From Squid Game to Succession, the last 12 months in television will go down as some of the best in recent memory. With Netflix dominating the ratings, thanks to big-budget releases from some of Hollywood’s largest names and HBO unveiling a raft of ultra-binge-worthy mysteries, dispelling the best TV shows of 2021 was no easy task, but someone has got to do it. Given the hours upon hours of streaming we engaged in during the endless months of lockdown, we managed to narrow it down to the top 20. As it turns out, the year in the TV world was packed with plenty of binge-worthy gems.
How We Pick Our Best TV Shows
Choosing a list of the best shows of 2021 is no mean feat, so, in preparation, we hand-selected series across a broad range of genres released throughout this year. The criteria encompassed three major components;
- Audience/critic review – Each of the titles received a rating of at least 5 out of 10 on IMDB from critics and users, ensuring a collective appreciation for the release
- Cultural significance – While some shows are bigger and better than others, some have a certain cultural appeal that can’t be ignored. In the realm of 2021 TV shows, releases like Squid Game completely dominated the television stakes, causing a massive cultural shift in Eastern eye cinema.
- Overall direction and execution – Some releases may have delivered outstanding individual performances, however, this critique takes into account the finished product as a whole, from the cinematography and direction to the acting and scriptwriting.
Best TV Shows of 2021
With that scope in mind, it’s time to dive into the 2021 TV shows that defined our year at home. From the streaming spectaculars that capture our imaginations to the big budget thrillers that kept us thinking, here are the 20 best TV shows of 2021, according to us.
1. Mare of Eastown
This HBO limited series is much more than your typical true-crime drama. The iconic Kate Winslet plays Mare as she struggles to exist in the brutal small town she has always called home. It offers an authentic portrayal of police detention in rural Pennsylvania with just the right dose of added drama. The star-studded cast only adds to the engaging quality of the series.
First episode date: 18 April 2021
Producer: Karen Wacker
Directed by: Craig Zobel
Created by: Brad Ingelsby
Genre: Crime drama
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Another HBO original series and one of the best TV shows of 2021, Succession is everything you want a business drama to be. Focusing on the Roy family, who own the biggest media and entertainment company in the world, watch in anticipation as their father steps down and everything changes. The series explores the imperfection of an innate human desire for money and power, with a little bit of humour on the side.
Original release: June 3, 2018 –; present
Genre: Dark comedy; Comedy-drama; Satire;
3. Ted Lasso
Sports fans, buckle up, this one’s for you. Focusing on the protagonist whom the series is named after, this breakout show follows Ted’s journey as he heads to London to manage AFC Richmond, a struggling English Premier League soccer team, after years of working as an American football coach. A likeable man who promotes positive masculinity, the series dives deep into uncovering the hidden imperfections of his personality. It is a timely reminder that no one is perfect, even those you think maybe are.
First episode date: 14 August 2020
Network: Apple TV+
Based on: Format and characters from NBC Sports
Genre: Comedy-drama; Sports
Production location: London
4. Squid Game
Hands down one of the best TV shows of 2021, Squid Game certainly made its mark on 2021 in a weird, wacky and wonderful way. The South Korean series expertly crafts a dystopia littered with child-like premises, making it equally accessible and disorientating. Watch on as a handful of unlucky individuals are snatched off the streets, taken to an undisclosed location, and forced to participate in a series of childhood games. The catch- if you die in the game, you will die in real life. The mix of humour, absurdity and political commentary is something never seen before.
First episode date: 17 September 2021
Program creator: Hwang Dong-hyuk
Composer: Jung Jae-il
There has been plenty of hype surrounding the crime drama series Ozark, and for a good reason too. The series captivates the viewer five minutes into the first episode as we get wrapped into the struggles of a financial advisor who drags his family from Chicago to the Missouri Ozarks, where he must launder money to appease a drug boss. Gripping, dangerous and full of unexpected twists, Ozark is worth a watch.
First episode date: 21 July 2017
Genre: Crime drama; Thriller
Created by: Bill Dubuque; Mark Williams
Production location: Georgia
You is one of the best TV shows of 2021 if you’re in the mood for something sexy, murderous and thrilling. The series appears like any other romantic sitcom at first, with Penn Badgley playing a seemingly typical heartthrob protagonist as he navigates the dating world in his late 20s. It isn’t long until we discover his darker side, the series providing insight into how our psychology is informed by our childhood and raising questions about why we kill.
