Last year, TV became essential. When the stages we used to go to—concert halls, movie theaters, sports arenas—closed amid the pandemic, the small screen became the only outlet for safe viewing entertainment. Things have begun to change this year: Artists are announcing tours, people have trickled back into cinemas, and even the Summer Olympics happened. (Sort of.)
But TV, thankfully, hasn’t stopped keeping us enthralled. Some of the series below took us to exotic locations, and others into completely new realities. Some shined a light on characters rarely seen before, while others deepened our favorite stories. All pushed the medium forward. And all—in a time when the meaning of normal will only continue to evolve—broadcast the power and potential of such storytelling.
Starz’s Men in Kilts debuted on Valentine’s Day, which felt apt—the series is a perfect example of what loving fan service looks like. Watching Sam Heughan and Graham McTavish eat, drink, dance, and bicker their way through a Scottish road trip is the most genuinely escapist TV experience I’ve had all year. The two—who both feature on Starz’s Highlands-set time-travel romance, Outlander—have the kind of charisma that perpetually winks at the camera; the array of chunky knitwear they sport throughout the series seems designed to court the people who still can’t get over Chris Evans in Knives Out. (I won’t mention the wet suits, or the asides about which host is a “True Scotsman.”) Potentially more enticing, though, is Scotland itself, a fantasy of heather, stone, and barely another soul as far as the eye can see. Stanley Tucci may have stoked wanderlust for Italian cityscapes on CNN, but Men in Kilts made an almost irresistible case for lochs, mountains, and whiskey. — Sophie Gilbert
Mare of Easttown, HBO
The stone-faced, Rolling Rock–swigging, vape-sucking, inherently flawed Mare Sheehan—played with a chameleonic lack of glamour by Kate Winslet—is, I’d argue, the defining heroine of 2021. Put aside Black Widow, and June Osborne, and Taylor Swift (All-Too-Well-Angel-of-Vengeance Version). With nothing but a notepad, a weathered Ocean City sweatshirt two sizes too big, and a mouth full of hoagie, Mare gets to the bottom of many Easttown crimes, occasionally committing her own unforgivable offenses in the process. The miniseries, as a Saturday Night Live sketch titled “Murdur Durdur” made abundantly clear, at times comes a little close to pure suburban-Philadelphia parody, but at the heart of the show are some fascinating, timely questions: What should positive, community-oriented police work look like? Is justice really served if it leaves families more bereft than before? — S.G.
When Lupin dropped quietly in January, it became Netflix’s first new viral hit of the year, helped along by winter doldrums, the radioactive magnetism of Omar Sy—and maybe the fact that people really like shows set in Paris. Sy plays Assane, a gentleman thief/Robin Hood/Hamlet figure who models himself after Arsène Lupin, the fictional French master of disguise. The series is stuffed with capers and scenery in equal measure—a jewel heist at the Louvre! A brazen burglary on the Rue de Rivoli!—but underlying it all is a sly analysis of how Assane’s immigrant heritage and honed sense of injustice are his superpowers. His schemes rely on the fact that he can be invisible in some contexts and conspicuous in others. They’re also plotted to correct historical acts of racism in France, and the dark legacy of colonial plunder. Like any good heist drama, Lupin urges viewers to reconsider their preconceived notions of hero and villain, but it does all this with the kind of swagger that makes for thrilling television. — S.G.
Dickinson, Apple TV+
Writing for The Atlantic in 1891, the author and abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson did poetry an incomparable service by sharing his impressions and memories of Emily Dickinson: “the peculiar quality and aroma of her nature,” the feeling of encountering “a wholly new and original poetic genius,” the fact that she signed letters to him “Your Gnome.” Dickinson, Apple TV+’s vibrant, anachronistic comedy, feels like a continuation of Higginson’s project—an irreverent attempt to find the essence of its elusive subject. Over three seasons, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) has twerked and smoked opium and had a passionate relationship with her sister-in-law, Sue; she’s also grappled with art, death, fame, and the abolitionist movement. It’s the kind of show that shouldn’t work but somehow does. The third season’s juxtaposition of history and contemporary mores gives a thoughtful, rich treatment to the Civil War while still managing to find light in the dark. — S.G.
