As always, this disclaimer: I haven’t seen most of the TV shows that aired this year. Nobody has. Hundreds of new scripted shows debuted in 2021, not to mention return series or unscripted programs: documentaries, reality shows, daytime talk shows, and more. So what was my methodology? I tended to focus on the first few seasons. (I created a special category for comeback shows that I love.) I tried to verify my bias in favor of scripted television. I was hoping to have a greater diversity of network representation, but the rekindled excellence of HBO did not allow it. I kept an eye out for shows that didn’t get the critical attention or audiences they deserved. If I had had more time to go through the screeners, I can think of three shows I would probably add (“Yellowjackets” on Showtime; “Station Eleven” on HBO; and “Landscapers” on… HBO) . But then which ones should I have cut?
New York writers reflect on the ups and downs of the year.
I’d like to use the rest of this introduction to salute shows that didn’t “make” the list. NBC’s “Saturday Night Live” cast freezes in a way reminiscent of Gilda Radner’s heyday. Martin Short and Steve Martin invented a vibe I’ll call “uncle-core”, about Hulu’s catchy murder mystery “Only Murders in the Building”. The kinky historical dramas of “The Great,” also on Hulu, and Apple TV +’s “Dickinson”, now in its third and final season – and ending at exactly the right time – are always engaging. HBO’s “100 Foot Wave” is a magnificent colossus; its director, Chris Smith, fused an intimate look at surfer Garrett McNamara with stunning images of the sea in Nazaré, Portugal. “Heels,” on Starz, a sentimental professional wrestling drama, intriguingly reflects the meta-theatricality of “Glow.” “City of Ghosts” (Netflix), “The Good Fight” (Paramount +) and “Call My Agent! (Netflix) kept me sane. The dark humor of “Odd Taxi” (Crunchyroll), an anime, drove me crazy, in a good way.
And now my favorites from 2021, in no particular order:
“The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Prime)
“Kinematics” is a heavy term for television critics; use it and you risk fueling the argument that if a show is good, it has to be like a movie. And yet, this is the supreme quality of “Underground Railroad,” Barry Jenkins’ limited-edition adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s historical fictional novel. Jenkins’ pictorial cinematography, expressive score, and authoritative direction make this tale of slavery as an exodus a monumental sensory experience.
“South Side” (HBO Max)
This gem from brothers Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle is an ancient and amorous ode to Chicago, a city that has been stereotyped to death. The show also rivals “Rick and Morty” in terms of joke density.
“The White Lotus” (HBO)
Who is the star of Mike White’s fable about the misfit elite? Is it Jake Lacy in the role of Shane, the brotherly, titled honeymoon? Murray Bartlett as Armond, the drugged hotel manager? Natasha Rothwell as Belinda, the resort’s spa manager who has used up the last drops of her optimism? Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, the lonely woo-woo who drains Belinda of this optimism? This series has given us some of the best performances of the year.
“We are lady parts” (Peacock)
Nida Manzoor’s debut for Channel 4, an exploration of Muslim identity that never turns into didacticism, is a happy crash of opposing sensibilities. It’s punk and then it’s sweet, it’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and then it’s “This Is Spinal Tap”. Anjana Vasan is fascinating as Amina, a gangly and loving scientist who unexpectedly ends up as the lead guitarist of an all-female Muslim punk band, Lady Parts. The music written for the fictional band is also excellent.