Best TV Shows of 2021

James Poniewozik

In times like these, I bet you’d love a list of great TV shows that will help you escape the troubles of the world. My apologies. I didn’t plan it this way, but looking over my favorites below, the subject matter includes class conflict, civil war, the threat to democracy and multiple pandemics.

And yet! Watching TV in 2021 was not at all a bummer for me. Because what I also find on this list is ingenuity, humor, defiance, empathy and hope: the things that we need, more than distraction, to get through tough times, and the things that art exists to give us.

Any 10-best TV list these days requires some caveats. Are there really 10? I may have engaged in creative math. Are they really the best? They are the best I’ve seen; nobody, not even a professional, can see everything these days. Are these all really TV shows? What isn’t these days? Most of my picks this year appeared not on TV channels (ask your grandparents what those are) but on streaming services. But however it gets to your screen, the important thing is that it gets in your eyeballs. Here, in alphabetical order, are the best things I put in mine.

What does the internet sound like? What does it feel like? Only a handful of artworks have tried to describe it: among them, in 2021, Patricia Lockwood’s novel “No One Is Talking About This” and “Inside,” the comedic-musical-video equivalent of what another age might have called a concept album. In this masterpiece by the director-comic-YouTuber Burnham, the internet sounds like a carnival barker (“Could I interest you in everything all of the time?”) and feels like a nervous breakdown. Combining personal angst with the shut-in experience of the pandemic and the sensory overload of digital life, Burnham captures the particular madness of social-media existence, in which the voices outside your head become the voices inside it. (Streaming on Netflix.)

Apple TV+ gave us a world-class comedy about empathy and the importance of living by one’s passions. It also gave us “Ted Lasso.” The streaming platform’s best series depicted Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) not as a literary recluse but as an ambitious, lyric-drunk artist hungry to live and work. The creator, Alena Smith, gave the series an absurdist sensibility that nonetheless took its literary and Civil War-era history seriously. It burned short and bright, premiering both its second and its third and final seasons in 2021. But at least, as opposed to its subject’s work, we were able to appreciate “Dickinson” in its own time. (Streaming on Apple TV+.)

What could the essential drama of the Trump era possibly have to say after the Trump presidency? Plenty. Season 5 of this legal series was a surreal ride haunted by the George Floyd protests and the Jan. 6 attack on democracy. Its sneakiest gambit was a story arc about Hal Wackner (Mandy Patinkin), an amateur judge who set up a court in a Chicago copy shop. A quirky running joke became a chilling lesson in how the law is only as strong as people’s willingness to believe in it — a fitting punchline for an age when clownery can turn deadly serious. (Streaming on Paramount+.)

The year’s two best new comedy series were love stories disguised as hate stories. In “Hacks,” a late-career Vegas comic (an incendiary Jean Smart) and her millennial apprentice (Hannah Einbinder) form an insult-comedy partnership that blooms into respect. Likewise, the four central teens of “Dogs” tell you immediately why they can’t wait to escape their Oklahoma reservation town. But what follows over the first season, from Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi (“What We Do in the Shadows”), is the kind of deep character comedy, rich detail and community portraiture that can only come from loving the thing you want to leave. (Streaming on HBO Max and Hulu.)

Russell T Davies’s requiem for the lives lost to AIDS in the 1980s was as heartbreaking and furious as you might have expected. What you might not have expected was how vibrant, joyous and even funny it was — a story of wasteful death that derived its power from being full of life. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

The documentary filmmakers Ted Passon and Yoni Brook captured no trial scenes because of restrictions on shooting, but the sweeping story of efforts to reform the Philadelphia district attorney’s office involved themes of policing, security and equality far beyond the courthouse walls. District Attorney Larry Krasner (who won re-election in November) made for a prickly, passionate protagonist, but this was really the story of a city and a country. (Streaming on and Topic.)

