Our 2021 Annual Report continues with our Top 25 TV Shows list. As the year winds down, stay tuned for more awards, lists, and articles about the best music, film, and TV of 2021. You can find it all in one place here.
While the past year wasn’t easy, one thing that once again helped us get through it was television. Whether it was keeping us entertained during those pre-vaccine months inside or making us feel connected through watercooler moments, the best shows of the year rose up to keep us feeling sane and whole and maybe just a little bit less alone.
The series that Consequence chose to highlight for 2021 often overlap in subject matter, whether it be the AIDS crisis, the world of music, or the disintegration of reality as the MCU knows it. But they also represent the wide depth of storytelling made possible by this medium, making small-town Pennsylvania or a mysterious Korean island or antebellum Georgia or the chambers of the Vampiric Council feel like a part of our everyday lives.
It was a good year for new points of view and new voices. A good year for fresh takes on tired genres. A good year for singing and dancing just because that’s the only way all those feelings can be felt. A good year to confront the trauma of the past and look forward to a better future. A good year to be inspired by heroics, both super and ordinary. In short — a good year for television.
— Liz Shannon Miller
Senior Entertainment Editor
25. Brooklyn Nine-Nine (Season 8)
Created by: Dan Goor, Michael Schur
Stars: Andy Samberg, Stephanie Beatriz, Terry Crews, Melissa Fumero, Joe Lo Truglio, Andre Braugher, Dirk Blocker, Joel McKinnon Miller
As the world watched police brutalize protestors of police brutality in 2020, backlash towards cop shows inevitably followed. The procedural dramas didn’t change much, but the always self-aware sitcom Brooklyn Nine-Nine pivoted earnestly for a brief farewell season. Getting a little more woke didn’t diminish the character-driven comedy, and Andy Samberg led the ensemble cast across a political tightrope for a funny, satisfying finale. — Al Shipley
24. Midnight Mass
Created by: Mike Flanagan
Stars: Kate Siegel, Zach Gilford, Kristin Lehman, Samantha Sloyan, Igby Rigney, Rahul Kohli, Annarah Cymone, Annabeth Gish, Alex Essoe, Rahul Abburi, Matt Biedel, Michael Trucco, Crystal Balint, Louis Oliver, Henry Thomas, Hamish Linklater
Mike Flanagan’s magnum opus about a small island town held in sway by the influence of a charismatic new priest (Hamish Linklater) is talky, to be sure. But Flanagan’s works aren’t horror so much as they use the aesthetics of horror to ask questions about death and the mania of religious fervor. Midnight Mass may well be his most cohesive thesis statement to date. — Clint Worthington
23. Squid Game
Created by: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Stars: Lee Jung-jae, Park Hae-soo, Wi Ha-joon, Jung Ho-yeon, O Yeong-su, Heo Sung-tae, Anupam Tripathi, Kim Joo-ryoung
It was the Netflix breakout of the year, yet it was a far cry from the nostalgic Stranger Things or viral Tiger King: Squid Game was a brutal and harrowing commentary on capitalism that couldn’t be ignored. Netflix reported a mind-boggling 1.65 billion hours of viewing in the month following its premiere, locking it in as Netflix’s most-watched series ever. Ever! It was the bloodbath people couldn’t look away from, and an exciting breakout moment for Korean television. — Mary Siroky
22. Doctor Who (Season 13)
Showrunner: Chris Chibnall
Stars: Jodie Whittaker, Mandip Gill, John Bishop
Network/Platform: BBC America
Depending on who you ask, Doctor Who hasn’t been this good since the Matt Smith era, or at least since Peter Capaldi’s best episodes. So what improved this season? All of these episodes, featuring Jodie Whittaker as the Doctor, are actually connected, for a start. The overarching plot is interesting in and of itself, and new companion Dan Lewis (John Bishop) is a hilarious foil to the practical Yasmin Khan (Mandip Gill). Then there’s Karvanista, a canine hero who, no lie, carries the season, and should be in every season henceforth. It’s a shame the writing wasn’t always this good for Whittaker, because this season has shown her in Top Doctor-y form. — Gab Ginsberg
Created by: Cinco Paul, Ken Daurio
Stars: Keegan-Michael Key, Cecily Strong, Fred Armisen, Dove Cameron, Jaime Camil, Kristin Chenoweth, Alan Cumming, Ariana DeBose, Ann Harada, Jane Krakowski, Martin Short, Aaron Tveit
Network/Platform: Apple TV+
High-concept sitcoms were once considered relics of the campy I Dream of Jeannie era, but The Good Place cleared a path for a more ambitious approach. In Schmigadoon!, Keegan-Michael Key and Cecily Strong are transported Pleasantville–style into a hokey 1950s fantasy world, and have to navigate the hilariously backward logic of an imaginary Lerner and Loewe musical. — A.S.
