The 12 Best New TV Shows of 2021
This year's standout new shows include rom-coms, murder mysteries, and multiple shows about the gap between the wealthy and everyone else — and they're all available to stream.
December 20, 2021
If you like to fill your time staring at a screen, small or big, there's never a bad year to do it. Great shows and films, terrible ones, everything in-between — they all arrive every single year.
That said, if you're a fan of savvy TV series with something to say — and plenty about the world to savage, skewer or expose — then 2021 has been a particularly excellent year. Some of the absolute best series of the past 12 months took a look at the chasm between the wealthy and everyone else, the way women in entertainment are treated, or sitcom and rom-com tropes, and turned it into exceptional television.
Other 2021 standouts transformed true crime and podcasting obsessions into an amusing murder-mystery, examined race relations in America in a searing fashion, stepped back to the AIDS crisis of the 80s and early 90s, and spun a slice-of-life comedy around Indigenous American teenagers. And yes, the list goes on. Thankfully, all of the year's highlights are also now available to stream — so here's your catch-up viewing for the summer.
THE WHITE LOTUS
With Enlightened, his excellent two-season Laura Dern-starring comedy-drama from 2011–13, writer/director Mike White (Brad's Status) followed an executive who broke down at work. When she stepped back into her life, she found herself wanting something completely different not just for herself, but for and from the world. It isn't linked, narrative-wise, to White's latest TV miniseries The White Lotus. The same mood flows through, however. Here, wealthy Americans holiday at a luxe Hawaiian resort, which is managed by Australian Armond (Murray Bartlett, Tales of the City) — folks like business star Nicole (Connie Britton, Bombshell), her husband Mark (Steve Zahn, Where'd You Go, Bernadette), and the teenage trio of Olivia (Sydney Sweeney, Euphoria), Paula (Brittany O'Grady, Little Voice) and Quinn (Fred Hechinger, Fear Street); newlyweds Rachel (Alexandra Daddario, Songbird) and Shane (Jake Lacy, Mrs America); and the recently bereaved Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge, Promising Young Woman).
From the outset, when the opening scene shows Shane accompanying a body on the way home, viewers know this'll end with a death. But as each episode unfurls, it's clear that these characters are reassessing what they want out of life as well. In The White Lotus, a glam and glossy getaway becomes a hellish trap, magnifying glass and mirror, with everyone's issues and problems only augmented by their time at the eponymous location. In terms of sinking its claws into the affluent, eat the rich-style, this perceptive, alluring and excellently cast drama also pairs nicely with the White-penned Beatriz at Dinner, especially as it examines the differences between the resort's guests and staff.
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 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. Nothing else this affecting reached streaming queues in 2021 — but even one series like this made it a phenomenal year for audiences.
The Underground Railroad is available to stream via Amazon Prime Video.
KEVIN CAN F**K HIMSELF
There's never been a show on TV quite like Kevin Can F**k Himself, but there have been too many series that resemble half of this clever and cutting dark comedy. Whenever Allison Devine-McRoberts (Annie Murphy, Schitt's Creek) is around her manchild of a husband Kevin (Eric Petersen, Sydney to the Max), she's clearly in a sitcom. The lights glow brightly, her home looks like every other cosy abode in every other apparently amusing show about an obnoxious man and his put-upon wife — including all the ones starring Kevin James — and multiple cameras capture their lives. Also, canned laughter chuckles whenever something supposedly funny (but usually just cringeworthy) occurs between Kevin, his ever dimwitted best pal and neighbour Neil (Alex Bonifer, Superstore), Neil's one-of-the-guys sister Patty (Mary Hollis Inboden, The Righteous Gemstones) and Kevin's ever-present dad (Brian Howe, Chicago Fire). We've all seen this setup before, and Kevin Can F**k Himself's creator Valerie Armstrong (Lodge 49) definitely knows it.
