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.)