Best TV Of 2021

Dec 29, 2021
Another banner year for scripted television as various beloved shows delayed by the pandemic returned, accompanied by many new favourites that were greeted for the first time.

The fruits of Marvel Studio's small screen endeavours began arriving on Disney+ to much acclaim while Apple TV+ continued to prove itself as a real contender against the dominance of Netflix and Prime Video.

The following are what I consider to be the 10 best television shows of 2021.

Loki S1

10. LOKI (Disney+)
Showrunner Kate Herron took the much-anticipated return of the ever-popular God of Mischief in delightfully unexpected directions for his first season, allowing the hero/villain/anti-hero (delete as appropriate) a chance to redefine himself, fall in love and break open the whole MCU to multiple possibilities. Tom Hiddleston has a ball transforming Loki into a new version of the character - a variant! - that allows him to both ignore and access different parts of his fictional history that ultimately have a bearing on who he becomes. He creates an excellent rapport with Owen Wilson's Time Variance Authority agent Mobius M. Mobius as well as certain other characters who crop up to give his inflated ego a significant rattle. It has a measure of irreverence but still affects the shape of things to come - a second season will be a most welcome addition to the MCU's ever-expanding mythos.

Ted Lasso S2

9. TED LASSO (Apple TV+)
The first season of Ted Lasso, where the titular US football coach arrived to try and rescue the floundering AFC Richmond from relegation, came in the midst of various lockdowns when it felt like the whole world could use some cheering up. Its relentlessly upbeat nature was exactly what was required - even the most cynical found it hard to resist. But there's a limit to how far extreme niceness can drive things forward and while it initially looked like the second season would be more of the same, a darkness began creeping in around the edges, suggesting there's an emotional cost involved when a consistently cheery attitude means personal issues are ignored in favour of being there for others. The cast - led by Jason Sudeikis - are now entirely comfortable with their characters (Brett Goldstein's Roy Kent continues to be a potty-mouthed delight) and while it makes a couple of missteps early on, the shift towards acknowledging that unresolved problems become far bigger problems if left unresolved added substantial depth to the warmth and amusement that have become the show's trademarks.

Midnight Mass S1

8. MIDNIGHT MASS (Netflix)
Horror maestro Mike Flanagan's third series for Netflix brings some supernatural shenanigans to an isolated community following the mysterious arrival of a priest on Crockett Island. Theological discussions sit alongside more recognisable genre staples; it's a slow burn for the most part, punctuated with the requisite frights, but it's never dull and the character's are finely honed, with Hamish Linklater's intensely committed Father Paul Hill being particularly memorable. It perhaps wraps things up too swiftly, in comparison to the pacing established early on, but it's brimming with ideas that are interrogated from different angles and offer food for thought on top of the more horrific tropes.

Reservation Dogs S1

7. RESERVATION DOGS (FX)
A gang of Native American teens have plans to escape the reservation and seek new lives in California but things seems destined to distract them from leaving, whether it's a rival gang, familial ties or just plain oddball weirdness. It's offbeat and quirky, and frequently very funny, but it's grounded by a sense of a distinct community with its own traditions that still retains a universal relatability. Taika Waititi's billing as co-creator (along with Sterlin Harjo) should give an indication of the vein of comedy explored here, but think more Hunt For The Wilderpeople than What We Do In The Shadows for an idea of the tone. A welcome tour through neighbourhoods that don't often get representation on screen and fans of Tarantino will be pleased to note the homages/references do go beyond that title. 

White Lotus S1

6. THE WHITE LOTUS (HBO)
Mike White's savage comedy drama didn't hold back with its tale of the holidaying, dysfunctional super-rich and those dragged (often unwittingly) into their orbit. The likes of Connie Britton, Alexandra Daddario, Jennifer Coolidge and Steve Zahn descend on a tropical Hawaiian resort for some R&R but their sense of entitlement, their disconnect from some more apparent realities, and the baggage they bring with them (literal as well as metaphorical) charges the anxiety of the staff of The White Lotus to unbearable levels. It's as funny as it is uncomfortable and while the cast are generally great it's Murray Bartlett as beleaguered resort manager Armond, falling off the wagon in dramatic fashion, who stands out as the MVP.

