The Top 25 TV Shows of 2021 – Part 2

It’s Day Two of the Top 25 TV Shows of 2021, a feature I’m happy to turn into a week of content. This time it’s eleven through fifteen, and we’re in the thick of it now. Let’s get to it!

15. Girls5Eva (Peacock) – I mentioned in the previous list how much I enjoy the Tina Fey/Robert Carlock shows and this is another series they produced, created by 30 Rock writer Meredith Scardino. And let’s be honest, it’s the best title in the business. (“5” because that makes it one longer than “forever”. Per the theme song, that’s how long they’ll be 3gether.) A one-hit-wonder girl group (their second album came on out September 10, 2001) makes a comeback after a hip-hop artist samples their song. The four surviving members of Girls5Eva decide to ride this wave and get back together. By the way, there is a 16-year age spread among the four women who were all in their early twenties in the late 90s. Just go with it. They know.

I love both absurdity and failure in comedy and Girls5Eva is straight up my alley. Their comeback doesn’t exactly go smoothly. They book a show at an abandoned mall, get pranked by YouTubers, and at one point have a rogue hologram as a band member. Gloria (the great Paula Pell) is very busy with her day job as a dentist, Summer (Busy Philipps, making some hilarious choices) is the only one who doesn’t know her marriage is a sham, and Wickie (scene stealer Renee Elise Goldsberry) is most famous for her onstage breakdown going viral. Dawn (Sara Bareiiles, an actual songwriter whose acting credits to date mostly consist of her playing “Sara Bareilles”) worries that her son is going to be a New York Lonely Boy (explained in song as a child whose best friend is the doorman).

One of my favorite jokes of the year involves Wickie’s glass piano that can only be seen from certain angles. So for all intents and purposes, it’s an invisible piano. It makes me laugh so hard – Sara’s husband tosses out a blanket before he walks across the room and that is approximately the funniest thing in the world to me. And I mentioned “New York Lonely Boy”, but there are so many original songs in this show and they’re all amazing, whether they’re Sara’s attempts at writing new, more personal music, or they come from the Girls5Eva back catalog. I know network comedy is mostly in just a dire place right now, and that’s why Peacock is rapidly becoming indispensable. It’s where you’ll find the comedies that should be NBC’s Thursday night lineup. (Other than MacGruber, which can’t possibly be edited into something acceptable for broadcast.)

14. The Other Two (HBO Max) – HBO Max rescued this fantastic series from Comedy Central, who seem to have given up on any original content that isn’t South Park.  And to be honest, South Park has kind of given up on South Park but it still keeps coming out. It’s about the family of a Bieber-style pop star (Chase Dreams!) who went viral on YouTube and the way they try to lamprey on to his success. At the end of the first season, puberty ruined Chase’s voice and derailed his career. This year gave Chase a fashion line that he didn’t care about (and is hilariously ugly) while his siblings and mother made their own inroads into the industry. 

Mother Pat (Molly Shannon) now hosts an inexplicable hit daytime talk show, which over the year expands into a game show and hours-long fan meetups. Brooke (Helene Yorke) manages her career and has proven to be really good at it, which is a satisfying move for her character. She’s still a disaster who at one point violates an NDA multiple times because she didn’t realize rideshare drivers count as people, but at least she’s a good manager. Cary (Drew Tarver) is famous in the gay community for hosting The Gay Minute but that doesn’t pay enough for him to buy a new shirt. He’s still trying to make it as an actor, a goal that is only within reach after a video of his butthole goes viral. (I tried to come up with a better way to say that, but we haven’t really invented a genteel alternative to “butthole”.)

It’s industry satire, but presented in a way that the jokes are understandable – a visit to an LA hospital reveals that most of the people there are actors shadowing doctors or patients to research a role. Whether you’ve auditioned or not, that’s a solid joke. Pat leaving work one minute before she needs to be back at work, Brooke in an endless meeting where everybody has to weigh in on each point – it’s extremely relatable comedy about show business. And as ridiculous as the characters are, there’s real pathos. I was shocked Drew Tarver didn’t get an Emmy nomination last year, and I think they should all be in the mix this year. It’s really beautiful work from everybody involved. I mean, this show is so good that I got to the end without mentioning Ken Marino’s turn as Pat’s co-manager / lover (the term he prefers), and I love that guy! The end of the season has one of them putting career over family and The Other Two doesn’t pass judgment on whether that choice was right or wrong, but I’m confident that next season will see plenty of regret on everybody’s part.

13. What We Do in the Shadows (FX) – Co-creator Jemaine Clements stepped back from the third season of the faux documentary about vampire roommates, which isn’t a great sign. Not every show survives a transition like that, especially something so absurdly high concept. But that fear was wasted because this season was tremendous. The show went in a new direction after Guillermo’s slaughter of the vampire council last season, beginning with the vampires’ apprehension that their put-upon familiar is a vampire killing machine, along with Nadya and Nandor ascending to the top leadership position. (Laszlo sat out the promotion so he’d have more time for his pornography collection.)

