We say this every year, but TV has never been greater. If there’s one takeaway from television this year, especially looking at what made our list, it’s that shows only get better as they go on beyond their first season. Who knows what that means for their longevity in the age of streaming, but that just means we need to celebrate them right now, in this moment.
A lot of our best shows from this year are in their second or third season, but other shows also hit it out of the park with their premiere this year. These shows span genres and styles, but they each capture multiple instances of just what exactly TV can do—from ruminations about life and death to epic fantasy adventures, TV in 2021 did it all.
20. (tie) Never Have I Ever Season 2
Let me preface this by saying I am a sucker for high school love triangles. The trope may be seriously overdone, but how can I resist a main character getting stuck between two enticing love interests? With that being said, the love triangle trope doesn’t feel too over the top in Never Have I Ever Season 2, perfectly balancing the comedy and the heart of it.
Fifteen-year-old Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) scrambles to hide the love triangle from both of her love interests and ends up making a complete mess of herself. But that’s Devi: relatable, the least put-together protagonist, and still trying to figure out what she wants in life. She may at times be selfish, but she’s still maturing and trying to improve herself. Never Have I Ever comes back strong in Season 2 and once again we get to hear Devi’s quirky lines, juicy high school drama, and Devi still grieving over her father’s death.—Chelsie Derman
20. (tie) Kevin Can F*** Himself
Following the success of Schitts Creek, there’s little Annie Murphy can do that won’t have me tagging along to check out—and Kevin Can F*** Himself proves that. A dark comedy about what it means to be the long suffering wife of a sitcom husband, the show, created by Valerie Armstrong, defiantly points out the hypocrisy and ease in which these male characters get to exist in this style of single-camera comedies.
Murphy, along with co-star Mary Hollis Inboden, are extraordinary as two women who have found one another to tether themselves to as they work to get each other out of their increasingly dire circumstances. It’s a peculiar and tonally aggressive show but one whose ambition, message, and talent on and behind the camera result in a series that is as engaging as it is singular.—Allyson Johnson
Chucky is the underrated hit of 2021. From first glance, you might expect this to be a cheesy story about an 80s slasher doll, but the series is so much more than that. Chucky thrived on the small screen in this 8-episode first season, making it a fun thrill ride. The story easily carried over from the films to welcome beloved fans of the movies as well as new fans too.
At the heart of Chucky, there’s a great story about loss, acceptance, LGTBQ+ issues, and chosen families. Plus, there’s plenty of horror movie-style kills along the way. Chucky slices through its victims in many elaborate and fun ways, making this a great time if you love slasher movies and horror tropes. Iconic film characters return to balance with the new cast who hold their own and totally kill it. If you haven’t watched Chucky, you need to start now!—Justin Carreiro
18. (tie) Reservation Dogs
A surprise standout from 2021, Reservation Dogs combines Native American life and heritage with indie film style, delivering an immediately likable comedy about Native American community and culture. From the cast to the setting, Reservation Dogs emphasizes the community and people it centers, grounding the series in a strong sense of place. Pain and difficulty runs through the lives of the characters, but it’s never the focus of the show.
Instead, we focus on the nuances of the characters, and even as we laugh with them we understand them as human beings. Challenging audience expectation, Reservation Dogs looks to places rarely portrayed on TV, breaking down barriers with wit and style. Featuring a strong ensemble, witty humor, and quirky style, Reservation Dogs is a sharply drawn portrait of Native American life.—Cameron Grace Wolff
18. (tie) For All Mankind Season 2
For All Mankind capitalizes on a societal feeling from the mid-late 1900s that has re-emerged today. This series uses the fear entrenched in the Cold War and adapts these ideas while also progressing the world it portrays to a place that may surpass our own. The show has beautiful execution with plenty of heart to match, and while its main character is a white man (typical), its framework pushes women forward and explores interesting and diverse stories among them.
