Even by the standards of the choose-your-own-adventure TV landscape, exceptional TV spread diffusely across the landscape this year — so much so that two critics making Top 10 lists only shared three series in common.
Beyond those three consensus shows — HBO Max’s “Hacks,” HBO’s “Succession,” and Amazon Prime Video’s “The Underground Railroad” — the best of TV grows increasingly unruly and intriguingly wide-ranging. Selections by Variety’s chief TV critics came in the form of documentaries about pop culture and politics, an erudite music series and a surprisingly sharp teen comedy, and not one but two series about the culture of food. And even consensus choices underscore how wildly diffuse the landscape is right now: “Hacks,” a raucous character study, couldn’t be more different from “The Underground Railroad,” an auteurist vision of American trauma and tradition, in every quality but one: That, given the time and space of the streaming universe, both shows seemed to nail precisely what their respective creators were going for.
Both of those shows were new in 2021, as were the No. 1 entries on both lists — both relatively underheralded series that may remain to be unwrapped for many viewers. But other entries were deeply familiar: Amid so much novelty, surprise and sheer tonnage of television, it’s comforting to know that “The Other Two” can hone its humor, “Pose” can stick its landing, “Succession” can stay great, and that “Top Chef” can pull off new tricks in Season 18. The TV universe keeps on expanding, but the power of great shows to grow and develop gives us hope that the new series on these lists may continue to keep us watching for years to come.
Here are Variety’s picks for the top TV shows of 2021. (Click here to jump to Caroline Framke’s list.)
Daniel D'Addario's Top 10
10. Framing Britney Spears
The very best of the year’s scripted and unscripted projects seeking to reframe and reclaim recent pop-culture history, this doc had a seriousness of purpose and — not for nothing — could be argued to have made a greater impact than any other entrant on this list. The headline about the New York Times-produced “Framing Britney Spears” was that it helped bring attention to the legal crisis that had engulfed a prolific pop star in plain sight. Its less-heralded but still very real second impact may have been bringing serious consideration to bear on the artist and person Spears was, and exploring how that individual got consumed by a media apparatus that saw her more as a narrative than as a human being. (FX and FX on Hulu)
9. Watch the Sound With Mark Ronson
The DJ and producer Mark Ronson serves as amiable guide through the history of modern musicmaking in this six-part documentary series. Each episode takes on a component part of recording (Auto-Tune, sampling, reverb, and so on) and examines why it works when correctly applied, and why it’s been misinterpreted through the years. Ronson has a clear sensibility but a wide-ranging ear. He’s able to find something to like in just about anything he hears not because he lacks discernment, but because he can see how all the elements fit together. His presence, as well as the insight of guests from Paul McCartney to Charli XCX, makes “Watch the Sound” a pleasure for even the casual listener. (Apple TV Plus)
In its final season, FX’s AIDS-crisis drama reasserted its taste for emotional extravagance. Consider the wedding episode, in which words fail and so characters burst into All-4-One’s “I Swear” to express all that they can’t contain, or the finale, in which Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) finds new life as a mentor figure to a next generation of ballroom kids. “Pose’s” presence on screens was a special and remarkable thing both for its potent, florid emotionality and for the composition of its cast and creative team. It’s striking, and saddening, that the years since its 2018 launch have not seen many more shows like it, ones built around trans talent; fans will be waiting to see if shows like it will follow in its wake. (FX)
This drama’s third season opened up the show’s world — bringing in, for the first time, the Roy family’s impact on national politics in a real way. In a superlative episode, Sarah Snook’s Shiv tries to steer her father (Brian Cox) away from the allure of fascism; the stakes of the show feel painfully apparent in a way they haven’t always. Certain core strengths remain intact, though, including the across-the-board strength of performance and the series’s careful eye for detail, with each new character drawn with sociological precision that recalls a Victorian novel. It’s heartening to see that time away didn’t cause the standard-bearer for ongoing scripted drama to lose a step. (HBO)
