The very best crime TV shows of 2021
From Unforgotten to Lupin, Steve Charnock picks the very best crime TV shows of 2021. Which thrilling dramas would make your list?
Despite the challenges faced by television production companies over the past year or two, a surprising amount of high quality output has come our way. Restricted casts, difficult and delayed shoots and unusual filming protocols thankfully haven’t stopped us being able to enjoy a whole host of first class crime dramas.
We saw the return of a few old favourites, but mostly 2021 was a year for fresh new projects. We’ve cast our beady eyes back over a year of TV that brought us excellence from both the terrestrial mainstays and the streaming giants. Here are the very best crime TV shows of 2021.
The best crime TV shows of 2021:
A BBC One prison drama written by Jimmy McGovern and starring Stephen Graham and Sean Bean promises plenty. The good news is that this three-parter more than delivers on that promise. Tense, violent, gritty and poignant, if you’re yet to catch this, make it a priority. It’ll be on iPlayer for the foreseeable future.
Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin character may not be a household name on this side of the Channel, but in France this fictional gentleman thief is a literary titan. So when Netflix released this split-series of ten episodes, excitement was mostly Gallic. It didn’t take long for the rest of the world to get on board, however. Omar Sy is pure charisma in the role of Assane Diop, a man inspired by the adventures of Monsieur Lupin, who is out to avenge his father’s death via a series of smart heists and capers. Paris never looked so exciting in this dramatic and warmly funny escapist thrill ride.
Unforgotten series 4
Chris Lang’s popular ITV crimer returned this year for a fourth outing. Sanjeev Bhaskar and Nicola Walker’s double act saw them investigating the cold case of a headless corpse that had them snooping around one of their own, amongst others. As good as ever.
Mare of Easttown
A detective with issues has to combat a troubled personal life while investigating the murder of a young woman. It’s hardly the most original plot for a TV crime drama. What is original is star Kate Winslet’s spellbinding central performance. Raw, uncompromising and very, very real, the Oscar winner showcases work here that will likely see even more awards crowd her mantlepiece soon. Mare of Easttown veers towards bleak, but always avoids the abyss. This is truly elite, top tier television.
Heavily billed as being ‘from the producers of Line of Duty’ by the BBC in trailers, there were shades of AC-12 to this Jimmy Nesbitt-starring police procedural. Mostly in the daring plot twists that made Bloodlands tricky to keep up with at times. But pay attention and you were rewarded, this was pure tension distilled into a tight four-episode run. Lisa Dwan and Lorcan Cranitch’s performances stood out alongside Nesbitt. Shortly after airing, a second series was announced.
To watch this Joshua Jackson-starring series about a murderous neurosurgeon, you’ll need to subscribe to StarzPlay on Amazon Prime Video. You’ll be glad you did, though. The grim true story of Dr Christopher Duntsch and his gross malpractice co-stars AnnaSophia Robb, Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater, Grace Gummer and Kelsey Grammar. It’s harrowing stuff that hinges on a creepily captivating central performance from Jackson.
Manhunt series 2: The Night Stalker
Martin Clunes’ portrayal of Detective Chief Inspector Colin Sutton in the first series of Manhunt – about the investigation into the murder of French student Amélie Delagrange – was a surprise hit for ITV, pulling in more than nine million viewers, with Clunes garnering specific praise for his subtle performance in the lead. This equally watchable and mature follow-up centred on another real-life case tackled by Sutton, the search for serial rapist Delroy Grant.
Impeachment: American Crime Story
Bill Clinton’s impeachment isn’t exactly an obvious topic for the FX anthology crime series that previously dealt with the O J Simpson case and the tale of Andrew Cunahan’s murder spree that saw him kill five people including Gianni Versace. That said, it’s still a fascinating tale. Sarah Paulson is unrecognisable as Linda Tripp and Clive Owen pulls off the role of Clinton with aplomb, but it’s Beanie Feldstein as Monica Lewinsky who really steals the show.
This classy BBC/Netflix co-production looks beautiful in every way. It was always going to be with Tahar Rahim and Jenna Coleman in the leads. The Serpent backs up its visuals with strong storytelling and confident direction. French serial killer Charles Sobhraj’s story is a fascinatingly grim one that’s told here with a studied calm over eight parts.
