The 30 best TV shows of 2021
17 December 2021, 17:49 | Updated: 22 December 2021, 20:39
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From Real Housewives to It's A Sin and everything in between, here are our picks for the best shows of 2021.
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In the words of Gordon Ramsay in that one variation of the "good food" reaction meme, "Finally, some good f---ing television."
While 2020 saw a lot of TV shows delayed, 2021 brought the goods in abundance – and then some. Long-awaited follow-up seasons to some of our favourite shows reigned supreme, while huge newcomer hits like Squid Game, Only Murders In The Building and Mare of Easttown blew our tiny little minds.
With so many brilliant series to choose from, and only 30 spots on the list, this year, we decided to rank the shows a little differently. Rather than fighting and screaming at each other in a room for 3 hours, we voted. It was very simple, and very nice. Democracy is fun, actually!
So, without further ado... From our personal favourites to the absolute best of the past year, here are the must-watch TV shows of 2021, as chosen by the PopBuzz writers.
Honourable mention: Silky Nutmeg Ganache's lip-sync extravaganza in Drag Race All Stars 6
RuPaul's Drag Race fans could be forgiven for having low expectations for the endlessly-teased "game within a game" on All Stars 6 but the new plot twist truly delivered thanks to The Reverend Doctor Silky Nutmeg Ganache.
After a disappointing start in the competition, Silky left in the third week after suffering what can only be described as a crisis of confidence. But she returned to the lip sync smack down a new woman, eager to fight, brimming with confidence, and armed with the whole kitchen sink stuffed down her bra. It was tricks, twists and stunts galore. Was it pretty? No. Was it one of the most iconic things to ever happen on Drag Race? (*Gia Gunn voice*) Absolutely! For the cheek, the nerve, the gall, the audacity and the gumption of it all, we’re awarding Silky with her own special place on this list. Condragulations! – Woodrow Whyte
30) The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City
It's rare that a show will leave you open-mouthed for a full 45 minutes but thanks to Jen Shah potentially going to jail on fraud charges, each moment of RHOSLC season 2 has been more dramatic than the last. Like a murder mystery, all the cast are pitching in to decipher if Jen is who she says she is or not. It's shockingly chaotic and an all-round addictive watch. – Jazmin Duribe
Finally! A reality series that is based on the Black British experience. Highlife follows the lives of eight rich and successful British West Africans living the "high life" in London. Not only does this series showcase the talents and successes of Black British people, it also focuses on more intimate moments that you rarely see Black women discuss, including Irene's fertility journey. You will be obsessed and inspired all at the same time. – JD
28) The Chair
One of Netflix's best shows this year flew under the radar for most people. This limited six-part series explored thorny and complex issues such as cancel culture, racism, sexism, authority, and intergenerational divides, but avoids coming across as preachy or virtuous. Instead, this show is wickedly funny from start to finish and wears its themes lightly.
Icon and queen Sandra Oh plays Professor Ji-Yoon Kim, who has just been appointed the first female chair of the English department at Pembroke University. As she jumps from one fire to the next - bitter departmental politics, an awkward and chaotic love interest, a precocious and unsettled daughter, and a campus revolt that makes national headlines - Ji-Yoon is a woman on the edge and it makes for highly entertaining viewing. – WW
27) Shadow and Bone
In 2021, we were all looking for some escapism. Enter Netflix’s Shadow and Bone, a high-budget fantasy series based on the much-loved ‘Grishaverse’ books. It has it all, and then some, in the form of love triangles, a rag-tag group of criminals you can’t help but love, opposing kingdoms in unrest, mysterious killer creatures, betrayal, magical powers, a shadowy underworld, and a stag with the most magnificent antlers you’ve ever seen. What more could you want?! – Emily Beard
I must confess that I missed iCarly the first time round so I wasn't expecting much from the reboot. It's hilarious, though. Taking a children's show and giving it an adult twist? Inspired. Miranda Cosgrove, Jerry Trainor and Nathan Kress are all iconic and new cast members Laci Mosley and Jaidyn Triplett both steal the show. Proof that Disney+ really missed a trick by cancelling the Lizzie McGuire reboot over concerns that it was too grown-up. – Sam Prance
25) American Horror Story: Double Feature – Part 1
I'm about to say something controversial yet brave: The first half (specifically!) of AHS: Double Feature is one of the most exciting (half) seasons of American Horror Story we have seen in a very, very, long time. (Yes, we're splitting the season in to two parts. It's our list, we can do what we want!)
