Fall television needs to come correct this year, because we’re nearly nine months into 2021, and the first three quarters of the year has already delivered some whoppers. Between Netflix, Hulu, Apple TV+, and hell, even getting caught up on last year’s fare, there’s a lot to be taken in by the real TV warriors. For those who are more normal, we’ve pared the list down to the absolute best. You don’t need to wade through everything when someone can curate a touch of the best for you.
First off, if you’re a fan of this year’s crop at all, you know it’s shaping up to be The Year of Jean Smart. She’s eating everyone alive with her comedic chops in Hacks, and keeping the levity alive in The Mare of Easttown. And speaking of just HBO comedy, The White Lotus is stacked with limited series dark comedy from the genius mind of Mike White. Plus, it features a whole host of Jennifer Coolidge meme material.
Again, those are only the offerings from this summer. This year, we have already seen Disney+ prove its narrative prowess with the release of what might be the best series of the year in WandaVision. Barry Jenkins has an Underground Railroad drama on Amazon. Netflix came out with one of the best food docuseries we’ve seen in years, and then they allowed Martin Scorsese to sit down with Fran Lebowitz and shoot the shit as they traverse New York City.
With a whole back half of the year on the horizon, who knows how many of these (very formidable, entertaining!) entries will make the final cut, but one thing is certain. 2021 television is here. It’s funny and intense and it has absolutely no shortage of Jean Smart. We’re all the more grateful for that.
The name is insane, yes. The premise is a little wacky, and if you don’t fancy yourself a musical person, then that can make it all a bit intimidating. But it’s worth it. Fronted by Keegan Michael Key and Cecily Strong, the musical series from Lorne Michaels parodies the bombastic musicals of the early 20th century while falling back on the most obvious premise: a love story. That sounds cliche, but when you do a love story well, love is always going to sell. Featuring an incredible cast of Broadway favorites, Schmigadoon‘s six episode run is far better than it ever had the right to be.
Can you bottle the magic of a perfect first season? Sure, Ted Lasso has had the occasional misfire in season two, but that’s half the fun of this season—seeing if they can pull off greatness, again. In Season Two, Richmond AFC has been relegated and this try-hard team has to build itself up to its former glory. With their backs against the wall, it’s the Ted Lasso good-hearted spirit that fuels their (hopeful) ascent to greatness.
The White Lotus
Hoo boy, satire stings. Starring everyone from Connie Britton to Steve Zahn back to Natasha Rothwell and then Jennifer Coolidge, HBO’s summer miniseries from Mike White is so well crafted to be so incredibly grating. That is the point of satire though, right? A bit of cringe. A bit of irreverence. And a bit of murder. Whoa, sorry, murder? The series, set across a week at a Hawaiian resort, skewers woke-ness, privilege, and class, landing a wobbly and unjust finale that, ironically enough, makes a bigger point than if justice had been served.
Hacks is, so far, the breakaway hit of the summer. If you loved Jean Smart’s witticisms in Mare of Easttown but found the content itself a bit too heavy, get to know Hacks, created by Paul W. Downs, Lucia Aniello, and Jen Statsky. Smart plays a comedian in what seems to be her final act. Hannah Einbender plays a comedy writer who seems to have blown her first act before it even started. When the two curmudgeonly women find one another, they find out that their best shot at success might be leaning on the other. Oh, and Megan Stalter of social media fame? She’s allowed to be delightfully, deliriously absurd.
The Handmaid’s Tale
No, you’re not reading a list from 2018! This is 2021 and The Handmaid’s Tale is good again, after a bit of a two-season slog. If you gave up watching because it seemed that the torture in Gilead was unending, you’re not alone, but this is the official announcement: the plot has progressed! In its fourth season, the Hulu series has found its stride again, trudging through the trauma to make room for the grief that follows. For a series that first asked the question “how can they get through this?” the show has turned to the equally, if not more important question, “will they ever be able to reconcile with what they’ve been through?”
High on the Hog
The four part docuseries from Netflix is some of the best food, nay general, TV content that’s come out in years. Food writer and host, Stephen Satterfield, paces the series perfectly as he traces the lineage of American gastronomy from West Africa to the United States. The most beautiful part is that he allows the people who know better than him to tell their own stories, opening up a whole global history all through the lens of food.
The Underground Railroad
A Barry Jenkins drama series about the Underground Railroad? Don’t mind if we do. The Amazon series debuted in mid-May and immediately earned the praise of critics and viewers alike. Thus Mbedu stars as Cora, a Georgian who escapes slavery and hops a train to head to a better life… so long as she can escape the grasps of a notorious slave catcher.
To put is bluntly: there is no other show that has been as narratively interesting and virally popular than WandaVision. The show had people waking up at ungodly hours on Friday morning, just to avoid spoilers. Following Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany in their respective roles as Wanda and Vision, what started as Marvel’s first televised outing ended up being a beautiful meditation on grief and sadness. And one hell of a nod to TV history.
Mare of Easttown
Debuting mid-April, Mare of Easttown is finally giving us the genuine Pennsylvania accent we deserve. Kate Winslet leads the series that has topped dozens of critic lists. The focus is on a small town reckoning with a brutal murder. Mind you, while Winslet’s character is dealing with that, she’s also doing the best to keep her own life held together.
It’s a Sin
It’s a heavy watch, sure, but HBO’s It’s a Sin is a fictional chronicling of a disease that shook the world. Focused on the early years of the AIDS crisis, long before it had that name, the London-set series from Russell T. Davies does not disappoint in its artistic integrity and emotional gravitas.
Framing Britney Spears
It’s one of the most damning music documentaries we’ve seen in a while, but unlike so many whose narratives are revealed long after the artist is gone Framing Britney Spears is a look into a battle that is still raging. With Spears’ father at the center of a questionable conservatorship, the documentary aims to uncover the truth—albeit with none of the main players involved.
Pretend It’s a City
Who’d have thought that Martin Scorsese laughing for thirty minutes at a time is exactly what we’d need as an antidote to start the year on? In Pretend It’s a City, Fran Lebowitz joins Scorsese for a series of conversations that somehow feel both timely and timeless. Fran angrily deadpans. Marty laughs his ass off. Rinse. Repeat. It’s a delight.
If we learned one thing over the past year, it’s that the world could explode and Netflix would sneak in and say, “Hey, we have one more series for ya!” Dropping on January 1, Cobra Kai is in the first class of TV series coming out this year. The nostalgia fest has proven to be wildly successful for Netflix, so don’t expect to wait too, too long for the already-anticipated Season Four.
Justin Kirkland is a writer for Esquire, where he focuses on entertainment, television, and pop culture.
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