The 25 Best TV Shows of 2021
The 25 Best TV Shows of 2021: 2021 like its predecessor saw a glut of long-form content being produced. As a result of having access to different streaming services, viewers were now exposed to long-form content produced throughout the world, and thus the creators of said content had to substantially raise the bar of crafting compelling stories in order to keep the audience engaged. It’s of course a given that with the advent of so many streaming services, the quality of web shows being produced is bound to get diluted, but having seen quite a lot of these in 2021, I can safely reassure you by saying that the good far outweighs the bad.
There are a couple of caveats to consider before getting to the list of the best tv shows of 2021. Firstly, the list is subjective. These are the 25 best TV shows that aired during 2021 according to me. The second caveat builds organically from the first. I haven’t seen everything that had come out this year, which means I might miss a couple of important ones.
There are also a lot of acclaimed shows (Squid Game, Invincible) that do not make the cut, because they simply did not work for me. The third caveat is this list is only considering the long-form narrative content produced. Thus no documentaries or anthologies on this list. And the final caveat is this list is not considering the shows that are currently still airing. Thus critically acclaimed shows like Yellowjackets, the final season of The Expanse, etc. are not considered because they are still airing.
The Underground Railroad
The only reason why the Prime Original Miniseriesisn’t on the list is because I was unable to complete it. This isn’t because the show is unwatchable. On the contrary, the show is highly important and a sure-shot technical achievement. It is also one of the finest directorial ventures of Barry Jenkins.
However, The Underground Railroad like its source material is so potent and so overwhelming in exploring slavery during the 1800s, that it remains a story you simply can’t binge. I can safely say that if I had completed this show, The Underground Railroad would have been near the top, if not at the top of this list. Its ambition and its messaging are challenging but ultimately a necessary one.
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So, Without further ado, let’s get to the actual list:
This is the story of Domina Livia Drusilla, the 3rd wife of Augustus Caesar. A master manipulator who ensured that Augustus became emperor and stayed in power. The opening credits encapsulated the show in a nutshell, the bloody backstabbing history of Rome and its legacy through the eyes of the women working behind the scenes.
There is nudity and violence, but the show focuses on Livia Drusilla manipulating and controlling the backdoor politics to navigate a turbulent time in Rome. It makes for an intensely watchable experience. The fact that women were extremely important in the running of government behind men might feel like woke agenda to a lot of people disillusioned with Hollywood’s recent trend of agenda-driven content. However, history doesn’t lie. Livia Drusilla is a very important character in roman History, for better or worse. That said, Season 1 of Domina is historical fiction that takes liberties between events of history to deliver compelling television.
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Stargirl, created by Geoff Johns and Greg Berlanti (Arrow, Flash) is mostly written by Geoff Johns, follows the story of Courtney Whitmore, a teenager who moves with his mom and his stepfamily to Blue Valley, Nebraska. While there, Courtney discovers that his stepfather Pat Dugan was a sidekick to a superhero Starman, himself a member of the JSA, and has the cosmic staff, Starman’s weapon with him.
When the staff inadvertently starts to work with Courtney, it unravels secrets related to both Pat, as well as the JSA (Justice Society of America). As a show, Stargirl came with the baggage of whether we needed another show in the vein of a CW show. The first season and this season proved that other than its cheesiness it has absolutely nothing to do with the CW vein. On the contrary, the show’s earnestness and sincerity are what make it so watchable.
The addition of secondary characters like Shade, who looks and acts absolutely pitch-perfect as a side-kick, is a welcome addition. Additional exploration into characters like Mike (Trae Romano), Beth, or even Rick is quite welcome. The special effects too look quite great, far better than the CW budgets we are used to seeing.
Stargirl thus joins the new iteration of Arrow-verse shows where the story is more focused and doesn’t dive into melodramatic drivel. And the acting across the board being great also helps. If you have seen the first season, binge season 2 because the quality doesn’t dip. If you haven’t seen Stargirl but loved Shazam as a movie, dive in.
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Gullak, loosely translated to piggy-bank, is a story about a middle-class North Indian family. Basically, it’s not a story that really has an overarching plot, instead, it is more focused on anecdotes and using those anecdotes as a backdrop for creating characters so recognizable and relatable that you are going to love them from the first frame or the first dialogue. That doesn’t mean these stories are simple. For instance, the anecdote about a scooter, or the anecdote about a power cut one evening has a script and the dialogues that are witty and sincere. And the performances are absolutely brilliant. Every character is three-dimensional and perfectly fleshed out and defined. It’s still a question whether we needed a sequel, but Season 2 like its predecessor, has its tonality still intact.
