In Review

Best TV crime dramas to watch in 2021

Vigil, Grace and Time are on this year’s must-binge list

What’s new in 2021?


The BBC has brought out the big guns for this submarine-set drama: Martin Compston (AKA Line of Duty’s Steve Arnott), Doctor Foster’s Suranne Jones, Connor Swindells (best known for playing Adam in Sex Education) and Downton Abbey’s Rose Leslie are just a handful of the notable names in this gripping maritime crime series. Vigil is a “dense, sharply written” and “absolute treat of a show”, said The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan. “It’s one that viewers will surely want to dive into”. Where to watch: BBC iPlayer


This two-hour ITV adaptation of Peter James’s bestselling crime novel is “full of immensely satisfying action”, plus there’s a “star lead performance” from John Simm, said The Guardian’s Lucy Mangan. Brighton-based Detective Superintendent Roy Grace (played by Simm) is a hard-working police officer who has given his life to the job and has to investigate the disappearance of a property developer who goes missing after his stag do goes wrong. Grace is a “cut above the average detective drama”, said The Independent’s Ed Cumming. Where to watch: ITV Hub


The popular French language mystery thriller Lupin has returned for a second series on Netflix. Inspired by the adventures of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief Assane Diop (played by Omar Sy) sets out to avenge his father for an injustice inflicted by the wealthy Hubert Pellegrini. Created by the British writer George Kay, the first series was one of the most successful ever on Netflix and if you haven’t streamed it yet then “you’re seriously missing out”, said Lauren Morris of Radio Times. “An exciting, gripping and action-filled heist caper featuring a terrific performance from Sy, Lupin is guaranteed to steal your heart.” Where to watch: Netflix 


The lives of the people of Allende, a Mexican border town, are overtaken by a powerful cartel’s operations, leading to tragedy. Inspired by true events, Somos “flips the script on brutal cartel crime epics”, said The Guardian’s Jack Seale. This Netflix drama “centres on the people who are usually peripheral casualties in crime shows like Narcos - the residents of Allende, who were all killed in a horrific real-life massacre”. Where to watch: Netflix 


World Productions - the makers of Line of Duty, Bodyguard and The Pembrokeshire Murders - will soon bring out a new thriller series on BBC One. Starring Suranne Jones, Rose Leslie, and Martin Compston, six-part series Vigil is set in Scotland and revolves around the events after the mysterious disappearance of a Scottish fishing trawler and a death on-board the submarine HMS Vigil. The events bring the police into conflict with the Navy and British security services. Vigil is expected to start in late summer 2021. Where to watch: BBC One


Jimmy McGovern’s three-part BBC prison drama Time is “just about perfect”, said Hugo Rifkind in The Times. It stars Sean Bean as a middle-class teacher, Mark, jailed for causing a death through drink driving, and Stephen Graham as a prison guard, Eric. Mark is an older man guilt-stricken about his crime, and is “immediately clocked as a victim by vicious young inmate bullies”; Eric is a decent person coerced into bringing in drugs by a gang. A common theme unites their stories and a handful of equally “deft” subplots: how is it possible “to atone for past inhumanity” in a system that “perpetuates inhumanity anew”? The acting is superb, said Lucy Mangan in The Guardian, and the drama becomes more moving and “enraging” at every turn. “Time well spent.” Where to watch: full series on BBC iPlayer

Mare of Easttown

Kate Winslet is mesmerising in the new HBO crime drama Mare of Easttown, said Carol Midgley in The Times. Make-up-free and “permanently sour-faced”, she plays Mare Sheehan, an “unhappy, junk-food-eating” detective in a small Pennsylvania town that “reeks of poverty and dead ends”. At the outset, she’s working on the case of a 19-year-old woman who disappeared a year ago. And then the body of another teenager, a young mother, is found. Written by Pennsylvania native Brad Ingelsby, this is “a perfectly conjured study of a community”, said Lucy Mangan in The Guardian, focusing as much on how the locals endure these terrible events as on the process of finding the culprits. Everything and everyone feels “real”, and you care about “every tiny part” – not least Mare’s new relationship with an author and college lecturer, played by Guy Pearce, whom she picks up in a bar. The series reminded me of BBC One’s Happy Valley, said Anita Singh in The Daily Telegraph, but I didn’t think it was in the same league as that top-notch drama. Still, the plot – which is too slow to start – does get going, and Winslet aces a role that could have seemed clichéd in less skilled hands. Where to watch: Sky Atlantic 

