The Best TV Shows of 2021 (So Far)
Stream these gems, skip the rest.
We're still in this interminable pandemic but that hasn't stopped the pipes that provide us with content from spewing out its usual mix of liquid honey and total sludge. To help you avoid the latter, we're once again pointing you toward the TV shows absolutely worth watching so you'll always have something in your queue.
Before we get to the list, please note: We're considering only scripted episodic series and variety shows here, so you won't find any docuseries, reality shows, news programs, one-off specials, or movies in our ranking. Also, only shows that made their US debut during calendar year 2021 are eligible. Like we did in 2020 and 2019, we'll be adding shows to this list regularly, so keep checking back. Got it? Let's begin.
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Dickinson (Apple TV+)
Season 2. 10 episodes.
The second season of Apple TV+'s Emily Dickinson comedy freed itself from all the questions that are associated with the phrase "Emily Dickinson comedy" by evolving into an even weirder, truer version of itself. These 10 episodes find Emily wrestling with the question of fame, both on a practical and spiritual level as she considers publishing her poems. The ways in which her conflict manifests are surreal, and range from the unnervingly elusive (the appearance of a certain "Nobody" personified) to downright amusing (Nick Kroll as the drunken ghost of Edgar Allan Poe). All the while, the show finds time for trips to the opera and the spa, a spider dance from Emily's sister Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov), and a look at Amherst's Black community.—Esther Zuckerman
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Season 2. 10 episodes.
Ten years after the events of Season 1, the year is 1983 and the American Space Program in this alternate timeline is in full swing, with more and more astronauts serving on missions to the palatial Jamestown moon base, carrying out scientific research projects, fielding talk show interviews, and trying to keep one step ahead of those dastardly Soviets. Ed Baldwin (Joel Kinnaman) is now Chief of the Astronaut Office, Molly Cobb (Sonya Walger) is ambitious to a fault, and Gordo (Michael Dorman) wants nothing more than to get back into a spacesuit. The second season of the show ups the ante, playing around with Cold War politics in a new technological era, where the dreams of the erstwhile Space Age—cell phones, electric cars, lady astronauts (gasp)—have become an easily attainable reality.—Emma Stefansky
Season 1. 8 episodes.
Take a huge dose of early 2000s, TRL-era nostalgia and mash that up with the comedic sensibility of the Tina Fey-Robert Carlock universe established in 30 Rock, and you've got Girls5Eva created by Meredith Scardino. The premise of this Peacock series finds the four surviving members of a Spice Girls-esque girl group—the fifth died in a tragic infinity pool accident—reunited after their one-hit-wonder is sampled on a rap track. All at creative and emotional impasses in their lives they decide to give fame another shot. Anchored by excellent and hilarious performances from Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, and Paula Pell, Girls5Eva is as absurd as it is sweet, never losing sight of the strange bond between the women at its center.—Esther Zuckerman
Hacks (HBO Max)
Season 1. 10 episodes.
It's understandable if HBO Max's Hacks sounds a bit familiar when you first hear the premise. Do you really want to watch another show about the trials and tribulations of being a comedian? The trick co-creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky pull off is finding a sharp, nuanced take on the see-sawing dynamic between legendary Vegas stand-up act Deborah Vance (Jean Smart) and the young comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder) exiled to the desert to punch up her aging employer's material. If the two characters simply bickered the whole time, trading barbed put-downs and inter-generational zingers, the show would get tedious fast. Instead, the writers and performers carefully draw out the connections and the tensions between the two women, lending the showbiz plotlines a Larry Sanders-like complexity. Similarly, the world around Vance, from the soda dispenser in her kitchen to the Ace Ventura slot machine in the casino, is layered with funny, glitzy specifics that make the show feel both surreal and lived-in.—Dan Jackson
Invincible (Amazon Prime)
Season 1. 8 episodes.
