You’d need at least three streaming services to keep up with all of it, but 2021 has been a great year for TV.
Seattle Times staffers teamed up to choose 15 of our favorite shows from this year — all of which premiered or released a new season in 2021 — with picks ranging from the buoyant optimism of “Ted Lasso” to the steamy Netflix period piece “Bridgerton,” as well as the very different, very funny “Hacks,” “How To with John Wilson” and “I Think You Should Leave,” and the uncomfortable social commentary of “Squid Game.”
Suffice to say, there’s something for everyone stuck on the couch. Enjoy!
How to watch: ABC
There aren’t many mystery/cop shows on television centered around two smart, resourceful female investigators. “Big Sky” fills that void. It debuted in 2020, and this year brought a surprising Season 2 that went in directions you might not have expected after the Season 1 ending. Set in a small Montana town, the plot centers on a pair of private investigators who start out trying to solve the mystery of two missing teenage girls. Sound simple? Sure. But this is one creatively written show where the twists and turns keep coming, and you’re never quite sure what will happen next. Based on the book series by C.J. Box, and adapted for TV by David E. Kelley (who was also a writer on “Big Little Lies” and “Ally McBeal”), this series is one where they’re not afraid to kill off characters (that’s all we’ll say about that!) and take risks with the plot twists!
— Stefanie Loh, features editor
How to watch: Netflix
You know the lull between Christmas and New Year’s? The days are slow, and it feels like a really long Sunday — that’s when “Bridgerton” came out last year. (Yes, technically in 2020, but it was too good to exclude!) During the holiday intermission, I needed an escape; I was blissfully whisked away into the world of London’s high society as I gobbled up “Bridgerton” in two days. In just eight episodes, this novel-inspired series with Seattle ties captured all things one would expect in a Jane Austen-like Netflix series — delicious scandal, tear-jerking romance, stunning costumes, a taste of British royalty and even surprisingly modern music. I grew up watching period pieces (I’m talking OG 1995 “Pride and Prejudice”), and the diversity and comedic undertones of “Bridgerton” were refreshing for the genre. If you’re a hopeless romantic looking to watch a tale of (seemingly) unrequited love, a drama lover looking for a juicy, gossip-filled production, or just someone who appreciate all things classic and glamorous, put “Bridgerton“ at the top of your list.
— Vonnai Phair, features producer
How to watch: Netflix
I promise I’m not trolling y’all. Folk really loved to hate the live-action adaptation of the anime cult classic (which is probably why it got canceled after only one season), but I really love to love John Cho, who was absolutely perfect as the casually cool lead Spike Spiegel. Add in Mustafa Shakir (who dominated the screen as the villain Bushmaster in Marvel’s “Luke Cage” series) as the gruff do-gooder Jet Black and a soundtrack by composer Yoko Kanno, whose musical stylings are what really put the original “Cowboy Bebop” on the map 20 years ago, and I’m cooked. It’s often campy, which seemed to me like the perfect way to offset the more absurd elements of the anime, and the purists will never be satisfied with some of the changes (see: the ridiculous anger over Faye Valentine’s less revealing clothing, smdh …). But with Cho leading the screen and some nods to the original, this was just the dose of fun, anti-heroics, bad guys losing, and, as always, insanely good music that I needed for an otherwise bleh year.
— Crystal Paul, interim features editor
“For All Mankind”
How to watch: Apple TV+
I love alternate history and space fiction. So “For All Mankind” feels like a show written specifically for my personal enjoyment. And it’s glorious. Season 1 debuted in 2020 and plopped viewers right into the space race between the U.S. and Russia — but under the premise that Russia pipped the U.S. to the moon. Season 2 came out in 2021, and is set in the 1980s. This time, NASA has built a base on the moon and Cold War tensions are pushing into space. But the strength of this show lies is its strong cast of characters with undeniable chemistry. Sonya Walger delivers an impactful performance as the indomitable Molly Cobb — based on pioneering almost-astronaut Jerrie Cobb — while Joel Kinnaman’s portrayal of the grieving Admiral Ed Baldwin, who lost his son in Season 1, adds emotional weight. The show doesn’t shy away from examining societal issues: It discusses LGBTQ+ rights through the character of closeted lesbian astronaut-turned-NASA administrator Ellen Wilson, while Krys Marshall plays Danielle Poole, the first Black woman on the moon. So, come for the space opera and cool cinematography, but stay for the drama and creativity of a show that boasts a terrific ensemble cast and asks intriguing alternate history questions.
— Stefanie Loh
How to watch: HBO
I watched a lot in 2021 (it’s been a rough one!) and the main thing I was looking for was something to make me laugh. “Hacks” did this, and more. It’s a show that presents us with two very different women — Deborah (Jean Smart), a legendary stand-up comedian, and Ava (Hannah Einbinder), a Gen Z comedy writer — and over 10 way-too-short episodes lets us learn everything about them (and, along the way, about the process of writing comedy) by watching them argue. The great Smart, who wears this role with the same lived-in flair with which she sports Deborah’s sequined dusters, is a genius with a withering line, and real-life comic Einbinder matches her, zing for zing. You’re never sure who to root for, until the poignant final episode when you realize you’re on Team Both Of Them. Bring on Season 2! (Also, can I toss in two charming runners-up? Thumbs up to “Never Have I Ever,” on Netflix, and “Only Murders in the Building,” on Hulu.)
