David’s Top 10 Shows of 2021

From auteur masterpieces to vibrant comic book stories, it was a pretty great year for TV.

First, apologies to The White Lotus, Mare of Easttown, It’s a Sin, We Are Lady Parts, The Great, and all the other critically-acclaimed shows I didn’t get around to this year. In the case of one in particular, Station Eleven, we’re just starting to catch up — and since it’ll air its last few episodes in 2022, you might plan on it showing up on next year’s list.

Honorable mentions!

  • Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix): Written, shot, and edited by Burnham entirely on his own over the course of our pandemic year, Inside is a wholly unique, fascinating, and crushingly funny (when it’s not just crushing) creation, depicting the slow deterioration of the comedian’s emotional well-being in a way that blurs the line of reality and performance beyond recognition. Oh, and the songs are fantastic. (Reviewed in June)
  • Central Park (Apple): Loren Bouchard’s big-hearted, animated musical series raised the bar in Season 2 in both its songs and its storytelling. I’d be hard-pressed to say that I was knocked more for a loop than by the final ten minutes of “The Shadow,” a beautiful, Up-caliber sequence of nothing but music and raw, human storytelling. Remarkable stuff. (Reviewed in August)
  • Dear White People (Netflix): Justin Simien tried something pretty nuts for the final season: making it a musical, almost entirely using 90s R&B songs. But when you have a cast that plainly talented (Ashley Blaine Featherson can sing, and Marque Richardson can sing and tap dance), why not? And hey, it mostly works! The characterizations and satire are as sharp as ever, but it was the intriguing framing device flashing forward into the (apparently still pandemic-riddled) future that made the most profound points about nostalgia, artistic compromise, and the power of collective action. A truly unique series, and a fitting end.
  • The Expanse (Amazon): The fifth season of the ambitious sci-fi series, which aired last January, was a knockout from start to finish. The sixth, which is airing right now, is slightly hobbled by trying to tie up all the loose ends (while making a few new ones) in fewer episodes, and that’s a big part of why it’s here and not in the list proper.
  • I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson (Netflix): If Robinson’s unique brand of surreal cringe comedy is your thing, Season 2 of ITYSL keeps the formula fresh enough with breathlessly odd commercials (Coffin Flops!), and fun guest stars. After the past two years, the social contract holding us together has never felt so fragile, and Robinson is most interested in stretching that rubber band until it snaps — over, and over, and over again. (Reviewed in July)
  • Only Murders in the Building (Hulu): A charming treat, serving both as a suitably twisty season-long mystery, a showcase for comic legends Steve Martin and Martin Short, and an amiable satire of the entire “True Crime Podcast” fad. Selena Gomez is pretty great, too.
  • Top Chef: Portland (Bravo): Despite the obstacles presented by COVID — and the subsequent fall from grace of the season’s winner — this was Top Chef at its best. It was a celebration of excellence, with remarkable camaraderie among the contestants and challenges that spotlighted food cultures never before seen on the show. 
  • Wellington Paranormal (CW/HBO Max): Three years after its debut overseas, the first two seasons of Waititi and Jemaine Clement’s What We Do In the Shadows spinoff finally aired in the states — and reader, it is a gem. Mike Minogue and Karen O’Leary are brilliant as the unflappably good-natured, terminally dim detectives getting up close and personal with zombies, aliens, demons, and — of course — vampires. A hilariously oddball time.
  • What We Do in the Shadows (FX): I made the mistake of wondering whether in the absence of co-creator Clement, Shadows had lost its fastball. Not so! It was an especially great season for Kayvan Novak’s Nandor, but the revelations in the final two episodes set up Season 4 for a totally upended status quo. If you can get the image of Baby Colin Robinson out of your head, anyway.
  • The Witcher (Netflix): More streamlined and confident than in its first season, The Witcher stands apart from its genre brethren in its lack of self-seriousness; from Anya Chalotra’s amusingly vulgar exasperation to Joey Batey’s flop sweating to Henry Cavill’s steady grumbling in between monster fights, Witcher is as committed to world-building as it is to letting its characters complain about that world’s absurdities. It’s a loose, grotesque good time. 

And now for the Top 10!

