It has been another rollercoaster of a pandemic-hit year and yet the quality of programming on our screens is only increasing. As we sign off for Christmas, the TBI team reflects on our favourite shows of the past 12 months.
Top show: The White Lotus (HBO, Sky Atlantic)
Being transported to a luxurious, palm-fringed resort in Hawaii during lockdown probably helped this show garner my attention but it is the character portrayals and storyline that have made it stick in the memory. The premise is simple enough: spend a week at said resort with a group of entitled holidaymakers and explore how the staff looking after them feel. Throw in a death and there are all the recipes for a fairly mundane drama, yet The White Lotus is by no means a straightforward watch. Instead, it lures you in then jabs you with awkward questions about socioeconomic disparity, race and class that leave you with no straightforward answers. It is not perfect, as creator Mike White has admitted, but it is timely – indeed, the show was shot on location in the midst of the pandemic late last year. It is also funny, sad, depressing, engaging and eminently watchable.
Top show: The North Water (BBC)
Bleak, yes. Grim, certainly. Riveting, absolutely. This historical thriller, set in the mid-19th century, is often uncomfortable viewing, but I dare anyone to tear their eyes off the screen. The five-part series, which aired on BBC2 in the UK and Super Channel Fuse & Ici Radio-Canada Télé in Canada earlier this year, follows the crew of a whaling ship on an ill-fated voyage to the Arctic. While ship captain Stephen Graham is begrudgingly plotting an insurance scam involving the sinking of the vessel, drug-addicted former army surgeon Jack O’Connell comes aboard trying to escape from his past. However, it is Colin Farrell’s terrifying performance as a hulking harpooner that makes this must-see TV as all three men are set on a collision course sparked by a shocking murder far from land and any hope for true justice. Honourable mentions to Icelandic mystery-drama Katla and US-UK documentary The Lost Sons – both had me similarly on the edge of my seat.
Top show: Maid (Netflix)
This was such a compelling story, I couldn’t stop watching. The show is a roller-coaster of emotions and raises some important questions about emotional and physical abuse, and the concept of control within relationships. Following the story of young mother, Alex as she attempts to navigate life away from her volatile relationship and with her two-year old daughter in tow, it takes her on a journey of realisation, homelessness, depression, and desperation. But there are also a few laughs along the way as she cleans houses to make a living and meets some interesting and wonderful new characters. Based on a true story, it is one of Netflix’s best shows to date – a well-written and beautifully shot series, the show captivates the audience from the very beginning. You find yourself routing for her throughout and without giving too much away, in a sense break those generational curses. I give it a 10/10. My runner up is WandaVision by Disney+.
Top show: We Are Lady Parts (Channel 4)
It seems like only yesterday we were picking our favourite shows of 2020, and with another year spent more at home than not there were lots of fantastic shows to choose from for my own personal 2021 best of list. Honourable mentions go to my other two favourites of the year, Netflix’s Feel Good and BBC’s Starstruck, but the show I enjoyed the most was Channel 4 and Peacock comedy We Are Lady Parts. This half-hour comedy follows an all-female Muslim punk band, the eponymous Lady Parts, as they navigate life and expectations of a typical, traditional upbringing and the rebellious artistic aims for the band. Anjana Vasan is particularly superb as the recently recruited lead guitarist Amina who suffers from severe stage fright. Recently renewed by Channel 4, this classic but subversive and hilarious sitcom never takes the expected route, has bags of charms and I am sure will go from strength to strength in season two.
Top show: Schumacher (Netflix)
I love bios and this one was excellent, with added emotion provided by the interviews of his wife and children. Elsewhere, Squid Game was so different and visually very striking, while Call My Agent S4 was such a feel-good show, funny, sad, fast paced and with great cast. Maid was very emotional, and so was Unorthodox – Shira Haas is mesmerizing and I was left wanting more episodes.
Selling Sunset is a guilty pleasure… The women’s private quarrels are less interesting than their outfits and the LA properties they show us around. I loved all these shows for very different reasons given how diverse they are in genre. Listing them makes me realise they’re all Netflix shows [in the UK]… so I will add Succession to the list. I also spend a lot of time on BBC iPlayer and would watch shows on ITV and C4 players more often if it wasn’t for the ads. And ads bother me more when I watch something on demand rather than live. That reminds me that I did also enjoy The Great British Bake Off, one of the few shows I watched live.
Top show: Stath Lets Flats (Channel 4)
Like most of the nation, I’ve been gripped by a dynastic drama, now in its third season, centred on family feuds, business rivalry and corporate connivance. Populated with a host of compelling characters played by a fantastic ensemble cast, it may lack the exotic locations and luxury transport of another popular, business-based drama but Stath Lets Flats still manages to deliver snappy dialogue and plenty of dramatic intrigue. “It’s a lovely flat, there’s no willies.”
Top show: The Serpent (BBC, Netflix)
The series that has lingered in my mind the longest this year is probably BBC/Netflix coproduction The Serpent, a fictionalised version of the story of 70s ‘hippy trail’ serial killer Charles Sobhraj, unnervingly portrayed here by Tahar Rahim. While the series had its faults, what stood out was its recreation not only of the feel of the time and its various locations but an overall atmosphere of unease, with the step-by-step manipulation and exploitation of Sobhraj’s victims eliding into a killing spree that went undetected for years. While Rahim managed to convey to a considerable degree the charm of this narcissistic psychopath along with his shallow but somehow still unsettling sense of victimhood and self-justification for his crimes, Sobhraj remains something of an enigma. For the rest, the story certainly serves as a cautionary tale for open-to-all-experience gap-year travellers.