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Best Shows 2021

The 25 Best Shows of 2021

Yes, it's the end of 2021 already

It's strange to be putting out a list of the Best Shows of 2021, considering how it feels like we've been living in an era called "2020" for about two years now. But our calendars tell us that it is in fact the end of 2021, and our watch histories show that we enjoyed plenty of great seasons of television in the past 12 months. For all the havoc the pandemic wreaked on the TV supply chain, there was surprisingly no shortage of excellent shows.

This year, we got obsessed with new hits like Hacks and Reservation Dogs, fell deeper in love with returning favorites like The Good Fight and Succession, and said goodbye to old reliables like Dear White People and Dickinson as they went out strong. We had brief but intense relationships with limited series like Mare of Easttown and The Underground Railroad and watched what felt like several years' worth of Marvel shows, starting with WandaVision back in January, which was somewhere between 20 minutes and a lifetime ago.

As 2021 comes to a close, the editors of TV Guide have compiled a list of the 25 best shows of the year. It's an alphabetical, unranked list. Rather than trying to compare apples and oranges, this is simply a celebration of the shows that made us laugh, cry, and feel grateful to be alive and watching TV in 2021.

For more, check out our lists of the 20 best episodes of 2021 and the 20 best performances of 2021.

Enrique Arrizon, Acapulco

Enrique Arrizon, Acapulco

Apple TV+

Acapulco (Apple TV+)

No one needed a vacation more than EVERYONE in 2021, and no show this year provided the closest thing to it better than Apple TV+'s Acapulco, a darling rom-com that not only transported viewers to the sunny shores of Mexico but also the indulgent luxury of an all-inclusive resort in the 1980s. Steeped in the shocks, ahhhs, and ooohs of telenovelas à la Jane the Virgin, Acapulco follows a young man, Maximo (Enrique Arrizon), who dreams of working at the local hotel to provide for his family even though many locals, including his mother (Vanessa Bauche), see the hotel as an abomination that only serves boorish tourists. It's a sweetly feel-good comedy that pays attention to its colorful cast, especially its older characters, like the romance between Maximo's mom and the awkward handyman, or Maximo's supervisor Don Pablo (Damián Alcázar), who longs to reconnect with his son. It's the vibrant colors and delightful details — a flamboyant poolside lounge-singing act covers '80s hits in Spanish — that give it the setting that sets it apart from other shows, and it's the oversized heart that will melt your cold exterior. -Tim Surette

 
 

Vivian Watson and Momona Tamada, The Baby-Sitters Club

Vivian Watson and Momona Tamada, The Baby-Sitters Club

Kailey Schwerman/Netflix

The Baby-Sitters Club (Netflix)

My friends don't believe me when I say that Netflix's The Baby-Sitters Club — adapted from the books about middle-school girls forming a baby-sitting business — is one of the best shows of the year, yet every time I plead with them, they see that this running joke is slowly turning into a sincere obsession. They're such Kristys, rigid in their beliefs about what they think they know, when they need to be Staceys, open to new communities and willing to try different things! Strip away the most easily mocked components of The Baby-Sitters Club — it's for tweens, you're 40-plus years old, Tim — and what you're left with is the most wholesome show on television that does a crack job at examining timeless issues of adolescence and, most importantly, putting its characters through the process of learning lessons in an environment full of support from family and friends. The suburban setting may put it in a bubble, but the issues — parents' divorce, death, romance — are universal. I dare you to watch an episode and leave feeling anything other than overjoyed. -Tim Surette

 
 

Blindspotting

Blindspotting

Starz

Blindspotting (Starz)