6. Philly D.A.
Philadelphia’s elected district attorney Larry Krasner represents a transformative force running through the American legal system: He is a career defense attorney who seeks to reform a punitive system. This clear-eyed documentary series explores the promise of and the challenges to his approach, with a city built of various opposed constituencies alternately embracing or rejecting Krasner’s attempts to re-envision justice. “Philly D.A.,” initially broadcast on PBS’s “Independent Lens” and now available via the streaming service Topic, doesn’t back down from complication: Krasner’s opponents make their cases on camera, and his idealism comes into focus, at times, as intransigence. The case “Philly D.A.” makes through careful observation, though, is that it’s that personality type that gets anything done in a city so governed by dueling perspectives. (PBS/Topic)
Jean Smart and Hannah Einbinder are an astoundingly effective team on the year’s breakthrough comedy. But what’s discussed less often is how well the series conjures its world. Smart’s Deborah and Einbinder’s Ava live in a Las Vegas where the gilt is just starting to rub off; for Deborah, a comedy legend who’s made her career in the city, it’s too familiar to be anything but home. But we see this Vegas through the eyes of newcomer Ava, and its absurdities and moments of quiet connection have all the more impact as they occur to this character for the first time. “Hacks” deserves a long run, but its first season had a freshness, and a vision for what it wanted to say about its characters and the place they inhabit, that few shows achieve. (HBO Max)
4. Exterminate All the Brutes
Director Raoul Peck’s four-part investigation of the history of civilization is operatic in scope. Bringing to bear Peck’s ferocious intellect on the question of conquest and enslavement — how the subjugation of man has been conducted throughout history, and how it persists, in insidiously evolved form, today — this series is part mood piece, part lecture, part horrifying drama. The last element is perhaps the one that will most rapidly grip viewers, with the actor Josh Hartnett appearing as a sort of conquering force of European hegemony that exists, in different guises, throughout the ages. The point Peck makes, in painful and poetic cinematic language as well as in passionately argued voice-over, is that nothing has changed since the initial slaughters of indigenous people through the centuries. The horrifying killer instinct remains, and Peck is there to bear witness. (HBO)
3. The Underground Railroad
Though it felt under discussed in its moment, “The Underground Railroad” will exist for curious viewers for years to come — and will be discussed, in future decades, as a key piece of the oeuvre of ever-more-ambitious filmmaker Barry Jenkins. The metaphorical railroad — here a very real subway system beneath the U.S. — allows protagonist Cora (Thuso Mbedu) to traverse a fractious nation with wildly different manners of treating its Black citizens. And though Jenkins’ lens is unstinting when it comes to the pain and horror of the violence that underpins American history, he finds new ways of depicting this horror, and finding, beyond it, both pain and, somehow, possibility. (Amazon Prime Video)
2. Mare of Easttown
What more is there to say about a show that so precisely nailed it? In its final moments, “Mare of Easttown” emerged as a wrenching depiction of the slow, painstaking process of healing after grief; what Kate Winslet’s character has been undergoing emerges, in a rush, as it dissipates. Prior to that closing moment of grace, though, Winslet has been delivering a career-topping performance. She’s aided by an able supporting cast, by textured writing with a crisp sense of place, and by direction that maintains a clarity of vision throughout. Director Craig Zobel and writer Brad Ingelsby made the year’s best American series — and the one that best speaks to a malaise within this nation at this very moment. (HBO)
1. The Investigation
This Danish series, broadcast in February 2021, remained the year’s most finely wrought achievement. Taking as its subject the real-life police inquiry into the 2017 killing of journalist Kim Wall, “The Investigation” follows leads, as well as investigators’ frustration at their absence. Wall was killed at sea, and the vastness of an oceanic crime scene comes to bedevil officials played by Søren Malling and Pilou Asbæk; their persistence in the face of hopelessness, and the show’s depiction of meticulousness and care as a way we work to overcome, makes this series transcend the misery and the horror of its central crime. In all, it works as a testament to the power of uncovering the truth — the very thing Wall worked so hard to do in life. This series lies in wait to be discovered by a new audience. You will not regret having watched it. (HBO)
Honorable mentions (in alphabetical order): “Dopesick” (Hulu); “How To with John Wilson” (HBO); “The Other Two” (HBO Max); “Reservation Dogs” (FX on Hulu); “The White Lotus” (HBO)
Caroline Framke's Top 10
10. Top Chef
Bravo’s best and most innovative reality series outdid itself in its most recent season, which was filmed entirely within a bubble that forced the show to get creative with its tried-and-true formula. With the entire production living in the same Portland, Ore., hotel for the duration, the 18th season settles into a steady, familial rhythm. A revolving judge panel of “Top Chef” alums provide more insight as they get to know the cheftestants. Signature challenges get necessary makeovers that ends up suiting them even better. (Evolving “Restaurant Wars” from a mad free-for-all into an equally high stakes chef’s table tasting is the kind of adjustment that should by all rights return in future seasons, pandemic or no.)
