The Golden Era of TV is underway, and 2021 was no exception. From “Squid Game” to “WandaVision,” the TV gods awarded us a range of suspenseful, addictive shows that kept us going all year long. Some shows provided refuge from the complex world of politics and our day-to-day troubles, while others provided the poignant social commentary we needed to process it all. Although we all have markedly different tastes here at TV, favorites emerged that allowed us to declare unequivocally that these are your must-watch TV shows of 2021.
— Emmy Snyder, TV Beat Editor and Sarah Rahman, Senior Arts Editor
- “Only Murders in the Building” (Hulu)
The murder mystery is a classic genre. Some may say its even overdone, but Hulu’s smash-hit “Only Murders in the Building” proves all the haters wrong. Selena Gomez (“Wizards of Waverly Place”), Steve Martin (“Planes, Trains and Automobiles”) and Martin Short (“Three Amigos”) bring a quirky chemistry that, along with plenty of plot twists and turns, breathes new life into the genre and show us what murder mysteries are all about. Selena stars as Mabel, a moody youngster who tries to hide how much she truly cares while Steve Martin and Martin Short bring Charles Haden Savage, a former TV detective, and Oliver Putnam, a disgraced showbiz enthusiast, to the screen respectively. Nothing is ever quite as it seems for this rag-tag New York group after a mysterious death in their apartment building brings the trio together as novice detectives and podcasters. In a time of such omnipresent uncertainty, the trio’s determination in their quest for the truth is refreshing — we may not have the answers we seek right now, we may not even be close, but Mabel, Charles and Oliver just might be able to find theirs. The show’s first season offers the perfect blend of familiarity and suspense, grounding you to some degree in the comfort of the mystery format but breaking all the rules about what the genre typically looks like (the 10-episode season even includes an almost completely silent episode). Forget everything you think you know — “Only Murders” keeps you on the edge of your seat where you’ll stay until the release of the much-anticipated season two. Only one thing is for sure: “Only Murders” has absolutely earned its place as the number one show of 2021.
— Emmy Snyder, TV Beat Editor
- “Shadow and Bone” (Netflix)
“Shadow and Bone” can be described in one word: magical. Aside from the literal element, Netflix’s “Shadow and Bone” sets a new standard for young adult shows across the board. Based on the Shadow and Bone trilogy and Six of Crows duology, both written by author Leigh Bardugo, Netflix’s adaptation introduces the Grishaverse, the fictional world presented in both series, and weaves together the storylines of the two separate collections. The main storyline follows protagonist Alina Starkov, played by Jessie Mei Li (“All About Eve”), as she discovers she holds the only magic capable of defeating the Darkling, an ancient being who has created a deadly void that has long separated the country in two. Alina is torn away from her childhood best friend Mal (Archie Renaux, “Voyagers”) and is forced to adapt to a new world of magic, royalty and danger — a future she can no longer escape. As she practices controlling her power, Alina becomes swept up in the responsibility of mending a broken nation, preoccupied with the love triangle in which she has found herself and wonders if it’s possible for her old and new lives to coexist. The show alternates between this plot and another that follows the characters of “Six of Crows.” This storyline features a high-risk heist and a band of teenage criminals, hungry for money and revenge, who you can’t help but love.
Especially in the past year, “Shadow and Bone” is suited for the modern day climate, with discussion of Asian hate and racism, clear depictions of consent between characters and an empowered female protagonist taking the reins in her own life. “Shadow and Bone” takes on the often impossible task of being a well-received TV adaptation that exceeds all expectations. The masterful execution of creating a captivating story and characters with complex feelings, motivations and emotions proves why “Shadow and Bone” unequivocally deserves its spot in the top shows of 2021.
— Jenna Jaehnig, Daily Arts Writer
- “WandaVision” (Disney+)
With the conclusion of Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Phase Three in 2019, Marvel fans were left wondering what was next for their favorite and remaining superheroes. Fortunately, Disney+’s “WandaVision” came to save the day (and the year). Besides being a superhero series, there’s no one category for it. It’s funny, full of drama and keeps you on the edge of your seat. Reprising their roles as Wanda and Vision from Marvel’s “The Avengers,” Elizabeth Olsen (“Sorry for Your Loss”) and Paul Bettany (“A Very British Scandal”) decide to take their relationship further and settle down in a suburban town to live an average life and suppress their superpowers. However, the couple quickly realizes that the neighborhood and its residents aren’t so normal, and their lives as superheroes aren’t over after all. Throughout the show, each episode is an ode to a variety of television forms, styles and sitcoms that makes this series creatively unprecedented. A whole new world of chaos unfolds, and we’re suddenly submerged in new characters and new storylines that are the future of the MCU. For two superheroes whose storylines were overshadowed by the main group of Avengers in Phase Three, “WandaVision” truly put these characters on the map. With only one season, this standalone series started off Marvel’s Phase Four and 2021 with a bang.
