While 2020 will forever be remembered as The Year When Things Weren’t Released, 2021 felt like a return to semi-normalcy — at least in terms of my viewing habits. Like clockwork, I was thrust into a television landscape where, once again, consuming everything felt near-impossible. (I’m sure I would have loved the second season of Work In Progress just as much as the first, if only I had the time to watch it.) But thankfully, I discovered more than a few gems amongst the glut of options. Long-delayed fan-favorites like Succession made triumphant comebacks, while freshman comedies, in particular, seemed to be firing on all cylinders.
That's not to say 2021 was uniformly impressive — I’m still offended by Netflix’s live-action Cowboy Bebop, and I’ve yet to receive a good answer for how a cast as stacked as Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers’ could possibly deliver something so mediocre. But overall, this was a phenomenal year for the small screen, filled with stories that were funny, thought-provoking, and visually striking. Narrowing my favorites down for listmaking purposes is always an undertaking, so below, you can find my top ten shows of the year plus quite a few more — just because I can.
10. Chucky (USA/Syfy)
My favorite thing about Chucky: despite using his sleazy charms on several young women and gay men throughout the first season, the homicidal titular doll fails to convince a child to murder in cold blood until he winds up in the hands of a straight male athlete. The messaging here isn’t exactly subtle, but it also feels essential when considering Chucky as a queer allegory for suffering and comeuppance. By bringing its queer subtext to the forefront, Chucky lands as an alarmingly effective manifesto against toxic masculinity that also happens to be pure campy fun.
From the mind of Child’s Play screenwriter Don Mancini (a gay man himself), USA/Syfy’s thriling televised adaptation of the popular horror franchise is, perhaps, one of the year’s most quietly radical “reboots.” Following 14-year-old Jake Wheeler, a gay artist with an asshole of a father, the series has everything you’d expect from a Chucky production (hijinks, profanity, and tons of murder), but supersedes the legacy of its predecessors with an equally compelling narrative about queer coming-of-age. While LGBTQ+ representation in horror has a long, sordid history, Chucky brilliantly flips the script, allowing room not only for queer survival, but queer love, too.
9. Yellowjackets (Showtime)
When Warner Bros. first announced their plans to develop an all-women Lord of the Flies movie, I admittedly counted myself amongst the detractors questioning such an endeavor. The original worked precisely because the stranded children were all young boys, I recall saying; their descent into animal-like savagery doubled as a commentary on toxic masculinity. Thankfully, I’m not a studio executive though. If I was, it’s quite possible that Yellowjackets, the gripping new Showtime series currently airing its first season, may have never gotten made.
Created partially in response to that backlash, Yellowjackets seeks to prove that women are every bit as capable of barbarity as men. Following a varsity soccer squad as they travel to nationals, only to end up stranded in rural Ontario when their plane crashes, the series takes place on two timelines: in the past, when these high schoolers are forced to fend for themselves on a remote island (eventually engaging in cannibalism), and in the present, several decades later, when the surviving members of this talented athletic squad are still struggling to fully reintegrate into everyday society, thanks to the memories they carry about their time away from civilization. Engagingly written and smartly cast (Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci each play one of the adult Yellowjackets), Yellowjackets is as much about female solidarity as it is about the potential for female savagery. It’s an electrifying viewing experience.
8. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
When recommending Only Murders in the Building to friends, I often find myself returning to two features: its Search Party-esque blend of laugh-out-loud comedy and compelling mystery, and The Good Place-like brilliance of its end-of-season villain reveal. This surprise Hulu hit, about the rogue investigation into a murder that was legally declared a suicide, does for true-crime podcasts what Netflix’s American Vandal did for true-crime docuseries, deconstructing the form to its barest of bones — all the better to find the inherent humor in its requisite self-seriousness.
Starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as the unlikely co-hosts of a homegrown podcast, Only Murders could have succeeded on its meta-commentary alone, but the series kept one-upping itself with game-changing twists and turns, exhibiting a clear reverence for the medium it so cleverly spoofed. The series earns extra marks for its distinct world-building; few shows felt more New York and the colorfully kooky residents of The Arconia (the “building” of the show’s title) often stole scenes from the leading trio, a near-impossible feat — especially if Steve Martin’s physical comedy in the season finale has anything to say about it. But, hey, when you have a surprisingly game Sting on the call sheet…
7. It’s a Sin (HBO Max/Channel 4)
As the creator of the original Queer as Folk, celebrated scribe Russell T Davies had already proven himself to be one of this generation’s leading chroniclers of queer life. But until this year, the prolific writer had explicitly avoided the AIDS crisis, a deliberate decision made in part by his desire to allow gay men to exist on their own terms, unshackled by the harrowing legacy of this lethal disease. It was an honorable career choice that resulted in some truly groundbreaking queer programming. But after watching It’s a Sin, it also seems that, maybe, someone who refused to indulge queer trauma was always best equipped to tackle our community’s biggest wound.
Beginning in 1981, right before the virus started ravaging communities of gay men, the British series tracks its group of young adults across the next decade, following as they pursue their dreams, resilient in their determination to live despite signs of an inevitable collapse. Inspired by Davies’ own young adulthood in London, the series is starkly realistic, so the specter of death looms heavily over much of the proceedings. But it’s also oddly hopeful, defined as much by tragedy as it is by levity. It’s a tricky balance to maintain, touching upon something so dire in such a light manner, but Davies and his incredible, mostly queer cast (including Years & Years frontman Olly Alexander and breakout Omari Douglas) seem more than up to the challenge, rising up to create something that feels defiantly celebratory in spite of itself. It’s a revelation.
6. Hacks (HBO Max)
Is it fair to refer to Jean Smart’s current “moment” as a “renaissance” after four decades of consistently great work? Who knows! But either way, I’m glad to see the talented actress popping up in prestige vehicles like this year’s Mare of Easttown and 2019’s Watchmen. In terms of a true star vehicle, however, nothing comes close to Hacks, where Smart dominates as the confident but broken Deborah Vance, a Joan Rivers-Lucille Ball hybrid who’s resigned herself to the easy, monotonous (and very lucrative) life of a Las Vegas residency headliner. That is, until she receives word that she’s in danger of being replaced by popular “beatbox-forward a capella group” Pentatonix. Now in need of a fresher act, the comedienne is paired with Ava (newcomer Hannah Einbinder), a young comedy writer who was recently blacklisted in Hollywood for making a particularly unsavory joke on Twitter. (Who among us?)
A classic Odd Couple story (Deborah’s old-school approach constantly colliding with Ava’s more free-spirited modern comedy style), Hacks trades in the typical glitz of Hollywood to explore the particulars of Las Vegas high-living — personal blackjack dealer included. The comedy is the brainchild of Broad City veterans, but where that Comedy Central sitcom thrived on its episodic exploration of mid-20s slackerhood, Hacks tries to dig deeper for both of its flawed protagonists. (Though it’s still unafraid to get a little weird; look no further than my personal favorite episode: “Falling.”) Already an Emmy darling, Hacks is one of the year’s best new comedies, sure. But it’s also a stirring reminder that, often, our careers shape us more than we shape them.
5. Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)
With its surefooted direction and fondness for magical realism, Reservation Dogs immediately felt right at home on FX, the network behind similarly genre-defying comedies like Atlanta and Dave. But from the outset, it also felt wholly distinct. The first series created by an entirely Indigenous team, Reservation Dogs would have felt “important” even if it wasn’t actually “good” — but luckily for us, the freshman series also proved to be a mesmerizingly fantastic dramedy.
Centered on four friends living in rural Oklahoma, the series, on the surface, concerns itself with their multitude of money-making schemes as they try to save money for an eventual relocation to California. Underneath, however, the sensitive dramedy was a wry look at the mundanity of life on a reservation (all hot chips, visits to the local clinic, and gang turf wars) and an at-times somber exploration of what “home” can be if you accept it as such. Reservation Dogs spotlights some of the year’s strongest writing and character development; despite its “hangout comedy” trappings, each member of the central quartet is rendered with significant emotional depth, while their (often unspoken) competing motivations lent the series some unexpectedly high stakes. In art, much ado is made about the perceived universality of hyper-specific stories — and in 2021, no series benefitted from the truth of that notion more than Reservation Dogs.
4. The White Lotus (HBO)
Though The White Lotus initially set itself up as a murder mystery, this single-location HBO series worked much better as a playful but scathing critique of wealth inequality and global imperialism. Like many prestige shows of today, Mike White’s first post-Enlightenment series reveled in its luxurious setting (an expensive Hawaiian resort), but this hilarious comedy of manners also worked to deconstruct the very nature of luxury itself, daring to ask: What do others have to sacrifice in order for a select few to enjoy the trappings of the high life?