The Starz TV adaptation of Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs' 2018 film Blindspotting shifts the focus to Jasmine Cephas Jones' Ashley, the partner to Casal's fast-talking Miles, who must figure out how to take care of their young son and get back on her feet when Miles is sent to prison for selling pills. The series maintains the film's blend of dialogue and heightened language, interchanging between raps and verse. But it also expands to include choreography and other forms of visual expression in order to not only tell Ashley's story but give an even wider portrait of the Bay Area, where Casal and Diggs both hail from. Not only is Blindspotting a compelling drama and a worthy continuation of an underrated film, but it is unlike anything else on TV. This is one of the most ambitious series we've seen in a long time. -Megan Vick

 
 

Dear White People

Dear White People

Lara Solanki/Netflix

Dear White People (Netflix)

Let's face it: Dear White People has been one of Netflix's most criminally underrated shows from the moment it debuted, making the jump from feature film to streaming series. While the show has always been smart and irreverent, the ambitious fourth and final season — a musical season — went above and beyond our high expectations. Not only did the musical interludes show off how multitalented the dynamic cast was — showcasing '90s R&B hits and putting new spins on pop classics like NSYNC's "Bye Bye Bye" and Jamiroquai's "Virtual Insanity" — but the show never lost its ability to talk about the real issues without being preachy. Gun violence and police brutality were major touchstones of the season, but Dear White People never set foot near "after school special" territory. And the final season's use of a forward time jump allowed it to tackle the pandemic in a satirical form that was more sophisticated than most other shows' attempts. -Megan Vick

 
 

Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa, Dickinson

Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa, Dickinson

Apple TV+

Dickinson (Apple TV+)

In its three-season run, Dickinson went to the opera, goofed on Sorkin, and charmed Death himself — and Death was Wiz Khalifa. Billy Eichner played Walt Whitman by way of Broadway; Ziwe both wrote on the show and played Sojourner Truth (who is roughly 66 and "looks good as hell"). No other series could match the anarchic joy of Dickinson's casting announcements. It's tempting to just keep listing its most audacious stunts, but what's actually impressive is how well it pulled them off. Alena Smith's comedy blurred past and present for a reason: because it was funny, sure, but also because Emily Dickinson's (Hailee Steinfeld) verse couldn't be contained by anything less. The series balanced its batty anachronisms with pointed parallels to modern social issues, a messy celebration of queer love, surreal flights of fancy, and a lit nerd's fervor for poetry above all. Season 2, which premiered in January, was a dizzying ode to the perils of chasing fame (and being a freelancer). The third and final season, wrapping up on Christmas Eve, asserts Emily's legacy as a wartime poet, a woman who — far from the popular image of a spinster recluse — saw the world, even if sometimes just in her head. This show was the coolest close reading any great American poet could hope for. Dickinson danced with Death, but, like its heroine, it was fully alive. -Kelly Connolly

 
 

Mike Colter, Katja Herbers, and Aasif Mandvi, Evil

Mike Colter, Katja Herbers, and Aasif Mandvi, Evil

Elizabeth Fisher/CBS 2021Paramount+ Inc.

Evil (Paramount+)

I want people to fawn over Evil. It's the best show on TV right now, and I want our definition of prestige television to be big enough for a streaming procedural about exorcism. Robert and Michelle King's sublime Paramount+ drama is rewriting the rules from the inside out, using its case-of-the-week formula as a way to tell barbed parables about modern anxieties — the omnipotence of technology, loss of faith, the burdens placed on people of color in mostly white spaces, women's buried fear that their anger at the world has made them monstrous. Better yet, Evil torpedoes the idea that this sort of social awareness makes art boring by having more fun than anything else on TV. (They gave the succubus a retainer!) Katja HerbersMike Colter, and Aasif Mandvi, as the show's trio of investigators, and Michael Emerson, as their gleeful antagonist, nail Evil's tricky, off-kilter tone, which dances between winking playfulness and the creeping sense that something is really wrong here. On Evil, it ultimately doesn't matter whether the shadow in the corner is a demon or it's all in your head. What matters is that you can't look away. -Kelly Connolly

 
 

Sonya Walger, For All Mankind

Sonya Walger, For All Mankind

Apple TV+

For All Mankind (Apple TV+)

