Somehow we made it through 2021, which, while wasn’t as bad as 2020, still earns a Needs Improvement grade. Although quarantines lifted and vaccines were had, we still crave the comfort of the small screen and that meant 2021 was another great year for television. With streaming platforms dependably pumping out new shows all year round, here are The Beat staff’s picks for best TV shows of the year!
Close Enough, Season 2 (HBO)
Much like his smash-hit Regular Show on Cartoon Network took inspiration from his life as a 20-something-year-old, J. G. Quintel’s latest animated series is even more semi-autobiographical as he explores the trials and tribulations living in Los Angeles in your ‘30s as a spouse and parent. Have no fear though, the surreal humor and pop culture references are in no short supply. Close Enough faced quite a few release setbacks before finally finding a home at HBO Max but the wait was worth it. Quintel and crew have once again crafted the perfect vehicle that perfectly captures this particular life stage for many millennials through hilarious and unforgettable characters and situations. – Taimur Dar
Dickinson, Season 2 & 3 (Apple TV+)
Dickinson might go down as one of the most affectionately rebellious historical shows to air on television thus far. It defied what we thought of cultural icon Emily Dickinson, with a fiery, furious performance by Hailee Steinfeld, who can now be seen in Hawkeye. Dickinson had the unique privilege of airing, not one, but two seasons in 2021: its second one and its third and final one. I suspect many shows fill follow in Dickinson’s footstep of irreverent and reverent history re-tellings: see Hulu’s The Great for another example of this idea done well. Steinfeld gave one of television’s very best performances during the show’s run, and it’s well worth a watch even if you don’t know the legend of Emily Dickinson very well. Trust me, you will by the time you’re done. – Ruth Johnson
The Good Fight, Season 5 (Paramount+)
It’s so frustrating to me that a show this good is ignored by so many. Christine Baranski is always worth watching, but this year Diane’s head-butting friendship with legal partner Liz Reddick (Audra McDonald) reached new heights as they tackled racism and white privilege in the optics of a black legal firm having a prominent white partner. Sarah Steele’s Marissa Gold is as much of a firecracker as ever, drawn into clerking for the renegade court run by season guest star Mandy Patinkin. Vigilantism was a significant theme, as was male sexual abuse and police violence – and that’s why this show is a must-watch. Plus, we get to see adults of very different politics navigate a mature partnership. And the hallucinations! Frederick Douglass and Ruth Bader Ginsberg make appearances this season. It’s a ridiculous device, but even when it seems too much, The Good Fight is putting some amazing performances and challenging insights on our screens.
Ghosts, Season 3 (BBC)
A classically styled sitcom plot (woman unexpectedly inherits huge old house, hits head, can see the ghosts that inhabit it from various historical eras) allows for both laughs and surprisingly in-depth character work. At a time when US TV is pulling back from the half-hour comedy format, Ghosts shows what can be done with it, lightening insight on human nature and heartbreak with humor. The US remake, also out this year, is improving, but the original British version better allows for more subtle portrayals and dark comedy. For example, this season began with a participant in an arranged marriage coming to realize his spouse has hidden depths just before his accidental beheading. It’s that hope of connection undercut by the realization that most of the characters are dead that perfectly captures the futility of existence while still providing warmth and hope and laughs. Trapped together by accident (or fate), the group tolerates each other’s quirks and foibles – what better show for pandemic times? – Johanna Draper Carlson
Hacks, Season 1 (HBO)
Hacks was a stunning surprise this year, a savage female-led comedy about life in comedy, told with a ton of snark, but also, perhaps strangely, heart. With a great ensemble cast, led by Jean Smart, and an insightful look into women’s struggles to make it in comedy throughout time, Hacks deserves to be considered one of the year’s very best. – Ruth Johnson
For All Mankind, Season 2 (Apple TV+)
I could gush about For All Mankind until the end of time, and I probably will, but plenty of other critics are, too. Don’t take our words for it, see it for yourself! Dive into a refreshing alternate history that places optimism and women at the forefront of its unique perspective on the space race. It features multiple great performances of the year, a both elating and crushing season finale, and some killer tension throughout. But it all does it with a good perspective on what the future could be, without completely ignoring the complexities and problematic nature of the past. – Ruth Johnson
Loki, Season 1 (Disney+)
After a bit of waffling between Loki and Hawkeye, Loki wins out with its introduction of Sophia di Martino’s Sylvie, Owen Wilson’s Agent Mobius, and Jonathan Majors’s He Who Remains and its ability to land a strong conclusion that leaves us starving and hungry for more. In some ways, with its lead being Tom Hiddleston, the series was always set up for success, but week after week, the development of the plot and twisting of the multiverse provided ample room for exploration and conversation in the fandom. With a second season on the way, Loki fundamentally changed the MCU in a way that none of the other shows have done this year and did it with so much excitement. – Therese Lacson
Star Trek: Lower Decks, Season Two (Paramount+)
The first season of Star Trek: Lower Decks was an unexpected delight, but in the show’s sophomore season, the series has truly found its footing. Amping up the references to Star Trek continuity and the development of its voluminous cast, the second season hits the ground running with a homage to Gary Mitchell, and it doesn’t let up until the season finale, which sees Captain Carol Freeman (Dawnn Lewis) truly earning her “First First Contact”… before being incarcerated, one of the best (and most infuriating) cliffhangers in a long, long time. Especially well-developed over the course of this season is the relationship between Mariner (Tawny Newsome) and Bradward (Jack Quaid). In the episode “wej Duj,” Lower Decks delivered an incredible single episode, one which stands beside all-time greats like DS9’s “Trials and Tribble-lations” and Voyager’s “Year of Hell.” If you’re a fan of Star Trek, you’ll spend every episode spotting the Easter eggs, and if you aren’t a fan of Star Trek, you will be by the time you’ve watched enough episodes of Lower Decks. – Avery Kaplan