For all of its intense bloodshed—and there is tons of it—Invincible, the animated series adapted from The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman's comic series, wrings out as many laugh-out-loud moments as possible in its complicated, The Boys-adjacent understanding of what it means to be a superhero. Chalk it up to its absolutely stacked cast—Steven Yeun as a teen balancing high school life while learning that he can fucking fly, Sandra Oh as his human mother, J.K. Simmons as his stronger-than-god father, and Gillian Jacobs, Zazie Beetz, Jason Manztoukas, Walton Goggins, etc. surrounding them—who bring the necessary intensity and charm to their characters wading into a messy universe-wide conspiracy stuck with the foibles of an earthbound mindset.—Leanne Butkovic
It's a Sin (HBO Max)
Limited series. 5 episodes.
This groundbreaking limited series out of the UK starts off as a party. The first episode is a celebration of gay life, following three young men who come to London and eventually become flatmates in a dilapidated but loving home known as the Pink Palace. But even these ebullient moments are filled with dread. Russell T Davies, best known for creating Queer as Folk and rebooting Doctor Who, has made one of the definitive pieces of television about the AIDS crisis. It's not perfect—and many critics have noted how the show missteps by focusing on how its protagonists contract the virus—but in its messiness and brutality it's also teeming with honest emotion. It's a Sin is vital not because it chronicles a disease but because it chronicles the lives that were altered and cut short by that disease.—Esther Zuckerman
Parts 1 and 2. 10 episodes.
Each episode of Netflix's new hit Lupin, a nimble caper series starring Omar Sy (The Intouchables) as gentleman thief Assane Diop, builds to the type of rug-pulling flashback that you might find at the end of an Ocean's movie. Disguises are ripped off; diamonds get pocketed; the dashing hero slips away, again. It's a classic heist-movie device that could get repetitive or predictable but, through the mercifully fast-paced 10 episodes of a first season that began in January with Part 1 and concluded with June's Part 2, Lupin and its endlessly charming leading man execute each reveal with a high degree of finesse. With a show like this, getting fooled is half the fun.—Dan Jackson
Made for Love (HBO Max)
Miniseries. 8 episodes.
When Hazel (Cristin Milioti) runs away from her megalomaniacal tech bro husband Byron Gogol (Billy Magnussen) after being trapped for 10 years inside the simulated-nature campus of his company, she learns, to her terror and chagrin, that Byron has implanted her brain with his newest prototype, a chip that allows him to read her thoughts and see through her eyes as she tries to free herself from him. The darkly comedic show was adapted from Alissa Nutting's 2017 novel, and hilariously and irreverently examines the nature of love, human relationships, and the personhood of sex dolls.—Emma Stefansky
Mythic Quest (Apple TV+)
Season 2. 9 episodes.
The second season of Apple TV+'s game dev workplace comedy deepens the relationships between its key characters while staying true to its own impish spirit. With Raven's Banquet in their rear view, Ian and Poppy—now co-creative directors, uh-oh—butt heads over plans for the next expansion, while Rachel and Dana manage their fledgling relationship and Jo relishes the power of being Brad's assistant-turned-sworn enemy. The season kicked off with the superb special episode "Everlight" in April, and its back half is structured around a thrilling yet absolutely devastating arc involving backstory scribe C.W. Longbottom, who gets his own 1970s-flavored standalone episode this season (Mythic Quest continues to kill it with the standalones) and a follow-up that expands the limits of comedy TV.—Emma Stefansky
Resident Alien (Syfy)
Season 1. 10 episodes.
When an extraterrestrial crash-lands on Earth after his spaceship is struck by lightning, he disguises himself as a vacationer in a small town, Dr. Harry Vanderspiegle (Alan Tudyk), in order to blend in. There's just one problem: When the town's local doctor is mysteriously murdered, the other residents, unaware of his disguise, elect Harry to be their new medical professional, and Harry has no choice but to agree. Based on the comic by Peter Hogan and Steve Parkhouse, the show is an absolute delight, following Harry as he ingratiates himself with the townspeople (save for one terrified little boy who can see through his disguise), while also searching for the alien superweapon he dropped in the crash, meant to wipe humanity from the face of the planet.—Emma Stefansky
Search Party (HBO Max)
Season 4. 10 episodes.