Ronald D. Moore's For All Mankind might not always be a great show, and chunks of the story aren't particularly engrossing. (In fact, some are downright maddening, right Karen?) But it is the kind of show that's greater than the sum of its parts (even if it isn't great, it's really good at being good!), the final product being immensely watchable dad content that might even suck in a few other members of the family. The alternate history drama in which Russia was the first to set boots on the moon captures the magical wonder we've always had with space, tangling it with international politics and a Cold War that boiled for decades to create episodes that peaked with tension. Season 2 made the fine Season 1 seem like a mere prologue as Russia and the United States raced to colonize the moon, and it answered a question I never even knew I needed answered: What if war broke out… on the moon?!?!? Capped by one of the year's best season finales, Season 2 not only realized the potential of the show, but also gave reason to believe that this was just a small step for the series, and a great leap is coming in Season 3. -Tim Surette

 
 

Paula Pell, Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Busy Philipps, Girls5eva

Paula Pell, Sara Bareilles, Renée Elise Goldsberry, and Busy Philipps, Girls5eva

Heidi Gutman/Peacock

Girls5eva (Peacock)

Peacock spent millions of dollars letting people know that it would be the streaming home of The Office, but it would have been better off letting people know about its original Girls5eva, the best new comedy of 2021 not named Hacks (let's call it a tie). The irreverently delirious series has an equally wacky premise: A girl group from the '90s attempts a reunion, with age, the current state of pop music, and incompetent management keeping them from achieving the dreams of stardom they wanted decades earlier. Produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock, it has the duo's knack for an astonishingly high rate of jokes per minute, but the extraordinary cast — which includes queen Renée Elise Goldsberry, Sara Bareilles, and Paula Pell — makes the gags land harder. Come for the goofy music videos and lyrics ("What are you waiting five?"), stay for the jokes about invisible pianos, birth control hats, and the sexy spy escapades of The Americans. -Tim Surette

 
 

Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald, The Good Fight

Christine Baranski and Audra McDonald, The Good Fight

Elizabeth Fisher©2021 Paramount+, Inc.

The Good Fight (Paramount+)

The best opening title sequence of the year came 48 minutes into The Good Fight's Season 5 premiere. After an episode styled like one long "Previously On," the boundary-pushing legal drama kicked off the rest of the season with a twist on its usual credits, replacing exploding desks and TV news footage with puppies and kittens. It was a cheeky statement from the most topical show of the Trump era, poking fun at the idea that everything would be sunshine and roses once the former president left office. But The Good Fight was certainly invigorated by the new political climate, free to zero in on the liberal hypocrisies that showrunners Robert and Michelle King play with so well. A rift between Liz (Audra McDonald) and Diane (Christine Baranski) leaned into Diane's "do as I say, not as I do" politics; she hallucinated a beatific Ruth Bader Ginsberg, then got into bed with her Republican husband. Mandy Patinkin joined the show as a self-appointed judge who dreamed of making the law work for the little guy, until he morphed into a power-hungry reality TV star. And all the while the show sustained a feverish fury at the January 6 insurrection and a lingering grief at the human cost of the pandemic. It's strange to say about a season that also felt the absence of two of the show's original stars, Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, but overall, this was The Good Fight at its best. -Kelly Connolly

 
 

Elle Fanning, The Great

Elle Fanning, The Great

Gareth Gatrell/Hulu

The Great (Hulu)

The Great relies less on telling the historical truth than it does on being thoroughly entertaining. Season 2 of Tony McNamara's satirical period piece is wicked and bloody and shamelessly lewd, throwing the audience into the middle of the action after Catherine (Elle Fanning) takes the throne from her husband, Peter (Nicholas Hoult), with Catherine swearing she'll be a better leader than Peter, whom she labels as nothing more than a witless brute. Despite her lack of qualifications, her genuine optimism that she can change Russia for the better makes her inevitable dark transformation that much more riveting to watch — especially through the eyes of Peter, who is kind of a witless brute, but who also takes any available chance to confess his uncompromising love for Catherine and their unborn child. With scene-chewing guest turns from Gillian Anderson and Jason Isaacs, The Great is a delightfully bold series, with a chilling final scene that I still can't stop thinking about. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Jean Smart, Hacks

