If there’s been one positive takeaway from our second year of pandemic life, it’s that we have an abundance of streaming services at our fingertips with the power to provide necessary breaks from life’s often jarring realities. From Netflix to Disney Plus, there’s been no shortage of engaging content this year to keep our minds occupied and our inner children transfixed.
Luckily for us, 2021 wasn’t just any other year in television. It saw a completely unexpected South Korean drama skyrocket to instant fame, spawning viral TikTok videos and memes and ugly Christmas sweaters the world over, not to mention loud demand for a second season. On a completely different platform, a mustached coach brimming with eternal optimism continued to show us how far a cheery outlook on life can go, even in the most dire of circumstances. And how could we forget Marvel’s first five forays into original television programming, with each new entry pulling us deeper into the ever-expanding MCU?
Whether you were squirming in your seat or gasping at an unforeseen twist, 2021’s small-screen offerings helped us on our collective road to recovery, reminding us how powerful (and necessary) a bit of television can be. Here, in alphabetical order, are the 2021 shows that stood out to the We Got This Covered team the most.
We’ve had many great works of art this year throughout the entertainment industry, and some have no doubt elicited universal critical acclaim for their production companies. But when all is said and done, it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to suggest that none have become as absolute a sensation as Netflix’s Arcane has with the online community. Based on the popular MOBA video game League of Legends, this animated series takes you to the fictional realm of Piltover, a city much like any other, but one where the social gap has taken on a literal form, with the wealthy living in prosperity and the poor struggling to get by in the crime-infested undercity. Arcane is a philosophical study of utopianism through power, but it doesn’t forsake the inner conflicts of its characters, delving ever deeper into the most humane sentiments of love, trust, vengeance, forgiveness, and salvation. All in all, if you’re looking for your next anime obsession, Arcane is a most worthy choice, but since the first season took a staggering six years to produce, you’ll probably have long periods of drought to look forward to in the near future. ⏤ Jonathan Wright
The Beatles: Get Back
An eight-hour documentary about one of the most notoriously miserable recording sessions in musical history doesn’t sound like much fun, but Peter Jackson overturns a lot of assumptions about the Beatles’ later career. Simply watching the four rehearse and hang out is a window into history being made, and though there are a few moments with more than a hint of Spinal Tap, this is as good an insight into the process of making music as I’ve ever seen. Perhaps if you’re not into the Beatles it’ll be a slog, but this is a master class in documentary cinema and you have to respect Jackson for resisting the temptation to edit out the quieter moments. ⏤ David James
The Great British Baking Show
There’s possibly no other show on television more equipped to fill you with warm fuzzies than The Great British Baking Show, known in the U.K. as The Great British Bake Off. It was single-handedly responsible for keeping my spirits afloat as we navigated yet another year of the COVID-19 pandemic ⏤ the balm that made my 2021 a little less scary. Who would’ve thought I’d be crying happy tears over a loaf of sourdough bread or cheering on a well-made treacle tart? Yet there I was, curled up on the couch with a plate of freshly baked cookies, eager and excited for the newest season, which aired on Netflix on Sept. 21, a fresh box of tissues at the ready. ⏤ Cody Raschella
Mare of Easttown
There’s a reason why Kate Winslet won a 2021 Emmy for her performance as the title character in HBO’s Mare of Easttown. Her hard-hitting detective, tasked with investigating a local murder while trying to keep her personal life from crumbling, has so many layers that Winslet all but disappears into the role, delivering a career-best performance more than worthy of awards season gold. Equally masterful is the show’s superb writing, which gives audiences a front row seat to a rough Pennsylvania suburb they may have never seen before but will still relate to. Though Winslet is the obvious star vehicle here, co-stars Jean Smart, Evan Peters, and Julianne Nicholson all shine alongside her, the latter two picking up Emmys of their own and the former nabbing a well-deserved nomination. Mare is not only an acting and writing master class ⏤ it’s definitive proof that if you think you’ve seen and heard everything quality drama has to offer, then clearly you’ve never been to Easttown. ⏤ Josh Conrad
Mike Flanagan’s return to Netflix cemented his place as a dark master of horror. After his successful Haunting adaptations for the streamer, Midnight Mass was as fresh as it was familiar. Confidently pulling in countless horror references, the fingerprints of Stephen King and Shirley Jackson were most evident in this leisurely seven-part series. But it was the heady mix of religion (Catholicism wryly and literally referenced in its title), ancient horror, and deeply personal issues that made it compulsive viewing. There was a distinct sense of timelessness and placelessness to the fading community of Crockett Island that let its characters shine (or burn). At its heart was Hamish Linklater’s charismatic and scene-stealing turn as the enigmatic Father Paul Hill. Genuinely disturbing and heartbreaking character moments made Midnight Mass a horror highlight in 2021 and a massive Halloween hit for Netflix. ⏤ Matt Goddard
Only Murders in the Building
