2021 was one of the strongest, most diverse, and entertaining years in television that I’ve written about so far, with a wide range of unique and memorable series, both new and returning. From superhero epics and sci-fi shorts to more down to earth, human drama, there was something for everyone throughout these last twelve months. Read on to see which ones left me the most impressed.
Hacks (Season 1)
Watching the relationship and bond between Jean Smart’s (who is on this list twice!) angry, aging comedian, and Hannah Einbinder’s blacklisted writer slowly bloom was hilarious and genuinely touching to watch unfold. The chemistry between the leading pair is, quite frankly, astonishing, and both women are equally adept at delivering huge laughs and quiet, dramatic, sometimes painful, dialogue. This particular dynamic duo could easily carry a show with a lesser script, but Hacks has writing that’s whip smart and makes the most out of the rest of the cast as well. I feel like it would be great to watch Hacks back to back with Fleabag, which also has a strong focus on phenomenal female performances and writing so darkly humorous that you almost feel bad for laughing as hard as you do when certain events unfold. Of all the new shows I saw this year, Hacks might just be the best of the bunch, and it’s one of the main reasons I’ll be recommending people subscribe to HBO Max for the foreseeable future.
Made For Love (Season 1)
The TV adaptation of Alissa Nutting’s novel, Made for Love feels like an extended episode of Black Mirror with a sense of humor that’s as dark as the potential technological terrors it explores. It creates palpable unease with a story about a woman whose husband implants her with a surveillance chip that sees and hears everything she does, yet also has more than a few great laughs throughout. The immense comedic talent of its cast – which includes the always awesome Cristin Miliotit, the underrated Billy Magnussen, and Ray Romano – is used to full effect throughout the series (or season’s) eight episode run. Every main and supporting player in Made for Love feels like they could be a real human being, and learning more about the fractured relationship between Hazel (Milioti) and her father (Romano) is something that got me genuinely invested in the hope of them making amends by the end. And while Magnussen’s twisted tech mogul Byron Gogol (try saying that five times fast) isn’t anywhere as sympathetic as his co-leads, he’s equally entertaining to watch.
Mare of Easttown (Miniseries)
Somehow, Kate Winslet’s performance in Mare of Easttown is only the third of hers that I’ve seen, but it’s easy to see why she’s had such a long career, as her work here is incredible. Her titular character is solving crimes (or being called out for one that she couldn’t) during the day, and then trying to hold what’s left of her family together at night. Winselt isn’t alone though, as she has a phenomenal supporting cast to play off of including Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, Guy Pearce, and Evan Peters, the latter of which has never been better. It’s definitely Winslet’s show though, and watching her is never anything less than completely engrossing. The series’ main murder mystery is also equally compelling, and even though it occasionally treads through tried and true tropes if the genre, watching the answers gradually make their way to the light of day is as satisfying (and shocking) as you could hope. It doesn’t do anything revolutionary for detective dramas, but it’s still great from start to finish.
Midnight Mass (Miniseries)
If you know who Mike Flanagan is, you shouldn’t be surprised that the newest collaboration between the rising (or already risen?) master of horror and Netflix is on this list. What you might find interesting though, is that it’s easily the director’s most distinct work yet, and his most personal. There are still jump scares and many, many scenes packed with tension spread throughout its seven episodes, but Midnight Mass places far more emphasis on a different kind of horror than The Haunting of Hill House or Bly Manor; a kind that is far more human, yet as potent and disturbing as any ghost story. Midnight Mass has a much, much slower build-up, but is as unforgettable and shocking as you’d expect from a creation of Flanagan’s once it really gets going. The end result is an unsettling, unflinching, and often poignant exploration of faith, addiction, and guilt that’s backed by an exceptionally talented cast. And while it definitely takes a little while to get going, it eventually does hit the same awe-inspiring heights of its masterclass predecessors.
Loki (Season 1)
While it occasionally struggles under the strain of its epic storytelling, Loki is easily the biggest success of the Disney+ MCU series so far. The story follows Tom Hiddleston’s Asgardian God of Mischief directly after the events of 2012’s Avengers, and pairs him up with Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson, wow!) as they hunt down a fugitive from time. There’s a lot more than that going on though, with tons of twists, turns and reveals throughout its six episodes that make you reevaluate Loki, his allies, enemies, and some surprising characters that are as interesting as they are bizarre. Those unique characters and talented actors give the show a great amount of emotional depth, the compelling story kept me hooked the whole way through, and unlike the shows that preceded it, Loki actually feels important to the MCU as a whole and isn’t just a spin-off of little consequence. This may not have been the “glorious purpose” the green and gold-glad trickster was initially looking for, but it’s one that is certainly worthy of one of the MCU’s most prominent non-Avenger characters.
