Another year of continuous binge-watching and seeking solace in fiction is over. Peak TV may have been a bit less abundant than in years past during February and March of this year when the pandemic also brought productions to a halt. But after a bumpy start, new releases started piling up. And we’ve been swamped by good TV over the past few months.
We’ve barely been able to keep up with so many TV shows, and we’ve devoured a good chunk of remarkable new series and returning seasons this year. Let’s discuss some of the best — or maybe just most-talked-about and soul-soothing — TV shows of 2021.
Lupin (Part 1: January 8, and Part 2: June 11), Netflix
This French show starring the charismatic Omar Sy as a gentleman thief with a mild-to-severe obsession with the literary character Arsène Lupin didn’t only transport us to the streets and cafés of Paris during its first season. It also proved shows in languages other than English can be big international successes. This Netflix original broke records with 70 million households watching it during the first four weeks after being released.
Part one only had five episodes and ended in a big cliffhanger. Part two arrived just in time during the early summer weeks but was equally short, even if it ended in more of a contained manner. Fret not, though — part three has already been confirmed.
And if you’re in need of other European Netflix shows similar to Lupin, you should definitely give Money Heist — we just reviewed its fifth and last season — a watch. Be advised though: the Spanish heist melodrama is highly addictive. PP
Dickinson (Season 2: January 8 – February 26, and Season 3: November 5 – December 24), Apple TV+
Apple TV+ is one more of the many names on the ever-abundant list of available streaming services pining for your subscription dollars. And there are some titles — like The Morning Show and Ted Lasso — that justify checking it out for a few weeks. That’s also the case for this stylized teen dramedy with Hailee Steinfeld playing poet Emily Dickinson.
And while you shouldn’t take this show as a history lesson, you can watch it as a good blend of the TV format and poetry in a completely digestible way. Season two has some highs: the strong bond formed between sisters Emily and Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) and the family’s visit to the chic yet a-bit-too-bohemian spa where the Dickinson women try to relax. Also, the season finale will satisfy any Emily and Sue (Ella Hunt) shippers.
And season three might just be Dickinson’s best, according to our own Kate Bove. Plus, it sees the return of Zosia Mamet as writer and woman-without-a-moment-to-spare Louisa May Alcott. PP
All Creatures Great and Small (Season 1: January 10 – February 21), PBS
This soul-soothing tale of a Glaswegian veterinarian who ends up practicing in Yorkshire treating sick cows and spoilt dogs is based on a series of autobiographical books by James Herriot. Set right before WWII, the PBS Masterpiece features some very arresting landscapes — the show was shot on location at Yorkshire Dales National Park.
Its sick-animal-of-the-episode-that-needs-care formula doesn’t necessarily align with some of the more complex and sophisticated storylines that have proliferated in Prestige Television these last few years. But at the beginning of 2021 and with the pandemic still raging, the idea of getting a furry creature cured by the end of an episode proved to be the perfect antidote to some of our pandemic fatigue. Plus, the episodes also include a good amount of humor and quiet times that allow the characters to enjoy a much-needed cup of strongly brewed tea with shortbread biscuits. PP
WandaVision (January 15 – March 5), Disney+
Considering the box office triumph of Avengers: Endgame and the previous Marvel Cinematic Universe’s installments, WandaVision‘s popularity is no surprise. Not for nothing, the nine-episode limited series was the first new Marvel title to be released since Spider-Man: Far From Home hit theaters in July of 2019.
What caught most viewers and TV critics by surprise was WandaVision’s singularity. By paying homage to different classic TV sitcoms the show not only justified its TV format, but it also gave the audience a change of scenery and meta-references every week. Plus, it also gave us Kathryn Hahn playing a nosy neighbor with an enchanting backstory.
And of course, this wasn’t the only MCU show we’ve been obsessed with this year. While The Falcon and the Winter Soldier doesn’t necessarily fall among my favorite shows of 2021 (I tell you why in this article where I compare the second Marvel show to the much superior WandaVision) but I can’t just ignore it completely. For one, it had the most-watched series premiere on Disney+.
