Though 2021 could be neatly divided up into seasonal chunks — pre-vax, “everyone’s getting the jab,” post-vax, and fall — it’s shocking how much actually fit into a tight 365 days. The realm of TV was no exception, positively bursting with offerings even as the public started to trickle back outside. Even if the final tally of shows ticks slightly down (as it did in 2020), we’re still likely looking at more than 400 original scripted shows that aired in 2021.
But still, the TV audiences found places to gather around: This year, audiences embraced a few new breakout international hits, like the heisty thrills of Lupin and the dismal contests of Squid Game. We bid adieu to a few legitimate greats — Pose, Superstore, and (soon) Insecure. Marvel bounced back from a scuttled 2020 schedule to offer up not one but five TV shows to pad out the MCU, each with their own highs and lows. (Anime offerings were plentiful, and got ranked on their own merits.) There were miniseries, docuseries, animated series, and category-breaking series that still managed to light viewers’ fire (and that many will still be catching up on as the year rolls to a close).
With that, we present Polygon’s best TV shows of 2021, a survey of the year that doesn’t find room for every watchable episodic experience of the year (and has already gotten an update before the year’s end as latecomer blockbuster series air), but one that is very us.
Arcane is the holy grail of video game adaptations. Netflix and Riot Games’ League of Legends animated series is wildly popular both with fans of the game and people who have never touched it. In just a few weeks, it’s made its cultural mark in everything from fanfiction to cosplay to Spotify playlists. And on top of all of that, it’s actually really good. Arcane proved to be more than a League of Legends show, too, spinning thrills that made it one of the best-written animated shows of the year. Unlike many of Netflix’s animated shows, Arcane is surprisingly mature, and definitively young adult. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that the show features some of the most beautiful and unique animation since Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. —Austen Goslin
The Great (Hulu)
In its second season, The Great is thornier, more considerate, and an even stronger entry than its acclaimed first season. The show feels like such a breath of fresh air, even George R.R. Martin has written its praises. With Catherine (Elle Fanning) has staged a coup against her husband Peter III (Nicholas Hoult), battle lines get drawn in predictable places. But delightfully, The Great is never content to settle for simplicity. Each episode twists what we know, building out a show that is ever further away from the true story that inspired it, but much closer to the heart of the show it wants to be. The result is equal parts funny and poignant, just as quick to go for bawdy banter as it is to go for the jugular. — Zosha Millman
Hacks (HBO Max)
Let’s just get this out of the way: Jean Smart absolutely crushed the first season of Hacks. She could’ve just shown up, and dayenu. But she brought the heat as Deborah Vance, an old-school comedian and Las Vegas staple who’s callous and insightful in equal measure. Together with Ava (a skillful Hannah Einbinder), Hacks did the impossible: actually plumbing the craftsmanship of comedy, pitting various philosophies against each other, and building a lovely odd couple of comedians.
Hacks never settled for easy when nuance was possible, in either its writing and its direction. Both Deborah and Ava are prickly and loveable, acerbic and sensitive; they’re funny, and also incredibly flawed. Watching them tentatively build out trust with each other is a high-wire act that Hacks walks with the confidence of a fifth season. In its incredible final episode, creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky manage to cover ground swiftly, balancing tragedy and heart with smart comedy, all while being every bit thorny and unwranglable right up to the end. —ZM
Just like it wasn’t necessary to like football to love Friday Night Lights, Heels requires no existing appreciation for, or even existing knowledge of, professional wrestling to completely hook you in. The series empathetically explores the lives of those in a small town brought together by the local, family-run Duffy Wrestling League. When the series begins, it’s primarily focused on the clashes between Jack and Ace Spade (Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig), the sons of the DWL’s founder who are just as much rivals in the ring as they are outside it. But as Heels goes on, it builds into a gripping ensemble drama, giving center stage to supporting characters like Crystal (Kelli Berglund), Ace’s valet who has dreams of getting in the ring herself, and Rooster (Allen Maldonado), a Black wrestler frustrated by the lack of opportunities he’s given by Jack. The series is a bit of a slow burn at first, but as it expands its world and raises the stakes, it becomes clear that Heels has the potential to grow into something really special. So now’s the time to get in on the ground floor and say you liked it before it was cool. —Sadie Gennis
I Think You Should Leave (Netflix)
There was a second when I thought maybe I Think You Should Leave didn’t touch the genius of the first season. On first watch I was worried it was too contained, too continuous, falling just shy of the bliss of season 1; I laughed consistently throughout, but was it enough? How do you top a perfect 10?