10. Loki (Disney+)

From July: As developed by Michael Waldron, and entirely directed by Kate Herron, Loki performs a genuine miracle: turning the MCU’s most interesting villain into a hero without making him any less interesting. The second miracle is like it: creating a television series that isn’t just a way station to The Next Thing (though it’s that, too, thanks to the riveting introduction of Jonathan Majors’s Kang), but its own vibrant, focused, confident, successful Thing. It helps to have Tom Hiddleston, who has poured every ounce of his stage-trained intensity and charm into each appearance such that one know longer knows where Hiddleston ends and Loki begins. If nothing else, Loki the series is a well-deserved playground. That it’s so damn good is the icing on the green-tinted cake. I loved the aesthetic, and Natalie Holt’s score, and Owen Wilson, and Sophia Di Martino, and the whole timey-wimey thing. Marvel had a lot of plates spinning this year, but none of its other TV offerings were as successful as this one.

9. Mythic Quest (Apple)

From June: After coming to it late, I stuck with Mythic Quest through those rocky initial episodes and was delighted to watch it transform into a crabby but ultimately good-hearted ensemble show. In Season 2, it leveled up. The central thrust of the story became the occasionally friendly, occasionally cutthroat rivalry between now co-creative directors Ian and Poppy as they pushed competing expansions of their flagship game. But the season’s highlight is the two-parter centered on F. Murray Abraham’s boorish, self-aggrandizing writer, C.W. Longbottom — the first, “Backstory!”, a poignant flashback set during the heyday of 1960s science fiction writing; the second, “Peter,” a vicious chamber drama guest-starring William Hurt as C.W.’s old rival. Those two episodes are Mythic Quest in miniature: simultaneously an acid-tinged (and occasionally scatological) satire of people behaving horribly, and a well-observed (and occasionally moving) series that nevertheless perseveres in hoping for something better.

8. For All Mankind (Apple)

From April: In its first season, For All Mankind delivered thrilling space sequences and heartbreaking groundbound emotion in equal measure; the second only amplified that, leaping forward a decade into the future with nearly all of our characters in crisis and the world once again on the brink of war. But grounding us in this unsettling, but strangely hopeful, mirror narrative are a sprawling ensemble of astronauts, engineers, and NASA administrators. Some names we know, but their stories are brand-new, and their fates surprising; the rest are fictional but no less authentic. The finale, “The Grey,” was one of the best episodes of television I’ve seen in ages because it knows exactly what can make television great: compelling characters paying off patient, season-long storylines in one dizzying, thrilling, immaculately-plotted hour that justified almost (sorry Karen) every questionable choice made leading up to it, and ending with heart-in-mouth anticipation for the promise of another time jump, and red dirt. I can’t freaking wait.

7. Ted Lasso (Apple)

From September: The discourse can be exhausting. When a show like Ted Lasso comes along, born of low (if not mocking) expectations but somehow catching fire to become not only the most popular series on its streaming service but an unlikely Emmys juggernaut, the backlash can be swift, severe, and myopic. The show — it was said — had ceased to be about soccer, or fish-out-of-water comedy, or any conflict at all, it appeared, and seemed to be a show happy to coast on positive vibes and platitudes. But this critique ultimately proved to be short-sighted, as the final run of episodes revealed the tensions simmering underneath the surface all along — Ted’s panic attacks as rooted in his childhood trauma, and Nate’s betrayal rooted in his own self-loathing, served to illustrate the limits of Lasso’s (and Lasso’s) relentless positivity. Meanwhile, television’s best depiction of masculinity might belong to Brett Goldstein’s Roy Kent, an already iconic character brought to even greater, vividly dimensional life this season.

6. Squid Game (Netflix)

From October: Netflix is notoriously opaque when it comes to its viewing numbers, but the most popular offering in the streamer’s history is apparently an unheralded, anti-capitalist, hyper-violent Korean import, and a traumatizing viewing experience to boot. I’m sure there’s an essay or two in there on what that says about us, but it wouldn’t matter nearly as much if the show wasn’t as bold, audacious, brilliantly plotted, and ferociously binge-able as it is. Squid Game may not be entirely original, but there’s no denying the unique alchemy of Hwang Dong-hyuk’s series, and its seemingly limitless capacity to shock. Each episode — each children’s game, repurposed for maximum horror — is a new trap door, dropping lower and lower into hell. The Marbles installment, “Gganbu,” is one of the most devastating hours of television I’ve ever seen. But why keep watching? Because the character work is so strong, and Hwang’s direction is so confident. Because the characters are not merely trapped on this nightmarishly Seussian island, but choose to return to it knowing what it is. Because you just have to know what happens.

