First, I have to admit that I don’t have Apple TV+, so I haven’t seen Ted Lasso, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series. I did see The Crown on Netflix, which won the Emmy for Outstanding Drama Series. However, that series premiered in the fall of 2020 and didn’t have any episodes in 2021, so it’s not included on this list. I agreed with its Emmy win, as it’s a favorite series of mine. Yet, I’m only including shows here that had episodes air or stream in 2021. There’s so much television that it’s hard to narrow it down to simply ten, but I tried. Honorable mentions include Mare of Easttown on HBO, which featured Emmy-winning performances from Kate Winslet, Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson. All of whom were nothing short of fantastic.
10. THIS IS US: SEASON 5 (NBC) – Five years into this drama about the Pearson family and the show can still make me cry. This season premiered in the fall of 2020, following the Black Lives Matter protests over the murder of George Floyd, as well as the onslaught of the COVID-19 pandemic. It was a question for many prime-time, network shows over how they would handle both events. I have to say that in a show that has not shied away from conversations about race, given that it’s about a Black man who was adopted as a baby into a white family, this show handled both real-life incidents brilliantly, incisively and compassionately. Sterling K. Brown continues to be a gift to television, but Mandy Moore is giving the unsung performance that is amazing, playing a woman at three different ages in her life, particularly an elderly version, facing dementia or possible Alzheimer’s disease.
9. MASTER OF NONE: SEASON 3 (Netflix) – There was a remake of Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From a Marriage (1973) on HBO that a lot of people are praising, but Aziz Ansari and Lena Waithe were able to do a better version. It explores a relationship that often doesn’t get mainstream attention and that’s between two, Black queer women. Waithe who co-writes and co-stars in this season plays opposite Naomi Ackie who gives a tour-de-force performance as a woman, dealing with the aftermath of a dynamic change in her life. It’s a powerful, knockout of a series that perfectly blends comedy and drama.
8. IT’S A SIN (HBO Max) – I haven’t seen the final season of Pose on FX, but it wasn’t the only incredible period piece, exploring the LGBTQ community. This one is like Angels in America (2003) meets the British version of Queer As Folk (1999), and just as good as both those now classics. This series by Russell T. Davis, the creator of Queer As Folk might not go down in history the same way as those aforementioned series, but it should. It should stand as a heartbreaking, as well as honoring testament.
7. SHRILL: SEASON 3 (Hulu) – Aidy Bryant from Saturday Night Live plays a woman dealing with her own insecurities about her body image, as well as the prejudices from society-at-large. It’s the kind of romantic comedy that we don’t get from Hollywood. It’s the perfect kind of romantic comedy though that is legitimately funny with Bryant giving a lovely and charming performance. It also incorporates a perfect dose of drama to engage its audience, tackling current issues like cancel culture in ways that are smart and fair.
6. SPECIAL: SEASON 2 (Netflix) – This is another perfect kind romantic comedy that Hollywood would never do without serious prodding. This one was created and stars Ryan O’Connell, who plays a gay man who suffers from a disability. Yet, instead of hiring an actor to fake like he has the disability, O’Connell actually has the disability. O’Connell also hires other actors with disabilities and provides us with insight into that community that we probably would get in the hands of an able-body person. This was reported as the final season for the series and O’Connell addresses issues of a disabled person in a relationship with an able-body person and reveals some really great stuff.
5. LOVE, VICTOR: SEASON 2 (Hulu) – This is the rare example of a TV show that had a first season that I didn’t like or didn’t really appreciate. Yet, the second season is much better. The series is a spin-off and arguable sequel to the film Love, Simon (2018), which was reportedly the first Hollywood film to focus on a teenage gay romance. The problem with the first season, which was a sequel to the film, is that it was basically a repeat of the story beats in the film and didn’t move things along. This season, things get moved along and we actually see the gay teenager be gay and take on issues that he would.
4. FOR LIFE: SEASON 2 (ABC) – It was a legal drama that centered on a Black man who was falsely accused of a crime and then sent to prison for many years. This season follows what happens when the man gets out of prison and tries to re-start his life. It basically is the legal drama that fills the void that How To Get Away With Murder. It’s not as crazy or over-the-top as that series, but it features a really down-to-Earth, sincere and filled with gravitas performance from Nicholas Pinnock.
3. COBRA KAI: SEASON 3 (Netflix) – The streaming serviced picked up the comedy from YouTube about the sequel series to The Karate Kid (1984). The second season on YouTube ended with a pretty thrilling cliffhanger that followed a bold and intricate fight scene that was very well choreographed, involving a school full of teenagers in a rumble for the ages. This season picks up in the aftermath of that rumble. The same year, we got Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story (2021), which included a rumble between two teenage groups. Spielberg did a great job, but I was more taken with the rumble in this series. The rivalry between Johnny Lawrence, played by William Zabka, and Daniel LaRusso, played by Ralph Macchio, gets even more compelling in this show about legacy, as well as fathers and their children.
2. MANIFEST: SEASON 3 (NBC) – There have been plenty of shows that have basically been a rip-off or homage to Lost (2004) on ABC. Not all have them have been as successful from a creative standpoint and a dramatic one. This one is definitely one that is successful in both those regards. After this season, the network cancelled it. Thankfully, through an online campaign that included streaming this series like crazy on Netflix, the fans got Netflix to pick up the series and produce one last season. I dismissed the series when it first premiered, but I got back into it once I heard all the hype and now I am hooked. I can’t wait for the next season.
1. MAID (Netflix) – There was no doubt in my mind after watching this series that it was the best series of 2021 without question. Yes, people will probably rave over Succession on HBO, but that show doesn’t have the kind of heart, compassion and empathy as this series. It follows a single mother who takes her toddler daughter and flees from her abusive boyfriend. The show proceeds to show us all the steps and details that entail a woman such as her trying to retain custody and start over, even though she’s literally has nothing. The show also underscores the need for child care and more help from working class people. It’s a series that touched my heart like no other show has and I encourage all to give it a try.