That’s not a typo. While 2022 is almost halfway over (!), I am only now getting to my top new TV series that debuted in 2021. I wanted to match the effort I put in last year with my top 12 series of 2020, but I just never got around to doing this until this week, the start of a dead zone for me with no NFL or NBA games.
After starting accounts with Disney+, Paramount+, and Apple TV for the first time in the last year, there are more shows than ever to watch. I watched 81 new series that started in 2021, but I was able to break that down into a top 15 I feel good about. Are there some series I still missed? Of course.
I’m not going to share the full list I broke down, but chances are if one of your favorites didn’t make the cut, I just didn’t enjoy it as much as you did. Station Eleven (HBO Max) is likely one big example of that. I really loved the parts that focused on Jeevan, but anything with the Traveling Symphony in the future fell flat for me. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu) reminded me of how people enjoy Martin Short and Steve Martin way more than I ever have or likely will.
Note: limited series and anime are included; all documentary series are excluded.
I will do my best to avoid spoilers, but no promises…
15. Dexter: New Blood (Showtime)
This may have snuck in at No. 15 just so I could talk about it. Technically a new series, this does do some justice to make up for the horrific original series finale that Dexter gave us in 2013. A fucking lumberjack? Fortunately, New Blood is better than the last four seasons of the original series, but it still is not up to par with the best of that series. Still, it was cool to see Dexter back with Deb as his new dark passenger, and Clancy Brown did a more than respectable job as the villain. The kid playing teenage Harrison did not bother me, though I have no interest in seeing a spin-off with him. Just let this thing die.
As for that ending, it was poorly received again, but I actually thought it made sense and was necessary. Would I have shot the scene differently to make it more dramatic? Of course, but I really cannot complain with the story choice they made this time.
14. Scenes from a Marriage (HBO)
This modern take on the Ingmar Bergman classic was a showcase for the acting chops of Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, two actors I’ve taken an increased liking to in the last year or two. They both shine here, but dialogue-heavy series must be in your wheelhouse if you are going to enjoy this one. I’m happy to say they took an existing IP and made it their own thing instead of a straight remake.
13. WandaVision (Disney+)
Spoiler alert: this is the only Marvel show on my list for 2021. It was the first one I watched, and I thought it was the best one. 2021 really was the year of spoofing the classic sitcom, laugh track and all, but unlike with AMC’s Kevin Can Fuck Himself, we got a pretty clear answer of why this was done in WandaVision. Paul Bettany and Elizabeth Olsen are great together, but one season is the right length for this unique idea.
12. Midnight Mass (Netflix)
Our first Netflix entry may have been slept on, but this was a really strong take on grief and loss combined with a more typical horror storyline. But Hamish Linklater was fantastic as the priest, and the ending was something you’ll never forget. I got a bit emotional during this one a couple times.
11. Yellowjackets (Showtime)
Between the Fear Street movie trilogy on Netflix, Cruel Summer, and this show, there was a lot of 90s nostalgia in 2021. This show did a great job of balancing multiple timelines with the plane crash survivors as teenagers and the current-day survivors navigating a new mystery. Christina Ricci is supposed to be the “ugly” one of the bunch, but she still looks pretty damn good and it was nice to see her in a big role again. I look forward to the second season and where they can take this one. The first season did not take all the predictable routes you may have expected from a story about a plane crash.
10. Tear Along the Dotted Line (Netflix)
This is probably my most obscure choice for the year, but it’s an animated series from an Italian, and it does a shockingly effective job of covering depression, anxiety, and a lost love. I’d probably have it higher if it was a little longer, but this was well done and should be watched on Netflix by those having BoJack withdrawal.
9. To Your Eternity (watched on HBO Max)
I wanted to watch some great, new animes as that was missing from my 2020 collection. This one delivered with good animation, interesting characters, a few shocking and emotional moments, and the second half really gripped me with the storyline. I was mad when I finished it because I wanted more, but fortunately a second season is on the way.
8. The White Lotus (HBO Max)
I was a fan of Mike White’s Enlightened series with Laura Dern on HBO, so it was cool to see him get another chance with The White Lotus, a high-caliber dramedy. You get the clue right away that someone on this island is going to die before the trip is over, but that mystery takes a backseat to the drama these characters get into, and the rhythmic music and sounds keep a steady pace over the six episodes that fly by when you watch them. Murray Bartlett (Armond) and Jennifer Coolidge (Tanya) are highlights, and you can never go wrong with seeing more Sydney Sweeney as the generations clash in this one. I’m a bit worried of using this as an anthology series with different characters, but if they have more stories to tell, I’ll watch them.
7. It’s a Sin (HBO Max)
I watched several movies about the early days of AIDS last year, but this British series from Russell T. Davies (Doctor Who) was the best, most touching, and scariest of them all. It does a great job of showing the impact this virus had on a close-knit group of gay friends in the 80s. After later watching Years and Years (2019), which I would highly recommend, there’s a raw honesty in Davies’ work that I just don’t see as much in a lot of American works, especially those that deal with LGBT stories as we tend to make them too preachy in this country. Davies’ approach is much more authentic as he’s not afraid to show us the flaws in these characters, but honoring them with respect is still the goal.