Some shows impress you, and you almost want the shows to end so as not to ruin the experience (because TV tends to do that in later seasons), but For All Mankind is an experience the audience can trust and truly want more without reservations.—Amanda Reimer
17. (tie) Tuca & Bertie Season 2
After an unfortunate cancellation from Netflix, creator Lisa Hanawalt’s charming animated sitcom found new life at Adult Swim. Hardly missing a step, Tuca & Bertie dives headfirst into its second season, reminding viewers why they fell in love with the titular duo in the first place. Exploring a complex friendship, the show is emotionally specific yet sprawling, addressing impactful themes and building a detailed world that operates as a surreal reflection of our own.
Hanawalt’s show is a unique blend of oddball absurdism and devastating psychology, a delightful buddy-comedy that dissects the emotional lives of its protagonists. From episodes about toxic masculinity and workplace harassment, to abusive relationships and therapy, Tuca & Bertie never fails to balance the importance and weight of these themes with its exuberant visual style and humor. It’s a beautifully animated ode to a difficult friendship, full of wit and heart.—Cameron Grace Wolff
17. (tie) Sex Education Season 3
Netflix’s Sex Education remains one of the finest examples of coming-of-age storytelling airing today. Season 3 once again dives into the personal, physical, mental, and all that falls in-between lives of the students of Moordale.
With new and interesting pairing between cast members and a will-they-won’t they relationship that is given its due, Season 3 never falters due to its ability to treat it’s teenage characters with agency as they navigate the woes and endure the humiliation of what it means to be a teenager.—Allyson Johnson
17. (tie) Everything’s Gonna Be Okay Season 2
Despite creator Josh Thomas deciding to end Everything’s Gonna Be Okay after Season 2, this Freeform show was a huge comfort, especially in the midst of the pandemic. One of the only shows to truly capture the tediousness of quarantine, this last season of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay allowed its characters to be messy, but also find comfort and love from each other in times of anxiety and fear about the future.
The trio at the center of the show is stronger than ever—Nicholas (Thomas), Matilda (Kayla Cromer), and Genevieve (Maeve Press) return from Matilda’s failed New York trip at the end of Season 1 as a family that knows how to handle life’s ups and downs. Alex (Adam Faison) as the unofficial fourth member of the family gets more to do in the second season as well, as we learn more about his family. As the group handles big life changing moments outside the pandemic, such as weddings, break ups, and the future, the show’s title has never been so apt, and will always remain a gentle reminder that everything’s gonna be okay.—Katey Stoetzel
Maid is the type of the show that will most certainly make you cry, but don’t let that hold you back from watching this outstanding series. The show showcases hard truths on poverty and abusive relationships. I’m not one to usually cry halfway into watching something, but Maid gave me so many fierce emotions. By Episode 1, I immediately admired the main character, Alex (Margaret Qualley), and her boldness to stand up for herself.
The scenes featuring Maid’s mother-daughter duo of Alex and her two-year-old daughter Maddy (Rylea Neveah Whittet) are some of the most adorable yet heartbreaking moments from TV this year. Maid is the show that will still be on your mind—and still just as remarkable—weeks after watching the last scene. It might make you cry, but it also features some incredibly uplifting moments that will surely put a smile on your face.—Chelsie Derman
15. Manifest Season 3
Manifest was the underdog of 2021. After being cancelled by NBC this year shortly after airing its third season, Season 3 hit Netflix and topped the charts, leading to Netflix picking it up for a supersized, final season next year. This show isn’t an artful masterpiece (it’s not winning any Emmys), but is definitely deserving of your time just for the pure sake of fun. Manifest mirrors many of the mystery sci-fi’s of the 2000s (think Lost) but with a completely new premise.
What makes this show stand out from the ones it takes inspiration from is the direction of its mythology. It will have you coming for the mystery and staying for the character relationships, using their bonds to push the plot forward, something a lot of shows can’t nail.—Amanda Reimer
14. Evil Season 2
Evil is so good at toeing the line, but that’s what makes it so fun to watch. It’s not necessarily about whether or not Kristen (Katja Herbers), David (Mike Colter), and Ben (Aasif Mandvi) are actually seeing demons but rather what it means for them personally. Season 2 takes us down a fascinating descent into emotional chaos—Kristen is struggling with her guilt for killing serial killer LaRoux, leading to interesting takes on her privileges as a white woman; as his ordination gets closer, David wonders if the priesthood is really his calling; and Ben, the real skeptic, contends with his own demons and trauma.
