Recovering from all the pandemic-related production shutdowns, 2021's best TV show that the medium is back on tip-top form.
The headline act in the streaming wars this year is Marvel Studios – after a belated start, this year has already brought four shows in the MCU to Disney Plus, with another to come in Hawkeye before 2021 ends. Two of them have made this list, which is a pretty great start. But they're far from the only worthy candidates.
Away from Disney, Netflix (opens in new tab), HBO Max (opens in new tab) and Apple TV Plus also enjoyed good years, Apple, still the new kid in class, has landed two entries in this list, showing that Apple's service is taking the fight to Netflix.
With 2022 now in full swing, we can now definitely close this list and crown the winners of 2021's best TV shows.
The White Lotus (HBO Max)
Where to stream it: HBO Max (US), Sky/NOW (UK)
The White Lotus is a mystery drama set in a resort in Hawaii – or rather, it's framed as a mystery drama, with a dead body teased in the show's opening moments that suggests you're watching a whodunnit. What this show actually is may surprise you. It's a knotty character drama about a bunch of people who arrive at the resort, as well as the staff trying to keep the place from falling apart. Each plot thread escalates from week-to-week, as they each confront something troubling them during their trip to this gorgeous backdrop.
Murray Bartlett's chaotic manager Armond is the highlight of a terrific cast – from Steve Zahn's emasculated husband figure to Jennifer Coolidge's lonely wealthy woman, everyone in this terrific show gets a moment to shine. The White Lotus is another sign that HBO is still on top form. – Samuel Roberts
Ted Lasso season 2 (Apple TV Plus)
Where to stream it: Apple TV Plus (worldwide)
Ted Lasso (opens in new tab)season 2 could have suffered from the ‘sophomore slump’ – a term used to describe how a movie, TV show or music album fails to live up to the high standards set by its predecessor. Season 2, though, has subverted expectations. It’s bigger, better and slightly darker (tonally, at least) than season 1, which shows it hasn’t run out of steam just yet.
Season 2 retains everything that we loved about its first instalment: amusing anecdotes, heartwarming moments and a sufficient amount of soccer. However, it’s the second season’s melancholic story beats that hit harder than its predecessor.
From Ted’s ongoing panic attacks to Coach Beard’s desolation following AFC Richmond’s harrowing defeat to Manchester City, its showrunners weren’t exaggerating over comparisons to Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back. Ted Lasso season 2 is season 1’s brooding, older brother – and it’s all the better for it. – Tom Power
Mare of Easttown (HBO Max)
Where to stream it: HBO Max (US), Sky/Now (UK)
This HBO mystery miniseries starring Kate Winslet had everything I wanted from it: well-considered characterization, a great sense of place and enough twists to keep the identity of its murderer under wraps until the end. It's a detective story, with Winslet's Mare the overworked but incredibly capable sleuth and mother looking to solve the case of a murdered local girl.
Whereas other HBO mystery series like True Detective, Sharp Objects and The Night Of are relentlessly dark in tone, Mare of Easttown has a barbed, genuinely good sense of humor – helped by Mare's fractured but winning relationship with her mother (played by Jean Smart).
Set in a fictional version of Eastern Township in Pennsylvania, the series' mystery drives the show, but it's the many complex relationships in the local community that bring it to life – not to mention scene-stealing turns from Evan Peters as Mare's in-over-his-head detective partner, or Guy Pearce as the love interest who offers a little hope to our protagonist. No wonder a local convenience store is naming a cheesesteak after this unmissable show. – Samuel Roberts
WandaVision (Disney Plus)
Where to stream it: Disney Plus
I was so ready for more Marvel Cinematic Universe stories after the entire venture had a pandemic-induced pause in 2020. WandaVision (opens in new tab), the first canonical show to hit Disney Plus, brought Wanda Maximoff and Vision into focus – neither of which had garnered loads of screen time in past movies. It did this inside the framework of a series of sitcom episodes, evoking US comedies from across multiple decades in visually spectacular fashion, while also burying its own mysteries beneath the surface.
Even though the story eventually becomes more familiarly MCU-like, WandaVision had tons of standout moments that kept people engaged and guessing at what was going on – from the appearance of Evan Peters as Pietro Maximoff (in retrospect, a very cruel tease) to the strange behavior of the townsfolk in Westview, the show's setting. An experimental first effort for Marvel on Disney Plus that remains my highlight of the year so far. – Samuel Roberts
Cobra Kai season 3 (Netflix)
Where to stream it: Netflix
Kicking off right at the start of the year and actually filmed long before that, Cobra Kai remains one of the breeziest and most enjoyable Netflix shows around in its third season. As with past years, I'm definitely not as invested in its many younger characters as I am in the relationship between middle-aged Karate Kid veterans Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio). But damn, it's just constantly fun to watch, and one of the only Netflix shows with an episode running time that's perfect for its amount of story.
Those two leads are still pure magic on-screen, and bring such a sense of history to their characters. It's still charming and exciting three seasons in – bring on Cobra Kai season 4, which will extract another villain from Karate Kid lore. – Samuel Roberts
Hacks (HBO Max)
Where to stream it: HBO Max (US)
The second show on this list to feature the brilliant Jean Smart, Hacks is a sharp HBO Max dark comedy. It's about a fictional veteran comedian whose hard-fought career is under threat from newer acts. She soon teams up with a young writer (played by Hannah Einbinder) who has offended enough people to lose her Hollywood break, in an effort to inject some freshness into her act. What follows is a series of nasty but hilarious exchanges that grows into respect, as the pair forms an at-times fraught creative partnership.
There are a few reasons this show is one of HBO Max's best originals to date. Smart and Einbinder's chemistry is terrific and very real-feeling – and the series isn't afraid to be a little harsher than comedies have been of late, exploring its two leads with a raw honesty. It also avoids the clichés of so many other sitcoms that explore generational differences, and is far more insightful on that front.
