Here are our favorite TV shows of 2021, a collective list based on our individual top 10s from our 2-parter podcast episode you can check out below.
The 41st season of legendary reality competition show Survivor positioned itself as a reinvention, a #BrandNewGame if you will.
Host/producer/referee/heckler Jeff Probst promised us a return to the game we all love with a steady drip of twists to keep it fresh and elevate the difficulty for the players. It delivered on almost all fronts, giving us a couple of all-timer cast members that were a joy to see scheme and bond every week.
9. Saturday Morning All Star Hits!
YouTube darling Kyle Mooney went from the promise of his Good Neighbor sketch days to the big-paying cushy gig at Saturday Night Live, a show that constantly shrugs regarding how to deploy the talents of this singular comedic genius. 2017’s Brigsby Bear gave us a taste of how Mooney’s very specific wacky and melancholic comedy could blossom.
We started our podcast talking about Brigsby Bear, so it is endearing to see Mooney be given the reigns of his own Netflix show, synthesizing his sketch roots with his love for VHS-era kids programming and a truly gifted awareness of the sadness of the human experience.
A show so touching, cringe, and ridiculous that it defies any comparison or categorization. Maya Erskin and Anna Konkle play 13-year-old versions of themselves, surrounded by a cast of mostly actual teenagers.
Now having wrapped its final season, the totality of Pen15 offers an unvarnished yet heightened look at life in the late 90s/early 2000s middle school years. Its hyper-specific comedy riffing on the early digital era, combined with its universal themes of pubescent angst and anxiety is an unmatched synthesis.
This is a truly special and unique show that we are so lucky to have the honor of watching. It is a gift. It is a way to connect to and in some ways relive a part of our lives many of us try hard to forget in a way that leans on tenderness and warmth.
7. Ted Lasso
What seemed to be a consensus crowd-pleaser in season 1 curiously became a point of weekly debate online in its sophomore effort. Ted Lasso evolved in ways sitcoms are designed to never do. It dug deeper and explored new territories for all its characters. It got darker and more emotional without ever sacrificing the heart and the comedy. The acting went from great to sublime, and become one of the rare moments in which the most popular show actually was the best show.
6. The Beatles: Get Back
Peter Jackson is now an archivist. He’s hung up his filmmaker hat for the time being and is now in the business of digging up old dirty film canisters and restoring them with his digital wizardry down in New Zealand.
You should not be convinced to jump into this 3-part docuseries if you are a Beatles fan. You are probably already on your third watch. The magic here is in the human moments in which these four titans of popular music are shown for who they always were: a bunch of silly kids from Liverpool messing around on their instruments.
It just so happens that they wrote some of the best songs of all time. And here we see that magic happen. We seem them fumble around for the right word that fits the diddy on their mind, never landing on one until the final second. We see them play clumsily and goof off, only to come together in the end and effortlessly give the performance of a lifetime.
What has always been relegated as the tumultuous final chapter of the Beatles is now recontextualized as a complicated but undoubtedly beautiful and warm send-off.
5. The White Lotus
For showrunner Mike White, all it took was a global pandemic to get a second HBO series greenlit (the first being the brilliant, too-short Enlightened). Put less callously, White rose to the occasion in 2020 when executives sniffed around for quickly written, character-driven, single-location projects to hastily produce in lieu of the million projects on COVID delay.
Make no mistake, though: there’s nothing sloppy about The White Lotus. Direction is breezy, bright, and dips into dizzying psychedelia when appropriate. Cristobal Tapia de Veer’s score is the stickiest TV music since the lead refrain of Succession.
Storylines are effortlessly woven together as a handful of visitors slowly wreak havoc on each other and the staff of an upscale Hawaiian resort. With his signature feel of discomfiting humor, White dissects the damaged and deeply flawed cores of the characters that he himself so painstakingly rendered. Everyone is awful at The White Lotus — even the good guys.
In addition to a sharp collection of familiars (Steve Zahn and Connie Britton play power imbalanced parents, while Alexandra Daddario and The Office‘s Jake Lacey are mismatched newlyweds), fresh faces round out the cast. Fred Hechinger and Brittany O’Grady shine as teens portrayed with refreshing dimension. But the real destroyer in the mix is Australian actor Murray Bartlett. As manic hotel manager Armond, Bartlett eats up every second of screen time he receives. He’s a raw nerve, and a deeply funny one at that.
Armond (along with almost every one of these characters) is uniquely awful, yet not entirely irredeemable. What seem at first to be tired archetypes reveal themselves as deeply troubled humans with massive blind spots. White sees these characters as symptoms of a broken, privileged, racist culture. The culture that created this mess is what’s beyond the pale. We can understand the people that sprang from it, but we can also laugh at them.
4. Midnight Mass / Station Eleven
The cosmic serendipity of these two shows being tied together is beautiful. Both Midnight Mass and Station Eleven jostle with themes of the power of belief and how humanity can react to extraordinary circumstances in the face of calamity and adversity.
False prophets will utilize literature and other similar means to control the narrative and position themselves as saviors and liberators.
Mike Flanagan’s Midnight Mass explores religion — specifically Christianity — and how the Bible can be used as a tool and a weapon for self-important desires. And yet there is beauty and hope in there too. It’s not just a “religion is bad” show. It’s more complex than that. It zeroes in more on the people that use religion to control and manipulate through the power of belief. Its elaborate and overlong character monologues feel necessary and cathartic, as if Flanagan is unloading decades of suppressed pain and trauma through the residents of isolated Crockett Island.
Station Eleven is a pandemic story. The show had to shut down production when our real-world pandemic hit in 2020, and now it arrives in a world that is worn down by multiple years of a virus a tiny fraction of the mortality of the one depicted in this fictional yet prescient story.
