Olly Alexander and the cast of Channel 4’s ‘It’s a Sin’ (c) Channel 4
Arjan Arenas looks back at last year’s tastiest televisual treats
With much having been rightly made of Covid’s impact on the film industry and how it has slowly but steadily tried to weather the challenges, it’s easy to forget that its sister industry, TV also took a beating. Productions on numerous shows were ground down or suspended altogether due to Covid restrictions.
Yet just as we’ve seen the silver screen adapt and endure, television as an artistic medium has also thrived against the odds, with binge-watching skyrocketing and small-screen successes being forged through word of mouth.
As we’ve stuttered towards, and then quickly retreated from a return to something resembling the old normal, the pattern of creative, engrossing TV continued into 2021. Here are, in my humble opinion, five of the best shows of the year.
It’s a Sin
Arguably the single best show of 2021, this five-part Channel 4 drama from the pen of TV maestro Russell T Davies vividly transported viewers back to 1980s London and followed the joy, heartbreak and tragedy experienced by young gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis.
Drawn heavily from Davies’ own, deeply personal experiences of the period, it was full of many of his trademarks – flawed, narcissistic, yet sympathetic and engaging central characters, plenty of sharp, witty dialogue, and a touch of the outlandish at times. It was bolstered by brilliant performances from the cast, not least Olly Alexander as hedonistic protagonist Ritchie and Omari Douglas as the flamboyant, bluntly outspoken Roscoe.
While never shying away from depicting the harsh realities of a decade rife with homophobia, or the fear, confusion, and misinformation that ran rampant during the AIDS epidemic, what really makes It’s a Sin work is how well it encapsulates and celebrates the optimism, love and excitement felt by the main group of friends. This remains extremely uplifting, even as the characters slowly succumb to hardship and loss.
Davies powerfully reminds us that, for all the suffering caused by the AIDS crisis, it was, for many young people, the time of their lives. As Ritchie movingly observes in the final episode, “That’s what people will forget… that it was so much fun.”
An absolutely brilliant watch that educated many young people about the crisis and British life in the 1980s as a whole – and of course, the soundtrack’s incredible.
Mark Cobden (Sean Bean) and Eric McNally (Stephen Graham) in BBC One’s ‘Time’; (c) BBC Studios; photographers Matt Squire and James Stack
Jimmy McGovern’s hard-hitting drama on BBC One gave a brutal insight into life in prison. Mark Cobden (a subdued Sean Bean in a career-best performance) is an alcoholic teacher sentenced to four years inside for killing a man while drink-driving.
Mark is a first-time offender who finds himself among hardened murderers and drug dealers, and in the face of ruthless bullying from another inmate, he learns the hard way how to defend himself.
Meanwhile, warder Eric McNally (an equally impressive Stephen Graham), a principled man who is as caring to the inmates as he can be, is forced to extreme measures when his son, an inmate in another prison, is threatened, and pays dearly.
Over three devastating episodes, McGovern offers what is implicitly a searing indictment of the British prison system without descending into heavy-handed moralising.
We are shown, not told about the violence and mental illness that runs rife through the cells, punctuated by crushing boredom. Yet throughout, we see small acts of kindness that offer hope, as Mark slowly edges towards redemption.
Sarah (Jodie Comer) and Tony (Stephen Graham) in Channel 4’s ‘Help’; (c) Channel 4
Stephen Graham stars again in this one-off Channel 4 drama written by Jack Thorne which harrowingly recounts the devastating impact of the pandemic in care homes across the country.
Jodie Comer plays Sarah, a newly qualified carer on probation in a nursing home, where she quickly befriends one of the residents, Graham’s Tony who has early-onset Alzheimer’s. After a challenging but successful first few weeks on the job, Covid tears through the nursing home, infecting staff, killing residents and leaving Sarah on duty with an appalling lack of PPE.
It was always going to be a treat to see Graham and Comer, two of Britain’s strongest actors, on-screen together, and neither disappoints with their performances. The touching bond that grows between Tony and Sarah is juxtaposed with the grim realities of struggling to manage Covid in the woefully underfunded care sector, which has suffered immeasurably during the pandemic.
This an extraordinary piece of storytelling that rams home some of the horrors of the past two years.
The cast of Netflix’s ‘Call My Agent!’; (c) Netflix
Dix pour cent (English title: Call My Agent!)
The fourth season of this French comedy-drama arrived on Netflix at the start of 2021 and has been part of a wave of critically acclaimed shows not in English which have broken down the language barriers in film and TV, at a time when borders across the world have closed.
Following the staff of a prestigious Paris-based acting agency, with real-life French A-listers playing themselves as its clients, this season sees the main characters struggling, as per usual, to reign in their equally hectic personal and professional lives, while the agency itself comes under threat.
Full of razor-sharp one-liners balanced with more poignant moments, and with the main cast effortlessly holding their own against A-listers gamely sending themselves up, the show immerses you in French culture far more authentically than Netflix’s utterly cringeworthy Emily in Paris. Call My Agent! offers an extensive education in the country’s cinema.
The fourth season was meant to be the show’s last, but its unexpected success abroad means a movie, followed by a fifth season are now in the works. Fingers crossed they can deliver after season 4’s touchingly decisive conclusion.
Ian Campbell (Paul Bettany) and Margaret Campbell (Claire Foy) in BBC One’s ‘A Very British Scandal’; (c) Blueprint Pictures; photographer Alan Peebles
A Very British Scandal
My final pick is a very late addition to 2021’s great TV shows, having just finished its three-night run on BBC One. It’s anthological follow-up to 2018’s absolutely superb A Very English Scandal which detailed the downfall in the 1970s of Liberal Party leader Jeremy Thorpe after he ordered a failed attempt on the life of his ex-lover.
This series chronicles the notorious and bitterly acrimonious 1963 divorce case of the Duke and Duchess of Argyll (Paul Bettany and Claire Foy). The latter faces down accusations of adultery, including one seemingly backed up by an explicit photo of her, fixated over by the nation’s media.
Documenting how the couple met and how their marriage viciously soured in the first two episodes before looking at the divorce case itself in the finale, the series eviscerates the intensely misogynistic double standards to which the Duchess was held by the papers and society in general, without whitewashing her own flaws.
Coupled with two towering lead performances, this was as good a way as any to round off a year of great TV.