TV never really left, per se, but 2021 certainly did its part to bring it back. Disney+ relaunched the Marvel Universe with the captivating WandaVision, prestige TV like Mare of Easttown became appointment viewing, Netflix had the slam dunk of the year with Squid Game, and a new era of book-to-tv adaptations kept coming and did not stop coming.
These are the shows that kept us guessing, got us obsessed, made us cry, cracked the best jokes, and otherwise rose above the rest during TV’s big comeback year. If you haven’t seen any of them, consider this a hard recommend to check them out before 2022.
20. You Season 3
Three seasons in and Joe Goldberg still has us hooked on You. The latest and greatest outing in Netflix’s popular psychological thriller series kicks off with homicidal homemakers Joe (Penn Badgley) and Love Quinn-Goldberg (Victoria Pedretti) adjusting to life as parents of a newborn. Of course, it doesn’t take long for their strained relationship to start racking up a body count.
You Season 3 didn’t reinvent the formula that made this show work. Instead, it put a finer point on everything it already did well, elevating its universe to a new era of excellence. Coming back after Season 2 could have been a mistake. But the addition of Baby Henry re-centered Joe’s focus just long enough for us to want to take a closer look at this dastardly dad. It’s good thing too, considering that this season the writing is sharper, the acting is more refined, and the reveals are somehow even more jaw-dropping.If there’s a 2021 binge I remember in my bones, it’s You. Joe is expected to return next year. — Alison Foreman, Entertainment Reporter
19. Shadow and Bone
Credit: COURTESY OF NETFLIX
Shadow and Bone is the rare book-to-tv adaptation that took full advantage of the time between publishing and premiere and used it to improve the source materials in multiple directions. Leigh Bardugo’s original novel was a smash hit, but Shadow and Bone the series makes the cast more diverse, adds a subplot starring characters from the companion series Six of Crows, and brings forth some of the book’s messed-up romantic politics in a thoughtful and entertaining way.
Casting Ben Barnes as the Darkling, long thought to be the ultimate fancast, is only the very, very good-looking cherry on top of a series that takes the thematic responsibilities of YA fantasy seriously while being a dang entertaining show. – Alexis Nedd, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: Watch Shadow and Bone on Netflix
18. Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth was a surprisingly fantastical addition to the Netflix lineup this year and its big bet on childlike wonder paid off in spades. Even though its setting takes place after a deadly virus has decimated the human population and caused the collapse of civilization (yikes), Sweet Tooth is more of a fairy tale told from the perspective of one of the other side effects of the apocalypse — a human-deer hybrid named Gus whose father sheltered him from the worst of the world until shelter became untenable. Gus’s journey through the world he barely knew existed is a beautiful coming-of-age story with a talented supporting cast and a flawless cute-to-concerning ratio. — AN
How to watch: Watch Sweet Tooth on Netflix
There is truly no reason that a sitcom-pastiche-grief-metaphor starring two tertiary Avengers should be a knockout hit and television masterclass, but Jac Shaeffer knew what she was doing with WandaVision. The genre-bending series brought us back to the MCU after more than a year-and-a-half without it, and immediately elevated storytelling possibilities for Marvel, Disney, and TV itself. Paul Bettany and Elisabeth Olsen jump admirably between comedy and drama, providing a TV comedy crash course as much as plumbing new depths for their superhero characters, especially how Wanda internalizes and unpacks her grief. Wanda may have grieved alone on screen, but audiences connected week after week with the show’s understanding of love, loss, and memory.
Kathryn Hahn gives not only an all-time MCU villain performance as Agatha Harkness, but a career best that spectacularly shows off her power (pun intended). Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, and Kat Dennings give us the crossover ensemble we didn’t know we needed (Avengers who?) and built hype for future Marvel movies. We might be back to regularly scheduled programming, but we’ll always have Westview. — Proma Khosla, Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: Watch WandaVision on Disney+
Credit: Cr: Amazon Prime Video
Robert Kirkman may be best-known as the creator of The Walking Dead, but Amazon is poised to change that with Invincible. For people who have read the comic, the first season of this animated Prime Video adaptation is nothing short of a dream come true for the way it’s nailing and even improving on the source.