From the top notch performances (including an absolutely unforgettable turn from Macaulay Culkin) to the overall aesthetic and set up, Red Tide deserved to have a whole season to itself. Thrilling at first, but after blazing through those six episodes, we were left dying for more of P-Town's little black pills. – Katie Louise Smith
24) On My Block
Thanks to the always brilliant performances from one of our favourite ensemble casts, On My Block finds itself on our Best TV Shows list for a third time. On My Block’s ending was bittersweet, and while we may have lost some beloved characters on the way, season 4 was the end of a truly great era that fans will no doubt miss. With the Freeridge spin-off already confirmed, we’re ready to see what the next chapter will bring. – KLS
Loki is one of the most beloved characters within the Marvel universe, so when he was (spoiler!) killed in Avengers: Infinity War, it was hard to imagine how his arc would feasibly translate to a series post-death. However, Loki interestingly and unexpectedly slots perfectly into the new phase.
The continuous shot scene of Loki and Sylvie racing to board a ship to escape Lamentis alone deserves all the awards in my humble opinion, and that’s not forgetting some of the other huge series highlights. (The bromance with Mobius! Croki! Mobius’ jetski! Drunk Loki! Richard E. Grant as Classic Loki! Miss Minutes!).
Huge fight scenes and sweeping cinematic landscapes are perfectly balanced with quieter, one-on-one, deep and philosophical scenes, that will have you pondering the meaning of life and rooting for a win for everyone’s favourite God Of Mischief. – EB
Over the past four years, Pose and its characters have firmly embedded themselves within our lives. It's hard to imagine TV without Blanca, Elektra and the rest of our faves. Pose's third and final season is equal parts heartwarming and heartbreaking. There's fairytale endings for some but the harsh realities of the AIDS epidemic still linger. A moving send-off to one of TV's most groundbreaking shows. We can't wait to see what the cast do next. – SP
The most underrated show of 2021? Maybe so. Schmigadoon! sees two doctors in a failing relationship get stuck in a magical town called Schmigadoon where all of the citizens are trapped in a 1940s style musical. It's daft, it's touching and the songs will make you laugh out loud. Cecily Strong and Keegan-Michael Key play the lead couple perfectly, and there are scene-stealing performances from icons like Kristen Chenoweth, Dove Cameron and Ariana DeBose. – SP
20) The Sex Lives of College Girls
Co-created by Mindy Kaling and Justin Noble, The Sex Lives of College Girls sees a group of ever-so-slightly mismatched dorm mates, navigate their way through college, all the while trying to figure out their own identities, sexualities, relationships and financial situations. For those that find themselves drifting further away from the endless sea of high school shows currently on TV, The Sex Lives of College Girls is refreshing, exciting and an absolute must-watch. – KLS
19) The Wilds
As someone who considers Lost one of the greatest TV shows ever made (a hill I will always be willing to die on), I’ve often struggled to enjoy shows that are compared to it – until I watched The Wilds, which I absolutely loved.
On the surface, the inspirations are clear (plane crash! stranded on an island! character-centric flashbacks! suspicious island activity!) but at the heart of The Wilds is a vastly different, just-as-captivating story about 8 teenage girls from very different backgrounds, all trying figuring out their own teenage problems. I won’t tell you the show’s big twists. I started watching without having seen or read a single spoiler, and I'd honestly recommend you do the same. – KLS
18) Selling Sunset
It felt like years since the Netflix gods decided to bless us, and then Selling Sunset season 4 came along. Season 4 got straight into the drama and thanks to some newcomers and a shocking love triangle storyline, it's safe to say we were hooked. – JD
17) Young Royals
Netflix's foreign-language dramas are not to be underestimated and Young Royals is a testament to that. The series tells the story of Wilhelm, a fictional Swedish prince who falls in love with Omar, a scholarship student at his boarding school. Wilhelm, who is in the closet, is torn between duty and love. It's not as salacious as it may sound, though. Young Royals is told with tenderness and care. A soft LGBTQ+ series that leaves you longing for a second season. – SP
Shrill aired its third and final season in 2021 and it only left us wanting more. Not only does it educate viewers on how fatphobia is heavily embedded in society, it's smart, it's witty and incredibly relatable. From Annie's chaotic relationships to her adorable friendship with Fran, each scene hits home. But be warned, you will be left aching for the series to continue. – JD
It's safe to say that Elité fans were worried to find out how the show would continue after original cast members like Danna Paola (Lu) and Ester Expósito (Carla) had left the show at the end of season 3. However, Elité season 4 more than lives up to its predecessors. Not only does it introduce us to four new intriguing students but it also provides us with plenty more murder, scandal and mysteries to obsess over. This is now a Mencía stan account. – SP
14) Never Have I Ever
Coming off the back of season 1’s raw and heartbreaking portrayal of Devi (Maitreyi Ramakrishnan) coming to terms with the loss of her father, season 2 of Never Have I Ever had big shoes to fill. While many young teens may not be able to relate to the fact that Devi is now having to fight off multiple love interests at the same time, what is refreshing and relatable about Devi’s return is that the series is not afraid to show her messing up and making mistakes (and she makes them… a LOT). She is not perfect, and her father’s grief and its aftereffects are not left in season 1, tied with a neat little bow.
