There was a lot of pressure placed on the shoulders of television this year. After being stuck in our homes forever, and watching everything there was to know, audiences became more critical of small screen stories than critics themselves. A demand for more was given, without the actual qualifications as to what that truly meant. Did they mean more heart-wrenching dramas or gut-busting comedies? Did they mean more of the supernatural or more of the mundane? Did they mean more of the past or a glimpse into the future?
Regardless of what the audiences called for, creators and producers stepped up and gave us all of what we demanded in our vagueness--and so much more. Now out of a debilitating year of hell, and still in recovery, television has arrived with stories worth waiting for and here are the top ones of the year.
1.Poselights GIF by Pose FXGiphy
The category is…grateful. When it was announced in 2020 that Pose’s third season would be its final one, I remember wishing that each and every character would be given the conclusion they deserved. After watching two seasons of endless heartbreak, temporary wins, and watery smiles, I wanted a chance for the characters to get the happy ending that I knew the people they represented never did. For the sake of not spoiling the show, I refuse to mention if they do get the ending that they deserve. I will, however, mention that I am satisfied with the creation and conclusion of this beautifully heart-wrenching and heartwarming masterpiece.
Pose is a drama spotlighting the icons and ferocious house mothers of New York’s underground ball culture in the ‘80s and ‘90s. Following gay and transgender characters (and actors), Pose focuses on Blanca Rodriguez (MJ Rodriguez), Pray Tell (Billy Porter), Elektra (Dominique Jackson), and others as they navigate the LGBTQ+ world, while also battling the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
With heavy themes and ruthlessly honest depictions of humanity, it would be easy for Pose to become riddled with unwatchable struggle and sorrow. Yet, the show’s intentional decision to balance its sadness with conspicuously endearing characters—and their love for themselves and their self-appointed families—creates a series where one cannot help but to adoringly watch in awe as they live, work, and pose.
2.WandaVisionScarlet Witch Marvel GIF by Disney+Giphy
At this point, I have made it pretty clear how much I love television. And when I say "love" I mean it in the biggest misuse of terms, because the word I truly want to use hasn't been invented yet. Ever since I was a kid, and especially as an adult, I have found television to be an elegant art form. The music has to be powerful, but not so overpowering that it takes away from the scene. The writing has to be eloquently crafted to sound as regular as it is otherworldly. The sets must be inviting yet exclusive. The actors must be the characters.
To get one thing wrong means changing what could have been a powerful impactful story, into a wasted mess of potential. The more imaginative the show, the more room for error. WandaVision was very imaginative, and--when it came to perfecting its craft--had plenty of room for error.
The music was so noticeable that oftentimes even the characters would acknowledge it. The writing style changed with every episode, as if from various time periods. The sets were inviting, but never as it would seem. The actors were at times miscast. Yet, I have never seen something more masterfully executed than this adroit television show.
WandaVision follows Avengers, Wanda Maximoff, and Vision, three weeks after the events of Avengers: Endgame. Living in Westview, Wanda and Vision indulge in living in mundane suburbia, while trying to hide their true identities. Nonetheless, things are not as they seem when their surroundings begin to travel through decades and characters prove to be more than their tropes. This show is wondrous and if you haven't seen it yet, you're in for an amazing nine episodes.
The story of WandaVision is one that has not been seen in a while, especially in this diluted sea of superheroes. What could have been easily a Marvel show gone wrong (looking at you season four and up of Agents of Shield) turned into an extraordinary, artful portrayal of uncontrolled grief. This fantastic mini-series shows what happens when a character who loves television is created by people who love it, too.
3.SnowfallSeason 3 Fx GIF by SnowfallGiphy
What a fall from grace. Then again, was Franklin ever truly graceful? Returning with its fourth season, Snowfall continues its following of anti-hero, Franklin Saint as his dirty work contributes to the 1980s cocaine epidemic. Under the influence of the morally bankrupt CIA operative, Teddy, Franklin, and his family find themselves completely out of (and somehow in) their element when they sink further and further into the cocaine business.
After watching this season, I find it hard to believe that I ever fell for the charm that is--was (is?) Franklin Saint. In the beginning, he was a character worth rooting for. Despite his obvious shortcomings-his unrelenting quest for power--it was hard not to want Franklin to succeed. I had hoped that his desire to get himself and his mom out of Los Angeles and gain enough money to return to college would turn into something. I had hoped that he would become something more than what was expected of him.
