Best TV of 2021

I didn’t see all the television I wanted to this year, but what can I say? I’m a movie guy. However, I did see some truly unique and incredible shit on the small screen this year that rivaled almost everything at the box office. Let’s start counting down my Top Ten…

10. (tie) Chucky and Midnight Mass

For my tenth spot, I had a hard time choosing between two flawed but powerful shows that proved TV horror can be just as thoughtful (Midnight Mass) and fun (Chucky) as their less-homicidal colleagues.

Midnight Mass stands as maybe the best thing horror auteur Mike Flanagan (Doctor Sleep, The Haunting of Hill House) has ever done, even if it’s a far cry from the scariest. Comprised mostly of monologues, usually way overlong but compelling nonetheless, Midnight Mass is technically about vampires but really it’s more about how individuals and communities deal with loss. Featuring a great ensemble of complex, lived-in characters, all inhabited by great actors and some truly poignant moments, this represents a wonderful alternative to the dumb shit the genre usually offers.

Chucky on the other hand doesn’t aim to be poignant at all, just fun. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Probably the biggest surprise of the year, Chucky manages to outdo the original film both in its ideas and its extremely affable cast of mostly eighth-graders. It’s funny, it’s gory, it’s as gay as RuPaul’s Drag Race and most importantly, it manages to never take itself too seriously while always taking its characters seriously, which is why we care so much about them. Creator Don Mancini, who has written every Chucky film since the original, seems to have finally been given complete freedom to create what he initially had in mind and I’m all here for it.

Where to Watch: Peacock (Chucky) and Netflix (Midnight Mass)

9. How to With John Wilson

One of my favorite mid-quarantine discoveries last year was this docuseries gem. Generally funny and interesting, but sometimes surprisingly moving, the show follows a comedian/documentarian, John Wilson, and he wanders around New York City, interviewing the most bizarre and unique people imaginable. Season 1 was an absolute triumph, ending with an episode so poignant it should have gotten a Peabody. Season 2 was a slight drop-off in quality and novelty, but brilliant all the same.

Where to Watch: HBOMax

8. It’s a Sin

Soul-crushing is a great adjective to describe Russell T. Davies‘ miniseries about the 1980s AIDS epidemic as seen through a group of queer friends in London. Spanning an entire decade from 1981 to 1991, we see these characters change, grow, and sadly in some cases, die, a tremendous amount for just five episodes.

Where to Watch: HBOMax

7. Only Murders in the Building

Finally got a chance to binge the show everyone has been on my nuts about watching for the past five months. It’s incredible obviously, it made this list, and better yet, compulsively watchable like the best true crime podcasts out there. Steve Martin and especially Martin Short give typically excellent performances while Selena Gomez is just all right. Guest stars Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan give plenty of gravitas to the proceedings and even when it’s not fall-over-funny, it’s always clever and engaging.

Where to Watch: Hulu

6. What We Do in the Shadows

Can we all agree What We Do in the Shadows is inarguably one of the best sitcoms of the 21st century? While it doesn’t quite reach the heights of Season 2, Season 3 is consistently funny and sends beloved characters in exciting new directions. Kayvan Novak‘s Nandor in particular is on fire this season.

Where to Watch: Hulu

5. The Underground Railroad

Easily the hardest of the shows on my list to get through. That speaks nothing against its amazing overall craft and intelligence, but to how disturbing its subject matter is. Based on a popular novel friends of mine read in their book club, The Underground Railroad is nuanced alternative-reality fiction that supposes there was an actual railroad and train, complete with conductors and trolly snacks, kind of like 12 Years a Slave meets platform nine and three quarters. Those scenes offered some of the show’s only reprieves from the intense racial violence, whether physical, emotional, or sexual, the title character, a runaway slave, experiences. It’s a difficult show to watch but writer/director Barry Jenkins (Moonlight) imbues it with more humanity and nuance than a lot of its contemporaries. It also features one of the most spectacular ensemble casts of the year led by newcomer Thuso Mbedu and Aussie veteran Joel Edgerton.