Jean Smart, Hacks

HBO Max

Hacks (HBO Max)

"WoMenZ aRnt fUnNeH!" some total dipsh-- once said on the internet, and HBO Max's Hacks is THE perfect counter to bury that troll in a deep, misogynist grave. The legendary Jean Smart plays legendary comedian Deborah Vance, an aging former TV star whose career has taken her to a residency in Las Vegas where her shine begins to lose its luster, so she gets hooked up with a young comedian (Hannah Einbinder) who was cast out of Los Angeles after an off-color tweet to help her write new material. There's obviously the uphill climb of two female comedians proving themselves in a male-dominated industry, but Hacks is layered like the fanciest cakes with stories about generational gaps, female friendship, show business, and, most importantly, comedy in general, as it does the impossible: It breaks down what makes things funny while also being very funny. Smart and Einbinder are an incredible duo, but enough can't be said about the rest of the cast, which includes star-making turns by Carl Clemons-Hopkins, Kaitlin Olson (OK, already a star), Paul W. Downs (who co-created the series with Lucia Aniello), and Megan Stalter. Hacks is HBO Max's first truly great original, and 2021's best new show. -Tim Surette

 
 

Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Stephen Satterfield, High on the Hog: How African American Culture Transformed America

Dr. Jessica B. Harris and Stephen Satterfield, High on the Hog: How African American Culture Transformed America

Netflix

High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (Netflix)

It's a rare thing for a food show to feel truly essential. High on the Hog is essential — and it makes you wonder why more food shows aren't. Hosted by journalist Stephen Satterfield, the docuseries traces the African roots of American culinary traditions, moving from okra in Benin to rice in the Carolinas to barbecue in Texas, and then some. The history is painful — if you didn't know how far George Washington went to keep his enslaved chef, Hercules Posey, from freedom, even as Posey defined American cuisine, you do now — but it's countered by the profound healing that comes from cooking and gathering around a table together. Satterfield is an exceptional host; he's thoughtful with the people he meets and comfortable asking questions he doesn't have the answer to. In the show's most indelible segment, he breaks down at Benin's Door of No Return, a memorial to the enslaved Africans who were taken from that port and forced to board ships to North America. The vulnerability of that moment cracks the whole show open; the wound never really closes. -Kelly Connolly

 
 

Last Chance U Basketball

Last Chance U Basketball

Netflix

Last Chance U: Basketball (Netflix)

The Last Chance U franchise has always been great at stripping collegiate athletics of its glory and championships and looking at the sacrifices that come with being a student athlete. But football — the sport of focus in the first five seasons of Last Chance U — came with many limitations that were loosened by moving the series to the hardcourt of basketball. With Last Chance U: Basketball, which followed the East Los Angeles Huskies on their quest for a state championship, there were no helmets to cover the faces of the subjects, the squad was just over a dozen athletes, and gameplay was constant, limiting down time. The result was a more intimate program where emotions were on full display and games frequently came down to the wire, bringing out the best (and worst) in these kids who were already fighting an uphill battle with poverty, behavioral issues, and systemic racism. But perhaps the detail that elevated LCU: Basketball highest was the inclusion of coach John Mosley, the first Black coach the series has ever had. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement and as COVID-19 wreaked havoc on these kids' dreams, Mosley's perspective and influence on the kids, and the franchise, was tremendous. -Tim Surette

 
 

LuLaRich

LuLaRich

Amazon Studios

LuLaRich (Amazon Prime Video)

