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There are as many different ways to make a great show as there are great shows. But the best shows of 2021 (at least, the best shows of 2021 according to this critic) tended to have two things in common. First, nearly all of them were streaming originals, many from services that launched at the height of the streaming wars last year. Sorry, conventional TV networks.
Second, many were defined by their love for the communities they were depicting, whether those communities were a sleepy island plagued by supernatural happenings or a run-down reservation home to teens with California dreams. (Though not all — I still appreciate a well-executed skewering, as evidenced by numbers three and six.) Call it a late-COVID craving for togetherness, or the next evolution of nice TV — one rooted in compassion, individuality and hard-won hope, rather than a stubborn insistence on a positive attitude. Or don’t call them anything, and just sit back and appreciate how good the shows were this year.
1. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
The joy of watching Reservation Dogs is never quite knowing what to expect. It’s a true original that’s as likely to offer up a hilariously unhelpful spirit guide (a warrior but not a notable one, just some guy who died when his horse fell on him) as it is a devastating heart-to-heart about grief and guilt. But radiating throughout is the creators’ fierce affection for the Indigenous community depicted here in all its multifaceted glory, in a rebuke to decades of flattened stereotypes from the rest of pop culture.
2. We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
We Are Lady Parts is pure punk rock: bold, irreverent, and utterly unapologetic. Its main characters — all British Muslim women — cheerfully resist any attempts to paint their community as a monolith. Its storylines can encompass somber discussions about representation or goofy fantasies about singing sock puppets. What knits them all together is the sisterhood these musicians find in each other as outsiders blazing their own trail in a world not inclined to clear one for them. That, and some super catchy tunes.
3. Succession (HBO)
In 2021, as in most years, TV has been replete with portrayals of rich assholes. But few shows are as masterful as Succession in depicting the toxicity of extreme wealth — or in extracting such savage humor from the pain that follows. Season three might be the show’s cruelest joke yet, picking up with the season two shake-up that promised to change everything … and then not changing very much at all, even as it finds new lows for the Roys to sink to.
4. The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
Barry Jenkins’ drama is, in a word, breathtaking: in its ambition, in its anguish, in its beauty. Based on Colson Whitehead’s novel, The Underground Railroad follows Cora (a superb Thuso Mbedu) as she escapes to freedom via a literal underground railroad. While the series is unflinching in its depiction of the brutality of slavery, it’s even more invested in the humanity of its characters, the lives they built in the face of that trauma, and the fears and hopes that reverberate from those circumstances to this day.
5. For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Just as Jamestown was built up from a one-room shack to an expansive base between seasons, For All Mankind takes big leaps in ambition and achievement in its second outing, which coalesces around the possibility of lunar warfare. Over 10 episodes, the series weaves together intimate personal stories and sprawling political dramas, stubborn optimism about the possibilities of space exploration and cool realism about the nature of humankind — and pays it all off with one of the most thrilling season finales in recent memory.
6. You (Netflix)
You finally gives Joe (Penn Badgley) the happily-ever-after he claims he’s always wanted, with Love (Victoria Pedretti), who understands him more fully than he’d ever dreamed possible. And then it sits back and watches as the fantasy goes up in flames. While the suburban Bay Area setting offers plenty of targets for the show’s razor-sharp satire — as well as for Joe and Love’s deadly impulses — its sharpest knives are saved for the couple themselves, and the marital bliss that eludes them even as the bodies stack up.
7. Swagger (Apple TV+)
To watch Swagger is to feel like you’ve been transported into another life — its setting and characters feel that rich and lived-in, even if you don’t know the first thing about the world of elite youth basketball that it’s set in. O’Shea Jackson Jr. anchors the show as a Coach Taylor-like figure radiating compassion and charisma. But the series really belongs to the young ballplayers, whom it treats with grace and good humor as they teeter between the innocence of childhood and the weight of maturity.
8. The Other Two (HBO Max)
In the second season of The Other Two, Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) finally see their careers on the upswing. As in season one, though, success isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. The wicked fun of the series lies in the precision of its ice-cold burns on the entertainment industry, aimed at everything from Cameo to celebrity megachurches. The secret of its appeal, however, is a surprisingly big heart, expressed in the love the Dubeks have for one another.
9. Sort Of (HBO Max)
Like its hero, a gender-fluid 20-something named Sabi (Bilal Baig, who also co-created with Fab Filippo) who works as a nanny, Sort Of is almost aggressively low-key. Even as its characters take on heavy storylines about grief or parental acceptance, its sense of humor remains deadpan and its emotions mostly repressed. But also like Sabi, the show’s a gentle charmer, aiming its gift of clear-eyed compassion toward characters who fear being truly seen almost as much as they fear never being fully seen at all.
10. Midnight Mass (Netflix)
There’s no shortage of bloodshed in Mike Flanagan’s latest horror drama. Yet the true angst of the series comes from its heart-on-sleeve exploration of faith, which is less about trying to puzzle out whether God exists than what that question means to the people posing it. Those discussions, delivered with wrenching emotion by a cast that includes Zach Gilford and Hamish Linklater, are what linger long after the mystery of what’s really going on with the new priest has been revealed.
Honorable mentions: Blindspotting (Starz), Hacks (HBO Max), I Think You Should Leave (Netflix), It’s a Sin (HBO Max), Maid (Netflix), Mythic Quest (Apple TV+), Only Murders in the Building (Hulu), Squid Game (Netflix), What We Do in the Shadows (FX), The White Lotus (HBO)
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