After the 2020 Hollywood shutdown and U.K. lockdowns blew up filming on nearly everything worldwide, 2021 was never going to be normal, especially for PBS, whose anthology series Masterpiece and Walter's Choice are almost exclusively dependant on overseas imports by design. But the year wasn't a disaster by any means. Instead, the shakeup did some good, bringing over new hit titles and some fascinating experiments.
But by the end of the summer, the usual suspects returned, letting PBS close out the year with a super-strong Sunday night lineup and prep for a gangbusters 2022. Here are the best titles PBS got to see this past year, from the strange things that almost worked to the biggest hits.
5. Atlantic Crossing
Of all the new titles Masterpiece grabbed up in the spring of 2020, "just in case" the pandemic lasted longer than ten weeks, Atlantic Crossing was, by far, the most successful. It marked the first collaboration between an American PBS production studio and the Norwegian independent production company Cinenord, Norway's public broadcaster NRK. As a World War II series told from a Scandinavian perspective instead of a U.S. or U.K., it brought a little-discussed angle to the well-covered period. The series reminded viewers of this overlooked side of the story set in a country that thought it could ignore fascism and it would eventually go away, only to learn just how wrong they were.
However, its fictional portrayal of Crown Princess Martha (Sofia Helin) and President Roosevelt's (Kyle MacLachlan) relationship was controversial in Norway and detracted from the series for American audiences. The attempt to force a romance between these two characters was the show's weakest part, though it did provide an unusual perspective on the normally canonized four-term president. Still, for all its flaws, the series revealed an untapped vein waiting for Masterpiece and other production companies to work with public TV stations outside the usual suspects to bring PBS viewers valuable new perspectives.
4. Grantchester Season 6
Grantchester Season 6 started with the old-fashioned "Busman's Holiday" trope murder of the week, suggesting it was happy to follow well-trod paths for its pandemic delayed return. But the series then took it places no one expected. After five seasons where the series main heroes were far more open-minded about Leonard Finch's (Al Weaver) sexuality than anyone in their position would have been in the 1950s, the series got honest about how the U.K. treated homosexuality. The result led to jail time for Leonard and the loss of his curate position.
But shaking up the formula already worked once for Grantchester, when James Norton's exit and Tom Brittany's entrance breathed new life into the series. Though losing fan-favorite Leonard from the vicarage was a shock, it allowed the series to bring in Ahmed Elhaj as Henry Jones, introducing some desperately needed diversity to the cast and creating new dynamics and exciting possibilities for Season 7. Throw in the second separation for Geordie and Cathy, this time with therapized Will as Geordie's BFF instead of the guilt-ridden Sidney, and the show continues to find new avenues to explore.
3. Unforgotten Season 4
After a two-year-long hiatus, Unforgotten returned to PBS, leading off to all the delayed programming out of the U.K. after the international filming shutdowns of 2020. Though the standard mystery format remained in place, with a historical murder, four suspects who at first seem unrelated, and dead ends that DCI Cassie Stuart (Nicola Walker) and her team must slowly work their way through, the ending was anything but. At the end of the season's penultimate episode, Cassie was involved in a car wreck that ultimately led to her demise.
Longtime fans were stunned by the loss of the series' lead actress, though show creator Chris Lange had been working towards this planned exit with Walker since 2019's Season 3. The show isn't over either; Season 5 is underway with Sanjeev Bhaskar, who plays Stuart's right hand, DS Sunny Khan, joining forces with a new as yet undisclosed lead actress. But in a year where most returning TV aimed to bring familiar comfort to viewers after the stress of 2020, Unforgotten dared to challenge that dynamic and remind us that life and death go on, no matter what's happening.
2. Miss Scarlet & The Duke
But the real surprise this year in the mystery category goes to Miss Scarlet and The Duke, hands down one of the brightest lights to arrive this year. The Victorian era series stars Kate Phillips as the titular Miss Eliza Scarlet, creating a fictionalized first female private detective in London. When Eliza's beloved father Henry dies unexpectedly, rather than marry rich and repent in leisure, she takes up his PI career, fighting to make a success of it, despite London's deeply patriarchal society.
Stuart Martin co-stars as her BFF Detective William Wellington (aka the Duke), creating a will-they-or-won't-they relationship. The series becomes a period romantic drama of the best type mixed with murder-of-the-week cases right out of the Sherlock Holmes playbook. In most cases, that would be enough to sustain a series. However, creator Rachael New won't let viewers have it that easy, making sure fans never forget just how hard it is for Eliza to fight for her groundbreaking career every step of the way, creating one of the best feminist shows on TV to boot, and more to look forward to in Season 2.
1. All Creatures Great & Small
Though I would crown Miss Scarlet as the best show from PBS in my personal pantheon, the true undisputed champ is the remake of the beloved 1970s series All Creatures Great and Small. Based on the best-selling autobiography of James Herriot, who worked as a vet in rural Yorkshire beginning in the interwar period and running into the late 1960s, the original series was part of what defined British import programming on PBS in the American mind. Masterpiece's remake, starring Samuel West and newcomer Nicholas Ralph, would most likely have been a hit with its intended crowd no matter when it arrived.
But timing is everything. The gentle series about a man who wanders the Yorkshire dales saving the family cows couldn't have arrived at a better moment in America, as viewers hunkered down for the pandemic winter as cases spiked and treason threatened on cable news. The series wound up a smash hit and a Top Series of 2021 for many critics' lists, making it Masterpiece's first bonafide mainstream success since Downton Abbey and unquestionably the Best British Series on PBS for the year. With Season 2 returning in January and Season 3 assumed, fans can look forward to more dreamy landscapes and animal-based miracles for the next decade.