It wasn’t that long ago that very few people would ever think to utter the terms “quality original content” and “streaming” in the same sentence. In fact, the first streaming-only series to win the Emmy for Best Drama—The Handmaid’s Tale—only did so in 2017. Now, there’s amazing content on nearly every streaming service, from Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon to newcomers like HBO Max and Apple TV+. It’s almost daunting. Actually, it is daunting. But if you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know what to watch, we’d like to suggest you start with these—our favorite shows of 2021.
Though most of us know the story of how Catherine the Great’s marriage to Peter III ended, The Great doesn’t bother much about historical accuracy, which is part of its outrageous charm. The first season did a wonderful job of setting up Nicholas Hoult as a rather dumb and kind of dangerous frat boy of an Emperor who acts on his every impulse, and Elle Fanning as a self-assured young woman who isn’t afraid to seize upon any opportunity that can get her closer to the kind of power she desires. (When she’s not rolling her eyes at her husband.) With their characters and motivations (or lack thereof) firmly established, creator Tony McNamara created additional space for more characters to enter the picture—the better to help Catherine maneuver and manipulate.
Jean Smart has always been just about the best thing in any TV show she’s ever been in, though she’s typically been the standout member of an ensemble cast. With Hacks, she’s able to take center stage—quite literally—as Deborah Vance, an aging Las Vegas legend whose handlers are pushing her to add some edge to her act. That “edge” comes in the form of a cynical twentysomething (Hannah Einbinder, daughter of Saturday Night Live legend Laraine Newman) who has been blackballed by Hollywood because of a bad-take tweet that went viral. While the series is about an apathetic “mentorship” that turns into more of a natural partnership, there’s never any doubt that it’s Vance who is in charge, and Smart who’s at the top of her game. The 70-year-old actor won her fourth Emmy for the role—her first for Lead Actress.
Only Murders in the Building
It was only a matter of time before someone took society’s collective true-crime podcast obsession and found a way to make that the basis of a full-fledged series. While, on paper, Only Murders in the Building sounds like it could easily paint itself into a one-note corner, the fantastic—and very natural—chemistry between Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez takes this Hulu series—about a trio of armchair detectives attempting to solve a grisly murder that occurred in their New York City apartment building—to a whole new level. A second season has already been confirmed.
Taika Waititi is officially everywhere—writing, directing, producing, acting, you name it. It’s a wonder he finds time to sleep, let alone cocreate (with Sterlin Harjo) a brand-new—and totally groundbreaking—series like Reservation Dogs. The story focuses on four Indigenous teens (Devery Jacobs, D’Pharaoh Woon-A-Tai, Lane Factor, and Paulina Alexis) living on a Native American reservation in Oklahoma and dreaming of getting out. What makes the series so revolutionary is that it’s the first TV series to feature an almost entirely Indigenous North American cast and only Indigenous writers and directors. What makes it so great is that, in doing so, it quietly strips away toxic misconceptions about Native Americans while giving an authentic voice to a still grossly underrepresented population.
Just when you thought creator Jesse Armstrong’s HBO drama about the wildly powerful—and wildly conniving—Roy family was the most talked-about show around, it came in with Season 3. Then, it became the most argued about. While some folks thought the series started off its third installment a little slow, there was no doubt by the end that the power struggle over the Roy’s media company was a totally wild ride.
The White Lotus
Much like Armond (Murray Bartlett), the high-strung recovering drug addict who works as the put-upon manager of the ultra-exclusive White Lotus resort, The White Lotus seemed to come out of nowhere to become the show that everybody was talking about. In a way it shares some DNA with Succession in that it depicts white privilege in all its ugly, selfish, oblivious dysfunction. But with some swollen testicles you’ll never be able to unsee. The series, which was created by Mike White (Enlightenment), features a cast swarming with talent, though it’s Jennifer Coolidge who remains the most memorable. It, too, has been renewed for a second season.
Though this might sound like a cop-out, Yellowjackets is the kind of series where it’s best going in with as little knowledge as possible. What can be said is that it’s sort of like a cross between Lord of the Flies and Mean Girls, but with a kick-ass ’90s soundtrack. Its nonlinear structure, which jumps in time between today and the 1990s, keeps the story fresh and always surprising. What makes it so unique and engrossing is that it’s at times a survivalist story, but one where teen girls are making the rules. Juliette Lewis, Christina Ricci, and Melanie Lynskey star.
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