The Top 25 TV Shows of 2021 – Part 3 (Numbers 6 – 10)

The Best TV Shows of 2021 continue and this time we’re cracking the top ten – numbers 6 through ten, all bangers. Let’s get to it!

10. I Think You Should Leave (Netflix) – I tend to write more about shows the higher up they are in the list, but there’s not a huge amount to say about the second season of Tim Robinson’s sketch show. I mean, it’s six fifteen minute episodes. Expertly executed sketches with sometimes thin premises. I will say that I think this season maybe suffered from high expectations – the first season caught everybody by surprise and I watched it over and over again when there was nothing else to do. We went in expecting amazing, which is a different experience than letting something amazing catch you by surprise.

That said, it’s still great. ITYSL has this way of digging ideas into your brain like they’ve always been there. Complicated shirts and coffin flops and sloppy steak and Calico Cut Pants and “I don’t even wanna be around anymore” and Detective Crashmore and all of it seems like it’s been there forever. I mean, the hot dog guy from Season One and “We’re all trying to find the guy who did this” seems like it must have been the first meme but it’s been two years. 

I also appreciate the way Robinson doesn’t keep all the laughs for himself – there’s plenty of room for Patti Harrison, Tim Heidecker, Paul Walter Hauser and a host of supporting players. The little girls in the doll ad all deserve Emmys. I don’t know what there is to say – it’s a near flawless sketch show. You can’t spare fifteen minutes to watch it?  What’s your deal, man?

(Also, the creator of the Ape Hive logo has a store where you can buy some awesome ITYSL designs.)

9. Yellowjackets (Showtime) – Oh, man. A show where survivors of a plane crash end up in a mysterious place with possibly supernatural qualities and also there are time jumps? Sold in the room. You know who misses LOST?  Me, that’s who. And Yellowjackets hits all those buttons while still doing something new and different.

Admittedly, I’m keeping this show at a bit of an emotional distance. I’m only half-heartedly making connections in my head and formulating theories because I know what I’m like. I remember what LOST did to me and how it dominated six years of my life. I am a middle-aged man and I can’t possibly watch a TV show and immediately spend hours researching it, updating my charts, and then writing a recap all before I can go to bed. I can’t stay up until 2 AM because of a show anymore. This is a young man’s game. I spent about fifteen minutes browsing the Yellowjackets subreddit before I felt that old tingle and had to back off. I can’t build my life around Yellowjackets even though I kind of want to.

If you haven’t watched it, and I assume that nobody has Showtime because it always seemed like the most extravagant 1%-er luxury to me, a high school girls’ soccer team ends up in the wilderness after their private plane to Nationals crashes. This is in 1996. We also see some of them as their adult selves in the present as they’re being blackmailed by somebody who seems to know the details of the two years they spent lost. Right off the bat, it’s indicated that they did things in the woods that changed them forever. And here’s the thing – that always makes you assume cannibalism. And the premiere helpfully obliged with a flash forward within the flashback that definitely seems to portray cannibalism but what we see is weird. It’s ritualistic, not desperate. The participants wear hoods and animal masks and seem to endow the act with religious significance. So it’s not super clear what we saw, but cannibalism isn’t going to be the surprise.

With each passing week, the situation in the woods gets weirder. We’ve seen possible cases of possession, weird symbols carved into trees, evidence of previous inhabitants, and nightmarish animals. They’re not just lost in the woods – something is happening here.

The present storyline is similarly gripping. The supernatural elements still exist (who is the woman in the tree?) but we’re also seeing adult women who share this secret that’s broken them in different ways. And everybody who hasn’t appeared in the present is somebody we have to worry about in the flashbacks. Also? Fantastic casting all around – the teen versions are fully believable as the past selves of the adults, even in cases like Christina Ricci and Juliette Lewis where we know what they looked like at that age because they were already in movies. 

I have a million questions and I’m afraid to spend any more time online researching them because then that’s going to be my thing. I’m not saying I won’t go full-fledged nut in between seasons but at this moment, I’ve found a way to incorporate Yellowjackets into my life in a healthy way. Please watch it so we can talk about it.

8. Superstore (NBC) – Settle in, because I want to talk about this for a bit. I hadn’t watched Superstore prior to this year, its sixth season. I’m usually pretty informed as to what’s on TV and if something is up my alley, I’ll check it out. I can’t say why this wasn’t on my radar – maybe it aired too soon after the end of Community and Parks and Recreation and I wasn’t going to let NBC hurt me again. It’s possible that the trailer was bad and when when I did my annual pre-review of each network’s new shows it hit me wrong and I wrote it off. I don’t know. It doesn’t matter to anybody but me.

