In the opening minutes of this four-part drama about Hillsborough, Anne Williams (Maxine Peake) waves off her excited teenage son and his friend to go and watch Liverpool play. Knowing how the day ends requires you to brace for the downpour of devastation and injustice ahead. Peake gives a trembling performance as a grieving mother who spent 23 years campaigning for the truth about her son’s death and the other 96 victims. More than just an excellently executed miniseries, it is a call to never back down in the fight for justice.
What we said: “Peake, an apparently pale, frail presence with fire beneath her skin, is ideal casting. She does the hard yards first, showing us the times when Williams is confused and fallible and nearly beaten by sadness. But by the end of episode one she’s ready to unleash the righteous strength of a working-class woman who has been wronged.” Read the full review
If 2019 was the year of Phoebe Waller-Bridge and 2020 belonged to Michaela Coel, Jack Rooke is TV’s most exciting voice of 2022. This autobiographical six-parter follows Jack (Derry Girls’ Dylan Llewellyn) who reluctantly starts university while grieving his father and struggling to be openly gay. Jack befriends Danny (Jon Pointing) – a heterosexual lad who just wants to pull “fit birds” but is frustrated by mental health problems. What ensues is a perfectly written and performed ode to gay-straight male friendship. One minute you’re howling with laughter (“The Harvester in Watford seemed like a safe space to come out”) and the next you’re in tears (when Danny’s beloved gran doesn’t remember who he is). Superb.
What we said: “The growing friendship between the two young men, in a genre and world when such things are seldom showcased or made part of the cultural narrative, is genuinely uplifting. ‘Beers?’ says Danny, pleased, as his roommate comes in carrying cans. ‘No, ravioli,’ says Jack.” Read the full review
Despite its 15-minute episodes, this romantic comedy zipped irresistibly along as it told the story of Zack and Fola, who meet in an Iceland hotel, cheat on their partners, then discover that they live on the same London road. One of the year’s most dangerously bingeable shows.
What we said: “Cheaters’ small but key moments are all the work of Joshua McGuire and Susan Wokoma, who are both excellent: McGuire is slightly stereotypical but funny as an overthinking nerd who struggles to keep any emotion hidden or under control; Wokoma is even better, with more to play with as a woman whose outward assertiveness masks her vulnerability.” Read the full review
Each new season of Lisa McGee’s comedy has been as strong as the last – there isn’t a weak link in its 90s gold chain. Still, something feels right about this being the final run, following the girls (and the wee English fella) during their last school year and the run-up to the Good Friday agreement referendum. Reliably, there were endless laugh-out-loud one-liners as the gang – and the parents, whose flashback episodes were great – got themselves into trouble. But it’s so much more than a lively comedy. After watching the final episode, which saw the teens go to vote and envisage a future after the Troubles, many viewers said it was the best history lesson they’d received on that time. Orla (who surely grows up to be a politician) would be proud.
What we said: “It took a while for Derry Girls to establish itself as that rare thing, a modern comedy classic, but now it feels like it has always been there. There’s a strong sense that though it will be missed, it hasn’t outstayed its welcome. Instead, it has been absolutely cracker.” Read the full review
Sally Wainwright’s period drama came back even bolder in this exquisitely scripted second series. Suranne Jones’ portrayal of real-life Yorkshire figure – and supposedly Britain’s “first modern lesbian” – Anne Lister turned the dial up to 11, putting in a performance packed with charisma and humour. This time round, we even got a documentary dedicated to the many lives this show has changed. Based on this glorious outing, you can see why.
What we said: “Behind the familiar frilly bonnets and linen drawers, Gentleman Jack is disrupting the conventions of one of our most fiercely loved dramatic forms, at a time when we most need them disrupted. It is a masterpiece.” Read the full review
Amazon Prime Video
Not for nothing did this spiky comedy win three Emmys last year. The dynamic between outdated comic Deborah (Jean Smart) and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), the loudmouthed writer she’s paired with by their mutual agent, was a thing of impeccably plotted beauty. They might have started off eviscerating each other in brutal battles of wit worthy of an amphitheatre, but that eventually made way for surprisingly touching moments of intimacy – and they did it in six watertight episodes.