That’s until Loki premiered, of course, and broke that most-watched record again. Overall the show pleased me quite a bit more than The Falcon and the Winter Soldier but not as much as WandaVision. I loved the whole mash-up of comedy, time-travel adventure and personal soul-searching fare. Plus, watching Tom Hiddleston play the mischievous character is always a delight — even more so when Loki finds his perfect buddy in Owen Wilson’s Mobius and his soulmate in a variant of himself played by Sophia Di Martino. PP
It’s a Sin (February 18), HBO Max
Neil Patrick Harris does a British accent and has a small role in this five-episode limited series from Queer as Folk creator Russell T Davies. Set in 1981, the show tells the story of a group of gay men — Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas) and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) — and their woman friend Jill (Lydia West). They all meet in London, a city synonymous with freedom and hope.
As with Davies’ previous show Years and Years, It’s a Sin shows years going by quickly and depicts a decade in which the characters are forced to learn to live with the threat of AIDS. PP
Mare of Easttown (April 18 – May 30) HBO
This seven-part limited series created by Brad Ingelsby (The Way Back) stars Kate Winslet as a small-town detective with a new case to solve and a past that haunts her everyday life. Ignore SNL’s sketch about the very specific accent the English Winslet manages to adopt in this Philadelphia-set show. Her performance garnered her a much-deserved Emmy, and several other members of the cast also won for their performances.
Apart from Winslet’s performance, you can enjoy Mare of Easttown for its many mystery twists and turns and for the solid cast that includes Jean Smart showing the perfect way to camouflage ice cream if you live in a crowded house. Smart is actually having quite the year. If you liked her here, check out the comedy Hacks on HBO Max, where she plays an addicted-to-work stand-up comedian.
But going back to Mare of Easttown, it’s not that often, especially in these binge-watching times, that we keep obsessing over the new episode of a TV show every Sunday night — or that we lament not knowing what to do with ourselves once the show has finished airing. And even though this was initially created as a limited series, there’s already buzz about a possible second season. PP
Exterminate All the Brutes (April 7- 8), HBO
This four-part documentary series is directed by Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) and revisits some of the darkest moments in humanity’s history. The series weaves archival documentary material with interpretive scripted scenes. Josh Hartnett stars in those scripted portions.
The series makes us reevaluate history, revisiting European colonialism, Native American genocide and American slavery. It points at how history has been written — and from whose perspective — and shows the many implications of that in today’s world. PP
Rutherford Falls (Season 1: April 22), Peacock
Don’t judge this comedy by its Ed Helms cover — it’s much more than just that. Helms is one of the co-creators and executive producers here, along with Michael Schur (Parks and Recreation) and Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore). Teller Ornelas, who is Navajo, is one of the five Native writers on this show. Rutherford Falls has one of the largest Indigenous writers’ rooms, according to Peacock.
The show follows Helms as Nathan Rutherford and Jana Schmieding as Reagan Wells. They’re lifelong friends, but their relationship hits a bump when Nathan refuses to accept the removal of a statue of one of his ancestors, which sits literally in the middle of the small town where they both live. Schmieding and Michael Greyeyes play two of the members of the fictional Minishonka Nation who also have a pivotal role in this show. Rutherford Falls has been praised for its Native American depictions and inclusive representation. PP
Shadow and Bone (Season 1: April 23), Netflix
The proposition was risky. Shadow and Bone creator Eric Heisserer decided to blend the stories and characters from two of Leigh Bardugo’s Grishaverse series of novels: the trilogy Shadow and Bone and the two heist novels of Six of Crows.
The result was surprisingly strong. Not only did Shadow and Bone become one more example of why fantasy is having a moment on TV, but the show also proved the value of having a diverse ensemble cast, with some of the supposedly secondary characters stealing all the scenes. The thing is, who wouldn’t want to watch Inej (Amita Suman), Jesper (Kit Young) and Kaz (Freddy Carter) pulling off all sorts of stings? PP
The Underground Railroad (May 14), Amazon Prime Video
Academy Award-winner and filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) turns his gaze toward television, serving as showrunner and director of this 10-episode limited series. Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Underground Railroad tells the story of Cora (Thuso Mbedu) after she escapes a Georgia plantation in the antebellum South and discovers an actual railroad and a covert network of tunnels.
You can always count on Jenkins to narrate a story in the most cinematic and exquisite way possible, while also discovering new faces like Mbedu and Aaron Pierre. Brad Pitt is an executive producer for this show through his production company Plan B, which also backed Jenkins’ movies Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk. PP
Line of Duty (Season 6: May 18), Britbox
This BBC show that, in the U.S., can be watched on Hulu and Britbox — which has season six in exclusivity — started airing in 2012 and is hardly new. But its most recent sixth season garnered the show a lot of traction and made headlines. The season finale broke records in the United Kingdom by becoming the most-watched drama episode, other than a soap opera, since 2002.
