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The Best Television of 2021

How did you watch your favorite shows of 2021? Did you watch them weekly? Or did you binge a whole season in a couple days? Did you watch them on a television at all or was it a computer or phone screen? The conversation around TV over the last couple years (and film really) has been as much about how we watch television as it has been about what we’re actually watching. And yet it always comes back to quality. It comes back to people unpacking the lives of the Roy family or the murder suspects in a small Philly town. It comes back to people sharing their excitement over new shows that really felt unexpected. In an era of everything being focus-grouped and marketed to death, it still felt in 2021 like the shows that mattered transcended that factory feeling to tap into something that connects us. As we marveled at the bad behavior at an island resort or wondered exactly what happened to a stranded soccer team, these shows found ways to bring people together, which is something we need more than ever as the world keeps pulling us apart. These are the best television programs of 2021 as chosen by the three remaining regular TV critics at the site, including links to watch them directly … however you choose to watch them.

BRIAN TALLERICO

Runners-up: “Brand New Cherry Flavor” (Netflix), “Curb Your Enthusiasm” (HBO), “Dave” (FXX), “Hacks” (HBO Max), “The Head” (HBO Max), “Invincible” (Amazon Prime), “The North Water” (AMC+), “Painting with John” (HBO Max), “Scenes from a Marriage” (HBO), and “Untold” (Netflix)

20. “We Are Lady Parts” (Peacock)

19. “WandaVision” (Disney+)

18. “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+)

17. “The Good Fight” (Paramount+)

16. “Swagger” (Apple TV+)

15. “The Great” (Hulu)

14. “Exterminate All the Brutes” (HBO)

13. “What We Do in the Shadows” (FXX)

12. “Sweet Tooth” (Netflix)

11. “Only Murders in the Building” (Hulu)

10. “Evil” (Paramount+)

Robert and Michelle King’s drama fled the confines of broadcast CBS to their streaming partner this year and arrived with a season that was even more daring, surreal, ambitious, and downright strange than its great first outing. While the skeptic/believer dynamic of Katja Herbers and Mike Colter’s characters in the first season earned comparisons to “The X-Files,” season two expanded that idea into fascinating corners of the world, unpacking how the concept of evil is fed by institutions like the church and our government, while also never forgetting to occasionally be downright terrifying. This funny, riveting show doesn’t just want us to consider the many forms that evil takes nowadays but maybe even look at some that only our nightmares have been willing to imagine.


9. “Hemingway” (PBS)

We’ve reached a point where we take Ken Burns and Lynn Novick for granted. New releases by arguably the best non-fiction filmmaking team in the world used to get more attention, but it’s increasingly hard for projects that feel like school to stand out in a world of Mandalorians and the Upside Down. Do yourself a favor and seek out this stunning three-episode study of the life and work of one of the most important authors in the history of the written word. Burns and Novick don’t just present a chronological biography but detail how Hemingway’s life influenced his work, and vice versa, in a way that’s as riveting as any fictional drama. It will make you want to read every Hemingway that you haven’t yet, and re-read the ones you have.


8. “The White Lotus” (HBO)

The genius writer/director Mike White gave everyone a surprise vacation this summer to a posh resort in Hawaii, and audiences responded. More than just a clever retelling of an “Upstairs, Downstairs” dynamic, White’s mystery/drama captures a kind of privilege that allows what would be life-changing events for most people to barely register. As much as they debated who was in the coffin spotted in the premiere, viewers discussed their favorite performances in an ensemble with no bad choices. Personally, I’d nominate Murray Bartlett, Natasha Rothwell, Alexandra Daddario, and Steve Zahn for all the awards.


7. “Maid” (Netflix)

The best Netflix show feels like it’s still one of the most underrated. Margaret Qualley gives one of the best TV performances of the year in this adaptation of Stephanie Land’s memoir about fleeing an abusive household and trying to stay one step ahead of homelessness. Qualley’s Alex does exactly that, running away from her awful boyfriend and getting a job with Value Maids. John Wells’ drama becomes a study in trauma that’s deeply moving without ever feeling manipulative, largely because of how much truth Qualley embeds in her performance. We believe every character beat because she forces us to believe, and each small triumph and act of kindness that Alex finds on her journey becomes all the more meaningful for it.