6. Invincible (Amazon Prime)
Went in cold to this franchise. I remember watching the pilot and thinking this felt pretty tame and aimed towards younger kids. Then that scene happened. Holy shit. I was hooked from there, and an impressive voice cast (J.K. Simmons, Steven Yeun, Sandra Oh, Walton Goggins, etc.) sure helps bring the violence and story to life. I can’t wait for the second season.
5. Hacks (HBO Max)
I know I’m late to this 2021 party when I’ve already finished the second season of this show. But I love it. Jean Smart should win all the awards, the actress playing Ava is a delightful find for the industry, and the chemistry between Jimmy and nepotism Kayla is always fun. It’s also the only legitimate live-action comedy that made it to my top 25 finalists as I think comedy is so hard to do these days with the way people get offended, real or not, by everything. If you can make a show that’s funny without having to be animated – so not Big Mouth – then you are well ahead of the curve these days.
Since this is about the 2021 series, I tried to not let my viewing of season two influence my ranking. Season two is really just as solid as the first season, though I love to watch the world building at the start of a show, so seeing Ava have to win Deborah over in season one probably edges it out over season two. The way it ended in season two, they really could have called it a series, but I am happy to see they’re bringing it back for a third season.
Like I said, there is a real comedy drought these days, so let’s keep every good one we can find.
4. Dopesick (Hulu)
This series is almost like The Wire for the opioid crisis. I am not saying the character work is as strong as that HBO classic, but the writing and presentation is on par with how David Simon does things in his series. You get perspectives from everyone: doctors, patients, addicts, pharmacists, sales reps, the criminal Sackler family, lawyers, the DEA, and whistleblowers. Michael Keaton gets top billing, but he might not even be on screen as often as Will Poulter (a conflicted sales rep) or Michael Stuhlbarg (Richard Sackler).
No series on my list is as important as this one, because it does expose just how criminally negligent this family was in making sure Oxycontin was being pushed to people in pain without any care for the addiction to come. This show should make you furious, but it is absolutely required viewing and it is so well done it hurts.
3. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Guess I am still a sucker for a great whodunit murder mystery with an excellent lead actress (Kate Winslet) and a jaw-dropping scene that paid homage to Silence of the Lambs. You’ll know it when you see it. I also was not able to predict the killer until the very end, so good job on that with the usual red herrings and dead ends. I hope they just leave it as a limited series, though I won’t object to seeing more Mare on my TV.
2. Maid (Netflix)
Can it still be underrated if it has glowing reviews and 77,000 votes on IMDb? But that’s still half the ratings of Mare of Easttown, and I still feel like Maid doesn’t get talked about enough as the best limited series of 2021. Margaret Qualley delivers what should be a star-turning performance in the lead, and while I usually shit on nepotism, her performance and the casting of her real-life mom (Andie MacDowell) as her mother took this series to the highest level.
Like Dopesick, it’s a series that makes you angry about the way our systems continuously fail the people who need help the most in this country. It just never seems like she is going to carve out a good life for her child and keep her away from her abusive ex. But you keep watching with optimism and the show does not disappoint.
1. Squid Game (Netflix)
I’m the guy who hounded Criterion for years to put Memories of Murder on Blu-ray. Of course I was all over this quirky, original South Korean series that took the world by storm last fall.
I watched Alice in Borderland a year earlier, which was a similar series about people having to pass games that could kill them. That’s definitely worth watching too, but Squid Game really amps up the emotional punch with a more diverse cast (ages and backgrounds) of characters.
It’s crazy, it’s intense, it’s sad, and there’s a big twist at the end. This is also why I really worry that season two will not deliver, because no matter how many unique, new games they can come up with, nothing will beat seeing this for the first time. Watching a sympathetic character get betrayed (Ali) or a smug prick meet his demise (toilet sex having Jang Deok-su) will always make you think of season one. Been there, done that.
But what a ride it was for nine episodes.
With my top two picks this year, I guess Netflix is proof that if you fire enough bullets, you’re bound to hit something. Now if only I could have thought of a non-gun reference to not sound like such a typical American.
Honorable Mentions/Fun Binges
- Arcane (unique visual style, but I wished I loved the story more)
- Chucky (this had every right to suck but it was a lot of fun; declines a bit after Jennifer Tilly appears)
- Cruel Summer (90s nostalgia in a teen whodunit)
- Halston (must see for Ewan McGregor fans as he kills it)
- Heels (indie wrestling show done right)
- Inside Job (good year for animated series with this conspiracy theory workplace comedy)
- Lupin (hard to believe one guy can pull all these cons off, but it’s entertaining)
- My Name (solid South Korean action series on Netflix)
- Super Crooks (another interesting take on baddies with superpowers)
- Tokyo Revengers (solid time-travel anime with more to come)
Finally, here are the previous lists from past years. These would all change a little based on shows I was slow to get to or only discovered later.
Happy binging, and remember I am always tweeting about shows on Twitter. I already see strong competition for my best of 2022, which hopefully will be finished well before June of 2023.