The 12 best TV shows of 2021 (so far)
Midway through 2021, the television industry is emerging from the COVID-era shutdown. A new flood of television shows will soon dominate our attention. For Entertainment Weekly TV critics Kristen Baldwin and Darren Franich, it's a good moment to take stock of a very strange year's very best TV shows. Here are the shows that wowed us during a dark winter, and guided us to some (hopefully) brighter days ahead.
6. Servant (Apple TV+)
Servant is technically a drama, but season 2 of the M. Night Shyamalan-produced thriller was wildly, unexpectedly funny. Still, this supernatural saga has a heart of darkness. As Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) search for their son Jericho — a baby who may or may not be a supernatural reincarnation of their real child — the story veers from harrowing suspense to absurd humor and back again.
Servant thrives on tonal whiplash, stretching the dread to its limit and then playfully plinking our taut nerves like so many piano strings. This season includes: A bone-chilling hypnosis scene; a fake pizza joint called Cheesus Crust; a trauma-fueled drug overdose; a violent cult ritual demonstrated in an earnest, industrial how-to video; an adorable Reborn Doll dressed in a tiny astronaut costume. And so! Much! More! (Including an Emmy-worthy performance by Rupert Grint as Dorothy's foul-mouthed brother, Julian.)
5. Cobra Kai (Netflix)
Three seasons in, this Karate Kid sequel continues to be a special kind of miracle. In a TV landscape littered with lackluster rehashes of nostalgia IP via reboots, revivals, and "reimaginings," Cobra Kai created a brand new universe anchored by two familiar-yet-evolved characters, Johnny Lawrence (William Zabka) and Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio).
Season 3 delivered the love-triangle reunion every OG fan clamored for, but Elisabeth Shue's return as Ali Mills wasn't just a box-ticking stunt — her reemergence in Johnny and Daniel's lives pushed our punch-drunk protagonists to new heights of self-realization. Zabka is giving one of the funniest small-screen performances in recent memory (his mansplainy delivery of "Tango and Cash were narcotics detectives" deserves its own star on the Walk of Fame). And Macchio, with his immense warmth and charm, has transformed Daniel from teen underdog to hall of fame TV dad.
4. Pose (FX)
"Happy endings are for movies," notes Blanca (Mj Rodriguez) in Pose's series finale. "But I do believe in happy moments." It's a philosophy that has worked beautifully for this glorious drama that celebrated the beauty of the '80s and '90s ballroom scene without ever downplaying the ugliness and hate faced by the LGBTQ community. The third and final season cranked up the romance and humor (an All-4-One interlude at a wedding? Yes, please).
It also delved deeper into the ongoing AIDS crisis and explored the traumatic home lives that drove Pray Tell (Billy Porter) and Elektra (Dominique Jackson) to seek their own chosen family in New York City. Even as they're battered by addiction, injustice, and an unforgiving disease, the extended House of Evangelista family found moments of happiness, triumph, acceptance, and pure, exhilarating joy.
3. Chad (TBS)
How can a show that's so hard to watch be so freaking enjoyable? Not since the original Office has a cringe comedy hurt so good. Nasim Pedrad stars as Ferydoon "Chad" Amani, a 14-year-old freshman who is maniacally focused on two things: Attaining popularity and rejecting his Persian heritage. Chad contains multitudes, all of which collide to create maximum awkwardness: He's fiercely self-centered and painfully self-conscious, acutely hormonal and emotionally infantile, wildly antagonistic and intensely needy.
Everything Chad does is hilariously uncomfortable — bragging about his (fake) sexual exploits, offering a very ill-conceived Black power salute — and full disclosure, you'll probably watch a lot of this show through your fingers. So limber up your cringe muscles, because with Chad, there's no gain without pain.
2. The Good Fight (Paramount+)
If God ever needs someone to put together a "previously on" montage, He should definitely hire Robert and Michelle King. The Good Fight showrunners managed to cram (what felt like) 150 years of history — COVID, quarantine, Zoom fatigue, the murder of George Floyd, BLM protests, Ruth Bader Ginsberg, the election, the waiting after the election, the Jan. 6 insurrection — into one immensely entertaining episode. Miraculously, the season 5 premiere (now streaming!) also delivered worthy send-offs for two exceptional actors, Delroy Lindo and Cush Jumbo, whose story lines were cut short by the pandemic last year.
