21 Best New Shows of 2021

Pandemic production shutdowns start to show a dip in TV quality, but a spike in TV about income inequality.

BY ZACH DECEMBER 18, 2021 *Updated December 30, 2021

Despite 2020 being the year of pandemic lockdowns, most tv show that debuted last year were already in post-production by the time the world shut down. 2021 was the year that COVID had the biggest effect on.

For the first six months of the year, I had major doubts I'd be able to continue my tradition of extending the length of this list by one. The constant stream (pun not intended) of high-quality television that we've become accustomed to over the last few years had gone abruptly dry. However, in the latter half of the year several surprisingly good shows pushed me over the mark.

Also, I hope you like shows about income inequality because the hottest political topic is now dominating television. (10 out of the 21 shows on this list I would say it's the primary or secondary theme.)

About this list

As with all my annual "Best New Shows" lists, a series is included if:

  • Its first (or only) season aired this year

  • It has more than 1 episode (no TV Movies)

  • I watched every episode of the season

This year, I started 29 new tv series. These are my picks for the best 21 of 2021...


Annual "Best New Shows"


Best of the Decade Series

21. Loki

Disney+ | Michael Waldron

The mercurial villain Loki resumes his role as the God of Mischief in a new series that takes place after the events of “Avengers: Endgame.”

Genre: Superhero

Time Investment: 6 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: Marvel, Doctor Who

With the extremely low expectations that come with any MCU show and the gradual decline in quality of Doctor Who, Disney's Loki really filled the space of fun, light sci-fi. Tom Hiddleston (of The Night Manager) delivers a delightful, villain-turned-protagonist performance. The quirky, episodic adventures with a mysterious enemy that controls time itself gives off strong Doctor Who vibes, if not a direct homage.

20. Squid Game

Netflix | Hwang Dong-hyuk

Hundreds of cash-strapped players accept a strange invitation to compete in children's games. Inside, a tempting prize awaits with deadly high stakes. A survival game that has a whopping 45.6 billion-won prize at stake.

Genre: Korean Horror Drama

Time Investment: 9 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Will probably be renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: Parasite, The Hunger Games trilogy, Fall Guys (game)

Squid Game was the over-hyped Netflix series of the year. It is not particularly well written and the story is derivative of basically every Battle Royale concept. The visual style and directing, however, is what earns Squid Game this spot on my list. The production and costume design is so captivating that it makes up for the lame twists and over-the-top message about income inequality.

19. Lupin

Netflix | George Kay & François Uzan

Inspired by the adventures of Arsène Lupin, gentleman thief Assane Diop sets out to avenge his father for an injustice inflicted by a wealthy family.

Genre: French Crime/Mystery Drama

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2 (or "Part 3")

Must-watch if you like: Sherlock, James Bond, heists

Before Squid Game, Lupin was the most watched non-English-language series on Netflix. Assane (played by Omar Sy) is best described as a Sherlock like character who commits crimes instead of solving them, but with the charm of 007. It skews a bit more "fun heist" fluff than cerebral mystery when compared with Sherlock, but that is probably more true to the source material Lupin is based on.

18. The Beast Must Die

AMC | Gaby Chiappe

Following the death of her son in a hit and run, all Frances Cairnes wants is to hunt down and kill the man she believes is responsible. When she finally tracks him down, she tricks her way into his house and plots his murder from within.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 5 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: Jared Harris, Cush Jumbo

Based on the novel by C. Day-Lewis, this British miniseries stands entirely on the performances of Cush Jumbo (Lucca in The Good Fight / The Good Wife) and Jared Harris (Chernobyl, Mad Men).

17. Too Close

ITV (UK) | Clara Salaman

Forensic psychiatrist Dr. Emma Robertson is assigned to assess the sanity of Connie Mortensen, accused of the attempted murder of two children. Robertson begins to feel sympathetic for Mortensen, who claims to be suffering from dissociative amnesia.