My friend Summer (who created the Ape Hive logo and you’re morally obligated to buy a shirt) would reference Superstore from time to time, and not in that evangelical way where I used to try and browbeat people into watching Baskets or John from Cincinnati or whatever. More like in the way that she reasonably assumed a person who watches a lot of TV has watched a long running and good show. And she has great TV tastes (her recommendations landed three other shows in the Top 25, including the just-discussed Yellowjackets), so I’d be crazy not to check it out.

First off, it’s great and I’ll talk more about that later. But how cool is it that I found a show I like and there are 113 episodes available for me to binge during a pandemic? That will never happen again. Pandemic aside, there are hardly any network comedies left and they generally don’t run that long, especially if they’re funny. Network dramas have been too procedural for me for a decade now and who wants to binge a doctor show even if it’s good? And as much as I like vintage TV, if you go back a few years, there’s this gloss of homework to it. Hill Street Blues is amazing and I’m going back and watching it gradually but it feels like I’m putting in some hours at the plant. I’ll watch six episodes of Superstore and have a blast. Even better, so many of my favorite comedies are shows I wrote about extensively for my old site and it’s a little too soon to really get any pleasure out of a rewatch. I love Community but I spent years watching every episode at least twice on the night they aired, desperately trying to say something entertaining about it for a feature that would run the next day. Watching it isn’t exactly relaxing for me just yet. Superstore isn’t associated with sleepless nights and panic editing. I’ve watched the whole series twice this year because it’s nice to knock out an episode or two when I’m ready for bed.

Beyond that, there’s something that got kind of lost for me in my seventeen years of writing about TV for audiences of varying sizes. I started because it’s fun to talk about TV with my friends. It was fun to go back and catch some references on Arrested Development or do a deep dive into the new episode of LOST. I used to watch LOST with friends, get home and check my notes, and then send out a mass email with the theories and research I’d managed to put together after a couple hours of thinking about it. I did that for a handful of people because it was fun. Then it became a whole website and I devoted hours and hours every week to that, sometimes just really wrapping myself in shows that nobody I know watched. Did anybody in my life actually want to talk to me about Westworld?  No, no they didn’t. But I got to take in a new show that my friend loves and it’s fun again. It’s fun to talk about Superstore with Summer! This is what I love about TV. And she’s the one who watched the show for six seasons and put in the work, so she’s the person pointing out the little jokes and character bits that I missed and that’s the best. 

I still don’t know how regularly I can write about TV without negatively affecting the quality of my life, but watching TV got fun again. I’m not even sure where Superstore should go on the list because the experience of watching the series and talking about it was easily the best thing about TV this year for me but I’m really only supposed to take the episodes that aired this calendar year into account and that’s hard to separate from the whole deal. But I have to make a list and put numbers on things and I did my best. I also broke my own rule where I have to see every episode in order to include it – in a very Desmond-from-LOST move, Summer hasn’t watched the finale yet and so I’m also holding off out of solidarity. 

The takeaway here is that this is supposed to be fun and one of the most fun things is talking about a good, funny show with somebody I care about. A year of lockdown almost killed that, which made this experience mean so much more. It’s great. Watch a show your friend likes and have the time of your life. This is the only advice I can give you.

I feel like I should say something about the show itself, but I’ve already gone on for so long. It’s a warm, bighearted comedy that manages to be funny and still show genuine affection for the lower middleclass people it portrays. For six years it focused on things that don’t come up on other shows but are a major concern for most of the country. You want an arc about trying to get better health insurance? Superstore has you covered. And in its final season, it addressed the pandemic in a way that was truly funny but also reflected bow we actually felt. The first few episodes of the season (which technically aired last year, but come on) just nailed those early weeks when it was just sinking in that we actually needed masks but there was no way to get them and new information was coming in every day. Assuming any of this ever ends, the final season of Superstore is going to be maybe the only TV time capsule of this exact moment.

7. Doom Patrol (HBO Max) – Doom Patrol has outlived its original home on the DC Universe streaming service by a full year and has outlasted almost every comic book incarnation of the team. The longevity put the show in an interesting place in Season Three – the TV show was based heavily on writer Grant Morrison’s take on the team and at this point they’ve adapted virtually every Morrison storyline. (Though they stubbornly refuse to do John Dandy.) And while they’ve dipped into other runs, especially those of Rachel Pollack and Gerard Way, along with getting some great nuggets from the original Silver Age comics, the show had to go in new directions this year.

