Like every arm of the entertainment industry, television faced some pretty big hurdles in 2020, resulting in delayed finales, truncated seasons, and untimely series cancellations. And yet it was possible to watch TV last year and feel some sense of normalcy in its familiar mix of high-, middle-, and lowbrow fare, both scripted and un, and in the well-established seasonal rhythms that have migrated from broadcast to streaming. But a quarter of the way into 2021, there’s a sense that television is, like all of us, showing signs of pandemic fatigue. The fire hose of new TV content has become more of a standard garden hose, faithfully spewing forth series at a slightly reduced rate and with a little less splash.
Which isn’t to say there hasn’t been quality television this year; the existence of this list proves otherwise. But TV in 2021 has thus far been slow to reveal its biggest, shiniest treasures (though expect that to change in the coming months), leaving room for some smaller, less expected highlights to make themselves known: a gentle pastoral drama, a timely sports docuseries, thoughtfully crafted all-ages fare, even a history-making prime-time news special. And, okay, fine, one big, shiny treasure from the biggest, shiniest entertainment juggernaut in the world. Even post-ish pandemic, TV’s still got the goods, and Vulture’s critics are here to keep track of 2021’s most enticing offerings.
All series are listed chronologically by U.S. premiere date.
Defiantly, gloriously sentimental, All Creatures Great and Small is a kind of TV that’s become a little hard to find lately. The series is a beautiful, meticulous adaptation of the James Herriot novels about rural vets in 1930s Yorkshire, and although it’s superficially easy to dismiss as a garden-variety PBS period piece, every tiny piece of it is absolutely perfect. The series is anchored by two lovely performances from Nicholas Ralph as Herriot and Samuel West as his mentor Siegfried Farnon, but their work is supported by the show’s sweet, sincere depictions of empathetic masculinity, mentorship and friendship, rural life, and dealing with the ever-present awareness of life and death. You will laugh; you will weep buckets; you will feel better for it. — Kathryn VanArendonk
(Available to stream on PBS.)
As the first Marvel Studios television series released under the Disney+ banner, a status acquired thanks to pandemic-related schedule shifts, WandaVision would have been notable no matter what. But under the supervision of showrunner Jac Schaeffer, it became the first must-see series of 2021. A portrait of grief funneled through a mix of sitcom throwbacks, mystery box–style drama, and Marvel mythology, WandaVision simultaneously appealed to Marvel die-hards and viewers who wouldn’t know Thanos if he snapped his gigantic fingers right in front of their faces. Grounded by great performances from its two leads — Elizabeth Olsen as the in-denial Wanda Maximoff and Paul Bettany as Vision, the android love of her life — it was just the entertaining obsession we needed to take our minds off the pandemic. Yet with its themes of loss and confinement, WandaVision also spoke directly to the quarantine-weary moment. On top of all that, the series reminded everyone that Kathryn Hahn, who played nosy neighbor Agnes — or is it … Agatha? — is a national treasure and should always be regarded as such. — Jen Chaney
(Available to stream on Disney+.)
This miniseries from Russell T. Davies, inspired by his own life as a gay youth in ’80s London, does provide all the heartrending, intense tragedy you expect from a drama about the AIDS crisis. The show follows one young aspiring actor (Ritchie, played by Olly Alexander) and his cohort of friends as they gradually discover and are drawn into the AIDS epidemic. Although the arc of their stories will not be a surprise, It’s a Sin finds so much humanity in its characters, and so much shock in the horror of AIDS and the stigma against queer lives, that the story is still fresh and vibrant. The best thing about the series, though, is that it refuses to sacrifice its characters to total tragedy. It’s an indictment of the society that makes them suffer, but it’s also a celebration of their joy. — KVA
(Available to stream on HBO Max and YouTube TV.)
Anyone expecting two hours of uneventful pleasantries from Oprah Winfrey’s conversation with recently defected royals Meghan Markle and Prince Harry was surprised by what this heavily hyped CBS interview turned out to be: a brutally honest, albeit one-sided, peek into what goes on behind closed doors in the royal family. Against the backdrop of an extremely well-manicured Santa Monica backyard, Winfrey politely forced her interview subjects to go into specific detail about the dismissive and at times racist attitudes toward Meghan within the monarchy, and how those attitudes have affected Meghan and the couple’s son Archie. Watching it live, it felt like every second of this prime-time special was generating a new, major headline. But what made the interview such extraordinary television was both the level of candor Harry and Meghan brought to it — they were more blunt and outspoken than even Harry’s mother, Princess Diana, was in her famous 1995 interview with Martin Bashir — and the skillful way that Winfrey steered the conversation, with respectful but firm follow-up questions that gave Meghan and Harry the space to tell their truth on their own terms. — JC
(Available to stream on CBS and Paramount+.)
There are too few TV shows that are really great for all ages — not just watered-down entertainment for adults or kids’ shows with winking grown-up references. The list of shows that fit that bill and are also astonishingly beautiful is even smaller, but Netflix’s City of Ghosts is one of them. The animated, fictional docuseries-style show follows a group of kids who travel around Los Angeles searching for ghosts, but the kids don’t want to trap or eliminate them. The kids want to interview them, to ask them why they’re haunting these places, what the neighborhoods and microcultures of Los Angeles still mean to them, what the ghosts remember about these places that current residents have forgotten. The series is funny and sweet, but City of Ghosts is also so smart, so sensitive, and so loving as a portrait of how places change and how people move through the world. — KVA
(Available to stream on Netflix.)
This Netflix docuseries, which previously focused on junior college football, delivers equally intense drama and high emotional stakes by turning its lens on the world of junior college basketball. Following the young men of the East Los Angeles College basketball team and their spiritual, committed coach John Mosley, Last Chance U takes us inside the locker rooms and lives of guys who just missed their shots as Division I players and must claw their way through all kinds of challenges — including grief over lost loved ones and management of their anger — in the hopes of winning a championship and a path back to a major university. What would have been an absorbing season of television under any circumstance is elevated by the specific, unforeseen circumstances that the 2019–2020 season brings. The eighth and last episode of the season will break your heart in ways that few sports documentaries have before. — JC
(Available to stream on Netflix.)
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