Genre: Mystery Drama

Time Investment: 3 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: The Sinner season 1, unreliably narrators

Based on the 2018 novel of the same name, Too Close is another obscure British miniseries which is closer to a movie in length. It's similar to season 1 of The Sinner in that it mostly deals with a woman who claims to have a psychiatric break and uncovering the truth of what happened.

16. Resident Alien

Syfy | Chris Sheridan

An alien, who has crashed landed on earth on a mission to destroy humanity, assumes the identity of Dr. Harry Vanderspeigel, so he can remain undetected by the residents of Patience, CO while he searches the snow-covered Colorado Mountains for pieces of his ship.

Genre: Comedy, Sci-Fi

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: Alan Tudyk (Firefly)

This show is either specifically written for Alan Tudyk or got extremely lucky with casting. The style of deadpan gallows humour is perfect for Tudyk, making for a constantly hilarious show. (Also, pay close attention to the illustrations in the opening credits as they are equally funny.)

15. Cruel Summer

Freeform | Bert V. Royal

Kate Wallis is a beloved popular girl who one day disappears without a trace at the hands of new vice principal Martin Harris. Jeanette Turner is an awkward outcast who seemingly takes over Kate's life after she goes missing.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2 (but should be a limited series)

Must-watch if you like: Big Little Lies, The Sinner, Non-linear storytelling like Memento or Westworld.

Admittedly, Cruel Summer is completely held up by a storytelling gimmick. Each episode tells the events of the same date over 3 years: 1993, 94, and 95. Like my favourite film of all time, The Prestige, the triple timeline is just how the story is told, not the result of any time travel (like Netflix's Dark or SyFy's 12 Monkeys). Like Big Little Lies and The Sinner, it also gets pretty dark.

14. Shadow and Bone

Netflix | Eric Heisserer

In a world where dark forces have taken over, a young mapmaker, Alina Starkov, accidentally discovers that she has the power to change the fate of the war.

Genre: Fantasy Drama

Time Investment: 8 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: His Dark Materials, Chronicles of Narnia, Wheel of Time, Avatar: The Last Airbender

On the one hand, Shadow and Bone looks like just another tv show based on a series of young adult fantasy novels. (In this case, the novels of Leigh Bardugo.) But on the other hand, while the vast majority of fantasy universes are basically Arthurian Britain, Shadow and Bone has less derivative world to build on, inspired more by Imperial era Russia.

13. Arcane

Netflix | Riot Games

Amidst the escalating unrest between the advanced, utopian city of Piltover and the squalid, repressed undercity of Zaun, sisters Vi and Jinx find themselves on opposing sides of a war over twisted ideologies and arcane technology.

Genre: Sci-Fi + Fantasy Drama

Time Investment: 9 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: animation, hybrid Sci-Fi/Fantasy world building, League of Legends (game)

Much like Shadow & Bone, the world of Arcane is interesting because of the coexistence of magic and industrial tech. The elephant in the room, however, is that Arcane may be the first cinematic adaptation of a popular video game that is actually good! The show is incredibly well written, visually stunning, and features great voice acting (Vi is voiced by Hailee Steinfeld, one of the most talented young actresses in my opinion.) My only criticism is the inconsistent musical soundtrack and obsession with Imagine Dragons. Multiple times in the first season, Arcane slips into an overproduced music video and it heavily detracts from the story. The moments that lean more into classical score are much closer to masterpiece television, particularly the final song by Sting and violinist, Ray Chen.

12. Girls5eva

Peacock | Meredith Scardino

A one-hit-wonder band from the '90s gets a second shot at fame when a young rapper samples their song.

Genre: Comedy

Time Investment: 8 episodes x 30 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: 30 Rock, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt

Like Ted Lasso, Girls5Eva has a level of quality that is hard to believe based on the ridiculous concept. The show stars Sara Bareilles (who also wrote some of the songs featured in the show), Renée Elise Goldsberry (Hamilton), Busy Philipps (Freaks and Geeks), and Paula Pell (writer on SNL, 30 Rock). But the real power of the show is its creator, Meredith Scaradino, who has written for The Late Show with David Letterman, The Colbert Report, and more recently worked with Tina Fey on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. Much like 30 Rock, Girls5eva is a machine gun of jokes and probably got more laughs out of me than any show on this list.

