Television of the Year 2021

2021 was yet another stellar year for television, one with an abundance of variety and intrigue. As the era of streaming continues to flesh itself out, networks and services continue to search for that new show that will resonate with an audience and build a following, be it a global juggernaut or a passionate few. Here are ten of our favorites from last year, all striking a chord and landing somewhere along that plane:

For All Mankind

For All Mankind. Apple.

For All Mankind returned for a second season on Apple TV+ after being its premiere series when the service launched a year prior and receiving mixed reviews. For the second season, we saw the series jump forward a decade into the early 1980s and the Reagan era. The show’s premise, an alternate reality where the Soviet Union beat the United States to landing on the moon, takes even greater strides the further we get from that initial historical shift, seeing how the world has been altered in the years since. Following the same characters, now pushing 40 and in different places in their respective lives, is a deeply rewarding experience. What we got in the show’s second season is an incredibly emotional historical drama that reminds of Mad Men and The Americans at their best. The stakes for these characters and the world around them quite literally couldn’t have been higher, and as the show is already planning another decade jump forward into the 90s, we are holding onto our couches as if they were spaceships blasting us into orbit. –Tyler

How to with John Wilson

How to with John Wilson. HBO.

There’s an argument here that if How to with John Wilson is not my favorite show currently on television, John Wilson is certainly my favorite personality on television. From the Nathan Fielder camp (who helps produce the show), John Wilson explores the mundanities of New York City. Around every corner, he stumbles across hundreds of insert shots. Put all this mundanity together and it multiplies into a profound portrait of a place and lifestyle suspended in time. The arc may be less satisfying than the first season, or perhaps the breadth of usable material was expended in that effort, but the show remains a secret masterclass in editing: wherein the proper labeling and assemblage of clips far outweighs their individual importance and a narrative story is told, an instructive piece about how to navigate through the modern world, through all these fragments of thoughts and ideas. Please continue the show in perpetuity, it’s an absolute joy, and John Wilson is one of the great discoveries of the COVID era of television. –Calvin

It’s a Sin

It’s a Sin. HBO.

Way back in February of last year we were hit with a series that would stay with us for the entire year, a small 5-episode series following a group of queer friends in London during the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s. The show, a Channel 4 production put out on HBO Max in the United States, was a notable critical darling and a great commercial success in the UK. Bringing viewers into the heart of the AIDS crisis through the endearing friendship of these characters, it was at once a joy to watch them live bountiful night lives in the London nightlife, then see it come crashing down in absolutely devastating fashion. These stories are ones that were all too common at the time, and seeing them laid out before us plain as day was an unforgettable experience. –Tyler

Reservation Dogs

Reservation Dogs. Hulu.

How groundbreaking it can be just to show us a new perspective of something fairly regular. An indigenous sitcom that lives in the day to day moment of some teenagers living on the res, Reservation Dogs is a unique brand of comedy with both cultural specificity and sensitivity that heightens what would just be a very good series of coming of age stories into something more inherently valuable and meaningful. As characters drift toward their California dreams, they also face their rural Oklahoman realities, and the show does such a good job managing the individual stories and quirks of its characters. It’s so much fun to spend time with the folks around the reservation. Here’s hoping for a lot more of this one. –Calvin

The White Lotus

The White Lotus. HBO.

At the end of last summer we were treated to what we know to be tradition as TV watchers: HBO Sunday night appointment viewing. Building on the weekly word of mouth they’re able to accumulate, HBO had another hit on its hands, and what a fun ride it was. The hilarious social commentary from creator Mike White follows a bunch of rich white people staying at a Hawaiian resort, causing chaos at the detriment of everyone around them. The show has a lot to say in smart, witty ways, and engaging with the show on a weekly basis with tons of excitement following it online was one of the greater joys of the year, so much so that this small series meant to be an easy production to complete with COVID restrictions was picked up for a second season in a new location with new characters (save the delightful Jennifer Coolidge returning). We can’t wait to go back! –Tyler

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad. Amazon.

