With parts of the world opening back up, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the options suddenly available to us, including on TV. Last year, television was a coping mechanism first, a distraction second, and art a distant third; in 2021, our downtime can just be downtime. This spring, viewers had more bandwidth to take in the grim saga of a Pennsylvania detective and her equally troubled hometown, or the surreal, grueling tale of one woman’s escape from slavery through the true heart of America. And if it’s laughs you’re looking for, Tina Fey’s got you covered, while Assane Diop made off with our hearts and minds along with a certain necklace.
Just six and a half months into the year, there are already enough great new shows that our critics had a tough time narrowing the highlights down to just 10. Mythic Quest, We Are Lady Parts, It’s a Sin, The Investigation, WandaVision, and the pandemic season of Top Chef all excelled at their own projects, from spoofing the gaming industry to tracking the AIDS epidemic through a London friend group. But our picks for the best shows of 2021 so far stood out for how much they managed to hold our focus. TV has to fight hard for our attention these days. These are the series that kept it. —Alison Herman
It’s hard to pinpoint what type of show will become an overnight sensation on Netflix—currently, tons of subscribers are enraptured by a mediocre, already canceled NBC series that’s a shameless Lost rip-off. But perhaps the streamer’s most pleasant surprise of the year is a French import offering a fresh new take on the classic gentleman thief. Rather than update Maurice Leblanc’s renowned 20th-century creation Arsène Lupin for the present, Netflix’s Lupin finds its protagonist, Assane Diop (Omar Sy), inspired by him in every sense of the word.
Driven to avenge his father’s wrongful conviction and death, Assane pulls off extravagant scores across Paris in the mischievous style of his icon, resulting in several classic heist-movie payoffs delivered across the series’ 10 episodes (which were released in two parts). All he’s missing is a top hat and a monocle—though he has a great collection of Nikes. But Assane’s bag of tricks are also given a contemporary spin that doubles as social commentary. As a Black man, Assane uses the racism and belittlement he experiences to his advantage—swiping a diamond necklace from the Louvre while posing as a janitor is easier when nobody is paying attention to him. There’s a risk that Lupin’s clever capers will lose their magic over time—call it the Killing Eve effect—but until then, the show remains as charming as its wily protagonist. —Miles Surrey
Every few years, it seems, an absurdly talented multi-hyphenate will make herself a star with a self-made star vehicle set in London. Phoebe Waller-Bridge did it with Crashing and Fleabag; Michaela Coel did it with Chewing Gum and I May Destroy You. Now, there’s Rose Matafeo, the New Zealander whose criminally charming Starstruck took HBO Max by storm this spring. Matafeo writes and stars in a classic rom-com plot just barely elongated into a six-episode sitcom; her character, an aimless floater who splits her time between classic rom-com gigs like nannying and flower delivery, has a one-night stand with movie star Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel), then spends a chaotic year sorting through the fallout. Think Notting Hill, but with an indie cinema instead of a bookstore and a postcoital dance to “Return of the Mack” instead of Hugh Grant stammering through a press conference. (The unrealistically nice apartments remain the same.) TV has had great success with romantic comedies stretched out over multiple seasons in recent years, allowing the creators to delve into the nuances of a relationship. Starstruck proves it’s possible to mint a star in just one season. It isn’t just Tom Kapoor who can blind us with charisma. —Herman
8. Search Party
The most predictable aspect of the sharp millennial satire Search Party is its unpredictability. It started out as a Nancy Drew–esque mystery around a missing person led by meandering 20-something Brooklynite Dory (Alia Shawkat), and it continued to reinvent itself. The series has gamely embraced elements of Hitchcockian thrillers, courtroom dramas, and for its fourth season, the terror of being held against your will in the spirit of Stephen King’s Misery.
In her search for a missing person, Dory was the one responsible for the deaths of two other people; now she’s been kidnapped by a self-professed superfan (Cole Escola, giving off serious Norman Bates vibes) who locks her in a creepy foam replica of her apartment. The makeshift prison forces Dory to confront her guilt, narcissism, and self-destructive tendencies, culminating with a surreal finale featuring every season’s iteration of the character in some kind of purgatory. (Mild spoiler: The show has been renewed.) There’s little doubt that Search Party will once again evolve in Season 5 or that it will be both thematically rich and scathingly funny. —Surrey
In just eight episodes, Girls5Eva packs in more jokes than most sitcoms give in 22. That’s the Tina Fey promise, here carried out by creator and longtime Fey collaborator Meredith Scardino. (In a meta grace note, the show airs on Peacock, a streaming service that itself could be an outtake from 30 Rock.) But the sheer density of one-liners is also a testament to how much potential there is in the premise: a late-’90s and early-aughts girl group reuniting to give their career a second go in middle age. The laughs aren’t at the expense of the Girls5Eva themselves—or at least, most of them aren’t; a scene in which prima donna Wickie (Renée Elise Goldsberry) is too self-obsessed to notice she isn’t actually hooking up with her boy toy crush is slapstick at its finest. Instead, Girls5Eva takes aim at the ridiculous, sexist machine that surrounds women in the Top 40 world, creating a satire that combines giddy joy and seething frustration. Thanks to composer Jeff Richmond and star Sara Bareilles, the songs themselves—“New York Lonely Boy” and the theme song especially—are pretty solid. It’s the skeevy managers, infinity pool incidents, and sham marriages to boy-band types that are too much to take. —Herman
6. Mare of Easttown
“A small-town detective with personal demons investigates a grisly murder” is a log line that could apply to countless prestige dramas, but the HBO miniseries Mare of Easttown still brought something new to the table—and I’m not just referring to the heavy Delco accents. The central whodunit might have been the hook and certainly kept audiences guessing until the (genuinely unexpected) killer was revealed in the finale. But Mare of Easttown resonated more for how it painted a grim yet vividly realized portrait of a local community that was suffering long before poor Erin McMenamin was found dead in a river—a truth reflected in the town’s perpetually grumpy detective sergeant and former high school basketball star Mare Sheehan (an excellent Kate Winslet).
