As part of our annual Mid-Year Report, we’ve tasked Senior Contributor and Lead TV Critic Valerie Ettenhofer with assembling a list of the Best TV Shows of 2021 so far, as of the end of June.
2020 is a set of numbers that comes with more associations than we’d ever have imagined just over a year ago. It makes me wonder how we’ll remember 2021 — the year after the year when everything happened. For the first few months of the year, I admit that I briefly doubted the powers of the small screen, and predicted that we were entering a TV slump. The more new TV I reviewed, the more I was convinced that ambitious projects were being shelved during COVID, and networks and streamers were sending out the second string to hold us over until things got back to normal.
Luckily, as we’ve waded further into the year and closer to the proverbial “normal,” it’s become clear that the small screen has just as much creativity and entertainment to offer as ever. There are plenty of great shows out there, from returning favorites to ambitious debut seasons and everything in between. As we round the bend into the second half of the year, I’ve gathered a list of 21 series that exemplify the best the medium currently has to offer, with a little bit of something for everyone.
If you haven’t given most of these the time of day yet, don’t worry. We may not know how 2021 will go down in history just yet, but I’m willing to bet it’ll be remembered by pop culture lovers as “the year of catching up on the art our brains couldn’t process during the pandemic.” Here’s your starting point: a list of the 21 best TV shows of 2021 so far.
Allen v. Farrow
The trend of post-#MeToo docuseries has been essential, but it’s also been emotionally exhausting, especially for trauma survivors. Still, this four-part docu-series by Amy Ziering and Kirby Dick is a vital entry into the burgeoning on-screen movement. The series examines a familiar story–that of Woody Allen’s alleged abuses–through a closer lens than we’ve ever seen before, calling upon a small army of witnesses and officials who were involved in the case to disprove the “woman scorned” narrative that has followed the Farrow family for years. Allen v. Farrow might be about one high-profile case, but its impact comes from its examination of the sometimes-thin lines between art and artist, abuser and protector.
Crystal Moselle’s HBO series Betty, which began a loose adaptation of her 2018 film Skate Kitchen, is an unapologetically young, queer, diverse series that’s overflowing with good vibes. The series follows a group of girl skateboarders in New York City who go on meandering adventures. In season two, wise stoner Kirt (Nina Moran) takes on a quest that’s at once meaningless and profound, while Indigo (Ajani Russell) dabbles in escorting, Camille (Rachelle Vinberg) is courted by a corporate skate brand, and Honeybear (Moonbear) finds herself in a polyamorous relationship. A cast of talented non-professional actors and a freewheeling visual spirit–captured by Moselle’s fluid direction–make Betty feel vividly alive in a way few shows do.
Bo Burnham: Inside
Bo Burnham’s one-man show isn’t just the definitive comedy special of our times, but the definitive piece of post-2020 art, period. It’s a masterpiece by all counts–a constantly shifting technical marvel and a philosophical kidney punch. For over a decade now, Burnham has been publicly haunted by our ever-more-out-of-control relationship to technology, to commerce, and to persona-forming, and these anxieties coalesce in a work that’s at once strikingly personal and guttingly universal. You’ll laugh about the pitfalls of sexting one moment, only to find yourself panicking about the earth’s imminent end moments later. It’s a perfect, terrifying portrait of this unprecedented age, one that offers “a little bit of everything all of the time.”
When I describe Alena Smith’s series about the life of Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) to friends, I call it “a show that aims to be four different shows at once, and pulls it off.” Sometimes, it’s a surreal, impressionistic drama that puts us inside the head of the emotional, lovestruck young woman at its center. Sometimes, it’s a biting satire that makes wonderfully anachronistic jokes about obnoxious podcast bros and twerking white kids. Sometimes, it’s an extended in-joke for the English majors among us, jam-packed with clever references to the poet’s contemporaries. On top of all that, Dickinson manages to thoroughly and respectfully bring the eponymous literary figure to life in all her vibrance and complexity, with a second season that introduces her to editor Sam Bowles (Finn Jones) and sets the stage for the impending civil war.