A relative newcomer to the streaming world, Britbox is trying its hand at original drama for the first time with this adaptation of a gritty Irvine Welsh novel. With Dougray Scott, Ken Stott and John Simm heading up a strong cast, this six-part drama is pitch black, so don’t go in expecting a lightness of touch. Child molestation and murder, sexual harassment, alcoholism and all sorts litter Crime, hardly making it a cheery piece. That said, its source material provides the odd moment of black comedy.
Another Sunday night crime drama on BBC One that lent on its credentials as being ‘from the people that brought you Line of Duty’, Vigil needed no reliance on its Jed Mercurio links, really. Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones solving a complicated murder on a nuclear submarine should’ve been more than enough to get us all tuning in, surely? Ten million did, which gives us cause to think a briny return is on the cards.
Former Met officer-turned writer Kate London’s debut crime novel Post Mortem got the ITV treatment here in this three-parter shown on consecutive nights in November. Gemma Whelan heads up the cast as DS Sarah Collins, but it’s Tahirah Sharif, as PC Lizzie Adama, who steals the show. Hardly an unforgettable series, The Tower was nonetheless effective and demonstrated a mature approach to serious themes.
Line of Duty series 6
With all the anticipation, theatrics and histrionics that comes with Line of Duty, it’s hard to ignore and easy to like. In truth, this sixth run disappointed in places, although got good value from its guest star Kelly McDonald. Plenty of the series’ mythology was referenced, and lots of loose ends were tied up. But that ‘big reveal’ at the end left many fans a little underwhelmed. Still, it’s Line of Duty. So it makes our list.
Kevin Can F*** Himself
Now available on Amazon Prime Video in the UK, this unusual AMC black comedy is a real genre defyer. Telling the story of unhappy wife Allison McRoberts (Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy) who’s bullied by her selfish husband and decides to have him killed, Kevin… glides seamlessly between King of Queens-style traditional sitcom – complete with jarring canned laughter – and gritty crime drama. The latter style really comes into its own as Allison gets mixed up in her hometown’s seedy criminal underbelly.
We wouldn’t normally tip the nod in the direction of a drama series aimed at teenagers, but Amazon’s Cruel Summer is such a well-made and unpredictable thriller that we’re more than happy to recommend it to anyone of any age. Set in the 1990s, it tells a complex story of a girl’s disappearance that bleeds out in several unexpected directions. There’s a lot to like about the thing, but its standout asset is its able young cast.
The Pembrokeshire Murders
John Cooper, the Welsh serial killer responsible for the Coastal Path Murders in 1980s Pembrokeshire, is the focus here in this ITV mini-series. Cooper is played with snarling glee by Keith Allen. His opposite number is the altogether less snarling Luke Evans. There’s a little too much police procedural on show here, but it’s worth catching for Allen’s performance alone.
The Long Call
The ears of Shetland and Vera fans pricked up this year when news spread that ITV had adapted another one of Ann Cleeves’ recent creations for the small screen. DI Matthew Venn (Ben Aldridge) returns to his home town of Ilfracombe where he investigates a murder that soon involves the fundamentalist Christian sect that he grew up and moved away from. The central character is a little underwritten, but some nice supporting turns and subtly-woven themes make it worthy of its three hour running time.
Baptiste series 2
Grouchy French investigator Julien Baptiste had to fight his own demons while taking on a new case in this second spin-off from The Missing. While not quite as good as the first series, this largely Budapest-set series benefited from having Fiona Shaw alongside Tchéky Karyo.
Fargo series 4
Noah Hawley’s crime spin-off of the Coen Brothers’ cult 1995 hit film Fargo has quietly become one of the best crime dramas on television. Shown on Channel 4 here, this edition of the anthology follows warring factions in a criminal feud based out of 1950s Kansas City. Chris Rock, Jason Schwartzman, Jessie Buckley, Ben Whishaw, Timothy Olyphant and Jack Huston help fill out a frankly quite incredible ensemble cast.
There you have it – the best crime TV shows of 2021! Have we missed your favourite drama of the year off the list? Let us know what shows you’d have picked in the comments below…