The story of LuLaRoe's meteoric rise and fall is pure schadenfreude for anyone who's been hassled to buy the multi-level marketing company's offensively hideous leggings. From directors Jenner Furst and Julia Willoughby Nason, who also directed Hulu's Fyre Fraud documentary, LuLaRich features plenty of delicious elements of the pyramid scheme's unraveling, thanks in part to jaded former employees with all of the gossip and nothing left to lose. Perhaps the most shocking revelations in the four-part docuseries come straight from interviews with the company's egocentric founders, a husband and wife who seem to have it all, save for a crumb of self-awareness. 2021 was the year of the "Gaslight, Gatekeep, Girlboss" meme, so LuLaRich couldn't have come at a more fitting time. -Lauren Zupkus

 
 

Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown

Kate Winslet, Mare of Easttown

Michele K. Short/HBO

Mare of Easttown (HBO)

The award for most deeply empathetic show of the year has to go to Mare of Easttown. Set in a bleak little town in Pennsylvania, the HBO miniseries follows Mare (Kate Winslet), a hardened, world-weary detective, and her investigation into the murder of a local teen girl. Mare builds its central mystery with enthrallingly twisty details and sketches out some exceptional world-building in the process, making the very grim Easttown feel like the kind of place that could actually exist. Anchored by mesmerizing performances from Winslet, Evan Peters, and the rest of the cast, Mare pays painstaking attention to subtly exploring how grief sinks into every area of a person's life, down to its final, moving shot. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

Hamish Linklater, Midnight Mass

Netflix

Midnight Mass (Netflix)

Over the past five years, writer-director Mike Flanagan has become horror's most reliably excellent filmmaker, whose shows and movies are always as emotionally weighty as they are terrifying. This year's project, the Netflix limited series Midnight Mass, is his most personal yet, steeped in his signature mix of nearly overwhelming sorrow cut through with moments of hope and beauty (and long, show-stopping monologues). Midnight Mass, the Stephen King acolyte's tribute to 'Salem's Lot, tells the story of a declining island community in the Pacific Northwest that's rejuvenated by the arrival of a charismatic young priest, Father Paul (Hamish Linklater). The mysterious priest revives the townspeople's faith in God by performing apparent miracles. But there's a dark side to the miracles, as Riley Flynn (Zach Gilford), a broken man who returns home to the island after serving a prison sentence for alcohol-induced vehicular manslaughter, and the rest of the island's residents soon find out. Midnight Mass is a meditation on faith, religion, and addiction that could only have come from a recovering alcoholic who found a higher power of his own understanding. -Liam Mathews

 
 

Colin Farrell, The North Water

Colin Farrell, The North Water

Nick Wall/BBC Studios/AMC+

The North Water (AMC+)

British-Canadian historical drama The North Water didn't receive attention proportional to its quality for two reasons. One is that in America it's exclusively available on the relatively obscure streaming service AMC+. The other is that it contains realistic scenes of seal and whale hunting that are punishing to watch. But if you can stomach the brutality, there is much to appreciate in the morbid beauty of writer-director Andrew Haigh's filmmaking, from the exquisite 1850s period detail to the critique of extractive capitalism personified by these British sailors who travel to a place, kill everything in sight, and leave. The limited series follows disgraced Irish doctor Patrick Sumner (Jack O'Connell) on an ill-fated Arctic whaling expedition, where he's forced to face his own heart of darkness. But the real draw is Colin Farrell's feral performance as Harry Drax, a scheming harpooner who's more beast than man. Farrell is a grunting, frightening, nearly unrecognizable presence, completely suppressing his natural charm in the service of playing a maritime counterpart to a Cormac McCarthy villain. The North Water is not for everyone, but everyone who thinks it could even potentially be for them for needs to see it. -Liam Mathews

 
 

Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin, Only Murders in the Building

Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin, Only Murders in the Building

Hulu

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)

