Alexander: Ben Blackall—HBO Max/Everett Collection; Shawkat: Jon Pack—HBO Max/Everett Collection; Sy: Netflix
May 21, 2021 8:00 AM EDT

If you’re curious about how the pandemic has changed television, 2021’s midyear highlights make a pretty compelling case study. The pressure to churn out enough content to entertain millions of glassy-eyed hermits, coupled with the difficulty of safely producing said content, has meant an explosion in documentary series and foreign-language imports. Streaming services excel at this kind of thing, and so newcomers whose launches underwhelmed are now laying the foundation for solid libraries. (Major players like Disney+ and HBO Max have further sweetened their subscriptions by uploading movies that had been intended for the big screen.) And in a nation still living through a period of political upheaval, it’s no wonder that so many of the best shows continue to foreground issues of identity, caste and social justice. I’m talking, of course, about The Circle.

Call My Agent! (Netflix)

A scene from the second season of 'Call My Agent'
Christophe BRACHET

It’s been compared to Succession and The West Wing, not to mention showbiz satires from Entourage to Flack, but Call My Agent! is very much its own thing. The hour-long French dramedy follows fictional boutique talent agency ASK as its staff juggles demanding clients, chaotic personal lives and their own workaholic tendencies—all while scrambling to save a business that’s floundering in the wake of the founding partner’s death. While the hook is that French cinema icons like Isabelle Huppert and Juliette Binoche guest star as themselves, what kept me bingeing through all four seasons this past winter was the depth of the main characters: agents and assistants at all stages of their careers. Among a universally wonderful cast (that includes an adorable pup named Jean Gabin), the standout is Camille Cottin as Andréa Martel, a super-ambitious young agent who will move mountains for the artists she believes in.

This year’s show-stopping fourth season, intended as the last, offered an episode where Sigourney Weaver dances, a deliciously evil antagonist and a gut-punch finale that would probably have been too dark for a similar American series. Then the show got so popular its producers decided to bring it back for not only a fifth season, but also a feature film—presumably to the delight of many real-life agents.

The Circle (Netflix)

They say that whatever you’re doing on New Year’s is what you’ll be doing for the rest of the year, and in the case of The Circle, that chestnut proved spookily accurate. The reality competition premiered on Jan. 1, 2020 with a novel premise: what if you confined a handful of contestants to separate apartments and forced them to interact exclusively online? Either playing as themselves or constructing a “catfish” identity with fake profile photos, cast members communicated with each other via in-house social media portal The Circle, in an attempt to form bonds that would carry them through a series of eliminations at the hands of their peers.

Even in the Before Times it sounded pretty dull to watch people sit on couches dictating text messages, but the show’s mix of strategy, psychology and human drama turned out to be irresistible. So much so, in fact, that enterprising fans set up their own, remote version of the game during the early months of the pandemic. This spring’s second (official) American season upped the ante with clever challenges, wicked twists, familiar faces and an all-around savvier cast of players. I won’t spoil the perfect finale except to praise the producers for finding so many characters who are equal parts sympathetic and diabolical.

Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)

The overlapping eras of Barack Obama, Donald Trump and the Black Lives Movement have brought no shortage of cultural products that attempt to explain or expose or counteract white supremacy. Some have been shallow, others revelatory. Many examples—Robin DiAngelo’s best-seller White Fragility, Discovery docuseries Why We Hate, 2019 Best Picture winner Green Book—have felt weirdly myopic, ignoring vital context or rushing to supply simple solutions. It’s easy to see why. This is a huge topic, and one that demands a truly global perspective.

That’s what the Haitian filmmaker Raoul Peck (I Am Not Your Negro) brings to Exterminate All the Brutes, a four-part documentary that pairs artful representations of the darkest moments in global history with an experimental narrative in which Josh Hartnett (yes, really) stands in for centuries’ worth of Western oppressors. Instead of attempting a thorough chronology, Peck offers synthesis. Defying a trend toward the particularization of social-justice struggles, he tugs on the threads that unite chattel slavery and the decimation of Indigenous peoples in the Americas; examines how political, religious and economic power have reinforced one another in colonial regimes; and joins his own voice with those of scholars in different disciplines from around the world. There will probably never be a definitive work on this subject, but Brutes, at least, is a brilliant one.

