There’s little that unites the best TV shows of 2021, aside from their quality. Our picks this year range from epic space dramas (plural!) to intimate character studies, from shrewd satires to wacky adventures. Some are massive hits that grabbed hold of the zeitgeist; others are hidden gems, possibly because you don’t subscribe to their streaming service. All are worth celebrating at the end of a long, strange, uncertain year—one when we leaned on TV, even more than usual, to distract and transport us. These are The Ringer’s picks for the cream of the crop.
It’s a testament to Foundation that, even as streamers scramble to create the next Game of Thrones, the Apple TV+ drama feels utterly daunting in its scope. Based on Isaac Asimov’s celebrated science-fiction series of the same name, Foundation is concerned with nothing less than the impending collapse of a galaxy-wide civilization and the scientific minds preserving humanity’s most essential achievements for the generations to come: a centuries-spanning journey that’ll be told across eight seasons if showrunner David S. Goyer gets to complete his vision. (With all the ground the show has to cover, it’s easy to see why Foundation long held a reputation for being unadaptable.)
It wouldn’t have come as a surprise if Foundation had crumbled under the weight of its lofty ambitions—if anything, it’d be understandable. But against all odds, the first season conveyed its big-picture ideas without losing sight of the affected individual relationships and conflicts. Throw in jaw-dropping visuals that would put most blockbusters to shame—let alone any series outside of Thrones—and Foundation has all the makings of television’s next great megahit. —Miles Surrey
It’s a foolproof formula: Take a historical figure, make them hot, disregard the facts, and you’ve got yourself a TV show. William Shakespeare! The Borgias! Catherine the Great! At first blush, Dickinson seemed to fall into this fun, if flippant, genre: a 19th-century poet who speaks in Gen Z slang, played by a starlet and part-time pop star? Why not! There were worse ways for Apple to attract attention to its brand-new streaming service.
But in the final two-thirds of its three-season run, both released in 2021, Dickinson showed there was much more to its setup than met the eye—the same argument, not coincidentally, the show makes about Emily Dickinson, its subject, protagonist, and muse. Deploying a calibrated mix of gleeful anachronism, literary reference, and sincere feeling, the show animates Dickinson’s Amherst home into anything but the drab, lonely cell it’s often made out to be. This Dickinson is no sad spinster; she was a woman who loved fiercely (her friend and sister-in-law Sue Gilbert), wrote passionately (scrawling out her poems on scraps of paper in fits of inspiration), and engaged with big ideas (the specter of the Civil War hovers over the show and Dickinson’s work alike). As a viewing experience, Dickinson is entirely unique, collecting a mix of disparate elements into an improbably cohesive whole. As a tribute to Emily Dickinson, it’s perfect. —Alison Herman
High school is hell. Now imagine you took high school, cut it off from civilization, kept all the simmering social tensions, and stranded it in the wilderness for 19 months. That’s the instantly enticing hook of Showtime’s Yellowjackets, a show that’s a little bit Lord of the Flies, a little bit Lost, and a lot bit Mean Girls. Following a girls soccer team as they struggle to survive in the ’90s and sort through their trauma today, Yellowjackets knows there’s nothing scarier than a teenage girl pushed to the brink.
Even before their plane crashes and the kids turn to cannibalism, Yellowjackets is gnarly. One character breaks another’s leg so badly you can see the bone. Another betrays her best friend for a boy she barely seems into. Things level up once they’re stranded in Canada, but the intensity is there from the jump—the rare story about young women that lets them be the cause of its horror, not just its victims. With a pilot directed by Karyn Kusama of Jennifer’s Body and a cast led by ’90s icons like Juliette Lewis, Yellowjackets is a canny play on nostalgia, memory, and what happens when the past comes back to haunt you. Mostly, though, it’s a fast, freaky ride. Strap on those oxygen masks; it’s about to, quite literally, go down. —Herman
7. Reservation Dogs
The new FX comedy Reservation Dogs has been lauded as revolutionary, and rightly so: The series features a plethora of Native American talent in front of and behind the camera, including an all-Indigenous writers’ room. But despite Reservation Dogs becoming a significant milestone on television, one of the show’s finest qualities is that it doesn’t seem preoccupied with making a statement to begin with. (I mean, the pilot opens with a methodical heist of … hot chips.)
At its core, this is a low-key, offbeat tale of four scrappy teenagers with dreams of leaving their community for greener pastures—all while coming to terms with the affection they have for rez life, warts and all. From the surreal flourishes evoking fellow FX standout Atlanta to the series’ title being a riff of a Quentin Tarantino movie, Reservation Dogs has familiar pop culture hallmarks that are brought to life from the unique and long overlooked perspective of the Native American experience. It’s hard for any show to feel like nothing else on the airwaves in the era of Peak TV, but Reservation Dogs has earned that distinction with humor and self-assuredness. —Surrey
6. For All Mankind
When AppleTV+ launched in November 2019, its most-hyped series was unsurprisingly The Morning Show: a star-studded drama that felt like it was engineered in a lab to mop up Emmy nominations. But the hidden gem of Apple’s early catalog was, inexplicably, an alt-history science-fiction epic that imagined what would happen if the Russians were the first to land on the moon and the space race of the ’60s never ended. (I know I’m a space nerd, but seriously, how does that not sound intriguing?!) For All Mankind’s first season was by no means perfect, but the show set up the tantalizing prospect of familiar Cold War tensions on the unfamiliar terrain of the lunar surface.
With the second season moving the action to 1983, For All Mankind more than delivers on its early promise. The new batch of episodes is a master class in serialized storytelling, with the complex web of disparate story lines on Earth and the moon coming together in a thrilling finale that puts two global powers on the brink of nuclear Armageddon. As pure popcorn entertainment, moon-centric warfare can’t be beat, but the reason For All Mankind resonates are the rich character-driven arcs that follow astronauts, their families, cosmonauts, mission control workers, Ronald Reagan’s NASA phone calls, and so on; these narratives give the action genuine emotional weight. All told, Season 2 is one small step toward For All Mankind becoming television’s next great drama. —Surrey
Docuseries may be all the rage, but if you’ve never had the displeasure of interacting with the hurdles America puts between the poor and material assistance, Maid is the most educational show you’ll watch this year. Maid, based on the eponymous memoir by Stephanie Land, follows single mother Alex as she navigates a complex web of institutional failures. With an unreliable mother, a young daughter, and an abusive partner, Alex is on her own—and a social safety net means-tested into oblivion refuses to help her out. Maid uses a light touch of surrealism to illustrate the all-too-real plight that faces anyone attempting upward mobility.
But as much as Maid is bigger than a single person, Margaret Qualley excels as a woman crushed under the weight of her circumstances and determined to claw her way out. We’re in a glut of prestige miniseries that feel reverse-engineered to deliver showy, awards-baiting performances from stars in search of a vehicle. Qualley’s turn is entirely in service to the plot; she embodies the gnawing neurosis of not knowing whether the next paycheck will be enough. Supported by Andie MacDowell, Qualley’s real-life mother doubling as her fictional one, and Nick Robinson as Alex’s ex, Qualley anchors a show that knows of what it speaks—and makes us feel it, too. —Herman
Evil seemed like an awkward fit for broadcast television when its first season aired on CBS in 2019. It’s a series that mixes oddball humor with moments of disturbing (and often demonic) imagery—the elevator pitch would be The Exorcist as an X-Files-like procedural that was somehow funny? Thankfully, the show got a more suitable streaming home for Season 2 with Paramount+, where prolific showrunners Robert and Michelle King were unbound from network constraints and responded by letting their Evil freak flag fly.