Never Have I Ever season 2 highlights that self-growth is a marathon, not a sprint, and the importance of self-awareness and accountability on that journey. – EB
A show about a disbanded 1990s girl group who get back together after one of their songs is sampled in a modern-day hit single? What's not to love? Sara Bareilles, Busy Philipps, Paula Pell and Renée Elise Goldsberry are the perfect foursome and the script and soundtrack are hysterical. Like all the best comedies, Girls5eva makes you genuinely care about its characters. It's side-splittingly funny but it also catches you off guard and makes you tear-up. Bring on season 2! – SP
Jean Smart is absolutely show-stopping as Deborah Vance, a legendary comedian who is in danger of losing her decades-long headline show in Las Vegas. In a bid to revamp her outdated material, Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a very reluctant, recently-cancelled, Gen Z writer, is sent to Vegas to help her. They do not get along. It does not go well. Until it kind of does… Hacks is funny, poignant, and it’s a brilliant commentary on women in comedy, ageism and differences. Deborah and Ava are, no matter how much they say they don’t want to be, an iconic duo in the making. – KLS
11) Ted Lasso
Do you have a moment to talk about our Lord and Saviour, Ted Lasso? Continuing on from its absolutely electric first season, Ted Lasso season 2 is laugh-out-loud hilarious and is packed to the brim with one liners delivered perfectly by Jason Thee Sudeikis. It will fill your heart with overwhelming joy, and probably – nay, definitely – make you cry.
At the heart of Ted Lasso is a strong focus on friendship, teamwork, positivity, kindness and love. Season 2 broadens its storylines, allowing for every member of the cast to shine. If you’re still looking for a wholesome show with a second-to-none cast to fill the void left behind by Schitt’s Creek, Ted Lasso should be at the top of your must-watch list. – KLS
You continues to be one of the most entertaining shows on television and season 3 is perhaps the show's best season yet. Moving Joe and Love to suburbia as they navigate parenthood and try to resist their serial killer urges makes for TV gold. The murders are wilder than ever, Penn Badgley and Victoria Pedretti are undeniably excellent and Shalita Grant's performance as local celebrity and mom-fluencer Sherry deserves all of the awards. Season 4 has a lot to live up to. – SP
Having established exactly what Dickinson is with season 1, Dickinson seasons 2 and 3 see the show take its winning formula and run with it. Dickinson may be a period drama but everything about it feels modern and fresh. Few coming-of-age series have a script, a soundtrack and performances this good. Honestly, everything about Hailee Steinfeld's portrayal of Emily is perfect. The show is going to be sorely missed when the final episode drops next week. – SP
8) Sex Education
Moordale High is my safe space. At least, it was until new headmaster Hope Haddon arrived in season 3.
Let’s be honest, most teen dramas completely lose the plot after the second series (we’re looking at you, Riverdale) but Sex Education really does pull off a rare feat in that it gets better and better. The show’s two main relationships - Otis & Maeve and Eric & Adam - continued to give fans plenty of the lighter storylines to argue over (Justice for Ruby. Eric & Rahim 4EVA, sorry not sorry!!!) while meatier storylines were given time to slowly and sensitively develop (Aimee’s mental health following a sexual assault in season 2, the Groff family falling apart following the divorce, Maeve’s troublesome family dynamic).
Stacked full of jokes, pearls of wisdom, and great performances from its large ensemble cast, Sex Education season 3 was definitely worth the wait. – WW
Prior to WandaVision’s drop, Wanda and Vision had (despite their key parts in the plot of Avengers: Infinity War) been somewhat reduced to secondary characters in the MCU. So it was a pleasant surprise when 2021’s WandaVision dove deeper than we have ever seen before.
The series explores Wanda’s journey as she processes her (spoiler alert!) deep grief over the loss of her true love Vision. Through Wanda's mind, the show imagines what their life could have been and gives us some surprisingly moving and emotional moments that hit home whether you’re a superhero fan or not.
The fact that this was all explored through some of the most experimental and interesting art direction, and plot, we have ever seen in the Marvel universe make this a must watch. – EB
6) Mare of Easttown
HBO is the go to place for deliciously intricate, prestige murder mystery dramas, and Mare of Easttown is, hands down, one of their best yet. The show follows Mare Sheehan, a detective tasked with investigating the disappearance of one girl and the murder of another, all the while dealing with her own family issues and the devastating death of her son.
