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The 15 Best TV Shows of 2021

Hundreds of shows aired in 2021. Here, TV critic Valerie Ettenhofer picks 15 of the best ones.
Best Tv Shows
By  · Published on January 4th, 2022

10. Yellowjackets


It’s been a long time since a show has come around with a premise as good as Yellowjackets‘. The series follows a high school girls’ soccer team that crashes into the North American wilderness, where they’re left to fend for themselves for 19 months. It also follows four adult versions of surviving players, played by Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, and Tawny Cypress, as they face down a blackmailer who knows something about their time in the wilderness. Oh, and there’s also cannibalism, a gnarly amputation, a psychic teenager, and someone called The Antler Queen. Yellowjackets captures shades of Lost and Lord of the Flies, but its mysteries are always anchored by the emotional specificity of its 90s girl leads. This show goes hard.

9. It’s a Sin

Its A Sin

Sometimes, it’s tough to see how poorly you’ve been represented on screen until a work of art comes along to put everything else like it to shame. For many in the queer community, Russell T. Davies’ It’s A Sin is one of these game-changing works. The series follows a group of young, queer friends who meet in college, move into a crappy apartment, and face the emotional roller coaster of their 20s together. They’re a beautifully rendered found family, each character relatable and real in their own way. Unfortunately, they’re also coming of age in the ’80s, when HIV/AIDs is evolving from a whispered rumor to a full-blown epidemic. It’s a Sin isn’t about AIDS so much as it’s about the very human people who faced it down together, living their lives to the fullest while slowly realizing those lives may not last long. It’s heartbreaking, but it’s deeply hopeful, too.

8. Station Eleven

Station Eleven

The year’s best pandemic story is one that was written years ago. HBO’s Station Eleven is based on Emily St. John Mandel’s acclaimed 2014 novel. Still, by building plot points around shut-down airports and supermarket scrambles, it undoubtedly hits closer to home now. Patrick Somerville, who wrote for The Leftovers and brought some of its miraculous DNA to Station Eleven, ultimately crafts a series that’s even better than its source material. Station Eleven is lofty in its artistic goals, interweaving post-apocalyptic survival plots with a story about a traveling troupe of Shakespearean actors and hinging all its themes on a rare issue of a graphic novel. As with The Leftovers, it’s really all about connection and the fragile, dangerous, and painful ways human beings choose to connect in the face of crisis. As we enter the third year of a global pandemic, watching Station Eleven may sound like a herculean undertaking, but it can heal you if you let it.

7. The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad
Amazon Studios

At this point, it doesn’t even feel like Barry Jenkins is making movies and shows. It’s more like he’s building monuments. His vision is sweeping yet specific. With The Underground Railroad, his work is tender and intimate, yet it also contains elements of alienation, bits of uncanny strangeness that lend to its Odyssey-like premise. Based on a book of the same name by Colson Whitehead, the limited series mostly follows an escaped slave named Cora (Thuso Mbedu). Cora makes her way across a landscape that is a near mirror image of 1800s America imbued with an otherworldly sense of magical realism. The Underground Railroad can teeter on the edge of hopelessness–for a long time, nowhere Cora goes feels safe–but it regularly bathes its subjects in perfect light, hopeful for the new day to come. It’s a poetic masterwork that tests the established limits of its medium, then goes beyond them entirely.

6. Maid


Maid shouldn’t work. The limited series based on Stephanie Land’s memoir has a set-up that sounds like poverty porn in the making, but its execution is excellent. The result is sheer, authentic storytelling. The series is about a young mother named Alex (Margaret Qualley) who leaves her abusive boyfriend (Nick Robinson) despite her lack of resources. She starts doing housework and enters a labyrinthine public assistance system, all to ensure her toddler daughter is safe.

Maid tells a frustratingly cyclical story by design, but it’s honest for every minute of it. The series plainly shows how Alex’s single decision sets off a Rube Goldberg machine of lost opportunity, housing instability, and lack of safety. For folks who have never experienced economic insecurity, Alex’s compounded crises may seem like a narrative leap. But for anyone who sees themselves in the show, these circumstances are painfully real. Qualley is the series’ secret weapon; so much of the series’ emotional weight exists only in her wide eyes, which often well up before, inevitably, narrowing in determination once again.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)