15 Great 2021 Shows To Binge
Here we are at the start of another holiday season stuck inside. The world isn't quite as shut down as it was in 2020, but thanks to Omicron, holiday week concerts are all being canceled, bars and restaurants are temporarily closing due to staffing shortages, and being in a movie theater (something I love) feels much less appealing than it did three weeks ago.
Thank goodness for TV. This is not a list of the best series of the year; instead I've picked 13 new shows and two that returned for a second season that I think deserve more attention. Not all of these are obscure: A few of them won Emmys this year, and a few others were widely acclaimed, but all these still feel underseen. Some definitely could use more eyeballs on them. They range from ambitious adaptations of acclaimed novels, to sitcoms about girl groups of different styles, to a show made with plastic baby dolls. And one documentary. They're in no particular order.
A list of my favorite shows of 2021 would also include The White Lotus, Squid Game, Succession, Pen15, Insecure, Mare of Easttown, Only Murders in the Building, Loki, How to With John Wilson, and What We Do in the Shadows, and if somehow you haven't seen those, by all means do! But if you have and are in need of more suggestions, head below. Happy viewing.
15 Great (Mostly) New Shows from 2021 To Binge During the Holidays
Reservation Dogs (FX / Hulu)
This "hangout" of a of a series is ostensibly about group of four indigenous teenagers living in rural Oklahoma who, after the death of one of their friends, dream of escaping their small town for a better life in California. If to do so it means committing some small time crimes to raise money, so be it. But like Atlanta, Reservation Dogs lets its camera wander to other parts of the town and many other residents, all of whom are doing what they have to do to get by. Reservation Dogs also not afraid to take things into surreal/magical realism territory, like an episode involving Native American mythological creature, the Deer Lady. Co-created by Taika Waititi, who imbues the show with the same loose, easygoing charm as his film The Hunt for the Wilderpeople, Reservation Dogs is primarily the vision of filmmaker Steve Harjo, who populates the series with an all indigenous cast and shot the whole thing on location in Oklahoma. There is a real sense of place that can't be faked, that adds to the charm of one of 2021's best series, new or otherwise.
We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
This sitcom about an all-girl Muslim punk band is a real delight. We Are Lady Parts is told mostly from the point of view of the fledgling London group's new lead guitarist, Amina (Anjana Vasan), who is shy, suffers from terrible stage fright, and before joining the band, just wanted to get her PHD in biology and settle down with a good man like a good Muslim girl should. Her eyes and ears are opened by the band, whose members, in a well-executed bit of shorthand, each represent a different archetype. While the one-line description makes We Are Lady Parts sound like it could be a constant stream of hot-button issues -- and there is some of that -- the word that comes to mind most is "sweet." Creator Nida Manzoor isn't afraid of dusting off well-worn sitcom plotlines, but the jokes, performances and the world in which it's set all feel very fresh, even when the season finale leads to a make-or-break performance at a Battle of the Bands competition. We Are Lady Parts is a terrific new arrangement on some familiar chords.
Girls 5Eva (Peacock)
Sara Bareilles (Waitress), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton), Busy Phillips (Freaks & Geeks, Cougar Town), and Paula Pell (SNL, 30 Rock) star as the four surviving members of Girls5Eva, a millennium-era, bargain basement Spice Girls/Destiny's Child who are thrust back together after their sole hit, "Famous 5eva" ("cause forever's too short"), is sampled by chart-topping rapper Lil Stinker. He asks them to perform with him on Fallon, and with all of them feeling unfulfilled in their lives, they decide to give the group another go. Created by Meredith Scardino (The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, The Colbert Report), the series is executive produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock and is very much in the joke-a-second mold they pioneered with 30 Rock and continued with Kimmy Schmidt, Great News and Mr Mayor. Girls 5Eva mines a lot of hearty laughs from fame, aging, beauty, show business, sexism, social media influencers, clear plexiglass grand pianos, New York Lonely Boys, and more. The cast, which also includes Andrew Rannells and features Stephen Colbert, Vanessa Williams and Tina Fey in guest roles, is fantastic, as are the many original songs. While peppered with warm nostalgia and lots of heart, Girls 5eva is first and foremost a high efficiency joke machine that layers gags deep enough that your finger may stay on the rewind button in case you miss something.