20. The Pursuit of Love
Writer/Director: Emily Mortimer
Stars: Lily James, Andrew Scott, Emily Beecham, Dominic West, Dolly Wells, John Heffernan, Beattie Edmondson, Assaad Bouab, Shazad Latif, Freddie Fox, Emily Mortimer
Network/Platform: Amazon Prime Video
A sprightly yet bittersweet adaptation of the classic book by Nancy Mitford, writer/director/actor Emily Mortimer’s The Pursuit of Love delivers a sharp, fresh, and unique spin on the traditional period drama, anchored by an incredible cast and unconventional song choices. An important Easter egg: The show’s music director was Mortimer’s brother-in-law, George Vjestica of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds. For the first episode, Vjestica assembled fellow Bad Seed Jim Sclavunos, The Pretenders’ Nick Wilkinson, The Specials’ Nikolaj Torp Larsen, and The Pogues’ Spider Stacy to appear on screen as a period-appropriate party band. See if you can guess who plays the pennywhistle! — L.S.M.
19. Ted Lasso (Season 2)
Developed by: Jason Sudeikis, Bill Lawrence, Brendan Hunt, Joe Kelly
Stars: Jason Sudeikis, Hannah Waddingham, Jeremy Swift, Phil Dunster, Brett Goldstein, Brendan Hunt, Nick Mohammed, Juno Temple, Sarah Niles
Network/Platform: Apple TV+
The widespread acclaim of Ted Lasso’s first season gave the Apple TV+ show some big expectations to meet,. Rather than play it safe, it took even bigger risks. Season 2 dug even deeper into themes of mental health, navigating relationships, and perseverance as a team — both literally and metaphorically. Sudekis’ performance this season was even more rich and dynamic, and Brendan Hunt’s solo “Coach Beard” episode was one of the best TV moments of the year. — Paolo Ragusa
18. The Other Two (Season 2)
Created by: Chris Kelly, Sarah Schneider
Stars: Heléne Yorke, Drew Tarver, Case Walker, Ken Marino, Molly Shannon
Network/Platform: HBO Max
HBO Max has quickly become a comedy hub by scooping up great shows that other networks under-promoted, like Search Party and South Side. The Other Two, making the jump from Comedy Central, is the sharpest show business satire since 30 Rock, lambasting celebrity culture from the vantage point of two black sheep siblings in the family of a pop star and, in Season 2, a daytime TV host. — A.S.
17. The White Lotus
Created by: Mike White
Stars: Murray Bartlett, Connie Britton, Jennifer Coolidge, Alexandra Daddario, Fred Hechinger, Jake Lacy, Brittany O’Grady, Natasha Rothwell, Sydney Sweeney, Steve Zahn, Molly Shannon
Mike White’s The White Lotus presents its drama as horror, and its horror as comedy — featuring one of the best scores of the year by Cristobal Tapia de Veer, each excruciatingly tense moment is maximized with the series’ odd, hair-raising music, scathing writing, and empathetic performances. It’s hard to pick who’s in the right in The White Lotus, and that’s the point. Each flawed character points to the larger issue of modern colonialism and ignorance, and through all the carnage, we still hung on every word. — P.R.