— Jessica Curney, Daily Arts Writer
- “YOU” season 3 (Netflix)
On paper, it doesn’t seem like a physiological thriller centered around a stalker/serial killer would be the ideal candidate for a fan-favorite show, but “You” somehow earns that title. Almost immediately after the release of season one in 2018, “You” became a worldwide obsession, starring Penn Badgley (“Gossip Girl”) as protagonist, bookseller and murderer Joe Goldberg. What sets “You” apart from many other shows of the same genre and makes the series even more chilling is the way Joe is clearly not somebody to root for, but his story is set up to the contrary. In season three, “You” changes up the setting, with Joe now living in the suburbs of the Bay Area and, most importantly, features Joe living with his wife, mother to his child and fellow serial killer, Love Quinn (Victoria Pedretti, “The Haunting of Hill House”). The new suburban setting primes the show for many satirical moments of the couple trying to fit in with the families of the neighborhood, offering a sense of humorous irony that makes the third season an even more engaging watch than the first two.
Additionally, for the first time, Joe is in a relationship with someone who thinks like him, a fellow serial killer, which adds nuance to Joe and Love’s dynamic that hasn’t been seen before. Love is riddled with the fear that Joe will eventually get bored of her, kill her and revert to his original MO of stalking and killing young women in his pursuit of pleasure and affection, while Joe struggles to fall back in love with Love and worries about what Love would do to a woman who Joe found himself obsessed with. Through the developing relationship between Joe and Love, “You” season three has a unique dynamic, adding a fresh new layer to show’s plot beyond stalk, manipulate, murder, repeat. The horrifyingly engrossing story of “You” season three is the perfect escape from reality as we made our way into discovering a “new normal” in 2021, earning it a spot in the top shows of the year.
— Jenna Jaehnig, Daily Arts Writer
- “Succession” season 3 (HBO Max)
Another gem on this year’s roster is about our favorite dysfunctional family, the Roys. Without giving any spoilers to previous seasons, season three of “Succession” forces you to consider both sides — pro-Logan and anti-Logan (Brian Cox, “Manhunter”). This season gives us a look at every major character in uncomfortably close detail, and it makes you doubt the sincerity of each character’s actions. Does Kendall (Jeremy Strong, “The Big Short”) actually care about the future of the company? Does Logan really love his kids? Is he about to croak? What is wrong with Roman (Kieran Culkin, “Scott Pilgrim vs. the World”)? These are just some of the questions that’ll have your head spinning from the season premiere and have you desperate to find out the answers.
“Succession” is a mental game that makes you believe you’re close to the answer, but at the end of each episode, it reveals that you couldn’t be further away. This season is no different. The twists and turns are endless, and they’ll have you on a roller coaster that you hope will never end. And hopefully, it never will. It’s renewed for a fourth season, so you have about a year or so to catch up if you haven’t yet. Though with this amount of drama, catching up won’t take long.
— Sophia Yoon, Daily Arts Writer
- “Squid Game” (Netflix)
It’s impossible to have gone through 2021 without hearing about Netflix South Korea’s “Squid Game.” In short, “Squid Game” is about hundreds of people drowning in debt, attempting to win their lives back by participating in multiple life-or-death rounds of classic Korean children’s games. Destroying record after record, “Squid Game”’s notoriety stemmed not only from its fresh plot and entrancing cinematography but also its award-winning performances. But the validation of awards and new records isn’t what makes “Squid Game” a great show. It’s the social commentary, layered plot and nuances in the writing and characters that make it exactly as great as many claim it to be. It’s haunting and heart-wrenching, suspenseful and smart. From someone who absolutely detests violence and gore, I can promise you that “Squid Game” is worth the watch and has tons more thrill to offer.