Half a year and dozens of memes later, I can say yes, it is 100% enough. Tim Robinson and Zach Kanin’s sketch show is just confoundingly funny, even in its weaker sketches — a topic, of course, on which no one can agree. Maybe the “Baby Cries” sketch goes on a bit long for you, but how else would we witness dangerous nights? For every sketch that feels forgettable in the moment, there are three more that I would crack up just to think about. Months later, its surrealist humor is just as hysterical as the first time I watched it, forcing me to revisit my initial assessment in a way no other show could get at: “You sure about that? You sure about that that’s why?” —ZM
Invincible (Prime Video)
Amazon’s animated adaptation of Robert Kirkman and Ryan Ottley’s comic is faithful enough to surprise longtime readers, but it slims down a lot of the subplots and distractions and focuses on propulsion, which lets the first season cut straight to the heart of the story. Newly fledged superhero Mark Grayson, son of a Superman-like alien hero and a human woman, navigates his developing powers in a world packed with heroes, villains, and threats from other dimensions, planets, and timestreams. The first season navigates a mystery around the deaths of this world’s equivalent of the Justice League, but it’s more about Mark’s journey, the latest in a recent trend of hero stories about legacies, mentorships, and the next generation taking the reins. It’s entertaining, and sometimes very silly, given the ridiculous number of villains and villain schemes in this world. But it goes to a mighty grim place by the end of the season, cementing its status as a superhero story designed to bridge the gap between four-color Silver Age comics heroics and the grim-n-gritty era. —Tasha Robinson
The Great British Bake Off (Channel 4/Netflix)
The Great British Bake Off has had many seasons to establish its particular brand of coziness. Its convivial temperament at first bucked the norm for U.S. viewers, who were used to the more bloodthirsty nature of American reality television. But at this point, we know the drill. When I hear the theme song, I feel an instant peace, knowing that even though the challenges are murderously difficult, the amateur baking contestants are all nice to each other.
In a sea of roundly pleasant seasons, it’s odd to pick one GBBO entry as “best television.” But this year’s was particularly enjoyable because its contestants were that rare combination of talented and wonderful on screen. This is especially true of the final four (who I will not spoil!). Normally, by that point, everyone is exceptional but there’s an apparent choice for who won’t make it to the final three. In season 12, it’s truly a baffler, as they’re all deeply, deeply competent and have heartwarming, individual perspectives — sourcing a family’s curried chicken recipe, or bringing classic Italian bread making into the tent. Watching them make gorgeous signatures, technicals, and showstoppers and earn a Paul Hollywood handshake is a real treat. —Nicole Clark
Never Have I Ever (Netflix)
I like to say that I have little tolerance for what I call “high school drama” when it comes to actual adults interacting with each other, but I can’t get enough of it in Netflix’s Never Have I Ever. In its sophomore season, the show’s writers ramped up both the absurdity and the heartfelt drama of Devi Vishwakumar’s story, to thrilling and hilarious effect.
You want over-the-top hijinks? How about Devi attempting to date two boys simultaneously ... at the same party ... a party that she’s throwing at her own house, without her mother’s knowledge? And if you want emotional stakes, well, that party ends when one of the boys in question, the chiseled jock Paxton Hall-Yoshida, runs out into the street and gets hit by a car — ending his swimming career, along with his hopes of getting into a decent college.