16. Curb Your Enthusiasm (Season 11)
Created by: Larry David
Stars: Larry David, Jeff Garlin, Cheryl Hines, Susie Essman, J. B. Smoove
How does Curb Your Enthusiasm continue to hold its own amongst today’s prestige comedies? Larry David, of course. Eleven seasons and 21 years later, Curb’s creative mastermind remains uncancellable in multiple senses of the term; David’s show about slightly-more-than-nothing has outlasted everything from DVD players to the Obama administration. Still going strong, this season has welcomed guest stars like Vince Vaughn, Albert Brooks, and Josh Gad, who continue to put up with that shmuck Larry (as do we) while he casts yet another show-within-a-show. — G.G.
15. Mare of Easttown
Created by: Brad Ingelsby
Stars: Kate Winslet, Julianne Nicholson, Jean Smart, Angourie Rice, David Denman, Neal Huff, Guy Pearce, Cailee Spaeny, John Douglas Thompson, Joe Tippett, Evan Peters, Sosie Bacon, James McArdle
A new take on the traditional detective story, Mare of Easttown didn’t just bring us a compelling mystery to solve: The Kate Winslet-starring limited series examined themes of trauma, grief, and regret throughout its seven episodes. In addition, it highlighted the long-lasting effect that crime has on its victims, along with their community at large. — Okla Jones
14. We Are Lady Parts
Created by: Nida Manzoor
Stars: Anjana Vasan, Sarah Kameela Impey, Juliette Motamed, Faith Omole, Lucie Shorthouse, Aiysha Hart, Zaqi Ismail, David Avery, Shobu Kapoor, Sofia Barclay
One of 2021’s most charming surprises was this British comedy about the formation of a punk rock band whose members are all Muslim women. Thanks to breakout star Anjana Vasan’s nuanced and fiery performance to the immensely catchy songs (seriously, one is entitled “Voldemort Under My Headscarf”), it ensured its place as memorable TV to anyone who might have watched it. — L.S.M.
13. Pose (Season 3)
Created by: Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, Steven Canals
Stars: Mj Rodriguez, Dominique Jackson, Billy Porter, Indya Moore, Ryan Jamaal Swain, Hailie Sahar, Angelica Ross, Angel Bismark Curiel, Dyllón Burnside, Sandra Bernhard, Jason A. Rodriguez
Just Billy Porter’s heartbreaking performance alone would make Pose a contender for this list. But while the FX drama could have easily gone on for more than three seasons, it ended on both a very honest and very beautiful note, giving fond farewells to all of the show’s most memorable characters — not to mention a few more legendary ball performances and Elektra teardowns for the road. — L.S.M.
12. The Underground Railroad
Writer/Director: Barry Jenkins
Stars: Thuso Mbedu, Chase W. Dillon, Joel Edgerton, Fred Hechinger, Peter Mullan, Mychal-Bella Bowman, Sheila Atim
Network/Platform: Amazon Prime Video
Just like its characters often do across the 10 episodes of Barry Jenkins’s critically beloved adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s critically beloved novel, The Underground Railroad stares straight at the viewer, demanding your attention. Both beautiful and brutal in equal measure, the story of young Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) flight to freedom in the antebellum South contains countless memorable visuals, but more importantly dives deep into what it means to be free in the first place. — L.S.M.
11. Reservation Dogs
Created by: Sterlin Harjo, Taika Waititi
Stars: Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, Paulina Alexis
Network/Platform: FX on Hulu
Reservation Dogs embraced its own historical significance as the first TV show with all Indigenous writers and directors, premiering in August on International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples. Still, the Taika Waititi-produced series is anything but grandiose, following around four Oklahoma teenagers as their encounters with talkative ancestors and mythological creatures punctuate earthbound misadventures, like a driver’s license test that gets interrupted by a gunfight at a motel. — A.S.