— Moira Macdonald, arts critic
“How To with John Wilson”
How to watch: HBO Max
“How To with John Wilson” is one of those shows you need to see to believe. At its core, “How To” is a series of vignettes (some instantaneous, some that linger just long enough to be awkward) of random people, places and things caught on camera by 35-year-old documentarian John Wilson while meandering around New York City. Each episode starts with a prompt — “how to invest in real estate,” “how to make small talk,” etc. — and is largely guided by Wilson’s narration to serve as a tutorial of sorts. From there, the real adventure begins. His voice-overs are perfectly paired with each shot — the first episode of Season 2, which premiered last month, features a sequence of four buildings that look like faces to accompany his descriptions of “shock,” “rage,” “sadness” and “panic” — creating a brilliant juxtaposition that simultaneously demands and rewards viewers’ complete attention. On his search for answers, Wilson lets organic encounters and casual on-camera interviews with complete strangers dictate nearly every turn. And while the destinations range from poignant to incredibly strange, it’s the journey that makes each episode of “How To” a truly fascinating viewing experience.
— Chris Cole, sports producer
Editor’s note: This video depicts some comic violence.
How to watch: Amazon Prime Video
There’s little more disappointing to your average comic book geek than to spend a decade or so hopelessly devoted to a title, then have some TV jerk come along and ruin it for you. This happens more than you might imagine (start entire list of Marvel television efforts here). We’re happy to report the makers of “Invincible” got it right. From the tone of the series, provided by Robert Kirkman, who penned “The Walking Dead,” to the crisp animation that’s faithful to Cory Walker and Ryan Ottley’s original artwork, the show was a little bit of joy in a mostly forgettable year. Kirkman’s gift as a writer is universe building, and like he did with his hit zombie series, he starts with a small moment in the life of average teenager Mark Grayson and by the time he’s done, he’s telling a story on a global — or in this case — galactic scale. Along the way he mixes in elements of superheroics, Greek tragedy, politics, body horror, conspiracy, Chris Columbus films and space opera that’s goofy fun and filled with twists and turns. Skip the next episode of “Hawkeye” and give it a try.
— Chris Talbott, arts recovery reporter
“I Think You Should Leave”
How to watch: Netflix
At a time in our lives where everything is generally depressing, “I Think You Should Leave” is a great escape from reality and entry into a world that ponders, “What if my reality was so awkward and insane and cringe it’s actually funny instead?” Think about having secondhand embarrassment nonstop but in a not-terrible way. One of the most quotable and memeable shows of the year, “I Think You Should Leave” captures the essence of Gen Z humor. I don’t think I laughed harder all year than the Corncob TV Coffin Flop sketch, where the premise is as ridiculous as the execution. Whether it’s a guy wearing a ridiculous fedora in a courthouse or a woman getting rich because she “sued the city because I was accidentally sewed into the pants of the big Charlie Brown at the Thanksgiving Day parade,” or road rage escalating into the revelation that the guy who blocked you in actually doesn’t know how to drive, the most bizarre ideas come to life in a genuinely funny way on this show.
— Marisa Ingemi, hockey reporter
“The Morning Show”
How to watch: Apple TV+
I love all things journalism, and if you’re anything like me, I think you’ll find Apple TV+’s “The Morning Show” super interesting. They never explicitly say it, but it’s clear that this behind-the-scenes drama is based on high-profile firings at morning news shows at several TV networks during the #MeToo movement. After 15 years of co-hosting “The Morning Show” with Alex Levy (Jennifer Aniston), Mitch Kessler (Steve Carrell) is fired for sexual misconduct. Shortly after, Bradley Jackson (Reese Witherspoon) takes over as co-host despite having no anchor experience. The fallout from Mitch’s firing for him and the TV network follows, along with much more. The show’s second season was scheduled to come out earlier this year, but filming was delayed at the beginning of the pandemic. During that time, the show’s writers apparently got the chance to incorporate COVID-19 into the story line, adding another layer of drama to the exciting story that arrived on screens in September.
— Tyler Agafonov, features desk editor
“Murder Among the Mormons”
How to watch: Netflix
If you were as obsessed with the true-crime documentary “Wild Wild Country” as I was, you must see this three-episode documentary, also set in the mists of the 1980s. I was totally unaware of this crime spree before watching this series. In 1985, Salt Lake City was being terrorized by a serial bomber who was targeting prominent members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What follows is a cast of characters straight out of a Coen brothers movie, along with a fascinating deep dive into the arcane world of historical document trading and authentication. It’s a stranger-than-fiction film noir crime caper involving Mormon theology, forensic science and a mysterious white salamander.
