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.
10. Get Back
Directed by: Peter Jackson
Stars: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, Yoko Ono
Michael Lindsay-Hogg’s 1970 feature Let It Be, chronicling the troubled 1969 sessions for the Beatles album of the same name, was a mere rough draft for Peter Jackson’s sprawling 8-hour miniseries culled from the same footage. But credit Lindsay-Hogg for his proto-reality TV dedication to documenting every possible juicy moment; John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s most revealing exchange about their dysfunctional creative dynamic with George Harrison was recorded unbeknownst to them by a hidden mic in a flowerpot.
When Get Back builds to the legendary rooftop concert finale, even the multiple renditions of songs manage to be thrilling because Lindsay-Hogg placed a camera in the lobby of the Apple Corps building, allowing for Jackson’s split-screen narrative of police officers being stalled by Apple employees and finally making their way to the roof to stop the show. Though they’re guarded at first, John, Paul, George, and Ringo eventually forget the cameras are there enough to write a few classics, cracking inscrutable inside jokes and enjoying each other’s company even as the inevitable breakup loomed ever closer. — A.S.
Created by: Robert Kirkman
Stars: Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, J. K. Simmons, Mark Hamill
Network/Platform: Amazon Prime Video
Another animated superhero series? Yes, but you haven’t seen one like this before. Based on the comic book series by Robert Kirkman (The Walking Dead, Marvel Zombies), the extremely R-rated Invincible is a riveting look at what happens when a teenaged hero comes into his powers while navigating love and high school, and trying to save people — until he learns the (evil) call is coming from inside the house. Also, Mark Hamill’s there!
Seventeen-year-old Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun) is just trying to live his best life, discovering his late-bloomer superpowers and dubbing himself Invincible. He’s got the support of his civilian mom Debbi (Sandra Oh) and superhero dad Nolan, who’s also the Superman-esque Omni-Man (J. K. Simmons, taking a break from the Marvel and DC universes to make himself at home in a third one).
Fans of the comic agree on the show’s faithfulness, but even newbies will find this show special (provided you can handle the violence). The cliffhanger that this season ended on simply demands another season; fortunately, Amazon has already announced two more. — G.G.
8. Only Murders In the Building
Created by: Steve Martin & John Hoffman
Stars: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Aaron Dominguez, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane
Maybe one of the best, most admiring depictions of fandom on screen since Galaxy Quest, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building just so happens to also give Martin Short and Steve Martin a brand-new hit in their 70s. The pair, playing a couple of washed-up tenants who team up with a third (Selena Gomez) to solve a murder in their insular Upper West Side apartment building, put in some of the best work of their careers, modulating their comic stylings with no small amount of melancholy.
Then there’s the true-crime podcast angle (the trio decide to make one in order to publicize their findings), which gives Only Murders a uniquely comic spin on the TV mystery series. Imagine Columbo having to fret about advertisers and analytics, and you’ve got an inkling of the dryly hilarious antics on display here. That the mystery itself works as well as the laughs is just as worthy a feat, creating something as cozy as it is intriguing. — C.W.
Head Writer: Michael Waldron
Stars: Tom Hiddleston, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Wunmi Mosaku, Eugene Cordero, Tara Strong, Owen Wilson, Sophia Di Martino, Sasha Lane, Jack Veal, DeObia Oparei, Richard E. Grant, Jonathan Majors
It’s one thing when a villain becomes a fan-favorite part of a film series; it’s another to transition that character into a leading role. Tom Hiddleston’s deceptively charming Loki could chew up screen time, but could he handle a story all his own?
Turns out, yes — and then some. Interestingly, while the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s God of Mischief had earned discrete levels of sympathy in Thor: Ragnarok and Avengers: Infinity War, that’s technically not the Loki we’re watching in his Disney+ series. Instead, it’s the 2012 Avengers Asgardian.
Taking away all that backstory actually gave Hiddleston more with which to work. Throwing Loki completely out of his depths with the out-of-time storyline put the wicked egotist into panic mode, something he hid behind impractical threats and stubbornness. Playing that off of Owen Wilson’s facetious Mobius and Sophia Di Martino’s Sylvie made not just for entertaining interdimensional adventuring, but a truly engaging character arch — something MCU villains too often lack.
Of course, we also got the firm introduction of the multiverse and a wonderfully bonkers first appearance of Jonathan Majors, leaving us with a Marvel series that’s fun, future-focused, and character driven, a rarely achieved sweet spot. — Ben Kaye
6. What We Do in the Shadows (Season 3)
Created by: Jemaine Clement
Stars: Kayvan Novak, Matt Berry, Natasia Demetriou, Harvey Guillén, Mark Proksch
Not only did television’s singular vampire comedy continue to be one of the funniest shows on offer in 2021, it also proved how serious it takes the life-or-death stakes that are inherent to the premise of the series. Most of Season 3 spotlighted the sort of antics that have always been a fundamental part of What We Do in the Shadows, including a trip to Atlantic City, a sexy encounter with a siren, and (for Nandor) a quest for love that ends up leading him to a cult.
But then, with the final two episodes, the storyline came together for a truly shocking conclusion and numerous cliffhangers that ensure that whenever Season 4 happens, it’ll be must-see television. By finding comedy even in the most tragic of moments, Shadows continues to stand out for its unique voice, one that’s always just a little bit sad. — L.S.M.
