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The Things We (Actually) Loved to Watch in 2021

Everyone has that one show, or one movie, or one video snippet, that they love more than anyone else does, hold close to their hearts, and keep a secret while people are having conversations about “the best”

Getty Images/AEW/HBO/Freeform/Ringer illustration

It was a great year for television and film. If you don’t believe me, read The Ringer’s lists of the best shows and movies of 2021. But because we live in a world so overflowing with content—beyond the 12 streaming networks you subscribe to, there’s also stuff worth seeing on Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, and so on—watching these days is not just about keeping track of “the best”; it’s also about finding the things that bring you comfort. Everyone has that one show, or one movie, or one video snippet, that they love more than anyone else does, that they hold close to their hearts and keep a secret while people are having conversations about “the best.” But the end of the year is about revealing secrets, so without further ado, here are some things, new and old, that The Ringer staff genuinely loved in 2021. —Andrew Gruttadaro

The Manning-cast

With the Giants being terrible and my children being terrors, the vast majority of my NFL consumption this season took place not on Sunday afternoons but on Monday nights. Which worked out perfectly, because this season brought the most exciting football development since the forward pass: the Manning-cast on ESPN2, where brothers Peyton and Eli wear cashmere quarter-zips and sit in expansive basements and banter their balls off for several hours with the help of guests who range from Phil Mickelson to Tom Brady to, uh [touches earpiece] … Condoleezza Rice?

With a combination of X’s and O’s–type talk, funny stories, and constant threats to tattle to mom about one thing or another, the brothers have become the probably untouchable gold standard of the simulcast form. The guests are jolly and actually want to be there; the brothers have far less of a filter than I feared. So far this season on the show, Marshawn Lynch has taken shots of Hennessy, Bill Parcells has clowned on Peyton’s 28 interceptions as a rookie, and Eli has boogied like Dak Prescott in “boys medium jeans.” I can’t tell you anything that happened in any of the actual NFL games, and frankly, I don’t care. This is perfect television. —Katie Baker

TV That Made Me Feel Better About Humanity

Thanks to the NBA cramming just under a season and a half into the past 12 months, and my kids cramming an incalculable amount of PJ Masks and Gabby’s Dollhouse into our at-home programming slate, my 2021 wasn’t replete with chances to catch the shows that everybody else had long since breezed through. And a lot of the evenings my wife and I did have free went to heavier shows—The Handmaid’s Tale, Succession, Y: The Last Man—that, satisfying as they were, often left us feeling pretty fucking bummed out. (You know, because everyone needs more of that these days.)

One silver lining to all those hours spent in post-apocalyptic, family-trauma-bedecked darkness? They really made the nicer shows we found time for pop!

After more than a year of mostly restricting our lives to within five minutes of our Flatbush two-bedroom, blitzing through HBO’s High Maintenance provided an avenue to reconnect with the vastness, vibrance, and volume of New York City in safer times. It also helped me remember, on my better days, to be a little bit kinder when I ventured out into the wider world, because every person I saw on the street—masked or unmasked, distanced or pressed-up, cool or Decidedly Not Cool—was in the middle of their own deeper arc, all of us just trying to get to the end credits unscathed.

When we finished High Maintenance, I asked my Ringer culture-writing colleagues for recommendations of other, similarly warm-hearted comedies from recent years. That led us to Pamela Adlon’s incredible and hilarious Better Things, a deeply human depiction of what it is to be a human person in the world while also raising daughters who sometimes straight-up hate you and who you sometimes come this close to hating yourself, and then getting over all of that so you can make dinner, drive them to things, and resume loving them unconditionally. Having that kind of sympathetic mirror to, and comedic pressure release valve for, some of the inherent challenges and attendant fury of parenting felt … well, let’s call it useful.

I don’t need everything I watch in my downtime to be nice and restorative. The way things are right now, though, it doesn’t seem like a bad idea to sprinkle some of that into the mix every now and again. If anybody needs me, I’ll be going back through older seasons of The Great British Baking Show, because my mother-in-law had us run through the most recent one a few weeks back, and all of the “everybody being nice to each other” really hit the spot. Ta, Lizzie. Ta for everything. —Dan Devine

Together, Together

With all due respect to Nicole Beckwith’s sensitive, wry portrait of platonic love, Together, Together wasn’t the best movie I saw this year—but it was easily the most important. Exactly one week after I got my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine, I pulled into the Burbank Town Center parking garage and walked up to the box office at the AMC 16, one of the few multiplexes left standing in Los Angeles after the ArcLight and Pacific theater chains announced their joint closure just a few weeks before. Once inside, I was greeted by a personal message from Beckwith thanking me and the rest of the audience for showing up, recorded via Zoom. I burst into tears.

Throughout the pandemic, the loss of movie theaters was the one I felt most acutely. Theaters are the place I go to seal myself off from the rest of the world and give my thoughts over to something quite literally bigger than myself. It’s what I most yearned for during the darkest months of lockdown, and what I knew I’d go back to as soon as it felt relatively safe. By spring of 2021, I would’ve seen just about anything on the big screen. Fortunately, Together, Together was a fitting welcome back to the cinema—the kind of intimate character dramedy that benefits just as much from the theater treatment as, say, Dune. Ed Helms and Patti Harrison are excellent as a middle-aged bachelor who opts to try single fatherhood and his surrogate, respectively. Working as a pair, they give a tribute to the joys of unlikely connection, delivered in a year when connection sometimes felt impossible. It’s perfect. —Alison Herman

Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?

I think it started in late winter, when the breeze was still cold enough to sting and the first round of vaccinations were underway: I reverted to watching Scooby-Doo. There’s no point in sugarcoating it—it was a reversion. I don’t know why, but I couldn’t stop coming back to those misfits in that psychedelic van. About 50 years after the show’s original premiere, it ended up syndicated on a channel called Boomerang in the mid-2000s, which is when I first got hooked. Now it’s on HBO Max.

Scooby eases me. The plot is droningly redundant. The ornaments change but the core stays the same; something is off and must be investigated. It’s usually supernatural in nature. Fred, all ascot and shoulders, formulates a plan, and it always, always, bombs. Daphne is perpetually kidnapped; Velma inevitably figures everything out; Shaggy and Scooby never cease to fail upward. The terror—a medieval necromancer, the ghost of a yeti, a phantom sea-diver—ends up being not terrifying at all. Case closed. Rinse, repeat.

And yet I can’t kick it. I thought I was done with the show in May but by mid-June I was looking for yet another balm. It’s December now, and I haven’t gone more than a few consecutive weeks without rewatching at least part of an episode. The thing about Scooby—or at least, the thing that I feel when I watch it—is that it never changes, even if I, or the things around me, always do. The series is invariably bound by some constrictive cultural norms, and probably reinforces some very regressive ideals. But it’s also steady in the way of a cherished memory. It’s a mess, but it’s also worth revisiting. —Lex Pryor

Cruel Summer

Here’s a confession: I watched the first season of Pretty Little Liars in real time. By choice. And it was frickin’ great. I’m a Succession dude through and through, but I cut my TV teeth on The OC—I am always down for some teen drama. So when I started seeing trailers in April for a new Freeform mystery box show about a cool girl who goes missing and the nerdy girl who Single White Female-s her in her absence—before the former returns and accuses the latter of knowing and withholding information about her kidnapping (!!!)—I was in from the jump.

Cruel Summer is as melodramatic as that premise sounds. (It also takes place over three years in the early ’90s, scratching a personal nostalgia itch.) But it is also far knottier, far tenser, and far more adept at handling the nuances of a kidnapping story than its airing on Freeform would suggest. It was a guilty pleasure in 2021, full of hilarious acting, bad haircuts, and over-the-top scenarios. But by the end of the first season, it was also just a regular pleasure. —Gruttadaro

Selena + Chef

I’m the first to admit that I am the dumbest person in any kitchen. I wasn’t expecting to like Selena + Chef, but it’s now one of the first shows I suggest to people who are looking for something quick, entertaining, and fun. Set in her own kitchen during the middle of the pandemic, Selena + Chef features Selena Gomez cooking various cuisines while video-chatting with professional chefs. The show also features several of Gomez’s friends and family members assisting her in the kitchen and waiting to taste free food. I’m still not exactly sure how Gomez landed this gig, but I now consider myself one of her biggest fans after witnessing her almost lose several fingers, fail to choose the right stove buttons, and not know the names of various kitchen appliances. Never in my life have I related to someone more. Somehow this show has three seasons, despite starting at the end of 2020, but every episode is worth watching. What makes it even more bingeworthy are the stories each chef tells and the organizations they are affiliated with that Gomez donates to at the end of every episode. Plus, it will actually make you want to cook, which makes the bank accounts of takeout devotees, like me, very happy. —Bridget Geerlings

@PeteyUSA

My TikTok algorithm usually knows what I want before I do. And in the bleak early pre-vax months of 2021, when I was in dire need of some gentle laughter, it decided I wanted to watch a scrawny guy named Peter Martin talk to himself. “Petey,” as he’s known on the internet, is a Los Angeles–based musician and comedian who acts out conversations between various versions of Guys. Standouts include Vegas Guy, a deeply religious and exclusively shirtless DJ who parties with hard drugs; Mr. HTML the computer man, a perverted tech dude; Or Natural Wine Guy (self-explanatory). The skits have an absurd West Coast ditziness to them, like if you cross-bred the Tim and Eric Awesome Show with “the Californians,” rolled it up, and smoked it. And in true stoner spirit, Martin’s Tree of Life–esque original music can sometimes pull a relatively normal bit into menacingly existential territory. (See—and I can’t believe I’m saying this—the sponcon he did for Pepsi). But more often than not, he specializes in one-minute love letters to chill-ass sitches: hanging out, doing fun stuff together, being in nature, and “checkin’ up on buds.” If, like me, you’ve fallen into a more mellow pace of living during year two of the pandemic, Petey is the guy for you. —Alyssa Bereznak

The Return of CM Punk

I describe myself as a lapsed mark in sort of the same way I describe myself as a lapsed Catholic. There’s a thing that was a big part of my life when I was a kid, but it’s not now and hasn’t been for a long time; I don’t really believe in it anymore, but if I’m being honest, I’m not totally willing to give up on it, either.

Some of that’s probably about a nearly-40-year-old man’s unwillingness to fully put away childish things. I’m starting to think that some of it, though, has to do with an interest in preserving the possibility of the transcendent—of experiencing the sort of moment of pure joy that transports you out of your body and leaves you speaking in tongues. A moment like this:

I don’t really have an emotional relationship to CM Punk. I didn’t watch him rise through the indies and Ring of Honor, and was only dimly aware of his run in the rebooted ECW and WWE. I didn’t really know much about him until his 2011 “pipe bomb” promo crossed over into the mainstream. I’ve tried to pay attention to him (with David Shoemaker’s help) in the years since, though, because his story—someone who felt forced to leave his life’s work and passion because it was breaking him and making him sick—struck me as profoundly sad.

He spent seven years trying other things—acting, cage fighting, comic writing—and all the while, wrestling fans just kept chanting his name, hoping that one day he’d come back. And when he finally did, in his hometown of Chicago under the flag of upstart promotion AEW, the response was rapturous, an ecstatic avalanche—overwhelming for audience and performer alike. Punk knelt atop the entrance ramp, soaking it all in, and took nearly five minutes to make his way to the ring. When he got there, he spoke at length: about how he needed his time away to get well before he could get back, about all the young talent he was excited to work with. What most struck me, though, was everything he did before he ever picked up the microphone: the hugs exchanged with fans at ringside, the headlong dive into the United Center crowd, the elation positively radiating off of him, the deep taking-stock breaths as it all washed over him.

It felt like watching someone fall back in love. Not much has felt like that over the past couple of years. —Devine

Haikyuu!!

I’ve never been a big anime fan, so when the entire internet seemed to go through a Haikyuu!! phase mid-2021, I was tempted but hesitant. I do love volleyball, and I’ve played and watched it basically my entire life, so the plot appealed to me. The show, based on a popular manga series, follows Hinata Shouyou, a vertically challenged but spunky high-schooler determined to improve at volleyball and win nationals. Despite my lack of experience with anime, though, it took only an episode and a half of Haikyuu!! for me to become fully, deeply obsessed. I flew through both seasons that were on Netflix, bought a Crunchyroll subscription to watch seasons 3 and 4 (and the additional movies), and then ended up buying the rest of the manga because I had to know how it all ended.

Spoiler: It ended with me in tears. There I was, laying with my Kindle next to a pool, ignoring everyone around me and tearing up over the final time-skip story line that sees the characters all grown up and headed to the Olympics. And let me be clear: When I tell you this show is about volleyball, that’s literally all it’s about. Episodic arcs are based around perfecting the timing of a specific attack, or learning to cover a certain angle of the court. The later seasons consist of a single match each, played out in slow motion with dramatic internal monologues, time-outs, and asides. This sounds awful, but somehow it amounts to incredible television. I cried so much. In fact, I rewatched this scene before writing this blurb and now I’m emotional all over again. I’m fine. I have a Karasuno Volleyball Club T-shirt now. Please give me Season 5. —Kate Halliwell

The Empty Man

At the start of the year, The Ringer did a weeklong package centered on cult movies: the history behind them, how they’ve evolved over time, and whether cult films can exist in the streaming era. It increasingly felt like the internet had collapsed the window between a movie being unceremoniously released with little fanfare, negative reviews, a middling box office, and the time required for a passionate reclamation. (I literally wrote a piece on this.) Naturally, though, it took less than a month for that theory to be disproved, and I’m so glad it did with a truly worthy cult film: The Empty Man.

