The 20 Best TV Shows of 2021

These 20 shows thwarted our expectations and forced us to recalibrate what we thought TV could be.

It's a Sin
Photo: HBO

In 2021, television remained our great escape. Long-running comedies such as Curb Your Enthusiasm and Bob’s Burgers continued to bring the laughs at a time when we needed them most. Horror (and horror-adjacent) shows like Chucky and Brand New Cherry Flavor helped us exorcise our increasingly realized fears with both brains and nuance. Performance-driven series like Mare of Easttown, buttressed by tour-de-force turns by Kate Winslet and Jean Smart, gave us insight into how trauma can change and challenge us. And deliciously scathing satires of the upper crust, including Mike White’s The White Lotus and Jesse Armstrong’s Succession, allowed us to live vicariously through the well-fixed—even as they confirmed our worst suspicions about justice and accountability. From WandaVision to The Great, these 20 shows thwarted our expectations and forced us to recalibrate what we thought TV could be. Sal Cinquemani


20. Evil

Though the series has migrated from CBS to Paramount+, Evil continues its mission to turn the standard network procedural format inside out. The show’s central trio of Catholic church assessors continue their curiously regular work, dispatched to look for miracles or demonic activity but usually left without a definitive answer, as the rational explanations stretch credulity and coincidence to their breaking points. Between a murder cover-up, a demon cult, and an unscrupulous fertility clinic, the overarching storylines tie themselves into ever more arcane knots as the series grows more confident and audacious in its plotting, gleefully unencumbered by any mandate for a tidy conclusion. The show’s issues are willfully unsolvable within a case-of-the-week format, sliding into truly unexpected directions as it does things like take a direct shot at the TV copaganda machine or draw direct analogs between Amazon workers and slaves. And it does all this while seeming either bracingly unaware of a horror rulebook or choosing to willfully ignore it, risking (and often achieving) abject silliness rather than scariness but cultivating a truly rare sense of unhinged unpredictability. Steven Scaife


19. Invincible

A remarkably capacious and nimble animated series based on the comics created by writer Robert Kirkman and artist Cory Walker, Invincible recaptures what our current glut of superhero fiction largely loses sight of: the pleasure that superheroes must feel when wielding their powers. Not the sacred satisfaction of helping the downtrodden, but the id-centered thrills of soaring through the sky and inflicting hurt on those deemed deserving. The series is initially set up as a fairly lighthearted coming-of-age story, but this isn’t a starry-eyed superhero story, as lives are on the line, and young practitioners struggle to grow up quickly. Niv M. Sultan

Brand New Cherry Flavor

18. Brand New Cherry Flavor

Brand New Cherry Flavor is adapted from Todd Grimson’s book of the same name, and much of show’s imagery recalls Antosca’s underappreciated horror anthology Channel Zero, retaining his gift for creative depictions of the nightmarish and the bizarre. Influences run the gamut from Cronenbergian orifices to an atmosphere of inexplicable wrongness reminiscent of David Lynch and Thomas Ligotti. But for as much as it abounds in disturbing sights (more than once do bad things happen to eyeballs), the series keeps a much cleaner focus on characterization than Channel Zero. The series hits the usual beats of such a story but with surprising subtlety given how frequently it traffics in the outlandish and grotesque. Scaife

Curb Your Enthusiasm

17. Curb Your Enthusiasm

Curb Your Enthusiasm is known for diving headlong into politically or representationally thorny issues, but the 11th season of Larry David’s enduring HBO comedy hit its stride tackling the most mundane of problems. The season’s primary thread is Larry’s efforts to cast and shoot another show loosely based on his life, which seems doomed to fail after he’s strong-armed into hiring Maria Sofia (Keyla Monterroso Mejia), the daughter of a local taqueria owner with no major acting experience, for a pivotal role. Mejia’s brash and diffident performance enters the stratosphere in “The Mini Bar,” after Larry sends her to acting classes with his ex-wife, Cheryl (Cheryl Hines), and she delivers an uproariously confident and incompetent monologue. The episode also boasts terrific work from series regular Vince Vaughn, gently parrying away all of Larry’s suggestions of products that will elevate the hotel minibar. Perhaps most ingeniously, the series finds common cause for long-running rivals Larry and Susie (Susie Essman) to bond over, as they rescue a dinner party from hell by insisting that the seating chart be rearranged. Curb Your Enthusiasm is cherished for its easy willingness to wade into cultural issues, but it’s episodes like “The Mini Bar” that reveal how it’s one of the nimblest comedies on TV, able to find endless new variations on longstanding themes.
Christopher Gray


Mare of Easttown

16. Mare of Easttown

Detective work is merely scaffolding for Mare of Easttown’s beguiling dive into the titular town’s psyche. The community is filled with long bloodlines and tangled familial webs, as everyone is someone’s cousin or uncle or mistress. Intrigue flows from these connections in enticing abundance, often stemming from Detective Mare Sheehan’s (Kate Winslet) many relationships, both fractured and budding. Even the smallest of conversations seems to subtly or explosively elucidate the characters’ pasts and personalities. Winslet, with her slight head tilts and avoidance of eye contact, masterfully conveys Mare’s vulnerability. The camera tends to linger on her face, zooming in at a crawl as she unspools, with aching logic, what she rarely says aloud. Mare, like the series as a whole, is pained but unsentimental, all but numb to the horrors surrounding and within her.


