The 12 Best New TV Shows of 2021 So Far That You Need to Catch Up On Right Now
From powerful dramas to hilarious comedies, these are the best brand new TV shows that've graced screens and streaming queues so far this year.
This time last year, we'd all spent far too much time in front of our TVs. Sadly, that hasn't changed all that much in 2021. That's life during a pandemic — which means that you've likely rewatched all your favourite television shows, and possibly more than once, while we've all been spending more time indoors of late.
There's nothing like getting cosy with a TV series you truly love, whether for the second, fifth, 11th or 20th time. But if you're always eager to add some fresh standouts to your viewing list, 2021 has definitely delivered plenty so far. They're the new series that'll sit atop your rewatch pile in years to come, because they're all just that exceptional.
Love powerful dramas that interrogate the past? This year has served up those. Fancy smart new comedies with local ties? Yep, 2021 has thrust those in front of eyeballs, too. Also debuting over the past six months: new gems from the teams behind old favourites, twisty thrillers and more than a couple of series with casts that knock it out of the park. Yes, the list goes on.
With the year at its halfway point, here are our picks of 2021's best new TV and streaming series that you owe it to yourself to seek out now.
THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD
Two words: Barry Jenkins. Where the Oscar-nominated Moonlight director goes, viewers should always follow. That proved the case with 2018's If Beale Street Could Talk, and it's definitely accurate regarding The Underground Railroad, the phenomenal new ten-part series that features Jenkins behind the camera of each and every episode. As the name makes plain, the historical drama uses the real-life Underground Railroad — the routes and houses that helped enslaved Black Americans escape to freedom — as its basis. Here, though, drawing on the past isn't as straightforward as it initially sounds. Adapting Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same moniker, the series dives deeply into the experiences of people endeavouring to flee slavery, while also adopting magic-realism when it comes to taking a literal approach to its railroad concept. That combination couldn't work better in Jenkins' hands as he follows Cora (Thuso Mbedu, Shuga), a woman forced into servitude on a plantation overseen by Terrance Randall (Benjamin Walker, Jessica Jones). As always proves the case in the filmmaker's work, every frame is a thing of beauty, every second heaves with emotion, and every glance, stare, word and exchange is loaded with a thorough examination of race relations in America. If something else this affecting reaches streaming queues in 2021, it'll be a phenomenal year for audiences.
The Underground Railroad is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
WHY ARE YOU LIKE THIS
Named after a meme, and focusing on characters that can hardly be described likeable but are nonetheless instantly recognisable, Australian sitcom Why Are You Like This takes aim at 21st century life. Its three main figures are all twentysomethings endeavouring to navigate a never-ending onslaught of personal and professional problems, such as getting fired, battling with colleagues, money troubles, hiding boyfriends, losing moon cups and trying to spark a workplace revolution but ending up getting other people fired — so, yes, they're just like the rest of us. Penny (series co-creator Naomi Higgins, Utopia) wants to be an ally to everyone. Her bestie Mia (Olivia Junkeer, Neighbours) matches that determination with both self-assurance and a self-serving mindset; if she's sticking up for anyone, it's always herself. Rounding out the trio is Penny's housemate and aspiring drag queen Austin (Wil King), whose glittery outfits and super-sized personality can't always hide his internal crumbling. Across the show's six-episode first season, these three friends keep trying to stand out in their own ways. They also keep demonstrating both their best and worst traits. As satirical as it is candid and relatable, Why Are You Like This knows that everyone and everything is awful, and leans in. And, in terms of the series' style of comedy, the fact that Higgins created the show with lawyer and illustrator Humyara Mahbub and Aunty Donna's Mark Samual Bonanno says plenty.
