The Daily Beast’s 21 Best TV Shows of 2021: From ‘Squid Game’ and ‘Succession’ to ‘Sex Education’
It was a strange year but also one of the greatest TV seasons in recent memory. From Bo Burnham to the trauma of “Squid Game,” here are Kevin Fallon’s picks for the best.
I have been creating “Top 10” lists and “Best of” countdowns my entire life. If I could tell little, gay, weird, and probably very annoying Kevin that he would one day be doing this now, it would be a dream for him, a person who, at age 9, would force his mother to put on the Emmy Awards (even though he hadn’t seen a single film or show) and, a few years later, made his siblings watch a PowerPoint slideshow he made about what he felt were the best songs of the year.
But dreams have a way of becoming a tedious privilege. Here I am staring down nearly 500 TV series that produced new content this year (not counting news and sports). I, obviously, did not watch them all. I did my best, and have a waistline to show for it. But what I’m saying is that this is, without a doubt, my favorite task of the year. I get to professionally say what my favorite shows of the year are! But it’s also, increasingly, impossible.
How much do I count the fact that I just really enjoyed watching a show? (I did not miss an episode of The Great British Baking Show—I mean, once Chigs put on his glasses—but I also loathed so much of the Matt-and-Noel banter.) How much do I take into account what other people say was good? (I’m sorry to say, I don’t like Evil.) And how much do I berate myself over the fact that I simply can’t watch it all!? (I’m sorry, but there was a Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives marathon that I simply could not look away from!)
There are things that I missed. That’s what happens when there are 500 shows to watch, and you are one person. So consider this the best of what I’ve seen. And I’ve seen a lot.
It’s been such a phenomenal year for TV, and I feel so lucky to get to obsess about it and share my thoughts with all of you. Feel free to share your opinions back. I hope there’s something on here you missed and will check out. I hope you agree with a lot of it. Most of all, I hope you had a great year of TV-watching. For the love of Oprah (who gave the performance of the year in the Meghan-Harry interview, but I wasn’t sure qualified for this list), we needed it.
21. The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix)
Despite anything you may have absorbed from the news, from your social media feeds, or from your panicked conversations with everyone you know and love, something genuinely nice really did happen this year. The Baby-Sitters Club released its second season on Netflix, and it ranked—as its inclusion on this list suggests—among the best-written, finely-acted, and emotionally-resonant pieces of television. The modern update of Ann M. Martin’s book series was a lightning bolt of nostalgia and urgency, pitching the angst, the growing pains, and the friendship of a group of tweenage girls to a mass audience that fell in love. Yet it never once devalued or patronized the very girly, very goofy, very pink obsessions of its precocious characters, a rarity still in TV.
20. Maid (Netflix)
Sometimes great TV shows sneak up on you. That was certainly the case with Maid, which in Netflix terms, arrived with little advanced buzz and then exploded through word of mouth from critics and viewers who were equal parts gutted and astonished by its raw, clear-eyed look at a single mother trapped in a cycle of poverty. Margaret Qualley’s lead performance, wide-eyed in fear and disbelief at a system that’s making it impossible for her to escape an abusive relationship and provide for her daughter, was captivating. That Andie MacDowell, her real-life mother, played her character’s mom—and source of generational trauma—only made more potent how inevitable and, thus, inexcusable this deplorable, depressing reality is.
19. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Anyone who griped about Ted Lasso’s second season being too nice was in for a rude awakening as the second half of episodes began to unfurl, revealing how deep and dark into these characters’ psychological and emotional trauma the series was daring to go. Maybe this is a case where the still-stellar series would have benefited from a binge release instead of a weekly rollout. When you look at the season as a whole, it’s astonishing what it managed to accomplish. Sure, it was still a font of folksy quips and obscure pop-culture references courtesy of Jason Sudeikis. But to manage something as earnest and heartwarming as the Christmas episode, as difficult to watch as Ted’s therapy journey, and as meticulously planned as Nate’s breaking bad? I’m not sure why any of us doubters ignored Ted’s sage advice: Believe.
18. Squid Game (Netflix)
I can’t recall being so upset by a TV show. That has to do with just how disturbing the concept of the monster Netflix hit was, the details of which didn’t so much unravel as they assaulted you with such a sudden, horrifying force—much in the way it did the characters on the series—that you likely had a reflexive, physical reaction to the violence of it all. It also has to do with how much a show that was so promising and provocative, which managed to burrow under your skin in the ways it made you think about class, desperation, and choices, totally bungled its ending. Still, as upset as the misfire of a finale left me, there’s no denying the phenomenon of what happened with this show, an international hit the likes of which we’ve never seen in the streaming age. And that’s not to mention the incredible acting, the thrilling production design, and the parts of the story that really, truly worked. Nothing this year had us talking more.
