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The 15 Best TV Shows of 2021

Hundreds of shows aired in 2021. Here, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer picks 15 of the best ones.
Best Tv Shows
By  · Published on January 4th, 2022

This article is part of our 2021 Rewind. Follow along as we explore the best and most interesting movies, shows, performances, and more from this very strange year. In this entry, TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer lists the 15 best TV shows of 2021.

2021 was a big year for television. In terms of the sheer number of programs available at our fingertips, it was objectively the biggest year for television. Yet despite the influx of options across a seemingly infinite number of channels and streaming services, 2021 wasn’t always the best year for TV. The first quarter of the year was a bit of a dry spell for programming, likely in part thanks to COVID delays. The year also saw the dawn of Marvel’s Disney+ TV era. Which brought with it shows that eclipsed everything around them in terms of popularity, if not always quality.

Luckily, by the time 2021 came to a close, the year had upped its TV game considerably. If there’s one good thing about having a vast, unprecedented amount of visual art at our fingertips, it’s that there’s room in the cultural conversation for all types of hits. This summer, for example, HBO’s satirical series The White Lotus suddenly became a trending topic, taking over our Sunday nights until the next show came along. And over Thanksgiving weekend, much of the world tuned in to, of all things, an eight-hour Beatles documentary, Peter Jackson’s Get Back. We seemed to find more community than usual in TV-watching this year, whether we were debriefing about Squid Game or debating about the second season of Ted Lasso. 

This list includes some of those shows, but not all of them, as 2021 turned out to be pretty bountiful, TV-wise. Even if this list had been 25 entries long, there’d still be room for more great television. As it is, here are my choices for the 15 best TV shows of 2021.

15. The White Lotus

Best TV Shows of 2021: The White Lotus

An overstuffed score composed with animal sounds and thumping drums chases guests around a Hawaiian resort in The White Lotus, Mike White’s anxiety-inducing vacation-set satire. Like White’s other works, the point runs so deep here that you might miss it, caught up in the marital drama of newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) and Shane (Jake Lacy) or distracted by the scathing poolside stares that are perfectly deployed by teens Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) and Paula (Brittany O’Grady). But it’s worth looking closer at this tapestry of American excess to see all the tricky, subtle things it’s pulling off. Like that maddening score or the fact that Native Hawaiian characters deliberately disappear from the screen as the series wears on.

14. Blindspotting

Best TV Shows of 2021: Blindspotting

When Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal wrote and starred in Blindspotting in 2018, it was rightfully lauded as a vibrant portrait of Oakland and a powerful take on the brutality of American mass incarceration. The Starz TV series might be even bolder in its storytelling, locking up Casal’s Miles in the first episode and centering the rest of the season around his girlfriend, Ashley Rose (Jasmine Cephas Jones), as she works to raise their son Sean (Atticus Woodward) in his absence. Blindspotting uses music, poetry, and dance to communicate both the deep love the family has for Oakland and its culture and the deep, ever-present fear they simultaneously must hold of death at the hands of a corrupt system. Like the movie, Blindspotting is also unabashedly hilarious in its handling of these topics, as when Ashley’s family starts to worry that Sean doesn’t know he’s Black and gives him Hot Cheetos as a test. But that joke also gives way to a raw, complicated conversation about racial identity and colorism, pulling off a successful tonal balancing act in a series that’s full of them.

13. Dickinson

Best TV Shows of 2021: Dickinson

Dickinson aired not one stellar season this year, but two, establishing its strong artistic voice before ending on a high note in December. The series about Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) is basically three shows for the price of one; it functions as a biography that stays true to Dickinson’s spirit, a non-sequitur heavy literary comedy, and a swoon-worthy romance. Literary geeks will find plenty to love here, including a host of hilariously rendered guest authors like Billy Eichner’s poetry-yelling Walt Whitman and Zosia Mamet’s cash-obsessed Louisa May Alcott. The highly creative series also successfully reframes the Civil War-era poet’s life as one that’s rich and fulfilling, led by an imagination that can’t be contained by any single time or place.

12. Sex Education

Best TV Shows of 2021: Sex Education

Sex Education’s second season was a disappointing follow-up to its dynamic first entry, but in a rare return to form, the show’s third season may be the best yet. The teen comedy has mostly grown past its original premise, which saw high schooler Otis (Asa Butterfield) give amateur sex therapy to his classmates. Season 3 is all about a wider culture of repression brought about by the school’s new headteacher, Hope (Jemima Kirke). As our real world still struggles with the basics of sex education, the show is one of the most powerful tools young people have; it’s purposeful in its quest to portray diversity in all ways and genuinely educate its viewers. But it’s also well-written, well-acted (Ncuti Gatwa puts in his best work this season), and easier than ever to get hooked on. By season’s end, Sex Education’s rebellious spirit has crested to a climax, delivering an utterly delightful celebration of its students that’s the very definition of “letting your freak flag fly.”

11. Girls5Eva

Best TV Shows of 2021: Girls5eva

The best Tina Fey-produced joint in ages, joke-stuffed series Girls5Eva may have earned more laughs per episode than anything else on TV this year. I know it did for me, as I wrote “LMAO” a whopping 15 times in my screener notes. Girls5Eva follows a ’90s girl band as they attempt to reunite in the modern-day, reconciling with their age, massive industry changes, and the deeply sexist way they were commodified before. It’s a lot more fun than it sounds, led up by an unexpectedly hilarious core cast (Broadway star Renée Elise Goldsberry steals the best punchlines) and forged around intensely catchy songs. Girls5Eva feels like a sister series to The Other Two, another wildly funny Hollywood satire that deserves your attention.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)