The Best TV Shows Of 2021

At some point over the fall, there were so many good TV shows airing that it felt almost impossible to keep up. Whether it was a new network drama or the long-awaited return of a series, the culture team at HuffPost was, quite frankly, in a constant race to binge as many shows as possible.

In this list, HuffPost reporters rave about their favorite TV series of the year. From unexpected obsessions (“Power Book III: Raising Kanan,” “Love Life”) to can’t-stop-talking-about-it winners (“Succession,” “Sex Education,” “Hacks”) to shows we tearfully said farewell to (“On My Block,” “PEN15,” “Insecure,” “Pose”) to shows that kept our minds off … well, everything else happening in the world (“Love Island UK,” “Selling Sunset”), here are 30 of the best shows we watched in 2021.

“The Other Two”

We’ve heard the stories about the teenager who dropped a pop music video on YouTube and catapulted to fame, then fizzled out and all but retired by age 20. This character is also at the fore of showrunners Sarah Schneider and Chris Kelly’s razor-sharp HBO Max comedy, “The Other Two.” But the narrative doesn’t center on the escapades of a young Justin Bieber-type celeb (Case Walker). Rather, the series focuses on his non-famous family — primarily siblings and unsung artists Brooke (Heléne Yorke) and Cary (Drew Tarver) as well as mother Pat (Molly Shannon) — as they grovel at the edge of obscurity and infamy. We know from other sitcoms that desperation can bring out the best comedy, and “The Other Two” was no exception as it portrayed the pitfalls of celebrity in its sophomore season this year, when each character grappled with varying levels of success and satisfaction. —Candice Frederick

“Succession”

On the one hand, I could write a tome about how incredible Season 3 of HBO’s “Succession” was. On the other hand, what else is there to say, other than: “Perfect season of television, no notes”? Every single cast member deserves an Emmy. Every line of dialogue is so precisely written. Every shot looks like a Renaissance painting. Every second you look away from the screen, you’ll miss a tiny detail or nugget of information that will make sense later. Every episode is the perfect blend of wickedly funny, brutally devastating and jaw-droppingly shocking. And, as that electrifying season finale proved, every time you think you know what the show’s next move will be, you’ll probably be wrong. To everyone who groused about how “this season was boring,” in the words of Logan Roy: “Fuck off. Be gone. Bye bye.” —Marina Fang

“The Chair”

Sandra Oh adds to her formidable career of portraying wonderfully messy women on TV, as Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim, the first woman to chair the English department at Pembroke, a fictional elite New England liberal arts school. Ji-Yoon is barely making it through myriad crises at work and at home. Her colleague and best friend Bill (Jay Duplass) has landed himself in a campus controversy, further jeopardizing the department’s precarious state. Rounding out the show’s outstanding ensemble are Holland Taylor, Bob Balaban and Nana Mensah. Co-creator and showrunner Amanda Peet’s Netflix series blends richly written characters and searing social commentary without hitting us over the head with it. “The Chair” is a lot of different things, and one of them is a workplace comedy: You really feel that these characters have gone through a lot together in this dysfunctional department, and six episodes feels too short to adequately spend time with all of them. —Marina Fang

“Love Life”

The second season of HBO Max’s “Love Life” was the most enjoyable TV series I watched all year. Starring William Jackson Harper and Jessica Williams, the 10-episode arc follows Marcus (Harper) as he divorces his wife and falls in love with Mia (Williams). What’s great about the series is that you can jump right in on Season 2 — though the first season is breezy, too — and really dive right into this romantic roller coaster. Now, it is messy so you won’t get lovey-dovey vibes all the time; but more than most series, “Love Life” approaches well, er, love lives in a way that is so realistic that you’ll think the writers have interviewed your closest friends about your sauciest and wildest text message conversations. Go watch it, now. —Erin E. Evans

“Hacks”

Jean Smart in “Hacks.”

