After a year in which production was halted on many beloved and highly-anticipated television shows, it’s been hard to keep up with the sheer volume of returning favourites and new titles that were aired in 2021. While streaming platforms continue to expand their catalogues, established stars are flocking to the small screen like never before, often drawn to the limited series format. Truly, there is something for everyone, and below you’ll find 25 of the best shows to binge-watch over the festive period. Let us know your favourites @LWLies.
It isn’t uncommon for a buzzy show to lose its way, but it is rare for it to come back as strong as The Handmaid’s Tale did in its fourth season. After spinning its wheels with repetitive storylines, the dystopian drama saw June (Elisabeth Moss) set out on a different path, leading to hard choices, loss, and the difficult reality of life outside outside of Gilead. This season was seen as a reaction to the Trump era, but more pointedly it showed the challenges that exist in the aftermath. It also saw Moss make her directorial debut, and her intuitive mind is evident in the three episodes she helmed.
Whereas the surprise TV success story of 2020 centred around chess, this year’s sleeper hit took a deadlier approach to competition. Following Parasite’s exploration of the class divide, the South Korean series from Hwang Dong-hyuk features over 400 desperate players willing to do anything to clear their debts. The bright colour palette combined with the simple children’s leisure activities are visually arresting, and Lee Jung-jae’s charming turn as down-on-his-luck Seong Gi-hun make this much more than Battle Royale for television.
Feel Good’s first season hit square in the heart with its intimate look at addiction and all-consuming love. The proceeding six episodes delve further into Mae (creator Mae Martin) and George (Charlotte Ritchie) as individuals as they deal with the fallout of their breakup on different continents. Meanwhile, Mae’s return to rehab is derailed by a traumatic incident from her past. Searing performances from Martin and Ritchie, as well as a welcome return from Lisa Kudrow as Mae’s mother, elevate the tender love story.
The special episode that bridged Mythic Quest’s first and second seasons saw Anthony Hopkins lend his authoritative voice as the narrator, as the video game studio employees returned to their office with a joyful LARPing event before familiar conflicts took hold. In season two, Poppy’s (Charlotte Nicdao) promotion proves far from disingenuous ‘girlboss’ cheerleading, resulting in a satisfactory season-long arc, while creative partnerships are central to the flashback episode that provides the foundation for CW Longbottom’s (F Murray Abraham) bitterness and a follow-up episode featuring a stellar guest appearance from William Hurt.
The first foray into Marvel television from Disney+ is a love letter to American sitcoms: the portrayal of Wanda Maximoff (Elizabeth Olsen), using cosy comedy as a security blanket, avoids the usual Avengers plotting. The ambitious eight-part series took inspiration from everything from The Dick Van Dyke Show to Modern Family – a staging device to keep Wanda’s grief at bay. Disappointingly, the final episode leans into CGI-heavy visuals, but the previous seven instalments – and a scene-stealing turn from Kathryn Hahn – more than make up for that.
It’s unusual for a US series to only have one person credited as writer/director, but Mike White took on the dual role for this satire about a luxury Hawaiian resort and its monstrously wealthy guests – as well as the staff who have to pander to their every whim. An impressive cast includes focus-pulling Jennifer Coolidge as the needy Tanya, and Natasha Rothwell as wellness consultant Belinda, who thinks she might make her dreams come true. The shiny veneer doesn’t last and the cracks in manager Armond’s (Murray Bartlett) exaggerated cheery person quickly turn this into a holiday from hell.
Incorporating the pandemic has been more hit than miss on scripted television, often feeling forced or like it’s interrupting some much-needed escapism. One outlier is skate dramedy Betty. Set against the backdrop of New York City coming out of lockdown, Crystal Moselle’s show (it was inspired by her 2018 film Skate Kitchen) navigates the challenges of this era – including the BLM protests from last summer – and the impact on young people by emphasising resilience as well as uncertainty. Carefree shots of the female characters skating through almost deserted streets reflect the vibrancy and optimism of youth.
Joy courses through the veins of this comedy about a fledgling all-girl Muslim punk band as they navigate personal and professional obstacles. Creator Nida Manzoor (who also wrote and directed all six episodes) crafts characters that defy stereotypes that practising Muslims are often subjected to on TV. Tropes are dispelled in favour of fully formed characters, with microbiology PhD student Amina (Anjana Vasan) attempting to overcome stage fright in order to live out her musical dreams. Thankfully, a second season has already been commissioned.