Fargo (series four)

The highly anticipated fourth instalment of Fargo has returned to Channel 4. Three years after Ewan McGregor and David Thewlis lit up our screens, the fourth season will see Chris Rock and Jessie Buckley take the main roles. Set in 1950s Kansas City, Rock stars as “Loy Cannon”, the head of the black crime syndicate fighting for a piece of the American dream opposite the Faddas, the rival Italian crime syndicate. Together, they control an alternate economy of exploitation, graft and drugs. Among the turmoil, Patrick “Rabbi” Milligan (Ben Whishaw), a man who once betrayed his own family to serve the Italians, watches carefully to ensure his survival. Where to watch: Channel 4 

Before We Die

In this high-octane six-part drama series Lesley Sharp stars as Hannah Laing, a senior police detective who is forced to make a terrible decision as her son, Christian (Patrick Gibson) goes off the rails. With their relationship seemingly beyond repair, Hannah gets a chance at redemption when Christian becomes caught up in the investigation into the brutal murder of one of Hannah’s colleagues and their paths cross again in unexpected circumstances. Where to watch: Channel 4

Line of Duty (series six)

Trainspotting’s Kelly Macdonald joins the Line of Duty cast for series six of Line of Duty. Macdonald plays DCI Joanne Davidson, a “senior investigating officer of an unsolved murder, whose unconventional conduct raises suspicions at AC-12”. Martin Compston (DS Steve Arnott), Vicky McClure (DS Kate Fleming) and Adrian Dunbar (Superintendent Ted Hastings) reprise their roles as the key investigators. Where to watch: BBC iPlayer


From the close-up of a knife plunging into a piece of meat at a dinner party, the plot of Intruder was “signposted like a golf sale”, said Victoria Segal in The Sunday Times. It stars Elaine Cassidy as Rebecca, a journalist whose husband Sam (Tom Meeten) stabs a burglar in the back during a break-in at their seaside house. It’s an “intriguing” opening, but things spiral into absurdity when Rebecca takes responsibility for the killing, and tries to pass it off as self-defence. Her friend Angela (Helen Behan), who is having an affair with Sam, then turns into a Fatal Attraction-style liability – whereupon Rebecca forges an alliance with the local drugs kingpin. Sally Lindsay is stuck in the middle of it all, playing an honest copper. Where to watch: Channel 5 

Your Honor 

Breaking Bad’s Bryan Cranston stars as a New Orleans judge forced to confront his own convictions when his son is involved in a hit and run. The ten episode mini-series from Showtime is “elegantly shot, with credible dialogue and a robust, well-made quality”, said The Independent. And Cranston is “back doing what he does best – playing the devoted parent”. Where to watch: Sky Atlantic

Who Killed Sara?

Released on 24 March on Netflix in the UK, this Mexican crime series has “gone down a hit with fans”, said the Daily Express. Starring Narcos’ Manolo Cardona, the story follows Álex Guzmán, who is hell-bent on exacting revenge and proving he was framed for his sister’s murder. He sets out to unearth much more than the crime’s real culprit. Fans of shows like Money Heist, Sky Rojo and Narcos should be excited about this murder mystery. Where to watch: Netflix 

The Irregulars 

Set in Victorian London, the series follows a gang of troubled street teens who are manipulated into solving crimes for the sinister Doctor Watson and his mysterious business partner, the elusive Sherlock Holmes. As the crimes take on a horrifying supernatural edge and a dark power emerges, it’ll be up to the Irregulars to come together to save not only London but the entire world. The Irregulars “feels like Netflix threw every one of its originals into a blender”, said Cosmopolitan. The show “might not knock your socks off”, Empire adds, but it offers “more than enough intrigue to warrant hoovering up the show’s entire eight-episode run”. Where to watch: Netflix 

