Although 2021 might be neatly divided up into seasonal chunks — pre-vax, “everybody’s getting the jab,” post-vax, and fall — it’s surprising how a lot really match into a decent three hundred and sixty five days. The realm of TV was no exception, positively bursting with choices at the same time as the general public began to trickle again exterior. Even when the ultimate tally of exhibits ticks barely down (as it did in 2020), we’re nonetheless seemingly taking a look at greater than 400 unique scripted exhibits that aired in 2021.
However nonetheless, the TV audiences discovered locations to assemble round: This yr, audiences embraced a couple of new breakout worldwide hits, just like the heisty thrills of Lupin and the dismal contests of Squid Recreation. We bid adieu to some legit greats — Pose, Superstore, and (quickly) Insecure. Marvel bounced again from a scuttled 2020 schedule to supply up not one however 5 TV exhibits to pad out the MCU, every with their very own highs and lows. (Anime choices have been plentiful, and got ranked on their own merits.) There have been miniseries, docuseries, animated sequence, and category-breaking sequence that also managed to mild viewers’ fireplace (and that many will nonetheless be catching up on because the yr rolls to a detailed).
With that, we current Polygon’s greatest TV exhibits of 2021, a survey of the yr that doesn’t discover room for each watchable episodic expertise of the yr (and has already gotten an replace earlier than the yr’s finish as latecomer blockbuster sequence air), however one which could be very us.
Arcane is the holy grail of online game variations. Netflix and Riot Video games’ League of Legends animated sequence is wildly fashionable each with followers of the sport and people who have never touched it. In just some weeks, it’s made its cultural mark in every thing from fanfiction to cosplay to Spotify playlists. And on prime of all of that, it’s really actually good. Arcane proved to be greater than a League of Legends present, too, spinning thrills that made it one of the best-written animated shows of the year. In contrast to a lot of Netflix’s animated exhibits, Arcane is surprisingly mature, and definitively younger grownup. Plus, it doesn’t harm that the present options a few of the most stunning and distinctive animation since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. —Austen Goslin
The Nice (Hulu)
In its second season, The Nice is thornier, extra thoughtful, and a good stronger entry than its acclaimed first season. The present looks like such a breath of contemporary air, even George R.R. Martin has written its praises. With Catherine (Elle Fanning) has staged a coup in opposition to her husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), battle strains get drawn in predictable locations. However delightfully, The Nice is rarely content material to accept simplicity. Every episode twists what we all know, constructing out a present that’s ever additional away from the true story that impressed it, however a lot nearer to the guts of the present it desires to be. The result’s equal elements humorous and poignant, simply as fast to go for bawdy banter as it’s to go for the jugular. — Zosha Millman
Hacks (HBO Max)
Let’s simply get this out of the way in which: Jean Sensible completely crushed the primary season of Hacks. She may’ve simply proven up, and dayenu. However she introduced the warmth as Deborah Vance, an old-school comic and Las Vegas staple who’s callous and insightful in equal measure. Along with Ava (a skillful Hannah Einbinder), Hacks did the not possible: really plumbing the craftsmanship of comedy, pitting numerous philosophies in opposition to one another, and constructing a stunning odd couple of comedians.