So much of Never Have I Ever, especially its stellar second season, is about these high schoolers learning — usually the hard way, or at least the embarrassing way — that their decisions and actions have consequences. And Devi, who struggles with selfish tendencies while trying to live up to her Indian upbringing and continuing to grieve her late father, clearly has a lot to learn on that front. I’m just glad I get to watch this sweet, funny, heartwarming little show instead of actually reliving my own high school mistakes. —Samit Sarkar
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Simultaneously a wonderful modern showcase for one of the most enduring comedy pairings in Hollywood and an affectionate lambasting of (white) podcast culture, Only Murders in the Building is one of the year’s best debuts. Steve Martin and Martin Short pair up once more, joined by Selena Gomez to form a trio of true crime podcast fans who start a podcast of their own when someone in their well-to-do New York City apartment building dies, and foul play is suspected. Only Murders in the Building uses its central trio to do remarkably funny generational comedy (Martin and Short are extremely good as bumbling Boomers), while also building out its very small world into a surprisingly strong and diverse cast of compelling characters enveloped in a mystery that’s just as engrossing to viewers as it is to its characters. —Joshua Rivera
The Other Two (HBO Max)
The second season of The Other Two arrived two years after its first, following a move from Comedy Central to its new home on HBO Max, but lost almost none of its considerably funny powers in the transition. This time around, adult siblings Cary and Brooke Dubek are closer to striking out from under the shadow of teen pop star brother Chase, and even finding some success. But getting what you want doesn’t actually make you a better person. In fact, it’s liable to make you worse — as Cary and Brooke start to lose their underdog status, they are comically brought back down to Earth over and over again. There’s still hope for them (despite its razor-sharp satire of modern fame, The Other Two is still tremendously sweet), but it’s better for us if they take their time figuring it out. We’ll definitely laugh more. —JR
Reservation Dogs (FX/Hulu)
The set up for Reservation Dogs is simple: Four Native teens on an Oklahoma reservation — Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Elora (Devery Jacobs) — start stealing to fund their way out, hoping to make it to faraway California. But it’s not long before the show spirals beyond its heist comedy setup. Brief tinges into the mythical or surreal quickly betray a world that’s much richer than its logline, like a Hoof Lady who goes after bad men or a flash of a plantation owner in the white man with a Native fetish who sleeps with Bear’s mom. That these are all tempered with a cool wit that’s never afraid to tackle big issues just adds to the allure of the show. As it smoothly switches gears — between its characters, its moods, its start to finish — Reservation Dogs shows it’s doing more than just revving its engine. It shows how far one of the most promising debuts of 2021 could go. —ZM
Search Party (HBO Max)
Search Party’s ability to completely reinvent itself every season is the stuff of TV genius. Season 4 — which saw Dory (Alia Shawkat) trapped inside a felt replica of her own home (actually in the basement of her stalker, who had kidnapped her) — should have felt too hard to watch during the second third umpteenth wave of COVID when the season dropped in January 2021. Instead, its gloriously self-involved characters and zany set pieces made the season go down like water after a spell in the desert. Amid all the insanity there were trippy moments, quippy jokes, and brilliant performances (from the main cast to Cole Escola, who fine-tuned the creepy mastermind to something closer to a creepy try-hard). Or put differently: even in quarantine, Search Party was able to give us everything we didn’t know we needed.
Sex Lives of College Girls (HBO Max)
Joining the long list of shows that are much smarter than their titles (Crazy Ex-Girlfriend; if you know you know), Sex Lives of College Girls was just as thoughtful in its plotting as it was funny. Following four college roommates as they (like the title would suggest) have sex during their first semester at college, Sex Lives comes with none of the same caveats as one might recommend Sex and the City with. While it may stumble a bit at times, these characters are emotionally intelligent — which allows the drama to fall to a more natural place, like a mom’s outburst during a parent dinner or a trip to the women’s clinic. At the end of the day, Sex Lives of College Girls is easy viewing, rising above what it seemed to promise and finding something smarter amid the rush of YA shows. — ZM
Shadow and Bone (Netflix)
It is a rare thing for an adaptation to actually improve upon the books it is based on, but Netflix’s Shadow and Bone turns the first of Leigh Bardugo’s books — an exciting fantasy, but still with the trappings of a debut — into a more nuanced and compelling story. Shifting the narrative from a limited first person to a more sweeping scale bolsters the well-trodden Chosen One story. Sun Summoner Alina Starkov (Jessie Mei Li) might be a scrappy girl thrust into the spotlight, but she’s just one part of the bigger story that unfolds.
Granted, it’s a lot of moving parts — a ragtag gang of thieves pulling off their biggest heist yet; a witch hunter and the witch who saved his life trekking across the wilderness; and the looming threat of the Shadow Fold, just to name a few. But once all the pieces are put into motion, Shadow and Bone is an epic fantasy tale with some incredible characters and relationship dynamics. And a goat named Milo! What more could you want? —Petrana Radulovic
The Snoopy Show (Apple TV Plus)
There was a fear when Apple acquired the rights to Charles Schultz’s Peanuts gang — and the holiday specials that enshrined their cultural legacy even more so than the comic strips — that once again a tech conglomerate would gobble up beloved culture and spit it out as cheap product. Unfortunately, I am here to defend the tech conglomerate: The Snoopy Show is a joyful work of wholesome, wry cartooning, and a 2D-animation miracle hidden on the Apple TV Plus platform.
