The Young Folks staff share our best TV shows of 2021 so far. Shows had to air majority of their episodes between Jan. 1 thru June 25.
Season twos are hard. They both have to live up to the hype of the first season and exceed it in some way. Or it’s a matter of adjusting something that didn’t land quite well in the beginning. Regardless, season twos have a lot of expectation behind them, and so far this year, sophomore seasons dominate our best TV shows of 2021 list.
Whether it’s supernatural thrillers like The A List or workplace comedies like Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet, these second seasons have been surprising as well as inviting. Limited series’ like The Underground Railroad and Wandavision also make the list, providing great, introspective character work. Even if you feel like you’ve watched everything already, watch these. And then watch them again.
10. (tie) Betty (season 2)
Building on her 2018 feature film Skate Kitchen, filmmaker Crystal Moselle creates another affecting season of her slice-of-life show Betty. Exploring a group of young women skateboarders living in New York City, Moselle draws nuanced and sensitive performances from a talented cast of young women, mostly playing variations of themselves. Season two of the HBO show finds skaters Janay, Honeybear, Kirt, Indigo, and Camille facing the dire reality of 2020 and all of the year’s sobering events.
Ingrained in its New York setting, season two depicts with near-documentary intensity the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on Betty’s young protagonists, as well as the mass protests that spread across the country following the murder of George Floyd. Featuring a cast comprised primarily of both young women of color and queer women, Betty is devoted to capturing the sometimes harsh everyday reality facing these women. Betty may be deeply invested in skateboarding, but Crystal Moselle and her cast bring to vivid life the potent drama and gentle comedy of these young womens’ lives, making a specific subculture universal. [Cameron Grace Wolff]
10. (tie) The A List (season 2)
Sometimes it’s hard to avoid the sophomore slump and match the fire of the first season. When it’s done right, the plot is an amazing time that keeps the momentum going. British teen thriller The A-List does this and more by utilizing what worked in the original season and adding more to the lore. The second season is a great continuation that rounds out the mysterious adventures on Peregrine Island.
The sophomore plot picks up a few months after where the first season ended off. Some of the campers are being held as research prisoners on Peregrine Island, but Mia, Harry, and Petal plot to save their friends and uncover the truth about the mysterious Amber and Midge. Also, the story continues by exploring the history of the island and its supernatural ways.
The A-List season 2 shows off the talents of its cast and embraces the full weirdness of the plot. Everyone is pulled into the main adventure and finds some type of resolution to their story. The second season does a great job with tying up loose ends and ending on a high note for the first experience on Peregrine Island. [Justin Carreiro]
9. Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet (season 2)
For all of the snide remarks and easy jokes at its expense in the early The Morning Show stages, Apple TV+ has put together at least two of the strongest TV comedies in the past year. While Ted Lasso has won much of the acclaim, Mythic Quest is just as good and certainly funnier, exceeding itself in season two due to terrific writing and an ensemble cast anchored by two impressive and contradictory performances from show-creator Rob McElhenney as Ian and Charlotte Nicado as Poppy.
After season one spent most of the time seeing the two butt heads over Ian’s narcissism in the position of power at the games headquarter, season two has both of them grappling with their respective egos now as equals in dual creative owner positions. Nicado in particular is allowed to continue to deliver one of the funniest and individualistic performances on television and she and McElhenney share a charged, platonic energy that allows both their disputes and moments of camaraderie to sing. Danny Pudi and David Hornsby also stand out as key players with Hornsby by far eliciting the greatest laughs of the season when he wins some misinformed confidence. The show may not always be breaking the wheel, but it certainly dares to push off the format boundaries of comedies passed. Let’s cross our fingers for a third season. [Ally Johnson]
8. Mare of Easttown
Transformative performances from Kate Winslet are a given at this point, yet Mare of Easttown still impressed when it debuted on HBO this past spring, becoming one of the first must-see, prestige series of the year. Its small-town, murder-mystery setup is far from original, but showrunner Brad Ingelsby used the specificity of this Pennsylvania burb—complemented almost to a distracting fault by Winslet’s impeccable accent work—to add much-needed texture to this little corner of Americana, dripping with memorable characters who are as tragic as they are comedically heartwarming.
Evan Peters, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Guy Pearce, Angourie Rice, and many more round out this generational who’s who of actors we love and the ones still on a humble ascent. But it’s Winslet as the steadfast, yet soft-eyed Mare who stays anchored in our hearts. Months after the finale gave unexpected closure to an episodic genre typically too bleak and frostbitten to authentically offer anything different. [Jon Negroni]
7. Tuca & Bertie (season 2)
Returning for a surprise second season on Adult Swim following an unjust Netflix cancellation, Lisa Hanawalt’s loopy animated comedy Tuca & Bertie drops right back into Bird Town without missing a step. Featuring a stellar returning cast of voice actors, including Tiffany Haddish, Ali Wong, and Steven Yeun, friends Tuca and Bertie are just as hilarious as ever. Clever sight gags and sharp one-liners pepper the second season’s episodes, with Hanawalt and her writers continuing to balance comedy with emotional insight. Tackling difficult topics with cutting humor and psychological nuance, season two deepens the show’s established characters.