Hacks by no means settled for simple when nuance was doable, in both its writing and its route. Each Deborah and Ava are prickly and loveable, acerbic and delicate; they’re humorous, and in addition extremely flawed. Watching them tentatively construct out belief with one another is a high-wire act that Hacks walks with the arrogance of a fifth season. In its unbelievable last episode, creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky handle to cowl floor swiftly, balancing tragedy and coronary heart with good comedy, all whereas being each bit thorny and unwranglable proper as much as the tip. —ZM
Identical to it wasn’t needed to love soccer to like Friday Evening Lights, Heels requires no current appreciation for, and even current data of, skilled wrestling to fully hook you in. The sequence empathetically explores the lives of these in a small city introduced collectively by the native, family-run Duffy Wrestling League. When the sequence begins, it’s primarily targeted on the clashes between Jack and Ace Spade (Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig), the sons of the DWL’s founder who’re simply as a lot rivals within the ring as they’re exterior it. However as Heels goes on, it builds right into a gripping ensemble drama, giving heart stage to supporting characters like Crystal (Kelli Berglund), Ace’s valet who has goals of getting within the ring herself, and Rooster (Allen Maldonado), a Black wrestler pissed off by the dearth of alternatives he’s given by Jack. The sequence is a little bit of a gradual burn at first, however because it expands its world and raises the stakes, it turns into clear that Heels has the potential to develop into one thing actually particular. So now’s the time to get in on the bottom ground and say you preferred it earlier than it was cool. —Sadie Gennis
I Assume You Ought to Go away (Netflix)
There was a second once I thought perhaps I Think You Should Leave didn’t contact the genius of the primary season. On first watch I used to be nervous it was too contained, too steady, falling simply shy of the bliss of season 1; I laughed constantly all through, however was it sufficient? How do you prime an ideal 10?
Half a yr and dozens of memes later, I can say sure, it’s 100% sufficient. Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s sketch present is simply confoundingly humorous, even in its weaker sketches — a subject, after all, on which nobody can agree. Perhaps the “Baby Cries” sketch goes on a bit lengthy for you, however how else would we witness harmful nights? For each sketch that feels forgettable within the second, there are three extra that I might crack up simply to consider. Months later, its surrealist humor is simply as hysterical as the primary time I watched it, forcing me to revisit my preliminary evaluation in a means no different present may get at: “You positive about that? You positive about that that’s why?” —ZM
Invincible (Prime Video)
Amazon’s animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley’s comedian is devoted sufficient to shock longtime readers, nevertheless it slims down plenty of the subplots and distractions and focuses on propulsion, which lets the primary season lower straight to the guts of the story. Newly fledged superhero Mark Grayson, son of a Superman-like alien hero and a human woman, navigates his creating powers in a world full of heroes, villains, and threats from different dimensions, planets, and timestreams. The primary season navigates a thriller across the deaths of this world’s equal of the Justice League, nevertheless it’s extra about Mark’s journey, the newest in a current pattern of hero tales about legacies, mentorships, and the next generation taking the reins. It’s entertaining, and typically very foolish, given the ridiculous variety of villains and villain schemes on this world. However it goes to a mighty grim place by the tip of the season, cementing its standing as a superhero story designed to bridge the hole between four-color Silver Age comics heroics and the grim-n-gritty period. —Tasha Robinson
The Nice British Bake Off (Channel 4/Netflix)
The Great British Bake Off has had many seasons to determine its explicit model of coziness. Its convivial temperament at first bucked the norm for U.S. viewers, who have been used to the extra bloodthirsty nature of American actuality tv. However at this level, we all know the drill. Once I hear the theme track, I really feel an instantaneous peace, understanding that regardless that the challenges are murderously tough, the beginner baking contestants are all good to one another.
In a sea of roundly nice seasons, it’s odd to choose one GBBO entry as “greatest tv.” However this yr’s was notably pleasing as a result of its contestants have been that uncommon mixture of gifted and great on display. That is very true of the ultimate 4 (who I cannot spoil!). Usually, by that time, everybody is phenomenal however there’s an obvious alternative for who gained’t make it to the ultimate three. In season 12, it’s really a baffler, as they’re all deeply, deeply competent and have heartwarming, particular person views — sourcing a household’s curried hen recipe, or bringing basic Italian bread making into the tent. Watching them make attractive signatures, technicals, and showstoppers and earn a Paul Hollywood handshake is an actual deal with. —Nicole Clark
By no means Have I Ever (Netflix)
I prefer to say that I’ve little tolerance for what I name “highschool drama” in relation to precise adults interacting with one another, however I can’t get sufficient of it in Netflix’s By no means Have I Ever. In its sophomore season, the present’s writers ramped up each the absurdity and the heartfelt drama of Devi Vishwakumar’s story, to thrilling and hilarious impact.