11. Dopesick

Hulu | Danny Strong

The series takes viewers to the epicenter of America's struggle with opioid addiction, from the boardrooms of Purdue Pharma, to a distressed Virginia mining community, to the hallways of the DEA.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 8 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, dramatizations of recent history like American Crime Story, The Big Short, Spotlight, etc.

What would you say if I told you the actor who plays Todd Krakow on Billions wrote a tv show? Also, Batman is in it. And Eliza Hamilton. And the girl from Unbelievable. Oh, and it's about the Sackler family and Purdue Pharma creating the opioid epidemic. In all seriousness, Dopesick is an incredibly well written look into the lives of both the victims and the villains of Oxycontin. The word villain is apt here, because while Dopesick's tone is primarily gritty realism, it portrays the main antagonist, Richard Sackler, as comically evil. (At one point the script even goes out of its way to have him give a speech in front of a giant map of the world about taking over Europe...)

10. The Underground Railroad

Amazon Prime Video | Barry Jenkins

After escaping a Georgia plantation, Cora boards a train embarking on a harrowing trip as she seeks true freedom while being hunted by a notorious slave catcher.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: Moonlight, 12 Years a Slave

I did not like this show. Like many first-time tv shows by film directors, Underground Railroad is plagued with bloated episode length, making it painfully slow and a chore to get through, particularly at 10 episodes in total. However, like Barry Jenkins's film work (Moonlight, If Beale Street Could Talk), this series is a visual masterpiece and I concede that putting it any less than top 10 on this list would be disrespectful. The imagery of all the horrible atrocities depicted in The Underground Railroad are made even more haunting by how artistically beautiful every frame looks. The music by Nicholas Britell (who also composes the music of Succession) is also among the year's best scores in television.

9. Only Murders in the Building

Hulu | Steve Martin & John Hoffman

Follows three strangers (Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez) who share an obsession with true crime and suddenly find themselves wrapped up in one.

Genre: Comedy, Mystery

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 30 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: True Crime podcasts, Sting (yes, the musician)

Who knew two old white actors whose names I constantly get mixed up and a 29 year old Latina pop star would make such an iconic trio? Only Murders in the Building is a charmingly funny spoof on the True Crime genre. And just when you thought it couldn't get any more bizarre, Sting is in it (playing himself).

8. Mare of Easttown

HBO | Brad Ingelsby

In a suburb of Philadelphia, police detective Mare Sheehan investigates the recent murder of a teenage mother while trying to keep her own life from falling apart.

Genre: Crime Drama

Time Investment: 7 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: Broadchurch, Sharp Objects, True Detective

Sometimes you just don't try to fix what isn't broken. Mare of Easttown pretty much follows the average formula for a prestige HBO show. Cast a high calibre actor (Kate Winslet, in this case) as a detective in a small town. Give them a partner they don't quite get along with (Evan Peters) and a murder to solve. It does absolutely nothing new in the genre but it's still pretty damn good.

7. The Investigation

HBO | Tobias Lindholm

Copenhagen Police's Homicide unit, headed by Jens Møller, tries to solve the murder of Swedish journalist Kim Wall.

Genre: Danish Crime Drama

Time Investment: 6 episodes (4h 22m total)

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: True Crime investigations, Mindhunter

Many of these true crime investigation shows fall into one of three tropes: 1. They are overly fascinated with the killer, making them famous. 2. They overly exploit the death of the victim (often female and white) for entertainment. 3. They overload the detective with personal issues to generate conflict and make the series darker.