This limited series, which arrives Dec. 16, is about a global pandemic that wipes out most of humanity, and I am assuming I’ve scared off at least half of you already. But hear me out: The adaptation by Patrick Somerville (“The Leftovers”) of the 2014 novel by Emily St. John Mandel is moving, eccentrically funny and even hopeful. Following a Shakespeare troupe that travels the Midwest 20 years after doomsday, it invites us to ask what we want to survive us after we’ve done the old mortal-coil shuffle. (Streaming on HBO Max beginning Dec. 16.)

The zero-sum corporate squid game that is “Succession” became a civil war in Season 3, as the Roys met the enemy and it was them. Among a uniformly great cast, Jeremy Strong had a stellar season as the renegade scion Kendall, trying to reinvent himself as a gold-plated-whistleblower but crashing up against his weakness and self-doubt. (Caveat: I included this show without having seen the Dec. 12 season finale. But having to make a risky decision with limited information is about the most “Succession” thing a TV list-maker could do.) (Streaming on HBO Max.)

Colson Whitehead’s tour de force novel was an escape-from-slavery story with a twist: The “railroad” carrying people to slavery was physical and real. In his transfixing limited-series adaptation, the director Barry Jenkins did not just create the railroad. He built a series of palaces. Stunningly composed, with a score and sound design that made its world tactile, “The Underground Railroad” was a tour of an alternative America that distorted reality in order to render it more truly. (Streaming on Amazon.)

Acerbic and generous, vicious and transcendent, Mike White’s story of elites on holiday in Hawaii was the summer’s best getaway. It was cuttingly funny about the privileged and their demands — from the help, from one another and from the universe. Its nuanced dialogue and acute performances (Jennifer Coolidge and Murray Bartlett were two standouts among many) made for a package tour of class conflict and self-discovery, all for one high, high price. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

On the list last year, so let’s give someone else a chance: “PEN15” (Hulu); “What We Do in the Shadows” (FX).

Honorable mentions: “City of Ghosts” (Netflix), “Couples Therapy” (Showtime), “Dave” (FXX), “For All Mankind” (Apple TV+), “The Great” (Hulu), “Infinity Train” (HBO Max), “I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson” (Netflix), “WandaVision” (Disney+), “We Are Lady Parts” (Peacock) and “Yellowjackets” (Showtime).

Flawed but fascinating: “David Makes Man” (OWN), “Kevin Can ____ Himself” (AMC), “Made for Love” (HBO Max) and “Rutherford Falls” (Peacock).

mike hale

International television got a big boost in the American consciousness this year with the commotion surrounding “Squid Game,” Netflix’s cynical South Korean thriller. But shows from outside the United States have been a defining, even dominating part of the TV and streaming mix for more than a decade now; they just have to be found. Here, in alphabetical order, are the 10 that moved me most among the new shows and seasons that had their U.S. premieres in 2021.

A comic soap opera, a melodramatic comedy — the elements are in perfect balance in this French series about a tempestuous Paris talent agency that is always on the brink of implosion. The comedy comes in because everyone is always working an angle; the sentiment because at the end of the day, the agents at ASK really do care about their clients and one another. The fourth season maintained the show’s method of simultaneously satirizing and affectionately fetishizing those A-list clients, many of whom appear as themselves — Sigourney Weaver asking an agent to slice her breakfast pastry, Sandrine Kiberlain negotiating a midlife crisis by embarking on a career in stand-up. The headwinds for ASK were worse than ever, though, and melodrama had the upper hand; the season ended with what was clearly meant to be a series finale. Now that a fifth season (and a film) have been ordered, the writers eventually will have to come up with another way to end the series. (Streaming on Netflix.)