6. “Yellowjackets” (Showtime)

Rich in robust storytelling that’s elevated with one of the year’s best ensembles, Showtime’s best drama seemed to come out of nowhere, crashing into the television landscape like, well, a plane full of soccer players. That’s the conceit of Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson’s brilliant drama that tells the tale of a group of survivors of a horrible crash and the even-worse months that followed. A stunning ensemble that includes Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, and Sophie Nélisse, among many others, this was the kind of rich storytelling that balanced the structure of a mystery with characters we eagerly want to learn more about with each passing episode.


5. “Reservation Dogs” (FX on Hulu)

The best comedy of the year was also the most original and unexpected. Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, “Reservation Dogs” spotlights life in an Indigenous community in Oklahoma, and the writing brilliantly presents very specific, cultural experiences while also finding universal themes. The phenomenal young cast of future stars are balanced by great character actors like Zahn McClarnon, Wes Studi, and Bill Burr, and yet it’s the stories of these teenagers that hold it together. They speak of wanting to leave Oklahoma for the coast, but “Reservation Dogs” captures how community and history can shape a life in the middle of this country, finding life in a place and with people too rarely seen on television. Oh, and it’s often hysterical too.


4. “Station Eleven” (HBO Max)

The most recent show on this list just dropped on HBO Max with three episodes last week and five more to land before the end of the calendar year (yes, this means two episodes are technically 2022 shows, but it still counts as a 2021 show). Patrick Somerville adapts the hit novel by Emily St. John Mandel about a pandemic that wipes out most of the population, but this is no post-apocalyptic nightmare. On the contrary, it’s a study of the value of art and how we will always need community and artistic expression to keep this damaged world turning.


3. “Mare of Easttown” (HBO)

Craig Zobel directed one of the biggest TV hits of the year, a mystery mini-series (at least for now) that riveted the country with its blend of whodunit and character study. Reminding the world that she’s one of the best living actresses, Kate Winslet plays Mare Sheehan, a detective in a Pennsylvania town who balances two investigations with a crumbling personal life. Over seven episodes, “Mare of Easttown” unfolded like a rich novel, the kind of original storytelling that seems in rare supply even in this era of quality television. And the ensemble was arguably the best of the year.


2. “Succession” (HBO)

The third season of HBO’s current critical darling had a large bar to clear, given how lockdowns last year led to a growing fan base binging the first two seasons of the saga of Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his troubled family. It cleared it. In season three, "Succession" became more of a character study as Kendall (Jeremy Strong) pulled away from the poisonous hold of his father and siblings, only to discover that he could not swim in the shark-infested waters of this world. As razor-sharp as anything on television when it comes dialogue and character, the third season of “Succession” was a reminder that fascinating characters can make for riveting drama. We’ll watch the Roys do anything.


1. “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Prime)

There was nothing more ambitious in film or television in 2021 than Barry Jenkins’ ten-part adaptation of the book The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead. With episodes that can stand as brilliant short films on their own, Jenkins and his brilliant collaborators unpack not just the story of a runaway slave but that of this country’s deep scars. Cora (Thuso Mbedu) is told early in the show that if she looks out the window of her train car that she will see America, and then Jenkins proceeds to do exactly that, blending the lyrical and the brutal that have shaped this landscape, and continue to hold so much power over it.


ROBERT DANIELS

Exterminate All the Brutes

Three television series in 2021, in their own unique ways, both modest and broad, critiqued race in America. Despite being keen and hilarious, “Flatbush Misdemeanors” on Showtime, created by and starring Kevin Iso and Dan Pearlman, is still, puzzlingly, flying under the radar. It follows two roommates, one Black and one Jewish, living in a quickly gentrifying neighborhood. The characters through dark humor probe their mental health struggles, their dedicated friendship and the problems that plague their neighborhood: Evictions of Black folks and a system so unfair, a microcosm of so many American cities, that the victims and the enablers, whether white or Black, are near interchangeable. 

