My favorite television shows of 2021 include some new faces and networks (Girls5eva on Peacock), sophomore seasons that went in darker directions (Ted Lasso, ITYSL), freshman shows that took big swings never before seen on television (Kevin Can F*** Himself, Yellowjackets), and cultural phenomena (Mare of Easttown). I had a great time watching these shows and haven’t been able to stop thinking about them all year long.
Honorable mentions: Curb Your Enthusiasm, Lularich, Pose, Squid Game, Succession
10. The Handmaid’s Tale (Hulu)
In Season 4, the dystopian series does the unthinkable and takes June (Elisabeth Moss) out of Gilead. It’s a gamble to take cut out such an intrinsic part of the show, but as the season proves, you can take the handmaid out of hell, but you can’t take the hell she went through out of her. Season 4’s exploration of surviving trauma is fascinating and culminates in one of the darkest moments of the series (and if you’re a fan, you know this show is chockful of them).
9. Kevin Can F*** Himself (AMC)
Even if you don’t like Kevin Can F*** Himself, you probably at the very least respect its whiplash ability to do both drama and comedy at the swing of a living room door. For its production design, lighting, and unforgettable format, KCFH is a show you’ll never forget. Annie Murphy shines as Allison, in her first post-Emmy role since Alexis Rose, but it’s Mary Hollis Inboden who truly surprises, whose Patty might have the biggest arc of the series. Their absorbing friendship isn’t one of kinship, but of survival.
8. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Steve Martin + Martin Short are an equation for funny, but Selena Gomez? Turns out, she can work into that formula, too. This show deftly takes pop culture fandom and murder mystery and weaves it into an original comedic series that doesn’t just have one of the best physical comedy moments of the year from Steve Martin, but also makes for an intriguing whodunnit.
7. Girls5eva (Peacock)
It’s rare to see a show with women in their 40s where half of their dialogue and day isn’t set around getting the kids to school or dealing with the shenanigans of a bumbling husband (see: every show Kevin Can F*** Himself is lampooning). But Girls5eva is a different kind of show in which a girl group from the early 2000s wants to make a go of it again 20 years later. The music is catchy and hilarious, the quips are quick, and the performances are memorable (Paula Pell and Renee Elise Goldsberry are MVPs).
6. American Crime Story: Impeachment (FX)
Revisiting the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal probably wasn’t at the top of people’s 2021 TV to-do lists, but Ryan Murphy knows how to take a story you think you know everything about and make it feel new. While this American Crime Story iteration is a bit slower to start, the last half of it is especially compelling with the fallout of everyone’s actions and how people move on from them. Everyone in the cast is working at their absolute best, especially Sarah Paulson, Clive Owen, and Cobie Smulders.
5. Chad (TBS)
Nasim Pedrad should have received an Emmy nomination for her work on this TBS comedy, playing a melodramatic teenage boy who desperately wants to fit in. Even though this show has a gimmick, it rarely leans into it to make the audience uncomfortable with an adult woman playing a teenage boy. The comedy exists not in its situation but in its characters and performances, anchored by Pedrad herself. TBS has been ahead of everyone in cult comedies (see: Search Party); let’s hope that Chad has a similar fate (and wouldn’t he love that!).
4. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson Season 2 (Netflix)
Season 2 of the sketch comedy series mines through similar themes from Season 1 (Little Buff Boys is the new Baby of the Year?), but it also goes deeper with its characters. The jerk who ruins everyone’s experience at a haunted house really doesn’t have any friends; the TV prankster who dresses up as an old man at a mall has an existential crisis in the getup; the man (Paul Walter Hauser) who makes a joke at his wife’s expense remembers how she supported him in his acting battle with Jamie Taco. In a year where we really needed to laugh at nothing, this show did that, even if it secretly made it about something.
3. Ted Lasso (Apple+)
Could anyone have predicted half of the twists and turns this second season takes? That Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham) would get into a relationship with Sam (Toheeb Jimoh)? That Nate (Nick Mohammed) would become a villain? The second season gave us more nuance and insight into every character in the cast, which is quite the feat for any show, while also delivering laughs and tearjerker moments.
2. Yellowjackets (Showtime)
The Dexter reboot was supposed to be the bloody show everyone was talking about this fall, but as it turns out, another gory Showtime show had everyone abuzz. Yellowjackets is Lord-of-the-Flies-meets-Now-and-Then when a plane carrying a high school girls’ soccer team crashes in the Canadian wilderness in 1995. Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, and Christina Ricci play the adult survivors, but the entire cast is putting out A+ work.
1. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
For a week in May 2021, you couldn’t go on Twitter without coming across something about the murder-mystery Mare of Easttown. It united everyone during the pandemic in the way that masks and vaccines never could. But it wasn’t just the whodunnit that kept people coming back week to week; it was living in this town of Easttown with its unforgettable characters. Even though she’s an Oscar-winning movie star, Kate Winslet has never played a role like this before, without any trace of “Hollywood” in her lived-in performance. Director Craig Zobel also gets career best performances out of Emmy winners Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson. Many people don’t want a Season 2 of this show, but with a cast like this and a hometown like Easttown, it’s hard not to wonder what everyone is up to.