From streaming to cable to regular broadcast, there’s an overwhelming abundance of quality television this year. But for our money, these were the 40 best TV shows of 2021.
2018’s Blindspotting was an underrated masterpiece – dealing with friendship, racial identity, police brutality and gentrification in Oakland. Now, Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs’ film has been expanded with an equally excellent sequel series. Picking up six months after the movie, the show details the aftermath of Miles getting arrested by following the struggles of his wife, mother and half-sister. Blindspotting continues to be a sharp and funny slice of socio-political commentary wrapped in livewire, spoken-word-fueled musical numbers. Equal parts dreamlike hip-hop fantasy and gritty, real-world drama, this series is a must-see.
Created by Mindy Kaling (loosely based on her own childhood), Never Have I Ever is a breezy and bright coming-of-age story about a first generation Indian-American teen (a dazzling Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) growing up in suburbia. Now back for its second season, this winsome sitcom finds Devi juggling romances with school stud Paxton and her academic rival Ben Gross. But beyond the requisite love triangle, this series continues to exude humour and heart in its authentic portrayals of bicultural confusion, teen awkwardness and female friendship.
While Cells at Work!! presents us with an inspiring body filled with good-natured and united cells working in a healthy body, this spinoff is a much darker take that focuses on the inner workings of a dystopian body in disrepair. The cells we meet here are disillusioned, miserable and exhausted – overworked and stressed from the endless toil from caring for a host that suffers from lack of sleep, heavy drinking, poor diet, and smoking. Dealing with cholesterol, ulcers, fatty liver and clogged vessels – Code Black is much more adult whilst still remaining educational.
Master of None is finally back after a four year hiatus with creator Aziz Ansari relinquishing his starring role to direct all of season three. Moments in Love is co-written by Lena Waithe and focuses entirely on her character Denise – specifically her relationship with her wife Alicia. The result is a leisurely paced and patiently touching modern love story that intimately illustrates the ups and downs of marriage, struggles with fertility, and personal growth both together and apart. Fleeting romantic highs meet crushing personal losses in this Ingmar Bergman-esque season.
This reality-bending love letter to classic sitcoms is far and away the most experimental and artful thing the MCU has ever done. We follow Avengers superheroes Wanda Maximoff and Vision in the suburban town of Westview as they lead a domestic life whilst hiding their powers from their neighbours. However they soon start to realise that their existence mirrors shows like I Love Lucy, Bewitched, Full House and other vintage comedies. Zany, innovative and funny, WandaVision tackles both lead’s repressed traumas through recreations of comfort television.
After being unjustly cancelled by Netflix, Tuca & Bertie makes its triumphant return on Adult Swim with a splendid second season celebrating a neurotic, codependent avian friendship. Like the lovechild of BoJack Horseman and Broad City, this comedy about two lady birds (voiced by Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong respectively) mixes a surreal world of anthropomorphic animals with millennial misadventure. Buoyed by its wildly frenetic art style and a love of puns, this show’s focus on female friendship, existential anxieties, and complicated relationships remains simultaneously relatable and absurdist.
A follow-up to her 2018 indie film Skate Kitchen, Crystal Moselle’s half-hour series centers around the same crew of skater girls and their hazy misadventures. Fun, freewheeling, loose and lived-in – season one was a vibrant look at the New York City skateboarding scene. Season two, however, takes place during the COVID-19 pandemic where we find the crew dealing with quarantine, finances, and more, as they struggle to cope with a turbulent world. Betty has always felt like a faux-documentary where we’re just hanging out with these diverse young women, and that remains the show’s greatest pleasure.
This strange, spellbinding anime offers a nuanced exploration of girlhood, survivor’s remorse and trauma. In Wonder Egg Priority, 14-year-old Ai Ohto grieves after the suicide of her only friend Koito, and enters a dream world where she must fight to protect the spirits of dead girls, housed within “Wonder Eggs”. To help them find peace, Ai has to fight demons and monsters. In return, the mysterious powers promise to bring Koito back to life. Its gorgeous otherworldly battles manifest suicidal ideations into grotesque monsters, offering a playful yet intensely painful deconstruction of “magical girl” anime tropes.
