When 2021 ended, it was a good time to look back at the major pop cultural hits of the year so far. On the music side of things, Olivia Rodrigo became a breakout star and Lorde made her return. For movies, theater-going returned with movies like Spider-Man: No Way Home and Ghostbusters: Afterlife helping bring families back to the movies.
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When it comes to television, 2021 continued the steady stream of high-quality shows. By the end of the year, there were several critically acclaimed superhero shows, most of the eagerly awaited network shows, and streaming services all releasing great new shows to lure in more subscribers.
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Updated on April 13th, 2022, by Shawn S. Lealos: By the time 2021 came to a close, there were a lot of great new and returning shows arriving to entertain and enthuse audiences. While audiences eagerly awaited many shows, there were some surprises that took everyone by surprise and ended up as some of the best of the year. While Netflix released new shows every week, it was Hulu that came along and released two of the best new series of the year, one an award-winning effort by Taika Waititi and Sterlin Harjo and another a hilarious comedy with Steve Martin and Martin Short. Showtime also released its most popular show in years while SyFy and USA Network teamed up to bring back a horror icon in a shockingly great new series.
Only Murders In the Building
Stream On Hulu
For people of a certain age, when Steve Martin and Martin Short signed up for a movie together, it was guaranteed to be funny. It has been a long time since that was true, however, the two enjoyed a resurgence in 2021 when they signed on for the Hulu original comedy Only Murders in the Building.
The comedy duo joined forces with Selena Gomez in a TV series about the three of them starting to investigate a mysterious death in their building with no experience other than their love of true crime stories. The show picked up Golden Globe nominations and was renewed for a second season.
Stream On Amazon Prime & Showtime
Showtime had a major hit on its hands in 2021 with the suspenseful Yellowjackets. The series takes place in two different timelines, with the first being the 1990s, after a girl’s soccer team was in a plane crash in the Canadian wilderness and the survivors had to do anything they could to live.
The second timeline was the present day where the survivors of that experience all tried to move on with their lives, only to realize that someone from the accident might be out for revenge. The cast was top-notch, with Melanie Lynskey, Juliette Lewis, and Christina Ricci starring. Showtime renewed the series for a second season.
Stream On Hulu
Hulu brought in Native American filmmaker Sterlin Harjo to create a new series based in Oklahoma, with a predominantly indigenous cast and all indigenous writers and directors. With Taika Waititi as a co-producer, Harjo created Reservation Dogs, a series that pays a bit of a homage to Quentin Tarantino.
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Reservation Dogs has four teenagers living in rural Oklahoma spending their days both committing crimes and fighting crime. When they decide it might be time to move on to California, they decide to tie up loose ends before they go. The series won two Independent Spirit Awards and received a second season renewal.
Stream On Netflix
Netflix’s Squid Game was a surprise hit in 2021 as the South Korean drama series ended up as one of the most-watched shows in the streaming service’s history. The plot saw people in serious debt agree to go onto a game show where they played children’s games with the chance to win billions.
However, everyone but the winner would die. The show hit number one for Netflix in 94 countries with 142 million households and 1.65 billion viewing hours combined. The show won acting awards at the SAG Awards and Golden Globes and was renewed for a second season.
Stream On Peacock
Arguably, the most surprising great television show of 2021 was based on a classic horror character that had slipped into straight-to-video releases. Even when Child’s Play was rebooted for a new generation, it flopped at the box office. However, original creator Don Mancini returned for the TV show and it was a smash hit.
SyFy Network and USA Network co-produced Chucky and brought back original cast members Brad Dourif, Jennifer Tilly, and Alex Vincent. They threw in a mix of talented young stars and received critical acclaim. It was one of the most-watched premieres of 2021 and has a 91% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes
Stream On PBS
Whenever Ken Burns and Lynn Novick re-up for a documentary series with PBS, there’s a strong guarantor of quality. That was certainly true of April’s three-episode docuseries about the life of Ernest Hemingway.
Hemingway was not just a standard PBS doc, though. It also enlisted the vocal talents of Jeff Daniels and Meryl Streep as Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, respectively. What resulted was an engrossing tale of one of the most iconic U.S. writers to ever live.
Stream On Apple TV+
Steadily, Apple TV+ has amassed a high-quality library of original stories. Among these shows is Charlie Day’s, Megan Ganz’s, and Rob McElhenney’s Mythic Quest, the workplace comedy set in the offices of a video game studio.
While it has maintained its streak as a humorous sitcom, Mythic Quest has also delivered two “special” episodes so far. The post-pandemic “Everlight” and the C.W. flashback, “Backstory!,” have helped make Mythic Quest one of the year’s standout comedies.
