I love making lists. Plenty of critics bemoan their annual duty of ranking the year’s best TV shows — and rightfully so. Indignation is the only rational response to being asked to weigh your personal subjective opinions against professional objective analysis in order to winnow 500 new programs into a hierarchical list of the 10 “best “shows. If your picks are too predictable, did you dig deep enough? If they’re too obscure, are you too far removed from popular culture? And can any one person really have seen every top-tier series released over a 365-day span?
But lists, especially Top 10 lists, are also a gift. Not only do they provide an excuse to look back and organize your thoughts on the year that was, but they help audiences find more, better TV — whether it’s by discovering diamonds in the rough or giving hastily labeled pebbles a second look. The ubiquity of Top 10 lists also allows review aggregators to compile a somewhat definitive critics’ list, expanding the number of series in consideration by the number of critics with varying tastes, time, and voices. And those voices rarely say the same thing. One writer may want to use their list to highlight how 12 programs defined each of the previous 12 months, while another branches out beyond scripted fare and documentaries to include sports and theater.
Top 10 lists aren’t just expected, they’re valuable real estate. Which is why this year, I’ve decided to split my list in two. Below, there’s a classic, uniform Top 10 list. These are the 10 best shows of 2021, ranked from No. 1 to No. 10 in descending order — no asterisks or exceptions needed. And yet, at the end of the day, there are only three things I know for certain about TV in 2021: “The Underground Railroad” is the best program of the year, “Succession” is the only good show on TV, and there’s nothing as rewarding as watching “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.” I stand by all of these statements, while acknowledging each one could apply to any of these shows.
Opinions inevitably shift. Some won’t, but most will. Tomorrow morning, one of the shows in my Top 10 could be the most valuable story to that moment. But it’s just as likely a show outside of that list will take top priority, and with that concept in mind, I’ve included an Alternative 10 list, too. Officially, these aren’t the best shows of the year. But soon enough, they could be. Most days, I believe the Top 10 list would remain just as it is, but maybe for a few months out of the year, these alternative picks would move their way up. I have to allow for the possibility, because at some point this year, they were that essential to my TV viewing life.
I love making lists. The process, the structure, the slow tailoring until it’s just right. But lists are also indomitable, arbitrary, and perpetually fluid. Perhaps it would’ve been simpler had I just extended my Top 10 to a Top 20. But there has to be a little bit of absurdity to this insurmountable, incredible task. Enjoy. (And please, read every Top 10 list you can. I’m indebted to my fellow critics who vigorously ring the bell for their favorite programs throughout the year, and I can’t wait to see what they come up with for their own requisite, irrational rankings.)
10. “Tuca and Bertie” (Adult Swim)
Given second life after Netflix’s quick cancellation, Lisa Hanawalt’s imaginative and intuitive “Tuca and Bertie” continues to soar in its eye-opening second season. Bertie (voiced by Ali Wong) unearths her anxiety with a new therapist; Tuca (Tiffany Haddish) deals with difficult family members and a burgeoning romance; Speckle (Steven Yeun) gets into online RPGs as respite from the pressure of building his dream house. Friendships are strengthened, ghosts are busted, and through it all, Hanawalt’s adventurous visual style adds depth, humor, and sophistication to a sitcom both proudly raunchy and profoundly earnest. Don’t let this gem of a series slip by you, just because it’s moved to a new network.
“Tuca and Bertie” is available to watch on Adult Swim and stream, eventually, via HBO Max. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
9. “Mythic Quest” (Apple TV+)
An indefatigable source of glee, “Mythic Quest” may be the show I watched more than any other in 2021. Executive producers Rob McElhenney and Megan Ganz hit the ground running in the first season, building amiable characters through exacting performances and acute comedy, all while having a grand ol’ time exploring the oft-dark corridors of video game creation. Season 2 sees those strong roots sprout colorful new narratives for everyone in its talented ensemble, as co-creative directors Ian (McElhenney) and Poppy (Charlotte Nicdao) see their working relationship tested, Brad (Danny Pudi) meets the limits of his own killer instincts, and Jo (Jessie Ennis), well, Jo just keeps doing whatever she damn well wants. “Mythic Quest” carries the kind of comforting familiarity that makes workplace sitcoms so inviting, while still striving to subvert expectations. Season 2 succeeds often enough that it’s worth savoring again and again — and then starting the cycle all over as soon as Season 3 hits.
“Mythic Quest” is available to watch on Apple TV+. For more, read our full review.
8. “Reservation Dogs” (FX)
Pulsing with big dreams driven by tender realities, Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi’s half-hour FX drama is an instantly accessible coming-of-age story about a group of teenagers trying to flee their small-town lives in Oklahoma for the bright lights of Los Angeles. The cast, including standout Devery Jacobs as Elora, find flashes of humor amid their weekly excursions — few offering heartier chuckles than “Uncle Brownie,” as Elora’s reclusive uncle guides the kids through “Indigenous-style” fighting lessons — but it’s the regular, often heartrending dissection of each kid’s desire to leave and the bonds that tie them to their family, their home, and each other that makes “Reservation Dogs” so striking.
“Reservation Dogs” is available to watch on FX and stream via FX on Hulu. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
Courtesy of Apple TV+
7. “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV+)
With all the added attention brought by the Emmys and a flood of fans slowly catching up on Season 1, the second outing with Ted (Jason Sudeikis), Rebecca (Hannah Waddingham), Roy (Brett Goldstein), and the rest of AFC Richmond was overanalyzed at every turn. There was backlash, backlash to the backlash, and backlash to the idea there was backlash to begin with — but in the end, “Ted Lasso” Season 2 is the ideal sequel to a beloved original: building on its established successes, following a strong theme through to a stirring finish, and daring to experiment with form and focus. No one should want comedies this funny, this smart, and this layered to stay in a stagnant bog of pure positivity, and Season 2 had the courage to examine the source of its coach’s constant cheer without shutting it off or ignoring its drawbacks. “Ted Lasso” grew in Season 2, pure and simple. And I can’t wait to see the heights it reaches next year.
“Ted Lasso” is available to watch on Apple TV+. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
6. “Dave” (FXX)
Season 2 of “Dave,” the semi-autobiographical series on Lil Dicky’s rise in the rap ranks starring the performer himself (real name: Dave Burd), is an exercise in patience. Not entirely, of course. The comedy is right there from the start, as are the rapper’s choice rhymes and the story’s creative twists. But in the hands of showrunner Jeff Schaffer (who also runs “Curb Your Enthusiasm”), “Dave” encourages its audience to become frustrated with its leading man before expanding the story’s perspective beyond his narrow gaze. Episodes dig into various supporting characters, often by juxtaposing Dave’s ignorant stances with their unyielding support, encouragement, and tolerance. In a lesser show, I’d be begging Schaffer to shift all the show’s focus to GaTa (played by Lil Dicky’s real-life hype man of the same name), Emma (Christine Ko), and Elz (Travis Bennet), partly because they’re compelling in their own right but also because Dave could have just been another white, selfish, asshole with too many chances. But the FXX comedy’s brilliance lies in its ability to reframe Dave’s experience. His journey is difficult because he lives in a society where whiteness is the norm, and he’s never had to think about how it shapes his identity. But in the rap world, he has to — or at least, he needs to — and when he finally stops talking and opens up his ears, the resonance is stunning. The season’s intricate build pays off in an absolute banger. No show with this many dick jokes should be able to draw out so many tears. But that’s just “Dave.” Full of surprises. And very, very smart.
“Dave” is available to watch on FX and stream via FX on Hulu. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
Courtesy of HBO
5. “The White Lotus” (HBO)
It only takes a few taps of the theme music’s eerie, escalating percussion to transport viewers back to “The White Lotus,” a gleeful yet unsettling satire from “Enlightened” maestro Mike White. Bouncing between a smattering of rich guests at a deluxe Hawaiian resort and the working class staff who cater to their every whim, HBO’s six-episode limited series took over the summer, making travelers think twice about where they went and how they behaved while challenging everyone to assess who they identified with and why. Did you see yourself in Natasha Rothwell’s benevolent Belinda Lindsey, or Jennifer Coolidge’s transactional Tanya McQuoid (pronounced Mc-KWAD)? Were you more like Jake Lacy’s obsessively entitled Shane Patton, or Steve Zahn’s emasculated Mark Mossbacher? Examining what’s expected of America’s labor force at a time when laborers are setting new standards, “The White Lotus” arrived at just the right time and in quite the addictive little package. Once you hear the beat, there’s no escape.
“The White Lotus” is available to watch on HBO and stream on HBO Max. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
4. “Hacks” (HBO Max)
A comedy about comedy that only expands your appreciation of its performances, structure, and jokes on second (and third) viewings, “Hacks” deserved all the Emmy love (and then some) for its stellar freshman season. Created by “Broad City” veterans Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky, the half-hour series features the dazzling Jean Smart as legendary stand-up Deborah Vance, who’s being pushed out of her Las Vegas residency, and sharp newcomer Hannah Einbinder as an up-and-coming comedy writer sent in to help freshen up Vance’s act. Exploring shifting generational perspectives and lasting, industry-wide sexism, “Hacks” never lets the drama suck up all the oxygen while the laughs whither. The banter is exquisite, as the high standards of two comedians trying to top each other always feels authentic — and riotous. You’ll never be able to watch it just once.
“Hacks” is available to watch on HBO Max. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
3. “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” (Netflix)
They’re saying it will save us all. They’re saying it’s a love language. They’re saying it’s just hours and hours of real people falling out of coffins at funerals. Few programs have inspired such a creative, joyful discourse on this here internet, and zero programs are like “I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson.” Absurd yet carrying a strange coherence, outrageous yet oddly moving, the six new episodes of Robinson and Zach Kanin’s sketch comedy series offer a bounty of hilarious characters, scenarios, and guest stars, almost all of which have been co-opted by Twitter to respond to world events. It’s not just that the sketches are unfathomably prescient, endlessly quotable, or simply unforgettable — it’s that we want to talk about “I Think You Should Leave,” because we want to live in its weird little world a while longer. After all, the real world’s so fucking fucked up; if a bunch of naked dead bodies with their spread blue butts flying out of boxes makes things that much better, don’t take them away from me. I’ll kill you.
“I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson” is available to watch on Netflix. For more, read IndieWire’s full review — and for a little more of Tim with frequent “ITYSL” guest star Sam Richardson, watch “Detroiters” on Paramount+.
2. “Succession” (HBO)
By ending the second season with battle lines drawn between father and son, creator and showrunner Jesse Armstrong promised Season 3 of “Succession” would be an all-out war. But the Roy children have been fighting tooth-and-nail for the top seat since long before Logan (Brian Cox) collapsed in the pilot — what does war look like if not what we’d already seen? The answer is an added intensity around every facet of the family business: Kendall (Jeremy Strong) attacks, Logan counters, and the interested parties adjust accordingly. With exquisite episodic structure, brilliant individual arcs building the serialized story, and a roar of razor-sharp retorts unparalleled since its predecessor (“Veep”) left the airwaves — to say nothing of the impeccable performances and meticulous overall production — HBO’s Emmy winner earns its online obsession and then some. “Succession” didn’t need to reinvent the wheel in Season 3. It just needed to spin faster. And there’s no stopping now.
“Succession” is available to watch on HBO and stream via HBO Max. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
Atsushi Nishijima / Amazon Studios
1. “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon Prime Video)
In the third episode of Barry Jenkins’ 10-hour masterpiece, Cora (Thuso Mbedu) stares through a dime-sized peephole as a trial and execution are carried out in the town square below. The crime: being Black in North Carolina, where she’s told “they are simply not allowed, or tolerated.” The sentence: death in a manner gruesome enough to make Cora gasp and recoil from her limited vantage point. She looks at Grace (Mychal-Bella Bowman), a young girl hiding alongside her, and says, “I’m going to get us out of here, I promise.” Grace thinks on these words before flatly replying, “Yeah, but… where is there for us to go?”
The question haunts Cora’s odyssey. As she flees the tireless slave catcher Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton) across Georgia, South and North Carolina, Tennessee, and into the northern states, there are few safe spaces bigger than the cramped attic she’s desperate to escape. Each new destination offers fresh benefits and detriments, yet they all are overrun by the country’s original sin: slavery. Showrunner and director Barry Jenkins, in his serialized debut, takes to the episodic nature of television with a dedication and ingenuity lacking in so much modern television, using each new hour to delineate a new area, perspective, and tone. Blending genres while building rich characters — there is so much to love about this series — Jenkins and his stellar team paint a vivid world both familiar and foreign, beautiful and foreboding, yet always pushing Cora to search for what’s next, if she wants to stay alive, and to live.
To paraphrase another classic TV series, “The Underground Railroad” goes backward and forwards; it takes us to places that ache from sorrow and joy; it’s a time machine — and it’s the best show of the year.
“The Underground Railroad” is available to watch on Amazon Prime Video. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
elvet Film / David Koskas, Velvet Film / David Koskas courtesy HBO
The Alternative 10
“Exterminate All the Brutes”
A spellbinding rectification of history told with visual poetry, Raoul Peck’s four-part examination of how man-made atrocities can manifest again and again over the course of time — yes, all the way through to the present day — is a mesmerizing and challenging documentary series. The filmmaker behind “I Am Not Your Negro” weaves archival materials and scripted scenes together, repeatedly breaking the fourth wall to amplify the past’s connection to our present, and even using his own memories as another means to contextualize history. While weighty and unflinching, each episode also proves accessible, focused, and revealing.
“Exterminate All the Brutes” is available to watch on HBO and stream via HBO Max. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
“The Good Fight”
Taking “The Americans” place as a critics’ favorite that feels perpetually under-viewed (or, at least, underappreciated at the Emmys), Robert and Michelle King’s “Good Wife” spin-off stands on its own as a whipsmart legal drama with an addictive, ebullient bent. Look no further than this season’s addition of Mandy Patinkin, as a vigilante judge who opens up his own courtroom, for evidence of its ingenious wit. Few shows could survive the exodus of towering talents like Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, but the Kings aren’t just TV royalty; they’re goddamn wizards.
“The Great North”
A worthy Sunday night partner for “Bob’s Burgers” from two of its former writers, Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin’s Alaskan-set family sitcom has developed into a weekly treat worth revisiting. Season 2 has expanded to include more locals, tinker with fun genres (the murder-mystery episode, “Skidmark Holmes Adventure,” is a particular delight), and enrich its core characters’ dynamics, with attentive voice work from the likes of Nick Offerman, Jenny Slate, and Dulcé Sloan. (Honeybee hive, unite!) If you’ve yet to venture into “The Great North,” now’s the time to start.
“The Great North” is available to watch on Fox and stream on Hulu. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
“Kevin Can F*** Himself”
Sometimes shows just stick with you, and “Kevin Can F*** Himself” has proven hard to shake. Starring a stellar Annie Murphy as Allison McRoberts, an emotionally abused housewife who finally snaps and seeks freedom from her bumbling, selfish hubby, creator Valerie Armstrong utilizes decades of ingrained sitcom sexism to frame an all-too-real story as the tortured existence it is — half of Allison’s life may be flooded with bright lights and audience laughter, but it’s the cold cut to her personal drama that underscores why she’s willing to go as far as she does. A strong start to a series that’s got a lot more to say, after the title.
“Maya and the Three”
“If it is to be, it is up to me.” A rich visual palette combined with ambitious fantastical storytelling makes Jorge R. Gutiérrez’s Netflix series a stunner to behold. “Maya and the Three” may be billed as a kids show — following a 15-year-old warrior princess (voiced by Zoe Saldaña) who embarks on a quest to keep gods from the underworld from exacting vengeance on her family — but its rapid pace, talented cast (including Diego Luna and Rita Moreno), and medley of smooth CGI figures with textured settings create an ample saga that’ll attract adults, as well.
Larry Krasner wasn’t supposed to become Philadelphia’s district attorney, but when the progressive-minded civil rights activist won a seat typically reserved for prosecutors, PBS’ “Independent Lens” team was ready. Their resulting study of his first term in office is as meticulous as it is revealing, honing in on the obstacles to change through first-hand experience and gleaning marvelous context from transparent, talkative sources. That being said, these eight hours are no slog; “Philly D.A.” has a brisk pace and sizable charisma. Well-crafted by directors Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicola Salazar, the best docuseries of 2021 should be significant to any viewer frustrated by the slow creep of a promised revolution — and captivating viewing for just about anyone.