You need over-the-top hijinks? How about Devi trying to this point two boys concurrently … on the similar get together … a celebration that she’s throwing at her personal home, with out her mom’s data? And if you’d like emotional stakes, properly, that get together ends when one of many boys in query, the chiseled jock Paxton Corridor-Yoshida, runs out into the road and will get hit by a automotive — ending his swimming profession, alongside together with his hopes of stepping into a good faculty.
A lot of By no means Have I Ever, particularly its stellar second season, is about these excessive schoolers studying — normally the laborious means, or at the least the embarrassing means — that their selections and actions have penalties. And Devi, who struggles with egocentric tendencies whereas attempting to stay as much as her Indian upbringing and persevering with to grieve her late father, clearly has loads to study on that entrance. I’m simply glad I get to look at this candy, humorous, heartwarming little present as a substitute of truly reliving my very own highschool errors. —Samit Sarkar
Solely Murders within the Constructing (Hulu)
Concurrently an exquisite trendy showcase for one of the enduring comedy pairings in Hollywood and an affectionate lambasting of (white) podcast tradition, Solely Murders within the Constructing is among the yr’s greatest debuts. Steve Martin and Martin Quick pair up as soon as extra, joined by Selena Gomez to kind a trio of true crime podcast followers who begin a podcast of their very own when somebody of their well-to-do New York Metropolis house constructing dies, and foul play is suspected. Solely Murders within the Constructing makes use of its central trio to do remarkably humorous generational comedy (Martin and Quick are extraordinarily good as bumbling Boomers), whereas additionally constructing out its very small world right into a surprisingly sturdy and various forged of compelling characters enveloped in a thriller that’s simply as engrossing to viewers as it’s to its characters. —Joshua Rivera
The Different Two (HBO Max)
The second season of The Other Two arrived two years after its first, following a transfer from Comedy Central to its new dwelling on HBO Max, however misplaced nearly none of its significantly humorous powers within the transition. This time round, grownup siblings Cary and Brooke Dubek are nearer to placing out from underneath the shadow of teenage pop star brother Chase, and even discovering some success. However getting what you need doesn’t really make you a greater particular person. In reality, it’s liable to make you worse — as Cary and Brooke begin to lose their underdog standing, they’re comically introduced again right down to Earth over and over. There’s nonetheless hope for them (regardless of its razor-sharp satire of contemporary fame, The Different Two remains to be tremendously candy), nevertheless it’s higher for us in the event that they take their time figuring it out. We’ll positively giggle extra. —JR
Reservation Canines (FX/Hulu)
The arrange for Reservation Canines is easy: 4 Native teenagers on an Oklahoma reservation — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Issue), and Elora (Devery Jacobs) — begin stealing to fund their means out, hoping to make it to faraway California. However it’s not lengthy earlier than the present spirals past its heist comedy setup. Temporary tinges into the legendary or surreal shortly betray a world that’s a lot richer than its logline, like a Hoof Girl who goes after dangerous males or a flash of a plantation proprietor within the white man with a Native fetish who sleeps with Bear’s mother. That these are all tempered with a cool wit that’s by no means afraid to deal with huge points simply provides to the attract of the present. Because it easily switches gears — between its characters, its moods, its begin to end — Reservation Canines exhibits it’s doing extra than simply revving its engine. It exhibits how far one of the promising debuts of 2021 may go. —ZM
Search Social gathering (HBO Max)
Search Social gathering’s capability to fully reinvent itself each season is the stuff of TV genius. Season 4 — which noticed Dory (Alia Shawkat) trapped inside a felt reproduction of her own residence (really within the basement of her stalker, who had kidnapped her) — ought to have felt too laborious to look at through the second third umpteenth wave of COVID when the season dropped in January 2021. As a substitute, its gloriously self-involved characters and zany set items made the season go down like water after a spell within the desert. Amid all of the madness there have been trippy moments, quippy jokes, and good performances (from the principle forged to Cole Escola, who fine-tuned the creepy mastermind to one thing nearer to a creepy try-hard). Or put otherwise: even in quarantine, Search Social gathering was in a position to give us every thing we didn’t know we wanted.