IT'S A SIN
More than two decades after creating Queer as Folk, Russell T Davies gives the television landscape another excellent queer drama. The screenwriter and television producer has been busy over the intervening period thanks to everything from Doctor Who to Years and Years — and he also has 2015's Cucumber to his name, too — but It's a Sin is one of the very best things on his lengthy resume. Stepping back to the AIDS crisis of the 80s and early 90s, the five-part miniseries follows a group of friends chasing their dreams in London. Ritchie (Olly Alexander, Penny Dreadful) heads to the city to become an actor, and to avoid telling his stern parents that he's gay. Roscoe (Omari Douglas) flees his parents' home when they keep threatening to take him back to Nigeria. Colin (Callum Scott Howells) arrives for an apprenticeship at a high-end tailor shop, but soon finds himself seeking an escape from his lecherous boss. Given the era, there's no doubting where the story will head. It's a Sin is as joyous and vibrant as it is soulful and heartbreaking, though. Ritchie, Roscoe and Colin not only cross paths, but form a makeshift family in their modest flat, with the former's college friends Jill (Lydia West, Dracula) and Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) rounding out the quintet. Neil Patrick Harris and Stephen Fry also feature, but they're never It's a Sin's stars — because, in series that looks and sounds the period part at every moment, the show's five main players are simply phenomenal.
It's a Sin is available to stream via Stan.
When Rose Matafeo last graced our screens, she took on pregnancy-centric rom-coms in 2020's Baby Done. Now, in Starstruck, she's still pairing the romantic and the comedic. In another thoughtful, plucky and relatable performance, she plays Jessie, a 28-year-old New Zealander in London who splits her time between working in a cinema and nannying, and isn't expecting much when her best friend and roommate Kate (Emma Sidi, Pls Like) drags her out to a bar on New Year's Eve. For most of the evening, her lack of enthusiasm proves astute. Then she meets Tom (Nikesh Patel, Four Weddings and a Funeral). He overhears her rambling drunkenly to herself in the men's bathroom, they chat at the bar and, when sparks fly, she ends up back at his sprawling flat. It isn't until the next morning, however — when she sees a poster adorned with his face leaning against his living room wall — that she realises that he's actually one of the biggest movie stars in the world. Yes, Starstruck takes Notting Hill's premise and gives it a 22-years-later update, and delivers a smart, sidesplittingly funny and all-round charming rom-com sitcom in the process. When a film or TV show is crafted with a deep-seated love for its chosen genre, it shows. When it wants to do more than just nod and wink at greats gone by like a big on-screen super fan — when its creators passionately hope that it might become a classic in its own right, rather than a mere imitation of better titles — that comes through, too. And that's definitely the case with this ridiculously easy-to-binge charmer.
Scroll through the list of Wakefield's cast members, and many a famous Australian name pops up. Ryan Corr (High Ground), Wayne Blair (Rams), Kim Gyngell (Brothers' Nest), Harriet Dyer (The Invisible Man), and comedians Felicity Ward and Sam Simmons are just some of them, but this ABC series belongs to phenomenal British talent Rudi Dharmalingam (The Split). With an Aussie accent so flawless that all other actors attempting the feat should study it in the future, he plays nurse Nik Katira. His workplace: the eponymous Wakefield, a mental health hospital in the Blue Mountains. Nik's days involve caring for his patients, navigating the usual workplace politics and grappling with his personal life, with all three often overlapping. That might sound like the usual medical drama, but Wakefield isn't ever as straightforward as it might appear. From its very first episode — one of five directed by The Dressmaker filmmaker Jocelyn Moorhouse, with the other three helmed by The Rocket's Kim Mordaunt — the series purposefully throws its viewers off-kilter. With roving cinematography and looping stories, it keeps everyone watching guessing, just as the figures within its frames are doing about their daily existence (including and sometimes especially Nik). Already set to be one of Australian TV's most impressive new series of the year — and likely the best of the year, too — Wakefield is gripping, twisty, powerful and almost devastatingly empathetic about a topic that is rarely handled with as much care and understanding. In other words, it's a knockout.
Wakefield is available to stream via ABC iView.
MARE OF EASTTOWN
Kate Winslet doesn't make the leap to the small screen often, but when she does, it's a must-see event. 2011's Mildred Pierce was simply astonishing, a description that both Winslet and her co-star Guy Pearce also earned — alongside an Emmy each, plus three more for the HBO limited series itself. The two actors and the acclaimed US cable network all reteam for Mare of Easttown, and it too is excellent. Set on the outskirts of Philadelphia, it follows detective Mare Sheehan. As the 25th anniversary of her high-school basketball championship arrives, and after a year of trying to solve a missing person's case linked to one of her former teammates, a new murder upends her existence. Mare's life overflows with complications anyway, with her ex-husband (David Denman, Brightburn) getting remarried, and her mother (Jean Smart, Watchmen), teenage daughter (Angourie Rice, Spider-Man: Far From Home) and four-year-old grandson all under her roof. With town newcomer Richard Ryan (Pearce, The Last Vermeer), she snatches what boozy and physical solace she can. As compelling and textured as she always is, including in this year's Ammonite, Winslet turns Mare of Easttown into a commanding character study. That said, it's firmly an engrossing crime drama as well. Although yet again pondering the adult life of an ex-school sports star, The Way Back's Brad Ingelsby isn't just repeating himself by creating and writing this seven-part series, while The Leftovers and The Hunt's Craig Zobel takes to his directing gig with a probing eye.