The Investigation

This six-part Danish-language drama from Tobias Lindholm is a “radical take” on the true-crime genre, said The Independent. When 30-year-old Swedish journalist Kim Wall disappears, attention turns to a wealthy inventor and his private submarine. This feels like a “new direction for true crime”, said The Guardian, an “antidote of sorts to the showier serial killer documentaries that seem to be everywhere”. Where to watch: BBC iPlayer 

The Flight Attendant

Summer has come early to Sky One with the arrival of The Flight Attendant – a “lively” HBO thriller that’s “the TV equivalent of a beach read”, said Daniel Fienberg in The Hollywood Reporter. Kaley Cuoco stars as Cassie Bowden, the titular flight attendant and party girl, who flirts with a “scruffy-but rich” stranger (Michiel Huisman) on a red-eye to Bangkok, only to wake up the next morning, after an alcohol-induced blackout, in a hotel room, next to his bloody corpse. Panic-stricken, she cleans up as best she can and flees, but with the FBI, a mysterious flick-knife-toting villainess (Michelle Gomez) and sundry other dark forces on her tail, moving on from this does not prove easy. Cassie Bowden is a “powerhouse” of a role, and watching Cuoco ace it is “absurdly pleasurable”, said Suzi Feay in the FT. Played for laughs at first, her vodka habit soon comes to seem as darkly troubling as the corpse itself, and the series cleverly uses her memory loss to confuse the timeline. Based on a novel by Chris Bohjalian, it is “pitch black”, but also “pulpy and surreal”, with real “comic spark”, said Caroline Framke in Variety. This is a series that you may find “hard to stop watching, even if you try”. Where to watch: Sky One


This “astute” thriller is a fine addition to the growing Irish noir genre, said Lucy Mangan in The Guardian. James Nesbitt stars as weary detective Tom Brannick, whose investigation into a kidnapping puts him on the trail of “Goliath” – the suspected killer of four people in the lead-up to the Good Friday Agreement. His superiors in the Northern Ireland police don’t want him reopening old wounds, but for Brannick it’s personal. The plot is dense, but enjoyably so, and there’s black humour mixed in to let it breathe. BBC One’s four-part drama is written by Chris Brandon, said Anita Singh in The Daily Telegraph, but it has executive producer Jed Mercurio’s fingerprints all over it: “You don’t know whom to trust, none of the characters ever smile and senior detectives spend their time looking broodily out of windows.” Laced with clues and fine set pieces – among them a heart-thumping bomb-disposal scene – it adds up to a “jolting” thriller. Nesbitt eases into his role “like a favourite coat”, said Ed Cumming in The Independent, giving Brannick the “anguished, unforced humanity” of a decent man driven to distraction. The opening is sluggish, but this “ruggedly” realistic series soon hits its stride. Where to watch: BBC One 

Unforgotten (series four)

Nicola Walker and Sanjeev Bhaskar return as DCI Cassie Stuart and DI Sunny Khan for series four of Unforgotten on ITV. The main cast will be joined by Sheila Hancock (New Tricks), Susan Lynch (Killing Eve), Phaldut Sharma (EastEnders), Liz White (Life On Mars), Andy Nyman (Peaky Blinders), Clare Calbraith (Baptiste) and Lucy Speed (Marcella). The fourth series opens with the discovery of a dismembered body in a scrap metal yard, which the team believe has been stored in a domestic freezer for thirty years. Various clues lead to the victim being identified as Matthew Walsh, a young man in his mid-twenties who went missing in March 1990. Where to watch: ITV 


The “brash, expensive” eight-part crime drama ZeroZeroZero has arrived on British screens a year after it appeared in the US and Italy, said Ed Cumming in The Independent. Based on a novel by Gomorrah writer Roberto Saviano, its grand ambition is to explore the global cocaine trade by focusing on the suppliers in Mexico, the buyers in Italy, and the middlemen operating out of New Orleans. Packed with spectacular set pieces, it’s “about as subtle as an elephant loading a dishwasher” - and it makes for “exuberant”, if “bleak”, entertainment for “long February nights”. Where to watch: Sky Atlantic 