Created by Rob Boutilier, Mark Evestaff, and Alex Galatis, and animated at WildBrain, the series uses the antics of Charlie Brown’s pet beagle and his yellow bird sidekick to find new stories for Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Peppermint Patty, Linus, Pig Pen and the other quirky kids who populate Schultz’s world, who are all growing into contemporary young folk. The stories are simple — Snoopy writes a book! Snoopy shows Marcie why snow days are fun! Snoopy is too loud at the library! Snoopy goes all in on tricks instead of treats on Halloween! — but the lessons hit that profound, melancholic sweet spot of the best Schultz strips.
The creative team throws back to the old cartoons with a jazzy score and seasonal storylines, but update the look with eye-popping illustration and punchy dialogue (which is used sparsely, since Snoopy and Woodstock remain silent, but wacky). And the wacky streak is key: The Snoopy Show is funny. The animators don’t get bogged down in the morals of it all — sending a dog flying through the air and having a bunch of little birds laughing their asses off is a good time, no matter how much you’ve matured. —Matt Patches
Squid Game (Netflix)
Netflix’s international megahit was hard to avoid in 2021. Images from the South Korean series about a series of deadly children’s games, played by desperate debtors for the amusement of rich patrons, saturated social and mainstream media this year, spawning a seemingly infinite wave of analysis, parodies, and knockoffs. As with so much viral content, the nonstop gags and memes formed a kind of cloud around the series, obscuring how mesmerizing, painful, and well-crafted it actually is. Writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk intended the nine-episode miniseries as a scathing indictment of capitalism, and it certainly is that, garbed in the robes of a gripping series of competitions where the losers are summarily murdered.
But it’s also terrific human drama. Hwang carefully builds up a set of characters over time, using the story setup as ominous foreshadowing. It’s clear that most or all of them will be dead by the end of the story, and the creator draws out the tension while making it clear that all the characters have chosen to participate for their own reasons, and that they’re culpable in their own ways for what happens, even as they’re increasingly tortured by their own decisions. The story is thrilling and grotesque at the same time, and watching it feels like an act of voyeurism that the whole world got in on. Watching the fandom for the show build and feed on itself was one of 2021’s more fascinating TV phenomena, but watching the show itself was just as gripping. —TR
HBO’s melodrama about the familial power struggle inside a fictional media company continued to be one of the best-written, best-acted, and most entertaining shows on TV in its third season. But what really elevated the show beyond the backroom deals, poetic epithets, and nonsensical rich-person idioms it’s always excelled at was the world it created. While past seasons were all about the Roy family’s internal dynamics, this season’s familial civil war has tossed them out into Succession’s larger not-quite-like-ours world — which is basically what would happen if Twitter were real life. Seeing the Roys hang out at investor conferences, disastrously lavish birthday parties (that they threw for themselves), and quiet galas where future presidents are chosen draws out new details in each of the characters, but also lets them each be the worst possible version of themselves. It makes this season even more interesting than its predecessors, and the show’s darkest yet. —AG
Tuca & Bertie (Cartoon Network)
I heaved a big sigh of relief when Adult Swim rescued this show. Tuca & Bertie, which stars Tiffany Haddish and Ali Wong as bird-women Tuca and Bertie, respectively, is the best comedy about complex, messy women since Broad City. This second season is just as good as its first, expanding the scope of the already thoughtful show. Where prior episodes dug deeper into Bertie’s anxieties and her relationship with Speckle (the best television boyfriend, fight me), this season gives Tuca more space to shine. We get a glimpse into Tuca’s dating life — and how Bertie’s dependence on her prevents her from exploring her own relationships — and her ongoing sobriety.
In one of the season’s standout episodes, we get to see Birdtown at night as Tuca grapples with insomnia. The animation style is stunning, recasting the normally lively town in cool blues. It’s contemplative, more serious in nature, gorgeously handles grief and loneliness with deft writing, in contrast with some of the show’s more gonzo moments of humor (like a bachelor party in Planteau, where Speckle and the boys try to steal the plant-mayor). It shouldn’t come as a surprise, given how well the show has always understood when to take comedic risks, and when to venture into quietude, depicting things like workplace harassment and sexual assault. What a blessing to have it back on our screens. —NC
The Underground Railroad (Prime Video)
Oscar-winning director Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer Winning novel The Underground Railroad is a stunning achievement, and easily one of the best shows of 2021. The series follows Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu), an enslaved young woman escaping human bondage. In Whitehead’s novel, as in Jenkins’ series, the Underground Railroad is reimagined as a literal underground station, complete with trains and conductors, all woven geniusly into the fabric of antebellum America.