The “Believe” nature of Ted Lasso’s first season meant the turn toward a darker path (particularly for assistant coach Nate) was jarring when the show returned this summer. AFC Richmond’s struggles to reenter the Premier League, a deeper look at mental health in sport, and romantic obstacles were all part of this more challenging and rewarding season. Two standalone episodes were added later to the order – a Christmas celebration and a night out for Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt) that pays homage to Martin Scorsese’s After Hours.
A new generation was introduced to the wit, wisdom and occasional warmth of Fran Lebowitz thanks to this seven-part docuseries directed by her long-time friend Martin Scorsese. Each episode revolved around a different New York theme, allowing the writer to discuss her opinions on everything from the subway to politics with her trademark sardonic tone. Watching Scorsese’s response to his friend (often with raucous laughter) was a delight in of itself. A welcome slice of pre-pandemic NYC life.
Based on Stephanie Land’s memoir of the same name, Maid is an emotional roller coaster that emphasises the uphill battle of a young single mother trying to escape an abusive relationship. Margaret Qualley plays Alex with both determination and exhaustion as she navigates a challenging system without a support net. Qualley’s real-life mother Andie MacDowell stars opposite her daughter for the first time – and gives a great reminder that she is capable of much more than comedy. Creator Molly Smith Metzler captures heartbreaking and uplifting moments without resorting to cheesy clichés.
Two years have passed since siblings Brooke (Heléne Yorke) and Cary Dubek (Drew Tarver) were last seen on Comedy Central trying to step out of the shadow of their pop star teen brother ChaseDreams (Case Walker). Switching to HBO Max didn’t dull the shine of former SNL head writers Chris Kelly and Sarah Schneider’s pop culture-skewering comedy. Brooke and Cary’s quest for fame continues and they discover that success does not make matters easier, while their mother Pat (Molly Shannon) spreads herself too thin with her growing daytime TV empire.
Following a successful coup, Elle Fanning snatches the crown in this “occasionally true” portrayal of Russia’s Empress Catherine – a show that relishes playing fast and loose with history. Rather than do away with husband Peter (Nicholas Hoult), The Great presents an alternative version of events. Hoult imbues the buffoonish former ruler with charm and a level of empathy that was absent in the first season. Plus, Gillian Anderson guest stars as Catherine’s mother, proving once again her propensity for comedy. Swinging from hilarity to horror is this show’s speciality.
The image of its four teenage protagonists clad in black suits helps explain the title, but Reservation Dogs doesn’t ride on Tarantino’s coattails. Set on a reservation in rural Oklahoma, the show follows Elora Danan (Devery Jacobs), Bear (D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai), Cheese (Lane Factor), and Willie Jack (Paulina Alexis), who are grieving a close friend while dreaming of escaping to sunny California. Created by Sterlin Harjo and Taika Waititi, this is an irreverent, spiritual coming-of-ager that incorporates Native American mythology as a frequent narrative device.
Rather than relying on CGI or soundstages, Andrew Haigh shot his limited series, about a fictitious ill-fated whaling expedition, farther north than any recorded TV production ever (81 degrees north to be specific). It paid off – cinematographer Nicolas Bolduc conveys the isolation and expansiveness of this icy terrain as the situation on board the Volunteer becomes ever more perilous. Class, masculinity and bigotry are central themes, with Jack O’Connell’s opium-addicted ex-army surgeon going up against Colin Farrell’s animalistic Drax. The tension between man, beast and nature frequently boils over in bone-chillingly violent fashion.
The first season of Apple TV+’s alt-history, which explores the ramifications of the Soviets winning the Space Race, was slow to start but found its footing when the female cast took centre stage – and turned The Bob Newhart Show into an emotional anchor for three astronauts. A time jump into the 1980s that expands moon bases on both sides of the Iron Curtain adds to the tension. However, it’s the personal relationships – inextricably linked to the hazardous work environment – that makes this a must-see drama. The final two episodes are packed with spectacular, hold-your-breath moments.
Parallels abound between the rampant misinformation of the Covid pandemic and the AIDS epidemic n Russell T Davies’ drama It’s a Sin. Early on we know the party will not last – the spectre of this unfolding crisis casts a shadow over every frame – yet Davies lets the characters breathe and experience sexual freedom before it all comes crashing down. A landmark series that refuses to let audiences ignore how badly the LGBTQ+ community have been treated by the government and the media.
