in Top Ten

When I think back on the TV shows I watched in 2021, frankly all of them will pale in comparison to the most ambitious television project I ever took on: watching every single episode of ER in one year. Michael Crichton’s medical drama was a staple of NBC’s Must-See TV Thursday night lineup from 1994-2009, a run that encompassed 331 episodes over 15 seasons. At a minimum of 45 minutes per episode, that’s more than 10 days of screen time. So whenever I ate, whenever I was getting ready for bed, whenever I had a project, I would put ER on. I lived and breathed Chicago’s County General Hospital from January until I finished the show in late November.

What did I learn from all that watching? TV has really changed! Not just the obvious shift from shows being only being on TV to wherever we are now, but all the little things. ER was a “water cooler show” that people watched and talked about for like half the year every year. Now we’re lucky if we can find one other person tweeting about a show we like at the same time as we’re watching it. ER was big enough to attract A-list guest stars, which at the time were people like Sally Field and Ray Liotta because there was still a stigma that movie actors don’t do TV. Now it almost seems reversed – actors do shows and miniseries to flex their talent. Remember 22 episode seasons? Remember how networks used to hate serialized storytelling? Remember the disappointment you’d feel when an episode ended in “to be continued”?! Those were they days.

Shows I’ve Heard are Good
For All Mankind
How To with John Wilson
Impeachment: American Crime Story
Mare of Easttown
Mythic Quest
Only Murderers in the Building
The Shrink Next Door
Star Wars Visions
Superman & Lois
Yellowjackets

10. Rick and Morty

I could have just as easily put another returning comedy like Curb Your Enthusiasm here, but fuck it, give to Rick and Morty for another hundred years. The gap between Rick and Morty‘s fourth and fifth season was the shortest in series history – just shy of 13 months – and that weirdly seems to have backfired for one of the biggest comedies of the last decade. Because it feels like people maybe even forgot this came out? There’s a certain type of dude who latched onto Rick and Morty as his identity. These guys latched onto the either the nihilism, pop culture references, and/or psychological themes of the series and turned them into status symbols. They wanted hipster cred, and maybe popularity ruined it for them? Or maybe it just because those dicks at Comcast decided to make Cartoon Network a premium channel around the time season five premiered. Either way, I had fun with this latest season and especially enjoyed the long-awaited journey into serialized storytelling and lore dumping that made up the last few episodes. To quote the pizza box guy at the end of every episode, “it’s a good show!”

9. The Beatles: Get Back

I have given my friends a lighthearted ribbing in the past about participating in boomer worship, but you’d have to be a real sicko to pretend The Beatles are anything but deserving of their reputation as the biggest band in the world. As the opening of Get Back reminds us, they changed popular music several times over in a span of just a few years and somehow managed to outgrow what the industry could do for them as a band. And that’s what makes Get Back so fascinating: it’s a document of the band at the brink of collapse, struggling to force themselves to go through the motions (presumably) one last time. All the members of the band seem to view this as one of their lowest points, which, ironically, shows how good they had it. Because Let It Be has some of my favorite songs of theirs on it, and it’s still miraculous to watch them bring these tunes to life before my eyes. I wonder if The Magic Christian has spiked in streams since Get Back debuted on Disney Plus?

8. Hacks

You’ve got to admit, Hacks walks a tricky line for a comedy drama. Unlike The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, which just lets Midge be the greatest comedian in history, Hacks allows for Jean Smart’s Deborah Vance to actually do dated, exhausting jokes WHILE ALSO presenting Hannah Einbinder’s Ava as someone who is still an up-and-comer and hasn’t mastered her own comedic voice yet. It’s a bold choice from a creative and funny writing team that I think makes the good jokes seem better and the drama more real. Which is important because the premise – an extremely wealthy boomer comedienne serving the longest tenure in Las Vegas history refuses to give up any of her stage time – needs all the help it can get to feel relatable. And it also makes the goofier side stories seem refreshingly funny – I loved the interactions between Deborah and Ava’s manager Jimmy (series co-creator Paul W. Downs, that guy from Broad City) and his assistant Kayla (Megan Stalter). Also maybe I’m being too hard on how funny the show is because I binged the whole series in two days. Guess I’ll find out when season two comes out!

7. The Other Two

Another HBO Max original comedy, The Other Two miraculously sprang back to life after quietly airing its first season on Comedy Central back in January of 2019. The second season does a delightful inversion of the dynamic we were used to as Brooke (HelĂ©ne Yorke) and Cary (Drew Tarver) begin to successfully ride their family’s coattails to advance their own careers while mom Pat (Molly Shannon) and little brother Chase (Case Walker) begin experiencing their own Beatles-esque exhaustion with celebrity life. I think the show genuinely stepped up its game this year, making me fully invested in these characters’ arcs and not just here for the biting satire. But there’s plenty of satire and silliness as well… I never got tired of the running joke that Anna Wintour is at every event, just off-screen. Also the way the show integrated its own COVID problems into the finale was a delightful twist that has me extremely excited for season three, whenever that happens (it was renewed).

