Following the hectic television calendar year of 2020, 2021 has been yet another yet of navigating dangerous waters when dealing with production issues, delays, and other issues that affected the television and film industry due to COVID-19. Regardless, the year has produced massive new hits and also followed up with new seasons of many top-tier television shows that have graced past top ten lists. While COVID-19 did continue to wreak havoc, the television world continued to soldier on and allow the individual with access to a small screen at home to dive into some fresh and interesting content to enjoy.
2021 in television touched on various segments of society. For one, reality television continued to be bolstered by the second installment of Tiger King in addition to a further rise in South Korean content making its way ashore in America following film successes with Parasite and A Train to Busan now with television in Netflix’s biggest hit to date in Squid Game. Additionally, the streaming wars continue to wage on with Netflix, HBO Max, Hulu, Apple TV+, Peacock TV, and the newly launched Paramount+ all released exciting new content for its subscribers to relish in.
Without further ado, here is mxdwn TV’s top 10 television shows of 2020.
WandaVision kicked off the Marvel-Disney+ craze of 2021. Set weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame (2019), WandaVision follows Wanda Maximoff, grieving from the death of her love, Vision (Paul Bettany), living in a reality where she and Vision go through the decades of television. The series took fans on a journey through the history of television, paying homage to classic television sitcoms such as Lucy, Bewitched, Rosanne, and Modern Family, as well as the many references to Wanda and Visions history in the comics.
Olsen and Bettany shine in their performance as the lead couple, but they are not the only standouts in the series. Teyonah Parris (Dear White People) and Kathryn Hanh’s (Bad Moms) performances as Monica Rambeau and Agnes/Agatha Harkness, respectively, were praised — both of who will be returning to the MCU in future projects. The series gave a few surprises in the form of new characters Tommy and Billy Maximoff, Kat Dennings (Two Broke Girls) returning as Darcy Lewis from the Thor films, Randall Park (Ant-Man and the Wasp) returning as CIA agent Jimmy Woo, and Evan Peters returning from the X-Men series to play an alternate version of Quicksilver.
Overall, WandaVision is a clever, yet heartbreaking story about grief and how we deal with it. The show dives deeper into Wanda Maximoff’s character as we finally see her emerge as the Scarlet Witch. The series was acclaimed by critics and viewers and snagged a total of 84 nominations from various awards ceremonies and three Emmy wins, including production design and original music. Olsen is set to return as the Scarlet Witch in Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness.
The most recent release from Marvel Studios and Disney+ is the Clint Barton-centric Hawkeye. A Marvel series following on the less celebrated Avenger has achieved great success during the first five episodes of its six-episode run. Jonathan Igla (Mad Men) serves as the series showrunner for the Jeremy Renner (Wind River) and Hailee Steinfeld (Edge of Seventeen) led comic book show. In addition to achieving success with making New York City its own gritty character in its own right, the series has succeeded in introducing a new wave of villainous types through the elitist socialites as well as the criminal underground into the MCU. With the inclusion of the mischievous organized crime syndicate in the tracksuit mafia as well as the suspicious Eleanor Bishop, Jack Duquesne, and the re-introduction of Kingpin into the Marvel story world, the MCU character landscape has breached a wider variety of action instead of focusing on the supernatural and galactic forces that can wreak havoc on its world.
10. Mare of Easttown (HBO)
Academy Award winner Kate Winslet coveted an Emmy-winning role in this summer’s limited series, Mare of Easttown, on HBO. Created by Brad Ingelsby with direction from Craig Zobel, the murder mystery set in a small Pennsylvania town followed Winslet’s local homicide detective solve a brutal killing too close to home. While an expert police officer, to a fault, she fared far worse dealing with the trauma reverberating within her own life.
Winslet was Mare Sheehan, a stellar high school athlete who followed her father’s footsteps into a career in law enforcement. When a young teen mother’s murdered body is found in a nearby creek, the pursuit for justice forces Mare to face her own grief over a devastating family loss. Recently divorced and fighting for custody of her grandchild, Mare’s hard exterior reaches a plateau, forcing her to make some radical changes to her life.
Along with Winslet, the series starred 2021 Emmy winners Evan Peters and Julianne Nicholson, who both won for Outstanding Actor and Actress in a Supporting Role for a Limited Series, respectively. They were joined by Hacks Emmy winner, Jean Smart, Guy Pearce, Angourie Rice, and David Denman.
Not only was the series a commercial success – its series finale caused streaming issues for those who viewed live on HBO Max – but it was a critical darling. The show’s ability to portray the journey through loss and grief was honest and beautiful. Winslet’s performance was lauded as one of her best in recent years, with Peters being praised for a role that counters his more colorful performances.
The entire seven-episode series can be streamed on HBO Max.
9. Succession (HBO)
Succession has been wowing audiences with its surprising twists and turns in the world of a media conglomerate since its premiere in 2018. With its latest season finally premiering its season finale, it is safe to say that Succession yet again is carried by its stellar cast and even better writing. The only caveat to such great performances and writing is the story as a whole yet again we see another struggle for power in the Roy family. With Kendall going on the offensive and trying to become a whistleblower against his father there was a glimmer of a Roy child finally escaping the grasp the power-hungry patriarch has on the family, but by the end of the season, we see another Roy fall into the same pattern of obedience.