The Serpent 

True-crime drama The Serpent helped give BBC iPlayer viewing figures a “dramatic boost” when it was released in the new year, said Digital Spy. It tells the disturbing real-life story of Charles Sobhraj, the chief suspect in a series of “grisly unsolved murders of attractive young female backpackers across Asia in the mid-1970s”, Dead Good reports. It could well be one of the “darkest crime dramas of the year”. Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

The Pembrokeshire Murders

This mini-series on ITV is about the cold-case pursuit of John Cooper - the most notorious serial killer in Welsh criminal history. Starring Luke Evans and Keith Allen, The Pembrokeshire Murders gives justice for the victims, who are central to the narrative. “It is sensitive when it needs to be, and never loses sight of who suffered,” said The Guardian’s Rebecca Nicholson. Where to watch: ITV Hub


Based on a story idea from best-selling crime writer Val McDermid, this six-part thriller stars Line of Duty’s Martin Compston. Set in Scotland, three women try to unearth the truth about an unsolved murder that’s very close to home. Traces is an “easy watch”, said The Arts Desk, but it has a bad habit of “spraying coincidences and startling revelations like machine-gun fire, as if it’s frantically crushing 12 episodes into six”. Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

Death in Paradise (series ten)

Ralf Little returns as DI Neville Parker and is solving crimes alongside DS Florence Cassell, played by Josephine Jobert. The show is pulling out all the stops for its tenth anniversary, Radio Times reports, with Sara Martins (DS Camille Bordey) returning for a guest appearance and Ben Miller (DI Richard Poole) making a cameo. Guest stars will include Luke Pasqualino, Jason Manford, Kelvin Fletcher and Lia Williams. Where to watch: BBC iPlayer 

Marcella (season three) 

Marcella, starring Anna Friel, has returned to ITV for its third season. “The third outing for Marcella looks to be a change of pace from what we’ve seen before, taking a deeper dive into her complicated psyche and the devastating trauma therein,” said the Radio Times. “She has taken on a new identity, under the name of Keira, and has managed to infiltrate the infamous Maguire crime family.” Where to watch: ITV Hub  

Shows you can still binge watch

Killing Eve

The psychopathic Villanelle, played by Jodie Comer, is typically flamboyant - and disconcertingly funny. Eve, with her marriage on the rocks, is cast back into the world of spying and assassins in the latest series, while Villanelle combines contract killing with a personal journey of her own. So popular is this show that the BBC brought forward its premier to keep viewers entertained during the coronavirus lockdown. You’ll hear very few complaints about that. The show “feels much like a new relationship”, said The Observer’s Brandon Katz. “It’s sexy and seductive, exciting and new.” Where to watch: BBC iPlayer

Deadwater Fell

Channel 4’s Deadwater Fell is “basically Broadchurch in Scotland”, said Lucy Mangan in The Guardian. “David Tennant is a doctor rather than a policeman, and at the centre of a crime rather than investigating it, and he’s letting his freckles show, but switch your mind to its Broadchurch setting and you will not be disappointed,” said Mangan. The actor plays Tom, whose wife and three children die in a house fire but it soon becomes apparent that all is not as it seems. Where to watch: Channel 4


Netflix premiered the long-awaited third season of the disturbing, gloomy smash hit Ozark last year, replete with more deception, destruction and death, courtesy of stars Jason Bateman and Laura Linney. It received glowing reviews from critics, many of whom agree that it is a marked improvement over the polarising second season, with The Observer suggesting that the show is “gloriously back on track, with Linney truly coming into her own as the boiler-room fire in the hole”. Where to watch: Netflix


Joe Barton’s crime thriller completely “flew under the radar” when it first ran on the BBC at the end of last year, said Gerard Gilbert in The Independent, and although the title “didn’t help attract the punters”, the series is “nigh-on faultless”. The BBC drama, which was subsequently released on Netflix earlier this year, follows the story of a Tokyo cop sent to London to find his long-lost brother who has become an enforcer for the Yakuza, a Japanese crime syndicate. Stylistically bold and wholly unpredictable, the drama feels more like an art-house production than one backed by the BBC. It builds to an unexpected climax that “no other show in 2019 could have attempted”, The Guardian said. Where to watch: Netflix