17. The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills (Bravo)
OK, maybe there is someone that had us talking more, and her name is Erika Jayne (Girardi). It’s no secret that we’ve been a long defender of the Real Housewives franchise, the standard-bearer of reality TV that has long realized that soap opera storylines with sitcom editing yields more captivating television than most Emmy-winning scripted series could hope for. And at a time when the reality of the world around us has infiltrated these shows’ gilded cages, nothing had us more riveted than Girardi precariously defending herself against allegations that she was complicit in her then-husband’s embezzlement of millions of dollars that were owed to widows and orphans. Whether or not it was a sound idea to show up on the series amidst such legal trouble, it yielded the most soul-searching season yet—even if that meant revealing how few cast members may have souls—and an endless stream of viral moments. “Tom’s house was broken into. He confronted the burglar and then had to go have eye surgery…”
16. Hacks (HBO Max)
If all Hacks ended up being was Jean Smart absolutely killing it as a cantankerous and mercurial version of a Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller-esque comic white-knuckling it through her last career days as a headliner in Las Vegas, it could have ended up on this list. This is the role of Smart’s career and, considering how prolific her career has been (not to mention the fact that she also had Mare of Easttown this year), that’s high praise. But thanks to the care the show’s writer gave Hannah Einbinder’s Ava, a young comedy writer flailing thanks to “cancel culture” and too cynical to appreciate the gifts of Smart’s Deborah Vance, this became something more meaningful. It showed two generations building a bridge toward each other, sure. But it was also a captivating portrait of grief, bitterness, and resilience—for two women charging forth in a society that made ‘em convince themselves they deserve their next shot.
15. Station Eleven (HBO Max)
I don’t know how I ended up watching a TV series about a pandemic that wipes out much of civilization because no one took it seriously enough and, instead of jumping out my window screaming, “NOT THIS!!!” I ended up bingeing every screener I had and thinking, “This is actually nice.” I can’t downplay how traumatizing it is to watch the different episodes that reveal the highly contagious and deadly flu pandemic wreaking havoc (though, for what it’s worth, it’s gorgeously and thrillingly shot). But for all the PTSD those scenes can trigger—or TSD… we’re not exactly “post” any of this—so much about this series is just so beautiful. The way that people figure out how to connect and move on following such devastation. The power of art to heal, and the possibly pretentious, but also possibly heartwarming, thing where we may actually crave that art once it’s taken away. The series jumps back and forth through time elegantly, scattering puzzle pieces that are extremely gratifying, if heartbreaking to put together. It’s a late entry—it just started streaming on HBO Max—but it’s so worth your time.
14. What We Do in the Shadows (FX)
Maybe there’s a vampire connection here, but TV’s most ridiculous, cleverest comedy gets better with age. At a time when the comedy world had just about exhausted any palatable high-concept premise for a series and when the “docuseries” parody conceit had long outstayed its post-Office welcome, What We Do in the Shadows dared build on its 2014 movie concept with a series about Staten Island-based vampires attempting to live together, Real World-style, while adjusting their peculiarities to a modern setting. This new season found their world expanding a bit—their sojourn to Atlantic City might have made me laugh more than anything on this list—and their backstories deepening. Few series know their characters better and few performers nail a line delivery better than this core cast. It’s the silliest show, but maybe the most fun to watch.
13. The Great (Hulu)
The thing about The Great is that it’s so delicious. It’s so decadent. It’s so naughty. The writing could not be cruder, delivered with vicious, sniper-like precision from Elle Fanning and with oblivious, doofy horniness from Nicholas Hoult. The production design and costumes are unparalleled, and the writing somehow makes the ascension of Catherine the Great amidst a pregnancy and coup to be as batty as it is historically monumental. No show trades better in these dichotomies, but it’s so exquisitely and intentionally done that you’ll find yourself laughing and recoiling and, on several occasions, even crying at the same time. This is how you reinvent the period show.
12. The White Lotus (HBO)
At first, we thought we were tuning in for a show about all our faves—Connie Britton! Steve Zahn! Natasha Rothwell from Insecure! Jake Lacy from The Office! Murray Bartlett from Looking! Jennifer Coolidge from every great comedy!—going to Hawaii for vacation, waiting for hijinks to ensue. Creator/writer/director Mike White is too smart for that. The series that we were given was peculiar, often enraging, and astonishingly prescient. It revealed the obtuse toxicity of privilege, how desperation morphs into resignation for the marginalized, and how everyone’s personal journey is monumental, no matter how small it might seem to the outside world. White’s masterful bait-and-switch of a murder mystery that was actually about class irked a lot of people. We stand and applaud.
11. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Kate Winslet did the actor-y thing where she had a limp, a wild and very specific accent, and “bravely” wore little makeup. It should have been the kind of self-serious parody that, well, she herself actually mocked once on Ricky Gervais’ Extras. But then this very mannered performance eased into something incredibly natural and captivating, one that ranks among the best of her career. The series’ insistence on establishing a palpable sense of place gave it the grounding that, when the central mystery Winslet’s detective character was investigating sped off the rails with a dizzying array of twists, the exhilaration never left reality. Add in award-worthy work from Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, and Jean Smart, plus the most adrenaline-inducing chase sequence of the year, and you understand why this show was the rare one to build its audience week after week.
10. Insecure (HBO)
Insecure has been doing something brave in its final season. It’s showing that things might actually end up OK. (In this climate?!) We’ve watched Issa (played by creator/writer/director/absolute phenomenon Issa Rae) and her friends skip through rock bottoms like a stone thrown onto a lake. But this final season has shown what the work was worth, and, more than that, what’s sacrificed or left by the wayside in pursuit of what’s important. Insecure is a show that made history, and cemented it because it was that good throughout its entire run. This final season has given a spotlight to changing friendships and Natasha Rothwell’s fan-favorite Kelli character specifically. But its nimble navigation between the melancholic, frustrating seriousness of life and these characters’ desire to have a good time has been a rejuvenating and illuminating trip to watch.
9. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
If there’s one thing you think of when you think of comedy, it’s all the greats: Steve Martin, Martin Short, and… Selena Gomez. It’s the oddest Three Amigos one could imagine, but it was necessary for this show to work as powerfully as it did. The surface-level logline is that it was about three residents of an Upper East Side building who bond over their love of true-crime podcasts and decide to do their own investigation about a murder that happened where they live. The breadcrumbs and clues along the way were exciting to follow, but at its heart this was a show about loneliness. People who had, for their own reasons, closed themselves off from the world. The promise of companionship in order to complete this podcast was crippling for the three of them, across generations. Together, they overcame it, even amidst outrageous circumstances. There’s a beauty to watching them accomplish that, a thrill to seeing the mystery be solved, and an absolute joy in watching the Martins just do their things.
8. The Good Fight (Paramount+)
The most daring piece of television this year was the premiere of The Good Fight. The series was the first and remains the most audacious when it comes to incorporating real-world politics and media scandal into its storylines (the show’s legal team deserves a raise for figuring out how to air all that Trump gossip). But the way the series arrived this season, using a repetitive and haunting “Previously on…” narrative device to recount the entire, horrifying, traumatizing year that happened while it was off-air and how it affected its characters was a stroke of brilliance. The series that followed, tackling disinformation and kangaroo courts and cancel culture and race optics was as good as this show—which has proven itself to be so damn good—can get.
7. Sex Education (Netflix)
It’s impressive in its own right that Sex Education’s veritable symphony of tones manage to produce something pleasant, instead of an unbearable cacophony. But this show—a coming-of-age story, a comedy, a sexual exploration, a family drama, a commentary on class, a spotlight on race and sexuality, a teen romp, and a character study—manages, somehow, a harmony. There’s no getting away from the sex of it all, which is what makes this, now in its third season, so refreshing. It’s inquisitive, curious, and a little rebellious about it, because that’s what teenagers are. But it’s also informative, progressive, and empathetic, because that’s what they need. Truthfully, what we all need. We’ve long ignored great performances in teen-centric series. So it’s a shame that Asa Butterfield, Ncuti Gatwa, Emma Mackey, and Gillian Anderson in the performance that she should have won the Emmy for (not The Crown), keep being passed over. Emmy winners in our hearts.
6. PEN15 (Hulu)
The last episodes of PEN15 are so beautiful, so affirming, so funny, so real, and so devastatingly magical that, full disclosure, I have refused to watch the finale. I don’t want it to end. I can’t remember the last time that the journey of a show had embedded itself so deeply into my heart. This final season has sewn it there permanently. I’d like to think that it’s not just millennials who are so taken by the way creators/writers/stars/directors Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle uncannily summon the middle-school experience for adults who grew up at the turn of the millennium. The way they nail adolescent insecurity, hopefulness, hopelessness, and, above all, friendship should be timeless. Erskine and Konkle are two of the finest actors on TV, which often goes unnoticed because of the gimmick that they are adults playing tweenage girls. But the phenomenal acting in this last season demands we all pay attention.