Since there isn’t too much of an overarching plot here, that, in itself, becomes the point. A focus on reality is more pronounced here and the acting remains top-notch. Also, there is a sense of sentimentality here that is a tad bit more pronounced than the previous season, but the core remains unchanged. It is still heartwarming and it is still fascinatingly relatable. TVF has a knack for creating content that hits on the pulse of the country. A microcosm examination of an Indian middle-class family which can be enjoyed at all – this is a rare content and should always be appreciated.
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22. The Chestnut Man
Created by Soren Sveistrup, who created the fantastic Scandinavian noir series “The Killing”, The Chestnut Man takes place in Copenhagen where the police are shocked to discover a young woman murdered to death in a playground, with one of her hands missing. The killer leaves a calling card, “The Chestnut Man” – a makeshift doll made of two chestnuts connected with twigs to create the shape of a man.
The investigation is soon assigned to Naia Thulin, an ambitious detective who is planning to move into cybercrime away from the Homicide division, thus effectively making this her last case. Her boss saddles her with Mark Hess, a young detective from Interpol who is stuck in Copenhagen and waiting for the call to return from his organization. Almost immediately Thulin and Hess don’t get along because Hess doesn’t want to be here, and is killing time, while Thulin wants to investigate this case. However, Hess and Thulin soon discover evidence in the piece of chestnut connecting this case to another mysterious disappearance of a girl almost a year prior – the daughter of the minister of social services.
What makes The Chestnut Man so good isn’t the main investigative story thread, which is compelling and twisty like most potboilers. It’s the supporting storytelling that is equally compelling or even filled with realistic drama for the viewer to buy into. The creators maintain a sense of tension by keeping the revelations a slow burn, making it the show’s biggest strength. Sometimes in case of heightened moments, the tension is almost unbearable; while the release – equally cathartic. The opening moments of the show as well as the final climactic moments are top-notch Scandinavian-noir storytelling.
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21. The Investigation
Created by Tobias Lindholm (Another Round, The Hunt), The Investigation deals with the murder investigation of Swedish journalist Kim Wall, investigated by the Copenhagen Police Department. The investigation herein is led by Inspector Jens Moller who is aided by public prosecutor Jakob Buch-Jespen. That’s it!
This show is almost stubbornly solipsistic in its field of vision. It is so narrow in that regard, that neither the accused nor the victim is ever shown on screen. There are no efforts to sensationalize the proceedings by showcasing blood, gore, and limbs – a trademark of most nordic noir. Consequently, The Investigation is one of the cleanest police procedural you will see. However, its focus on its procedural roots and the detail-oriented approach of the investigation is the ultimate catnip for viewers. Thus making the show a highly subjective one. Depending on your taste, this show would ultimately be either an extremely boring and sanitized take, or an extremely detail-oriented and far more poignant take than you would anticipate.
My inclination towards the latter comes from noticing the show’s almost reverential respect towards the victim, a viewpoint sorely lacking in most true crime dramatizations. The Investigation is punishing in its pace, very much focused on the procedural and bureaucratic aspects of the police investigation, and would frustrate you almost intentionally. However, sticking with it turns out to be rewarding and ultimately a cathartic experience that makes it one of the best tv shows of 2021.
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20. Only Murders in the Building
A retired television actor, a washed-out broadway director, and a 28-year-old interior designer don’t ostensibly have anything in common. Other than these couple of facts – they are rabid fans of the same true-crime podcast, they live on the same New York high-rise apartment. Oh, and one of their neighbors were murdered, with a surprising connection to one of them. The show is about what happens when these three start a true-crime podcast to solve a real murder in their building.
It’s a surprising and fun premise, but what’s surprising is how wonderfully the show works. Resting on the strong writing as well as the fantastic chemistry between the three leads, Only Murders in the Building imparts the feeling of reading an old school murder mystery novel that you are reading while drinking coffee inwrapped in blankets.
The stakes are there, but the show never forgets to maintain a sunny disposition and an old-school charm. The comedy comes in the exploration of the generation gap between Steve Martin, Martin Short’s characters, and the character of Selena Gomez, a perfect straight foil to the wacky and earnest efforts of her geriatric companions. Surprisingly funny, heartfelt, sincere, and yet thrilling the show also remembers to explore the pathos of the central protagonists. As far as American TV Shows of 2021 are concerned, it also explores the growing fandom of true crime podcasts as well as its fan base to hilarious and often heartwarming results.
