Connect with us

Features

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



Evil

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



Invincible

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.
Sultan

“Tell the truth but tell it slant”
SUBSCRIBE TO OUR NEWSLETTER
Sign up to receive Slant’s latest reviews, interviews, lists, and more, delivered once a week into your inbox.
Invalid email address

Trending