their place in the list around several times, then ended up putting Hawkeye ahead because it wrenched a few more tears out of me during some of the big emotional moments and, as ever, make me cry, get a better review.

(Hawkeye isn’t that heartbreaking, I’m just easy.)

Anyway, this is the Disney+ show following Avengers bow-man Clint Barton and his next-generation sidekick/replacement Kate Bishop. Marvel spattered the TV landscape with a few efforts this year, and not all of them were great, but this one made the wise move of keeping its focus tight, picking a clear tone and sticking to it. So it’s a comedy-drama holiday action movie type romp with the elder Hawkeye as a beleaguered dad trying to get home for Christmas, but instead dragged deeper into a huge criminal conspiracy by the younger one.

I’m not sure the plot holds together if you diagramise it, the scale of said conspiracy is a bit silly, but to me, the whole “Oh god, what now?” continuously escalating vibe is part of the joke. And, as Marvel often do, they focused so hard on selling the characters and making us enjoy their company that I’m willing to forgive sloppiness elsewhere. Plus the final huge action sequence is properly good, for once. Legit festive fun. Watch it before it seems unseasonal.

Stats Corner – First Marvel adaptation on this list since Daredevil in 2018. (And, yes, also features a returning character from that very show.) But not the last one, and you might be able to guess where that’s going.

#5 – Arcane

We’re into the endgame now (e.g. the part of the chart I’ll read out on the podcast) and it’s our second animation – video game spin-off fantasy steampunk saga Arcane. In a similar vein to what I said about Invincible, this does a great job of establishing a whole world and making the drama spring believably out of the various class and character conflicts within it.

The animation on this show is also amazing – like genuinely gorgeous stuff, we’re into post-Spider-Verse territory here, a style that brings heavy realism, but still is willing to break it down into psychedelic effects when needed. Occasionally a few of the characters (especially outside the core three or four) seem a bit thin, but in their defence, there are absolutely loads of them and there’s still time to expand them in future seasons.

For now, yes, this was one of the year’s big wide TV hits and I can entirely see why. Good show, recommended.

Stats Corner – First video game adaptation on the list, by the look of things. I thought Castlevania might’ve snuck in at some stage, but apparently not.

#4 – Wandavision

Okay, one more, then we’re done with the comic adaptations.

Wandavision is another of Marvel’s Disney+ shows, a strange high-concept story about Wanda Maximoff trapping herself and the Vision in a series of sitcom pastiches as part of her breakdown. And yes, it was genuinely great a lot of the time. One of the few times in recent years when it felt like we really were all united around a single show, rushing to watch it together each week before the spoilers went online.

As the chart position suggests, easily the best and most interesting of these Marvel shows. Still, the finale was a bit of a letdown, I thought – like, if the last episode were as good as the rest, this would probably be even higher. But, whether it was bad creative decisions or covid restrictions, the finale kinda restricted to a safe Marvel space of vague flailing combat, after winning us over by moving a bit beyond that in previous weeks. Ah well.

Stats Corner – Not the highest ranking Marvel adaptation, that was Legion (#2 in 2017). If you really wanna split hairs, it’s the highest ranking thing made by Marvel ‘themselves’ (rather than Fox), competing only with Daredevil which reached #7 in 2015. Incidentally, UK readers, all of Legion is now on Disney+, so if you haven’t seen it, get involved.

 #3 – Kevin Can F**k Himself

As I said at the top, I didn’t watch much properly bleak premium telly this year, I guess as part of my plan to remain vaguely cheerful, but I did sneak in Kevin Can F**k Himself, the meta-sitcom-drama starring Aimee Murphy (of Schitt’s Creek fame) as Allison, a downtrodden sitcom wife who snaps and plans a bleak revenge.