Where to Watch: Amazon Prime

4. The Beatles: Get Back

Even if you’re one of those people who pretend to not like The Beatles, Peter Jackson‘s remastered footage of John, Paul, Ringo, and George sweating it out in a rehearsal hall represents the best widely broadcast document detailing the creative process, I think I’ve ever seen. Complete with John strung out on heroin and bringing his fucking girlfriend to every rehearsal, George getting pissed at John for mocking a great song he wrote (“I, Me, Mine”), Ringo riding a high cause he’s shooting a big studio movie the following month and Paul desperately trying to keep everyone focused and on task, this is the fulfillment to the age-old wish – I wish I could be a fly on the wall during a Beatles rehearsal.

Where to Watch: Disney+

3. Reservation Dogs

Pictured: (L to R): Paulina Alexis as WILLIE JACK, Devery Jacobs as ELORA DANAN POSTOAK, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as BEAR, Lane Factor as CHEESE. — CR: Shane Brown/FX

Reservation Dogs‘ near-flawless debut season focuses on a quartet of high schoolers living on the reservation in rural Oklahoma. It’s funny, it’s surprising, it’s basically the same format of Donald Glover‘s Atlanta which provides a combination of group and individual character episodes, sometimes only following a single character from the core group or another character outside the core group for a single episode. Ultimately it feels like eight fantastic vignettes about life on the Rez. It’s entertaining and funny but never afraid to deal with heavy issues or sudden tonal shifts. It’s poignant but never pretentious.

Where to Watch: Hulu

2. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

The best sketch comedy television to come along since Mr. Show, I Think You Should Leave returned with sky-high expectations from comedy nerds everywhere. Not only did Season 2 deliver on the outrageously funny promise of Season 1, it somehow managed to outdo itself by taking more risks and taking the goofy-ass material to the deepest, richest and sometimes even most poignant places you could imagine. Featuring a wonderful mixture of celebrity guest stars (Bob Oedenkirk, Sam Richardson, MVP Patti Harrison) and newcomers/non-actors, all expertly corraled by the tour-de-force that is Tim Robinson.

Where to Watch: Netflix

1. Succession

Third seasons are always tough because the first introduces you to a story, the second ups the ante by flipping the script and third is often at odds on where to go/how to heighten the material. That’s not the case with Season 3 of Succession, a season that felt at first like a bit of a retread of Season 1 until you began to realize where it was going and that was the plan all along. These characters, especially the three central Roy siblings, are stuck in these endless cycles because of their father’s abuse and there’s a epic tragicness to that. There’s an epic tragicness to them thinking a Pepsi machine takes twenty-dollar bills. These kittens are going to die in the wild. Every actor on the show really went for broke this season, ending in one of the best season finales of any show, ever made.

Where to Watch: HBOMax

SPECIAL MENTION:

Station Eleven

Unfortunately, the entire season didn’t air before 2021 ended, and still hasn’t as of this writing, so I couldn’t in good conscience give Station Eleven a spot on my top 10 list. However, from the seven episodes that were made available before 2022, I could tell it would have made my list towards the top. This is the freshest take on a post-apocalyptic story I’ve seen in just about forever. It expertly balances three different timelines without ever feeling overly complicated. It also captures the pandemic panic better than anything I’ve seen. While lesser post-apocalyptic movies have people running and screaming in the street, this shows people getting really quiet, really serious and almost paralyzed with fear of what’s to come.

Where to Watch: HBOMax

Individual Recognitions

BEST ACTRESS IN A LEADING ROLE

Thuso Mbedu – The Underground Railroad

Possibly the best television performance of 2021, relative newcomer Thuso Mbedu expertly navigates all of her character’s immense pain and trauma without ever tipping into melodrama. This is important because she’s the audience’s window into a story that could have been unwatchable if we couldn’t thoroughly invest in the character. It’s so quietly realized she was unfairly snubbed for an Emmy nomination earlier this year. Guess she needed more shouty, “Give me an Emmy!” scenes. Whatever.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Elle Fanning The Great
  • Devery JacobsReservation Dogs
  • Alia ShawkatSearch Party
  • Jean SmartHacks
  • Kate WinsletMare of Easttown