For everyone else, Amazon’s first season of Invincible is a standout example of a trope-obliterating superhero story that doesn’t feel like any of the other trope-obliterating superhero stories that have jockeyed for attention in recent years. That’s thanks to Invincible‘s potent mix of jaw-dropping surprises, violence that isn’t just gratuitous, and a tender, beating heart. – Adam Rosenberg, Senior Entertainment Reporter
How to watch: Watch Invincible on Amazon Prime Video
Reportedly the first French series to break the U.S. top 10, Lupin stars Omar Sy as Assane Diop, a cunning thief whose brilliant crimes are inspired by famous French literary character Arsène Lupin. The series begins with Assane attempting to steal a historic necklace once owned by Marie Antoinette from The Louvre, and only ramps up its high-stakes heisting from there.
Across ten extraordinarily binge-worthy episodes, series creators George Kay and François Uzan maintain taut suspense at every turn. When you’re not watching an ingenious scheme unfold, you’re getting an intimate portrait of a charismatic antihero whose magnetism rivals the likes of Sherlock Holmes and Robin Hood. More episodes are on the way, but we don’t have a release date quite yet. — AF
How to watch: Watch Lupin on Netflix
14. We Are Lady Parts
The only problem with Nida Manzoor’s exceptional comedy about an all-female Muslim punk bad is that it’s too short — but the good news is we’re getting Season 2. Anjana Vasan stars as Amina, a spectacularly awkward and endearing guitar player who joins We Are Lady Parts. She’s one of five rock-solid performances in a show that explores and embraces complex Muslim women, with an irreverent pop-punk soundtrack and riotous laughs to boot. Watch it now and put that banger on repeat. —PK
How to watch: Watch We Are Lady Parts on Peacock.
Credit: Brendan Meadows/SHOWTIME
Yellowjackets creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson deliver drama as good as gold in their darkly comedic survival thriller. Told across two timelines, this harrowing story of an elite girls’ soccer team fighting to get home after a plane crash, and then struggling to cope with what that took 25 years later, is the sort of TV you don’t want to sleep on.
Week to week, Yellowjackets fans are being yanked down a rabbit hole of maybe supernatural…maybe human…maybe both(!) terror that’s so satisfying you’ll be on constant alert to avoid spoilers.A stellar cast — including Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, Christina Ricci, Sophie Nélisse, Jasmin Savoy Brown, Sophie Thatcher, Sammi Hanratty, and Ella Purnell — and spectacularly written characters offer a magnetic anchor to this bonkers story. We haven’t seen the whole season, but we’re comfortable putting this show on this list because it’s just that good. — AF
How to watch: Watch Yellowjackets on Showtime
12. Mythic Quest Season 2
Mythic Quest rebounded off of an epic first season with a new stretch of episodes in 2021 that demonstrate both how the show has grown, and how its ongoing story will grow from here. This cutting workplace comedy from the creators of It’s Always Sunny tempers the mean streak of the FX series with an inescapably wholesome gooey center. It’s also confidently grounded in the day-to-day work of building a hit video game, capturing all the inherent ridiculousness of a serious-minded job where people can spend a whole day debating the merits of a virtual shovel. Now in its second season with a more intricately detailed and emotionally complex set of lovable characters, Mythic Quest has really hit its stride. – AR
How to watch: Watch Mythic Quest on Apple TV+
11. Search Party Season 4
Search Party is the rare show that consistently outdoes itself, season after season. Its fourth outing sees Dory (Alia Shawkat) kidnapped by her stalker (a supremely unhinged Chip Escola) and reckoning with the actions that led her to this point. Shawkat puts in a dynamite performance as Dory submits to Chip’s psychological manipulation; meanwhile, costars Meredith Hagner, John Early, and John Reynolds pack the search for Dory with the show’s signature cocktail of narcissism, pain, humor, and self-discovery. It’s an unbeatable season of television — that is, until Season 5 premieres in January. — PK
How to watch: Watch Search Party on HBO Max.