15. WandaVision

It’s admirable how sharply WandaVision deviates from what most viewers might expect from the first Marvel series to hit a streaming service. The fine line that it toes, between the sitcom sendup’s near-cloying cuteness and the unnerving jolts of its interruptions, is eccentric enough to almost make viewers forget that they’re watching a flagship series inheriting the billion-dollar legacy of the Marvel IP. The series apes mid-century sitcoms: their black-and-white images, cheery theme songs, and use of laugh tracks. It’s a pleasantly snappy shtick bolstered by the ample theatricality of stars Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany. WandaVision is endearingly insular, occupying its own quiet, odd, fenced-in space. Sultan

The Great

14. The Great

Coups, like marriages, take work. The Great’s second season depicts, with hilarious anachronisms and winsome colorfulness, the ongoing efforts of Empress Catherine of Russia (Elle Fanning) to overthrow her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult). Undergirding the show’s comedy is a compassionate reflection on the power of family to suffocate. Mothers—like Johanna Elisabeth of Holstein-Gottorp, portrayed deliciously by Gillian Anderson—are withholding or overbearing, fathers are absent or dead, and uncles and aunts are manipulative. But hope gains ground. For Peter, the allure of a son eclipses that of the throne, and his revitalized perspective brings with it increasingly frequent flashes of thoughtfulness. Catherine, meanwhile, takes motherhood—not of her unborn child, but of her sprawling adopted home—as her life’s work. She’s either admirably or naïvely devoted to enlightening her new people, be it at the cost of solitude, deposition, or death. Sultan

The Underground Railroad

13. The Underground Railroad

“A plantation was a plantation,” Colson Whitehead wrote in his 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad. “One might think one’s misfortunes distinct, but the true horror lay in their universality.” It’s that sense of infinite trauma—spreading across the United States, backward and forward throughout history, and deep into the souls of the enslaved—that comes across most palpably in the 10-part adaptation of the book, which is unsparingly and expansively directed by Barry Jenkins. On her flight from the Georgia plantation that her mother vanished from years earlier, Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) is asked to share the story of her pain. In Whitehead’s version of history, the railroad isn’t a metaphor but a real underground transportation system with stationmasters and conductors and locomotives, some with curtained windows and wine aboard. Every stop represents a new hope and space for testimony: She’s caught in the balance between the promise of a future at peace and the certainty that the past will not leave her alone. Dan Rubins


Squid Game

12. Squid Game

Netflix’s Squid Game has a concept built for fascinating sociological conflict, capturing widespread class discontent through clean, eye-catching costumes and production design. The show’s destitute participants wager their lives, playing kids’ games in hopes of winning money to pay off their debts but mostly getting killed instead. The overseer considers the games a “fair” system, but even beyond the obvious danger, the undercurrent of humiliation is hard to shake; the players are infantilized, made to perform for their charity while trusted with nothing more complex than activities for children. As a group, they regress, breaking off into factions to rekindle the practices and biases of the schoolyard that gain a terrible new dimension: Weaknesses like age, injury, and naïvete are to be taken advantage of, while less desirable groups are to be excluded. Society’s prejudices are carried in from the outside and reconstructed in hopes that they might lead to victory. Scaife

Bob’s Burgers

11. Bob’s Burgers

Always a model of gently hilarious consistency, Loren Bouchard’s animated family comedy is grooving at an extremely high frequency, particularly as it presents subplots where the Belchers attempt to reconcile their ideals with their beleaguered financial state. In the excellent “Crystal Mess,” Bob (H. Jon Benjamin) buys a crate of misshapen produce from the farmer’s market, but his regulars are uninterested in culinary innovation. “FOMO You Didn’t” finds Linda (John Roberts) showing their apartment to a family who used to live there, who bemoan the state of the home and rearrange its furniture. Such plots are as funny as they are poignant, but Bob’s Burgers also shines when the Belcher children attempt to take injustice into their own hands, as evident in the wonderful “Beach, Please,” where Louise (Kristen Schaal) discovers that an environmental cleanup day is really an instance of unpaid labor thanks to the corruption of local landlord Mr. Fischoeder (Kevin Kline). If Bob’s culinary aspirations remain thwarted, the series still deftly mixes the salty and the sweet. Gray


