The best TV of 2021 so far

The best TV of 2021 so far

The A.V. Club’s 20 best shows of the year so far, including WandaVision, The Underground Railroad, and Hacks

Clockwise from top left: The Underground Railroad (Photo: Amazon Studios), High On The Hog (Photo: Netflix), WandaVision (Photo: Marvel Studios), Invincible (Image: Amazon Studios), Rutherford Falls (Photo: Colleen Hayes/Peacock)
Clockwise from top left: The Underground Railroad (Photo: Amazon Studios), High On The Hog (Photo: Netflix), WandaVision (Photo: Marvel Studios), Invincible (Image: Amazon Studios), Rutherford Falls (Photo: Colleen Hayes/Peacock)
Graphic: Natalie Peeples

A common refrain throughout 2020 was that the flood of new TV would eventually slow to a trickle, but while the pandemic-related shutdowns took a chunk out of programming lineups, there were still enough series premieres and returns to keep things looking relatively normal. The start of 2021 actually offered a better test for just how much TV schedules had been affected, as networks had to change their strategies for pilot season. TV did slow down, but in a different sense—streamers like HBO Max and even Netflix tweaked their distribution models, releasing episodes of Search Party and Hacks in batches, and splitting seasons of Lupin and The Circle. The weekly release schedule suddenly seemed to suit viewers more, as they took the time to pore over shows like WandaVision and Mare Of Easttown (though there were still plenty of people who banked episodes for their own marathons).

Appropriately, The A.V. Club’s 20 best shows of 2021 so far are a mix of instant and delayed gratification, shows built on heightened realities and historical deep dives alike, from IP-backed tentpoles to scrappy upstarts. Our unranked list is presented in roughly chronological order, taking you through the purportedly more fallow period at the start of the year, to the spring bounty that yielded a transcendent adaptation and the Jeanaissance. (For those about to argue about the absence of certain July premieres, we had to cut off the period of eligibility at the end of June, so we could offer you another list to argue over.)

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2 / 22

Dickinson season two

Dickinson season two

Dickinson season two (Apple TV+)

Dickinson returned more assured and ambitious in its second season, balancing mordant humor with a meaningful exploration of the relationship between artist and audience. The anachronistic dramedy mastered its impish tone as Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) made her own strides onscreen, finding an ostensible patron in Sam Bowles (Finn Jones), having her work published in the newspaper, and confronting both her desire for, and fear of, fame. Series creator and writer Alena Smith skillfully juxtaposed Emily’s warring feelings about recognition and creativity with the increasingly stark political divisions in the antebellum U.S., reminding us that art isn’t made in a vacuum. Dickinson’s scale adroitly shifted from the monumental—a nation on the verge of civil war—to the intimate, as Emily and Sue (Ella Hunt) rekindled their romance. Season two proved as intoxicating as the poet’s prize-winning Black Cake. [Danette Chavez]

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3 / 22

WandaVision

WandaVision

WandaVision (Disney+)

Whether or not it stuck the landing is up for debate, but it’s hard to deny that WandaVision brilliantly played with the conventions of both Marvel movies and TV sitcoms, merging the two into a distinctly—and thrillingly—bizarre series that was part Avengers spin-off, part I Dream Of Jeannie satire, and part horror movie. Leads Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany brought new depths to their established Marvel characters, expanding on the foundations built in the movies in a way that benefited from the slower burn of the TV format. It also had an intriguing mystery and a bunch of fun comic book stuff, like the debut and superhero origin of Teyonah Parris’ Monica Rambeau, and the reveal of what Kathryn Hahn had really been up to since first popping up as the nosy neighbor. Wanda and Vision had their names in the title, but it was “Agatha All Along.” [Sam Barsanti]

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4 / 22

For All Mankind season two

For All Mankind season two

For All Mankind season two (Apple TV Plus)

This Apple TV+ drama is a masterclass in storytelling; a slow burn that pays off emotionally and visually. The terrific second season expands on the sci-fi elements, as NASA astronauts and Russian cosmonauts stake a claim to the moon for their respective countries. These tense situations are driven by challenging character-driven arcs: Karen and Ed’s tumultuous marriage, Ellen’s unexpected promotion and romantic derailment, Dani’s first command, and Tracy and Gordo’s heartbreaking journey. The sophomore season delivers pulsating drama while brimming with sentimentality, bolstered by all the performances, from Joel Kinnaman and Shantel VanSanten to Jodi Balfour and Krys Marshall. But it’s Sarah Jones and Michael Dorman who own the finale. One of the best episodes of TV year so far, “The Grey” features a haunting background score, stunning special effects, and one hell of a cliffhanger. [Saloni Gajjar]

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5 / 22

Invincible

Invincible

Invincible (Amazon Prime Video)