No Adrian Boseman and Luca Quinn at the firm, no Trump in the White House serving as nightmare fuel for Diane Lockhart (queen Christine Baranski, long may she reign) — can The Good Fight possibly survive? Don't fret, fandom. Based on the first four episodes, the Kings and their writers have plenty of Fight left in them. With Adrian's departure, Liz Reddick (the magnificent Audra McDonald) and Diane remain the only name partners at the African-American firm — a fact that makes pretty much everyone uncomfortable. New characters show promise: An inscrutable young associate named Carmen Moyo (Charmaine Bingwa) quickly ingratiates herself to some of the firm's most dangerous clients. Marissa (Sarah Steele finds an unlikely mentor in Hal Wackner (Mandy Patinkin), a regular joe running courtroom out of the back of an NYC copy shop. After all, if the legal system only works if everyone follows the rules, does the law even really exist?
The Good Fight's America, like ours, is still deeply divided along ideological lines, but this season there's an emphasis on managing conflicts with civility. Diane's stalwart husband Kurt (Gary Cole), a red-blooded Republican, comforts his wife after RBG's death rather than celebrating Trump's supreme court windfall. And though he has absolutely zero legal training, (fake) Judge Wackner insists that both sides shake hands after he hands down a ruling: "Look each other in the eye and say, 'I respect and I love you.'" Forget all that came previously — this is a future I can get behind.
1. Hacks (HBO Max)
Deborah Vance, the legendary Las Vegas comedian at the center of Hacks, looks like your mom's country club friend, the fun one everyone loves. Her laugh, a throaty explosion of delight, must be earned. And her apple-cheeked smile glows with matronly warmth — unless it's melting you with devastating disdain. After 2,500 Vegas shows, Deborah is losing her edge — so her agent (Paul W. Downs) makes her pair up with a young, recently-canceled writer Ava (the superb Hannah Einbinder). Deborah, you see, is on the verge of being bumped off stage by hipper, fresher acts. It's a wonderful bit of irony, then, that she's played to transcendent perfection by Jean Smart, the 69-year-old actress currently delivering one of the best damn performances of her career.
As loud and brash as Deborah is on stage, her truth is in the quiet moments — and no one is better at speaking volumes through silence than Smart. Deborah eating dinner alone at the kitchen island, her two corgis dining off china plates beside her. Deborah revealing to Ava, through a slight downturn in her gaze, that she knows her daughter is selling her out to the paparazzi. Deborah placing an antique pepper shaker in a glass display case, all too aware that such objets d'art are the only things she has to keep her company. For Pete's sake, Smart even stood in for a Deborah Vance wax figure in episode 6 — and did it flawlessly, we might add. "It never gets better. It just gets harder," Deborah tells Ava of the struggle to stay relevant. Perhaps, but Smart is a master at making it look easy.
6. Infinity Train (HBO Max)
The most painful TV cancellation of the year. Creator Owen Dennis didn't just make an amazing world full of eccentric science-fiction wonder. He successfully re-performed that trick in every episode, with the reality-tossed characters discovering a different freaky-absurd landscape on every new car of the titular train. The fourth season, titled "Duet," finds wannabe '90s rock stars Ryan (Sekai Murashige) and Min-Gi (Johnny Young) on a collision course with a vengeful Old West butterfly judge (Margo Martindale), a voracious giant pig baby (J.K. Simmons), and a sad talking castle (Margaret Cho). The only person they can trust is a concierge bell named Kez (voiced by the amazing Minty Lewis). I have not gotten to the truly bizarre stuff; I have not mentioned the outer space nightclub so exclusive that you turn to dust waiting in line.
This last trip was a brisk delight. Honestly, though, the series makes my list because of where it went — and where it should still go. I missed the third season when it debuted last summer, which means I fumbled the chance to stump for one of the best seasons of television I've ever seen. "Cult of the Conductor" takes the kitchen-sink possibility of the show's infinite concept and blows it to oblivion. It's an upside-down Peter Pan tale about cheerfully destructive kids slowly realizing they've become the villains of their own story. The result is a thrillingly off-kilter fable, and maybe the first great fantasy adventure about geekdom's Age of Toxicity. Season 3 also hints at larger mythological elements mostly unexplored in season 4's lighthearted prequel. Dennis has discussed plans for more Infinity Train. HBO Max is already an animation destination thanks to the magnificent Cartoon Network/Adult Swim archive. I hope they revive this series fast. It could be the streaming service's first genuine epic.
5. Dave (FXX)
In season 2 of this semi-autobiographical rapcom, Dave Burd (who sorta plays himself) struggles with writer's block. The show around him radiates pure artistic confidence, swerving between pop-music decadence, anxious cultural button-pushing, and intimate romantic turmoil. I love Burd's chatty-to-a-fault persona, which is understandably annoying to his friends yet oddly endearing for viewers. Season 2 manages a tricky sitcom evolution, finding a thus far believable way to reintegrate Dave's ex-girlfriend Ally (Tayor Misiak). They're a crucial contrast. She's a genial regular person whose struggles look ever more remote from Dave's ascendant celebrity.