The Chair, Netflix
A show that wraps up within the space of three hours feels like a gift; The Chair, a fast, very funny excavation of campus politics, cancel culture, and the chasmic divide between generations, felt even more generous when it debuted in August. Created by the actor and playwright Amanda Peet and the writer and academic Annie Julia Wyman, the series has a distinctly theatrical feel, as Ji-Yoon Kim (played by Sandra Oh) finds that her appointment as chair of the English department at the fictional Pembroke University is more of a poisoned chalice than she’d realized. As discontent roils over a Nazi salute that a professor (Jay Duplass) satirically performed in a lecture, The Chair deftly exposes inequities of power without simply condemning any of its characters. Oh is endlessly watchable as Ji-Yoon, and the supporting cast—including Holland Taylor, Bob Balaban, and Nana Mensah—is superb. — S.G.
Ted Lasso, Apple TV+
There just aren’t that many things people agree on anymore, and yet here’s one: Jason Sudeikis’s mustachioed, shortbread-wielding soccer coach Ted Lasso is, as we say in my country, the tits. The second season of Apple’s Emmy-sweeping comedy about an American college-football coach transported into the mire of the English Premier League takes a darker tone, villainizing one of its minor heroes and revealing that Ted’s folksy optimism is rooted in past tragedy. It pursues—almost relentlessly—ideas about masculinity, fatherhood, insecurity, and the things that shape us before we even have a chance to process them. But the season also gives viewers a rom-com-themed episode that helps Roy Kent (Brett Goldstein) find his heart’s truth, a Rick Astley sing-along at a funeral, and even more appearances from soccer’s most gloriously hirsute correspondent, Trent Crimm (James Lance). If Ted is largely benched this season, the show proves that its soul is democratically shared. — S.G.
Hacks, HBO Max
Rom-com is a supple genre. The situations that fuel it—connections, confusions, desires both unrequited and fulfilled—can pertain just as readily to nonsexual relationships and the many other ways people have of coming together and breaking apart. In Hacks, the giddy logic of a rom-com elevates the story of a professional pairing. Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, in a deservedly Emmy-winning performance) is a comedian in the Joan Rivers mold. She spends her days engaged in the light labor of a C-list celebrity; she spends her nights performing for a Vegas residency that is as stifling as it is lucrative. Knowing she needs fresh material, Deborah’s agent connects her with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a young writer who is herself in need—of a new career path and, more urgently, steady income. The platonic sparks fly. Mutual suspicion warms, eventually, into mutual admiration. Misunderstandings ensue. Pride threatens everything. The tropes here are familiar but revived by writing that rejects cliché, deftly blending the acid and the base. The result is that rarest of things: a treatment of intergenerational friendship imbued with the pathos of a love story. — Megan Garber
Insecure is a comedy with epic overtones. From the beginning, the show—the story of Issa Dee (Issa Rae) and her friends navigating their late 20s and early 30s in L.A.—has artfully acknowledged all the possibilities of a single moment: the way a chance run-in, or a comment made rather than withheld, or a left turn instead of a right, might change everything at once. In its fifth and final season, Insecure explores with even more poignancy how facts settle into fates. Molly (Yvonne Orji) finds her life instantly upended by a family medical emergency. Heated conversations between Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Condola (Christina Elmore) curve their paths—and the paths, consequently, of Issa and everyone else in their orbit. Kelli (one of TV’s all-time-great supporting characters, played by Natasha Rothwell) discovers that a college-reunion program has wrongly reported her death, prompting her friends to contemplate the void of a Kelli-less world. The season is full of split screens and fake-out scenes and fourth-wall ruptures and, being set in California, an ambient earthquake: a fitting conclusion to a show that explores, on top of so much else, the unsteadiness of choices made, and the agony of what might have been. — M.G.
