The end of the year is approaching and it is a good time to reflect back on what was. The medium of television continues to grow giving viewers a multitude of options with regards to genres and sources. With network and cable along with the rise of streaming services, maybe a show managed to slip past you. The staff at AIPT wanted to provide our picks for best TV of 2021 highlighting some of the series you shouldn’t miss.
Having never played the multiplayer online battle arena video game League of Legends, I was absolutely knocked out by Netflix’s Arcane. It may serve as a prequel to the game, but this nine-episode series is accessible for the unknowable. It does a great job in setting up the world-building, which is a combination of steampunk and magic, whilst telling a story about two sisters, who find themselves on opposing sides of a war.
In a post-Spider-Verse world where you can mix 2D and 3D animation to groundbreaking effect, the French animation studio, Fortiche, is taking cue and it looks fantastic with gorgeous art direction and visceral action sequences. However, as stunning as the style is, the show never loses sight of its compelling storytelling with a diverse range of characters to a fascinating interplay of politics. We may have to wait for season two to arrive, but if you’ve got nine hours to spare, Arcane is a visual and visceral experience.
Brand New Cherry Flavor (Netflix)
Brand New Cherry Flavor is one of the most unique shows to come to television in years. The eight-part drama episodic show centers around Lisa Nova, a young director trying to make it in Hollywood, played brilliantly by Rosa Salazar.
Created by Nick Antosca (Channel Zero) and Lenore Zion, Brand New Cherry Flavor takes a revenge tale and makes it brutal, mysterious, and extremely weird. Catherine Keener is at her absolute best in her role as Boro, who may or may not be a witch.
With nods to Cronenberg, magical realism, and the type of careful art direction usually reserved for the big screen, Brand New Cherry Flavor brings to Netflix a surrealistic nightmare that you won’t be able to take your eyes off of – and the less you know about it, the better.
We’re in new territory these days as Marvel Studios is in the television business. WandaVision was an excellent start as it offered a smart television show utilizing key Marvel properties. But was it as far as comics television can go? I’d wager Loki took that mantle this year as it played with the idea of the expansive and limitless multiverse in brand new ways. That made it one of the best shows on television.
Starting with the fact that Loki died in the MCU, this show broke away from what we think is possible by introducing a “variant” version of Loki that goes rogue. It also introduced an agency none of the heroes, or the audience, knew about called the Time Variance Authority. Time is a fickle beast, but this show managed to introduce something that added form and function to it. Also utilizing incredible acting talents like Owen Wilson, Jonathan Majors, and Sophia Di Martino, to name a few, the show elevated our expectations for new characters brought to life by A-list talent.
This show went to lengths to expand on new ideas in the MCU and also with characters like Loki who we’ve known for 20 years. The character development and acting by Tom Hiddleston showed the range of the actor, but also the character. These aren’t storylines to serve action and fight scenes alone, but also films and now television. They can develop characters to match anything that wins an Emmy or an Oscar.
Mare of Easttown (HBO)
It’s not news that HBO changed the game for cinematic television. While this year, they didn’t come out with quite as much quality content as in 2020, Mare of Easttown is the kind of mini-series people count on HBO for. The crime drama stars Kate Winslet as small-town detective and single mother, Mare Sheehan, tasked with investigating the murder of a teenage mother and the disappearance of another teenage girl.
The bleak setting of a Pennsylvania suburb (the fictional Easttown) is the perfect location for this tale. The town is swept up by the recent crimes, and everyone knows everyone else’s business. Kate Winslet is absolutely incredible as the constantly-vaping and swearing Mare, who tries her best, but gets a lot wrong. This character study centered around a mystery is a brilliant glimpse into what life is actually like for lots of folks living in America – something we don’t always get to see on TV.
— Jules Cabot
Midnight Mass (Netflix)
Mike Flanagan’s Netflix series domination continued this year with Midnight Mass, a subtle, slow-burning vampire tale. While The Haunting of Hill House remains my favorite piece of Flanagan’s oeuvre — that series reveals more and more delicate awe with each viewing — Midnight Mass provides its own emotional power. Rather than dwelling on the otherness of vampires that typifies that genre — we fear them because they are what we are not — MM instead focused on a different otherness altogether: being on the outside of one’s own community.
The vampire aspect of the show doesn’t kick in until several other emotional stakes — and tragic repercussions thereof — have been established, and so much of the drama comes not from supernatural forces but from the subtle aggressions of a community unwilling to accept any slight deviation from its own norm. Silent, moral majority judgmentalism is a type of violence all its own, one typified by trying to convert the children of other faiths or ostracizing unwed mothers.