5. The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+)

From November: Once again, Peter Jackson’s doggedness is our gain: at eight hours, Get Back is the closest we’ll ever get to a time machine. It’s an enthralling window into the creative process, featuring a quartet of artists at the height of their collective powers. The original documentarian, Michael Lindsey-Hogg, was limited by the band in what he was allowed to show, leaving the most fascinating scenes — filmed surreptitiously, or as just audio (one fraught sit-down between Paul McCartney and John Lennon was captured by stashing a microphone in a flowerpot) — lost to history. Jackson, however, had carte blanche to show events as they happened, as much as modern technology would allow. The results speak for themselves: despite the at-times jarring editing (by necessity) and the vaguely deep-fakey gloss of the high definition conversion, the docuseries is a treasure trove of revelations, interactions, and simply brilliant music — far too many moments to list here. The moment where McCartney sits down and pulls the melody to “Get Back” out of the ether has already been meme’d into oblivion, but we’ve also never seen anything like it.

4. Hacks (HBO Max)

From June: Far fresher and more endearing than its “Boomer vs. Zoomer” setup would suggest, Hacks creates a world populated by difficult people you can’t help but love and root for, while deftly critiquing the state of Comedy itself — how it’s changed, for better and for worse, since women like Deborah Vance (Jean Smart in god mode) fought for a seat at the table decades ago. Each successive episode builds in confidence, and the fantastic cast makes every scene crackle whether it’s played broadly or surgically. Hannah Einbinder more than holds her own in an exceedingly difficult role, but this is Jean Smart’s show — perhaps, with this late-career Renaissance including turns on Mare of Easttown, Watchmen, Legion, and Fargo, Jean Smart’s medium, and we’re all just lucky to watch her work. Her Deborah is territorial, but not embittered; Smart packs a lifetime of experience into every withering glance and wine-soaked aside, but can effortlessly command a stage.

3. Succession (HBO)

From December: It’s popular (and fun!) to watch this show like a sporting event, with power rankings and assorted analytics (who says the most “uh huhs” this week? Whose wardrobe matches Logan’s?). I enjoyed tracking the rise (and fall, and rise, and fall) of Roman, Kendall, Shiv, Tom, and the whole wretched gang, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t just take a moment to applaud Succession’s artistic brilliance: This was an exceptional season of television, with a writers’ room firing on all cylinders and one of the most locked-in ensembles in recent memory (Emmys for everyone, but especially Matthew Macfadyen!). Despite the abject awfulness of its protagonists, the series remains extraordinarily compelling viewing — tragedy and comedy intertwined. It’s a series that can give us both Adrian Brody, Layer King, and an astonishing moment like a despondent Kendall sitting in the Tuscan dirt, earning actual empathy from his siblings for the first time as he comes to grips with the weight of his failure. But even united, the younger Roys can only fail harder. That itself may be predictable; it is the manner of that failure that surprises. That’s just great storytelling.

2. Reservation Dogs (FX on Hulu)

From September: Looking past the superficial comparisons to Atlanta (the visual style, the off-kilter magical realism), Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s series is its own strange, funny, wonderful thing, and one of the very best pieces of television of the year. The season’s first half is a fresh take on the “teens trying to escape a dead-end town” subgenre; when they’re not tangling the reservation’s other miscreants, our quartet of restless indigenous youths keep the local Lighthorseman (the great Zahn McClarnon, finally getting to cut loose) at arm’s length as they try to sell off enough chip bags and copper wire to finally pull up stakes. But after the halfway point of the season, episodes shift their focus from the macro plot to an astonishing run of character-focused short stories, giving each teen (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Devery Jacobs, Lane Factor, and series MVP Paulina Alexis) their moment in the spotlight. The spirit guides, medicine men, and deer ladies aren’t just cultural trappings; it’s a resurgent time for Native stories from Native filmmakers, and the TV landscape is better for it.

1. The Underground Railroad (Amazon)

From May: The first thing you notice are the colors. James Laxton’s cinematography is gorgeous — like the work of a baroque master painter, more real than real. Shadow and light and color play off each other with divine inspiration; every frame of Railroad would be the “money shot” for any other director. It is immaculate. The second thing you notice are the eyes. Here, like in Moonlight and If Beale Street Could Talk, is a showcase for the “Barry Jenkins Gaze,” where many in the story’s Black ensemble stare directly into the camera. It is living portraiture, and when combined with thoughtful casting and Caroline Eselin’s impeccable costume design, creates the effect of witnessing history — as though the characters in this fictional story have stepped out of the Smithsonian Archive to look straight into our hearts, and open their own. You can literally feel the weight of it: the strength, dignity, and millions of stories left untold over centuries of terror. Yet this is ultimately not just another story of trauma, but triumph. The “in spite” of it all, as described by series editor Joi McMillon: that no matter what heartbreak or injustice Cora faces, the act of survival, to live a life of meaning in the cruelest of circumstances, is the victory. It’s a staggering artistic achievement, and easily the best television series of the year.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *