The best TV shows of 2021 offer a glimpse at the current state of television. Often, these types of lists can be dominated by long-running dramas and comedies, but we’re living through a golden age of limited series and first-season wonders. The White Lotus, It’s A Sin, and Squid Game were absorbing shows that dominated the online conversation. Mare of Easttown, The Underground Railroad, and Scenes from a Marriage were cinematic greats with brilliant casts.
In fact, the only show in our top ten that’s not a single season-long (although some of them will now continue for multiple seasons) is Succession, now in its third season. That’s a testament to the brilliant new shows that are being made and our collective willingness to try new things. As a result, TV has never been in a better place – and these are the best TV shows of 2021, as chosen by the Total Film team.
25. Reservation Dogs
Co-created by Taika Waititi and filmmaker Sterlin Harjo, Reservation Dogs follows four Indigenous teenagers in rural Oklahoma as they attempt to raise money (by means both noble and slightly more unscrupulous) to escape their lives and head to California. The four leads are played by Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis, and all the writers and directors on the show were Indigenous, as were the majority of the cast and crew. Reservation Dogs is, as a result, an authentic slice of comedy that’s uncompromising, groundbreaking, and a breath of fresh air.
Just when you thought the superhero genre didn’t have any more ground to cover, Invincible came along. Based on the comic books of the same name by Robert Kirkman, the animated series follows Mark Grayson (voiced by Steven Yeun), a 17-year-old who’s transforming into a superhero under the guidance of his father, Omni-Man (J.K. Simmons), the most powerful being in the world. And if those two names don’t have you intrigued, the cast also features Sandra Oh, Gillian Jacobs, Andrew Rannells, and Zachary Quinto, along with more than a handful of surprises. Invincible is one of those rare superhero shows that has great action but also a nuanced approach to the price of superpowers.
23. Get Back
Get Back treats Beatles’ fans to eight hours of hangout time with the band. We see them deliberate over whether they should record an album, or put on a stage show, or appear on a TV programme, or quit altogether. Yet, Get Back is so much more than your usual rock-doc. These four twenty-something-year-old lads – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr – jam with their instruments, turning tiny riffs into full-blown songs; you can see the lightbulbs going off in their heads as they work through lyrics and guitar patterns. There’s high drama as Harrison leaves the band, only to return an episode later. And while the resulting album may not be one of their most beloved, the documentary – directed by the great Peter Jackson and shot in the ’60s by Michael Lindsay-Hogg – will be treasured for years to come by both fans of the band and not.
22. The Great season 2
Elle Fanning returned on top form as Catherine the Great in The Great’s second season. The series charts Catherine’s rise to power after marrying Emperor Peter III of Russia (Nicholas Hoult) and her plot to kill her husband, and the stakes are certainly higher after the climactic end of the last season. Gillian Anderson and Jason Isaacs joined the cast this time around, playing Catherine’s mother Johanna and Peter’s father Peter the Great. Created by The Favourite screenwriter Tony McNamara, the series is a perfect mix of satire, comedy, and drama. Fanning and Hoult are both nominated for Golden Globes for their performances – and for good reason.
Jean Smart heads up this brilliantly clever comedy series about a legendary stand-up comic whose struggling to appeal to younger generations. And although the Queen of Sin City may no longer be a massive, cross-culture hit in the show’s world, she is in our very real world. Smart is superb as the sassy, stylish Deborah Vance who recruits the equally funny Ava Daniels, played by newcomer Hannah Einbinder, to help her write material. What makes Hacks stand out, though, are the moments of general pathos, as the two leads learn from each other and grow as a result. “She is so deeply funny, so talented as a comedian, but also an unbelievable dramatic actor, so she was the guide for what the tone of the show would be,” showrunner Jen Statsky said in an interview. No wonder Smart’s in line to win all the awards…
20. This Time With Alan Partridge season 2
Norwich’s finest was back in the hot seat with co-presenter Jennie Gresham (Susannah Fielding, superb) for more One Show-style spoofery. An upgrade on season one, with This Time… feeling more comfortable in its magazine format, highlights included a reunion with Knowing Me Knowing You’s crap ventriloquist Joe Beasley (John Thomson) and Cheeky Monkey, Alan investigating chemsex, and Matt Smith in a cameo as a snarky journo who gets the tables turned on him. The finale, in which he fawned over Princess Anne as if he were in Elizabethan times, was vintage Alan.
19. Bluey season 2
A rare appearance for a children’s show on Total Film’s annual list of the best TV shows, Bluey is a comforting delight for all ages. The incredibly charming eight-minute episodes are too good to be wasted on pre-schoolers, so full of warmth and wit are the adventures of Australian Blue Heeler Bluey and her family (and the neighborhood). season two highlights included a trip to the movies, an interstellar dream sequence, and Christmas and Easter escapades, but the show’s real selling points were its imagination (capturing childhood play) and empathy (did any parents not find a bit of grit in their eye during ‘Mum School’ or ‘Baby Race’?)
18. Cobra Kai season 3
The best season of the Karate Kid spin-off yet delivered a crane kick of nostalgia right to the feels. While Miguel was recuperating from his life-threatening injury at the end of season two, Daniel LaRusso paid respect to Mr. Miyagi’s roots with a trip to Okinawa, which provided flashbacks to the second movie. Meanwhile, beleaguered Johnny continued to earn our sympathy, proving he’s more than the cardboard cutout villain from the 1984 film. The fight sequences were top-notch, and the increased presence of John Kreese (Martin Kove) led to a hell of a showdown. Elisabeth Shue’s return as Ali was the icing on the cake.
17. Sex Education season 3
The third season of Netflix’s consistently brilliant school-set comedy-drama was all change. Jemima Kirke’s new headmistress brought conservative values (and school uniforms) to Moordale. Asa Butterfield’s Otis started dating mean girl Ruby. And Adam Groff (Connor Swindells) finally came out in a locker-room scene like no other. But Laurie Nunn’s tale of acceptance and inclusion lost none of its cheekiness – from episode one’s sex montage opener to the foreign school trip (think magic mushrooms and poo in a sock). Gillian Anderson’s Jean even gave us a huge scare coming into the final episode. More please.
16. What We Do In The Shadows season 3
Following Guillermo’s vampire killing- spree in season two, the status quo has changed. Nandor, Laszlo, Nadja, and the fun-sponge Colin Robinson have been anointed members of the Vampiric Counsel (by Taika Waititi’s bloodsucker, nonetheless) bringing a brand-new power dynamic to the series. What We Do In The Shadows has truly outgrown the movie it spun off from, and season three took the series to new heights of hilarity. Showrunner Paul Simms set out to “expand the supernatural world in ways that are visual and funny.” Mission accomplished, we’d say.
Rick And Morty writer Michael Waldron embraced the anti-logic of the multiverse to give us the MCU’s most gleefully eccentric sidestep in a show seemingly designed to let Tom Hiddleston do whatever he wanted. Who cares if Loki died a couple of movies ago – a quick back-pedal through time and space let him dance through a Doctor Who-tinged cosmic detective show, complete with sidekicks (Owen Wilson), alt-identities (Sophia di Martino) and everyone’s favourite alligator. Much more than a bridge between Phases, the epic final reveal also proved the faith Marvel has in small-screen storytelling.
- Read more: Our review of Loki episode 6
14. Inside No. 9 season 6
Reece Shearsmith and Steve Pemberton proved once again that they’re the best
in the black comedy biz with Inside No. 9’s zippy sixth season, as they tackled subjects such as baby kidnappings, toxic fandom and death-defying deals with the Devil in frequently macabre, anthological fashion. Despite Covid limiting numbers on set, the writer-actors still managed to bag first-class guest stars (Paterson Joseph! Adrian Dunbar! Derek Jacobi!) – but it’s Fleabag’s Sian Clifford who deserves a special hat tip as the seemingly self-deprecating lip reader with a shock secret in the masterfully mysterious third episode.
Lead actor Margaret Qualley is the daughter of Andie MacDowell and former model Paul Qualley, but anyone thinking nepotism had anything to do with her landing the lead of this Netflix series clearly hasn’t watched it. She played Alex, a young mother who leaves her emotionally abusive boyfriend (Love, Simon’s Nick Robinson) and gets a job as a maid to try to make ends meet. Balancing grit and turmoil with love and hope, Maid backdropped the fierce love between a mother and daughter with the broken US welfare system. MacDowell also shone as Alex’s idiosyncratic mom: “Working with her was a dream come true,” said Qualley.
