Every other top 10 list of the best 2021 TV shows were nothing more than a taster for this - the absolute, definitive list of the best TV shows of 2021.
Of course, it is worth noting that all culture is subjective and that the shows one responds to can vary greatly on the mood and experience of the person watching. This past year was a unique one for me - Most of the year was spent with a baby on the way, the eventual birth of the kid, and there was a lengthy 3-month COVID lockdown. When I look at where my list has ended up, I've found that it is very comedy heavy. That's not a coincidence - I clearly prized levity in 2021.
My list is also more genre-heavy than it has been in recent years. Is this me wanting more escapist fare, or is it a reflection of the volume of high quality genre-heavy shows available over this past year?
Obviously, there is an abundance of really great TV shows around. It pained me not to include some really remarkable TV shows this year like The Underground Railroad, Station Eleven, Squid Game, and The White Lotus. But in keeping it to ten shows, these are the titles that really stuck a chord with me in 2021.
This show is charming beyond belief and the reason for that is series star and writer Rose Matafeo.
The BBC series has New Zealander Jessie (played by Matafeo) living in London. She is working two low-paid jobs and just getting by, holding onto her youth while she can. At a New Years Eve party she drunkenly hooks up with a guy who turns out to be a movie star.
On paper, Starstruck is very familiar. It echoes the premise of movies like Notting Hill or the mostly-forgotten 00s US sitcom I'm With Her. But Rose Matafeo is what you are really watching this for. She is a fresh, distinctive presence on the screen who is impossible not to immediately fall in love with.
The only thing that doesn't entirely work in what is otherwise a perfect 6-episode first season is the guy. Nikesh Patel is actually really great playing a love interest opposite Matafeo. The two have dynamite chemistry and he plays off her broad energy with a really capable quieter performance. The only problem is that he doesn't exude movie star. There's a confidence, a bigness of presence, that famous people tend to exude. And Patel as actor Tom Kapoor doesn't seem to have that at all.
Starstruck is the best romcom I've seen in years.
9) Ultra City Smiths
The more I watched of Ultra City Smiths, the more it became evident that the show is a top ten show of the year. At first glance, the show is a trifle. It's a 40s-inspired detective noir series performed by baby doll puppets.
Ultra City Smiths looks and feels like almost nothing else on TV. The only real comparison I can make is that it is kind of like a recurring sketch you may have seen on 90s MTV series Liquid Television, an animated anthology that celebrated really broad creative swings.
With a cast that includes Jimmi Simpson, Damon Herriman, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Kristen Bell, Dax Shepard, Bebe Neuwirth, Alia Shawkat, and Jason Mantzoukas, among many other well-known names, Ultra City Smiths is packed with some really incredible subtle voice performances that lends considerable credibility to something that looks so ridiculous on screen.
Maybe if there were other really well-written, impeccably acted neo-noir detective shows with baby doll performers Ultra City Smiths wouldn't make my list. But in the absence of any competition, I couldn't in good conscience allow a top ten list of 2021 not include it.
8) The Sex Lives of College Girls
Get past the salacious name of the show and what you have is a fun hang-out show about a quartet of first year university students who are entering the world for the first time. Throughout the first season they face a number of scenarios that teach them important life lessons about being true to themselves, that their actions have consequences, and that they can't just keep their own self interests as their primary concern. Standard life experiences.
Yes, sex plays a role in the show. They're young adults, so a lot of their decision making is based on issues related to sex and attraction. While the show has them attending naked parties (yes, the party is exactly that) and hooking up, the series is just as interested in dealing with the gender inequality of the college comedy newspaper, and the differences in the personal finances of the girls and their families. The show has interests that extend beyond the sex lives of these college girls.
Most of the best comedies don't re-invent the wheel (and this show certainly doesn't), but they work because of the characters, the cast, and the strength of the writing (and jokes). The Sex Lives of College Girls delivers on all of that. And it's funny as heck.
These are characters that you want to spend time with. When the final episode of the first season ended, I felt a genuine sadness that it'll be another year before I can hang out with my new friends again.
7) The Good Fight
The Good Fight continues on as one of my favourite shows. In its fifth season, the show this year got a little less strange than it had been in recent seasons. Without the real life presence of Donald Trump as President shifting the direction of the news cycle every seven minutes and setting the mood for the country, the show embraced the new tenor of the US by being less chaotic itself. The season focused on a broader idea that the show had been playing with in various ways over recent seasons: Could the legal system be disrupted by the forces of public opinion and hyper connected reality TV audiences?
With guest star Mandy Patinkin recurring throughout the season as a man who launched his own court in the back of a copy shop, the show gradually built out the idea to show that any disruption like this will have ramifications.
The season certainly felt a bit more muted than it had been for much of its run, but, to be honest, it was maybe getting to a point where that needed to be dialled back a bit.
This year took a major hit with the loss of original series stars Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, but the show found more toys to play with. It wisely did what it should have done years ago and gave greater prominence to the show's MVP Sarah Steele who plays Marissa Gold. She started out as a fan favorite recurring character with The Good Wife and has carried through here. It's great to see she is now the third-highest billed cast member on the show and they made some great use of her. Also worth noting is the addition of Aussie actor Charmaine Bingwa as a new lawyer. I don't think she was given enough to do this year, but she has a great presence and fits the show well - hopefully the next season finds more for her to do.
