It was the year of. Of Kate Winslet owning the small screen in . And of Jean Smart delivering takedowns such as, “Hey you, sad little girl with the big hands… Just asking for a friend, which landscaping company did your hair?” in .
2021 delivered another round of moving, surprising and serotonin-spiking TV shows to keep us going. From heart-warming gems such as Starstruck to We are Lady Parts, to riveting dramas such as The North Water and Midnight Mass, let’s look back at our favorite TV shows of the year.
The best TV shows of 2021 (so far)
Marvel’s What If…?
There are few comics I would deem impossible to be made in today’s age. With special effects as good as they are, every superhero can be featured in a movie or TV show, but the What If comic is different. A favorite of mine in the ’90s when I was heavy into comics, What If asked the questions comic book fans always had running in their minds. What If Punisher actually killed Daredevil or What If Gwen Stacy never died. It seemed impossible because these comics were made for just one book and that’s it.
Then came the announcement of Marvel’s What If, and to my shock, the geniuses at Marvel Studios actually did it. They carefully created nine episodes that answer certain questions fans of the MCU had while also making these stories tied into each other. More importantly, the show made already compelling characters even more compelling. We saw what happens if Dr. Strange went evil, how Peggy Carter truly loved Steve Rogers no matter how he looked physically and in a seemingly impossible feat, make T’Challa even more of a dashing hero by taking him into outer space. But what really sold me on the series was that it also answered a question any MCU fan wondered: What if the heroes lost? We saw that in the Marvel Zombies episode where seemingly the world was on the brink of destruction and again when Ultron obtained the Infinity Gauntlet. Avengers: Infinity War is the only movie that ended on a downer, but in Marvel’s What If, it happened again and again as a reminder that we’re fortunate to see the heroes win in the movies or else we’d be constantly heartbroken again and again.
— Oscar Gonzalez
Only Murders in the Building
This murder mystery is funny, smart and the episodes are a packed 30 minutes each. On top of that, the show is about a podcast and takes place in one of those grand, old New York City buildings facing Central Park that most of us in the city will never set foot in.
Of course, Steve Martin and Martin Short are both great and look like they’re having a lot of fun. While clearly still in their respective primes, they’re completely believable as elderly, washed-up showbiz types that starkly contrast with Selena Gomez’s mysterious millennial character.
But the best thing about this show is the never-ending stream of supporting characters played by famous actors and other performers that you’d never expect to show up in a Hulu series. I won’t spoil it for you by naming them. It’s much better to be surprised when they suddenly pop up.
The plot takes a handful of twists and turns over the 10-episode season. If you figure out who did it before the characters do (I did), just sit back and enjoy the ride, which incidentally ends with a cliffhanger. Good thing there’s a season 2 already in the works.
— Bree Fowler
Every family has a story and Nuclear Family director Ry Russo-Young shares hers in this fascinating three-episode HBO Max documentary series. Russo-Young was born to a lesbian couple, Robin Young and Sandy Russo, with help of a sperm donor whom her mothers later invited into their lives. It surely seemed like a good idea at the time. But when the donor, lawyer Tom Steel, decided he wanted even more of a presence in Ry’s life, her moms fought back and Steel then sued for paternity and visitation rights.
It’s easy to sympathize with every side in this series. Russo-Young herself was just a child with absolutely no power over the adult events threatening to turn her life upside-down. The case itself is historic, but I’d watch a weekly show featuring Ry’s smart and dynamic moms just shopping and chatting — they’re that engaging and likable. Don’t miss this one, a reminder that there are still plenty of meaningful family stories out there we have never heard.
— Gael Fashingbauer Cooper
I’m a huge fan of Mike Flanagan, so I was buzzing for his latest series Midnight Mass. After the first two episodes, I was calling it one of his best. Then, as it went to places I really didn’t expect it to go, it took me a minute to appreciate how sublime it really is (I wasn’t a massive fan of its chaotic ending, but the overall package is something else). If you’re into slow-burns, Midnight Mass is seven episodes of steadily building foreboding and dread. The scary moments will catch you off guard and the existential monologues will fascinate (just don’t make the mistake of learning to anticipate when a character’s about to set off on one — the predictability removes you from the otherwise mesmerizing viewing experience).