Everyone has a true crime fanatic in their inner circle, unless they are the true crime fanatic in their inner circle. Only Murders in the Building has all the addictive ingredients of a viral murder podcast, expertly mixed with the comedic genius of all-time greats Steve Martin and Martin Short, along with a quippy Selena Gomez, who holds her own in every scene against the legends. The first season had a fun mystery to unravel, but it was also a delightful treat to watch these neighbors become unlikely partners in crime — you might even call them friends. Only Murders in the Building is the type of show you can enjoy on the first round and take even deeper pleasure in when you watch it again to catch all of the clues you missed. It's a show we won't mind revisiting on multiple occasions. -Megan Vick

 
 

Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver, The Other Two

Heléne Yorke and Drew Tarver, The Other Two

Greg Endries/HBO Max

The Other Two (HBO Max)

What a pleasure it was to get The Other Two back in 2021. Returning for its second season a whole two years after its first, Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider's showbiz comedy came back sharper and funnier, allowing itself to mature alongside the two adult siblings at its center. Cary (Drew Tarver) and Brooke (Heléne Yorke) are still flailing onward, trying to forge their own paths to success in the wake of their little brother and mother each rising to fame, and the show never hesitates to find ways to cut them down at every turn. In one episode, Cary weighs whether he can join a homophobic millennial church as a career move; in another, Brooke's date with an NBA player leads to a lawsuit. It's the most quotable comedy we've had since 30 Rock, it understands complicated family relationships as well as Succession does, and I can't wait to see where it goes in Season 3. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, and Lane Factor, Reservation Dogs

Paulina Alexis, Devery Jacobs, D'Pharoah Woon-A-Tai, and Lane Factor, Reservation Dogs

Shane Brown/FX

Reservation Dogs (FX)

Not since Atlanta has a show arrived with such a clear sense of who and what it's about, with the ability to be anything it wants to be from episode to episode. The one-line premise of showrunner Sterlin Harjo's FX comedy Reservation Dogs is that it follows a tight-knit group of four teenage "little sh--asses" living on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma who do petty crimes try to save up enough cash to escape their depressing town for California, following through on what their friend Daniel dreamed of doing before he died. But every episode zags off in unexpected, unpredictable directions, like a shaggy dog story where the kids try to help Uncle Brownie (Gary Farmer) sell his musty old cannabis, or a police ridealong that ends in communion with a mythological spirit. The cast and production staff is almost entirely Indigenous, and the show is filmed on location in Oklahoma. It shows the creative dividends that get paid when communities that have traditionally been shut out of Hollywood are allowed to make the kind of things they want to make. In the case of Reservation Dogs, it's a show that understands how to mine the surreal experience of being poor and Indigenous in America for deep pathos and even deeper laughs. -Liam Mathews

 
 

Brian Cox, Succession

Brian Cox, Succession

Macall B. Polay/HBO

Succession (HBO)

I'll take this opportunity to issue a very sincere "get well soon" to everyone who has criticized Succession's third season as being stagnant. Nothing ever really "happens" on Succession, but that's why it's great — it's a show built on charged glances and loathsome billionaires communicating exclusively through doublespeak and Nicholas Britell's dizzying score. Season 3 is as darkly funny as it is foreboding, with the Roy siblings and their associates staggering unsteadily forward in the battle for control of Waystar Royco, but mostly for the unattainable reward of Logan's (Brian Cox) approval. The show's greatest superpower is what it's able to achieve by looking at wealth and power through the intimacy of family dynamics, and this season introduces new threads in the Roys' already fraught relationships by pitting Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Roman (Kieran Culkin), and Shiv (Sarah Snook) against each other. Succession'sincisive writing is bolstered by its cast, making it a weekly showcase for fascinating, layered performances and acting choices worthy of deep analysis. Jeremy Strong and Matthew Macfadyen have been particularly remarkable as Kendall, the poster child for "I could fix him" culture, and Tom, TV's saddest man, respectively. It's a bummer to watch rich people behave badly in real life, but it's more digestible on Succession, a show that continues to make due on its promise to never let its characters off easy. -Allison Picurro

