Sitting comfortably? Top TV treats to raise your spirits in 2021

It’s in with the old and the new, as broadcasters and streaming platforms serve up a slew of fresh dramas, favourite series, comedy hits and debuts

With no end to lockdown in sight, one thing is certain – we’re all going to be inside watching a lot of television at the beginning of the year.

At least, for now, there’s a wide variety of programming on offer, with terrestrial and digital channels providing everything from the experimental and daring to comfort TV.

The BBC kicked off the new year in style on Friday with Richard Warlow’s sinuous The Serpent, which follows the true story of serial murderer Charles Sobhraj (Tahar Rahim) and the man who became obsessed with tracking him down, Dutch embassy official Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle). An atmospheric slow-burner with a wonderful feel for its 1970s setting, it continues tonight and will air weekly on Sundays at 9pm.

Warlow’s drama is the opening shot in a strong spring slate for the BBC. Fans of Jed Mercurio’s juggernaut Line of Duty will be delighted that filming was completed before new restrictions kicked in and a suitably twisty series six, starring Kelly Macdonald as AC-12’s latest protagonist, will air later in the spring.

Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim in BBC’s The Serpent.
Jenna Coleman and Tahar Rahim in BBC’s The Serpent. Photograph: Roland Neveu/BBC/© Mammoth Screen

Mercurio has also been mentoring younger writers and the first fruits will be seen later this year with the arrival of Northern Irish crime drama Bloodlands, written by Chris Brandon and starring James Nesbitt as a detective investigating a cold case that centres around a “legendary assassin”.

Also coming in the spring is the headline-generating adaptation of Nancy Mitford’s comedy of love and (multiple) marriage, The Pursuit of Love with Lily James as Linda, Emily Beecham as Fanny and, wonderfully, Andrew Scott as the eccentric Lord Merlin. Period charms of a very different kind are on show in Ridley Road, Sarah Solemani’s adaptation of Jo Bloom’s acclaimed novel about a young hairdresser (newcomer Aggi O’Casey) caught up in the fight against fascism in the early 60s.

For high drama and cold seas, BBC Two is offering a very different adaptation as Andrew Haigh takes on The North Water, Ian McGuire’s Booker-longlisted novel about an ill-fated whaling expedition in the 1850s. An all-star cast includes Colin Farrell, Jack O’Connell, Stephen Graham and Tom Courtenay. Closer to home, Vigil, written by Strike’s Tom Edge, follows Suranne Jones’s detective as she investigates the links between the disappearance of a Scottish fishing trawler and a death on board a Trident nuclear submarine.

Before that, David Tennant and Michael Sheen’s lockdown comedy Staged returns for another run of entertaining ennui, while entertainment of a different kind is promised in BBC Three’s Superhoe, which sees the wildly talented Nicôle Lecky adapt her funny and moving one-woman show about sex workers.

James Nesbitt at the Titanic Studio in Belfast where drama Bloodlands was filmed.
James Nesbitt in the Belfast-set drama Bloodlands. Photograph: BBC/Northern Ireland Screen/PA

ITV still has crime on its mind, kicking off the year with a three-part, true-crime series, The Pembrokeshire Murders. Later there’s another outing to The Bay, plus Nicola Walker and her weary despair in a fourth series of cold-case drama, Unforgotten. Anna Friel is still losing it in a third series of the ludicrously plotted, yet oddly compulsive, Marcella, now with added Belfast.

Viewpoint, starring Noel Clarke as a surveillance officer who finds himself caught in a complicated relationship with the single mother (Alexandra Roach) whose home he commandeers, promises to serve up a timely slice of paranoia, while Finding Alice stars Keeley Hawes as a widow uncovering dark secrets following her husband’s death.

Channel 4 has the year’s first five-star drama with Russell T Davies’s incredible It’s A Sin, which follows a group of young friends through London’s 1980s Aids crisis. Funny, smart and guaranteed to have you bawling, it’s unmissable.

Before that, C4 airs the The Great, a wonderfully tongue-in-cheek exploration of the rise of Catherine the Great, written by The Favourite’s Tony McNamara with a scene-stealing performance from Nicholas Hoult as Tsar Peter III.

Stephen Graham in The North Water.
Stephen Graham in The North Water. Photograph: Nick Wall/BBC/Harpooner Films

Black comedy Back returns after a long absence with David Mitchell’s Stephen still struggling to deal with the loathsome Andrew (Robert Webb). New comedies include Frank of Ireland, written by Domhnall and Brian Gleeson and starring Brian as a misanthropic disaster and Lady Parts, written by the talented Nida Manzoor (Hounslow Diaries), which follows a young all-female Muslim punk band.

Channel 5 continues to build up its drama component with thrillers Deadline and Teacher joining the much-buzzed-about period drama Anne Boleyn, with rising star Jodie Turner-Smith in the title role. Those who want a true slice of comfort TV should note All Creatures Great and Small returns for a second season.

Streaming channels increasingly dominate TV conversations and all eyes are on Netflix in particular. Its strong spring slate suggests the usual mixture of big hits and surprise packages. Returning shows include the third series of Sex Education and You, while later in the year new seasons of The Witcher and the brilliant Top Boy are expected.