They’re still the idiots we love, but now added responsibilities are part of their life. We also saw an expanded crew this season – Kristen Schaal joined the cast as their council liaison, along with the head and torso of a vampire high lord they killed and buried earlier in the series. Add in a hellhound and the returning doll possessed by the ghost of Nadya’s human self, and you’ve got a pretty great tableau. We got to know their neighbors a little and saw how socializing with Laszlo, who’s a little too quick with the hypnotism, can just ruin a life. 

As funny as the show is, sometimes you get a legitimately tense episode. The progenitor vampire (kept sealed away because if something happens to him, every vampire he turned also dies) escaped and a truly misbegotten squad had to try to defeat him and return him safely before sunrise. Idiots trying to outsmart a primal beast in a toy store – the oldest tale in the book. Nandor had most of his friends impersonate him with a magic cloak to help him meet the woman at his gym, which meant we got to see Kayvan Novak’s impressions of his castmates. His Matt Berry voice is glorious. And the finale upends pretty much everything and means next season will be significantly different, with most of the cast leaving in various directions and only Laszlo staying behind to raise energy vampire Colin Robinson, who died and was reborn as a baby. It’s one of TV’s most consistently surprising and inventive comedies and they’re not afraid to break absolutely everything just to see what happens next. 

12. DuckTales (Disney XD) – I know I’m not the right audience for this reboot, being neither a child nor young enough to have been a child during the original series. Initially, I checked it out because of the tremendous voice cast, including David Tennant as the new voice of Scrooge. And what I found was a delightful sense of humor wrapped around one of TV’s best adventure shows. 

The series ended (far to soon) this year with only a handful of episodes and still produced one of the most satisfying finales I’ve ever seen. Every hanging plot thread and hint for the future was addressed. Every important character got something to do. And even a story arc that didn’t quite get the ramp-up it deserved (Webby’s mysterious heritage) had to come to a head quickly but still felt organic and worked perfectly as the emotional turning point of the finale. There were only a few episodes this calendar year, but the movie-length finale was one of my single favorite episodes of the year, with Scrooge and family (plus a wild variety of friends) against the full power of F.O.W.L., an evil organization with a plan that actually incorporated all of the magical artifacts that the show told us were important for years. It was legitimately brilliant.

I know I talk about the voice cast a lot, but you have no idea how good it is. Just aside from the regulars, there’s a bit in the finale where there are several villains at a table. Said villains are voiced by Jason Mantzoukas, John Hodgman, Amy Sedaris, and Giancarlo Esposito. Tell me you don’t want to see every project that incorporates those four! And beyond that, the Big Bad is Marc Evan Jackson! You don’t get better than that. This show somehow snuck through in that millisecond when Disney loosened up their insistence on a house style for their classic characters and I don’t think we’ll see anything like this anytime soon.

11. How to with John Wilson (HBO Max) – Before I really get into this wonderful series, it’s been blowing my mind that there are five credited writers this season and one of them is Susan Orlean. You know, the New Yorker writer played my Meryl Streep in the movie Adaptation. That’s bonkers. She’s in the writers’ room, chopping it up with Eagleheart creator Michael Koman. At first, you just think “Wow, there must be another Susan Orlean”, and then you find out that, no, it’s that Susan Orlean. Amazing.

In each episode, John (who never appears on camera) sets out to learn a life skill or answer a question. How to Make Small Talk. How to Make the Perfect Risotto. How to Throw Away Batteries. Narrating in second person and serving as the cameraman, John explores these seemingly straightforward queries and lets them follow wherever they lead. In learning how to protect furniture, he ends up spending a lot of time with a man obsessed with reversing his circumcision. And I mean obsessed. He’s written multiple novelty songs on the subject and he has a… device. It’s rough.

How to hits that sweet spot for me. You want to win me over, have an awkward man express emotional insight in a strange way. I love it every time. There’s real beauty in John trying to decide whether he wants to own real estate or figuring out where to park. As I write this, the most recent episode has John learning how to remember his dreams and it’s one of the most insightful and winning half hours I’ve seen all year, a journey that eventually takes him to a meeting of an Avatar fan group that turns out to be incredibly moving. The season finale comes out after this article posts, but if it’s as good as last season’s finale (where the pandemic hits while John is learning to make risotto), this show will probably rise a notch or two in the final rankings. That said, this year’s “How to Appreciate Wine” takes a completely wild turn with a divergence into John’s a cappella past. I don’t want to spoil what happens there, but your jaw will drop. I mean, John walking into a birthday party at the Bang Energy Drink guy’s mansion and just hanging out is the second craziest thing in that episode.

I should also note the amazing footage in every episode. John and crew do a fantastic job of collecting beautiful and bizarre shots of New York City. Sometimes it’s a gorgeous vista, sometimes it’s a pigeon doing something weird or a dozen shots of discarded stoves, sometimes it’s Kyle MacLachlan swiping his MetroCard. It’s one of the most visually striking shows on the air. I love it so much.

Next time, we’re cracking the top ten!

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