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TV production settled into a new normal after the COVID-shaped 2020, but my Top 10 is still awash in oddities, including a trio of alternative histories; matching HBO eviscerations of the insufferably spoiled rich; one broadcast show that isn’t on broadcast anymore; an Apple TV+ show that isn’t Emmy juggernaut Ted Lasso; and more shows from AMC+ (one) than Netflix (zero). There are series here that will make you cry in sadness or outrage, wring tears of joy and leave you sobbing with laugher. Look, 2021 was a lachrymose year.
1. The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
Barry Jenkins’ triumphant adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s acclaimed novel delivered its unlikely mixture of misery and hope by embracing TV episodic structure. Each installment, most stretching over an hour, found different towering ways to conjure emotional depth and cinematic scale, all unified by James Laxton’s breathtaking cinematography, a layered tapestry of sound design and a haunting composition by Nicholas Britell, who scored both this and my second-favorite show of the year.
2. Succession (HBO)
Facing impossibly high expectations after an Emmy sweep and a COVID hiatus, Jesse Armstrong’s scathing blend of media-skewing dark comedy and Shakespearean family tragedy only reaffirmed its versatility. No show makes me laugh more (see “Retired Janitors of Idaho”) or watch with more eyes-covered mortification (“Too Much Birthday”), all while being a fundamentally heartbreaking look at how the only people who can hurt us more than the ones we love most are ourselves.
3. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)
Every episode of Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s Oklahoma-set Indigenous comedy offered a different character to fall in love with, a different setting and situation never featured before on TV. From Native hip-hop to the bureaucracy at the reservation medical clinic to the story of the Deer Lady, Reservation Dogs was revelatory and funny and the core quartet of stars — Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor and Paulina Alexis — represents casting at its finest.
4. The White Lotus (HBO)
Oh the indignity of being only the year’s second-best satire of wealthy white privilege and familial toxicity! Mike White’s six-episode Hawaiian jaunt can nearly match Succession for its layers of cringe-worthy elitism, but it has the Enlightened auteur’s unique dose of pickled heart thanks in large part to an ensemble in which every performance and every character could be somebody’s favorite. It’s a career peak for Jennifer Coolidge, a breakout for Natasha Rothwell, a revelatory opportunity for Alexandra Daddario and a buffet of scenery-chewing for Murray Bartlett. The best worst vacation imaginable.
5. Exterminate All the Brutes (HBO)
For sheer intellectual audacity, it’s impossible to top Raoul Peck’s four-part HBO documentary, which aspires to nothing less than a unified theory of capitalism, colonialism and genocide around the world and across centuries. It’s part history, part complicated literary analysis — with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness among its key texts — part Hollywood critique, part autobiography and part extended reenactment featuring Josh Hartnett as a recurring embodiment of white imperialism. Even when Peck’s ambitious connections don’t fully cohere, it’s astonishing that HBO was game for something so brash and brainy.
6. For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Ron Moore’s space race alt-history has been a slow burn when it comes to buzz, which is appropriate since the series itself is one of the most meticulous and deliberately crafted shows on TV. The second For All Mankind season built to a hyper-emotional, action-packed finale that could almost be described as “zany,” but as with the first season, it was every bit as invested in both thoughtful character explorations and explorations of its modified Cold War. Michael Dorman, Sarah Jones and especially Shantel VanSanten were standouts in this deepening ensemble.
7. Evil (Paramount+)
Naturally, the year’s best broadcast series was a show that couldn’t survive on broadcast TV. The move from CBS to Paramount+ gave creators Robert and Michelle King more breathing room and more opportunities to freak viewers out with the rare horror series that’s actually reliably scary and disturbing. The bizarre pleasures of the second season included an almost dialogue-free episode at a monastery, Michael Emerson and Andrea Martin going head-to-head in a spiritual duel and even more of the glorious overlapping dialogue with Kristen’s (the delightful Katja Herbers) kids. There was a window in the late summer when, between Evil and The Good Fight, the Kings were steering the two best shows on TV.
8. The Great (Hulu)
It’s tempting to view Tony McNamara’s ahistorical Hulu comedy as a two-hander, emphasizing Nicholas Hoult’s ability to utter the most horrible of sentiments with a wicked grin and Elle Fanning’s increasingly magnetic reactions to the alien Russian world around Catherine the Great. The second season, though, offered more room for supporting players including Adam Godley, Phoebe Fox, Belinda Bromilow, Charity Wakefield and guest star Gillian Anderson (also, well, “great” in the terrific third season of Sex Education) to get in on the raunchy, vodka-spewing power struggle.
9. Anna (AMC+)
You probably haven’t heard of Niccoló Ammaniti’s six-episode Italian drama or, possibly, of AMC+ as a streaming service. And Anna’s backdrop of a world in which all of the grownups were killed by a virus is hardly escapist TV. But the show’s Sicilian-set magical realism has lingered in my mind. Sometimes nightmarish, occasionally heartbreakingly beautiful and always anchored by a cast of perfectly selected young newcomers led by Giulia Dragotto, Anna manages to be hard to watch and hypnotic at the same time.
10. We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
It was a second straight year engulfed in disheartening news coverage, so what better way to end my Top 10 than with Nida Manzoor’s delightfully uplifting We Are Lady Parts? This look at a London-based punk band made up of Muslim women had provocative points to make about inclusivity and how frequently we reduce minority communities to something monolithic. But you can also watch for the instantly lovable characters and a soundtrack of pointed-but-hilarious earworms like “Bashir With the Good Beard.”
Honorable mentions: Big Mouth (Netflix), Dave (FXX), Desus & Mero (Showtime), Hacks (HBO Max), How To With John Wilson (HBO), It’s a Sin (HBO Max), Last Chance U: Basketball (Netflix), Philly DA (PBS), PEN15 (Hulu), The Wonder Years (ABC).
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