Visually, season two is a major new step in the aesthetic of an already stellar-looking show. Hanwalt and her animators build episodes with enterprising concepts, depicting subtle mental processes with bold visual flair. An ambitious mix of surreal comedy and timely themes, Tuca & Bertie explores topics of trauma, sexuality, and loneliness with gutting clarity. [Cameron Grace Wolff]
6. Everything’s Gonna Be Okay (season 2)
With one of the best examples of how to write a series set during a worldwide pandemic (of which I presume there will be many) the Josh Thomas (Please Like Me) created series Everything’s Gonna Be Okay returned for a heartfelt and clever second season. Addressing the cliffhanger of season one after Matilda (Kayla Cromer) decided she wouldn’t be able to live in New York City to go to Juliard, the show quickly meets up with the familial unit as they’re struggling with the daily grind of quarantine life. Starring Thomas, Cromer, Maeve Press as the precocious Matilda and Adam Faison as Nicholas’s boyfriend, season two is impressively confident in its approach to subject matters not often portrayed in mainstream media.
It’s most winsome element though will forever be the dynamic between Thomas, Cromer and Press as the makeshift family who can fluctuate from emboldening one another’s poor decision making to being their only source of oddly energized stability. Thomas has a knack for creating spaces that feel lived in. His worlds—from the colorful and cobbled together set design, to the specificities of how the three engage with one another after years spent apart before being thrust back together in the harshest of circumstances, read as true. It’s a cliche and almost lazy to say, but Everything is Gonna Be Okay isn’t remarkable because of any one component, but because of the naturalism that breathes steady life into a charming, witty and progressive series. [Ally Johnson]
5. The Underground Railroad
As dazzling as it is heartbreaking, The Underground Railroad, directed by the astounding Barry Jenkins, takes viewers on a perilous journey following a runaway slave and her fight for freedom. Jenkins crafts a show brilliant in every shot portraying the horrors of the confederate south during the slavery period. By imbuing a sense of fantasy within the dreadful tone, an ethereal quality transcends Jenkins’s work into a classic unlike any before it.
The show follows the story of a slave named Cora who escapes a Georgian Plantation in the mid-1800s with her lover, Caesar. Throughout their journey, they make their way to a physical representation of the underground railroad made up of a series of interconnected railroad systems that harbor runaway slaves on actual trains making the journey up north. The Underground Railroad completely subverts traditional historical storytelling and relies heavily on fictional archetypes that leave room for Jenkins to artistically convey a deep message about our past and where we are going in the future. [Dorian Rosenburg]
4. Cruel Summer
Cruel Summer is a story that takes a surprisingly mature look at subjects, such as grooming, infidelity, and manipulation, for airing on the Freeform channel. Led by powerhouse Olivia Holt, Cruel Summer includes a mostly younger cast, but one with great chemistry that feeds incredibly well off of another, creating a moody and tense atmosphere that pairs great with the direction and 90s visual aids, from costumes to lighting.
Not only is this story heartfelt and suspenseful, but Cruel Summer also includes two LGBTQ pairings, showing that Cruel Summer isn’t afraid to follow where the story takes it, treating sexuality and relationships more than just a box to tick off. This show makes our list not just because of its ability to tackle sensitive topics with grace and earnest, but also because of its use of nostalgia to wrap its viewer in and truly take them on a ride. Plus, that finale cliffhanger is a tough one to beat. [Amanda Reimer]
3. Shadow and Bone
What do you get when you mix high-stakes adventures with fantasy? You get Netflix’s thrilling series, Shadow and Bone. Based on the “Grishaverse” set of novels by Leigh Bardugo, the eight-episode first season kicked off the story on a high note. The story focuses on Alina Starkov, an orphan who discovers she’s the Sun Summoner and has the ability to potentially defeat the Fold (a shadowy divide filled with terrifying creatures). Shadow and Bone has many interweaving plots and characters both dealing with Alina’s new power and the potential war over claiming the country.
Shadow and Bone is a highly detailed series that puts in the work to capture the essence of the books. From the costumes to the set designs, each piece is perfectly utilized to make the world come to life. The special effects do a great job showcasing the characters’ powers and creature design, so much so that it felt like a big-screen adaptation. And, the cast does an amazing job channeling their characters by adding depth and personality to every scene. [Justin Carreiro]
2. It’s A Sin
Not many shows can say they have real life examples of their impact, but this year’s It’s A Sin certainly can. When the five episode limited series premiered on Channel 4 in the U.K. (and later on HBO Max), it saw a fourfold rise in HIV tests in the U.K during HIV testing week. For this reason alone, It’s A Sin should be on everyone’s best of lists.
The show, starring Years & Years singer Olly Alexander and Lydia West (from Years and Years of a different name), was just as much about life as it was about a deadly disease. Against the backdrop of the rise of HIV/AIDS in the U.K in the 1980s, 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. Even after six months, the tears are still coming. [Katey Stoetzel]
For the top TV show of 2021, the team chose the unique and frankly bizarre Marvel sitcom, WandaVison, as the ultimate winner. Set three weeks after Avengers Endgame (2019), WandaVision takes viewers along as Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), who can move things with her mind, and Vision (Paul Bettany), a robot, travel through the decades in some sort of simulation. In the beginning, Wanda and Vision live as newlyweds in the utopian town of Westview, New Jersey, pretending they are just your average humans.
However, things go downhill when the decade around them starts to change and the two leads realize something is off. Throughout the first season, Wanda and Vision go from living in a black-and-white 1950s setting, to the ‘60s and every decade after, all the way up to the mid-to-late 2000s. It’s quite a time jump, but WandaVision proves to be ambitious. Wandavision pays homage to earlier sitcoms, taking inspiration from other shows in each episode’s new decade, such as I Love Lucy and Bewitched. Disney+ released the first episode of WandaVision on Jan. 15. [Chelsie Derman]
Check out the rest of our mid-year coverage: