Photo Credit: Peacock, Hulu, HBO. Composite: Akhil Arora/Gadgets 360
What are the best web series and TV shows of 2021? Well, with three quarters of the year spent at home just like we did last year (thanks, COVID), television continued to be a central fixture in our lives. All of us spent hours in front of our screens. With little human company afforded elsewhere and nowhere to go, TV became our gateway to meet people and gaze upon the outside world. And thankfully, despite the many hurdles that stood in the way of film production — less so in the Western Hemisphere that opened earlier, though is now headed for closure again (thanks, COVID) — we got tons of new longform content. More than one person can ever wish to sift through in their lives.
From everything I was able to watch in 2021, I have compiled my favourite TV series of the year below. (For those wondering why there are only nine below, rest assured there are actually 11. Yes, rack that brain.) 2021 also continued the evolution of genres. On the surface, it might seem like the list features more dramas than comedies. But really, it's more complex. The #1 show is oft described as the best comedy currently on air. And beyond that, I have a comedy about processing grief, a comedy about a Russian empress, a comedy about a football team, a comedy about girls in rock, and a comedy about women in comedy. Of course, some lean heavier towards drama, and some all the way in.
With that, here are the 10 best web series and TV shows of 2021 — according to me. I would love to hear about your favourites in the comments below. Or come find me @akhil_arora on Twitter.
I'm making a habit out of this, aren't I? After declaring something similar over in the best movies of 2021, I find myself being drawn to it again for very similar seasons. Simply put, I'm unable to separate the three following titles and assign them an individual ranking. And honestly, after racking my brain for days on end, it seems appropriate that I simply declare them equal winners on my list.
With Mare of Easttown, Kate Winslet delivered one of the performances of the year. (Kudos to Winslet for her off-screen push to showcase her late-40s body, warts and all, and not letting Hollywood gloss it over as it otherwise loves to do.) What made it more than a cop show was its exploration of grief and trauma. And how it displayed empathy for all of its characters — not letting anyone become the villain, sans a few — who are just struggling through life.
Line of Duty might be beyond its best years but it is still at times the most thrilling thing on TV. Note the prisoner transport ambush sequence in particular. Those are equally matched with the glass chamber interviews that have always been the show's highlight. But what lifted Line of Duty season 6 was the gut-punch of it all. That despite (or rather, due to) the good work put in by AC-12 over the years — and the toll it has taken on their lives — they were basically pushed out of service at the end.
Handed a carte blanche thanks to his Oscar win, Barry Jenkins' next move was to direct all 10 episodes of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Underground Railroad, about a young slave woman (Thuso Mbedu, a South African breakout) in the 1800s who discovers a literal subterranean railway network meant to help African-Americans. That gimmick exists so that author Colson Whitehead, and here Jenkins, can explore the brutality and hopelessness at large across the American South.
Watch Mare of Easttown on Disney+ Hotstar
Watch Line of Duty on BBC iPlayer (in the UK)
Watch The Underground Railroad on Amazon Prime Video
What makes It's a Sin more than “just another TV show about the horrors of AIDS” is how creator and writer Russell T Davies — himself a gay man who grew up in London in the 1980s — crafts characters that you instantly connect and want to spend time with.
There's the literal outsider and the one in the closet Colin (Callum Scott Howells) who is abused at the tailoring shop he works at before a New York trip opens his eyes. There's the free-wheeling Ritchie (Olly Alexander) who brushes off concerns and is only driven by the amount of joy he can experience. There's the most open of them all Roscoe (Omari Douglas) who is courted by a man of wealth and privilege. And then there's the supportive heterosexual female friend Jill (Lydia West) who tries to raise awareness and save her friends in vain, as the HIV/ AIDS goes from rumour to epidemic in the UK.
Davies is smart enough to surround them with the likes of Stephen Fry and Neil Patrick Harris in tiny supporting albeit important roles. But the true joy and heartbreak of It's a Sin comes from watching these teenagers take their first steps into adulthood and finding their true selves, only to be starkly cut down by a virus that no one in society understands — or is willing to, due to the stigma attached to homosexuality. As if it isn't painful enough to be painted “different”, they must also bear the indifference of their families and the wrath of the authorities. Crushing.
What served as a terrific roast of America's uber-premium privileged white class turned out to be saving its deepest cuts for those who seemed like the good guys initially.
The White Lotus — now an anthology series thanks to the first season's acclaim — followed wealthy vacationers during a week-long trip to Hawaii. There was the troubled single woman Tanya (Jennifer Coolidge) grieving her mother and latching onto any emotional support mechanism she could find, including the resort's spa manager Belinda (Natasha Rothwell).