But, whenever Allison is blissfully free from her horrible hubby, murkier tones and a much more realistic vibe kick in. Just one camera films her struggles, and she's clearly in a premium cable drama. This is when Allison starts trying to do something about her terrible marriage, including a plot not just to leave Kevin, but to ensure that she'll be free of him forever. On paper, the creative decisions behind Kevin Can F**k Himself's two halves are a high-concept gimmick, and purposefully so. They're deployed devastatingly on-screen, however. Thankfully, Kevin Can F**k Himself has been renewed for a second season, too, so more of its savvy charms and astute social commentary — and Murphy and Inboden's memorable performances — await.
It sounds like an obvious premise, and one that countless films and TV shows have already mined in the name of laughs. In Hacks, two vastly dissimilar people are pushed together, with the resulting conflict guiding the series. Ava Daniels (Hannah Einbinder, North Hollywood) and her new boss Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, Mare of Easttown) couldn't be more different in age, experience, tastes and opinions. The former is a 25-year-old who made the move to Hollywood, has been living out her dream as a comedy writer, but found her career plummeting after a tweet crashed and burned. The latter is a legendary stand-up who hasn't stopped hitting the stage for decades, is approaching the 2500th show of her long-running Las Vegas residency and is very set in her ways.
They appear to share exactly one thing in common: a love for comedy. They're an odd couple thrust together by their mutual manager Jimmy (Paul W Downs, Broad City), neither wants to be working with the other, and — to the surprise of no one, including each other — they clash again and again. There's no laugh track adding obvious chuckles to this HBO sitcom, though. Created by three of the talents behind Broad City — writer Jen Statsky; writer/director Lucia Aniello; and Downs, who does double duty in front of and behind the lens — Hacks isn't solely interested in setting two seemingly mismatched characters against each other. This is a smart and insightful series about what genuinely happens when this duo spends more and more time together, what's sparked their generational conflict and what, despite their evident differences, they actually share beyond that love of making people laugh. And, it's a frank, funny and biting assessment of being a woman in entertainment — and it's also always as canny as it is hilarious.
Not content with just having two of the best current sitcoms on his resume — that'd be Wellington Paranormal and What We Do in the Shadows — Taika Waititi has gone and added a third. If you didn't know that he was one of Reservation Dogs' creators, executive producers and writers, you'd likely guess from the laidback tone; however, this is firmly a case of Waititi helping to get an exceptional show off the ground, and also lending his star power to assist emerging voices and under-represented communities. The 'reservation' part of this comedy's title is literal. In rural Oklahoma, that's where Indigenous American teenagers Bear (D'Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Beans), Elora (Devery Jacobs, Rutherford Falls), Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis, also seen in Beans) and Cheese (debutant Lane Factor) live, spend their days and meander about while dreaming of being somewhere else. Their ideal destination: California. Their number-one pastime: rustling up cash by whatever means they can to fund their big getaway, including by hijacking a delivery van filled with potato chips in the show's first episode.
It's that heist and the aftermath that gives this quartet their Quentin Tarantino-style nickname, but Reservation Dogs isn't about bold and flashy moments. It's about the daily reality as Bear and his pals navigate their present existence and hope that they can soon escape it. In other words, this is a series that's deeply steeped in conveying the small details in its characters' lives, and giving audiences the chance to spend time with them. It's a show that's as much about hanging out as propelling a plot forward and, in the hands of Waititi and fellow co-creator/executive producer/writer Sterlin Harjo (Mekko), it's a coming-of-age gem.
Reservation Dogs is available to stream via Binge.
IT'S A SIN
More than two decades after creating Queer as Folk, Russell T Davies has given 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.
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 reteamed 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, Hacks), 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 also 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 tremendously 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.
Exploring societal divides within South Korea wasn't invented by Parasite, Bong Joon-ho's excellent Oscar-winning 2019 thriller, but its success was always going to give other films and TV shows on the topic a healthy boost. Accordingly, it's easy to see thematic and narrative parallels between the acclaimed movie and Netflix's highly addictive Squid Game — the show that's become the platform's biggest show ever (yes, bigger than everything from Stranger Things to Bridgerton). Anyone who has seen even an episode knows why this nine-part series is so compulsively watchable. Its puzzle-like storyline and its unflinching savagery making quite the combination. Here, in a Battle Royale and Hunger Games-style setup, 456 competitors are selected to work their way through six seemingly easy children's games. They're all given numbers and green tracksuits, they're competing for 45.6 billion won, and it turns out that they've also all made their way to the contest after being singled out for having enormous debts.