Barry Jenkins is an unmissable director adapting an unmissable work in Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad (2016), a spectacular Pulitzer Prize winning novel that literalizes the concept of a railroad as an underground locomotive. Over a ten hour canvas, Jenkins paints a riveting story with such careful balance, capturing the arc of fugitive Cora (Thuso Mbedu, brave and brilliant) as she travels from state to state, episode by episode. It’s a perfect structure for a limited series by one of our greatest modern filmmaking auteur’s, that captures so beautifully the visualizations of the book, while creating so much Jenkins-specific compassion, that in fact, supersedes and excels beyond the confines of what the book has already done. Due far more credit than it’s been given, it’s a cinematic accomplishment that moves and horrifies in equal measure, punching at just the right weight and frequency, always commenting back on real and lingering issues that persist to this day. –Calvin

The North Water

The North Water. AMC.

Tired of the heat, last summer we also journeyed up north, way up north. The North Water follows a group of men on a whaling expedition into the arctic seas, among the crew being Colin Farrell playing a loose cannon, brutish man with an over the top blood lust that threatens the safety of the entire crew. Just a five-part miniseries from Andrew Haigh (Lean on Pete, 2017) and an international co-production from the BBC and CBC, made available on AMC+ in the United States, it was a treat to spend a few weeks in this brutal world halfway through the year. Who doesn’t want to watch a bloody Colin Farrell harpoon some whales? –Tyler


Succession. HBO.

It’s as though The Golden Age of Television never ended when Succession is on. The show sits among a league of legendary programs. It captures the ambition and intensity of peak AMC and HBO programming. In its third season, the show’s status has been solidified: barring any major missteps, its already being grouped in with the all time greats. It’s because every component matters dearly. Every character holds a consequential square on the Succession chess board. What they do matters and is weighted within the story. There are consequences, but also, the reality of the characters is entirely different, as they exist in the rarefied air of the uber-rich, they seem both unburdened by our own reality but also shackled to their fortune and duty to an unhinged patriarch, played by the enormously talented Brian Cox who vacillates wildly between Shakespearen lyricism and profanity riddled tirades. It’s not getting old. Not one bit. If show runner Jesse Armstrong keeps up the momentum, the more pertinent discussion will be top ten of all time, and not simply each individual year. It’s operating at that high of a level right now. Catch it as soon as possible. –Calvin

Station Eleven

Station Eleven. HBO.

At the very end of the year we were delivered possibly the most impactful and prescient series of them all, the post-apocalyptic drama Station Eleven, based on the novel of the same name by Emily St. John Mandel. The story, which was published in 2014, details a global pandemic that wipes out nearly the entire population. The series coincidentally went into production in early 2020 and then had to be shut down for, you guessed it, our real life pandemic. They picked back up production and the series finally released on HBO Max in December 2021, taking on all new meaning. What resulted is some of the richest, most complex storytelling we have seen on TV that seamlessly weaves between the past and present in ways that remind of Lost and The Leftovers. The unique circumstances of its production and the world it was released into certainly add to the mystique, yet removed from that background the series stands on its own and is one that should not be missed. –Tyler

The Beatles: Get Back

The Beatles: Get Back. Disney+.

Quite frankly, The Beatles: Get Back is the most revelatory, extraordinary piece of media produced all year. It’s a riveting living document of the world’s most popular band at work, deep in their craft, perhaps the greatest existing document of an album’s creation we have. Peter Jackson’s restorative work is the best contextual reason for television’s existence in 2021. Hell, each episode is one of the year’s best movies. It’s a revolutionary and bold act of preserving art for posterity. Combing through 60 hours of film and 150 hours of audio recordings, Jackson’s masterful documentary captures the quintessential time capsule of The Beatles, clocking in at an imminently watchable 468 minutes. A genuine magnum opus of modern television, it comes with our staff’s highest recommendations. Watch The Beatles: Get Back and you’ll be handsomely rewarded for your time. –Calvin

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