Then he went and pursued selling and making cocaine, and...I'll be completely honest: I continued to root for him. I didn't see Franklin as a criminal, I only saw him as a result of systematic circumstances. I understood Franklin turning to crime when education turned its back to him. Now, I don't see that anymore. That person, that person mentioned before no longer exists. After everything that has happened, especially this season, I can no longer absolve Franklin of his decisions, nor do I think he should be.
Despite this, I eagerly tune in every week to see what will happen next. Franklin is a disaster, but he does have some redeemable qualities, and if I were to think on it all of the characters--except for Teddy--do. They're messy, but they are human and trying. They love each other despite loving power just a little more. I can't stand to watch their descent, but I can't bear to look away.
The upcoming season has been announced to be Snowfall's final, and after all of the trouble, I'm just hoping that season five will give everyone some reprieve, and make this entire messy descent worth it.
4.The Underground RailroadThe Underground Railroad GIF by Amazon Prime VideoGiphy
I almost missed this piece of art. Not because I didn’t know it existed, but because with every fiber of my being, I did not want to see it. As a Black person, I am so sick and tired of seeing Black pain. It’s in the news, it’s on social media, and the last place I wanted it to be was purposefully on my TV. When I saw the trailer and ads for the show, I pushed it aside and wiped my hands clean of it.
Then, out of the blue, I cracked. I don’t know how. I don’t know why. All I know is that I sat in front of the TV and managed to stumble on the first episode. Once I left the first episode, the second was playing and before you know it I was ten episodes in. Call me weak if you must, but if you ask me, it was one of the best decisions I had made this year.
The Underground Railroad follows Cora, an escaped enslaved woman, as she boards a train to embark on an agonizing journey towards true freedom. Meanwhile, she is being chased by a notorious slave catcher, who is determined to return her to where he believes she belongs.
This show is considered one of the best shows of the year because of three reasons: Thuso Mbedu (Cora), William Jackson Harper (Royal), and Barry Jenkins. Mbedu in the lead role is truly exceptional. The South African actress deserves accolades and then some for her portrayal as Cora. One of the most moving scenes would appear in the first episode, where she is told that she will be able to see America as it is if only she looks out the window. Throughout the show, we watch the hopefulness that Cora once felt in the face of freedom dwindle as she truly sees America for what it is. America was beautiful and under the perception of Jenkins' lens, its beauty is clear. But with the people who make America what it is, its beauty can be hard to notice under the light of its hate.
Mbedu carries this show on every pore of her back and when she needs a moment, which is rare, Harper picks it up. The entire show is filmed like art, and the lessons the characters learn are as heartbreaking as one would expect. Nevertheless, every heartbreaking moment is worth it, especially when we get to see this Black woman become the hero of her own story.
Admittedly, I didn't want to watch Invincible.
Despite watching Shang-Chi and all of his rings, braving The Eternals despite its reviews, and preordering tickets to the recently released Spider-Man: No Way Home film, I grew tired of superhero things. Besides the heroes that I had already committed myself to--remember the WandaVision review from a second ago--I didn't feel the desire to get attached to a new hero. I didn't have the care to see the same story told through another animation. I had seen it all. So much so that I believed I could tell the story myself.
So, when I finally sat down to watch Invincible, I found myself thinking just that. It had followed the same trope that we had all seen before. There is a semi-normal person, Mark Grayson, who wants to follow in his father's footsteps, the hero Omni-Man, but cannot. Why? He doesn't have powers. Although, this does not remain a problem for long. When he obtains his invincible powers, Mark eventually learns what it means to be a superhero from his parents. With his ability, though it will take time, he will save the world. Typical, right? Not so much.
What seemed like a cookie-cutter, fun but expected animation quickly turns into something more dark and drastic than ever expected. Over the course of eight episodes, 40-ish minutes long each, we discover that falling into the typical hero trope might not be such a bad thing. Because when done right, what is expected makes room for the unexpected to shine.
By the final scene, the characters are launched into a new chapter that shows that all heroes are villains in another's story. And that sometimes the ones who save the day are the ones you never believed could. Whether you like animation doesn't matter, you're going to like this.
6.LupinSuit Up French GIF by NETFLIXGiphy
Like all great shows of this year, Lupin–the little engine that could–came out of nowhere.
A crime, mystery-thriller series, Lupin follows a man, Assane Diop (Omar Sy), who is inspired by the nefarious actions of thief Arsene Lupin. After his father is framed for the theft of an expensive diamond necklace, he hangs himself in prison when his sentencing becomes unbearable. Years later, now an adult, Assane decides to seek vengeance on the true thief, his father’s former employer, Hubert Pellegrini, and his family.