While “Flatbush Misdemeanors” light-heartedly confronts the modern-day angst of inequality, Barry Jenkins’ ten-part Amazon series “The Underground Railroad” gets closer to the root cause. Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning same-titled novel, the series follows an escaped slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she traverses westward from her Georgia plantation toward freedom. “The Underground Railroad” moves in cinematic rhythms. It deconstructs manifest destiny, unpacks racial exceptionalism, and gives voice, in humanist tones, to people who have so often been dehumanized not just by their captors. But in film and television too. Its images have haunted me. It has cared for me. Nourished and broken me. Pushed and molded me. It was from the moment it premiered, despite how cheesy this sounds, life-changing.

Raoul Peck’s sprawling four-part HBO docuseries “Exterminate All the Brutes” reaches even further back in time than “The Underground Railroad” by interrogating centuries of human history to chart the present-day effects of colonialism and white supremacy. It’s a dense treatise on the winding vines that still choke people of color today that still manages to explicate the personal into the historic: Peck uses his own films and childhood memories as palette massagers to make the academic material more digestible. It’s the most ambitious, unflinching and sharp retracing of our original sins that’s graced television.     


NICK ALLEN

Only Murders in the Building

Looking back over what I saw and what I loved in television the last year, I am struck by how much originality has ruled. That’s not something you can readily say about film, whether you're talking about the biggest box office titles in theaters now, or the Oscar-ready, critical darlings. But the richest of TV seems to have come from the opposite way of thinking, in which a talented creator is allowed to build their own world, and given the money and space to do it. 

We saw that perhaps most of all with comedy—and “Only Murders in the Building” is the genre’s best example. Hulu made a wise decision, and created a hit, by letting Steve Martin and Martin Short craft a mystery series about what makes them laugh and cry, leading to this story of three podcasters (played by Martin, Short, and Selena Gomez, an inspired trio) investigating a crime in their apartment complex. It’s one of the easiest, silliest, sharpest shows you can binge from the last year, fueled by their amazing line delivery and equal care for a gripping yarn. 

There were other comedy gems that turned a comedian’s passion project into exciting TV, and here serve as honorable mentions that shaped the overall conversation. It was the year that Bo Burnham returned to stand-up, and filmmaking, with his one-man Netflix specialInside”; Nasim Pedrad played a 14-year-old boy, a parody of adolescence, in the loving and however imperfect TBS series “Chad”; and though it’s a late addition, one of the most creative, crafty, and hilarious shows from the last few months is Kyle Mooney and Ben Jones’ Netflix miniseries “Saturday Morning All Star Hits!”, a loving send-up of ‘90s television that is even darker and funnier on a second viewing. 

One of this year’s best original series was also its most hyped—“Squid Game,” the Netflix hit that seemed to take over the pop culture conversation in the span of weekend, in spite of its harrowing material. Written and directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, the series provided a roller coaster experience of moral choices and emotions, actualized with a filmmaking eye that was inspired in numerous way by Stanley Kubrick. Its depiction of a deadly set of games with a growing cash prize total was totally addictive, especially in how it broke the expected rules. In just its second episode, when the contestants realize they truly can choose to participate or not, “Squid Game” proved how it could immerse its viewers in its uncomfortable but painfully realistic ideas. 

A word about streaming services: 2021 also seemed like the year in which Apple TV+ really started to come into itself, creating noteworthy content that doesn't have to do with “Ted Lasso.” I found a few favorites in the batch, like “Foundation” and “Invasion”—both of which appear to have a polarizing response—but it was “Schmigadoon!” that played with the immense color and spectacle possible when Apple is in charge. The inspired series packs in an endless amount of musical references with its own funny love story about a couple (played by Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key) who find themselves in a land where musicals are the way of life. Its inspired direction, especially from Barry Sonnenfeld (who also did great work with polar opposite Hulu series “Dopesick”), elevated the series to special heights even more. 


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