Tuesday, January 4, 2022

2021: The Year in Television

With COVID-19 and its many increasingly sci-fi-sounding variants again curtailing group activities, trips to the theater were few and far between in 2021. (Read: I went once and was so paranoid and uncomfortable the entire time that I haven’t gone since.) Fortunately, between same-day streaming releases of theatrical films and the insanely high caliber of original television programming pouring out of our Smart TVs, we were at no loss for quality home viewing experiences in 2021.

Those of us old enough to remember when choices were limited to the big three (ABC/NBC/CBS) on network television thought that the addition of premium cable outlets like HBO and Showtime and Cinemax was monumental in and of itself. Then, basic cable expanded into original programming, and previously surfed-right-by filler channels like AMC and FX became destination viewing. Now, with the proliferation of streaming services (Netflix and Amazon Prime and Hulu and Paramount+ and HBO Max and Disney+ and Peacock and Apple+) our choices are myriad. Even the most diehard, dedicated TV aficionado has trouble keeping track and keeping up. We are truly living in another golden age of television.

The creative opportunities these streaming services have opened up for content creators have been unparalleled and have brought an exceptional diversity and quality of shows into our living rooms. Instead of three networks having to choose between hundreds of hopeful pilots for a limited number of primetime slots, television’s expansion into premium cable, basic cable, and (now) streamers has created an insatiable demand for new content that will attract new subscriber-viewers. That competition for must-see content has attracted high-end writers, directors, and actors to the medium. That’s especially great news for pandemic-weary audiences who desperately need the escapism right now.

2021 brought another exceptional slate of offerings into our homes. There were revivals of old favorites and murder mysteries and a historical drama chronicling the AIDS crisis. From notable literary adaptations to originals that explored weighty themes like ageism, racism, the cyclical nature of life and poverty in small towns, the concepts of agnosticism and atheism in religious faith, and man’s eternal, tail-chasing quest to discover happiness, television gave us much to enjoy and chew on this year. It was a year that brought career resurgence to comedic veterans Steve Martin and Martin Short, newfound respect for the versatility of perennial scene-stealer Jennifer Coolidge, and well-deserved accolades for the inestimable Jean Smart, who played the hell out of not one, but two, career-best roles in 2021. It was a year that saw adaptations of books by Ann Cleeves, Emily St. John Mandel, Philipp Meyer, and Liane Moriarty. It was a year that gave us two unforgettable limited series written and directed by guys named Mike that had everyone taking: The White Lotus from Mike White and Midnight Mass from Mike Flanagan.

Without further comment, these are my ten top television picks of 2021:

#10 Dexter: New Blood

#9 Station Eleven

#8 Only Murders in the Building

#7 It’s A Sin

#6 The Long Call

#5 Yellowjackets

#4 The White Lotus

#3 Mare of Easttown

#2 Hacks

#1 Midnight Mass


A few honorable mentions, in no particular order:

The Chair (the first season)


YOU (the third season)

American Rust

Nine Perfect Strangers


Yellowstone (the fourth season)

And Just Like That

Chucky (the first season)

Pose (the third and final season)


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