After a year of production delays and extended hiatuses, TV did return in 2021 with a vengeance—and a vision, and a mission, and even another look at one of our favorite terrible families. Though series like Grey’s Anatomy acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic (which has since gotten a sequel), most of this year’s offerings were content to forge their own realities, whether it was the absurdist one of I Think You Should Leave With Tim Robinson, the capitalism-driven mayhem of Squid Game, or the assured, cogent direction of Insecure’s final season.
As the months went on, TV looked more and more like its old self, with a compelling variety of more intimate stories and adaptations that were nothing short of epic. The comfort watch, which dominated viewing in 2020, was still alive and kicking, but had taken on a new dimension. Peak TV even reared its head again, along with the debate over which was preferable: the binge model or the weekly release. Now, as we face another likely surge in COVID cases, it’s hard not to think of TV’s comeback this year as more of a limited series—that format has continued to thrive, as our list shows—than an ongoing one. That won’t prevent us from celebrating all the best that the medium had to offer in 2021, from vibrant historical dramas to giddy sendups to pitch-black satires. As it moved away from more comforting viewing, TV didn’t just challenge us—it challenged itself.
Once again, voting on the best TV series was a great undertaking, as we sorted through reboots, revivals, comic-book tentpoles, inventive new comedies, and one latecomer unlike anything else on TV right now. But 16 A.V. Club staffers and contributors took their duties seriously, submitting ranked ballots of our top 15 shows to bring you the 25 best shows of 2021.