Intercourse Lives of School Ladies (HBO Max)
Becoming a member of the lengthy listing of exhibits which can be a lot smarter than their titles (Loopy Ex-Girlfriend; if you understand you understand), Intercourse Lives of School Ladies was simply as considerate in its plotting because it was humorous. Following 4 faculty roommates as they (just like the title would recommend) have intercourse throughout their first semester in school, Intercourse Lives comes with not one of the similar caveats as one would possibly advocate Intercourse and the Metropolis with. Whereas it could stumble a bit at instances, these characters are emotionally clever — which permits the drama to fall to a extra pure place, like a mother’s outburst throughout a father or mother dinner or a visit to the ladies’s clinic. On the finish of the day, Intercourse Lives of School Ladies is straightforward viewing, rising above what it appeared to vow and discovering one thing smarter amid the frenzy of YA exhibits. — ZM
Shadow and Bone (Netflix)
It’s a uncommon factor for an adaptation to truly enhance upon the books it’s primarily based on, however Netflix’s Shadow and Bone turns the primary of Leigh Bardugo’s books — an thrilling fantasy, however nonetheless with the trimmings of a debut — right into a extra nuanced and compelling story. Shifting the narrative from a restricted first particular person to a extra sweeping scale bolsters the well-trodden Chosen One story. Solar Summoner Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) is perhaps a scrappy lady thrust into the highlight, however she’s only one a part of the larger story that unfolds.
Granted, it’s plenty of transferring elements — a ragtag gang of thieves pulling off their greatest heist but; a witch hunter and the witch who saved his life trekking throughout the wilderness; and the looming threat of the Shadow Fold, simply to call a couple of. However as soon as all of the items are put into movement, Shadow and Bone is an epic fantasy tale with some unbelievable characters and relationship dynamics. And a goat named Milo! What extra may you need? —Petrana Radulovic
The Snoopy Present (Apple TV Plus)
There was a worry when Apple acquired the rights to Charles Schultz’s Peanuts gang — and the vacation specials that enshrined their cultural legacy much more so than the comedian strips — that when once more a tech conglomerate would gobble up beloved tradition and spit it out as low cost product. Sadly, I’m right here to defend the tech conglomerate: The Snoopy Present is a joyful work of healthful, wry cartooning, and a 2D-animation miracle hidden on the Apple TV Plus platform.
Created by Rob Boutilier, Mark Evestaff, and Alex Galatis, and animated at WildBrain, the sequence makes use of the antics of Charlie Brown’s pet beagle and his yellow chicken sidekick to seek out new tales for Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Linus, Pig Pen and the opposite quirky youngsters who populate Schultz’s world, who’re all rising into up to date younger folks. The tales are easy — Snoopy writes a e-book! Snoopy exhibits Marcie why snow days are enjoyable! Snoopy is just too loud on the library! Snoopy goes all in on methods as a substitute of treats on Halloween! — however the classes hit that profound, melancholic candy spot of the most effective Schultz strips.
The artistic crew throws again to the previous cartoons with a jazzy rating and seasonal storylines, however replace the look with eye-popping illustration and punchy dialogue (which is used sparsely, since Snoopy and Woodstock stay silent, however wacky). And the wacky streak is vital: The Snoopy Present is humorous. The animators don’t get slowed down within the morals of all of it — sending a canine flying by way of the air and having a bunch of little birds laughing their asses off is an effective time, regardless of how a lot you’ve matured. —Matt Patches
Squid Recreation (Netflix)
Netflix’s worldwide megahit was laborious to keep away from in 2021. Photographs from the South Korean sequence a couple of sequence of lethal youngsters’s video games, performed by determined debtors for the amusement of wealthy patrons, saturated social and mainstream media this yr, spawning a seemingly infinite wave of analysis, parodies, and knockoffs. As with a lot viral content material, the nonstop gags and memes fashioned a form of cloud across the sequence, obscuring how mesmerizing, painful, and well-crafted it really is. Author-director Hwang Dong-hyuk supposed the nine-episode miniseries as a scathing indictment of capitalism, and it actually is that, garbed within the robes of a gripping sequence of competitions the place the losers are summarily murdered.