8. Rick and Morty (Adult Swim)
For the first time since its first two seasons, creators Dan Harmon (Community) and Justin Roiland (Solar Opposites) have brought their rabid fanbase back-to-back calendar years with new episodes of Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty. Season five of Rick and Morty first premiered in 2021 back in June and went on to release its ten-episode run and provide some of the most pieces of exposition and canon the show has ever seen. With episodes such as “A Rickconvenient Mort,” “Forgetting SarickMortshall,” “Rickternal Friendshine of the Spotless Mort,” and “Rickmurai Jack” stealing the season away, the season had some gems that mixed the typical nihilism and humor towards the Sanchez family.
Admittedly, one-off throwaway episodes that provided some raunchy humor and otherwise zero progression for its characters like “Rickdependence Spray” and “Rick & Morty’s Thanksploitation Spectacular” took away some of the season’s strong runtime. However, the seasons focus on revealing the nature of Rick’s relationship with his previous wife, and delving into his often stated best friend Bird Person allowed for some humanizing elements into the characterization for the beloved, cynical mad scientist individual. First and foremost, the season revealed that Rick has returned to this C-137 timeline to reunite himself with his dead daughter and bring further layers to the flashback scene shown in “The Rickshank Redemption.”
It is difficult not to include the likes of Adult Swim’s hit original animated series in any top ten list when discussing the best television shows during a calendar year. In terms of the larger scope of Rick and Morty, season five may not serve as the highest quality or the most well-received installment, but it still delivered the Sanchez family in a new light and allows for further development and introspection look into this story world for many years to come.
7. Reservation Dogs (FX)
The past two years have seen a great push for Indigenous representation both in front and behind the camera. Peacock found success with its comedy Rutherford Falls which was renewed for a second season. Over at FX, Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo partnered to bring forth a new coming-of-age series featuring Native American youth with the dramedy, Reservation Dogs.
Set on an Oklahoma reservation, Reservation Dogs – a take on the Quentin Tarantino film – follows four teenage best friends dealing with life in their Native community. Following the traumatic loss of a close friend, the four promise to do everything they can to escape the perils of their hometown for the idyllic, Westernized-living of California.
The series utilized new and upcoming talent with a breakout performance from D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai as Bear, the leader of the little gang. He is joined by Devery Jacobs as Elora Danan, named after the baby from The Princess Bride. Paulina Alexis played the smartmouth Willie Jack while Lane Factor is their always-hungry, aspiring detective, Cheese. The four were joined by Zhan McClarnon, Gary Farmer, and Sarah Podemski.
The series is incredibly well-written, finding a way to balance laugh-out-loud comedy along with emotional arcs for each character. It also easily embodied both social and cultural commentary on the experience of Indigenous communities in the United States. Decades of stereotypes and untruths about their way of life are finally being challenged and replaced with authentic narratives of their truly normal and relatable experience.
All eight episodes of Reservation Dogs’ first season can be streamed on Hulu.
6. Hacks (HBO)
What started as a played-out trope, an aging performer fearing her own relevance and striving to find it in a younger apprentice, turned into one of the funniest, most heartfelt shows of 2021. HBO Max’s Hacks shows veteran Jean Smart (Garden State, Mare of Eastown) team up with newcomer Hannah Einbinder to deliver a nuanced buddy cop/ mentor-mentee relationship-driven show. The dark humor of the show is only matched by its heartfelt moments between the aging comedian (Smart) and the longing for direction comedy writer (Einbinder). It is a character-driven comedy that audiences don’t see anymore and has quickly become a success on HBO Max.
5. Loki (Disney+)
Disney+ and Marvel Studios collaborated on a number of original series this year to much fanfare. From What if…? to WandaVision to the ongoing Hawkeye, the two studios put out major success after major success. Yet, In the eyes of mxdwn Television, Loki took the cake for the most successful program in terms of its writing and the future of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The often beloved side antihero character of Tom Hiddleston’s (The Night Manager) Loki has yet to receive a standalone project and the Loki series provided that opportunity for its fans in excess.
The series combines the feelings of loneliness and insecurities that Loki has witnessed throughout the MCU and combines it with his overall desire for power and control over his own life. Introducing Sylvie as a love interest, the characterization of Loki has been flipped on its head as he does not face the world alone any longer, additionally with the infusion of a newfound friend in Owen Wilson’s (Wedding Crashers) Mobius. While the six-episode run flirted with the notion of finding oneself and accepting the outlier syndrome that lies within these heroes, the show also introduces the next top villain to exist within the MCU in Kang the Conqueror played by Jonathan Majors (Lovecraft Country). The series demonstrated the desire for the next few installments of the mUC that multiverse timelines will ultimately dictate the futures of individuals that have saved the world via the big screen for years. An interesting conundrum has now arrived that will ring throughout the various incarnations of Marvel characters on the small and big screen while also having the viewer looking deeper into the complex nature of the heroes and villains that we witness in the MCU.