It’s a Sin (HBO Max)

For generations of LGBTQ people in the 20th century, growing up meant leaving home, moving to a big city and getting to live as something like their true selves for the very first time. This didn’t necessarily culminate in a happily-ever-after adulthood, of course, but in finding community, many queer people were able to put their saddest, loneliest years behind them. British TV’s bard of gay life, Russell T Davies (Queer as Folk, Cucumber), captures this thrill of long-awaited liberation in It’s a Sin, his delightful and devastating miniseries about a group of young gay men and their devoted female roommate in 1980s London. He never lets go of that sense of exhilaration—that feeling of having decades in front of you to make your dreams come true—even as the hard-partying kids get blindsided by a deadly virus that hits approximately 10 seconds after their first taste of freedom. There have been many other dramatizations of the early AIDS crisis over the years, yet It’s a Sin feels unusually humane. Davies wagers that he can make viewers love his vivacious, wide-eyed characters without portraying them as perfect people, and the bet pays off in a story whose humor and affection are as contagious as its sorrow, frustration and rage.

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Losing Alice (Apple TV+)

Losing Alice should’ve been huge. An artsy, sexy, suspenseful psychological thriller about a middle-aged filmmaker whose marriage starts to look like a love triangle when a wild, 20-something screenwriter recruits the older woman and her actor husband to help make her debut feature? Fans of David E. Kelley’s HBO output should’ve come running. Instead, whether because it appeared on the often-overlooked Apple TV+ platform or because it got lost in the flood of great foreign-language shows that streamers let loose during lockdown, the Israeli drama seemed to disappear without a trace.

That’s a shame, considering that Losing Alice isn’t just addictive; it’s an insightful exploration of motherhood, aging and the exhilarating, enervating experience of making art, anchored by a stunning lead performance from Ayelet Zurer. Taken together with some of the service’s other highlights (Dickinson, Mythic Quest, Central Park, Ted Lasso), it makes a pretty strong case for giving Apple’s original programming a chance.

Lupin (Netflix)

In a world… where a pandemic raged… movie theaters sat empty for upwards of a year… and the release date of the latest James Bond flick just kept getting pushed back… one Francophone actor emerged to fulfill an ailing planet’s desperate plea for a steady supply of suave, handsome, ingenious action heroes. That man was, of course, Omar Sy, the star of Netflix’s biggest breakout hit of 2021: Lupin. Instead of casting the impossibly smooth Sy as France’s favorite gentleman thief Arsène Lupin in a straightforward revival, creators George Kay and François Uzan reimagined the character as a Senegalese immigrant driven to avenge his dead father.

As directed by Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me), the result was a top-shelf crime thriller with blockbuster-quality action sequences, a sparkling Paris backdrop and a social conscience that filled a void left when the global box office shut down. The show even got American viewers to read subtitles, helping to increase the visibility of international programs on Netflix. The one problem? We only got five episodes. Thankfully, for those about to break down and stream Mortal Kombat, the second half of Lupin’s debut season is set to drop on June 11.

Philly D.A. (PBS)

It’s not exactly a secret that criminal justice in America is broken. From mass incarceration to the for-profit prison industry to police violence against communities of color, it’s no wonder that voices calling for dramatic reforms are growing louder by the year. Progressive prosecutor Larry Krasner, the title character of Philly D.A., is among the most powerful of these voices. The eight-part Independent Lens docuseries follows the unlikely D.A., a former defense attorney who all but clinched a second term with a decisive primary win this month, through his first few years in office.