What we said: “There are plenty of laughs along the way, but it’s the unforced emotional truths that make Hacks a right and proper vehicle for Smart. She has long been the go-to for any casting director looking for a tough broad, and now she gets to play all the notes that sang underneath.” Read the full review
This impossibly sweet adaptation of Alice Oseman’s web comic for young adults brought something that had long been missing from British TV: an optimism-filled gay romance set in a UK school. The rapturous reception that greeted Netflix’s announcement that it was being renewed for two more seasons tells you everything you need to know about what a big, lovely televisual hug it is.
What we said: “There is something altogether soothing about the time spent in its company.” Read the full review
Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy
How did Kanye West go from being lauded as a trailblazing MC/producer to being denounced as a Trump-supporting egomaniac? This exhaustive three-part documentary answered the question with aplomb. The documentarians who’ve followed the Chicago rapper for decades took us back to his overlooked early days when he had to use braggadocio to be taken seriously, while showcasing the grounding influence of his mother until her tragic death. The complexity of West’s personality is well-known, but it’s never before been displayed so sensitively or thought-provokingly.
What we said: “The Kanye West that Jeen-Yuhs depicts via hours of video shot in the early 00s seems noticeably different to the popular image of Kanye West today. He is certainly self-assured, but he’s extremely charming and funny with it. It would take quite an effort on the part of the viewer not to warm to him, and a frankly superhuman effort not to love his late mother Donda.” Read the full review
Jimmy Savile: A British Horror Story
It’s fair to say that a journey back into the horrific story of Jimmy Savile’s crimes was not something most viewers were clamouring for. But the forensically detailed approach taken by this documentary turned it into must-watch TV. From the mind-boggling talk of his relationships with Prince Charles and Margaret Thatcher to the moving account of one of his victims, it’s a staggering portrait of evil in plain sight.
What we said: “The nearly three-hour running time is a measured, relentless march of contemporary footage, present-day interviews with people who worked with or knew him, the investigative journalists who eventually unearthed the evidence behind the rumours – the years and years of rumours – and one of his victims, from the years and years of victims.” Read the full review
Sarah Lancashire is the very embodiment of Julia Child, the tenacious and hilarious cookbook author who revolutionised television – and the diets of ordinary Americans – with her nascent cookery show, The French Chef (which also showcased her love of a coq pun). We watch her programme transform lives and bring pleasure to so many, even as the network and feminists like Betty Friedan will her to fail. Never has such fun been had while watching an omelette being made. Bon appetit!
What we said: “Julia is about a successful woman’s rise to even more success, against the odds. This is a Mrs Maisel-esque world, in which men tell Child what she can’t do, and she goes ahead and works out a way to do it anyway.” Read the full review
My Brilliant Friend
This adaptation of Elena Ferrante’s novels has long been one of TV’s most underrated shows. Its third season was no exception: gorgeously shot, beautifully styled and nigh-on cinematic. What a majestic tale of family, loyalty and friendship.
What we said: “This is television at its best and it weaves a spell unlike anything I have seen in a very long time. It demands concentration but rewards it generously.” Read the full review
A singular, jaw-dropping documentary which depicted the leader of Russia’s opposition with such energy and drive that it’s almost a shock when the narrative catches up with the sad reality that befell him. In the meantime, we saw him team up with investigative journalists, get the numbers of the people who tried to kill him and – one by one – call them up to ask why they did it.
What we said: “Navalny’s 2020 near-death experience occasioned by Russia’s signature nerve agent novichok is the heart of this film. While recovering in Germany, he joins forces with Bellingcat investigative journalist Christo Grozev (“a nice Bulgarian nerd with a laptop”) in an attempt to dig out the facts about his poisoning. What ensues is remarkable – the point at which Navalny enters the realms of the entertaining but far-fetched espionage thriller.” Read the full review
For three increasingly dark seasons, this drug-trade drama has put nary a foot wrong – and it wasn’t about to slip up on its final outing. As Marty and Wendy Bird desperately looked for a way out of their lives of crime, Jason Bateman and Laura Linney gave it both barrels as perhaps the most casually duplicitous TV couple to ever grace our screens.
What we said: “Linney’s performance as Wendy is all the more chilling because her face says apple pie, but everything she does curdles into evil. Meanwhile, Bateman’s Marty is a study in how far a pragmatic accountant can go into the depths of wickedness without the strain showing on his face.” Read the full review
This sweeping adaptation of Min Jin Lee’s novel certainly wasn’t made for bingeing; each beautifully crafted episode gives the satisfaction of a well-spent cinema trip. Bursting with drama across mixed timelines, it follows the likable and strong-willed Sunja – who flees occupied Korea in 1915 after being wronged by a man she thought loved her – and the generations of family that come after her. As well as delivering multiple romance plots, it boldly explores blurred lines around identity and culture, what it means to be successful and the losses we navigate in life. It’s something really special. Plus, it surely wins an award for the best opening title sequence of the year?