To escape the grasp of slave catcher Arnold Ridgeway (Joel Edgerton), Cora crosses state lines — heading through Georgia, the Carolinas, and Indiana, each with a lens of magical realism — undertaking a journey that also unravels the intense violence and inhumanity of slavery, and the lasting mark it has left on American life. The show is masterful on so many levels; Jenkins’ perspective behind the camera bring’s Whitehead’s phenomenal novel to the small screen with precision, artistry, and compassion. Each episode is meticulously crafted, and packed with detail. (And if you’re looking for more to consider, I’d recommend reading critics Roberts Daniels and Angelica Jade Bastién, whose excellent writing captures so much of what makes this show a force.) —NC
Wandavision (Disney Plus)
WandaVision cracked through the culture in a way none of Marvel’s Disney Plus shows have done since, despite their steady drumbeat of release throughout 2021. Was it just because of how starved we were for content in January? Does it really matter?
It was still captivating. The mystery was enticing, the Brief History of the American Sitcom framing was clever, the production design was inviting both from a visual and How-Many-Nerdy-Details-Can-I-Find perspective. Pinning it all together were Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany, perennially sidelined in Marvel’s feature films, crackling with chemistry for the audience and each other.
WandaVision may have ended the same way all Marvel projects seem to — with a CGI version of the lead character blasting their problems to smithereens and exiting stage right with a big TO BE CONTINUED sign pointing to a movie more than a year hence — but it was also a show that got the phrase “Ship of Theseus” into the popular parlance. The Scarlet Witch may not have gotten much closure, but in about four and a half hours, her TV series ignited a conversation about what victims of trauma owe to those they may have hurt in their journey to processing it. —Susana Polo
What We Do in the Shadows (FX/Hulu)
What We Do in the Shadows’ third season introduced two serialized storylines — Nandor’s search for love and meaning in his immortal life, and Colin Robinson’s quest to discover where he came from. Like much of what the FX comedy does, these overarching plots walked the fine line between deeply melancholic (Colin Robinson dies after being sidelined at his own birthday party) and extravagantly silly (Colin Robinson is reborn as the world’s most horrifying baby). And though sitcoms often thrive on stagnant characters being thrown into ever-changing situations, by the season’s end, there’s not a single character who isn’t impacted by Nandor’s and Colin’s soul-searchings. From Nandor returning alone to his homeland, to Nadja and Guillermo’s forced buddy trip to London, to Laszlo becoming Colin Robinson’s father figure, What We Do in the Shadows’ near-perfect third season sets up an array of exciting new fish-out-of-water situations for our protagonists to bumble through, because ultimately, the more things change, the more things stay the same. —SG
The White Lotus (HBO Max)
This year’s summer sensation opened with the promise of death, and by the end, annihilated nearly everyone — including the audience. It was a blast. Writer-director Mike White built his story of miserable a-holes failing to enjoy the amenities of their luxury Hawaii resort out of pure anxiety, and through what were basically sitcomy hijinks, induced the kind of self-reflection headaches one can only experience on vacation. Engorged testicles and coked-out benders were somehow on the more pleasant end of the spectrum by the time White was done peeling back the layers on his cast of characters, who could never be simply labeled “good guys” or “bad guys,” like 99% of what we watch these days.
On paper it sounds like a grueling chore. But as everyone from Lars von Trier to Larry David have discovered over the years, dunking an audience into the horrors of human impulses is as much of a spectacle as blowing up a dragon in space. And in the case of The White Lotus, experiencing the dizzying effect of problematic oversharing, Gen Z malaise, imploded dreams, money rot, and iPhone screens that block out the beauty of everyday life is a form of artistic catharsis. Throughout the six episodes, White mines comedy from schadenfreude and slapstick. He finds tender moments in the swell — Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) and Belinda (Natasha Rothwell) come so close to saving each other — but also directs scenes of ass-eating that look like Carvaggio paintings. It is so much, and simply human. You watch The White Lotus thinking: Thank God that isn’t me. But, of course, it is. —MP