However it’s additionally terrific human drama. Hwang rigorously builds up a set of characters over time, utilizing the story setup as ominous foreshadowing. It’s clear that the majority or all of them will likely be useless by the tip of the story, and the creator attracts out the stress whereas making it clear that each one the characters have chosen to take part for their very own causes, and that they’re culpable in their very own methods for what occurs, at the same time as they’re more and more tortured by their very own selections. The story is thrilling and grotesque on the similar time, and watching it looks like an act of voyeurism that the entire world obtained in on. Watching the fandom for the present construct and feed on itself was one among 2021’s extra fascinating TV phenomena, however watching the present itself was simply as gripping. —TR
HBO’s melodrama concerning the familial energy wrestle inside a fictional media firm continued to be one of many best-written, best-acted, and most entertaining exhibits on TV in its third season. However what actually elevated the present past the backroom offers, poetic epithets, and nonsensical rich-person idioms it’s at all times excelled at was the world it created. Whereas previous seasons have been all concerning the Roy household’s inner dynamics, this season’s familial civil struggle has tossed them out into Succession’s bigger not-quite-like-ours world — which is mainly what would occur if Twitter have been actual life. Seeing the Roys hang around at investor conferences, disastrously lavish birthday events (that they threw for themselves), and quiet galas the place future presidents are chosen attracts out new particulars in every of the characters, but additionally lets them every be the worst doable model of themselves. It makes this season much more attention-grabbing than its predecessors, and the present’s darkest but. —AG
Tuca & Bertie (Cartoon Community)
I heaved an enormous sigh of aid when Adult Swim rescued this show. Tuca & Bertie, which stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong as bird-women Tuca and Bertie, respectively, is the most effective comedy about complicated, messy girls since Broad Metropolis. This second season is just as good as its first, increasing the scope of the already considerate present. The place prior episodes dug deeper into Bertie’s anxieties and her relationship with Speckle (the most effective tv boyfriend, struggle me), this season offers Tuca extra space to shine. We get a glimpse into Tuca’s relationship life — and the way Bertie’s dependence on her prevents her from exploring her personal relationships — and her ongoing sobriety.
In one of many season’s standout episodes, we get to see Birdtown at evening as Tuca grapples with insomnia. The animation fashion is gorgeous, recasting the usually full of life city in cool blues. It’s contemplative, extra critical in nature, gorgeously handles grief and loneliness with deft writing, in distinction with a few of the present’s extra gonzo moments of humor (like a bachelor get together in Planteau, the place Speckle and the boys attempt to steal the plant-mayor). It shouldn’t come as a shock, given how properly the present has at all times understood when to take comedic dangers, and when to enterprise into quietude, depicting issues like office harassment and sexual assault. What a blessing to have it again on our screens. —NC
The Underground Railroad (Prime Video)
Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Successful novel The Underground Railroad is a shocking achievement, and simply among the finest exhibits of 2021. The sequence follows Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved younger lady escaping human bondage. In Whitehead’s novel, as in Jenkins’ sequence, the Underground Railroad is reimagined as a literal underground station, full with trains and conductors, all woven geniusly into the material of antebellum America.
To flee the grasp of slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), Cora crosses state strains — heading by way of Georgia, the Carolinas, and Indiana, every with a lens of magical realism — endeavor a journey that additionally unravels the extreme violence and inhumanity of slavery, and the lasting mark it has left on American life. The present is masterful on so many ranges; Jenkins’ perspective behind the digital camera convey’s Whitehead’s phenomenal novel to the small display with precision, artistry, and compassion. Every episode is meticulously crafted, and full of element. (And for those who’re in search of extra to contemplate, I’d advocate studying critics Roberts Daniels and Angelica Jade Bastién, whose glorious writing captures a lot of what makes this present a drive.) —NC
Wandavision (Disney Plus)
WandaVision cracked by way of the tradition in a means none of Marvel’s Disney Plus exhibits have performed since, regardless of their regular drumbeat of launch all through 2021. Was it simply due to how starved we have been for content material in January? Does it actually matter?