5. Succession (HBO)
People were so ready to assume that, after two zeitgeist-seizing and award-winning seasons, Succession would pull a Kendall and shit the bed. How wrong those skeptics were. The first half of the season was a fascinating adjustment. With Succession, we’re used to scale. Instead, we were confined and crammed into boardrooms and claustrophobic strategy sessions, the expanse of the series’ setpieces packed into a powder keg. But, my God, when all that exploded… It turns out we were being carefully marched down a path to a fireworks show. Those last episodes in Italy were astonishing, both in their scale—filmed during a pandemic—and their intimacy. Nothing had me more rapt than three of the Roy siblings spiraling while in a dusty parking lot. It all climaxed in the most rousing moment of the TV year, but the show had earned its spot on this list even before that happened.
4. The Underground Railroad (Amazon)
The sheer ambition of The Underground Railroad would deserve praise, even before you factored in how stunning the filmmaking was, how hauntingly unforgettable the acting became, and then how essential the entire body of work showed itself to be. Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) created something meditative, an action thriller, a reckoning on race and history, and a work that is a piece of poetry as much as it is a call to arms. A memory and a directive. It’s almost indescribable, especially after a lifetime of watching slavery content on TV and in movies, how he balances sensitivity, respect, and also an unflinching realism on the harrowing brutality. His star Thuso Mbedu, the throughline tying together the series’ journey, delivers what is unequivocally the performance of the year. Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning book made the blueprint. They gave it life.
3. The Other Two (HBO Max)
This has been a year of validating the need for extremes. And so it is, after writing an ode to a series that crucially depicted a slave’s journey on The Underground Railroad, I pay homage to what has become known, anecdotally on social media, as “The Hole Episode” on The Other Two. In “The Hole Episode,” our series protagonist is riding high on a series of personal wins and feels confident to send a photo of his butthole to a person on Grindr. This photo leaks, sparking a dizzying and ever-evolving conversation about regret, exploitation, shame, fame, and how all of it is utterly and entirely bullshit. That The Other Two manages to confirm, over and over again, that everything we preoccupy ourselves with is just that—bullshit—while still crafting an ensemble of the most empathetic and relatable characters on TV should have us all examining ourselves. Thankfully, it’s so damn funny that you laugh away any too-serious thoughts.
2. Bo Burnham: Inside (Netflix)
We were prepared to completely ignore the garbage pile of, sure, well-intentioned content that was made during the harrowing days of the pandemic. You know the ones. You probably shuddered at the suggestion of them. Shot over Zoom. Joked about Zoom. Just sort of verbatim recounting how unmooring and unpleasant all of that time was in a way that was, sure, inventive, but wholly unwanted. So what a jolt Bo Burnham: Inside was. It is unequivocally the greatest piece of pandemic entertainment, something that should be kept as a historical record.
In the special, the comedian and creative force (it would take too long to list all his job titles) vacillates between wise and unhinged as he leans on the forms that sparked his career—vlogging, musical parodies, wry stand-up—and hurls them through the looking glass to create something as shell-shocked and evolved as we all feel right now. Much of it is set to song… songs so good that we still wonder how they weren’t nominated for more Grammy Awards. It’s a chronicle of a person trying to dig his way out of a horrible time through creation, and an exposé on the limits of that, no matter how brilliant. But that’s the thing… it is so legitimately brilliant.
1. It’s a Sin (HBO Max)
The best piece of television produced during this year of the pandemic was one that gives new, rousing insight into a previous one. Given that it’s from creator Russell T. Davies, of the original Queer as Folk and 2019’s Years and Years fame, maybe it’s not a surprise that this show met the moment in surprising and unshakable ways. It centers a group of friends in 1980s London as AIDS evolves from a strange rumor into a death sentence. But if you recoil at that, a feeling of, “not another one…” then I implore you to check this out. Yes, it is the most devastating piece of television I watched this year. There is no shying away from that, nor should there be, in order to give dignity to the time. But it is also, in a rare and refreshing twist, perhaps the most joyous.
It’s a Sin spans the entire decade, checking in over the course of five episodes as a group of twentysomething friends savor liberation and possibility in London while they embrace their sexuality, bond, grow up, fuck, fall in love, and dream. The thing to really drive home about the show is that there is so much happiness to be found. It explores the full emotional experience of a time in LGBT history that pop culture typically only finds space for rage and tragedy. Some of the best acting on TV happens in the series, though in moments when that joy comes crashing down. But that’s the truth of the experience. It’s the truth of our experience right now. It never goes away, and hasn’t for decades—which makes our ignorance of the actual experience of this time in history, for all its sadness but also all its love and exuberance, such an embarrassment. One that It’s a Sin, the year’s best show, finally fixes.