The British police procedural, which actually shoots in Northern Ireland, focuses on the Anti-Corruption Unit 12 (AC-12). I do have a tendency not to root for them but for the alleged “bent coppers” they relentlessly investigate. It probably helps that said bad apples have been performed by Lennie James (Snatch), Keeley Hawes (Bodyguard), Polly Walker (Rome) and Thandiwe Newton (Westworld).
Kelly McDonald (Boardwalk Empire) finds herself at the center of AC-12’s interest during season six. And we also finally find out the identity of the nefarious H. Season seven of this addictive show that’s packed with twists and turns is still up in the air. PP
We Are Lady Parts (Season 1: June 3), Peacock
If you thought 2021’s small-screen musical moments peaked with Schmigadoon! or Hannah Waddingham’s rendition of Darlene Love’s “Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)” on Ted Lasso‘s holiday episode, think again. Written and directed by Nida Manzoor, this six-episode British sitcom centers on the members of an all-women Muslim punk band. “The band’s music is such an intrinsic part of the show,” Manzoor said in an interview with Variety. “Through the music, we see the characters in their element and singing their truth, capturing them in all their joy and silliness.”
It’s that joy and silliness that sets the show apart from other comedies. As you might expect, We Are Lady Parts is subversive — the show challenges stereotypes that have long been associated with Muslim identity, for example. It also allows its characters to be complex, nuanced, and real. But the show is also stuffed with confidence; We Are Lady Parts is confident in its comedy, its writing, its characters, and its music. Between that infectious confidence and the equally absorbing energy this breakout hit exudes, it’s easy to see why We Are Lady Parts is one of the year’s best comedies. KB
Feel Good (Season 2: June 4), Netflix
Comedian and writer Mae Martin’s semi-autobiographical series, Feel Good, returned for a second and final season this year. In 2020, the show’s six-episode arc made for one of the best mini-marathons of the year — not to mention, Feel Good immediately carved out its place as a soon-to-be classic in the canon of LGBTQ+ television. In the show, Martin, playing a version of themself, is in recovery for substance abuse disorder, but the struggling comedian’s addictive behavior permeates all the facets of their life. Mae falls into an intense, all-consuming relationship with George (Charlotte Ritchie), and that relationship — by turns painful and joyful — becomes an axis for the show to revolve around.
Outside of the George/Mae relationship and the recovery and burgeoning comedian storylines, our Carhartt-wearing protagonist navigates the beautiful fluidity of gender, the way trauma never really leaves us, and a rather biting, complicated mother (played brilliantly by Lisa Kudrow). So many elements of queerness — from Mae’s moments of self-discovery that don’t hinge on a single Coming Out Scene™ to the specificity of sex scenes and relationship dynamics — are depicted with such honesty and nuance. If you’re looking for a show that’s both gutting and laugh-out-loud, Feel Good is the must-watch queer dark comedy for you. KB
Love, Victor (Season 2: June 11), Hulu
If you’re searching for the perfect short and sweet binge-watch that packs enough humor and a little bit of teen romance, then Love, Victor is what you’re looking for. Watch the 16 year olds Victor (Michael Cimino) and Benji (George Sear) as they figure out their relationship despite their many differences. This dramedy centers on several teen LGBTQ+ stories, but also focuses on the roles the parents play in their lives — namely their support or lack of it.
As in season one, the second season of this 10-episode-per-season Hulu show packs a killer soundtrack, very timely and culturally sensitive punchlines and enough soapy melodrama to keep you hooked. PP
Blindspotting (Season 1: June 13 – August 8), Starz
I’ll admit that living in Oakland could be part of the reason why I first sought this Starz comedy out. I liked the Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs-written movie Blindspotting (2018) but I’ve absolutely loved this spin-off series, which the two of them executive produced and co-created. Casal also serves as showrunner and reprises his role as Miles. But the real protagonist of this story is Jasmine Cephas Jones’ Ashley, Miles’ long-term partner and the mother of their son Sean (Atticus Woodward). She has to navigate life, work, love and parenthood all by herself while Miles is incarcerated.