That the threat looms from inside is only fitting: narrow-mindedness and exclusionary tendencies are poisons that fester.
Mythic Quest (Apple TV+)
Mythic Quest set the bar real high with their new episodes this year and that was even before the season technically started. The “Everlight” special was epic with an exquisite celebration coupled with exciting action and engaging storytelling. When season two began, the show didn’t play it safe finding ways for the characters to experience growth and want more. It is more than a mere workplace comedy combining compelling character development with usual entertaining hijinks.
We saw the testers finally get together and witnessed a two-part C.W. story with his origin and a bittersweet reconciliation. Once again though, it’s the complicated and rollercoaster relationship between Ian and Poppy that fueled much of the narrative showing how much better they are together than working independently. In the end, many of the characters found themselves at intriguing crossroads paving the way for their futures to still be “TBD.” At least we know the gang will be returning for a third and fourth season.
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
If you’ve ever fallen down the rabbit hole of murder mystery podcasts, then this show will have you howling with laughter. If not, then it’ll just make you laugh until your sides hurt. Every episode of Only Murders in Building was an absolute masterclass in lampooning a genre while also paying homage to it. Despite getting into the show for its comedic sensibilities, I found myself completely drawn in by the mystery of who killed Tim Kono in the Arconia. From the genuinely shocking twists to the brilliantly crafted perspectives, each chapter somehow managed to top the one before it.
As an elder Gen Xer, I already knew how good Steve Martin and Martin Short would be together. I did not, however, expect to love Selena Gomez as much as I did. In addition to a fantastic individual performance, her chemistry with Short and Martin was what really made the main trio’s dynamic work so well.
From a technical standpoint, I’m not sure how a show could be much better. The cast was obviously superb, but you can’t leave out things like the music, costuming, sound design, and cinematography when discussing why this was such an amazing first season for the series. It’ll be hard for the cast and crew to top themselves in season two, but I can’t wait to watch them try.
Squid Game (Netflix)
I saw the memes and was extremely confused. For days I wondered “What in the world is this from?!” Then, I started watching Squid Game on Netflix and was even more confused. I struggled getting through the first episode. But, as soon as the first game of Red Light/Green Light ended, I was hooked! I have never seen anything like it before and I couldn’t wait to start the next episode.
Squid Game is a slow start, and maybe it was my fault for watching it with English voiceovers, but once it gets going, It. Gets. Going. The characters instantly became more compelling, the games became more and more gruesome and must-see. But what makes Squid Game so good is the psychology behind the characters’ actions and how they change from episode to episode.
I will not go into spoilers for those who have not seen the show, but I will argue with anybody that the sixth episode of Squid Games is the single best hour of television I have ever seen. If this episode doesn’t make you feel something, you’re wrong! I highly, highly recommend Squid Game for the few who haven’t seen it.
In 2021, there’s more than enough really good television out there. Between the networks, premium cable, and streaming offerings there’s guaranteed to be at least one show that’s perfectly crafted to meet your particular tastes. But, in the era of Peak TV, there’s only a handful of shows that are considered truly great. There’s The Sopranos or Breaking Bad, The Wire or Mad Men. You could even argue for Game of Thrones or The Office, although you may need to address a few caveats. Coming off of its explosive third season finale, I believe Succession has earned a spot in that pantheon of truly great television.
After a pandemic-induced two-year hiatus, Succession returned in October to pick back up right where it left off. It was a game-changing cliffhanger as Kendall (played by Jeremy Strong, who won an Emmy for this performance) betrays his father Logan (Brian Cox), their company, and really the rest of the Roy family as well. Logan watches the press conference on television and gives a devilishly proud grin just as we cut to the credits. Where do they go from here? How do they even top that? Did Kendall just… win?
The answers to all three of those questions are not what you would expect. And Succession doles them out slowly, and often painfully, throughout the third season run. With Kendall ostracized from his family, we rarely see the Roy siblings together in the same room. But when we do, they are the highlights of this season. The season is bookended by the Roy siblings meeting privately and conspiring to, as they elegantly put it, “kill Dad.”
Having Kendall, Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Shiv (Sarah Snook) in the same room is electrifying. Hilarious yet venomous barbs are flying, rapid fire, but it’s what they don’t say that reveal the most about the characters. From uncomfortable body language, to the slightest twitch or pause, every part of their performances is on display. It’s the closest I’ve seen television come to theater.