12. Ted Lasso season 2
Everyone’s favourite wholesome series returned for a second season, bringing joy – both normal and Christmas-y – to our TV sets. While the opening episodes lacked the focus of the first season, things quickly came together for an endearing story about a moustachioed football coach dealing with his own demons. More players from Ted’s team, the Richmond Greyhounds, got time in the spotlight this time around, while junior coach Nate the Great’s gradual fall was subtly planted through the season. “It comes from the toxic relationship with his dad,” said actor Nick Mohammed. Turns out, Ted Lasso’s all about daddy issues.
- Read more: Our review of the Ted Lasso season 2 premier
11. Only Murders in the Building
Steve Martin and Martin Short have been trying to recast themselves as a vaudeville double act for years, but they were smart enough here to take their place in an impeccable ensemble that brought out the very best in everybody. Selena Gomez, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane, Tina Fey and Jane Lynch (not to mention Sting) all looked like they’re having the best time trying to solve a grisly whodunnit – and the show’s gentle podcast pastiche paid off well enough to feel funny as well as genuinely gripping. Rarely has a show about cold- blooded murder felt so cosy.
Written by Jimmy McGovern and directed by Lewis Arnold, who last year gave us David Tennant as Dennis Nilsen in Des, Time focused on Eric McNally (Stephen Graham), a firm-but-fair prison officer who finds himself compromised when some of the inmates learn that he has a son in another prison. McNally’s choice: smuggle in contraband or hear of his boy’s regular beatings. Graham spent time in nick with a real PO to prepare for the role, and learned of the challenges they face – all of which are laid out in Time. “Mental health, drug abuse… they’re not qualified to deal with people like this,” he said.
“Something’s wrong here, Wanda…” But so many things were right with the MCU’s radical relocation to sitcom-land, where husband and Witch took centre stage as the decades flew by in a whirl of spot- on pastiche, sly tonal shifts (from silly to sinister to achingly sad) and enough cosplay ideas to fill Hall H twice over. Plus all the CG fizz and wirework you expect from Marvel. All along, Agatha (Kathryn Hahn) was waiting to steal the show, but at the core was a note-perfect duo: theme- song wizards Kristen Anderson-Lopez and Robert Lopez (“You wander the world with a vision of what life could be…”).
- Read more: Our review of WandaVision episode 9
8. Scenes From A Marriage
Freely updated from Ingmar Bergman’s 1973 original – itself shot as a miniseries before being condensed for a theatrical cut – this searing HBO drama unblinkingly chronicled a crumbling marriage. “That was the darkest thing I ever shot,” winced Jessica Chastain, while co-star Oscar Isaac labelled it “incredibly challenging”. They weren’t kidding – this made for traumatic television, fearless in its pursuit of truth. And to think, some punters probably came for the sexy canoodling they saw between the two stars on the red carpet at the Venice Film Festival; not since Blue Valentine was marketed as a romcom had viewers been so sucker-punched.
7. It’s A Sin
Russell T. Davies went back to the ’80s for this moving Aids drama, a forceful clarion call against complacency and intolerance that also served as a heartfelt elegy for a lost generation. Years & Years singer Olly Alexander was terrific as young lead Ritchie, a carefree hedonist having too much fun to worry about the epidemic that is decimating his community. Yet his was just one performance of note in a drama that also boasted Keeley Hawes as his unfeeling mum and Neil Patrick Harris as a benevolent tailor. A triumph for Channel 4 at a time when it is dealing with an existential threat of its own in government-mandated privatisation.
6. Squid Game
The sharp social satire of Parasite met the remorseless savagery of Battle Royale in 2021’s biggest streaming sensation, a gripping nine-parter that had cash-poor Koreans compete in life-or-death playground games for an ever-increasing piggy bank of debt-banishing money. Rarely have statues, marbles, and tug of war imposed such fatal forfeits as they did in Hwang Dong-hyuk’s saga, a drama whose visually arresting iconography was as crucial to its success as its ensemble of leading players. Who could forget those threatening guards with their dark fencing masks and hooded crimson jumpsuits, or that trippy maze room with its pastel colors and Escher-inspired staircases?
- Read more: 10 shows to watch if you loved Squid Game
5. The White Lotus
Set in an Edenic Hawaiian resort, Mike White’s latest cringe-com played like Todd Solondz’ Happiness spliced with Fawlty Towers. Rich white folks arrived to sip cocktails and scuba dive, but instead found themselves grappling with questions of race and colonialism, entitlement and consent, as scenarios that were simultaneously hilarious and bracingly uncomfortable unfurled. White, of course, has past form at this kind of thing – if you’ve not seen movie Beatriz At Dinner and TV show Enlightened, do so now. But this propulsive miniseries, flawlessly performed by an ensemble cast that includes Connie Britton, Steve Zahn, Alexandria Daddario, Jennifer Coolidge, Sydney Sweeney and, best in show, Looking’s Murray Bartlett, might just be his magnum opus.
4. The Underground Railroad
“Maybe America has never been great…,” mused Barry Jenkins to The Guardian this year, voicing a thought that helped blur the modern boundaries of his uncompromising history lesson. Giving us a miniseries that read like a novel and played like a film, Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize- winner mixed genres to reframe the slave experience through the eyes of western sci-fi horror. Alive with nature and crackling with magic realism, the show’s poetic edge did nothing to soften the hard-felt emotion of the story itself – with Thuso Mbedu leading an incredible cast including Joel Edgerton, Fred Hechinger, Peter Mullan, Aaron Pierre and William Jackson Harper. Often hard to watch, it was even harder to forget.
3. Mare of Easttown
Kate Winslet courted awards chatter for Ammonite, but it was her raw, real portrayal of a smalltown Pennsylvania cop juggling a murder investigation, PTSD and various sandwiches that really made a mark. Carrying pain as visible as her roots, Mare in Winslet’s virtuoso hands was tender, ballsy, messy and entirely comprehensible as she negotiated motherhood, an awkward love triangle (with an also-excellent Guy Pearce and Evan Peters) and crippling grief in a nail-biting whodunnit that was also an immersive study of a troubled community. Rich in specificity (the branded beer was as authentic as the dialect) and superbly essayed by a crackerjack cast, this was the sort of moving, smart television you mourned ending even before the gut-punch finale.
2. Succession season 3
Boasting more helicopters, FBI raids, daddy issues, and (potentially poison-filled) doughnuts than you can shake a subpoena at, season three saw sweary media mogul Logan Roy (Brian Cox), and his Waystar Royco cronies, try to keep control of
the family business following son Kendall’s (Jeremy Strong) damning press conference in the sharp satire’s season two finale. Showrunner Jesse Armstrong and writers offered up zinger upon zinger (“I get the shits, we’re fucked”) amid the gloriously nasty civil war; each one delivered perfectly by a cast that clearly adores playing these sometimes tragic, often cruel, and always ridiculous characters. “There’s more life in it. This season opens up storylines that I feel will take two series to resolve,” said Cox. We’re down for more dynasty drama
1. Midnight Mass
When journalists were treated to advance showings of Netflix’s flagship horror series, they were also emailed a welcome letter by its writer/director Mike Flanagan. In it, Flanagan admitted that Midnight Mass was “my favourite show so far” – some claim given the care and consideration he brought to adapting Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep and Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting Of Hill House – and he spoke of its personal nature given he’s a former altar boy and is three years sober. Faith and addiction played key roles in a series that also tackled prejudices, fanaticism and systemic corruption.
Heavy themes, certainly, and often picked over in loooong monologues you might more expect in a Nuri Bilge Ceylon movie. But this slow-burn, mesmerising, truly haunting tale of the small community of Crockett Island undergoing strange changes after a charismatic young priest (Hamish Linklater, superb) arrives on its grey, windswept shores is made gloriously palatable – nay, riveting – by the genre trappings that were judiciously applied.
“The horror and mysteries of Midnight Mass are some of the deepest – and darkest – I’ve ever explored,” said Flanagan in his statement. And boy, did they resonate. This is a horror story that you might call soul-shattering.
Those were Total Film’s best TV shows of 2021. For more, check out the best Netflix shows available to watch right now.