Season 2 elevates the stakes for everyone in the cast, but it’s Ben the show really capitalizes on. While an important part of the group in Season 1, he often was relegated to comedy relief. The second season showcases Mandvi’s talent even more as we explore more of Ben’s character and backstory, leading to some of Mandvi’s best acting on the show. Other areas of the season see Leeland (Michael Emerson) further manipulating Sheryl (Christine Lahti); bringing in Tim Matheson this season really expands this story and plays up the idea that we really are dealing with demons.—Katey Stoetzel
13. (tie) Locke & Key Season 2
Locke and Key Season 2 raises the series to another level because it fleshes out the villain, Dodge (Griffin Gluck), giving the all-powerful demon a tiny dose of humanity. Dodge may be flat-out vindictive, but seeing the demon fall in love with Kinsey (Emilia Jones)—and having the love even blind his judgment—serves as an interesting twist. In the new season, Dodge is no longer the black-and-white villain we remember but someone more complex.
Locke and Key Season 2 also amps up the comic relief and introduces captivating new magical keys that will pull viewers into an enchanting landscape. The show may be a teen supernatural drama, but the series does not follow the mold of other teen shows.—Chelsie Derman
13. (tie) Mythic Quest Season 2
Despite not receiving as much buzz as some of its Apple TV+ counterparts, the Rob McElhenney led Mythic Quest delivered some of the most consistent laughs while managing to blend heart and humor together beautifully. A surprisingly honest look at the gender dynamics of game development as well as an examination of what happens when someone in development is given greater power, the series is smarter than the synopsis would let on.
As the characters deal with professional and personal blows in Season 2, we get greater insight into their lives as individuals and as members of a team. Each cast member is crucial to the overall success of the show, though McElhenney, along with Charlotte Nicdao as Poppy, deliver the finest work as they balance the line of growing too vindictive of one another while still remaining integral parts of one another’s lives. This platonic relationship is the heart of a series that didn’t even need one to begin with but is greater still because of it.—Allyson Johnson
12. Cruel Summer
Cruel Summer may not have been on everyone’s radar, but the Freeform series combines all the elements needed to create a show that left its audience questioning and debating with each new episode. This suspenseful drama tackles nuanced subjects with care, considering its status as a teen show, and the 1990s setting adds a nostalgia that seems to be all the more popular across recent years. If you are looking for a quick watch, dynamic female characters, and a searing slow-burn romance, then Cruel Summer may just be the show for you.—Amanda Reimer
11. Shadow and Bone
Shadow and Bone delivered on the anticipation and hype built up when the series was first announced. This isn’t just another fantasy TV show based on a book series—Shadow and Bone is an expansive adventure filled with impeccable special effects and great writing.
Each episode pulled us into the growing conflict brewing in this land, the characters doomed to fight for power or safety. Even with its high-concept plot, the story seamlessly translated to the small screen and made it easy to understand who were the heroes and who were the villains. The series also deserves the distinction of giving us another reason why Ben Barnes (who plays General Aleksander Kirigan) and his dashing presence could be enough to choose the bad boy.—Justin Carreiro
10. Midnight Mass
Midnight Mass contains some of the most beautiful monologues about life, death, and forgiveness ever captured on the big or small screen. In the hands of anyone else, these long pages of dialogue would become tedious. With Mike Flanagan and the talented actors he’s brought together, they pull you in gently and leave you feeling as if something profound has just taken place.
Steeped in metaphor and musings on religion, this horror limited series knows just when to reveal the monster and understands there’s always more to the story beyond that. The monster is fascinating, but without this great ensemble cast, the show simply does not work, and you will not find better performances from this year. Zach Gilford, Rahul Kohli, Kate Siegel, Hamish Linklater, Samantha Sloyan, Kristen Lehman, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Alex Essoe, Robert Longstreet, Henry Thomas, and everyone else that graces the screen in this show are at the top of their game. Even as these characters slip into the madness Father Paul (Linklater) has brought to their tiny island, you want them to make it. The tragedy and beauty of life is that nothing lasts, and this journey for redemption can be cut short any time. Midnight Mass exists in the crevices of that redemption, and the long, arduous road it can be to achieve it.—Katey Stoetzel
9. I Think You Should Leave Season 2
The magic in Tim Robinson’s bite sized sketch comedy series I Think You Should Leave is how he makes dumb comedy brilliant. In an era where weekly stalwarts such as SNL still exist, Robinson’s series is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that sketch comedy can be great when handled by a creator who understands the mechanics of jokes and what will actually elicit reactions from viewers.
