James Delingpole

The Spectator’s best TV shows of 2021

The Spectator's best TV shows of 2021
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The White Lotus

Every now and then, you see a new series — Succession, say, or Chernobyl or To the Lake — which reminds you why you watch TV. The latest such joy is The White Lotus (Sky Atlantic), a darkly comic satirical drama created, written and directed by Mike White.

It starts with an enticing hook: Shane (Jake Lacy), a handsome, moneyed, basic, mummy’s boy jock in a Cornell baseball cap is in a departure lounge being quizzed by a nosy couple about what we gather was the honeymoon from hell. Meanwhile, a cardboard box marked ‘human remains’ is being loaded into the hold of the aircraft. And where exactly is Shane’s bride?

Over the next few episodes everyone’s dream will turn to a nightmare and though it couldn’t happen to more deserving people (almost everyone is too rich, selfish, spoilt, arrogant, or a combination thereof), you never quite lose sympathy with any of the characters because they are so complex, well drawn and superbly acted. Read the full review here.

Succession

I have never ever watched a TV series I have enjoyed more than Succession (Now TV). There’s stuff I’d put in the same league, maybe — Fauda, Babylon Berlin, Band of Brothers, Utopia, Gomorrah, Breaking Bad, The Sopranos, and so on — but absolutely nothing beats it. It is, quite simply, a work of pure, undiluted genius.

As with all Succession’s richly drawn, exquisitely realised characters, you at once adore and empathise with Roman, while yet being utterly repelled by him. The only daughter Siobhan (‘Shiv’) — played by Sarah Snook — is the most conventionally sympathetic. She’s smart, she’s pretty, she’s the least perverted and weird of the bunch. But Armstrong and his writing team are sufficiently canny not to fall into that predictable ‘cleverest, strongest most capable character is the female’ trope. Maybe Shiv should inherit; maybe she’s not as clever as she thinks she is. Nothing in this series can ever be taken for granted and your loyalties continually shift, even within episodes. It’s unsettling, thrilling, edge-of-the-seat stuff that leaves you, by the end, in a puddle of overwrought exhaustion. How could TV about boardroom skullduggery possibly be quite this involving and exciting? Read on here.

Clarkson's Farm

Quite how much of this amusing visual material was staged or scripted we can only speculate. But given that everything on screen is a lie or a fabrication, my guess would be: a lot. Not that it matters though. One of the reasons Clarkson got to be rich enough to be able to buy up swathes of the Cotswolds is that he really is exceptionally good at what he does: conveying all manner of fascinating information while pretending to be a complete arse.

Clarkson has managed to collect a superb menagerie of rural characters. Kaleb, 21, who doesn’t own a single book but already knows everything there is to know about farming, is the best find. But there are also sundry comedy vets, shepherdesses, lightly disapproving estate managers (they all wear ties, always) and, my other favourite, the dry-stone waller who rambles on as Clarkson nods but who is genuinely incomprehensible. It's first-rate TV. Read the full verdict here.

The Pursuit of Love

I had been expecting the BBC to make a dreadful hash ofThe Pursuit of Love, especially when I read that they’d spiced it up with hints of lesbianism and punk rock. But actually, I think what writer/director Emily Mortimer has done here is play a very clever trick — the equivalent of releasing a cloud of aluminium chaff from your fighter aircraft to distract the enemy’s missiles.

So while everyone is cooing about how refreshing it is that lesbianism has finally got a look-in (see also: every other drama and comedy series on TV from Killing Eve to Call My Agent), Mortimer can get on with the deeply subversive business of slipping under the BBC radar an honest, old-fashioned, faithful and fantastically enjoyable Nancy Mitford adaptation. More on the series here.

ZeroZeroZero 

ZeroZeroZero is the impossibly exciting new drugs series from Roberto Saviano — the author who gave us perhaps my all-time favourite TV drama Gomorrah. What I love about Gomorrah is its utter ruthlessness and total artistic integrity. It’s set amid the warring drugs factions of the Neopolitan mafia (the Camorra) and never at any point do you feel that authenticity is being sacrificed for reasons of marketability or politically correct sensitivities or narrative arc. Not without reason has it been called the series ‘where characters die before they become characters’.

His latest drama is named after the purest level of cocaine, before it gets endlessly cut for the retail market. It tells the story of a single cocaine shipment from South America to Europe from three different perspectives: a Mexican drugs cartel, an ’Ndrangheta clan in Calabria, and the American Lynwood family from New Orleans whose shipping company has for three decades been shifting the stuff across the Atlantic.