In a year that hit the restaurant industry particularly hard, it was a joy to watch a show that celebrates those that make it work — and then, quite accidentally, a reminder of its continued shortcomings. If it weren’t for the fact that the eventual winner of this season became the subject of a workplace sexual harassment scandal, a fact the “Top Chef” production team absolutely should have addressed before the finale aired, this season would be an unimpeachable all-timer. As is, it’s a flawed but fascinating microcosm of how influential “Top Chef” has become in the industry it reflects. (Bravo)
“Yellowjackets” makes an immediate impression that leaves chills for days (and at least for this horror wimp, creeping nightmares for a solid week). The drama unfolds in two stark timelines: one, following a high school soccer team as they devolve in the woods after a horrifying plane crash, and the other following the remaining survivors as traumatized adults. With haunting direction from Karyn Kusama and standout performances from the likes of Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Tawny Cypress, Christina Ricci, and Jasmine Savoy Brown, “Yellowjackets” quickly becomes a razor-sharp portrayal of twisted friendships and how grief festers into trauma that lingers as long as it damn well pleases. (Showtime)
8. Saved by the Bell
The logline for the “SBTB” revival (“Bayside High deals with school redistricting under California governor Zack Morris”) felt like a parody in and of itself. As someone who barely watched the original show, I couldn’t imagine caring about what seemed like an obvious attempt to cash in on nostalgia to bolster NBC’s nascent streaming service. And yet, as written by Tracey Wigfield and team, Peacock’s “Saved by the Bell” is an absolute bonkers delight with more jokes in a single scene than some comedies have at all.
In the second season, the show’s even more comfortable in its own skin. The actors — including self-aware original castmembers Mario Lopez and Elizabeth Berkeley Lauren and breakout stars Josie Totah, Mitchell Hoog and Dexter Darden — are even more confident in their comic timing. Most fun of all, the writing is even more pointed and packed with jokes about celebrities, generation divides, and the crisscrossing intersections of race and class. I don’t know how they turned a “Saved by the Bell” revival into such a canny Los Angeles heir to the “30 Rock” throne, but I’m not complaining. (Peacock)
7. Love Life
Perhaps the most basic rom-com premise of all time — a lonely professional seeks love in New York City — got a major overhaul and welcome new star in the second season of “Love Life.” As frustrated book editor Marcus, William Jackson Harper got to flex his wide range and singular charisma as an actor, especially as Marcus grapples with how his Blackness interacts with his professional and personal lives. As the woman who intrigues, eludes, and eventually supports him as a true partner, Jessica Williams is his luminous counterpart. Each episode exploring a different romantic entanglement is succinct and incisive, bringing new depth to a genre that could always use more of it. (HBO Max)
One of the year’s best surprises came courtesy of the formidable trio of Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky, who wove their experience on shows such as “Broad City” and “The Good Place” together into one perfectly prickly comedy that earned its hype. Starring Jean Smart as a steely grand dame to Hannah Einbinder’s caustic newcomer, “Hacks” examined such generation gaps, self-absorption, and Women in Comedy without a hint of self-righteousness — which is, to say the least, a feat. And while the series does depend on the Smart-Einbinder two-hander to provide its caustic pulse, it’s the indelible directing from Emmy winner Aniello and supporting performances from actors like Kaitlin Olsen and Carl Clemons-Hopkins that give “Hacks” its extra edge. (HBO Max)
5. The Other Two
Created by Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, the “The Other Two” is both hysterical and smart about Extremely Online issues in a way few shows can balance without coming across as tryhards. As the spotlight shifts in Season 2 from the rise of Bieber-esque pop star Chase (Case Walker) to his wholesome mother Pat (an incandescent Molly Shannon) exploding as a daytime talk host, “The Other Two” also shifts into a more mature and insightful version of itself. Every taste of success for fame-hungry siblings Brooke (Heléne Yorke) and Cary (Drew Tarver) just makes them want more, and the depths to which they sink just keep getting more complicated. (Bonus points to Wanda Sykes as the family’s blunt agent, a role she only gets better at playing with every episode.)