Mare of Easttown, Season 1 (HBO)
I love a good mystery, and none was as satisfying to solve as the mystery on Mare of Easttown. Kate Winslet takes on the impressive job of not only adapting to the difficult DelCo regional accent but also portraying the hardened police detective Mare Sheehan, who has not only suffered personal trauma but the scrutiny of her town after the disappearance of a local girl is unsolved. As another girl turns up dead, she struggles to piece together the disparate parts of her small town to unearth the long-hidden secrets. Winslet isn’t the only powerhouse here, Evan Peters plays a perfect young detective foil to Mare and Jean Smart is equal parts funny and blunt as Mare’s mother, Helen. If you haven’t watched it and you love mysteries, this is the one to sink your teeth into. – Therese Lacson
Never Have I Ever, Season 2 (Netflix)
I consumed the first season of Never Have I Ever in one sitting and was immediately sobbing and desperate for more. The second season, I feared, might not live up to the snappy comedy of the first, but of course, it did. Created by Mindy Kaling and Land Fisher, the series is the typical coming-of-age dramedy but Maitreyi Ramakrishnan was born to play the messy-yet-lovable Devi. Season 2 dives further into Devi’s relationship with Paxton (an admittedly much older Darren Barnet, he’s 30 and playing a 16-year-old) and goes beyond examining Devi’s immediate life after the sudden death of her father. Still full of heart and humor, I’m once again left in the same place as I was after Season 1: sobbing and desperate for more. – Therese Lacson
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
You’ve likely already seen this on a best-of list this year, but it’s true – Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez are fantastic as inhabitants of an upper-crust NYC apartment building trying to figure out why a supposed suicide was murdered and creating a podcast while doing so. The guest cast – Tina Fey! Nathan Lane! Jane Lynch! Sting! So many more! – are bonuses to a taut mystery populated by eccentrics, loonies, and the lost. The show tackles our true-crime fascination and demonstrates just why most fans of mysteries would make terrible detectives. – Johanna Draper Carlson
Rick & Morty, Season 5 (Adult Swim)
The fifth season of Rick & Morty may have begun with Mr. Nimbus, an hilarious (and only slightly over-sexualized) parody of Namor, but it concluded with an inescapable reality: Rick & Morty is about the fucked-up power dynamics that occur in abusive family relationships, and it always has been. Over the course of episodes like “A Rickconvenient Mort,” it becomes clear that Morty’s abusive relationship with Rick is going to inform the relationships he tries to form with people outside his family, and in “Amortycan Grickfitti,” the motivations behind using molestation-survivor Jerry as a perpetual punching bag are questioned. But the season finale swerves and leaves us with a version of Morty who has managed to escape the Central Finite Curve (the show’s self-admitted on-the-nose metaphor for capitalism), causing a whole new multiverse to open before him. How’s that for schwifty? – Avery Kaplan
Squid Game, Season 1 (Netflix)
I initially wanted to dismiss Hwang Dong-hyuk‘s Squid Game as a mere Battle Royale knockoff, but after seeing all the fervor and cosplay on display for this South Korean series I finally relented in mid-October to watch it. What was initially an obligation in no time at all became a thrill to watch. The performances, costumes, set design, and music all come together to create a gripping narrative that truly encapsulates the current zeitgeist through universal themes in much the same way as Parasite, another South Korean narrative, was able to accomplish in 2019. The enormous success of Squid Game has already spawned a line of tie-in products and toys, somewhat ironic considering it’s inspired by a show rooted in an anti-capitalist ethos. – Taimur Dar
Ted Lasso, Season 2 (Apple TV+)
Full disclosure, when I first heard about the show I (like probably many) was quick to brush it off as a mere fish out of water story about an American football coach adjusting to life in England. And while that is the basic premise, the series is so much more than that. Just like the various supporting characters who come into contact with the titular character played by Jason Sudeikis, I too was won over by Coach Lasso by the end of the second season. I’m not ashamed to admit that I was in tears after watching Nate’s devastating confrontation with Ted in a brilliant performance from Nick Mohammed. It’s fair to say in reflecting the current cultural landscape, anti-heroes and cynicism have dominated popular media. But Ted Lasso marks a refreshing shift away from pessimism and towards something more optimistic. – Taimur Dar
WandaVision (Season One) (Disney+)
WandaVision foregrounds the trauma Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) experienced over the course of the MCU’s big screen Infinity Saga, but it addresses it through the lens of her Chaos Magic-amplified denial. By utilizing the concept of matching different decades of sitcom-style to different episodes, WandaVision created an intriguing structure that both calls to mind a limited comic book series and flawlessly adapts to the MCU’s shift in format from the large to the small screen. On top of this, between the inclusion of Evan Peters as a “recast” ersatz Pietro and the show-stopping, Grammy-nominated “Agatha All Along” musical reveal by breakout star Kathryn Hahn, this show ensured it remained the main topic of conversation during its month and a half release schedule. Perhaps best of all, the number of boys on the internet who are still upset about the “Ralph Bohner” joke objectively demonstrates how funny it actually was. – Avery Kaplan
Honorable mentions also go to Succession, The Great, What We Do in the Shadows, Young Justice, Hawkeye, Yellowjackets, Cobra Kai, Invincible, Sweet Tooth, and Reservation Dogs.
Did we miss any of your favorites? Let us know!