The North Water (AMC)
While shows like The Mandalorian and Loki do wonders with modern VFX technology, do not underestimate the production value that shooting on location can bring to a film or series. The North Water, about a 1859 whaling expedition near the arctic circle that goes horribly, horribly wrong, was shot in the Norwegian archipelago of Svalbard (and even farther North), where the ice floes are real, the foggy breath is not CGI, and the chattering of teeth is not acting. The limited series was written and directed by Andrew Haigh (45 Years, Looking) who adapted Ian McGuire's novel of the same name, and stars Jack O'Connell as a disgraced army surgeon who takes a job as ship's doctor on the whaling vessel. The crew is full of swarthy ne'er-do-wells, including Colin Farrell as the expedition's loose cannon harpoonist. If you even wondered what Deadwood would've been like on a whaling boat instead of the Wild West, The North Water is pretty close to that. It is at times grim and not for the faint of heart (there is a lot of whaling and seal-hunting), but it is consistently compelling with Farrell lighting up the screen and chewing all scenery. If the filmmaking and performances didn't already have you on the edge of your seat, Tim Hecker's unsettling electronic score may tip you into the icy waters.
Landscapers (HBO Max)
Based on a stranger-than-fiction real events, Landscapers tells the story of a British married couple Susan and Christopher Edwards (Olivia Colman and David Thewlis) who, in 2014, were convicted of murder for the 1998 deaths of Susan's parents, and were sentenced to 25 years in prison. (They continue to maintain their innocence.) Susan and Christopher at first seem too mild-mannered to do anything so horrific -- the title comes from the fact that the bodies were buried in the backyard of their house -- but their alibis soon unravel, involving sordid details and letters from Gerard Depardieu. Landscapers is less a mystery than a love story about two people who are willing to do anything for each other and to stay together. The words "starring Olivia Colman" should really be enough to get you to watch, and she's amazing as always, but Thewlis gives a revelatory, heartbreaking performance as Christopher, a man who has lost too many people he loved in his life to lose another. The series is also populated with great featured performances, including Sleaford Mods' Jason Williamson as a nosy neighbor. What also makes Landscapers special is the is the series' visual style and production design, which makes good use of Susan's love of cinema and breaks frequently into fantasy sequences. Co-created by Colman's husband, Will Sharpe, and Ed Sinclair (who created British sitcom Flowers which starred Colman), the show is not afraid to break the fourth wall and in fact pulls back to reveal the artifice of the sets, as well as the crew filming it. It's a striking effect that helps make Landscapers as distinctive as its two leads.
Ultra City Smiths (AMC)
I can say with all confidence that AMC's Ultra City Smiths is not only the best noir musical mystery comedy using stop-motion-animated baby dolls of 2021, it is the best noir musical mystery comedy using stop-motion-animated baby dolls ever made. Steven Conrad, the iconoclast creator of two of the weirdest, most wonderful, whimsical and underseen series of the last five years (Patriot, Perpetual Grace LTD), is behind what is easily the oddest, I-can't-believe-someone-let-him-make-this show in recent memory. The basic story: On his first day on the force, Detective David Mills (voiced by Jimmi Simpson) investigates the disappearance of Carpenter K. Smith, the "last honest politician" in Ultra City. Turns out Ultra City is populated by many other Smith family members, all of whom had reasons to want him dead. Ultra City Smiths is populated with an impressive voice cast, including Tom Waits, John C Reilly, Julian Barratt, Jason Mantzoukas, Dax Shepard, Kristen Bell, Tim Heidecker, Da'Vine Joy Randolph, Bebe Neuwirth, and more, as well as Steve Conrad regulars like Kurtwood Smith, Terry O'Quinn, Debra Winger and Luis Guzmán. While I wouldn't say the plot, which is as twisty and messily satisfying as any good noir should be, is beside the point, but Ultra City Smiths is all about the digressions and character details. Example: Detective Miller is a recovering addict whose poison of choice is limes. As in the fruit. There's a whole song about it. There's also one of the most complicated, impressive dick jokes ever put to screen. And again, this is all done with animated plastic baby dolls. Ultra City Smiths is the kind of show where you're either all-in or alll-out, but fans of the quirky and whimsical should dig in now.
Sidenote: Conrad's next project will be a little more high-profile: showrunning George R.R. Martin's lighthearted Game of Thrones' offshoot, Tales of Dunk & Egg.
Hacks (HBO Max)
This was a great year for Jean Smart, who is one of those actors that, like Olivia Colman, is basically a Seal of Approval for anything she's involved in. At the same time she had a supporting role in the great Mayor of Easttown, she was starring in Hacks, an HBO Max series that worked almost entirely because of her knockout performance, which deservedly won her an Emmy. Hacks was nominated for a whopping 15 Emmys (it won for directing and writing in addition to Smart), but it still feels under-the-radar. Smart stars as Deborah Vance, a past-her-prime Carol Burnett / Joan Rivers type comedian and television personality who now coasts on the same old act, with two shows daily in Vegas. But attendance is slipping, so her agent hires edgy millennial comedian Ava (Hannah Einbinder), who is in need of work due to being recently Twitter canceled, to spruce up her material. It's an oil-and-water culture clash at first, but the two come to a grudging respect for each other and, eventually, make friends, though there are lots of bumps along the way. Smart is reason to watch, but Einbender is terrific too, especially once her purposefully grating Ava starts to soften up and give the old broad a chance.