Jake Giles Netter/HBO Max

At first, “Hacks” is a great comedy about the foibles of showbiz and a mismatched pair: legendary comedian Deborah Vance (played perfectly by the similarly legendary Jean Smart) and her new writing assistant Ava (Hannah Einbinder). Each has no reason to trust the other: Deborah, performing a Vegas residency-style show with stale and outdated jokes, doesn’t think she needs someone to fine-tune her act. Ava, who was fired from her TV writing job because of a spicy tweet, thinks this new gig is beneath her. It’s a premise that yields a lot of sharp barbs and topical jokes. But in the deft hands of the HBO Max show’s creators Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs and Jen Statsky (who previously worked together on “Broad City”), “Hacks” also turns into a profound and moving meditation on women who’ve been unfairly maligned, wronged and misunderstood. —Marina Fang

“WandaVision”

With so many superhero adaptations, they’re all beginning to blur together. So it takes a pointed storyteller like Jac Schaeffer to create a Disney+ series that stands against the pack. “WandaVision” takes all the potential of what makes a genre offering so captivating on its own and throws in familiar elements of grief and family that ground its central antihero, Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen). Culling from classic sitcoms like “The Dick Van Dyke Show” and “I Love Lucy,” “WandaVision” brilliantly unpacks her devastation over losing her husband (Paul Bettany) through powerful nostalgia and historical reconstruction. Both those things threaten to unravel Wanda and everything Marvel fans thought they knew about her. —Candice Frederick

“Love Island U.K.”

I love mess and for that reason, I love “Love Island” — the U.K. version, not the off-brand U.S. version. After 15 months, the reality TV dating show returned for its seventh season this past June. The “Love Island U.K.” cast and franchise suffered a lot of losses in the past year and consequently, the ITV series issued new “duty of care” protocols to protect the welfare of contestants. Starting with 11 “islanders,” some of whom will be dumped from the Mallorca villa and replaced by new contestants, the eligible suitors compete for love and a £50,000 (approximately $70,000) grand prize. From the contestant challenges to the cheeky banter and peril that Casa Amor brings upon seemingly solid relationships, “Love Island” seems to be the only competition dating series right now with a good formula, one that breeds actual suspense and organic hilarity. Now, whether the couples stay together afterward is another question (#KazAndTyler4ever), but I’m still saying “he’s proper fit” in casual conversation from here on out. —Ruth Etiesit Samuel

“Selling Sunset”

Remember how I said I love mess? Yes, that extends into the real estate reality show “Selling Sunset.” When I first learned about the Netflix series in winter 2019, my initial reaction was apathy. Why would I be interested in watching wealthy white women gallivant around Hollywood and argue about selling billion-dollar homes? I quickly learned it’s about so much more than that at the Oppenheim Group. On Nov. 24, Season 4 of “Selling Sunset” premiered on Netflix, showcasing lavish homes, new additions to the brokerage, Christine Quinn’s over-the-top maternity wear, and most importantly, friendship fissures in the workplace. All of those things together are a concoction for excellent reality television. Lest we forget, in the off season, one of the agents began dating her boss. Though their relationship wasn’t the topic of discussion in this season, I know Season 5 won’t disappoint. —Ruth Etiesit Samuel

“Queen Sugar”

This season of “Queen Sugar” was its best yet. The OWN series, based on the novel of the same name and created by Ava DuVernay, is in its sixth season and tackled police harassment, political ambition, fraught father-daughter relationships, intimate male friendships and the difficulties of legacy-building. Since Season 5, the series has expertly weaved in our actual reality of dealing with COVID-19 better than any other TV series, full stop. The performances were stellar across the board, with several new recurring characters, including Prosper’s daughter Billie (Tammy Townsend) and domestic abuse survivor Celine (Paula Jai Parker) joining the ensemble. All of the characters face a crossroads within the 10-episode season, and with the series finale on the horizon, I can’t wait to see how the writers close out this beautiful, powerful and, at times, heart-wrenching series. —Erin E. Evans

“Never Have I Ever”