The BBC’s adaptations of J.K. Rowling’s Cormoran Strike mystery novels reached a new peak with the fourth series, a story of blackmail and familial depravity. Tom Burke and Holliday Grainger work wonderfully together as Cormoran, a moody London detective, and his former secretary turned partner, Robin Ellacott, both of whom carry burdens of post-traumatic stress — each must always be aware of when the other is in danger, physically and emotionally. In the course of “Lethal White,” Robin marries and then pulls away from the rigid Matthew (Kerr Logan), leaving the field open for more barely suppressed, furiously awkward sexual tension between her and Cormoran. The next installment, “Troubled Blood,” is scheduled to begin filming in early 2022. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

The popular Korean-drama star Jung Hae-in goes decidedly unromantic as a soldier assigned to a unit that tracks down and brings back deserters, a task for which the recruit’s unflagging sense of duty makes him perfect and his compassion makes him perfectly unsuited. The show veers between slapstick action and overflowing sentiment, like many South Korea dramas, and the pursuit and apprehension of the deserters involves a lot of punching, slapping, tackling, tasing and hitting with baseball bats. But the show is also a sensitive and forthright examination of how violent, sadistic bullying and rigid hierarchies drive young South Korean men to go to almost any length to escape their compulsory military service. (Streaming on Netflix.)

Yes, this old-school, supremely satisfying mystery series ended its run in Denmark nine years ago, after spawning an American remake called “The Killing.” (The Danish title translates as “The Crime.”) But when Topic made all three seasons available this year, it was the first time that the show that put Nordic noir over the top had streamed or been broadcast in the United States. Now you can finally catch up with Sofie Grabol’s commanding performance as the emotionally distant, doggedly persistent detective (and, during one bad patch, border guard) Sarah Lund. (Streaming on Topic.)

It was a good year, in at least one way, for fans of this mostly riveting Neapolitan gangster saga: After an agonizingly long gap because of rights issues, the third and fourth seasons arrived in the United States within months of each other. Season 3 ended badly, both for one of the major characters and for viewers disappointed by the predictability and hokiness of the season’s finale. But Season 4 got right back on track, with the bonus of an expanded role — and a love interest! — for Cristiana Dell’Anna’s compelling character, the accidental drug dealer Patrizia. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

Gabrielle Creevy pulls off a difficult trick in this kitchen-sink coming-of-age story set in Wales: She keeps us on the side of a teenager, named Bethan, whose defenses are so forbidding and so constant that she can be very hard to put up with. The second and final season of Kayleigh Llewellyn’s BBC Three dramedy took the smart, sarcastic, self-hating Bethan through high school, and through another harrowing series of ups and downs with her bipolar mother, played with heartbreaking grace by Jo Hartley. (Streaming on Hulu.)

Jean-Xavier de Lestrade’s dramatization of a sensational real-life missing-persons case is devastating both as crime drama and as quietly damning sociology, making palpable the effects of economic decline, state negligence and male violence in a depressed stretch of provincial France. It borders on hopelessness but it’s never dreary, thanks to the sensitive and subtle work of de Lestrade and his writing partner, Antoine Lacomblez, and fine work by two pairs of performers — Marie Colomb and Sophie Breyer, and the child actors Milla Dubourdieu and Léwine Weber — as the missing Laetitia and her anguished twin, Jessica. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

Scott Ryan’s dark and deadpan comedy about a 21st-century Australian man caught between the duties of fatherhood and friendship and those of honor — which is to say, the need to bash in the faces of the unfortunately large number of blokes whose faces need bashing — wrapped up with a brisk third season. Ryan’s character Ray Shoesmith, first introduced in a 2005 film, was once again quietly capable yet helplessly buffeted by fate, and he got into the usual sort of violent and farcical troubles. This time they threatened to end his career as hit man and fixer and to curtail his relationship with his wise young daughter (the marvelous Chika Yasumura), but they couldn’t take away his joy in setting the world’s jackasses straight. (Streaming on Hulu.)