The second and final season of Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle’s middle school-set comedy was in the middle of production when Covid hit; the remaining episodes arrived as a tonic at the end of another difficult year. An animated special following the teens on vacation in Florida, with Anna’s dad as their chaperone, dives further into magical realism as Maya and Anna become caricatures of themselves. Pen15’s strength lies in its ability to capture the perpetual aches of growing up – and in breaking from its teenaged POV, Maya’s mother Yuki (played by Erskine’s real mother Mutsuko) was given the spotlight in a particularly poignant episode.
Steve Martin and Martin Short have appeared in films and on stage together, but this is the first time they have tackled television in tandem. The result is a triumph. Teaming up in a murder mystery comedy set in New York City sounds like a no-brainer, but throwing Selena Gomez into the mix is a curveball that only ups the quick-fire ante. The three tenants of the Arconia, a plush Upper West Side condo, are bound by a love of true crime podcasts, loneliness, and actual murder. Plenty of twists and turns and a strong supporting cast will keep you guessing whodunnit.
Romantic comedy is often an easy target for ridicule, but Rose Matafeo’s Starstruck, which revolves around a reverse Notting Hill premise, hits the sweet spot and lights up the screen. Jessie (Matafeo) drunkenly hooks up with famous movie star Tom (Nikesh Patel) on New Year’s Eve, only discovering his celebrity status the following morning. What follows is a series of misunderstandings, awkward situations, and a whole lot of charm.
This year kicked off with the second season of Alena Smith’s biopic of American poet Emily Dickinson and is ending with its third and final chapter. Despite taking a fluid approach to various anachronistic elements (as evidenced in its dialogue and soundtrack), the show is deeply rooted in 19th century New England. Hailee Steinfeld’s portrayal of Dickinson goes beyond the reclusive reputation of other biopics, and there is joy, passion, dismay, humour and discomfort weaved throughout the series.
Kate Winslet marked her first TV role in a decade with this crime drama about a community rocked by a murder and the opioid epidemic. As the titular Mare, Winslet wears every worry line of this rural town and the personal tragedy she is still coming to terms with – all while trying to solve a case which grows more and more mysterious. The supporting cast are equally captivating, with Julianne Nicholson deservedly winning an Emmy (Winslet was also honoured), Evan Peters proving his chops, and Jean Smart adding much-needed humour.
Pairing a grouchy veteran stand-up with a caustic young comedian recently ostracised because of a “bad tweet” could have been a disastrous set-up in the wrong hands. Thankfully, Emmy-winning creators Jen Statsky, Lucia Aniello and Paul W Downs wrote two characters that play into generational differences while simultaneously offering a fresh perspective. Jean Smart is the Joan Rivers-esque Deborah Vance, who has transformed her pain into a tired routine, while Hanah Eindbinder’s outspoken Ava has absolutely no filter. A fiery, frequently hilarious portrait of being a woman in comedy.
Incredibly Barry Jenkins’ limited series didn’t win any of the seven Emmys it was nominated for, but his adaptation of Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel will forever be seared into the minds of those who watch it. The Underground Railroad conceives an alternate history around an actual transport network built to free slaves, which plays a fundamental role in Cora’s (Thuso Mbedu) bid to escape her terrible fate. Cinematographer James Laxton’s colour palette and composition are unlike any other in recent memory, and Nicholas Britell’s score cranks up the tension. Trauma is prevalent but brief respites of love add nuance to this remarkable American epic.
After a long delay, it’s safe to say that Succession’s third season was the most anticipated TV event of the year. While there has been some talk of cyclical storylines, Jesse Armstrong’s portrait of a legacy media dynasty dug even deeper into the embattled Roy family this time around – with Kendall (Jeremy Strong) stranded on an island of his own making, and Shiv (Sarah Snook), Roman (Kieran Culkin) and Connor (Alan Ruck) all desperately vying for daddy’s affection. The show hits all the right tragicomic notes during Kendall’s cringe-laden birthday party, while the season finale, in which Tom Wambsgans (Matthew Macfadyen) finally gains the upper hand over the squabbling siblings (not to mention his wife), delivers the mother of all bombshells.
Published 15 Dec 2021
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