Created by Mindy Kaling, “Never Have I Ever” is a coming-of-age comedy that follows 15-year-old Devi Vishwakumar (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) as she navigates adolescence after the death of her father. A star student, an Indian American teen, and a member of the “UN: Unf*ckable Nerds” — a name given to her by arch nemesis Ben Gross — Devi just wants to be a normal, popular high school sophomore. The show has been applauded as a groundbreaking moment for South Asian representation and is a beautiful exploration of how one grapples with girlhood, identity, and grief in a way that we haven’t seen depicted before. As a first-gen immigrant kid myself and a teen who admittedly thrived off academic validation, I see so much of younger me in Devi, sans, you know, sabotaging a classmate’s entire high school career over a rumor. Despite Devi’s numerous unhinged moments (and trust me, there are several), I sincerely appreciate seeing a brown girl as the love interest for once in a series, and watching her grapple with all of the decisions ahead of her. Excited for all the love triangles to come in Season 3. —Ruth Etiesit Samuel

“Blood & Water”

Another win for Netflix’s international programming is the highly underrated series “Blood & Water.” Its second original African series after “Queen Sono,” the South African mystery-drama is — chef’s kiss — exquisite. The series follows 16 year-old Puleng Khumalo (Ama Qamata) as she transfers to Parkhurst High in an effort to discern if star pupil Fikile Bhele (Khosi Ngema) is her abducted-at-birth lost sister. Season 2 was released Sept. 24, and the stakes were even higher this time around. After a scandalous teacher-student relationship and shocking DNA test results, a new kid and a new faculty therapist join the ranks — complicating Puleng’s pursuit and inciting drama along the way. As insufferable as Puleng can be at times, the series is well written, suspenseful, and enthralling at every step of the way. While we await the news regarding whether it’ll be renewed for a third season, “Blood & Water” is a testament to the global reach and potential that African entertainment and talent has always had. —Ruth Etiesit Samuel

“Gentefied”

Laura Patalano as Beatriz, Karrie Martin as Ana, Alma Martinez as Lupe, Carlos Santos as Chris, Bianca Melgar as Nayeli, JJ Soria as Erik, Annie Gonzalez as Lidia in "Gentefied."
Laura Patalano as Beatriz, Karrie Martin as Ana, Alma Martinez as Lupe, Carlos Santos as Chris, Bianca Melgar as Nayeli, JJ Soria as Erik, Annie Gonzalez as Lidia in “Gentefied.”

Kevin EstradaKevin Estrada/Netflix

Contrary to what its theme around gentrification threatens to accomplish, showrunners Linda Yvette Chávez and Marvin Lemus restore the heart and soul of the beloved Boyle Heights neighborhood through their compelling story that centers themes of family and identity. In its first season last year, Netflix’s “Gentefied” was as much about the Morales family helping preserve the essence of their Latinx community as it was about them trying to remain a unit while amid their patriarch’s (Joaquín Cosio) possible deportation. This season, Chávez and Lemus top themselves with a story that goes deeper into their characters’ individual lives as they continue to search for joy and success in the midst of uncertainty — a journey to which many of us can relate. —Candice Frederick

“On My Block”

All good things must come to an end, but it was so sad for me to say goodbye to my friends-in-my-head from Freeridge: Monse, Cesar, Jamal, Jasmine and Ruby. Netflix’s “On My Block” wrapped its final season this fall, after four seasons that explore the inner lives of Black and brown teens in South Los Angeles. The final season was heartbreaking at times and funny as hell at others, with the cast really showing off their chemistry. Jamal (Brett Gray) and Jasmine (Jessica Marie Garcia) got to flex their comedic prowess more than ever; Ruby (Jason Genao) got to be a horny AF teen on-screen; and everyone who was still ’shipping Cesar (Diego Tinoco) and Monse (Sierra Capri) got their wish, at least for a moment. Though the series is over, I’m looking forward to the spinoff, which is set to follow a whole new crew. —Erin E. Evans

“Elite”

From “Chicas de Cable” to “La Casa de Papel,” “Gran Hotel,” and more, Netflix’s Spanish-language programming is on another level. The hit teen drama “Elite” is where “Degrassi” meets “Gossip Girl” meets “How to Get Away With Murder.” The series begins when three working-class students must transfer to Las Encinas, an exclusive private academy filled with the children of Spain’s most elite. A culture clash ensues between the two groups, inciting feuds regarding wealth, sexuality, Islamophobia and more, and ultimately resulting in a string of murders. In Season 4, which was released on June 18, the plot only thickened as a new principal took over Las Encinas, bringing his unassuming but mischievous children with him. While I wish the series reintroduced Black characters and examinations of race (as they had attempted to in Season 3), the fourth season of the show was a journey, excavating topics such as assault and digital grooming. Ahead of the holidays, “Elite” is releasing another installment of historias breves, giving fans a sneak peek of fresh faces that we’ll see on campus. While Season 5 is on the way, the series has already been renewed for a Season 6 — and I can’t wait to watch. —Ruth Etiesit Samuel

