Okayplayer's 15 Best TV Shows of 2021

Some of the best television this year featured intense storytelling, witty one-liners, and joy-filled moments. These are the best TV shows of 2021.

What makes a great TV show? We like to think that during the pandemic era, a series that allows you to escape into the experiences and actions of the main characters qualifies as enough to make it great. This year, networks and streaming platforms leaned into shelling out bold, eventful and dramatic options for viewers. Some of the best television this year featured intense storytelling, witty one-liners, and joy-filled moments. 

Our selections this year to speak to the topics we felt drawn to: adolescence (PEN15), our relationship with capitalism (Squid Game), and privilege within the literary academic space (The Chair). These are just a few topics that were covered by the television shows that we loved. Comedy also won big this year, with huge comeback seasons for shows like Big Mouth and South Side

Below you’ll find Okayplayer's best TV shows of 2021. 

15. Run The World (Season 1)

Set in Harlem, Yvette Lee Bowser’s Run The World was an exciting show that was a joy to keep up with. Since Bowser gave Black audiences Living Single years ago, it was unsurprising that she rolled out a likable cast of career-oriented women who are wildly different from one another. Some of the best scenes in the show covered power, sex, and career goals. The show is vibrant and the funny moments in it are hilarious. Also, the cast is always dressed to the nines thanks to costume designer Tracy L. Cox and costume consultant Patricia Field.

Stream on STARZ.

14. The Chair (Season 1)

The refreshing dramedy The Chair follows Ji-Yoon Kim (Sandra Oh) who has been appointed the chair of an English department at an esteemed university. Batshit craziness ensues including a looming romance with one of her colleagues; meetings with her boss on getting rid of older professors who are struggling with teaching millennials; and the obstacles of raising her outspoken, erratic adopted daughter. 

Stream on Netflix. 

13. Loki (Season 1)

Loki is the most enjoyable Marvel TV series to drop this year. Tom Hiddleston stars in this show which falls after Avenger: Endgame. As the titular character he battles with imprisonment and the Time Variant Authority.

Stream on Disney+.

12. Queen Sugar (Season 5)

Queen Sugar is still as emotionally moving as it was when it first aired back in 2016. What makes the latest season work was the multilayered storytelling. The Louisiana-based series highlights family secrets, Micah’s (Nicholas L. Ashe) relationship with a close friend, Charley's (Dawn-Lyen Gardner) love life and her professional aspirations. The Bordelon family isn’t perfect but they look out for each other when times get tough. 

Stream on OWN.

11. Big Mouth (Season 5)

There’s nothing cookie-cutter about Netflix’s Big Mouth. The jokes are brash and kooky. But even with the vulgar exterior, there's a warmth and tenderness that rewards repeated viewings. 

Stream on Netflix. 

10. Power Book II: Ghost (Season 2)

Tariq St. Patrick (Michael Rainey Jr.) is a cold-blooded killer who is emotionally numb. The last time we checked in with Tariq he had murdered his professor who knew too much about his nefarious lifestyle. He’d also infiltrated Monet Tejada (Mary J. Blige) and her drug operation. St. Patrick was painted as an antihero in the first season, but it was easy to feel sorry for him as he was selling drugs and cutting deals in hopes of getting his mother Tasha (Naturi Naughton) out of prison. Now, he’s dealing with the trauma of the lives that were lost due to him pulling the trigger, he’s also still figuring life out as a college student and drug dealer. 

Stream on STARZ.

9. Love Life (Season 2)

The second season of Sam Boyd’s anthology series Love Life is a delightful watch. From episode one, Marcus (William Jackson Harper) is presented as a hot mess of a person, by episode two it’s clear he’s experiencing a midlife crisis and is in a marriage that’s crumbling apart. In the episodes that follow he’s on a journey of self-discovery which includes him reflecting on his job as the only Black editor at a Manhattan-based publishing house. What makes this season work are the details viewers have to catch for themselves, like the nuances that are very particular to Black families: conversations on class, the disapproval of particular romantic partners and more. 

Stream on HBO Max. 

8. Genius: Aretha (Season 3)

Cynthia Erivo’s depiction of Aretha Franklin was one of the most compelling performances of the year. While Genius: Aretha dug into the troubles that existed while Franklin experienced success as a global singer, her dysfunctional childhood and upbringing is also given a close look throughout the series. Erivo shines when she reimagines Franklin’s recording sessions for some of her most regarded albums. National Geographic set out to execute a series dedicated to Aretha’s career, but it also portrayed her personal life as a mother, a sister, an activist and a daughter.

Stream on Hulu. 

7. Squid Game (Season 1)

Squid Game, the hit series from Korean writer-director Hwang Dong-hyuk, had the globe in a tizzy. Millions of people tuned in and ate up this show thanks to visual aesthetics of the thrilling series.

Stream on Netflix. 

6. South Side (Season 2)

The Chicago-set comedy South Side is goofy, but it’s also packed with jokes that you have to think about for a moment. As a workplace comedy, the show is fixated on office politics and customers that pop into the “Rent T Own.” The one-liners in South Side’s second season are what make it a compelling watch.

Stream on HBO Max. 

5. Mare of Easttown (Limited Series)

Mare of Easttown captured audiences due to Kate Winslet’s riveting performance as a closed-off detective. Yet, there are other moments that led viewers to speak its praises online and IRL: the connections between characters and the topic of mothers and loss. 

Stream on HBO Max.

4. Snowfall (Season 4)

Now in its fourth season, FX’s Snowfall still has its edge. The newest installment of the series finds Franklin (Damson Idris) dealing in 1985, the year Ronald Reagan started his second term. South Central is hit hard with crack cocaine and this also means that gangs are embroiled in attempts to snatch up drugs to sell. 

Stream on FX.

3. BMF (Season 1)

The fast-paced lives of Detroit Flenory brothers, Terry (Southwest T) and Demetrius (Big Meech) is the crux of BMF. Over the course of three time periods — their childhood, time as young adults, and their life as adult dealers — viewers walk through significant moments in the brothers' lives. The show also handles how figures in their lives disapprove of both of the main characters leaning into a life in the streets. Flenory Jr. plays his father with conviction. BMF is another show that’s a part of the growing universe brought to TV by executive producer 50 Cent.

Stream on STARZ.

2. PEN15 (Season 2, Part 2)

The hilarious PEN15, starring Maya Erskine and Anna Konkle, is the type of show you put on when you want to forget about your responsibilities. It’s jam-packed with ridiculous moments, but it’s also wildly entertaining. The series handles periods, raging hormones, teen angst in a way that’s admirable. The writing isn’t heavy-handed and performances from Erskine and Konkle are so convincing you’ll probably forget their adults. 

Stream on Hulu.

1. Invincible (Season 1)

Invincible, the cartoon series brings a humanity to the superhero narrative. The entire show is fixated around teen Mark Grayson and his relationship with his father, Omni-Man, an actual superhero. Mark is dealing with teen things like dating, but he’s also figuring out how to live with the powers that were passed down to him from his dad. 

Stream on Amazon

Honorable Mentions: WandaVision, The White Lotus, Succession, Lupin, Hacks, Reservation Dogs, What We Do in The Shadows, Sex Education, Blood & Water, and Sherman’s Showcase.