— Jennifer Bisset
Of course we have to put Squid Game in here. It’s good!
Everyone has an opinion on Squid Game, even Lebron James, but it’s good! It’s overall good. Yes, the second half of the series isn’t quite as strong as the opening half. Sure, the English speaking actors are brutal. Sure, we’ve seen Battle Royale style shows before, but Squid Game is a cultural phenomenon and it’s been a blast going along for the ride. I haven’t seen this much chatter around a single show since Game of Thrones.
There’s some great stuff in the show. Episode 6, AKA the marbles game, is a masterclass and there are stellar performances too. Everyone in the main cast is incredible.
I can’t wait for season 2.
Reservation Dogs comes from the mind of Taika Waititi (Thor: Ragnarok, Hunt for the Wilderpeople), so you know it’s good. The comedy follows Elora, Bear, Cheese and Willie, a small gang of teenagers living in rural Oklahoma. With a strong focus on character development, the comedy might surprise you with touching moments, amid the constant stream of dry wit. Slamming down some mostly accurate Indigenous representation, especially when it comes to dialogue filled with local slang, Reservation Dogs is essential viewing. Don’t miss it.
— Jennifer Bisset
Mare of Easttown
It wouldn’t be a best TV shows list without Mare of Easttown. Kate Winslet on the small screen is a privilege to watch and here’s hoping — praying — for a season 2 of the lauded HBO show. Winslet’s totally raw performance as a police detective solving a small-town murder has flung her into hot contention for a best actress Emmy. Fingers crossed she takes it home. (She won her first and only Emmy in 2011 for Mildred Pierce.)
— Jennifer Bisset
Part of the reason I enjoyed Netflix’s Lupin is that the protagonist is funny, charming, a bit self-deprecating and smart enough to take care of himself. We also get to meet a cast of well-thought characters, fully-realized personalities — good and bad — who help make the story so engaging and compelling that you don’t mind having to get the story by reading the subtitles (I don’t speak French).
Those are the same reasons I enjoyed 50M2 on Netflix. I don’t speak Turkish either, but I had absolutely no problem laughing — and gasping — as the story unfolds through Season 1. Set in modern-day Istanbul, the story centers around Shadow, the No. 1 henchman for a shady businessman who’s his adopted father (Shadow doesn’t remember his past.) When things take an unexpected turn with the boss, Shadow ends up hiding out in a small tailor shop — size: 50-meters square — after the local community mistakes him for the son of the deceased tailor. Shadow is straightforward and likable, with a moral code that shows underneath it all he’s a decent guy. By Episode 8, he — and we — realize the locals have become his family. I sure hope there’s a Season 2 because the first one ends with quite the cliffhanger.
— Connie Guglielmo
We Are Lady Parts
It surprised me how much I liked We Are Lady Parts. That’s probably thanks to the title, so don’t let it put you off. The six-episode series follows an all-female Muslim punk band in the UK. These characters are stunningly different to general representations of Muslim women. They play songs with lyrics like, “Voldemort’s alive and he’s under my headscarf.” They’re tattooed. They smoke weed. Yet the whole thing has the same tone of Schitt’s Creek. You’ll fall in love with the characters, the music and lead Anjana Vasan, whose awkwardness and line delivery are hilarious. A wonderful, feel-good gem.
— Jennifer Bisset
Can we do documentaries?
Sweet, OK. Untold is the latest documentary series from Chapman Way and Maclain Way, the creators of Wild Wild Country.
It’s about sports, with each close-to-feature-length episode focusing on a different topic. First is the Malice at the Palace incident, where Ron Artest wades into a crowd during a basketball match and started wailing on fans. The second focuses on Christy Martin, the female boxer who exploded into mainstream consciousness in the late ’90s.