“Insecure”

How fitting is it that the question lingering throughout the final season of “Insecure” is “are we going to be OK?” Because, quite frankly, I don’t know if we will knowing that a show that’s been so groundbreaking and authentic is coming to an end. It’s bittersweet, really. We’ve watched these characters grow up (and stress us out along the way). That growth is more apparent now than ever as Issa, Molly and Lawrence enter new chapters of their lives that require them to stretch in ways that put that growth to the test. This season of “Insecure” is special not only because rarely do we see celebrated Black TV have the luxury to end on its own terms, but it also feels like the beginning of a new era where we’ll get to see the talent who worked in front of and behind its cameras soar to new heights in TV. After five years, Issa Rae and Prentice Penny said it’s time to move “Onward, Okay?” —Taryn Finley

“Reservation Dogs”

Following the adventures and big dreams of four Indigenous teens in Oklahoma, this wonderful FX on Hulu dramedy, co-created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, combines coming of age and magical realism into something completely transformational. Each episode unspools fun and whimsical tales while also spotlighting serious issues facing Indigenous communities and beautifully capturing teenage angst. “Reservation Dogs” has also broken new ground behind the scenes. Harjo, the series’ showrunner, hired all Indigenous directors and writers for the show. One of its great stars, Devery Jacobs, is also joining the writers room for the show’s upcoming second season. In addition, Harjo recently signed a deal with FX to develop more projects by Indigenous creators. It’s way past time for this, but after decades of Native and Indigenous erasure in Hollywood, I’m hopeful more work like this will not only get to exist, but thrive. —Marina Fang

“All American”

The CW’s series centered on high school drama are questionable to say the least (looking at you, “Riverdale”), but some actually have semi-coherent plotlines. Loosely based on the life of former NFL linebacker Spencer Paysinger, “All American” follows the fictional Spencer James, a rising football star from South Crenshaw who is recruited to play at Beverly Hills High. He quickly realizes it’s a different turf in more ways than one, but with the support of Coach Billy Baker (Taye Diggs), his mother Grace (Karimah Westbrook), and some unlikely allies, he finds his way. As much as certain characters in the show get on my last nerve, the drama of it all keeps me coming back weekly. Though often compared to “Friday Night Lights,” “All American” is intriguing in its own rite, centering on a slice of Black adolescence I had yet to see depicted on-screen. Now, if only Coop could get a happy storyline, for once … —Ruth Etiesit Samuel

“High on the Hog”

“High on the Hog,” Netflix’s docuseries on how African-American cuisine impacted food across the world, was one of the most talked about documentaries when it was released in May. Food writer Stephen Satterfield takes us on a delectable journey, from Benin, Africa, to the Carolinas to Texas. If nothing else, watch to compile a list of must-see historical spots and top restaurants and eateries across the world. —Erin E. Evans

“Pose”

It can’t be easy to encapsulate nearly two decades of ball culture as well as the multilayered gay and trans community in ’80s and ’90s New York City, but showrunner Steven Canals makes an astounding effort with “Pose” on FX. What began three years ago as a series that merely centered primarily Black and brown trans and queer people on the small screen unlike they ever have before became a narrative rich in specificity and detail about each of his main character’s journeys. From enviable mother Blanca Rodriguez’s (Michaela Jaé Rodriguez) beautiful romance to lovable trash-talker Pray Tell’s (Billy Porter) heart-wrenching humanity, what Canals ultimately presents is a story about love and survival for Black and Brown queer and trans people. —Candice Frederick

“Sex Education”

Sex Education Season 3. Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong in Episode 6 of Sex Education Season 3. Cr. Sam Taylor/NETFLIX © 2020
Sex Education Season 3. Ncuti Gatwa as Eric Effiong in Episode 6 of Sex Education Season 3. Cr. Sam Taylor/NETFLIX © 2020