— Sophia Yoon, Daily Arts Writer
- “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+)
Is there anything as timeless and satisfying as feel-good television? As I binged seasons one and two of Apple TV+’s “Ted Lasso,” I came to the resounding conclusion that nope, there’s never a bad time to experience humor and earnest positivity. Ted Lasso (Jason Sudeikis, “Horrible Bosses”) is a successful football coach who moves to England to coach soccer, a culture and sport he knows next to nothing about. This is hardly a deterrent for Lasso, as his positive attitude never wavers even when the people around him constantly doubt and ridicule his lack of knowledge and experience. For Lasso, coaching doesn’t rely on strategizing perfect plays as much as it relies on inspiring players to believe in themselves, trust each other and reach their potential as people, both on and off the field. Lasso openly believes in the potential of everyone he meets, and we watch as even the biggest cynics find themselves rooting for him the way he roots for them.
Ultimately, life is hard and no matter how tough we become, we all still inevitably face challenges that seem beyond our abilities. Like other feel-good television, “Ted Lasso” inspires us to put on a brave face anyway. But what’s truly remarkable about the series is how it proves that bravery doesn’t have to look like hardening your heart into indifference — it can look like unashamed positivity, kindness and simply allowing yourself and others the grace of not being perfect. “Ted Lasso” is a breath of fresh air amid the struggles of life, and there are few television shows that can touch your heart like this one.
— Sarah Rahman, Senior Arts Editor
- “Cobra Kai” (Netflix)
At the end of another year dominated by political drama, national divides and COVID-19, there’s no better show anyone could pick to lift their spirits than “Cobra Kai.” Released on the very last day of 2021, “Cobra Kai” features hilarious, character-driven humor, amazingly choreographed fighting sequences and highly dramatic teenage conflicts. All of these factors succeed in their own right as remedies to the relatively gloomy year of 2021. But the beauty of “Cobra Kai” is that the show is so much more than it appears on the surface. Beneath all of its exciting qualities lie complex character arcs and deep themes such as identity and moral ambiguity. Fans may come to “Cobra Kai” looking to pass some time with a nostalgic and bingeable show, but they return because — whether you judge it based on its characters, plots, music or any of the other innumerable criteria of television quality — “Cobra Kai” is great.
— Aidan Harris, Daily Arts Writer
- “It’s a Sin” (HBO Max)
“It’s a Sin” is a profound exploration of loss and grief. It follows the lives of three gay men as they experience the AIDS epidemic in London during the ’80s. These men and their friends are the emotional backbone of the series and through their inside jokes, ruthless roasts and palpable love for each other, viewers feel truly part of it all. We find ourselves sharing their dreams while laughing and crying through their triumphs and failures. This makes it all the more devastating when the AIDS epidemic slowly but surely ravages their community, inciting loss and helplessness as the sickness is cruelly speculated about and the government stands idly by. The second half of the show is marked by the community coming together to fight against the notion that AIDS is the “silent killer,” arguing instead that the people lost were real, they mattered and they deserve to be remembered.
Last year wasn’t an easy one for the average person, but especially for those personally affected by the 386,000 lives claimed by the COVID-19 pandemic. While COVID-19 isn’t stigmatized to the extent the AIDS epidemic was (and in many ways still is), the process of grief and frustration is sadly relatable. “It’s a Sin” is harrowing yet hopeful, and it reflects the need to come together even when sickness and the social issues within the world at large threaten to tear us apart.
— Sarah Rahman, Senior Arts Editor
- “Abbott Elementary” (Hulu)
ABC’s “Abbott Elementary” is the school version of “The Office.” A mockumentary at its finest, it breaks the fourth wall well and utilizes deadpan comedy for overall success. The series explores a poorly funded elementary school in the city of Philadelphia, where a group of passionate teachers and a tone-deaf Principal Ava, played by Janelle James (“The Standups”), work together to provide the students with a healthy learning experience and a sustainable education. What could go wrong? Everything possible seems to get in the way of these teachers’ goals, and the principal doesn’t make anything better. But with the perseverance of second grade teacher Janine Teagues, played by Quinta Brunson (“Big Mouth”), the school isn’t down for too long, at least until the next day’s shenanigans. The show’s first season offers a balanced mixture of comedy and important life lessons, perfect for the average viewer. It details the behind-the-scenes experience of urban city teachers, and the comedy is just the icing on the cake of this well-rounded series. Although it came out at the tail end of 2021, “Abbott Elementary” still earned its place as one of the top shows of the year.
— Jessica Curney, Daily Arts Writer