Screen Scholars Top 20 Shows of 2021!

Two years into the pandemic, we needed to laugh. At least the editors here at Screen Scholars feel that way as our year-end list is heavy on the funny. And there were some exciting new programs from comedic legends like Steve Martin and Jean Smart. The humor is, however, balanced on the list by a few of the darkest series to air on TV or streaming in years–including that Korean dystopian death match and the most disturbing thing from Philly since the advent of Gritty. So, here it is, our top twenty shows of twenty-twenty-one!

20. Yellowjackets [Showtime]

This new psychological drama tells the story of a championship girls’ soccer team who are in a plane crash and stuck in the wilderness for nineteen months. The story picks up twenty-five years later as we follow the girls as adults and flash between the past and present. Each episode unravels a little more as we see their time in the woods and the ways in which they are haunted by it in the present. I try to theorize about what direction the story is going in but always end up screaming at my television in surprise (and sometimes horror). The week between episodes is brutal, but I don’t think this show is meant for bingeing as each episode is so intricately layered and deserves a full week to process. The casting is absolutely incredible as the younger selves perfectly match the mannerisms and vocal patterns of their adult selves (I assume they cast the adults first, but I have no way of knowing). – Fiona Weidermann

19. LulaRich [Amazon Prime]

Amazon’s four episode miniseries are an in-depth, succinct takedown of America’s love and dependence on multi-level marketing, which remains legal despite occasionally taking on the qualities of a cult and always acting like a pyramid scheme. Following the rise, fall, and gobsmacking continuation of LuLaRoe, the series breathlessly explores the beginnings of the “buttery soft” leggings empire which was undone by its shady practices, insistence on cutting corners (those leggings are ugly, smell like mold, and fell apart) and obsession with thinness.

LuLaRich was this year’s Fyre Fraud, offering candid interviews with owners DeAnne Brady and Mark Stidham, insight from journalist Jill Filipovic and MLM expert Robert L. FitzPatrick, and experiences of the employees and “sales reps” the couple defrauded. – Katherine M. Hill

18. WandaVision [Disney+]

The first major Disney+ Marvel series was the fist big pop culture zeitgeist of 2021. Now, almost a year later we are still talking about it. The MCU’s biggest risk set in motion the incredible year the mega franchise had. Was it a sitcom? Was it an action show? Wasn’t Vision dead? Is that Evan Peters? Is Mephisto in it? Oh how we all loved this little masterpiece. Yes it was Agatha all along. – Brad Filicky

17. The Conners [ABC]

Rosanne Minus Roseanne has proven to be an honest slice of life sitcom. Given Roseanne’s racist outbursts, this spinoff went the opposite direction and pulled off being very progressive and genuinely funny. And heartwarming. A lot of families are struggling these days and it’s hard to see those struggles portrayed realistically in fiction, but with the Connor family, a lot of people are seeing themselves. That alone makes this an important show. – Brad Filicky

16. Love Life [HBO Max]

The second season of this anthology series flips the script to feature the narrative of a male protagonist this time in Marcus (William Jackson Harper). Marcus and Mia: will they or won’t they? It seems like it should be so simple… BUT life, insecurities, and fear all pop up in one of the most relatable relationship dramedies I’ve seen in a long time. This is probably my most recommended show of the year. Extra points for the Brooklyn scenery, especially Greenlight bookstore. – Navani Otero

15. Reservation Dogs [FX/Hulu]

Not only did Taiki Watiti’s latest production prove that representation is important, it was one of the best new shows of 2021. This show is a perfect storm. Great performances by its most indigenous cast, truly clever scripts that kept you guessing, humor and drama. Even the clothes the characters seemed effortlessly cool with out be overwhelmingly hip. The woes and misfortunes of a group of Native teens was achingly human full of pathos and hope. My only complaint is that we only got eight episodes in season one. – Brad Filicky

