To rank TV series in the year 2021 almost feels antiquated. In contrast to movies—which mostly possess runtimes that are all within an hour of each other, and many of which exist independently of any other media—the modern television series ranges from a single, three-part season to whatever intimidating number of chapters Survivor hit this year, while the content ranges from decades-old found footage of what is hardly debatably the most important rock band in existence to a handful of flight attendants and graphic designers fighting for their lives (that or a million dollars) on a remote island, constantly and casually evoking the first names of past contestants on their series as if they were household names like Kobe or Joaquin.
Although, yes, 2021 saw another great season of The Great British Bakeoff, the focus of this list is on individual seasons of TV that stand out from the rest—as well as, in many cases, from past seasons of the same series. Whether it be the fast-talking, cut-throat world of corporate America tangled up in loveless familial affairs or the completely relaxed, literal paint-dry pacing of life in the Caribbean, here are our picks for the best TV of the year.
10. Painting with John
I’ve always loved the mythology behind Fishing with John, the short-lived 1991 cult series starring too-many-arts-related-hyphenates-to-count John Lurie, who allegedly figured the best way to finance a handful of fishing trips with household-name friends would be through promising IFC he’d broadcast the experience with their watermark over it. With this backstory and the show’s comically unstructured episodes in mind, it’s funny to think that I’d anticipated Painting with John, the series’ sequel of sorts, would be anything beyond the famously reclusive (until Twitter came along) Lurie recounting the same sorts of artist-life tales he spun out on the water 30 years ago, this time directly into the camera in a gravely yet familiar monotone.
Between telling tales of fireballs and other near-death experiences, failing to land a drone (while rocking some Adam Sandler–sized gym shorts), and razzing his housekeepers, the brief series paints a rare and compelling picture of a public figure aging gracefully. After a year of the torture that was being subjected to faux-empathetic videos recorded by celebs from their literal palaces while we were all struggling to make ends meet as employment opportunities washed up, and a recent influx of aging A-listers destroying their credibility while floundering to answer lobbed-over-the-plate interview questions regarding quote-unquote cancel culture…well, it was nice to hear form John again. — Mike LeSuer
9. Midnight Mass
If we had the answer to what comes after death, would it make living easier? And if you were witness to miracles, would you be grateful or terrified? These are a few of the existential queries that Mike Flanagan wrestles with in Midnight Mass, the rare supernatural horror series with a heart. Similar to his work on 2018’s The Haunting of Hill House or 2016’s Ouija: Origin of Evil, Flanagan excels at mixing the supernatural with faults in humanity—good-intentioned or not.
It’s best to jump into this one without any indication of what it’s about, or only letting your imagination run wild with a few details. One of the protagonists moves back home after finishing a sentence for killing someone while driving drunk. As he struggles to live with his guilt after moving back in with his family, a new pastor comes to town and starts revitalizing the community’s faith with a series of unbelievable miracles. Although Midnight Mass isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, the show is darkly comical, eventually illuminating how small-town faith can soon turn into a tyrannical dogma. The supernatural elements of Midnight Mass aren’t necessarily the scariest ones—instead, it’s the thought processes of these characters when faced with inexplicable power. Flanagan plays on horror and religious tropes with subtle brilliance; it’s not to shock the audience with something unnatural, but rather to reveal that the scariest parts of this world are entirely human. — Margaret Farrell
8. Pretend It’s a City
The art of intellectual discourse with an instinctual language—and humor—based on the literary is all but lost on the 21st century audience. Argue for your favorite geek-egghead and how you love their podcasts, go ahead. I dare you to find any wit and its relation to the unconscious. Enter Fran Lebowitz, the acidulous author of Metropolitan Life and Social Studies, a brilliantly barbed lecturer and a biting cultural critic. Like a sane Oscar Levant or a sober Dorothy Parker, hers is the last of the acid tongues,
A wisely acerbic social moralist, a sardonic observer-commentator, and a citizen unconnected to the unending din of social media (and tech in general—she has no cellphone or laptop), Lebowitz has become a hero to documentarian Martin Scorsese who presents her singular superpowers in the same manner he did those of very different subjects, such as Travis Bickle, Henry Hill, and Jordan Belfort. First in 2010’s Public Speaking, and now in 2021 with Pretend It’s a City, Scorsese puts Lebowitz on the streets and in the library club chairs of New York City and films her tearing down sports, travel, money, and manners. There’s no dialogue or dispute here—Scorsese focuses (literally, as she’s mostly the only person onscreen, save for a few unnecessary guests and Marty’s constant out-of-frame wheezing) on Lebowitz’s lean, insistent monologue, and worships at her altar without argument or commentary. You won’t disagree with Lebowitz. She won’t have it. So let it happen. — A.D. Amorosi
7. What We Do in the Shadows
Vampire roommates. That’s really all it is. One of the funniest out-and-out sitcoms on television returned for a solid third season on FX, finding more ways to explore the spooky and mundane in equal measure as it followed the exploits of three bloodsuckers (and an energy vampire) on Staten Island. Though it didn’t reach last season’s high note (the one-two punch of “Colin’s Promotion” followed by “On the Run,” a.k.a. the Jackie Daytona episode, both of which deserved every Emmy but unfortunately I’m not in charge of such things), the show continued to deliver laughs and frights—but mostly laughs.