It's a Sin (HBO Max)
One of the most depressing (but excellent) shows of 2020 was HBO's Years And Years, which imagined a world where Trump/Brexit were just the launching point of a bleak future, zooming through the decades as the rich got richer, the middle class disappeared entirely, being poor became a crime, and the borders closed entirely. So when it was announced that Years and Years creator Russell T Davies had made a miniseries about the '80s AIDS crisis, it seemed like it might all be too much to bear, especially during a global pandemic. While rightfully angry and honest, It's A Sin is also compassionate and ultimately life-affirming. The series centers around of four gay men and one woman (Olly Alexander, Omari Douglas, Callum Scott Howells, Nathaniel Curtis, Lydia West) who all end up sharing a London warehouse flat at the dawn of the '80s. The series follows them through the next decade as AIDS goes from being something only whispered about, to a "gay disease," to mass public awareness and demystification. In a current streaming television world where even the best series suffer from bloat, Davies, who created Queer as Folk, manages to craft distinct characters with full arcs in just five episodes. When deaths come, as you know they will, they are gut-punches. It's a Sin never drags, nor is it a drag, keeping humanity and love -- not to mention some welcome humor -- at its center, and serving as a warning that it may never happen again.
Can't Get You Out of My Head (YouTube)
Can't Get You Out Of My Head: An Emotional History of the Modern World is the latest heady, globe-trotting documentary from acclaimed British filmmaker and Massive Attack collaborator Adam Curtis. The six-part series -- "the story of how we got to the strange days we are now experiencing. And why both those in power - and we - find it so difficult to move on" -- is another of his fascinating, compelling looks at the world, involving many of his favorite themes, like individualism vs collectivism, power, conspiracy theories, the history of China, Live Aid, the role opioids have played in our society, Artificial Intelligence, Tupac Shakur, and more. “These strange days did not just happen," says Curtis. "We - and those in power - created them together.” Music is a huge part of Curtis' arsenal and Can't Get You Out of My Head includes an incredible soundtrack that features everything from pop to classical, film scores to krautrock, industrial, goth, shoegaze, post-rock, country, rap, you name it. It may be the only film to use This Mortal Coil, DJ Jazzy Jeff & The Fresh Prince, Lawrence Welk, Gang of Four, Rod Stewart, Nine Inch Nails, Chris De Burgh's "Lady in Red," and Johnny Boy's "You Are the Generation Who Bought More Shoes and You Get What You Deserve." The series debuted on the BBC's UK iPlayer streaming service at end the February and while it never got an official North American release, the whole thing is available to stream on YouTube.
The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)
Oscar-winning Moonlight filmmaker Barry Jenkins wrote and directed this wildly ambitious 10-part miniseries adaptation of Colson Whitehead's Pulitzer Prize-winning 2017 novel about Cora Randall (Thuso Mbedu) who desperately attempts to flee to the North and freedom in the Antebellum South. As in the novel, this Underground Railroad is an actual secret, subterranean rail line and not the series of safehouses it was in reality. A truly astounding achievement, the scope, scale and beauty of the series -- not to the mention the across-the-board stellar performances -- rival any theatrical film. Cinematographer James Laxton does truly amazing work here, from gorgeous vistas to unflinching depictions of some of the most evil things to happen in American history. The Underground Railroad is difficult to watch at times, but this important, artistic achievement shouldn't be easy, and it's a rewarding watch.
The Other Two (HBO Max)
"If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere!" New York, New York has changed a lot and become a much tougher place to make it in since Frank Sinatra sang about it in 1980, but still people try. The Other Two, which premiered on Comedy Central in early 2019, is about just that. Siblings Cary and Brooke Dubek (Drew Tarver and Heléne Yorke) are, respectively, a struggling actor and a former dancer who can't quite seem to make it to the next level, while suffering a string of demoralizing/humiliating day jobs. When their tween younger brother, Chase (Case Walker) becomes a viral YouTube singing sensation and moves to NYC with mom Molly Shannon, Cary and Brooke attempt to ride their brother's coattails. The Other Two was created by former SNL writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider, who bring a lot of firsthand knowledge of NYC and the entertainment industry to the series, which is consistently razor sharp with its humor and occasionally dips into the absurd/surreal. The Other Two can be cutting, but it also is very empathetic towards its characters. COVID caused major delays in The Other Two's second season, and during the interim the series moved from Comedy Central to HBO Max. Season 2 finally debuted in August of 2021 and was just as funny from the first, taking the whole Dubek family to higher levels of fame and misfortune.