— Roberto Azula, marketing copywriter
“Only Murders in the Building”
How to watch: Hulu
I read somewhere that this show, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez, could be described as “unclecore,” presumably because of the dynamic duo of Martin and Short (can we just call them Martin and Martin?), and if that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right. I loved the sparring between the two, I loved the way the mystery was unspooled in little bits, and I loved how the show hit on so many emotions. Gomez shines as mysterious, whip-smart Mabel, and the interactions among the trio are so often literally laugh-out-loud funny. If that’s not enough, the supporting cast is pure gold. Not only are there Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan and Tina Fey — there’s an entire apartment building’s worth of quirky characters to meet. So many reasons to binge this show (which is coming back for a second season, woo-hoo!).
— Jackie Varriano, food writer
Editor’s note: This video contains language that viewers may find offensive.
How to watch: Hulu
Filmed entirely on the Muscogee Nation in Oklahoma, FX’s sardonic comedy “Reservation Dogs” has been heralded for its inclusive casting and directing — an all-Indigenous affair from directors Sterlin Harjo (Seminole/Muscogee Creek) and Taika Waititi (Māori) on down. But there are no pieties in this show’s ruthless treatment of contemporary Indian Country, where four teenagers seek to break out of the limited horizons of life on the rez after the death of a close friend. From the local unit of the Indian Health Service booking main character Bear Smallhill’s deadbeat rapper dad to sing his hit song “Greasy Frybread” at a health-awareness event, to the recurring ghost of a deceased warrior who died at the Battle of the Little Bighorn when his horse tripped and crushed him to death, “Reservation Dogs” isn’t afraid to portray flawed characters. This three-dimensionality treats Native American stories with complexity, depth and vicious humor. The show breaks free of cultural stereotypes and unapologetically introduces its audience to Native American slang, no explanatory commas given. With a second season due in 2022, as Willie Jack would say, “Skoden!”
— Gregory Scruggs, outdoors reporter
How to watch: Netflix
Did you somehow escape the complete media saturation of “Squid Game”? I didn’t. After a month of my TikTok For You page becoming unwatchable without encountering possible spoilers and plenty of Dalgona candy recipes, I caved and spent a weekend bingeing all nine hourlong episodes. For the uninitiated: Hwang Dong-hyuk’s “Squid Game” is heavily influenced by Shinobu Kaitani’s “Liar Game” manga and Kinji Fukasaku’s 2000 film “Battle Royale.” It’s like Suzanne Collins’ “Hunger Games” trilogy, but set in a fictionalized Korea. Protagonist Seong Gi-hun (Lee Jung-jae) is a divorced dad in massive debt, bribed into playing a series of children’s games for the chance to win a lot of money. The catch: All the other contestants, including childhood friend Cho Sang-woo (Park Hae-soo), have to die in the games in order for him to do so. “Squid Game” is a show you want to talk about and analyze. It’s a very colorful (think: Easter-y pastel pinks and greens) social experiment disguised as a mystery-thriller about not-reality reality TV — commenting on the realities of race, caste and conspiracies. This show had me delving into the rabbit holes of what gets lost in translation.
— Qina Liu, news producer
How to watch: Apple TV+
I’ll admit it: Even if “Ted Lasso” had been terrible I would have lied and said it was great. Jason Sudeikis (who plays the titular Ted Lasso) and I both grew up in Kansas City and the show is peppered with references to our hometown — he even mentions the “rough-and-tumble playgrounds of Brookridge Elementary,” a school roughly eight minutes from my childhood home. Thankfully, it’s easy to love “Ted Lasso,” which stars Sudeikis as a former Wichita State (go Shockers!) football coach who moves to England to coach a soccer team in the British Premier League. The problem? Ted Lasso has never coached soccer and doesn’t entirely understand what “offsides” means. The first season, with its likable characters and Lasso’s “can-do” attitude, was an antidote to the darkness of the pandemic. Its second season, which premiered in July, deals with heavier issues — mental health, grief, relationships — but you watch each episode knowing that at the end, Ted Lasso will be waiting for you in the locker room, reminding you to believe.
— Paige Cornwell, reporter
“The White Lotus”
How to watch: HBO
“The White Lotus,” per its critics, suffered from a lack of payoff. The satirical comedy picks at tensions between guests and staff along lines of race, status and gender during a restless week of “vacation” at a secluded Hawaiian resort. The fact that the guests — a scene-stealing Jennifer Coolidge as a lonely alcoholic carrying her mother’s ashes; an out-of-sync family (girlboss mom, sad sack dad, mean sister, hot friend, loser brother); a clickbait journalist on a horrible honeymoon with a trust-funded mama’s boy — learn nothing from their island epiphanies didn’t bother me, though. If you’ve ever overhyped a trip from which you ultimately return more stressed than before, you’ll recognize this letdown. The teen girls claw at each other and Quinn, who hardly notices his dad’s attempts to connect; the new groom ignores his bride’s cold feet to pursue the honeymoon suite mom bought; the spa worker who dotes on Coolidge (and is promised a windfall) is quietly devastated by a violent week at The White Lotus, whose employees carry trauma after guests go home. It’s the perfect binge for the year of the guilt-cation.
— Trevor Lenzmeier, assistant features editor
The opinions expressed in reader comments are those of the author only and do not reflect the opinions of The Seattle Times.