We had the seemingly mismatched newly-wed couple: real-estate agent, mama's boy and arrested-development man-child Shane (Jake Lacy) and his journalist wife Rachel (Alexandra Daddario) who doesn't come from money, and is internally squabbling with her values and morals.
And then there was the family of four, aloof workaholic mother and search engine CFO Nicole (Connie Britton), her husband Mark (Steve Zahn) grappling with a health crisis and being emasculated, the socially-awkward son Quinn (Fred Hechinger) picked on by his sardonic elder sister Olivia (Sydney Sweeney) who is travelling with her African-American friend Paula (Brittany O'Grady).
The White Lotus' most damning conclusion was that rich white folks are destined to win, because society is stacked against everyone else and has been designed to support them across hundreds of years. They do bad things — kill someone, convince someone to steal, or lead someone on — and then forget them at the drop of a hat. The white people are just using others around them as accessories in a way to feel better about themselves (or get their frustrations at life out at them).
Watch The White Lotus on Disney+ Hotstar
After a full year (and a half) of no Marvel Cinematic Universe content thanks to the (still) ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the studio that rules minds and the box office returned with the most unique thing it has made in its decade-plus existence. WandaVision paid homage to classic American sitcoms over the years — this also made it an acting showcase, primarily for the lead Elizabeth Olsen — though it was more than just a gimmick. As many quickly figured out, it was a device for one of its leads, Wanda Maximoff (Olsen), to process her grief over losing the love of her life.
This is not what superhero properties are meant to be about. As I said in my post-finale review, grief is the catalyst, not a destination. But in the hands of WandaVision creator, showrunner and head writer Jac Schaeffer, Marvel Studios delivered something truly unexpected. Yes, it ended in a mildly-disappointing staple of a big CGI fight. And to be fair, I would've preferred that the villain never existed, and that WandaVision took the bold route of having Wanda confront the reality of the villain she had become. But I suppose that's a step too far for Marvel right now.
But then again, the fact that there was a villain gave us Kathryn Hahn's exquisite Agnes — and the earworm “It Was Agatha All Along” — and that's a compromise I'm willing to live with. Plus, we get to see more of Hahn, who will return in a spin-off (that will find it hard to live up to the original) also from Schaeffer.
Watch WandaVision on Disney+ Hotstar
TV's warmest most heartfelt comedy hit newer heights in its sophomore run. While AFC Richmond got demoted — the on-field action and the English club's progress through the league remains as dubious as ever — Ted Lasso promoted itself into the top leagues after a fine first season. (I was not as wowed by it in its debut year, which is why it was missing from my list last year. Before you type that hate mail, please note the irony of your actions.) But I'm truly happy for that success, for I wouldn't have gotten one of the best TV episodes this year without it.
Thanks to its first-season accolades, Apple gave the makers an additional two episodes late into the writing process. With the season arc already in place, the writers came up with two standalone episodes. It's what led to the Christmas episode “Carol of the Bells” which many felt was abrupt (now you know why). And it's what gave us an out-and-out brilliant episode “Beard After Hours” centred on Coach Beard (Brendan Hunt, also co-creator and writer). It showed why episodic TV can be such a wonderful thing — an art that has been erased in the age of binge-viewing.
Sarah Niles' sports psychologist character Dr. Sharon added a new layer to the show, as it allowed Ted Lasso to unearth new layers of existing crop, including Lasso's (Jason Sudeikis, also co-creator and writer) troubled past. I'm still not sold on Nathan's (Nick Mohammed) turn to the dark side. To me, it felt like an over-the-top misplaced push. I mean, why was Ted Lasso so hell bent on pushing Nathan to that place? Is it a lack of stakes? Is it because they want to show Ted's approach as boss can work against him? I hope Ted Lasso season 3 knows what it's doing with Nathan.
Watch Ted Lasso on Apple TV+
The most insightful satire about showbiz this year featured an unlikely team up between fading ageing comedian Deborah Vance (Jean Smart, masterful) whose Las Vegas residency is slipping out of her hands, and no-filter caustic millennial hack Ava Daniels (newcomer Hannah Einbinder, on point) whose readiness to diss on everything has more or less driven her out of Hollywood. In that, they are similar for they find themselves very much on the fringe. But while the two initially bristle at each other's choices, they come to find common ground as they realise the value of the other's contributions.
In doing so, Hacks — created by Broad City veterans Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, and Jen Statsky — isn't just a laugh-out-loud comedy filled with cringe and banter. Which by the way, it's great at. But Hacks also shows the grit and work required in comedy (its joke workshopping scenes put that on display), touches upon the deep-rooted industry-wide misogyny that's poignant in a post-#MeToo world, and recognises the generational debt owed. For it's only because the likes of Deborah blazed a trail that the likes of Ava can now send fake-outrage tweets.