For All Mankind (Apple TV+)
Creator Ronald D Moore, who worked on Star Trek: The Next Generation and created the '00s Battlestar Galactica reboot, turned to something a little closer to Earth for this alternate history series about the '60s space race, where the Russians are the first to land on the moon. While the first season was good, it was a little slow in getting to the good stuff, offering up events that were pretty close to our actual history. But with Season 2, For All Mankind seriously diverges from history and also turns the plot thrusters into overdrive, making for very compelling, addictive TV. The second season finale really sticks the landing, and sets a course for Season 3 that could, in the words of another show, boldly go where no man has gone before.
Station Eleven (HBO Max)
Based on Emily St. John Mandel's acclaimed 2014 novel of the same name, Station Eleven is about survivors of a global pandemic flu that wipes out most of the world's population. The series boasts a seriously impressive creative team, including creator/showrunner Patrick Somerville, who worked on The Leftovers' final two (and best) seasons and created great Netlflix miniseries Maniac, and directors Hiro Murai (Atlanta, Barry) and Jeremy Podeswa (Game of Thrones). The cast, meanwhile, includes Mackenzie Davis (Halt and Catch Fire), Gael García Bernal (Y tu mamá también, Bad Education), Danielle Deadwyler (Watchmen), Himesh Patel (Tennet, Yesterday) and more. The show is really more about what happens after this pandemic, wondering if the world is better off for it, and where do we go from there. There are strong Lost vibes, as the story switches through the past and present as we learn more and more about how the characters interconnect. Station Eleven has its share of "wow" moments (there's a big one in the first episode, which will likely be the toughest watch for most people) but it's the small character moments that stick with you. You may not think you want to watch a show involving a global pandemic as you actually live through one, but few shows have felt so hopeful about humanity as this. One of the year's best shows.
Speaking of shows that echo Lost, Showtime's Yellowjackets has even stronger parallels but with a much different intent. The series involves a high school girls soccer team whose plane crash lands -- way, way off course -- in the Canadian wilderness, leaving them to fend for themselves for 19 months. The survivors vow to never say what happened during that time, but 25 years later the past finally comes back to haunt them. Splitting most of its time between the mid-'90s, when the kids were in school (and stuck in the woods), and present day, the series essentially sports two great casts including Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, Melanie Lynskey, Ella Purnell, and Jasmin Savoy Brown. The plot, meanwhile, is seriously pulpy, with nearly every character keeping a Big Secret (and not just about the 19 months they were missing), and there are some supernatural elements as well, including a kid who seems to have Special Powers. Yellowjackets is not just Lost but also part Lord of the Flies, Alive and Stephen King's It. The show is so stuffed with plotlines that it seems unlikely to resolve most of them satisfactorily by first season's end, but it definitely keeps you hooked.
Sidenote: Being set in the '90s, Yellowjackets is wall-to-wall Clinton-era needledrops and they run surprisingly deep, if occasionally on-the-nose. Yes, there's a playlist. Further '90s connections: The score is by Craig Wedren (Shudder to Think) and Anna Waronker (That Dog) who also made the series' original theme songs, "No Return," which is pretty good.
The Chair (Netflix)
Not all shows are super high concept these days. The Chair, which was co-created by actress and director Amanda Peet and Annie Julia Wyman, is set in the English Department of fictional Northeast private college Pembroke University. Sandrah Oh stars as the newly appointed Chair of the department, the first woman of color to do so at the predominantly white, male and old institution. That feeling of satisfaction is fleeting, though, as the headaches of the day-to-day admin that come with the position hit immediately: trying to keep old, tenured professors (Bob Balaban, Holland Taylor) happy, dealing with a good friend and colleague (Jay Duplass) who she may have feelings for and who gets himself into hot water over over a controversial lecture (Hitler is involved), and being told to lose three teachers due to declining enrollment. The series' first season is only six 30 minute episodes, and 20 years ago this probably would've been a 105-minute romantic comedy that played in indie theaters. Here, The Chair suffers just a little bit from series bloat, but its breezy, lighthearted tone and terrific cast make it all very watchable, while touching on some serious subjects, too. Let's hope it gets a second season.