What is perhaps most impressive about White’s series is the way he wrestles with these lofty concepts in unpredictably inane ways. Many of its central squabbles were petty in nature (the slapstick war between Murray Bartlett’s drug-addicted resort manager and Jake Lacy’s entitled newlywed, in particular), and on more than one occasion, The White Lotus showed that it wasn’t above toilet humor. (People shat in suitcases, for Christ’s sake — and that was several episodes after we were subjected to a closeup of a penis with comically large testicles.) But the immaturity of these actions mostly worked in service of the bigger picture: examining stratas of power to show who has it, who wants it, and what acknowledging its existence does for society. Armed with the year’s best cast (Jennifer Coolidge, Connie Britton, and Sydney Sweeney all have key roles) and the beauty of the expansive Hawaiian oceanside, it’s no surprise that The White Lotus quickly became 2021’s biggest water-cooler hit. And while news of a second season stung for those of us mourning the days when a “limited series” was actually limited, I can’t help but trust that Mike White’s brilliant mind will deliver something worthwhile yet again.
3. Succession (HBO)
It says a lot that one of the most consequential plot developments in Succession’s third season is a missent dick pic. That Succession has upheld its status as the prestige series du jour despite also being one of the medium’s most vulgar is an impressive feat in and of itself, but over its run, this Jesse Armstrong drama (or is it a comedy) has also shown that its vibrant array of dick jokes and fuck-off’s are less a bug than a feature: the world is an evil, corrupt place. Why wouldn’t the people pulling the strings behind the scenes be just as revolting? It’s hard to explain why watching these filthy rich, out-of-touch plutocrats tussle with each other is so entertaining, but it would be foolish to try and resist the charms of such a well-constructed tragicomedy.
After last season’s mic-drop of a finale, all signs pointed to a much different third season. But as many critics have pointed out, Succession season three largely kept the script the same: Logan was still untouchable, Kendall was still a depressed outcast, and Roman and Shiv were both still futilely vying for a spot that never really existed. Succession’s third outing was arguably its nastiest, in addition to being the series’ least plotted. (Did anything happen in those first few episodes?) But by the end, it also felt like the show at its most clear-eyed: Despite all the name-calling and backstabbing, Succession is foremost a study about familial trauma and cycles of abuse. With the series making a name for itself by exploiting that trauma as a punchline, its efforts to finally push back against it in this month’s finale felt downright cathartic.
2. The Other Two (HBO Max)
In an era where the dramedy reigns supreme, nothing feels more exciting than an honest-to-god jokes-first sitcom. In its second season, The Other Two felt even more confident than it did in its breakout first, doubling down on its hilarious entertainment industry satire while still leaving room for compelling character development. Still about two siblings forced to reckon with the sudden fame of a family member, the Comedy Central-cum-HBO Max series found the sweet spot of ensemble work in these latest installments, benefiting greatly from Molly Shannon’s expanded role as the Dubek matriarch, now navigating life as a beloved Ellen-like talk-show host.
Oftentimes, sitcoms like these feel compelled to leave their characters in some form of stasis — easier to write jokes about — but what separates The Other Two from its peers is its interest in real growth and forward momentum. It would be easy for creators Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider (both Saturday Night Live alums) to let their show rest on its laurels as a reliably funny depiction of millennial complacency, but it definitely wouldn’t work as well if, say, Cary kept flailing in his pursuit to be taken seriously as an actor. (Night Nurse in theaters soon!) Thanks to its seemingly endless supply of cultural references (Hillsong, “gay-baiting,” and “live” photos are just a few of the touchstones spoofed in these new episodes), The Other Two has always delivered as a comedy. But as it’s learned how to balance humor with real heart, the comedy has quickly evolved from “very funny show” to “era-defining series.”
1. The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
The most important thing The Underground Railroad does is eliminate any need for more slave stories in the future. For years, discussions about where slave narratives should fit in the wider culture have sparked up in just about every corner, leading to heated debate about historical accuracy, who gets to tell what stories, and most importantly, depiction vs. indulgence. The answer was always complicated: we all know slavery happened and that it was a terrible experience for those treated as chattel. But is depicting slavery as it occurred an exercise in authenticity or just another avenue for parading Black trauma around as entertainment?