Sam TaylorSam Taylor/Netflix

You’d think there could only be so many stories you can tell around teenage horniness and sexuality on one show, but creator-showrunner Laurie Nunn wonderfully proved that theory wrong as audiences devoured Season 3 this year. While the first two seasons on Netflix explored the sexual curiosity of the students at Moordale Secondary, this year showed a sense of confidence and maturity across the board as the teens try their hands at monogamy. Some relationships are unsteady but worth saving, others fade out, while others are redefined entirely. And yet the one true constant that grounds the show is each character’s blossoming sense of self. Nunn certainly knows how to pack in the drama and shenanigans as new cast members amplify the story even more. —Candice Frederick

“PEN15”

In its beginning, Hulu’s “PEN15” was a delightfully cringey comedy about the awkward antics of two seventh graders and friends that are played by actual adults and besties Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle. They also portray versions of themselves in middle school, using their real names and bumbling real-life experiences as inspiration — like trying on a thong for the first time and having a crush. That was already wildly entertaining to watch. But as the show progressed into its second and final season that aired this year, it became cathartic to watch two women reenact even their most difficult ordeals like Anna’s parents’ divorce and Maya’s first sexual encounter. This meta show that sounds utterly ridiculous on the surface got real and hit home. And for that, it will not be forgotten. —Candice Frederick

“Search Party”

Showrunners Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers’s “Search Party” centers a group of friends that are so self-centered that even when one of them gets abducted, the rest somehow make it about themselves. But that’s the beauty of this pitch dark HBO Max comedy starring the marvelous Alia Shawkat as Dory, the discontented millennial who becomes pseudo-famous after spearheading a contrived search for a missing high school peer and gets kidnapped. Oh, and somewhere along the way, she helps kill someone. Despite the inflated self-importance of all members of her crew — including the hilarious Meredith Hagner and John Early — they spend most of the series actually searching for relevance within themselves as things continue to get wilder and more dystopic for them. It is a remarkable reflection of today’s lost generation. —Candice Frederick

“Evil”

Somehow, one of the most fascinating shows on TV got even better in its sophomore season. With the Paramount+ series “Evil,” showrunners Michelle and Robert King challenge their protagonists — psychologist Kristen (Katja Herbers), priest-in-training David (Mike Colter) and skeptic Ben (Aasif Mandvi) — to consider beyond what they actually believe. And in doing so, they implore their audience to do the same. But this year, each of the characters’ belief system is rattled to the core as they begin to respond to sinister events, including the surreal appearance of a goat devil and prosaic horrors like a murder that hangs over the overarching storyline, in ways that shock even them. The question then becomes less about whether evil actually exists and asks whether it lives inside them. —Candice Frederick

“Twenties”

Still of Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie from BET's "Twenties" episode 108.
Still of Jonica T. Gibbs as Hattie from BET’s “Twenties” episode 108.

Jojo T. Gibbs leads this BET dramedy with so much finesse you’d think she’d been acting for years. Gibbs portrays Hattie, a queer Black woman hoping to become the next big Hollywood writer — and find love all at the same time. The ensemble also features Christina Elmore, Gabrielle Graham, Sophina Brown, Big Sean and Iman Shumpert. The series, based loosely on the life of creator Lena Waithe, is fun, sexy and hilarious. It’s also just a breath of fresh air to see queer Black women having fun and navigating complicated love situations on-screen. Season 2 just ended — and you should dive in. —Erin E. Evans

“Chapelwaite”

The latest small-screen adaptation of a Stephen King novel arrived with very quiet fanfare when it made its debut on Epix at the end of the summer. But, rest assured: “Chapelwaite” is the most engrossing of recent variations as it expands on the author’s 1978 short story, “Jerusalem’s Lot.” Hinging on themes of grief and trauma, this macabre narrative stars Adrien Brody as a recently widowed sea captain in the 19th century who returns with his children to his family estate and is immediately confronted by horrors from his past. Vampires sub in for his horrifying ancestors as showrunners Peter and Jason Filardi urge viewers to ponder which is scarier: monsters charging through a thick fog or humanity itself. —Candice Frederick