First episode date: 9 September 2018
Genre: Psychological thriller
Composer: Blake Neely
Producers: Ryan Lindbum; Adria Lang; Jason Sokoloff; Jennifer Lence; Wayne Carmona; Hillary Benefiel; Carl Ogawa; Penn Badgley
Adapted from: You
Yellowstone has taken 2021 by storm, as evidenced by the countless cowboy-obsessed masses that seemed to have popped up this year. Cowboy obsessions aside, Yellowstone is an iconic series about a ranching family in Montana facing off against others encroaching on their land. A seemingly simple plot, the twists and character development will have you hooked from the first episode.
First episode date: 20 June 2018
Written by: Taylor Sheridan
Genre: Drama; Neo-Western
Networks: Paramount Network, Peacock
8. Money Heist
The latest epic series to make the list of the best TV shows of 2021 is Money Heist. The series follows an unusual group of robbers who attempt to carry out the most perfect robbery in Spanish history – stealing 2.4 billion euros from the Royal Mint of Spain. Don’t think this is just another bank robbery series, the unique characters and intriguing plot will have you coming back for more.
First episode date: 2 May 2017
Spanish: La casa de papel
Genre: Crime drama; Heist; Thriller;
Theme music composer: Manel Santisteban
9. The Morning Show
Perhaps one of the best TV shows of 2021 shining a light on workplace drama, The Morning Show is a series anyone who’s worked in a fast-paced workplace will relate to. The series depicts workplace power and politics to highlight the challenges faced by men and women alike in the workplace. The stellar cast is also what makes the series, starring Steve Carrel, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon.
First episode date: 1 November 2019
Opening theme: “Nemesis” by Benjamin Clementine
Executive producers: Jennifer Aniston; Reese Witherspoon; Kerry Ehrin; Michael Ellenberg; Mimi Leder; Kristin Hahn; Lauren Levy Neustadter
10. Tokyo Olympics
Ok, so maybe not quite a TV show, but the cultural impact the Tokyo Olympics had cannot be undermined. Pleased to have had the Olympics take place this year at all, it’s no wonder so many of us were excited to watch on from our homes during lockdown. Sports of all kinds, every country you could imagine and smashing commentary made this one of the most-watched TV programmes of 2021.
Dates: 23 July 2021 – 8 Aug 2021
Nominations: Trīs Zvaigžņu balva kategorijā „Gada notikums sportā”
11. The Wheel of Time
The Wheel of Time series is based on Robert Gordon’s iconic book series, meaning the expectations were high. Set in a fantasy world where only some people can access magic, a woman named Moiraine crosses paths with five young men and women. This sparks a dangerous, world-spanning journey. The special effects and believability of the series lacks some sophistication, but this is also what makes it a captivating watch and a must-see nonetheless.
First episode date: 19 November 2021
Adapted from: The Wheel of Time
Producer: Rosamund Pike
Composer: Lorne Balfe
Only a six-episode series, Loki makes up for it with the amount of action and adventure packed into each jaw-dropping episode. You can find the series on Disney+ and can expect a time-travelling adventure as mercurial villain Loki resumes his role as the God of Mischief, featuring poor chives, explosions and a bit of romance on the side.
First episode date: 9 June 2021
Genre: Action-adventure; Crime thriller; Fantasy; Procedural drama; Science fiction; Superhero
Production locations: Atlanta, Georgia
Executive producers: Kevin Feige; Louis D’Esposito; Victoria Alonso; Stephen Broussard; Tom Hiddleston; Kate Herron; Michael Waldron
Cinematography: Autumn Durald Arkapaw
13. Nine Perfect Strangers
Based on the bestselling novel by Liane Moriarty, the same author of the novel-turned series Big Little Lies, Nine Perfect Strangers had a lot to live up to. We’re happy to say that the series succeeded, proving a unique take on the struggles we all face from time to time, against the backdrop of the stunning Byron Bay where the series was shot. Nicole Kidman fits the role of seraphic guru perfectly, complemented by several other big names and countless Australian actors. Psychedelic therapy has never looked so good.