The scenes are always absurd and it’s the details that make it so astonishingly funny. It’s not the angry drivers ed teacher that makes us laugh but the actress used in the instructional videos who is always complaining about how dirty the tables are. And it’s not a man in a goofy suit that gets us laughing but how defeated he becomes in it. It’s the details of the slight jokes and the micro-character beats as well as plays on realistic social awkwardness that build the show into something brilliantly hilarious.—Allyson Johnson
HBO Max’s Starstruck is a breezy binge for all those who miss Fleabag, from its London setting to its complicated love story. Rose Matafeo, the series’ creator and star, creates a winning heroine in Jessie, whose will-they-won’t-they relationship with cutie Tom (Nikesh Patel) is complicated by Tom’s job (he’s a movie star).
The pop culture references are abundant (shoutout to Mandy Moore’s “Crush”!) and the supporting cast is great, but it’s the magnetism of Matafeo and Patel that makes the show exceptional. Jessie and Tom have messy and complicated lives, and you root for them as individuals. It’s rare to find a romantic comedy that invests as much in its protagonists as people rather than as a couple, and Starstruck soars in that regard.—Claire Di Maio
7. What We Do in the Shadows Season 3
What We Do in the Shadows may have an ensemble cast of five, but the third season is really about three of its members. Nandor (Kayvan Novak), Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch), and Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) each go on separate journeys of identities, resulting in each achieving some kind of fulfillment by the end of the season.
Evidence of Nandor’s depression begins early in Season 3, and continues throughout the rest of the season, especially in episodes “The Wellness Center” and “A Farewell.” In these episodes, Nandor attempts to become something he’s not as a way to convince himself he’s happy, and shows him grappling with the sense of wanting to give up and cut oneself off from the world. For Guillermo, despite becoming the vampires’ bodyguard this season, he’s still struggling with wanting to become a vampire with the discovery of his vampire slayer lineage. Guillermo is a great representation of the balance between what we want to be, what society tells us to be, and what we think we want.
Colin Robinson looks to his past to determine his origins in Season 3. As an energy vampire, Colin is very comfortable with who he is, but his wanting to dig deeper into where he comes from is a path many people follow at some point in their lives. The tragedy of Colin this season is that he never finds an answer before he dies. However, Colin’s search proves that even if we’re comfortable with ourselves currently, there’s nothing wrong with further exploring who you are.—Katey Stoetzel
6. The Underground Railroad
Adapting Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel would be a challenge for any director, but Barry Jenkins (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk) more than rises to the task, delivering an astounding epic to be remembered for years to come. Sensitively combining fiction and history, Jenkins’ miniseries explores the difficult history of American slavery, emphasizing the myth that the practice is eradicated.
With a focus on visual storytelling and gut-wrenching emotion, The Underground Railroad is an expansive miniseries filled with the most beautiful and horrifying imagery to be seen on TV. Jenkins’ series is beautiful and terrifying, but ultimately a story about humanity in the face of terror.—Cameron Grace Wolff
5. It’s A Sin
It’s A Sin starring Years & Years singer Olly Alexander and Lydia West (from Years and Years of a different name), is set aagainst the backdrop of the rise of HIV/AIDS in the U.K in the 1980s. But the show is just as much about life as it is about a deadly disease—throughout the show, friends Ritchie (Alexander), Jill (West), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Ash (Nathanial Curtis), and Colin (Callum Scott Howells) fall in and out of love, and try their best to navigate a world set against them. Covering a decade in just five episodes is no small task, but creator Russel T. Davies sets a chilling pace, where the highest of highs are immediately followed by the lowest of lows, but in between, there’s moments of friendship, dancing, love, and joy. It’s been practically a year since the show dropped, and the tears are still coming.—Katey Stoetzel
4. Ted Lasso Season 2
2021 was Ted Lasso’s year, winning 7 Emmys and the hearts of all who had yet to see Apple TV+’s word-of-mouth hit. Season 2 took seeds planted from Season 1 and presented extraordinary payoff that surprised us—who’d have thought that Nate (Nick Mohammed) would become so universally despised?