Master Of None
Stream On Netflix
Season 3 of Master of None was both a delightful surprise from Netflix and a major departure from the original format of the show. This arc focused on Lena Waithe’s Denise and her new wife, Naomi Ackie’s Alicia, rather than Aziz Ansari’s Dev.
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What resulted was a beautiful testament to love, heartbreak, and persistence. The authenticity of the initial episodes in season 3 leads to a tour de force fourth episode that might feature the year’s best performance on screen so far, too.
Stream On Disney+
In some regions, season 2 of Bluey came at the tail end of 2020, but for most countries with access to Disney Plus, it is a 2021 release. And that second arc has fully cemented Bluey as one of the all-time great children’s series.
Lessons are taught to both children and adults through the Heeler family. In season two, it was about more than just the lessons learned and laughs had, though. Episodes like “Daddy Dropoff” and “Sleepytime” are testaments to the purpose of love and play.
The Underground Railroad
Stream On Amazon Prime
Barry Jenkins’ massively awaited Amazon miniseries, The Underground Railroad, delivered on all the promise and anticipation. Adapted from Colson Whitehead’s award-winning novel, Railroad blended sumptuous visuals with a tragically timely thematic territory.
The sprawling epic traced the tale of Cora Randall (and, by extension, breakout star Thuso Mbedu). Some moments may have been tough to watch, but it was always a riveting series.
Mare Of Easttown
Stream On HBO Max
An HBO miniseries always comes with a great deal of promise and Mare of Easttown made good on both the lived-in drama of a well-made series and the whodunnit aspect of a small-town murder mystery.
But the central question and tension of the series were never as important as how the characters waded through the unthinkable. Plus, with Kate Winslet at the helm, Mare of Easttown became a showcase like few others have been in the annals of HBO.
Stream On Peacock
Sometimes, all a show needs to be is funny. Some of the best comedies in recent memory have stretched for the thrilling and the thought-provoking. Peacock’s Girls5eva, on the other hand, was perfectly content to be as hilarious as possible.
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Created by Meredith Scardino, Girls5eva follows a one-hit-wonder girl group vying for a comeback two decades after their initial success. Leading the cast are Sara Bareilles and Renée Elise Goldsberry, who are hysterical in every frame.
Stream On Disney+
One of 2021’s best Marvel series (and miniseries, for that matter) is WandaVision. With 2021 as the MCU’s first real foray into television, WandaVision is a dazzling display of all the studio is capable of in the medium.
At once a loving pastiche to sitcoms of yore and a heart-pounding battle for love and identity within the characters of Wanda Maximoff and Vision, the Disney+ series reminded viewers why they love television and of what the format can reach. Not since Lost and Wilfred has a puzzle box show been so fun to follow each week.
Stream On Apple TV+
Returning to the Apple TV+ realm, Dickinson certainly elevated its potential in its final two seasons. The first arc was a moving, anachronistic tribute to the great reclusive poet of Amherst, but the second pushed boundaries in enchanting ways.
From Sue singing Emily Dickinson’s famous “Split the :ark” poem to Hailee Steinfeld wrestling with new addition Finn Jones to the appearance of Nick Kroll as Edgar Allan Poe, Dickinson continued to prove itself as a show with no comparison. Season 3 actually also aired in 2021, wrapping up the series in expert fashion.
For All Mankind
Stream On Apple TV+
Over the years, it’s been a struggle to bring a captivating space story to the small screen. Quietly in 2019, though, creators Ronald D. Moore, Matt Wolpert, and Ben Nedivi proved it was possible when For All Mankind grew into a show with a heart-pounding first season.
In 2021’s second arc of the show, For All Mankind focused more on the women characters and ratcheted up the alternate history tension between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. What resulted was pure dramatic television bliss as season 2’s April denouement of “And Here’s to You,” “Triage,” and “The Grey” are among the most thrilling television since Jon Snow went to battle with Ramsay Bolton.
NEXT: For All Mankind – 10 Things Different In This Alternate History
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About The Author
(409 Articles Published)
David Mello is a writer, journalist, and editor from Boston, Massachusetts. He is obsessed with pop culture and sports and loves to expand his cultural knowledge of film, television, music, literature, and more. He currently writes for ScreenRant as a member of the Valnet, Inc. team. David has also written for OneClass, Moms Who Think, Up to Boston, the Boston Herald, and more. He spends just as much time watching classic movies as he does setting his fantasy football lineup.
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