If you’re looking for the perfect, comforting show to watch, then All Creatures Great and Small is for you. Set in the bucolic English countryside in the 1930s, this series follows the daily life at a Yorkshire veterinary practice that young James joins as he graduates from school. Run by a good-hearted but difficult taskmaster, Siegfried Farnon, James must prove himself not only to his new boss, but also to the local farmers suspicious of newcomers and modern treatment. All Creatures is a balm for the soul – featuring low-stakes plotting, lush scenery and an ensemble of nice people trying to do their best for each other and their animals.
Faithfully adapted from Robert Kirkman’s (creator of The Walking Dead) beloved comic book, Invincible is a wonderful animated series blending the brutal and gory realism of The Boys alongside the bright colours of Golden Age optimism. The series follows 17-year-old Mark Grayson who is the son of superhero Omni-Man as he develops powers, strives to be a hero himself, and discovers secrets from his father’s past. Aided by a superb voice cast (Steven Yuen, J.K. Simmons and more), Invincible is a nimble subversion of the superpowered coming-of-age story.
Kate Winslet shines in this slow-burning murder mystery miniseries. She stars as a defiant and cynical Pennsylvania detective investigating a series of deaths, even as her personal life is falling apart. Mare of Easttown is as much a portrait of a small town as it is a crime drama – vividly setting the scene by engrossing us in the rhythms of its hardscrabble community and the private agonies of its characters. Yes, there’s a crime to solve but the whodunit, clues and twists aren’t all there is. What sets Easttown apart is its rich sense of place and slice-of-life dynamics.
Issa Rae’s brilliant comedy returns with a joyous swan song! Insecure has always been able to mine absurd hilarity and affecting poignance from the messy realities of the black millennial experience, and it’s excellent final season proves to be the series’ most reflective to date by exploring big questions about growth, self-perception, parenthood and friendship. While Issa, Molly and others have certainly glowed up and grown up – they all find that maturity and success comes with its own set of struggles. From imposter syndrome to romantic hang-ups, Insecure’s greatest strength continues to be the comedic and dramatic nuance of its authentically flawed characters.
456 struggling people, each drowning in debt, are invited to play a mysterious survival competition called Squid Game in this enthralling new South Korean drama. Competing in a series of traditional children’s games but with deadly twists, they put their lives at risk for the chance to win ₩45.6 billion (US$40 million). Directed by Hwang Dong-hyuk, Squid Game depicts the desperation of the underclass in late-stage capitalist society, using the stark contrast between childhood innocence and cutthroat greed to explore how (much like real life) ordinary people can become trapped in a rigged competition controlled by faceless elites.
Last year, a charming sitcom about an American football coach hired to helm an English soccer club became the unexpected feel good hit of the pandemic era. Although we all fell in love with the kindness and camaraderie the earnest manager inspired, his team AFC Richmond, ended up relegated at the end of last season. Now mired in a winless streak and lingering pain from his recent divorce, Ted Lasso’s unfailing optimism faces its sternest test yet. Nevertheless season two remains warm and sweet, tackling personal and sporting hardships through decency and positivity.
Sigourney Weaver narrates this intimate, epic and breathtaking nature documentary series about five different whale species with footage filmed over three years in 24 different locations. Secrets of the Whales is an astonishingly well-photographed deep dive into the worlds of orcas, belugas, sperm whales, narwhals and humpbacks – essentially disparate species with their own unique communities, friend groups, languages, culture, family dynamics and special histories. Directors Brian Armstrong and Andy Mitchell crews take us to the far ends of the waters of the Earth to capture these beautiful and intelligent creatures.
Based on Choi Kyu-seok’s webtoon The Hell and helmed by Train to Busan director Yeon Sang-ho, this excellent new South Korean fantasy explores religious zealotry and the media in the midst of a frightening supernatural crisis. The series follows detective Jin Kyung-hoon, who investigates the deaths of “sinners” who have been killed by demonic monsters after angels appear to forewarn their exact time of death. Meanwhile, lawyer Min Hey-jin looks into the rise of a burgeoning religious cult called New Truth who use the mass hysteria surrounding these otherworldly events to gain power.