Search Party filmed its third and fourth seasons during a nearly three-year hiatus following Season 2, which, along with the show's move last June from TBS to the nascent streaming service HBO Max, explains the short wait for these 10 new episodes. Once again, the series lands a spot on our Best TV Shows list, as it did in 2020, with the plot following the four aimless Brooklyn hipster protagonists in the wake of the kidnapping of Dory (Alia Shawkat) by her stalker (Cole Escola), who just wants to be her BFF. Creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss plunge deeper into their characters' self-absorption taking them to a new extreme while building more empathy for them in the process. Meanwhile, it manages to remains very funny, with incredible work from Escola and guest stars Susan Sarandon and Chloe Fineman.—Esther Zuckerman
Starstruck (HBO Max)
Season 1. 6 episodes.
If you long for the swoons and frustrations of rom coms, head on over to HBO Max, which has imported Starstruck from the UK. Created by and starring Kiwi comedian Rose Matafeo, Starstruck puts a spin on Notting Hill. Matafeo's character Jessie has a drunken New Year's Eve hookup with a handsome man who just happens to be movie star Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel). Each of the six episodes jump between seasons as Jessie and Tom flirt and elide one another. The chemistry between Matafeo and Patel will tug at your emotions while you'll cackle at the comic creation that is Jessie, who wears her confidence on her sleeve and crumbles when it fails her.—Esther Zuckerman
30 Coins (HBO)
Season 1. 8 episodes.
If you're one of the recent converts to CBS's Evil after the first season dropped on Netflix and have been craving more ever since, turn on HBO's Spanish-language horror series about disgraced exorcist Padre Vergara (Eduard Fernández), who teams up with a small town's mayor Paco (Miguel Ángel Silvestre, whom you may recognize from Netflix's Sense8) and veterinarian Elena (Megan Montaner) to solve supernatural mysteries related to the legendary 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus, seemingly possessed by demonic energy. Their investigations into hauntings, ouija boards, and one absolutely monstrous giant spider-baby reveal a devilish conspiracy 2,000 years in the making.—Emma Stefansky
Season 1. 9 episodes.
What started as a charming pastiche mixing classic sitcom television and the deepest of Marvel Comics lore became a strikingly effective character study for two of the most shafted Avengers. Wanda Maximoff is living in a world of I Love Lucy bliss with her loving husband Vision, but things in the cutesy, all-American town of Westview are not as they seem. Why are Wanda and Vision trapped in a TV sitcom? Isn't Vision supposed to be dead? Is anyone coming to get them out? WandaVision's sunny exterior hides a darkness within, and turns a sprightly homage-driven series into an examination of grief on a chaotic, interdimentional scale, not to mention an action-packed lead-in to the MCU's Phase Four. It's worth watching for Vision's cozy sweaters alone.—Emma Stefansky
The Way of the Househusband (Netflix)
Season 1. 5 episodes.
The series that you can watch the quickest, at five episodes averaging 17 minutes apiece, also happens to be one of the funniest and joke-dense of the year. Adapted from the bestselling gag manga by Kousuke Oono, this Netflix anime yucks around with the idea that the most deadly and feared yakuza member, known as the Immortal Dragon, retires into domestic life to support his career wife, Miku, the one person not intimidated by his off-putting personality. Minus a few asides from the house cat Gin, The Way of the Househusband operates on one joke—a terrifying man does mundane things, like clipping coupons and taking jazzercise classes—but, incredibly, it works every single time.—Leanne Butkovic
Season 1. 6 episodes.
Ziwe, the comedian, is not writing jokes for a cozy night in for Ziwe, the late-night talk show adapted from her Instagram Live series Baited. Her questions for her guests—the likes of Fran Liebowitz, Eboni K. Williams, and Julio Torres in-studio; Stacey Abrams, Lil Rel Howery, and Gloria Steinam over video chat—are provocatively inspired about race and class, almost always borderline unanswerable. Whether she's moderating a roundtable with a group of real-life Karens, asking Andrew Yang who his favorite billionaire is (trick question; there are no good billionaires), or cutting to a song about infantilizing women, Ziwe, impeccably dressed, governs her own world with panache. Should you choose to accept her invitation inside, you shall be greatly rewarded.—Leanne Butkovic