What we said: “It’s a vast, sumptuous, dynastic political TV series of the kind scarcely made any more, complete with swooning strings from Nico Muhly’s score. It reminds me of the historical television dramas I grew up with – Roots, Tenko, The Forsyte Saga.” Read the full review
It takes more than being beaten by a fascist to rob Tommy Shelby of his swagger, judging by this confident final season of Steven Knight’s epic Brummie gangster drama. It opened with a feature-length episode packed with bar brawls, funeral pyres and double-crossings, with the season’s pace skyrocketing for a final couple of episodes that saw Tommy rampage through every loose end he needed to tie up before heading to his final resting place: the world of movies.
What we said: “Our Zelig-like hero has always enjoyed having his fingers in too many pies. Indeed, after failing to kill himself at the end of series five, the clothes horse from nowhere is back where we want him to be: in all kinds of trouble.” Read the full review
Minutes into the first episode of the second outing for Natasha Lyonne’s time-hopping drama, all scepticism as to how they’d follow up the neat climax of season one was gone. Swaggering down the streets, quipping and smoking her way through a century’s worth of drama in seven episodes, Nadia was back to prove she had more charisma than it was possible to contain in one mere season of TV. Its plot was a study in generational trauma and the impossibility of outrunning your destiny, but this season was all about Lyonne’s mesmerising performance.
What we said: “As the story progresses, it gets smarter and weirder, and the surreal twists once again land in an unsentimental yet beautiful place. It dares to ask big questions about trauma, grief and fate. If that doesn’t sound amusing, well, it still manages to be.” Read the full review
There was never any doubting the brilliance of this surreal drama’s premise. But its watchability extended way beyond a plot based around office drones who agree to have their minds “severed” so their work and out-of-office selves have no awareness of the other’s activities. Adam Scott’s turn as team leader Mark was almost touching, flickers of sadness playing around the edges of his smiles, as he bonded with his team and decided to take on the system. Add in Ben Stiller’s disorienting direction and at least two episodes with heart-in-the-mouth climaxes, and it’s easily one of the most impressively distinctive shows to emerge this year.
What we said: “It doesn’t just pose but considers, unhurriedly and intelligently, profound questions about what makes a self, the existence of free will, the appearance of choice and much, much else. If it weren’t so often so deeply funny at the same time, it would soon plunge you into a smooth-sided pit of existential despair from which you would never emerge.” Read the full review
Woman moves back to home town after family trauma, where she works tedious admin job: not exactly the setup to a must-see sitcom. Yet such was the heart and warmth of this show that it built it into one of the feelgood TV experiences of the year, from the tomfoolery between Sam (a wonderfully versatile Bridget Everett) and her new bestie Joel, to Sam’s incremental steps towards finding herself within a community, and the moments of self-discovery that go along with it.
What we said: “Not much happens in Somebody Somewhere, but don’t let that deceive you. This comedy is a stealthy new arrival that doesn’t shout about its charms, but rather lets them unfurl steadily, with surprising beauty.” Read the full review
The first season of Rose Matafeo’s romcom ended with one of the top TV moments of 2021: after months of will they/won’t they? between a movie star and a cinema worker, the two are smiling besottedly at each other on a bus. The follow-up picks up exactly from there, and what ensues is an even funnier, more confident run of six episodes tracking their new relationship. It’s not groundbreaking television, but that’s the point – it knowingly leans in to saccharine romcom tropes that we reliably seek comfort in. Who wouldn’t want their ex to leap out of a pedalo and wade through a pond to declare their love to them?
What we said: “There are few series that can sustain being watched in one sitting, but Starstruck is one of them, and I would argue that this lovely, warm, witty series even benefits from a binge-watch. Each episode may be short and sweet, but the cumulative effect is magical.” Read the full review
Some may have worried that a show set at the chaotic onset of a pandemic would be too close to the bone. But Station Eleven quickly proved to be stunning, uplifting television that mused on what makes life worth ploughing on with, as the Travelling Symphony theatre troupe offered art to the post-apocalypse masses. The most poetic show of the year bar none.