10. Succession Season 3
Credit: Macall B. Polay/HBO
Succession hive, rejoice! HBO’s darkly funny satire about the uber rich (and uber dysfunctional) Roys soars to new heights in its third season thanks to a series of dizzying power plays, rivalries, and alliances. The introduction of new characters like investor Josh Aaronson (Adrien Brody) and tech CEO Lukas Matsson (Alexander Skarsgård) broadens the scope of the show and keeps things fresh, but make no mistake: This is a family tragedy at heart.Succession is at its best when exploring the dynamics between the four Roy siblings and their father Logan (Brian Cox), and Season 3 delivers in spades. Scenes like a tense wartime deliberation in a child’s bedroom or Kendall’s nightmarish 40th birthday party dig deep into these characters’ tumultuous relationships, with devastating effects. Elsewhere, highlights include Tom’s (Matthew Macfadyen) hand-wringing about prison and a shareholder meeting that goes deliciously awry. To quote Kendall (Jeremy Strong), this season really is “All bangers, all the time.” — Belen Edwards, Entertainment Fellow
How to watch: Watch Succession on HBO Max.
9. The White Lotus
The coronavirus pandemic required television creators to get extra creative when it came to writing and setting new work. The White Lotus is an example of that creativity paying off in spades. Mike White wrote The White Lotus to take advantage of the empty luxurious hotels in Hawaii and had the production team transform the Four Seasons in Maui into the glittering, gorgeous hotel from hell for The White Lotus‘ hideously sharp first season.
All of the guests staying at the White Lotus hotel are horrible. Most of the staff aren’t any better, but they don’t have the money to hurt people the way rich folk do. When this particularly difficult crop of guests starts to put a strain on the emotionally volatile hotel manager Armond (Murray Bartlett, whose performance is an achievement), that horribleness begins to show through the beauty and luxury of their surroundings. Who said vacations are always relaxing?— AN
How to watch: Watch The White Lotus on HBO Max.
Wrestling might not be a sport, but Heels on Starz is 2021’s best sports drama. Brothers Jack and Ace Spade perform as the headlining heel and face of the small-town wrestling promotion their family owns, and their antipathy towards each other doesn’t only exist in the ring. The power struggle between Jack and Ace is almost Shakespearean, and all the while their friends, partners, fellow wrestlers, and enemies plot to do more than scrape by in the nowhere town that is Duffy, Georgia. ans
Heels has the family-driven heart of Friday Night Lights, the action of WWE Raw, the romantic drama of One Tree Hill, and some of this year’s most arresting television performances. Definitely the best television performances in spandex, that’s for sure. — AN
How to watch: Watch Heels on Starz.
7. Reservation Dogs
Credit: Shane Brown/FX
Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s comedy debuted with the confidence and charisma every show wishes it had. Reservation Dogs follows four Oklahoma teens on daily adventures, small and large — from loitering outside a local clinic to stealing a chip truck and delivering it to local criminals. The show is created almost entirely by Native talent behind and in front of the camera; young stars D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Paulina Alexis, and Lane Factor never miss a beat. The friends and their world are so authentic and inviting that it’s impossible not to get sucked in, to feel acutely for their victories, laughter, and heartache. — PK
How to watch: Watch Reservation Dogs on FX via Hulu.