In that way, I always had trepidation about Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Underground Railroad. As the Oscar-winning director behind the heartbreaking Moonlight (and the beautifully devastating If Beale Street Could Talk), Jenkins clearly isn’t averse to stories about Black suffering. But there’s a difference between a two-hour film about a gay man who closes himself off to love after years of bullying and a ten-hour miniseries about the abject horror experienced by a runaway slave convicted of murder.
I should have never doubted though. A technically impressive work that more than earns descriptors like “filmic” and “cinematic,” Jenkins’ first full foray into television functions as a meta-critique of the very way we’ve been conditioned to consume these stories. Jenkins doesn’t shy away from depicting the uncomfortable violence that has long plagued this genre, but he presents it in a manner that stands in stark contrast to the way it’s been shown in the past. Like any program about senseless violence against Black bodies, The Underground Railroad can be a torturous viewing experience, but there’s also the distinct feeling that this brutal series is, as one nice-seeming but ultimately offensive white man says in an early episode, “for us and by us.” It’s there in the annoyed glances shared between Black women as a white man says something crass and there when the camera briefly shifts perspectives to show what a man being burned alive is seeing as the flames engulf him. And because this is a Barry Jenkins production, it’s of course there in the incomparable lighting of these beautiful Black people’s faces. Unlike other shows on this list, I can’t imagine myself wanting to return to the difficult world of The Underground Railroad. But after watching it, I also don’t think we need anything else like it. When it comes to slave stories, this is the exemplar. Everyone else can pack it up.
...And A Few Honorable Mentions
Pen15: The final seven episodes of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s delightfully cringe back-to-basics dramedy were markedly more somber than their rambunctious predecessors, but the tonal shift also lead to some of the series’ strongest installments — particularly, the Before trilogy-esque beauty of “Yuki” and that complete jizz-mouthed butt-kicker of a finale.
We Are Lady Parts and Girls5Eva: Two of the year’s funniest freshman comedies were about the formation (and deformation, and then reformation) of women-only music groups. Also, they both aired on fucking Peacock! Who would have thought?
What We Do In the Shadows: Vampires living in Staten Island? Still hilarious three seasons in.
Dickinson: 2021 was bookended by seasons two and three of this anachronistic take on Emily Dickinson’s life. The third season is also the show’s final, and its central mission to situate its heroine in the pantheon of Civil War poets makes for some of the series’ most arresting work.
Harlem and Run the World: With Insecure coming to an end in a matter of days, I’m thankful we have two new Black women-led comedies primed to continue its legacy. That they feel so different despite both taking place in Harlem is a testament to the limitless storytelling potential of narratives about Black people.
Sort Of: When it comes to navigating discussions about nonbinary gender identity with nuance and sensitivity, the writers of And Just Like That… could take a few pointers from this small and wondrous Bilal Baig beauty. Just my two cents!
Dave: Donald Glover famously called out this FX-hosted Lil Dicky dramedy for biting the style of his game-changing Atlanta, but I can’t help but still fall for the charms of its even more thematically daring sophomore season. Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I guess?
I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson and How To with John Wilson: One presents humans at their most debased and debauched while the other tries to unravel larger philosophical questions through the most mundane of human obsessions. I use both as therapy.
Maid: The year’s “Best Casting” award goes to whoever decided that real-life mother-daughter duo Andie MacDowell and Margaret Qualley should play an on-screen mother-daughter duo in this starkly realistic examination of poverty and the impossibility of class mobility.
Invincible: While The Boys took the year off, my need for shows about superheroes behaving badly was thankfully satiated by this gory coming-of-age cartoon, featuring vocal contributions from Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, J.K. Simmons, and Andrew Rannells.
Ted Lasso: Whether you miss the old Ted Lasso or not, you must give this Apple TV+ comedy props for being willing to so completely fuck with its winning formula this early in its run.
Pose: In its final season, this groundbreaking FX series often felt rushed. But it also delivered as a final curtain call for one of the most diverse casts on television, providing viewers with laughs and cries in equal measure. I’ll miss this love letter to ballroom more than I realize.
Brand New Cherry Flavor: I had to include a completely batshit show on this list. I just had to.