“Isabel: The Intimate Story of Isabel Allende”

It’s inexplicable why this essential HBO Max miniseries inspired by the biography of celebrated Chilean novelist Isabel Allende fell so far under the radar, but it unflinchingly details a storied life punctuated by personal pain, emboldened by politics, and elevated by her own sheer will. There are moments while watching “Isabel” when you’re wrecked by the choices she makes as a mother, while others that make you you cheer for her as she perseveres as a feminist writer in the midst of Chilean dictatorship and exile. It’s so visceral that even Allende tweeted that “in some moments the series made me cry and in others I shuddered with all the bad memories.” —Candice Frederick

“Starstruck”

New Zealand comedian Rose Matafeo’s gem of a six-episode comedy on HBO Max is like a messier, edgier and more honest version of “Notting Hill.” Matafeo, who created and co-wrote the series, plays Jessie, who has a one-night stand with a vaguely familiar but definitely cute and charming guy she meets at a New Year’s Eve party. It’s not until the next morning when it dawns on her that this man is a famous movie star named Tom Kapoor (Nikesh Patel, who was similarly cute and charming in Mindy Kaling’s “Four Weddings and a Funeral” series on Hulu). Each episode zips by, building the usual will-they-won’t-they tension, but also meandering through the characters’ existential crises and neuroses. Drawing from elements of many classic rom-coms and screwball comedies, “Starstruck,” which was already renewed for a second season, crackles with wry wit, snappy dialogue and Matafeo and Patel’s through-the-roof chemistry. —Marina Fang

“In Treatment”

In a time of too many reboots/revivals/reimaginings, HBO’s revival of “In Treatment” is the rare one that was additive. The original series, which ran from 2008 to 2010, was groundbreaking for its format: a two-hander following a therapist and a rotation of patients, with multiple episodes per week (each patient’s episodes would air on the same day each week, like actual weekly therapy sessions). But it featured a mostly white cast. The new iteration, starring Uzo Aduba as therapist Dr. Brooke Taylor, features mostly characters of color. In addition, “In Treatment” is also one of the rare shows that incorporated the pandemic in ways that feel particular to the show and not just shoehorned in. A series that takes place almost entirely in one room really lives and dies on dynamic performances. This one has plenty, but especially Aduba, who commands every scene and pulls off the difficult challenge of often having to convey a lot through saying and doing very little; and a mesmerizing Anthony Ramos as Eladio, a home health care aide seeing Brooke through telehealth sessions. —Marina Fang

“South Side”

One of this year’s most laugh-out-loud-worthy shows is HBO’s “South Side.” Based in South Side, Chicago, the show centers on two recent community college grads and the hijinx they run into working their job at a rent-to-own furniture store. Other characters in their world include a local politician with self-centered motives, co-workers with better things to do than work, and a cop duo (one hates the South Side and loves musicals while the other has a new wig on in every scene). This show is truly special, specifically for the way it easily taps into the culture and soul of the city without being heavy handed or extractive. Viewers get the mild sauce and juking that Chicago is known for, but there’s also an underlying observation about the city’s sociopolitical workings that’s presented in a way that makes you laugh, then think, then laugh some more. This show is what TV has been missing and we have creators Bashir Salahuddin and Diallo Riddle to thank for that. —Taryn Finley

“Power Book III: Raising Kanan”

I honestly didn’t think I’d tune into any of the spinoffs of the hugely popular STARZ series “Power.” It ran for five seasons and was wildly addictive. I thought I’d had enough. I was wrong. I keep up with “Power Book II: Ghost” and am really looking forward to “Power Book IV.” But “Power Book III: Raising Kanan” stands out as superior within the “Power” universe. This installment is set in Queens in the ’80s, and follows Kanan’s early life as he watches — and helps — his mom run the drug business in their ’hood along with her two brothers. We see Kanan (Mekai Curtis) and his cousin Jukebox (Hailey Kilgore) navigate teen life with heavy loads to carry. The performances are top notch, and the storylines are compelling. And I encourage everyone to catch up before the next season drops. —Erin E. Evans

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