What we said: “How deeply strange it is, how deeply unsettling, to be able to compare and contrast a fictional pandemic with the real thing. I read Emily St John Mandel’s bestselling Station Eleven shortly after it came out in 2014, when the tale of a mysterious flu sweeping the globe and laying waste to normal life lay wholly beyond the bounds of reality. Now the television adaptation by Patrick Somerville (known for Maniac and The Leftovers) is here and … resonating.” Read the full review
After two middling seasons, the Duffer Brothers’ sci-fi drama came back with possibly its best episodes ever. Now so dark that it bordered on being a horror, its creepy action played out in feature-length extravaganzas. When it wasn’t showcasing Kate Bush to a new generation of fans, its occasionally tearjerking plot was serving as a paean to how friendship and community can lift people past trauma – without losing the goofball humour that has made it such a beloved franchise.
What we said: “Stranger Things now has a supersized dramatic purpose, on the assumption that the 12-year-old viewers who were wowed by season one are now 18 and ready for darker meat. What was once a spooky but essentially cute thriller, in hock to Steven Spielberg, has taken on elements of full-blown horror inspired by The Exorcist and A Nightmare on Elm Street.” Read the full review
Martin Freeman took us on an incredibly stressful and visceral ride as police officer Chris Carson, the Liverpudlian first responder on the brink of a breakdown – even before he gets in too deep with the local drug dealer. What a harrowing performance he put in, and what a masterful script by former night-shift cop Tony Schumacher. Its raw realism shows in every character, from the “bagheads” to those on the beat. Blistering stuff.
What we said: “The Responder is as fast and riveting as a thriller and as harrowing as a documentary. It says profound things about the toll frontline jobs can take on our compassion and our morals … If you are looking for a state-of-the-nation piece, it is here.” Read the full review
Then Barbara Met Alan
Exploding with attitude from start to end, this dynamite 70-minute drama tells the story of real-life disability rights activist Barbara Lisicki (Ruth Madeley) and her partner Alan Holdsworth (Arthur Hughes). Cleverly mixed with archive footage to show the real impact of the story, it follows their campaign to get the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act passed. The final scene on a bus, in which the actors and their real-life counterparts get together for a jam, was one of the most joyous moments on screen so far this year.
What we said: “At a time when protest, solidarity and collective action are needed more than ever and under unprecedented threat, the lessons about effective activism feel universal.” Read the full review
This is Going to Hurt
The pandemic might have delayed this adaptation of Adam Kay’s account of life on an NHS gynaecology ward but it certainly didn’t make the world less receptive to the grim picture it painted of overwork and underfunding. A darkly comic drama whose world-weary acerbic air didn’t diminish its ability to deliver emotional gut-punches, it became one of the most-talked about shows of the year with good reason.
What we said: “This is NHS life as it was lived under Gordon Brown and before the worst public health crisis in living memory. It invites us all to re-evaluate and understand just how much this must be hurting now.” Read the full review
From its humble Summerhouse roots on Channel 4 to a glossy Netflix do-over, Top Boy has come a long way since superfan Drake spearheaded a call for its return in 2019. The fourth season still delivered big on “Ps” and “food”, but Dushane (Ashley Walters) now wants to be “completely legit” as he plans a quiet future with girlfriend Shelley (Little Simz). But a gangster can never just make a clean break. The dynamics shift at every turn with Jamie (Micheal Ward) just out of prison, and Sully (Kano) somewhat unexpectedly living on a canal boat. Then there’s mouthy but loyal Jaq (Jasmine Jobson). Just when you think the order of things has been settled, a huge shock ending changes everything. Bring on season five.
What we said: “Part of Top Boy’s brilliance is that it could go either way. We see characters act with tender kindness in one moment, then ruthless brutality in the next, and none of their deeds – good or bad – cancels out the others. Dushane, Sully, Jamie, Jaq: they’re all ruthless, reprehensible bastards, who you desperately want the best for.” Read the review in full
This creepy thriller started with Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci and teen cannibals, and ended up being so much more. Was it a paranormal story of blood-hungry forest spirits? A modern-day Lord of the Flies? A whodunnit revenge thriller featuring drugs, murder and shady politicians who’d do anything to survive? Somehow, it was all of them, delivered in a way that ramped up to one of the year’s best cliffhanger finales.
What we said: “Think of it as a hybrid of The Craft and The Island with Bear Grylls, or Lost – with intentional jokes – plus a hint of Big Little Lies, if that had more of an interest in cannibalism than property porn.” Read the full review.
What are the best TV shows you’ve watched this year? Please share them in the comments below.