Sheer jubilation, through and through, “Starstruck” is an excellent episodic romantic-comedy and showcase for its star and creator, Rose Matafeo. As Jessie, a 20-something film lover from New Zealand who works at a movie theater in London, Matafeo spins, dances, and cartwheels her way into an unexpected relationship with Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel), one of the silver screen’s most bankable stars. Their crackling chemistry and lively rapport carry plenty of scenes, but “Starstruck” also utilizes a deep bench of talented performers and thrives on a genuine love for the genre — if it was playing at her cinema, Jessie would love every second.
“Starstruck” is available to watch on HBO Max. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
Giving off “Friday Night Lights” vibes from the start, Reggie Rock Bythewood’s Apple TV+ basketball drama soon becomes its own moving story, while living up to the highest bar a sports series can set. Inspired by executive producer Kevin Durant’s childhood and starring Isaiah Hill as 8th grade hoops phenom Jace Carson, “Swagger” tracks the talented kid’s evolution after joining a new team led by Ike Edwards (O’Shea Jackson Jr.) — a former youth star who’s all too familiar with the hype and pressure Jace is experiencing right now. Even with two strong leads carrying a focused and fresh coach-player arc, Bythewood wisely expands the series to include teammates, parents, and more (including Quvenzhané Wallis as a highly touted player on the girls’ team), while addressing an array of issues, from those inherent to the business of sports (yes, even for eighth graders) to those felt across society. Oh, and the actual games are thrilling. This is a sports show that’s bigger than the sport, yet does right by its depiction. Dig in.
“Swagger” is available to watch on Apple TV+. For more, read IndieWire’s review.
“This Way Up”
Written by and starring Aisling Bea, Hulu’s pickup of a Channel 4 original first premiered in 2019 before debuting its second season this year. Bea plays Áine, an Irish transplant living in London who teaches English as a second language, constantly hangs out with her sister, Shona (Sharon Horgan), and is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Observant, empathetic, and hilarious, “This Way Up” thrives by following a character so chipper you’d never imagine she struggled with mental health, thus reinforcing the point that depression, anxiety, and plenty of other cognitive issues can affect anyone and everyone. “This Way Up” doesn’t let you forget it, yet it also is so enjoyable and addictive, you wouldn’t be blamed for just having a good time.
“This Way Up” is available to watch on Hulu. For more, read IndieWire’s full review.
“Ultra City Smiths”
Cementing his status as a consistent creator of cult classics, “Ultra City Smiths” comes from “Patriot” and “Perpetual Grace, LTD” scribe Steve Conrad, but stands as his first project to be told with stop-motion animation, baby doll heads, and a disco dancer voiced by John C. Reilly. Things only get stranger from there. While “Ultra City Smiths” could be boiled down to a short synopsis — about a detective investigating the murder of a mayoral candidate who promised to clean up their corrupt city — it operates in constant defiance to any one label. There are musical interludes, a running gag about lime addiction, and multiple homicides, all paired with mesmerizing cinematography, an elegant mystery, and the rare use of valuable voiceover. No matter what you call it, it’s damn fine to look at — and impossible to write off as quirk for the sake of quirk. If you can find it, dig in.
Because what list would be complete without a safety net for all the shows that just missed the cut, let me give the briefest of shout-outs to “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” which is in the midst of a helluva Season 12 — look for at least one entry on IndieWire’s upcoming Best Episodes list — and “Sex Education,” which the world seems to have discovered after three seasons, and yet still doesn’t get enough time in the discourse for us to fully appreciate its charming intellect and encouraging accomplishments. “What We Do in the Shadows” also enjoyed another wild season of vampiric hijinks, while “Maid” showed its receipts (literally) to craft a moving commentary on poverty in America. Finally, “Mare of Easttown” proved Kate Winslet isn’t a one-trick pony when it comes to TV. Her first gig as executive producer and star made for a worthy follow-up to “Mildred Pierce,” and I can’t wait for her to complete her HBO trilogy… in 2031.
If you’re looking for more 2021 TV shows worth your time, you can sift through a complete compendium of our TV reviews for the year.