6. The Other Two Season 2
Thank the entertainment gods for the return of The Other Two, the best showbiz satire slash family drama on TV right now. Showrunners Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider switch things up nicely for Season 2: Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) get a much-needed taste of success, joining their mother Pat (Molly Shannon) and younger brother Chase (Case Walker) on the wild road to stardom. The show’s breakneck pace means that jokes and pop culture references — Alessia Cara! Beginners! The Hadids! — fly a mile a minute, but The Other Two never loses sight of its characters’ vulnerability. Even a laugh-out-loud line like the iconic “I’m his son, I’m straight, and I’m from Kansas” can lead to an emotional breakthrough. After 10 episodes of comedy perfection, including a game-changing finale, Season 3 can’t come soon enough. — BE
How to watch: Watch The Other Two on HBO Max.
5. The Underground Railroad
Barry Jenkins’ directorial prowess and Colson Whitehead’s history-making excellence in fiction came together in the Amazon Prime Video powerhouse The Underground Railroad. The magical realism of Whitehead’s work extrapolates the historical context of the real underground railroad for a twisted version of reality that gets at deeper truths; for Jenkins’ part he directs each episode as if it were a full-length Barry Jenkins movie. The Underground Railroad is a difficult show to binge but a necessary one to watch, as the marriage of literary excellence and dedication to story and performance has rarely been seen in a television adaptation. – AN
How to watch: Watch The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime Video
Credit: Anne Marie Fox/HBO Max
Hacks is many things: an incredible vehicle for Jean Smart; a provocative piece about the business of comedy; an odd-couple two-hander about work relationships that become all-consuming.
The show, about a falling star older comedian (Smart) and the once-hot, now-blacklisted writer (Hannah Einbinder) that begins to work with her on her Las Vegas standup act, is snappy and smart, with plenty to say about women who never got their due. It could easily have turned into a screed against Gen Z or Boomers, but instead, Hacks (which was co-created by Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky) is a thoughtful exploration of change and comedy, engaging to both those who know a lot about the inside of Hollywood as well as those who look on from afar. The show is engrossing and funny — a weekend binge you’ll be thinking about far after the surprising and stirring final moments. — Erin Strecker, Entertainment Editor
How to watch: Watch Hacks on HBO Max
3. Mare of Easttown
HBO’s drama became a rare case of must-see viewing and appointment TV — a dying breed that the Home Box Office is one of the last networks to dominate. Where Disney’s Marvel shows were endlessly discussed yet easily spoiled, Mare’s Sunday primetime slot gave us much-needed structure as we dissected a murder investigation in Pennsylvnia. Kate Winslet and her Pennsylvania accent lead this cast which feels as real as any small town in middle America. Winslet gives Mare endless rough edges, cloaking the character’s pain in her gruff determination to solve the crime. Whether or not you saw that final twist coming, Mare sucked you in and kept you coming back. — PK
How to watch: Watch Mare of Easttown on HBO Max
2. Squid Game
Do we really have to recap? Netflix’s South Korean superhit Squid Game landed on the service in mid-September and exploded like none other, shattering the record for the most watched Netflix show of all time (the record has since been beaten by Arcane). Its dystopian premise, in which indebted civilians compete with each other in death-match versions of schoolyard games for money — is as dark as it comes, but Squid Game‘s candy-colored aesthetic makes the deadly proceedings substantially creepier. Squid Game is a whip-smart satire that calls out the loss of individual humanity in late stage capitalism, which for some weird reason resonated with millions of people all over the world. — AN
How to watch: Watch Squid Game on Netflix.
1. Only Murders in the Building
Credit: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu
Some television shows excel because of spectacular writing. Others float by with prestigious casts. There are shows with a strong, confident aesthetic and shows that dazzle with its twisty, wonderful plots. It’s incredibly rare to find a television show that has all of those things at once. When we do, we call it a masterpiece.
Only Murders in the Building is the remarkable product of showbiz royalty (Steve Martin, Martin Short, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey) coming together with a new generation of talent (Selena Gomez, Aaron Dominguez) to tackle the endlessly entertaining subject of true crime with a fictional spin on a great premise: true crime fans stumbling on a podcast-worthy murder in their Upper West Side apartment building and deciding todo a Serial-style investigation of their own. — AN
How to watch: Watch Only Murders in the Building on Hulu.