As Dave's manager Mike, Andrew Santino radiates an unusual quality of all-business yearning; he's a logical, lonely guy betting his whole life on his pal's dick jokes. And brace yourself for the July 7 episode, which follows hype man GaTa (also playing himself) on an unexpected journey across Los Angeles. I can't always tell if Dave is a satire or a celebration of influencer excess. Any series with room for Kendall Jenner and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar is doing something weird — and right.
4. Back (IFC/AMC+)
And now on to the comedy that dares you to laugh at canine euthanasia. And that's not even the bleakest gag in this acidic Britcom about a pub-owning alcoholic who stashes vodka in local hedges to hide his excessive boozing. You forgive Stephen (David Mitchell) his trespasses. He's got a lot on his muddled mind. His long-lost foster brother Andrew (Robert Webb) is a silver-tongued con man who keeps fooling everyone around them. Their psychological duel propels the series, but Back excels as a people-at-the-bar sitcom, with a small-town setting that's both friendly and hellish. (Think Schitt's Creek spelled right.) Creator Simon Blackwell crafts only quotable dialogue, and the cast excels at playing various levels of polite delusion.
3. Superstore (NBC)
"We're not gonna go down without a fight," Amy (America Ferrera) tells her colleagues. They're frontline workers during COVID-19, and brick-and-mortar employees in the online era. That's two end times — and then Superstore itself got canceled. The workplace comedy went down swinging with a wondrous (if socially distant) final season. Garrett (Colton Dunn) led a conversation about racism that was somehow raw and satiric. Glenn (Mark McKinney) celebrated every missed holiday simultaneously. And Amy returned for one last chance at love with Jonah (Ben Feldman) in the Cloud 9 ruins. The finale was bighearted and bittersweet, right down to the flash-forward dream of a post-pandemic backyard barbecue.
2. Last Chance U: Basketball (Netflix)
In a bad year for fictional TV hourlong dramas, nothing has been more dramatic than practice with the East Los Angeles College Huskies. Coach John Mosley uses the court the way great actors use the Broadway stage, pushing his players toward excellence with obsessive outbursts and urgent prayers. You get where he's coming from. His junior college athletes are fascinating young men dedicated to a game that could spit them out anytime.
Creator Greg Whitely perfected the Last Chance U format in five addictive football seasons, but the new setting offers renewed storytelling possibilities. A basketball team, you see, is much smaller than a football team. (Look, Dad, I know sports now!) So Basketball really focuses on how the players' individual personalities help (or hurt) their collective dynamic on the court. It's thrilling to see them learn to work together. A midseason mountain retreat is the rare team-building activity that actually, against all odds, builds a damn team.
The season stunningly climaxes in early 2020. That impossible-to-plan pandemic twist makes Basketball a vital piece of on-the-fly history. It's devastating in an unexpected way, because global calamity is just another thing these guys have to deal with. Even before COVID-19, they were struggling every day to make a better tomorrow. Let's hope tomorrow gets here soon.
1. Evil (Paramount+)
Here's a snappy mystery about brilliant supernatural investigators who always make things worse while barely solving anything. You can't blame them. The enigmas they pursue are unknowable. On Evil, the characters are smart enough to thoughtfully address the philosophical divide between Christianity and Islam, and then crazy enough to probe the Mystery of the Scary Elevator.
It's another Paramount+ standout from co-creators Michelle and Robert King, but Evil is more emotionally anchored than The Good Fight. In season 2, Kristen (Katja Herbers) deals with the psychological fallout of her murderous actions by pondering wet hot adultery. Trainee priest David (Mike Colter) is months from ordination, but he suffers a crisis of faith when someone calls him "the great Black hope of the Catholic Church." Agnostic contractor Ben (Aasif Mandvi) ain't buying all that religious hocus pocus, so how awkward that a scaly monster keeps appearing in his nightmares.
All the leads are fabulous, though special credit goes to Mandvi for finding a somber sweetness in his eyerolling skeptic. Season 2 focuses on the trio's duel of wills with Satan enthusiast Leland Townsend (Michael Emerson), who treats the whole world like a Reddit board he's trolling. Emerson is so close to too much, but his unblinking glee exemplifies the show's sacred profanity. (He's the kind of guy who looks at a crucifix and says "Jesus looks unhappy.") And Evil itself could come unbalanced eventually, as it blends procedural cleverness with quirky characterization and outright horror. So far, the show's successfully juggling a vast demons-and-embryos mythology with sincere spiritual inquisition. The word "miracle" is too modest. Evil is a revelation.