14. Cruel Summer [Freeform]

An unexpected delight from Freeform. This psychological thriller had us on the edge of our seats as we tried to unravel the events surrounding Kate’s kidnapping and whether or not Jeanette was involved in prolonging her misery. Told over the summers of ’93, ’94, ’95, this Freeform series leaned into ’90s nostalgia while keeping the story telling fresh. I often pride myself on being one step ahead and generally seeing where stories are headed, but this one took me for a ride and I spent the week between each episode spinning theories in my head. – Fiona Weidermann

13. Resident Alien [Syfy]

Despite starring national treasure Alan Tudyk, i wasn’t expecting much from this show. I was pleasantly surprised. Of course Tudyk was great (playing an alien that takes the plase of a small town doctor), but so was the supporting cast. Especially Alice Wetterlund as townie D’Arcy Bloom. There is no denying that this is a comedy, but the underlying mystery was compleling enough to leave me wanting to know what was going to happen next. This is sure to be a cult classic fro the comic-con crowd. And good news! The second season is coming January 26! – Brad Filicky

12. Girls5Eva [Peacock]

Glorying in its own ridiculousness, this show took the unlikely premise of a girl group one-hit wonder who are seduced by said hit being sampled in a popular rap hit into returning to the road in search of a second act. Like Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt–for which this show’s creator Meredith Scardino was a writer–the musical reunion bio parody leaned into its own ridiculousness without losing the genuineness of its primary characters. Tina Fey produced it and one thread through her properties that while they can be wacky, the characters shine through. Furthermore, the theme of overcoming the misogyny of the music industry resonates. And it does not hurt that the songs are classic without being unbelievable for the time. – Jason Thurston

11. The Great North [Fox]

Not every show can provide an escape, but The Great North does, bringing all of the warmth and joy of its predecessor (Bob’s Burgers) and plopping it in a town as unique and different as Seymour’s Bay, Lone Moose, Alaska. 

Beef Tobin and his family–his four children and daughter-in-law–illustrate that you can be a good person while working on yourself. It’s a joy to have another family on television that supports each other on their weird journeys, even if it includes a Shrek-themed party, a multi-city journey for avocados, or a Titanic-themed wedding. – Katherine M. Hill

10. Maid [Netflix]

Whenever I told friends to watch this and started to describe it, it did not always translate lol. A young mom trying to escape an abusive relationship against a myriad of systemic obstacles does not give the upbeat vibes many ppl are looking for. But, I just could not look away. What a tale of resilience if I ever saw one. And for those lucky enough to never deal with the system–a primer of just how hard it is to get aid when you are poor. But under all that, a tale about a tumultuous mother/daughter relationship starring real life mom and daughter duo Andy MacDowell and Margaret Qualley. – Navani Otero

9. Squid Game [Netflix]

This Netflix import was more than a TV show. It was a cultural phenomenon. A group of down on their luck debtors are invited to participate in a set of games and the final winner is awarded a lot of Won (it’s a South Korean show). The players only find out the catch after they start to play a game of Red Light, Green Light. The catch was this: if you lose, you die. Maybe it’s the plot that seems so timely in these days of an unsure economy or just the truly riveting dram, this show was inescapable this year. If you are one of the few who hasn’t seen this show yet, let me just say that the marbles episode was one of the best single episodes of TV I have ever seen. I won’t spoil it, but i will say that it will stick with you. – Brad Filicky

8. Mare of Easttown [HBO]

A cop in small town Pennsylvania tasked with solving a local murder. In a town where everyone knows everyone, Mare is relentless as she leaves no stone unturned. Even when it means looking at some of her closest friends. Kate Winslet is incredible, as is the rest of the cast. While we seem to be floating in a sea of limited series, this dark crime serial stands out amongst the rest as a real feat in acting, design, and storytelling. – Fiona Weidermann

7. What We Do in the Shadows [FX]

The insanity continues at the Staten Island vampire compound as our bumbling trio of eternals (and energy sucker Collin Robinson) have narrowly escaped retirement by the Vampiric Council when Guillermo swooped in and slaughtered the council, in the process, revealing his true Van Helsing-esque calling. Of course, his friends imprison and “torture” him (or well, he humors them that he is being tortured). Eventually he’s released, and what with one thing or another Nadja and Nandor become council leaders, Guillermo is promoted from familiar to bodyguard, Laszlo saves Collin from a siren named Sheila, Nandor joins a yoga cult after being turned down by The Sopranos‘ Janice, Collin celebrates his 100th (about which Laszlo harbors a secret), one of the main characters dies, and actor Donal Logue paints their portrait for reasons too difficult to explain. None of what I’ve written gives much away as it’s the tip of the iceberg on Taiki Waititi’s bonkers show, and even if it did, it’s worth the bizarre ride to get there.