The half-hour dramedy is not only a love letter to Oakland and the Bay Area but a very accurate representation of its vibrant culture and diversity. The eight-episode first season of the show dedicates an episode to the exploration of Blackness that also offers a history lesson about Oakland’s past and roots. The unconventional Blindspotting manages to portray Ashley and Miles’ love story — they’re a couple who have been together for 12 years — in a raw and realistic way we don’t see on TV very often. The singular show also brings music, dancing, singing, choreography, and sometimes even theatrical elements to the screen to tell the story of Ashley and her family. PP
The White Lotus (Season 1: July 11 – August 15), HBO
I don’t care what you thought of the ending of this show. For a few summery weeks in July and August, Mike White transported us to the paradisiac coasts of Maui and offered us a first-row view into the lives of the rich and not-that-glamorous guests staying at a luxury resort. They were entitled, obnoxious, clueless and lacked any kind of self-awareness. They also sported a very impressive selection of caftans and used the same Zoom filter you do to not look deranged in work meetings. And we couldn’t help but feel for the staff at the five-star hotel who had to deal with their every whim.
Sydney Sweeney and Brittany O’Grady lounging by the swimming pool, highbrow books in tow, sure looked terrifying. We soon learned how bad of an idea it was to try to engage with them in conversation.
The White Lotus has already been renewed for a second season, but it’ll feature a whole new array of guests and will be set at a different White Lotus resort. We’ll sure miss Hawaii and Armond’s (Murray Bartlett) high-as-a-kite hosting moments. PP
Reservation Dogs (Season 1: August 9 – September 20), FX on Hulu
We’ve already mentioned one show that’s centering Indigenous stories on TV in 2021, but this has been a very positive and trailblazing year for Native American representation on the small screen. Co-created by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo, Reservation Dogs is a comedy and coming-of-age story about four Indigenous kids who live in rural Oklahoma and dream of moving to California.
The FX on Hulu (FX-produced content available exclusively on Hulu) show is completely written and directed and mostly acted by Indigenous people, but don’t let its singularity fool you. This is a very specific yet universal tale about four teenagers dealing with life, aspirations, family, culture and grief.
Reservation Dogs has already been renewed for a second season. Its writing is superb but the show deserves all the attention for its four young, talented leads: Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai and Lane Factor. PP
Only Murders in the Building (Season 1: August 31 – October 19), Hulu
If you’re into murder mysteries, you need to check out the first season of this 10-episode Hulu comedy that’s already been confirmed for a second season with the addition of Cara Delevingne to its roster of famous ensemble members.
Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star as three neighbors in a posh Upper West Side building who have a penchant for true crime podcasts and just plain nosiness. When one of the other residents in the building turns up dead, they’re convinced something is afoot and start investigating — and podcasting about it.
Come for the whodunit and smart comedy ingredients and stay for the stellar trio of protagonists but also an ensemble cast that boasts Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Amy Ryan and a cameo from Sting. You can read our Only Murders in the Building review here. PP
Sex Education (Season 3: September 17), Netflix
When it comes to this British teen dramedy, the title is self-explanatory. Regardless of age, gender, sexual orientation or experience, there’s a lot of room for educating yourself with this series. The eight-episode season three is probably the best of the Laurie Nunn-created show so far since it veers further away from the whole Otis (Asa Butterfield) and Maeve (Emma Mackey) dynamic and gives more screen time to the rest of the performers to shine.
The rich ensemble kept growing this year with the addition of the non-binary — and American — character Cal (Dua Saleh), who shared an attraction with Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling). Aimee (Aimee Lou Wood) had to confront her trauma after being sexually assaulted on a bus the year before. Eric (Ncuti Gatwa) learned more about his Nigerian roots and, somehow, his current boyfriend, Adam (Connor Swindells), and his ex, Rahim (Sami Outalbali), found a way not to hate each other. Plus, Jean (Gillian Anderson) defied a few doctors who were treating her as an oddity just because of her pregnancy. PP
Maid (October 1), Netflix
This 10-episode limited series inspired by Stephanie Land’s memoir, Maid: Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive, may not sound like the easiest of watches. In a way, it reminded me of the also excellent and not-easy-to-approach Unbelievable (2019). But, in the end, you’ll find solace and satisfaction witnessing the fight and journey of its protagonist.