After Watchmen, Mare of Easttown and Hacks, I hope someone makes a new TV show with Jean Smart in it every single year. – Samuel Roberts
Castlevania season 4 (Netflix)
Where to stream it: Netflix
The final season of Castlevania certainly felt like a finale, packing in numerous showdowns, goodbyes, and coincidental reunions to ensure all the important threads were tied up. While some endings can feel a bit too neatly done, the season still succeeds as a paranormal-gothic-action thriller in all the important ways. Monologuing vampires get to the heart of their greed and hunger, protagonists slay monsters and occultists with a dizzying variety of spinning, slashing and exploding weapons, and mythological figures even greater than Dracula make a starring appearance – with the hurt, trauma, and conflicting morals of the series’ leads still being at the center of it all.
Season 4 features some of the best action in the series, with the studio’s animators getting more and more ambitious in their set pieces, whether that’s with teleporting axes, blood raining down staircases, or even moments that seem to recreate the 2D platforming of the Castlevania games. However, it also features some of the most horrific moments of the series, with one screaming, alchemical creature in particular being enough to give nightmares to the hardiest of souls. If that sounds up your alley, well, why haven’t you watched it already? – Henry St Leger
Invincible (Amazon Prime Video)
Where to stream it: Amazon Prime Video
After something of a slow start, Amazon Prime’s animated adaptation of Invincible (the R-rated comic series from Robert Kirkman and Cory Walker) has rightfully earned its place in this list.
Combining humor, heart, character development and plenty of over the top violence, as well as a stonking soundtrack, Amazon’s Invincible is a fitting tribute to its source material, with its most shocking moments (if you know, you know) depicted in such graphic detail that it’ll be hard to go back to viewing those sequences in their static comic book form.
Invincible follows Mark Grayson (Steven Yeun), a teenager whose father (J.K. Simmons) is the world’s most powerful superhero aka Omni-Man. Soon after his 17th birthday, Mark begins to develop superpowers of his own and fight crime like his dad. It isn’t long, however, before Mark realizes that his father’s legacy isn’t what it appears – and threats, both on Earth and in the cosmos, will truly test his abilities as newfound hero Invincible.
It's no wonder that Invincible season 2 and 3 have already been confirmed. – Tom Power
Loki season 1 (Disney Plus)
Where to stream it: Disney Plus
It isn’t surprising to see that Loki has been the most well-received Marvel TV show on Disney Plus so far. With its charismatic lead in Tom Hiddleston’s god of mischief, a stellar supporting cast including Owen Wilson’s lovable Agent Mobius, and some of the best sets and music we’ve seen and heard in a long time, Loki feels like a Marvel movie in a way that the other two Marvel TV series haven’t.
Loki wasn’t to everyone’s tastes. Some viewers criticized its switch from ‘curious mystery’ to ‘CGI-laden MCU adventure’ in its second half, while others were left disappointed by its exposition-centric finale. What Loki season 1 did, however, was act as a primer for the massive changes set to come to the MCU, as well as delivering a compelling, moral exploration of what ‘good vs evil’ really means and if our lives are predetermined before we’re even born.
Picking up right during the events of Avengers: Endgame (at least we think it does), Loki finds himself arrested by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that polices all of time and space, after he steals the Tesseract during the Avengers’ time heist. Set to be erased by existence for his crimes, Loki is rescued by Agent Mobius, who wants to use “Loki’s unique perspective” for a case he can’t crack. The mission? To help the TVA to track down an individual who wants to destroy the so-called Sacred Timeline and instigate a new multiversal war, which will wreak havoc across the MCU. – Tom Power
Mythic Quest season 2 (Apple TV Plus)
The first season of Mythic Quest: Raven’s Banquet was a tour de force for actor/producer Robert McElhenney, his co-creators Charlie Day and Megan Ganz, as well as the whole cast and crew. While season 2 never quite reaches the same emotional highs of the first season, it does deliver more character development and nuance, especially in Danny Pudi’s cold and calculating head of monetization, Brad, and Ashley Burch’s loveable tester, Rachel.
The main focus of the season is Titan’s Rift, the supposed sequel to Raven’s Banquet the developers put out in the first season. The difference now is that, with Poppy heading her own team, tensions flare between her and McElhenney’s character, Ian, as they can’t come up with one unified vision for the expansion.
What transpires is a heart-warming evolution of the characters wherein Poppy becomes more confident with her creative vision and Ian begins to loosen his chokehold of the studio. We also get a chance to see how F. Murray Abraham’s character C.W. rose to fame in the literary world and Jo (played by Jessie Ennis) go off the deep end before coming back to shore.
Definitely, definitely watch the first season if you haven’t already and press continue on season 2 if you’re ready to see how the crew continues to evolve and the end scene that foreshadows what’s coming next season. – Nick Pino
Where to stream it: BBC iPlayer (UK)
Possibly the darkest show on this list, Time is a three-part miniseries which tells the tale of Mark Cobden, a middle-aged man who finds himself forced to navigate the unfamiliar and hostile environment of prison. Sean Bean and Stephen Graham return to their British broadcasting roots for this one, delivering stirringly authentic performances as inmate and prison officer, respectively.
What could have been a gratuitously violent series becomes increasingly poignant as it progresses, with Jimmy McGovern's script peeling away the emotional layers of his two protagonists while simultaneously exposing the shortcomings of the British penal system. It's refreshing, too, to see a story told in such a self-contained manner – Time can be enjoyed (or endured) in no more than two sittings, which makes a change from the multi-series dramas that still struggle to pack the same narrative punch.
It's certainly not one to watch with the kids, but Time is absolutely worth its title. – Axel Metz