As the proud parent of a child who turned two years old during This, The Second Year of Our Pandemic, time to watch adult television is perhaps understandably at a premium in the Green household. Given that, this is a list of the series that aired new episodes in 2021 that always leapt to the top of the queue, the series my wife and I’d instantly watch as soon as a new episode became available (well, as soon as the kids were asleep, of course), the ones we’d come as close as possible to “binging” (“Two episodes in one night?! We must!”), the ones that, by some miracle, we actually watched from beginning to end. (This is really saying something considering the above and that all new series were forced to compete with a rewatch of the greatest drama of all time—The Sopranos—that I launched in anticipation of the ultimately mildly disappointing The Many Saints of Newark.) I didn’t cast a wide enough net to say these are the definitive best, but all became appointment viewing for me at some point this past year, and all I would heartily recommend as worth your time.
8. Schmigadoon! (Apple TV+)
Melissa (Cecily Strong) and Josh’s (Keegan-Michael Key) relationship is falling apart, so in a bid to save it, they go on a backpacking trip and stumble into Schmigadoon, a mish-mash of classic musicals brought to life in town form that they can only leave once they’ve found “true love”—whatever that means. The heart of the show comes from the push-pull between Melissa and Josh—she, game for the town’s musical silliness; he, very much not—something Strong captures with more dramatic acting chops than her SNL tenure ever implied. (I’ve always loved Strong on SNL but her performance here is in a whole other world.) Schmigadoon! is definitely not for everyone—the humor is very broad and would all be a little too on-the-nose if it weren’t captured so perfectly by showrunner Cinco Paul’s spot-on song parodies. Though at six brisk episodes, the producers wisely bowed out before the show’s conceit overstayed its welcome.
7. WandaVision (Disney +)
With the formula so firmly established in their movies, it was very satisfying to see the Marvel Cinematic Universe get weird in its first foray onto Disney +. And weird it did get, with this show that started out as a vaguely unsettling parody of sitcoms through the decades but gradually morphed into both a gripping mystery and an affecting exploration of trauma and grief. On top of that, it also took actors relegated to bit parts in the movies and gave them a platform to shine. Elizabeth Olsen and Paul Bettany proved they are capable of doing quite literally anything, from the broad 1950s and ‘60s-style comedy of the early episodes to scenes of intense sadness to big superhero action setpieces and yet somehow make them all feel as if they’re of a piece. Meanwhile outside of The Hex, Randall Park’s Agent Woo and Kat Dennings’ Darcy Lewis brought plenty of modern-style wisecracks. And hey, the show finally made a star out of Kathryn Hahn. ‘Bout damn time.
6. Dexter: New Blood (Showtime)
“A Dexter Revival Is Happening on Showtime,” Paste announced in a headline in October 2020 when the news first broke of the plans for what became Dexter: New Blood. The subheadline from their email newsletter says it all: “This is ONLY acceptable if they ignore half of the series.” Yes, the prevailing wisdom is that everything that happened in the original Dexter after season 4 was hot garbage. (I personally loved the Julia Stiles-starring fifth season, and enjoyed seasons 6 and 7 more often than not. That finale, though…woof.) And yet New Blood succeeds because it embraces those final seasons in all their messiness, uses them as a springboard to launch in a satisfying new direction, and brings it all in for a thematically ideal landing. This isn’t a perfect season of television by any stretch—the fifth episode in particular is kind of a stinker, hinging on Dexter making some very stupid, very shortsighted decisions, but those flimsily justified actions end up being the load-bearing structure beneath the season’s well-orchestrated back half. And it’s definitely not a fresh jumping-on point for the uninitiated. But for longtime fans of the show, it offers up the satisfying ending we had given up hope on ever getting after Dexter wandered off to become a lumberjack eight years prior.
5. Girls5eva (Peacock)
Music and midlife crises collide to hilarious effect in this series from Meredith Scardino (a writer on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt) about the members of Girls5eva, a turn-of-the-21st-century also-ran, Pussycat Dolls-style girl group whose one hit (“We’re gonna be famous 5eva/ ‘Cuz 4eva’s too short”) gets sampled on a hit hip-hop single and inspires the remaining four members to reunite. Sara Bareilles (who was, of course, a very different kind of pop star during this same era) leads as Dawn, a fortysomething mom whose rediscovery of her songwriting mojo gives the series its emotional core. She’s the Liz Lemon-esque easily flustered straight woman around which the other wacky characters orbit: Summer (Cougartown’s Busy Phillips), the hot, ditzy, rich one; Gloria (A.P. Bio’s Paula Pell), the lesbian dentist who dreams of becoming the gay icon she couldn’t be in the group’s first incarnation; and Wickie (Hamilton’s Renée Elise Goldsberry), the fierce, ambitious one who has been clawing her way to pop culture relevance ever since the group’s demise. The chemistry between the four leads is out of this world, the songs (lyrics by Scardino, music by 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt alum and, oh yeah, Tina Fey’s husband, Jeff Richmond) are era-perfect and laugh-out-loud hilarious, and the 30 Rock/Kimmy Schmidt-esque fifty-jokes-a-minute pacing is exhilarating. Did I mention the show was executive produced by Tina Fey and Robert Carlock? Oh yeah, you can tell. And if you loved their previous collabs, you’ll love this.