BEST ACTOR IN A LEADING ROLE

Hamish Linklater – Midnight Mass

Hamish Linklater is a force of nature in Midnight Mass. The whole cast is great but he’s something else entirely. As a mysterious holy man drifting into a small New England fishing town, he delivers creator Mike Flanagan‘s extended monologues with the most ease and with the most power. It’s a performance hard to put into words because what it really boils down to is how magnetic he is. You can’t take your eyes off of him.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Brian CoxSuccession
  • Joel Edgerton The Underground Railroad
  • Nicholas HoultThe Great
  • Kayvan NovakWhat We Do in the Shadows
  • Jeremy StrongSuccession

BEST ACTOR IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Matthew Macfayden – Succession

Tom is one of the most complex and interesting characters not just on Succession but in all of television, and British actor Matthew Macfayden imbues him with even more layers. This season gave him more to do than ever and while he delivered on the comedy with some all-time great Tom & Greg scenes, it was his chilling encounter with Jeremy Strong‘s Kendall in a diner that really blew me away.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Murray Bartlett The White Lotus
  • Nicholas BraunSuccession
  • Kieran CulkinSuccession
  • Chase DillonThe Underground Railroad
  • Cole EscolaSearch Party
  • Zahn McClarnonReservation Dogs
  • Martin ShortOnly Murders in the Building
  • David Wilmot Station Eleven

BEST ACTRESS IN A SUPPORTING ROLE

Miranda talks to Leon. Demands to be let off the bus.

Danielle Deadwyler – Station Eleven

This was probably the hardest individual acting category for me to choose a victor, but there’s something about Danielle Deadwyler‘s show-stopping performance in episode 3 that accurately and eerily nails what many of us felt back in March of 2020. The quiet panic and desperate rationalization of a world on fire.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Paulina AlexisReservation Dogs
  • Connie BrittonThe White Lotus
  • Jennifer CoolidgeThe White Lotus
  • Alexandra DaddarioThe White Louts
  • Julianne NicholsonMare of Easttown
  • Natasha RothwellThe White Lotus
  • Samantha SloyanMidnight Mass
  • Sarah Snook Succession

BEST PERFORMANCE BY AN ENSEMBLE

The White Lotus

It was a close call between this and Succession, but ultimately I thought this was the best place to honor Mike White‘s The White Lotus, a thoroughly engaging and thought-provoking show that reaches its peak in the third and fourth episode but then really peters out in the final two. The one thing that remains unwavering though, is the phenomenal cast, comprised of some of the industry’s best comedic and dramatic performers all creating some of the meatiest characters on TV this year.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Chucky
  • Midnight Mass
  • Reservation Dogs
  • Succession
  • The Underground Railroad

BEST WRITING

Succession – “All the Bells Say” by Jesse Armstrong

Possibly the greatest episode of Succession yet, the third season finale was an emotionally brutal but searingly funny rollercoaster ride that ended on a note that would have made The Bard hard.

Honorable Mention:

  • I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson – “They said that to me at a dinner.” by Tim Robinson, Zach Kanin, and John Solomon
  • Midnight Mass – “Book V: Gospel” by Mike Flanagan and James Flanagan
  • Reservation Dogs – “Uncle Brownie” by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waiti
  • Station Eleven – “The Severn City Airport” by Cord Jefferson
  • Succession – “Too Much Birthday” by Georgia Pritchett and Tony Roche
  • What We Do in the Shadows – “The Wellness Center” by Stefani Robinson
  • The White Lotus – “Recentering” by Mike White

BEST DIRECTING

The Underground Railroad – Barry Jenkins

I could pick an individual episode like the edge-of-your-seat nightmare “North Carolina” or the beautifully contained 20-minute wonder “Fanny Briggs”, but I chose to honor Barry Jenkins‘ directing work on the project as a whole because it all flows so beautifully together. This is a great example of the power of a singular vision.

Honorable Mentions:

  • Midnight Mass – “Book VII: Revelation” by Mike Flanagan
  • Reservation Dogs – “Satvrday” by Sterlin Harjo
  • Succession – “Secession” by Mark Mylod
  • Succession – “Too Much Birthday” by Lorene Scarfia
  • The White Lotus – “Arrivals” by Mike White

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