The story of a mostly forgotten girl group from the ’90s that reunites in the present day, Girls5eva is a tonal successor to 30 Rock: zany, hyperreal, meme-friendly, a reminder of why the term joke density exists. The cartoonishness serves the project. Freed of the constraints of realism, nearly every line works as an essay in miniature, offering a winking critique of American entertainment’s assorted absurdities. Girls5eva introduces the (lightly) fictionalized American Warrior Singer, “the first show created entirely by a ratings algorithm.” We learn that Ashley, the original group’s fifth member, died after she “lost her battle with the infinity pool.” The performers bring both hyperbole and heart to Girls5eva’s skewerings of the indignities lobbed at women who have the audacity to age in public; our culture’s habit of seeking political wisdom from pop stars (“What are we gonna do about Kosovo, y’all?” asks a lyric of the one of Girls5eva’s ’90s hits); and the vacuities of girl-power feminism. “Who cares what they say?” their song “4 Stars” asks. “We’re gonna do it our way—like Sinatra or Burger King.” — M.G.
The White Lotus, HBO
“You know, you don’t wanna be too specific as a presence, as an identity,” Armond, the manager of the White Lotus resort, tells a new staffer as they await the arrival of a group of VIP guests. He adds: “We are asked to disappear behind our masks as pleasant, interchangeable helpers.” Masks, and the interplay of performance and invisibility they suggest, animate a show that is at once a murder mystery, a comedy of manners, and a biting, brooding satire. The White Lotus employs an old conceit—strangers trapped together, in paradise—yet is not primarily about the strangers in question. It is the story, instead, of their consequential conviction that the resort, and in fact the world, whirls around their whims. Scale is a crucial component of the satire. Events that are minor for the blithely pampered guests become, for the people who serve them, matters of life and death. A petty dispute about a suite (the guest had expected a plunge pool) escalates into violence. In a moment when so many cultural questions come down to comfort—whose is indulged, and whose is ignored—The White Lotus is dark comedy that resonates, finally, as tragedy. — M.G.
The Underground Railroad, Amazon Prime
You could freeze nearly any frame of The Underground Railroad—sprawling and luminous, its colors both muted and saturated—and end up with a stand-alone portrait. But beauty, in Barry Jenkins’s adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s already classic novel, is no balm. Instead, it is a powerful tool: a means of translating realism that’s magical and brutal. The show’s sumptuous visuals bring dissonance to its central journey: Cora (Thuso Mbedu), enslaved on a plantation in Georgia, attempts to escape via the railroad that is here reimagined as a network of literal trains. Traversing the land, finding occasional refuge but never full relief, Cora is hunted all the while. Her story is often difficult to watch; the show’s depictions of violence are unflinching. They are also testimonies. And they are balanced by moments that have become one of Jenkins’s signatures: scenes of tenderness and resilience and love. The result is a feat of propulsive contradiction. The Underground Railroad is fiction that isn’t. It is history, made urgently visceral. — M.G.
Reservation Dogs, FX on Hulu
As a coming-of-age show about a group of teenagers learning life lessons, this comedy created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi hits plenty of familiar narrative beats. But Reservation Dogs isn’t like any other coming-of-age show: Made by a team of all Indigenous directors, writers, and lead actors, the series centers on Indigenous characters living on an eastern-Oklahoma reservation, where their adventures come steeped in specificity. Bear (played by D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai) and his friends all have recognizably youthful traits but, for instance, along with a stubborn streak, Bear is accompanied by an “unknown warrior” spirit guide whose advice is more often absurd than wise. These hallucinations become a darkly funny running gag that deepens Bear’s development—and is one of many ways the show challenges American pop culture’s typical depiction of Native people as tragic figures. Reservation Dogs is an achievement, telling a story that can draw from viewers both laughter and reflection. — Shirley Li
On paper, WandaVision sounds like the product of an over-caffeinated Marvel fan’s fever dream: The series follows Wanda, the reality-bending superhero played by Elizabeth Olsen, as she lives inside a sitcom with Vision (Paul Bettany), her android lover who died in Avengers: Infinity War and whose presence in this sitcom world thus makes little sense. Said sitcom also exists, Truman Show–style, as a program being watched by other characters, and each episode fast-forwards a decade, so Wanda and Vision’s life together goes from black-and-white to full color by the end of the season. As confusing as the Disney+ series’s framework may be, the setup allows for an emotionally rich excavation of its heroine’s psyche. Wanda’s torment comes not from a potentially world-ending threat but from her struggle to mourn someone she loves—and how her otherworldly powers keep her from accepting this loss. By spotlighting grief, a deeply human response that doesn’t usually take center stage in superhero projects, WandaVision proves how much further Marvel’s storytelling can go—while at the same time demonstrating, in its uniquely meta way, the power of the small screen. — S.L.