Split into two parts–the first coming out in early 2021, the second mid-2021–Lupin leaves the audience constantly on the edge of their seats and always wanting more. Unlike most thrillers, this show leans into being both mysterious and fun. The heist that Diop plans are simultaneously over the top and just enough to make the viewers constantly wonder if and when he will truly be caught.
This show reminds me of the early 2000s TNT show Leverage, a show where heists were done on a regular basis, only to go wrong, just to turn out oh so right. Lupin is very similar in the sense of things going wrong, and somehow, only looking wrong to the audience. Just when you think Diop has nowhere to go, he changes like the wind and adapts to situations in a way that could never be predictable. It’s entertaining. It’s nail-biting. It’s immensely fun.
In addition to this, the show does a great job of making the setting just as much of an important character as Diop himself. Paris gets a chance to shine in a light that is more than just being the “city of lights.” Instead of showing the typical tourist sights, the audience is given all of Paris and its beauty. Though, these often picturesque locations are the backdrop to messier, and undesirable situations.
With just ten episodes, Lupin can be watched over the span of a weekend. With subtitles, it should be watched diligently. Regardless of when and how you choose to watch it, it is an entertaining and thrilling experience worth adding to the front of your queue.
7.BlindspottingSipping Tea Time GIF by BlindspottingGiphy
There is a reason why Jasmine Cephas Jones' award shelf keeps getting more and more crowded. Though, before you shout Hamilton, know that that was six years ago (despite Disney+ release), and not the biggest reason at the moment. Instead, Jones' current awards and accolades come from her stunning performance in Blindspotting.
Based on the 2018 indie film with the same name, Blindspotting follows Jones as she reprises her role of Ashley, a young mother in Oakland who struggles to keep her house in order when her boyfriend of 12 years is arrested for selling drugs. With dreams once in sight, Ashley finds herself trying to rebuild her life when she learns that she will have to leave her newly built home, and bunk with her boyfriend's mother when she discovers that he won't be returning for a while. From this typical family drama ensues, nevertheless, Jones' performance is what truly steals the show.
Similar to Starz's gone-too-soon hit, Vida, Blindspotting does a wonderful job of showing what happens when one is born from a neighborhood but doesn't necessarily belong in the neighborhood. From the very moment she returns, it is clear that Ashley and her son are somewhat welcomed by the people, but that she shouldn't be there in the first place. She does not enjoy the same things those of the block do. She does not value the same things either. This often pits her against her boyfriend and his family's ideals. What they see as an everyday thing, she sees as "fuckery" that isn't worth dealing with.
Not only this, but it is very clear through Jones's performance of the difference between Ashley and those of the neighborhood. She doesn't stick out like a sore thumb, from first sight, it seems as if she truly belongs there. Nevertheless, because she has ambitions outside of the block and outside of the life her boyfriend has given her, it becomes very obvious that she will never be truly satisfied.
The term "blindspotting" defined within the movie by writer and star Daveed Digg's character, Rafael Casal, relates to the limits of one's perception, a dualism that cannot be seen.
While the term in the film was meant to show why the characters might not be able to move past where they are, this term does not completely fit the character of Ashley, which might contribute to her greatest hindrance. Ashley can see the dualism and she is not satisfied with the life that she is constantly forced to see outside of her doors. With drugs, gentrification, and the lack of a steady place to call her own, Ashley takes a completely different approach from the other characters of the show/film.
While they see home, Ashley sees a prison worthy of escaping now that she has outgrown it. Though, escaping it might be easier said than done.
8.Squid GamesRound 6 Game GIFGiphy
This wouldn’t be a "best TV shows of 2021" list if Squid Games was not on it. As stated before, the best shows this year came out of nowhere, and man did this come out of nowhere. As ruthless as it is intriguing, Squid Games was such a hit, mainly because it did what no other show was willing to do: it held a mirror to the world as it is.
Yes, one could argue that The Underground Railroad did this, reflecting America’s biggest sin on the screens. Nevertheless, that sin is only limited to America pertaining to its longevity of enslavement and ruthlessness. Squid Games, although a South Korean show, shows how truly terrible we are as an overall global society. These errors aren’t rooted in the past, instead, it is formed and cultivated right in the depressing and at times hopeless present.