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Credit to Warren Ellis and the creators of Castlevania, the show in its final season does manage to give all of its characters a definite closure, even as the universe of the show is open for more continuations. As the season begins, it is hard-pressed to think that it is the final season because the first 5 episodes are all about building up the stakes, and philosophical discussions with a healthy dose of snark, and if you aren’t an Ellis fan, it would very much feel like a drag.
The second half though is when all of it comes together. The reason why the show is still so watchable is because the characters are infinitely more interesting and the animation is excellent. It does feel a tad bit looser during the action sequences, less detailed and more fluid, but you can feel Ellis giving attention to the construction of these set pieces. Castlevania starts off as very much an oddity, a curious experiment that somehow humanizes Dracula, one of the biggest villains of literature. But after 4 seasons, the characters are so well developed that the show as a whole becomes an intensely compelling and watchable story from beginning to end.
18. The Family Man
The Raj & DK-created show starring Manoj Bajpayee had been the victims of numerous delays. Thankfully though Family Man Season 2 is the prime example of one of those shows which proves that even if censorship can dull the teeth of your show, it won’t completely damage the impact your show would have if the story is actually good.
One of the reasons why Family Man Season 2 excels is how it explores the various character arcs. Srikant, played by Manoj Bajpayee, was a soldier and a patriot first, and a performative family man in the first season. But as the show begins, we see Srikant disillusioned with his patriotism and his work, and thus leaves his job, joins a new corporate one, and strives to be more of a family man.
As a result, the performative aspects carry over to both his family as well as his work life, which causes him to feel lost. This lost feeling is echoed by the primary antagonist of the show and Srikant’s chief foil, Samantha Akkineni’s Raji, an ex-soldier, ex-freedom fighter who is now working in a textile factory living her life on autopilot, and basically lost, until orders come from above and she starts to find herself again.
This mirroring between two individuals, an angry jaded patriot, and a fanatic nationalist, is fascinating. But The Family Man is such a successful show also because the family aspect is intrinsically tied to its identity, and here, it becomes tied to the show’s plot, as well as in its exploration of karmic comeuppance. The show’s exploration of family dynamics and humor is still on point.
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15. Superman & Lois
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14. Reservation Dogs
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12. Mare of Easttown
11. What We Do In The Shadows
An expansion into the world crafted in the 2014 comedy film by Taika Waititi, What We Do In the Shadows has always been consistent in maintaining the idiosyncratic humor and its satirical bent throughout its three-season run. It isn’t a surprise that Season 3 manages to keep the humor quotient intact. It is however surprising just how much focused on lore Season 3 is.
From exploring Colin Robinson’s past and the existence of energy vampires to moving forward with the revelation of Guillermo’s lineage last year, to the existence of werewolves as well as an expansion of the vampiric council, What We Do In The Shadows definitely does a lot.
That said, Season 3 is Nandor’s season. It develops and pushes Nandor’s character forward in weird and interesting ways, leading to the funniest trio of episodes in Episodes 8, 9 and 10, while simultaneously being extremely emotional and stakes heavy. It also manages to flesh out Nadja and the relation the three vampires share between each other.
The show also manages to evolve the bromantic relationship between Nandor and Guillermo while hinting at something far deeper. What We Do in the Shadows is swinging for the fences, taking risks with an assured confidence because it’s USP – the humor is always on point. This is again a fantastic season and a must-watch for those who have been following the show.
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10. Doom Patrol
Look, telling that Doom Patrol is a weird show is just underselling it at this point. One of the main villains of this show is sentient butts with sharp teeth, a green humanoid alien creature called Garguax. Weird is the new norm in this show.
Telling that Doom Patrol is also one of the best superhero series coming out of HBO Max is also underselling Doom Patrol the show as a show about family, both the real and the family forged from circumstances. Season 3 is when the creators of Doom Patrol actually start to make a concerted effort in highlighting this “Doom Patrol” as an actual team, and not just a group of misfits living in a house and bound together by the machinations of a manipulative old bastard, who is now also dead.
Knowing that coming together as a team is easier said than done, the story throws all these characters in their own personal crucible and comes out together as something far more resilient. All of the main characters get developed to the point that by the end of this season, things have almost radically changed. However, the eccentricity still exists, the stupidity and complete weirdness still exist, albeit with a dose and sense of self-awareness.
There is a heart in this show, hidden beneath all the comic book and superhero wacky hijinks, and a definite knowledge of character interactions that make these characters straddle the fine line between humanly relatable and larger than life actual idiots.