For a show about as bleak a subject matter as the end of the world, it really does spotlight these beautiful small human moments and doesn’t revel in the violence and the gore. It often completely cuts away from these more visceral moments that most other shows would place front and center.
When the world ends, art will outlive commerce and jobs and so many of the things that take up so much of our time in our society. The need to share and connect through stories will always prevail. But just like the Holy Bible in Midnight Mass, the titular Station Eleven comic book is the sacred text that gets warped and used for evil. The book itself is not evil, but its words are used to manipulate, control, and wreak havoc, like a haunted artifact that infects the lives of the people that touch it and read it, leaving a trail of destruction behind it.
Much like creator Patrick Summerville’s previous gig as a writer on The Leftovers, Station Eleven approaches themes of collective trauma, loss, and grief with a soft touch, ultimately landing us somewhere deeply moving and hopeful.
We love seeing ultra-rich morons spiral endlessly, incapable of feeling or expressing real human emotions. This is a story that depicts how the brain is melted by too much wealth. This family cannot love. They can only insult, undercut, lie, scheme, and betray each other. It’s all a game of power and competition. It’s the only thing that gives their life meaning.
Succession is half tragedy and half comedy. It’s a balancing act unlike anything else. Jeremy Strong’s Kendall is a deeply serious depiction of a sad boy droopy dog. A completely broken person with hardly a thread of a heartbeat left in him. Beaten down by his superficial wish to usurp the status quo for his own benefit. Unable to move the needle even the slightest hint of a hair.
And everyone else around him is a rip-roaring comedy, throwing the best-written zingers on TV left and right without a stumble. This season’s MVP is Matthew Macfadyen, whose portrayal of Tom Wambsgans is the perfect example of that tragicomedy balancing act. His scenes with Sarah Snook’s Shiv and Nicholas Braun’s Greg showcase how seamlessly this man can bounce between the two sensibilities without skipping a beat. It’s masterful.
This is the best cast on TV. Now in its third season, Succession lets its actors simmer, cook, and spark unlike any other show on TV. Everyone brings their top-tier A-game, attracting stellar guest stars like Adrien Brody and Alexander Skarsgård to come in and play in this twisted playground.
This is a show about too much money. It rots the mind and toxifies any shred of feeling that remains. These damned souls are trapped, unable to escape the torture and the torment of this life of endless luxury. No amount of private jets, designer clothes, diamond watches, or sway over democracy will bring any of these people happiness. All they want is a kiss from Daddy, something he will only do in order to control and assert his dominance.
2. I Think You Should Leave
Watching sketch comedy is almost better approached as if you’re listening to an album. With each, an entirely new world with its own unique structure and rhythm must be created and satisfyingly ended every few minutes. The only thing that carries over from piece to piece is the artist’s overall tone.
That distinction is why sketch comedy is almost always extremely hit-and-miss. A show like SNL relies on too many distinct artists to carry any singular tone over the course of an episode. The best sketch shows ever, like Chapelle’s Show or Mr. Show, feature small creative trusts that operate both on-camera and in the writer’s room.
This approach is why I Think You Should Leave is the best sketch show of the last 15 years, and the members of this particular braintrust are why it’s my favorite of all time.
Tim Robinson, Zach Kanin, and John Solomon have a wildly distinct sensibility. It’s silly, it’s absurd, it’s laughing at the annoying and the oblivious. It’s a guy who insists a baby is crying because it knows about his shady past. Or a guy who can’t stop burning his corporate per diem on intricately patterned shirts. Or a guy who won’t stop cursing once he learns it’s allowed on a haunted house tour.
The part when ITYSL transcends, though, is the part after you get through the beats of “meeting a weird guy.” What if that first guy’s shady past, for example, mostly just entails dumping water on his own food at a restaurant? What if we see the store where the second guy burns his money, and it’s a frenzied mosh pit of middle-aged guys foaming at the mouth for ugly shirts? What if the third guy takes a dramatic turn and defends his right to say the word “jizz” with the tearful conviction of a Miramax drama?
Choices like that aren’t teachable. They don’t even necessarily make sense. They just work, especially when surrounded by sketches of the same sensibility. Even the best albums have songs that are a little underdone, but they’re buoyed by the better songs surrounding them. There are still those elements that make them unremovable from the context of the album.
That same sensation is why every sketch in ITYSL is watchable — even the half-baked ones contain the sensibility that’s liable to get you off-kilter at any given moment. It’s a collection of comedy that no one else on Earth could create.
1. How To With John Wilson
The easiest way to categorize this show would be to call it a documentary, but that would fail to accurately sum up its brilliance. John Wilson is an anthropologist, documenting bizarre human moments in the trenches of New York City, and even venturing out when needed in order to follow curiosities and fascinations.
This show comes to us from the overall deal our beloved Nathan Fielder has with HBO, and his imprint is all over it. From leaning into awkward and uncomfortable situations to seeking out strange and unusual characters, the magic of this show comes from juxtaposing real-world insanity with brutal honesty and the weirdness of human life.
We see things in this show we may not necessarily want to see, but they are presented in a way that makes us appreciate and perhaps even admire them. Wilson obsessively records everything he sees, and with a team to support him, he takes us on wild journeys that defy anything a scripted TV show could ever dream of.
The beauty, tragedy, and sadness of existence in the modern world are captured with such a lovely tenderness by Wilson. Seeing life through his eyes just brings the slightest bit of joy in such dark times, and can turn the weirdest, oddest, and most unsettling images into fascinating poetic observation. There’s nothing else like it.
Leave a Reply