Often compared to the likes of Hunger Games, Squid Games finds itself to be just a little more gruesome. Even though the Hunger Games has more ruthless arenas and children killing each other, Squid Games is just a little worse, mainly because its cruelty is presented through our childhood games. Meaning, the games aren’t difficult to complete, what makes it truly difficult and Hunger Games-esque, is how willing everyone is to kill one another to seek their economic goal. Which only reflects how awful our current world is because if given the chance to relieve myself of debt, and this game had been an option, I would honestly consider completing it.
Squid Games shows what is truly wrong with our current world, and it also shows how easily this wrong could be rectified, if only our leaders would spend more time helping their people, rather than pitting them against one another. Like other Netflix originals, Squid Games is dubbed, but to truly understand and feel the cruelty of the show, go the extra mile and enjoy it with captions.
9.Reservation DogsNative American Indian GIF by Reservation DogsGiphy
Hear ye, yes, hear me: Any show or story about a person of color I am watching. I repeat, any damn story that is told about a person of color, by a person of color, I am watching.
If it just so happens to be good, I am watching and I am staying. Reservation Dogs, FX’s newest comedy show, is a show about people of color, made by people of color, that is definitely worth staying for.
Reservation Dogs focuses on four Native American teenagers who commit insouciant crimes to fund their mutual dream of moving to California. Until they can raise enough money, they spend most of their time with limited opportunities while hindered by the loss of their close friend Daniel, whose death they blame on the circumstances of their community. Due to this, drama ensues, which at times can be heartbreakingly dramatic, but for the most part, it is presented with hilarity that has never been associated with Native American people on-screen.
This show is why representation truly matters. With its four teenage characters, Elora, Bear, Cheese, and Willie, Reservation Dogs tells a delightfully intriguing story of people who are just trying to live. That's it. Yet, it is fantastic in its depth and actual representation of who Native American people are today, which is a perfect blend of their old and modern cultures. In some episodes, the air time is shared between all four characters and we get to understand why they want to leave as a collected group. In other episodes, the time is divided and we are given reasons why each character has a reason to leave.
These reasons make us wish the characters could go and start that life they so desperately want in California, and after watching their daily nonsense we root for their petty crimes to succeed. Although knowing how California is, and knowing how the world cares not for the many, a part of me wishes for them to stay within their community. Though, I know California could be better for them, there is still that chance that it won't be, and it would be a shame for such likable characters to be let down once more.
Reservation Dogs is a show that everyone must see. Not because the story being told is groundbreaking, but because the people who get to tell their story are. It is rare to see a show that follows a particular culture and group despite it being 2021, and it is even more rare to see it be Native American people who have somehow been erased from their own history.
Watching Reservation Dogs will make you cry, it will make you laugh, and most importantly it will make you say, "it is about damn time."
10.HarlemMeagan Good Kidding GIF by HarlemGiphy
Prime has done it, again. Sneaking in with just a minute to spare--it premiered on December 3, 2021--Harlemis another top show worthy of watching this year. Following four girlfriends as they navigate their personal lives and careers, Harlem is what occurs when Girlfriends meets Insecure and Living Single. Created by Girls Trip writer Tracy Oliver, Harlem is grounded in its friendships and the hilarity that occurs when life gets as ridiculous as it does get complicated.
During the first few episodes, we are introduced to Harlem through the perspective of Camille (Meagan Good) a newly single (if you can call a year new) anthropology professor. When she attempts to jump back into the dating world, her friends are introduced to help her maneuver through the world of dating apps and disappointment. Despite being introduced to this world through Camille, the audience continues to travel through Harlem with the (mis)guidance of Quinn, Tye, and Angie, too. Like Camille, they must deal with messy love lives, not-so-wise decision-making, and the burden of just trying to "human" right. Nevertheless, the beauty of this show is that they manage to deal with all of this together.
The issues they find themselves in are often avoidable, but honestly, most situations we all find ourselves in are just that. Regardless, what makes Harlem entertaining is how they manage to get themselves out of a situation they knew from the beginning was never meant for them. At times, this behavior can be seen as messy and pointlessly so. Other times, it just seems entertaining and as if they are making decisions because they know it could be a great story to tell in the future.
No matter what it is, Harlem shows the power Black-female friendships can create, but in a typical Tracey Oliver fashion, it also shows what can happen when people are just allowed to live proudly and unapologetically the way they choose.
Honorable Mentions:We Are Lady Parts, Girl5Eva, Hacks, Mare of Easttown, The Great, Midnight Mass, and Only Murders in the Building.
Featured image by Getty Images