By now, longtime comedy partners Steve Martin and Martin Short can probably make an audience laugh just by appearing in the same frame. But the pair veered from the usual formula in this offbeat series about true-crime-podcast obsessives solving a murder in their posh Manhattan apartment building. This time, the veterans star alongside former Disney Channel mainstay turned pop star Selena Gomez. Her presence injects the trio’s dynamic with intergenerational goofiness: Martin and Short look like two grandfathers helping Gomez’s character, Mabel, with a school assignment, not sleuths investigating a crime. Their relationship is wonderfully endearing: Mabel often has to talk down Oliver (Short), an eccentric theater director, from his more extravagant ideas for their detective work, while Oliver schools Charles (Martin), a TV actor whose best years are behind him, on Millennial slang. As their surprisingly knotty mystery unfolds, they encounter a kooky ensemble of neighbors and suspects—and develop an equally kooky friendship in the process. Only Murders could have been a mere parody of Serial superfans; instead, it becomes an addictive, even comforting watch, inviting its audience to put together the clues right alongside the protagonists—as any good true-crime podcast should. — S.L.
Squid Game, Netflix
Squid Game didn’t take long to grab hold of the cultural zeitgeist: Within weeks of the South Korean drama’s arrival on Netflix in September, the show became the streaming platform’s most-watched original series, inspiring a deluge of memes and Halloween costumes, and a Saturday Night Live sketch. The show—about people drowning in debt competing to the death in children’s games for a massive cash prize—seemed to come out of nowhere, catching even Netflix’s executives by surprise.
Maybe the M. C. Escher–inspired production design, the eerie score, and those colorful, easy-to-replicate tracksuits hypnotized audiences. Maybe the ensemble cast’s powerfully drawn performances, which deepened the brutal simplicity of the battle royale–style plot, kept viewers glued to their seats. Or maybe the show proved the perfect catalyst for a larger conversation about how modern society’s punishing wealth inequality leads to an oppressive state of economic anxiety. Whatever the crucial factor may have been for its rise, Squid Game is undeniably riveting TV, a watercooler show for a time when watercooler conversations no longer exist. In an oversaturated small-screen landscape, an accomplishment like that is no child’s play. — S.L.
The Other Two, HBO Max
As a show about modern celebrity culture, The Other Two might seem deceptively straightforward. It focuses on Cary (played by Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke), a pair of siblings who’ll do anything to reach the A-list—or, at the very least, B-minus—alongside their younger brother, a Justin Bieber–like tweenage sensation. The comedy, however, isn’t merely about skewering Cary and Brooke’s ambitions; instead, it probes the way today’s entertainment industry can be an absurd, Sisyphean nightmare—a never-ending exercise in remaining relevant through savvy personal branding, inoffensive activism, and glossy content production. In the second season, the siblings’ mom, Pat (a scene-stealing Molly Shannon), becomes a daytime-talk-show host, and the family struggles to survive in a world where stardom is all-consuming—to both hilarious and heartwarming effect. The Other Two pulls off that tricky balance because it understands, more than any other series on the air, how warm and blinding the spotlight can be. — S.L.