Euphoria only released one episode this year, yet “F*** Anyone Who’s Not A Sea Blob” was striking enough to land a spot on this list nonetheless. The series’ second “bridge episode,” filmed during COVID and designed to fill in the gap between the first and second season, takes us inside a therapy session with Jules (Hunter Schafer). Jules discusses everything from her evolving image of herself as a trans woman to her fraught relationship with addict Rue (Zendaya), to the traumas of her mother’s own addiction and her romance with volatile classmate Nate (Jacob Elordi). Schafer co-wrote the episode, the first of the series not exclusively penned by creator Sam Levinson, and for an hour, the series eschews much of its stylistic flair in favor of quiet emotional truths and powerful vulnerability.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay
On paper, the initial premise of Everything’s Gonna Be Okay sounds pretty bleak. Gay Aussie zoologist Nicholas (series creator Josh Thomas) visits his half-sisters in Los Angeles, only to discover that their father is terminally ill and wants him to take care of them once he’s gone. On screen, though, it’s a sweetly funny, thoroughly optimistic series with an unorthodox point-of-view. Like another great LA-set comedy, Better Things, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay is free-spirited and infused with warmth, the rare family-centered show that gives its teen girl characters room to grow and make mistakes in a way that feels organic. In season two, that means painfully shy Genevieve (Maeve Press) is coming out of her shell, while confident Matilda (Kayla Cromer), who has autism, is bouncing back from a pandemic setback in surprising ways.
The producers of 30 Rock are behind this show-biz comedy, and frankly, it’s the best thing they’ve put out since 30 Rock. Like its pop theme song, the series is built to get you hooked. For a brief moment in the nineties, girl group Girls5eva was the peak of pop culture. In the modern-day, they’re broken up and working mostly unfulfilling jobs when a young rapper samples their hit and brings them zooming back into the zeitgeist. The series’ first season follows the women–a stellar cast including Sara Bareilles, Paula Pell, Busy Philipps, and comedic secret weapon Renée Elise Goldsberry–as they attempt to capitalize on this momentum while staying true to themselves. Aside from its laugh-a-minute script, Girls5eva succeeds thanks to a plot that smartly reckons with the exploitative treatment of female celebrities in the nineties and aughts.
The Great North
I hope the creators of The Great North–Minty Lewis and Bob’s Burgers writers Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Logelin–don’t mind if I favorably compare their new series to their beloved previous work. As an animated series, The Great North looks a lot like Bob’s Burgers, and it has the same gentleness of spirit as that show, too, but it also benefits greatly from its unique setting and cast of characters. The series takes place in rural Alaska, where moose run free and avocados are like gold. Much of the show’s comedy is mined from the peculiarities of this community built amidst the wilderness, with episodes on topics ranging from competitive curling to Bigfoot hunting. It took some time for Bob’s to earn its loyal viewership, but The Great North is fully-formed and endearing from the start, giving it an immediate spot in the comfort viewing canon.
You might think you’ve seen the generation-crossing, bad boss story of Hacks before, but trust me when I say it’s something special. Or if you don’t trust me, at least trust Jean Smart. As legendary comedian Deborah Vance, the actress is a tremendous on-screen presence, playing caustic and clever and inappropriate and bored–and all that comes before fledgling comedy writer Ava (Hannah Einbinder) starts to crack Deborah’s shell in the season’s phenomenal second half. Ava is a vaguely disgraced Gen Z writer who’s paired up with Deborah when the latter’s Las Vegas residency grows stale. Initial friction gives way to wonderfully fucked up bonding experiences, and a series that could’ve been one-note evolves into an engaging meditation on loneliness, risk, aging, and of course, the art of comedy.
There’s a corner of the cable universe where you can witness at least three of the best on-screen performances of the year, all within the confines of one therapist’s luxe home. In Treatment is back after a decade off the air, but you don’t need to be familiar with the therapy-set series’ past iteration in order to enjoy the revival season. Uzo Aduba is Dr. Brooke Taylor, a therapist whose practice is slowly but steadily thrown into chaos when her father’s death threatens her sobriety. Each episode takes place over the course of a therapy session or similarly soul-baring exchange, meaning the series lives or dies by its writing and acting. This season, clients range from smart, insomniac home aid Eladio (Anthony Ramos) to narcissistic white-collar criminal Colin (John Benjamin Hickey) to daydreaming queer teen Laila (Quintessa Swindell). In Treatment is a psychological obstacle course that veers from realism to melodrama and back again, but it’s anchored all the while by Aduba’s assured performance and her equally game scene partners.