The sixth and final season of The Expanse picks up with the solar system at war, as Marco Inaros and his Free Navy continue to launch devastating asteroid attacks on Earth and Mars. As the tensions of war and shared loss threaten to pull the crew of the Rocinante apart, Chrisjen Avasarala makes a bold move and sends former Martian Marine Bobbie Draper on a secret mission that could turn the tide. Meanwhile, in the Belt, Drummer and what’s left of her family are on the run and hunted for betraying Marco. And on a distant planet beyond the Rings, a new power begins to rise. This was a thrilling and rewarding end to one of the greatest sci-fi shows of the modern era, with exciting hints for the future should the series secure yet another revival.
To Your Eternity is a masterpiece from the first episode. This millenia spanning story begins when a magical orb is cast onto Earth. It can do two things: change into the forms of beings that stimulate it, and never die. We follow the orb as it morphs to a rock, to a wolf, and finally then to a boy. Although initially lacking personality and purpose, the orb slowly begins to learn, grow and evolve – eventually taking on different human and animal forms, and adopting the name Fushi. Through encounters with human kindness, indifference and cruelties; alongside experiences with pain, hardship, joy and grief – we watch as Fushi is shaped by the mortals around him. As the narrative carries through eras and centuries, To Your Eternity proves to be an elegant, emotional and epic study of human nature.
Writer-director Mike White crafts an uncomfortable comedy about class and power set at a Hawaii resort. The White Lotus is partly an arthouse take on The Love Boat, following three sets of wealthy guests as they work through their personal problems with the help of staffers like Armond and spa manager Belinda. But it’s really a dark satire of class in America, and the ways that the ultrarich use up people like Armond and Belinda and spit them out, often because it’s an easy way to feel secure in one’s privilege. Mean-spirited, poetic and hilariously idiosyncratic – The White Lotus is some of the year’s finest TV.
TV’s best workplace comedy returns! Following its outstanding pandemic specials, the video game studio behind the world’s most popular MMORPG is back in office to plan their next expansion. While season one dealt with the rampaging ego of company founder Ian, this time we focus on the meltdowns of recently promoted co-director Poppy as she struggles in her new leadership position. Although Mythic Quest remains a blackly hilarious satire of the toxicity within the video game industry, as we’ve gotten to know our messy protagonists better, season two offers a deeper emotional look at people who intertwine their passions with their careers.
The Underground Railroad is Oscar winner Barry Jenkins’ limited series adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2016 novel, which reimagines the 19th-century Underground Railroad as a literal railroad beneath Southern soil that Black people used to escape slavery. This sprawling and overwhelming epic follows Cora and Caesar escaping from a plantation and evading a bounty hunter named Ridgeway. Jenkins’ alt-history journey through America’s darkest past is a magic-realist masterpiece that balances brutal atrocity with a compassionate eye toward the re-humanization of its Black protagonists.
Who could have thought that such a subversive, feminist gem could come from a cute anime based on a Sanrio character? For the past three seasons, this workplace comedy centering around the struggles of an office lady red panda has transcended it’s adorably kiddy veneer to address some very grown-up issues. Dealing with misogyny, harassment, gossipy colleagues, toxic fandom and overwork – our main character Retsuko can only cope by screaming death metal during karaoke. This excellent fourth season sees Retsuko’s relationship with co-worker and Haida blossom even as her work life is upended by the introduction of her company’s sly new president.
The Other Two was easily the best new sitcom of 2019, delivering a scathing yet sweet satire of Gen Z celebrity culture. Its first season followed two struggling millennial siblings, Cary and Brooke, whose lives are upended when their younger brother, ChaseDreams becomes a viral pop music sensation. Now back for a long hiatus, the series remains a genuine laugh out loud delight. This second season sees ChaseDreams enjoying retirement as he heads to college, but the siblings are yet again forced to play second fiddle to a new star in the family – their mother Pat – who is now the host of a successful daytime talk show.
Set in the early 1980s, this extraordinary miniseries written and created by Russell T Davies examines the dawn of the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of five young Londoners. In five brisk and often devastating episodes encompassing that fateful decade, Davies whips between outrageous scenes of hedonistic raunch and stark moments of confusion, sorrow and terror. It’s A Sin is a gut-wrenching look at the toll of that horrific plague and the stigma patients faced, but it’s also a joyful celebration of the bravery and radiance of that generation’s the gay community.