The Investigation falls into none of these. The killer is never shown on screen. In fact, his name is never mentioned in the series. The actual murder is never shown, nor do we see any gruesome crime scene photos of the dead woman. And the lead detective doesn't have an alcohol problem or any other personal demons to overcome. As the series creator, Tobias Lindholm, put it - The Investigation isn't "true crime" television, it's "true investigation." The series focuses entirely (and with incredibly interesting detail) on the work of the investigation, and that's what makes this show feel fresh and unique in a genre that has done death to death.

6. Hacks

HBO | Lucia Aniello, Paul W. Downs, & Jen Statsky

Explores a dark mentorship that forms between Deborah Vance, a legendary Las Vegas comedian, and an entitled, outcast 25-year-old.

Genre: Comedy

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 30 min

Continuation: Renewed for Season 2

Must-watch if you like: Jean Smart

I'm starting to feel like Jean Smart is the Michael Caine of television. It seems like she's everywhere these last few years. In the 6 years, she's had major roles in Fargo, Legion, Watchmen, and Mare of Easttown. Now she has her own spotlight with Hacks. But make no mistake, while Jean Smart is the clear star of Hacks, this is a show about culture clash between two generations and so it wouldn't work if Hannah Einbinder's performance was less than excellent.

Aside from the unexpected chemistry between Smart and Einbinder, what Hacks does incredibly well is tell "Gen Z vs Boomer" story without losing any of the nuance. It walks the tight rope of admiring Smart's character's work ethic and the deep rooted sexism she had to overcome as a woman in comedy, but without glossing over the fact that she says something overtly racist every few minutes. The exquisite banter and arguing over whether jokes written for the "Panera people" are funny actually provide the perfect dialogue over the state of American culture and politics. (Something something, some quote about comedy being the best way to discuss deeper truth.)

5. Maid

Netflix | Molly Smith Metzler

Alex Russell, a domestic abused single mom, leaves her abuser with her two-year-old daughter to a shelter and gets a job cleaning houses at Value Maids.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 10 episodes (9 hours total)

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: Unorthodox, Normal People, crying a lot

Margaret Qualley has been on my radar as one of the best young actresses for a few years now. She played Jill in The Leftovers. In 2019 her career really started to lift off as she appeared in Tarantino's Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and scored an Emmy nomination for her incredible supporting role on the FX miniseries, Fosse/Verdon. Now Maid is almost certain to earn her a nomination (and maybe even win) as a Lead Actress.

The material of Maid is incredibly heavy; it may be the heaviest drama on this list (in close competition with the next series below) and yet Qualley's performance carries it all with ease. Perhaps some of that is the benefit of casting Qualley's own real-life mother, Andie MacDowell (Groundhog Day, Four Weddings and a Funeral) who is also a prime candidate to win an Emmy in the supporting role next year.

4. It's a Sin

Channel 4 (UK) | Russell T Davies

Ritchie, Colin and Roscoe leave home at 18 to begin new lives in 1981 London, but they find themselves challenged by a virus that most of the world ignores.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 5 episodes (4 hours total)

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: Pose, A Very English Scandal, Doctor Who

It's a Sin is a short UK miniseries set in the 1980s amidst the AIDs epidemic. Rather intriguingly, the showrunner is Russel T Davies, the creator of the modern Doctor Who series. While the subject matter is distinctly heavier, It's a Sin still captures the same spirited joy of life that Davies brought to Doctor Who. As some reviewers put it, in order to effectively convey the tragedy of what was lost due to AIDS, Davies first has to establish just how full of life these characters were before their inevitable soul-crushing deaths. Bring tissues.

3. Heels

Starz | Michael Waldron

Two brothers and rivals - one a villain, or "heel," in the ring; the other a hero, or "face," war over their late father's wrestling promotion, vying for national attention in small-town Georgia.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 8 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Season 2 in 2022

Must-watch if you like: Friday Night Lights, Ted Lasso

It turns out that (other than Jean Smart) Michael Waldron is the only name attached to 2 shows on this list, because he created both Loki and Heels at the same time. But the two shows have virtually nothing in common other than that line in the credits.

