Around this time last year, months before vaccines would become available to most Americans, I received a promotional T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “Hooray for 2021.” Even before the Jan. 6 insurrection and the Greek-alphabet soup of new variants, the sentiment felt willfully naive. This year certainly had its highlights, for many—first vacations or big-screen movies or Thanksgivings with family since March 2020. But amid so much uncertainty and upheaval, plenty of us still spent much of our free time safely curled up on our couches.
TV was there for us, once again, during this interminable limbo, so maybe it’s fitting that 2021 also turned out to be a transitional year for the medium. A boom in second-gen streaming services, from big studios like Warner and Universal as well as tech giants like Apple, that began in 2019 culminated (for now) with the launches of Discovery+ and Paramount+ this past winter. With around a dozen platforms vying to offer everything to everyone, the result was a glut of overlapping titles that I’ve been calling peak redundancy. Somehow, this marketplace that never runs out of space for reality TV or documentary series has recently struggled to make room for network sitcoms—or, really, any realistic scripted shows about the middle classes.
Yet such was the vastness of the TV landscape in 2021 that the existence of many excellent series was also inevitable. Some (probably self-explanatory) trends emerged in my favorite shows of the year, from wealth satire to black comedy to an engagement with historical as well as contemporary injustice. As ever, what I love best about television is its ability to immerse us in lives, brains and social worlds we’d never otherwise inhabit. Hooray for specificity.
10. You (Netflix)
It’s an irresistible premise: a handsome, brooding, bookish romantic turns out to be a psycho killer. But once Penn Badgley’s pretentious predator Joe Goldberg added his ostensible true love to the pile of bodies, at the end of season 1, it was fair to wonder what this insanely popular rom-com satire had left to say about the genre’s creepiest tropes. Happily, instead of repeating itself, the show has continued to find worthy new targets for its addictive brand of social thriller. This year’s third—and best—season sent Joe and his equally unhinged bride (Victoria Pedretti) to a ritzy California town to raise their baby son, and took on everything from momfluencers to male bonding to swingers in a searing sendup of pop culture’s obsession with suburbia.
9. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix)
A reality TV show called Coffin Flop. “Wet steaks,” the profligate (and disgusting) meal of choice for douchebags out on the town. Dan Flashes, a men’s boutique where shirts can cost $450 “because the pattern’s so complicated, you idiot.” The concepts Tim Robinson cooks up for this uproarious sketch comedy, which dropped its second season this year, are so inherently absurd that they shoot straight into the social-media zeitgeist. But they stick around in the cultural ether, I think, because his characters—usually men throwing tantrums for nonsensical reasons—evoke the incoherent anger that defines our era in a way more serious shows never could. Episodes hover around 15 minutes, but the more you revisit them, the better they get.
8. We Are Lady Parts! (Peacock)
In this UK import from first-time creator Nida Manzoor, timid microbiology PhD student Amina (Anjana Vasan) strays from the path to academic achievement, arranged marriage and painstakingly perfect womanhood when her killer guitar chops get her recruited by a local punk band made up entirely of Muslim girls like herself. In just six half-hour episodes, this subversive, frequently hilarious and genuinely—dare I say it?—empowering comedy shatters stereotypes just by authentically inhabiting its specific London milieu. Every character is a whole person, and one we’ve never seen on TV before.
7. Succession (HBO)
HBO’s darkly comic, Murdochian King Lear became a breakout hit in its first two seasons, simultaneously satirizing, challenging and capitalizing on a polarized nation’s obsession with our billionaire elite. Well, as this fall’s third season has made apparent, the show was just getting started. In the aftermath of patriarch Logan’s (Brian Cox) public betrayal at the hands of his love-starved, try-hard son Kendall (Jeremy Strong), the Roy clan has devolved into a civil war conducted mostly through some of the most elaborately uncivil dialogue on television. From Tom (Matthew Macfadyen) and Greg (Nicholas Braun) training for prison stints they’ve decided are inevitable to a weakened Shiv (Sarah Snook) and an upstart Roman (Kieran Culkin) battling over a kiss from Daddy, this still-in-progress season has raised the show’s stakes without sacrificing the petty behavior that makes Succession such cathartic fun.
6. Yellowjackets (Showtime)
Midway through a thrilling first season, it’s still anyone’s guess where this wild post-Lost survival drama with Lord of the Flies overtones is headed. And it’s probably safe to assume that not everyone is getting quite as much pleasure out of this eerie, ’90s-set coming-of-age tale the way I—a child of that decade who grew up watching Yellowjackets stars Christina Ricci, Juliette Lewis and Melanie Lynskey play disturbed teens—am. (Oh well. My list, my rules.) But for what it’s worth, in the course of a 25-year narrative that slowly pieces together what really happened during the 19 months the members of a girls varsity soccer team spent fending for themselves in the wilderness following a plane crash, the show also carves out some of the deepest, strangest and most distinctive characters in recent memory.
5. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
With Reservation Dogs, creators Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi have given TV something it desperately needed: a great dramedy by and about Indigenous people. Set on a reservation in Harjo’s home state of Oklahoma, the year’s best new dramedy follows four teens mourning the loss of a beloved friend as they scam and save after adopting his dream of moving to California as their own. Like many of the best recent shows about youth, from Atlanta to Betty, it has a hazy, surreal-meets-DIY vibe that allows episodes to move fluidly between madcap hijinks, gallows humor and moments of earnest emotion. Add to that a cast of fresh-faced actors who disappear into their roles and scripts that don’t dilute Indigenous culture—or Indigenous anger—for non-Native audiences, and you’ve got a program that’s just as uncompromising as it is groundbreaking.
4. Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)
In a remarkable year for nonfiction TV, I Am Not Your Negro director Raoul Peck’s four-part essay raised the bar for serious art, as well as serious political engagement, in the genre. Instead of zooming in on one manifestation of inequality, as many documentarians have done, he approaches it from the broadest possible perspective, tracing capitalism, colonialism, white supremacy and genocide around the world and through the centuries. He embraces the personal, too, exploring his childhood in Haiti and solidarity with the thinkers who’ve influenced him to illustrate how ideology can shape a life. Not every stylistic choice works, sure, but that’s to be expected when a creator is experimenting as boldly and confidently as Peck does here.
3. Work in Progress (Showtime)
Easily the most underrated series of the past few years, this semi-autobiographical traumedy is a portrait of co-creator and star Abby McEnany as a self-described “fat, queer dyke” battling loneliness and suicidal ideation as she navigates middle age. The burden of representation is, of course, substantial for this kind of story. McEnany wears it lightly, opting for empathy and honesty in her treatment of thorny subjects, like divisions within the LGBTQ community, over prim correctness.
This year’s follow-up to a debut season that found Abby dating a younger trans man (Theo Germaine) and befriending SNL’s Julia Sweeney, whose androgynous Pat character has caused her decades of misery, improved upon its excellent predecessor, as our hero stares down demons that have tormented her since childhood. Flashbacks fill in Abby’s life up through college. Then comes COVID. The rawness is part of the show’s appeal. But what might sound like a downer is buoyed by scenes of tenderness, wonder and expertly deployed cringe comedy.
2. The White Lotus (HBO)
Perhaps the only good thing to come out of our endless pandemic nightmare was this sleeper hit, which originated with HBO soliciting Enlightened creator Mike White for a series that could, for COVID-safety reasons, be shot in a single location. His first smart move was to pick a luxury resort in Hawaii as that setting. (Who wouldn’t want to spend the length of an eight-episode TV shoot in paradise?) White and his ensemble cast—with standout performers including Jennifer Coolidge, Murray Bartlett and Natasha Rothwell—earned every second of that trip, though, with a show that made rich people on vacation the avatars for a mess of contemporary social ills.
Framed in an opening flash-forward as the mystery of which character met with an ultimately death at the eponymous resort (and how), The White Lotus functions more as a hybrid of cringe comedy, wealth satire and vision of a malaise no amount of money can alleviate. The tensions that divide guests and staff, rich and poor, young and old, white and non-white manifest in some of the most hilariously scathing exchanges ever committed to video, from Jake Lacy’s jerky honeymooner character bullying Bartlett’s unraveling manager to the judgmental banter between two hypocritical Marxist mean girls. Yet the show offered greater moral complexity than a brutal takedown like Succession, thanks to the empathy it extended to all but the worst of his compromised characters. Instead of diluting White’s message, that choice implicated viewers by insisting that these clowns and monsters were people not entirely different from ourselves.
1. The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
How do you improve upon—or even just do justice to—a masterpiece? That was the daunting question that faced Moonlight Oscar winner Barry Jenkins in adapting Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Underground Railroad for the small screen. Although it couldn’t have been easy, logistically, recreating a young enslaved woman’s (Thuso Mbedu) journey northward on an anachronistically literal Underground Railroad, what’s more remarkable is how artfully Jenkins translated minimalist prose into an immersive audiovisual and moral landscape, without losing any of Whitehead’s subtle symbolism.
Jenkins has always been a stellar director of actors, and the performances he elicited from Mbedu, Aaron Pierre, Sheila Atim, Joel Edgerton and preteen Chase W. Dillon, who played the inscrutable Black-boy deputy of Edgerton’s bounty hunter, are among the most memorable ever seen on TV. Equally stunning were production design, by Mark Friedberg, and an original score, from Nicholas Britell, that made each episode, and each setting, a fully formed allegorical world.
The Underground Railroad would’ve been a breathtaking achievement in any year. But during one when white supremacists laid siege to our capitol and their allies in government banned educators from so much as mentioning the role racism has played in our nation’s history, it felt as essential as any work of art could be. Nested within this epic escape-from-slavery narrative are trenchant critiques of the racialized violence that still persists, in the name of law and order or science or religion or, yes, even entertainment. Now, as then, the only reliable defense against such carnage is an unkillable drive to reach the end of the tunnel and step into the light.
Betty (HBO), Call My Agent! (Netflix), Dickinson (Apple TV+), It’s a Sin (HBO Max), Losing Alice (Apple TV+), Pen15 (Hulu), Philly DA (PBS), Search Party (HBO Max), Sort Of (HBO Max), Squid Game (Netflix)
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