To say there are many highlights is an understatement, from the rom-com tribute episode “Rainbow” to Roy Kent’s (Brett Goldstein) profane sports commentary. But it’s the exploration of Ted’s mental health, guided by new character Dr. Fieldstone (Sharon Niles), that cements Ted Lasso as one of 2021’s best shows of the year. We’ll be impatiently waiting for Season 3, biscuits in hand. (But no tea, please. It’s just hot brown water.)—Claire Di Maio
3. Squid Game
A prime example of an absolute cultural phenomenon, the South Korean Netflix export Squid Game proved to be one of the most darkly addictive shows of the year. A scathing examination of wealth disparity and the cruelty of the nauseatingly wealthy, the show offered us a simple conceit: a group of financially struggling individuals are recruited off the street to, unbeknownst to them, fight to the death for an enormous sum of cash that would help resuscitate their lives.
The games themselves are classic children’s games many of them played ages ago, which only makes the brutality and violence that happens when one loses all the more shocking. Led by Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo and newcomer HoYeon Jung, the series, created by Hwang Dong-hyuk, is an endlessly shocking drama which perfectly blends heightened emotions with dizzying set designs and real life horrors all meant to clash together. It made an impact because it was just so good top to bottom.—Allyson Johnson
2. Succession Season 3
Returning from a COVID-induced hiatus, the eagerly awaited third season of HBO’s dark comedy-drama Succession more than lived up to high expectations, delivering the show’s best season yet. Diving into a chaotic struggle for power, Succession’s third season featured more of the engaging character dynamics, strong ensemble work, and intensely nasty dialogue fans have come to love over the show’s first two seasons.
The Roy family is just as despicable as ever, and when they are thrown into the fire of public outcry they get even more despicable. All of this chaos is masterfully directed by regular director Mark Mylod and others, enhancing the complex dialogue and depicting the outrageous opulence of the Roy’s lifestyles. Somehow Succession’s third season is better than anybody could have imagined, continuing television’s funniest drama and darkest comedy.—Cameron Grace Wolff
1. (tie) Only Murders in the Building
Only Murders in the Building is built on universal appeal: its cast (Steve Martin! Martin Short! Selena Gomez!) brings in viewers across generations. It captures the dark charm of New York City as a whole, but is also deeply specific to its neighborhood (the Upper West Side, AKA where no one on Gossip Girl lives). It’s a cozy murder mystery anchored by poignancy and heartbreak.
There’s a lot to love: Siddhartha Khosla’s quirky and haunting score, Selena Gomez’s outfits, murder suspects like Nathan Lane (as a deli owner) and Sting (as himself). But most of all, Only Murders in the Building cares about its self-appointed detectives as much as its mystery, creating emotional investment in a trio of lonely New Yorkers seeking justice (and listeners for their podcast). There’s no investigation needed here: it’s one of the best shows of the year.—Claire Di Maio
1. (tie) WandaVision
What better show to land one of the top spots on the 2021 list than WandaVision? Disney+’s first foray into a scripted Marvel series hit it out of the park, becoming a cultural TV phenomenon. Show rumors and news were heating up on social channels, news outlets, among superhero fans and general audiences alike—and all the elements were there to back it up.
The show featured strong acting between the main cast members, with Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany leading the pack, stylistic choices to highlight sitcoms of the past, and a gripping mystery that kept us on our toes. Plus, Kathryn Hahn’s electric performance as unpredictable witch Agatha Harkness stole the show and gave us a catchy jingle. WandaVision showed us that the MCU and Disney+ could succeed in the TV space with a story that directly impacts the movie phases. WandaVision was simply incredible all along.—Justin Carreiro