Yet despite the bleak subject matter, some of Mare’s finest moments were also its lightest: Mare’s mother Helen (Jean Smart) obsessively playing Fruit Ninja while funneling Manhattan cocktails, Evan Peters giving a hall of fame Drunk Person performance, and the bizarre presence of Guy Pearce as a creative writing professor that everyone assumed was a depraved murderer because he was played by Guy Pearce. (Alas, he just really liked talking about the one book he wrote.) In moments big and small, Mare made every detail feel as important as the next. There’s already talk of Mare coming back for a second season, but let’s not tempt fate: One murdur durdur is plenty. —Surrey
5. Made for Love
Poor Cristin Milioti. She—or rather, her characters—keeps getting stuck in metaphysical limbo, usually because some dumb and/or creepy man put her there. After Palm Springs and Black Mirror’s “USS Callister,” Milioti’s latest escape act is Made for Love, the tech satire from the twisted minds of novelist Alissa Nutting and showrunner Christina Lee. Hazel Green (Milioti) is a chaos gremlin married to a control freak, billionaire Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen, a master of male insecurity). Somehow, their impulsive marriage has lasted 10 years, probably because Byron promptly whisked Hazel away to the Hub, a hermetically sealed bubble free of weather, want, or even smells. But when Hazel makes a run for it, she sets off a chain of events that blur the thin line between obsession and an abusive need to override free will. The perils of technology are perfectly obvious by now. Made for Love captures how our tools for ironing out inconvenience actually magnify our personal flaws, be they insecurity or a tendency to run from our problems. If only we all had a dolphin named Zelda to help break us out of our prisons. —Herman
4. The Underground Railroad
The biggest knock against The Underground Railroad, an adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize–winning novel of the same name, has nothing to do with the contents of the miniseries, but the fact that Amazon decided to release all 10 episodes at once. While it’s tempting to think about how much the discussion around The Underground Railroad could’ve been sustained had episodes dropped weekly—a more appropriate rollout for a project of this magnitude and subject matter—the series remains a towering artistic achievement with few contemporaries.
The show marked director Barry Jenkins’s move from film to television, and his imprint on The Underground Railroad is unmistakable, from the camera frequently lingering on close-up shots to the stunning tableaus for each setting (Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Indiana) along the journey of runaway enslaved person Cora (Thuso Mbedu). The Underground Railroad focuses on a dark, still-reverberating stain on this country’s history, and in Jenkins’s hands, the material transforms into an immersive viewing experience that is less about suffering than the immeasurable power of perseverance. —Surrey
3. Philly D.A.
This is the other 2021 show about crime and justice in the Philadelphia area—but without an Oscar-winning actress in the lead, it’s by far the more obscure one. Philly D.A. is the latest in a series of works that use the longer narrative tail of TV to mine the complexities of city government. Steve James’s City So Real tracked Chicago’s 2019 mayoral race, in which victor Lori Lightfoot ran as a pseudo-progressive; Fred Wiseman’s City Hall tracked the everyday inner workings of Boston’s civil services. Philly D.A. splits the difference between politics and governance. The first episode follows Larry Krasner’s insurgent campaign to become a prosecutor deeply skeptical of prosecution and the criminal justice system writ large. The ensuing seven episodes show what comes next: the resistance to institutional change, the difficulty of living up to one’s promises, and the conflicting takes on what it means to do right by the people of Philadelphia. Every hour is organized around a given theme, from juvenile justice to probation. But directors Ted Passon, Yoni Brook, and Nicole Salazar are consistent in their refusal to glamorize the dirty work of turning ideology into policy. The recently renominated Krasner makes for a fascinating subject, a man on a mission unafraid to ruffle feathers, for better and for worse. It’s unclear whether his approach is too confrontational for its own good, and Philly D.A. refuses easy answers. —Herman
2. 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 put 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 and 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
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 a front-runner for the post-pandemic Emmy. 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
An earlier version of this piece misstated which video game Helen plays.