Heels is likely the best show on this list that you haven't already heard of. It premiered on Starz, the dying cable network that still occasionally puts out quality rivalling HBO. And like Ted Lasso, it has a premise that is likely to turn a lot of people off and generally hides what the show is really about. So if you see the screenshot of the dude who played Arrow and the dude from Vikings all oiled up in spandex and think, "I would never watch a show about wrestling," then I'm here to say "You should watch Heels anyway." It's no more about wrestling than Ted Lasso is about football. It's about the strained relationship between two brothers who lost their father to suicide. And by the incredible ending of the first season, it's about even more than that but I won't get into spoilers...

2. The White Lotus

HBO | Mike White

The exploits and misadventures of various guests and employees at a tropical resort over the course of one week.

Genre: Dark Comedy

Time Investment: 6 episodes x 1 hour

Continuation: Renewed as anthology series.

Must-watch if you like: Schitt's Creek, Little Fires Everywhere, Succession

I struggled to come up with shows similar to The White Lotus. On the one hand, one could argue it's like Downton Abbey, but as a satire of the upstairs class. It's also comparable to Little Fires Everywhere, but less subtle in its satire and more comedy than drama. Or like Schitt's Creek, but more subtle in satire and more drama than comedy. And in a way, Succession, in that it perfectly threads the needle between immature obscenity and eloquent social commentary.

The success of White Lotus is Mike White's ability to deliver a sharp satire which heavily criticises the guests of the resort without hating them. Like Succession, this is not a story about good or evil characters; it is a story about flawed characters and the flaws of society as a whole. And as a show so dependent on its characters, the performances are really what elevate the writing to the level of masterpiece. Jennifer Coolidge as Tanya, a self-described alcoholic and overall mess of a human being, stands out as the best performance. Sydney Sweeney (also great in Euphoria) is a close second. And of course, Murray Bartlett, who plays the resort's manager, is the roaring locomotive powering this glorious train wreck.

1. Station Eleven

HBO Max | Patrick Somerville

A post apocalyptic saga spanning multiple timelines, telling the stories of survivors of a devastating flu as they attempt to rebuild and reimagine the world anew while holding on to the best of what's been lost.

Genre: Drama

Time Investment: 10 episodes x 45 min

Continuation: Miniseries

Must-watch if you like: The Leftovers, Maniac, Lost, Atlanta, Hamlet

In January 2020, Patrick Somerville (creator of Maniac) and Hiro Murai (director of Atlanta) began shooting a television show about a flu virus that wipes out most of the human race. Nearly two years later, in December 2021, Station Eleven premiered to a very different world than when its production began.

I'll start with the obvious reasons you don't want to watch Station Eleven: images of overrun hospitals, the over-emphasised sounds of coughs, the anxiety of every new Covid mutation potentially causing the apocalypse portrayed in this series. Yet, I'm ranking this show #1 on this list anyway, even before the last 3 episodes have aired. And I'm not the only one; most critics who have seen advanced screeners of all 10 episodes are putting it in their top 5 of the year. Both co-hosts of "The Watch" podcast ranked Station Eleven as #1 on their lists, even above Succession.

Firstly, Station Eleven has big Leftovers energy. By the 6th or 7th episode I also started to feel some distinct parallels to Lost. This is by no means a coincidence, seeing as Somerville previously worked for Damon Lindelof as a writer on The Leftovers. Secondly, despite the main plot of the show, Station Eleven is not trying to be dark or depressing. Somerville uses a plot built upon death to tell a story about life, humanity, and art. This is only made possible because of the stellar cast and performances. Station Eleven features Mackenzie Davis (from Halt and Catch Fire as well as the best episode of Black Mirror, "San Junipero"), Gael García Bernal (Mozart in the Jungle), Lori Petty (Orange is the New Black). Even the 8 year old version of Mackenzie Davis's character, played by Matilda Lawler, is one of the best child performances I've seen on television. Finally, the direction of Hiro Murai coupled with the incredible production design make Station Eleven visually brilliant to watch, particularly as it cuts between modern day and a post-apocalyptic Chicago reclaimed by nature.