Assembling a “best of” TV list for 2021 represented a daunting task, thanks to the abundance of quality content and blurring of boundaries between traditional formats and newer ones.
Overall, the limited series served as the standout genre of the year, producing more memorable shows than any other — at least, until those same networks try conjuring encores, which seldom work out as well.
Network television also raised its game with a few ambitious and simply fun new series, beyond the usual alphabet soup of procedural crime spinoffs. Documentaries, meanwhile, drove the news cycle on some fronts (see “Framing Britney Spears”) and captured the political challenges facing the US at this moment (HBO’s “Four Hours at the Capitol” and “Q: Into the Storm” standing tall among those).
As for those scouring this roster looking for oversights, there are surely many, and rest assured plenty of other titles were considered. They include the Emmy-winning “Ted Lasso,” which has never quite struck the nerve in this quadrant as elsewhere and did even less so with a somewhat uneven second season; and “Squid Game,” definitely one of the year’s most influential programs, whose shortcomings (see those wealthy patrons) didn’t earn a spot among the best.
Also, Marvel’s “WandaVision” in a sense stands in for everything that the studio accomplished in expanding to streaming as the most ambitious of the four Disney+ shows introduced in 2021, although the others have their merits to varying degrees.
With that disclaimer, here in no particular order are TV highlights of 2021, broken where possible into categories that reflect, in a small way, the breadth of what was available:
New broadcast series
Winner’s circle: “The Big Leap” (Fox), “Ghosts” (CBS)
Both of these shows provided a welcome mix of comedy and surprising warmth, the first involving the cast and crew of those mounting a fictitious reality show, the latter redoing a British comedy about a couple moving into a new house, with a near-death experience giving the wife the ability to see and hear the ghosts who reside there. Add an honorable mention to “Ordinary Joe” (NBC), an ambitious concept that also began with great promise but hasn’t sustained it as well; and ABC’s reboot of “The Wonder Years.”
Winner’s circle: “Succession” (HBO)
Even with all the hoopla surrounding this HBO drama, the third season was in a class by itself, building toward an epic finale that seemingly reset the playing field. Plus, with possible apologies to “The Crown” (which didn’t debut in 2021) and a few select others, the series currently boasts the best cast on television.
Winner’s circle: “The White Lotus” (HBO), “Mare of Easttown” (HBO), “Dopesick” (Hulu), “The Underground Railroad” (Amazon), “WandaVision” (Disney+)
A genuine boom year for limited series, with “The White Lotus” exploring class divisions in a luxury resort, “Mare of Easttown” offering a scintillating showcase for Kate Winslet, and “WandaVision” touring sitcom history through a pair of Avengers, in a strange and tragic love story.
“The Underground Railroad,” meanwhile, presented a fascinating alternate history of America and slavery, while “Dopesick” — despite a few hiccups — felt inordinately urgent with its dissection of Purdue Pharma and the opioid crisis from multiple perspectives. (Also recommended: Alex Gibney’s documentary on the topic, “The Crime of the Century.”)
Stage to screen
Winner’s circle: “Come From Away” (Apple TV+), “Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself” (Hulu)
In a year with a surplus of movie musicals, Apple’s filmed presentation of the stage show about Sept. 11, based on the true story of those temporarily stranded in Newfoundland, was simultaneously uplifting and emotionally devastating. As for DelGaudio, he seemingly reinvented magic as a TV spectacle into a one-man show that cleverly expanded on his live presentation.
Winner’s circle: “Framing Britney Spears” (FX), “Muhammad Ali” (PBS), “Four Hours at the Capitol and Q: Into the Storm” (HBO)
Arguably, no single program did as much to drive a particular news story as the first of several Britney Spears documentaries, with this New York Times Presents effort eventually leading to the termination of her conservatorship after 13 years. Ken Burns’ look at the greatest boxer of all time captured the champ in a year of remarkable documentary profiles, including those that premiered in theaters, such as “Val” and “Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road.”
“Four Hours at the Capitol,” meanwhile, delivered a visceral portrait of the events of Jan. 6, while “Q: Into the Storm” connected to those events as it traced the sketchy roots of that movement, along with the impact on those who have descended down its rabbit hole.
Winner’s circle: “Reservation Dogs” (FX), “The Sex Lives of College Girls” (HBO Max)
There were a lot of series that showcased new talent but give the edge to these two, about Native-American youths coming of age in Oklahoma and college students at a privileged university, capturing two very different sides of young people struggling to find themselves.
Winner’s circle: Dexter: New Blood (Showtime), Cobra Kai (Netflix).
Despite initial skepticism about bringing “Dexter” back after that finale, the new season has recaptured what was great about the series, beginning with Michael C. Hall’s mix of wry humor and vigilante menace. As for “The Karate Kid” revival (which bookended 2021, premiering Jan. 1 and returning Dec. 31), the show has proven impressively inventive heading into its fourth season in updating and playing with its shifting alliances.
The Fab Four times two
Winner’s circle: The Beatles: Get Back (Disney+) and McCartney 3,2,1 (Hulu).
Peter Jackson’s epic Beatles documentary received all the ink, but it can be viewed in tandem with Hulu’s trip down memory lane featuring Paul McCartney — twin valentines to those for whom “Yesterday” doesn’t seem that far away.