Watching a Kate Winslet performance on the big screen is always exciting but watching her here, able to delve into the mind of such a deeply complex woman like Mare over the course of 7 episodes, was a masterclass. The supporting performances were just as stellar too, with Jean Smart at the top of her game and Emmy-winning turns from both Julianne Nicholson and Evan Peters. (Evan’s drunken bar scene in episode 3, by the way? Easily one of the best TV scenes of the past year.)
The Mare Shee-stans are still waiting to hear whether a second season will ever go ahead, but if it does, we'll be welcoming back Mare and her emotional support vape pen with open arms. – KLS
5) Drag Race UK
Hitting British TV screens during the winter and in middle of its third and worst lockdown, Drag Race UK season 2 came just when we needed it the most. Delayed by several months due to a break in filming because of the first lockdown, against all the odds DRUK season 2 soared to new heights, becoming one of the best seasons in the franchise’s herstory.
This is solely down to the incredible talents of the cast. Every queen brought something different to the table and were hugely likeable, proving that Drag Race is at its best when it lets the queen’s charisma, uniqueness, nerve and talent shine without unnecessary interference from producers. – WW
Thanks to pandemic delays, it took a long ol' while for Succession season 3 to finally return. But reader, never has a two year-long wait been so worth it.
Exploding back on to our screens with a killer first episode, season 3 turned out to be somewhat of a slow burner at first. But the last three episodes were some of the very best the show has ever made. It was always going to be hard to match the brilliance of that shocking season 2 finale, but after fans started dubbing season 3's final episode as Succession's version of the Game of Thrones 'Red Wedding', it sounds like they managed it.
Succession season 3 is a rollercoaster from start to finish; one episode you’re ready to go to war for a certain character, and a week later, you’re screaming at your TV telling that same person to fuck right off. If you've yet to take the Succession plunge, now is the time. You won't regret it. – KLS
3) Only Murders In The Building
With Steve Martin and Martin Short on board, it seemed inevitable that Selena Gomez's long-awaited return to TV would be a triumph but we weren't prepared for just how good Only Murders in the Building is. From the wardrobe to the jokes, everything about the series is charming, and watching three true-crime podcast obsessives try to solve a murder mystery is as fun as it sounds. Plus, the plot twists and the season 1 finale are genuinely satisfying.
The Golden Globes have given Steve and Martin well-earned 2022 nominations for their performances. It's a crime that they've snubbed Selena. – SP
2) Squid Game
Squid Game is, in essence, a 21st century fable about the cruelty and violence of our capitalist system. Sounds kinda dull when I write it like but this is what was at the heart of the most-watched and talked about show of the year.
The story follows debt-riddled players who compete in a series of life and death challenges, with the players becoming increasingly depraved, crazed to the point of madness and willing to sacrifice each other, to win a huge cash prize. As compelling as that concept is on its own, it was the emotional connections of it's characters (in particular Gi-hun, Sae-byeok, Ali and "old man" Il-nam), who are desperately trying to cling on to some sense of humanity within this extremely violent world, that made this show completely unmissable.
In a TV and film landscape obsessed with remakes and nostalgia, Squid Game’s phenomenal success is proof there is huge demand from viewers to see new and original on our screens. More of this in 2022, please. – WW
1) It's A Sin
It’s A Sin was truly a national phenomena. A staggering 18.2 million people tuned in to watch Russell T Davies’ five-episode drama about a group of five friends living in 1980s London during the HIV/AIDs epidemic.
In the opening episodes, you can’t help but fall in love with the joy and optimism of the Pink Palace crew; Ritchie (Olly Alexander), Roscoe (Omari Douglas), Colin (Callum Scott Howells), Ash (Nathaniel Curtis) and Jill (Lydia West). So much so that 'La!’, the queer-coded catchphrase which encompassed the close bond and connection between the group was embraced by viewers IRL, with t-shirts with ‘La!’ adorned on the front becoming a must-have piece of merchandise, raising over £250,000 for the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity, the Terrence Higgins Trust.
The show is, at times, harrowing and difficult to watch, especially the latter episodes as death starts to rip through the friendship group. But what follows from that is empathy. Millions of people (many cis and straight) who probably hadn’t spent a great deal of time thinking about the human toll and suffering of the AIDS crises, suddenly were.
Not only did the show shine a light on the plight of those who died or lived through the crises, it sparked a deeper conversation about HIV healthcare and prevention, with Terrence Higgins Trust reporting that the show caused a 600% increase in HIV testing. And you can’t really ask of more from a show than that.
It’s A Sin was not only one of the most-watched programmes of the year, it was also the most important. – WW