For a story that unfolds in conference rooms and government office suites, it’s quite a ride. Krasner fires scores of career prosecutors, takes on a powerful police union, fights conventional wisdom on probation and the opioid crisis. Granted incredible access, directors Ted Passon and Yoni Brook paint a portrait that feels favorable yet fair, capturing the new regime’s mistakes and setbacks as well as its triumphs. Nuanced profiles of people on all sides of Krasner’s crusades—including incarcerated people and victims of violent crimes—expand the series’ perspective. For anyone struggling to wrap their mind around one of the oldest and deepest problems in American politics, Philly D.A. would make a fascinating introduction.

Search Party (HBO Max)

Sometimes it takes a show some time to become what it is truly meant to be. In the case of Search Party, that has meant a gradual escalation to the complete and total insanity that was this year’s fourth—and best—season. What began as a clever parody of spoiled New York millennials wrapped in a missing-person mystery, had evolved, by the latest season premiere, into a Misery-style kidnapping thriller and a deeply, almost daringly, pessimistic statement on human nature in general.

As the cast of characters, led by a fearless Alia Shawkat as the inscrutable Dory Sief, has expanded, it’s become clear that privileged 20-somethings aren’t the only ones wreaking thoughtless destruction; it’s everyone, from a bitter assistant D.A. to a nasty right-wing pundit played by SNL’s Chloe Fineman. We may not all be cold-blooded killers, creators Charles Rogers and Sarah Violet-Bliss suggest, but when it comes down to it, we all possess lethal levels of selfishness or pettiness or prejudice or jealousy or insecurity or rage. To reveal more would be to ruin the surprises of a show that thrives on suspense. Just know that this critically beloved series is very worth your while, so buckle up and judge not lest ye be [spoiler].

The Underground Railroad (Amazon)

Could anyone possibly be surprised that Moonlight director Barry Jenkins’ big-budget adaptation of a Pulitzer-winning novel by Colson Whitehead has turned out to be a highlight of the year in television? Probably not. But the series itself—which chronicles a young enslaved woman’s long trek toward freedom on an Underground Railroad that is literally a system of secret, subterranean train transport—is full of astonishments.

From Whitehead, Jenkins picks up the metaphor of Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) Gulliver-like journey north from Georgia, pursued by a cutthroat slave catcher (Joel Edgerton), as an encapsulation of America’s slavery-stained history and present. Then he expands it to fill the widest imaginable screen. His Underground Railroad lingers on individual images, incorporating wordless, lyrical passages that reveal characters’ interior landscapes. Bespoke production design and music give each of the 10 episodes an atmosphere all its own. Most unexpected, yet also most resonant, is the way Jenkins uses his platform to address this country’s shameful legacy of exploiting Black pain as entertainment for white audiences. Instead of erasing this violence, he chooses to confront it, forcing viewers of all identities to reckon with our own relationships to this destructive tradition.

We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)

In its first year of existence, NBCUniversal’s streaming service has struggled to carve out a niche for itself. Sure, Peacock is home to timeless comfort-viewing juggernauts like The Office and Parks and Recreation. But its originals have yet to justify an upgrade from the free tier to a paid subscription. This spring, that has started to change with the arrival of two very different musical comedies about all-female bands: Tina Fey’s zany girl-group reunion sitcom Girls5eva and British import We Are Lady Parts—an even better show (debuting June 3) that chronicles the rise of a young Muslim punk band in London.

Smart, imaginative, energetic and blissfully free of girlbossy, corporate-feminist empowerment messaging, the show enters Lady Parts’ world of camaraderie, catharsis and cannabis through the perspective of their new guitarist: a naive grad student (Anjana Vasan’s Amina) whose priorities had previously been limited to securing a husband and earning her Ph.D in microbiology. Creator Nida Manzoor packs the six-episode season with authentic portraits of friendship, romance and the sheer joy of collective creativity—not to mention a few absolute pop-punk bangers. Every episode is a fast-paced delight. And though she resists the easy clichés of television-as-representation, Manzoor is making a sublime statement just by rendering these one-of-a-kind characters in all of their glorious complexities.

Read the rest of TIME’s best-of 2021 so far coverage:

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