The best television shows of 2021

“Bo Burnham: Inside”
The musical comedian wrote, filmed, directed and edited this 90-minute show in his home during the pandemic. Though it never named covid-19 directly, it was a brilliant depiction of life in lockdown, particularly its strains: amusing tracks such as “FaceTime With My Mom (Tonight)” and “Looks Who’s Inside Again” gave way to darker songs about mental health. Irresistible earworms (“White Woman’s Instagram”) and explorations of the internet and the craft of comedy (“Comedy”, “Problematic”) are peppered throughout.

This year Apple TV+ released both the penultimate and final seasons of its popular drama, starring Hailee Steinfeld as the mysterious American writer. Alena Smith, the creator, might have produced a staid, serious biopic of this giant of poetry, imagining what might have inspired her and how she felt about the civil war. Instead, she wrote a show as unusual and modern as the author herself, set to a soundtrack of hip-hop and pop music. Dickinson and her times are meant as “a metaphor for looking at us”, Ms Smith says.

“The Great”
The first season of the riotous historical comedy envisaged the journey of the Russian empress (Elle Fanning) from naif to conspirator. Catherine’s attempt to overthrow Peter (Nicholas Hoult), her foolish, barbaric spouse, had mixed results—and she discovered she was pregnant with his child. The show’s very-fast-and-very-loose approach to the past, replete with sex and swearing, might have worn thin in the second season, but the writers kept the highjinks, and the laughs, coming as Catherine navigated her new roles.

In the second season of the comic noir—described by some as the Scottish “Fargo”—disgraced lawyer Max (Mark Bonnar) is out of prison and keen to exact revenge on Roy Lynch (Stuart Bowman), a criminal kingpin. Max’s maniacal cellmate is also at liberty, and a plot involving a housing development, a church, a holdall of cash, corrupt cops and buried secrets brings them all together. The deadpan humour, idiosyncratic characters and top-notch performances make this much more than the sum of its parts.

“It’s a Sin”
Russell T. Davies’s miniseries about the HIV/AIDS epidemic arrived on British screens shortly after the country had gone into another nationwide lockdown. The characters’ confusion, disbelief and panic about a new deadly virus felt eerily apposite. But Mr Davies said he had been looking to write about AIDS since the mid-1990s—before his seminal sitcom “Queer as Folk” aired—as a way of paying tribute to his own friends afflicted by the disease. “It’s a Sin” stood out from other dramas on the subject by showing its young characters enjoying the thrills of city life in the 1980s before tragedy struck.

Inspired by a memoir with the subtitle “Hard Work, Low Pay, and a Mother’s Will to Survive”, the Netflix limited series took a long, careful look at poverty in America, as experienced by a young single mother. It was infuriating to watch Alex (played by the excellent Margaret Qualley) become entangled in government red tape as she attempts to make a better life for herself and her daughter, Maddy. The writing was unflinching and deeply empathetic.

“Mare of Easttown”
In the first episode, with grim predictability, a young woman’s almost-naked corpse was found in a creek. But “Mare of Easttown” was less interested in the crime than in the community that was its context—adults all-too aware that life can be tragic, and teenagers who know more than the adults realise. The intimacy and companionship, snooping and claustrophobia, were conveyed by a top-notch ensemble of actors, including Guy Pearce. Yet even in distinguished company, Kate Winslet’s performance stood out.

“Muhammad Ali”
The docuseries directed by Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon was a subtle, devastating portrait of an American hero—and of the ultimate athlete-activist. The boxer astounded the world with his feet and his fists; across four episodes the viewer saw him hone his rhyme and rhetoric as well as his jab. Few stories can sustain nearly eight hours of television, but Ali’s is one of them. It has been told many times before, but perhaps never in this depth and intimacy.

“Sex Education”
Set in a British school, the second season of the Netflix comedy series ended with a lurid production of “Romeo and Juliet” and the sacking of the headmaster. The third began with the tenure of Hope Haddon, a disciplinarian who is determined to improve Moordale’s image and purify the minds of its sex-obsessed students. She clashed, of course, with Otis and Maeve (Asa Butterfield and Emma Mackey), the school’s unofficial relationship counsellors, Jackson (Kedar Williams-Stirling), the former head boy, as well as Cal (Dua Saleh), a new non-binary student. “Sex Education” offered plenty of the usual adolescent escapades but excelled at humanising unpromising characters such as Adam and Ruby.

The Roys returned, still backstabbing each other for control of Waystar Royco, a media conglomerate, still hurling graphic insults and still behaving in a remorselessly wicked way. Following betrayal by his son, Kendall (Jeremy Strong), in the third season Logan Roy (Brian Cox) and his other children had to fend off outsiders—rivals, prosecutors, regulators—like some medieval hilltop clan. It was delicious.

“Ted Lasso”
In the opening episodes of the hit Apple TV+ show, Ted Lasso, an American-football coach transplanted to the Premier League, won over his critics with a mix of folksy conviviality, self-belief and homemade baked goods. That allowed the screenwriters to focus on supporting characters at AFC Richmond in the second season, with wonderful results. A particular highlight was an episode in which Roy Kent (no prizes for guessing on which gruff Irish midfielder the character is based) had to address his beloved niece’s halitosis. When Jason Sudeikis, who plays the title character, hosted “Saturday Night Live” in October, he admitted to being bemused by the show’s success. “It’s truly shocking to me,” he quipped, “because it’s built around two things Americans hate: soccer and kindness.”

“This Way Up”
The first season of Aisling Bea’s comedy-drama, released in 2019, followed Aine (Ms Bea) as she recovered from a nervous breakdown and returned to work as an English-language teacher. As with “Fleabag”, with which it shares an irreverent tone, the show’s emotional centre was the relationship between two sisters: Aine and the concerned, capable Shona (Sharon Horgan). The second season left much of the darker material behind and focused instead on Aine’s relationship with Richard (Tobias Menzies), the single father of a pupil. Though it lacked some of the hilarious, absurd set pieces of the first, the bond between the sisters—particularly their acerbic dialogue— was as well-observed as ever.

Having conquered the box office, the Marvel Cinematic Universe brought new stories and spin-offs to the small screen. Disney executives hoped that the franchise’s legions of fans would be tempted to subscribe to Disney+, the company’s streaming service, which launched in 2019. “WandaVision”, the first show set in the MCU, focused on two secondary characters, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) and Vision (Paul Bettany), and adopted a curious format (the protagonists were unwittingly trapped in simulacra of hit television series). Yet it turned out to be a creative, thoughtful meditation on grief.

See also:
The best television series of 2020
The best television shows of 2019

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