4. Ghosts (HBO Max)
Not to be confused with the watered-down American remake that debuted this year on CBS. The plot: cash-strapped Allison (Charlotte Ritchie) unexpectedly inherits a decrepit old mansion in the British countryside, so her and her husband Mike (Kiell Smith-Bynoe) move in and plan to renovate it into a hotel. Things go awry when Allison hits her head and can now see the ghosts of all those who died on the grounds but haven’t yet passed on, a zany cast of characters (examples: an MP who died mid-sex scandal and is cursed to wander eternity pantsless, and a scoutmaster who still has the arrow that killed him sticking through his neck) captured by the same skilled ensemble behind Horrible Histories and Yonderland. It was fun from the start, but the series grew only more and more charming in its third series (six episodes and a Christmas special), revealing the tragicomic story behind the headless ghost Sir Humphrey and giving Mike a work-at-home job that the ghosts turn into a nightmare, and even stirring up some drama with the arrival of a woman who purports to be Allison’s heretofore unknown half-sister. The humor comes equally from the well-rounded characters and the wacky premise, reducing you to giggles when you least expect it while also having a lot of heart.
3. Ted Lasso (Apple TV+)
Reactions to Ted Lasso’s second season were fairly mixed, but having not started watching the show until Fall 2021, I had the good fortune of watching it all in the span of about a month. When viewed as a set, and with only a day or so between episodes instead of the full week Apple imposes, the second season felt only a half-step or so behind the all-time-great first season in terms of quality. After having given us the platonic ideal sports underdog story in the first season, I appreciated the show’s willingness to confound expectations and not give us what we think we want, but what we need: serious psychoanalysis, messy romance, unexpected heel-turns, and heck, even a full half-hour of Coach Beard, on top of the usual pleasantly relentless optimism. If I could lodge any complaint, it’d be that I wish there was more soccer.
2. We Are Lady Parts (Peacock)
Ted Lasso was a great underdog story, but it’s got nothing on We Are Lady Parts. Lady Parts, you see, is a British, all-Muslim three-piece feminist punk band in search of a lead guitarist to fill out their sound. They think they’ve found their fourth in Amina (Anjana Vasan), a microbiology student who is a skilled guitarist but has stomach-churning stage fright and is more concerned with finding a man and entering a traditional Muslim marriage than chasing musical glory. Certainly, she seems too goody two-shoes to join an abrasive punk band with songs like “Voldemort Under My Headscarf” or “Ain’t No One Gonna Honour Kill My Sister But Me.” But when a bad date inspires her and her newfound friends to jam out a diss track called “Bashir with the Good Beard,” she finds the joy of music too alluring to refuse. Each of the main foursome—Amina, outspoken and uncompromising singer Saira (Sarah Kameela Impey), Earth mother bassist Bisma (Faith Omole), imposingly serious drummer Ayesha (Juliette Motamed)—experiences their own collision between the expectations of Muslim culture and their desire to be true to themselves. Which makes it all sound very serious, so it’s important to stress: this show is hilarious, from the band’s gut-bustingly rudimentary riot grrl songs to the little cringe comedy indignities that Amina faces trying to hide her new gig from her uptight, unaccepting old friends. Highly, highly recommended.
1. Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
I haven’t fallen down the rabbit hole of podcasts, true crime or otherwise (see introductory text about having a small child and little free time), but 2021 was a year where we spent a lot of time watching what I like to call Everyday Murder Mysteries, where an ordinary, non-detective-or-police-type person gets sucked into investigating a murder or disappearance and quickly gets in over their heads. In between all of the above new series, my wife and I also found time for the excellent The Flight Attendant (HBO Max) and a fistful of maxiseries based on the novels of Harlan Coben (Safe, The Stranger, and The Five, all on Netflix).
Which is to say I was primed for Only Murders in the Building, a series about three neighbors obsessed with true crime podcasts who decide to investigate a murder that takes place in their New York high-rise and make their own podcast about it—in other words, a deconstruction and parody of Everyday Murder Mysteries while also being, itself, a compelling Everyday Murder Mystery. But this show is so much more than its thoroughly modern, delightfully meta premise. The core trio is absolutely perfect: it’s no surprise that Steve Martin and Martin Short play well off of each other (I mean, you’ve seen ¡Three Amigos!, right?), but that pair also has perfect chemistry with costar Selena Gomez, and the script wrings so much humor out of both the generational divide and the personality divide between Martin’s easily flustered former actor Charles-Haden Savage, Short’s devil-may-care Oliver, and Gomez’s drily sarcastic Mabel. The dialogue throughout crackles with personality and wit. There’s also a formal playfulness, exemplified by the stellar silent seventh episode. And most importantly: it’s also a really good mystery that keeps you guessing until the very end. | Jason Green