Hiding a bloody, beating heart behind a cartoon sitcom premise—“What if your dad was Superman, and you were going to get powers, too?”—Amazon’s adaptation of Robert Kirkman’s long-running comic imports real stakes back into the sometimes weightless world of superhero combat. The season finale, which demonstrates exactly how bad things can get when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object, is one of the most viscerally violent things we’ve ever seen. And yet, unlike, say, The Boys, Invincible resists falling into cynicism. Elevated by a fantastic voice cast, including J.K. Simmons and Sandra Oh, both excellent as the parents of Steven Yeun’s titular superhero, the series argues that helping people is hard, dangerous, and sometimes simply beyond one’s power, but never pointless. Add in some legitimately thrilling fight choreography (ably making up for the sometimes stiff animation) and you have one of the most fascinating superhero series in years. [William Hughes]

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6 / 22

Superstore season six

Superstore season six

Superstore season six (NBC)

Superstore closed out its final season with its most inspired run of episodes, despite reeling from the departure of America Ferrera, who left after season five, and COVID-delayed production. The show has always been adept at handling real-world issues, so it’s no surprise that showrunners Jonathan Green and Gabe Miller were able to weave in the hardships of essential workers during the pandemic with heartwarming empathy without losing the sitcom’s breezy humor. The final few episodes focused on Superstore’s greatest strength—its talented ensemble—giving each cast member the chance to shine (in particular, Lauren Ash and her portrayal of Dina Fox). Superstore also managed to accomplish a task that most long-running sitcoms struggle with by acing the series finale. The departure of the show’s impeccable writing, performances, inclusivity, and commentary on working-class struggle leaves a big void in network TV. [Saloni Gajjar]

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7 / 22

Rutherford Falls

Rutherford Falls

Rutherford Falls (Peacock)

Hailing from Mike Schur, Ed Helms (who also co-stars), and Sierra Teller Ornelas, Rutherford Falls is one of the most memorable debuts of the year so far. In its 10-episode first season, the show packs a punch with its evolving character dynamics and a level of hilarity in the same vein as Schur’s previous NBC outings like The Good Place or Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Rutherford Falls is groundbreaking in its joyful exploration of the lives of a Native American community in a small Northeast town. The show raises the bar for inclusivity, on and off camera—along with Ornelas, who previously worked on Superstore, B99 and Happy Endings, there are several Indigenous writers on staff. Co-lead Jana Schmieding is the series’ breakout, while the versatile, veteran actor Michael Greyeyes gives an Emmy-worthy performance. [Saloni Gajjar]

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8 / 22

Hemingway

Hemingway

Hemingway (PBS)

This PBS docuseries kicks off with Ernest Hemingway describing the way he wanted to write: filling out things three-dimensionally, even four-dimensionally. Accordingly, co-directors Ken Burns and Lynne Novick offer an unflinching look at the complicated man now considered the most famous American author of the 20th century. Longtime fans will find much of this territory familiar, but the various talking heads help to flesh out the timeline, delving into the troubled and conflicted writer, who had “so many sides to him that he defied geometry.” As one expert points out, the Hemingway myth now obscures the person that he really was; the docuseries goes a long way toward exposing the man himself, with a particular emphasis on his distinct and groundbreaking writing style, and the endless search for the perfect sentence, which even the Nobel Prize winner despaired of ever achieving. [Gwen Ihnat]

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9 / 22

Mare Of Easttown

Mare Of Easttown

Mare Of Easttown (HBO)

Mare Of Easttown kicks off with a murder mystery, but that question mark quickly fades, overshadowed by Kate Winslet’s monumental performance. Sure, the series nails the gloomy Pennsylvania town, DelCo accents, and the regional snacks. But Winslet commands all the attention as Mare Sheehan, a detective, town hero, and grieving mother. She’s surrounded by a solid supporting cast: Evan Peters as Mare’s earnest young partner, Guy Pearce (Winslet’s Mildred Pierce co-star) as a flirtatious, enigmatic writer, and best of all, Jean Smart as Mare’s no-nonsense ma. The detective uncovers one unsavory truth after another as she inches closer to solving the crime, but the real revelations involve Mare herself, as she finally comes to terms with the thorny path her life has taken. Watching an actor as well-known as Winslet disappear into her character is nothing less than astonishing, and will likely pay off during awards season. [Gwen Ihnat]

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10 / 22

Gangs Of London

Gangs Of London

Gangs Of London (AMC)