Castlevania (Season 4)
The final chapter of Netflix’s adaptation of the legendary vampire-hunter video game franchise finishes on a more than appropriately epic note. Season four brings an end to the adventures of its biggest heroes and villains in a brilliant fashion, almost perfectly tidying up every important story beat, character arc, and offers up a few unexpected twists throughout its ten episode run. The mainstays of the voice cast, including Richard Armitage, Alejandra Reynoso, and James Callus all continue to deliver stellar vocal performances, and newcomer Malcolm McDowell is fantastic as the slimy, cunning vampire Varney. The series’ top-tier animation is still stunningly beautiful and badass too. Hell, there are even a handful of action sequences nearly on par with the assault on Dracula’s castle from season two, which is high praise considering that I believe that particular battle is one of the best sequences I’ve seen in any animated feature or show. With all said and done, Castlevania’s last season is one of its strongest, and highlights everything that made the series so great. Netflix’s next animated, video game-based series, Devil May Cry, has an extremely tough act to follow.
Cobra Kai (Season 3)
The third season of the Karate kid sequel series is probably the weakest so far, but still strong enough that I ended up binging through it in only two sittings. Despite hitting daytime soap opera levels of drama – which I believe it peaked with in the season two finale – watching Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso’s (Ralph Macchio) struggle with each other, balancing their personal lives, training a new generation of teens in their respective styles of karate, and fighting – or not fighting – against John Kreese’s (Martin Kove) “no mercy” style dojo is just so damn entertaining. Season three also brings in even more Karate Kid alum, one of which you can probably guess if you saw season two, and a couple of others will most likely be very pleasant surprises for those who have seen the Karate Kid sequels. The younger cast members are all solid too, even if some of their arcs are rushed or feel a little unearned, and the final scene was easily one of my biggest “fuck yeah” moments of TV or film this year.
Doom Patrol (Season 3)
Doom Patrol’s third season is yet another arc full of superhuman, supernatural, and super weird misadventures. The show retains that same blend of humor, shock, and heartbreak that immediately endeared me to it in season one, along with the majority of its best characters. The show’s excellent, unfathomably charming main cast bring seemingly effortless laughs, make you tear up at a moments notice, and somehow sell the stakes of their character’s dire, yet over-the-top situations. Most shows would never be able to make the majority of the trials that the main gang encounters intimidating and hilarious, but it’s a walk in the park for the brilliant minds behind Doom Patrol. Then there’s the cavalcade of fun recurring and guest stars, each of whom is memorably bizarre in their own right. I touted this show as one of the best things to watch on the DC Universe streaming service a few years back, and even though it’s moved to the much more crowded HBO Max, I’d still say it stands out as one of the most impressive pieces of entertainment on the streaming platform it calls home.
F is for Family (Season 5)
The last hurrah for this Netflix original, Bill Burr-led animated sitcom maybe wasn’t it’s all-time strongest, but it was still funny and poignant enough that it’d feel wrong to leave it off of my list. The cast – which includes Burr, Laura Dern, Justin Long, Sam Rockwell, and tons of other comedic greats – imbue the show itself with so much crass charm (along with countless quotable quips) really selling the growth and setbacks of the Murphy family and those around them. Despite the often poor decisions they made, I certainly grew to care about them throughout the series, and season five delivers a more than satisfactory payoff for audiences who have followed their exploits since 2015. It’s a fitting send-off for the fictional family, one that promises a hopeful future for them, and is filled to the brim with moments of slapstick humor or lines that had me rewinding and rewatching them. And now that it’s wrapped up, I can say without a doubt that F is For Family as a whole is one of the best and most underrated animated comedies of the past ten years.