Every episode is golden. One of the best sports documentary series since 30 for 30.
— Mark Serrels
Kevin Can F**k Himself
Kevin Can F**k Himself hooked me with its premise (and its title, honestly): A hot wife/bumbling husband sitcom turned on its head, with the wife, Allison (played by Schitt’s Creek’s Annie Murphy), taking center stage. Through Allison’s point of view, the sitcom is only half the story — when her husband Kevin isn’t around, she’s the star of a gritty, single-cam drama, complete with a drugs-and-murder subplot. The show is an interesting commentary on comedy and storytelling, but the plot is also just plain good.
— Karisa Langlo
I’m calling it. Jean Smart is the actress of the year. After a grizzled turn in Mare of Easttown, Smart plays aging-but-still-fabulous stand-up comedian Deborah Vance in all her Vegas glory. As Deborah’s star looks set to fade, she’s paired up with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a young comedy writer who’s just been “canceled” for a tweet. Two worlds collide and it’s comedy gold.
From Deborah’s acerbic wit to her “Liza’s at the Palace” pantsuit wardrobe, Smart effortlessly shows why this woman has had to fight for recognition all her life. And as Deborah bristles against Ava’s Gen Z wokeness (over everything from old-school stand-up to modern feminism), we realize these women are more than just generational stereotypes. The writing is also perfection. Nothing sums up Deborah more perfectly than the line, “Write me 15 jokes by tomorrow morning. Nothing about pantyhose or the Challenger explosion — I’ve done ’em all!”
Send this show to anyone who tells you women aren’t funny. Better yet, tell them that debate ended decades ago, then put your feet up and enjoy this year’s most perfect piece of television.
— Claire Reilly
The North Water
Dear all the Hollywood producers and directors who read CNET everyday,
If you make a TV show about a ship (whaling or otherwise) destined for the Arctic and set it in the 19th century and put a bunch of great actors in it (bonus points for Jared Harris or Colin Farrell), I will watch that show and I will absolutely enjoy that show. If you also include a Luke-in-a-Tauntaun scene, you’ll make me a fan for life.
I look forward to hearing from you.
— Jackson Ryan
If you’re a fan of 30 Rock or Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, this is the show for you. From the glorious brain of Meredith Scardino and produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, Girls 5eva follows four women as they try to reignite the glory of their several-hit wonder girl-group days. The cast is stacked: We have Paula Pell, Busy Phillips, Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry and Sara Bareilles star as the titular Girls — and they really understood the assignment. I inhaled this season in just a few days and I have no regrets. It’s equal parts really smart and really silly, and the songs will be stuck in your head for days afterwards.
— Nicole Archer
It’s a Sin
Quite simply one of the most powerful pieces of storytelling I’ve ever seen, made all the more forceful by the fact it’s based on true events. The uplifting and devastating history of the 1980s gay community is the story Russell T. Davies (of Doctor Who fame) was born to tell, finding the humanity and inhumanity of the AIDS crisis and society’s reaction to it, with new crushing twists in every episode. Masterfully written and beautifully acted, It’s a Sin is essential viewing.
— Richard Trenholm
How does anyone find the time for television? Keeping up with all the new things is a full-time job. It’s literally my full-time job and I can’t keep up with the streaming services and the original content and the season 2s and the new thing that Netflix just dropped. Lupin? The White Lotus? Halston? Starstruck? Mare of Easttown? Sure, I watched the first episodes of all of those and can say with absolute authority they are all probably fine. Wait, you need more? Look, I spend my life watching Peppa Pig, but apparently that “doesn’t count for the parameters of the article.” Fine. Loki. Loki was good. Happy now?