I kind of think the team had no intentions of going three (soon to be four) seasons. It’s not like the Doom Patrol has been wildly successful in the past. They get cancelled a lot. This show left it all on the field from the very beginning and this year’s season premiere (which would have been last season’s finale had COVID not shortened the season) has a stopping point that could have wrapped up a two-season series. That made for a fun season where almost everything was new, even to an old Doom Patrol fan like myself.

Some of it worked brilliantly, including an update of old school alien conqueror Garguax. This guy was the most nothing villain in the world and they did something really interesting by making him a guy who took too long to dominate Earth and ended up joining a country club and enjoying the place. Madame Rouge was re-envisioned as an amnesiac time traveler with ties to Rita’s past and the Sisterhood of Dada. (A significantly tweaked Morrison creation, and it was so fun to see characters like Agent “!” turning up on television. Feels like anything is possible!) The team’s insecurities manifesting physically, Jane’s underground insurrection – it was all new and exciting. Cliff’s human brain developed Parkinson’s, which kind of destroyed me thanks to some personal experience there and I had a deep, deep cry because the TV robot got sick. There were bits that didn’t work as well. The zombie episode was pretty rough and I’ve always found the sentient cannibal butts a lot less funny than the show does, but that’s a fairly small part of the season.

Interestingly, so much of the season was about taking the team out of action. With the Chief dead (Maybe the most dead anybody on TV has ever been), their main motivation to do stuff went away. Cliff was sick, Larry lost the Negative Spirit, Vic lost access to his weapons and ultimately isn’t even Cyborg anymore by the end, Jane’s other personalities choose not to participate and use their powers. (Also, the Underground scenes are much more sparsely populated and I wonder if that’s meant to indicate that most of those personalities were destroyed last season or if that’s just a necessity of pandemic filming.) Only Rita, who spent much of the season in the past, retained and, in fact, learned to use her powers. The season ends with the team actually deciding to be superheroes and try to help, but Rita is the only one who has usable powers. That all seems very appropriate for these dopes.

And if you want a moment that’s as powerful as it is goofy, check out the finale. Cliff’s brain has been relocated to a sixty-foot robot that he can’t control. Rita, who previously could barely maintain human shape, grows to a giant size to stop him from trampling a town, which is an amazing moment for her. Cliff says “I just want to go home” and she replies “We can do that”, which is a flip of the moment in the series premiere where Cliff helps contain Rita after she turns into a blob and she just wants to go home. Damn guys, that really got me. I love this weird show and the misfits therein.

6. Ted Lasso (Apple TV) – Maybe this is me just being super basic, but I truly love Ted Lasso. It’s a show that I mostly don’t like talking about with people (other than my sister) because so many people are tied up in it being a comfort show and only care about whether or not an episode soothes them, and then there are the people who just straight up horny watch and that wears me out so fast. (That said, check out the episode of my podcast where my friend Hayley has a lot to say about Ted and Rebecca and it’s all delightful. We also talk about four of my top five shows of the year, if you’re looking for spoilees.) So I kind of watched the communal show of the year in relative isolation, which is a metaphor for something but let’s not look too deeply into that.   

Yes, the tone was a little darker this year. Which still makes it one of the more positive shows on TV but Ted’s panic attacks and Nate’s season-long heel turn were more than a little sobering. Am I happy that Nate became a bad guy and also his hair got more and more gray as he turned bad? Nope! But I’m confident there’s going to be a payoff or at least some entertaining confrontations. (Although as a rapidly aging man, I don’t like equating gray hair with evil. I’m just old! I’m not Palpatine!) The episode devoted to Coach Beard’s long dark night of the soul had genuine menace to it and it certainly felt possible that things were going to go very bad. 

Beyond that, this show just has the magic touch with supporting characters. They’re all so immediately appealing and well-defined that it’s immediately fun to combine them in new ways. I loved the focus on Sam this year as well as Roy Kent’s ascendancy. I love Roy, you guys. I shouldn’t have enjoyed the way he charged through romcom tropes to get to the stadium, but I did. I loved the Christmas episode. I loved Ted’s tentative friendship with the sports psychologist. I loved everything Rebecca did. It’s a good show and it brought me joy. What more could you ask for?

Next time, we finally get to the fireworks factory – the Top Five!

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