Mare of Easttown is available to stream via Binge.
First, a word of warning: the hit song that brought fictional late 90s/early 00s girl group Girls5eva to fame is such an earworm, you'll be singing it to yourself for weeks after you binge through the sitcom that bears their name. That's to be expected given that Jeff Richmond, the composer behind 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's equally catchy and comedic tunes, is one of the talents behind it. Tina Fey and Robert Carlock produce the series, too, so you what type of humour you're in for. Starring Sara Bareilles (Broadway's Waitress), Busy Philipps (I Feel Pretty), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton) and the great Paula Pell (AP Bio), Girls5eva follows four members of the eponymous band two decades after their heyday. Their initial success didn't last, and life has left the now-fortysomething women at different junctures. Then a rapper samples their hit, they're asked to reunite for a one-night backing spot on The Tonight Show, and they contemplate getting back together to give music another shot. As well as being exceptionally well-cast and immensely funny, the series is also bitingly perceptive about stardom, the entertainment industry and the way that women beyond their twenties are treated. Also, when Fey inevitably pops up, she does so as a dream version of Dolly Parton — and it's as glorious as it sounds.
Everyone has heard about the response that The War of the Worlds reportedly sparked back in 1938. That's when Orson Welles adapted HG Wells' novel into a radio play, and the result was so convincing that it reportedly incited panic among listeners. Watching Calls, it's easy to understand how. 'Watching' isn't exactly the right term for this mystery series, though. Like all those folks glued to their radios 83 years ago, Calls' audience is forced to listen intently. Indeed, in terms of visuals, the series only provides two types: words transcribing the conversations heard, and abstract visuals that move and shift with each sentence uttered and every suspenseful pause left lingering. Accordingly, focusing on the snippets of phone chats that tell the program's stories is what Calls is all about. Remaking the French show of the same name, and directed by Evil Dead and Don't Breathe's Fede Álvarez, something much more than a small-screen version of a story-fuelled podcast eventuates. A starry cast voices the chats — including everyone from Parks and Recreation duo Aubrey Plaza and Ben Schwartz to Wonder Woman 1984's Pedro Pascal and The Lodge's Riley Keough — but it's the tension and power of their words that leaves an impression. Each of the nine episodes tells a short story that eventually builds an overall picture, and getting caught up in them all is far easier than the underlying concept might initially make you think.
Calls is available to stream via Apple TV+.
MADE FOR LOVE
When author Alissa Nutting penned Made for Love, no one needed to think too hard about her source of inspiration. Now bringing its tale to the small screen courtesy of the series of the same name, her story ponders one of the possible next steps in our technology-saturated lives. Hazel Green-Gogol (Cristin Milioti, Palm Springs) seems to live a lavishly and happily with her tech billionaire husband Byron (Billy Magnussen, Aladdin). They haven't left his company's desert campus in the entire ten years they've been married, in fact. The site is designed to cater for their every desire and whim, so they shouldn't need to go anywhere else — or that's how Byron views things, at least. Then his next big idea looks set to become a reality, and Hazel decides that she can't keep up the charade. She certainly doesn't want to be implanted with a chip that'll allow Byron to see through her eyes, access her feelings and always know where she is, and she's willing to take drastic actions to escape his hold over her life. Bringing the plot to the screen herself, Nutting favours a darkly comedic and sharply satirical vibe as she follows Hazel's quest for freedom, with Made for Love filled with blisteringly accurate insights into the tech-dependence that's become a regular part of 21st century existence. That said, the series wouldn't be the gem it is without Milioti, as well as Ray Romano (The Irishman) in a scene-stealing supporting part as Hazel's father.
Made for Love is available to stream via Stan.