Oh, and the fourth season is going to start with Laszlo taking care of a baby. And that doesn’t give much of anything away either. And that’s why I love this show. – Jason Thurston

6. Kevin Can F*** Himself [AMC]

When women talk to me about Mare of Easttown they confide in me that they are enraged. They are mad about everything. They are working overtime full time jobs they can’t excel in, they are held back by economic circumstances, they are headed into middle age dissatisfied, they are providing childcare and an education at home in a pandemic while juggling the responsibilities of multiple people, and they lack a modicum of support.

While this is probably not what Valerie Armstrong intended when she created the dark comedy that is both a multi-camera sitcom with a laugh-track and a dimly lit single-camera drama about a married woman stuck in an abusive marriage in Boston, planning to murder her husband and start her life anew, it is not unheard of among Milennials in America, where health insurance is a privilege and at the end of the year I am among the many weighing the options between going to work to just-barely keep a roof over my head and catch omicron or stay home only to find myself living with my parents in a listless, rural town. Annie Murphy’s Allison doesn’t have those options, by the way. While many of us are affected by the actions of Kevin, Allison has to share her life with him. If any of us were Allison, we’d probably have to murder him, too. 

Fuck Kevin. – Katherine M. Hill

5. Rutherford Falls [Peacock]

Sometimes one finds a show so joyful and compelling that they stream it on every device they have, carrying the fictional world into the kitchen while they make dinner, into the bathroom while they brush their teeth, and into bed as they fall asleep. (This happened to me only once before, when I finally started watching Schitt’s Creek in 2019.)

Rutherford Falls is a pleasant yet powerful show, highlighting the trials (literally and figuratively) of Native Americans through the lens of the Minishonka Nation, as one of its members, Jana Schmieding’s Reagan, and its CEO, Michael Greyeyes’s Terry, “strive for big things.” Pitting their stories and dreams against Ed Helms’ descendant-of-a-founder Nathan (surprisingly not openly racist, just astoundingly naive) provided a surprising balance and insight into the slippery slope of holding onto the past instead of working toward a better future. 

The biggest joy, aside from Terry’s Julia Sugarbaker-adjacent monologues, was finding that Reagan and Nathan, who would be enemies on a show that wasn’t backed by Michael Schurr, manage to support each other’s paths, seeing them as parallel instead of perpendicular. I was anxious that they would have a blowout fight that could never be repaired, but as is the case in so many sitcoms in this universe, people cool off, apologize, and offer patience and understanding. – Katherine M. Hill

4. Succession [HBO]

Adam McKay has been getting rolled on Twitter the last couple weeks over Don’t Look Up, his anything-but-subtle apocalypse satire on how the absurd perils of modern living will doom us all. It’s polarizing as some have hailed it brilliant, others tripe, and even here at Screen Scholars, our opinions run the gamut. More subtle (if not that subtle), and less polarizing is the series McKay co-produces, Jesse Armstrong’s Succession, which grew even stronger in its third season.

To borrow Demi Adejuyigbe’s parody theme, the rich white folk continue to argue, but that kiss from daddy (Logan Roy) proves ever more elusive. The decrepit but still razor-sharp media mogul uses his three main offspring as pawns to sacrifice on the board to no other end but perhaps his own ego. And all three children play right into his hand, as Kendall lets his own ego and delusion get in the way of his supposedly noble mutiny, Roman (or Romulus, as Logan beckons him) tripped over his own metaphorical sword of creepiness, and Shiv… well, Logan just seems to love to mess with Shiv for no good reason.