It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (Season 15)
After binging through Always Sunny’s previous fourteen seasons last year, I had been eagerly awaiting for the crew of Paddy’s Pub to return. The series’ record-breaking fifteenth season is as outrageously funny as its protagonists are deplorable. Watching them bicker, squabble, insult, complain about, and suffer because of each other is a television experience like no other. Even after so many years on the air the show keeps finding new ways to shock its audience and further explore the depth of the gang’s ignorance, avarice, overinflated sense of self importance, and place them in darkly comical situations. Rob McElhenney, Charlie Day, Glenn Howerton, Kaitlin Olson, and Danny DeVito have spent so long playing Mac, Charlie, Dennis, Dee, and Frank that each interaction between them feels totally natural despite the obvious differences between the actors and their fictional counterparts. Pair that unique style, acting talent and experience with some of the best writing currently on television, and it’s not hard to see why It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia has earned its enduring fandom; and it’s a fandom I’m oh so happy to be a part of.
Love Death + Robots (Season 2)
If you were looking for something new to watch in 2021 that was packed with originality, you probably couldn’t have found anything more memorable than Love Death + Robots. Just like the first, season two of LD+R is an anthology of animated shorts from various talents that tell different stories with science fiction or fantasy elements. The segments vary in genre and tone, ranging from quirky comedies to otherworldly horrors to disturbing dystopian dramas, and most of them feature distinctive animation that helps them stand out from the rest. Even the weakest segment, Life Hutch is worth watching because of its outstanding, nearly photo-realistic visuals. Then there’s my favorite, Pop Squad, which is an outstanding, bleak mini-film that I’d strongly recommend to all fans of sci-fi classics like Blade Runner or Ghost in the Shell. Seriously, Pop Squad is easily one of the best television episodes that I’ve seen all year. LD+R’s latest offering has space whales, giant corpses, immortality, killer robots (both funny and not funny) and more; it’s a streamable cornucopia of creativity, if you will.
Rick and Morty (Season 5)
Rick and Morty’s fifth batch of episodes is another consistently hilarious showcase of super science, psychological baggage, and boundary pushing. The writing is still whip smart, delivering some of the most interesting and outlandish adventures for the duo and never letting more than a few moments pass without a cutting, sarcastic quip or hysterical, physical gag. Seriously, it’s nuts; turkey soldiers, otter robots, and Captain Planet satire are just the tip of the insane iceberg. There are some surprisingly effective dramatic turns here too, as season five gives its audience just a bit more insight into why Rick is the abrasive, alcoholic asshole we know and “love,” and the long-gestating plans of a certain character who’s been in the show’s shadows for years unfold as he finally makes his move. It all leads to a finale that is incredibly funny, but also highlights the toxicity of the protagonists’ relationship, and hopefully sets the stage for them to work towards something healthier for the pair in the long run.
Ted Lasso (Season 2)
Although it deals with some seriously dark material, Ted Lasso is the most wholesome television show I’ve seen in years, and it’s exactly what the world needs right now. Few things this year were as consistently uplifting as watching Ted’s team (players, the AFC Richmond staff, and others) continue to strengthen their bonds, move past their own issues or come to terms with them, and work together to support each other on and off the field. Jason Sudeikis continues to shine in the eponymous role, and the whole cast just has this vibe that makes you root for them with all your heart. There’s one character arc that’s shockingly frustrating, but the rest of S2 is phenomenal. The dialogue is as fun and witty as the previous season, and is the most clever that I’ve seen in a TV show since the first few seasons of Arrested Development. Even if you don’t love it as much as I do, I doubt you’ll be able to get through it without feeling at least a little warm and fuzzy on the inside.
What We Do in the Shadows (Season 3)
To me, What We Do in the Shadows jumped up quite a bit in quality between seasons two and three, and I haven’t seen any sign that the mockumentary series will lose its luster anytime soon. After dealing with the fallout from the season two finale – in the most comical, unexpected, yet on brand manner as possible – WWDitS continues to develop the characters and relationships of its mostly-vampiric cast while they get into equally inventive and bizarre shenanigans. The entire core group is still amazing, and makes the most out of their fabulous dialogue. Season three never goes more than a minute without one or several gut-busting lines, most of which are doled out with deadpan delivery and comedic timing that I’d say is nearly on par with that of the late, great Leslie Nielsen. As much as I love the film it spun off from, the What We Do in the Shadows TV show has undoubtedly surpassed its predecessor at this point, and I wouldn’t be surprised if it reaches even greater heights in season four.
And those were my favorite TV shows of 2021! If you think I missed anything, or just want to share your favorites, let me know in the comments here or on Twitter. Until next time, remember: the best seats are in the Middle of the Row!