6. I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson

The only thing that holds back I Think You Should Leave with Tim Robinson is that it’s sooooooo short it barely feels like a show. Altogether season two was what? An hour long? Despite that, it still spawned so many memes and in-jokes that it remained my favorite straight-up comedy from all of last year. Sloppy steaks! Triples! Cosmic gumbo! Dan Flashes! Just thinking about it makes me want to rewatch the whole series right now. Maybe I’ll just go do that.

5. Squid Game

The appeal of Squid Game are the games, which is weird because the games themselves are for babies. But if you can watch people get mowed down by machine guns while playing a demented version of Red Light/Green Light and not feel compelled to find out what the next game will be, you have a much stronger will than I do. Did I care about Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) and his struggles as a gambling addict and deadbeat dad? Almost entirely not at all! Did I care about the other 455 contestants or the hot detective sneaking around or the shadowy organizers of the Squid Games? Hell no! The show’s clumsy metaphor for capitalism falls apart the more it explains things (especially with whatever the hell that last episode was) but that doesn’t matter when the tension is so high you don’t have time to think. From the point when the contestants realize they can kill each other between the games, Squid Game turns into a deeply engrossing thrill ride that I barrelled through back in October. I hope season two is able to maintain that balance and not pull another Hunger Games pivot into being some other bullshit!

4. Ted Lasso

I don’t think Ted Lasso ever intended to be the “feel good” show its reputed to be. The show’s motto of “be curious, not judgemental” was shown throughout season one as characters revealed their true selves to the audience: Ted is not an oblivious optimist, he’s someone who chooses to work really hard to maintain a positive outlook. Rebecca is not a cruel gold digger, she’s insecure after being so profoundly betrayed she’s not sure who to trust. Roy’s not the asshole star athlete, his stoicism is a mask for insecurity about the approaching end to his career. Keeley’s not a vapid Instagram thot, she’s a sensitive and loyal friend with a keen sense for business. And so on. Having established all these characters in season one, season two gave us an opportunity to watch them try to grow as they were tested by all sorts of new challenges. And judging by the Internet reactions week by week, experiencing them struggle and fail turned some fans off. But not me! I want to see my heroes make mistakes and lose sometimes. Overcoming that is what makes them heroes. I think season two was Ted Lasso‘s Empire Strikes Back, which means season three is gonna be THE BOMB.

3. WandaVision

So 2021 was the year Marvel started putting out official MCU TV shows and there are already too many of them. Out of WandaVision, The Falcon and The Winter Soldier, Loki, What If…, and Hawkeye, I do think the first show was the best. TFATWS and Hawkeye both felt like stretched out movies (although I really liked Hawkeye) and I am NOT HERE for the time travel and/or multiverse bullshit, but WandaVision absolutely succeeded in making a great case for Marvel branching out into this format. The premise and execution of the show all hinged on it being a TV show, but it also felt like maybe the most comic book-y story Marvel had ever done? This was the only MCU show that was fun to speculate about week after week (sorry Mephisto-heads) and I’ve continued to enjoy all the memes it somewhat inexplicably birthed into to our culture. It truly was Agatha all along.

2. What We Do in the Shadows

I’m not sure if What We Do in the Shadows will ever top Jackie Daytona, but season three definitely came close on more than one occasion. First of all, they made the wise decision to bring in Kristen Schaal as a recurring member of the ensemble and while every series could benefit from Kristen Schaal, it’s especially nice for her to be back on a Jemaine Clement show. But more importantly, I loved watching the vampires adjust to their new dynamic after Guillermo revealed his Van Helsing heritage and saved them from the council, opening the door for them to become the new Supreme Leaders of the Vampiric Council for the American Eastern Seaboard. It’s just a lot of fun to watch an ensemble that has really clicked both individually and as a group. And the show has never run away from its premise either – it would be easy to imagine the show devolving into a more basic sitcom but instead it keeps upping the ante when it comes to the supernatural world. The only thing left it to finally find out what it is they do in those damn shadows.

1. Succession

For a lot of Succession‘s third season I was wondering if maybe I had fallen out of love with the series. A pivotal choice was made at the end of season two and seeing the slow motion car wreck way that played out this year was, for me, rough. Because Succession has this weird quality where I don’t actually like any of the characters but also seeing them fuck up is oddly more stressful than cathartic. It’s like, I’m not rooting for anyone, I don’t want to see anyone succeed, but I also worry about them failing too? I guess I’m very internally conflicted. But then the finale, “All the Bells Say” came out and tied everything from this year together in such a compelling way that everything I loved about the series came flooding back and any concerns I had faded away. If it’s not there already, I think Succession is one the way to being HBO’s biggest show – and I don’t say that lightly given that three shows from my top 10 are exclusive to that network. It’s definitely already their best.