In Maid, Margaret Qualley (Once Upon a Time… In Hollywood) plays Alex, a single mother who leaves an abusive relationship and ends up cleaning houses to provide for her young daughter. All that, while she tries to navigate the endless bureaucracy of getting much-needed government help and finds herself struggling to find a place to live. Andie MacDowell, who is Qualley’s real-life mom, plays Alex’s mother. PP
Succession (Season 3: October 17 – December 12 ), HBO
How can this show keep getting better? This satirical family saga about a lineage of billionaires who fight to see who becomes the next heir/heiress/CEO to the clan’s conglomerate and communications empire is having an especially addictive season three.
And even if it’s difficult to identify or even empathize with any of the Roys or their overgrowing entourage of acolytes, there’s something strangely soothing about watching them misbehave on TV. They’re the kind of characters that you’d never want to befriend or go grab a drink with, yet it’s eerily enjoyable to witness them plotting against each other. PP
Yellowjackets (Season 1: November 14 – ), Showtime
Sure, only three episodes of Yellowjackets have hit Showtime at the time I’m writing this, but it’s clear that it’ll turn out to be one of 2021’s best new shows. If Amazon’s The Wilds left you wanting more (or something a little darker and more grounded), Yellowjackets delivers on the Lord-of-the-Flies-but-with-young-women survivalism front, but it’s also so much more than that. As Emily VanDerWerff points out in a review for Vox, every show for the last decade has wanted to be the next Lost — and Yellowjackets? “[It] really might be the next Lost,” VanDerWerff writes. “Just don’t say that too loudly. You don’t want to jinx it.”
The premise? A high school soccer team ends up in a plane crash on their way to a post-season tournament. Stranded in the Canadian wilderness, the young women resort to extremes to survive. While the first few episodes only provide glimpses into this darkness, it’s enough to immediately draw you in. Part of the appeal does lie in daring to know exactly what happened in the woods, but there’s also a present-day thread that illustrates how a handful of these now-adults are trying to navigate life after being so shaped by this trauma from their teen years. While the cast features its fair share of solid newcomers, reliable greats like Juliette Lewis (Natural Born Killers), Tawny Cypress (Unforgettable), Christina Ricci (Z: The Beginning of Everything), Melanie Lynskey (Castle Rock), Jasmin Savoy Brown (The Leftovers) and Liv Hewson (Santa Clarita Diet) all excel here. Need another reason to watch? Karyn Kusama (Jennifer’s Body) directs the Yellowjackets pilot. KB
And Much More
That’s hardly all the television we’ve seen or talked about during this first half-season of the year. There was the food and travel docuseries Stanley Tucci did in Italy for CNN, Stanley Tucci Searching for Italy, as well as the food program with celebrity chefs, muppets and Michele Obama, Waffles+Mochi, on Netflix.
If, last year, you liked the period fantasy horror show that commented on race, Lovecraft Country, this year you’ve probably liked Them on Amazon.
For lovers of space history and alternate universes, there was the second season of For All Mankind on Apple TV+. Meanwhile, season five of The Good Fight on Paramount+ was less case-of-the-week and more reflection on our current situation. The procedural drama managed to incorporate the pandemic in a way that didn’t feel bleak and found a smart solution to bring the audience back up to speed after season four’s abrupt ending, which was caused by the pandemic.
On Netflix, there was The Chair, where Sandra Oh plays the first woman of color to be named chair of the English department of a fictional university. The show could be mandatory watching just for Oh, but it also features a must-see performance by Holland Taylor.
But we can’t talk about Netflix and not mention the South Korean phenomenon Squid Game, which pretty much broke all records and became Netflix’s most-watched show ever with more than 1.65 billion hours of viewing during its first 28 days of release.
And Netflix also premiered the miniseries biopic Halston, starring Ewan McGregor as the famed fashion designer. The show was co-written and executive produced by Ryan Murphy.
The very industrious Murphy was also an executive producer on the third season of his FX anthology series American Crime Story. The new episodes explore the Impeachment of former president Bill Clinton but puts Monica Lewinsky, who’s also a producer of the show, at its center.
HBO even managed to produce a second teen dramedy about what it is to be a member of Generation Z, Genera+ion, as a slightly lighter offering for all the Euphoria fans out there. And Apple TV+ gave us a backstory episode on the character C.W. Longbottom in Mythic Quest. Also on Apple TV+, the second season of Ted Lasso kept us very much delighted, even if it often veered into sentimentality; I didn’t appreciate the untimeliness — or excessive sweetness — of a Christmas episode in August.
And of course, we’re probably missing some titles. But who has time to watch everything good that’s been released on TV or streaming this year?