Underground Railroad S1

5. THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD (Prime Video)
Considering the subject matter, Barry Jenkins' adaptation of Colson Whitehead's novel was never going to be any easy watch. Imagining the network of secret routes and safe houses that existed in the 19th century to help African Americans escape slavery as an actual railroad running beneath the earth, the fantasy elements don't neuter the more horrifying aspects that occurred during this period. Indeed, the first episode features a shocking sequence that very much underscores the terrifying reality for those who had to live under the subjugation of white slavers. But, for such harrowing subject matter, The Underground Railroad features some of the most beautiful cinematography to ever grace a small screen production. The juxtaposition of such beauty against upsetting depictions of man's inhumanity to man is both powerful and profound. Thuso Mbedu is outstanding in the lead role, running through the emotional spectrum with a blend of vulnerability and determination as she seeks to evade Joel Edgerton's frighteningly disturbed slave catcher. From Moonlight to If Beale Street Could Talk to this, Jenkins is proving to be a visual storyteller of the highest standard.

Maid S1

4. MAID (Netflix)
Margaret Qualley takes centre stage in this story of a young mother leaving an abusive relationship with her three year-old daughter, working as a maid to make enough money to scrape by whilst dealing with other issues resulting from her dysfunctional family's antics. It may sound arduous but it's leavened with a sense of humour that prevents it from being relentlessly gloomy, and it strives to avoid pigeon-holing characters, emphasising that humans are complicated beings and their relationships between each other are often very messy. Qualley is phenomenal in the lead role, vulnerable but in possession of true strength and resilience in the face of constant adversity, her quiet exasperation when wrangling her character's mother (Qualley's actual mother, Andie MacDowell) highlights her skill and acting dexterity.

WandaVision S1

3. WANDAVISION (Disney+)
The dark cloud of Coronavirus hung heavily over the beginning of 2021 but there was a wonderful bright spot in the shape of WandaVision, the first release from Marvel Studios since July 2019, and  pandemic delays meant it came out prior to the originally intended frontrunner, The Falcon And The Winter Soldier. Whereas that was inevitably a familiar continuation of the formula, we instead set off with something decidedly more offbeat, placing Wanda Maximoff and the Vision in a sitcom, jumping through the decades with each episode, the cracks in Wanda's psyche becoming more apparent along the way. It captured the zeitgeist in a way no other Marvel TV show did during the rest of the year, riffing on beloved comedies of the past while exploring the anguish of unbearable grief. By the end it had become a more conventional MCU offering but the framework made it unique and with one killer line of dialogue it went deeper than anything seen in the franchise thus far.

For All Mankind S2

2. FOR ALL MANKIND (Apple TV+)
The alt history space race drama jumps ahead to the 1980s for its sterling second season. A moonbase is now firmly established but the United States are no longer alone on the lunar surface and tensions between them and the Soviet Union are edging closer to boiling point, particularly as talk leans towards having a military presence to defend their respective territories. There are understandable deviations from real world history (John Lennon has survived an assassination attempt and still wants to give peace a chance, for example) but there are plenty of events that are recognisable from our past. A couple of new faces join the aged-up existing cast who all find themselves in different places from a decade beforehand, and their individual arcs are all engrossing in their own right before everything properly intertwines for a devastating season finale where the stakes are the highest they've ever been. Star Trek/Battlestar Galactica veteran Ronald D Moore has crafted an intelligent, gripping and emotionally affecting series that still doesn't seem to be getting the attention it deserves. It's quite possible this is the best show you're not currently watching.

Succession S3

1. SUCCESSION (HBO)
A gap of two years due to the pandemic allowed many viewers to catch up on the unequivocal brilliance of this razor-sharp series resulting in there being a larger audience primed and ready for its return. And it did not disappoint. Picking up where it left off with Kendell Roy's bombshell press conference at the end of Season 2, Season 3 continues with the expected blend of greed, lies, backstabbing and self-preservation with scripts that dispense one gold-plated line of dialogue after another. It regularly feels like a competition to confirm which character is the most unpleasant, and whereas an entire cast of unlikeable characters can often be a complete turn-off, the absolute hilarity of the situations and conversations ensures every minute is fully absorbing, if sometimes incredibly uncomfortable. One of the finest casts assembled for a television show, everyone shines in their roles, but Jeremey Strong probably edges ahead of the rest as Kendall, his life playing out like a car crash in slow motion, the bravado barely concealing an emotional collapse. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong pivoted from his initial concept of portraying the actual Murdoch family to this series, and with every jaw-dropping episode it's clear he made the right choice, as the scope for putting the Roy family through high-rolling ringer is more deliciously entertaining (and less likely to attract litigation!).

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