Like a spiritual successor to Nathan For You, the second season of this docu-comedy series continues to be a celebration of social awkwardness as seen through the lens of John Wilson. Shot in the first person, How To With follows Wilson as he films the lives of everyday people he meets, as he attempts to get advice on relatable but random life topics like investing in real estate or safely disposing batteries – but by the end, his curious journey has transcended and morphed the question into an inquiry into grander things. His seemingly random wanderings through the world are by turns hilarious and poignant, revealing profound humanity through strange interactions.
This new comedy puts true-crime podcast obsessives played by Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short at the center of an amateur investigation after a death in their apartment complex – and it’s wonderfully charming! A deft tonal balance of splendidly funny comedy, addictive murder mystery and melancholy character work – Only Murders in the Building’s satire of true-crime podcasts and New Yorkers will quickly become your new obssession. Anchored by the irresistible chemistry between its three leads, this sitcom is a hilarious, touching and silly treat!
This new comedy from Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi is a slice-of-life triumph! Reservation Dogs follows four jaded Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma as they find ways (including stealing) to make money and seek a better life for themselves. Set within a reservation, creator Harjo and his team of Native American writers have created a lovely, lived-in sense of specificity and authenticity to their protagonists’ surroundings and community. But the most endearing aspect of the show has to be the natural chemistry between its leads, and their characters’ coming of age tribulations.
This adaptation of Emily St. John Mandel’s bestselling novel, set after a flulike virus wipes out most of humanity, has unfortunately debuted in the midst of a real-life pandemic. But it’s a marvelous alchemical blend of despair and whimsy, focusing primarily on an actress (Mackenzie Davis, fierce and emotionally wide-open) who travels the postapocalyptic Midwest with a Shakespeare troupe, trying to keep the culture of the past alive for anyone still around to appreciate it. Skipping back and forth in time in a graceful way that eludes too many shows addicted to nonlinear storytelling, Station Eleven features some of the year’s most tear-inducing moments, but also a healthy mix of quirky comedy and riveting oddness.
Following an all-female Muslim punk band in London, We Are Lady Parts is an extremely funny and utterly delightful coming-of-age story. This British comedy by Nida Manzoor comprises only six half-hour episodes, but manages to pack a punch with its authentically drawn characters, fast-paced storytelling, and comical writing – drawing upon the melting pot of the British Muslim experience. Anjana Vasan, who stars as a PhD student turned the band’s reluctant new member is a particular delight, with an innate understanding of how to get laughs just from small changes of expression, intonation and posture.
Spun-off from Taika Waititi’s mockumentary, this deadpan horror-comedy about a quartet of vampire housemates in Staten Island continues to be charmingly low-stakes and delightful funny! After season two’s climax where Guillermo slayed most of the vampires in the tri-state area, this incredible third season finds our bloodsuckers filling vacancies to become new Leaders of the Vampire Council. But despite their elevated status, the vamps are still hilariously hapless, with Nandor using his position to find a girlfriend while Laszlo is distracted after discovering a treasure trove of the rarest pornography in the world.
Created by and starring comedian Mae Martin, Feel Good accomplished so much in its first season, offering a layered and dynamic exploration of gender, sexuality, addiction, relationships, and self-discovery. Its second season is just as richly textured but even more ambitious in its storytelling. Martin’s comedic voice is original and sharp, and the show unflinchingly embraces discomfort and mess. Playing a loosely fictionalized version of herself, Martin’s performance as a stand-up comic dealing with her drug addiction, sexual identity and unresolved psychological issues remains complex, honest and empathetic.
Produced by the team behind Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and 30 Rock, this utterly hilarious series the best sitcom of 2021. Girls5Eva follows the surviving members of a C-list late-90s girl group who reunite in their 40s to mount a comeback. This show is a laugh-frenzy, packed to the brim with absurdist pop song parodies, delirious dialogue and densely-constructed jokes that mocks the music industry, millennial trends and celebrity culture from every angle imaginable. Elevated by a winsome cast that includes Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, Paula Pell and Busy Philipps, Girls5Eva is a pure musical-comedy joy.
