And 12 other terrific shows, from You to Reservation Dogs.
I have been making “best TV” lists in one form or another since 2006, taking only one year off in that entire time. (It was 2020, because I did this instead.) And in those 15 years, my introductions to my lists have only grown more ambivalent about the nature of list-making, especially for a medium where there’s so much stuff to consume.
So in making my 2021 list, I opted not to try to have a comprehensive survey of “the best” because I’m increasingly convinced that no one person can watch enough television to reasonably say what the best even is. What I watched this year was completely arbitrary. I long ago gave up on trying to “keep up with” TV as a medium, and I really only watched shows in 2021 if I thought I would find them interesting. So consider this list even more idiosyncratic and personal than it normally would be.
But I really do think that even if I had watched literally every show on TV, my top show of the year would have remained the same. I’ve known what my No. 1 would be since I screened it last spring, and nothing has really challenged it for the top spot. So here’s the best TV show of 2021, then 12 other shows I loved a bunch.
The best TV show of 2021: The Underground Railroad (Prime Video)
Any given series being lost amid the never-ending onslaught of new releases is completely understandable. I get why director Barry Jenkins’s astonishing adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel seemingly evaporated the instant it was released. There’s too much stuff!
Yet the fact that Prime Video seemed almost to treat this tremendous work — the best TV series I’ve seen in years and years — as an afterthought continues to frustrate me. Yes, a 10-episode miniseries about slavery and the ways it paints every single element of life in the United States with its poisoned brush to this day was always going to be a tough sell. But Prime Video didn’t even seem to try. (Releasing the series all at once when it resists easy binge-watching also may have been an issue.)
So let me do their job for them: This miniseries is a titanic piece of television. It follows an escaped slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu) as she flees north, through a series of communities that serve almost as expressionistic explorations of the Black American experience in the wake of the Civil War, as potential progress is destroyed by white supremacy at every turn. All the while, she is pursued by a slave catcher who aims to drag her back to the plantation.
The miniseries’s most successful choice is to turn Whitehead’s novel — already episodic — into a TV series that leans into that structure. Jenkins, primarily known for his work on films like Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, intuitively understands how Underground Railroad could perhaps only work as a TV series. Every episode gives us a chance to adjust to some new horrifying normal, before it is ripped away by the arrival of the slave catcher. It’s maybe not a series you would binge, but its storytelling choices mean watching it never feels like doing homework.
It’s as gorgeous and alive as any TV show I’ve ever seen, and it deserved so, so much better.
How to watch it: The Underground Railroad is streaming on Prime Video.
12 other TV shows I really loved (in alphabetical order)
Possibly the wildest show on television right now, Evil is a series made up entirely of ideas that would get tossed out of most other TV shows for being too weird. A kind of more-religious X-Files, it follows a skeptical psychologist and a believer priest who investigate the supernatural. It’s the kind of show that accepts as a given that arguing over whether demons are real is a worthwhile discussion to have. In its second season, it deepened its mythology and gleefully tore through horror tropes as though it were holding a chainsaw tied to a machete.
How to watch it: Evil is streaming on Paramount+. A third season is in production.
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
The second season of this alternate history space race drama improved by leaps and bounds over an already pretty great first season. In the world of For All Mankind, the main front of the Cold War in the 1980s is on the surface of the moon, and all eyes are on Mars as the next possibility for colonization. And yet the chief pleasure of this series is the dynamite character work, as showrunner Ron Moore and his writers explore a world where everything is different, but we’re still dealing with the same old shit.
How to watch it: For All Mankind is streaming on Apple TV+. A third season is in production.
The Great (Hulu)
Quite possibly TV’s horniest show, The Great lets Elle Fanning and Nicholas Hoult fume, flirt, and other F-words at each other in 1800s Russia. As Catherine the Great (see what the title did there?), Fanning is delectably fun, and as her husband, Peter, Hoult somehow finds a way to play the archetypal disapproving wife from a CBS sitcom, while being a man and starring in a prestige dramedy about Russian nobility in the 19th century. Season two deepened an already-good show, revealing that Catherine and Peter are really human underneath it all.
How to watch it: The Great is streaming on Hulu. No decision has yet been made on a third season.
Midnight Mass (Netflix)
The pinnacle of horror auteur Mike Flanagan’s recent run of limited series on Netflix, this horror tale of Catholicism and vampires is a piercing examination of the allure and toxicity inherent in any tradition that insists it has all the answers. Hamish Linklater is tremendous as a priest who leads his flock toward a brutal, bloody truth that will ravage their little town. There have been lots of horror stories about death cults destroying the world in the name of controlling it in recent years. This is one of the best.
How to watch it: Midnight Mass is streaming on Netflix.
Mythic Quest (Apple TV+)
As you know if you’ve been reading my work for any amount of time, I hate joy, and my year-end lists always skew heavily toward drama. But this Apple TV+ comedy is so funny and so winning that it bypassed my defenses. The second season dug into the unlikely working relationship between pompous Ian (Rob McElhenney) and frazzled Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) as they attempt to build a better video game at the studio they both work for. Every actor in this show is amazing, but Nicdao gave maybe my favorite TV performance of the year.
How to watch it: Mythic Quest is streaming on Apple TV+. A third season has been ordered.