That might sound boringly schematic. Certainly, it lacks the fluidity of Gomorrah, and threatens to turn into one of those non-fiction bestsellers you buy in mild desperation at the airport bookshop, called something like Inside the Cocaine Trade. But there are compensations, one of which is that you get three tense, labyrinthine and gloriously violent thriller plotlines for the price of one. Full review here.

It’s A Sin

It’s a Sin — just like Queer As Folk — is hugely entertaining. If you’re not gay it will make you wish you were gay — or at least that you had been gay in those riotous, libidinous years before Aids struck. There’s a moment in the second episode where Jill (charmingly played by Lydia West) asks her rampantly promiscuous male circle whether it’s really necessary for them to have sex with one another all the time. They look at her like she’s completely bonkers: why wouldn’t you?

There’s little of the cloying mawkishness that threatened to ruin Russel T. Davies’s Doctor Who scripts, the Christmas specials especially. It doesn’t feel worthy. You’re rarely hectored. Mainly it’s just Davies, doing what he does best — writing about what he knows, creating a cast of likeable, well-drawn characters, with snappy dialogue and engaging storylines. Even the gay sex scenes — of which there are many — aren’t too awkward, largely because they’re played more for laughs than for eroticism. There’s buggery, blow jobs and threesomes aplenty but, unlike in real sex, which tends to require seriousness and concentration, the participants always wear a huge grin, and quite often converse banteringly throughout. Read more here.

The Serpent 

The Serpent is the best BBC drama series in ages — god knows how it slipped through the net — but I still think it most unlikely that I shall stick it through to the final episode. It’s not the style that’s wrong but the subject matter: do we really want to spend eight hours of life in the company of a smug, ruthless serial killer who murders at least 12 people — and more or less gets away with it?

A bit like with The Queen’s Gambit, all the period detail — those huge-framed 1970s sunglasses, the curfews passed by drinking right through the night, the seedy backpackers’ hotels, passport control, the flight numbers on the boards — was so perfectly done, so redolent of a lost (and mostly, barring the odd serial killer, more glamorous and desirable) era that it almost didn’t matter what the plot was doing. But will the nostalgia and all that visual feasting be enough to carry us through? Perhaps. What I’m very much appreciating — so unusual these days from the BBC — is the absence of unnecessary politics, and superb casting that is honest and appropriate to the era. More here.

The Beatles: Get Back 

The Beatles: Get Back is more mesmerisingly watchable than six hours of musicians noodling around over two weeks’ rehearsal for a really-not-that-good album has any right to be.

Producer Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson whittled it down from 60 hours of unseen footage filmed by director Michael Lindsay-Hogg in 1969 for a critically panned movie released the following year called Let It Be. Jackson has said of all this extraordinary material: ‘I just can’t believe it exists.’ And he’s right. I doubt there will ever be a more remarkable and illuminating pop documentary. Read the full verdict.

Squid Game 

Should we be worried that Squid Game is the most popular show in Netflix’s history? If it’s a case of art imitating life, then the prognosis for our civilisation is not good: most of us will die, horribly, sooner rather than later, but for the very few who survive there will be untold riches to enjoy in the company of the cruel and capricious controlling super-elite.

But is it any good? After the first episode, the Fawn (never a fan of splatter porn) was reluctant to persist and I feared I’d have to watch it on my own, a bit like I had to do with The Walking Dead. What won her over were the characters and her appreciation that lurking beneath the gore were moments of wit, sensitivity and poignancy. Read the review here.

Call My Agent 

Though it’s not quite as exquisite, multilayered and beguiling as my all-time favourite French dramaLe Bureau, Call My Agent has a similar appeal: strong, well-drawn characters in a distinctive setting in another country (France, obvs) where they do things differently because everyone is just so damned French.

In the days when I used to write about showbiz, I particularly hated theatrical agents because they’re so perpetually stand-offish and vile towards journalists. But that’s because agents protect their talent like mother hens and see hacks as a source of unhelpful gossip or cruel reviews. Watching Call My Agent! doesn’t make you necessarily love these people — they lie, they cheat, they’re venal, they’re whores — but it does make you realise how incredibly hard they work for that dix pour cent (though I bet US agents charge more). It certainly involves a lot more than looking at scripts and going ‘Oui. Parfait pour mon client Christophe Lambert!’ Read more here.