I went into this thinking the gimmick sounded interesting but would surely get old, but to my surprise, they made it work, mostly with some sharp character writing during the non-sitcom sequences, plus a… surprising appetite for grimness. Seriously, I know I said I didn’t watch much depressing TV in 2021, but this show definitely drains that well. It’s impressive how far they sometimes go to make their characters sadder.

And the sitcom sections, even if they’re wisely used more sparingly in the latter half, surprised me by being… kinda funny? There are some good jokes in there, even if you feel bad for laughing because the characters in that part of the series are so demonstrably awful. Not sure it’s made a huge splash, but this really worked for me and I’m intrigued to see where they go with it next year. They’ve also announced the second season will be the last, which actually makes me all the more excited for it – nice to see a correct realisation about the limitations of a concept rather than stretching it to death.

Stats Corner – Not sure what I’ve got here. Most depressing show on this chart since we last saw Orange Is The New Black? Although we did have The Boys last year, which was pretty grim too.

#2 – We Are Lady Parts

As I’ve remarked in past years, I have a habit of filling these lists up with American shows, broken up only by Doctor Who. But it’s a bit of a UK moment at the top this year, starting with We Are Lady Parts, a new comedy-drama from Channel 4 about four Muslim women who start a punk band and just want to get a gig, but have to deal with the annoying reactions of both their own families and the wider world.

And yeah, this was great. It’s all up now, only six episodes (and I think it’s also on Hulu in the US) and features well-defined characters, reliably good jokes and a pleasant earnestness that worked for me, as well as some silly-fun musical moments. And yeah, see previous remark about making me cry – the emotion in this show is well-deployed and goes straight for the gut when they use it.

Amazing series, and I hear (from Google just now) that they’re making some more. Which is exciting, although for the record, this first run is perfectly formed and has an ending which work would just fine even if they never filmed another second. Check it out.

Stats Corner – Last British sitcom on this list was Fleabag at #8 in 2019, and the next one is…

#1 – Ghosts

As often happens, I watched all of Ghosts in 2021, both previous seasons and straight into the new one, which immerses me in the world and makes me all the more inclined to stick it at #1 in my annual TV chart. And here it is.

This is a series about a young couple who inherit a large house from a previously-unknown dead relative, so move in, intending to do it up and rent it out as a hotel. Unfortunately, said house is haunted by the spectres of many who died there throughout history, and thanks to a random blow to the head, one of the two newcomers can now see them. Wackiness ensues.

This is a masterful bit of comedy writing, with a huge cast (seriously, there’s about 10-12 main characters) who all somehow contribute to every episode, along with great lines, funny set-ups, a gleeful sense of grisly absurdity and, yes, a willingness to hit the emotions sometimes. Although this is more sitcom than comedy-drama, it doesn’t reach for the sad moment that often. Yes, despite being about death.

It’s got a big broad heart, a lot of great performances, a really high rate of good silly gags and some great twists in a few episodes. I gather there’s also now an American adaptation starring Rose McIver (of iZombie fame) and I may watch that one day, but for the record, the original is excellent, as was last week’s Christmas special, and I’m looking forward to the recently-commissioned next run. Bravo. Deserving victory to Ghosts.

Stats Corner – Just let me die.

Honourable Mentions

Yes, if I’d watched Succession season 3 in time, there’s a decent chance it’d be up there in the top three. Just imagine that one.

I’ve also just started Dexter: New Blood, and although I’m not sure Dex was challenging for the top spot, it’s surprised me so far with the good balance of pulpy fun they’ve achieved.

Also, one of the last items to be trimmed from the master top ten was What If…?, yet another Marvel show animating some alternative versions of their various films. Some of the episodes were a bit humdrum, but the ones that worked really worked.

Oh, the last season of Lucifer wasn’t bad either, though with a certain sense of ‘are we still going?’ self-indulgency.

Otherwise, watched the whole of Community, the first half of Veep, the first two seasons of The Americans, those Sorkin West Wing seasons and had a very good time with them all. Even if they did nothing for this top ten.

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