It was nonetheless fascinating. The mystery was enticing, the Brief History of the American Sitcom framing was intelligent, the manufacturing design was inviting each from a visible and How-Many-Nerdy-Particulars-Can-I-Discover perspective. Pinning all of it collectively have been Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, perennially sidelined in Marvel’s characteristic movies, crackling with chemistry for the viewers and each other.
WandaVision might have ended the identical means all Marvel initiatives appear to — with a CGI model of the lead character blasting their issues to smithereens and exiting stage proper with a big TO BE CONTINUED sign pointing to a film greater than a yr therefore — nevertheless it was additionally a present that obtained the phrase “Ship of Theseus” into the favored parlance. The Scarlet Witch might not have gotten a lot closure, however in about 4 and a half hours, her TV sequence ignited a dialog about what victims of trauma owe to these they could have harm of their journey to processing it. —Susana Polo
What We Do within the Shadows (FX/Hulu)
What We Do within the Shadows’ third season launched two serialized storylines — Nandor’s seek for love and which means in his immortal life, and Colin Robinson’s quest to find the place he got here from. Like a lot of what the FX comedy does, these overarching plots walked the nice line between deeply melancholic (Colin Robinson dies after being sidelined at his personal celebration) and extravagantly foolish (Colin Robinson is reborn because the world’s most horrifying child). And although sitcoms typically thrive on stagnant characters being thrown into ever-changing conditions, by the season’s finish, there’s not a single character who isn’t impacted by Nandor’s and Colin’s soul-searchings. From Nandor returning alone to his homeland, to Nadja and Guillermo’s pressured buddy journey to London, to Laszlo changing into Colin Robinson’s father determine, What We Do within the Shadows’ near-perfect third season units up an array of thrilling new fish-out-of-water conditions for our protagonists to bumble by way of, as a result of finally, the extra issues change, the extra issues keep the identical. —SG
The White Lotus (HBO Max)
This yr’s summer season sensation opened with the promise of dying, and by the tip, annihilated almost everybody — including the audience. It was a blast. Author-director Mike White constructed his story of depressing a-holes failing to enjoy the amenities of their luxurious Hawaii resort out of pure anxiousness, and thru what have been mainly sitcomy hijinks, induced the form of self-reflection complications one can solely expertise on trip. Engorged testicles and coked-out benders have been someway on the extra nice finish of the spectrum by the point White was performed peeling again the layers on his forged of characters, who may by no means be merely labeled “good guys” or “dangerous guys,” like 99% of what we watch as of late.
On paper it feels like a grueling chore. However as everybody from Lars von Trier to Larry David have found over time, dunking an viewers into the horrors of human impulses is as a lot of a spectacle as blowing up a dragon in area. And within the case of The White Lotus, experiencing the dizzying impact of problematic oversharing, Gen Z malaise, imploded goals, cash rot, and iPhone screens that block out the great thing about on a regular basis life is a type of creative catharsis. All through the six episodes, White mines comedy from schadenfreude and slapstick. He finds tender moments within the swell — Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) come so near saving one another — but additionally directs scenes of ass-eating that seem like Carvaggio work. It’s so a lot, and easily human. You watch The White Lotus considering: Thank God that isn’t me. However, after all, it’s. —MP
No present arrived with as a lot pizzazz in 2021 as Yellowjackets did. With a pilot directed by Karyn Kusama, the present jumps between a gaggle of teenage ladies within the Nineteen Nineties, stranded within the wilderness after their airplane crashed en path to a soccer event, and their older counterparts, every nonetheless dealing with the traumatic expertise — and in addition being mysteriously blackmailed by somebody about their time within the woods.
Even with solely a partial season airing by the point 2021 attracts to a detailed, it’s as “better of” as anything we obtained to look at this yr. Yellowjackets was creatively assured from the soar, deftly balancing its highwire act and slowly unfurling its grand designs, even when you don’t have any concept what to make of them. As I write this, I do not know the place the season goes — I don’t have screeners, and Yellowjackets’ sport is thrillingly enigmatic. However whether or not it’s dealing with messy characters, woodsy abortions, or supernatural cultism, Yellowjackets is clearly prime of the category. — ZM