This second season was massively delayed amid coronavirus production delays, which could have backfired hard on a show that thrives on timely pop culture frameworks. Instead, “The Other Two” proved that its sense of humor doesn’t have to be tied to a time, place, or Justin Bieber news cycle in order to be one of the funniest and most cutting shows on TV. (HBO Max)
4. Reservation Dogs
In a year that, unlike literally every other on television, finally afforded Native American talent more room to grow and shine, “Reservation Dogs” immediately stood out. Co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, the series employed a writers’ room entirely comprised of Native writers to tell the interlocking stories of a group of Oklahoman teens torn between their home and the promise of something greater outside of it. Sometimes, episodes burrow into the mindset of a single character like taciturn Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), wannabe leader Bear (D’Pharoah Woon-A-Tai), or actual leader Elora (Devery Jacobs). Sometimes, the show’s just happy to hang out with the group at large as they career through their hometown with an abandon that borders on nihilistic. Always, “Reservation Dogs” balances the surreal, sublime, and all too ordinary with a specificity and finesse that distinguishes the series from most anything else on television. (FX on Hulu)
“Succession” could have very easily collapsed under the weight of its own hype in its highly anticipated third season. Depending on who you ask, maybe it did, as the question of which spoiled Roy kid might take over their father’s company continued to hang in the balance. As far as this viewer is concerned, though, the series’ latest batch of episodes are just as finely-tuned and revealing as ever, with the requisitely elaborate production design and sharply drawn performances to match. As the Roys turned on each other harder than ever, taking catastrophic detours to destabilize the markets and democracy in between every stab in the back, “Succession” keeps upping its own bombastic, baroque stakes to increasingly devastating effect. (HBO)
2. The Underground Railroad
A uniquely thoughtful and profound series, Barry Jenkins’ “The Underground Railroad” is nothing short of an achievement. In most anyone else’s hands, Colson Whitehead’s novel would have presented too big a challenge — or worse, provided too big a temptation to deliver hour after hour of brutal horror simply for the sake of it. Jenkins, however, is far too nuanced a filmmaker to fall into such traps. While runaway slave Cora (Thuso Mbedu) goes through unimaginable hardships, Jenkins also takes crucial moments to convey the tenderness, lust, and love she experiences in between. He traces her journey with such care and attention to detail that each episode becomes a cinematic event in and of itself. Pause “The Underground Railroad” on any given shot, and your eye will be rewarded with something new, stark, and beautiful. (Amazon Prime Video)
1. High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America
Though scripted television was my first love, food shows have since become my best friend. I could watch hours of travelogues, cooking demos, meticulously shot docuseries with hyper-closeups on grains of rice … basically, any show telling me new things about food will have my heart. On that score, I couldn’t ask for more than “High on the Hog,” a gorgeous, wrenching series that recontextualizes how Black people have shaped American food throughout this country’s history.
As presenter Stephen Satterfield travels through the Carolinas, Texas, and the northeast coast, he both uses lessons learned from the Jessica B. Harris book that first inspired the series and learns new ones from home cooks, restaurant chefs, and passionate food historians. Throughout all four episodes, he is warm, curious, and compassionate, which counts for plenty when sitting around a table sharing food and stories. In the final episode, a toast sums up, as best anything can, the power and gravity of all Satterfield and his audience have learned about why a series like “High on the Hog” is necessary: “So we never forget from where we came and what we’ve come from. To come from nothing to where we are today, is nothing short of a miracle, and the grace of God, that we are still here as a race.”
In the show’s first, most powerful episode, he travels to Benin, where thousands upon thousands of West Africans were enslaved and sent to America, over and over again. When he and Harris visit a mass grave, he breaks down in tears, overwhelmed and awed by the history he can now feel hanging in the air all around him. The scene hasn’t escaped my mind since. “High on the Hog” will forever change how I think about where the food I eat and make comes from, and as such, earned its place atop this list. (Netflix)
Honorable mentions: “Ted Lasso” (Apple TV Plus), “Girls5Eva” (Peacock), “Pen15” (Hulu), “We Are Lady Parts” (Peacock), “The White Lotus” (HBO), “Only Murders in the Building” (Hulu)