The 20th Century Studios horror film, which was originally filmed in 2017, sat on the shelf for years during the studio’s merger with Disney before it was dumped in theaters in October 2020. Disney’s intent was clear: We want this movie off our hands, and we don’t care if nobody bothers to see it. Well, The Empty Man certainly didn’t merit any attention in the fall of 2020, when COVID cases remained rampant and vaccines weren’t yet available. But once the film became available on demand in 2021, the cult of The Empty Man formed practically overnight—and I’m proud to count myself among its word-of-mouth foot soldiers.

The Empty Man is the kind of ambitious horror film that’s hard to describe: It’s nearly two and a half hours long, opens with a 20-plus-minute prologue about doomed hikers in Bhutan, and unfurls into a David Fincher–esque procedural in which an ex-detective investigates a death cult. The many moving parts of David Prior’s film—he’s a Fincher protégé, hence the shared vibes—creates a breathtaking experience where it’s genuinely hard to predict what will happen. The Empty Man is absurd, pulls liberally from myriad horror subgenres, and has no right being as brilliant as it is. And yet, it’s not just the most overlooked gem of 2020: It’s the film I’ve revisited more than any other in 2021. I don’t think I can give a higher endorsement to join the cult of The Empty Man, but be warned: Once this instant cult classic is lodged inside your head, the brain can itch. —Miles Surrey

Taskmaster

I don’t watch reality TV or game shows, with one exception. Inspired by my colleague Michael Baumann this summer, I binged Taskmaster, a competition show that forces five British comedians to complete random challenges, then display their efforts in front of a live studio audience while the hosts, and the contestants themselves, mock the competitors’ efforts. Part of the fun of the show is figuring out how you, the viewer, would perform the tasks; part is enjoying the contestants’ struggles in the heat of the moment; a further part is enjoying their rare moments of brilliant success. All of those facets come together in the best single clip in show history, when the Season 2 quintet must deposit a potato into a golf hole without stepping on the “green” surrounding the hole.

I will not spoil the next 12 minutes you’re about to watch. Just know that you should stay until the very end, because not since The Prestige have I seen a better depiction of the three steps to a magic trick than in this hilarious jaunt. As one contestant says midway through, “That’s the most exciting bit of sport I’ve ever seen.” —Zach Kram

Love Life

I’ll admit I had no real intention of watching Love Life on HBO Max when a friend recommended it. Yet another take on 20-somethings navigating romance and career changes in New York City, and with that title? But then I kept seeing bus-stop billboards for the second season featuring a pensive William Jackson Harper, and I figured, why not? After all, I do love Chidi.

First I had to make it past the first season, which stars Anna Kendrick. (Love Life is an anthology series.) Season 1 more or less sticks to the mold—a tight-knit friend group progressing through jobs and relationships in the big city—but Anna’s charming to watch, and I enjoyed the format in which each episode is based on a different relationship experienced by the main character. While the series can trod familiar ground, it updates common tropes for a modern audience—in other words, it’s not like trying to watch Friends in 2021.

As I expected, though, Season 2 is where Love Life really took off. It’s terrific to see Harper get his shine in a lead role, especially as a relatively normal guy—which weirdly gives him more room to flex his chops as a relatable character. But even more pertinent, the way Love Life handles Black love, career drama, and the entire year of 2020, is outstanding. From the pandemic to the fallout of George Floyd’s murder, Love Life isn’t afraid to get weighty. Don’t ignore this series because of its generic name—it’s far more than a rom-com. —Aric Jenkins

Noodle the Pug

Letting yourself relax can be difficult. Enter Noodle the Pug and his owner, Jonathan Graziano (@jongraz on TikTok), and their daily “bones or no bones” videos that swept TikTok’s For You page in 2021. It’s a simple concept: We find out whether the adorable 13-year-old pug has the energy to get out of bed in the morning—a struggle that anyone can relate to.

A “bones day” means it’s time to get after it and attack the day. A “no bones day” means it’s time to slow down. If you still want to accomplish something then go for it, but avoid real pants, treat yourself, and prioritize self-care.

It’s normal to feel tired, exhausted, and burnt out. Noodle is a wholesome daily reminder to not feel bad about hitting the snooze button. In a year that often felt like an extension of the previous one, it was comforting to start the day with Noodle reminding me to take it easy. Whatever self-care looks like to you, a “no bones” day is a day to lean into it—and Noodle is a reminder that that’s OK. —Alex Stamas

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