— Richard Trenholm
I’m trying to think of another show that this remarkable endeavor reminds me of. I can’t think of anything. The Nevers unravels the mystery of Victorian Londoners — mostly women — who manifest supernatural powers after a fantastical ship sails over them in the sky. The “Touched” don’t know why they suddenly have powers, and they don’t understand why they are now so feared and hated. I love how the mystery slowly unfolds in each episode until it explodes in the final episode (of the first half of season one). When I started that last episode, I literally thought I was watching the wrong show for a few minutes. It was awesome. I loved the kickass, funny, complicated characters and the fact that I just couldn’t figure out who the real villains are. I keep looking for another show like this. So far, nada.
— Natalie Weinstein
True-crime fans rejoice at this wonderful telling of the horrifying Dr. Christopher Duntsch, who destroyed so many families with his sheer arrogance. Joshua Jackson, who plays Duntsch, fully encapsulates the surgeon of our nightmares. The cast also includes other 90s icons Alec Baldwin, Christian Slater and Kelsey Grammer. Dr. Death grabs you and doesn’t let go until the verdict is delivered.
— Danielle Ramirez
Starstruck is a classic screwball comedy, starring the lovably goofy Rose Matafeo. She plays Jessie, a twentysomething Londoner who parties it up on New Year’s Eve, then later discovers she had a one-night stand with Tom Kapoor, a celebrity played by Nikesh Patel. Follow Jessie as she juggles odd jobs, from cinema worker to nanny, and her blossoming relationship with a film star that involves no hijinks whatsoever. Watch out for scene-stealer Minnie Driver as Tom’s agent in this witty, neatly crafted comedy package.
— Jennifer Bisset
The Underground Railroad
Amazon Prime Video
Sublime filmmaker Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) takes on adapting Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railroad into a powerful 10-episode series. Set in the southern US during the 1800s, the fictional story follows African Americans attempting to escape from slavery via a network of hidden tracks and tunnels. Tapping magical realism and a superb cast, including Thuso Mbedu and William Jackson Harper, The Underground Railroad is an emotional and chilling triumph.
— Jennifer Bisset
Made For Love
Black Mirror, but there’s light at the end of the tunnel. Satirical comedy Made for Love hinges on Cristin Milioti’s comedic talents. Hazel Green escapes a 10-year marriage — until she realizes her husband, a tech billionaire, has fitted a chip into her brain. He can see her every move and track her down to negotiate their marriage. Hazel searches for freedom with the help of her dad, played by Ray Romano, who’s in an unorthodox relationship of his own. A few twists, a helpful dolphin and socially awkward people also tag along for this disturbing ride.
— Jennifer Bisset
The White Lotus
What was initially a limited series was so good HBO renewed it for a second season. The satire about guests at a fancy resort gradually unveils the darker edges of its picture-perfect postcard. The White Lotus features an incredible ensemble cast, including Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Steve Zahn, Molly Shannon and more hilarious people, who make this series soar. If that wasn’t enough, a murder mystery with the big reveal waiting till the very end will keep you thoroughly entertained.
— Jennifer Bisset
Six hours, released over nine weekly episodes, find Marvel’s Wanda and Vision hopping through eras of sitcom TV, starting in the black-and-white ’50s. Why are Earth’s mightiest heroes now a house wife and a suit working a nondescript day job? It might have something to do with — spoiler — Vision’s death in Avengers: Endgame and a grieving Wanda exploring the full extent of her reality-altering powers. Weird, funny and laden with Easter eggs, WandaVision is an experimental win for Marvel TV.
— Jennifer Bisset
This fantasy based on Jeff Lemire’s comic book is the definition of weird and wonderful. Sweet Tooth follows Gus (a stellar Christian Convery), a half-deer half-human child, who lives a sheltered life in the forest with his dad Pubba (Will Forte). Events relating to The Great Crumble, a viral pandemic, sweep Gus into an adventure branching down mysterious, action-filled and highly entertaining paths. Echoes with real-world struggles can be heard in the treetops of this immersive, riveting fantasy world. Genre fans settle in for this fantastic ride.
— Jennifer Bisset