As has been the case for many years, there was too much television and too little time, and between the streaming services and the satellite networks, it was impossible to keep up with everything. But the most important thing is that, once again, television helped many of us get through a tough time and if you missed any of the series below, many of them are still streaming on various platforms or available on VOD.
Because there were so many options, I’ve limited myself to new series on this list, but there were older shows that released wonderful new seasons in 2021. Among them were Ted Lasso, the breakout hit for Apple TV+ that won even more fans with its second season, and the always inventive and sharp The Good Fight. Some shows that many of us wished had released new seasons during 2021, such as The Crown and Stranger Things, were delayed due to the pandemic and are set for release in 2022, which, if current trends continue, will find many of us spending most of our free time at home again.
- American Crime Story: Impeachment – Truth is stranger than fiction in this dramatized account of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. This series featured some of the year’s finest acting, especially Beanie Feldstein as Lewinsky (who was one of the producers), Sarah Paulson as Linda Tripp (the coworker who taped Lewinsky and betrayed her) and Clive Owen in a low-key performance as the president that worked well. Even though the audience always knows what is about to happen, the writers managed to create real suspense, which was no easy feat.
- Hacks – This series stars two wonderful actresses who have great chemistry together, in a very funny series that explores the generational divide between a fading Las Vegas stand-up comedian (Jean Smart, who won an Emmy for her performance) and a former wunderkind comedy writer (Hannah Einbinder), who has been canceled due to a politically incorrect joke she made on social media.
- Line in the Sand – The Israeli series, known in Hebrew as HaShotrim, tells a suspenseful, fact-based story of a police detective (Tsahi Halevi) sent back to work in his beachfront hometown, Nahariya, who discovers that the local police force is rife with corruption. Shlomi Ifrah, as a baby-faced crime boss, was the standout in an excellent ensemble.
- The White Lotus – This unusual series about the staff and patrons of a resort on a Hawaiian island mixed sharp social commentary, comedy and drama, and you never knew from scene to scene whether you would find yourself laughing or crying. Jennifer Coolidge, as a self-pitying, lonely woman there to scatter her mother’s ashes, and Murray Bartlett as the unhinged resort manager were the standouts in a terrific cast.
- Genius: Aretha – This series was shown on National Geographic, a network not generally identified with drama, and it made a very watchable story out of Aretha Franklin’s early life (as did the movie, Respect, which was also released this year). Cynthia Erivo won an Emmy for her portrayal of the Queen of Soul.
- Girls5eva – There weren’t enough good, light shows, which were sorely needed this year, and an enjoyable comedy about a one-hit wonder girl group that, of course, gets back together – starring singer Sara Bareilles and Renée Elise Goldsberry (The Good Wife) – was one of the best.
- Pretend It’s a City – Martin Scorsese filmed his friend, writer and social commentator Fran Lebowitz talking about her life, and it was one of the funniest and most thought-provoking series all year.
- Sweetie’s Party – Known in Hebrew as Motek Bool B’Emtza, it is a political comedy about the strange inner workings of the Knesset and the huge perks enjoyed by its members, as well as the way identity politics and social media have change the way the game is played. It tells the story of an Instagram star who, through an improbable but not impossible series of events, becomes a Knesset member and the more you follow the news, the more you will enjoy it.
- 100 Foot Wave – This series, focused on those who compete in extreme surfing, was especially fun to watch during our coronavirus reality. Mainly set in Nazare, Portugal, it featured gorgeous and exciting images of the giant waves there, along with footage of the surfers who attempt to ride them. While these kinds of documentaries about athletes tend to be superficial, 100 Foot Wave dug deeper in its portrait of surfer Garrett McNamara, who spoke about how being dragged from cult to cult by his mother as a child led him to crave the danger and unpredictability of giant waves.
- Squid Game – I vacillated about including this series on the list, because, while it was certainly well done, it was so extremely violent – it was like junk food for the mind. You enjoy it on some level, but at the same time, you know it’s bad for you. It had a premise – a debt-ridden man gets a chance to make money for his family by participating in a kill-or-be-killed series of competitions – that was easy to identify with and which had built-in suspense. Like millions of others, it got me hooked, so much so that I would watch it on my phone while waiting in line at the supermarket, which means – like it or not – that it was one of the series of the year. It has certainly been a gift to sketch-comedy writers, who keep referencing it in their scripts.