It also took a turn toward the existential, with Nandor starting to question the meaning of an immortal life, Colin searching for his origin story, and Nadja and Laszlo’s marriage hitting the skids. Kristen Schaal as The Guide seems to have been upped to series regular, and I’m always happy to see her. But this was a season for Guillermo fans, as the sole human finally got to flex his Slayer powers in the open. And let me just take this opportunity for a side-plug: if WWDITS is your first introduction to Natasia Demetriou, please, please check out her work on the fantastic Stath Lets Flats. And if you vaguely recognize her from Stath Lets Flats, you will enjoy What We Do in the Shadows! — Lizzie Logan
Even after two full seasons, it’s hard to believe that Pen15 actually exists. For those uninitiated, this comedy sees the show’s adult stars and co-creators Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle playing 13-year-old versions of themselves in the year 2000, alongside actual teenagers. While the show’s first season explored the complex dynamic between these two characters as well as their peers and families, season two sees Maya and Anna getting deeper into the darker side of adolescence, and the result is something unlike anything else on television.
The show’s second and reportedly final season follows the characters as they tackle everything from death to exploitation to sexual trauma in a way that’s so authentic, it’s difficult to watch at times. However that emotional resonance is luckily counterbalanced by so many humorous moments between the show’s two protagonists (often punctuated by Erskine’s signature dance move) that it makes you wish that, unlike adolescence, Pen15 would never end. — Jonah Bayer
5. I Think You Should Leave
The first season of I Think You Should Leave, Tim Robinson’s Netflix sketch comedy series, has been endlessly quoted, invoked, and memed. This applies most prominently to its infamous hot dog car sketch, which became shorthand on political Twitter for bad actors shifting blame as the consequences of their actions reared their heads. But despite the show’s ubiquity in certain corners of the internet, it was also characterized by a deliriously weird sensibility that lends it the aura of a cult hit, with its fans bordering on evangelical in their devotion. To the show’s proponents, nothing is more exhilarating than watching an I Think You Should Leave sketch for the first time, unsure where it’s heading; watching it for a 20th time, with each individual beat and one-liner fully memorized, comes close.
I Think You Should Leave’s miraculous second season somehow bests the first: more consistent, more bizarre, even disarmingly tender when you least expect it. Importantly, it doesn’t scramble the formula. Robinson and his co-writers have no shortage of hilarious conceptual hooks. But it’s Robinson’s timing and delivery, often about 30 percent more deranged than it needs to be, that elevates it to something unforgettable. On the season’s most transcendent sketch, a Robinson character becomes fixated on a crying baby, convinced of the baby’s distaste for his own questionable past. He derails the party attempting to persuade the attendees that despite the baby’s protests, he has turned a new leaf: “People can change.” On I Think You Should Leave, the characters stay the same: emotionally stunted, socially impaired, harboring petty and absurd grievances—and doing it loudly. — Alex Swhear
A lot of things could have gone wrong for this half-hour HBO comedy-drama about Debra Vance, an aging stand-up, and her newest writer, assistant, and punching bag, Ava. The show’s titular hack may be washed up, but for the show to work we need to believe she might also be one of the funniest people alive, or at least was in her prime. That problem was solved in the form of Jean Smart—an actor who elevates any project, but here is an absolute force: hilarious, poignant, and, most frequently, devastatingly cruel. You can practically feel the giddiness with which the show’s creative trio—Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky—must feel writing for Smart, who consistently delivers lines only she could pull off with such graceful savagery.