The best crime procedural not set in New York, Baltimore or Birmingham ended its eight-season, 15-year run as it began — tense, complex, moving and authentic (even when its action spiraled out of control). The fallout from the maverick methods and routine rule-breaking of the central cops, Gilou and Laure (Thierry Godard and the captivating Caroline Proust), was at the heart of the final season’s story, as Laure tried to hold her team together and Gilou tried to earn his way back onto the force. And it played out, as always, against the backdrop of a teeming, scrappy, unglamorous Paris not often seen on American screens. (Streaming on MHz Choice.)

This latest hit from Britain’s Channel 4 (home over the years to “Skins,” “Black Mirror” and “Da Ali G Show”) is one part irreverent, intersectional empowerment fable and one part adorable rom-com with nods to Bridget Jones and Jane Austen. Anjana Vasan, known as a stage actress and singer-songwriter, is wide-eyed and charming as a microbiology student and folk-singing music teacher whose burning desire for a husband gets her entangled with an all-woman, all-Muslim punk band. (Streaming on Peacock.)

Margaret Lyons

One challenge in assembling a list of the best shows that ended this year is that so few things really end — presumably some of these series will be revived or rebooted or extended somehow. For example, is “Bosch” really ending if there’s a spinoff called “Bosch: Legacy” that’s still about Bosch?

To qualify for my list, shows had to air new episodes in 2021 and also officially end; plenty of great shows aired what will turn out to be their final seasons this year, but their fates were not yet sealed at time of publication. Mini-series and limited series were not eligible.

I can’t in good conscience say, with absolute certainty, that these are the 10 best shows that ended this year because despite my best efforts, I haven’t watched everything. I’m sure I’m leaving off wonderful and beloved series, perhaps some I’ve never even heard of. The blessing and the curse of Peak TV and global streaming services is that there’s always another great show. But these are the best I saw, in alphabetical order.

What a shame that HBO canceled this loose comedy about young female skateboarders in New York City after only two seasons — it felt as if it was just getting started. “Betty” was chock-full of highdeas and golden-hour cityscapes, of new love and late nights and strange advice. (Props to Kirt, played by Nina Moran, whose instructions to heterosexual men included “more tiny kisses” and “burp through your nose.”) It was also one of the few shows to engage with mid-pandemic existence; our heroines wore masks inside bodegas because in “Betty,” as in life, you can’t skip the hard parts. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

This doofy, glorious comedy had a strange run. Its first five seasons aired on Fox, and then it moved to NBC for its next three, with shorter and shorter episode orders and over a year between its seventh and eighth seasons, as audience appetite waned for a lighthearted cop show with fantasies of police reform. But the silly cold opens, joyful wordplay and cartoony bounce never faded, and the abundant long-running gags made watching the series feel like being on the inside of an inside joke. (Streaming on Peacock.)

This one stings. After its first, beautiful season on Cartoon Network in 2019, I didn’t think we’d ever get more “Infinity Train.” But then we did! Two seasons aired on Cartoon Network, and then the show moved to HBO Max for two more, only to be canceled in its prime. The animated show is set on a magical train whose cars are each strange little worlds, some hilarious and some dangerous. Each season follows different characters, but everyone is on a quest of self discovery — conquering, or maybe just accepting, grief and regrets and all the bumps in the road. “Infinity Train” was whimsical and fantastical, silly and funny, perceptive and complex, and it had a deer named Alan Dracula and a corgi holiday called The Feast of a Thousand Chicken Nuggets. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

Over its five seasons, “Insecure,” created by Issa Rae and Larry Wilmore, helped define the present-day version of the secondary coming-of-age comedy — shows about the post-college but pre-whatever-else-is-supposed-to-happen phase when you’re grown but unsettled. It’s a fraught time when every first date could be the last first date, career choices feel burdensome rather than exciting, and you can never tell if you’re ahead or behind; “Insecure” captured all of that and more through a Black female lens with marvelous specificity. Comedies feel more special when the characters find one another funny, when the jokes aren’t just for the audience’s benefit, and that’s another area where “Insecure” always shined. Beyond its humor (and music supervision, and costume design …), “Insecure” is a symphony about friendship, and not just the shiny good parts. It understood the judgmental, jealous and resentful parts, too — bonds that surpass love and like. (Streaming on HBO Max.)