Of the new series, two adaptations, Anatomy of a Scandal, which takes on Sarah Vaughan’s best-selling tale of privilege and abuse of power, and Behind Her Eyes, based on Sarah Pinborough’s chilling, addictive 2017 bestseller, are probably the two most anticipated, although I have high hopes for Inventing Anna, which stars Julia Garner as pretend heiress Anna Delvey, and Shadow and Bone, the long-awaited adaptation of Leigh Bardugo’s hugely popular Grishaverse novels. Fans of Netflix’s more esoteric programming should binge through History of Swear Words as Nicolas Cage battles with expletives.

Kelly Macdonald as DCI Joanne Davidson in the new series of Line of Duty.
Kelly Macdonald as DCI Joanne Davidson in the new series of Line of Duty. Photograph: Steffan Hill/BBC/World Productions

Over on Sky, all things ancient still appeal with a new series of Jez Butterworth’s enjoyably over-the-top Britannia plus Domina, a 10-part political epic about the rise to power of Livia Drusilla, mother of Emperor Tiberius, with a cast that includes Isabella Rossellini, Enzo Cilenti, Claire Forlani and Liam Cunningham.

Viewers who prefer something set in the present day should consider Mare of Eastdown, which stars an interestingly cast Kate Winslet as a small-town Pennsylvanian detective, Your Honor, which features Bryan Cranston as a corrupt judge in New Orleans, or dark investment bank drama, Devils.

Landscapers is Sky Atlantic’s darkly comic, sure-to-be-controversial take on the true-crime genre, starring Olivia Colman as convicted killer Susan Edwards who, with her husband, murdered and buried her parents in the garden, while The Nevers sees Joss Whedon deliver a slice of Victorian gothic fantasy and the popular A Discovery of Witches returns to Sky One. Also returning are outstanding mafia drama Gomorrah, the second Euphoria special (both Sky Atlantic), and Simon Blackwell’s dark parenting comedy Breeders returns to Sky One, with new comedy Bloods starring Samson Kayo and Jane Horrocks as hapless paramedics.

Superhero fans have several Disney+ treats in store with the inventive WandaVision kicking off the new year, followed by the highly anticipated The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, and a time-travelling Tom Hiddleston in Loki. Amazon Prime, meanwhile, has a third series of American Gods and mini-series The Underground Railroad, in which Oscar-nominated director Barry Jenkins takes on Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel.

Finally, if all you really want is to let something mindless wash over you, don’t despair because the most insane reality show, aka The Masked Singer, has returned to ITV. We might all be locked down but many of us are still doomed to spend the next few weeks speculating over which D-list celebrity is behind which ridiculous costume.


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
The best TV shows of 2015
The Guardian’s pick of 2015’s best programmes, as voted for by its writers and reviewers, counting down to the best television event of the year. The top 10 will be revealed each weekday from 8 December

Chris Fenn

03, Dec, 2015 @1:40 PM

Article image
Sex, Succession and sci-fi nightmares: the must-see TV of autumn 2021
More teenage hookups in Sex Education, a killer Olivia Colman and the long-awaited return of the Roy family … here is all the unmissable TV coming soon

Hannah J Davies and Kate Abbott

23, Aug, 2021 @7:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2018: the full list
Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s femme fatale takes the top spot, above political high camp, breakneck drama and the water-cooler hit of the decade

21, Dec, 2018 @11:03 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2017: 50-1
The countdown reaches its peak with a sci-fi dystopia that chimed with the real threat of Donald Trump, followed closely by superlative police drama, true-crime milestones, peril at sea, and the comic adventures in wrestling

30, Nov, 2017 @6:00 AM

Article image
Sex, spies and video dates: the must-see TV shows of autumn 2018
John Le Carré is back, there’s a killer on the loose, Jonah Hill and Emma Stone get trippy, and Sean Penn is going to Mars

Lanre Bakare, Mark Lawson, Gwilym Mumford and Stuart Heritage

27, Aug, 2018 @5:00 AM

Article image
The 50 best TV shows of 2019: the full list
The pick of the year’s top television featured ghosts, gangsters, comedy buffoons – and a hot priest

19, Dec, 2019 @8:47 AM

Article image
The must-watch TV of autumn 2017, from Blue Planet to Stranger Things
Strictly sparkles, David Simon goes hardcore, Jodie Foster bags a Black Mirror, Spike Lee has to have it – and it’s welcome back Winona Ryder, Larry David and the League of Gentlemen

Stuart Heritage, Mark Lawson and Kate Abbott

14, Sep, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Watch this! The must-see TV shows of 2017
Get ready for the return of Twin Peaks, Stranger Things and Line of Duty – plus an explosive Idris Elba drama, an epic Game of Thrones and the last ever Girls

Kate Abbott and Stuart Heritage

07, Jan, 2017 @10:00 AM

Article image
The unmissable TV shows of summer 2017
Naomi Watts is a shrink in meltdown, William and Harry remember Diana – and Ed Sheeran feels the chill in Game of Thrones. It’s your complete summer TV and streaming guide

Mark Lawson and Kate Abbott

12, Jun, 2017 @5:00 AM

Article image
Bill Bailey: Comic, musician … and now Strictly dance master
Behind the comedian’s west country hippy persona lies a quick mind and even quicker step, as fans of TV’s Strictly are finding out

Vanessa Thorpe

29, Nov, 2020 @6:30 AM