Smart may be the driving force of the series, but Hannah Einbinder, a real-life stand-up making her acting debut as Ava, is the true revelation. Hacks could have worked as a cutting character study and showcase for Smart’s chops, but by placing Ava as the second half of a true two-hander, the show becomes much more. With Ava, Hacks presents us with a POV character whose most prominent traits run parallel to some of the most tiresome internet lanes. Self-righteous, flippant, and narcissistic, Ava is both an essential foil and a kind of funhouse mirror for Vance, and watching the two spar their way into each other’s cold hearts is one of the most enjoyable experiences of the year. — Sean Fennell
3. The Beatles: Get Back
I spent long stretches of Get Back, Peter Jackson’s three-part Beatles documentary chronicling the recording sessions for Let It Be, attempting to pick my jaw off the floor. To the uninitiated, the halting nature of the studio sessions (in which The Beatles fumble through songs, indulge in ill-advised musical detours, and struggle to agree upon and articulate their goals) might test patience. To Beatles devotees, though, “treasure trove” is probably understating it. The sheer volume of footage of a band of this stature creating music of this quality is almost certainly unprecedented. Not only is this a wealth of material, but it feels as intimate as if it was occurring a foot away from you.
Get Back is most interesting in the ways it scrambles the conventional wisdom. It functions as a rebuttal of sorts to Let It Be, Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s documentary depicting the very same studio sessions. While Let It Be is remembered for lingering on the interpersonal tensions, Get Back shows us a band with plenty of camaraderie taking joy in their craft. And while some early fireworks center on Paul McCartney’s domineering treatment of George Harrison and the ensuing conflict, much of the documentary is a loose, shaggy display of four brilliant musicians who enjoy playing music together. The resulting footage feels like a magic trick; we get to watch morsels of ideas evolve into iconic songs in real time. What Jackson has assembled here is not only an essential Beatles text, it’s an instant entrant into the music documentary hall of fame. — Alex Swhear
2. The White Lotus
Few visual artists truly understand how to satirize the lame language of personal re-evaluation, social consciousness, wealth planning, and philosophical awakening—and make it as visually arresting as it is uniquely clever—the way Mike White can. With his self-involved 2011 HBO series Enlightened as an appetizer, The White Lotus (also on HBO) is a full, gorging meal of smarmy concern, earnest egoism, phony existential rumination, limp-dick sexuality, and downright weirdness happening, flightily, at the one place where people are most apt to let their quirks run free and expose as much bare flesh as they would their souls: a tropical resort in Hawaii.
Turn the nightmares of Twin Peaks into night sweats and day trips, and replace firs with sea and sand, and White (and White Lotus) share a woozily bizarre sense of atmosphere with David Lynch. As for White’s brave actors, of whom critics have focused on the pent-up, drug-addled, vengeful resort manager Armond (a hilarious Murray Bartlett) and the eternally troubled Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge at her most moving), my eye went to how White Lotus turned one of network television’s most beloved moms and teachers, Connie Britton (from Friday Night Lights), into a snarky, self-important CFO of a Goop-like search engine. — A.D. Amorosi
These long-awaited episodes were delayed by the pandemic, though New Yorkers may remember it was one of the first shows to resume production when testing became widely available. And yes, the wait was worth it. I could probably write a thousand words just on that Monopoly game from the season finale and the way it reveals character, foreshadows twists, synthesizes dynamics. But I’ll just say: yeah, the writing on this show is that good. It’s all you’ve heard about and maybe more. After two seasons of more or less treading water (in interesting ways!), Succession fully snapped into focus this year. The Roy clan’s talons came out, with every actor delivering pitch-perfect performances, biting at each other’s heels, and giving side-eyes for the books.
If I have to sum it up (and by the conceit of this list, I do), I would say this season was primarily a Kendall arc. The first season left him at a low point, a disastrous personal decision bringing him back into the family fold after a brief attempt at departure. The second season finale found him, seemingly, finally redeemed, striking out on his own, but also on behalf of others. This season, ego and insecurity got the better of him. He couldn’t see the forest for the trees of personal branding and his futile, though understandable, desire to be loved. As some on Twitter have pointed out, Succession has become the new Game of Thrones, HBO’s only true appointment viewing. And while at first glance the programs don’t look alike, are they really that different? It’s a battle for power as crafty factions make and break alliances. Only in this realm, the Mad King Targaryen is still alive, often lucid, and more devious than any of them. — Lizzie Logan