Created by: Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, Jen Statsky
Stars: Jean Smart, Hannah Einbinder, Carl Clemons-Hopkins
Network/Platform: HBO Max
Hacks is a joy to behold. There aren’t many other shows like it, and certainly none on the air right now. Hannah Einbinder broke out this year with an incredible performance as Ava, a “canceled” young comedy writer, while Jean Smart shines as Deborah Vance, a fictional comedy legend. Their unlikely friendship blossoms under a lie that threatens to tear them apart, keeping the audience on edge even when everything seems to be going great for the two.
A fantastic ensemble rounds out the show, and every moment feels genuinely within the realm of possibility. Despite the sometimes crass words exchanged or biting insults tossed around, there’s somehow still a warmth to Hacks, one that makes you want to root for these self-destructive people. Season 1 left off on a major cliffhanger, giving the audience plenty of time to theorize about Ava and Deborah Vance’s eventual return. — M.S.
4. It’s a Sin
Created by: Russell T. Davies
Stars: Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Lydia West, Nathaniel Curtis, Neil Patrick Harris, Stephen Fry
Network/Platform: HBO Max
Russell T. Davies has long since stopped being best known for spearheading the 2005 revival of Doctor Who that created a whole new generation of fans for the sci-fi franchise; over the last several years, he’s taken on notorious British scandals, the not-too-distant future, and now his own coming-of-age as a young gay man living in London in the 1980s.
Starring Years and Years frontman Olly Alexander (along with Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry in smaller roles), It’s a Sin captures both the exhilarating joy of that period in a person’s life — the dizzying freedom of finding not just your chosen tribe but your own true nature — and then the tragedies that befell so many people of that time due to the AIDS crisis.
While not the only show to deal with this issue (it’s not even the only show on this list to tackle the topic), Davies’ talent for crafting unforgettable characters and finding unforgettable details in the drama elevate It’s a Sin to one of the year’s most remarkable achievements in television. — L.S.M.
Created by: Meredith Scardino
Stars: Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell, Renée Elise Goldsberry
Girls5Eva is a relentlessly funny musical comedy, packed to the brim with expertly-written jokes, hilarious cameos, and some insanely good songs. From the early 2000s R&B of “Dream Girlfriends,” to the brilliantly funny “I’m Afraid (Dawn’s Song of Fears),” each entry in Girls5Eva is meticulously crafted for maximum hilarity.
But above all, it’s the quartet’s performances that elevate this show to the highest degree: As Wickie Roy, Renée Elise Goldsberry inhabits absurdity in a way that’s as earnest as it is outlandish, Paula Pell is at an all-time best, and Sarah Bareilles’ self-referential performance as Dawn proves that her acting ability spans far beyond her dramatic turn in Broadway’s Waitress.
Through all its strengths and triumphs, Girls5Eva is a one-of-a-kind show about women who are unsatisfied with their status as one-hit-wonders, and its joyous climax reflects that determination perfectly. You can’t help but root for these women, and each cheeky joke seems to be better than the last — a true comedic achievement. — P.R.
2. Succession (Season 3)
Created by: Jesse Alexander
Stars: Hiam Abbass, Nicholas Braun, Brian Cox, Kieran Culkin, Peter Friedman, Matthew Macfadyen, Alan Ruck, Sarah Snook, Jeremy Strong, J. Smith-Cameron, Fisher Stevens
Oh, how we missed our lousy, miserable, terrible Succession family. The Roys are finally back on our screens every Sunday up to their usual, spiteful shenanigans — and while Season 3 has admittedly shown a bit of the strain of COVID (particularly due to many episodes being relegated to single locations), it’s still one of the very best shows on television.
It remains impossible to pick a standout between Kieran Culkin’s demon pixie Roman, Sarah Snook’s chaotic Shiv, the bizarre mind games being played between Tom (an exceptional Matthew MacFadyen) and Greg (the beloved Nicholas Braun), or Brian Cox’s still-thunderous Logan.
It has to be handed to Jeremy Strong, though, who somehow manages to contain all the emotions of the human experiences in his eyes each week as the crumbling Kendall. The Roy family continues to spiral closer and closer to a fiery, collective demise each week, and all eyes are on this Sunday’s (December 12th) finale for this season’s final fallout. — M.S.
Head Writer: Jac Schaeffer
Stars: Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Debra Jo Rupp, Fred Melamed, Kathryn Hahn, Teyonah Parris, Randall Park, Kat Dennings, Evan Peters
It’s no surprise that Marvel’s grand Disney+ television experiment began with two characters who were arguably underrepresented in MCU films; it is a surprise, however, that the show was as stylized, self-referential, and experimental as it was.
Not only was WandaVision a deeply inspired meditation on grief and acceptance, but it was an ode to television: Throughout each episode, a new era of TV was unpacked and fused straight into the ever-unfolding storyline, providing the audience with nostalgic reference points while advancing the mystery of Westview, New Jersey.
WandaVision was undoubtedly one of the most daring projects Marvel has ever produced, and rather than succumb to the usual action-heavy bombast of their past, this show provided a completely different dynamic — one that acknowledges the complexity of the universe they’ve built, while creating an insular, magical world for Wanda and co. to inhabit.
Elizabeth Olsen gives so much to Wanda, elevating this character beyond her shrugged-off origins in Age of Ultron, and Kathryn Hahn’s turn as Agnes is a hilarious, multi-dimensional performance (as usual). Overall, it’s a wild, unexpected ride from start to finish, making the beginning of this next Marvel phase a leap in the right direction. — P.R.