Hacks is already one of the best new shows of 2021. This excellent dramedy navigates the dark mentorship that forms between Deborah Vance, a legendary Las Vegas comedian, and an entitled 25-year-old writer. This plunge into the stand up comedy scene explores a world full of assholes, bullies, and martyrs – where trauma gets transmuted into belly laughs. Hacks is the rare comedy that not only nails its punchlines, but brutally deconstructs the pain, effort, and genius it takes to make jokes land. Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder are spectacular in this love letter to life in the comedy trenches.
Odd Taxi feels like what if the Coen Brothers decided to make an anime about a walrus driver set in a world of anthropomorphic animals. The series follows Odokawa, a 40-something misanthropic cabbie who spends most of his time having conversations with his customers about their problems. However things get more complicated when he becomes a suspect in the disappearance of a teenage girl, and inadvertently gets tied to a mob rivalry, a shady idol group, and an alpaca nurse selling illegal drugs. Built upon wry observational humour, seedy character studies and surprisingly intertwining plots – Odd Taxi is easily the best anime of 2021.
Maid is an unblinking look at the way society traps people in poverty and a searing examination of the way generational trauma keeps resurrecting itself in people’s lives. Based on Stephanie Land’s eponymous memoir, this miniseries stars Margaret Qualley as single mother Alex, an aspiring writer who became a maid to support herself and young child. We follow Alex as she moves through a domestic-violence shelter, family court, and untenable housing situations – even as finances dwindle despite her hard work cleaning filth for rich patrons. This is a haunting, yet inspiring, human story that might make you rethink your assumptions about poverty.
This dark coming-of-age dramedy lays bare the bleak realities of a teen’s troubled life in Wales. In My Skin follows 16-year-old Bethan who tries to hide the truth about her mother’s bipolar disorder, father’s alcoholism and chaotic home life from her friends by pretending to be a spoiled rich girl. Heavily drawing from her own experiences growing up, Kayleigh Llewellyn’s series may be bleak, but it’s also filled with tenderness and caustic wit. From the authenticity of its tone to the vivid grittiness of it’s Cardiff setting, the second season of In My Skin remains a brutally relatable show that cuts deep.
Dave is a fantastic dramedy depicting a loosely fictionalized version of the life of rapper Lil Dicky. While the series began as a vehicle for (admittedly really funny) toilet humour, its first season grew to become a smart and sensitive meta deconstruction of the narcissism and delusions of an awkward Jewish man-child who thinks he’s the greatest rapper alive. Now back for season two, Dave picks up with Lil Dicky’s hip-hop career on the ascent. But his newfound success has only worsened his neuroses and anxiety, even as his selfishness continues to alienate his loved ones.
When last we left the Roy family in season two, prodigal son Kendall dropped a bombshell by publicly outing cruel patriarch Logan of being complicit in their company’s pattern of heinous corporate, sexual and human rights crimes. This father-son confrontation sparks an all-out business civil war in Succession’s brilliant third season, built around a series of thrilling clashes, as everyone involved scrambles to take sides and work out what’s best for them, in a constantly shifting landscape. This series about monstrous rich people back-stabbing each other for control over a multi-billion dollar media empire remains as darkly funny and delightfully intense as ever.
This sci-fi series from Ronald D.Moore is a meticulously crafted alt-history that imagines what would happen if it was the Soviets who landed the first man on the moon. While the first season of For All Mankind was wildly ambitious, it was also very uneven. Thankfully, this second season is a stellar improvement – taking full advantage of what if scenarios (U.S. socio-politics have drastically shifted), alongside compelling workplace drama at NASA. The characters now feel more specific and three-dimensional, which in turn makes the show’s interpersonal dynamics vastly more interesting.
Co-created by and starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle (who are 31-year-old actresses playing 13-year-olds amidst a cast of actual kids) – PEN15 is the most uncomfortably hilarious tween comedy on TV. But it’s also the sincerest, funniest and most painfully insightful. Now back for the second half of season two, this brilliantly awkward series about female friendship and the turmoil of puberty in the early-2000s is packed with more cringe moments and emotional honesty. This marvelous depiction of the joys, indignities and horrors of middle school is a hormone-laden rollercoaster.