Holy moly, was Only Murders in the Building a fun show. In what seemed like impossible casting on paper, the Hulu murder mystery comedy teamed Steve Martin and Martin Short with Selena Gomez, who deftly held her own alongside the two comedic legends. The series centered around Charles-Haden Savage (Martin), Oliver Putnam (Short), and Mabel Mora (Gomez), three true crime podcast fans and residents of a fictional Upper West Side apartment building called The Arconia, who are brought together when they inadvertently stumble upon a very real murder case in their own building. There are more twists and turns and A-list guest stars than you can shake a tie-dye hoodie at, including a cameo from Sting, who plays himself, and is at one point a suspect in the trio’s ongoing investigation. It was a perfect, phenomenal season of television that leaves a nice cliffhanger to set up season two, which will be out sometime next year. ⏤ Stacey Ritzen
The Other Two
In season two, the Justin Bieber-type who brought the Dubek family into the limelight is taking a break and the spotlight turns even brighter on matriarch Pat (Molly Shannon), who became an overnight daytime TV success like Ellen Degeneres without a lick of savvy. The titular Other Two, older siblings Brooke and Cary, inch toward fame themselves, too, plowing ahead in the face of constant humiliation. The show gets fame in all its glamor, facade, and deep loneliness, with a joke or five a minute about celebrity megachurches, the Hadid sisters, awards shows, and a staggering level of commitment to a running gag about Alessia Cara. ⏤ Tricia Gilbride
Reservation Dogs marks a massive milestone in TV history. It’s the first show to feature an all-Indigenous writing team, an Indigenous director, and a primarily Indigenous cast. Set in rural Oklahoma, it follows the lives of four Indigenous teenagers who share one goal: to get to California. To do this, they’ll save, scrimp and steal to get the necessary money while defending themselves from those who try to block their dream. Mixing gripping drama with laugh-out-loud moments, Reservation Dogs is a must-watch series. ⏤ Jonathon Greenall
Shadow and Bone
Well-accomplishing its goal of introducing viewers to a broad and fascinating new world, the first season of Netflix’s Shadow and Bone is delightful. While it misses a few steps over the course of its first season’s eight-episode run, the series seems poised to launch into a show that can genuinely compete with fantasy series like His Dark Materials and Wheel of Time. Combining thrilling action sequences with an intriguing magic system and captivating characters, Shadow and Bone was easily one of Netflix’s best 2021 offerings. ⏤ Nahila Bonfiglio
You’ve probably already watched Hwang Dong-hyuk’s commentary on the absurdity of debt, healthcare, and wealth in late capitalism ⏤ Squid Game is Netflix’s most-watched show of all time, after all ⏤ so this is more of an appreciation post. From production to distribution, the popularity of Squid Game is unprecedented. Merely appropriating the show’s iconography itself became a meme as everyone from merchandisers to content creators sought to ride its wave of popularity. But Squid Game itself is not flashy; there’s more gore than spectacle here. Rather, what has the world’s attention is that Squid Game resonates. It doesn’t couch its commentary in lengthy allegory (the games are metaphorical, but the conditions and responses are plausible), but in its specificity Squid Game illuminates the faults and absurdities of late capitalism, showing how institutional harm seeps into our personal attitudes and shapes our choices ⏤ never as fair as the people hiding their faces and making the rules claim they are. ⏤ Autumn Wright
In its sophomore season, this Apple TV Plus show — which evolved surprisingly from a 2013 Jason Sudeikis sketch to promote NBC’s Premier League broadcasts into a fully-formed dramedy — became less about soccer and more about relationships between fathers and sons. While season two was a little more unevenly written than the tidy first outing, with some ham-handed telegraphing of character flaws and the surrealistic zig-zag that was the “Beard’s night out” episode, Ted Lasso still featured a well-written and winsome cast of characters. In particular, Sarah Niles provided a welcome foil to Coach Lasso’s relentless cheerfulness as Dr. Sharon Fieldstone, allowing Lasso to become even more richly complex than he was during the debut season. And yet, for all its pathos, it still delivered moments of levity, an AFC Richmond team that maintained its lovable underdog status through soccer and life, and even some heart-tugging morsels of romance to reward its faithful viewers. — Phil West
The Marvel Cinematic Universe truly extended itself to try something different with its first Disney Plus original series, WandaVision. Particular praise goes to Elizabeth Olsen, whose portrayal of the grief-stricken Wanda Maximoff resonated surprisingly well with audiences. We loved the mystery behind the show, which presents itself as Wanda being trapped in a classic sitcom of her own life co-starring her love, Paul Bettany’s Vision. The use of the ever-changing set designs and occasional disruptions with sitcom-like filmic techniques to portray Wanda’s inner turmoil is at times extremely compelling, even if the series devolves into the usual CGI-laden action scenes typical of MCU fare by the time we reach the climax. However, the show’s metaphysical themes and meditations on how denial can permeate every aspect of one’s life is an experience we won’t soon forget. ⏤ Danny Peterson
If you’re looking for adventure, drama, romance, and a storyline that keeps you guessing, Yellowstone is the series for you. The show follows the Dutton family as they strive to protect their land and each other from various struggles and those who dare to cross them. Not only is the cast completely stellar, but they’re so committed to their roles that they draw you in and make it easy to get lost in their story. From Kayce and Rip to Beth and John, you will undoubtedly find your favorite characters and wait with bated breath to find out what their futures hold. Yellowstone is engaging, exciting, and has just enough romance and flair to appeal to a variety of TV fanatics. If you haven’t yet started Yellowstone, this is the perfect time to do so. The season four finale airs on Sunday, Jan. 2, giving you plenty of time to catch up before season five arrives. There’s also a new spin-off of the series on Paramount Plus called 1883, a prequel to Yellowstone. ⏤ Ashley Dye