The Pale Horse

An atypical novel from 20th-century crime queen Agatha Christie – it features none of her celebrated detectives like Hercule Poirot or Mrs Marple – The Pale Horse has been adapted into a two-part BBC series by The ABC Murders and Ordeal by Innocence writer Sarah Phelps. The show stars Rufus Sewell as Mark Easterbrook, a well-off man married to a much younger woman but still haunted by the death of his first wife, who is implicated in a mysterious series of killings. It is the fifth of Christie’s novels Phelps has rewritten for television since 2015. The show also features rising stage star Sheila Atim, best known for the Bob Dylan jukebox musical Girl From the North Country.  “Phelps excels at displaying the cankered truth beneath privileged, polite society,” said The Times. Where to watch: Amazon Prime

The Outsider

This four-part mini-series is an adaptation of Stephen King’s 2018 book The Outsider and stars Jason Bateman, Ben Mendelsohn, Bill Camp and Paddy Considine. Dead Good Books said that Bateman plays a “Little League coach who is arrested in front of half the town for kidnapping, torturing, killing and mutilating an eleven-year-old boy”, adding that “he insists he’s innocent, while the town turns against him”. Slate’s Jack Hamilton said: “The series’ first two hours, in particular, are almost unbearably bleak... But for those who stick with it - and you should - The Outsider offers terrific performances, beguiling yet careful storytelling, and no shortage of genuinely terrifying moments.” Where to watch: Sky

McDonald & Dodds

Commissioned as two feature-length episodes - The Fall of the House of Crockett and A Wilderness of Mirrors - McDonald & Dodds stars Tala Gouveia and Jason Watkins as an unlikely detective duo. A tough cop from the streets of south London, DCI McDonald (Gouveia) is transferred to Bath to investigate a murder. “Imagine Simon Pegg from Hot Fuzz as a crime-solving woman of colour with sarcastic eyebrows,” said Stuart Jeffries in The Guardian. Where to watch: ITV Hub


“Netflix’s Criminal is, depending on how you want to look at it, either one big, bold experiment or four smaller experiments,” explains Rolling Stone. There are technically four shows - Criminal: United KingdomCriminal: FranceCriminal: Germany and Criminal: Spain - each with three episodes depicting three intense police interrogations, all filmed in one studio in Madrid. The first UK edition focuses on David Tennant who plays a doctor accused of abusing and murdering his teenage stepdaughter - not a million miles away from his role in Channel 4’s 2020 offering Deadwater Fell. In the second, Captain America’s Hayley Atwell is called in after her sister’s housemate is poisoned. “The interrogations themselves largely work as one-act plays, because the suspects are given ample characterization and build-up,” said Rolling Stone. Where to watch: Netflix

A Confession

Martin Freeman stars as the real-life detective superintendent Steve Fulcher, who was tasked with investigating the disappearance of 22-year-old Sian O’Callaghan in Wiltshire in March 2011. Fulcher, whose book serves as the basis for the show, breaks police protocol and extracts confessions from the killer Christopher Halliwell for the murder of O’Callaghan and another woman, 20-year-old Becky Godden-Edwards. Written by Jeff Pope, A Confession follows the investigation and the subsequent fallout. Where to watch: Amazon Prime

The Accident

The title of Jack Thorne’s Channel 4 show suggests it is not a straightforward crime drama, but it does centre on a community seeking justice. A small Welsh town is left grieving after a catastrophic gas explosion leaves a group of children dead. Happy Valley favourite Sarah Lancashire stars as the mother of one teenager left with life-changing injuries from the accident. The four-part drama explores “questions of blame and accountability”, said the London Evening Standard, noting that the Grenfell Tower fire caused Thorne to shift his focus while working on the project. Where to watch: Channel 4


Quicksand is a Scandi-noir offering, based on on the bestselling novel of the same name by Malin Persson Giolito and adapted by Camilla Ahlgren, creator of The Bridge. The show tells the story of a teenager who finds herself on trial for murder after a tragedy at a school sends shock waves through a wealthy Stockholm suburb. Den of Geek said that this riveting show has gone surprisingly under the radar of mainstream critics, adding: “If you're missing The Bridge as much as we are, you might be about to discover a brilliant little gem”. Where to watch: Netflix


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