10. Hacks

The elegant trick of the debut season of Hacks was to gradually transform a series about a clash of generations and ideals—represented by the pious (and recently “cancelled”) Gen-Z comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) and the Joan Rivers-esque, avowedly capitalistic Las Vegas comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart)—into a wide-ranging discourse about authenticity. Ava digs into Deborah’s archives and discovers that her seeming professional complacency isn’t just a defensive posture, but a shrine to a feminist comedy that was once itself revolutionary. As the duo come to appreciate one another, Hacks becomes a fascinating study of what women of different backgrounds and social standing are comfortable telling themselves, one another, and the greater public at large. Bolstered by an excellent supporting cast, the series is perhaps the primary recent example of a comedy discovering its voice as its characters discover one another. Gray

Sex Education

9. Sex Education

Sex Education suggests a bigger-hearted, live-action companion piece to Big Mouth, and in its third season it packs so much story and angst into any one episode that the results are practically dizzying. As the foil to all of its teenage characters’ desires, Moordale’s new headmistress, Hope Haddon (Jemima Kirke), is allowed the sort of free reign to rebrand the school that at times strains credibility. But, then, Sex Education has always straddled the line between fantasy and reality, and Hope’s cruelty to the perpetually horny and confused students of Moordale detonated everything they thought they knew about themselves. Beautifully progressive, and in ways that never feel as if they exist for their own sake, the series remains alive to everyone’s complicated desires and how their often at odds with everything from family life to cultural background. And in thrusting its characters, young and old, into minefields of personal discord, wherein which they reinvent themselves anew, it’s as if the series is also revealing them to us for the first time. Ed Gonzalez



8. Chucky

With Chucky, Child’s Play creator Don Mancini picks up where his 2017 film Cult of Chucky left off, seeding references from the various films in the long-running franchise about a crimson-haired killer doll without getting mired in concerns over continuity. The series initially takes something of a back-to-basics approach to what has become a very strange mythos, opting for a gruesome and surprisingly insightful coming-of-age story. At the same time, Chucky retains a lot of the silly humor and gruesomely creative violence inherent to the premise of a surly killer doll. It walks a fascinating tonal tightrope as a funny, absurd series that engenders sympathy as well as shock for characters who are more than worthy of our derision. It creates a world of malleable, alienated kids failed to varying degrees by their parents, and then it expresses the danger of what they find once they’re pushed away. Scaife

Big Mouth

7. Big Mouth

Netflix’s uproarious animated comedy recognizes that puberty is less a caterpillar’s metamorphosis than a werewolf’s curse—a change that renders its victims mercurial, hungry, and hairy. Season five of Big Mouth introduces “hate worms” into the show’s menagerie of fantastical beasts that represent the main characters’ feelings, granting a few unlucky kids their own personal Gríma Wormtongues, who whisper terrible nothings in their ears. One of these slithering creatures fuels a delectable heel turn by the nerdy Missy (Ayo Edebiri), who’s navigating new urges, confused about her identity, and surrounded by insensitive dolts. Her hate worm, in other words, is right—and Missy’s rage is a reasonable, even virtuous, reaction to the tempest of her hormones. For all its raucous, crude hilarity, though, Big Mouth is tenderhearted, wholly committed to affording its teenage malcontents time and space to wade through a kaleidoscope of sensations. The path to growth is riddled with perhaps indulgent embarrassment, which the series understands is the nature of the beast. Sultan

Reservation Dogs

6. Reservation Dogs

What could have been a thin and familiar premise is elevated by a striking sense of authenticity, as Reservation Dogs was shot, in part, on location in Okmulgee, Oklahoma, as well as conceived by indigenous writers and directors. Throughout, the series uses rusted buildings and decaying rural streets to explore the geography of its characters’ lives in all its prickly, go-nowhere ennui, which makes unmistakably clear why these kids want to get out of Dodge. The show’s homage to Quentin Tarantino, who so frequently works in pastiche, is both funny in its deployment and a clear and sturdy statement of intent. Indeed, the Rez Dogs’ upbringing is informed by the vestiges of popular culture, and Reservation Dogs sees them as fusions of native and outside influences. There’s a thematic power to the show’s aimlessness: Even if the kids run away, where can they share these specific, mashed-up values except among themselves? Scaife