This is a TV show that challenged the very nature of what it means to be a courtroom drama as it worked through some complicated ideas about the structures of the US legal system and its connected tissue with the will of the people. Meaty, smart TV.
Nobody had this on their radar when the show launched, but it took only a couple of weeks for it to be one of 2021's biggest talking points. And with good reason.
What I really loved about the show is that it found a way for us as viewers to rally behind two women that may be the worst people on television. Both are thoroughly awful for a multitude of reasons that stem from their own self interest and ego (both earned and otherwise).
Of course, it goes a long way that the show was genuinely laugh out loud funny and peppered with moments of great human profundity. The highlight of the season for me was a great moment with millennial writer Ava watching her less-than-reluctant mentor Deborah Vance's failed talk show pilot from the late 70s. She's watching tapes of Vance's work from her heyday and you can see the respect building for what Vance was able to do with her career. It was a great moment of interiority and I haven't seen the consumption of TV so wonderfully realised since Bill Haverchuck was shown enjoying his afternoon shows 20 years ago.
What a difference a season finale makes. I'll be honest - throughout most of the run of this third season of Succession, I wasn't as high on the show as I had been in previous seasons. The show was doing a terrible job at defining the external world vs the internal squabbles of the show. It was simply difficult to believe in the world of the show when it didn't seem to take that part of the show seriously enough itself.
Why was Waystar-Royco still plodding along as a company like it was 2012 - why wasn't it caught up in all the M&A activity that has dogged media companies seeking scale against the likes of Netflix? How was Kendall's efforts to unseat his father being perceived by the greater world? Those sorts of battles are won or lost often through the media, so the absence of media from the coup was just odd.
But then the season finale just contextualised it all. Everything that felt weightless, or at least just a little off, about the show fit into place perfectly with that finale. Waystar-Royco became the subject of a merger. And we discovered the biggest secret of the show: For all the jockeying by the kids to take their seat at the head of the family business, we realise that none of those kids are seen as anyone serious to be considered. The reason Kendall is focused entirely on coverage from an online vlogger is because the serious-minded media aren't paying him any real attention. Just as they're ignoring Shiv and Roman.
The three kids are still playing Game of Thrones while everyone else had moved onto The Mandalorian. A fantastic finale that was only possible because of the season-long build to it.
4) Mare of Easttown
For seven weeks this year I found myself obsessed with the goings on in Mare of Easttown. I was captivated by the murder-mystery story, Kate Winslet and Jean Smart, the accents, and the sandwiches.
Mare of Easttown did nothing more than craft seven perfectly realised episodes of television with impeccable performances. It found the extraordinary in what could otherwise have been some fairly ordinary TV.
3) Midnight Mass
Some folks complained about the show being a little slow. Instead, I appreciated writer-director Mike Flanagan's slow build over seven episodes towards what was the most jaw-dropping hour of TV this year.
Everything was building towards the events seen in episode 6 (of 7 episodes) and when the moment came, I was legitimately on the edge of my seat with my mouth agape, and shouting noises at the screen for at least half an hour. It was incredible television.
If you don't know the show, it is a horror set on a small island community. There has been a monster laying in plain sight on the island and it has corrupted the local church.
2) For All Mankind
With the second season For All Mankind started delivering on the promise of the show. The first season established the divergent timeline in which Russia walked a man on the moon first, kicking off a cold war with the US focused on space exploration instead of a nuclear arms race. In the second season we see the conflict of trained astronauts having to shift their focus from scientific research to military action.
The show occasionally falls into the mistake of storylines that are little more than busywork to keep some characters involved in the show (plotting this season surrounding Karen, the Outpost bar, and her kissing that younger man added nothing to the show). But, there's enough other great material in the show to look the other way on that.
Something I came to really appreciate about Evil in it second season, a show I have adored since the first season, is that it leans heavily into the trauma of accumulated experiences. Ostensibly, Evil is a monster of the week show like The X-Files, Millennium, Kolchak, or any number of other horror/supernatural TV shows. But unlike those shows, if a character on Evil has experienced a trauma in a previous episode, that is incorporated into the show as a lived experience that then informs future actions. It isn't just forgotten as the credits roll at the end of the episode.
A season long arc with the female lead of the show dealing with the psychological trauma of a morally suspect murder of a serial killer dominated the show this year. Having killed a man in the s1 finale, would it now be easier for Kristen Bouchard to do it again? That enveloped the season as a whole, but through the run of the season we saw skeptic Ben facing his own demon haunting him - a trauma intensified after an episode has him trapped in a secret space within a building where he lacked the mobile phone signal strength to let anyone know where he was. And then there were other ongoing arcs involving David's efforts to become a priest despite outside demonic forces putting up roadblocks in his path, along with the increasingly disturbing activity from a suspect fertility clinic.
Every week Evil proves itself to be TV's strangest, funniest, scariest, and most subversive dramas. Too many of you are missing out on this gem.
What's next? Tomorrow.