First episode date: 18 August 2021
Adapted from: Nine Perfect Strangers
Producers: Gillian Bohrer; Barbara Gibbs
Directed by: Jonathan Levine
Production locations: Byron Bay, New South Wales
14. The North Water
One of the best TV shows of 2021, The North Water depicts the life of Patrick Sumner, an ex-army surgeon who signs up as ship’s doctor on a whaling expedition to the Arctic. If you’re a fan of arctic survival thrillers, this one is for you. Just the right dose of adventure and fear, expect to see many frost-encrusted bearded men on your TV if you decide to delve into this epic series.
First episode date: 15 July 2021
Based on: The North Water; by Ian McGuire
Written by: Andrew Haigh
Producer: Kate Ogborn
Composer: Tim Hecker
Everything is not as it seems in the TV miniseries WandaVision, the best comedy-drama series to make the list. Follow the plights of two seemingly ordinary people with superpowers amid sitcom throwbacks, mysteries and classic Marvel mythology. Accompanied by impressive visuals and fantastic acting, this is a mutch-watch series.
First episode date: 15 January 2021
Based on: Marvel Comics
Directed by: Matt Shakman
Related shows: Marvel Cinematic Universe television series
Producer: Chuck Hayward
16. Only Murders in the Building
If you have an obsession with true crime, Only Murders in the Building is one of the best TV shows of 2021 for you. Three strangers, who are equally as obsessed with true crime as you, end up in one themselves. Set against a dazzling New York City backdrop, this crime series differs from the others as it doesn’t take things too seriously.
First episode date: 31 August 2021
Genre: Comedy, Crime
Starring: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez
Lupin is the much-anticipated series inspired by the adventures of Arsène Lupin. In the series, thief Assane Diop sets out to avenge his father for an injustice that has been inflicted by a wealthy family. Along with the obvious tension and drama, there is plenty of action to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Original release: 8 January 2021 –; present
Based on: Arsène Lupin; by Maurice Leblanc
Genre: Crime; Thriller; Mystery; Drama
Directed by: Louis Leterrier; Marcela Said
Another Korean blockbuster to take our TV screens by storm in 2021, Hellbound highlights a bleak new world and is no easy watch. The premise is immediately captivating; people hear predictions on when they will die, and when that time comes, a death angel appears in front of them and kills them. The heaviness of the series highlights the seriousness of our sins and the panic that goes down when we are forced to go to hell as a punishment.
Original language: Korean
Based on: Hellbound; by Yeon Sang-ho
Original release: November 19, 2021
Written by: Choi Kyu-sok
Genre: Dark fantasy; Drama thriller
In a similar vein to British mystery masterpieces Line of Duty and The Bodyguard, Vigil came out of nowhere to completely captivate us. The gripping UK drama throws accusation everywhere, with intrigue around every corner, but this whodunnit isn’t your run of the mill offering. When a crew member is found dead aboard the Trident nuclear submarine HMS Vigil, Scottish police begin an inquiry. The Vigil must remain on patrol in order to maintain the UK’s nuclear deterrent, meaning Detective Amy Silva has to jump onboard, alongside a killer, whoever they may be.
First episode date: 29 August 2021
No. of series: 1
Producer: Angie Daniell
Genre: Police procedural
20. Animal Kingdom
Everyone loves a bit of family drama and crime action, and this is just what you’ll get with Animal Kingdom. The series centres on a Southern California family who use crime to fuel their wildly excessive lifestyle. Despite the dark subject matter, the series manages to remain lighthearted and equally as exciting. At times absurd, this show is perfect when you feel like escaping reality.
First episode date: 14 June 2016
Adapted from: Animal Kingdom
Genre: Crime drama; Family drama; Serial drama
Theme music composer: Atticus Ross & Claudia Sarne
Executive producers: Liz Watts; David Michôd; Eliza Clark; Andrew Stearn; Jonathan Lisco; John Wells; Etan Frankel; Christopher Chulack
Succession was the biggest new show of 2021.
The 2021 shows you should watch are Squid Game, Nine Perfect Strangers and Yellowstone.
Squid Game was the biggest show on Netflix this year.
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