That includes series protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae, Deliver Us From Evil), a chauffeur with a gambling problem, and also a divorcé desperate to do whatever he needs to to keep his daughter in his life. But, as it probes the chasms caused by capitalism and cash — and the things the latter makes people do under the former — this program isn't just about one player. It's about survival, the status quo the world has accepted when it comes to money, and the real inequality present both in South Korea and elsewhere. Filled with electric performances, as clever as it is compelling, unsurprisingly littered with smart cliffhangers, and never afraid to get bloody and brutal, the result is a savvy, tense and taut horror-thriller that entertains instantly and also has much to say.
Squid Game is available to stream via Netflix.
When Yellowjackets begins, it's with an intriguing mystery, a killer cast — led by the compulsively watchable Melanie Lynskey (Mrs America), Juliette Lewis (Breaking News in Yuba County) and Christina Ricci (Percy vs Goliath) — and a deep valley full of trauma. In their high-school years, Shauna Sheridan (Lynskey, and also The Kid Detective's Sophie Nélisse as a teenager) and Natalie (Lewis, plus The Tomorrow Man's Sophie Thatcher) were key players on the titular high-achieving New Jersey soccer team, while Misty (Ricci, as well as Shameless' Samantha Hanratty) was the squad's frequently bullied student manager. Then, en route to a big match in Seattle on a private plane in 1996, they entered Lost territory. That crash saw the survivors stranded in the wilderness for 19 months, and living their worst Lord of the Flies lives, too.
As established in a stellar first episode directed with the utmost precision by Destroyer's Karyn Kusama, Yellowjackets isn't simply interested in an inherently disturbing experience that'd change anyone's life. It's just as obsessed with that transformation itself — with how, after falling from the sky, learning to endure in such remote surroundings and plummeting into a horror movie, someone copes when normality supposedly comes calling afterwards. Flitting between the two 25-years-apart time periods, it's about tragedies endured, paths taken, necessities accepted and the echoes that linger from all three. Its first season isn't over yet, but this instant must-see is already chilling, perceptive, resonant and potent.
Yellowjackets is available to stream via Paramount+.
ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING
If you've ever listened to a true-crime podcast, decided that you'd make a great Serial host yourself and started wondering how you'd ever follow in Sarah Koenig's footsteps, then you should be watching Only Murders in the Building. The Disney+ series follows three New Yorkers who follow that exact same process. Actor Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin, It's Complicated), theatre producer Oliver Putnam (Martin Short, Schmigadoon!) and the much-younger Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez, The Dead Don't Die) are all obsessed with a series hosted by the fictional Cinda Canning (Tina Fey, Girls5eva), to the point of bonding over it as strangers. Then, when someone turns up dead in their building, they decide that they can sleuth their way through the case — by getting talking themselves, naturally. But being a true-crime podcast diehard and making a true-crime podcast clearly aren't quite the same thing, and turning amateur detective isn't clearcut either.
Entertaining and exceptionally well-cast, Only Murders in the Building makes makes the most of its main trio's mismatched vibe. It's filled with hearty affection for everything it jokes about, resulting in an upbeat satire of true-crime obsessions, podcasting's pervasiveness and the intersection of the two. It adores its single-setting Agatha Christie-lite setup, it's always empathetic, and it also loves peppering in highly recognisable co-stars and guest stars such as Fey, Nathan Lane (Penny Dreadful: City of Angels), Amy Ryan (Late Night) and even Sting. The series is also written and acted with enough depth to pair relatable character insights with its bubbly, clownish fun. If Knives Out was a sitcom, and also a little goofier, it'd turn out like this — and that's a delight, obviously.
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.
Looking for more viewing highlights? We also rounded up 12 of 2021's best TV highlights that you might've missed.
And you can also check out our list of film and TV streaming recommendations, which is updated monthly. Plus, we picked 12 standout new 2021 series in the middle of the year, too.
Published on December 20, 2021 by Sarah Ward