 
 

Jason Sudeikis and Juno Temple, Ted Lasso

Jason Sudeikis and Juno Temple, Ted Lasso

Apple TV+

Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)

If the Emmys didn't already inform you that Ted Lasso is one of the most beloved shows on TV, let TV Guide agree with the masses: Ted Lasso is an absolute gem of a television series. Expectations were very high after the sleeper-hit freshman season reminded weary audiences of the power of kindness when it premiered late in the summer of 2020. But Ted and its creative team stepped up to the plate for Season 2, examining Ted's (Jason Sudeikis) inner grief and peeling back those nice guy layers to reveal a relatable, struggling man underneath. Better yet, Season 2 gave us more time with the side characters we grew to love like family in the first season, digging into their weaknesses to deliver a heartfelt season about facing your demons and speaking your truth. -Megan Vick 

 
 

Aaron Pierre and Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad

Aaron Pierre and Thuso Mbedu, The Underground Railroad

Amazon Prime Video

The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)

Barry Jenkins' miniseries, adapted from Colson Whitehead's novel of the same name, may not be for the faint of heart, but it is one of the most visually stunning entries of 2021. The series does not flinch away from the cruelties of slavery, but instead of reveling in tragedy porn like so many stories about that era, The Underground Railroad celebrates the triumphant spirits of those held in bondage, telling a spellbinding, inspiring tale of tenacity and hope as viewers follow Cora (played expertly by Thuso Mbedu) through her winding, often heartbreaking journey to freedom. Combining magical realism with powerhouse performances, The Underground Railroad was one of the most powerful series to premiere this year. -Megan Vick 

 
 

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, WandaVision

Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, WandaVision

Disney+

WandaVision (Disney+)

For a while at least, until it devolves at the end into the same boring CGI battling as everything else in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, WandaVision offers something new and exciting for a Marvel project: a genuine sense of experimentation. The recreations of sitcom eras from the '50s through the '00s are technically perfect and unlike anything else in the MCU, and they're deployed in service of one of the superhero franchise's most emotionally resonant stories, which follows the previously underutilized Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen) as she comes to terms with how her grief and trauma are affecting her in ways she's not even aware of. WandaVision's early episodes provide the gloriously unsettling "I have absolutely no idea what's going on, but I can't wait to find out" feeling of a psychological thriller. They trust the audience to follow along in a way that modern blockbusters rarely do, and the reveals are paced out in a way that gives viewers just enough info to stay hooked. Even when we find out it really was just "Agatha All Along," we're not disappointed, because the journey was so engrossing. -Liam Mathews

 
 

Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Lukas Gage; The White Lotus

Murray Bartlett, Jolene Purdy, Natasha Rothwell, Lukas Gage; The White Lotus

HBO

The White Lotus (HBO)

HBO's limited-turned-anthology series became the word-of-mouth hit of summer 2021 because of Mike White's indicting but empathetic satire. The spoiled guests at the titular Hawaiian resort all represent different ways wealth and privilege manifest themselves, which makes them all awful in their own special ways. But they're all also complex characters who are the way they are because of things beyond their control — the families they were born into, societal expectations placed on them because of how they look, the way money influences how people interact with them — as much as for the choices they make and refuse to examine. White – who wrote the whole show in a month — is grappling with tense cultural issues of class and privilege in real time in a nuanced, funny way that people are really craving these days. The White Lotus is cathartic without providing any easy answers, because it allows its characters to act like real people. It's about how mostly everyone is trying their best to be as good as they can be, even if they always come up short, because they're human. -Liam Mathews



Keep the celebration of the best TV of 2021 going!
Check out TV Guide's roundups of the best episodes of the year and the best performances of the year


Edited by Kelly Connolly and Tim Surette
Illustration by Brittney McGhee