This comedy about a Korean Canadian family started out as a play and ended abruptly after its fifth season, when the creators, Ins Choi and Kevin White, left the show. Despite some unevenness over its 65 episodes, “Kim’s” was most often a low-key kind of show, gently paced and easy to like, a single-camera comedy that felt like a multicamera one in style and approach. But it was still packed with genuine and potent tensions, especially between Appa (Paul Sun-Hyung Lee) and Jung (Simu Liu), the stern father and his mostly distant son. (Streaming on Netflix.)

The jokes on “Mom” were rarely good, but the story lines always were, and the show’s outlook was bright and precise: Change is hard, but change is possible. This multicamera network comedy ran for 170 episodes over eight seasons, and I’m not sure there has ever been another long-running series that so wholly reinvented itself — let alone as successfully and as often — as “Mom” managed to. It started out following Bonnie (Allison Janney) and her once-estranged daughter, Christy (Anna Faris), their A.A. meetings, Christy’s workplace and her children and ex. First the workplace setting receded, then the kids were written out. Then “Mom” turned more of its attention to the other women at the 12-step meetings, and they became the center so much that Faris’s departure in its final season barely registered. And yet … “Mom” always still felt like itself, broad and welcoming and really about something. (Streaming on Hulu.)

Even though “Pose” ran for only three seasons, it covered about a decade in its characters’ lives. And a lot can happen in 10 years: a lot of suffering and an incomprehensible amount of loss, but also self-actualization and flourishing, love and joy. Set within New York City’s drag ballroom scene in the ’80s and ’90s, “Pose,” created by Steven Canals, Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy, is one of few shows to center transgender women of color, and it never shied away from the abuses and indignities its characters survived. But “Pose” was also a celebration, a juicy soap and one of TV’s most kinetic and dance-intensive shows. (Streaming on Netflix.)

While there was plenty of humor and insight to enjoy in Seasons 2 and 3, the crown jewel of “Shrill” will always be its fourth episode, “Pool,” when Annie (Aidy Bryant) attends a pool party that finally helps her escape the “mind prison” of self-loathing. Based on the memoir “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” by Lindy West, the TV show was specifically about a fat woman learning how to stop apologizing for her own existence. But more generally, it was about accepting love and rejecting harm. (Streaming on Hulu.)

God, it’s like nobody even swashbuckles anymore. “Wynonna Earp,” a sci-fi horror show about a demon-hunting descendant of Wyatt Earp, always seemed to be getting away with something — it felt too clever and too ridiculous to really be on television. While it’s not uncommon for shows with elaborate mythologies to lose their magical forests for the trees, “Wynonna Earp,” thanks in part to Melanie Scrofano’s performance as Wynonna, never lost sight of its emotional core or snazzy sense of fun. (Streaming on Netflix.)

Honestly, huge swaths of “Younger” were terrible, and in its final season, the show barely limped across the finish line. But when it was great, “Younger,” created by Darren Star and starring Sutton Foster as a woman who lies about her age to get a job in publishing, was a ton of fun, the kind of show that sparks a quiet little “yay” in your brain each time an episode begins. Yay, let’s be BFFs and wear outrageous outfits to work, where we will support and understand each other. Yay, let’s have fizzy romances with Brooklyn hunks and sexy bosses. Yay, put on this necklace the size of a meteor and scold me. Yay, jokes about books and authors. Yay, Debi Mazar is here. Yay, yay, yay. (Streaming on Paramount+.)

Honorable mentions: “PEN15,” which announced its finale too close to deadline for regular list consideration (Hulu); “On My Block,” which is getting a spinoff (Netflix); “Goliath” (Amazon Prime Video); and “Conan” (TBS).

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