Ted Lasso

5. Ted Lasso

If Ted Lasso unconditionally clings to hope that people are essentially good, it at least recognizes how competition and pressure can warp even the kindest souls. The second season’s most heartwarming sequence chronicles an annual holiday open house that director of football operations Leslie Higgins (Jeremy Swift) and his family host for the team’s expat players, as the party endearingly contextualizes the boyishness of the athletes, Higgins’s fatherly commitment to his colleagues, and the difficulty of being far away from home. No one feels the latter more than the newly divorced Ted (Jason Sudeikis), who spends an agonizing Christmas away from his son for the first time. Sudeikis crushingly conveys Ted’s vulnerability, and it’s hard to watch the character’s slow implosion without thinking of the pain that often courses through the goofiest of comedians, or Sudeikis’s recent split from Olivia Wilde. The way the series unearths Ted’s heartache makes Ted Lasso more than just a sharp comedy. It’s a wholehearted embrace of humanity, thorns and all. Sultan



4. Succession

If the second season of HBO’s marvelous corporate dramedy was defined by large social occasions that devolve into calamitous failed deals, the show’s third season has dwelled on the distance between the members of the Roy clan. Would-be feminist whiz-kid Kendall (Jeremy Strong) fails to persuade his siblings, and seemingly anyone, to join his crusade against patriarch Logan’s (Brian Cox) troglodytic reign. Sister Shiv’s (Sarah Snook) gestures toward progressive values are mocked and undermined at every turn, while her husband, Tom (Matthew MacFayden), curries favor by merely accepting that he may be going to prison. Only the youngest Roy, Roman (Kieran Culkin), seems to be in his father’s good graces, thanks to his courting of a nativist presidential candidate (in the season highlight “What It Takes”) and a dizzying stream of brutal insults volleyed at each of his siblings, all of which seem to draw blood in a manner new to a series full of plainly numb and unsympathetic characters. More than ever, Succession feels like a circular firing squad, a glamorous and uniquely ugly text about the impossibility of real change in America’s halls of power. Gray

Master of None

3. Master of None: Moments In Love

At the start of Master of None: Moments In Love, Denise (Lena Waithe) and Alicia (Naomi Ackie) are very much in love, though it’s easy to anticipate the cracks that will form in their relationship, and bring it to ruin, given how Denise struggles under the expectations set by her first book, a New York Times bestseller, and her less-than-enthusiastic rubber-stamping of Alicia wanting a child. The show’s metatextual curlicues are still there, beginning with the almost Bergmanesque unsparingness of the season’s 4:3 boxy Academy aspect ratio, which isn’t only a wink to their being fewer characters at the center of any given episode, but a reflection of how our choices narrow with age. In between dropping really funny bits of business into some not-so-funny scenarios—like when Alicia’s doctor (Pandora Colin) casually mentions that most insurance companies don’t have a code for “gay and desires pregnancy” but have one for being attacked by an orca—Waithe and co-writer and director Aziz Ansari ruefully ponder everything from complacency to the inevitable fate of all things. Which is to say that the third season of Master of None is consistent with its predecessors for so easily entwining us in what feels like a free-floating polyphony of life. Gonzalez

It’s a Sin

2. It’s a Sin

A number of films and TV shows have exploited the start of the AIDS epidemic for sentimentalized, woe-is-us pathos, but Russell T Davies has never been partial to pity. What distinguishes his work is how vivaciously alive and uproariously funny it tends to be, even as your heart breaks. It goes without saying that, in creator and writer Davies’s world, two strangers can effortlessly segue from eating ass to being best buds. And there’s something truly sublime about the way that It’s a Sin visualizes the development of a group’s friendship in time-collapsing, tracking-shot-heavy shorthand. Davies has always gone big in his dramas about queer life, particularly in the monologues. And the actors here are gifted climactic arias brimming with heart-rending poignance and righteous clarity. Still, there’s something about It’s a Sin that feels summative, as if this is the work that Davies has been building to since he broke out of his own creative closet over two decades ago. And we’re all the richer for his effort. Keith Uhlich

The White Lotus

1. The White Lotus

Often funny and always wicked, The White Lotus spends its time patiently rending apart the images its characters have of each other and of themselves, as suppressed feelings break through the cultivated, sanitized façades that comprise their lifestyles. The series is less a situational comedy about the stress of vacation than a satire on white American privilege. But it’s one in which the laughs are often supplanted by intimations of a barely obscured and gathering darkness, and in which the plot often appears subordinate to the seductive atmosphere of Disneyfied decadence gradually sliding into degradation. This offbeat dramedy hardly counts as Marxist allegory, but its depiction of the pretensions of the ruling class splintering under the weight of inner contradictions might qualify it as a fellow traveler. Its simultaneously feverish and methodical demolition of the myth of the innocent vacation makes it a mesmerizing critique of a certain kind of American dream. Pat Brown


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