It plays out almost like a video game as each episode brings the action to a new “level” (business conference, posh European wedding, world’s saddest 40th birthday party), but quickly steers into its usual Shakesperean tragedy as all the double-crosses weave together into an incredibly dramatic ending while Cousin Greg shambles on (and is almost respectable at times) and Tom Wambsgans… well, if you haven’t seen, you’ll see… – Jason Thurston

3. Only Murders in the Building [Hulu]

Given that Woody Allen has become so loathsome that watching his movies (many of which were once favorites) has become an impossible chore, it’s nice that Steve Martin is creating works that allow us to peer into that quirky vision of New York once more. Martin’s fast-paced, delightful, and most of all funny murder mystery tweaks the world of true crime podcasts as we are introduced to three forgotten souls (Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who mostly ignore each other on the elevator of the building where they all live–that is, until they all find out during a fire alarm that they are fans of the same podcast… right before finding out their neighbor Tim Kono, who they all just saw in that same elevator, has been murdered. They decide to create a podcast where they solve this mystery; however, like most of their fellow residents, all three of them harbor dark secrets.

It’s wonderful to watch Martin & Short, a natural comedy team, work together again, here as respectively, a has-been TV actor and a once-respected Broadway director. Gomez has received criticism for her sometimes monotone performance, the low-key demeanor fit her character well and her chemistry with the other two was better than most gave them credit. Martin admitted his initial version of the script was about three elderly men solving a crime, and it does not require a huge leap to figure out who that third man might be. If it was Chevy, perhaps it’s just reserve bitterness from how his stint on Community went, but I can’t help but feel it was for the best they went in another direction, and the story, the way it went down, felt just perfect.

Add in a gloriously kooky supporting cast and plenty of cameos, including Tina Fey as a podcast empress and Sting as himself (as a prime suspect). Oh, and make sure you have hummus and tzadziki on hand as Short’s love for “dips” is infectious. – Jason Thurston

2. Hacks [HBO Max]

Yesss to seeing Jean Smart continue her amazing second act (she was also featured recently in the Watchmen series). Women-centered comedy – check, fun location – check, great writing- check all make this show one of the highlights of the year for me. The relationship between veteran comic Deborah Vance looking for a  fresh take on her material and young up-and-coming comic writer Ava gives a fresh lens to the unlikely friendship trope. Who can resist the punchy verbal sparring? And at the end of the day, the mutual respect and camaraderie of two women figuring out their next act, literally and figuratively. – Navani Otero

1. Ted Lasso [Apple TV]

The jaunty dramedy featuring Jason Sudeikis as an eternally chipper American Football coach who is tasked to helm a fictional English Premier League side from Richmond as part of its owner’s plan to Major League the team would quickly become the feel-good show of the pandemic last year. While some did not take to the second season, we’re positing that the program actually improved with age. In season two, we got to learn more about all of these characters as their bonds grow (with one Nateable… we mean notable exception). If Lasso remained a cheery shell spouting puns and aphorisms, Ted Lasso would get old quick. The pinpoints of darkness peering in elevated the heartwarming parts.

Season two also contained a pair of the most polarizing episodes of television in history in “Beard After Hours” and the Christmas episode “Carol of the Bells”–one question for its positivity, the other for its darkness/weirdness. However, these two episodes, which were made possible when the show got a surprise order for 12 instead of 10 were prime examples of the creativity level and willingness of the writers to push boundaries. “Beard After Hours” paid homage to an underrated Scorsese flick while giving a true depth to one of the show’s most fun and quotable, but underdeveloped characters and the Christmas episode just basked in a needed glow of kindness and warmth, yet still brought out a new angle of Rebecca and Higgins, while hinting at how the arrival of Lasso had transformed their persons as well as how the team related to them and each other. “Carol of the Bells” revealed how the injection of Lasso-style joy, as corny as it often seems and as dark as we now know it can be, has changed the whole nature of the Richmond football team.

Most importantly, the second season saw the rise of Roy Kent as one of the best characters currently on the screen as the now-retired, foul-mouthed and blunt, but ultimately sweet natured hooligan discovered who he could be once football was done with him. – Jason Thurston

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