It has taken almost two years for the delight that is Los Espookys to reach Australian screens — and it'll take you less than three hours to binge its six-episode first season. This HBO comedy is both worth the wait and worth devouring as quickly as possible, though. The setup: horror aficionado Renaldo (Bernardo Velasco, Museo) wants to turn his obsession into his profession, so he starts staging eerie scenarios for paying customers, enlisting his best friend Andrés (Julio Torres, Shrill), pal Úrsula (Cassandra Ciangherotti, Ready to Mingle) and the latter's sister Tati (Ana Fabrega, At Home with Amy Sedaris) to help. Torres and Fabrega co-created the show with Portlandia and Saturday Night Live's Fred Armisen, who also pops up as Renaldo's parking valet uncle. This mostly Spanish-language series only uses its biggest name sparingly, however, because its key cast members own every moment. Following the titular group's exploits as they attempt to ply their trade, and to weave it into their otherwise chaotic lives, Los Espookys always manages to be both sidesplittingly hilarious and so meticulous in its horror references that it's almost uncanny. There's nothing on-screen quite like it and, thankfully, it has already been renewed for a second season.
Los Espookys is available to stream via Binge.
He co-wrote and produced The Office. He did the same on Parks and Recreation and Brooklyn Nine-Nine, which he co-created as well. And, he gave the world The Good Place — which makes Michael Schur one of the best in the business when it comes to kind-hearted, smart and savvy small-screen laughs. His new show, Rutherford Falls, continues the streak. Co-created with star Ed Helms and showrunner Sierra Teller Ornelas (Superstore), it also boasts his usual charm and intelligence and, as with all of the above programs, it's exceptionally well-cast. Plus, it's immensely easy to binge in just one sitting, because each one of its ten first-season episodes leave you wanting more. The setup: in the place that gives the sitcom its name, Nathan Rutherford (Helms, Aunty Donna's Big Ol' House of Fun) runs the local history museum. One of his descendants founded the town, and he couldn't be more proud of that fact. He's also very protective of the towering statue of said ancestor, even though it sits in the middle of a road and causes accidents. So, when the mayor (Dana L.Wilson, Perry Mason) decides to move the traffic hazard, Nathan and his overzealous intern Bobbie (Jesse Leigh, Heathers) spring into action. Nathan's best friend Reagan Wells (Jana Schmieding, Blast) helps; however, the Minishonka Nation woman begins to realise just how her pal's family have shaped the fate of her Native American community. Also featuring a scene-stealing Michael Greyeyes (I Know This Much Is True) as the enterprising head of the Minishonka Nation casino, Rutherford Falls pairs witty laughs with warmth and sincerity, especially when it comes to exploring the treatment of First Nations peoples in America today.
One day, Tahar Rahim will likely win an Oscar. He's that phenomenal an actor, as he has shown in everything from A Prophet, The Past and Daguerreotype to The Eddy and The Mauritanian. In The Serpent, however, he's never been more unsettling — but given that he's playing Charles Sobhraj, that comes with the territory. If the real-life French serial killer's name doesn't ring a bell, then this eight-part series will make sure you'll never forget it. The instantly riveting drama tells a grim true tale, and an unnerving one. With his girlfriend Marie-Andrée Leclerc (Jenna Coleman, The Cry) and accomplice Ajay Chowdhury (TV first-timer Amesh Edireweera), Sobhraj targeted young travellers in Bangkok and south Asia in the 70s — usually luring them in with a scam first, or trying to flat-out steal their money, then drugging them, killing them and stealing their passports. Ripper Street writers Richard Warlow and Toby Finlay intertwine Sobhraj, Leclerc and Chowdhury's murderous exploits with the efforts of Dutch diplomat Herman Knippenberg (Billy Howle, Star Wars: Episode IX — The Rise of Skywalker) to find two missing tourists. After being tipped off about two bodies by a loud-mouthed Australian in Thailand (Damon Herriman, Judy & Punch), Knippenberg begins to piece together the broader story. It's easy to feel just as he does while watching The Serpent, actually, because getting swept up in its distressing details is simply inevitable.
The Serpent is available to stream via Netflix.
Looking for more viewing highlights? Check out our list of film and TV streaming recommendations, which is updated monthly.
Published on July 01, 2021 by Sarah Ward