The series still holds the same basic premise: forensic psychologist Kristen Bouchard (Katja Herbers), priest-in-training David Acosta (Mike Colter), and tech whiz Ben Shakir (Aasif Mandvi) explore bizarre phenomena earmarked by the church to determine whether an exorcism is required. But as the characters get more invested in the cases—usually at the expense of their personal lives—Evil’s second season further blurs the lines between the scientific and the supernatural to spectacularly kooky results. Between a retainer-wearing succubus who torments Ben, satanic initiations involving slapping people in public, and a silent monastery infested with buzzing botflies, Evil remains a sacrilegious cocktail of WTF television—and we’re so blessed to have it. —Surrey
OK, boomer: Maybe retreating to Las Vegas after a horrific divorce isn’t a sign of weakness, but resiliency. That’s just one of many lessons disgraced TV writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) learns from her new boss, a Joan Rivers–Lucille Ball–Elaine May–and-more composite by the name of Deborah Vance (Jean Smart). Created by three Broad City alumni, Hacks wisely stays away from the actual stand-up Deborah and Ava start to work on—we don’t even see Deborah’s climactic performance of her new hour—in favor of the prickly, affectionate dynamic that sparks up between the two. Personal and professional heartbreak have hardened Deborah into a highly competent but somewhat stale machine; early success has failed to prepare Ava for any kind of hard work, let alone a full-on reinvention.
But Hacks isn’t just a two-hander. It’s also a study in the strange bubble that sets in around the rich and famous, from the workaholic business manager to the personal blackjack dealer to the jaded adult daughter. Jean Smart is the center of this hermetically sealed universe and rightly earned an Emmy for this season. Still, Hacks is a stealth ensemble, and a tribute to how much more goes into a legend’s career than one fabulous diva on a stage. —Herman
In Succession’s third season, the Roy children find themselves jockeying for power against one another while trying to win their perpetually unimpressed father’s approval. Sound familiar? Viewed in a certain light, Succession appears caught in a holding pattern in which its characters can’t make any progress—a dissenting voice might argue that the show isn’t bringing anything new to the table. But the relative stasis of this season has been a point unto itself.
The stranglehold of extreme wealth means that Succession’s ensemble continues to be in thrall to Logan (Brian Cox), someone who can anoint a fascist presidential candidate not long after he nearly loses his own company because he forgot to take medication for a UTI infection. The insatiable desire to attain power that the Roy patriarch clearly won’t relinquish means that everyone on the series is trapped in a hell of their own making; it’s Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit by way of shareholder meetings and aesthetically unappealing penthouses. Even pitiful Kendall (an excellent Jeremy Strong), who finally sees his father for the monster he is, can’t commit to leaving the family empire without the promise of a cushy payout. By hammering home the same cynical philosophy across three seasons, Succession reaches a level of despair that’s all the more excruciating—and captivating—for how true to life it feels. —Surrey
1. The White Lotus
In our first full calendar year of living in a pandemic, it’s only fitting that the show of the year exists because of quarantine. Writer, actor, and Survivor contestant Mike White made two seasons of cult favorite Enlightened for HBO in the early 2010s—and then couldn’t get another show green-lit for a decade. Enter 2020, when production shutdowns left the network in desperate need of new projects, and fast. So they went to White, a notoriously fast writer. White didn’t just get another HBO show; he got a once-in-a-lifetime chance to tell exactly the story he wanted. There’s no time for notes when you go from series order to shooting scenes in a matter of months.
Not that The White Lotus is bloated or self-indulgent, the way some blank-check shows tend to be. Through six episodes, shot in isolation at a Hawaiian resort, White spins a tightly constructed tale of class, colonialism, and casual manslaughter, though the dead body teased in its opening scene feels more like a grace note than a culmination. The guests at the namesake resort are cruel and oblivious, but pathetic—as in, possessing pathos—in their misery; the workers are exploited and angry, but with more depth than mere victims. Across the board, the performances are excellent. Pity the Television Academy voters who have to decide between Jennifer Coolidge and Natasha Rothwell next summer.
In both its origin story and its on-screen themes, The White Lotus is uncannily on the pulse, though it never feels like it’s chasing relevance. That may change with a second season, which promises to turn this intended one-off into an anthology about a chain of resorts. But in its first, The White Lotus was a well-sharpened knife, gleaming in the golden-hour sun. —Herman