As always with this disclaimer, I haven’t seen most of the TV shows that aired this year. Nobody has. Hundreds of new scripted shows debuted in 2021, not to mention recurring series or non-scripted programs: documentaries, reality TV, daily talk shows, etc. So what was my methodology? I tended to focus on premiere seasons. (I made a special category for recurring series that I love.) I tried to check my bias in favor of scripted television. I was hoping to have a wider variety of network representations, but the resurrected excellence of HBO wouldn’t let me. I kept an eye out for shows that didn’t get the critical attention or viewers they deserved. If I had more time to get through the screeners, I could think of three shows that I would probably add (“Yellowjackets” on Showtime; “Station Eleven” on HBO; and “Landscapers” on … HBO). But which ones would I have to cut off then?
2021 in retrospect
New York writers reflect the ups and downs of the year.
I want to use the rest of this introduction to mention the shows that didn’t make the list. The band on NBC’s Saturday Night Live cheers in a way reminiscent of Gilda Radner’s golden era. Martin Short and Steve Martin invented a vibe I call “Uncle-Kern” on the biting Hulu crime thriller “Only Murders in the Building”. The tangled historical fictions of “The Great,” also on Hulu, and Apple TV + ‘s “Dickinson,” which is in its third and final season – and ends at just the right time – are consistently compelling. HBO’s “100 Foot Wave” is a beautiful colossus; Her director Chris Smith has fused an intimate look at surfer Garrett McNamara with breathtaking shots of the sea in Nazaré, Portugal. “Heels” on Starz, a sentimental drama about professional wrestling, is a fascinating reflection of the meta-theatricality of “Glow”. City of Ghosts (Netflix), The Good Fight (Paramount +) and “Call My Agent!” (Netflix) kept me sane. The noir humor of “Odd Taxi” (Crunchyroll), an anime, drove me crazy – in a good way.
And now my favorites of 2021, in no particular order:
“The U-Bahn” (Amazon Prime)
“Cinematic” is an explosive term for TV critics; In using it you risk fueling the argument that if a show is good it must be like a movie. Yet this is the highest quality of “Underground Railroad,” Barry Jenkins’ limited edition adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s historical novel. The picturesque cinematography, the expressive score and Jenkins’ decisive direction make this Slavery-as-Exodus tale a monumental sensory experience.
“South Side” (HBO Max)
Created by brothers Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle, this jewel is an ancient, loving ode to Chicago, a city that has been stereotyped to death. The series also competes with “Rick and Morty” when it comes to joke density.
“The White Lotus” (HBO)
Who is the standout man in Mike White’s fable of the maladjusted elite? Is it Jake Lacy as Shane, the contentious honeymooner? Murray Bartlett as Armond, the hotel manager on a drug tamer? Natasha Rothwell as Belinda, the resort’s spa manager, who has lost the last reins of her optimism? Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, the loner who takes that optimism from Belinda? This series has given us some of the best performances of the year.
“We are Lady Parts” (Pfau)
Nida Manzoor’s debut for Channel 4, an exploration of Muslim identity that never sinks into didactics, is a joyful smashing of opposing sensibilities. It’s punk and then it’s cute, it’s “Bridget Jones’s Diary” and then it’s “This Is Spinal Tap”. Anjana Vasan is mesmerizing as Amina, a lanky, amorous scientist who unexpectedly ends up as the lead guitarist of an all-female Muslim punk band Lady Parts. The music written for the fictional band is also superb.