Led by Joe Cole and Ṣọpẹ Dìrísù, Gangs Of London is jam-packed with inspired fight choreography and bombastic action sequences, which culminate with a breathtaking siege in the sixth episode. The pulse-pounding series, from Gareth Evans and Matt Flannery, can be enjoyed on a purely visceral level, but at the center of all the mayhem lies a potent interrogation of how dynasties are made. The death of a seemingly reformed Irish crime boss sets off this Shakespearean by way of Scorsese tale, as his grasping son (Cole) threatens to level the city in his quest for vengeance. Gangs Of London quickly broadens its scope, capturing the fraught dynamics between immigrant communities and the dominant culture, the challengers against the status quo. Powerhouse performances, astute commentary, and panoramic cityscapes take this show a step or a hundred above the average crime drama. [Danette Chavez]

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11 / 22

Exterminate All The Brutes

Exterminate All The Brutes

Exterminate All The Brutes (HBO)

Raoul Peck’s four-part docuseries is necessary viewing, especially as the number of attacks on critical race theory in education grow. Exterminate All The Brutes doesn’t so much uncover harsh truths about U.S. history (and, more broadly, Western history) as magnify them until only the most willfully ignorant can disregard them. Peck takes apart the American dream, which was built on exclusion and genocide. As the docuseries looks closely at epistemic violence, it defies the notion that this country has in any way divested itself from its colonial roots. Peck’s series pairs a powerful history lesson with a brief glimpse at an alternate history, one in which European invaders were successfully beat back; that dream dissipates more readily than the one that still positions the U.S. as a meritocracy. [Danette Chavez]

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12 / 22

A Black Lady Sketch Show season two

A Black Lady Sketch Show season two

A Black Lady Sketch Show season two (HBO)

Effervescent and side-splitting, A Black Lady Sketch Show is one of the few TV shows, comedy or otherwise, that truly creates the sense that anything to happen. A game of MASH turns prescient, a 35th birthday party ends with vampires and a sensible shawl, and an expression of exasperation takes on magical properties. Even the apocalypse is rebooted (and why not, since everything else seems to be) in the interstitials that feature the show’s most grounded (relatively speaking) characters. But what we can always rely on is the cast’s ability to make the most of each heightened premise, building one bizarre reality after another. Watching Robin Thede, Ashley Nicole Black, Gabrielle Dennis, Skye Townsend, and Laci Mosley play off one another remains a distinct pleasure, regardless of the context. [Danette Chavez]

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13 / 22

Cruel Summer

Cruel Summer

Cruel Summer (Freeform)

Created by Bert V. Royal, Cruel Summer cleverly circumvents teen-thriller tropes to keep audiences guessing about Kate (Olivia Holt)’s disappearance and Jeanette (Chiara Aurelia)’s involvement. Through its sordid tale, the drama offers layered commentary on society’s expectations of young women. The three different timelines are complicated but riveting, with each episode adding to the intrigue. The show ties up all its loose ends before the end credits roll, but the final shot closes the season out on a suspenseful note. While we don’t know where season two will go just yet, Cruel Summer is a captivating ride, with two solid lead actors, and a number of theories to rival Mare Of Easttown and WandaVision. [Saloni Gajjar]

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14 / 22

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad

The Underground Railroad (Amazon Prime Video)

The limited series, which has offered some of the buzziest shows in recent years, reached new heights with Barry Jenkins’ adaptation of The Underground Railroad. Based on Colson Whitehead’s Pulitzer-winning novel, this 10-part historical fantasy drama is equal parts gripping and meditative; an operatic tale (complete with soul-stirring score) limned by truth and sunlight. The radiant Thuso Mbedu leads the show as Cora, whose arduous trek from the antebellum South to the only slightly less foreboding North serves as the backbone to the story. The eponymous novel, along with centuries of U.S. history, provides the foundation for this engrossing story. But Jenkins’ lens remains inquisitive, seeking out the heroes, villains, and witnesses, the camera resting on their open or shuttered expressions in his signature style. By eliminating the distance between the viewer and the characters, The Underground Railroad effectively bridges the gap between the past and the present, leaving no room for denial or myth-building. [Danette Chavez]

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15 / 22

High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America

High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America

High On The Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America (Netflix)

Netflix’s High On The Hog is one of the most transportive travelogue series since Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown. The four-part documentary follows chef and food writer Stephen Satterfield as he follows the map laid out by Jessica B. Harris’ eponymous book, which explored African-American cuisine and the role it plays in Black history. The mouth-watering meals and their rich origins are the stars of the show, but each location, from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to Benin, West Africa, is gorgeously shot—almost like a living painting. “The Rice Kingdom,” one of the most moving episodes, focuses on South Carolina and the Gullah Geechee community, and the high toll extracted by the rice trade. High On The Hog pays all due respect to the progenitors of Black cuisine, while also highlighting those who preserve the traditions. Joy, curiosity, and pride are the key ingredients to what makes this docuseries so special. [Danette Chavez]