It wasn’t until the season finale did we realize that Succession had a few more cards up its sleeve. It’s an Empire Strikes Back-level, absolutely jaw-dropping conclusion that brings the previous eight episodes into perspective. A massive status quo shift that was unthinkable to most viewers. Maybe you’ve seen some chatter online, but I’m not going to be the one to spoil this for you.
If you know, you know. If you don’t, you’re missing out on one of the best shows, if not the best show, on television right now.
The Underground Railroad (Prime Video)
Wait – is this more of an episodic movie? Who knows? But what I do know is that Barry Jenkins’ foray into TV is absolutely gorgeous and horrifying to behold.
Adapting Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book that imagines the Underground Railroad as a literal train, Jenkins uses his Wong Kar-Wai influence to incredible effect, pulling us into perhaps the most gruesome time in American history. While the filmmaking is incredible, it’s there to serve the story and characters, showing in excruciating detail the pain and dreams African Americans endured.
Despite featuring many newcomers, most notably Thuso Mbedu, the acting is soul shattering. Admittedly, it’s easy to forget you’re watching actors, such is the devastating power of this series. However, that’s not to discount more seasoned actors like Joel Edgerton who delivers a career highlight as a slave hunter.
While difficult to watch (it’s not exactly a “fun,” bingeable show), The Underground Railroad is a massive, masterful accomplishment that deserves to be seen by all Americans and the world.
The first Marvel television series on Disney+, WandaVision, came at the perfect time, kicking 2021 off right. I am a school teacher by trade, and students were just starting to come back into the classroom when we returned in January. So, in order to help transition kids into wanting to be at school or start attending class, I started streaming each episode with my classes each and every week. Students who were more likely to miss class started showing up on Fridays to watch the show.
WandaVision took a risk, doing something that Marvel studios had never done before. And it paid off. This show took some lesser-known Marvel properties (Wanda Maximoff and Vision) and let them shine in entirely new ways. The idea of a Marvel sitcom was intriguing enough, but it was the true acting talents of Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olson (and a superb supporting cast) that made this show so great. Each episode was compelling, well-written, and had enough “punch” to continuously drive the story forward without ever feeling slow.
I loved this show. My students loved this show. And I credit WandaVision for creating wonderful memories for a group of students (and myself) that wasn’t necessarily having the best school year. One of my now freshmen students actually emailed me the other day about how he can’t wait for the new Spider-Man movie and asked if any of my classes this year get to watch Hawkeye like they did WandaVision. I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face.
Like I said in one of my first reviews of the series, WandaVision provided us viewers with the kind of escape we needed in early 2021, and is still my personal favorite Marvel series to date.
— Shane Martin
One of the most addictive shows of the last few years — who can forget Jackie Daytona — came back stronger than ever with a third season of What We Do in the Shadows this year. What made it work so well — outside of the already hilarious setup and various monster plots — is how this show took chances and changed the formula.
Sure, Guillermo (Harvey Guillén) is still puttering around helping the vampires in his life, but he was upgraded from familiar to bodyguard which effectively changed the dynamic allowing for new storylines. Other characters like Colin Robinson (Mark Proksch) also had story arcs that developed their character. Throw in the fact that Nandor (Kayvan Novak) and Nadja (Natasia Demetriou) became the head of the Vampire Council and the uncompromising cranky Laszlo (Matt Berry) befriended Colin Robinson and you have a lot of different dynamics in play.
In television, especially sitcoms and comedies, when the formula is messed with you tend to get bad TV, but if you don’t evolve these shows they grow stale and repetitive. There’s a reason the term “jumping the shark” exists. With What We Do in the Shadows, we see a show evolving and changing to keep the comedy fresh and the characters interesting for hopefully many years to come. Given how season three ended, season four will likely be an even bigger shift in character dynamics and stories.
— David Brooke
The Wheel of Time (Prime Video)
What We Do in the Shadows was probably my favorite show of this year, and nothing made me laugh harder than the Klansman joke in Curb Your Enthusiasm, but the show that made me feel the most was The Wheel of Time. And I know exactly why. I started reading the series when I was in middle school and was finished with college by the time the last book came out. I literally grew up with the books.
I was probably going to like The Wheel of Time no matter what. Thankfully, I do not have to question whether it is my love of the source material that has colored my opinion of the adaptation. While some may not like some of the changes made, the show is a great one. The characters are interesting, the quest is epic, the twists are well done, and few shows have made the use of magic look better. Each episode draws audiences in and makes the stakes palatable. It is cool to see one of my favorite series of books on TV; it is even better that it is actually entertaining.
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