Hacks is also smart enough to have some memorable side characters, be it Carl Clemons-Hopkins as Deborah's chief operating officer Marcus, Kaitlin Olson as Deborah's massively-spoilt and emotionally-troubled daughter DJ, or Megan Stalter as Deborah and Ava's manager's nepotistic assistant Kayla. Though a personal highlight was Poppy Liu as Deborah's personal blackjack dealer Kiki, whose wisdom is unparalleled and whom we can all learn something from.
Watch Hacks on HBO Max (in the US)
Leaving behind its historical trappings with even more abandon — the series' subtitle switched from “An Occasionally True Story” to “An Almost Entirely Untrue Story” — The Great became surer of where it wanted to go in its exuberant second season. All the coup planning of the first season came to bore at the start of the second, as women rose to power in Russia and learned about the inevitable challenges of ruling. Though one important woman was packed away. Georgina's (Charity Wakefield) self-imposed exile was essentially her being written off The Great season 2.
At the same time, the men navigated the new status quo — either ingratiating themselves with Catherine (Elle Fanning, always excellent) or trying to dethrone her. Peter (Nicholas Hoult, playing new piano keys) learnt new things about himself, introspecting possibly for the first time in his life now that he's not consumed with being king. The upgrades for Lady Marial (Phoebe Fox) and Count Orlo (Sacha Dhawan) saw them chart new waters and showcase unseen facets. And there was the wonderful surprise entrance (and exit) of Gillian Anderson as Catherine's mother Joanna.
But while Russia's power circles may be in upheaval, The Great season 2's delivery mechanisms simply improved on what came before. It was powered by snappy witty dialogue — The Great is set in the 18th century but crafted with modern-day sensibilities in how people talk and behave — that makes it one of the smartest shows currently on television. It's zany, hilarious, and at times, feels like an elaborate and ambitious workplace sitcom. In short, The Great was the show I was most eager to hit play on in 2021. Here's to creator and head writer Tony McNamara — huzzah!
Stories about outsiders are inherently powerful, because the odds are stacked up against the characters. The leads of this British comedy-drama are a triple minority: they are women, they are Muslim, and they are first-generation immigrants. (And in one case, also LGBTQ+.) We Are Lady Parts creator, writer and director Nida Manzoor — who herself belongs to those groups — delivers a story about a punk rock band called Lady Parts made up of all-female Muslim British girls and their newest hesitant recruit, Amina Hussain (Anjana Vasan), a PhD student who can play the guitar well but suffers from severe stage fright.
Importantly, We Are Lady Parts is hilarious — Amina vomits when the lights go on, and off stage, she is desperate to land a husband. Her dual anxieties are conveyed wonderfully via Vasan's voiceover and a series of stylised interludes. South Asians will particularly relate more. This is also true of the series' on-point observations and nuance surrounding South Asian families and identities. We Are Lady Parts examines the culture clash that the children of immigrants go through — and shows the importance of having (Asian) parents who support you outside of studies.
Of course, We Are Lady Parts wouldn't work if its central characters weren't so strong. Apart from Amina, it lends time to lead singer and halal butcher Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey) who hides a lot beneath the surface, the drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed) who's not entirely herself even amongst Lady Parts, and the bass player Bisma (Faith Omole) who's also a mother and a graphic artist. The way it fleshes out the stories, the space it affords them and never judges them, is what makes We Are Lady Parts such a treat.
For a show oft described as the spiritual successor and modern-day equivalent to HBO's Game of Thrones, it was more than somewhat poetic that the third season of Succession ended with its own Red Wedding equivalent episode. The best TV show about rich white people who refuse to go to therapy twisted the knife into the scheming Roy sibling trifecta — Kendall (Jeremy Strong), Shiv (Sarah Snook), and Roman (Kieran Culkin) — who believed they had a figured out a way to outsmart their scheming father Logan (Brian Cox), only to realise that he loved them even less than they knew.
Succession season 3 pushed its brilliant ensemble cast to newer places, be it Greg (Nicholas Braun) and Tom (Matthew Macfayden) bonding over their shared prison nightmare, Shiv and Roman trying to curry favour with their uncaring dad, or Kendall's crusade disappearing before his eyes. Some episodes stood out, including that glorious Kendall birthday one. He has everything in the world but not what he wants most. The only annoyance of the season was seeing Kendall stuck in his own world, due to the season 2 rug-pull, while all the other characters could play off each other in the sandbox.
But the season got stronger as it went on — especially once it moved to Italy. The finale was Succession at its best, with the images of the three Roys in the dusty parking lot, where Kendall confessed and later in the room where Logan planned their culling, printed on my mind. Succession is in such a rich place that I can't wait to see how season 4 unfolds. And then again, that's what we said about season 3. This is starting to become one of the all-time greats.
Watch Succession on Disney+ Hotstar