Reservation Dogs (FX)
If Nicdao didn’t give my favorite performance, then that honor goes to Reservation Dogs’ Devery Jacobs, as Elora, a young woman trying like hell to escape the reservation on which she grew up. Sterlin Harjo’s series (co-created with Taika Waititi) takes viewers inside the lives of Elora and her friends as they pull off small-scale crimes in the name of funding an escape from Oklahoma to California. Reservation Dogs is a series that very slowly reveals what it’s really about, but across its eight episodes, it’s also incredibly funny and inventive.
How to watch it: Reservation Dogs is streaming on Hulu. Season two is in production.
Station Eleven (HBO Max)
The end of the world feels downright inviting in HBO Max’s unfortunately timed Station Eleven. Set in a world where a pandemic killed 999 out of every 1,000 people, Station Eleven had the bad luck to begin production right before Covid-19 swept the world, then the worse luck to launch the exact week everybody got obsessed with the omicron variant. Look beyond the premise to see a series that finds the human heart at the end of all things. This show’s sense of people caring for each other after all is lost can be deeply restorative.
How to watch it: Station Eleven is streaming on HBO Max. New episodes debut every Thursday through January 13.
Kind of the consensus “TV show we* all care about” at this moment, Succession’s third season was a grand and glorious thing, beginning with father pitted against son and then somehow finding an even more gutting place to take its characters by its season finale. Endlessly witty and effortlessly of the moment, Succession is the only TV show that winds together the twin strands of familial abuse and toxic capitalism designed solely to benefit the people at the very tippy-top. A masterpiece? A masterpiece.
*people who write about TV online
How to watch it: Succession is streaming on HBO Max. A fourth season is in production.
We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
Just six episodes long, this British import made a good case for the continued existence of so many new streaming services. If Peacock didn’t exist, I likely wouldn’t have ever seen this amazing comedy about an all-lady, all-Muslim punk band named Lady Parts. I am especially taken with the deftly sketched frenemies relationship between Lady Parts’ lead guitarist Amina (Anjana Vasan) and lead singer Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), who have a real Lennon-McCartney spark. They hate each other; they make amazing music together.
How to watch it: We Are Lady Parts is streaming on Peacock. A second season has been ordered.
Work in Progress (Showtime)
What might be TV’s queerest show is also one of the best shows about aging. Chicago-based comedian Abby McEnany stars as a semi-autobiographical version of herself in this comedy that effortlessly explores the intersections of gender and sexuality that make this moment in queerness so dizzying and so complicated. Even more potent, though, is the series’ depiction of what happens when you realize you have to just keep living the life you’ve made for yourself. None other than Lilly Wachowski co-wrote and directed several episodes.
How to watch it: Work in Progress is streaming on Showtime Anytime. No decision has been made on a third season.
The new drama Yellowjackets had me in its first 30 seconds. A girl runs through the snowy woods. Strange, eerie cries surround her. She falls through the snow into a trap and is impaled by spikes. Then a mysterious figure shrouded in animal furs strings the dead girl up to collect her meat. Teen girl cannibals in the woods? I love it! I’m also struck by how smart this series is about how minor slights in adolescence ripple into dissociative episodes in adulthood. A lot of shows claim to be “about” trauma; this is one of the few that actually is.
How to watch it: Season one is airing on Showtime and Showtime Anytime on Sundays through January 16. A second season has been ordered.
I don’t know how the team behind You got three seasons of TV out of the premise “you have to hang out in the perspective of a stalker man all the time.” I also don’t know how the third season was the show’s best. Murderous serial killer Joe (Penn Badgley) has found his perfect match in fellow serial killer Love (Victoria Pedretti), and a series already laced with razor-sharp satire found its best target yet in Silicon Valley tech culture. A poison apple of a show. (Co-creator Sera Gamble is a friend of mine, but I liked the show before I knew her.)
How to watch it: You is streaming on Netflix. A fourth season is in production.
Five other shows, why not?
Here are five other shows I had great fun with, this time presented in reverse alphabetical order because there are no rules! If your favorite show isn’t on this list, assume that either I didn’t see it or I completely forgot about it. My taste and yours are exactly the same, I promise.
- Y: The Last Man (FX): After a shaky start, I thought the second half of the show’s first season turned into my favorite kind of bonkers TV show, throwing ideas at the wall, then throwing even more ideas at those ideas to make them stick. A shame it was canceled! A shame! (Showrunner Eliza Clark has become a friend since I wrote about the show in September.)
- The White Lotus (HBO): The last show I cut from the list above, Mike White’s acidic portrayal of rich-white-person obliviousness has several amazing performances and a slow-building sense that the world is doomed and the people who might fix that just don’t care.
- What We Do in the Shadows (FX): I have seen few episodes of TV comedy as funny as the half-hour where the vampires who are the focus of this show go to Atlantic City and slowly lose it when deprived of their ancestral dirt. (I promise it makes sense when you watch.)
- PEN15 (Hulu): I’m distraught that this comedy about two girls working their way through being 13 is over, but Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle wrung so much pathos and comedy out of being 30-year-olds playing 13 that I feel grateful to have had it in my life.
- Hellbound (Netflix): Squid Game soaked up the headlines when it came to Korean imports this year, but I preferred this dark horror drama about the radioactive footprint of evangelical Christianity and angels who condemn people to hell for sometimes specious reasons.