4. Bridgerton (Netflix)
While Netflix’s record-breaking Bridgerton strayed from Julia Quinn’s book series, which it was adapted from, it did prove to be a quality standalone series because of its evidently close-knit cast, unexpected diversity, and side storylines. While the debut season centered around the eldest Bridgerton daughter – Phoebe Dynevor’s (Younger) Daphne – entering the competitive marriage market, the second season will follow suit with the order of the book series and center around her elder brother’s quest for love. The series made room for a side storyline for each sibling – major plots that were added to the TV series and prepared audiences for upcoming seasons that would focus on other Bridgerton siblings.
While characters like Lady Danbury, played by Adjoa Andoh (Fractured), briefly alluded to racial tensions among the London upper-class, the Bridgerton universe was seemingly not affected by any racial hierarchy that would have been custom at the time. The series indicated this with characters like Queen Charlotte, played by Golda Rosheuvel (Lady Macbeth), and Simon Bassett, played by Regé Jean Page (The Gray Man). This diverse band of characters made the series even better and gave it a more modern twist.
Having been watched by over 80 million households following its release on Christmas Day in 2020, Bridgerton provided fresh insight into the marriage, love, and family in Regency-era London, and more specifically, the scandalous pairing of the Duke of Hastings and Daphne Bridgerton.
3. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
After watching the debut episode of Apple TV+’s Ted Lasso, Jason Sudeikis’s (We’re The Millers) titular character merely seemed like an overly-enthusiastic, mustache-faced football coach with a heavy southern accent – but he quickly became more than that. Richmond fans hated him, labeling him a “wanker,” Richmond players resented him for his inexperience, and Hannah Waddingham’s (Game of Thrones) Rebecca even used him as a ploy for revenge against her ex-husband. But Ted’s overwhelming determination eventually won them over (this may have also had something to do with the biscuits he fed Rebecca daily). Even amidst an impending divorce, Ted stayed true to the true core of his being – emitting rays of positivity with whoever he talked to.
However, this warmth of character slowly faded in Ted by the second season when he finally came to terms with his father’s death with the help of therapy, proving that no one can be perfectly fine all the time. Ted’s panic attacks were reminders that even the happiest of people faced their own demons, but the reluctance and subsequent grace that he maintained in dealing with his mental health struggles were indications that getting better takes patience and time.
While the second season of Ted Lasso welcomed a stunning contrast to the optimism we saw from Ted in the first season, it’s still clear that the character’s purity and cheerfulness never wavered. In the process of learning how to face his own demons, Ted taught his players and watchers alike the importance of believing in yourself, always seeing the good in others, and being a goldfish.
2. Invincible (Amazon Prime Video)
Based on the 2003 comic series of the same name, Invincible follows 17-year old Mark Grayson training to be a superhero under the guidance of his father, Omni-Man, the most powerful being on the planet. Throughout his transformation, Mark quickly learns the realities of being a superhero, as well as the truth of who his father is. The series subverts expectations for fans unfamiliar with the original comic in its first episode, and if you don’t believe me, watch the first episode.
Invincible is a great ride that takes viewers on a suspenseful, bloody, and dark story which is backed by a talented voice cast with Steven Yuehn (Minari), Sandra Oh (Grey’s Anatomy), and J.K. Simmons (Law & Order). The animated series provides stunning visuals, intense action sequences, and faithfulness to its source material.
Invincible was met with critical acclaim for its animation, storyline, and performances. Amazon Prime renewed the series for two more seasons shortly after the season one finale. Invincible is a great story for superhero fanatics and subverts the genre throughout the series. Definitely a Top 10 series this year.
1. Squid Game (Netflix)
Netflix exceeded Bridgerton-level success with the Korean drama, Squid Game. The thriller mystery series erupted across Netflix queues and Twitter timelines into mainstream culture’s consciousness. Halloween costumes copied the iconic green jumpsuits; memes featured the giant baby-faced-doll; and, not a dry eye was found during the viewing of the pivotal sixth episode.
From the mind of Hwang Dong-hyuk, the series starred Korean actor, Lee Jung-Jae, as Seong Gi-Hun, a down-on-his-luck divorceé who finds himself in a financial bind. In order to pay his debts and be seen as a hero in his daughter’s eyes, he accepts an offer he can’t refuse. Along with hundreds of other financially-burdened citizens, Gi-Hun is taken to a remote island to compete in a series of childhood games for a cash prize. The only caveat: if you lose, you die.
The startling scenes of gruesome violence and coarse honesty examined the truly violent nature of a capitalist society. These citizens would rather compete to the death for a chance to be rich than survive their day-to-day existence. Inspired by the real-life financial collapse of a Korean car company in 2008, the series showcased the dangerous gap between the haves and have-nots. It also managed to examine the effects gender and ethnicity can have on one’s social status in the same environment.
The first season of Squid Game can be streamed on Netflix.