Friday, January 07, 2022

The best TV series of 2021

Although I still review TV shows pretty steadily, it's been a while since I put together a full yearly top 10 list, in part because I tend to get behind on keeping up with shows I'm not writing about. But even though I missed many of 2021's most acclaimed shows (Succession, The White Lotus, Squid Game), and fell behind on some others that I previously enjoyed (Insecure, Star Trek: Discovery), I saw plenty of great TV series this year, more than enough to write up this (belated) list of shows worth watching.

1. Yellowjackets (Showtime) I haven't felt this level of week-to-week excitement for a show in quite some time, perhaps since the heyday of series like Lost and Battlestar Galactica. There is a lot of Lost in creators Ashley Lyle and Bart Nickerson's vision for this series, which flashes back and forth between characters stranded in the wilderness and their lives back home. But what's so brilliant about Yellowjackets is how it finds new ways to mix and match various elements of its influences, from Lost to Lord of the Flies to Stephen King's It. The acting from both the teenage stars and the more famous adult stars is fantastic, and the storytelling is riveting and unpredictable. More in my CBR review.

2. Landscapers (HBO/HBO Max) I'm surprised that this show hasn't gotten more critical attention at the end of the year, and that it wasn't even all that extensively reviewed when it first premiered. Given the proliferation of mediocre-to-poor true crime series (both narrative and documentary), Landscapers is a welcome deconstruction of the genre, with great performances from Olivia Colman and David Thewlis as a codependent married couple who were convicted of murdering the wife's parents. The show uses surreal, dreamlike techniques to depict the fragile mental state of the main characters, along with frequent fourth-wall-breaking to call attention to the entire concept of true crime storytelling. It's both thoughtful and heartbreaking. More in my CBR review.

3. Midnight Mass (Netflix) I've mostly enjoyed Mike Flanagan's feature films, but I've been less enthusiastic about his longform series. I gave up on The Haunting of Hill House before finishing it, and never watched The Haunting of Bly Manor, so I was skeptical of this latest horror miniseries. Midnight Mass is a bit ponderous and long-winded, but it's also beautiful and bleak, full of genuine horror as well as genuine wonder. Hamish Linklater and Samantha Sloyan are both terrifying as two different kinds of villains, and Zach Gilford and Kate Siegel make the upstanding protagonists into fascinating, multilayered characters. There are a lot of lengthy, heavy monologues, but the actors make them work, and Flanagan balance the intense scares with meditations on mortality. More in my CBR review.

4. Girls5eva (Peacock) Tina Fey's own new show of 2021, NBC's Mr. Mayor, is a middling, mildly amusing effort, but this show from her longtime collaborator Meredith Scardino (with Fey as executive producer) comes closer to capturing the spirit of 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. It's similarly densely packed with jokes, many of them with references to '90s and '00s pop culture, the era when the eponymous girl group was a brief success. Stars Sara Bareilles, Renee Elise Goldsberry, Busy Philipps and Paula Pell have great chemistry as the former pop stars attempting to navigate a reunion in their 40s, and the catchy music is a perfect recreation of a particular time and place, while also packing in just as many jokes as the dialogue. More in my CBR review.

5. Schmigadoon! (Apple TV+) If nothing else, I have to appreciate that a streaming behemoth produced a star-studded six-episode homage to a genre (the classic Hollywood musical) that hasn't been popular in decades. This is a loving tribute to and parody of old-fashioned musicals, and it's also a fabulous musical on its own. Cecily Strong proves that she could carry a Broadway show, alongside actual Broadway stars like Kristin Chenoweth and Alan Cumming. It's also director Barry Sonnenfeld's best work in years, the perfect fit for his blend of whimsy and snark. Everything in this magical, musical town is lovingly recreated, and spending time there is a delight. More in my CBR review.

6. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) Of course Steve Martin and Martin Short are a lovely comedic team (and I have fairly low patience for Short, who properly tones down his mania here), but it's their collaboration with Selena Gomez that really makes this show work. It's a funny but gentle satire of true crime podcasts and NYC privilege, a sweet story about intergenerational friendship, and a pretty decent murder mystery, too. More in my CBR review.

7. Hacks (HBO Max) The best representation of Las Vegas on TV since the third season of GLOW (even though very little of it was shot here in Vegas), this is also an intelligent comedy about aging and sexism in showbiz. Jean Smart is excellent as the kind of Vegas entertainment lifer that is very familiar to me after covering local productions for so long, and she brings layers to a character who seems at first like a simple caricature. Hannah Einbinder matches her as the snarky youngster who is also more than a set of recognizable quirks, and their growing friendship and respect is endearing without being sappy.

8. Central Park (Apple TV+) Coverage of this show's second season was virtually nonexistent, but it's still sweet and funny and full of multiple Broadway-caliber songs in each episode. Yes, I have two Apple TV+ musical series on this list, but they're very different shows. The animated Central Park is a warm, inviting ode to family and the oddities of New York City, and the second season deepens the character relationships while pulling back on the serialized story. It's family-friendly in the best way, and I hope it gets more attention when new episodes resume.

9. Star Trek: Lower Decks (Paramount+) This is another animated series that seemed to get very little coverage in its second season, but it remains my unlikely favorite of all the current Star Trek series. It's a perfect combination of respect for and mockery of the franchise, both rooted in the creators' extensive knowledge of Star Trek lore. I'm only a casual Trekkie, so I certainly miss quite a few references, but the show stands on its own as a fun, lighthearted space adventure with appealing characters and creative missions.

10. Search Party (HBO Max) The fifth and final season of this dark comedy is already streaming, but this entry is about the fourth season, which continued to showcase the main characters' entitled awfulness in hilarious and disturbing ways, while remaining engaging and clever. Even when creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss make a misstep, it's always bold and unexpected, and they always have a new even more outrageous direction to take the story next. The fourth season ends at a perfect stopping point, but I'm still eager to see what the new season has to offer. More in my Slant Magazine review.

Honorable mentions: Ted Lasso (Apple TV+), Mr. Corman (Apple TV+), Starstruck (HBO Max), WandaVision (Disney+), Reservation Dogs (Hulu), We Are Lady Parts (Peacock), The Shrink Next Door (Apple TV+), Brooklyn Nine-Nine (NBC)

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