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16 / 22

Hacks

Hacks

Hacks (HBO Max)

Jean Smart was one of Mare Of Easttown’s highlights, but that wasn’t her only standout HBO performance this year. Smart stepped into the spotlight for Hacks, playing former sitcom star Deborah Vance, now a stand-up legend in decline, who’s on the verge of being ousted from her longstanding Las Vegas residency. She’s paired with Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a Gen Z writer whose own career is in freefall. Hacks’ wisecracks are fast and furious, making it difficult to remember that Jean Smart as a stand-up queen is a fictional reality. A few standout episodes feature Ava’s wild night in Vegas, or Deb taking down a sexist emcee at a comedy club in breathtakingly brutal fashion. But the real draw is the dynamic interplay between the established star and the newcomer, both hacks in their own way, each recognizing complementary parts in the other as they strive toward something greater. [Gwen Ihnat]

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17 / 22

Mythic Quest

Mythic Quest

Mythic Quest (Apple TV+)

Like fellow single-cam sitcoms The Office and Modern Family, Mythic Quest hit the ground running in season two. The Apple TV+ comedy pushed to new creative heights while never once letting slip its commitment to non-stop jokes. This is largely thanks to the series’ choice to always foreground character. Now that the extensive world-building of season one has given us a firmly delineated landscape and richly sketched assemblage of players, the show has smartly leaned into pathos, and not just from a few members of the Mythic Quest company, but from the entire roster of ace performers. There’s been deep dives into dating apps, fraught family reunions that simultaneously transcend sitcom stereotypes, and unexpectedly tense hospital trips—all delivered by a show that consistently plays to the top of its intelligence, even when its beloved team of MQ employees may not be. [Alex McLevy]

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18 / 22

Blindspotting

Blindspotting

Blindspotting (Starz)

With Vida, Run The World, and now Blindspotting, Starz is carving out its own niche for vibrant, women-led dramedies. Rafael Casal and Daveed Diggs have adapted their 2018 film into an equally stylish series, one that explores the same fertile ground of the Bay area. Jasmine Cephas Jones reprises the role of Ashley, whose circumstances have changed considerably—after her boyfriend Miles (Casal) is arrested for drug possession with the intent to distribute, she effectively becomes a single parent to their son Sean (Atticus Woodward). Ashley resents having to revert back to survival mode, but in the tensions of her newly merged household, she finds support and a necessary distraction. The realistic depiction of a family torn apart by the carceral state is off-set by a playful otherworldliness, as director Seith Mann captures interludes both musical and poetic. [Danette Chavez]

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19 / 22

Girls5eva

Girls5eva

Girls5eva (Peacock)

Renée Elise Goldsberry’s mesmerizing performance as total diva Wickie Roy is enough to make Girls5eva one the most entertaining TV shows of the year so far. The Meredith Scardino-created comedy, which sees four girl group members try to recapture their glory days, is ridiculously funny with its endless one-liners and talented ensemble. Goldsberry is a scene-stealer, but her counterparts Paula Pell, Busy Phillipps, and Sara Bareilles are equally engaging. The songs, composed by Jeff Richmond, are instant earworms—“Famous 5eva” and “New York Lonely Boy” are sure to be stuck in your head forever (5ever). [Saloni Gajjar]

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20 / 22

In Treatment season four

In Treatment season four

In Treatment season four (HBO)

With its revival, In Treatment once more explores the emotional trenches of its primary therapist and their patients. Taking over for Gabriel Byrne as the show’s central figure, Uzo Aduba brings incredible nuance and depth to her performance as Dr. Brooke Taylor. Each episode focuses on three clients, who are played by Anthony Ramos, John Benjamin Hickey, and Quintessa Swindell. The therapist’s interactions with her patients are intimate, often infuriating, and extremely moving; watching the show often feels like live theater. Don’t think you’ll get burned out by the slower pace—In Treatment is rich with character development and immersive storytelling. [Saloni Gajjar]

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21 / 22

We Are Lady Parts

We Are Lady Parts

We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)

We Are Lady Parts is one of 2021’s most revelatory series. The first season centers on five Muslim women who form a punk band; their coming-of-age troubles translate into their catchy music, with songs like “Basheer With The Good Beard” and “Voldemort Under My Headscarf.” Nida Manzoor created and wrote this incredibly funny and heartwarming show, and her siblings worked on the tracks with her. The cast is just as talented, especially Anjana Vasan and Sarah Kameela Impey. Much like Rutherford Falls, We Are Lady Parts makes a strong case for representation behind the camera, depicting a range of diverse Muslim experiences, narratives that are still rarely seen on TV. [Saloni Gajjar]

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22 / 22