Horror, comedy, fantasy, whimsy, harsh realities and lyrical dreams all vied for our attention among the best shows of the year in 2021.
Streaming and cable were never so important companions to us as the pandemic continued and left us at home more than we ever thought possible. If we were handing out honorable mentions, FX’s raunchy vampire comedy What We Do In The Shadows deserves recognition, WandaVision and Loki (two of the many Marvel spinoffs on Disney+), Lupin on Netflix and Only Murders in This Building with its unlikely team of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez on Hulu, and two epic Sci-FI shows Foundation and For All Mankind both on Apple TV+ would receive honors.
This was a fantastic year for TV, with big shows coming back with new efforts from every network and streamer, along with some refreshing surprises along the way. There seems to be a never-ending flood of quality TV, which is great for TV lovers, and making a list of the ten best shows grows more difficult as the medium continues to evolve.
There was a lot to watch and celebrate. What follows are our picks for the absolute best shows of 2021. You are, of course, free to disagree.
Hacks was one of the best comedies of the year and the first piece of evidence that Jean Smart was 2021’s Most Valuable Player, along with her work on Mare of Easttown. Smart plays a legendary comedian in the late stages of decades of being in a business that has left her cold, only to find her career might get a boost from a young comedy writer on the opposite end of the career spectrum played by Hannah Einbinder. The pairing works and the show is hilarious as it takes a look at misogyny in comedy and what years of not speaking up can do to someone. It is extremely relevant and one of the most enjoyable comedies of the year.
9. The White Lotus
Mike White’s resort satire made waves with its ideas about class represented by rich purveyors of an exclusive Hawaiian resort and the employees of the hotel who must wait on their beck and call. The show was another strong example of a week-to-week HBO show that would serve as the point of reference and topic of conversation. It threw a lot of ideas out there, not unexpected given White's view of the world and the fact that the show was produced and written during the pandemic. The White Lotus featured some hilarious and great performances from Jennifer Coolidge, Steve Zahn and Murray Bartlett and an excellent showcase for rising star Sydney Sweeney.
It is pretty incredible that an animated series based on the very complicated and dense lore of a popular online video game ever is one of the best shows of the year. If Arcane was merely the animation spectacle and achievement, it is with nothing else, it might merit a mention on this list, but luckily it is much more. Its unique animation style and mature story with perfectly realized characters in its fantastical steampunk world make Arcane a truly great series. Some of the facial animations and movements almost seemed motion-captured and brought out some truly incredible performances from its cast. The fluid and stylistic action, soundtrack and score, and no holding back approach to its storytelling were impressive and worth checking out even for those who wouldn’t usually check out animated series.
7. Mare of Easttown
Mare of Easttown was the thrilling mystery box show it seemed like it was going to be, but the series it ultimately became was a welcome surprise, a show about a deteriorating town, a fractured family, and trying to move on from trauma. The show stars one of the best actors of her generation in Kate Winslett, with incredible performances from Evan Peters and Jean Smart (appearing again in another prestigious HBO vehicle), among other standouts. The show’s mystery is the thing that drew everyone in, but the family and community drama and the performances are what distinguished the show from a typical dark detective story.
6. Midnight Mass
Horror filmmaker Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass was as affecting a truly horrific show about vampires and Catholicism could be. The series tackles faith vs. fanaticism, addiction, and salvation in a gripping and frightening story about a small dying town and what happens when a dark power infiltrates the soul of it. With an amazing performance from Hamish Linklater, Kate Siegel, and Zach Gilford, and some of the best horror filmmaking of the year, the series delivers on a personal story and something that clearly meant a lot to its creators. Midnight Mass is Flanagan’s best Netflix horror show yet.
5. Squid Game
Squid Game went from just a random South Korean-made show that premiered on Netflix to a true phenomenon and one of the most popular shows in the world overnight. It spread like wildfire throughout the internet, spawning memes and eventually internet personalities doing everything they could to make money off of mere association with it, disregarding the show’s message. Beyond its sheer popularity, the show is incredible. It’s a thrilling, tense game of survival of desperate people ravaged by the world with nothing to lose. Its critique of capitalism and the helplessness it creates is compelling and reminiscent of other popular films and media from South Korea. Even though its message was often lost in the unintentional tsunami of its own popularity, the show has some of the most jaw-dropping and memorable moments of the year.
4. The Underground Railroad
The Underground Railroad is a fantasy historical drama series about slavery in an alternate history United States, adapted from Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning book of the same name by one of the best filmmakers working in Barry Jenkins. The series follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she escapes captivity and follows a literal underground railroad through the south. The series seems daunting on the surface; its subject matter is not easy, but it’s one of the year’s most emotionally engaging and visually stunning series. Jenkins is a master filmmaker, and he employs all of his gifts, bringing this fantastical tale to life with great performances from the fantastic cast.
Yellowjackets is a teen drama like Gossip Girl, then it shifts into the Real Housewives, then it turns into a cultish horror film, and that’s pretty much every episode. The series follows a girl’s high school soccer team after their plane crashes in the wilderness and the survivors of the ordeal two decades later as they deal with the aftermath. Even before the plane even takes off in the first episode, the tension and the drama are already primed to boil over. The series is a mystery box of what happened then and what’s happening to its characters in the present, a brutal survival story, and some of the best horror you’ll see on TV. The series uses all of the genre trappings prestige TV has used for years and turns them into its own truly unique series that is hard to put down once you pick it up. 2. Reservation Dogs
Every year some shows come out of nowhere and leave an impression. Reservation Dogs did just that with its story about a group of teens on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma trying to make enough money to move to California. The series was instantly funny and stylish, reminiscent of another FX comedy, Atlanta, which influenced the series in some ways, but creator Sterlin Harjo’s unique and personal vision made the show one of the most emotionally affecting series of the year. The cast of teens, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis, are incredible, and the series is supplemented by some great cameos and parts from real industry veterans like Zahn McClarnon.
Succession should be officially considered a part of the HBO prestige pantheon, with the likes of The Sopranos and The Wire. It’s the best-written show, one of the best dramas, and week to week one of the funniest shows on TV. Its exploration of American greed, politics, and capitalism through the lens of an ultra-rich family who is at the top of the ruling class is, of course, important, but the true success of the show is looking at each individual in the Roy family, each of who are monstrous in their own unique way but compelling portraits of humanity nonetheless. The series boasts some of the best performances of the year, highlighted, of course, by Jeremy Strong, Mathew McFadyen, Sarah Snook, and Kieran Culkin. Succession’s third season exceeded expectations and delivered one of the best season finales in recent memory.
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